Crossed Lines

 

DISCLAIMER: The 1998 and 1999 scenes of this story are taken from Amends and I Will Remember You. Dialogue from those scenes is taken from the show, to ensure that what unfolds in the fanfic is rooted in the logic of the show as we have seen it so far. Some lines of dialogue from the 2000 scene and the italicized lines of the opening dream sequence from the 2005 scene originated with Carrie, whose "A Thin Line Between" inspired this fic, and are used by permission. As to the characters…if I owned them, half the eps this season would never have gotten off the drawing board, and while Buffy might have started dating Riley, they wouldn't have gone beyond holding hands. Parker who? I still stand behind Joss Whedon's statement that BtVS was meant to be the kind of show which inspired fanfic, and intend no infringement on the copyrights owned by Mr. Whedon, the WB, Fox, Mutant Enemy, Sand Dollar Productions much less any of the brilliant writers associated with BtVS and Ats.

RATING: Okay, you do know where you are, right? My fanfic? Which is, by definition, entirely NC-17?

SPOILERS: Rumored ending for season four.

NOTE: I was relying on memory for the scenes with the Mohra demon from I Will Remember You, and misremembered one word. He actually says "powerful" not "invincible" but I am taking artistic license and using the incorrect word, for reasons which will be clear by the end of the story.

SUMMARY: B/A The Angst The Anger The Smut The Resolution See, Carrie's little catharsis fic, "A Thin Line Between" (which you should read before you read this) really, really got to me. So I had to write this as a sequel. Because I have to believe that the only way that Buffy and Angel would ever hurt each other is if some extremely Evil Power used arcane abilities, like malignant magic, mind control, or acid-tripping scriptwriters, to make them do it. And that in the end, it could all be put right. With a healthy dose of smut along the way. Before everything gets put right, because its more fun that way, at least I think so. You'll let me know if you agree.

CAVEAT: I've been under time constraints, so I didn't ask to have this piece edited, and any typos, misspellings, grammatical or syntactical errors should be blamed squarely on yours truly. I tried to catch as many as possible, and I believe that nothing too egregious remains.

THANKS: To Carrie for inspiration, and for permission to play with her creation.

 

Crossed Lines

 

Part 1

by
Margot Le Faye

"You're not friends. You'll never be friends. You'll fight, and you'll shag, and you'll hate each other 'til it makes you quiver, but you'll never be friends. Love isn't brains, children, it's blood; blood screamin' inside you to work its will. I may be love's bitch, but at least I'm man enough to admit it."

--Spike, Lover's Walk

Sunnydale, Christmas, 1998

The being who had taken the shape of Jenny Calendar looked at her. "Hmm. I'm impressed," It said. Still, It was confident that things were going to go as It desired.

"You won't get Angel," Buffy said flatly.

"Hmm. You think you can fight me? I'm not a demon, little girl. I am something that you can't even conceive. The First Evil. Beyond sin, beyond death. I am the thing the darkness fears. You'll never see me, but I am everywhere. Every being, every thought, every drop of hate."

"All right, I get it. You're evil. Do we have to chat about it all day?" The First looked at the impudent child before It. Did such a fragile, transient creature think she could defeat Its ancient, sublime and incomparable malevolence? The child would learn otherwise, and the lesson would be delicious.

"Angel will be dead by sunrise," It taunted her, now. "Your Christmas will be his wake."

"No."

"You have no idea what you're dealing with."

"Lemme guess," the child said. "Is it...evil?"

The first was no longer amused. The child was annoying. It dropped Its semblance of humanity and projected an image, one of Its many facets, though not all of Its true self. The child ran away.

"Dead by sunrise!" the First shrieked in triumph.

Prematurely.

The First was appalled by the snowfall. They had taken a hand in the game. More, the First itself had failed. It had not been able to seduce Angel into destroying Buffy. Quickly reviewing the strategy It had employed, the first realized Its mistake; It had been too obvious, trying to tempt the lover into destroying the beloved. Next time, a more delicate approach would be required.

Something so insidious, so subtle, not even They would realize It was behind matters. Contemplating the possibilities, the First sank deeper into the subterranean labyrinths of Sunnydale.

LA, 1999

The Mohra demon was exultant. He had succeeded in eliminating one warrior, rendering Angel human and useless in the fight against evil. Now, he was about to destroy the Slayer herself and pave the way for the encroaching darkness.

"Together, you were invincible," he flung at them, jubilant at the approaching victory. "Apart, you are dead!"

But they weren't quite so far apart, yet. A moment later, Angel gave his beloved the clue she needed, and Buffy swung the morning star into the jewel that controlled the Mohra's life force. With a scream, he shattered like the jewel. And Buffy bent to croon over the man she loved above all else in the world.

"Shhh. You're all right. That's all that matters. You're all right." She bent to kiss the top of his head, so grateful that he had survived this. "It's over. And we're together."

Midway between Sunnydale and LA, 2000

"You knew he wasn't a match for those things!" Buffy found herself screaming at Angel. She couldn’t control herself, it was as if all the grief and hurt and anger were just rising up, demanding that she speak. God, she wanted to hurt him, hurt him the way he had hurt her…

Now! There will never be a better opportunity. And they will never realize…

Suddenly, as if a voice were whispering the exact words Buffy needed in her ear, she knew how to hurt him. "You murderous, blood-sucking fiend," she said, putting all her anger into her voice. Angel stared at her in disbelief, mouth open in shock.

"Buffy!" he groaned unable to accept that the woman he loved, the woman for whom he had sacrificed every drop of happiness he had ever known could stand there and say what she was saying.

"Did you ever love me at all?" she demanded, another thought from the helpful whispers prompted her to say. "Or was it just really neat for the Scourge of Europe to have a Slayer go all moony over him? Because if you loved me you could never have endangered someone I care about."

This couldn't be happening, Angel thought sickly. Buffy couldn't be saying these things, not after everything they had been through together, all they had survived.

Everything you sacrificed for her, a whisper inside his mind reminded him. Suddenly his grief left him, and he felt a welcome rush of anger.

"You aren't even going to give me five minutes to explain, are you?" he asked coldly, already knowing the answer.

He was being cold and calm and remote and it hurt her so badly she had to gasp for the next breath. "I don't have five minutes to waste," she hurled at him, furious and aching so badly she could die of it. Angel nodded, turning on his heel and leaving her. Grief and rage swamping her, Buffy screamed out, "And don't ever, ever let me see you again! I don't need your help!" He disappeared from view. Pain settled over her heart like ice over a shallow pond, freezing all the life within it. Buffy forced her attention back to Riley.

And deep within the subterranean labyrinths beneath the Hellmouth, something infinitely old and infinitely wicked smiled to Itself, content.

Sunnydale, 2005

He walked towards the door, opening it slowly before turning back to look at her one last time.

"Don’t ever call me again, do you understand?"

All she could do was nod. And accept his judgment.

Gasping, Buffy came awake. For a moment, relief overwhelmed her; she had been having a nightmare. But a second later, the pain returned: not a nightmare, a memory, one relived almost nightly for the past three years. With a sigh, Buffy tossed off the covers and padded to the bathroom, knowing from experience that it was pointless to try to get any sleep right now. She would grab a quick shower, maybe do a minor workout, then catch up on a bit of demonology research before attempting to sleep again. An attempt she wouldn't make until a few hours had passed, when she would have put enough distance between herself and the re-enactment. With luck, she might even get the rest she needed to open her dojo on time, and not leave it as she so often had to, for her assistant to do.

Luck was not with her. The shower did not soothe her muscles, the workout did not focus her mind, the research did not distract her thoughts. Two years ago, maybe even one, she would have called her best friend, Willow, or perhaps even Xander, people who would understand, who cared for her, who would try to help ease her pain. But she had drifted away from them. She had gradually drifted away from everyone and every thing after that bitter night. Her body had healed. Her spirit never would.

