All About Spike - Print Version
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Secrets and Lies
By Caro

Setting: Season 7. Spoilers through BtVS "The Killer in Me" and AtS "Calvary"

Thank you to Sandy from The Gutter for the inspiration for this one.



Chapter One

"They've got to get out of the house," Buffy told the group gathered around the kitchen counter. "The girls are losing their edge. They need a break." I need a break, she admitted to herself, realizing that her original plans for an intensive Saturday training weren't going to work.

"So...a slayer field-trip," Xander suggested. "What's the drill? Willy's bar? The local mortuaries?"

"Something definitely non-slaying-related. Something teenage appropriate."

"You mean the mall?" Dawn asked hopefully.

Buffy had to smile at her sister's enthusiasm. "Sounds like a good idea. Think you and Amanda can come up with a plan that includes Rona and Vi? And, yes, you'll get money."

She took Dawn's bouncing in place as an affirmative. "Xander, could you and Anya do something with Molly and Chloe? If you take Andrew with you, I'll be really happy."

"Need a little geek-free time?" Xander asked with a grin.

"A world of yes." Buffy turned to Willow. "Would you mind taking..."

"Kennedy out somewhere? Sure. Give us a chance to talk." Willow leaned forward, resting her elbows on the counter. "What are you going to do during all of this, Buffy? You need down time, too."

Buffy slid off the stool, feeling much better already. "Oh, I have plenty of pampering to do. Fix my nails, lie on the couch with some Ben & Jerry's. While you're gone, I'm going to do my best to relax."

***

God, she was bored. No, bored wasn't the word when her mind was racing ninety miles an minute. The gang had been gone barely half an hour, armed with instructions to stay in groups, avoid dark alleys and be home before the sun set, and now Buffy was wishing someone was here.

Gradually, as she lay on the couch and stared at the ceiling, the faint rumbling of the washer in the basement penetrated her brain. Someone was here and that realization made Buffy smile.

She found Spike sitting on the floor, back resting against the wall, engrossed in a book. Halfway down the stairs, Buffy sat, careful to make no sound as she watched him. He looked peaceful, the strain she'd seen on his face so often lately gone for the moment. Of course, the chip being gone probably helped, meaning no more headaches to worry about. As he turned the page, she wondered if he knew she was there.

The buzzer on the washer went off and he looked up at her with a smile. He'd known, and that started a warmth inside her as she rose and finished descending the stairs. Joining him at the washer, she helped shift the load of clothes to the dryer. "Everyone's gone for the afternoon."

"I heard. The little birds were all a-twitter at the prospect. Nice to have some quiet for once."

"Especially since I managed to get Xander to take Andrew with him."

"Geek bonding. Be still, my heart."

She heard the snark in his voice and looked up to see the familiar smirk. How long had it been since she'd heard him sound like his old self?

"Don't worry," he continued. "I'll stay down here so I won't disturb your quiet time."

The warmth froze and shattered into shards of disappointment. "You're welcome to come upstairs."

A low chuckle and he shook his head. "I appreciate the gesture, Slayer, but we can probably survive the afternoon without you having to baby-sit me."

"Spike, I'm not..." She reached out and laid her hand on top of his. It was cool to her touch, but she knew if her hand lingered there, his skin would begin to warm. "I'd like you to come upstairs -- I mean, if you don't mind."

He looked down at her hand, then up to her face. There was a question in his eyes she wasn't sure she could answer, but she couldn't turn away either. "We could just sit...the couch would be a lot more comfortable if you're going to read."

"The laundry..."

"Can wait. You deserve a chance to relax, too."

She thought he was going to pull away, retreat like he had so often recently. Like she had done to him so many times. She remembered what it had been like after she'd first come back, how nice it had been to simply sit with him. She wanted to recapture those moments, but didn't know how.

He considered her, blue eyes thoughtful. After a moment, he gently slid his hand from beneath hers and punched the button to start the dryer. "Let's go upstairs."

***

They started at opposite ends of the couch once Buffy had made certain no stray sunbeams peeped through the curtains. She idly flipped through the television channels while he read. After a few minutes, she felt herself begin to relax at last, drawing her feet up onto the couch as she snuggled down into the pillows. This was nice, just the two of them with no need to speak.

Unfortunately, the couch wasn't big enough for her to stretch out without poking him.. After about the sixth time, he got up. "Don't go," she complained.

"Just moving to the chair, luv. That way you can stretch out to your heart's content."

"But..." She felt inexplicably whiny, wanting to stretch out yet not wanting him to sit anywhere but with her. "Can't we figure something out?"

He looked down at her with a smile. "Only way I can think of is if you lie down with your head in my lap."

Spike headed for the armchair, as if he was certain she'd reject the idea. "Okay," she said quietly.

He stopped. "Do you realize what you're suggesting?"

She sat up, her hands gripping the front of the seat cushions. "I did a lot of thinking while you were...while we were looking for you. About us. About...things."

She'd been thinking a lot since she'd rescued him as well. The problem with having a house full of potential slayers was never having a moment's opportunity to act on those thoughts. Instead, she'd watched as his wounds healed and he took up his strange position in the household, integral to the training and work, yet somehow apart as if he didn't feel he fit. This was the first chance she'd had to speak with him privately and now she wasn't sure what to say.

Taking a deep breath, she plunged in as best she could. "I don't want us to be uncomfortable around each other. There are lots of things we need to talk about and sort out, but I don't know if we have time to do it properly before everything comes crashing down or even before everyone comes home and we don't have a chance to be alone again if ever."

He was frowning and she pushed on. "I meant what I said in the basement before you were captured. I saw you change even before you went to get your soul. When I came back, you were the only one who seemed to understand that there were times I needed to just sit and be. The vampire I met in the alley outside the Bronze wouldn't have done that."

"He might have if he couldn't bite you," Spike offered, his tone light. It was the same tone he'd used to speak with her in those first dark days, when she'd claim she was going on patrol and would end up just sitting in his crypt with him for hours.

"You watched out for Dawn, you risked everything to help me...you did all that before..."

"I did other things." He returned to sit next to her. "Things that were less..."

They sat in silence for a moment. Then words tumbled from both of them.

"I couldn't believe you'd do that..."

"I only wanted you to love me..."

"I was in shock..."

"I couldn't live with myself..."

Just as suddenly as they'd begun, the words stopped and they were left looking at each other. "It's not that easy," she said slowly.

He nodded. "I know. We can't put it behind us with just a few words."

Buffy hesitated, chewing on her lower lip. "It takes time."

"And patience and effort."

"We don't have time."

She watched as the disappointment registered in his eyes and his chest swelled with a sigh. "I know. Foolish to think we could set everything right. Just know, I'll do whatever I can to help and I've always got your back."

Before he could rise and make the exit he was probably planning, Buffy grabbed his hand. "I meant I know we should take the time, work through what you did, what I did because if we don't there could be problems later. But if we did that, time's slipping away and we don't have much."

Had he always tilted his head to the side in just that way, watching her with something akin to wonder? There was an intensity in those blue eyes that made her want to shy away, but she was determined to stand her ground this time. "I don't know what's going to happen, and I know we're not all going to make it, no matter what I say to the troops. I've got lots of regrets, Spike, and if I'm going to die a third time, I don't want one of them to be that you and I...that we...that I never told you..."

She was floundering, losing the thread of what she wanted to say. Her courage began to desert her and she tensed, ready to flee. Then, as if he could read the chaos in her mind, Spike reached out to cup one cheek in his hand and kissed her.

All her memories of kisses between them were bruising and urgent. He wanted to show her how he felt; she wanted just to feel something. This was soft and sweet, chasing away the worries and fears that crowded her mind, her thoughts shifting, ordering. When he pulled back, he was smiling, his thumb gently caressing her cheek. "I love you," Buffy said, the words falling easily out of her mouth.

"I love you," he replied. He'd provoked her to anger with those words; now they roused something else inside.

She initiated the kiss this time, letting her arms encircle his neck, ignoring the "clunk" of his book when it dropped to the floor. At this moment, nothing mattered except him and her. This was their respite.

***

Buffy stirred sleepily as the noise associated with teenaged girls penetrated her consciousness. She was vaguely aware of a hand gently stroking her hair, the touch soft and wonderfully familiar. She was on the couch, that much she could remember, having stretched out to nap after yawning three times while she and Spike had been kissing. He'd teased her about how he clearly held her interest and she'd gotten annoyed, only to realize he wasn't trying to provoke but let her know it was okay that she needed the rest.

She remembered settling with her head on his lap and how just having him near helped wash away the tensions, letting her body find the sleep it'd been craving.

The sound of girls being shushed, then Buffy heard footsteps approach the couch. "Is she asleep?" Willow asked in a whisper.

"Coming up, I think," Spike replied, his voice just as quiet. "Should be on her feet in a few minutes."

"Don't wanna," Buffy muttered, burrowing into him as much as she could.

"Clear sign she's coming up. Buffy always complains like that when she's waking up. At least, she did in high school when we had sleepovers."

"I'd like to let her sleep as long as I can; she needs the rest."

Buffy agreed with Spike and wanted to tell them that their quiet whispering was preventing her from dropping back down, but it would take too much effort.

"She's been working awfully hard, but I'm not certain she'd really like the potentials to see her like this. I got Dawn to take them in the kitchen, but Xander and Anya should be back soon and..."

The front door closed with a bit of a bang, followed by Andrew announcing, "Why is Buffy sleeping with her head in Spike's lap?"

"...you know Andrew won't be able to keep his mouth shut," Willow finished.

Buffy managed to open her eyes with that, struggling to sit upright. "You should have woken me when they came in."

"Thought it better you come up naturally." Spike smiled at her. "Besides, you looked very peaceful."

"Maybe, but I bet my hair looks like a dead cat."

He reached out and pushed a stray strand behind her ear. "Not at all. Looks perfect."

Buffy turned to look at Willow, who mouthed "cat." Well, Spike was definitely passing the boyfriend test. "I'll be back down in a minute," she told him, reaching out to squeeze his hand.

The smile he gave her at the simple gesture could have lit the building. Xander, in contrast, looked none too happy, though Buffy wasn't certain if that was because of Spike or because Andrew kept trying to whisper something in his ear. Deciding not to stick around to find out, she headed for the stairs, fully intent on putting herself to rights and getting back down as soon as she could...before the questions and arguments started.

It wasn't surprising that Willow followed her, flopping on the bed as Buffy tried to remove her hair clip from a tangle without pulling too hard. "You look like you had a relaxing afternoon."

As invitations to spill went, that one wasn't bad. "It was...nice," she admitted.

"Must have been, given how comfy you looked with Spike and all. Just decided he'd make a nice pillow?"

The clip came free and Buffy laid it on her dressing table before turning to face the inquisition. "You're just going to sit there and ask questions until I tell you everything, aren't you?"

Willow looked completely unrepentant. "That's what best friends are for."

Despite the confidence she'd felt when she'd spoken the words, Buffy found herself hesitating. Admitting how she felt to Spike was one thing; admitting how she felt about Spike to her friends was a completely different matter. "You know I was wound pretty tight over getting Spike back," she said, looking down at hands that hadn't seen a manicure in forever. "Part of it was because we needed to get him away from the First, from whatever plan they had for him, but a lot of it was because I realized I cared for him and I've lost too many people I care for."

"You care for Xander and you don't curl up on the couch with him like that."

"Because I don't love Xander like that." There. She'd said the words and was rewarded with silence from Willow. Unable to stand it for more than a few seconds, Buffy looked up to find her friend staring at her with a somber expression.

"Buffy...we haven't talked about it because, hey, kind of personal, but Xander told me what he did."

"Xander doesn't know!" The words came in frustration. "He came in after Spike had left. I just wish he'd let us deal with it rather than telling the whole world what he thinks happened."

"So, Spike didn't..."

"No, he didn't and that's not what this is about. This is about the fact I'm finally admitting I love Spike and we've got things to work out, but I'm not going to wait for a 'someday' that might not come." Buffy was on her feet, pacing the confines of the room. "I know, I know. I'm falling for a souled vampire again and there are all the Angel issues to worry about, not to mention the fact that I think I fell in love with him before he got the soul and Angel was different from Angelus, but Spike's still the same Spike, only with a soul and am I making sense here?"

Willow sat up, legs crossed. "Let me try to summarize. You love Spike and you're thinking of making with the smoochies?"

"Big time. We did on the couch, make with the smoochies, I mean. I just suddenly felt so relaxed being with him that I started drifting off." Buffy joined Willow on the bed. "I know everyone's got issues about Spike, but I don't have time to be cautious and serious about this. I shouldn't...I mean, what example am I setting for the girls? But I need him, Willow. I need what he can give me. Can you understand that?"

"Yes," Willow admitted cautiously. "I mean, I didn't think there'd be anyone after Tara and even if there was, I wouldn't be thinking about it this soon."

"But there's Kennedy and no time."

Willow offered a sheepish smile. "I guess we're kind of in the same boat. I think Xander's going to have an easier time of mine than yours, though."

"Xander!" Buffy pushed herself to her feet and grabbed her brush, looking in the mirror as she pulled it through her hair with somewhat frantic strokes. "He's down there with Spike. I didn't mean to be up here that long."

Willow offered to make certain Spike hadn't been turned to ashes and told Buffy to take the time she needed to make herself presentable. Presentable. It'd been a while since she'd worried about that. She brushed the tangles from her hair and started to pull it back, but decided against it. Hadn't Spike always said he liked it long?

When she came downstairs, Spike wasn't dusty, though he was being grilled by both Willow and Dawn, a half-pleased, half-helpless look on his face. Andrew was sulking in the corner as usual and various potentials were scattered about the living room, all doing their best to avoid looking at Spike. Oh, yeah. It was a big secret.

Xander wasn't in sight, which meant he was probably in the kitchen, giving Anya an earful. He could wait for a few minutes, then they'd talk. First, though...

Spike's head turned toward her as she approached and she didn't miss the way his eyes trailed down her body appraisingly. Bad Buffy! "Dawn, can I borrow you?"

The look her sister gave her was a far cry from the enthusiasm of earlier that day and a clear announcement Buffy was In Trouble. Silently, arms crossed over her chest, she followed as Buffy led her to the far end of the living room. "I'm guessing you've figured out something's up."

"No. I think you panic about every vampire you meet." Dawn took a deep, put-upon breath. "I thought you said it was over."

"It was. It's back on again...and it's serious this time. I've given this a lot of thought and I really care for him."

"Even with Anya? Even with, well, you know."

"We've talked about 'you know'; we're dealing with it. As for Anya...I've seen Spike do stupider things while he was drunk."

Dawn stood there, doing her best to look annoyed, but Buffy could sense the weakening. There'd been a gradual thaw since Buffy had brought him home and she hadn't missed how Dawn had thrown him the Bringer knife without hesitation when they'd taken out some of the First's minions at the school. "If you're seeing Spike, does this mean I can date?"

Buffy restrained herself from the knee-jerk "no." "Once we've dealt with the First. Right now, I'd worry too much about you wandering off with a boy alone."

"What about a school dance? The staff usually chaperones, so you'd be there."

Clearly Dawn had someone in mind. "We'll see," she promised and headed for the kitchen. As expected, Xander was there. "I mean, it's crazy. We know what happened with Angel. One happy and poof!"

"Maybe Spike can't give her a happy," Anya said as she stirred a pot of spaghetti sauce. "I mean, I offered and he wasn't enthusiastic at all."

Buff stepped in before Xander could explode. "I don't need to guess the topic of conversation."

Anya shrugged. "He's jealous because he thinks Spike will be giving you orgasms soon and he's not getting any."

"Let's talk on the porch." Xander, for some reason, offered no resistance when Buffy grabbed his arm and pulled him toward the door.

"She really is amazing," Xander said, staring into the darkness of the backyard. "Sometimes I think she does it on purpose just to fluster me."

There were a world of issues to discuss there, but Buffy chose to sidestep them. "She's not completely wrong."

"About Spike?" He shoved his hands into his pockets. "I figured that, seeing you on the couch with him. You sure that soul's properly anchored?"

"Yes." The question had come up between kisses, along with the question of if there was enough time before everyone came home. "It's not a curse, like Angel's. The demon's not lurking in there, waiting to get out."

"The demon's always lurking in there, Buffy. The soul just gives it a friendlier face. You're not afraid he's suddenly going to go all sleeper on you at an awkward moment?"

"I think I might notice if he started singing or talking to someone who wasn't there, and there's got to be a way to find out what the trigger is and defuse it. We just haven't figured it out yet. Look, Xander, I know you don't like Spike..."

"That is an understatement. Try hate. Although, I have to admit, Andrew's rapidly closing on him. No, after this afternoon, I think I hate Andrew more than Spike."

She had to laugh. "That bad?"

"Words do not begin to describe it. Look, you're doing all this to see if I'm okay with you and Spike, right? I'm not okay. I'm several counties away from being okay with it. Problem is I don't actually get a say, do I?"

On impulse, Buffy hugged him. "Can you try to get along?"

"I'll do my best." He hugged back. "I just hope you're right about him."



Chapter Two

Spike disappeared downstairs most evenings unless events actually called for his presence. Tonight, though, he stayed upstairs, taking his evening blood while the rest of them enjoyed Anya's spaghetti. Buffy could feel his eyes on her throughout the meal, a knowing gaze that made the back of her neck warm and started tingles which had nothing to do with her slayer senses.

The potentials didn't appear bothered by his presence, chattering as if they broke bread with a vampire every night. It worried her a little; they were becoming so comfortable with Spike, there was the danger they might think others were like him. She'd purposely called vampires "animals" to impress upon the girls how dangerous their foe could be. What kind of example was she setting by flinging herself into Spike's arms?

Everyone else seemed relaxed, the afternoon's outings having done them good. Even Molly seemed to have released her grip on the ever preasant notepad, watching in fascination as Spike stole spaghetti from Dawn's plate to demonstrate the fine art of twirling it onto one's fork. "Doesn't that have garlic in it?" she inquired.

"I believe it does." He downed the noodles with only a minimum of "slurp." "Not all vampires are repelled by garlic, though."

He looked at Buffy and grinned as her face grew warm with the memory of garlic braids she'd thought might keep him away. "Messes up the sense of smell if there's too much, but nothing to keep one from eating it," he explained.

There was small splash of sauce at one corner of his mouth, and Buffy caught herself with napkin in hand, ready to reach out and wipe it away. Instead, she caught his eye (not a difficult task) and mimed wiping something away from her mouth with her finger. He picked up on the cue and removed the spot. "Did I get it all?"

So much for being subtle. "Yes, you got it. Vi, are you done with that plate? I'll take it out to the kitchen."

She managed to gather a few others and carried the load away from the dining table. She lingered for a moment, hoping he'd follow and a bit disappointed when he didn't. Once the plates were scraped and set to soaking, she headed back to the dining room and discovered the girls had taken advantage of her absence to question Spike. "I'd just rolled into Sunnydale when I met Buffy," he was saying to Rona when she returned. "The Feast of St. Vigieous was coming up..."

"St. Vigieous?" Chloe asked.

"Bid bad vampire who killed lots of humans back in the Dark Ages. Vamps hold him up as a talisman due to his utter lack of compassion. Anyway, there were plans to attack the slayer on the feast, that Saturday. Thursday, however, was parent-teacher night at the high school and I decided it'd be much more fun to crash that."

"I didn't see much," Willow said. "I spent most of the evening locked in the closet with Cordelia, waiting for them to go away."

"That must have been fun. Cordelia always thought she was queen of the world," Dawn explained with a roll of her eyes."

"And I went to get help," Xander volunteered. "Brought back Angel, who's the other souled vampire." Spike tried to eat me."

As one, the heads of the potentials all swiveled toward Spike, who sighed. "I was never going to bite you. Knew something was up with Angel and wanted to string him along to see what it was. That's why I punched him when I did."

"So you know Angel?" Molly looked like she was searching for her notepad.

"He's my grandsire." Spike's voice was quiet. "He made Drusilla, who made me."

There was another issue they needed to work out. Buffy stepped further into the room, taking up a place behind Spike's chair. As she laid a hand on his shoulder, he looked up and she saw a hint of uncertainty there "To make a long story short, Buffy kicked my ass quite thoroughly -- with a little help from her mum -- and has been kicking my ass ever since."

"And you fell for her," Kennedy said, her voice filled with skepticism.

Even as Buffy bristled at the tone, Spike's smile made his feelings clear. "What's not to love?"

"Besides," Xander said, "even if Spike is an evil, blood-sucking fiend, he's our evil, blood-sucking fiend."

"Does that mean I'm our 'evil-but-reforming super-villain'?" Andrew asked.

"No!" came the response from Xander, Anya, Molly and Chloe. After that, it seemed like a good time to get everyone away from the table.

The evening stretched on, the television going, small groups of conversation, the girls taking turns at the shower. Through it all, Buffy was keenly aware of Spike's eyes on her, watching her movements with a smile. She was also aware of the others watching them and the intense, whispered conversations between Willow and Kennedy that quieted when she drew near. She shouldn't be surprised, she supposed. The girls had been buzzing about Spike since he'd come through the front door, half-walking, half-carried.

Buffy hadn't missed Kennedy's snide comments about having formerly dated Spike, nor the way Rona sized him up, look at her, then sized him up again, or Molly's rather embarrassing question about whether they'd be required to make out with him as well. Last year, she and Spike had carried on affair that proved hard on buildings and furniture...and her friends hadn't noticed. In the past few weeks, they'd both made every effort to keep their relationship on a strictly professional basis...and a group of teenaged girls kept wondering what was up. Maybe, she had to admit, not only had she not wanted the Scoobies to see what was going on, they hadn't wanted to see what was going on.

There was no keeping of secrets in this house. Everyone knew Kennedy was chasing Willow, that Chloe cried at night when she didn't think anyone was listening, and a host of other things people would probably like to keep private but couldn't because they were living on top of each other. If she and Spike took the next step, everyone would know that as well, see him climb the stairs in the evening rather than disappear into the basement. If they didn't take the next step, everyone would be watching and waiting.

At last, the house began to bed down for the night. Sleeping bags were brought out for those camped in the living room, and those who slept upstairs began to say their good nights. Buffy, as was her habit, lingered until she was certain the girls were bedded down, making sure the doors were secure and trusting that the protection spells Willow had put in place would hold another night.

With the lights downstairs dimmed, and everyone accounted for, she was free to head upstairs. Feeling a touch of nerves fluttering in her stomach, she joined Spike where he stood in the hall. He lifted an eyebrow as if posing a question, but she knew he knew the answer already. Without a word, she started up the stairs, only to realize he hadn't followed her before she got halfway up. Turning, she looked down to find him waiting at the foot of the stairs. With a smile, she held out her hand, giving him that final invitation.

She knew heads in the living room lifted from their pillows, silently watching the scene illuminated only by the light that filtered down from upstairs, but the time for worrying about that was past. Now, she focused on him as he stepped onto the stairs, stretching out his hand to slide into hers.

Buffy felt some guilt at her insistence that she not share her room, but the opportunity to have somewhere she could retreat from everyone had been too great to pass up. As they stepped over the threshold and the door closed behind him, she was glad she'd insisted. At least she and Spike weren't put in the position of having to search the house for a place to snatch a few moments of away from prying eyes.

She turned toward Spike, ready to tell him that, only to find herself swept into a tight embrace. "I've been waiting all evening to do this," he whispered before kissing her.

They made it to the bed somehow and divested themselves of their clothes...somehow. The few times Buffy had allowed herself to consider a reunion, she'd pictured it as all the things she'd never let them be. This, on the other hand, was more like those frantic days when they got down to business as soon as possible. Spike's hands were everywhere, touching, teasing, causing her breaths to come in gasps and pants. He couldn't stop kissing her, his lips trailing fire across her skin. This was...oh, yeah. Right there.

Then, suddenly he paused and looked down at her with a happy smile on his face. "I love you."

She lifted her hand to trace the line of his jaw. "I love you, too." It felt good to say the words, watch his joy in them. Buffy didn't think she'd ever seen him smile quite like this before. "We don't have to rush..."

"Who's rushing?" His hand grazed down her side, dancing across that spot just above her hip that made her tingle and wiggle. "Believe me, Buffy, my love, this is going to take quite some time..."

***

Lying sprawled on her back, Spike collapsed beside her, his head resting on her chest, Buffy decided she didn't need to move ever again. She felt boneless and content, relaxed in ways it was difficult to describe. "That was..."

He grinned up at her. "Still think I was rushing?"

"No." She ran her fingers through his hair, marveling in the short curls that appeared in every direction. "I think I had some vision of flowers and romance, candlelit rooms and something very slow and maybe even a little tentative."

"I've got you back in my arms, no way I'm going to be tentative. Might try very slow, but I'd probably have to gag you so we wouldn't wake the house."

There was a wicked, lustful look in his eyes that promised infinite delights if she was willing to play along. That had been a revelation, that he would make love to her with the enthusiasm and ferocity that had kept her desperate for more last year; the difference lay in herself, in her willingness to let herself be open to the warmth in his eyes and murmurs of love he whispered against her skin. It had always been there, waiting for her.

"Maybe," she said coquettishly, "when Giles gets back, we can let him take the girls out for some training, get them out of the house all day."

"That's my girl." He slid up her body, pulling her into a kiss. Somehow, Buffy had the feeling she was going to get very little sleep that night. Maybe Kennedy could put the girls through their paces in the morning.

The shrill ring of the phone broke the mood somewhat, causing Buffy to glare at her desk. "Let the machine get it," Spike said, nibbling at her neck.

"It could be Giles."

A moment's pause and he rolled away. "Right. Tell Watcher-Boy I'll dismember him later for this."

"I'll help," Buffy said as she slipped from bed and padded across the floor. "Summers' residence."

"Miss Summers? Buffy?"

The voice on the end of the line was familiar in its British accent, but Buffy couldn't quite place it. "This is Buffy Summers. Who is this?"

A sigh. "Of course. It's been years. It's Wesley Wyndham-Price."

This was not good. The only reasons she could possibly think of for why her former (and much-despised) Watcher would call her were either Angel, Faith, an Apocalypse...or any combination of the above. "What's going on, Wesley? Given the time, I doubt this is a social call."

"It's not." Static crackled on the line as if he were on a cell-phone. "I'm on my way to Sunnydale and I wanted to warn you."

"Warn me about what?" Spike had gotten out of bed and pulled her robe from the wardrobe, draping it around her shoulders. He stayed close and she knew he could hear what was happening on the other end of the line.

"We've had some difficulties in Los Angeles. I'll fill you in on the details when I arrive, but what is of primary concern at the moment is that Angelus is back."

It was as if time had frozen. She couldn't speak, could barely hear Wesley asking, "Buffy? Are you there?" through the thundering in her ears. It was the pressure of Spike's hands tightening on her shoulders, realizing he'd heard the news as well that brought her back to movement. "I'm here. You said Angelus is back?"

"And apparently on his way to Sunnydale. You'd better contact Willow and warn her -- it's likely he wants to remove the only other person who knows how to restore his soul."

There was a world of questions in that statement, but there wasn't time now. "How much of a head start does he have?"

"We're not sure. I should be there in an hour, but you might want to do a disinvite if you can."

"I'll get right on it."

She hung up the phone, slipping her arms into the robe's sleeves. Wrapping the sash tightly around her, she headed for the door but stopped with her hand on the knob. "Spike..."

He was there in an instant, planting a kiss on her forehead. "Go rally the troops. I'll be there as soon as I get my clothes on."

Before he could pull away, she reached up to kiss him. "I love you," she told him fiercely.

"Love you, too."

There was more she wanted to say, but there wasn't time.

More than ever, there wasn't time.



Chapter Three

By the time Willow had started the incantation, everyone was awake and gathered in the living room. "What's going on?" was the question on most of the potentials' lips.

"Vampire," Xander said, not pausing as he checked the windows. "Big nasty vampire who, unfortunately, has an invite to the house. Willow will take care of that."

Kennedy shot a sideways glance at Spike. "How many vampires has she invited into the house?"

"Just two -- Spike and Angel."

Spike saw the look in the girls' eyes as they digested this, knew the conclusions they must be reaching. Two vampires with a soul. Two vampires with invitations...one of which was being revoked.

Still clad in her robe, Buffy moved through the living room, a bowl of burning sage in her hands, followed by Willow chanting the incantation: "...his verbes, consensus recissus est. The sage made Spike's eyes itch and water and he could feel an unease in his bones with each word Willow spoke. He knew the spell wasn't for him, but the demon was twitching badly with each word. The grim expression on Buffy's face didn't help.

Less than half an hour ago, they'd been tangled in her sheets and the world had been his. Strange how quickly reality could intrude. Not enough that they should face an evil so old it didn't have a name. Oh, no. Their personal devils had to come calling as well.

"Spike?"

He'd been so lost in though, he hadn't realized the spell was finished and Buffy stood before him. "Everything alright?"

He did his best to smile. "Spell unsettled me a bit. It'll pass."

She frowned, brows knitted together above green eyes. For a moment he thought she was about to say something, but then she nodded. "I'm going to dress before Wesley gets here. If they have any questions..." She glanced at the girls who stood watching. "Answer as best you can. I'll be quick."

A brief brush of her lips against his and she was away. No sooner had she disappeared up the stairs than Kennedy approached. "Do we have any idea what's going on?"

Naturally, the first question was one he didn't have much of an answer for. "All we know is that Angel has, for some reason, apparently lost his soul and may be on his way to Sunnydale."

"Angel." Rona drew closer. "That's the one you were talking about at dinner."

"How could he lose his soul?" Vi was starting to look a bit more nervous than usual. "I don't understand how you and he got souls, but how could he lose his after having gotten it?"

Maybe he could pass this off to Xander, but before he could try, Xander made a hasty retreat in the direction of the kitchen. "Angel got his through a curse," Spike said, desperately trying to decide which facts to tell them. "Happened in Romania in 1896...no, it was 1898. Killed a gypsy girl and her tribe retaliated by cursing him with a soul so he'd feel remorse for the evil he'd done. Problem is, break the curse and Angelus -- the name he used to use -- reappears. Believe me, you don't want to meet Angelus. He's a right bastard who delights in torturing young girls."

That got their attention. "So he's evil and dangerous?" Kennedy asked.

"He's the one who taught me to hunt and kill after I rose." Spike caught Kennedy's eye and held it. "I'm an amateur compared to him."

He couldn't help feeling a touch of pleasure at seeing the girl flinch ever so slightly. A slayer -- even a potential slayer -- had to be confident, but this girl was cocky bordering on arrogant, the very weakness Angelus enjoyed exploiting. "He doesn't just kill," he continued. "Angelus tortures, both physically and psychologically. Ask Harris or Red or Giles when he returns. They've all gotten a taste."

Molly looked up from her notes. "I thought you said he got his soul in 1898?"

Spike took a deep breath. "He did. He also lost it for a while when he was in Sunnydale. Almost destroyed the world before Willow managed to put it back."

"Put what back?" Willow had reappeared, having changed from pajamas into an old fuzzy pink sweater that clashed with her patterned skirt.

"Angel's soul. I was filling them in on the basics. You know -- torture, mayhem. The fun stuff."

Willow shuddered. "It's why I don't keep fish."

The attention of the potentials moved from Spike to Willow, gazing at her with newfound respect. "Wow." Rona's voice was nearly a whisper. "That must have been some heavy mojo."

Willow looked at once pleased and unsettled by the attention, sneaking a glance at Kennedy to see how she was reacting. Then, a look of horror came over her face. "I'm going to have to do it again, aren't I? I don't' have supplies...I don't have an orb. I'd better talk to Anya."

With that, she scurried away, leaving Spike to watch the potentials' attention shift back to him. What could he say? He only knew what Wesley had said on the phone and that was just enough to send them into a panic.

Chloe, who'd stood quietly on the perimeter throughout this, chose that moment to speak. "It's bad, isn't it?"

He knew he should give them some stirring speech about the effort being difficult, but if they stood firm, they would find a way to overcome. He wasn't good at speeches, though, and he was loathe to downplay a threat he didn't yet understand. "It might be," he said simply. "Once this Wesley gets here, we'll have a better idea."

Spike had never been happier to hear a knock at the front door than at that moment. Buffy's feet were heard on the stairs and she called, "I'll get it!"

Spike moved toward the hall and he noticed Xander, Anya and Willow were hovering in the dining room, a stake in Xander's hand. Good boy; if Willow's spell had done its work, Angelus wouldn't be able to get into the house, but it didn't hurt to be prepared.

A second knock came as Buffy took a deep breath, obviously centering herself before opening the door. Spike stepped back, making certain he was out of the direct line of sight. Wouldn't do to give away the game too quickly.

The door swung open and the look of relief on Buffy's face announced it wasn't Angelus who stood on the other side. The relief quickly slid into puzzlement. "Wesley?"

"Hello, Buffy." The voice was British and Spike edged forward to find a reasonably neatly- dressed man standing on the porch, though his almost-beard and the scar that stretched across his jugular vein lent him a somewhat scruffy air. Just behind him stood a rather sullen-looking teenager with longish dark hair and eyes that sparked a shiver of familiarity, though he couldn't place it.

"It's...been a while." Buffy looked a bit unsure, as if this visitor wasn't what she was expecting. This was the man who'd been on the phone, though; Spike recognized the tone and inflection.

Wesley smiled, just a touch of condescension there. "Yes, it has been and I'm aware I've made some dramatic changes. You don't have to worry; I'm still quite human."

"And you can prove that how?"

They were both human; Spike could sense the blood pumping and the heart beating in both. He chose not to say anything, deciding it would be more fun to see how the man responded.

"Quite simply." He stepped over the threshold. "Since Xander and Willow can attest I was indeed alive the last time I came to call, any invitation given at that time would not extend if I had been turned into a vampire in the interim."

"'Alive' is a somewhat open to debate," Xander said, moving closer. "Who's your friend?"

Wesley gestured to the boy who followed him across the threshold, looking around with mild curiosity. When his gaze landed on Spike, his eyes narrowed as if he knew just who and what Spike was. "This is Connor, my...associate."

Now that the vampire question had been settled, Buffy welcomed them in and led the way to the living room. Spike maintained a safe distance from Connor, but stayed where he could keep an eye on him. Seemed the boy was determined to return the favor, declining Buffy's invitation to sit.

Since a conference in the living room was pretty much an open invitation to everyone who lived in the house, the potentials drew near, arranging themselves behind the armchairs that faced the couch. Andrew drew near as well, but retreated from Connor's glare. It wasn't a special glare for him, Spike noted. The boy seemed to favor everyone with such a look, which wasn't odd given his age, but was odd given the number of attractive females in the room.

Wesley, on the other hand, despite his dress, retained those manners that went with the breeding indicated by his accent. He stood to take Dawn's hand as she joined Buffy on the couch. "A pleasure to see you again, Dawn."

"You two know each other?" Buffy asked.

"He, uh, came up to Sunnydale to pay his respects after...you know."

Right. The watcher the Council had tried to put in Giles' place. Spike had decided to absent himself when the Los Angeles crew made its call and hadn't met the man.

"Seems you have quite a gathering," Wesley commented as he settled himself in the armchair. "Potentials? I'm not surprised, given what happened to the Council."

Buffy's face grew serious. They were clearly down to business. "Giles has been bringing them here and there are more on the way. Girls, this is Wesley Wyndham-Price, who used to be a watcher...my watcher, for a time. That's Kennedy, Rona, Vi, Molly, and Chloe. There's another one, but she's local so she stays with her parents. Oh, and that's Andrew. He's...staying here. I don't know if you've met Spike."

Spike could have done without the introduction, especially given the way Wesley's eyes lit up. "I don't believe it. You let William the Bloody into your home? And with all these potentials? Do you realize what damage he could do?"

"He's a vampire." Connor's voice was flat. "You can't trust vampires."

"Spike's part of the team," Buffy said firmly. "He's on our side, he's helping me train the potentials and, well, he's got his soul."

"Really?" There was a note of academic interest in Wesley's voice. "I wasn't aware anyone except Willow could do the Ritual of Restoration. Does his curse have the same properties as..."

"It wasn't a curse," Spike said, wanting to nip this conversation in the bud. "I went after it...and no, I'm not going to give you the details."

"Besides, Spike's soul isn't the topic of discussion here; Angel's is." Buffy looked toward Connor. "And for the record, I trust Spike. Implicitly."

Having laid down the law, Buffy turned expectantly toward Wesley. "Are you certain you want to discuss this in front of everyone?" Wesley asked, clearly a little discomfited by the size of the mob.

"Are they in danger from Angel showing up in Sunnydale?"

Wesley sighed. "Given his penchant for starting with friends and relations, quite possibly."

"Then they have a right to know what's going on. How and why did Angel lose his soul?"

There was a pause, and then Wesley began. "We've been plagued with trouble from a demon known as the Beast. Incredibly powerful, incredibly ruthless. We haven't been able to defeat and him and we haven't been able to uncover what he wants. What we have discovered, however, is that he apparently tried to strike a deal at some point in the past with Angelus."

Buffy looked past Wesley to Spike. "Don't remember such a demon," he said. "Of course, Angelus was already over a century old by the time I was made. Lots of encounters he could have had I didn't know about."

"The problem is," Wesley continued, "Angel didn't remember him either. Swore he'd never met him. Yet the beast knew him. After a great deal of discussion, we realized we had no other choice -- we had to summon Angelus."

"You took Angel's soul away?" Buffy was on her feet. "God, Wesley! I always thought you were an idiot, but this proves it."

"You don't know the circumstances."

"I can't think of any circumstances that would justify that. Angel agreed to this?"

"He had to be convinced," Wesley admitted.

"Convinced? With what? A stake to his chest? The Angel I know wouldn't do that willingly."

"Then perhaps you don't know him anymore."

The hurt caused by Wesley's words was writ large across Buffy's face...and the answering twinge of hurt and jealousy Spike suddenly felt inside was not particularly welcome. Angel had been an important part of her life; he had to accept that, just as he had to accept their paths would sometimes cross.

"Kennedy, maybe you can take everyone downstairs and put them through some exercises," Dawn said, her voice tight as she watched her sister.

Kennedy looked like she wanted to argue, but Xander started to hustle the girls toward the kitchen. "Sounds like a great idea. Who doesn't love a late night workout?" As he passed Spike, he leaned in and whispered, "I think she's going to need you."

There were moments Xander could surprise him; this was one. Seeing the worried look the boy cast at Buffy, Spike realized that, for this moment at least, he was being accepted.

With the potentials out of the way, Spike headed for the fireplace where Buffy stood, her back to the room. "Luv?" he asked softly.

"I can't believe he'd do it," she said, not looking up. "What could possibly convince him?"

The words "selfish bastard" popped into Spike's mind, but he opted not to voice them. Instead, he slipped his arms around her, tugging her gently back against him. "Don't know. Right now, we figure out a way to get him back. You can always pound the error of his ways into him later."

She didn't respond immediately, but neither did she pull away, her head resting against his shoulder. "Could there be something else at work here?" she asked at last. "The First once tried to make him lose his soul."

Spike frowned. He hadn't heard about that incident and it raised some unsettling questions. "And now he has and he's on his way back to Sunnydale. Think there might be a connection?"

"I don't think we can rule it out." She pulled away, turning back toward Wesley. "Okay, Angel lost his soul. How was it done?"

"I contacted a shaman by the name of Wo-Pang. He conducted a ritual which encased Angel's soul within a Muo-ping. Once we retrieved the information, he would return Angel's soul to him."

Willow was leaning forward, listening intently, as was Anya. With any luck, they might know what the terms meant. "We'd taken every precaution to keep Angelus under control until we were finished," Wesley continued. "There was a cage, he was strapped down, the Muo-ping was placed outside the cage where he couldn't get at it."

"A strong cage, I hope?" Spike asked, not liking any of this.

"Angel saw to the specifications himself. I can assure you it was quite strong."

"He also asked me to stake him if we couldn't control Angelus," Connor said. "Naturally I agreed."

"We don't need to go into that," Wesley replied, a look of annoyance on his face.

"Actually, I'd like to hear the lad's opinion," Spike said. "You say he's your 'associate'; what's his role in all of this...and why would Angel ask him, of all people, to stake him if he gets out of hand?"

Even as the boy spoke, Spike felt a flash of recognition and realized where he'd seen that sullen, dark look before. "Because he's my father."



Chapter Four

Buffy blinked. "Excuse me?"

Wesley suddenly looked uncomfortable. "Connor, perhaps you should wait in the kitchen, or go downstairs and watch the girls train."

If she needed a confirmation there was something Wesley didn't want her to know, here it was. "Perhaps Connor could explain what he meant by Angel being his father."

Connor looked at her, his gaze weighing and judging. "He is. You're the girlfriend who sent him to hell, aren't you?"

"Connor, that's enough." Wesley's voice was sharp. "We're here to deal with Angelus, not scratch open old wounds."

"We're dealing with a rather powerful menace here," Buffy said. "I've got a pack of potential slayers living in my home with more on the way. I've got an ancient evil trying to kill me and my friends and frankly, it's been a battle recently just to stay alive. Now you want my help to put Angel's soul back -- which you helped remove for some insane reason -- and you don't want to tell me about this kid you've brought into my home who claims to be Angel's son?"

She stalked over to stand just in front of where he sat. "You want help, Wesley? I want answers. Who is he?"

She half-expected him to wiggle about it, give her all the reasons she didn't need to know and how she should trust and listen to him. Buffy found herself growing angry, remembering his interference and insufferableness while he'd been in Sunnydale. Then Wesley had been very much a believer in "the Slayer is a tool of the Council and subject to its whims"; had he changed at all.

When Wesley looked up at her, he suddenly appeared much older, experience weighing heavily on his face. "He is Angel's son. We still don't understand how or why, but there was a prophecy."

"There's always a prophecy," Anya said with a sigh.

"And before you ask, his mother was Darla."

"Okay, this is too weird. Darla's dead; I saw Angel dust her."

"She was brought back by a firm who had a vested interest in seeing Angel lose his soul. They hoped she could do it."

"These are the evil lawyers who wanted Angel to vamp her, but he wouldn't so they brought in Drusilla?" Spike asked.

Buffy looked toward Spike. "When did you hear this?"

He looked guilty...and just a bit sheepish. "Dru told me when she was in Sunnydale."

"And you didn't tell me?"

The guilty look dissipated rapidly. "We weren't exactly talking at the moment, luv."

Looking a bit annoyed, Wesley continued. "She managed to convince Angel to sleep with her. We don't know the details as Angel hid the encounter from us. In fact, we didn't learn of the liaison until she appeared in our offices, rather pregnant."

Somehow, Buffy felt the need to sit down. "And she was a vampire."

Wesley nodded. "She staked herself so Connor could be born."

"Didn't believe the she-bitch had it in her," Spike muttered.

"Darla did it for the love of her child. His soul affected her during the pregnancy. It was a tremendous act of self-sacrifice."

Buffy said nothing, staring at Wesley and stealing looks toward Connor. Angel's son. By Darla. Willow had taken her hand and she clutched it tightly, trying to make sense of this. He'd left her so she could have a normal life and now he had a son?

The couch cushions creaked as Spike sat down and slipped an arm around her waist. He was very tactile, she was coming to realize. It shouldn't surprise her; when Willow's spell made them believe they were madly in love with each other, he'd constantly touched her, even if it was only to hold her hand. Now that touch was a lifeline to cling to. "That explains how he was born," Spike said, asking the question she didn't feel capable of at this moment. "It doesn't explain why he's a teenager."

Another pause. Clearly there was something else Wesley didn't want to share. "There was a prophecy that I interpreted to mean Angel would kill his son," he said at last, his voice tight. "I tried to prevent that by taking the child away. Unfortunately, the woman whose help I counted on betrayed me and Connor was taken to Quor-toth where he was raised until his return here -- aged eighteen."

"Quor-toth's a rather nasty place." Anya looked at Connor speculatively. "I imagine, being the child of two vampires, you're probably blessed with their strength and healing. It's how you survived, isn't it?"

"What do you know of Quor-toth?" Connor asked.

Anya shrugged. "Ex-vengeance demon. Eleven-hundred years old. I've seen a lot."

"Weren't we talking about the Angel problem?" Willow put in. "Shouldn't we concentrate on that?"

They were discussing the Angel problem, Buffy thought sadly. They just weren't discussing the one Wesley had intended. "You said you have Angel's soul in this moped thing."

It felt good to see Wesley wince at her use of the language, something to break through the numbness that was seeping through her. She could feel Willow's hand in hers, feel Spike's arm around her waist as he sat close to her, but she wasn't feeling anything inside.

"A Muo-ping," he corrected. "The problem is that it's gone missing. Cordelia attempted a spell to bring Angel's soul back and it didn't work. Unfortunately, he escaped before we realized that."

"Wait a minute." Willow suddenly sat up straighter. "Cordelia -- Miss I-Don't-Know-How-To-Wave-Burning-Sage-Right -- tried to do a spell to restore Angel's soul...and you let her? Don't you know how dangerous that is? I've done the Ritual of Restoration and believe me, it's no picnic being possessed by some entity from beyond that suddenly had me speaking Latin like I was born to it. Hell, Cordelia knows how scary it was; she was there!"

"Cordelia had a vision that told her what to do, and we weren't using the Ritual of Restoration." Wesley's voice was a bit defensive.

"Okay, I understand about the visions and the headaches and all...she's told me about them in excruciating detail, but why would you think that someone who's never done magic before could suddenly do what had to be a difficult and dangerous spell."

"What spell did you use?" Anya drew closer, professional interest in her voice.

"The skull of a soul-eater. I chanted the words Cordelia transcribed from her vision and Angel was engulfed in light emanating from the skull. We thought the spell had been successful, but it was an act. While the rest of us had gone to hunt for the Beast, Angelus tricked Cordelia into releasing him. Only then was his true nature revealed."

Something in all of this didn't sound right, but Buffy couldn't quite put her finger on it. "What makes you certain he's on the way to Sunnydale?"

"The fact he killed the shaman who extracted his soul and the last time I saw him, he said he needed to pay some 'old friends' a visit." Wesley looked toward Willow. "Since you're the only living person who's actually done a restoration, I imagine he wants to make certain you can't do another one."