And the hell of it was that she knew he had been justified.

She couldn't lie to herself, couldn't make Angel the bad guy, couldn't summon anger or rage or indignation to say that he hadn't understood, that he had hurt her so deeply that he had no right to be upset by the words she had spoken in unthinking anger. The truth was, that she had not been unthinking. She had wanted to hurt him. She had succeeded. And in the end, she had hurt herself even more.

Buffy went through the motions. At twenty-four, she had almost reached the maximum age any Slayer before her had ever attained. The thought that she was very likely to be dead within two years was one which would have terrified her, or angered her, not all that long ago. That anger would have translated into determination, and she would have fought not just to defeat evil, but to ensure that she survived to the ripe old age most people felt was their birthright. Now, she was so very, very weary, the idea of not having to fight any more, of not having to wake up every night to the same nightmare, could only be most welcome.

Sometimes, she wished that she had died in that horrific fight with the demons which had brought Angel to her hospital bed. She could at least have died believing he still loved her. But no, she didn't really deserve that kind of peace. She had to take responsibility for what had happened, for what she had done. If Angel hated her, it was because she made him hate her.

So, when her usual methods of distraction proved fruitless, she did the only thing left to her, heading for her medicine cabinet and the prescribed sleeping pills which, due to her Slayer's constitution, wouldn't keep her out for the whole night, but would at least help her get a few hours of mercifully dreamless rest.

At twenty-four, when so many women her age where on the brink of the most important years of their lives, were on the verge of beginning to realize life-long dreams, a barren dreamlessness was the only mercy Buffy Summers could hope for.

LA, 2006

The irony did not escape him. He would have laughed if anything within him were still capable of something approaching joy.

"This is my reward?" he said politely, instead.

"Not the one envisioned for you," the female Oracle said. "The time has not ripened. But one which it is judged you have earned."

"So, my soul is anchored," Angel said. "No matter how happy I become, I won't turn into a soulless murdering monster again." The female Oracle beamed at him. He decided not to shatter her illusions. It simply wasn't worth it.

"Thank you," he said with as much sincerity at he could muster. He didn't fool her. She stopped beaming at him and narrowed her eyes instead.

"Have you forgotten what is not strained? I once said that you were not a lower being," she told him. "Don't prove me wrong." He wanted to ask her what she meant, but she flung a hand upward and he was outside again, under the old post office. Sighing, Angel picked himself up and began the walk back to his office.

Six years ago, he would have thanked the Oracles on bended knee and wept tears of joy for the reward he had been given. It would have meant the world to him, would have meant that he could have a chance to find happiness with the only woman he had loved in the nearly two hundred and fifty years of his existence. Now, the danger of him losing his soul to a moment's happiness, contentment or peace was laughably remote.

Despite the promises and threats each had made the other, Angel had in fact seen Buffy again. In the war they waged, it was simply inevitable. Once, Cordy had been taken hostage by a tribe of elder demons even Angel couldn't handle by himself. He was game to try, but Wesley had savagely asked if his hurt pride was worth Cordy's life. Stung, Angel had reluctantly allowed Wesley to make the call.

Seeing her had been harder than he expected. Anger he thought banked rushed to the surface, the darkness within him swelled, straining to be released. He fought it down, concentrating on the need to help Cordy. Calming himself, he looked back to the Slayer. He could tell that his parting words to her the last time they'd met had had the desired effect. Looking into her eyes he saw what he knew must be reflected in his own; not pain or anger or regret, but emptiness. She was now as dead inside as he was. Her green eyes were no longer luminous, her skin no longer glowed. She was not merely thin, but worn, almost gaunt.

He had once thought her the most beautiful woman in the world. She was still lovely, but her beauty seemed somehow brittle, breakable. He had one moment's savage satisfaction, one moment of anger so vivid he could feel himself quiver with it as his demon tested his control to the breaking point. The moment passed and Angel briskly told her what she needed to know. As briskly, she nodded to show she understood, and proposed a plan.

In the heat of battle, with others to consider and more at stake than their own despair, they worked together as smoothly as ever, intuitively and seamlessly, each understanding where and how the other would move, anticipating it, making it part of their plan. They decimated the demon clan, and got Cordy free.

But with Cordy removed to safety by Wesley, and the pressure off, when it was only the lesser minions they had to mop up and only themselves at risk, their synchronicity fell apart. Buffy took a sword cut to her thigh, Angel a stake that missed his heart by inches. They each managed to get to their feet unassisted and limp off the battlefield, triumphant.

And isolated. Though Wesley bound Buffy's injuries, she and Angel parted without another word.

A second encounter just a few months earlier had been unplanned. They had both gone after the same demon for different reasons, finding it in neutral territory halfway between their two cities. They had exchanged information, made the kill and parted, again without any words. Why had he looked back? What did it matter to him that her straight carriage was no longer quite so straight, that her shoulders seemed just a bit bowed by the burden she had borne for very nearly ten years. She was approaching the limit for a Slayer's lifetime. The past four years had been as joyless for her as they had been for him, and she might die in that joylessness. But then, even if he managed to survive another twenty decades, so would he. And that was why the reward from The Powers That Be struck him as pointless.

Angel couldn't even imagine ever being happy again.

Sunnydale, 2007

Giles was excited.

"I don't think you quite understand what this means."

"I'm another year older?" Buffy said mildly. They were sitting on a small couch in the office of the bookstore Giles had opened several years before. Specializing in rare books allowed Giles to cultivate sources that sometimes led him to useful volumes of occult lore. Owning his own business gave him the flexibility to help Buffy with research when that was needed…less and less frequently as the years went by. Buffy was enjoying a mug of tea, watching in faint amusement as Giles gestured toward a pile of correspondence on his desk.

"You are the first Slayer in recorded history to live to be twenty-six," Giles said, as if that explained everything. He grinned rather foolishly at her, a very un-Gileslike act, and turned from the correspondence to a plate of scones. They were brushed with cinnamon and stuffed with currents and would have been delicious if not for one thing: Giles had baked them himself and they were of a dryness dust would envy. He only baked them for special occasions, and Buffy knew that he felt his news was special indeed. She didn't share that view.

"Lucky me," she said, unable to keep the bitterness out of her voice. She took another sip of tea.

"Buffy…" Giles looked at her helplessly. Buffy sighed. What had happened to her wasn't his fault, but, like any parent --and Giles was more a father to her than the late Hank Summers had ever been-- Giles suffered when she was in pain. The least she could do was spare him the worst of it.

"No, Giles," she said now, setting her mug down on a coaster and reaching a hand to his arm reassuringly. "You're right. I'm sorry. I know I should be happy about this. But truthfully…no big. Another day. I made it to twenty-six. I might make it to twenty-seven. But you know, you've always known," her voice gentled, as if to ease a blow, "that with Slayers, it doesn't really matter. Whenever I stop making it…another one will be called."

"There are still some of us to whom it matters very much indeed," he said quietly. She gave him a wistful smile, patted his arm a final time and went back to her tea.

"I know," she said. What she did not say was that it no longer mattered to her. Giles realized it, anyway. And felt that he had to try to make it matter. If not for herself, than for others.

"Buffy, as you may or may not realize, I did not cut all my ties with the Council. When you reached your twenty-fourth birthday, I began to hope…well, I began to do certain kinds of research. Officially the Council was unwilling to help me. Unofficially, one or two friends managed to find what I needed."

"Which was?" Buffy asked.

"No Slayer has ever lived to be twenty-six. But there have been prophecies about what should happen if one lived a bit longer. The Metzynsk Tablets, very ancient writings uncovered in Siberia and rumored to date to the Bronze age, have a few lines. The Compton Scrolls, which were found on Crete and are possibly even older than the Tablets, seem to have a bearing on it, as well."

"A bearing on what?" Buffy asked, trying to sound interested.

"On…on what might happen to a Slayer who reaches thirty."

 

Part 2

 

Buffy sighed. Reaching thirty…four more years of her continued existence. If there were any mercy left for her in the world, she wouldn't have to endure that. But she could hardly say that to Giles. For his sake, she attempted a light note.

"You mean there might be a Slayer retirement pension plan, and I could cash in on it?" she quipped.

"Not a pension plan, but a retirement option."

"An option?" she asked uneasily. Her nightly battles with evil had long defined her life. And since Angel had made his hatred of her clear, they had been the only purpose in that life, the only reason to continue the battle and not simply give up. Giving up meant evil won. Period. Another Slayer might be called, but why put another girl through all that? As long as Buffy could fight, she would. That was all. And with the hell her existence had become, she could at least comfort herself with the fact that however badly she had hurt Angel, she wasn't completely worthless. She did good in the world. Now, was Giles trying to tell her that even that tiny bit of consolation might be taken from her? Whatever he was trying to say, he, at least, thought it was good news.

"The writings seem to indicate that if a Slayer lives to be thirty, she will be replaced by a newer, younger Slayer, the one born for the new generation." Buffy's heart plummeted as her fears were spoken aloud. But Giles went on, oblivious. "That alone is very exciting, because it means that there would be, for the first time, an opportunity for a new Slayer to learn not simply from the Watchers who have observed Slayers, but from a Slayer skilled enough to survive all her battles. A way of handing down information from one generation to another. We've never had that before."

"Very exciting," Buffy managed.

"But there's more. The older Slayer will become the new Slayer's mentor, her teacher...but also one of the most powerful tools against evil ever devised. Rather like a…a super-Slayer, as it were, one not only able to fight evil on this plane, but to carry the battle into the demon dimension itself."

Buffy closed her eyes. Well, she hadn't wanted to give up the battle. But still, wasn't this just what every girl wanted to hear? That as a reward for risking her life every night of that life for fifteen years and living on a Hellmouth, she would get to take bigger risks in Hell, itself. Gee, she had only died by drowning in this dimension. What new, fun and totally appalling ways would they find to kill her in the demon dimensions? And Buffy's birthday curse strikes one more time, she thought ruefully.

"So, I just wake up the morning of my thirtieth birthday and start to train my replacement while packing my bags for the netherworlds?"

"Yes. No. Well, there seems to be a bit more to it. Some sort of trial or binding…a ritual? And something about a shield that will always protect you. The wording is odd: it seems to indicate that the shield will dedicate itself to your protection, as if the shield had some sort of volition in all this. Well, with mystic weapons, one never knows. And, sadly, the texts aren't clear. But now that you are twenty-six, the Council will have to take note of things. My contacts report that there have already been a few rumblings, as your birthday got closer. Reminders of the old prophecies, you know. Now that you've made it this far, several of them have realized that they ought to research the matter more fully. They will have to be prepared…especially if the prophecies indicate that the new Slayer will be in some way bound to you."

"Bound to me?"

"In some way," Giles repeated. "Again, it isn't quite clear how or why." What was clear to Buffy was that the good old WC was bound to have a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the Slayer who had fired them having any influence at all with a new Slayer. She remembered when one of their operatives had spat in her face, knowing she was Buffy in Faith's body, enraged at what she had done to the Council. Perhaps she really didn't need to worry too much about living to thirty, if the Council was going to involve itself. Aloud she said, "Well, that sounds good Giles. We'll see what the WC comes up with." He smiled, not realizing she meant something far other than he did.

A few weeks later, Giles sustained an unexpected visit. Cordy came by his apartment, asking to borrow a specific volume that Wesley thought would help with a case they had. She promised to have it back as soon as the case was concluded. She also made an offer of any of the volumes that they had acquired, and handed him a scrap of parchment carefully preserved between panes of protective glass.

"Wesley thought you might want this. It's something called the Tarquinia Fragment."

"The Tarquinia…? Good Lord, where did you get this?" Giles fairly snatched it from her hand, examining the artifact eagerly.

"One of our clients turned it over to Angel, saying it was an arcane text that might be of interest to him. Angel took one look at it, growled and handed it to Wesley without a word. Wesley got very excited. Just like you."

"Yes, well, it's a prophecy concerning the Slayer. Something to do with a shield that will protect her…. " Giles voice trailed off as he hit a section of text for which he would need to consult his dictionaries. He wasn't all that fluent in ancient Etruscan.

Sensing that she had lost his attention, Cordy cleared her throat. "Um, Giles? The Leighton Journals?"

"Sorry?" Giles blinked up at her. "Oh, yes. The journals, of course." He retrieved the journals, which had been bound into a single volume for ease of reference, and handed them to her. They exchanged a few pleasantries, catching each other up on the latest news.

It took a bit of time, and they were still talking amiably a few minutes later when Buffy came by before patrol.

"…and you'd think he'd at least try to date, now that the curse is lifted, or, well, the part of the curse that turned him into a 'grr' whenever he got groiney with the Blond One," she heard Cordy say just as she opened the door.

"So Angel's soul is anchored?" Giles said interestedly.

"Solid as Gibraltar," Cordy confirmed. They hadn't noticed her. Buffy quietly closed the door and walked away.

Angel's soul was anchored. The issue that had stood between them for so long, had caused them so much pain, was no longer an issue.

Except that it no longer mattered. He hated her. She could never make him happy. It was almost cruel that something which would once have meant the world to them had only been given to Angel when it was too late.

Too late for you, the voice whispered. Not too late for him… Buffy closed her eyes against the images of Angel, laughing and happy with a series of women. He couldn't, wouldn't, be with Buffy ever again. But there was no longer any reason for him not to find companionship and love with someone new. Then she remembered Cordy's words, that Angel wasn't even trying, and relief washed over her. Until she remembered that that didn't matter, either.

Angrily, she dashed away her tears. Nothing had changed and she was a fool to weep for what she had known, for nearly ten years for one reason or another, could never be. She had a patrol to do, and she should just get on with things.

Which, as ever, she did.

Not knowing that she had overheard his conversation with Cordy, and deciding that there was no need to rake up a painful topic, Giles did not mention the news about Angel's soul. He did tell her about the Tarquinia Fragment. It did, indeed, concern the shield that was to protect the Slayer.

"It seems that the Shield isn't a weapon after all. It's another warrior, one who will bind himself --or herself, as Slayers are traditionally female-- to the Slayer to ensure her protection."

"Bind, how?" Buffy asked. They were in her dojo, and Buffy was attacking her punching bag while Giles consulted his translation notes.

"Oh, well, as to that…"

"Let me guess," she said with a trace of humor, "'the texts aren't exactly clear.'"

"Yes, well…they aren't," Giles admitted as she continued to pummel the bag with admirable results. "But there will be some sort of ritual involved. 'Eternity rests in' --something, Circles, perhaps?-- 'thrice blessed.'"

"Hmm. Sounds like one of Willow and Tara's wicca circles. There are levels, you know, and each one is called a circle. And they have this thing about threes, returning 'three-fold good for good' and stuff."

"Or it could be the group itself," Giles thought. "Except that this shield seems to be an individual, not a group."

"Well, maybe he or she is part of the group, and the group is blessed, or they give this Shield person their blessing." Buffy sighed. Not only would she get to go to Hell, she'd get to have to drag along someone intent on 'shielding' her from harm. Why did that not sound like fun, but instead like a colossal pain in the ass? The more she learned about what might happen if she lived to be thirty, the less enthusiasm she had for it.

"Possible," Giles admitted after he had weighed her last remark. But he didn't think they had all the answers yet.