"Okay, so we do the spell tomorrow," Willow said. "I'd suggest we do it tonight, but I haven't read over it in several years and I don't have all the supplies. Anya knows where I can get an orb, though."

Her words brought a smile to Wesley's face. "Excellent. If you need any help with the preparations..."

The conversation wandered the into specifics of the spell and what would be needed. As they talked, Buffy leaned into Spike, letting her head rest on his shoulder. His arm tightened around her waist, drawing her closer. At this moment, all she wanted to do was curl into his arms and shut everything else out.

Angel was out there somewhere. Part of her wished Wesley didn't think he was coming here, hadn't felt the need to tell er. Then she wouldn't have known, wouldn't have had to worry about what they were going to do if the spell didn't work. Now that she knew, there was no turning back. She knew what Angelus was capable of and knew he couldn't be left to run free.

Spike kissed the top of her head and she closed her eyes. He knew what Angelus was like as well, even better than she did. Buffy didn't like to think about it, but she knew Spike could probably tell her tales of their days together that would make her blood curdle.

"I know it's an imposition, but I was hoping you would be able to put us up tonight. I realize your conditions are crowded, but it might be better than going out to seek accommodations."

Buffy sighed. Great. "Of course. We'll just have to find someplace to put you."

"There's room in the basement," Anya suggested. "Besides, now that Spike is moving into your room, we could move Andrew down there as well. That would help keep him out of everyone's way."

Joint looks of disapproval from Wesley and Conner, but more worrisome was the sudden tension she felt in Spike. That, however, could not be dealt with here. "Something wrong, Wesley?"

To his credit, Wesley shook his head. "Nothing. The basement would be fine."

Good boy. "Let's get you settled, then." She rose from the couch and headed for the back of the house, not even acknowledging the look on Connor's face. The sooner the spell was done, the sooner he'd be out of her house.

The potentials weren't actually doing a work out, but listening to stories from Xander of the Scoobies' glory days in high school. Most looked sleepy and didn't seem that distressed when the session broke up. The news that Andrew was moving to the basement, on the other hand, was greeted with great enthusiasm.

It took only a few minutes to get the other cots set up and the men situated. Buffy noticed Spike grab a change of clothes for the morning, but leave everything else. Before he could move too far, she called out, "Let me help you."

Not waiting for him to speak, she grabbed the pile of books he'd accumulated from around the house. Settling them in her arms, she lifted her eyebrows as if to ask, "well?" He took the hint and gathered up the rest of his small collection of clothes and personal items, a bit of a smirk on his face as he followed her to the stairs.

"We'll talk in the morning?" Wesley asked as she ascended.

"We get moving pretty early," she warned. "You can catch me then."

The house settled much quicker this time, almost no notice paid to Buffy and Spike's journey upstairs. "I'll have to clear out a drawer," she told him, depositing the books on one of the bedside tables. "You can just put those on the chair for now."

Once he'd done as she'd asked, he was at her side again, his eyes searching her face. "Are you alright, Buffy?" he asked, one hand reaching out to stroke her hair.

"I'm fine, she assured him. "I mean, it's just another day at the office, isn't it? Angel loses his soul and Wesley comes to ask for help..."

She broke off, realizing he wasn't buying any of it. "It hurts," she admitted.

He slid his arms around her and drew her head down to his chest. "I'm here, pet," he whispered.

And he was. That was the great irony. The one person who knew how much this could hurt and she'd only just opened her heart to him, believing she'd moved on from her old love and was ready to accept a new one.

There was a knock at the door, interrupting anything else Spike might have to say. "Who is it?" Buffy called.

"Anya. Are you two decent?"

With a sigh, Buffy stepped away from Spike and told Anya to come in. "I'll make this quick," Anya said, "but there's something wrong with what Wesley said downstairs."

"What particular problem did you have in mind?" Spike asked, settling on the mattress.

"Well, yes, the numerous difficulties with the story he told and the fact that its clear to even a casual observer that he wasn't telling us everything, thought whether that's because he actually wanted to conceal something or it was a misguided effort to protect Buffy from something terrible Angel's done..."

Buffy's head hurt. Wearily, she sat down next to Spike. "What was it you wanted to tell us, Anya?"

"Oh. Well, it has to do with the spell Cordelia got a vision about. It couldn't have worked. You can use the bones of a soul eater to do two things: either steal a soul or restore a soul that particular soul eater stole."

"Maybe Cordelia didn't know that," Buffy offered.

"Maybe, but Wesley said she had a vision which included the incantation Wesley was supposed to use. I spoke with Willow since she's the only one who communicates with Cordelia and Willow said the visions are supposedly from the Powers That Be, which are a force for good. Those visions are sent to help Angel in this mission thingy he has."

"Okay." Maybe it was the pounding in her head, but Buffy couldn't see why this was important.

"If Cordelia's visions are supposed to help Angel, why did she get one for a spell that wouldn't do any good? In fact, it did harm because it helped Angelus escape."

The headache was suddenly forgotten. "Are you suggesting she didn't get the vision from the Powers?"

"Either that or she lied for some unknown reason. Whichever it is, it wouldn't hurt to find out."

"No, it wouldn't. Let's deal with it in the morning. Right now, get some sleep."

Anya nodded and headed for the door. As she opened it, Buffy said, "Good catch. Thanks."

"I have such a headache," Buffy told Spike once Anya had departed and slid off the bed to head for the bathroom and the aspirin. When she returned, Spike had turned off all the lights save the lamp on his side of the bed and was already under the covers. Wearily, she sat on the edge of the mattress, wondering if she'd have enough energy to even pull her clothes off.

Spike's hands reached out and began to knead her shoulders with deep, strong strokes. Buffy didn't protest, relaxing beneath his hands. "If you take your clothes off," he whispered in her ear, "I can make you feel much better."

That was enough to get her undressed and under the covers. It was luxurious to lie there and let his hands work their magic. "Mmmm. I should let you do this more often."

Spike slid his hands along her spine, easing tired muscles. "Just want to take care of my girl."

She liked being taken care of. A girl could definitely get used to this. Dim lights, the moon outside shining through the branches of the trees at the back of the house. She could just close her eyes and let her mind...

Buffy's eyes popped open and she struggled to sit up. "He's out there," she said. "I can feel him."

Something flickered across Spike's face, but she wasn't certain if it was a shadow or something else. "You're certain?"

She slid off the bed and grabbed her robe. "It's this...I feel a certain 'something' when he's around. I was relaxing, let my mind go...and there he was."

Robe wrapped around her, she headed for the window. Shadows shifted and moved, but she wasn't certain if any of them might actually be a human form. Maybe it was just her imagination.

"Was it Angel or Angelus?" Spike joined her at the window. "Could you tell if he was souled or unsouled?"

"No." He was doing his best to hide it, but Buffy could see a touch of jealousy flickering in Spike's eyes. "I can't tell the difference. All I can tell is that it's him. It's an unique signature."

She laid a hand on his chest. "You have one, too. It's similar to what I feel when a random vamp is nearby, but there's something different that tells me it's you. I've been able to pick you out of a crowd for years."

He smiled a little at that. "You're not thinking of going down and facing him, are you?"

Buffy had been thinking exactly that and she knew he knew it. "It'd be just what he'd want, wouldn't it? Go down there with no thought or preparation, a target for whatever he's got up his sleeve."

She stepped closer. "We'll deal with him tomorrow. Try the spell and take it from there. For now...

It was so easy to kiss him, to let the fears and worries wash away, even easier to let him coax her back to the bed. No sooner was she there, though, than she scrambled out again, back to the window. Didn't want to waken to a dusty lover, so the drapes had to be firmly closed.

As she pulled the drapes shut, Buffy happened to glance down into the backyard once more. There was someone out there, watching. Then, with a flash of moonlight on skin and a shifting of shadows, he was gone.

She hurried back to the bed and the safety of Spike's arms.



Chapter Five

Most days, Buffy didn't need an alarm clock to wake her; the sound of a house filled with women, most of whom were teenagers, competing for the bathroom served the same purpose. Reluctantly, she rose after kissing Spike to enough consciousness to say good morning before letting him slide back into sleep, and went to negotiate her shower. By agreement, the men showered after the women were done, which meant she had some time to see what Wesley wanted before Spike was actually up and moving. She could guess the topic and didn't particular want her lover there for the discussion.

She found Wesley downstairs in the kitchen, cell phone firmly planted against his ear. "No, we're going to do it today. Yes, I'll let you know what the results are as soon as we have any. How's it there? Too bad. Keep me posted on developments. Well, we haven't actually determined that he's here. Best for Willow to try the spell anyway. Yes, I'll call."

With that he closed the phone and dropped it back in his pocket. "As you can imagine, things are somewhat hectic in Los Angeles at the moment."

"I'm surprised they could spare you." Buffy managed to lace the words with only a hint of sarcasm.

He didn't wasn't wearing the glasses she was used to seeing him with, but even so, she swore he took them off before looking at her rather seriously. "Buffy, I know we didn't get along when I was last in Sunnydale and I'll be the first to admit I did little to help the situation..."

"No argument from this department."

Wesley gritted his teeth and continued. "However, there is some water under the bridge and since I believe we are working toward a common goal, I would like to think that we might make an effort to get along. I'm not the same person you knew when you were in high school, just as I can see you're not the same girl. Perhaps we can make a new start, put behind us some of the mistakes of the past?"

She had to admit he had a point...and she could see some changes. The language was still pompous, but this Wesley seemed far more comfortable in his skin, a bit more experienced in the ways of the world. "Okay, we'll make the attempt," she said. "Just...we've been under a bit of a strain and having the house packed to fuller than bursting with more on the way doesn't help the stress level."

"I can imagine. No, I can't, but I will do my best to make allowances."

"Great. Is that what you wanted to talk to me about?"

"Actually, I was hoping to speak with you about William...or does he prefer Spike?"

"Definitely Spike." She glanced around. The kitchen was quiet at the moment, but that would change any minute as the household gathered for breakfast. "Why don't we go out to the backyard? We can speak freely there."

The day was promising to be bright, perhaps even somewhat warm for the time of year. Settling on the bench at the far end of the backyard, Buffy realized they soon wouldn't need sweaters during the day and could probably wear lighter gear at night. Maybe Vi would forgo her knitted caps with the spring.

Wesley looked uneasy as he sat, waiting until they were settled before speaking. "Buffy, I know it's not my place and you will probably think I'm somewhat out of line, but I take it you are involved with Wil...Spike?"

"Is this personal or professional curiosity?" she asked, trying not to react defensively.

"Both," he admitted. "For a slayer to fall in love with a single vampire is highly unusual, to say the least. To fall in love with two...and for one to be the vampire who murdered two of her predecessors..." Wesley broke off with a chuckle. "Once again, you've proved you're hardly what one might define as a 'typical' slayer."

For the first time since Wesley had arrived, Buffy felt herself thaw slightly toward him. "Spike's not your typical vampire, either. Never has been, even before he got the soul. And, yes, we're involved."

Wesley considered and nodded. "I won't give you a tiresome lecture on the difficulties inherent in attempting a relationship with a vampire because, as I recall, you didn't pay particular attention the first time I gave it. Besides, in the years since I've left Sunnydale, I've learned that things are not quite as black and white as I once thought they were. It is your choice and I'm certain you've made a careful consideration of the potential difficulties."

Buffy laughed. "That is an understatement."

"In light of our current situation, however, the relationship presents a new problem. I can assume Angel doesn't know?"

She hadn't even thought of Angel as she and Spike had taken that final step, much less what -- or even if -- she was going to tell him about this development. "No. It's...rather new, Wesley."

"Really? Given what I saw last night, I assumed the two of you had been together some time."

Another example that everyone else had seen it before she'd been able to admit it to herself. "We've been working toward it a long time. It's tied up in a lot of personal things I don't want to discuss."

"I see. If Angel doesn't know, then that's for the best. I've noticed that he shares a trait with Angelus: he's very possessive of people he cares for and has no hesitation expressing his...displeasure if they do something he doesn't approve of. With Angelus, that displeasure is both a tool and a weapon."

"And the idea of Spike and me together wouldn't make him happy."

"Given some of the things Angel has said about him, no, it wouldn't. And I fear Angelus might take great offence at Spike moving in on what he might consider 'his' property."

Buffy vividly remembered Spike's complaints that Angel had taken Drusilla from him when Angelus had re-emerged; it was one of the reasons he'd come to her seeking an alliance in the first place. "But if Willow's able to do the spell, restore his soul, then we don't have to worry about that, right? I mean, if his soul's restored, it wouldn't matter if he knew about Spike and me. I'd have to do some explaining, but Spike's changed, so Angel would just have to accept...""

She stopped babbling when Wesley laid a hand on her arm. "Is there a reason Angelus might know?"

Taking a deep breath, Buffy did her best to center herself. "He was outside last night, out here. I was closing the curtains so the morning sun wouldn't come in and I saw someone in the yard. I couldn't see the face, but I could feel him."

Wesley didn't seem surprised. "Your slayer senses. I take it there was a possibility he might have seen you and Spike together." At Buffy's nod, he sighed. "Let's hope Willow can set it right.

***

Having managed to steal five minutes for a shower, Spike pulled on his shirt and wandered toward the window that looked out over the backyard. Buffy hadn't needed to worry about closing the curtains last night; the window faced north and no direct light spilled in. Pushing the curtains aside, he realized it was one of the things they'd have to adjust to. Didn't want her to feel she couldn't ever open the curtains just because he was there.

As he did up the buttons on his shirt, he caught sight of Buffy sitting in the backyard with Wesley. The conversation looked friendly enough, but Spike couldn't help the distrust he felt. The man was a watcher, for one thing, even if he had left the fold. Spike had no illusions regarding what the watchers thought of him...and he doubted the fact he now possessed William's soul would make little difference.

Worse than that, though, Wesley was a friend of Angel. He hadn't been present for the Gem of Amarra fiasco, but Spike wouldn't be surprised to discover he'd heard the tale. He'd also been in Sunnydale during Buffy's senior year; he'd seen the last days between Buffy and Angel.

Steady, mate. She's admitted she loved you; why should you worry what a friend of the Great Poof thinks?

Because part of you is terrified Angel could take her away and you wouldn't be able to stop him, came back the answer. Maybe he'd feel differently one day, but at the moment they were still new and fragile. Or maybe he just didn't have enough faith in himself.

Annoyed at thoughts that came perilously close to brooding, Spike made his way downstairs. They had far too much to do for him to waste time on self-pity. The potentials were going to have to be kept busy and away from Willow if she was going to prepare for the ritual. Specifically, Kennedy needed to be kept busy; didn't want the girl distracting Red with her innuendos and sly remarks.

The girls were gathered around the dining table, busy with breakfast as he passed through the room, a cheery round of "Good morning," ringing out. He responded casually, noting the giggles from some as he passed and headed for the kitchen to fix a morning cup of blood. Clearly, he and Buffy were going to serve as the day's gossip whether they liked it or not.

With his mug in the microwave, Spike peered out the window. Buffy was still talking with Wesley. Even if he could take a stroll in the sunshine without combusting (and his mind did plot where the shadows were), he'd let her be. She'd clearly taken the watcher out there for some private conversation and it wasn't his place to intrude.

"Wesley tells me you're a part of the team even though you're a vampire."

Spike turned to find Connor standing in the doorway to the basement. "I take it you don't particularly care for vampires," he said retrieving his mug as the microwave beeped. "Is it that you don't like vampires in general or your father in specific?"

"He's only my biological father. A man named Holtz was my real father, the one who raised me. He taught me to survive...and that vampires were evil."

My, wasn't the boy a spitting image of Angel, all righteous indignation burning inside? The chin was Darla's, though. "That we are," Spike agreed after taking a sip of blood. "I've heard of Holtz; never met the man, but I heard stories. He made quite an impression on Darla; ticked her off a good deal."

Connor moved further into the kitchen and Spike shifted, keeping the counter between them. The boy might have been told Spike was an ally, but there was something in his manner Spike didn't trust. "Wesley also told me you knew my father."

"More than 'know'; Angel made Drusilla, who made me. He's my grand-sire, you might say. Your mum...well, that gets a bit more confusing. She made Angel, which makes her great-grandmamma, a name she always hated. But then, when the evil law firm brought her back, Dru vamped her, so that makes her my sib. Which means you're either my great-uncle, my uncle, or my nephew, or any combination of the three."

A flash in the boy's warned he'd hit a sore spot. "I'm no relation to you."

"Let's just say I'm not pleased about the matter, either. But blood calls to blood, and, sad to say, we share some."

"And you have a soul too. I thought my father was the only one."

"He was...for a good hundred years."

"So you've managed to convince them you're reformed."

"Convinced? Hardly. Ask Harris. He'll be happy to tell you just how rotten I am."

"Ask me what?" Xander wandered into the kitchen a shade too casually.

Apparently vampires weren't the only ones Connor blessed with his glare because Xander received a full measure. "Nothing," Connor told him sullenly. I'm going to go talk to Wesley."

Both Xander and Spike watched as Connor had stormed outside. "Willow filled me in this morning," Xander said. "So he's really Angel's son?"

"Unfortunately. His father's eyes, his mother's chin and the pissy attitude of them both. God, I love my relatives."

"No argument from me. Look, Spike..."

Xander was shoved his hands in his pockets and stared at the linoleum. This didn't particularly look like a speech Spike was going to enjoy. "You know you're not my favorite person. You know I'd rather see you residing in an ashtray than anyplace else. But give a choice between you and Angel, I think I'd rather have you here...even if it means you and Buffy are together."

"Harris, I'm touched. That was almost a compliment." He took a sip of his blood. "I can assume, of course, that you're hoping Buffy will come to her senses."

"Every moment of every day."

"Good." Spike grinned. "Glad we understand each other."

***

The day passed faster than Buffy had thought was possible, the hours caught up in a blur of preparations. From the moment Connor interrupted her conversation with Wesley, Buffy barely had a moment to rest, much less contemplate what was going on.

Anya and Willow disappeared just after breakfast, returning at lunch time with the necessary supplies. After a quick conference, it was decided the living room would serve best for the spell. "Too many clompy feet overhead if we do it in the basement," Willow explained. "I kinda need some quiet.

"So we set up here and send everyone else downstairs," Buffy said. "Xander, do you think you can keep them quiet?"

"I'll help," Andrew volunteered from where he hung on the edge of the group. The Scoobies glared. Buffy didn't miss that Wesley glared as well.

"We could tie him up and leave him in the yard as bait," Xander suggested.

Before Buffy could object to the inappropriate humor, Spike shook his head. "Nah. Angelus is just evil enough to turn him. He'd make an annoying vampire. Have to stake him just to stop the noise."

Andrew uttered a strangled sound and fled the room. Willow glared at Spike and Xander. "That wasn't very nice."

"No," Xander offered, "but it was fun."

"Let's get back to work," Buffy insisted, noting that neither Xander nor Spike looked the least bit repentant. "You've got the supplies; is there anything else you need?"

"I'll need two people to help me. Anya's volunteered, but I need one more."

"I'd like to help," Wesley volunteered, "as long as I have a chance to study the incantation beforehand."

The look that passed between Willow and Anya was quick, but Buffy saw the small nod of agreement. "Great. I'll get you the print-out."

"Print out?" Wesley looked a bit surprised. "Isn't there a book?"

"The key to decipher the Rituals of the Undead was lost for generations," Willow told him. "Someone we knew managed to crack the code."

"And Angel killed her before she could do the restoration."

Xander's words brought silence to the room, bringing back unpleasant memories. Not want to dwell on it, Buffy asked, "Is there anything else we need to consider? Willow, how long will it take you to prepare?"

"Most of the afternoon. We need to do some meditations and other things. I know I didn't do that last time, but I think it'd go better if I did. We should be ready just after the sun goes down."

"No offense, Red, but I think it's best I'm not actually in the house when you do this." He reached out toward the Orb of Thessulah he'd been eyeing since Willow had placed it on the table. "Figure there's no danger, but I think me and the soul would feel more comfortable out of the line of fire.

He brushed his fingers across the crackle glass surface and the orb lighted briefly, emitting a slight hum. "I'll patrol outside, keep Angelus occupied if he shows up."

The light died as he withdrew his hand, a thoughtful expression on his face. "I'll join you," Buffy said. "Better the two of us than one."

"Make that three," Connor added. At their looks, he asked, "What? I'm not welcome?"

"It's not a stroll in the park, boy." There was an edge to Spike's voice.

"I didn't think it was. I've fought him before, you know."

That was information Buffy decided she didn't need to know. "Three is probably better than one. He can't get in the house, but I'd like to know if he's out there. We'll start soon as the sun goes down and it's safe for Spike."



Chapter Six

An uneasy quiet settled over the house as the sun set. Anya, Willow and Wesley had spent most of the afternoon closeted in Willow's room going over the ritual and making preparations. The potentials, after a day's rest, were being put through their paces...except for Amanda, who was excused for an hour to study chemistry with Dawn in the living room.

"Does Willow always shut herself up like this before she does a spell?" Kennedy asked as the shadows grew long.

Buffy glanced toward the house as she herded the girls inside. "For important ones. There's mental preparation that needs to be done as well as physical."

Kennedy looked skeptical and Buffy had to wonder how much belief the girl had in the mystic arts. She would have dismissed it as silly hocus-pocus herself once upon a time, before she'd learned just how powerful the rituals could be. Kennedy would either accept...or there'd be rocky times ahead in her pursuit of Willow.

The girls were milling about the kitchen, scrounging for snacks and Buffy warned them, "Dinner's going to be late, after Willow's done."

"And we have to wait in the basement until then?" Vi asked. "No television?"

"No television. They need quiet. Just think of it as another fun part of life as a slayer."

Buff turned to Amanda. "Your folks are okay with you sleeping over? I'd just like to keep everyone close tonight."

"They were absolutely thrilled at the idea Dawn and I were studying," Amanda told her. "We've still got some chemistry and then there's history. I brought all my books with me."

"In fact, we were going to head upstairs now," Dawn added. "I promise, we won't disturb them."

Getting Buffy's consent, Dawn and Amanda headed out as the others started to filter downstairs. "It won't take that long, will it?" Xander asked. "The ritual, I mean. They're going to get real restless real fast."

Connor entered the kitchen as that moment. He'd been hovering all day, watching as the girls worked. "When do we head out?" he asked.

"Soon," Buffy told him. "Sun's not down yet."

He shrugged. "I thought we could take up position, be waiting for him."

She sighed. "Willow's not set up and Spike can't go out yet."

Again, Connor shrugged as if those objections were of no import to him. His silences were starting to seriously annoy her. Funny, but she'd once thought Angel's silences had signaled deep, serious thoughts. So not like father, like son. "I'm going to see how Spike's getting on in the living room" she announced.

Xander followed her. "I don't trust him" he whispered as they reached the hall. "I know I have Angel issues, but there's something about that kid that unsettles me. It's like he knows some secret he's not sharing."

"They're both hiding something. Like, why was it so important Angelus be brought back? What could be that threatening that you'd even risk it?"

They stepped into the living room where Spike had been re-arranging furniture to the specifications Willow had given him. Coming to stand by his side, Buffy absently ran a hand along his shoulder. He interrupted his survey of his work to smile down at her. "Everything's ready for them, luv."

She nodded, glad to be here next to him. She was having strange flashes of memory from the first time he'd been in this room when they'd made the deal to stop Angelus and save Giles and the world. The night her mother had learned she was the slayer.

There were footsteps on the stairs and Anya, Willow, and Wesley entered the living room, each carrying supplies. "Everyone clear out?" Willow asked.

"They're in the basement," Xander said. "I'd better get down there, make certain they don't use Andrew for target practice."

"We should be heading out as well," Spike suggested. "Get out of their way."

Buffy nodded, but asked Willow, "If he does show up, how long do we need to hold him off?"

"Half an hour. That's what it took the last time." Willow carefully set the supplies in her arms on the coffee table that had been moved into position to serve as a work surface. "We'll need about ten minutes to set up.

Buffy glanced outside. The sun had just set, the last bit of light still lingering in the sky. "I think we can do that."

She and Spike headed for the kitchen where Connor still waited. "The point isn't to kill him," she warned as they stepped out the back door. "We just need to keep him at bay until the spell's done."

"And if it doesn't work?" Connor asked.

"It will work," Buffy insisted.

"But if it doesn't..."

She swallowed. "We cross that bridge when we come to it."

Fortunately, Connor chose to remain silent after that and made no objection when Buffy suggested they split up. Leaving him in the back yard, she and Spike headed for the front. "It'll work," Spike assured her. "Red knows what she's doing."

"It's more powerful than anything she's done since she came back." Buffy sighed. "And it's probably not the last time I'm going to have to ask her to do something like this."

He slipped his arm around her shoulders. "Do you trust her?"

"I want to, but there's the worry of too far too fast. That, and other worries."

They were almost to the front and Spike stopped, pulling her close. "So we deal with them one at a time."

She couldn't help smiling. "When did you become wise?"

He smiled back. "I didn't. I just...what is it?"

The tingling was there at the base of her skull, stronger than last night. "He's nearby. Wait here."

Spike frowned, but she pressed forward moving toward the front of the house. At first glance there was nothing, but the tingling grew. Then she saw him, standing at the edge of the lawn. He looked normal enough and for a second she wondered if Willow had already done the spell. "Angel?"

He stepped forward. "Hello, Buffy. You're looking well."

It was the smile that gave him away. Perhaps it was because she was looking for a sign, but there was something cruel about it, as if he held some secret pleasure or anticipation. Playing it cool, hoping Spike would stay put for the moment, she stood her ground. "I'm a bit surprised to see you here."

"What can I say? It was a nice night and I decided to take a drive up the coast, see some old friends."

Angel drew closer, slowly but steadily. "I mean, it's been over a year and, let's face it, you weren't doing that great the last time we met. Is it surprising that I'd want to check in, make sure you were doing okay?"

Her hands itched for the stake concealed in her waistband, but Buffy resisted. "I'm doing fine...lots better. Want to hear something funny? I've got a job at the high school, counseling students. It's not full time, but hey, I'm giving back to the community."

"Didn't we blow up the high school?"

"They rebuilt...same place, but they rebuilt."

A low chuckle. "Leave it to Sunnydale to put all that lovely teenage angst on top of a Hellmouth. Ever wonder what affect that might have on the demons?"

He was almost upon her now and the fight or flight urge was going stronger. She did her best to breathe regularly, knowing he could tell if her heart was pounding faster. She wished Spike was with her, not standing in the shadows, but that would give the game away. "If the demons are sensible, they'll avoid the girls' locker room, especially at certain times of the month. Lots of deadly force there."

God, that was a bad joke. It didn't help when Angel's smile grew a little broader. "You really aren't very good at this, are you? Bluffing, lying...it all shows in your face. Your heart's beating faster and you really want to go for that stake."

This time when he stepped forward, Buffy stepped back, moving out of range. "Why did you come, Angelus?"

"Ooh. So formal. I thought we meant more to each other; all the angst, the drama, the whole star-crossed lovers routine...wait, maybe it's not so bad that part's over. I found it really limited me on the dating scene and I've been trying to move on. After all, you did."

They were circling one another, their steps deliberate. Keep him at bay, that's all she had to do. As long as he kept running his mouth...

"I could understand Riley," he continued, looking far too casual. "I mean, big, beefy guy. Probably made you feel all small and delicate. Whatever happened to Finn? Did you wear him out? Or could he just not deal with the slayer package? But, hey, it must have been a pretty nasty breakup if you had to sink to Spi..."

A sudden blur went slamming into Angel, the force knocking him to the ground. He was down for just a second, then back on his feet in a fighting stance. "You don't ever learn, do you?" Angel snarled, all trace of civility gone.

"You're the one who wanted me to stake you if Angelus got out of control." A stake was in Connor's hand, ready to strike.

Buffy started to move, trying to stop him. "Spike!" she yelled, but Spike was already there, grabbing Angel's arms even as Buffy tackled Connor. After that, it was a blur, just trying to hold on and hoping Willow finished the spell before the two killed each other.

***

Everything was in readiness. The orb rested on the coffee table and Anya was tracing patterns with the smudge of burning herbs she held. Wesley stood to Willow's left hand, printout in his hand. Once she'd cast the stones, she nodded for him to begin. Quod perditum est, invenietur.

His voice was steadier than Oz's had been, but Wesley actually understood the words he spoke. She took up the answering chant. "Not dead, or not of the living..."

Willow tried to focus on what she was doing, but there was a mousy little girl in the corner of her mind chattering that this was wrong, that what they were doing wasn't in the proper order. More worrisome was the woman who laughed at the girl, eager and ready to embrace the power she was invoking. "Gods, bind him. Cast his heart from the demon realm. Return his soul to the vessel which housed it. I call on you..."

She felt the power begin to crackle. This time, she was prepared to accept it, letting it flow through her and cast a web outward. No mere vessel herself, she let it come. "I call on you Gods, do not ignore this supplication! Let the orb be the vessel to carry his soul to him. It is written, this power is my people's right to wield."

The energy was growing, circling, and filling her being. The dark-eyed woman within her head laughed at the glory of it. "Let it be so! Now!"

Willow was expecting the rush as the power flowed out of her and into the orb, but this was different. The power was there...and then it wasn't. She looked down and found the orb sitting where she had placed it, inert. "It...didn't glow?"

"It didn't do anything," Anya said, lowering her herbs. "You were chanting and going all black-eyed and it just sat there. I take it that was not what it was supposed to do."

"No." Willow racked her brain, trying to figure out what had happened. It didn't help that Wesley was watching her with a disappointed air. "Last time, the orb went all glowy and disappeared."

"Could Spike touching it earlier today have done something to upset the balance within the orb?" Wesley asked.

"I doubt it. I mean, the one I got from Giles, he'd used as a paperweight and it worked fine."

That was when they heard the crash outside.

***

Spike held on as long as he could, but he'd never been a match for Angelus' strength. After a considerable amount of struggling, the older vampire twisted free and threw Spike toward the tree that graced the front yard. The impact set newly healed ribs to complaining even as he staggered to his feet and headed back into the fray.

"You don't ever learn, do you boy?" Angelus had slid into game face. "I thought I'd beat the lesson into you years ago."

"It's a new day," Spike told him, looking for an opening.

"What's new? You're picking up my leavings once again and..." There was a slow dawn of recognition. "I don't believe it. Why the hell did they curse you with a soul?"

Now it was Spike's turn to smile. "Not a curse, mate. Welcomed and wanted."

Angelus' eyes slid toward Buffy and Spike seized the opening, swinging hard. The punch landed, staggering him backwards. There was little reprieve, though as Angelus struck back almost immediately. Then it became fists and fangs, lashing out at each other. Spike found it hard to resist the urge to go for the kill and it hampered him. Angelus had no such reluctance and the battle was fast becoming an exercise in staying out of a killing grip.

He knew Buffy was still struggling with Connor, but he didn't dare look, didn't dare take his attention away from the matter at hand. Angelus might have been momentarily thrown by the idea of Spike's soul but Spike couldn't count on such an opening again.

"Did you get it for her?" Angelus taunted. "Think that would make her love you?"

"You don't understand," Spike responded, ducking a punch.

"I don't understand? I'm the original Soul Boy, remember?" Another swing, another dodge. "Was it really worth it, Spike? I mean, Buffy's a tasty morsel, but is crawling between her legs really worth the effort of a soul?"

Spike tried to land another punch, but Angel caught his arm, spinning him around. Now one hand was against Spike's throat while the other held Spike's arm tight behind his back, pulling it against Angelus' chest. "I forgot. You like to crawl. You'll crawl and beg for any scrap of pity masquerading as affection."

Spike struggled against the hold, but it only served to make Angelus' grip tighter. "Maybe I won't kill you, William. I could make you scream again; the soul might make it even sweeter. We can let Buffy watch; she's into freak shows..."

Knowing no other way, Spike twisted, doing his best to ignore the sensation of breaking bones. As he moved, he kicked out as hard as he could and was rewarded with a howl of pain to match his own as Angelus let go.

***

"Angelus is out there," Wesley observed as the three peered out the window.

"And they think we're still doing the spell." Willow turned and headed for the hall at a run. "Xander!"

Casting an annoyed glance at the retreating Wicca's back, Anya headed for the weapon's chest. "Weapons first, then help."

Flinging the chest open, Anya found it empty. Of course; the weapons were probably in the basement with the potentials. "Damn."

Running for the kitchen, she had some vague intention of grabbing a wooden spoon to use as a stake, but realized that probably wouldn't make Buffy happy. Then she saw it, made a decision, grabbed and ran.

The front door was open and Anya scrambled through it, down the porch steps. Wesley was outside, helping Buffy subdue Connor. Spike was caught in Angelus' grip, only to twist and break free, planning a kick solidly in Angel's groin. Both men howled and staggered apart, Spike cradling his left arm.

Anya saw Buffy loose her grip on Conner and started for Spike even as Angelus tried to regain his breath and made certain Spike hadn't kicked his, well, brain up beyond retrieval. Without hesitating, Anya closed the distance between herself and the vampire. "Angelus!"

His head turned and Anya swung the heavy skillet with all her might, connecting directly with his nose. There was a satisfying "crunch" and he staggered back even further, but not quickly enough to evade another blow.

The pounding of feet announced the arrival of Xander and the potentials. Without looking back, Anya yelled, "Did anyone bring the chains? They would be really useful right now."

Angelus was backing quickly away, a dark mottled pattern already appearing across his nose and lumpies. "Guess the spell didn't work," he managed, though the words came out in gasps. "Hate to fight and run..."

With that, he took off, heading down the street at a speed no human could match.

***

Buffy's first instinct was to check on Spike, but then she Connor move, start to go after Angel. Fighting a rising tide of anger, she tackled him. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"You're letting Angelus get away," he complained, twisting against where she held him on the ground.

She pushed down harder. "Because we're not equipped to deal with him at the moment. We figure out what went wrong and re-group."

"You didn't let me stake him; that's what went wrong."

Did the kid want to be smacked around? Because he sure was asking for it. "No, you went off half-cocked. I'm going to let you up. If you do one more stupid thing, I swear I'll hurt you."

Buffy released him slowly, watching for any sign of trouble. Satisfied he was going to behave for the moment, she turned away to deal with more pressing concerns.

Spike was on his feet, gingerly cradling his arm as Dawn examined it. "What's the verdict?" Buffy asked.

"I think it's broken," Dawn said. "Maybe in more than one place."

"We just splint it up and it'll be better tomorrow evening," Spike assured her. "Vampire healing and all that." Despite the lightness of his voice, the eyes he turned on Buffy were filled with pain. "Maybe we'd better get everyone inside."

She nodded and slipped her arm around his waist, giving what support she could as they headed into the house. As the reached the porch, Xander was looking wonderingly at Anya. "Remind me never to get you mad."

Anya fixed him with a steady glare. "Too late."

She stalked past him and Buffy sighed as Xander looked helplessly after her. A quiet, angst-free evening at home; gee, she'd heard they existed.

***

The house was in chaos for the next hour. Buffy did her best to ignore it, focusing on seeing that Spike's arm was bound up properly and he took the painkiller she delivered with his warm mug of blood. "A fella could get used to this," he told her as she fluffed a small accent pillow and slipped it behind his head.

"I'd prefer I didn't get used to doing this because you got injured," she told him. Buffy had to admit he looked quite comfy in the armchair, his mug in the hand that wasn't supported by the sling. It was amusing to watch him slip so naturally into place in her home.

He smiled up at her. "Feel free to do this then I'm not injured."

The idea of an evening spent snuggled in his lap was tempting, but Buffy knew it wasn't going to happen tonight as Wesley and Willow entered the room, followed by Xander. "Everyone's eating," Xander told her. "Are you going to have something?"

"Soon," she assured him, settling herself on the arm of the chair. "So what happened, Willow? "Why didn't the spell work?"

Willow shrugged. "I don't know. It felt right; the power came at the right time, got all the right reactions. Just...nothing happened. The power was there and then it wasn't."

"This may indicate that Angel's soul is still held within the confines of the Muo-ping," Wesley said. "After the ritual does call for the return of the soul from the ether...and if the soul is entrapped within the Muo-ping, the Ritual of Restoration would not call it forth."

"You couldn't have mentioned that before you started?" Xander asked.

"The Muo-ping is missing," Wesley replied, his voice slightly irritated, as if speaking to a rather slow child. "We had no way of know for certain whether or not it had been destroyed, thus releasing Angel's soul. At least this gives us a reason to hope that it is intact."

"But you have no idea where it is."

Wesley didn't reply, merely looked pained. Turning to Willow, Buffy asked, "Could you do a locator on this mohawk thing?" watching Wesley wince out of the corner of her eye.

"I don't think so...at least, not right away. I'd have to do some research, figure it out."

"Do that. In the mean time, let's do a locator spell on Angel, see if we can find out where he's heading."

"Give me a few minutes to set it up. Er, I'd better get something to protect the floor."

As she left to do her preparations, Buffy focused her attention back on Wesley. "There's one thing you haven't explained yet -- what the hell could be so important you had to call forth Angelus?"

"It's a long story..."

Buffy kept her eyes fixed on him. "I've got time."

"It's not simple, either. We've been coming across a number of signs that a great evil is coming. And, yes, I am talking apocalyptic evil, perhaps so old it doesn't have a name."

His words sent a chill through her body. Beyond him, she saw Xander sit up straight from where he'd flopped on the couch. "Go on."

"We've been doing our best to uncover the purpose behind the Beast, but we've had no luck. There are signs and portents...the sky over Los Angeles has rained fire and currently, we are experiencing eternal night as the Beast performed a ritual which, essentially, swallowed the sun."

"That means full-time playtime for vampires." Xander did not look happy.

"As well as the fact that if this is not remedied soon, plant life will begin to die...and the darkness will spread."

"We haven't heard anything about this. How can they keep this quiet?"

"I don't know what methods Mayor Hahn is using, but he has managed to keep a news blackout on the event. I would suggest Wolfram and Hart was assisting in order to protect the investments of their clients, but the Beast...eliminated them before he swallowed the sun."

"Angelus always did have a passion for destruction," Spike said quietly.

"The problem is that while the Beast approached Angelus at some point in the late eighteenth century, Angelus was not particularly interested in such an alliance."

"But you didn't learn this until Angel lost his soul." Buffy felt the impending-apocalypse-induced headache she'd had last night returning.

"No. We did learn that something or someone has been removing all references to the Beast, both in books and within Angel's mind. At first we thought that it might be done by some minions in the Beast's employ, but Angelus informed us the Beast is himself a servant of a higher, more powerful master."

"Was this before or after you discovered you couldn't restore his soul?" Xander's tone was a bit sarcastic.

"After," Wesley admitted. He looked around then stepped closer to Buffy, lowering his voice. "I'm beginning to fear we might have someone within our midst who is in league with the Beast, helping him with his plans. Such a person would help arrange the removal of the Muo-ping and other such activities."

"Do you have a suspect?"

"I would have preferred not to bring Connor with me because of his ambivalent feelings for Angel; Holtz completely poisoned his mind against Angel during his upbringing and the boy hates his father."

"Can't say that I blame him." At Buffy's look, Spike asked, "What? I put up with him for twenty years. Angelus is a cruel, vicious bastard who delights in inflicting pain on whoever gets in his way."

"Yes, but Angel is not Angelus," Wesley insisted.

"You and I could have a serious debate about that one, mate."

Before the argument could take off, Buffy wrenched the discussion back on topic. "You think Connor is your mole?"

"I think I have reason to suspect him. For one thing, Angel spent his summer at the bottom of Santa Monica Bay. Connor put him there."

This was getting worse by the minute. "So you brought him up here to keep an eye on him. Did you ever stop to think that I might not be particularly thrilled by that idea? I've got a house full of potential slayers that have their own Big Bad after them."

"I realize that now. I didn't then and I didn't have much time to make the decision. Besides, there were...other reasons to remove Connor from Los Angeles, at least temporarily. His absence will make it easier for the other to work."

"So what about when you go back? Doesn't sound like Connor's going to be much help neutralizing Angelus -- unless you substitute 'stake' for 'neutralize.'"

"I realize that...and I realize that you have your own difficulties here in Sunnydale. However, I need you to consider carefully what I'm about to ask you. I want you to come back to Los Angeles with me."



Chapter Seven

"I can't." Buffy's tone was firm. "There's no way I can go running off to Los Angeles."

"I don't think you understand the gravity of the situation," Wesley said.

"Oh, I think I do. Problem is, you don't understand my situation. I have a house filled with potential slayers -- and more on the way, according to Giles -- something big, bad and nasty trying to kill us all, bills to pay and I need to be at work at eight o'clock tomorrow morning. There's no way I can just pick up and leave to help you solve your problem."

"But Angelus..."

"Is dangerous and needs to be stopped. Believe me, I am painfully aware of that fact." Folding her arms across her chest, Buffy began to pace the living room floor. "You say you want me to come to Los Angeles. For how long? Who's going to watch after the girls while I'm gone? What if the First takes the opportunity to strike?"

"What if Angelus allies with the Beast to destroy the world?" Wesley countered.

Silence fell over the room. "God, what if he's right?" Xander asked.

Leave it to Xander to voice exactly what she was thinking. Trying to avoid Wesley, she looked to Spike, hoping he'd offer another opinion. Instead, his expression was almost as grim as Xander's. "He's just mad enough to do it, pet."

Fortunately for Buffy's sanity, Willow returned at that moment, arms filled with the supplies she needed for the locator spell. "I grabbed all the trivets in the kitchen so the floor won't get damaged if the map goes 'poof'...oh, and Anya saved some salad for you, even if she had to fight Kennedy off for the last of it."

Just as she was about to set her supplies down, Willow seemed to notice the tension in the air. "What's wrong?"

"Same as always. Touch decisions." Buffy didn't like how tight her voice sounded. "Let's see if we can find out where Angel is. If he's in Sunnydale, we can come up with a plan, go after him before he skips town."

"And if he's heading back to Los Angeles?" Wesley asked.

"Let's just see where he is first."

With uncharacteristic silence, Willow set up the elements for the spell. Seemed like they'd been doing a lot of these lately, trying to find one thing or another. A few words, some sprinkled powder and whatever it was that fueled Willow's abilities kicked in. Hesitantly at first, then with more strength, a small light began to glow on the map...and it was moving, heading away from Sunnydale with a steady speed. "I believe we can assume Angelus is returning to Los Angeles from this," Wesley said. "Not surprising; the restoration spelling having failed, he is free to pursue other plans."

"And if I was an evil, psychotic, soulless vampire, I'd naturally assume that the people who'd restored my soul before would give up after one attempt." Xander tried to grin. "But, hey, that's just me."

Buffy started to tell him she wasn't in the mood for bad humor, but stopped when Spike spoke. "As much as it pains me to admit Harris might ever be right, he has a point. Last time, when Angelus got wind someone was trying to do the ritual..."

"I know what happened," Buffy said quietly.

"You didn't see what led up to it. You didn't see Angelus going nuts, trying to get every scrap of detail he could out of Dru. That's how he heard, because she had a vision. Then he couldn't be bothered to go track down the information himself; sent Dru to do it. While she was gone, he was like a caged animal, his hands itching to hurt whoever was responsible."

"And you just sat back and let it happen."

If Xander's question was meant to provoke, Spike refused to rise to the bait. "One, evil then. Two, I was sitting in a wheelchair at that point, courtesy of our lovely slayer so I couldn't do much. Three, I hoped the spell would work. Believe it or not, I wasn't particularly eager to have Angelus about and I was hoping that if he got his soul back he'd either run in panic -- which is what he did the first time -- or he'd be disoriented long enough for me to set the minions on him."

"Either one would have worked for me," Xander said cheerfully.

"So you're saying that just because he's going away now, it doesn't mean he won't be back?" Willow sounded worried.

"Not as long as there's a possibility you could restore his soul. He's very patient when he needs to be."

"Which is all the more reason you need to come to Los Angeles," Wesley insisted. "We probably need you as well, Willow. We need to move as quickly as possible."

"We're not moving anywhere tonight," Buffy snapped. "Look, I'll think about it, Wesley. I know time is of the essence, but even if I agree, I've got to make some arrangements before I go. Right now, I need to get some dinner."

She turned before anyone could argue, intending to take the back route to the kitchen and avoid the crowd in the dining room. That included Connor, but there he was, standing in the doorway, looking suspiciously like he'd been listening. "Did you get something to eat?" she asked, figuring it was a good alternative to "what the hell are you doing?"

"Yes." He paused. "Thank you."

At least courtesy wasn't a completely foreign concept. Buffy did her best to smile and move past him. When he said, "You don't have to come," however, she stopped.

"Okay, so clearly you were listening. Why not? Wesley thinks it's important."

We don't need you. I can handle Angelus."

It was a warning; she could hear it in his tone, see it in the lines of his body. "I'm not certain I can just walk away."

"You don't know what it's like down in Los Angeles. You don't know who we are or what we're up against."

"It's bad. I know that much and I know Angel needs my help."

"Why? Because you're the Slayer?"

It was at that moment Buffy realized Connor had no conception of what that might mean or of the history between herself and Angel. "Something like that," she said and headed on into the kitchen."

She was grateful for the plate Anya had made up for her and pulled to stool up to the counter to eat. A thousand thoughts were rushing through her head, all demanding her attention. It wasn't that she was looking for an easy solution -- although being able to find one would be nice -- but there were almost too many considerations to balance.

One of those considerations rushed to the fore and Buffy hopped off her stool to grab the phone. Hopefully, Giles had his cell on.

Luck was with her and Giles answered after the second ring. "Hello?" he said, his voice holding the annoyed note that always crept in when he was forced to use the device.

"Giles, Buffy. How's the potential hunt going?"

"Shall we say that Minneapolis in February is far from the garden spot of the world." There was a sigh on the other end of the line. "I've got the potential and we should be home by the end of the week."

"How many this time?" Buffy's mind was already calculating what they'd need.

"Six...and there may be another group coming soon. The coven is trying to track them down. One piece of good news, though. The lawyers for the Council have been busy and we have gotten some of the funds freed up, so there is money to take care of the girls. They've agreed that your basic household expenses should be paid since you are providing the housing. That includes the property taxes, by the way."