Encouraged by Buffy's seeming interest, Giles renewed his contacts in the W.C. As months passed and Buffy continued to defeat every demon, vampire or other-dimensional threat ranged against her, currents began to shift in the Council. Traditionalists found themselves increasingly under fire from Modernists. The later group felt that if a Slayer who had broken from the Council survived longer than any Slayer who had worked under their auspices, perhaps the Council needed to reconsider the way it trained and assisted Slayers. The Traditionalists fiercely denied that such radical changes needed to be made, but a growing number of Neutrals began to think that Buffy's unprecedented longevity argued otherwise. By the summer of her twenty-sixth year, if the tide had not turned, the undercurrents were certainly beginning to make themselves felt.

Not long after, Rupert Giles received a message from one of his Watcher's Council contacts. It was taken from a text to which only top levels of the Council had access. The political implication of this was almost as exciting to Giles as the text itself. Buffy managed a convincing show of enthusiasm as he explained what he had.

This time, they were at her apartment, and she had made the tea. However, her scones weren't as dry as Giles', principally because she never bothered making them herself, having found a bakery that not only supplied the authentic treat, but little pots of clotted cream and jam with which to eat them. Buffy had developed a real fondness for clotted cream, and since her physical activity had increased over the past few years, not slowed down, she could indulge in it without ever worrying about putting on too much weight.

In fact, Giles thought as he glanced at her surreptitiously, it would be a good thing if the fattening treat would add a few pounds to her too-thin frame. But there was little he could do about that. Buffy didn't starve herself. Her meals were nutritionally sound. But her appetite had been on the meager side for years. Food didn't appeal to her the way it had in her teen years.

Truthfully, nothing appealed to her as it had then. She used to go dancing with her friends at the Bronze on an almost nightly basis. There were still places where a young woman her age could go dancing in Sunnydale, but Buffy almost never went to them. In her teens, she had liked shopping. She had enjoyed makeup. She had taken time to manicure her nails, whenever she got a chance. Now…she made do with workout clothing and the occasional dress for formal events, such as a new opening at her mother's gallery. Only then would she bother with make-up, and if she remembered, her nails. Her hair… he wondered when she had last troubled to have it properly cut and styled. Most often, she simply braided the long mass of it to hang down her back. Practical and attractive enough. But perfunctory, as if Buffy no longer particularly cared how her hair looked.

Those weren't the only changes. Once, Buffy had had friends. Willow and Xander would have done anything for her, and they naturally drew others into Buffy's circle of Slayerettes. They still would do anything for her, Giles was certain. But they had made their own lives, Willow on the verge of achieving her doctorate, while Xander was rising in the ranks of the military. Oz had long since left Sunnydale, moving to New York after he split from the Dingoes and carved a solo career for himself as a solo musician. He and Willow remained friends, but she was committed to Tara, now. Xander and Anya were engaged, and planned to marry the following spring. Seeing their happiness, Buffy had not wanted anything to tarnish it. More and more, she kept her remaining friends out of the darkness that consumed her life.

There was only one thing that gave Giles hope, one thing which told him that however unhappy she was, her spirit was not totally crushed or obliterated. About once a month she touched up her hair, maintaining the glorious blond color she had chosen in her teens. It wasn't much, but as long as she kept making that one gesture, Giles believed there was hope for her.

Giles sighed. He felt so helpless in the face of Buffy's unhappiness. He knew, of course, why she was unhappy. But there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.

Was there?

A flicker of resentment crossed Giles mind, along with a host of painful memories and a glimmer of ---not so much an idea, as a fantasy of something he would very much like to do. Giles shook off the idle fancy and turned his attention back to the matter at hand, reading aloud the lines from the text he had received from his WC contact.

When the lost becomes found

as hearts blood is blending

that the broken is bound

and unstrained is unending

The invincible the immutable aiding

Invincibility immutability trading

Then invincible restored

is immutable ever more

"Well, that's nicely cryptic," Buffy said as she smeared raspberry jam atop the cream on her scone. "What the hell does it mean?' She took a bite.

"I'm not really sure," Giles admitted. "According to the note sent to me with the text, these lines were written by a 5th century Tibetan Buddhist nun --one of the earliest, since the religion had only been introduced to the country a few years before. She was in a trance at the time. When she came out of her trance, she couldn't read what she had written, because the language wasn't Sanskrit, the only form of writing known in Tibet until the 7th century. Remarkably enough, she had written those lines in what would prove to be modern English…which wouldn’t come into existence for another thousand years, and at the other end of the world."

"Wow," Buffy said, genuinely impressed. "But, how do you know this applies to the Slayer?"

"Because the nun who created it said it did. She knew it would be important. She left instructions with her order as to how to preserve the text and to whom it should be given. Some eight hundred years after her death, it made its way to the Council…with the message that it would be of great concern to a future Slayer."

"Interesting," Buffy allowed. "But there's still no guarantee that this applies to me."

"I rather think that the fact that the text is in modern English is telling," Giles said dryly. "Buffy, for the ten thousand years that the Council has records --records older than civilization-- no Slayer has ever lived to be twenty-six. And language is constantly evolving, changing. This prophecy was clearly intended for a Slayer who will live to be thirty and whose native tongue will be modern English. The odds of that being anyone but you are so close to nonexistent as to be nonexistent."

Buffy smiled, not arguing the point. Perhaps Giles was right, perhaps not. It didn't really matter to her anymore. But, if it made him happy, she would play along.

"So, in the six or seven centuries since modern English got here, did anyone try to figure out what this means?"

"Any number of people," Giles said, his eyes lighting on the book he had brought with him. The volume was very, very thick and very, very dusty. Buffy eyed it warily.

"And?" she prompted.

"Well, the prophecy has intrigued scores of prominent members of the Council, our top men and women, over the years. Quite a few put forth their thoughts on the matter." His gaze returned to the book.

"Let me guess," Buffy said. "Those are their thoughts?"

"Compiled chronologically," Giles confirmed.

"So, what you're saying is, six hundred years of professional watchers couldn’t figure it out? And we've got, what, three years and five months? Not liking the odds, here." Buffy shook her head and reached for a second scone.

"That's rather the nature of prophecies, I'm afraid," Giles said as he removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose, as he often did when under stress. "Until the circumstances present themselves, prophecies are open to any number of interpretations."

"So, what you're suggesting is, I should wing it," Buffy concluded. "Cool. I can do that."

"Buffy…"

Eventually, Giles persuaded her that she should at least familiarize herself with the lines, of the prophecy while he worked his way through six centuries of WC theories on the subject. With a sigh, Buffy agreed.

Part 3

 

The book of theories was slow going. Except for the last few entries, it was all handwritten and arcane in parts. Giles happily immersed himself in it while Buffy went about her usual routine of running her martial arts dojo by day, studying up on demons and other occult threats in the evening, and patrolling at night.

It was no sort of life for a vibrant young woman, Giles thought. Or, at least a young woman who used to be vibrant and very well could be again. The fancy that had occurred to him returned to his mind, and was much embroidered upon in odd moments of idleness. Not that Rupert Giles would ever have done anything about it. Sober. But, as it happened, on what would have been Jenny Calendar's fortieth birthday that year, he wasn't sober, but dead drunk. While consulting one of his research volumes, he had come across a photo of himself with Jenny at a celebratory dinner. Giles looked at the date neatly written across the back of the photo, a date exactly ten years earlier, to the day, and it hadn't seemed too unreasonable to raise a glass of wine to an old love. Except that the glass had become a bottle and then two, and the toast had become a binge and then Rupert Giles got behind the wheel of his car and headed toward LA, another bottle of wine on hand to ensure that he didn't sober up so much that he neglected to do his duty by his Slayer.

Meanwhile, something long dormant beneath Sunnydale stirred uneasily, and roused itself to monitor the situation.

When Angel got off the elevator to his apartment at 2:00 a.m. that morning, having solved one more case and saved one more soul, he found Rupert Giles sitting on his couch, holding a crossbow aimed at his heart. The former Watcher's aim was remarkably steady considering that Giles was remarkably drunk.

"To what do I owe the honor?" Angel inquired coolly, stepping out of the elevator and leaning casually against the wall.

"Jenny's Birthday," Giles spat out. Angel had the grace to flinch, his gaze dropping from Giles'.

"I'm sorry," Angel said tiredly.

"I'm sure you are," Giles agreed. "Is there a reason why I should care?"

"No," Angel admitted. His gaze came back to Giles'. "Any particular reason why you decided to take your vengeance now?"

"Not vengeance. Justice. When you came back from Hell, the only reason I didn't kill you where you stood was because that would have killed Buffy. But you've managed to do that quite nicely, yourself."

"Buffy's dead?" Angel said, shocked. Somehow, despite everything, he thought that he would know when she was no longer in the world. That he would be free….

"Buffy has been dead since you flung your self-righteous little speech in her face while she lay wounded and bleeding in hospital five years ago, you pillock."

"Oh, that," Angel said, as something --not relief, he told himself, so much as a reassurance that nothing had changed-- swept over him. He pushed away from the wall, slowly, so as not to alarm Giles. He had no illusions about Ripper's ability to drive that bolt through his heart.

"Yes, that," Giles said angrily, as Angel took the chair opposite him. Giles moved the crossbow unerringly to keep pace with the vampire. "After everything you put her through, I don't know where you got the nerve."

"She gave me all the nerve I needed when she dumped her rage and distrust and spitefulness out on me two years before, Giles" Angel shot back. "If you've come here to ask me to forgive her, you might as well just pull the trigger on that thing now, because what she did to me was unforgivable."

Oddly, Giles laughed, and put up the crossbow. "Oh, that's rich. That's bloody rich. She's done something for which you can't forgive her! She, what, hurt your pride? Vented some of her anger for your desertion? Behaved unreasonably while in the throes of real worry, stress, and the heartache you had left her to?"

"Whatever you think, Giles, I haven't done anything to her she didn't richly deserve," Angel said. "You talked about wanting justice. Is it so surprising that I might feel entitled to some?"

Giles laughed again. "…in the course of justice none of us should see salvation," he quoted. "Oh, yes, let's do talk about justice, Angel, old son. If there were any justice, I would be able to shoot this bolt through you and dance in the cloud of dust left behind. I would be able to do it and drive home to sleep the sleep of the innocent, having avenged both Jenny's death and Buffy's heartache. And do you know the only reason I don't?"

"Because even you can't justify murder in cold blood?" Angel said dryly.

"Oh, my boy, you are naïve," Giles said bitterly. "I wouldn't mind having your blood on my hands, the colder the better. No, the thing that keeps me from pulling the trigger is this: despite how badly you've hurt her, Buffy would care if I killed you, care enough that it might kill the little spirit that's left in her, and, if you're interested at all, destroy the chance the world now has for a true battle against evil, for a true reckoning of accounts."

"What are you talking about?"

"Prophecies and possibilities. But why would that matter to you?" Giles shook his head. "You don't care about those, so I'll make one more effort. You owe me that much at least, to listen to me."

Angel had to admit that he did. But that's all you owe him, an inner voice whispered. He's bound to take her part in this, he can't be objective. And he can't really understand your pain. Which was very true, Angel reflected. Still, the least he could do was hear Giles out. "Go on," he said stiffly.

"I don't know how much you know about what happened. But all those years ago…the day after we found that you had changed, Buffy realized what Jenny was. I felt…betrayed. We parted ways then. She had explained why she had done what she had done, spying on you, and I knew I couldn't really blame her for what had happened. But I was stubborn, telling myself that if she had loved me and trusted me the way I loved and trusted her, that she would have told me what was going on from the first. Part of me knew that she owed her own people her first loyalty and that she hadn't learned the worst until it was too late. And part of me realized she was doing everything in her power to make things right, although I didn't realize the full extent of that until months later, when you tried to release Acathla."

Angel shifted uneasily in his chair as ugly memories, memories he had tried to put behind him, to atone for, resurfaced. Rupert Giles nodded, realizing his discomfort.

"The thing is, I felt I was in the right, and that she had wronged me, so her reasons didn't really matter to me. And it took me too damned long to realize that I was being a complete ass…to forgive her. I had finally realized that I was a fool, that she could no more avoid her responsibilities to her tribe than I could to my Slayer. We were going to have dinner that night, and I had planned to make it up to her, to tell her I forgave her her subterfuge, and to ask her to forgive me for my lack of understanding. But a vicious, sadistic, murdering brute had other plans. And for the past ten years, I have had to live with the fact that I made a mistake I can never rectify. Jenny and I wasted the last few weeks of her life because I was too stubborn to offer forgiveness."

"I'm sorry," Angel said once more.

"Sorry for me, or for yourself?" Giles said. "Sorry enough not to repeat my mistake?" Grim silence answered him. "I should have realized this was a fool's errand," Giles said, tiredly, getting to his feet and picking up his crossbow, now aimed harmlessly at the floor. "Well, Angel. You win. Stay here in your dank basement with your detective agency on the fringes of the underworld. I know you're doing some good, here. Have at it. Never mind that you could be doing more."

"Giles," Angel growled warningly as the former Watcher headed toward the elevator.

"Don't forgive her," Giles tossed back over his shoulder as he walked away. "Cling to your anger, your need for 'justice.'" He fumbled the door open and stepped inside. "After all," he said acidly just before starting the mechanism that would take him up to the offices and away from Angel, "it isn't as if you have ever done anything that required forgiveness."

Giles made the trip home without incident. In the morning, sobriety restored, he wondered if he had made an appallingly bad situation even worse. He said nothing to Buffy about his visit, not wanting to raise her hopes that Angel would have a change of heart. Angel didn't. Giles swallowed his disappointment and contented himself with delving even deeper into the WC theories, as a few more months passed uneventfully by.

The thing beneath Sunnydale realized It would have to be just a bit more vigilant. Fortunately, It had handled matters with the required subtlety, waiting until circumstances had dictated this as a logical outcome, if one that would never have occurred without Its delicate interference. No one had questioned the initial rift. Now, they all accepted it, and weren't apt to be surprised that it continued. It just needed to make sure that state of affairs continued.

This time, the phone call came from Cordy.

"He won't thank you for this, "Buffy said coolly. "He's made it clear that he doesn't want my help."

"Okay, I'll ignore the fact that he should help you because you’re the Slayer," Cordy began just as coolly, "and you should help him because you owe him that much at least, because the pair of you are so jack-ass stubborn there's no point in bringing up logic." Buffy opened her mouth to tell Cordy off, but Queen C was in rare form and steamrollered right over her indignant protests. "Look at it this way: you aren't helping him, you are helping me, because I asked you to keep my boss from dying and leaving me unemployed without a bit of severance pay or a retirement pension to fall back on." In fact, well aware that any assignment could be his last, Angel had set up what he euphemistically referred to as 'emergency accounts' for both Wesley and Cordy years before. He was damned good at investments, and Cordy could already live very nicely on her account for several years while looking for other work, if she had to. But there was no reason to tell Buffy any of that. Cordy bit her lip, as the silence on the other end of the line grew longer. "Buffy, please," she whispered softly, at last.

Buffy took a deep breath. Cordy was right: the least she owed Angel was to save his life if she had the opportunity. That he had failed to do so when her own life had been on the line, and whether he returned the favor or not in the future, was immaterial. It wasn't like they were keeping score.

And maybe, a tiny part of her thought, if she could just make clear to him how very sorry she was for how badly she had hurt him…. She didn't expect forgiveness. But maybe if she said the words out loud, if she knew he knew, then whatever he did or said or thought about it, she herself could find some sort of peace.

"All right, Cordy" Buffy said finally. "When and where?"

When was that night. Where was an estate outside LA, where a trio of centuries-old sorcerers needed to sacrifice a vampire in order to retain their own immortality. Angel had been suggested to them by one of the few surviving associates of Wolfram & Hart.