One consideration dealt with...and if the property taxes were covered, that meant taking off from work to solve the Angel problem wouldn't negatively impact them. "You don't know how happy that makes me, Giles. The end of the week, you said?"

"Possibly Thursday, although it could be as late as Saturday."

She hesitated, knowing Giles wasn't delaying unnecessarily. This work was important...but not letting Angelus loose on an unsuspecting populace was important as well. "Can you get back sooner?"

"What's wrong, Buffy? Is it the First?"

Buffy began to recount recent events from Wesley's phone call the night before. Wanting a little privacy, she left her dinner behind and headed out onto the back porch. Giles was quiet while she spoke, save for occasional worried noises. "Wesley's a damn fool," Giles said when she was done. "Always had been. I can't believe he would..."

Buffy heard a sigh. "You do realize his father was killed in the explosion that destroyed the Council."

"No, I didn't know that." Buffy frowned. "He didn't say anything."

"Not surprising. Things weren't particularly good between father and son and I fear his tenure in America made them worse. However, I would not be at all surprised to learn grief may have well impaired his thinking in this matter. Are you considering going to Los Angeles?"

"Yes. I hate leaving at a time like this, but I don't see any other option. I mean, we all know how bad Angelus is...and I'd swear he was almost nastier than I remembered when I saw him. And if I don't go, I don't know what Wesley's going to do, but this Connor is eager to stake him with no thought to even trying to save him."

"I won't tell you it might come to that because I know you know. I will tell you to think carefully. Look, I'll see what I can arrange and call you back. I think I should come back to Sunnydale as soon as possible."

"That's what I was hoping you'd say. Talk to you soon."

She ended the call and leaned against the porch railing, staring off into the darkness. If Giles came back early, there'd be someone here who could act as guardian and teacher while she was gone...not that she could be gone for long. The days when she could go racing off because Angel might be in trouble were over.

When had they ended? With her mother's death, she supposed. Or before that, with that last fight she and Angel had had over the way he'd handled Faith.

Dawn could stay with Amanda, or Xander could be persuaded to stay at the house until Giles got back...not that he spent much time at his place these days. The biggest worry was whether or not Principal Wood would let her disappear for a week. He was up to something, she was convinced of it. The problem was to figure out what it was and heading to Los Angeles would delay her efforts in those directions. Actually, if he didn't offer any objections to her going, that might be an indication he was up to something evil and wanted her out of the way.

That wasn't the biggest problem, though, as reluctant as she was to admit it. The biggest worry she had about traipsing off to Los Angeles was...

"Hey."

Spike's voice was soft and she sensed rather than heard him step onto the back porch. Shifting so her back was against the railing, she smiled at him as he drew closer. "Hey."

His uninjured hand reached out to caress her cheek before he leaned in to kiss her. "I've been wanting to do that all day," he told her once the kiss was over, offering his own smile.

"Wish you'd done it earlier." She slipped her arms around him, letting her head rest on his chest. "I just want this to all go away."

"Wish I could make that happen for you. You don't need more trouble."

They stood there quietly for a while, a brief moment of peace in the chaos that surrounded them. "You're thinking of going," he said at last.


"Yes.." She sighed. "I wish I didn't have to, but I know what he's capable of and..."

"Ssh. I understand."

Buffy didn't argue, just closed her eyes. It felt good to have this, one person for whom she didn't always have to put on the "yes, we're going to beat this" mask. "God, I'm going to miss you while I'm gone."

"Um, what do you mean 'miss'?"

Reluctantly, she lifted her head to find him looking down at her. She knew that look. It was the one he always got before he pointed out the flaw in her plans. "If you're going to Los Angeles, I want to come with you," he said.

"I don't think that's a good idea," she said, pulling away.

"And sending you down there by yourself into a situation you don't have the full details on -- and I know you think Wesley is still hiding things -- is a good idea?"

She didn't have an answer and he pressed on. "One of the reasons Wesley wants you to come down there is because you know Angelus better than the lot of them...but I know him better than you do. I spent nearly twenty years in his company, Buffy. He's the one who taught me to hunt and kill; in that sense, he's as much my Sire as Dru is."

His eyes were earnest and his words made sense, but opened avenues she didn't want to consider...and something that had been niggling at the back of her head since earlier that evening. "Spike, what he said...about making you scream..."

Buffy regretted the words the instant they were out of her mouth, as she saw the flash of something very unpleasant wash across Spike's face. "Let's just say that for Angelus, every action, every word, every pleasure is about power. I had that lesson brought home rather forcefully several times. I wasn't the most obedient of fledglings. Almost drove him to stake me more than once."

She shivered and turned away, her mind painting mental images despite her best efforts. It didn't help that she knew they were probably far milder than actual fact. Behind her, she heard Spike grumbling, and then both his arms slipped around her. "Your arm..."

"The damn sling was getting in the way. Can't hold onto you with it." He tugged her back against him. "I'm not saying you can't take care of yourself, but I'd feel better if I was there to watch your back. You'd have someone you could trust."

"Willow's going to be with me."

"And Willow is good in a fight how? Besides, she's going to be busy getting Peaches back his soul so he isn't a danger to the rest of us...and you don't have to worry about what he's doing."

She didn't miss the defensive note in his voice. There was a quagmire she really didn't want to go near...her Angel issues, Spike's Angel issues, their Angel issues."

"Besides, if I don't go, you know I'll just spend the time chained to the wall in the basement."

"I'm not going to let you..."

"You won't be here," he reminded her. "I'll ask Harris to lock me up; you know he won't say no."

Buffy could just imagine Xander's glee at such as request. "So that's it? I take you with me or you have yourself locked up?"

He gave an exasperated sigh. "I'm just saying I would feel better if you didn't go in alone. Too many unknowns."

"I haven't even decided I'm going." She shifted in his arms to face him. "There's still everything here and Giles doesn't know when he can get back and..."

She didn't object when he stopped the flow of her words. This still seemed the way they communicated best; not words, but a look, a glance, a touch...a kiss. She could feel herself calming, the panic and stress receding momentarily. They parted, foreheads resting against each other. God, wouldn't it be nice to be able to stand here like this and not be worrying about an impending apocalypse for once?

"Buffy?"

Wesley's voice was an unwanted intrusion and she merely shifted just enough so she could see him standing in the doorway to the house, unwilling to move from Spike's embrace. "Sorry if I intruded," he says, sounding much more like the jittery watcher she'd known in high school than he had at any point since his arrival. "I wanted to let you know that I've called Los Angeles, warned them Angelus is heading back down there. Lorne's going to do a protection spell on the hotel, see if he can't keep them from being attacked."

Realizing duty called, even if only to give Wesley her attention, Buffy straightened, though she let herself lean back against Spike's chest. "So you're heading back?"

"Have you made your decision?"

"What if I decide not to come?" Spike was right. She needed to know as much as possible before committing herself here.

Wesley frowned. "We need someone with a Slayer's abilities to handle Angelus; I don't think there's any argument about that. Unfortunately, I'm very much afraid we're now on a hunt rather than a retrieval mission unless Willow can come up with a solution or we find the Muo-ping. If you choose not to come...well, there's always Faith."

"Faith's in prison." He couldn't possibly be suggesting...

"For the moment."

Oh, god, he was. Worse, Buffy suddenly had the horrid certainty that Wesley -- weasely, wobbly, wishy-washy Wesley -- might actual try to break Faith out. "I'll decide tomorrow," she told him, suddenly feeling very trapped.

Wesley smiled, which didn't make her feel any better. "Thank you. And thank you for your hospitality. I think I'll coral Connor and suggest we catch some sleep. It's been a rather tiring day."

When Wesley was out of hearing range, Spike commented, "There are reasons vampires hate watchers...and it's not just because they set Slayers on them."

"He's only doing what he feels is necessary...and why am I making excuses? He's maneuvering, trying to force me to agree to go down there."

"Tell you a secret." Spike's voice was close to her ear. "The 'must make excuses for wankers' imperative was added to the Slayer package about three and a half centuries ago." When she twisted her neck to look up at him, she found he was smirking. "Seriously. Whole big ceremony, calling upon stodgy and boring spirits who didn't like girls to have any spunk. I met a vampire, who met a vampire, who knew a demon who'd heard it from his fifth cousin twice removed whose neighbor had been there."

Buffy had to laugh despite herself. "What am I going to do with you?"

"Make me happy by finishing your supper, then we can retire upstairs to give you a chance to talk to Willow and Anya about what they think went wrong. After that..."

He nuzzled her neck, enough to make her giggle and hurry back inside to finish her meal.

***

"So, just...nothing?" Buffy and Willow sat on one side of the bed, with Anya seated in the chair at Buffy's desk. Spike took up the other half of the bed, his eyes closed as he lay back against the pillows, though several comments throughout the discussion proved he was still awake.

Willow shook her head. "No connection, no indication that the soul was even there. Even if it was trapped inside this Muo-ping, I should have felt something."

"Then there's the information we managed to get out of Wesley about the spell they tried previously," Anya said. "There's no way it should have worked. The incantation's really nothing; just begs the soul to return but doesn't summon up any serious power of the kind one would need to return a soul to a vampire's body -- especially one that's being forcibly held in a mystic container."

"The whole ritual set up reeks of dark magics," Willow continued, picking up the tale, "the type one would most definitely not use if one was trying to accomplish a good act."

"And returning a vampire's soul is considered a good act?" Buffy asked.

"Depends on whose point of view," Spike interjected. "My demon doesn't object...save for a bit of whining and complaining here and there. Angelus takes a rather different perspective."

"Besides, it's not like a vampire is supposed to have his soul. It's vengeance magic; the cursed vampire is supposed to feel pain and remorse for his actions." Anya seemed rather calm and businesslike about the matter.

"Happens even when it's not a curse." Spike's voice was starting to sound a little sleepy. Once they'd gotten upstairs, Buffy had convinced him to take another painkiller. She'd seen the way he'd winced when his arm moved the wrong way or too quickly.

Willow must have noticed it too because she silently gestured toward him with her head, her eyes questioning Buffy if they should leave. Buffy shook her head, knowing she needed some more information. "So this spell wasn't powerful enough or of the right type, yet it apparently fooled...Lorne, wasn't it?...into believing Angelus had a soul."

"Someone could have done a glamour, made it look like Angel had his soul back long enough for him to escape." Willow was starting to look a bit eager. "I wonder what type of spell you'd use."

"Or Lorne could have lied, said he saw a soul when he didn't. Much easier than casting a glamour," Anya insisted.

"But Lorne didn't cast the spell," Willow countered. "Wesley did."

"With the incantation and instructions provided by Cordelia. I think we have three suspects...Wesley, Cordelia and Lorne."

Willow rolled her eyes. "Cordelia's not competent enough to..."

The rest of her words were cut off by a cross between a snort and a snore. All three women froze, and then turned their heads to look at the source. Spike was laying quite still, the very picture of a vampire at repose. Then, ever so slightly, his chest moved up then down and Buffy was certain she must have imagined the slight exhalation of breath. No more movement for another minute and then his chest moved again, though not so smoothly this time, producing yet another of those strange noises.

"Did you know Spike snored?" Willow asked.

"No." Buffy broke out in a grin. "Oh, I can use this."

Willow started to giggle but quickly smothered it behind her hand. This time, Buffy did shoo her off the bed. "I'd better get Prince Charming settled for the night," she told the others. "So I need to watch for Wesley, Cordelia and Lorne. Just great. This is going to be such a fun trip."

"So what time are we taking off tomorrow?" At Buffy's questioning look, Willow added, "Well, you just practically said you were going."

"Late afternoon, evening. I've got to clear the time off with Principal Wood. Either that, or trust Dawn to invent another bout of stomach flu." She was about to mention that Spike wanted to come with them, but opted not to, instead saying good night to Anya as she headed down the hall.

Willow lingered a little, looking past Buffy toward the sleeping form on the bed. "So...are you happy? Is it all of the good?"

Instinctive defensives started to go up, but Buffy relaxed when she didn't see condemnation in Willow's eyes. "It's good. There were times I didn't think it would be, but...it's good to have him here. Real good. How about you and Kennedy?"

Here there was a stammer and a bit of a blush. "We're good, too. I didn't think I could...but, yeah, it's good."

With that, Willow headed down the hall to her room where Kennedy was undoubtedly waiting. Closing the door, Buffy wondered how the potential would take to the idea of Willow departing for Los Angeles for several days. Based on previous experience, probably not well.

Spike was still stretched out, his eyes closed. Buffy had insisted the boots be removed before he laid down, but he was otherwise dressed. Circling around to his side, she sat down on the edge of the mattress and gently laid a hand on his chest. "Spike?"

For a moment, nothing happened, and then one blue eye begrudgingly opened. "Are they gone?"

"They're gone. Why don't we get you undressed and under the covers?"

He let her help him sit up and slip his t-shirt over his head, trying to do the same to her but his reaction time was slightly off. "Sorry about that, luv. Should have more enthusiasm for our second night, but..."

With his pants off, Buffy pulled back the covers so he could slide under them. "What you should do is sleep, let that arm heal. I know it's your normal up and about hours, but you need your rest. Can't take you to LA if that arm's going to give you trouble."

Settling himself, Spike sighed, sounding suspiciously content. "So we're going?"

"Yes, we're going. With the Muo-ping missing and the only people who could have interfered with the spell or lied about Angel having his soul being Wesley, Cordelia and Lorne..."

Spike opened his eyes again. "You said Muo-ping."

Buffy tucked the covers about him. "So?"

"Every time you use the word around Wesley, you mangle it horribly."

She shrugged. "I wondered if that trick would drive him as crazy as it did in high school."

He caught her hand with his and brought it to his mouth. "My slayer, still showing the watchers their place."

The compliment made her warm a little. "You sleep," she scolded gently. "I'll be back in a few minutes."

It didn't take long to make certain all was well downstairs and to complete her evening ritual. Lights out, she was grateful to curl up next to Spike. Snuggling was difficult as she was afraid of hurting his arm, but it was nice to have him there and she let his presence provide comfort as she drifted off, doing her best not to dream of disappearing suns, mystic rituals and old friends who might not be what they appeared.



Chapter Eight

"A week." Principal Wood didn't look particularly happy. "You want to take a week off."

"Not a whole week. I'm here today," Buffy pointed out. "Just the rest of it."

This was why slayers shouldn't have regular, full-time jobs because there was no company or organization in the world that was going to provide enough leave time to handle demon uprisings or apocalypses. She recognized the look on the principal's face; her supervisor at the Doublemeat Palace had started to get that look shortly before Buffy quit. "I realize you're not a full-time employee, Buffy, but your job is important and the work you do is valuable."

"And I wouldn't be asking for time off if I didn't need it. It's just that I need to meet with my father about some stuff on my mom's estate. He's the executor and since I'm Dawn's guardian..." And bless you, Spike, for coming up with this excuse for me and explaining what an executor was in case he asked.

"Your mother didn't make you her executor? I would think with your parent's divorce and..."

"Her illness was unexpected. She didn't have time to make the changes and the will was drawn up before I came of age." Okay, so some of Spike's phrasing sounds really Victorian, but I don't remember telling Principal Wood about my parent's divorce. Unless Dawn did. Or unless he read about it in my file. And why would he read my file anyway? Didn't it get blown up when we took out the school?

Wood frowned, shifting through some papers on his desk. "A week, you say."

"I should be back at my desk bright eyed and bushy tailed on Monday," she promised cheerfully.

"You're sure your father won't persuade you to stay longer? I get the feeling it's been a while since you've seen him."

"No, I think I'll have had all the family togetherness I can handle by then." And ghosts of high school past. "I'll probably be eager to come back."

"Well...if it's family business...and we are supposed to be 'family friendly...I suppose I can spare you. If you think you can get back earlier, give me a call before you come in. That way I can make sure any files you need are back on your desk."

Or make certain I hide the shovels before you run into me while I'm carrying them from my evil, secret, evil purpose, Buffy mentally supplied. "Thanks," she said before heading for her desk.

She was pretty sure he wasn't monitoring her conversations, but Buffy still waited until Wood was safely out of the office before she called home. "Willow? Pack your bags; we're heading for LA tonight."

***

Buffy had asked Willow to arrange things, let Wesley know they were coming and tell Anya there were going to be fewer mouths to feed for a few days. The call from Anya letting Buffy know Giles had called back and would be in Tuesday afternoon had unfortunately come just as Wood showed up at her desk, but Buffy managed to get the information without letting the possibly-evil-though-still-undetermined principal realize what was happening. With Giles coming in tomorrow, that meant all Xander and Anya had to do was hold things together tonight. Kennedy would put the girls through their paces tomorrow as she often did during the daytime training, so things would, with luck, hold together.

They'd already fallen apart by the time Buffy got home after school.

"I don't understand why I can't go," Kennedy was insisting to Willow as Buffy walked in the door. You need someone to watch out for you."

"I can assure you I am perfectly capable of seeing that Willow is kept safe while she's in Los Angeles," Wesley said in that voice guaranteed to win friends and influence slayers. "I wasn't under the impression that anyone but Buffy and Willow were going."

Kennedy jerked her thumb over to where Spike was sitting. "He's going."

At that, Wesley turned toward Buffy. "Do you really think that's a good idea?"

This wasn't the time or the place, but she knew she wasn't going to be able to actually avoid the conversation. "He knows Angelus. Hunted with him. He's coming."

Perhaps Wesley was just glad she'd come along and he wouldn't have to do his version of the Great Escape to get his hands on a slayer. Maybe he realized the rightness of her point. Either way, he didn't argue.

Kennedy, on the other hand, was more than willing to take up the slack. "So you're taking him; I should go to look out for Willow. I mean, you two are going to be on the move most of the time, trying to track this guy down."

Buffy was about to object, tell her that she was needed here when she saw the tightening of Wesley's lips. "Okay, Kennedy. You're on Willow patrol. Get packed because we're going to be moving out soon."

She started to turn away, head for the stairs and do her own packing, only to be followed by Wesley's complaint. "I must protest. This is a serious mission, not a field trip. I see the reasoning behind your decision to Spike, but to bring an untrained girl along is..."

With a wear sigh, Buffy turned back. "Is it going to be like this the whole time, Wesley? 'Cause if it is, I could just as easily stay here and listen to everyone else moan and complain. You said you needed a slayer to track down Angelus and you needed Willow to help you locate and return Angel's soul. Guess what? We get to pick our own team."

She didn't wait for his answer, but headed upstairs to pack. Spike joined her a minute later. "Great exit, luv, but it did deprive you of the expression on his face when you walked out."

"I have a feeling I can guess. Like he'd had a pickled lemon?"

"Pretty good description." He lounged on the bed, watching as she packed jeans and tops into her duffel bag. "I'll wager he'll want to drive; he's got one of those sodding SUVs. Not a small one like yours, but one of those big monsters."

"That reminds me; I need to clear out the back of the car, make certain it's empty."

"Why? Thinking of sticking someone in the trunk? Not that it has a proper truck, just a space behind the back seat with a cover on it."

"A cover which keeps out sunlight because I seriously doubt the tint on my windows will do the job."

She packed two more jeans and waited for him to react. "You're going to put me in the trunk?"

"We could take the DeSoto if you think it'll make it to LA. Not the greatest mode of transportation, but the windows are blacked out."

Spike mumbled something incomprehensible. "What did you say?" she asked.

"I said I don't have it anymore. I sold it last spring. Needed the money to get me to Africa."

Buffy sat down next to him and took his hands. She didn't know how to respond because the whole getting a soul for her scared her silly and the idea he'd sold his beloved junk heap to pay for the trip only made it worse. "We'll wait until the sun goes down," she said at last, "and I'll make sure there's a blanket in the car just in case. That's why I'm going to make certain the back's cleaned out -- just in case. If possible, I want you up front with me."

Spike smiled back at her. "No place I'd rather be."

She spared a few moments from packing to just sit with him, but all too soon she had to return to the task at hand. "How's the arm?"

"Better," he admitted. "I did like you told me this morning; got my blood and rested. Should be okay by tomorrow. Keeping it wrapped helps."

"Who'd ever think those adjustable casts would have so many households uses?"

"Well, there's a metal bar in here that would give someone a nice surprise if I popped them in the nose with it."

"Which is a standard need for most households." She shoved the last piece of clothing into the bag and zipped it closed. "Ready to hit the road when you are."

***

Spike had been right; Wesley suggested that it might be "safer" if they all piled into his SUV which, he pointed out, had windows that were tinted dark enough to accommodate a vampire during the day. Buffy stood her ground, however, and once the sun had set, two vehicles set out from Revello Drive.

Buffy had also stood her ground with Spike and was doing the driving at the point, leaving Spike to the front passenger seat, cast still wrapped around his arm despite his claims he didn't need it, while Willow and Kennedy took up the back. "Any more thought to what went wrong last night?" Buffy asked once they'd safely maneuvered onto the freeway.

"When I talked to Wesley, he said that they'd discovered the Orb wasn't supposed to work if the soul's contained in the Muo-ping. In fact, it mentioned that specifically."

"Which begs the question why he came hauling up here," Spike commented. "If he knew the spell wouldn't work..."

"Why did he want Willow to do it?" Buffy sighed. "I can't believe Wesley's in league with this beast-creature. I mean, he screams like a girl at the sight of danger."

"And the sight of blood," Willow amended.

"I wouldn't dismiss him so lightly." Spike shifted in his seat, reaching out a hand to fiddle with the radio controls and deciding against it. "I know you don't have the highest opinion of him, but there's something there you're overlooking."

"Like the fact that he's dangerous?" Kennedy interjected. "He was watching us work out today and it was like he was weighing and considering each of us, making sure we were up to standards."

"Well, he was a watcher; it's not surprising he'd be interested to see what we're doing."

Glancing in the rearview mirror, Buffy could see Kennedy give Willow a look that said she didn't buy that. "How closely was he watching you?" she asked, suddenly feeling a bit worried.

"Very closely. If he wasn't on our side, I'd wonder if he was trying figure out our weaknesses."

And Wesley wasn't telling them everything and was one of three people who could have messed with the first attempt to return Angel's soul. In fact, Wesley was the only person who'd been at both attempts to return the soul. And he'd been the one to get the shaman who'd done the deed in the first place.

"You're being awfully quiet, luv."

She kept her eyes on the road...and the dark SUV just ahead of them. "I'm beginning to wonder just how much Wesley hasn't told us...and just what we're going to find waiting when we get to Los Angeles."

***

The hotel was exactly what Spike would expect from Angel: large, impressive and clearly compensating for something. "I'd love to know how he swung the deed for this one," he commented as they pulled into the parking garage, a small outcropping at the back of the hotel that housed a handful of vehicles.

"Anyone else live here?" Buffy asked Willow as they got out of the car. "I mean, I know Angel likes room to move around in, but this is ridiculous."

"I don't think anyone else lives here, but the last time I came down, I wasn't really paying attention. It was just after...you know."

God, it was over a year and they were all still dancing around that topic, Spike though, himself included. A dark spot in their lives that kept popping up at unpleasant intervals.

It was Wesley who rescued the conversation, ushering them toward a gate that led into a walled garden. "At the moment, most of us are living here during the crisis," he explained. "When we're not waiting for the world to end, Fred and Lorne are the usual residents...along with Angel, of course."

Spike didn't miss the fact Connor was apparently not a regular resident at the hotel. Had to give the kid credit for some backbone; it was doubtful Angel would willingly loose his hold on such miracle child, even if he was a sulky brat.

Wesley led them through a glass door trimmed with blackened steel set in a deco design and into a two-story lobby that must have been the height of elegance in its day. Now, it offered an air of genteel poverty, as if those that cared for it wanted to keep it up but were fighting a losing battle.

All these impressions flashed by in a second, passing thoughts as they paused on the steps leading down into the lobby and took in the committee that waited to greet them. Only one face was familiar to Spike, and that one twisted with anger when she saw him.

"What is he doing here?" Cordelia demanded, taking a step forward. "I thought you were going to get Willow."

"I did get Willow, as you might notice," Wesley said, more than a touch of tension in his voice. "We tried the restoration spell but it didn't work, so I thought it might be of use to call in reinforcements."

"Spike is not 'reinforcements.'" The words were practically spat out. "He's more likely to side with Angelus than anything. Oh, that's right. You weren't here the last time Spike came to visit, when he tortured Angel to find the Gem of Amarra."

Having dealt with Wesley, Cordelia turned her ire on Buffy. "You agreed to this. All this talk about how Angel is the love of your life and there'll never be anyone else and you enlist the person he probably hates most in the entire world to help you?"

He knew he shouldn't, knew he should stay quiet and play along, let Buffy and Wesley handle it, but the soul hadn't really given him any discretion when it came to irritants. "And it's lovely to see you as well, Cordelia. Are the blond streaks new?"

This time she didn't fall for the ruse, just narrowed her eyes like she was considering staking him where he stood. "Get out."

"He's here to help," Buffy said, her voice tight. "I stay, he stays."

"Have a nice trip back to Sunnydale." Cordelia turned on her heel and stalked away toward what had likely once been the front desk. Connor followed her, loping down the stairs with all the eagerness of a puppy following its mother. No, that wasn't right; given the way he tried to close the gap between them, you'd think he...

Spike shook his head. Wild-ass speculation wasn't going to do them any good at the moment. There were more pressing matters at hand.

One of those pressing matters was the tall black man who stepped forward, eying them suspiciously. "So, you going to introduce our guests?" he asked Wesley. "I know Willow and I'm betting the blond is the infamous Buffy."

The dark haired woman who stood close to him, but not too close, suddenly brightened. "You're Buffy?" she chirped. "Hi, I'm Fred."

Before anyone could object, Fred was coming forward to shake hands, offering the first genuine words of welcome they'd heard since arriving. "I've heard so much about you," she told Buffy. "I mean, Angel was all broken up when you were dead...is it okay if I say 'dead'?"

"I've kind of gotten used to it," Buffy admitted.

"Willow, hi. Good to see you again...not that I really saw you the last time you were here as I'd just come back from Pylea so I was a bit overwhelmed, but Wesley's told me you're like us, a scholar and all that. How do you do both magic and science? My specialty's physics, but I'm afraid the magic stuff just gives me a headache."

Willow looked a bit like she was going to drown in the enthusiasm. "I, um, er...this is Kennedy. She's a potential slayer."

Kennedy was shoved forward and subjected to the torrent. "Potential slayer? That's kind of neat. How do you get to be one? Do you apply or is it some mystical choosing thing?"

For once, Kennedy looked a bit thrown. "I, uh, was chosen. My watcher's been training me for years."

Fred nodded, still smiling and taking it all in as she turned to Spike. "Hi."

Caught, Spike wasn't certain what else to do. "Uh, hi."

The moment she shook his hand, he saw the change in her expression. "You're a vampire."

"He's here to help," Wesley quickly assured her.

"Like hell he is," the black man argued. "The last thing we need at this point is another vampire. There's enough running around outside; we don't need to import them."

"Spike is uniquely qualified to help us with Angelus, Gunn. They have...a history together."

"Like what? Killing and maiming? He's a vamp! They're bad -- or have you forgotten that fact?"

"No, but there's also the fact Spike has a soul."

Gunn looked appropriately skeptical. "Say what?"

"I know, it sounds unbelievable, but Buffy has assured me that there are now, indeed, two souled vampires. Well, only one at the moment, but once we restore Angel, there will be two."

"And why should I believe you? I mean, your track record hasn't been so hot. Misreading prophecies, coming up with brilliant ideas like taking away Angel's soul...how do we know this vampire isn't going to go nuts and try to make a snack out of all of us?"

Thoughts of the trigger danced unwanted in Spike's head. That was their secret, the thing they hadn't mentioned to Wesley. Given the hostility here, there was no way Spike was going to mention it or stray far from Buffy's side.

"This is getting us nowhere," Buffy said suddenly, arms crossed over her chest. "Wesley asked us to help and that's what we're here to do. If you don't want us, we have our own crisis back home that we need to deal with."

She made her way down the steps, stopping directly in front of Gunn, head tilted back as she looked up at him. "I came here because I know how bad Angelus is; I've dealt with him before. I've killed him before. Willow's the one who restored his soul last time. Spike spent twenty years with him and probably knows Angelus' mind better than the rest of us...which is just one of the reason he hates him so much. We want to figure out where Angelus is and contain him until Willow can find a way to put his soul back. We think we can do that...but it's not going to happen if we just standing here listening to some macho pissing contest about who's in charge."

Spike knew the grin Willow shot him was echoed on his own face. In a few minutes, they'd know if they were staying or not. He could see the struggle on Gunn's face and knew exactly what look Buffy was giving the man, the one that could quell a vampire at thirty paces. He also realized Gunn knew they needed help.

"He makes a move toward my neck..." Gunn said at last, clearly trying not to abdicate all of his dignity and control.

"Spike won't," she assured him. "If he does, I'll stake him."

"Yeah, if I don't get to him first."

"I said I would stake him. No one else. That clear?"

Gunn opted to back down on this one, though he didn't look happy about it. Clearly, here was someone who'd need watching.

The question of who was in charge having been settled for the moment, the last of the welcoming committee elegantly slid off the stool on which he'd been seated and came forward to meet them, a martini glass still clutched in his hand. "Hi, I'm Lorne. So you're Buffy. I've always wanted to meet the girl who made Angel like 'Mandy.'"

Buffy didn't look like she necessarily thought that was a compliment at all, but Lorne was off and running, happily babbling greetings to Willow and Kennedy. "Lorne reads auras," Wesley explained. "He can sense people's futures, help them along their paths."

"Sort of like tea leaves, only more fun." The green demon didn't reach out to shake Spike's hand immediately, instead looking him over with more than a little curiosity. "You know, Sweetcheeks has told me something of his past and I think I remember where you fit in. Drusilla's your sire, isn't she?"

Add that name to Angel's as one Spike didn't need to hear for a while. He was about to tell Lorne he was correct when Gunn piped up. "You know that crazy bitch?"

Spike almost moved in reflex, angered by the dismissive contempt in the man's voice. He caught himself, though, realizing it would serve no purpose other than to start a fight...something which was clearly a common occurrence with this group, given the amount of tension he was sensing. Even the affable Lorne (who was on their short list of suspicious characters, Spike reminded himself) exuded tension. Whatever was dividing this group, it was a good bet the problems didn't start with Angelus. "I know her quite well," he managed to reply with a modicum of civility. "We were together for almost one hundred and twenty years. Look, is there somewhere we can stash our kit so we can get to work?"

Again, it was Fred who did the polite thing, leading them upstairs and sorting rooms for them. Lorne trailed along, explaining, "I think the boys have some things they want to work out. Best leave them to it."

Fred didn't say a word, but her lips thinned. Here too were things omitted, not spoken of. Things of the heart, perhaps? Whatever it was, Angelus must have had a field day before he escaped.

"I'd love to read you," Lorne told Spike as Fred led them down a corridor. "Call it professional curiosity. Never thought I'd meet one souled vampire, much less two. I wonder what differences there are."

"Mine's anchored; his isn't." Ahead, Fred was discussing sleeping arrangements with the girls, how many rooms they'd need and all that. He knew Kennedy was going to insist she bunk with Willow, but part of him was betting that Buffy might hesitate at sharing a room with him under Angel's roof. He was sure of her, he really was, but he also knew how much the Poof's opinion still meant to her.

"There's a curse Angel would like to know about. Certainly solve a number of his brooding problems if he wasn't always worried that a little bit of happiness might bring Angelus forth. When this is all over, maybe you could give him the number..."

The women had rounded the corner, leaving the two men alone in the corridor. Spike turned on Lorne. "Listen, greeny. The soul's mine. It's not a curse; I won it and it's not going anywhere. Angel wants to get off his fat, brooding ass and go get his anchored, he can come ask me, but I'm not volunteering information."

Lorne backed up a step or two, his eyes growing a bit wide. "Calm down, cheesecake. I'm on your side."

"Really? We've barely met; how can you make that statement?"

"Because you're here fighting the good fight, trying to put Angel's soul back where it belongs instead of being at home snuggling with your slayer honey. Oh, didn't need to read your aura to figure that one out. You two have this electricity thing going between you, likely to fry anyone who tries to interfere." Understanding dawned on Lorne's face. "And she is Angel's ex-squeeze, so you're none too happy about the idea of her being around him -- especially since none of the things Angel's told me about you are flattering."

"Which again begs the question: what makes you think you're on my side?"

Spike took a step forward, but this time Lorne stood his ground. "Because I'm a sucker for guys who wear their heart on their sleeve. Didn't need to read your aura to know that, either. It's obvious. She's your whole world and you're worried that she'll slip from your grasp, that you won't measure up."

"Spike?"

Buffy had come back around the corridor, looking a bit concerned. "Fred's shown me our room. You coming?"

Our room. Despite his best efforts, he felt a strange hitching in his chest he'd swear had to have been his heart. "Be right with you."

Turning back to Lorne, he admitted. "You're right. The whole world."



Chapter Nine

Can't a guy get a bite to eat in this town? Nothing but leftovers and pig's blood as far as the eye can see.

Angelus was beginning to think eternal night might not be such a good idea after all. The humans stupid enough to roam the streets had all been eaten and the rest were locked up tight in their homes. That left him with a choice of corpses and half-dead victims who'd had all the best stuff sucked out of them or a demon bar where he could indulge in his other favorite liquid vice, alcohol. It wasn't really a choice.

The bar wasn't really his choice, either; merely the only one he could find with open doors and activity. No human, just vampires with a smattering of other demons, but his cash was still good at the bar. He considered ordering blood, but looked around and decided that might not be the brightest of ideas. Lord knows where they got it...if they even had any. Whiskey was much safer and he'd always enjoyed a bit of a buzz when he went hunting.

At least he was able to drink undisturbed, which was a relief. He'd been half-expecting -- half hoping for -- one of the vampires to challenge him on his presence. After all, that's what happened to silly soul boy when he walked into a bar. Angel, Champion of the Powers that Be, cursed to brood through the centuries. Helper of the helpless. What was that Spike had said once? Oh, yeah. Vampire ballerina. Suited the souled git down to a "t".

The thought of Spike brought to mind unpleasant and unwelcome developments. He should have followed his instincts years ago and staked him when the irritating fledgling had first opened his mouth. But, no, he had to give in to Drusilla's pleadings about how she needed her "brave knight." At the time, it seemed easier to let her have her way, leave her with something to occupy herself and simply take a harsher hand disciplining weepy William, try to turn the boy into something that wouldn't be an embarrassment.

His first instinct had been right. If he'd staked Spike then, Drusilla would have wept and cried for a few weeks, perhaps even a month, but Angelus could have found her a new plaything. He hadn't, though, and now Spike had gone and gotten himself a soul in what was undoubtedly a grand, sweeping romantic gesture. And it had definitely been Spike, none of this "two separate beings" crap...although Angelus had to admit he and the soul didn't share the same agenda.

Angelus signaled the bartender for a refill. Now he had a problem. He wasn't foolish enough to think Buffy would stay quietly in Sunnydale with the knowledge of his presence. Despite her whining about duty and responsibility interfering with her "real life", the girl had an irritating devotion to her calling. She was likely on her way down to LA, if not here already and Spike would be trailing in her wake just as he'd always trailed after Drusilla.

Buffy he could handle; it was unlikely she'd find allies within Angel Investigations given how fractured the group was. He'd just have to find a way to keep her off balance. Pity Angel hadn't paid more attention to reports from Sunnydale; the information would have come in handy. The thing with Spike must be relatively new. Angelus couldn't imagine Cordelia passing up the chance to blacken Buffy in Angel's eyes. The stupid girl didn't realize how transparent she was in her efforts to knock Angel's shining love off her pedestal...or that the big lug was already besotted with her.

Visions of what he could do to the two women danced through his head, adding its own delightful kick to the whiskey. Slayer blood was sweet and if he had his way, Angelus fully intended to taste Buffy again. Oh, there was a scenario with possibilities. Spike had decided he could move in on Angelus' territory, start fighting for the right along side his lady love? Good. It'd make his suffering all the more amusing as he watched Angelus at play.

Angelus was about to drink to this most satisfying plan when his space was invaded by a vampire bellying up to the bar. "Another beer with blood chaser," the arrival called out with an annoying Midwest twang.

Beaming broadly, he decided to include Angelus in his good humor. "Is this town great or what? I mean, I always though of coming to Los Angeles, but never dreamed I'd actually make it."

"So you're a tourist?" Angelus cast a glance at the clotted remains in the shot glass the vamp had dropped on the bar. He'd been right to choose the whiskey.

"Yeah, I was in Las Vegas, doing a little gambling, a little hunting, when I heard about the sun getting swallowed up. That's when I said, 'Herb, you've always wanted to see Hollywood. Here's your chance.' Now that I'm here, I think I may settle. Beats the hell out of Wichita, especially in February."

Angelus set his glass down with a bang. "Just great. It's not enough that every year the people freezing their asses off back east watch the students at the Rose Bowl dancing around with their tops off singing 'Tequila' and decide they have to move out here. No, now we've got to get vampires saying, 'Gee, there's no sun in LA at the moment; let's go!' The freeways are too crowded as it is."

Herb looked a bit surprised. "Uh, well, sorry you feel that way..."

"Aw, hell. Now you're apologizing? What is wrong with the younger generation? When I was sired, the first thing I learned was that you didn't apologize for anything because it was a sign of weakness. Unless you pissed off your sire, in which case you'd better grovel fast or she might..."

Quick as lightning, Angelus reached out and twisted off Herb's head. There was a "pop" followed by a shower of dust. A silence settled over the room. The bartender sighed, picked up the beer and blood chaser he'd just set down and moved on to another customer.

Satisfied he could finish his whiskey in peace, Angelus settled back onto his stool. "Stupid tourists."

Slowly, the noise level returned to normal as conversations resumed. Angelus was about to flag down the bartender for a third whiskey when a snippet of conversation caught his ear. "Big thing it was, all horns and...well, I wouldn't call them scales, more like some type of crust that serves as skin."

Angelus joined the group without waiting for an invitation. "And where did you see this beast?"

The vampires drew back, fear written across their faces. "Downtown," stammered out the one who'd spoken. "Near Los Angeles and Fifth."

Fear was good. So nice to see he hadn't lost his touch. "How long ago?"

"Not long, maybe an hour or so." The vampire looked nervously about him. If he was hoping for help from his companions, it didn't look like it'd be forthcoming soon.

For a moment, Angelus considered tearing off the vampire's head on general principles, but decided not to exert himself. Instead, he headed for the door, intent on paying his "old friend" a visit.

***

Tensions had only gotten worse as they made their preparations for the hunt. Wesley and Gunn were busy ignoring one another (except for the occasional quick glare) and Fred wasn't looking at either of them (save for worried glances each time one glared). Cordelia would talk to Gunn, Wesley and Willow, but not Buffy or Spike (Kennedy didn't seem to even appear on her radar). Connor kept his eyes on Cordelia and answered any question with monosyllables. Lorne did his best to act as Switzerland, neutral and friendly to all, but his smile quickly thinned each time Connor wandered near.

When Buffy found herself wishing for the potentials, she knew the situation was bad.

Willow came out of the office, notes in hand. "I've got everything set up for the locator spell," she told Buffy. "Wesley got me a good area map."

Glancing around to make certain no one was listening, Willow stepped closer and lowered her voice. "I'll work on the other thing while you're gone. I'm pretty sure we'll need him for it to work, though."

Buffy nodded. "Do what you can while we're gone. Keep Kennedy with you."

"Who are you taking with you?"

"Wesley and Connor. That leaves you with Fred, Cordelia, Gunn and Lorne."

"And I should see if they act, oh, evil?" Willow glanced over to where Cordelia was poring over some books. "At least, more evil than normal?"

Buffy tried to suppress a snort. "Do what you can, but don't go out on a limb. You're too valuable. Concentrate on figuring out how we get that soul back in place.

Satisfied Willow knew what to do, Buffy went to check how the rest of the preparations were going. Wesley was busy loading up the tranquilizer gun. "It's a fairly hefty amount," he explained, "and the clip holds more than one dart in case he needs it.

"Good. I want to make certain he goes down and stays down. We may not have a second chance."

Wesley slid a final lever into place and set the gun down, looking pointedly toward where Spike was experimentally hefting a wicked looking axe he'd found in the weapons cabinet. "I should probably mention that is one of Angel's favorite weapons and he likely wouldn't be pleased to see Spike with it."

"Then it should annoy Angelus as well. We might be able to use that to our advantage, because he's not going to hesitate to use our weaknesses against us."

"I've read just about everything written on Angelus and it's difficult to find a weaknesses to exploit."

Buffy couldn't help smiling. "Ah, but we have someone who's made a rather specific study of those weaknesses. Spike?"

Spike made a final pass with the axe then brought it to rest on his shoulder. "Yes, o slayer mine?" he responded cheerfully.

The lilt in his voice made her heart feel light, happy that for once she had actually managed to avoid screwing up the tricky waters of a relationship. The look on his face when she'd uttered the words "our room" had signaled the crossing of a hurdle she'd been so busy dreading she hadn't actually noticed it was upon them. "I was hoping you could share some pointers on Angelus' weaknesses."

"Let me count the ways." He set the axe down when he joined them. "The main one, the one that will likely do us the most good is to piss him off. Angelus loves being in control of a situation. Piss him off, he loses control and starts making mistakes."

"You sound pretty certain of it."

Spike shrugged. "The closest I ever came to beating his sorry ass was when I got him mad. Unfortunately, he's also bigger and stronger than I am, so the balance didn't really tip in my favor and he nearly staked me a few times. But he'll try to do the same to us, punch our buttons so we're off balance. It's going to be unpleasant."

Wesley looked distinctly uncomfortable. "I've already experienced some of that. All of us have. I'm just not sure what might put him off balance."

"Why don't you leave that to us?" Buffy suggested. A quick glance at her watch told her it was just past midnight. The preparations, compounded by the difficulty of who wasn't talking to whom, had taken far longer than she'd anticipated. "Connor, are you ready?" she called out.

Connor appeared from the office where he'd been with Cordelia, headed for the weapons cabinet and grabbed a small crossbow. "I'm ready."

Great. She was going to have two jobs this evening: defeat Angelus and make certain Connor didn't dust his father. She'd prefer to leave him behind, but they might need his physical strength. "Just remember, we're trying to capture him," she said, doing her best to not to let annoyance creep into her voice. "I didn't come down here to sweep up dust."

The kid didn't even offer up a monosyllable this time. Kid? He's what, a couple of years younger than I am?

Pushing the thought back down, Buffy told Willow to get the locator spell going. Most everyone stood back as Willow settled herself on the floor in front of the map she'd laid out, sprinkled her powders and began her chant. Everyone except Lorne and Cordelia, both of whom hovered closer than Buffy would have liked. Slipping over to Kennedy, she said quietly, "Watch them while we're gone. If they do anything suspicious..."

"Kill them?" was Kennedy's response. It was tempting, but probably a little too hasty.

"Let me know. When we get back if it's small, right away if you think it's major. I have to trust your judgment on this one."

Kennedy nodded, a slightly smug look on her face. Buffy had no doubt she'd be vigilant, possibly even too vigilant, and the bestowing of responsibility always seemed to give her a thrill. There'd be a full report when Buffy returned, along with numerous suggestions as to a course of action.

The light swirled over the map, coalescing into a point before settling. Willow stopped chanting and opened her eyes. "Looks like he's not that far from here, down by," she peered at the map, "Alvarado and...I think it's Maryland. It's between Sixth Street and Third, anyway."

"Which direction is he heading?" Wesley asked.

"East, it looks like. I think he's on foot, given the way he's moving."

"Maybe he couldn't get through with the car," Gunn suggested. "There's a lot of debris and mess out there in some places."

"Which means it might take us a while to get to him." Buffy knelt down by Willow. "Can you keep it going, follow him? We can keep in touch by cell phone."

"Assuming the network doesn't go down," Fred said. "That's been happening a lot since the sun disappeared."

"Mystical happenings tend to do that to wireless networks." Willow concentrated on the map for a moment. The light continued to move east. "I think I can do it. No problem with keeping track, but the cell phone."

"If it gets too much, hand the phone off. The main thing is to keep tracking him." Rising to her feet, she headed for the door. "Let's go."

***

The mood was tense in Wesley's car as they headed through the darkened, empty streets. Here and there, streetlights still glowed, but the destruction they revealed was far from appetizing. Eager for an excuse to occupy her attention with something else, Buffy dialed Willow's cell. Her minute usage was going to suck this month.

Willow must have been holding her phone because she answered almost immediately. "Buffy?"

"It's me. Has he changed direction? Wesley says we're just a couple of minutes away."

"Still heading down Sixth Street. It looks like he knows where he's going."

"So he may be meeting someone. Sixth and what?"

"Um, Lucas."

Buffy looked over at Wesley. "Willow says Sixth and Lucas. Are we near that?"

"Very near." He pushed his foot down on the accelerator. "We'll be there in a minute."

The SUV lurched forward through the empty streets, picking up speed. Ahead of them lay a large building, a beacon of light in the darkened neighborhood. "Do you see him?" Wesley asked. "That's Good Samaritan, so we're at Sixth and Lucas."

Buffy put the phone back to her ear. "Willow? Has he moved?"

"No, still there."

"Great. We'll call you back."

Wesley had brought the car to a halt. "There's nothing to prevent his entry to the hospital and given that it's clearly open for business..."

"He might have decided it was time for fast food." Buffy climbed out of the car and stood on the sidewalk, staring at the building. "Damn it, he likes doing this, taking the fight places where we can't use our weapons."

"He's always done this," Spike said. "We'd get ourselves invited to some fancy party and he'd find a way to get a girl alone, put her in a position where she didn't think she could scream and..."

His voice was somewhat flat, his face bearing a strange and far away expression, caught in memory. She shivered at her own memory of a shared dream years ago and a scene much like the one Spike described. "We need to stop him."

He frowned as he looked at her. "I wasn't trying to make you...we both did it, luv."

She knew he was trying to make it easier, but the words didn't help. "That's not the point. The point is that we need to find him and we can't take our weapons with us, which means we have no way of knocking him out."