Buffy contacted Willow and Tara for the appropriate counter-spells and Giles gave her a few mystic weapons that were supposed to be particularly useful against sorcerers. She handed most of the weapons over to Cordy and Wesley, who refused to be left behind. Cordy had long ago decided that some martial arts training was vital to a vampire Warrior-for-Good's Gal Friday, and now had black belts in two or three different disciplines. Buffy was impressed.

But she quickly saw why Wesley and Cordy hadn't felt up to the task of rescuing Angel on their own. They had used one of the counter-spells to get through the glamour warding the estate. They were at the edge of a heavily wooded area behind the estate. The sorcerers had set up an altar in the privacy of the woods, in a clearing carefully designed to mimic the shape of a pentagram.

The sorcerers weren't alone. They had hired bodyguards. About twenty of them. Mainly undead with a sprinkling of particularly burly demons thrown in for good measure. Buffy's demonology studies had paid off. She recognized every single breed, and whispered terse instructions to Cordy and Wesley about each types vulnerabilities; the eyes on this one, the horns on that. Four Fyarl, the sort of stupid, bulky, fighting demon Giles had once turned into, were pinning a struggling Angel to the altar while the sorcerers chanted. No wonder Angel hadn't been able to break free on his own.

Her eyes could not help but linger on him. They had stripped him down to his pants, since their ceremony involved doing unspeakable things to his heart before they dusted him. And, again because of the ritual, he wasn't drugged into cooperation. Angel was struggling and angry, although he hadn't let his demon free, yet. Buffy wondered what he was waiting for. She also wondered, with an ache, if she would ever stop missing him, longing for him, even knowing that he no longer loved her, hated her in fact. She shook away the thoughts. If she didn't act, it would all be moot because Angel would be dust.

Buffy evaluated the scene before her, with the sorcerers by the altar, guarded by a demon on each side of their group, the Fyarl holding Angel down, and most of the vamps standing in small knots in each arm of the pentagram. This could actually be good. The vamps were sort of bottled up in the woods, and couldn't really attack en masse. Fyarl were too stupid to think for themselves. And they were very fond of crushing things. If Buffy and her allies could distract the sorcerers, the Fyarl would forget all about Angel and join in the fight, which could also be good.

In a few quiet words she outlined the plan. Then, under cover of the trees, she aimed the first quarrel of her two-quarrel crossbow at the demon nearest the sorcerers and took him out of the picture. The second took out the guard on the other side before the remaining demons could react to the first kill.

The odds were down to a mere eighteen to three, plus sorcerers. Eighteen to four if they could get Angel into things. They'd all faced worse. Buffy hurled one of Giles mystic weapons, a silver spear, as she shouted one of Tara's incantations, and the first sorcerer died screaming, as his true age caught up to him.

After that, the party began in earnest.

Wesley and Cordy melted away, using the woods for cover as they headed toward the altar from opposite ends.

Buffy came out of the woods into the open, so that most of the vamps would see her as the target. She had a second cross bow loaded and took out two more at a distance before the first one even reached her.

That left her with a mere dozen vampires and demons while Wesley and Cordy helped Angel deal with the Fyarl and the sorcerers. And in the woods, they couldn't all get to her at once. She shouted out another counter-spell to keep the sorcerers out of her way as she fell effortlessly and unthinkingly into combat. She could do this, had been doing it nearly every night of her life for over ten years. Back kick to one vampire while staking another. Recover balance and stake a third. Duck under the fourth one's attack while the first got to its feet. Roundhouse kick, taking out both. Jump over the quarterstaff a fifth brings into play. Grab it away from him and stake him with it, pulling it free to stake number one behind her. The fourth one grabs her from behind. She pulls him up and over her shoulder, tossing him into numbers six, seven and eight who want to play, too.

So do vamps nine through twelve, who make their way around their fallen friends to form a loose circle around the slayer. Buffy uses the quarterstaff to keep them at a distance.

Things heat up.

The sorcerers pulled out all the stops, and the ground shook as an earthquake rocked the region. Buffy shouted her last counter-spell, and the trembling of the earth stopped and the battle resumed.

Buffy lost count and lost track. Dimly, she was aware of shouts to her left, as Cordy and Wesley battled sorcerers and demons. A familiar growling roar told her that Angel was probably in the game now, too. She battled on. By the time the demon with the mace struck her from behind, driving her to her knees, all but four of her opponents were out of the picture.

Four were enough. She got to her feet but couldn't quite manage to get the mace away from the demon, and twisting his horn, his one vulnerable spot, was completely out of the question. Another blow had her flat on her back, blood flowing from two scalp wounds…the rich, sweet blood of a Slayer, sending the three remaining vampires into a feeding frenzy. They ended up fighting each other to get to her, so only one actually managed it, only one held her down, sinking fangs into her while the demon with the mace, noting that his employers were now dead and the Fyarl were getting the worse end of matters, cut his losses and slipped away.

Angel could smell her blood on the air and rage hit him like a fist to the gut. No one had a right to kill her but him! With a roar, he threw off the two Fyarl trying to hold him, grabbed the ritual knife that was to have cut out his heart, and slashed both their throats. Wesley's sword accounted for a third, and Angel left him to help Cordy while he ran to the other end of the clearing so quickly the human eye could not follow and all Wesley saw before he turned to aid Cordy was a blur of darkness streaking across the ground.

The weight pinning Buffy down was lifted. She opened heavy lidded eyes to see Angel literally rip the head off the vampire that had been feeding from her, watching as it exploded into a shower of dust. Returning the favor, or did some tiny part of him still care? She was too tired to think about it, and let her eyes close, sinking into a pleasant darkness.

Angel had seen the blood staining the vampire's lips --her blood-- and his rage of the previous moment reached heights he could never have imagined. He dropped the knife unthinkingly, grabbed the vampire's head and simply twisted. Exultantly, he held the head aloft until it exploded into dust. A moment later he blinked, shocked. How the hell had he done that? Why the hell had he done that? It wasn't like he still cared about the tiny girl lying so still and silent on the forest floor at his feet.

Reluctantly, Angel knelt at her side. Her heartbeat was still regular, and her color was good. The vampire hadn't gotten enough blood to endanger her. The blows to her head probably had more to do with her unconsciousness than blood loss.

Wesley and Cordelia limped up behind him.

"She gonna be okay?" Cordy asked.

"She'll live," Angel told her.

"We should get her to hospital," Wesley said. "If she has a concussion…."

Angel agreed, stooping to pick up the fallen girl.

She was lighter than he remembered, in keeping with how thin she had grown. And even though he hated her, even though he despised the necessity of coming to her aid now, he had to work to ignore how warm and soft she felt in his arms….

The hospital was full of earthquake victims. No deaths had been reported yet, but there were serious injuries. Buffy had regained consciousness, and the ER staff decided they didn't need to waste a bed on her.

"Doesn't seem to be a concussion," the doctor said. "Her pupils are the same size, and her visual orientation is good. But you'll have to watch her for the next twenty-four hours. Next time, get her under a doorway before the furniture falls, okay?" He gave Angel a sheet of instructions and released Buffy.

"Where's Cordy?" Buffy asked. "I can stay--"

"No room," Angel cut her off tersely. "Wesley's place was damaged in the quake."

"Then a hotel--"

"Someone has to keep an eye on you," he bit out. His reluctance was almost palpable.

"I'll be fine," she said coldly.

"Don’t be stupid," he said scathingly. Buffy swallowed. So much for even a tiny part of him still caring.

"All right," she capitulated, then added, as a remnant of pride came to her aid. "And you're welcome." She walked toward his car, leaving him staring at her back in renewed fury.

The drive to Angel's home and offices was silent. Angel kept his eyes on the road, Buffy her attention fixed outside her window. LA. Her hometown. It seemed so alien to her now, new developments having sprung up in so many of the outlying areas they drove through. Well, it had been ten years since she could call LA home.

But it was easier to think about how much she missed LA than it was to think about how much she missed Angel when he was sitting inches away from her, and she was enveloped in the sound and smell and feel of him.

And he hated her so much she could feel his anger like a tangible force in the car between them.

It was even harder sleeping in his bed, alone, while he took the couch she could see from the bedroom. Harder still to cry without making a sound. Would her nightmare return tonight? Or would a new one, a worse one, find her? Not really caring, exhausted physically and emotionally, Buffy drifted off to sleep.

He couldn't sleep. Anger that Cordy and Wesley had gone against his express wishes on the matter surged through his system. They were going to catch hell when he saw them again. He would rather have died on the sorcerer's altar than survived in Buffy's debt. Well, maybe his rescuing her from the vamp evened the score…except that she wouldn’t have needed rescuing if she hadn't come to help him.

Swearing softly, Angel tossed off his covers and padded silently over to his bed. He was supposed to check on her, not let her sleep too long. He glanced at his watch. It wasn't really time yet, so he simply looked down at her.

She was crying in her sleep, silently, tears falling down her bruised cheeks. Somehow, her pain appeased the worst of his rage. He walked away and let her sleep until it was time to check on her.

Over the course of the night, Angel woke her several times, asked her some questions, and certain that all was as it should be, let her return to sleep. He himself didn't fall asleep until dawn.

Part 4

 

Buffy slept well into the next afternoon, her bruises all but vanished, her remarkable Slayer's constitution having ensured her return to top physical condition…so that she would be ready to face the next battle, the next threat. She woke without grogginess or disorientation, and sat slowly up. Angel was watching her from a chair across the room. He was in brooding-guy mode, as she would once have called it.

She opened her mouth to say, good morning but the coldness in his eyes deterred her.

"I'm going to get a shower and get going," she said instead.

"Towels are in the cabinet," he replied. She nodded, tossed back the covers and got out of bed. She was still wearing the torn and bloodied clothes from the night before. She grabbed the gym bag she had left in his living room and headed for the shower.

She had brought her own toiletries, and was infinitely grateful that she had decided to take them along, even though she had expected to stay with Cordy. Using Angel's soap, covering herself in things that smelled so intimately of the man she still loved would have been a little too much just then. She cleaned up quickly, blew her hair dry, and dressed. She didn't bother braiding her hair, just let it hang loose, a fabric-covered hair-band holding it away from her face and keeping it out of her eyes. She quickly packed up her things, then opened the bathroom door and headed out.

She noted that he had already changed the sheets on the bed. The ones she had used were probably going through the small washer she could hear running in his kitchen. As if he couldn't stand to leave any trace of her in his apartment. His back was to her as he went about the homely task of drying dishes and putting them away. She should do what she had done the last few times they had fought together: just leave without another word.

Until the next time, and the next…. She couldn't go on this way. Buffy set down her bag and hesitantly walked a few steps closer to him.

He could smell her before she said a word. That damn delicious scent of vanilla that could now spark his temper as easily as the mention of her name. He wondered how many times he'd have to wash his sheets before he could be sure that every trace of her was gone, how deeply he would have to scour his bathtub. He hoped to God she would have sense enough to leave without saying anything, as she had before. Because he was holding in the anger by a thread, by the skin of his teeth, by the thinnest margin of control and he just knew it would break if she said the wrong thing. And that anything she said would be all wrong.

He was right.

"I don't expect you to forgive me," she began, and he hated her calm, hated her dignity. "I know what I did was…unforgivable," she continued. Angel put down the dish he was holding, carefully, because the urge to turn and hurl it at her was growing. He didn't even trust himself to tell her to shut the hell up and get the hell out, so he stood trembling, arms braced to either side, clutching the rim of the kitchen sink like a life line.

"But I am," she forged on, her voice picking up just the tiniest quaver, and his control slipped the tiniest bit further to the edge, "and I will always be, so very truly…" her voice broke as she finished. "…sorry," she managed on a whisper.

Angel's control snapped.

"Sorry?" he growled, turning to face her at last. "You think that matters? That it solves things?" He stepped closer to her, the tears flowing freely down her cheeks somehow stoking his anger. "What did you think? That you would say a few contrite words and all would be forgiven, that I would roll over and be your pet vamp again until the next time you decided to rip out my heart?"

"Angel, no, I…"

"You aren't sorry for a damn thing," he shouted. "If you had ever truly loved me the way I loved you, you could never have said those things to me. But you did. And the only thing you're really sorry about is that you lost your fucktoy, Riley, and haven't been able to replace him."

Buffy gasped at the injustice of his accusations. And something twisted inside her. Years of bitter regret transmuted in a moment.

And suddenly her rage matched his. Anger gripped her, so intensely that her whole body trembled with unthinking fury. He had made the mistake of moving closer. Buffy hauled back and slapped him across the face, her full Slayer's strength behind the blow.

"You self-righteous bastard!" she hissed. His head snapped back from her blow…and he stared at her through yellow eyes. Calmly, Buffy took a step back and pulled the stake out of her waistband.

Perhaps Wesley or Cordy could have stopped them, but they had taken the day off to sort through the mess left of Wesley's apartment. And the building Angel had taken over had been long abandoned. There was no one to see the battle, no one to interfere. So, when Angel launched himself at her with a roar, there was no one to pull the two combatants apart until they calmed down.

They didn't calm down.

They had always been pretty evenly matched. She might have been one of the strongest Slayers in history, but he had been one of the strongest and most dangerous demons ever turned loose on a hapless world. But always before, except for the time when they had faced off before Acathla, one or the other had been holding back. And if Angel's soul hadn't been restored just as she beat him to his knees, he might yet have pulled things out of the hat and defeated her.

This time, neither held back.

The kitchen table went first, when Buffy tossed Angel onto it. Her stake missed his heart and he rolled aside, grabbed her while she was off balance, and threw her into the couch. She was off it before he could get to her and break her neck. Within five minutes, his end tables were splinters, his couch was kindling, and he didn't have a working lamp left.

And they were both still full of unthinking rage, with no other thought than to destroy the enemy before them.

Angel got her stake away from her, but a back handspring brought her to the wall of weapons and she ripped a quarter staff out of its moorings and attacked with it. He dodged the attack and got the quarterstaff's mate from the wall. She had improved with this weapon, he noted grimly as she battled him to one corner of the room. But he was still bigger and stronger. He forced her back.

Back and forth they fought across his apartment, in grim silence and growing rage. He no longer had leisure to think about her improved fighting skills, because she had picked up the pace, moving so quickly she was a blur of light as she ruthlessly went after him.

And yet, the old bond, the old synchronicity held. He didn't have to think about where her next blow would fall, because something inside him intuitively knew, allowing him to bring his own weapon up to meet hers. As she seemed to know his moves, could block his blows.

In the end it wasn't strategy that decided the battle, but brute strength. When Buffy brought up her quarterstaff to block Angel, he crashed his own weapon down on it with such rage that both staves shattered. Appalled, frightened at last, Buffy fell back a step. Demon still to the fore he followed her, reached for her….

Something that was twisted inside him twisted further.

The thin scrap of cotton she called a blouse tore in his hands, revealing her gorgeous breasts in a simple white cotton bra. Gasping in outrage, she returned the favor, shredding one of his expensive, hand sewn Italian silk shirts to expensive rags. Growling, he pulled her into his arms, his fanged mouth crushing down on her vulnerable lips. Her arms tightening around his neck, she kissed him back, savagely, then bit down on his mouth until she drew blood. He snarled and pulled away, lifting her up and tossing her across the room to land hard on his miraculously unscathed bed, then dove after her.