Her voice was sharp, sharper than she meant it to be and she couldn't miss his slight flinch. She didn't need the lover at the moment, worried about her feelings and trying to make certain all was right with her; she needed tough Spike, the one who was willing to wade into a fight and keep it going until the end. They'd deal with the hurts and uncomfortable memories later.

"We still have our fists," Connor suggested as if it were a simple solution.

"Which is probably what he's hoping for," Spike said. His face has gone hard, though whether it was because of her words or Connor's, she didn't know.

Connor gave Spike a challenging smirk. "Do you have a better plan?"

Without saying a word, Spike reached into the car and grabbed the tranquilizer gun. "I don’t think they're going to let us bring that inside," Connor said skeptically.

"Not going to bring it inside." Spike opened the chamber with ease, pulled out a dart and dropped it his jacket pocket before closing it and passing it to Wesley. "You're going to wait outside. If I get close enough, I'll stick him. If not, we'll try to herd him in your direction."

He gave Buffy his old familiar smirk. "That solve your problem, luv?"

She nodded. "It'll do."

They headed for the main entrance, but as they drew near, Buffy stopped. Something was...no, it was gone or just a trick of her imagination. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes, trying to reach out, but it was hard to put herself in the necessary place so she could reach out and sense him. She was about to give up when she felt Spike's hands on her shoulders, fingers kneading, searching for the sore points. "Just relax," he whispered, his voice close to her ear.

It was easy to do as he asked, let herself go as she had the other night, knowing she could with him there to support her. She let her mind fall into the patterns that allowed her reach out and...

Buffy's eyes snapped open. "Found him."

Without hesitating, she was on the move again, leading them around the side of the building. Behind her, she could hear Wesley murmur, "That was interesting." Oh, come on, Wesley. Didn't they tell you slayers could sense vampires?

Now that she knew he was there, Angel's presence was blinking brightly in her mind, guiding her straight to him. Within moments he was within her sight...and he wasn't alone.

Hoping surprise would give her the advantage, Buffy reached out and up to pull him off the woman in his arms. He came away with a roar, the demon in full possession. "Can't a guy have someone to eat in peace?" he demanded.

"Not when you've got an appointment to keep." Buffy didn't hesitate but threw a punch at his face. She'd likely be able to get only one in, two at the most, before the advantage was lost.

As he reeled back, Buffy was vaguely aware of Spike grabbing the woman she'd just rescued and shoving her toward Connor. "Get her to the emergency room! Don't argue, just move!"

She needed to give Wesley a clear shot, as she didn’t relish the idea of spending the next several hours unconscious. Problem was, Angelus didn't seem inclined to oblige. "Should have known you'd come running down here," he complained as he swung. Buffy dodged and spun into her own offensive move.

"Did you really think I'd let you run free?" The words took some effort as she tried a sweeping kick, only to have him catch her heel and flip her.

"I figured you'd be shacked up in bed with your new boy-toy." He smirked. "Wait. It's Spike. You felt the need for something better, so you came running to me. I'm touched."

"Not even close." Buffy was on her feet again. "Spike's got stamina, staying power...not like some vampires. He can go for hours..."

She knew she'd regret the remark later, once Angel's soul had returned, but now it was another weapon and it hit its mark. His face darkened and he lunged. If she'd had a stake and the inclination, she could have dispatched him easily. As it was, she simply sidestepped and let him stumble with his own momentum. "Wesley, now!"

The gun fired, but Angelus twisted at the last moment and the dart missed its mark. Before he could recover, Spike was on him, back from wherever he'd gone. Buffy didn't hesitate, but waded in as well. If she could pin his arms, then Spike might be able to stick the dart in.

They were quickly a tangle of arms and legs and for a moment it looked as if she and Spike might actually get the upper hand. Buffy managed to grab hold of one arm while Spike grabbed the other. Angelus struggled against the hold, but their combined strength was enough to keep him from breaking free. "Hold still, Grandad," Spike said through gritted teeth. "Won't hurt anywhere near as much as I'd like it to, but it'll be good for you."

"So that's your brilliant plan? Have Willow do a tracking spell and then talk me to death?"

"How did you...?" Buffy began, but shut her mouth. She wanted to know how he knew about Willow, but she had no intention of giving him any ammunition. Besides, he could have guessed that's what Buffy would do.

It was still enough for Angelus to latch onto. "Didn't expect that, did you? Thought you'd catch me by surprise. Someone's telling secrets, though, so I'd watch my back. Got to admit she's getting better; it takes skill to keep a spell like that going and talk on the phone at the same time."

"Wesley, get that dart." Now it was Buffy who gritted her teeth.

Wesley was even now digging in Spike's pocket, albeit gingerly. Suddenly, Angelus used his captors for leverage and kicked out at Wesley with both feet, knocking him into Spike. Caught off guard, the two men went down and the only thing restraining Angelus was Buffy. Before she could react, he used his suddenly free arm to grab her, lips drawing back over fangs. "I've been waiting for this, lover."

She hunched and twisted, trying to avoid giving him a clear shot at her neck. Even so, his fangs grazed her throat, breaking the skin and drawing blood. That was before she drove one of her heels directly into the center of his foot as hard as she could. The heel snapped, but not before he yelped and let her go.

"You bitch!" The backhand was hard, knocking her to the ground. For a moment it looked as if he'd go for her, but Spike's attempt to disentangle himself caught his attention and he took the time to deliver a kick to the chin, which gave Buffy the chance to roll and get to her feet.

For a moment they hung there, facing off as they had at that movie theatre in Sunnydale, when he'd taken the Judge out for a spin. Then he'd taunted her that she couldn't do it, she couldn't put a stake through his heart because she was weak with her love for him. She doubted he saw that weakness there now.

Wesley was starting to move, though Spike hadn't risen from the ground yet. Buffy wished Connor would make himself useful and come flying out of the bushes to tackle his father. It'd be a really good thing at the moment. But no Connor and Angelus began to back away. "Later, babe. Got places to go, beasties to see."

With that he was gone, loping across the hospital lawn, down the street and out of sight. Buffy considered following for a second, but considering the lack of one heel was going to make even walking difficult, she wasn't about to attempt running. Instead, she turned her attention to Spike, who was propping himself up on his elbows. "You okay?"

"I'd forgotten how much his kicks could hurt." The weak grin he offered to let her know he was alright disappeared when he noticed the scratches on her neck. "I'll kill the bastard. He hurt you, I'll kill him."

She tried shushing him, sensing he was ready to go charging off half-cocked. "It's just a scratch. I get it cleaned up, it'll heal."

Spike didn't look convinced which she found perversely sweet, but they couldn't linger so she could enjoy it. "Let's get you up. We need to regroup and..."

Buffy stumbled as she tried to help him stand, kept from falling by a quick move on Wesley's part. "You are hurt," Spike insisted.

"I'm fine. I don't think my shoe will recover, though. We'd better go back to the hotel and at least let me change my shoes. Wesley, find Connor."

"He took Angelus' snack to the emergency room," Spike said. "Must still be there."

"Either that or he's gone tracking Angelus on his own," Wesley suggested.

Buffy shook his head. "I doubt it. There were plenty of chances for him to join the fray, so he's probably still with the woman. But Wesley, when we get back to the Hyperion, we need to talk. You, me, Spike, Willow. Without Connor. You definitely have a traitor in your midst."



Chapter Ten

Buffy called Willow on their way back to the hotel, told her to cancel the locator spell for the moment. No sense in wasting energy, especially when it was likely they'd need Willow the next time they went after Angelus. At this point, Buffy didn't think they could count on a tranquilizer dart to hit the mark during a fight and there weren't that many other ways to bring Angelus down without doing permanent damage.

After Wesley pulled into his parking spot at the Hyperion, the men piled out, but Buffy hesitated, staring down at the cement-covered ground. "What's wrong?" Spike asked.

"I was thinking of taking my shoes off to make it easier to get into the hotel, but I'm having second thoughts."

"I wouldn't recommend it," Wesley said. "Even at the best of times, what we find on the ground is somewhat questionable. These days..."

With a sigh, Buffy resigned herself to another painful and limping walk like the one she'd made to the car. Even as she started to get down, though, Spike passed his axe off to Connor and scooped her up into his arms. "All you had to do was ask."

She started to protest, but decided to relax and enjoy it. Besides, who was she to deprive Spike of the opportunity to play rescuer of the damsel in distress? It wasn't like he often got the chance. Unfortunately, their entrance had precisely the effect she didn't want.

"Buffy! You didn't say anything about being hurt." Willow was on her feet and immediately heading across the lobby.

"I'm fine, Willow. Spike, can you...?" He set her down and steadied her as she pulled her shoes off. "I broke my heel on Angel's foot."

"Oh, no. Those are new, aren't they?"

As Willow examined the damage, Cordelia decided to make an appearance. "I take it your 'great plan' was a bust?" she asked, offering up the "you're stupid" look Buffy remembered so well from high school.

"We ran into a little trouble."

"So catching Angel wasn't as easy as you thought? Surprise, surprise."

No, this was nastier than high school. "Cordelia, what is your problem? Ever since we came through that door, you've made it perfectly clear you'd be happier if I went home. I'm here to help."

"Help?" Cordelia snorted. "You know, we've been getting on just fine without you. Angel's been getting on just fine without you. You two haven't seen each other for over a year, haven't been a part of each other's lives for over three and yet you think you can just waltz in here like you and Angel were still joined at the hip and try to take over? Then to add insult to injury, you decide to bring your new vampire boyfriend along and shack up together while you're here. Angel's really going to appreciate that when we get his soul back in his body...assuming you don't screw up so badly we can't."

The only comfort Buffy could take was that everyone else was staring at Cordelia as if she'd gone mad. That didn't stop Cordelia from continuing. "You don't know a damn thing about what's going on here. Face it, Buffy; you didn't even know most of the people here until today. You don't know what's been happening except what Wesley's told you. Does that really make you think you're going to succeed where we haven't?"

Before Buffy could come up with an answer, Spike moved. In a flash he was off the stairs leading into the lobby and in Cordelia's face. "Maybe she'd have a better chance if you'd stop pissing and moaning so much...or is Buffy not being a part of this more important than actually helping Angel?"

Connor clearly took offense at Spike's action and set off toward in a burst of speed that left no doubt his parents weren't humans. Without taking his eyes from Cordelia, Spike stretched out his arm at the last moment so that the boy ran straight into his fist. "I'm waiting for an answer, cheerleader."

Sprawled on the lobby floor, Connor looked surprised at the blow. He was about to climb to his feet, but Gunn knelt at his side. "I think you should stay out of the way."

Connor shrugged off the restraining hand, but before he could rise, Spike warned, "Listen to his advice, boy. I won't hurt your girl; just want her to answer my question."

Buffy was surprised Cordelia hadn't backed down before this. Sure, people changed but Spike was starting to send off dangerous vibes. He'd been very cautious since the chip had been removed, almost as if he was afraid of letting go without the electronic leash. Now, though, that caution was rapidly disappearing.

As they stood there, Spike's expression changed, almost as if he realized something he hadn't known before. It was at that moment Cordelia broke eye contact. "We need to get Angel back."

"Then the more cooperation you give us, the quicker we get Peaches' soul back in place and Buffy and I can get the hell out of here. Think of it as enlightened self-interest."

He turned back to Buffy. "We need to get those scratches taken care of. The first aid kit's in my pack."

A first aid kit was probably kept in the office, but Buffy let Spike guide her upstairs to their room. She could feel the tension simmering just beneath the surface and decided getting him away from the others was probably the best thing.

Spike was silent until he'd examined the scratches on her neck, sitting next to her on the edge of the mattress with the first aid kit in easy reach. "They're not deep," he said with a sigh. "Just looks bad."

Fetching a washcloth from the bathroom, he gently wiped away the blood then began to clean the wounds with hydrogen peroxide. Buffy hissed a bit as the liquid stung raw flesh, eliciting a murmured, "Sorry."

She couldn't stand it. This silence just wasn't natural for him. "Spike. Talk to me."

He looked up and she was surprised to find fury simmering deep within the depths of blue eyes. "I'll be damned if I'm going to let Angelus have his one good day."

She reached out to press her fingers against his lips. "He didn't," she assured him. "He won't."

The fury was still there, but now he let the fear show as he wrapped his arms around her and buried his face in her neck. "I don't want to lose you," he murmured against her skin.

More than anyone, Spike knew how dangerous her life was. He'd become the one she knew would be there to watch her back, not tell her to hold back from fear of one or both of them not making it out alive. This reaction wasn't because of the wound, she realized, the scratches mild compared to others she'd suffered. This was one of those damn things they needed time to work through. "He's not going to take me away," she told him. "We're going to find him and we're going to stop him and we're both going to be okay."

He looked up and she could see he wanted to believe her, but she could see the doubt as well and she didn't know how to dispel it. She thought of kissing him and pulling him back onto the bed, try to show him she wasn't going anywhere, but before she could even make the attempt, there was a knock at the door and Willow's voice was calling, "Buffy? Are you two alright?"

Reluctantly, she pulled away and opened the door to admit Willow, who was thankfully alone. "We're fine. Just cleaning up some scratches."

Willow's eyes went big. "How did I miss those? What happened?"

"Angelus got a shot at her." Spike's voice was tight, the softness of only a moment ago vanished. "Not going to happen again."

Buffy was started to ask him how he intended to keep that from happening since they were likely heading out again soon, but another knock at the door put that argument on hold. This time it was Wesley, looking decidedly uncomfortable as he stepped inside. "That was an entertaining display. You've got Connor convinced you're about to do Cordelia bodily harm."

"Still might come to that is she keeps up her bitchy ways. Buffy, I need to finish cleaning that."

She sat down next to him again, while Willow took a chair. Wesley chose to remain standing, which allowed him the opportunity to pace. As Spike touched the damp swab to the scratches once more, he asked, "So how long has the brat been shagging her?"

Buffy jerked her head around to look at him, not believing what she'd just heard...and hissed again as the movement caused the swab to move abruptly across her wound. "Sorry," Spike said, pulling it away momentarily.

"Tell me you are not serious." Buffy wanted to look toward Wesley, but with Spike swabbing the wound, she didn't want to move. "Wesley, she isn't..."

"I'm afraid she is," Wesley said, obligingly moving into her line of sight. "Believe me, I found it difficult to accept when I heard."

"Ewww." Willow's face scrunched. "Wasn't she around when he was a baby? And wasn't she chasing after Angel?"

"Precisely the reason I found it hard to believe. I would have put it down to Angelus simply being nasty except that Cordelia didn't make any effort to deny it and once Connor knew we knew...well, he was practically glowing with pride. Seems he likes the idea of being able to take his father's woman away."

"Poor Angel," Willow said. "That must have hurt."

"Now he knows what it feels like," Spike muttered in a voice too low for anyone but Buffy to hear. In a louder voice he added, "So I take it Connor's the father of Cordelia's baby."

Once again, Buffy's head jerked and again the hydrogen peroxide stung. "It won't hurt if you hold still," Spike told her sternly.

"Thank you, Giles. I wouldn't move if you'd stop saying things to shock the rest of us."

Spike frowned at her throat. "I think I've pretty much cleaned it up...and I'm not saying it to shock anyone. When I was nose to nose with her, I picked up two heartbeats. Aside from that, look at her. Cheerleader always was a skinny thing. Now she looks like she's smuggling melons."

It wasn't the prettiest of word pictures, but Buffy began to realize Spike might be right. Cordelia was rounder and heavier, even though the coat she wore hid most of it. "That's..."

"Incredible," Willow finished. "I can't imagine Cordelia letting herself get pregnant unless she wanted to. And the visions -- she told me she has to take this incredibly powerful medicine to counteract the headaches she gets from them. What affect is that going to have on the baby?"

"Cordelia doesn't need that medicine anymore; hasn't for almost a year."

Willow looked skeptical. "Last time she told me about the visions, she said it felt like her head was going to explode."

"It almost did," Wesley explained. "We thought we were going to lose her, but she was granted the opportunity to keep the visions and her life by accept something of a demon within herself."

The thought crossed Buffy and Willow's minds at the same time. Despite the seriousness of the situation and that it wasn't a laughing matter, the moment the two women looked at each other, they started to giggle. "You realize that means all of Xander's girlfriends..."

"Every single one..."

"A perfect record..."

"I can't wait to tell him..."

"What is so amusing?" Wesley demanded, looking more than a little miffed.

"Apparently every girl Harris has dated has been a demon," Spike said, putting the first aid kit back in his bag.

"It isn't a laughing matter."

"You're right." Buffy tried to control herself, but the laughter kept threatening to erupt again. "We shouldn't laugh." She sputtered, only half successful in keeping the laughter in. Willow was faring just as well.

"Of course, if Cordelia is your traitor," Spike said, reclaiming his place next to Buffy, "I wouldn't be surprised if Connor was helping her. Not really in his interest to have Angel back in the game, is it? And baby will probably make him even more protective and manly."

Buffy stopped laughing. For a moment she'd forgotten Cordelia was on their lists of suspects. "Willow, did anything suspicious happen while we were gone?"

Willow had sobered as well. "No. I kept the locator spell going and pretty much focused on that. Oh, Lorne was helpful, made sure I had water so my mouth wouldn't get all dry 'cause it does that sometimes when I do spells. He's kinda sweet, like Clem."

"Where was Cordelia?"

"Around. She didn’t seem terribly interested in watching."

Buffy looked over at Wesley. "Anya told us that the spell Cordelia gave you to restore Angel's soul couldn't have worked, that the components she had you assemble wouldn't do what she wanted them to."

"You're taking her word for this?"

"Wesley, you remember Anya? Ex-vengeance demon? The one who'd witnessed the Ascension? I think she knows what she's talking about."

He didn't want to believe it; she could see the struggle on his face. "Buffy, are you sure?" Willow asked. "I mean, I know Cordelia's evil, but she's not evil evil."

"Willow, do you really think Lorne is behind stealing Angel's soul and letting Angelus know you were tracking him?"

"He knew?" The words came out almost as a whisper.

"He could have been guessing in the dark, but he knew you were keeping the spell going, commented on the power it took." Buffy turned to Wesley. "Do you think Lorne's behind this?"

"No." Wesley's voice was firm. "I've known Lorne nearly three years and I've never seen anything that gives any hint he would do such a thing. In fact, Lorne's usually the one who argues for caution. It's completely outside his nature."

"But it's also completely outside of Cordelia's, isn't it? She's been loyal and determined and part of Angel's 'mission' since the beginning, hasn't she?" Spike raised a scarred eyebrow. "So who's helping the Beast? Gunn and Fred? Doubt it. There's no magic in those two. Since Buffy's having this conversation, I think she's ruled you out. That leaves Lorne, Cordelia and Connor...and Cordelia and Connor are something of a matched pair these days."

The look Wesley gave Buffy was accusatory. "You suspected me?"

"For a few minutes. I knew there were things you weren't telling and then Anya told us about the spell. That's when we figured it had to be either you, Cordelia or Lorne. You actually did the incantation, so you had opportunity to mess it up. Lorne did the soul reading, so he could have been lying. Cordelia's the one who came up with the spell, so she could have given you bad information."

Wesley was silent as he processed the information. "I believe Lorne honestly saw a change in Angel's aura that made him think the soul was back in place," he said at last. "How do you explain that?"

"Anya though it might be a glamour. I should call and see if she's found anything more on that."

"Call her when we get back, Willow," Buffy said even as Willow reached for her cell phone. "I need to get changed and then you need to do another locator spell, a mobile one this time. You're coming with us." She looked to Wesley. "I think it's best we take the whole crew. I don't want to go in with just a few of us. Besides, it makes certain we don't leave anyone here to cause mischief...and doesn't give anyone the opportunity to contact any allies they might have. And, if Angelus has acquired any friends, we're going to need the extra strength and Willow's firepower."

For a moment she thought he might argue, but Wesley nodded. "We'll follow your lead. Best plan I've heard since we started this. I just hope you're wrong about Cordelia."

Buffy sighed. "She's a pain in the ass, Wesley, but I hope I'm wrong, too."



Chapter Eleven

The warehouses clumped on the east side of downtown were always silent in the still, dark hours of the night, but the silence was even heavier at this moment. Even the underbelly of society that seemed to enjoy lurking in such spots in hopes of snaring a victim appeared to be absent.

As far as Angelus was concerned, that state of affairs suited him just fine. It'd been a long trek down here and he was in a bad mood. If some idiot hadn't slashed his tires while he was in the bar, he could have driven, which would have taken far less time. Then he might have caught the Beast where the vampire from the bar had said he'd seen him and wouldn't have had to spend half the night hunting through downtown Los Angeles,

If he'd driven, he definitely wouldn't have had his run in with Buffy and her crew. Oh, it might have been worth it if he'd actually been able to sink his fangs into her neck. Maybe it wasn't the leisurely scenario he'd considered earlier, but he'd take what he could get.

Problem was, all he'd gotten was a sore foot from and a punch in the nose. She was going to pay for that, along with Spike, Wesley and the others. It was quite an enemies list he was acquiring and they needed to be dealt with soon. If he didn't, the white hats would keep coming after him, trying to find a way to shove his pesky soul back in. Angelus had no intention of letting that happen.

If the Beast was so set on an alliance, maybe he could be convinced to perform a little favor as a gesture of good will. Nothing much; just get rid of the gnats. Again, not quite as entertaining as some scenarios but certainly efficient. Hell, the big guy might even be able to disable a few and keep them alive for Angelus to have a little fun with.

With that thought lighting his heart, Angelus headed into the next warehouse.

***

With Angel out of commission, Angel Investigations had no head or direction, Buffy realized. Gunn and Wesley were struggling for control and while Cordelia hadn't made any more overt efforts to undermine their plan, who knew what she might be whispering to Connor.

It'd been difficult to get everyone into the vans and on their way. Lorne protested he never went out in the field, but quieted when Buffy insisted. Then there'd been the squabble over who would ride in which car, neither Wesley nor Buffy's vehicles being large enough to carry everyone at once. In the end, Willow and Kennedy went with Wesley, Cordelia, Connor and Lorne, while Buffy and Spike took Gunn and Fred. A bit reluctantly, Buffy accepted Gunn's suggestion he drive given his knowledge of the area, which left Spike and Fred in the back seat while Buffy kept in touch via cell phone with Willow, trusting the locator spell would lead them in the right direction.

As they followed Wesley's SUV, Buffy heard Fred ask Spike, "So, how did you two meet?"

"Me and Buffy? I rolled into Sunnydale one night and went looking for the Slayer. Moment I saw her on the dance floor of the Bronze, I knew it was her. Strong, slender with gorgeous moves, this was a girl who could kick butt." Buffy felt her cheeks grow a bit warm as Spike's voice took on a note of fond remembrance. "Watching her move as she staked a vamp...pure poetry."

"Then it was love at first sight?"

Spike laughed. "Hardly. Lust, maybe, but not love. Not then. She and Angel were an item and I was with Dru. No, love came later and it's been a bit of a struggle. After all, we started out as mortal enemies trying to kill each other."

"But love triumphed and here you are together, like one of those stories where the hero has to overcome impossible trials and great odds to win his lady love."

There was a long pause before Spike answered. When he did, his voice was soft and gentle. "Something like that."

"Buffy, are you there?" Willow's voice crackled in her ear, giving Buffy the chance to ignore any further discussion between Spike and Fred.

"I'm here, Willow. Do you have a fix on him?"

"I think I do. There's some interference, so either something's trying to cloak him or there's another magic at work that's messing up the currents. We're heading east, though, straight into downtown."

"They're heading into downtown," Buffy told Gunn. The SUV was just ahead of them, the only two cars on the street it seemed.

"Ask her if he's actually in downtown or just east of it. It's always possible he's heading for the teen center. Damn it, we should warn Anne. She doesn’t know not to let him in. Here, give me the phone. Willow, it's Gunn. Tell Wesley he needs to call Anne, let her know not to open the door to Angel. Yeah, he knows who she is. Now, are we heading to the other side of downtown? Okay. Yeah, here's Buffy."

Buffy took the phone back. "Willow?"

"Looks like Wesley and Gunn have an idea where we're going, which is good, because I'm getting more interference on that spell."

"Hold as long as you can; the closer we can get before things fritz, the better."

***

"For someone who acts like he's eager to see me, you're playing hard to get," Angelus said as he strolled into warehouse number six. "I mean, you leave me these clues, your master sends me mental messages -- which feels kinda freaky, by the way -- letting me know Buffy and her little band is after me, and yet you make me search all over downtown to find you. Do you really think this will put me in a good mood?"

The Beast chuckled, a low rumble that filled the empty expanse of the warehouse. "It is all part of the journey."

"That's another problem." Angelus drew near, but not too near. "I'm not one of those 'the journey is more important than the end' guys. I don't mind if it's someone else's journey and I get to orchestrate the pain, but in general I'm not a big fan of getting jerked around."

"You have not been pleased with everything that has been done on your behalf? Fire rained down upon Los Angeles to create chaos and confusion..."

"Which also gave me the opportunity to watch my potential girlfriend boning my son."

"...The sun was blotted out, allowing you to move and feed freely."

"Creating a new wave of idiot tourists who've decided LA's just perfect for their vacation, figuring there's plenty of free meals."

"My master engineered the removal of your soul and the return of Angelus." Was it his imagination or was the Beast starting to sound just a tiny bit peeved?

"Don't have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is the fact that there's someone who knows how to put the damn thing back and she's in town."

"My master has your soul in safe keeping. There is no worry that it will be returned."

"Perhaps, but I'd feel a whole lot better and probably more amenable to considering your offer if I wasn't looking over my shoulder to make sure they weren't coming after me."

The Beast smiled, a long, slow grin. Oh, yeah. This was going to be good.

***

"It's quiet," Wesley said once they'd piled out of the two vehicles before a group of warehouses. "Too quiet."

"Know what you mean, man." Gunn was keeping both hands on his ax, looking about him as if he expected something to jump out of the shadows. "If nothing else, you'd expect someone to be lurking in the shadows, waiting to jack these cars. But there's nothing."

"Possibly because everyone's figured out the vampires are getting hungry and it doesn't pay to be wandering around here at night." Buffy scanned the row of bland-looking brick buildings. "Will, any way you can figure out which one he's in?"

A few murmured words and a light flickered, then died within Willow's hands. "It'd take a lot more power than what I'm currently using."

"Save it then; we need you to be ready to perform that binding spell." Buffy hefted the sword she'd pulled from the weapons cabinet at the hotel. "Let's go find him."

It wasn't until they'd gingerly peered into four warehouses that Buffy started to get a vague tickling at the back of her neck. Instead of heading for the fifth one, she followed the feeling toward the sixth warehouse in the row. "He's here," she told the others.

Spike was at her side almost instantly. "Pity the windows are high up. It'd be nice to get a look inside before we barged in."

"Which is probably why he chose it." Buffy turned back to Willow. "I know you need to save your energy for the binding spell, but I'd like you to try to conjure up something that will flash, maybe blind him for a few seconds when we head in."

"I've got the sunlight spell," Willow said hesitantly. "I don't have supplies for anything else on hand."

Buffy sighed. "Sunlight probably not a good idea. Just have that binding spell ready to go."

Willow nodded and closed her eyes as everyone else took up position. Lorne and Cordelia hung toward the back, while Connor and Kennedy pushed up front. The air was thick with tension, attention focused on Buffy, waiting for her order. It wasn't until Willow looked up, eyes growing dark, and said, "Now," that they actually breeched the door.

They fanned out as they moved in, weapons at the ready. Buffy barely had time to register where her people had positioned themselves before all of her attention was taken by the creature who stood at one end of the warehouse. He was big. And ugly. And Angelus was standing next to him, grinning. "So glad you could make it."

A surge of power flowed out from just behind Buffy's left shoulder, triggered by a single word from Willow: "Bind."

The flash encircled Angelus, nearly knocking him off his feet but holding him tight in rings of mystical force. Step one accomplished.

Step two looked to be a hell of a lot harder.

"Any idea how to kill it?" Buffy asked Wesley, her hands tightening around her sword.

"None. It was one of the things we'd hoped to learn from Angelus."

"Oh. Just...great." She was about to suggest they rush him when the Beast held out a hand. Light streamed forth and they all dived to get out of the way. All except Willow. She caught the brunt of it, slammed backward from the force of the blow.

At the instant Willow hit the wall, the rings around Angelus disappeared, setting him free. He appeared stunned for a moment, but then shook his head and laughed. "Willow. Is that any way to treat an old friend?"

"You bastard!" Kennedy's voice tore through the stunned silence and before Buffy could stop her, the girl lunged forward, stake in hand. It wasn’t certain whether she was aiming for Angelus or the Beast, but it was Angelus who intercepted her, easily parrying her blow. With that, there was no choice but join the fight.

There were times Buffy could see each move in a fight, as if she was at a distance, considering each move, weighing each pun before she it dropped on her opponent. This wasn’t one of those times. This was a struggle to keep moving, to land a blow on the Beast, who'd managed to insert himself between them and Angelus. She could see Kennedy fight fiercely, every move driven by anger...and Angelus playing with her like a cat with a bug. This wasn't going to end well, but there seemed to be no way to get to her. Buffy would wade in, only to be pushed back and wade in again, trying to find a way around her opponent.

Then it happened. Angelus grew tired of the game and he let Kennedy think she had an opening, only to catch her as she moved, sinking his fangs into her neck. The sight made Buffy push all the harder, struggle to get to the potential. She could hear Spike shouting something, but the words didn't register. Nothing did except the struggle and a growing feeling of hopelessness as she watched Angelus drink.

Suddenly, Willow's voice was heard again, screaming this time, rough with power. "Release!"

Angelus released. Angelus flew backwards much as Willow had only a short time earlier...and to their surprise, the Beast did so as well. Buffy looked behind her to discover Willow back on her feet, her eyes glowing black. "You. Will. Pay. For. That."

"Don't kill him!" Buffy shouted. She was about to tell Spike to grab Kennedy while he could, but Connor was already moving to snatch her up and bring her back. "We're trying to capture him, remember?"

Willow was breathing hard, hot anger in her face but she didn't move, her eyes focused on the two figures at the other end of the warehouse. Come on, Willow. Hold it together...

"Interesting. The blow should have killed her," the Beast said as he picked himself up.

"Should have? Oh, that's a great help. Maybe you should try again and figure out why later."

The Beast ignored Angelus' complaint. "There is something of interest here. Perhaps she might be of use to my master."

Angelus looked real unhappy at this. "She can put my soul back. I'd feel much better if she wasn't around."

Lorne and Fred huddled around Kennedy as Connor returned her to the relative safety of their group. "I think she'll live," Lorne announced. "But we need to get her out of here."

A retreat would mean letting Angelus go once again, but Buffy had to consider Kennedy's condition and their other opponent. Willow's power showed no sign of diminishing, but was it enough to stand against the Beast?

Angelus wasn't having an easy time of it either, his voice growing louder and more strident at the Beast's refusal to simply wipe them all out of existence. With a growl, he turned and headed straight for the group. Wesley, Gunn and Spike stood at the ready, weapons in hand, but before he could get too near, Willow casually flicked her wrist. "Block."

Angelus slammed into an invisible barrier. "Yes, very interesting," the Beast said. "Such power could be of great use."

"So you see something new and exciting and I don't count anymore? Since when do minions get to make such decisions? Which raises the question..." His face darkened and he grabbed Kennedy's stake from where it had fallen. "What the hell good are you?"

The stake moved upward in a swift motion, Angelus shoving it into the top of the Beast's throat with the last words. There was a horrible gurgle and he shoved it further up, so deep that his fist followed the stake into the wound. "My God," Wesley said, his voice nearly a whisper. "I wonder if that's how..."

Wesley's words were cut off by an unearthly scream. The Beast sank to his knees, mouth open and head dropping back. Light began to stream from mouth, eyes, ears and other openings Buffy didn’t want to contemplate. The screaming went on, lasting until the last of the light vanished.

Angelus kicked at the corpse and turned to face the group. "Happy now, Wes? Got what you wanted? Enjoy it while you can, boyo, because I am not done with you. You still don't know where my soul is and..."

The sun came up.

It wasn't gradual, but sudden, as if a dark heavy cloud had simply disappeared. Light came streaming in the warehouse's high windows, turning night into day. And the vampires began to smoke.

"Shit!" That was the last Buffy heard from Angelus as he dived for the shadows, running for a door at the end furthest from them. On their side, Spike was also making for cover post-haste.

"Willow, drop the barrier! Wesley, Gunn, follow me!" As soon as she could, Buffy ran for the door, wondering if he'd managed to trap himself. That the door led to the basement seemed promising, until the moment Wesley pointed out the entrance to the sewers and the covering grate hastily pulled aside.

"He knows the system like the back of his hand," Wesley told Buffy as she knelt by the entrance. "The sewers, where they connect to the old Red Car tunnels; it's his main mode of transportation during the day. I wouldn't advise going after him at the moment."

Reluctantly she stood up. If it were the Sunnydale sewers... "You're right. We need to see to Kennedy."

As they climbed the stairs back to the ground floor, Wesley chuckled. "At least we managed to solve two of our problems. The sun is back and the Beast's dead."

"Yeah, but we still don't know who's the Beast's master or where Angel's soul is," Gunn reminded him.

"We capture Angelus," Buffy told him, "and Willow thinks she has a way of tracking it."

"I'll believe the girl can do it." Gunn shook his head. "She's got some serious mojo going."

Just as they reached the ground floor, he asked in a somewhat more tenuous voice, "Uh, they told us you were dead. Did Willow...?"

Buffy chose not to answer, heading instead for the shadow where Spike had retreated. "You okay?"

"Just a little singed around the edges. Nothing I can't handle." His eyes were skimming over her, looking for any injuries, smiling when he found none.

Reassured he wasn't hurt, Buffy turned her attention to the others. Willow was kneeling by Kennedy, all trace of power gone, her face white and scared. Lorne was talking to her, soft words of comfort meant for no one else.

"We still haven't gotten Angel," Cordelia pointed out.

Buffy knew she should have expected that. Didn't make her want to slap Cordelia silly any less. "We will. For now, let's get everyone home."



Chapter Twelve

They'd considered taking Kennedy to the emergency room, but since she came back to consciousness on the drive back to the hotel and Gunn pointed out it likely hospitals would be almost to capacity and blood in short supply, she was carted upstairs to rest after being fed a concoction Lorne said would help stimulate blood production. "I don't think she should go out for a while," he insisted. "She certainly shouldn't go chasing after Angelus."

Buffy agreed and Willow didn't offer any argument. She'd been very quiet since they'd left the warehouse and Buffy could only guess what thoughts must be going through her head. She'd stood back while Kennedy was settled, almost as if she was afraid to touch her. Only when Kennedy asked for her in a sleepy voice did she leave her place against the wall and come forward to take the girl's hand.

Buffy started to leave with Fred and Lorne, eager for a chance to grab some sleep, but stopped at Willow's panicked expression. Willow talked to Kennedy for a moment longer, and then assured her she would be back in just a minute.

Pulling Buffy into the hall, the smile she'd worn for Kennedy disappeared from Willow's face. "You don't know how close I came to losing it. When I saw him with his fangs in her throat, I was ready to destroy him. I didn't care that we were trying to capture him. Buffy, it's dangerous for me to use my powers."

Buffy didn't want to have this conversation with Willow. She'd have to have it soon, but not now. Now she was tired and Willow was panicking, which meant anything Buffy might say could get derailed all too easily. "If you hadn’t used your power, what would have happened to Kennedy?"

Willow shuddered, her arms wrapped tightly about her chest. "I don't want to think about that. It was just...he had her and he was going to kill her, so I was going to kill him." She looked at Buffy with wide scared eyes. "I almost killed Angel.

"You almost killed Angelus," Buffy insisted. "Whatever makes him Angel is trapped somewhere. You want to feel better about almost killing him? Help me find that soul and put it back."

The idea seemed to appeal to Willow (and was far more useful than endless supplies of chocolate chip cookies), but there was still some hesitation. "But what about the big stuff -- the make-my-eyes-go-black, throw-major-beasties-across-the-room stuff?"

That was exactly the stuff Buffy needed in the weeks ahead -- and if Willow stopped using her powers in a panic, they were in big trouble. "We're careful," she said, doing her best to be reassuring. "You didn't blow Angel up like you wanted to and we managed to stop the Beast. Well, Angelus stopped the Beast, but he wouldn't have gotten pissed off and stabbed him if you hadn't blown him backwards. Look, stay with Kennedy, get some rest. We can't move until after sunset anyway. Wind down."

She patted Willow on the shoulder and shooed her back inside. The conversation wasn't over, merely paused and Buffy sensed Willow knew it. Another worry to add to her list.

Spike was sitting on the bed when she returned to their room, a towel draped around his middle and another in his hands to rub his hair dry. "Girl all settled? Sorry to slip out, but I didn't think they needed another body in the room and I wanted to wash away the smoke smell.

Watching his movements, she realized his hands were a bit pink, as if he'd been scalded. Moving to stand in front of him, she slid her fingers under his chin and tilted his head back slightly. His skin was a bit flushed from the warmth of the shower but even so, she could see where the sun had touched his face and neck. Gently, she ran her hand over the damage. "I have some lotion that might help."

He smiled up at her and then turned his head slightly to kiss her palm. "I'll be fine in a few hours," he assured her. "Didn't even get a good burn going."

The words didn't provide the comfort he intended as Buffy's mind turned to all the times she'd seen him make a smoking entrance and simply assumed he'd suffered no damage. The reality was that every time he danced with the sun, she faced the possibility of losing him.

"Hey, what's this?" Spike tossed the towel he held aside and pulled her onto his lap. "I know that look; what's making you tear up?"

She didn't say anything, just held on tight. So much time wasted and no way to get it back. The thought threatened to choke her and she couldn't afford to break down, couldn't lose that much control. Not for the first time, Buffy wished she wasn't the Slayer, that she didn't have a nameless evil to fight or a house full of potentials looking to her for guidance or the need to be here in Los Angeles trying to restore the soul of her ex-lover. She wanted to take Dawn and Spike and leave all of it behind, find a place where they could live in peace.

But she was the Slayer. If she wasn't, Spike would never have fallen in love with her, merely seen her as lunch. And she wouldn't have Dawn. And she might not have known Willow or Xander or Anya and Tara certainly wouldn't have come to the notice of the shallow cheerleader from Hemery. So much of her life, so much of what was dear to her was tied up in her calling.

Spike cradled her on his lap, letting her breathing calm and her heart slow. When she thought she could control herself, she lifted her head from where she'd hidden it in the crook of his neck and did her best to smile. "I love you."

"I love you, too, but you're starting to worry me, Buffy."

She sniffed a little, caressing his cheek. "Just...well, I'm allowed to get sniffy sometimes, aren't I?"

She could tell the answer didn't satisfy him, but he didn't push, just kissed her gently. "Of course you are. If you need to let it out, I'm here."

Sex with Spike was great, better now than in those dark, destructive days of last year, but this was the good part, the moments when they just sat, no words necessary. This renewed her strength, made her feel she could go out and deal with what the world was about to throw at her.

They sat there for some time and would have sat longer except for the knock on the door. Reluctantly, Buffy slid from Spike's lap, figuring she should answer since she was the more dressed of the two. Somehow, she wasn't surprised to see Wesley standing in the hall. "Please tell me it's not another disaster.

Wesley offered a weak smile. "Not at the moment. Everyone else seems to be enjoying the sunshine, so I thought this might be a good moment for some personal business. Actually, I was hoping to speak with Spike."

That earned him a raised eyebrow but Buffy stood aside so he could enter. Once inside, though, words seemed to fail him. "Should I leave you two alone?" she asked. "I was thinking of grabbing a shower." The sensible part of her insisted she shouldn't leave them alone, that she couldn't fully trust any of these people, but there was something in Wesley's manner that told her he meant no harm.

"No," he said with a sigh. "You should probably hear this as it may impact your plans for this evening. When Angelus escaped, there was one other person staying in the hotel. Her name was Lilah Morgan."

Spike frowned. "I know that name. Dru mentioned her. Wasn't she...?"

"A member of Wolfram and Hart? Yes. One of their senior members, in fact." He groped for a chair, as if the weight of what he was saying was too much. "She was one of the few survivors, if not the only survivor, of the Beast's attack on the firm."

"What was she doing here?" Buffy settled on the edge of the bed and Spike moved to sit next to her, one arm slipping around her waist.

"She'd been hiding in the sewers since the attack, afraid the Beast might be looking to finish the job. She'd also managed to acquire a book on the trans-dimensional black market that contained a considerable amount of information on the Beast, information which had somehow been removed from any volume one might find in this dimension."

If Buffy had had any doubt that what they were facing here was apocalyptic stuff, it vanished. She didn't even want to think about the type of power required to pull off such a feat. "Unfortunately," Wesley continued, "when Angelus escaped, he caught Lilah and..."

Wesley's voice trailed off, the pain in his face betraying a connection he hadn't admitted to. "Did he sire her or just kill her?" Spike asked.

Again that rueful smile that was beginning to become all too familiar. "That was the difficulty. She was dead when we found her. He'd been feeding, but there was blood on her lips..."

"So you didn't know if she'd swallowed any of his," Spike finished.

"And according to what I've read, Angelus can be somewhat...promiscuous in making new vampires."

Spike didn't offer an answer to that, but Buffy felt his grip tighten slightly at her waist and she found herself sliding closer, wanting the comfort his nearness provided. "The idea that Angelus might have turned her did occur to us and I volunteered to make certain she didn't rise."

"Where is she now?" Buffy barely whispered the words.

"In the meat locker of the hotel kitchen. It is functional and seemed the best place to keep her until..." He took a deep breath. "Since the immediate problem of perpetual night has been solved, I believe the time has come to make a final disposition."

"And that's what you need my help for. Why me? Why not one of your mates downstairs?" Spike asked.

"Because..." Wesley's voice cracked slightly and he cleared his throat before continuing. "Because they all despised her. I'm afraid I didn't treat Lilah as well as I should have while she was alive; the least I can do is provide her with some respect and courtesy in death. The others won't be willing to do that; they're all too glad she's gone. I was thinking that, since you didn't know her, you might be able to give me the help I need. We wouldn't be able to do it until after dark."

After a moment's hesitation, Spike nodded. "Just let me know when and where."

"Thank you." The words seemed heartfelt. "I'll leave you to get some rest."

Spike was very quiet when Wesley had gone, almost pensive. "Why don't you take a shower, pet?" he said at last. "Wouldn't hurt to clean out those scratches again."

A shower that didn't have a dozen other people waiting outside the door was a luxury Buffy hadn't known in some time, but she didn't linger. When she emerged, Spike had pulled on his jeans, leaning against the wall near the windows, once again dancing with the sun as he caught glimpses of the world passing by outside. She didn't speak but went to him, laying one hand on his shoulder. Without looking down, his arm snaked around her, pulling her close. "It's going to be a long before he stops hating himself because of this," he said, his voice sad. "He couldn't save her and he'll spend his nights thinking of a hundred ways he might have. That's the worst; the 'if onlys'."

She knew he was speaking from experience, probably remembering those days she'd been dead and buried. One hundred and forty-seven days, he'd told her the night she'd come back, smiling as he'd realized the one hundred and forty-eighth day didn't count. "Do you think he loved her?" she asked.

"Yes, though I don't think he admitted it until she was gone. Maybe not even then."

Buffy closed her eyes. God, she knew that feeling. Had Wesley hated himself for wanting to be with her, wondering how he could sink so low? Even just thinking of those feelings in another brought a bad taste to her mouth.

She felt Spike's touch on her cheek and opened her eyes to find him staring down at her with an intensity that was frightening. "We're not there anymore," he whispered, as if he knew her thoughts.

"I was, not long ago. I couldn't..."

"But not now," he insisted.

"No, not now," she admitted with a smile and reached up to draw his head down to her.

They were supposed to resting, preparing themselves for the fight that awaited them. At this moment, all she wanted to do was reassure herself he was here and real and they were together. It was everything their first tumble into her bed hadn't been: slow and gentle with no sense of urgency. She took time to explore, stroking her hands along the planes of pale cool muscle as if to commit them to memory, smiling as she discovered some new spot that brought a small noise of pleasure. There were entire minutes where they did nothing but kiss, arms wrapped around each other and bodies close. There was laughter, too, when Spike's foot got caught in his jeans as he tried to pull them off, toppling most ungracefully back onto the bed. He glared at her, male dignity wounded at her laughter until she distracted him.

Somewhere in the process, they slid under the sheets, feet tangling together. She took the lead this time, wanting to show him the depth of her feelings as he'd always tried to show her his. There were moments when she felt clumsy and awkward, finding it hard to resist the temptation to just sink into his touch and let him take control, but she'd see herself reflected in blue eyes filled with happiness and her fears disappeared. Then she lost of track of who was touching whom and nothing mattered except the connection between them.

He held onto her afterwards, cuddling her close with one hand lazily stroking her hair. "Slow enough for you?" he asked, a smirk decorating his face.

Buffy stretched, letting one foot trail along his calf. "Mmmm. I think it will do...for the moment, at least."

Spike laughed, rubbing his nose against hers before kissing her again. "When it's all done," he told her, "I am going to take you away for a weekend, just the two of us. We'll find a little place somewhere along the coast and we'll hole up, make love the whole time. No interruptions, no prophecies, just you and me."

"That sounds wonderful." It did, it really did. She was going to focus on that, not think about the possibility they might not both make it or what the First had in store for them or how they were going find Angel's soul...

It was that thought which brought her back to the present and the world outside their warm cocoon. They were under Angel's roof, in one of his beds. Buffy sat up abruptly, sheet clutched tightly to her chest as the realization came crashing down.

Spike sat up as well, one hand rubbing along her back. "Buffy? What is it?"

"Where are we?" she asked, the words coming out stiff and tight.

"We're at the Hyperion, of course, Angel's place...oh."

He pulled his hand away and she felt the mattress shift as he rolled off the bed. "Better go downstairs and ask Fred if they have another spot where I can stretch out."

It was moving too fast, slipping from her control even as she reached out to him. "Spike..."

He didn't flinch away, but he stepped back, out of her reach. "I should have thought. Just respectful, it is, not to shag Grandad's girl under his roof."

"Spike, stop being an idiot. I'm not Angel's girl; I'm yours."

The words came out far harsher than she intended, but they stopped him from pulling on his jeans. "I'm your girl," she repeated softly.

Spike dropped to his knees next to the bed, reaching out to take the hand he'd just pulled back from. "Do you mean it?" he asked.

She was about to casually reply that of course she did when she caught the disbelief in his eyes. It hurt...as did the knowledge she'd given him plenty of reasons in the past for that disbelief. "I mean it," she told him, squeezing his hand. "It just hit me that I'm here with you and it feels right. A year ago -- six months ago, less -- I would have worried what Angel thought even when he wasn't here. I probably wouldn't have brought you along because not having to deal with his reaction would have been more important than your help."

He gave her a skeptical look. "You're telling me you're not worried what he's going to think when we get him back together in one piece?"

Honesty time. But then, the walls were crumbling rapidly, weren't they, all the defenses she'd built up against him over the years turning into dust. "I'm absolutely terrified. He's not going to like it. No, that's too mild. He's going to disapprove and he's going to have all sorts of reasons why it's wrong."

Buffy stretched out on her stomach across the bed so they were face to face once more. "I'm going to get twitchy and nervous and all the old reactions are going to come back and please forgive me in advance if I start acting like a bitch."

"Start?" The warmth was returning to his eyes even as she watched his shoulders relax."

"Pig," she said fondly and kissed him. When they parted, she took a deep breath before continuing. "Angel's been so much a part of my life, even after he left. He was the one I...it's a little frightening to realize after all this time that you're the one I'm going to turn to, not him. It just hit me like a ton of bricks, made me realize it's really, really over with him."

Spike reached out to run his hand over her hair, fingers twining through the strands. "If you can deal with the fact there's still some lingering affection on my part for Dru, I can deal with you having some for Angel. They're part of our past, luv; there are memories and good times associated with them...even if there's a hell of a lot of pain and suffering as well. One thing I've learned over the last few months is that if you try to just push memories aside, they have a way of coming back and biting you in the ass."

Another kiss. "Okay, 'biting you in the ass' so not Dr. Phil."

He snorted. "Wanker. Doesn't look like he ever has any fun. I may be a bit rough about the edges, luv, but..."

They got some rest. Eventually.



Chapter Thirteen

"I'm counting on the likelihood people will be reluctant to venture outside after dark for the next day or so," Wesley told Spike as they headed for the hotel's kitchen once the sun had set. "It should make the job a bit easier."

Privately, Spike didn't think anything would make the job easier. Wesley looked as if he'd aged ten years since the moment he'd walked through the door of Revello Drive, the personal demons he'd forced back temporarily riding hard and fast on his heels. "You have a spot picked out?" he asked, more to make conversation than anything else.

He felt the need to make conversation. This part of the hotel clearly didn't see much use, a cavernous ballroom that still bore traces of its glory days. Spike remembered dancing with Drusilla in places such as this, stylishly dressed and on the prowl for their next meal.

"Yes, I do have a spot in mind." Wesley led them into a service corridor, debris littering the floor. "I would prefer a cremation and a chance to scatter her ashes, but that's not possible now."

Of course not. Too many questions would be asked, the police involved. As painful as the situation was, Wesley was right to do it this way. Then a stray thought wandered across Spike's mind. "What about her family?"

Wesley shook his head. "There's only her mother and I'm afraid the poor woman no longer recognized her daughter. Actually, I'm not even certain what her status is at the moment or what Lilah's arrangements for her were. I should check. Here we are."

They'd entered the kitchen, all steel and angles, much the same as every other hotel kitchen Spike had ever seen. Wesley led the way to the walk-in meat locker, pausing only briefly before he opened the door.

She'd been laid out on a table, probably originally used to prep steaks or other such things, her body wrapped in a plastic tarp. Wesley moved to the head of the table, hands reaching out to fold back the shroud to reveal her face. She'd been a good looking woman, Spike thought, not his type but definitely striking. "Should I give you a moment?"

"No, we should get to it. I just wanted to..." Wesley shook his head and started to cover Lilah's face once more.

At the last instant, Spike stretched out his hand. "Hold on a sec..." He leaned forward, frowning as he examined what remained of Lilah's neck. Whatever Wesley had used to sever head from body had cut through the wound, but enough still remained for Spike to see there was yet another mystery here for them to solve.

Straightening, he took a deep breath, wondering what was the best way to phrase this news. Things had been easier when he was evil, hadn't they? Didn't give a damn about other people's feelings then. "Angelus didn't kill her," he said, seeing no other way.

The look of horror on Wesley's face was painful. "I saw him feeding on her. His mouth was at her throat."

"Easy pickings. Looks like she bled pretty profusely from whatever stabbed her in the neck."

"Stabbed?" Wesley leaned closer, a mixture of fascination and horror dancing across his features. "Are you certain?"

"Believe me, I know what Angelus' bite looks like. Unless he's gotten real sloppy, this ain't it. See how the skin's torn? Looks like something much wider than a fang got to her."

They were both quiet as Wesley examined the wound. When he straightened, his face was hard. "We're going to find out who did this."

Spike had no doubt about that, nor did he have any doubt the responsible party would pay dearly. He'd do the same in Wesley's position.

Carefully, Wesley covered Lilah's face, smoothing away any wrinkles in the plastic. "I think it's time to go."

***

Buffy was about to check on Willow and Kennedy when her cell phone trilled. To her delight, the voice on the other end of the line was Giles. "I wanted to let you know we arrived in Sunnydale safely. LAX is still closed, so we were routed through San Francisco."

"It should be open the next time you go out; we took care of that problem."

There was a pause. "This is in addition to Angelus on the loose?"

"You'd better believe it. Things are bad here, Giles. There's this beast and someone inside the group is up to something nasty...if I didn't have everything going on in Sunnydale, I might be tempted to stay and help."

"Buffy..."

"I said might, Giles. I probably wouldn't because there's the Spike issue. I don't think he'd be welcome down here long-term."

"Ah, yes. Spike. I'd like to speak with you about that when you get home."

This did not sound good. In fact, it sounded bad. "Did Xander say something?"

"No, Xander did not say anything. I was, however, greeted by Andrew who announced, 'Buffy is sleeping with Spike' the moment I walked in the door."

"He didn't."

"No, he didn't. He actually said, 'Buffy is boinking Spike.' I was trying to be a bit more refined. I understand you're under a great deal of stress..."

Time to take the plunge. "Giles, I love him."

There was a long pause at the other end of the line. "Are you certain?"

"As certain as I am of anything these days. I know you don't approve..."

"That is an understatement." Clearly Giles was trying to hold himself together, but she could hear the anger in his voice. "This isn't something we can discuss over the phone. When you get home, we'll talk. I think there are some things you may not be considering."

She didn't hear much of the rest of the conversation, answering in what she hoped were the right places. It'd gone too easily with Willow and Xander, she realized that. Or was it that they'd been there the whole time, seen what Giles hadn't? Xander's acceptance of the situation had pleased but surprised her; with Giles so clearly set against it, would that acceptance waver?

She promised she'd call when she had more news of the situation and they managed to say goodbye pleasantly enough. When the call was done, Buffy stared at the cell phone in her hand, wishing for the old days when Giles had been the stalwart refuge she could turn to, dispenser of wisdom and advice, setting her feet on the proper path when she strayed, even if she protested at every turn. But then, he hadn't been that for some time, had he? He'd been gone from her life so much the last two years.

Shoving the cell phone into her pocket, Buffy headed down the hall and rapped gently at the door to Willow and Kennedy's room. The Willow that greeted her looked much happier than she had earlier in the day. "I take it Kennedy is doing better."

"Much." Willow stood aside so Buffy could come in. "Fred brought some soup up and she's managed to eat."

That was good news, at least. Moving toward the bed, Buffy could see the improvement for herself, even if the girl was still pale where she sat propped up against the pillows. The defiant look was back in her eye, which was a good thing. "I want to go after him," she said without preamble.

Definitely doing better. "Out of the question, Kennedy. Under other circumstances, we would have carted you off to the hospital and gotten you checked out. The last thing you need to do is go running off on a hunt."

"I want to get that animal." The words were said between gritted teeth.

Buffy crossed her arms, ready for the struggle she knew was about to commence. "First, you are not strong enough."

"I am." Kennedy struggled to get out of bed, but the effort clearly tired her and she slumped back against the pillow.

"Right. Sure you are. Second, we're not on a revenge mission. We're going to capture Angel so Willow can put his soul back. Look, I'm not too happy he got his fangs into you, but that's one of the hazards of the job. Vampires do their best to kill slayers. It's kind of hardwired into them."

"Easy for you to say. You've never..." Kennedy faltered as Buffy held up three fingers. "Three times?"

"Yup. I actually died with the first one. He drank till I was too weak to stand, then pitched me face first into a pool of water. I would have stayed dead if Xander and Angel hadn't found me and performed CPR. That's when the slayer line divided."

Kennedy was quiet for a moment, eyes cast down as her mind worked along whatever paths it had decided to wander. When she looked up, her face had gone hard. "How can you stand to even be around him, knowing what he is?"

"Angel? He's quite different when he has his soul, just the kind of dark, broody guy who could easily sweep a young girl off his feet. I think I can understand why you wouldn't be eager to meet him, but Willow will back me up..."

"I meant Spike. How can you stand to be around him, much less sleep with him? Isn't he an animal, too?" Kennedy practically spat the words out.

Before Buffy could reply, Willow came to her rescue. "You've got to understand that we've known Spike for years. Sure he's tried to kill us in the past and there was the time that he betrayed us to Adam, but he's been helping us now and he's changed."

"Which is why he sired those people? Or helped the First raise the Turok Han?"

"He didn't..." The words came hotly to Buffy's lips and she caught herself, taking several deep breaths before she felt she could speak calmly. "I trust Spike. I depend on him to watch my back -- and I did that before he and I ever started sleeping together."

"Spike's kind of Buffy's second in command for the fighty stuff," Willow said, reaching out to fluff Kennedy's pillow.

It was the wrong thing to say and Buffy had to wonder how Willow had missed Kennedy's desire for that very position. "You'd take a vampire over a potential slayer...a human?"

"It's not that simple, Kennedy." She tried to make her words soothing, but she doubted it'd work. "Spike's got experience none of us can match. It'd be foolish not to use it."

"But when you asked me to help with the training and...I see. It's because we were doing the work in the sunlight, where he couldn't go. That's the reason, isn't it? Otherwise, you would have had him running things."

Kennedy sank down on the pillows and pulled the covers up. "I'm tired. I should get some rest."

Buffy didn't argue; she knew it wouldn't serve any purpose. From the very beginning, Kennedy had continually offered challenges, measuring Buffy and finding her wanting. This was just another instance. The only question was what difficulties would it create?

Willow followed Buffy to the door. "She's not feeling well. Maybe in the morning..."

"That's not it. Ever since she arrived, Kennedy's had this sense of entitlement, like she's supposed to be the real Slayer and I'm somehow standing in the way."

"Uh, isn't Faith the 'real' Slayer? In the sense of being to pass along the powers, that is."

"Since apparently no new slayer showed up while I was dead, I guess so. The point is that given the way she's assumed the leadership position is naturally hers -- which I have not been encouraging her in -- she's bound to resent any hint anyone might be taking that place. That includes Spike and it definitely includes me."

"Buffy!" Willow pulled her out into the hall, shutting the door behind them. "How can you say that?"

"Real easy. Look at the way she's acted. Decided she'd rather be with you than go on a vision quest with the others so she faked being sick. Decided she didn't need it. I know you have feelings for her, but if she gets out of line, I'm going to have to slap her down. And now I've got a bigger problem because I need you to come with me when we go out again and we can't take her."

"Of course. She's not well enough and I need to do the binding spell."

"But can I trust her not to do anything stupid when I'm gone. I want you, Spike, Wesley and Connor with me. Everyone else stays here."

Willow scrunched up her nose. "Do we have to take Connor?"

"I don't want to leave him here with Cordelia. Who knows what badness she's up to? The point is that when we go out, I need Kennedy downstairs because I don't want anyone separated from the group and I don't want her trying anything stupid."

"I'll talk to her." Willow laid a reassuring hand on Buffy's arm. "I'll convince her to behave."

"Do your best. And if you can convince her to continue behaving when we get back to Sunnydale, I'd be grateful."

***

The place Wesley had chosen in the Hollywood Hills offered a lovely view of the lights of Los Angeles. They hadn't said much on the winding drive up, too conscious of the cargo carefully covered with a blanket in the back of the SUV. Nor had they spoken during the work of digging the grave. Wesley had been insistent it be a proper depth so some coyote or other such animal wouldn't disturb her.

It'd been hard work, digging through rocks and sandy soil, but at last the hole was deep enough. They'd rigged some straps to lower her down, using Wesley's limited mechanical sense and Spike's long buried memories of his breathing days when he'd attended the last rites of one relative or another. It wasn't the most graceful of descents, but after a good deal of sweat and effort on their part, Lilah Morgan was laid in her final resting place.

Reaching for his shovel to start filling in the grave, Spike asked, "Do you want to say something?"

Wesley, too, had taken his shovel in hand, but simply stood staring downward. "What would you suggest? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust?"

"In sure and certain hope of the resurrection," Spike completed. "Don't look at me like that. I was raised a good Anglican boy. Knew my prayers and services by rote. Those memories don't vanish because one becomes a vampire. They just get...buried."

Not the best choice of words at this moment, but he wasn’t sure how else to describe it. Wesley didn't seem to notice, or if he did, he chose not to acknowledge it. "I don't think Lilah believed in any of that. She very much lived in the now."

"Say a prayer for her anyway. Won't hurt and it's only fitting and proper for the moment." And it might make you feel better.

Wesley did as he suggested, bowed his head and closed his eyes. Spike let his head drop back and looked up to see what stars came peeping through the reflected lights from the city. God, he needed a cigarette, even if only for something to do with his hands instead of just holding on to the bleeding shovel and waiting for Wesley to finish. He didn't want to think too much because his memory might lead him back to a cellar in Sunnydale and other burials. No, he needed to stay firmly here in the present, no matter how the associations called to him.

There was a murmured "Amen" and Wesley used his shovel to spread the first sprinkling of earth over Lilah's corpse. After that, the work continued in earnest, the grave filling far easier than it had been to dig. Even so, the hour was later than Spike would have liked by the time they tamped down the last bit of dirt and dragged some ground cover over the spot to conceal it.

In silence, they headed back to the SUV. "We need to tell Buffy about this when we get back," Wesley said as he turned the key in the ignition. "There may be some steps she feels we should take."

"Not going to do anything stupid or heroic?" Spike asked.

"No," Wesley assured him as they headed back toward the Hyperion. "At least not at the moment."



Chapter Fourteen

Lorne was busy on the phone as Buffy descended to the lobby. "You're certain about that? Well, he didn't actually hit the boy; just stuck out his fist and let Connor run into it. So that doesn't count because he didn't actively go after him? That's good to know. Thank you so much, you sweeties. There's a bottle of wine coming with that bouquet. Of course it's the good stuff; when do I do anything else for my friends?"

"That's a relief," he said as he hung up the phone. "Your little sweetmeat of a vampire had me all worried something had gone wrong with the sanctuary spell -- it's supposed to prevent violence, after all, and with him flattening Connor..." Lorne waved it away with his hand. "Turns out, he managed to find a loophole by letting Connor do all the work. Not that I blame him; I've felt the urge to lay into the precocious brat's skull more than once myself."

Buffy looked around to make certain they were alone before pulling herself up onto one of the tall stools arranged in front of the counter. "Not your favorite person, I take it."

"I'm not one to tell tales out of school, but since you asked, no. Don't get me wrong; Connor was the cutest baby and we all adored him, but after he returned from Quor-toth...I'm not sure if it was Holtz, his environment, a combination of the two or just the fact he's a teenager, but he is not number one on my list of who to invite for dinner."

When Buffy had learned of Connor's existence, she'd felt a wave of resentment at the idea of Angel had a child, something she was convinced she'd never know. The longer she knew Connor, however, and the more she heard about him, that resentment melted away, morphing into something else. Pity? Was that the right word? "Where is he, anyway? I thought he'd be down here chomping at the bit for the chance to go after Angel."

Lorne frowned. "You know, I'm not sure. He usually gets pretty antsy and active once the sun goes down -- the vampire parentage thing, I imagine -- but he went upstairs earlier today and I haven't seen him since. Probably with Cordelia making..."

He cut off the end of his sentence rather abruptly, almost as if he'd had a sudden attack of discretion. "It's a rather complicated situation around here, my dear. I know you and Angel were the big star-crossed lovers, but lately he's been developing feelings..."

"For Cordelia. Who's now sleeping with Connor."

The look of surprise on his face was almost worth the trip to Los Angeles, but the wicked, conspiratorial grin that followed was even better. "My. We have been keeping up with 'Days of Our Unlife,' haven't we? Let me guess; Spike figured it out. Very perceptive fellow you've got there. Pity Angel hates him."

That made her wince. Dealing with Angel over this was going to be so not fun and she was wondering exactly how soon after Willow got the soul back in they could hit the road. She could rationalize it as worry over what might be happening in Sunnydale during her absence, but even she knew it was rationalization. With all that was whirring in her head at the moment, it was easier to admit she was feeling a bit of a coward where Angel was concerned.

"Have you had anything to eat?" Lorne asked, effectively derailing that line of conversation. "You're looking a bit thin around the edges. Fred took Gunn out on a food run, which means we're going to be eating tacos tonight, but, hey, anything in a pinch." He frowned. "Kennedy and Willow aren't vegetarians or anything like that? I'm afraid most of us are fairly carnivorous around here."

"As long as it's not spaghetti, we should be fine," Buffy replied, perfectly happy to have the conversation back on safer ground. "We've eaten a lot of spaghetti lately."

"Hmm. Wesley told me something of your troubles in Sunnydale. If no one else says it, I will. You're being a real trooper to come down here and help us with our problems when you've got your own evil to deal with. And speaking of problems..."

She turned her head to discover Connor coming down the stairs. "When are we going?" he asked as soon as he got within range.

"When Wesley and Spike get back," Buffy replied. She was hoping it'd be soon.

"We don't need them. The two of us are strong enough to take Angelus."

She was about to give him a list of reasons why they weren't out to "take" Angelus, but decided she'd had enough of justifying what she was trying to do. "Probably, but I haven't had dinner yet, so we're waiting."

Disagreement flickered in Connor's eyes, but he offered no protests. "I'm just going to practice until then."

With that, he wandered toward the weapons cabinet. "Is it just me or does he seem distracted?" Lorne asked, leaning in, his voice low.

"He does seem distracted. Not in a good way, either." Buffy watched Conner pull a sword from the cabinet and begin going through a series of exercises. "Looks like something's on his mind."

"If it keeps him quiet, then 'yay' whatever."

No, Lorne definitely didn't like Connor. Buffy wasn't certain the distraction was all for the good, though. She recognized the expression on his face as he went through the motions, light glinting off the blade. Angel used to get that look, usually when there was something dire happening he wasn't ready to tell her about.

And if Connor had been upstairs with Cordelia...

Connor executed a spectacular series of turns, the sword flashing as it twirled, ending in a final extended lunge.

"Nice sword," Kennedy said, standing on the lobby steps directly in front of where Connor had stopped. She still looked a bit pale but she was on her feet and seemed steady, a bandage on her neck covering the wound.

Connor acknowledged her with a nod as he straightened. "Thanks. I make it a habit to practice every day."

"Same here. Can't keep in top shape unless you practice. I'm fine, Willow."

Willow, who'd been hovering just at Kennedy's elbow, drew back as if stung. "Just wanted to make sure you're okay. You were a little shaky on your feet upstairs."

"We can sit down," Connor said quickly, "talk weapons. You've got some good moves yourself."

"Does he realize she's batting for the other team?" Lorne asked as Kennedy was escorted to the circular couch by both Connor and Willow.

"Does he even know the other team exists?" Buffy had to ask in return.

"Good question. Holtz seemed like an uptight guy, not the kind who'd discuss alternative lifestyles."

When the three were seated, Connor started on about technique, what he'd learned and how he used it. Kennedy seemed interested but Willow's eyes glazed over in less than thirty seconds. She stuck it out for another couple of minutes then wandered over toward Buffy and Lorne. "Is it my imagination," she asked sotto voice, "or is Connor trying to hit on Kennedy?"

"We were just discussing that fact." Connor's face was showing more animation now, even offering a smile, thus smashing Buffy's theory he only had two expressions: sullen and sullen disapproval.

Willow stifled a giggle. "This could be funny."

At least it was some entertainment while they waited. Connor preened, postured and puffed; Kennedy kept talking about fighting...and she just meant fighting. No subtext on her part.

The fun continued until the moment Willow glanced toward the stairs. "If looks could kill..."

Cordelia was descending, her eyes fixed firmly on Connor and Kennedy. Buffy had been on the receiving end of that look before, back when she was the focus of attention from a boy Cordelia had marked out as her own. Of course, the fact Kennedy didn't know anything about Cordelia and probably didn't give a crap about her opinions would hold all sorts of fun possibilities if not for the fact they suspected Cordelia of darker deeds.

She was wearing loose-fitting clothing with a long flowing jacket over the ensemble, but if one knew she was pregnant, her condition was obvious. Given her size, she had to be at least five months along...not that Buffy considered herself an expert on the subject. "So this is the great plan? We sit around and stare at the walls?"

Connor literally jumped at the sound of Cordelia's voice, putting space between himself and Kennedy. "Do you have a better suggestion?" Buffy asked.

"Anything would be better than this."

"She wants to wait until Spike and Wesley return," Connor said.

"Because they've been oh-so-helpful." Cordelia settled into a chair, the queen keeping court. "I'm surprised you're relying on Wesley so much. Back in Sunnydale, you made no secret of the fact you thought he was pretty useless."

"People change."

"They certainly do. I remember when you used to be afraid of nothing, always eager to rush off and fight. Now it's wait for Wesley, wait for Spike, wait for Willow because that binding spell was spectacularly successful."

Buffy knew she was being bated and resisted the urge to respond. Connor didn't. "We really should find another way besides the magic to catch him. Something more trustworthy."

That earned him an approving smile from Cordelia. Buffy was about to ask him what he had in mind when Kennedy had to put her two cents in. "It's not a bad idea. I have faith in Willow, but at the very least we need a backup plan, something we can throw at him if she gets knocked out again or something like that."

Kennedy didn't rate the same look as Connor, but Cordelia didn't look hostile to the idea. "Whatever it is, we should come up with it and get going. Time's a-wasting."

"You do want Angel back, don't you, Cordelia?"

The glare Buffy got in response wasn't one of the high school one, but something darker and angrier. "Spike's not here to fight your battles for you. You're the Slayer. You're the one Wesley was convinced could come charging in and save Angel. I haven't seen anything so far to convince me you have any idea what the hell you're doing. Yes, I want Angel back, but I'm not going to sit here and blindly follow someone who just keeps getting people hurt."

She shouldn't respond. She shouldn't let herself get angry. She needed to show restraint and not be goaded...oh, to hell with it. Sliding off the stool, she began a slow stalk across the floor. "You don't like what I'm doing, Cordelia? Fine. Where's your plan? I haven't seen you come up with any solid suggestions since we got here. I want to hear what steps you think we should be taking."

"Well, for one thing I wouldn't be sitting around on my ass when I've got people who could help me capture him. Take Connor and Willow. She can do one of her glow spell thingies and track him down and you and Connor can manhandle him or Willow can wave her hand."

"I thought you felt the binding spell was a failure. But then, you've learned so much about spell casting, haven't you? That's why you were able to come up with that spell which supposedly put Angel's soul back..."

Cordelia sat up abruptly as if she was about to surge out of the chair. Anger Buffy expected, but for just an instant there was something much darker in Cordelia's eyes, a change that wasn't quite human. She started to take a step back, but stopped, determined to stand her ground.

"Girls, may I remind you there's a sanctuary spell?" Lorne called out. "That means no violence or you'll find yourself with a nasty headache."

Deliberately, Cordelia sank back into her chair. "Don't worry, Lorne. If there's violence, I won't be the one doing it; unlike some people, I know how to control my temper."

Buffy said nothing, merely smiled. She knew. She wasn't certain how or why, but something in her bones was singing, telling her that everything they'd suspected about Cordelia was true. The only questions now were how, why, and what did they need to do to stop her?

The front doors opened to admit Gunn and Fred, arms laden with carry-out bags. "We were going for Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles," Gunn said has he carried the bags to the front desk. "Unfortunately, they had some damage when everything went down and haven't re-opened yet. So, we went to Fred's taco stand, which was open...and did I miss something."

"Absolutely nothing." Buffy strolled back to the counter. "Those smell good. I didn't realize I was so hungry."

The food was quickly unpacked and distributed. It wasn't food Buffy would have normally chosen, but the rumble in her stomach told her it was time to put worries about things like saturated fats aside and take in some fuel. The others seemed to feel the same way, quickly tucking into the crunchy shells. Connor brought one to Cordelia, but while she took it, she also turned her nose up slightly as it the smell was unappetizing. That wasn't necessarily a sign she was evil, though. Cordelia had always passed up anything that wasn't lo-fat, lo-taste and stamped with a designer signature.

Eating brought quiet, which was fine as far as Buffy was concerned, her eyes fixed firmly on the front door, waiting. She was working on her second taco when Wesley and Spike returned, both looking serious as befitted the chore they'd come from. Wesley sniffed the air. "I take it Gunn and Fred went for food."

"Hey, I tried to go for chicken but Roscoe's was closed."

"Oh, dear. Not permanently, I hope."

"Nah. They had a sign on the door, said they'd be open next week."

It was a rare moment of friendliness, the first she believed she'd seen between the two men since her arrival. Then her mind was skipping away from it, turning toward the other Englishman present. "Spike, there's blood in the office refrigerator," Fred called out. "It should be fresh."

Spike nodded his thanks and fetched himself a cup. After heating it, he strolled toward Buffy, pausing as the food caught his eye. "I haven't had tacos in ages."

With that, his hand snaked out and snagged a paper wrapped package. Leaning against the counter next to where Buffy sat, he set his mug down and unwrapped the cover, biting into the shell with a loud "crunch." "Oh, that is good," he said, the words slightly mumbled due to food in his mouth.

Gunn was staring. "I didn't think vamps ate people food."

"This vamp does. Tacos, spicy chicken wings and if you can found me one of those flowering onion things, I'd be grateful. Used to enjoy it the Bronze up in Sunnydale, but they took it off the menu."

Gunn's eyebrow had climbed steadily throughout this. "Wes, do your books include any of this?"

That brought a chuckle as Wesley unwrapped his own tacos. "No, but I'm rapidly learning that Spike is hardly the usual vampire."

Spike looked smug as he took another bite. This time, a tiny smear of grease was left at the corner of his mouth and Buffy reached up to wipe it away. He looked down at her, bathing her in warmth with his smile, then leaned forward to give her kiss that taste of hot sauce and all things Spike. She could feel the daggers at the back of her head from various parties, but she didn't care. Let Cordelia glare all she wanted and Buffy would deal with Kennedy later.

"Aw. Now isn't that sweet. Could just about turn my stomach."

Every head in the room jerked toward the spot where the voice originated. Angelus stood there, hands in the pocket of his black wool overcoat, a grin on his face that promised nothing but trouble. "Hi, guys. Miss me?"



Chapter Fifteen

Everyone hung frozen for a long moment, stunned at the idea Angelus would simply stroll in. Then, Connor was on his feet in a blur, charging toward him at full speed. Before anyone else could react, he bounced backward, light flaring at the point of impact.

Angelus didn't move, just watched with ill-concealed delight as his son sprawled backwards onto the floor. "I guess the little bird who said Lorne had done a Sanctuary spell was right."

"What the hell are you doing here?" Gunn started for the weapon cabinet, but stopped halfway there with a muttered "Damn." No, weapons weren't going to do them any good at the moment.

"Do I really need a reason to see old friends? Buffy's here and Willow; I haven't had a chance to say a decent 'hello.'"

Angelus strolled forward, casually moving toward Willow and Kennedy. "Like the hair, Willow. It's a better look for you than that real short and kind of curly cut you were sporting the last time you were here." He paused. "Aren't you going to introduce me to your tasty little friend?"

Willow was on her feet, moving to block Angelus from any further approach. "Leave her alone."

"Oooh, the kitten has claws. Big change from the frightened little girl I remember." He leaned in, his voice dropping to a stage whisper. "But you're still that girl inside, aren't you? Don't worry; I won't tell anyone."

Willow's lips began to move, the air around her charging. "Don't!" Lorne yelled. "It'll rebound."

"Aww. And it'd be so fun to watch." Chuckling, Angelus backed away, his eyes never straying from Willow until the magic she'd begun to summon had dissipated.

"You shouldn't have come," Cordelia said.

"Why am I not surprised to hear from Cordy? What's the matter? Embarrassed to be seen with your new boyfriend? That raises a question, though; how the hell did I manage to produce such pathetic children? Connor's a mess, though I could probably absolve myself of blame there and lay it all on Holtz. But William? I'm afraid I'm stuck with responsibility for that one."

"Don't put yourself out, mate." Spike's posture was casual, but Buffy could feel the tension buzzing inside him.

"Well, that's the thing, 'mate.'" Angelus turned toward them, smile gone from his face. "I've done nothing but put myself out about you since you dragged your sorry ass out of the grave. You were squeamish about your first hunt, then you kept bringing us to everyone's attention, damn near getting us torn apart by the mob because of your stupidity. You never learned, never focused, just kept mooning after Drusilla when she didn't really give you any more thoughts that she did those dolls of hers. Yeah, you killed two slayers but only because you were fool enough to go chasing after them."

"While you ran like hell from them.

"Sometimes there are more important things than just racking up points. But that's another lesson you never learned. And look where it got you. A soul."

A quick move and Angelus was almost nose to nose with Spike. "Is it good? Do you enjoy suffering; atoning for all those things you used to love but now are 'sins'? Do the urges still come to you in the middle of the night, all the things you desperately want to do but you know are 'wrong'?"

His voice dropped low, taking on a conspiratorial tone. "Do you lie there next to her and think about sinking your fangs into her neck, tasting that sweet, sweet blood? 'Cause it is sweet, I can tell you. If it was me, I'd be chomping at the bit, eager to get another taste."

Spike's eyes had narrowed and what blue Buffy could see was like ice. She was certain something was about to break, that at any moment Spike would take a swing and give Angelus the satisfaction of watching him slam helplessly against Lorne's sanctuary spell.

Spike, however, did what he did best: the unexpected. Arms folded across his chest, he asked, "Are you quite done?" in a tone of supreme boredom.

Angelus pulled back, a hint of a snarl escaping. This was clearly not what he'd expected. "You've managed to grow a pair. Did they come with the soul?" He indicated Buffy with a quick motion of his head. "Or did she lend you some of hers for the duration?"

"Nah. Darla left the jar she kept yours in behind, and since they were barely used..."

Another snarl and Angelus raised his fist, only to catch himself before he actually threw the punch. "Cute, boy. Maybe you have learned a thing or two."

"Why are you here?" Buffy asked. "It's got to be more than wanting to drop by and offering up a few insults."

"Buffy, Buffy, Buffy." Angelus was backing off, chuckling. "So impatient. Don't you think I might want to see you for your own sweet self?" At her glare, he chuckled once more. "Maybe not."

"Why are you here, Angelus?" Wesley asked, stepping forward.

"Like I said, to see old friends. I was expecting to be welcomed with open arms; but if you guys aren't happy to see me..."

Casually, he began to stroll toward the basement exit...a shade too casually, favoring Connor (who'd managed to pick himself up off the floor) with a grin obviously designed to drive the boy nuts before disappearing around the corner to the basement door. In the wake of his departure, the room descended into silence.

Once again, it was Connor who moved first, racing to pick up his sword from the circular couch and sprinting after Angelus. "Oh, my God! Stop him!" Cordelia shrieked.

With that, the room exploded into action. "Wesley, get the tranquilizer gun!" Buffy called. "Spike..."

"On it. Idiot doesn't realize it's a trap." He sprinted toward the basement stairs himself, Buffy realizing he hadn't stopped to grab a weapon only after he'd disappeared. There wasn't time to worry about that, though.

Grabbing a weapon for herself, she turned to Willow. "I'm going to need you with us. Gunn, I want the two of you together at the rear; keep a close eye on Willow. When she starts casting, she's going to be vulnerable."

Gunn offered no argument, taking up his axe. "Where do I go?" Kennedy asked, getting to her feet.

"You don't." There wasn't time to sugarcoat the words. "It's going to be bad enough down there; I don't need to be worrying about someone who isn't one hundred percent."

Buffy turned away, not bothering to wait for whatever objections might have to offer. The two previous encounters with Angelus had not been a walk in the park, but this was going to be worse. They were venturing into an enclosed space he knew better than they did and where he'd had time to plan all sorts of nasty surprise.

Might as well get this over with.

***

It didn't take that long for Spike to catch up with Connor. Snagging the boy by the collar of his shirt, Spike jerked him backward, not even trying to be gentle. "Where the hell do you think you're going?" he hissed.

Connor whirled, fist coming up, but Spike blocked the blow with the ease of long experience. "I was trying to stop him," Connor said, annoyance soaking his voice. "No one else seemed willing to do anything."

"Everyone else realized he was trying to get us to follow him. Think about it. Why would he want us doing this?"

After a long moment, the boy's eyes widened with realization. "It's a trap."

Spike released Conner with a disgusted snort. "God, you're as thick as he is. This is his battlefield, not ours. Of course it's a trap. Now we need to get out of here before..."

A low rumble filled the tunnel, a decidedly unpleasant sound. "Shit."

Connor tensed, sword at the ready. "What is it?"

Spike sniffed at the air. "Krevlach demon if I'm not mistaken. Big, stupid, mean..." There was another rumble. "And I think they're behind us."

"So we go further, continue following Angelus."

"Who the hell do you think set them on us?" It was all Spike had time to say before the demons were upon them. It couldn’t really be called a fight; six Krevlaches against Spike and Connor more closely resembled a bar brawl. Connor used his sword, hacking and slashing with a will, Spike used what he had available: his fists. Blood and body parts began to fly, making movement in the sewer tunnel treacherous.

They'd killed two of the beasts and were working on the third when pounding feet heralded new arrivals. For a moment Spike feared it was more demons but then he heard a female voice shouting and knew his slayer had arrived with reinforcements. More blood, more body parts, a final whistling swing of a sword and the remains of six Krevlachs were littering the tunnel.

"Are you okay?" Buffy asked, scrambling over a severed arm (at least, Spike though it was an arm; it could have been a leg). She scanned his face for injuries and the look in her eyes made every trial, every pain he'd endured worth it to see the tenderness there.

She smacked him on the arm. "Ow! That hurt, Buffy."

"You took off without a weapon! How did you think you were going to protect yourself?"

"With my fists, just like I always do."

"And get yourself hurt or killed in the process. Is this stuff acidic? We have got to get you more clothes when we get back to Sunnydale, assuming I don't strangle you myself."

She was fussing, worry taking the sting from her words. If they weren't standing in a sewer surrounded by demon parts, he'd kiss her. He considered doing it anyway, but Connor was cocking his head in that annoying way that said he sensed something. "He went this way...and he's close."

No need to say who "he" was. Connor started to head down the tunnel, but stopped when his foot hit another demon body part. "Do you think there might be more demons lying in wait?"

"Possibly. He could have easily gotten away while we were fighting, so he probably wants us to follow." Spike looked toward Buffy. "Your call, Slayer."

His use of the word was deliberate, reminding the others who was in charge here. Not that there was any doubt whom he'd follow. Buffy frowned, peering down the darkness that lay ahead. Then she turned, calling out, "You guys still with us?"

Gunn, Wesley and Willow came forward. "All accounted for," Gunn said. "Doesn't seem to be anything behind us."

Buffy nodded in acknowledgement, then looked down the tunnel again. "You're sure you can track him?" she asked of Connor.

"I learned well on Quor-toth," he replied. "I can track him."

She was frowning and Spike could see her weighing each option. Then her eyes slid toward him and he knew she'd made her decision. "Let's go get him."

***

Angelus was leading them on a merry chase, always just ahead of them. Twice more they encountered demons that seemed to be laying in wait for them, though never more than they could handle. It was almost as if the demons' purpose was as canon fodder, softening up Buffy and her troops for the main event.

She was beginning to regret the decision to continue the hunt when Connor paused. "I think..." he whispered.

"What?" The boy did have good tracking abilities, which kept her from having to drop into that semi-fugue state needed to sense him from more than a short distance.

"He's up ahead...and he's not moving."

It wasn't the first time that had happened, either. He was finally going to face them or he had another set of demons waiting. No choice but to send word down the line. "Everyone ready. We're about to go."

She held them for just a moment to prepare, and then indicated Connor should move ahead. Slowly they advanced, keeping close together. Another advantage of letting Connor do the tracking; it made him more cooperative.

The light within the tunnel changed as they rounded a corner, and a short walk led them into a large circular chamber that had to be some kind of junction or maintenance point. Ladders led upward toward two levels of iron scaffolding, pipes and valves casting weird shadows in the small work lights that glowed from a few points. "Took you guys long enough."

He was standing on the lowest level of the scaffolding, looking down on them with a confident air. "That's right; I forgot you ran into some trouble on the way. Believe it or not, Spike, I took a page from your book; I hired the minions this time. Not a bad idea, actually. Especially when you only have to pay them half up front."

Even before Buffy could give the order, Wesley was taking aim with the tranquilizer gun. Angelus was too quick, shifting out of the way of his shot. "You're much better with a flame thrower, Wes. Of course, that takes less finesse."

Buffy didn't need to tell Willow what to do, either, power building as she prepared her spell. Unfortunately, Angelus had anticipated that as well. "Have it, boys. Leave the Slayer for me."

At least eight vamps emerged from the shadows, fangs at the ready. They looked hungry. Suddenly Buffy wished she'd had the presence of mind to bring a crossbow. Thank goodness a stake was tucked in her waist band out of long habit. "Spike! Catch!"

She tossed him the sword she'd been carrying and pulled the stake from her waistband. At least this was a fight she could understand; no mystical beasties, only good old-fashioned vamps. She quickly fell into a rhythm, punching, kicking, aiming the stake straight for the heart whenever possible.

Where was that binding spell? It never took Willow this long. Another kick, a stake plunging in and pulling to an explosion of dust and she was able to steal a look.

Willow was holding the back of her head as if it had been slammed hard against something while Gunn held off three vamps. Whatever had happened, it had clearly interrupted the spell casting for at the least the moment. She started to make her way toward them, but got distracted with helping Wesley with the two who were attacking him.

A crunch and she was distracted again, just in time to see Connor slide down the wall and land in a heap. Angelus had joined the fight and he and Spike were now in a tussle, both vampires in game face, howling and scratching at one another, the sword she'd given Spike discarded somewhere along the way. "Can you get a shot, Wesley?"

Grim-faced, Wesley raised the gun and took aim. The dart flew...only to be caught by Angelus, his other arm wrapped tightly around Spike's neck. "Oh, no. No sleepy-time for me," he crowed, tossing the dart aside.

Buffy leapt forward, stake instinctively raised. It served to catch Angelus' attention and made him fling Spike away as he turned all his attention toward fighting her. "Willow! Get that damn spell going!" she shouted, focusing all her efforts at keeping him at bay. That's all she needed to do; buy enough time. There were 'pops' that told her the other vampires were being dispatched, but nothing to let her know if Willow had started her spell.

Then, a flash of white blonde caught her eye and she saw Spike lunge forward with the tranquilizer dart Angelus had discarded in his hand. The movement must have caught Angelus' eye as well as he sent an elbow flying backward to knock Spike to his knees. The setback was only momentary, though, as Spike drew back his arm and shoved the dart home...straight into Angelus' rear end.

The howl of pain mixed with annoyance was nearly ear-splitting and Angelus dealt Spike a vicious backhand that sent him sprawling. There was no puns or clever sayings in response to this attack, merely fury and murder in his eyes.

How long would it take for the sedative to work? Was the dosage high enough? Even if it was, had Spike put enough force behind it to deliver the drug into Angelus' system? These questions raced through Buffy's mind as she ducked a swing that was an abrupt change from his cat and mouse game of only moments ago. Was Spike okay? How many other vampires were left?

"Bind!"

The voice was a blessing, the power that flowed out to encircle Angelus even more so. He howled again, struggling uselessly against the bonds. Panting, Buffy dropped to her own knees, adrenalin starting to drop rapidly away. Almost instantly, Willow was at her side. "Did he hurt you?"

She shook her head, finding it hard to speak at first. "I'm fine," she managed at last. "Spike?"

Wesley was already there, helping him up. "I think he'll live."

"I hurt enough to feel alive," Spike complained, gingerly touching his cheek. A bruise was already blossoming on the skin, livid and painful looking.

Buffy could see Gunn, Willow was next to her, Spike in easy reach with Wesley by him. That only left...

"Connor? Gunn, is he okay?"

She could have sworn she heard a muttered, "Do I have to?" but Gunn moved to help drag the boy to his feet.

They were all accounted for, all alive. Letting Willow help her to stand, Buffy realized they'd managed to accomplish their goal. Angelus was firmly bound with no Beast to help free him. The sedative appeared to be slowly seeping into his system, his struggles growing less with each moment. "Um, how are we going to get him back to the hotel?"

"Float him," Willow suggested. "I don't think you want to loose the binding spell until we have him in the cage."

"Or the Sanctuary spell won't permit us to bring him any farther like this. A binding spelling is somewhat aggressive after all." Wesley frowned. "We're probably going to need Lorne to remove the spell before you start your work on his soul; that is also somewhat aggressive magic."

"So why don't we get back and let him get to work on that. Besides, it'll give me a chance to rest up. I've got a splitting headache from where one of those guys slammed me into the wall."

"Hey, remember who pulled him off your neck," Gunn reminded her.

There was more friendly bickering as they sorted themselves for the trip back. This time, Buffy was glad to take up the rear, slipping her arm around Spike's waist as he slipped his about hers. At least they had Angel; that was needed was find his soul. And the traitor.

Buffy had no doubt Cordelia was waiting for them at the hotel.



Chapter Sixteen

The Sanctuary spell did refuse to let them bring Angelus through the perimeter in the bindings Willow had put on him. Carefully, with everyone standing at the ready, she released the spell outside the entry point and he dropped to the ground like dead weight.

"Looks like the tranquilizer worked," Spike said, reaching out to try and haul Angelus to his feet. "Can someone give me a hand? "He's not light."

Between them, Spike and Connor manhandled Angelus into the cage and dropped him in the corner. "Who has the key?" Gunn asked as they began to close the door.

That provoked an uncomfortable silence. "I believe Cordelia had it last," Wesley finally said.

Buffy caught Spike's eye. Not good. "We could chain it shut," Spike suggested. "Or maybe Red could magic it shut, set some kind of alarm in case someone tries to tamper with it."

It was the best suggestion anyone had and Willow was quickly dispatched to fetch what supplies she needed. "That doesn't mean we leave him alone," Buffy said when she was gone. "Someone needs to watch him; I want to cut down on the possibility of him getting up to mischief. The sooner Willow can trace the soul, the better. Until then, we can't let our guard down.

Feet clattered on the old wooden stairs, alerting Buffy to additional visitors. Everyone tensed, but it was simply the rest of Angel Investigations crew and Kennedy. "You got him!" Fred called out excitedly. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, she took a few steps toward the cage and stopped. "Is he still evil?"

"We only captured him," Wesley told her. "There's still the soul to find."

"At least he's not running loose. That's one consolation." Cordelia's expression was serious.

"We're not out the woods, yet," Buffy warned. "Gunn, are you up to taking the first watch? I'll relieve you in four hours."

Even as Gunn agreed, an objection came, not unexpectedly, from Cordelia. "I thought you were having Willow lock him up with her magic. Why have us stretch ourselves thin? Being down here's been pretty hard on us, listening to what he has to say."

Buffy managed an insincere smile. "Call me suspicious by nature. He shouldn't wake up until the end of Gunn's watch. I'll take the one after that and then Spike...and we'll go from there."

Willow came clumping down the stairs, several jars in hand. "Thank you to whoever put all the spices in the office. Made it a lot easier than trekking out to the kitchen."

The others watched as Willow sprinkled some herbs into her hand, took a deep breath and began to chant in a low voice. Once the chant was done, she blew on the herbs, spreading them over the lock. The metal glowed briefly, then returned to normal. "All locked up," she said cheerfully.

Cordelia "harrumphed" as Buffy indicated the others should go upstairs, leaving Gunn to settle down for his watch. Fred hesitated for a moment. "Would you like me to reheat your tacos?" she asked. "I could bring them down."

The pair looked at each other for a long moment before Gunn shook his head. "Nah. I think the demon body parts kind of put me off food. Maybe later."

Fred's face registered more disappointment than one would think appropriate for such a request, but she didn't say a word, simply headed for the stairs. "Days of our Unlife," indeed.

By the time they'd reached the lobby, the group had already fragmented and gone their separate ways. Willow pulled Lorne to one side, leaving Kennedy waiting as they conferred. Connor seemed to want to linger, perhaps brag of his deeds to the potential slayer, but one look from Cordelia and he neatly fell into line. Wesley and Fred were speaking, but their body language was stiff and uncomfortable with one another. Giving Spike's hand a squeeze, Buffy headed in that direction. "Maybe you should get some rest, Wesley. It can't have been an easy day for you."

She meant what she said, worried that the man might drop in his tracks. Buffy knew he hadn't slept particularly well either night he'd spent in Sunnydale; Andrew had complained about the noise. He'd arrived late Saturday night; they were now in the early hours of Wednesday. How much longer could he last?

Wesley offered her a tired smile. "I will in just a moment. You should get some, too, if you're going to relieve Gunn in four hours. Besides, I believe you and Spike have some things to discuss."

Yes, they did, but Buffy had to wonder exactly what Wesley was referring to. It was the perfect cue, however, to slip upstairs for some privacy and the chance to clean off the stains of their recent adventure. "You'd better have left some hot water," Spike grumbled when she emerged from the shower.

She started to playfully suggest that if he'd been so concerned about that, he should have joined her, but the words faltered on her lips. Her, Spike, white tile, running water -- not a good combination yet. One of those areas they still needed to work on.

Another area they needed to work on was Spike's distinctly male habit of dropping his clothes where he'd undressed. Okay, she wasn't the neatest person in the world, but she'd learned over the years that demon blood and carpets usually didn't mix and stain remover never got rid of all of it.

Frowning, she realized that his jeans were possibly a lost cause. They'd gotten ripped somewhere along the way and various substances had been ground into the black denim. Curious, she looked inside the waistband to see what size he wore; maybe Mervyns would be having a sale when they got back.

Buffy had to stop and laugh as she realized the very domestic path her thoughts were taking. Worrying about clothes on the floor, stains, sales; it all seemed ludicrous in comparison to re-souling vampires, fighting other-worldly beasts and all the other weirdness that was her life.

"And what is so amusing?" Spike asked, damp arms slipping around her, tugging her back against his shower-warmed chest.

She shook her head. "Nothing. Everything. I was worrying about your jeans and it just struck me as silly."

"The jeans or the worry?" Spike didn't sound as if he was certain he wanted the answer.

"Both. Please tell me you brought another pair."

"I did, but I've got to tell you, luv; being with you is pretty hard on my wardrobe."

"We'll fix it." She regarded the jeans a final time, then dropped them back on the floor before turning in his arms so she faced him. "I need to tell you about something I realized while you were with Wesley."

Buffy outlined what she suspected about Cordelia, the feeling that just wouldn't go away. "It's not just jealousy or paranoia or the fact she's been getting on my nerves; there's something about her that's off. Suddenly, it just set my Slayer senses buzzing."

"Well, that makes it real interesting, because I discovered Angelus didn't kill Lilah; she was stabbed in the neck."

"Does Wesley...?"

"I didn't hide it from him. He's furious. Problem is, I'm not certain Cordelia could be the killer. Seems Peaches threw a cross-bow bolt into her leg before Lilah was killed. I'm hazy on who was with who when, but apparently Angelus took off after Lilah only after he'd made certain Cordelia was injured. At least Connor and Gunn were with Wesley with they discovered Angelus feeding on her."

Buffy shuddered at the image, but she didn't object when Spike tugged her toward the bed. "Get under covers, might as well be warm when we talk."

She was glad to slide beneath the sheets. "So he wasn't actually feeding," she said as she tugged the blanket up a little.

"Oh, I imagine he was. From what I saw, the blood must have been flowing freely and it was a big enough wound he could have drunk with no effort. But, no, the wound wasn't a bite. By the way, it turns out it was Connor who insisted she might have been turned."

"Connor sees everything in black in white." She snuggled into the crook of Spike's arm.

"Even so, that suggestion damn near destroyed any evidence Lilah was stabbed, not dinner."

They lay in silence, Buffy pondering what she'd just been told. "You said Angelus hit Cordelia in the leg."

"Caught the bolt and threw it back at her, according to Wesley."

"When Hus and his followers used you for a pincushion that Thanksgiving, how long did those arrow wounds hurt? I mean, really. Not the whining version you laid on me when I removed them."

He frowned as he thought, his nose squinching ever so slightly. "A couple of days. Vampire healing took care of it pretty quickly."

"But those were just arrows, not the heavier bolts and they didn't go that deep. It's not like it was hard to remove them."

"Hurt like hell when you did it." The frown deepened. "But Angelus has a fair amount of strength in one of his throws, from what Wesley was telling me, it appeared to be a fairly serious wound."

"And I haven't heard any evidence of Cordelia getting accelerated healing with her demon package. Angelus escaped at some point on Saturday." Buffy propped herself up on an elbow. "It's been four days; why is Cordelia moving like she was never wounded?"

"Either she's got the healing or the wound wasn't anywhere near as bad as she made it out to be."

"And who was actually there when Angelus threw that bolt and then took after Lilah?"

They started going over the possibilities, one by one, building a picture from the pieces they'd been given. When Buffy tried to get something to make notes, however, Spike pulled her back down. "Sleep. You've got to relieve Gunn in less than four hours and you'll deal better with the Poofter if you get some rest."

The suggestion made sense and she settled back down. "I wish you wouldn't call him that," she said as she curled in, her head on his shoulder.

"What? Poofter? Peaches?"

"All of it."

"Old habit. If it bothers you, though..."

He kissed her on the forehead and she knew he'd do his best to not do it again. At least, not in her presence.

***

"You're up early."

Willow looked up, a bit surprised to hear Cordelia's voice. "I thought I could get an early start on the research. I've got a fair amount of stuff to get through."

Carefully marking her place with her thumb, she closed the book. Cordelia was standing in the door to the office, a fact which made Willow somewhat nervous at the moment. She was cast in shadows from the early morning light that had begun to creep into the windows. "What about you? I never pictured you for an early riser."

"Oh, I am. Up early, do yoga, perhaps some Tai Chi." The words were tossed off, but Cordelia's eyes didn't waver from their survey of her.

"Is that helpful with the baby?" Willow regretted the words the moment they were out of her mouth. Great going, spaz girl.

There was that dangerous look again, the one they'd seen the night before when Buffy and Cordelia had gone at it. "I asked Connor not to tell anyone."

"He didn't... I mean, well, it's kind of obvious." No, that wasn't helping. "I mean, maybe not to everyone, but I haven't seen you for a while, so it's kind of easy to notice the change."

Cordelia relaxed, but only slightly. "I suppose we're going to have to let everyone know soon enough. I mean, pretty soon we won't be able to keep it a secret." She laughed, a pale imitation of the phony laugh Cordelia used to use when she was feigning interest in something. "I'd appreciate it if you didn't tell anyone; I think you can understand that I'd like to let everyone know in my own way."

"Su...sure." The stammer caught in a throat that was suddenly dry. Tentatively, Willow tried to focus her vision, read Cordelia's aura the way Tara had taught her. She'd never been anywhere Tara's equal, so had not practiced that skill as diligently as others, content to let her lover handle that aspect of their work together. Nor had she tried it since her return from England and these were hardly the circumstances Miss Harkness had told her were best for a working. Here there wasn't a chance for a centering and calmness, not with Cordelia considering her as if deciding what put-down to deliver next. Carefully, she let her vision shift so she could see patterns of energy, not actual physical objects.

"Earth to Willow? Are you there?"

Cordelia's voice was harsh, pulling her out of an already tenuous state. "Uh, yeah. Sorry about that. I was just...well, you know me and research."

"Maybe you need some help." Cordelia took a step forward.

"No!" The words came out as a bit of a squeak. She'd had only a glimpse, but something was definitely off. Frighteningly off. Come on, girl. You nearly destroyed the world; you can handle a former cheerleader.

It's not the former cheerleader part which frightens me.

Cordelia was still coming closer. "You really need to get out more. I thought you'd gotten over this twitchiness years ago. Let me see what you're reading."

Before Willow could move, Cordelia had stretched out her hand, skin brushing against skin. Part of her mind still reaching for that other state, visions suddenly flashed through her head at the contact. Pain. Darkness. A summoning. The gift of a humble servant. Pleasure at the kill. Soon. Power growing inside. Soon. Blind fools. Soon.

Both women pulled their hands back with a jerk. This time when Willow looked into Cordelia's eyes, she saw something very dark and dangerous. "Get away from me," she told her in a low voice.

"Willow, are you threatening me?" If Cordelia was trying to sound surprised, it didn't work. "I mean, I know we haven't always been the best of friends..."

"That's an understatement." Willow moved, trying to put as much distance between her and Cordelia as possible. Cordelia didn't actually follow, but continued shifting around the desk, one hand reaching out to trail over the letter opener lying on the blotter pad.

"But it is important to me that we get Angel back, so I'm here to help you with the research."

If there were ever doubts in Willow's mind this was Pod Cordelia, they now ran screaming from the building at that last statement. "That's really helpful of you, Cordelia, and I appreciate the gesture, but some of this stuff is pretty esoteric."

The letter opener was now in Cordelia's hand. "I can do esoteric. I've done a lot of research since I moved to Los Angeles."

Just a little further and there'd be nothing between her and the office door. "I probably need to talk to Wesley. After all, he's the one who went looking for the shaman you used, so he should know something about the Muo-ping."

"It's round and it glows when the soul is inside." Cordelia reversed direction, strolling toward the door herself. Did she know Lorne was supposed to have removed the Sanctuary spell last night? Had Lorne actually done it? Not knowing the answer to either question made Willow nervous and the letter opener wasn't making matters better.

If push came to shove, Willow knew she could defend herself. The magic would come easily; it was that fact that the threat wore the face of someone she knew that made her hesitate, look for another way out of the situation. When she heard voices in the lobby and the chatter of early morning conversation, she could have wept for joy.

Cordelia heard it as well and took a step forward, determination on her face. "Fred? That you?" Willow squeaked out, darting toward the door.

"You're up early," Fred said in a cheerful voice. "I would have thought for certain you'd sleep in after last night."

Fred came into view, followed by Lorne. Two people. This was even better. Cordelia -- or whatever the thing was in Cordelia's body -- wouldn't dare try anything with witnesses. At least, Willow hoped she/it wouldn't. "Oh, I had some idea in my head and it just kept nagging at me until I came downstairs to do the research."

Her voice was shakier than normal, despite her best efforts, but she kept the smile firmly planted on her face as she escaped the office. "I never pictured you as the morning type, Lorne. Or you getting up early to...?"

"If it will help get Angel back, I'm more than willing to be an early riser," Lorne said with a smile. "The girls had their answering machine on last night, so after I fuel myself up, I'll hop back on the phone and get them to talk me through the procedure. You should be able to work your magic by noon."

Glancing backward, Willow saw Cordelia take this news in, a hint of a smile on her face. Clearly Willow wasn't the only one with things to do once the sanctuary spell was lifted.



Chapter Seventeen

"Don't you ever get tired of hearing yourself talk?"

They were the last words Buffy ever thought she'd find herself saying to Angel. When they were dating, his dark, brooding silences drove her nuts from time to time, making her desperate for him to say something.

Angelus didn't have dark, brooding silences. Angelus constantly poked at a person, trying to find their weak spots. She was beginning to wonder how much of the stream of snark that used to flow from Spike was natural and how much he'd learned by example.

"What's the matter, darling? Cut a little too close to home for comfort?" Angelus curled his hands around the bars of the cage. "Don't like to hear the truth?"

"No. You're in danger of boring me to death." She strolled over to the basement steps. "You've done this all before. Tormented me, tormented my friends, tried to undermine my self-confidence by saying things that had just enough truth in them or picked up on my fears and doubts. Problem is, you don't have a lot of new material because Angel and I haven't seen a lot of other lately, haven’t exchanged a lot of information."

"We could talk about your new boy toy, or why Riley went away."

Buffy just glared as she settled herself on the steps. She glanced down at the stack of magazines she'd grabbed off Cordelia's desk and remembered something she'd once done that had driven Angel crazy. Maybe it would work on Angelus.

Picking up the Cosmo, she flipped through the pages until she reached the quiz. "Here we go. 'What's his Intimacy IQ?'"

She snuck a glance toward Angelus. He looked somewhat puzzled, as if he wasn't sure what she was up to. "Question One: Do you share secrets with each other that you wouldn't even share with your best friends? Answers: All the time. On occasion. No way."

"I can't believe you'd actually share anything with Spike...except maybe the occasional bodily fluid."

Buffy smiled. "Answer: All the time."

Angelus snorted.

"Question Two: When you mention a problem to your guy, like a health worry or family issue, does he...? Answer: Tries to cheer you up fast and then changes the subject to something lighter. Says let's talk about it later but doesn't. Gives you his undivided attention and helps you find a solution." Buffy grinned. "That's easy; gives me his undivided attention."

Another snort from the cage.

"Question Three: In bed, how interested is he in learning about your needs?"

"I do not need to hear this!" He was rattling the cage, face dark with annoyance.

Buffy looked up. "Turn about is fair play. You don't want me to go on? Then be quiet."

"Aren't we the little bitch?"

She didn't flinch from his gaze. "Yes, we are. Sure, I'm going to regret this once we get your soul back in, but I'm not the innocent schoolgirl you remember. I've been through things you have no conception of."

He smiled like he'd just uncovered something. "It's made you hard. Does it make it easier to stick the knife into your friends? Is that what happened with Riley? You became too hard and he couldn't stand it anymore, had to run away?"

Damn him. There was more than a little truth in his words, more truth than he could possibly realize. She had become hard; it was the hardness that had kept her at arm's length from her sister and friends and prompted her to dive into a sexual morass with Spike with disastrous consequences. The ice was only now beginning to thaw.

But as she watched the glee on Angelus' face at the possibility he might have hurt her, she realized there were moments when that hardness could be an asset. "And if I have grown hard, what's to keep me from ramming a stake through your chest if you get to be too much of irritant?" she asked, her voice as devoid of emotion as possible. "I've sent you to hell once already."

It was enough to make him pause. Buffy heard footsteps on the stairs. Looking up, she found Spike descending and couldn't help the smile that spread over her face. "Is he being an annoying boy?" Spike asked, settling on the step next to her.

"The usual. I hope Willow gets that spell together soon; it's really irritating to listen to him after a while."

"You should try twenty years of it. At some point it just becomes background noise. Sort of like Andrew."

"Ewww. Not enjoying that comparison."

Spike chuckled. "Sorry. I didn't mean to insult Andrew. Why don't you head on upstairs? I think Willow wants to talk to you. I can handle Granddad from here."

"But Buffy and I were having such a delightful conversation."

Buffy didn't even bother to look toward the cage. "If he gets out of line, try reading the Cosmo quiz aloud. I stopped at question three."

***

Spike considered the magazines Buffy had left behind, repressing a shudder. Dawn had subjected him to a few Cosmo quizzes during the summer Buffy was gone, the last embers of her crush on him. He wouldn't wish such evil even on Angelus.

"She has you whipped, boy. Of course, that seems to be a common state of affairs where you're concerned."

Spike leaned back, supporting himself on his elbows. "Let me point out I'm not the one in the cage."

"At least not one you can see." Angelus pressed close to the bars. "But you are caged as surely as I am."

He'd be lying to himself if he said Angelus' words didn't have a certain sting of truth. "I think I enjoy mine a hell of a lot more than you do yours."

"Oh, yeah. The slayer's lap dog. At her beck and call, tending to her little wants and needs..."

What was his game? "Substitute 'Drusilla' for 'slayer' and I've heard this song before -- far too many times before."

Spike leaned forward, abandoning his casual posture. "I know you're not a complete idiot. I've watched you hunt; I know what you taught me. Cheap shots are one thing, but are you really just sitting here marking time until Red finds a way to get the soul back in?"

Angelus smiled. Apparently Spike had asked the right question.

***

Willow practically leapt to her feet when Buffy entered the lobby, abandoning the book-covered desk behind the front counter. "There you are!"

When Spike had said Willow wanted to talk to her, he hadn't been kidding. Fred, seated at another desk with her own pile of tomes, peered curiously over the top of horn rim glasses as Willow quickly moved to meet Buffy. "What's wrong?" Buffy asked in a low voice.

"Who said anything's wrong?" Willow's voice was a shade too bright. "Why don't we go into the garden?"

As Willow hustled Buffy out the door, she caught sight of Cordelia hovering about the entrance of the office, watching.

It was a lovely day, more than just a hint of spring in the air. The fountain in the center of the garden was splashing gently, a soft counterpoint to the exercise routine Connor and Kennedy were going through on the garden path. "She's feeling much better this morning," Willow said as they settled on a bench under the covered walkway near the hotel entrance.

"That's good. Why did you drag me out here? Don't say nothing's wrong, because you're acting like you've had too many frozen mochas and I thought you'd given those up."

"I did, except Fred made a run to Starbucks and it's not the mochas. I just didn't want to say anything in front of Fred or..."

Buffy could guess where the real source of trouble lay. "I saw Cordelia hovering."

"She's been doing that since early this morning. Says she wants to help me do research with the esoteric texts."

"Definitely doesn't sound like Cordelia. Is that what has you so twitchy?"

"No. There's more."

***

"I'm not saying you have to give anything up." Angelus' voice was smooth. "You want Buffy? You can have her. I think I'm over the small blonde thing, anyway."

"So glad you're giving us your blessing. Not that I need it."

"I'm saying I won't interfere. I don't have to be anywhere near her. There's lots of places in the world. Always liked Rome."

Intrigued, Spike got to his feet. "You're suggesting I let you out."

"I'm suggesting that we might be mutually beneficial to one another. You scratch my back, I scratch yours."

"Last time you scratched my back, it took almost a week for the welts to heal."

Angelus shrugged. "I got carried away in the moment. The point is, you want to fight by Buffy's side, that's fine with me. You always were given to romantic gestures, so I suppose it appeals to your basic nature. But think about this -- one day, perhaps even one day soon, she'll be gone and you'll be all alone again."

"Turn her? Is that what you're saying?" Spike took another step forward, crossing his arms over his chest.

"It's up to you, of course. But think of it. Think of her, all that beauty at your side, in your bed for all of eternity. All you have to do is open the door."

The terrible thing of it all, Spike realized, was there was a little voice inside him that was tempted.

***

The images Willow described were horrible, making Buffy shudder despite the warmth of the morning. "God, why did I come to Los Angeles?"

"Because you knew you couldn't let Angelus run free. Because you're the Slayer." Willow took a deep breath. "Whatever that...thing...is, I didn't sense Cordy anywhere. It's almost as if she didn't have a soul, as if some demon thing had set up housekeeping in her body."

William and Liam died, Buffy thought, their bodies inhabited by the demons that became Angelus and Spike. Did Cordelia die or was the change a slow one, a result of taking on the demon aspect to help with the visions?

"One other thing; I think she's the one who killed Lilah Morgan, not Angelus."

Buffy realized she hadn't had a chance to tell Willow about Spike's theory. There hadn't been time last night and this morning they hadn't spoken until now. "It was part of the images I saw," Willow continued. "I mean, I never saw her in the flesh, but there was this woman and she was stabbed in the neck."

Spike had said the neck wounds were something larger than a vampire bite. "Have you told Wesley?" she asked.

Willow shook her head. "I wanted to tell you first. I know we're trusting Wesley now, but this is so...out there, even for us. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't believe it. Even now I don't want to believe it. But I think we have to. And I think she's got something planned for when Lorne removes the Sanctuary spell."

***

"Can you see it, Spike?" Angelus' voice was dark and seductive, lowered to a whisper Spike still sometimes heard in his nightmares. "It could be magnificent. You, me, Buffy...we could turn Willow as well. There was this weird thing once where we got her bizzaro opposite and I've got to tell you that she made one cute little vampire."

When Spike didn't answer, Angelus continued, warming to his subject. "Remember how it was when there were four of us? The terror, the blood? Remember how it was after the killing?"

Spike did remember. He could still see the victims, still remember his blind joy in the kill and how sweet the pleasure afterwards could be.

He also remembered years of simmering resentment and pain, of being pushed aside, denied, and used. "Get stuffed, mate."

Angelus chuckled. "All I'm doing is offering what you want deep down inside."

"No, what you're offering is a bribe to get me to do what you want and I don't doubt you have every intention of staking me at the first possible opportunity. And you think I'm stupid enough not to realize it."

Spike stalked dangerously close to the cage. It was a risk, but at this moment he didn't give a damn. "As for what I want deep down inside, when have you ever known that? How could you have known? Who'd suspect my deepest desire was to have William the Bloody Awful take up residence..."

"Not now!" Angelus practically shouted the word, causing Spike to step back and tense. "Can't you see I'm in the middle of a conversation?"

At first, Spike wondered if this was some kind of trick, another effort on Angelus' part to escape from his cage. When the older vampire began pacing the cage, carrying on one half of a conversation with an unknown party, he began to suspect something else was up. "Oh, and what bright idea do you have this time?"

Spike sprinted up the stairs and skidded around the corner into the lobby proper. "Fred! Get Buffy! Now!"

***

Buffy raced down the basement stairs, Willow hot on her heels. Spike was squatting near the cage, his eyes fixed on Angelus...who was holding a conversation with someone who clearly wasn't Spike. "Lots of big talk. I don't see any action, though."

Silently, Buffy moved to stand by Spike, her hand brushing across his shoulder. In response, he rose in a smooth motion to speak quietly in her ear. "We were talking and suddenly he broke off, started shouting at his invisible friend."

"Could it have been something you said?"

Was it her imagination or did Spike look a bit uncomfortable. "I doubt it. But this is what I looked like in the basement, isn't it?"

Buffy watched as Angelus paced back and forth, clearly agitated. There was an uncomfortable resemblance to Spike's crazy in the basement behavior...especially the fact Angelus didn't seem to notice any of them were there. "How long?"

"I had Fred get you as soon as it started."

"The First?" Buffy really didn't want to consider the idea the First might be able to reach them here in Los Angeles, but the question had to be asked.

"Don't think so, given the bits I'm hearing, unless the First is the Beast's master."

Twenty minutes ago, Buffy would have asked where Cordelia fit into all of this. Given what Willow had said, though, she thought she knew...which meant Cordelia had to be holed up somewhere to do whatever spell she was working to talk to Angel. "Be right back."

"Is everything alright?" Fred asked as Buffy reappeared in the lobby. "Spike sounded kind of worried."

"Everything's fine," Buffy said as casually as she could. "Angelus just got a little rambunctious. Nothing to worry about. Have you seen Wesley and Cordelia?"

"Wesley headed off to his apartment to get a change of clothes and stuff. He'd said he'd be back in an hour or so. Cordelia's upstairs." Fred lowered her voice confidentially. "I don't think she's feeling very well."

"Then I won't bother her." Buffy became aware Kennedy and Connor had returned from the garden and were watching her from just inside the lobby door. She simply acknowledged their presence with a nod and headed back to the basement.

Angelus was still keeping up the conversation when she returned. "Any idea where it's coming from?" Buffy asked.

Willow shook her head. "I can't really trace it with alerting the source and I'm not sure I want to do that. I mean, I have a pretty good idea what the source is already."

"Cordelia's upstairs. Fred says she's not feeling well."

"A little morning sickness, perhaps?" At Buffy's look she added, "She admitted she was pregnant this morning, but asked me not to tell anyone, though; said she and Connor wanted to do it themselves."

"Do what?"

Damn. She should have known Connor wouldn't have been able to resist poking his head downstairs to see what was happening. Kennedy was in tow, of course; the two were becoming thick as thieves, a fact that worried Buffy no end because they had no idea how deeply involved in Cordelia's plan Connor was. "Keep working on the exercises you and Kennedy have been doing. Probably good for both of you; the chance to see different styles."

Standing just behind Connor, Kennedy raised her eyebrows skeptically. She didn't blow their cover, though. "I figure it should keep us out of the way while they're down here with the vampire doing magic."

It wasn't the most enthusiastic statement of support ever, but it seemed to hit all the right notes with Connor. "That's right. Put his soul back in so we can all go back to pretending he's not an animal."

Buffy glanced behind her toward the cage. Angelus was still pacing, but at least he was listening at the moment to the voice in his head instead of cursing it. Spike was far too close for her taste, leaning against the bars as if he were trying to hear that silent conversation. No telling how long Angelus would remain silent, though, and the quicker they got Connor out, the better. "Well, Willow's going to get started on it, so maybe we'd better leave her alone."

She started to climb the stairs, hoping the two would get the hint. They did, and as soon as Buffy saw them head back out to the garden, she started down the stairs again.

Back in the basement, the first thing she noticed was that Spike had abandoned his position near the cage and removed himself to a safe distance. Angelus had stopped pacing and was busily glaring at both Willow and Spike. "I'm not going to be in here forever," he warned.

"Yeah, sing it again, Grandad. Maybe the rats in the sewer will believe you."

"Stop calling me that."

Spike just smirked. "What happened?" Buffy asked.

"He apparently had an argument with the voice," Willow said.

"Yeah, told it to go screw itself right and proper," Spike added.

"You'd do the same in my position." Angelus was clearly annoyed, any polish being chipped away from his manner. "Lots of games, but no action. Somehow, though, I don't think whoever this is will just stand by idly while you stick Angel's soul back in."

"No, but she may decide to keep it bottled up so she can threaten you with it if you get out of line."

The look on Angelus' face showed the voice had promised just that. Then, however, he smiled as he registered the impact of Buffy's words. "You have an idea who it is. I didn't say male or female and you just said 'she.' I think Mighty Big Voice might be interested in that piece of news."

Buffy had thought of waiting for Wesley's return, but now she didn't think they'd have that luxury. "How soon can you be ready?" she asked Willow.

"For the spell? Twenty minutes, maybe. Of course, it all depends on when Lorne drops the Sanctuary spell."

"I'll go talk to Lorne, and I'm going to get Gunn. If Wesley comes back, I want him down here as well. Willow, give Spike your cell phone. If he." she jerked her heard toward Angelus, "starts talking to thin air again, I want to know. Get everything ready, because it's time."



Chapter Eighteen

When Buffy asked Lorne to hold off on releasing the sanctuary spell until Willow had everything in place, she was surprised to see the "hail and well met" attitude he'd exhibited since their arrival drop away. "You have an idea who's behind all this trouble, don't you?" he asked, his voice quite serious.

She considered trying to fob him off with a non-committal answer, but what would that accomplish? Lorne's talent might require his subjects to sing in order to see their path, but she'd lay odds he was damn good at reading body language without the song. "Yes."

"And you're pretty certain it's someone in our happy little family." At her hesitation, he added, "I'm not asking for a name, but I have my own theories. Just wanted to see if we're in the same neighborhood."

"I think we are. I'm convinced that the moment you lift the spell, they're going to make their move."

Lorne neatly folded the paper he'd been reading with his breakfast and reached out to take a final sip of orange juice. A pat of the napkin to his lips and he was on his feet. "Let's get cracking."

***

Cordelia had to be planning something, Buffy figured. She hadn't been seen for most of the morning since her conversation with Willow, apparently, closeted in her room. The best they could hope for was that she'd stay there for a while longer. Kennedy was keeping Connor busy, or so Willow said; Buffy was glad just to have those two out of the way.

Wesley hadn't returned by the time the group assembled in the basement. Fred had remained in the lobby, ready to bring him downstairs when he returned. Gunn was there, though, ready for action after only a few hours sleep, with the axe Buffy was beginning to think was welded to his hand. Spike still hovered near the cage, where Angelus had been uncomfortably quiet since Willow had begun to assemble her components. "How's this supposed to work?" Buffy asked, watching as Willow made some final adjustments.

"Kind of like the standard locator spell, except we're looking for a specific object. That's why I need Angel; it's supposed to pick up on the traces of the soul and use that as a scent to help track where the Mou-ping is."

"I keep telling you guys, this kind of magic never ends well." Angelus looked toward Gunn. "You remember what happened last time; you really think this is going to work? Even if it does, how can you be certain the soul's back and it's not another trick?"

A flicker of doubt flashed across Gunn's face. "We're not trying to restore his soul at the moment," Buffy said, hoping to reassure him. "We're just trying to find it."

"Okay, we find it. Then what?" Clearly Gunn had more doubts than he was voicing, one eye planted firmly on Angelus.

"We transfer it into here and I do the Ritual of Restoration." Willow lifted orb from its holder so Gunn could see it.

Lorne stepped forward to get a better look. "That's an Orb of Thessulah, isn't it? I've seen a few; they're very hot right now as object d'art."

"Uh, yeah. I know."

She started to return the orb to its place, but jumped as Angelus suddenly yelled, "Don't drop it!" accompanied by a rattle of the bars.

There was a heart-stopping moment when Buffy thought Willow might do just that. She didn't, though, and the orb was safely put back in its holder. "To bad," Angelus said with a sigh. "They make such a pretty crash."

Buffy was about to tell Angelus to be quiet (for all the good it would do, but stopped when Gunn started to chuckle. "Okay, now I'm convinced it could work. If it makes him nervous, it's got to have some power."

Willow smiled at the words, made a few final adjustments to her supplies and settled herself more comfortably on the floor before nodding to Lorne. Clearing his throat, he began to read from the paper he held. "Spirits of peace and harmony, we bid you not to depart but to rest, no longer to bind our hands against those who stand against us. Lift the protection which you have blessed us with and know our thanks as we take up arms once again."

He lowered the sheet and looked around. Everything seemed the same. "Well, that was exciting," Angelus said. "I at least expected fireworks or some sparkles."

"Well, nothing much happened the last time," Lorne said, folding the paper up and slipping it into the inside pocket of his light blue suit jacket. "We need to test it, have someone take a swing at someone."

"I'd be more than happy to...oww!"

Angelus jerked his hand away as Spike danced back out of reach. "I think it worked."

"What did you do?" Buffy asked, a bit of exasperation in her voice.

"Bent his finger back. Nothing too nasty, but definitely violent."

"You'll pay for that, William," Angelus growled.

"Promises, promises. Looks like you can go, Red."

Willow picked up the lighter and touched a flame to the fuel in her fire bowl. It took a moment, but the flames soon began to glow steadily. Picking up the first object, Willow began to chant, tossing each item onto the fire as she went. "Seek we that which has gone beyond, trapped neither in the ether or housed within its form. Show us where that spirit dwells trapped by means unknown and unclean. Guide us to it that we may free it from its prison and rededicate it to that purpose for which it was chosen."

The fire grew brighter, sparks beginning to climb and swirl. Buffy could feel a tingling along her spine and a quick glance toward the others showed they felt something too. Most distinctly uncomfortable-looking was Angelus. He'd begun to back away from the bars, as if he felt the need to put distance between himself and the spell Willow was weaving.

"It is no ordinary soul we seek, but that of a champion, a protector. Not dead, yet not of the living, he dwells between. Bring him back to us. Take what you need to show us where Liam dwells."

At those words, the sparks began spin furiously, spiraling up and out. For a moment, they looked as if they were heading straight for Spike, but they only circled his head before homing straight in on Angelus.

He kept moving backwards until the wall stopped any further progress. The sparks kept after him, moving and swirling, dancing over his body. Then, they suddenly coalesced into a single bright point and slammed into his chest.

The scream was horrible and he dropped to his knees as the sparks flew out again, heading back toward Willow. "Show us our quarry," she said in a voice thrumming with power.

Once more the sparks danced, circling the Orb of Thessulah before coalescing a final time and sinking into the crackled glass surface. The orb began to glow slightly, emitting a steady hum. Willow's shoulders slumped slightly as the spell released her. Then she glanced at the globe and smiled. "It worked."

"What next?" Buffy asked as Willow cradled the globe in her hands.

"This will lead me to the Mou-ping. I can feel a tug already. The traces of Angel's soul are calling to the rest of it."

"So it's a soul GPS?" Gunn asked. "Cool."

Buffy glanced toward the cage. Angelus was still on his knees, leaning forward so far his head almost touched the floor. No, it hadn't been a gentle spell. "Let's move out, then. Spike?"

He gripped the axe he'd used on their first foray after Angelus, the one Wesley had claimed was one of Angel's favorites. "Anything shows up and tries to let him out, I slaughter it."

Buffy would have preferred to have Spike with her, but he was the only who might be able to stand against whatever might come for Angel. "We'll be back as soon as we can," she promised.

A grin from him saw her on her way, taking the lead as they made it up the stairs. It'd be easiest to simply follow Willow, but they couldn't risk that something might be lying in wait. Besides, since Willow hadn't indicated the tunnels, the only other way was up.

Wesley must have just come in as they arrived in the lobby. "Fred said you were..." His eyes fell on the dully-glowing orb in Willow's hands. "Have you already found it?"

Buffy shook her head. "Just started. Keep watch with Spike, will you? I don't want anyone taking advantage of this to set Angelus free."

As he set out for the basement, Buffy turned back to Willow. "Where to now?"

Willow shook her head. "I don't know. The orb seems confused, as if someone's trying to block the signal or hide the Mou-ping, keep me from finding it."

"Any way you can up the power?"

Even as she asked the question, Buffy saw the uncertainty in Willow's eyes. "Yes, but..."

Buffy stepped closer. "This is big stuff, Willow. I don't think there's any other way. You were called back home from England for a reason. This is one of them. This isn't running wild; this is keeping demons from destroying things. Do what you need to do."

Willow stared at Buffy for a moment then nodded, closing her eyes. Her lips moved in silent words, calling the power from somewhere. When her eyes opened once more, they were black. "This way," she said in voice that was not quite her own.

She started for the stairs and Buffy followed, motioning to Gunn he should follow. Fred tagged along, too, whispering as they went, "Did you see her eyes?"

"Yeah," Gunn said. "Freakin' scary. What the hell do they do up in Sunnydale?"

What we must to survive came the unbidden thought in Buffy's mind, but she didn't voice it. Now she needed to be ready for the fight that was coming.

Not surprisingly, the orb led Willow to the second floor of the hotel. "That's Cordelia's room," Fred said as they stopped in front of a door.

"Wait a minute. You think something happened to Cordelia when the Powers that whatever whisked her off to another dimension or higher plane or wherever the hell she spent her summer vacation?" Gunn said. "She's the one who stole Angel's soul?"

"Higher..." Buffy was going to kill Wesley. "You didn't tell us she had vanished over the summer. It might have been helpful to have that knowledge."

"I thought Wesley told you. After all, he was playing the big man here."

"Guys," Willow interrupted, "can we stick to business? We do have a soul to find."

***

"Buffy asked me to help you keep watch," Wesley said as he came down the stairs. "They're tracking the soul. What's wrong with him?"

Spike glanced back toward the cage. Angelus had sat up, but he was breathing hard, eyes closed and head tilted back. "Red's spell had an interesting side effect; when she dug inside to get what she needed to trace his soul, apparently hurt like the dickens."

"I'm so terribly sorry. Mind if I sit?"

"Knock yourself out. A little too antsy to do so myself."

"Nervous about Buffy?" Wesley settled himself on the stairs.

"A little, naturally, but she can take care of herself. Prefer to watch her back myself, but I've got to trust Gunn to do it this time."

"Good man, Gunn. We were friends, once."

Spike considered Wesley. He didn't particularly feel like a maudlin conversation at the moment, but at least it would pass the time. "So does the girl actually have feelings for you, or are she and the boy just going through a rough patch?"

Oh, there was a pretty hardness about Wesley's eyes at those words. "I'd rather not talk about it. Besides, with Lilah's death..."

"Word of advice from one who's been there. Sort out your feelings for Lilah before you try to make any moves elsewhere. One of the big stumbling blocks between Buffy and myself? Dear old Angelus. He buggered off to LA 'for her own good' and she's been trying to sort it out ever since."

Wesley looked toward Angelus. "I remember. I was there during her last year of high school. His decision upset her greatly."

"Yeah, well, he's great one for making decisions for other..."

"If you really wanted to help me, you would have kept them from doing that!"

Angelus' voice was raw with hurt and Spike spun around to find the other vampire staring up at the ceiling. "Not going to be much use to you right now, given the way I feel. By the way, they're coming after you."

"Bloody hell!" Spike dug into his pocket and grabbed Willow's cell phone. He punched at the buttons, hoping Buffy didn't have hers turned off.

***

Buffy had just put her hand on the door handle when Fred said, "You can't just go bursting in. It's not polite."

"We can't wait." With that, Buffy turned the handle and burst through the door. Cordelia was off the bed with a shriek, looking for all the world as if she'd been surprised. "What the hell are you doing?"

"It's here," Willow said. "I can't tell exactly, but it's here."

"What's here?"

"Buffy and Willow think you have Angel's soul hidden somewhere."

Cordelia curled her lip in a sneer. "Oh, I've hidden the Muo-ping in my box of maxi-pads in the bottom drawer. Get a life, Buffy."

Willow looked up. "I know. I saw. You can not hide from me."

She was in full-on scary Wicca mode, glowing black eyes that were enough to make almost anyone back up, which was precisely what Cordelia did. She looked frightened, and for a brief moment, Buffy felt her conviction waver. Behind her, Fred whispered, "Are you sure about this?"

It was at that moment that Cordelia stepped forward unexpectedly, her hand moving in an arc to sweep the orb from Willow's hand. The delicate glass orb flew across the room, shattering as it impacted the wall.

Cordelia breathed a deep sigh of relief. "You don't know how long I've wanted to do that."



Chapter Nineteen

"Now get the hell out of my room. And while you're at it, maybe you should just pack your bags and get the hell out of Los Angeles. Go back to Sunnydale and get yourself that shrink you've needed for years."

Cordelia looked past Buffy and Willow to where Fred and Gunn stood. "Did they talk you into this?"

Fred started to apologize, but Gunn stood his ground. "Wait a minute. What the hell do you think you're doing? We finally have something that might tell us where Angel's soul is and you break it?"

"What? I'm supposed to just stand by and let Buffy and Willow make wild accusations?" Cordelia moved toward the window, her gait smooth.

"I've been meaning to ask you," Buffy said as Cordelia waved to someone outside, probably Connor, "how's the leg doing? I heard you got a nasty injury the other night."

Cordelia froze for just a second and then turned back toward them, a limp suddenly noticeable. "It's feeling better, thank you."

Fred didn't say anything, but shifted closer to Gunn. "You think it's in here?" he asked Willow.

Cordelia looked disbelievingly at him. "You can't possibly believe I would hide Angel's soul."

"I didn't believe Wesley would steal Angel's son, either...but he did." Gunn shifted the axe slightly within his grasp. "That leg was looking mighty fine a minute ago."

"I don't like what you're insinuating."

As Cordelia took a step forward, Willow stretched out her hand. "Thicken."

Suddenly, it was as if Cordelia was trapped behind a wall of molasses. "If you're going to search, do it now," Willow warned. "She's pushing back."

***

"No answer?" Wesley was no longer sitting casually, but on his feet, ready for action.

Spike shook his head, trying to resist the temptation to hurl the infuriating device across the room. "It means either she's got it turned off or she's not in a position to pick up."

"Maybe you should just run after and see. They can't have gotten further than halfway down the block. The sunlight would do you good." Angelus seemed to have recovered quite nicely from his latest conversation, which had been cut short only moments after Spike had dialed Buffy's number.

"I'm afraid all we can do is wait," Wesley said. "If she can't answer her phone..."

"Then it's even more important we make sure the Great Poof doesn't get any unexpected help," Spike finished.

Angelus chuckled with anticipation.

***

They searched with a will, digging behind pillows, under the bed and in the dresser. Once the bed was pronounced clear, Gunn and Fred headed for the closet and bathroom respectively, while Buffy and Lorne continued their way through the dresser drawers.

Although she found an interesting collection of crystals she couldn't understand having unless one was spell casting, Buffy was beginning to worry they might come up empty-handed. If she couldn't prove Cordelia was behind this, the members of Angel Investigation would be forced to decide whether they believed her or Cordelia. As fractured as they were, it was still likely the group would choose Cordelia over someone they barely knew.

She was sorting through tops neatly folded and arranged by color when Lorne lifted a box out of the bottom drawer. "If you don't mind, I'll let you handle this one."

Buffy almost laughed when she looked at the tasteful text and graphics on the box. Maxi-pads. Wondering if their search was actually over, she began to open it.

"What's going on here?" Connor appeared in the open door.

"Stop them!" Cordelia shouted. "They think I have Angel's soul!"

Connor moved, grabbing Buffy by the arm and jerking her to her feet. The box slipped from her fingers, scattering maxi-pads to the floor...along with a round glass jar that glowed.

It was a freeze-frame moment. They all stared at the Mou-ping as if they couldn't believe they'd found the object of their quest. Then Connor raised his head and stared at Cordelia. "Why?"

Cordelia tried to move her hand, probably to reach out to him, but the movement was terribly slow. "I did it for us, for our baby. We need to protect it because they don't understand."

"So you let Angelus loose? You let him loose, didn't you? He didn't trick you; you opened the door."

Buffy actually felt sorry for Connor. His face bore the look of someone whose world had been shattered. "You were glad he killed Lilah, weren't you? Did you care about the other people him might have killed? I took one of his victims to the emergency room. If Buffy hadn't pulled him off her, the girl would have died."

"You have to look at the bigger picture..."

"Bigger picture?" Connor started to lunge, but Buffy grabbed hold of him, preventing him from moving. "Let me go!" he demanded.

"As long as Willow has her trapped, we shouldn't hurt her."

"Oh, if that's all you're worried about."

A flash accompanied Cordelia's words, sending Willow backwards. Suddenly, Cordelia could move quite easily, her eyes the same shade of milky white as the crystal she now held in her hands. "I'll take my Mou-ping back, thank you."

Buffy released Connor. "Now you can hurt her."

They both lunged at Cordelia, hurtling into her with enough force to send the three of them nearly to the wall. She shrieked as they connected, a sound of fury rather than pain. "Go for the crystal!" Willow shouted. "It's probably some kind of focus."

"Someone get the Mou-ping!" Buffy shouted in return, trying to hold down flailing limbs.

For the moment, Cordelia seemed to be pinned, but the question was what to do with her. Before Buffy could ask Willow to try the binding spell she'd used on Angelus, a sudden surge of energy threw both Buffy and Connor back. "Idiot child," Cordelia hissed at Connor. "You don't know what you're giving up. You could have stood at my side, watched our child grow to its destiny."

"You're a demon," Connor was practically spitting the word as he struggled to his feet. "What's growing inside you is a thing; it's not a child."

"You're pregnant?" Fred's voice was high, querulous.

"Not the best time to offer congratulations," Lorne suggested.

"Oh, congratulations are more than welcome." Cordelia was on her feet once more, the crystal in her hand beginning to glow. "Aren't you going to plan a baby shower for me, Fred? I'll be hurt if you don't. We'll talk about it next time. For now..."

The glow was brighter, more intense, causing the others to shield their eyes. The air around Cordelia began to ripple and shift and then her form simply...folded and was gone. "Downstairs!" Buffy shouted. "She's probably going after Angelus!"

***

The magic started to ripple through the air, the movement almost palpable. Spike whirled toward the source of the disturbance, axe ready. Wesley was at his side instantly, his own weapon to hand.

Cordelia smiled at them, her eyes glowing white. "Happy to see me?"

"So it was you behind all of this," Spike said. "A lot of effort for not much return, I say."

"Why not? You wouldn't understand; you never had the passion for destruction Angelus did, despite his best efforts to teach you. Angelus can be very useful; far more useful than the Beast. Oh, dear Beast had his good points, but he lacked finesse."

"And why Lilah?" Wesley's voice was tight, near to breaking. "Why kill her?"

"For one thing, the girl was too clever for her own good. Escaping from Wolfram and Hart, buying that book on the inter-dimensional black market despite my best efforts to remove the evidence you needed; she had to be stopped. Besides," Cordelia's lips curled in a smile. "It caused you pain. Speaking of which..."

The agony was intense and searing, sending both men to their knees almost instantly. Once they were down, Cordelia strolled past them toward the cage. "Willow's spell shouldn't be hard to break. Let's see..."

"This mean you're letting me out?" Angelus' voice was filled with anticipation. "Do I get a snack?"

"Once we're moving. We need to be away from here."

"You weren't fast enough. Fry!"

Spike couldn't remember ever hearing a spell with that as the trigger word, but the shriek he heard behind him was comforting. Struggling to raise his head, he found Willow on the basement steps, the others arranged behind her, faces grim.

"Kill her body and she's trapped forever," Cordelia threatened, gasping with the effort of the words. "You wouldn't do that to your friend."

Willow's eyes were glowing black and the slightly sadistic smile that spread across her face made Spike very glad he'd missed her meltdown the previous spring. "President and Co-Founder of the We Hate Cordelia Club, remember? There's a part of me that's been waiting years to do this."

Whether it was a bluff or Willow had gone off the deep end, Cordelia -- or whatever that was that was wearing Cordelia's body -- apparently decided this wasn't the time or the place. The air rippled once more with disturbance and she was gone.

When she vanished, the pain in Spike's body stopped and he let himself drop to the floor. Maybe if he just lay there for a few years, he would stop hurting.

It was the touch of a warm hand to his face that convinced him to lift his head once again. Buffy was kneeling at his side, her face worried. "Did she hurt you?"

"Oh, yeah." Painfully, he shifted his position onto his back, letting his head come to rest in her lap. "Really packed a wallop. It's times like this I wished I'd actually paid attention when Darla tried to teach me magic. Might come in handy from time to time for defense."

"Given your ability, you'd probably turn yourself into a toad. It'd be an improvement."

Spike sighed at Angelus' words, which was a mistake because it made his ribs ache. "I hurt too much to make a witty riposte. Think of one yourself and pretend I delivered it."

Buffy giggled, which was the best medicine in the world. No, second best. The best was the way she was stroking his face and looking down at him with such sweetness. "Think you can stand?" she asked.

"Don't really want to move. Nice and comfy where I am." At her annoyed pout, Spike made the effort to roll to his knees; Buffy helped him up the rest of the way.

Wesley was on his feet as well, looking slightly worse for wear. "The Mou-ping?" were his first words.

"We found it," Buffy assured him. "Lorne's holding onto it."

"I don't intend on letting this baby out of my sight," Lorne assured him. "Um, when are we doing that ritual?"

Willow was leaning against the railing. "Later. That...took a lot out of me. I need to rest for a while." She looked around, frowning. "Where's Kennedy?"

"She went upstairs to take a shower," Connor explained. "That was why I..."

He trailed off, looking hurt and confused. "Why don't you help Willow up to her room?" Buffy suggested.

Connor nodded, giving her assistance up the stairs. "Someone looks like he's been kicked in the nuts," Spike said once they were gone.

"He found out Cordelia's evil," Gunn said. "She's the one who had Angel's soul tucked away. Which raises another question. Cordy and Connor have been sleeping together for what, a couple of months? How in the hell can she be that pregnant? She looks like she swallowed a basketball."

"All questions which we need to answer. Not at the moment, though." Wesley stepped toward the stairs and winced. "Gunn, could I perhaps impose on you for a bit of help?"

Everyone finally made it back up to the lobby, Spike and Wesley both beginning to move a little easier. "You know she's going to come back," Gunn said as he helped lower Wesley into a chair. "Right now, we got Willow, but what do we do when you guys go home?"

"As you can tell, Gunn is the practical member of our team." The smile Wesley tried turned into a wince.

"Someone has to be, otherwise we're going to get our ass kicked."

"We could get Willow to set up a protection spell," Buffy suggested. "We'll have to wait a few hours, but she has some that should help. We've had some experience with ultra-powerful beings. As for what to do about Cordelia, we should probably wait until Angel's better."

Everyone looked at the glowing jar in Lorne's hands. "Think we can do it by this evening?" he asked. "Having this is making me a bit nervous."

"Why don't you let me get Spike upstairs and I'll come back and sit with you," Buffy offered.

"I think Lorne likes you," Spike said when they reached the privacy of their room.

"I kind of like him. Willow says he reminds her of Clem. Okay, a bitchier Clem, but there is a resemblance."

She headed into the bathroom and the sound of running water was heard. "Thought you might like a hot bath," she told him as she returned to sit next to him on the bed.

"Sounds good." He took her hand in his, looking down at their entwined fingers. "So, we put the soul back in tonight."

As much as he didn't like the idea of Angelus running loose, Spike discovered he wasn't too happy with the prospect of facing a souled Angel for the first time in three years. He'd made himself scarce when Angel had come to Sunnydale to pay his respects following Buffy's death, not wanting to see everyone offer sympathy to her "great love" while they ignored his own pain. Feelings of uncertainty were starting to churn in his stomach, worried that the bastard would somehow find some way to muck up the works.

"Spike." Her hand was on his cheek, drawing his gaze up to hers. "I love you. Nothing Angel can say will change that. Frankly, I'm more worried about what Giles will say when we get home."

Spike had to smile at that one. "Watcher Boy doesn't think I'm good enough for his girl. I can tell you that already."

"Watcher Boy doesn't get a vote on this one. We finally got here; I'm not letting you go now."

She kissed him lightly. "Go soak your muscles. I need you in shape for tonight."



Chapter Twenty

In the end, Lorne convinced his friends the Furies to make an emergency house call and set a specific protection spell against whatever was possessing Cordelia's body. The ladies arrived in their elaborate curls and pink draperies, sighed whenever Angel's name was mentioned and generally made Buffy very glad there were certain parts of Angel's life she knew nothing about.

Most of the afternoon was spent playing bodyguard to Lorne, watching him watch the Mou-ping and the Furies. It had its moments, especially when he indulged in what was clearly a favorite hobby: gossip. There was gossip about the demon community, gossip about the Hollywood community and plenty of gossip about how the two overlapped far more than Buffy realized. "Honey, how else can you explain why Good Morning, Miami even got on the air, much less stays there?"

Around them, life at the hotel appeared to be returning to some kind of normal. Wesley drifted in at one point to pull books from the reference library and do research, looking grim and worn and not saying much. Fred and Gunn appeared to be actually talking to one another and even though the conversation seemed difficult at times, it was an improvement over the armed camp Buffy had noticed upon her arrival. Maybe it was because they had Angel's soul in hand or the sun was back in the sky and they knew who was behind some of the troubles they'd been visited with. Whatever the reason, Buffy was beginning to believe they might actually be able to get through tonight's ritual with a minimum of fuss.

That was when she remembered the orb sailing through the air to crash against the wall of Cordelia's room. Where the hell does one go to get a replacement orb?

Her first thought was to zip up to Willow's room and ask if she'd thought about how they were going to get around that problem, but there was Lorne, chatting happily away, the Mou-ping never far from his side. Despite the newly-installed protection spell, she wasn't eager to leave him alone with it. For one thing, even as crushed as Connor had looked at the revelation of Cordelia's betrayal, she still wasn't quite certain where he stood.

The sight of Spike making his way carefully down the stairs was a welcome answer. Telling Lorne she'd be right back, Buffy crossed the lobby to greet him as he reached the main floor. "Feeling better?"

"Much. How's it going down here?"

"Wesley's researching, Gunn and Fred are talking and Lorne's been sharing some great gossip. I suppose Connor's skulking around here somewhere." They were standing close to one another, her hand resting on his chest. "Do me a favor? Sit with Lorne while I go talk to Willow."

He agreed, but she didn't miss the frown that flitted over his face. "What is it?"

Spike shrugged. "She just might be asleep, that's all. That's what Kennedy said when she answered the door."

Something in his tone interpreted those words as "shut the door in my face." Given the expression on Kennedy's face when she answered Buffy's knock, she had a feeling the girl might try to do the same to her. "I need to talk to Willow."

"She's resting," Kennedy said, the door beginning to close even she spoke the words. Buffy was ready, though, her arm shooting out to prevent it from moving.

"This can't wait," she informed Kennedy, exerting just enough pressure to force the door open enough so she could enter.

Willow sat up as Buffy approached the bed, so clearly she hadn't been too deep asleep. "What's up?" she asked, rubbing at her eyes.

"The ritual for tonight. What are you going to do about the orb Cordelia smashed?"

"Oh." Willow looked a little sheepish. "I guess I didn't tell you. It's no biggy that she smashed it."

She slid off the bed and headed for the bags that were piled in one corner. Dropping to her knees, she dug through one, shifting clothes around. "Anya took me to see one of her wholesalers. Problem was, he wouldn't sell us just one."

Willow lifted a box out of her luggage, pulling off the cover to reveal the interior divided into four compartments. One was empty; orbs nestled in the other three. "A four-pack?" Buffy asked skeptically.

"Anya said it was a good price and she pointed out that whatever I managed to bring back, she could probably find a buyer for. Apparently, they really are hot at the moment."

Buffy stared at the box for a long moment. Then she began to laugh. She tried to stop it as Willow gave her a worried look, but the laughter kept coming. "I don't believe it," she managed at last. "No, wait. I do believe it. I was worried we might have to go on some quest across the city."

"I might need to do that for the protection spell," Willow said thoughtfully. "They don't really have any magic supplies on hand."

"S'okay. Lorne called in the people who designed the sanctuary spell. Apparently Cordelia annoyed them at some point, so they were happy to help keep her out."

"So if the big bad can't get in, maybe the ritual can wait until tomorrow," Kennedy suggested. "It's not like Willow's actually had time to prepare and whatever you convinced her to do this afternoon took a lot out of her."

Buffy was about to point out to Kennedy the error of her ways, but Willow interjected. "No, the ritual needs to be done tonight," she insisted. "We'll start around seven. Wesley can handle the part he did before and I think Lorne would be good for stinky herb duty since he understand spells and stuff."

"You need to rest." Kennedy was starting to sound a bit agitated. "You've been doing all this magic and it's draining the life out of you. It needs to stop."

"No, you don't understand. Angel's my friend, at least when he has a soul. Right now he doesn't, so he's evil, which is all the more reason for us to put the soul back in as soon as possible."

"But..."

"This is what I do." Willow was on her feet, grabbing hold of Kennedy's hands. "It's a part of me. If you want me, you have to deal with the nosebleeds, the headaches and everything that comes with it. But it's real and it helps us defeat the bad guys, so I've got to do it."

Buffy started to edge toward the door, sensing that this might be about to turn into a more private moment. She could see the uncertainty on Kennedy's face and wondered if she was ready to deal with the reality of who Willow was. She had to be if they were going to have a chance.

Only time would tell.

***

Whatever Willow said to Kennedy, she raised no objections when they gathered for the ritual that evening. In fact, she helped Willow carry her supplies down to the basement. For her part, Willow looked happy, so Buffy supposed some type of accommodation had been reached.

The rest of the crew were quiet as the final preparations were made, the air tense with anticipation. Angelus was surprisingly quiet as well, standing sullenly in a corner. No attempts to make Willow drop anything this time, no snarky comments. Just a never-ending stare as Willow arranged her items and Lorne and Wesley took their places.

Connor was present, but he chose to sit on the stairs, away from the others. Gunn and Fred stood closer, the axe once again present in Gunn's hand. "Just in case," he'd explained in answer to Buffy's question. She didn't need to ask in case of what."

"I've made a few changes," Willow was explaining. "Instead of summoning the soul from the ether, I need to transfer it from the Mou-ping, so don't be surprised if the ritual sounds a little different from what you've heard before."

"And if the transfer doesn't work?" Buffy asked.

"All else fails, we smash the Mou-ping, release the soul and start from scratch." Willow did her best to sound casual, but there was nervousness there.

After that, there were no more questions. It had all come down to this.

***

Willow cast her stones and indicated Wesley should begin. Quod perditum est, invenietur.

This part was the same, invoking the attention of the powers who controlled such things. "Not dead, or not of the living..."

Here was where things began to get tricky, where she had made changes to the ritual. "Gods, bind him. Free his soul from where it has been trapped. Let this orb receive the soul and become the vessel we seek. Give us that which separates him from the animals."

The Mou-ping began to glow more fiercely, as if it were burning from within. Hoping what she'd read that morning was right, that she'd made the correct guess, she picked up the orb, balancing it between her hands. "Let us break the walls. Let him be bound no longer. Protect his soul from harm so that it may safely return to the vessel which housed it."

With those words, she slammed the Orb of Thessulah down upon the Mou-ping.

***

Spike was doing his best to stay calm, but he felt like beetles were dancing beneath his skin. When Angelus had first been cursed, he'd been surprised at the sheer audacity of the gesture. It was unheard of; returning a vampire his soul? Giving him back that which bound him to society's rules? Only now did Spike truly begin to understand what deep and dangerous magic such an act involved -- and how foolish the gypsies had been to leave an escape hatch for the demon.

The orb crashed into the Mou-ping, causing the vessel to shatter. The orb itself was consumed in the glow, so bright no one could look directly at it...but he couldn't look away. For one brief moment he could see something he knew he wasn't meant to see and felt an answering tug within himself, felt the magic that bound his soul to him.

The bonds were strong and held with no difficulty, but he was filled with fear that he would fall, caught in the spell Willow was weaving. Blindly, he reached out and felt his hands come to rest on Buffy's shoulders. Here was his anchor and he felt his panic recede as the glow of Angel's soul sank and was contained within the orb.

***

Willow could feel the throb of the power all the way up her arms, the soul firmly held within the orb. Oh, yeah, this was the good stuff. She was going to try the super-glue, see if she could get it to stick for good this time. "I call on you Gods, do not ignore this supplication! Let the orb be the vessel to carry his soul to him. It is written, this power is my people's right to wield."

***

All he could do was stand and watched like a chained beast. That's what he was, tied and led to the market for the slaughter.

At that moment, Angelus was certain he had never hated anyone the way he hated the small redhead. If he ever got the chance, if he ever was free again, there'd be no artistry in the kill. He'd find the bitch and snap her neck, make certain there was no way she could do this to him again. Sometimes practical considerations had to take precedent over finesse.

The orb was growing, the air crackling with power. Dark eyes glowing with more than reflected light, she uttered the words that would exile him once more. "Let it be so! Now!"

The orb glowed bright then vanished...and then the pain began, threatening to rip him apart.

***

Pain. Searing, burning pain. It threatened to consume him, rip him limb from limb.

Why was this happening? He remembered lying on the table in the basement, the shaman working his spell, a series of jumbled, unconnected images...and then nothing.

Now he was here again in the basement, though no longer on the table. He was crouching on the floor, gasping for breathe he didn't need as memories sorted and shifted, trying to bring him some connection to what had happened.

With difficulty, Angel raised his head and looked out from his cage to see Willow sitting cross-legged on the basement floor. They'd done the Ritual of Restoration, brought him back from the abyss. Wesley and Lorne flanked her, concern clear on Lorne's face while Wesley's was harder than he remembered. There was a reason for that, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it at the moment.

Gunn and Fred were a welcome sight, as was Connor, sitting on the basement stairs just above them. Family and friends all here...except for Cordelia and there was something wrong there, but he couldn't tell what. Was it connected to whatever grief Wesley was carrying?

But there were others in the basement as well. A dark-haired girl he vaguely recognized but couldn't place...and Buffy, looking far better than she had the last time they'd met. She'd put a little desperately needed weight on, giving a hint of curves that flattered her. Something was wrong there, too, though. Something he needed to remember, something terrible.

Standing behind her, hands resting on her shoulders, was someone he wasn't happy to see. Spike. Irritant. Enemy.

Soul.

It was the first piece of knowledge Angelus had gathered that clicked into place. Spike had a soul. Angel didn't understand how or why, but he did and it wasn't a curse but something fought and won for. That was why Spike was here, why he was standing so close to someone who should have plunged a stake into his chest.

Then the second piece of knowledge slammed home, the reason why Spike's hands rested on Buffy's shoulders.

Somewhere deep inside, he was convinced he could hear Angelus laughing.



Chapter Twenty-One

Buffy felt the bottom drop out of her stomach. The last time she'd seen Angel regain his soul, there'd been confusion in his eyes when he'd first returned, uncertainty as to what had happened. That had been swiftly followed by joy at seeing her and she'd knew she'd never forget that look; it'd haunted her for months afterwards, along with his shock when she rammed the sword through this chest.

The confusion was there, but she saw the memories return and she saw the pain. He knew. She'd known that everything Angelus had done and seen, he would know, but no matter how many times she'd told herself she could deal with it, the reality of the moment made her want to run.

He looked away, toward Wesley and the others and she pressed back against Spike, wanting comfort as her throat tightened and her eyes burned. "Hi, guys," Angel managed, his words a bit raspy.

"Angel?" Wesley asked, his voice sounding just a little uncertain.

"It should be him," Willow said. "The ritual went like it was supposed to. Buffy, did his eyes do that weird glow the last time?"

She tried to reply, but her mouth was dry and the words wouldn't come. Swallowing, she managed, "Yes. That's what happened."

"Buffy's the only who's actually seen Angel just after re-souling," Willow explained, sounding amazingly chipper for someone who'd just completed an intense ritual.

"The soul's there," Spike's voice was serious. "Other vampires...we can feel it, feel the difference. Don't take my word for it, though; you might want to do your own test."

"Maybe Lorne should do a reading," Fred suggested. "I know it didn't work out terribly well last time, but we should give it a try."

"Angel? Cupcake? Feel up to singing me a few lines?" Lorne's voice was soothing, coaxing if Angel was hesitant, but not pressuring him to do anything he wasn't ready for.

Angel slowly drew himself up to his feet, his eyes flickering briefly over toward Buffy, then quickly away. Clearing his throat, he started to sing in a low voice, "Once when you were mine, we lived within a world all our own, once when you were mine, once there was a time..."

The voice was halting and slightly off-key...and Lorne's smile had become somewhat fixed. "Still going for the Manilow, I see."

"Yeah, well, you know how much I like the classics. Did I pass?"

Everyone looked toward Lorne. "Oh, it's Angel. I just...you know, you probably need to rest, big guy. Let's get you some blood and get you tucked up in your bed."

There was a general agreement and Willow undid the magic binding the lock, allowing Angel to step out of the cage. His friends came forward to greet him, let him know they were glad he was back. Buffy couldn't bring her feet to move, though, not knowing what she could possibly say. Her hand slipped up to cover Spike's, wishing the two of them were anywhere but here.

Angel started for the stairs, but stopped as he passed near her. "It's good to see you, Buffy," he said with a sad smile. In the next moment, his gaze moved behind her and his expression hardened. "Spike, get the hell out of my home."

He turned his back on them and headed up the stairs, pausing only to look down at Connor. Father and son said nothing, merely looked at each other for a long moment, then Angel continued on toward the lobby.

An uncomfortable silence fell over the basement. Lorne and Wesley exchanged looks and then Lorne followed Angel up the stairs. "He doesn't understand," Fred said by way of apology. "He doesn't know you've been helping us."

"Doesn't matter," Spike said, sounding unaccountably weary. "We've hated each other from the moment we met."

He pressed a kiss to the top of Buffy's head. "Your call, luv. What next?"

Hit the road for Sunnydale every instinct said. It'd be one way to avoid the very unpleasant conversation that lay ahead. "We have to stay. I need to talk to him about the First, see if there's anything he knows or has been going on that could help us."

As she expected, he offered no argument, though his expression when she looked up at him made it clear his preference was to be gone.

"If Buffy feels she needs to stay," Wesley said, "I'd be happy to offer you accommodations, Spike. Believe me, I understand how...insistent he can be when one's aroused his ire."

It was a kind gesture on Wesley's part, one Buffy hadn't expected. She hated the idea of sending him off so she could stay and to speak to Angel. What if she didn't get a chance to talk to him tonight? Would they be stuck here until tomorrow evening? What was she going to do during the day? Disappear to Wesley's as well?

"I'm going to talk to him," she said abruptly. "If Angel wants to throw you out, he can throw me out as well and we can just go home."

She'd barely managed to pull away when Lorne stuck his head back into the basement as if on cue. "Buffy? Angel would like to have a word with you, if you don't mind."

"Maybe we should pack," she said jokingly, then headed up the stairs.

"He's in the office," Lorne said in a low voice as they entered the lobby. "Be gentle with him; I think he realizes he might have been a bit harsh a few moments ago."

Buffy had a funny feeling Angel hadn't come to that realization on his own, but she didn't comment before heading into the small office just off the area behind the counter. Angel was sitting behind the desk, staring morosely into a cup of blood. "You wanted to see me?"

Angel looked up, shifting uncomfortably. "Yeah, I...well, I...of all the people in the world, why Spike?"

The last words were a bit plaintive, as if he were hoping she'd tell him it wasn't true. "You mean, why him because he's infuriating and rude and sometimes I want to strangle him, or why him because he's the last person in the world you want to see me with?"

"I want you to have a normal life, Buffy. You deserve it."

She laughed, realizing she shouldn't be surprised they were going to cover the same tired old ground. "I deserve a lot of things. I deserve a chance to finish college. I deserve to have my mother alive. I deserve to have one year out of my life where I'm not fighting an apocalyptic battle where I might die. The odds of me getting any of those are pretty slim."

"You deserve better than Spike."

There were two options open to Buffy at this point. She could walk out, grab Spike, Willow and Kennedy, go back to Sunnydale in a huff and let this fester. The other option was to sit down and attempt to have an adult conversation with a somewhat cranky vampire.

Buffy settled herself in a chair, took a deep breath and promised her to try and remain calm. "Whether or not I 'deserve' better than Spike is not open for discussion. This wasn't something I went leaping into lightly, believe me."

"You don't know him like I do. You don't understand..."

"I think I'm beginning to understand him pretty well -- and I understand how he's changed. He came down here to help you." She didn't necessarily intend the rebuke in her voice.

"I know." Angel started studying his blood once more. "Lorne told me and...I know."

He took a drink, then leaned back in his chair, staring at the ceiling. "The memories of what happened when I was...gone are coming back. It's bits and pieces right now, but there are certain things that are painfully clear. I remember trying to bite you. I remember fighting with you, with Spike. I definitely remember Spike jamming a tranquilizer dart in my butt."

"After which you gave him that nasty bruise he's sporting."

Was that a smile on his face? If so, it had vanished when he looked at her again. "What I'm trying to say is that I don't like Spike, I don't like him being here, I definitely don't like the idea of him being with you...but the least I can do is not throw him out."

Buffy wondered if he'd realized Spike leaving meant her departure as well or if he was genuinely feeling a touch of remorse for acting like an arrogant ass to someone who'd tried to help him. Either way, it meant she could take care of business without that hanging over her head. "Thank you. I just...well, we can talk tomorrow. There've been some things happening in Sunnydale that you might be able to help us with."

This time he was definitely smiling. "You know all you have to do is ask, Buffy. Whatever I can do. Maybe once we've cleared things here, I should come up and visit."

That idea didn't fill her with the same enthusiasm it once would have. Still, she smiled as was expected of her. "That'd be great. Look, Lorne's right. Finish your blood and get some rest. We all need it. It's been a hard few days. I need to call Giles, anyway, let him know we might be home tomorrow night. Spring in Sunnydale; you know the drill."

It was the perfect cue to exit on, pulling her cell phone from her pocket as she went. Checking the indicators, she realized she had a new message and frowned, wondering if it might be Giles. Today was...Wednesday? Was that all? Tapping in the code to retrieve her message, she lifted the phone to her ear. "Buffy? His friend's visiting again, talking to him now. He's told her you're on the trail. Buffy? Oh, bloody hell..."

So much for cell phones being a great help in their work, not that Spike's warning would have made any difference. Hitting the speed dial code for the house, she leaned against the counter as she waited for someone to pick up. "Vi? It's Buffy. No, I'm fine. Is Giles around? Why is he...never mind. Just tell him I'm one the phone. Giles, why are you threatening Andrew with bodily harm? I see. Well, yes, I'd probably feel like hurting him for that myself. We're doing fine down here, got Angel all re-souled, so that's good. Um, well, I've only gotten to talk to Angel for a few minutes; Angelus was the usual pain in the neck. I thought it was funny. We're going to talk tomorrow, compare notes on what's been happening, see if there's anything that might help us. After that, we should be heading back up. Yeah, tomorrow night. More potentials? Can I tell you how not thrilled I am? Okay, okay. Sacred calling and all that. Look, I got about three hours sleep last night, so I'm going sneak off to bed while things are quiet. Yes, I'll call before we get on the road. See you tomorrow."

Dropping the cell phone back in her pocket, Buffy noticed Spike, Willow and Kennedy were waiting by the elevators at the far end of the lobby. "So, we staying or going?" Willow asked as she approached.

"Staying," Buffy said.

"You're not telling me Angel suddenly saw reason -- or did you convince him?"

There was a streak of tension in Spike's voice and she had to wonder if maybe she shouldn't have brought him, shouldn't have put him in this position. It might have been easier for all of them. Even as she considered that idea, though, she knew it would have been far more difficult without his presence. "Is he happy? No. Tried to convince me I wasn't doing the right thing and he'll probably try again before we leave. But he also admitted that you'd been helping and said letting you stay is the least he could do."

"Oh, yeah, because the hospitality I showed him..." Spike caught himself, cutting his words off abruptly. "Not going to go there. Water under the bridge. We're going home tomorrow night?"

He sounded so hopeful. "Absolutely," she assured him. Besides, I have to be back at school on Monday, so I'd like to have at least a couple of days before I'm balancing work with potential wrangling again."

"Besides trying to discover if Principal Wood is really evil."

Buffy let out a sigh. "Did you have to remind me, Willow? I still haven't figured out how to do that. Maybe I should sneak into the school after hours and toss his office."

Kennedy grinned. "Sounds fun."

"Sounds bloody dangerous," Spike said. "Do we know if that seal in the basement is active or am I the only one who can bleed on it?"

"Good point. Maybe a midnight raid isn't the best idea. Come one. I want to get some sleep."

They started across the lobby, but stopped as Angel came out of the office. He looked at them, a mixture of pain and anger on his face. Buffy felt Spike's hand tighten a little at her waist and realized she hadn't even notice he'd slipped his arm around her, so natural the gesture had seemed. Then Wesley appeared to ask Angel some question and draw him toward the stairs, avoiding a confrontation.

Tomorrow night. They weren't staying any longer than tomorrow night.

***

It'd been a blissful morning as far as Spike was concerned. No alarm clock to waken them, no pounding girly feet; just the two of them curled up next to each other in bed, slowly rousing from sleep. He also knew it was a rare moment for them and one he intended to savor.

The idea of simply sharing conversation while they lay among the covers was a novel one, suited to a lazy morning, enough light filtering through the windows to wrap them in a warm glow, but not enough to set him burning.

When Buffy finally slipped out of bed, saying something about being hungry and taking Willow off to find a proper breakfast, he didn't object, content to lie in bed and listen to the water pounding in the shower. He could hear her singing, some silly pop ditty with no tune and crap words, but it was beautiful music to his ears.

"You going to be lazy?" she asked when she'd dried off and dressed, sitting on the edge of the bed and running her fingers through his hair.

"Vampire here. Every once in a while, I suppose I should make some token acknowledgement of the fact I'm supposed to be a creature of darkness and sleep the day away."

Buffy laughed and kissed him, then issued a stern warning for him to be out of bed by the time she got back or she'd have to perform an awful torture such as tickling him. No, claiming vampires weren't ticklish wouldn't work because she knew this one spot...

In the end, he hadn't slipped back to sleep for that long, a growling in his stomach reminding him there were other needs he needed to tend to. Telling himself he was not getting up because Buffy insisted, Spike showered and pulled on the last of the clothes he'd brought with him and headed down to see if there was any blood in the refrigerator.

The lobby was empty except for Gunn, who looked up from the paper long enough to say good morning before going back to the sports page. Spike didn't disturb him, heading straight for the refrigerator, ready for his morning dose of pig. A little rummaging and he found it behind the half and half, pulling the bottle out so he could pour himself a mug.

He started to turn to ask Gunn if he knew where the "Coldwell Realty" mug Spike had used the other night was...and found himself face to face with Angel. "Glad to see you're up. You and I need to have a little chat."



Chapter Twenty-Two

Spike knew that look. That was the look that used to promise him a beating for some fault or simply because Angelus was in a bad mood and Spike was lowest on the food chain in their little family. "And good morning to you, too."

He worked hard to keep his voice casual, then turned toward Gunn as he'd originally intended and asked if he'd seen the Coldwell Realty mug. Gunn looked from one to the other and clearly didn't care for the dynamic he saw. "Uh, I think it's probably drying on the counter in the bathroom. Fred said something about having washed it out. Just grab another one."

With that, Gunn slid off the stool he'd been seated on, mumbled something about things to do and beat a hasty retreat. Smart man.

With a deliberate slowness he knew would drive Angel to the brink of distraction, Spike took a mug, filled it with blood, put the mug in the microwave, fiddled with the controls for a moment to get the perfect setting, hit "start" and put the container back in the refrigerator. During all of this, Angel simply glared. Only when the microwave had beeped and Spike retrieved his mug did he speak again. "Let's go into the office."

Spike sipped at the warm blood. "I'm comfortable here."

Another glare. "It's more private in the office."

"One of the reasons I'm comfortable here."

Angel's arm shot out to grab him, but Spike moved backwards out of range. "No, you don't. The game's changed. I'm not a fledgling you can order around. You want to talk? Fine. We'll talk here."

"I would think you wouldn't want anyone else to hear this discussion," Angel said through gritted teeth.

"No, you don't want anyone else to hear this discussion," Spike countered. "To be specific, you don't want Buffy to hear this discussion."

He was treading on dangerous ground and he knew it. Angel might not be quite so quick to hit as Angelus, but Spike was not so foolish as to think the possibility didn't exist. Another reason to keep the locale public.

Angel looked uncomfortable enough that Spike knew he'd hit a nerve. Pulling out a chair from one of the desks, he settled and took a sip of blood. "You want to talk? Let's talk."

"You can't keep this...'relationship' going with Buffy. It's not good for her.'

"Isn't that her call to make?"

"If you really cared about her, you'd do what was best for her, not think about your own needs. Not that I'm surprised by that. You've always been a selfish creature."

"And you believe that what's best for her is for another man she cares for to bugger off, leaving her to face the upcoming fight alone because you don't approve of him." Spike took another sip of blood. "Who's the selfish one here?"

"Buffy deserves better than someone who'll keep her trapped in the shadows."

"You mean, she deserves better than me." Spike set the mug down, his appetite gone. "That's what this is about, isn't it? You can't stand the idea of Buffy and me together."

"I can't conceive of the idea of you and Buffy together." Angel leaned forward, hands resting on the desk. "I want to know what you did, how you tricked her into this."

His voice was low and threatening, but for some reason Spike didn't find it as frightening as he used to. Maybe it was years and experience; maybe it was the suspicion there was a line Angel wouldn't cross for fear of permanently pissing off Buffy. "No tricks, mate. The girl and I fell for each other."

In an instant he was hauled to his feet, Angel's hand wrapped tightly in the front of his shirt. "Somehow, I can't believe that," he said with a snarl.

Spike's first instinct was to shove back, try to break Angel's hold. That would only lead to a fight, which was probably what Angel wanted. With an effort, he merely smiled. "Just ask her."

They held that position for a moment and then Angel shoved him back, causing Spike to stumble as he collided with the desk. "Don't think you'll like the answer?" he taunted.

"I'm thinking she'll spin whatever story you've convinced her to believe. What did you do? Tell her some sob story about being reformed because you had a soul?"

"Projecting much? Isn't that what you did? Tell her you'd been evil but you were now reformed? News flash, Peaches. Buffy already knew I was evil."

"So why? What could you possibly say or do that would convince her to roll in the dirt with you?" Angel managed to endow the words with extreme distaste, as if his lady love had somehow been sullied.

Spike considered telling Angel to piss off, that the how and why were between himself and Buffy. But since Angel wouldn't believe anything Spike said, why not go with the truth? "She said I'd changed; that she believed in me."

For a moment, Spike swore Angel's eyes flashed yellow, the demon threatening to emerge. "How did you get your soul?" he growled.

"Earned it. I found a demon in Africa who could do the magic if I passed the trials. Did it to make myself a better man. Did it for her."

He watched as his words sank into that thick Irish skull. "What conditions?" Angel asked, the words raspy.

"No conditions. It's mine, free and clear."

"There's always conditions with magic like this. A demon can't just decide to put a soul back into a vampire. It's an unnatural state."

"Tell me something I don't know. You weren't listening. There were trials: guys with flaming fists, beetles, other things you do not want to know. If I didn't pass, I was going to end up part of a cave floor in Africa. But I did pass, so the soul's mine. No happiness clause, since that's what you’re aiming at."

Angel turned away, pacing the floor. When he turned back, his jaw was set. "If you truly value your soul, if you truly understand the sense of right and wrong it's given you, then for once in your miserable existence, think of someone besides yourself and let her go."

It always came back to that. "I am thinking of her. I'm thinking of the fact that anything that tries to kill her is going to have to go through me first, that I would rather be dust than see her hurt."

"And what about the day to day? You can't go out in the sun, can't give her children, can't give her a normal life."

"Have you ever considered the fact Buffy probably wouldn't live to see a child grow up? She's the Slayer. They die young. She will never have a normal life and you're not helping her by pretending she's somehow deficient because of that."

Another blow that struck home given the reaction he saw in Angel's face. "I'm trying to make her happy," Spike continued, "give her some joy in her life. I'm trying to make certain she doesn't get so damn depressed she ends up with that death wish slayers get. But whatever happens, I'm going to be there at her side at the end."

The silence stretched on for so long, Spike thought the conversation might be over, that Angel had realized any attempt to convince him to leave Buffy was doomed to failure. Of course, that didn't rule out the threat of physical violence...

At last, Angel looked up, his face sad. "This is about me taking Drusilla away from you, isn't it? You've never forgiven me for it and I can understand that, but she is fickle, Spike, and you should know better than anyone one else she doesn't have to longest attention span in the world."

Spike just stared at Angel, not believing what he was hearing. Then he laughed. "I wasn't trying to be funny," Angel snapped.

"I know." Spike groped for the chair. "That's what makes it so hysterical."

"I'm trying to discuss serious things here. I'm trying to understand why you used Buffy to get back at me."

Spike stopped laughing. "Do you seriously think I'm using Buffy to get back at...oh, grow the fuck up, Angelus. You're, what, two-hundred and fifty? You'd think by now you'd have realized the sun doesn't rise and fall upon your every move. Drusilla dumped me -- twice, I might add -- because she realized I was in love with Buffy. Said she was all around me."

He stood and slowly began to close the distance between them. "Do you think it's easy falling in love with a slayer? I fell for her long before I got my soul. It ate at me, tormented me. I decided I had to try to be good for her, go against my nature. All this without the soul. It's been a long, hard road for the two of us and I'll be damned if I let you bugger it up just because you're miserable on account of the girl you've been hankering after went for Wonder Brat...and why am I not surprised you and Darla produced such a disagreeable kid?"

"You don't know anything about it."

"I know plenty about you and Darla; had to listen to you almost every night for almost twenty years."

This time, it wasn't his imagination. Angel's eyes were flashing yellow, a warning sign Spike knew he should heed, but common sense was fast being replaced with annoyance. "You don't understand about Cordelia," Angel ground out from between gritted teeth.

"The Powers that Whatever gave her the chance to merge with some demon abilities so the back of her head wouldn't blow out from her visions. She disappeared over the summer. Now, for some reason, she's gone evil, was behind the Beast and having your soul stolen and she's been shagging Connor and is about to have his spawn."

Spike braced himself for the blow that was probably about to come. Buffy would kick his ass later for starting a brawl with Angel, but getting some of his own back might be worth it.

The blow never came; instead, Angel's face began to crumble. "She's...no, she can't be pregnant."

"Heard the two heartbeats myself and she apparently confirmed it to Willow before everything went down yesterday."

Now it was Angel who groped for a chair. "I don't understand how this all happened. I saw where she was. It was like...heaven's the only word I can use."

Oh bleeding, blithering, buggering fuck. "If she was in heaven, how the hell did she get back here? You didn't pull her out, did you?"

Angel shook his head. "I was looking for her but once I saw where she was...why would anyone want to pull someone away from that?"

Why indeed? "How did she get back? Surely she didn't just appear one night."

"That's exactly what happened. We were out, we came back to the hotel...and there she was. Only, maybe it wasn't really her. Maybe I was so overjoyed that she was back I didn't consider it might not actually be...her." Angel shook his head. "The night she disappeared, I was going to tell her how I felt. Then, after she came back, she said she'd seen everything I'd done and it repulsed her. Then she took up with Connor..."

He looked up with ache and longing in his eyes. "Why? Why can Buffy care for you despite everything you've done and Cordelia couldn't do the same for me?"

Spike hesitated before speaking. He wasn't sure of all the details and Buffy or Willow or Wesley could probably explain it better, but looking at the pain on Angel's face...for once, Spike actually felt something akin to pity. "Because maybe that isn't Cordelia. There's a possibility it might be something that's taken over her body."

Shock, surprise and disbelief played across Angel's face, all mixed with a note of hope. "You mean..."

"Maybe Cordelia -- the real Cordelia -- hasn't been here all the time. Maybe that's not her who got horizontal with Connor. Look, I don't understand it, but Willow and Wesley should."

Figuring this was a good time to exit, Spike headed for the main lobby, pausing only to grab his mug of blood from where it sat. He hadn't gone too far when something tickled at his conscience. "You might want to spare a kind word for your son while you're at it. He's an annoying little piss-ant whom I'm ashamed to be related to in any sort of manner, but I think he cares for Cordelia in his own way and he seems to be taking this pretty hard. If that wasn't Cordelia and you get her back, he's probably going to be left out in the cold. A little sympathy might be nice."

With that, he left Angel to his brooding, deciding to go in search of Lorne. Maybe they could swap a few more tales while they waited for the women to return. Yesterday, Spike hadn't actually gotten to finish telling him the one about the bass player, the twins and the hotel room with the Magic Fingers attached to the bed...



Chapter Twenty-Three

Buffy was ready to go home. Buffy was really ready to go home. Not surprisingly, Willow had wanted Kennedy to come with them on their breakfast expedition. Then when Fred had seen them getting ready to head out the door, she'd asked if she could come along, sort of a girl's morning out. Buffy had had some vague idea that Kennedy and Fred could keep each other company as Buffy and Willow talked, but in the end the meal was dominated by Fred and Willow geek bonding while Kennedy and Buffy stared at each other uncomfortably. No bonding there. Any possibility of bonding had clearly taken a hike somewhere between Buffy acquiring a new vampire boyfriend and Kennedy being snacked on by the previous vampire boyfriend...if it hadn't actually taken one look at slayer and potential the first time they'd met and said, "I'm out of here."

Fred and Willow were still chatting happily as they walked back into the hotel, Kennedy was sticking possessively to Willow's side. Not that Fred was giving off any vibes she might be interested in Willow (considering the large Gunn-shaped vibe that was probably waiting for her), but Kennedy looked a bit threatened that Willow might have friends who could easily talk about subjects Kennedy clearly knew nothing about. Oh, dear. What was she going to do when she realized Willow ran with the smart kids at school?

Trailing slightly behind them, Buffy wondered if Spike had actually gotten out of bed or if she was going to have to go roust him. Part of her was hoping for the latter, a chance to steal a little cuddle time before going back to the real world. Then she saw Angel sitting broodily on one of the chairs in the lobby and realized the real world wasn't going to give her the chance.

The four women paused on the steps as he looked up. "Thank god you're back, Willow. I need to talk to you."

Angel rose and started toward them, but Kennedy quickly moved to place herself between him and Willow. "Don't come one step closer, you son of a bitch."

"Kennedy, that's Angel!" Willow squeaked. "He's our friend."

"He's a vampire. He tried to bite me. I'm not letting him anywhere near you."

"That was Angelus; this is Angel." Willow shifted her own position, putting herself between Kennedy and Angel. "Maybe the two of you should be introduced."

Angel started to step backwards. "You and I can talk later, Willow. It's just...it's about Cordelia."

That caught the attention of everyone except Kennedy. "What about Cordelia?" Willow asked.

He hesitated, one eye still on Kennedy. "Spike said that she's pregnant...and it might not really be her."

The expression on his face was hopeful, as if one word from Willow could make it right. Then the name of the messenger sunk in for Buffy. "You were talking to Spike?"

"This morning. He came down for some blood and we...talked."

She knew that shifty look. There was something he wasn't telling her and she began scanning the room for dust piles. "So help me, Angel, if you hurt him..."

"I didn't hurt him." There was a defensive note to Angel's voice. "We just talked." At her glare he added, "About you."

"Let me guess: you tried to convince him he needed to break it off with me 'for my own good. Why does this happen every time I come down here?"

"Maybe because I don't like your boyfriends," Angel snapped back. "Spike's fine. Look, I just want to talk to Willow about Cordelia, see if what Spike said was true."

"I don't know the whole story," Willow told him. "It's a little hard to give you a definite answer if we don't really know what's going on."

"Then let's get everyone together. If Cordelia is in some kind of trouble, we need to get her back."

***

It took the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon to sort through the various bits and pieces everyone knew about Cordelia and her activities. She'd taken full advantage of the fractured nature of the group, giving Fred and Gunn one impression, while offering another to Lorne or Connor. She'd been tentative or confident, depending on whom she was dealing with. There was the material Wolfram and Hart had extracted from Lorne's brain, much of which still needed translation; it was decided Fred would make copies for Willow to take back to Sunnydale. For the first time, Angel shared his experiences with Cordelia, including the fact that she'd been the one to convince him Angelus needed to be called forth.

"That would have told me something was up right there," Buffy said. "Okay, okay, I get Cordelia has changed and grown, but when you turned into Angelus up in Sunnydale, she freaked because she'd once invited you to ride in her car."

Gunn started to snicker and a hint of a smile flitted across Angel's face. "I'm serious," Buffy said. "She hung strands of garlic in the back seat and made us do a disinvite spell."

"It sounds like Cordelia," Angel admitted. "First she can't wait to get me into the car, then she wants to get rid of me."

"Sounds like the girl who tried to put cinnamon in your blood," Wesley said.

"She put cinnamon..." Spike shook his head. "Nope. Not even going there."

It was a brief respite before things grew serious again. For the first time, Angel told the story of the 'perfect day' that had led to the extraction of his soul, avoiding looking anywhere near Buffy when he came to the day's final moments. She found his reticence somewhat amusing since Spike had perched himself on the arm of the chair she was sitting in, one arm draped across her shoulder.

Less amusing was his tale of what happened with the "re-souling" spell Cordelia had instigated. "There was a flash of light and pain and then suddenly I wasn't in control anymore. I spoke the words that were given me, sang the song to prove I was myself again to Lorne...but it wasn't me or Angelus. Then Cordelia opened the cell door and Angelus woke up again."

"Sounds like a control spell," Willow said. "Probably completely unrelated to the spell that everyone saw performed. That one is a glamour; Anya finally ran it down for me. Pretty obscure one, at that."

"Which means that who -- or what -- has control of Cordelia's body is not only powerful but knowledgeable," Wesley said. "We'll have to widen the research net."

"But what if she's removed the knowledge we need from our books, just like she did for the Beast?" Fred asked.

"We'd have no way of knowing if she did or didn't." Gunn sighed. "Sounds like we're back to square one."

"Not quite. We need to try to communicate with her."

At Willow's words, Connor broke the silence he'd been maintaining throughout most of the discussion with a harsh laugh. "Communicate with her? What would that do? She's become a demon, a thing. There's no communicating with any demon."

Lorne looked distinctly uncomfortable at the hateful biting tone, while Angel's face began to darken. Spike offered up a sigh. "Connor, did it ever occur to you that you don't get along with Angel not because he's a demon, but because he's your father and you're a teenager? From what I recall hearing, he didn't get on with his father when he was your age, either."

Connor opened his mouth then shut it again, as if the concept had never occurred to him. "You were saying, Red?" Spike asked, ignoring any further reaction Connor might have.

"I was saying that we might attempt to communicate with Cordelia's spirit, her soul. Angel, you said you saw her with that Axis thing?"

"Yes. She was surrounded by light and warmth and everything seemed peaceful."

Willow looked toward Buffy. "Sound familiar?"

Not a subject she necessarily wanted to tread on, but Buffy realized the answer was important. "Very familiar. It sounds like...where I was."

A gentle squeeze to her shoulder and Buffy looked up to find Spike watching her with a touch of concern. She gave him a smile to let him know she was okay as Willow continued with her thoughts. "There's a spell we could use to attempt to communicate with her. I haven't actually used it, but I did some heavy research into it last year after Buffy came back. It's sort of tricky and some of it is darker than I really want to do, but I think this might be the time to use it."

Not surprisingly, Angel was all for the idea. Not surprisingly, Kennedy wanted to talk to Willow...alone. The two women retreated to the office for the discussion, while the others stared at one another. "We're going to need to do some more research on whatever it is that's possessing Cordelia's body," Wesley said at last. "Even if we do contact Cordelia's spirit, we still need to stop the creature, determine its plans."

"She said something about the child she was carrying having a destiny," Buffy said. "Maybe a prophecy or something."

"Could be something connected with a dhamphyr," Spike suggested.

"What's a dhamphyr?" Connor asked, sounding none too happy.

"Old legend from the Balkans. Some folk hold that if a man was turned into a vampire, he'd come back to pay his wife a visit, sleep with her. The resulting child was known as a dhamphyr; supernatural strength, healing, the whole vampire package...without the requirement of blood for food and the pesky sunlight allergy. Others thought dhamphyrs were created by vampires coming back and biting the wives who already carried their child, thus tainting the baby. We ran into one once, up in Romania. You remember, Angel?"

Angel nodded. "Hard to forget. He looked at us and instantly knew we were vampires, as if some instinct had told him."

Connor drew back. "You're saying I'm not human."

"You're the son of two vampires. What do you think?"

For a moment, it looked as if Connor might launch himself at Spike, but then the door to office opened and Kennedy stormed out. "Want to work out?" she said to Connor. "I'm feeling the need to hit something."

Connor glared at both Spike and his father. "I know how you feel. Let's go."

The two teenagers stomped away as everyone else turned their heads toward the office. Willow still hadn't emerged, and Buffy decided a little friend time might be in order.

Willow was sitting in a chair, head tipped forward so her hair hung to hide her face. "I'm not changing my mind," she said as Buffy entered.

"I'm not asking you to." Buffy took the chair opposite as Willow looked up. Her eyes were a bit damp but she wasn't actually crying and she was wearing her resolve face.

"We're going to do the spell just after sundown," Willow said. "I'm going to need until then to meditate and get my head together. At the moment, I'd appreciate it if Kennedy wasn't there."

"Will, if this is causing a problem..."

"Oh, yeah, it's causing a problem. She doesn't object to the magic; she's objecting because it's Angel. Apparently putting his soul back in was one thing because that was removing a threat, but she doesn't want me to do anything else that might help him. She doesn't care that I like Angel and consider him a friend. Yeah, he bit her, but if contacting Cordelia is going to help them get her back and stop that she-thing who's running around wearing her face and about to bear the Spawn of Connor, I think she needs to look at the bigger picture."

Buffy opened her mouth and closed it again. She had her own opinion about Kennedy needing to look at the bigger picture, but she didn't think it would be particularly helpful at the moment. "Anything I can do to help?"

"Find me a place to mediate. Make sure my bags are packed. Ask Lorne to come talk to me; I'm going to need a few things."

Willow stood and for a moment the resolve face wavered. "I'm never going to stop using the big magics am I?"

"I'm afraid not, no more than I'm going to get to stop being the slayer."

A big sigh. "Okay, just wanted to get that straight."

***

Willow opted to use the lobby for her working. The furniture was pushed back to the wall, leaving room for a circle to be carefully drawn in sand on the marble floor. Smudge pots of herbs were set at the four quarters and Fred dispatched to walk the perimeter of the circle itself with a fifth.

Gunn and Buffy stood to one side, watching the preparations. "Do they ever ask you to participate?" she asked him out of curiosity.

"I've done it once or twice, but it's not really my thing. I prefer what I can see and touch...although I've seen far too much to discount any of this. What about you?"

"Not my thing either. Giles -- he's my Watcher -- knows about rituals and all that, but I try to stick to sharp pointy things. Every time I've dealt with magic, weird things happen. Ancient slayers trying to kill me and my friends in our dreams, coming back from the dead, guys with slices of American cheese..."

Gunn looked at her with a raised eyebrow. "Cheese?"

"Don't ask."

Angel came down the stairs, a length of fabric in his hands. "I got it," he announced. "I knew it was in one of the boxes and I hadn't seen her wear it again."

"Isn't that the dress Cordelia wore to the ballet?" Wesley asked, pausing in his work of drawing symbols on the floor with chalk.

"Only worn once and it was definitely Cordelia in it. On the tray, Willow?"

Willow nodded and then closed her eyes once more, her lips moving in silent words. Angel carefully laid the dress on the tray at the center of the circle and then moved to join Buffy and Gunn. "Think we're almost ready?"

He was almost bouncing with constrained energy and Buffy couldn't ever remember a time when she'd seen him like this. He'd always seemed so much older and more mature. Sure, every once in a while she could recall a sudden burst of pacing, but not this eagerness. There was a tiny part of her which hurt at the idea he was so eager over the fate of another woman.

"Connor and Kennedy are downstairs whacking away at each other with poles, so I don't think we have to worry about them during all of this," Spike announced, coming around the corner from the basement door. That easy stalk was starting to creep back into his movements, she realized as he came toward her, the hint of a confident swagger that had been so long missing. The confidence was there in his eyes as well when he looked down at her and the tiny part which had been mourning the true end of her relationship with Angel fell silent.

Willow must have heard his words, for she chose that moment to look up from her meditations. "Wesley, are you ready?"

Wesley didn’t look completely certain, but he nodded. Willow rose and moved toward the center of the circle. When she had settled herself, Lorne rang a bell and the ritual began. "Answer the seekers who search the beyond. Lift the veil to show us they who have gone."

"Our quest lies in another place," Wesley read from the book he held. "We seek that which is no longer with us."

"Our quest lies in another place. Show us the path."

"Guard the seekers as they walk. Guide them in their quest."

"By earth and air, wind and fire, show us the spirit. Show us her who has been lost to us."

"Let her who had been lost be found. Let she who has been found be free to speak with us."

The call and response between Willow and Wesley had an almost hypnotic quality, causing Buffy to struggle slightly to keep her eyes open. Something was happening, though; she could feel the tingling along her skin that always accompanied one of Willow's rituals.

Willow stretched her hands out over the tray and the dress that lay there. "We seek Cordelia Chase. Her body lives upon this plane but her spirit is lost to us. Gods that see, show us the way so we can speak unto her. Guide her steps upon the bridge between her world and ours."

The glow was starting, dripping from Willow's fingers and swirling over the dressing that lay on the tray. The sparks from this working were intense ones, deep reds that spit fire when they collided with one another. And collide they did, sparking, glowing, merging, coalescing into a glowing figure that grew taller and more familiar in shape...

She wasn't solid, but glimmered, semi-transparent. "It's about time! Do you have any idea how long I've been sitting there, waiting for you to figure out that wasn't me?"

"Cordelia?" Angel's voice was tentative, with just a hint of a tremble.

Cordelia smiled, that real, genuine smile even Buffy had to admit made her look beautiful. "It's me. I mean, it's the spirit me, but it's the me me." She glanced down at her dress. "I thought I took this back."

Fred giggled nervously. "We were going to, but we got distracted, remember, and it just ended up sitting in the trunk, so I put it with your things after you disappeared."

"Oh. Well, I suppose if I'm on a higher plane, I don't have to worry about my credit card bill."

"Definitely sounds like Cordelia," Gunn said.

"Of course it's me. Willow knows what she's doing...well, except for that time she tried to do a de-lusting on her and Xander...no, that was Spike's fault." Her eyes fell on Spike and she favored him with all of Queen C's infamous disdain. "You got a soul? For Buffy?"

"Can you think of a better reason?" Spike snarked back. Once the words were out, though, he looked like he wasn't certain he should have done that.

Cordelia's expression softened. "Not if you love her. Or she loves you. Which means, of course, Buffy, that you don't have any objection..."

Somehow, Buffy had the feeling she was being informed, not asked. "No objection."

"Good. Angel? Dear?"

Angel's face lit up. "Yes, Cordelia?"

"Get me the hell out of here. Now."

Wesley's mouth was twitching, looking for all the world like he was trying not to laugh. "We'd love to oblige, Cordelia, but we don't know how."

The figure issued a long-suffering sigh. "Do I have to do everything around here?" There was a pause. "I was asking a rhetorical question, okay? Look, do you still have the Axis?"

"No, but we could probably find it again."

"You'll need that. I can't tell you exactly how to do it, but you'll need the Axis and you need to track down who Skip is working for. Believe me, if I could tell you how to do it, I would so you could get me out of here."

"You're okay, aren't you?" Angel sounded worried. "I mean, it's not like you're in pain or anything like that?"

"Only the pain of boredom and the pain of watching my body running around doing disgusting things. I mean, my god, Connor. How icky is that? I changed his diapers! And do you see the clothes they're making me wear? Angel, if you love me, get me the hell out of here."

The figure glanced over her shoulder to where Willow sat, her face flushed and her breathing heavy. "Time to go," Cordelia told them. "If I stay much longer, it's going to hurt Willow."

"But..." Angel protested, stretching out a hand.

"Find me. Use your heart and the path will become clear." She rolled her eyes. "You've got to get me out. I'm starting to talk like them. Oh, and Angel? Don't be too hard on Connor. He's confused and he's just been betrayed by the one person he thought he could trust completely...again. Try to remember that. And a talk about the facts of life might come in handy, okay?"

With that, the figure vanished and Willow slumped to the floor. Buffy and Spike rushed to her side, gently lifting her to a sitting position. Wesley brought water and Buffy took the glass, holding it ready. "Willow?" she asked softly.

Willow's eyes opened and she blinked twice, her gaze a bit unfocused. "Did it work?"



Chapter Twenty-Four

It took a while for Willow to recover from the ritual, at least to the point where Buffy figured she wouldn't have to worry about her while they were on the road back to Sunnydale. Sure the trip was only a couple of hours -- probably less as the hour grew later -- but the last thing she needed to deal with in the car was a case of the mystical shakes.

In the meantime, Buffy and Spike helped Gunn restore the lobby to its previous state. Wesley began the research, while Fred assembled the package Willow was going to take back to Sunnydale. Lorne fussed over Willow, which Willow didn't seem to mind one bit.

Angel flitted between everyone, buzzing with energy. He looked happier than Buffy ever remembered seeing him. The brooding look wasn't completely gone, but he was smiling, almost grinning. Buffy couldn't even be annoyed with him over the fact it was all about Cordelia, especially since it seemed to have distracted him from objecting to Spike's continued presence in her life.

At length, Willow's color returned to something resembling normal and Lorne offered his opinion she was probably well enough to make the trip back without being sick. Connor and Kennedy were still in the basement and Buffy went to fetch them while Spike got the luggage.

The basement was quiet as she came down the stairs save for the sound of voices. "I don't understand. Everything I was taught says that vampires are bad and slayers are supposed to kill them. Yet here she is, being all cozy. I mean, she's sleeping with Spike."

"I know. My father -- my real father; Angel's just my biological father -- taught me the same thing. Vampires are evil animals who need to be destroyed. Yet we're expected to work with them, treat them as allies, follow their orders."

"Buffy's the same. Spike helps her with everything and when he went missing, after siring a nest of vampires, I might add, she was crazy trying to find him."

Buffy considered letting them continue, but decided she'd heard more than enough and cleared her throat. The two looked up guiltily from where they sat on the basement floor. "We're getting ready to leave," she told Kennedy. "Spike's getting the luggage."

Kennedy was on her feet instantly. "I haven't finished packing. I'd better do that."

The girl practically sprinted up the stairs, leaving Connor alone. He stared at the floor for a long moment and then looked up. "Did your magic work?"

"Yes. We contacted Cordelia and she gave us some information that might help you find her."

"Great." Connor rose, dusted himself off. "I'm sure my father is very happy."

Buffy considered telling him she understood some of what he was going through, but she decided against it. She had enough problems to deal with; she didn't need to get any further involved with Angel's...especially since Connor probably wouldn't believe or appreciate a single word. Sending up a silent prayer that Angel and his son could find some way to communicate with each other, she turned and climbed back up the stairs, leaving Connor alone in the dimly-lit room.

When she returned to the lobby, she caught sight of Willow going up the stairs and Spike shaking his head as he finished coming down. "More Kennedy drama?" Buffy asked as she went to help him with the bags he carried. "What this time?"

"Glared at Angel, made a point of avoiding him and yelled at me to put her bags down if I had them. I was telling her I hadn't touched her sodding bags when Willow took exception...to the girl's behavior, not mine, which was a strange feeling. She took off for her room and Willow took off after her." Spike shook his head as they made their way through the garden toward the car. "It's going to be one bloody silent trip back home, I tell you. Either that or the girls are going to have it out all the way there."

They reached the car and began to load the bags. "Can I just vote Kennedy off the island?" Buffy asked. "Solve the problem that way?"

"You mean, before she votes you out? I'm not blind; she's got good qualities, but she's a weak link in some ways. I've seen minions like that before; they start second-guessing the big guy, thinking they're better than him, know all the answers. Sometimes they do, but there starts being an ugly tendency to ignore orders or change things...which means they could get themselves and others killed."

Buffy leaned her head against the side of the car. "So don't want to deal with this."

"One of the responsibilities of being the general, luv. You're probably going to have to slap her down sooner or later. Know it's not your style, but it's probably going to have to be done. I'll help."

She had to chuckle at the enthusiasm in his voice and looked up to find him watching her fondly. "Knew I'd get a smile. Come on, let's go get the troops and head home."

***

Willow and Kennedy appeared to actually be speaking as the Sunnydale contingent said their goodbyes, although the tension was thick. Still, Kennedy didn't say anything when Willow included Angel in her round of hugs, just stood to one side with her arms folded over her chest, a mirror to Connor's own stance just beyond the Angel Investigation crew.

"You take care of your little slayer self," Lorne told Buffy, wrapping her in a hug. "Come back to visit us -- and bring Spike with you. I'm going to re-open my club someday and I'd like you both there. Oh, or if I get a real Vegas date, not some demon who wants to use my talents for his own nefarious purposes. Get all of you out there for a big party."

Buffy promised she'd take him up on the offer before turning to Wesley. They looked at each other for a long moment. "It was a lot more fun working with you this time," she said at last, not knowing what else to say.

"Well," Wesley replied, looking a bit skeptical. "I'm not certain fun is how I'd describe it, but, yes, better this time."

No hugs here. Bridges had been mended, but they weren't to that point yet. Instead, Wesley offered his hand, which was an improvement over the way they had parted the last time. Then, Wesley turned to Spike. "Thank you for everything."

There was something in his voice that spoke of more bonding between the two men than Buffy had witnessed. Spike hesitated a moment, then took the hand Wesley offered. "Any time, mate."

As the two men shook, Buffy turned to Angel. Now she was really uncertain what to say. Good seeing you? Good luck? Have fun with Cordelia when you find her? "Ummm..."

Angel offered her a sheepish grin. "Yeah, I know."

That served to break the ice and she hugged him tightly. "I hope you find her."

He hugged back. "We'll do our best. I want you to be happy."

She pulled back to look up at him. "I am," she said, hoping he would understand.

By the look in his eye, she could tell he still wasn't happy with the situation, but she also saw acceptance, just as he expected acceptance for his feelings regarding Cordelia. It'd taken four years, but they'd both finally, really, moved on.

"He gives you any trouble..."

Okay, so maybe the moving on wasn't one hundred percent complete. The concern was sweet, though, just as she knew she'd always have a spot in her heart for him. "Goodbye, Angel," she said, reaching up to kiss him on the cheek.

Buffy stepped back to stand next to Spike. Angel watched her for a moment longer, then looked at Spike. "Take care of her."

Spike slipped an arm around her, his expression serious. "I will," he promised.

***

Buffy was more than willing to let Spike do the driving on the trip back, watching the lights of LA zip by as he maneuvered them onto the freeway. His prediction had proved wrong and Willow and Kennedy were speaking quietly but intensely in the back seat. No, he was right after all; the few words she caught as they drifted forward bore a certain tone of argument.

With a sigh, she shifted, letting her head rest against the window. She used to do this when she was child and the family would travel, lean against the window and watch the world go by. She'd done it seven years ago when she and Mom had made that final drive from Los Angeles to Sunnydale, not wanting to speak because she was leaving everything she knew behind. Mom had tried to keep up a running conversation, spinning dreams about how the new start would be wonderful for them both, but her forced enthusiasm had soon dwindled and died under the weight of Buffy's silence.

"Penny for your thoughts."

She turned her head just enough to look at Spike. His eyes were on the road, but she didn't miss the glances he tossed her way. "Just...thinking. Remembering when we moved to Sunnydale." She frowned. "Funny, but it's one memory where I don't remember Dawn being there. Seems strange that out of everything, I wouldn't remember her for that."

"Monks weren't perfect, pet."

"Maybe. Or maybe it's because I was in such a snit about having to leave LA, I wasn't thinking of anyone else." She shrugged. "It's nothing."

"Any other reason for the trip down memory lane?"

"Seeing Angel, being in Los Angeles again, the drive...a hundred things."

Spike chuckled. "One thing I miss about the DeSoto; the old bench seats. If we had them, I'd have you cuddle up next to me and you could dream all you wanted all the way to Sunnydale."

"And I can't dream now?"

"Oh, nothing preventing that. Just can't hold you close while you do, that's all." He sighed. "Some things are not progress."

She laughed and settled herself more comfortably in her seat as he reached out to flip on the radio. The sound of oldies filled the air, keeping them company all the way home.

***

Most of the lights were still burning in the house when Spike pulled into the driveway. It wasn't that late, Buffy figured, maybe just around midnight at the latest. Giles was expecting them, too, so it was likely everyone was still up.

Willow and Kennedy got out of the car first. The angry tones had diminished somewhat during the drive, but there were clearly still issues to work out and who knew if there was enough time to do it. Still, the women walked hand in hand across the lawn toward the front door.

Buffy was about to get out herself when she realized Spike wasn't moving, just staring ahead, his hands tapping a rhythm on the steering wheel. "Okay, now it's a penny for your thoughts."

"Thinking about what's going to happen when we walk in there. Giles is going to want to talk to you."

She sighed. "I know. He's going to tell me why this isn't right."

"Some of his points are going to be valid."

"Did you think any of Angel's points of why we shouldn't be together were valid?"

"No. Him I told to get stuffed." Spike shifted turning in his seat to face her. "I'm just saying I know how important Giles is to you. Don't shove him away without listening to him."

"Spike, what's going on? You're starting to worry me." She frowned. "You didn't develop a sudden case of nobility, did you?"

He snorted. "Hardly. It's just that you draw your strength from those you love. You're going to need all of it you can get during the coming days and I don't want to see bad blood between you and him."

She leaned forward, closing the distance between them. "I need you, too," she told him. "I don't want to lose that strength, either."

It was one last moment of peace and privacy before they returned to the demands the world and her calling would make on them. For Buffy, it ended all too soon and they were both leaving the car, grabbing their bags and heading up the walk, fingers intertwined.

The front door was open and Giles stood there, waiting for them. They stopped halfway up the steps and Buffy wondered if he'd looked so old the last time she'd seen him. On his face was worry and concern mixed with annoyance as his eyes slid down to look at their twined hands. Then he looked up and gave her a smile that would have been warmer and more welcoming if he just didn't seem so tired. "Welcome home, Buffy. How was Los Angeles?"

"Big. Dark at first, but we took care of that."

They stood there awkwardly. She knew he wanted to say something about Spike, but the vampire's presence (along with numerous teenaged ears) were most likely what were holding him back. She didn't want to have that conversation, but, as Spike had said, she didn't want to shut him out. "Giles..."

"You should come in," he said, not letting her finish. "Have you had supper? I'm afraid it's spaghetti, but it reheats well."

They weren't going to talk right now, but Buffy had no doubt the conversation was simply delayed. Releasing Spike's hand, she gave Giles a hug before she went in, trying to let him know she was glad to see him.

As Giles had warned her, there were four new faces peering at her among the group gathered in the living room. Introductions were made, but all Buffy's mind would take in was that one of them was named Ellen. "Where are they sleeping?" she asked once Giles had led her to the kitchen for the reheated spaghetti.

"In the basement," he told her, filling a plate. "I'm afraid we're going to run out of space, soon, and before that, we're going to need to put some in your bedroom."

So much for a private retreat...and for her and Spike having alone time on a regular basis. "Let's put our heads together tomorrow, try to make a plan. We can't put too many more people in here; the neighbors are going to call the health department."

Giles put the plate in the microwave and set the buttons to reheat. "There are other things we need to discuss as well."

"You mean Spike."

"That is not the only thing, but yes, it is one of my primary concerns."

The microwave beeped and he retrieved the plate, setting it before her. "I don't want to get into the discussion tonight, however. I doubt either of us are quite at our best and this is a talk better suited to a time when we're rested."

Buffy could definitely live with that. "Sounds like a plan. After everyone's had their breakfast, so we're not being trampled by hordes of hungry potentials?"

"Trampled is a very apt description, and, yes." He paused, his fingers tapping a rhythm on the counter. "Will Spike be, ah, sharing your room?"

"Yes." As expected, he took off his glasses and began to clean them. "Is Andrew still alive?"

"Barely. Several times I've been tempted to see if I could feed him to the Hellmouth, let him drive it insane for a while. Eat your spaghetti, then off to bed with you. We'll talk in the morning."



Chapter Twenty-Five

By the time Buffy made it downstairs the next morning, the potentials were gone from the kitchen and relative quiet had descended. She was glad Spike had...convinced her to sleep in, but the downside was snatching a cold shower since all the hot water had been used up. "Isn't there a way we could magic the hot water heater so it wouldn't run out?" she asked Giles, who was waiting for her.

"I have considered it, but haven't quite determined the proper method." Giles craned his neck slightly, doing his best to appear casual while looking behind her.

"Spike's still upstairs," she said, heading for the cabinets to see if she could find something resembling a clean bowl. "He wanted to stay out of the way so you and I could talk." Realizing the bowl situation was fairly grim, she grabbed one and started to clean it out. "Besides, he heard me yelp with the cold water, so he decided to wait a little before taking his shower."

"How...considerate of him."

Okay, disapproval simmering under the surface. Not good. Buffy waited until she'd finished cleaning the bowl and placed it on the island counter before answering. "He's more sensitive to the situation than you realize."

He sighed. "Buffy, if Spike was sensitive to the situation, he wouldn't be here; he would have simply stayed away."

She paused halfway between cabinets and island, a box of cereal in her hand. "I hadn't thought about it, but I'm wondering if maybe he didn't have a choice. I mean, I could see Spike coming back, all shiny new soul and throwing himself on his knees before me, maybe even offering up a stake so I could finish him off if I wanted or skulking around the edges of my life, letting me find cigarette butts under the tree, leaving gifts and things, then swooping down to dramatically save me from some demon which I probably really didn't need saving from anyway. What I can't see him willingly doing is living in a basement, not letting anyone know he was there, listening to voices, and just..."

Buffy settled on a stool, putting the cereal box beside the bowl. "You didn't see the way he was when I first found him. He wasn't clean, his clothes were disgusting and his hair...I'd never seen Spike's roots. I mean, I knew that wasn't his natural hair color, but he always kept it touched up. When I found him, his hair had grown out, kinda shaggy and curly -- god, I wish my hair had curls and body like that."

Giles gave her the look, the one that said she'd wandered far off track. "My point is that Spike was crazy when I found him. I'm not certain he had a choice about coming back to Sunnydale."

"He is not, however, crazy now; yet he chooses to remain."

She heard steel in his voice, a certainty of position she wondered if she could change. "He's here because I want him here...and before you start telling me I'm letting my emotions run away with my common sense, it's more than that. I trust Spike. I trust his judgment, I trust him to tell me when my plans aren't working, I trust him to watch my back and be honest with me."

He considered her words before speaking again. "Let us lay aside the issue of trust for a moment, because I know you do not give it easily and any arguments I might have regarding that will not sway you. You and I have been down this road before with Angel. But there are two points I would like to discuss; both are somewhat intimate and likely painful and I do not go there lightly. First, there is the matter of his attack on you last spring. I have heard what Xander has to say and discarded much of it, given his obvious bias against Spike, but at the core of it appears to be the fact that he did attempt to rape you. That you could trust him again after such a thing worries me to no end."

Buffy looked down at her hands. Painful was right. "He did try. He failed. He realized it was wrong and that's one of the reasons he went to find his soul, so he wouldn't make mistakes like that again."

"Buffy, humans who are born with souls make that mistake all the time. It is no guarantee."

"I know." She swallowed, her mouth dry, wanting to run, to end the discussion. "I made those types of mistakes myself." Taking a deep breath, she looked up. "I know one of the things Xander's probably told you, that my relationship with Spike was an abusive one."

Xander had; she could see it from the tightness of Giles' lips. "He's right, Giles. It was abusive. He's just wrong about who was doing most of the abusing."

The look of horror in Giles' eyes as the import of those words registered on him drove Buffy off her stool and to the refrigerator, hunting for the milk. Anything to avoid looking at him. The milk hunt couldn't last forever, though, and she was all too soon forced to return to her stool. "I didn't realize," Giles said quietly.

"It's not something I've really spread around. Everyone wanted to cast Spike as the villain of the piece and it was just easier to not fight because they wouldn't want to hear truth anyway."

"That's all the more reason you shouldn't be in a relationship with him; there's something about the dynamic between the two of you which isn't healthy. It would be best if..."

"Why does everyone know what's best for me?" The words came out a bit more forcefully than Buffy had intended. "Angel left me because it was for my own good -- and don't think I don't know Mom and you felt the same thing. Willow decided to bring me back from the dead because she was convinced I was frying in some hell dimension and apparently never thought of any other possibility, thinking it was for the best."

She'd wanted to listen to Giles rationally, but something was cracking inside. It was as if having opened herself in one area, all the secret frustrations she'd pushed down and the lies she'd told herself to get through the days were demanding to be opened as well. "Then all last year, everyone knew what was best for me, what would get me back on my feet and back into the swing of things, so I'd be happy Buffy again. You left me because you thought it was the best thing, because you wanted me to stand on my own two feet. The only person who didn't seem convinced he knew exactly how my life was supposed to go was Spike. He put up with my silences, with my bitchiness, my demands for sex so I would just feel something...he let me use him pretty much any way I damn well pleased because he knew how much it hurt me to be here."

Buffy was starting to cry, the tears coming fast and furious. She didn't want to do this, but she couldn't stop any more than she could stop the words. "Naturally, Angel hated the idea Spike and I were together, didn't want him around even though he'd helped stop Angelus. One of the first things Angel tried to do after we got his soul back in is to tell me I should break it off for Spike because I deserve better. Then he went and talked to Spike behind my back, probably tried to strong-arm him into leaving...though the likelihood of me getting any details out of either of them is pretty slim."

"You do deserve better, Buffy," Giles said quietly.

"But what if I don't want better? What if I don't want to give up what I have for some maybe better down the road because I might not be there to enjoy it? I didn't ask for this life, Giles. I didn't ask to be stopping apocalypses and training potentials and fighting an evil so old it's the First. I should be finishing college, planning a future, worrying if I'm going to get a job so I can pay off student loans. It's who I am, though. Yes, my boyfriend probably shouldn't be a formerly-evil bloodsucking not-so-fiendish fiend, but he is. It's taken so long for me to open up, to finally let someone back in after Angel; why does everyone want to take him away from me?"

***

Giles couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Buffy in such a state. There'd been some tears and panic after the death of her mother, but not this. It was if she were cracking before his eyes.

Worry over-riding his need to make her see the logic behind sending Spike away, he reached out, hoping to calm her somehow, but she flinched at his touch, pulled back. "Don't. Don't..."

No, he had seen this before, in the library of the high school, when Buffy had learned of the prophecy of her death at the hands of the Master. She hadn't wanted to be touched then, either, just pulled away and left him and Angel standing there.

He could hear voices in the backyard, Kennedy putting the potentials through drill. Part of his mind made a note to speak with the girl, suggest she soften her methods somewhat; but then, he'd met her watcher and she was merely imitating what she'd been taught. More importantly, though, she would keep the potentials busy and out of the house for awhile. They didn't need to see Buffy in this condition, nor did she need to be seen by them.

The television was going in the other room and the sound of the Dr. Who theme meant Andrew would likely not notice if the building fell down around him. Amanda and Dawn were at school and wouldn't be home until afternoon, Willow at her own classes and Xander his job. Anya was gone as well, saying something about errands and needing to get away from the mob scene for a while.

He didn't want to do it; in fact, every fiber screamed at Giles that he was perpetuating the very thing he wanted to end with this action, but he needed to calm Buffy down somehow. Telling her to stay put, hoping she would listen, he headed upstairs as quickly as he could.

Spike was thankfully at least half-dressed, lounging on top of the bedcovers, book in hand. "Downstairs," Giles told him. "In the kitchen. I think Buffy needs you."

Spike was off the bed in the flash, grabbing the shirt that had been draped over the back of Buffy's desk chair and throwing it on as he headed for the stairs. Only as they entered the kitchen did Giles realize Spike hadn't bothered to ask what was wrong and while he looked concerned, he didn't seem panicked.

The moment she saw him, Buffy left no doubt in Giles' mind he'd done what he had to. Before Spike could speak, Buffy had thrown her arms around him. "Don't go," she insisted, her voice muffled against his chest.

"Not going anywhere," he assured her. "Staying right here as long as you want me."

They seemed to be the right words, for even though the tears kept flowing, Buffy stopped panicking, keeping her arms wrapped around Spike as he stroked her hair. Embarrassed to be playing witness to the scene, Giles started to leave, but stopped when Spike shook his head. "She needs breakfast. We haven't been eating regular the last few days, been keeping strange hours..."

Giles was glad for the task, bustling about the kitchen while Spike spoke soft words to Buffy and the accompanying snuffling noise slowed to a stop. By the time Giles had managed to scramble some eggs and cook a few of the low fat sausages he knew she could be convinced to eat from time to time, Spike had her back on a stool at the island counter, pouring some cereal into the bowl she'd fetched earlier.

Buffy grimaced, her face red and eyes puffy from crying, at the plate Giles put on the counter. "Not that hungry."

"Need to eat, pet, more than that sugar stuff. Get yourself some protein so you can kick evil ass -- or Kennedy's if it's handy."

She wrinkled her nose at Spike, but pulled the plate closer. Once she'd taken a few bites, Spike kissed the top of her head and told her he was going to head back upstairs. When she protested, he replied, "It's a private chat. Best I'm not here. I'm sure Rupert and I will have our own talk later."

The look in Spike's eye let Giles know that he already knew exactly what that talk would consist of and Giles knew the best outcome he could hope for was an armed truce. Unless Buffy set him free, Spike wouldn't go, no matter how much Giles wanted him to.

Slipping off his glasses, Giles pinched the bridge of his nose. He was tired, longing for his home in Bath, wishing for peace and quiet. But there was evil to fight and once this latest crisis was done, there was the Council to rebuild, carrying on the work so someone would be there to stand against the next evil that arose. So much lost, so many friends buried...and he knew there were more funerals to come.

***

Spike was evil, Buffy decided. Evil to make her eat more than the bird-like amount she had hoped to get away with, evil to make her sit here and finish the conversation with Giles. He was her evil, though, and she wouldn't have it any other way.

With a sigh, she decided it was time to get this over with and looked up, ready to do her best not to dissolve again. Her purposefully bright and chipper words died on her lips as she looked at Giles, who was pinching the bridge of his nose as if he had a headache. "Giles? You okay?"

He looked up, eyes very tired. "I'm sorry, Buffy. I didn't mean to distress you."

She felt a pang of guilt at having let herself lose control. But she probably wouldn't have done so with anyone else besides Giles or Spike; with anyone else, she would have suppressed, put on a brave or angry face but maintained control. "I guess seeing Angel again brought some old things up to the surface that I hadn't dealt with." She shoved the eggs around her plate. "There are a lot of things I haven't dealt with."

"No need to apologize. You've been under a great deal of stress."

Buffy looked back up. "So have you, Giles. You've been flying everywhere, finding these potentials, probably battling bringers along the way, working with the Council lawyers to make sure I have the means to keep the girls going...and I never asked you about it. I just accepted that you showed up, you had the potentials and you were taking care of things. All these years, and most of the time I've never given a thought to what was going on in your life. Just always thought you'd be there to take care of me. That's part of what you wanted me to learn last year, isn't it? That I need to be able to take care of myself, not rely totally on other people to have the answers or fix non-demon things."

Giles looked surprised at her words and then a smile crossed his face. "That was precisely what I hoped you would learn. And I never worried about the fact you showed no interest in my goings on; for one, it gave us both some much-needed space and for another, well, I thought they would bore you."

"Maybe we need to change that. With Mom gone and Dad essentially gone, you're the only parent type I have left."

"Which means you'll listen politely to my advice and then ignore it?"

Buffy winced. "Okay, so I haven't been the greatest on that score. You wanted to talk Let's talk."

Giles sighed. "There is one question raised by Spike's attack on you I haven't heard anyone ask. If the chip was working, how could he do such a thing without tremendous pain? I'm not asking for details of what exactly happened, but by its very nature, such an incident would be violent."

"Oh, it was violent." Her stomach clenched, and she paused, waiting until the feeling eased before continuing on. Was it from the memory or what she was about to admit. "But Spike's chip stopped working on me after I came back. He found out accidentally; I hit him and he hit back and it didn't hurt. We kinda went from there. I asked Tara to research it -- didn't dare ask Willow because she'd already gone off the deep end with the magic use -- and she said it was a basic change that happened when Willow did the spell, that I didn't read as 'human' to the chip."

"Good lord! Do you realize what this means, Buffy? It could just as easily be a malfunction of the chip itself, not the spell. Has he been able to hit others? I understand that he killed while under the control of the First, but presumably that control deadened the pain centers of his brain. What happens when he's not under the First's control?"

It was now or never. "The chip's out, Giles. It's not an issue anymore."

He stared at her. "How?" he managed. "Why?"

"It started to malfunction while you were off in the desert with the girls, causing him pain. I contacted Riley and he arranged for some Initiative surgeons to take care of the chip."

"Oh, I must imagine that thrilled Riley no end. He actually agreed to this?"

"He left the decision in my hands -- and he didn't come himself. Sent someone." She couldn't help a slightly bitter smile. "Did I tell you Riley's married? Less than a year after we broke up, he found someone else and tied the knot."

"Buffy, I had no idea..."

"So much for my attempt at normalcy, huh? So, my choice was to have the chip repaired or have it removed. I opted for removal."

Giles offered up an exasperated sigh. "Why not have it repaired? Then we at least don't have the worry he might attack someone while he's not under the control of the First."

"For one thing, because it was killing him. What about the next time it malfunctioned? Just stand by and watch him die? Aside from that, it was just a muzzle. Having that chip in is saying we don't trust him to make the choice."

"When they put that chip in, we were bloody well thankful for the muzzle! Might I remind you that he tried to kill you on more than one occasion, even after getting that chip implanted. The demon is always down there, always waiting to come out."

Realization dawned. "You're afraid this is going to be like Angel, aren't you? That something will happen and he'll turn evil and I'll have to kill him."

"The possibility has crossed my mind. Buffy, you just saw Angelus; how can you not be worried the same thing might happen to Spike?"

"Because Angel's soul wasn't something Angelus wanted; the demon's fought against it all the way. Spike wanted his soul; he made the decision to go search for it. The demon wanted to get a soul, Giles; isn't it amazing?"

"It's amazing, I'll admit." Giles dropped his glasses on the counter top, rubbing the bridge of his nose again. "In fact, it's somewhat earth-shattering because it throws into doubt everything we have ever known or believed about vampires. I know several people who would have loved the opportunity to interview Spike, discuss this with him...they are, unfortunately, all dead now."

He hadn't spoken of that aspect of the Council's destruction until this moment and Buffy wondered if those losses lay behind the harshness he'd shown recently. Sure, Giles had often decried her "frivolous" activities in the past, but this new insistence on business only was starting to worry her. Reaching across the counter, she put her hand on his. "I'm sorry, Giles. I'm sorry all your friends are gone."

They sat there silently for several minutes. "This conversation isn't going to go anywhere, is it?" he asked at last. "You're not willing to give up Spike and it's a relationship I'm not happy to see you in. Neither of us are going to move and if we continue, we'll only end up hurting each other. I don't want to do that."

"It's not what I want either."

When he looked at her, his eyes were tired, resigned. "I owe it to you to let you know I think this is the wrong for you. That I believe it is dangerous for Spike to be here. That it was foolish for you to have the chip removed. That the First may not be done with him and every moment he is with us is a liability."

At least they were laying their cards on the table. "I think you're wrong. I've watched Spike change and I know he can be much more than just a killer. The chip needed to be removed for him to move forward. I can be honest in front of him, show him all my fears without worrying if it's going to completely demoralize him. I draw strength from him and I don't want to lose that, just as I don't want to lose what I gain from you. I don't want to have to make a choice between two men I love. Yes, I said 'love,' Giles. I love Spike and I love you. It means the world to me to have you here."

"There may come a day when you must choose."

"Then I deal with it then. Until then, I want both of you with me. I know you don't like Spike, but can you try to accept the situation for now, at least until we defeat the First?"

She wished she could read him, figure out what he was thinking, but he seemed so far away and lost to her. "I will do my best."

Feeling better, she squeezed his hand and offered him what she hoped was a sunny smile. The smile vanished as he continued. "If I feel he has become a threat, I will take action."

"Talk to me first, please?" When he didn't respond immediately, she became more insistent. "Please?"

After one of the longest pauses of her life, Giles nodded. "I promise. We also need to deal with that damn trigger."

"And figure out what we're going to do with the potentials." She was glad to move the conversation onto safer grounds, more practical matters. Buffy didn't fool herself, though; there was now a tension between them that had not existed before and the possibility their differences on this might never be resolved.



Chapter Twenty-Six

"So, is Angel still using that gel to make his hair stick straight up?" Dawn asked, flopped across Buffy's bed late Friday afternoon while Buffy tried to go through the mail that had accumulated in her absence.

"I always liked the way Angel did his hair," Buffy replied. Another offer for a credit card? Into the trash it went. "Besides, it's a bit shorter now, so he doesn't need to use as much."

Dawn laughed, a pleasant sound Buffy couldn't remember hearing in a while. "Maybe he could lend some to Connor...or get him a hair cut."

"Or a personality," Buffy muttered under her breath.

More laughter from Dawn. "I heard that! So I take it he didn't improve with acquaintance."

"Not at all." She tossed the last of the junk mail into the trash and shifted in her chair, resting her arms along its back. "It's a sad situation, Dawn. Angel's been given this gift that he never dreamed he could have...and it's turning out to be more of a curse. Connor hates him -- wants him dead, really -- and there's this whole ugly situation with Cordelia."

"Yeah, Willow told me a little about that last night while you were eating. Ewww." Dawn picked at the comforter. "How'd Angel take the news about you and Spike? Did he get extra-broody?"

"You really don't like Angel, do you?"

"What can I say? When you two were together, it was always this big angst-fest where you acted like everything was the end of the world. It's the duty of a younger-yet-taller sister to despise such things and give her older-but-shorter sibling grief about it."

"You weren't taller then...and are you ever going to stop reminding me you got the tall genes in the family?"

"Nope. And you're not going to tell me what happened between you and Angel, are you?"

Now it was Buffy's turn to laugh. "Call it Big Sister's prerogative."

Dawn tilted her head to one side, considering. "You look happy. It's nice."

"Everything's good in Buffy-land at the moment. I don't know how long it will last because, well, you know me and happiness is always a prelude to world-ending disaster, but I've decided to enjoy it while I can. And speaking of disaster..."

She sighed as she levered herself out of the chair. "You're in on the Scooby meeting tonight; we've got to talk about where to put the Potentials. Giles says there are more coming and we can't keep cramming them in here."

"Does it mean I get my room back? Or, at least, get fewer roommates?"

"That's definitely on the agenda. I think it'd be better for all of us if we weren't doing sardine imitations."

***

Xander was the first one to present an option for solving the potential housing problem. "The Crawford Street mansion -- it's still standing and it might take a little work, but there's lots of room there. Does Angel still own it or whatever?"

"Considering it was Angelus who moved us in, I somehow doubt the legal niceties were observed," Spike pointed out.

"Not to mention Buffy and I both have very unpleasant memories of that place," Giles added.

"Um, make that three of us." Spike looked uncomfortable. "Not a great time for me, either."

Xander looked around the table, tapping the plans under his hands. "Okay, not the odds on favorites. Let's not just dismiss it out of hand, though. It's got space, which we are sorely in need of, running water and electricity...and if we can get our hands on it, it'll certainly solve our housing problems."

Buffy had to admit Xander had a point, though she didn't like the thought of it. As Giles said, too many memories. "We'll count that as one option. Any others?"

Others were pitifully few. There was Xander's apartment, but that wouldn't do much to ease the situation and his neighbors would likely be far quicker to react to overcrowding than Buffy's, who seemed to have become somewhat immune to the sight of strange goings-on over the years. The idea of setting the basement up dormitory style had its own problems, including losing one of their workout areas. Reluctantly, Buffy asked Willow to track down who owned the mansion in the city archives. If Angel did somehow hold the deed, he'd probably be more than happy to let them use it.

"Not the easiest place to defend," Spike said after she'd made the request. "Sure the minions were especially stupid, but I made it in and out of that place with no one noticing. Several side entrances that I know of, and I never got to explore it fully."

"Why I pulled the plans," Xander said. "Thought you and I could take a look at them, go over the weak spots. If we end up using it, we'll need to do a walk-through, figure out where Willow might be able to help us with some magical defenses."

Willow didn't look incredibly thrilled by Xander's assumption, but Buffy could have hugged him at that moment. He'd said he'd make an effort with Spike and he was. Even Spike recognized it, cutting back on the snark slightly and actually calling him "Xander" once.

It wasn't the best of decisions, but it was forward movement. They needed to do something to relieve the situation; she just wasn't sure this was it. Then there was the question of what they'd do with the girls after all this was done...assuming any were left standing.

The meeting broke up and Buffy decided it was time to make an effort to at least put names to faces with the new girls. Ellen, Kate, Tina and Tracy. She kept repeating the names in her head, hoping she'd remember them somehow.

The girls were the mixture of eagerness and nervousness she'd come to associate with most of the potentials and Buffy found herself remembering her own fear the first time she'd come face to face with her first vampire. She'd been thinking of that a lot lately, watching her life come full circle as she trained the girls. No matter what happened to her, the slayer line would continue. It might take a while, what with Faith being a guest of the State of California, but it would go on.

Once the conversation was done, she looked around the living room for Spike and discovered he wasn't there. Wandering into the kitchen, she found Xander with the plans to the Crawford Street place spread out on the island, making notes. "You're really serious about this," she said as she joined him.

"We've got to do something. We're living on top of each other here, Buf, and that's going to do as much to kick our ass as the First. Tell me it wasn't nice in LA not having to wait forever to take a shower."

"Or stepping over sleeping bodies. It was nice...not that we actually had time to enjoy it. I thought Spike was going to go over this with you."

"He was, but Giles snagged him, said he wanted to talk. They're down in the basement."

It took all of Buffy's willpower to keep from heading straight for the basement door. She might not like it, but Giles was going to talk with Spike sooner or later...and it wasn't like the situation with Angel where she had to worry that they might happily do each other physical damage. At least, she hoped it wasn't.

She opted to stay in the kitchen, talk with Xander about ways the mansion could be used to the best advantage. Her eyes kept straying to the basement door, though, one ear cocked.

The sound of voics raised and angry, then feet pounding up the stairs. The door opened and Spike stepped into the kitchen, face dark. He paused for just a moment, barely enough time to make eye contact with Buffy and then stormed toward the front of the house. Buffy was after him immediately. "Spike?"

"Going out," he said over his shoulder, not breaking stride. The front door opened and slammed shut behind him with a bang that had heads in the living room turning to look. Buffy stared at the closed door for a moment, then turned to find Giles standing in door between the kitchen and dining room. "I'm afraid we had a disagreement," he said by way of explanation, the calmness of his voice doing little to mask the tightness underneath.

"Just great." She headed for the foyer, fully intending to grab her own jacket and go after him.

"Buffy, don't." Giles' voice was insistent.

"You think I should just let him storm out of the house like that?"

"I think the fact he didn't ask you to accompany him indicates he might want to be alone for a while."

"When he's pissed off and angry? Wouldn't this be a perfect time for the First to try the trigger again?"

Giles glanced at the audience watching them from the living room and reached out to draw Buffy aside into the relative privacy of the dining room. "From everything you've told me, it sounds as if the trigger works on Spike when he's relatively weak, unfocused. Much as I hate to say this, the renewal of the relationship between the two of you has clearly given him the focus and purpose he was lacking when he fell under the influence of the First."

That was somewhat encouraging, but Buffy still found her eyes sliding toward the door, feet starting to move. "Buffy, you spoke this morning of trust. If you are going to have a relationship with Spike, then you are going to have to trust him, not feel required to go running after him every time he's upset. You need to give him his own space, acknowledge his separate identity. For my part, I have no doubt he'll come back through that door within a few hours."

She looked at him, looked at the door, looked back at Giles. "I hate it when you're right. But if he's not back in two hours, I'm going after him."

***

By the time ninety minutes had elapsed, Buffy was sitting on the front porch, waiting. She did trust him. It wasn't a matter of trust. She was worried about him.

She was worried he'd gotten so angry he'd walked out the door with no intention of coming back...just like all the other men in her life.

Giles was right; she needed to trust him. He said he'd be at her side, so she should believe it. Spike was the one who'd always come back, who wouldn't go away even when she wanted him to. Why should she think he'd leave her after a simple argument with Giles, which was hardly the first -- and certainly not the last -- they'd had?

Sighing, she wrapped her arms around her legs and bent forward to rest her head on her knees. She'd gotten through the first few hurdles of this new relationship just fine, but there were more to come. It'd be so easy to screw things up, she didn't even want to think about it.

A familiar tingle at the back of her neck and she looked up to find Spike coming up the front walk, hands shoved into his jeans pockets. This wasn't the swaggering, sexy gait she knew so well, but something more thoughtful.

He didn't saw a word as he approached, but settled next to her as if he'd just been out for a stroll around the block. "Everything all quiet?" he asked.

"Relatively. I thought we were going to have a slapping match with Andrew when Vi declared that The League of Gentlemen was juvenile."

Spike chuckled. "Never a dull moment."

They sat silently for a while, watching the night sky. Various noises drifted out, the normal sounds of a house filled with teenaged girls. Buffy sneaked a look sideways at Spike, taking in the line of his profile. Tomorrow was Saturday, one week that they'd been together. Thinking of everything that had happened, it felt much longer.

As if he knew she was watching, he turned his head slightly so their eyes met. She saw mixed emotions there, still some anger and hurt, but predominant was love and affection. "I left because I felt a sudden urge to snap his neck," he said quietly. "Nothing to stop me now, no chip to hold me back. Figured it'd be better to get out and cool down before any violence happened."

"I wanted to come after you; Giles convinced me I needed to give you some space."

"The bastard's a wise man. Glad you didn't. I would have wanted you to take sides and that's not what you need to be doing."

He wasn't going to tell her what they'd said to each other. She asked Giles, practically demanded it, but he'd refused, saying Spike could if he chose. "I wish you two could get along."

"Oh, don't worry. We won't break into open warfare; not our style with each other." He snorted. "The marvelous irony is that we actually both want the same thing: for you to be safe, happy and cared for. We just feel very differently about how it's to be accomplished."

She slid closer to him and let her head droop to rest against his shoulder. "Maybe we can convince him."

"Maybe." He didn't sound hopeful, but he slipped his arm around her and having him here was enough for the moment.

***

The rest of the weekend passed in relative quiet. Giles and Spike were civil and highly British toward one another. Anya led another successful raid on Costco, finding bargains no one else seemed able to ferret out. Research on the First and other topics continued, including who actually held the deed to the Crawford Street place. There seemed to be some confusion in the records and Buffy tried calling Los Angeles to ask Angel what he knew, only to get the company answering machine, cheery message provided, ironically enough, by Cordelia Chase.

Chores and training, patrol at night, looking for further evidence of what the First might be planning. It was the now familiar rhythm, different only in the fact that she no longer drifted off to sleep alone in her bed. All too soon it was Monday morning and she actually had to pay attention to the alarm clock instead of letting Spike's nuzzling of her neck entice her to stay in bed a little longer.

"You've been out of town seeing Dad," Dawn reminded her as they drove into the parking lot. "Principal Wood asked me about it Thursday, wanted to know if I'd heard from you."

"Checking up on me, eh? Did he show any signs of evilness while I was gone?"

"You mean, other than the fact he's the principal and therefore viewed as the enemy by the students? Nope."

Buffy slide the car into one of the spots reserved for faculty and staff. "Keep your eyes open. I'm sure he's up to something."

She was just putting her desk in order when Wood strolled by. "She returns. Have a good time in Los Angeles?"

Buffy shrugged casually. "It was okay. Lots of business with Dad. We got through everything, though."

"Good. You'll probably have a full schedule today; we had more than a few incidents while you were gone and I should warn you that some of the complaints are of a romantic nature. Things get hairy close to Valentine's Day, I guess."

She'd totally forgotten Valentine's Day was that Friday. "You know how it is with kids; they don't have anyone or see the person they want involved with someone else, they get all over-dramatic."

Now it was his turn to shrug. "It's kind of hard not to feel that way when you see all the advertisements and are flying solo. I try not to pay attention, but it feels a little funny not being part of a couple this time of year."

"Yeah, I know how that goes. Been there myself." Wait a minute. Was that an announcement of his dating status?

"I was wondering, maybe if you're not busy, we could have coffee one evening."

Oh, God, he was flirting with her, asking her out. Maybe it wasn't serious; maybe he wanted to get her away from school, try to get information out of her.

He paused, considering. "Actually, dinner would be nicer. If you're not doing anything Friday, maybe we could do dinner? Talk about our current state of singleness? At least, I think you're single; I thought you mentioned something earlier about not seeing anyone at the moment."

It wasn't just information; he was asking her out on an honest-to-God date. A part of her was tempted to say "yes"; she could use the opportunity to find out more about him, try to discover what he was up to, because he was definitely up to something.

But if she accepted, she'd be lying, pretending she was available. The idea of lying to Principal Wood didn't bother her so much because he was, after all, quite possibly evil and therefore probably lying to her. She'd be going out on a date, talking and laughing and flirting with him, pretending she found him attractive. If she could determine once and for all he was up to something nefarious, that would be great and she could let the end justify the means. But what if she didn't find out he was up to something? What if he wasn't up to anything at all? What if he asked her for a second date? There was Spike. How would he react? He'd probably put a good face on it, but he'd feel hurt at the idea of her spending the evening with another man, especially on Valentine's Day.

No, no more lying about her relationship. There'd been too much of that in the past. She could find another way to discover if Wood was truly evil. Ooh, she and Spike could spend Friday evening together and break into the school, search his office. Valentine's Day, slayer style. Smoochies and fighting evil.

Aware he was waiting, Buffy let a regretful smile cross her face. "I was single, but I am seeing someone now..."


The End
January 30, 2003 - March 23, 2003