Their clothing did not survive this battle. Too angry for words, in the grip of an unreasoning fury that recognized no difference between this combat and the one they had engaged in moments before, they tore apart each other's garments, needing to get to the flesh beneath, needing to bite and lick and draw blood. Angel had the edge on that one, sinking fangs into her tender throat, pushing her back onto the soft bed. With a moan she let herself fall, taking the remembered weight of him as she settled beneath him, and spread her thighs to cradle his hips. The rich tang of her blood as it poured down his throat was driving him crazy, and then he found the warm and welcoming wetness his body craved from hers, and he thrust home.

She came as soon as he entered her, the unspeakable pleasure of having him in her blood and in her body so intense, she couldn't help but dissolve into orgasm. The delicious contractions of her flesh around him drove the last bit of his sanity away. Angel retracted his fangs from her, lifted his head and howled in pure masculine triumph. She was his, beneath him, helpless in the pleasure only he could bring her. Savagely, he set out to renew her pleasure and attain his own.

Hard and fast and furious, as angry as seven years of pent rage could make it. She was writhing beneath him, her lips assaulting his as he pounded inside her, her beautifully muscled legs wrapped tight around his waist. She met each of his punishing strokes, her nails raking down his back, drawing blood. Without breaking the kiss, he grabbed one of the pillows, lifting her hips enough to shove it beneath, angling her just a bit more conveniently. She screamed against his mouth as another violent orgasm shook her. She had muscles other women couldn't even dream of and she squeezed him until his own orgasm shattered out of him to join hers. Slipping his arms beneath her legs to hold her open even further, Angel got to his knees, driving more deeply inside her, as a third orgasm broke over her before she could recover from the second. Angel spilled inside her, riding out the quivering aftermath of her release until he was completely drained. Then, spent, he collapsed over her.

Miles away in Sunnydale, something stirred uneasily.

Buffy's eyes were closed, her legs lying limp over Angel's arms, her own arms still clinging about his neck. She was afraid to open her eyes, afraid of what she might see in his. Angry, she had been so angry, as had he. God, he must hate her, and she didn't think she could bear seeing the hatred in his eyes again.

He didn't think he could stand the hatred that would have to be in her eyes. He had behaved like the bloodsucking fiend she had called him.

So did she, an insidious whisper inside his mind reminded him. He flinched away from that thought. Maybe he should say something, apologize….

She should apologize, she realized. She had struck the first blow, it was really her fault….

He was the one who ripped off your clothing, her internal whisper whined. She frowned at the thought. If she were honest with herself, she hadn't minded that part. If Angel could react that way to her, maybe there was still something left for them….

If she could meet even his most animal and vicious passions, Angel thought, maybe she would accept his apology.…

But she began it again, the whisper, sounding somehow almost desperate, came into his mind. And it should be up to her to finish it. Remember how badly she hurt you before. This could be just another trick. If she really wants to make things right, if she really wasn't just using you this time, she'll make the first move. Angel sighed, realizing this was probably true. Reluctantly, he pulled away from the soft warmth cushioning him and turned to his side, an arm flung across his eyes to shut out the sight of what he was certain would be Buffy's accusing glares, not sure he could stand any more of her self-righteousness. He was vulnerable to her once more, and he hated that.

Buffy wanted to weep when she felt him withdraw from her body, rolling away from her, leaving her bereft. Just like a man, the whisper reminded her. If he wasn't just using you, he'll make the first move.

Each waited endlessly long, infinitely painful minutes, for the other to make a move. Neither did. Finally, Buffy curled to her side, forced herself to get out of the bed, and gather up her ruined clothing. She fished her last set of fresh clothes out of the bag, got dressed in under a minute and headed to the elevator without looking back.

If she had, she would have seen Angel staring back at her with a look of naked longing, and he would have seen that her face was not cold with anger but wet with tears.

Neither did. And for both, a defensive anger soon chased away whatever pain lingered.

And the thing beneath Sunnydale settled back happily.

When Rupert Giles saw Buffy Summers walk back in to her apartment where he had gone to await the results of her trip to LA, he was convinced that things had changed for the better. There was a bounce to her step, her eyes were luminous again, and her color was somewhat improved. In fact she was practically humming.

"Everything went well, I take it?" he said.

"Everything went fine," Buffy said as she made her way over to the refrigerator. "Salad. Bread. Salad. God, don't I have any food in this place? Um, you didn't bring any scones with you, did you?"

"Ah, no. Sadly, the occasion of your ex-lover's kidnapping and imminent sacrifice didn’t seem a proper event for which to bake scones," Giles said dryly.

"You're right. Especially since they failed to sacrifice him." Buffy slammed the door of the empty refrigerator shut.

"What was that?" Giles asked.

"Giles, next time Cordy or anyone else calls to tell me Angel needs help, make sure to tell me immediately."

"Well, of course, I would do so, just as I would give you whatever help you needed--"

"Because I want to be sure to get there in time to watch him get pummeled within an inch of his life. Next time he's about to be sacrificed, I'm going to wield the knife."

"What?" Giles said, amazed.

"And next time I'm in deep demons, and it looks like I'm not going to make it to twenty-seven, let alone thirty, don't bother the good folks in LA, because I would rather be skinned, eviscerated, boiled in oil and burned at the stake than rescued by Angel. 'K?"

"I…Buffy!"

"Promise, Giles," she said her voice suddenly hard and businesslike, her green eyes glittering with something he couldn't name. He knew better than to push her.

"All right, then," Giles said. "I promise." He had the sinking feeling that it wouldn’t matter, anyway; that whatever had happened between Buffy and Angel this time, it had been the last straw. Buffy smiled brightly when she heard him give his word.

"Okay then, that's settled. Let's go get something to eat. I'm starved!"

In the ensuing weeks, Giles concluded that whatever had happened between Buffy and Angel she was better off than she had been. She called Willow and went shopping. Her hair had been trimmed, shaped and given what she called a "soft perm" so that it cascaded down her back in a stream of fetching ringlets. Her appetite was back, and she had filled out. She was still slender, but with an enticing, feminine roundness that turned male heads wherever she went.

Not that she noticed or cared about that part, Giles thought ruefully

Still, the prescription pills she did not know he knew about sat half-finished in their bottle, rapidly approaching their expiration date. She would go dancing with or without her friends, had begun to leaven her demonology readings with excerpts from some of the glamour mags, and all in all seemed more happy and vibrant than she had in at least five years. Giles thought it was good to hear her laugh again, good to see her enjoying life once more.

And he ignored the nagging sense that insisted that the laughter was a little too brittle, the enjoyment a little too forced.

In LA, Cordy was having similar problems with Angel. It was certainly odd that the earthquake had destroyed all the furniture but his bed, and left everything in the office untouched, but one look at his face and Cordy had decided not to question him about the matter. He had followed that with terse, explicit explanations about what would happen if she ever, no matter the circumstances, called Buffy to help him. Even if he survived, Cordy would be out of a job.

"Because I would rather be skinned, eviscerated, boiled in oil and burned at the stake than rescued by Buffy. Understood?"

"Okay! I understand. Gees! You guys must have really damaged each other last night," she grumbled.

"Cordy," Angel said in a voice so cold she fell backwards in real fear of him for the first time since he had been Angelus, all those years ago. "Don't ever go there."

"Wouldn't dream of it," she said shakily.

Nor did she, and for the rest of the day, Angel was fine. Until he got back to his apartment after a probably unnecessary but wholly cathartic fist fight with some demons who had made the mistake of trying to run an extortion racket in the city which was under his protection. Angel was bone weary, too weary to think, which had rather been the point of following up the leads that night instead of waiting for more information and going after them later. He stripped off his duster, shrugged out of his shirt and pulled off his shoes, then, still wearing his pants, headed for his bed without bothering to go through the usual rituals of washing his face or brushing his fangs.

And it wasn't until he had lain down amongst the disordered sheets and found himself drowning in the scents of vanilla and raw need that he remembered why he had wanted to exhaust himself before trying to sleep, in the first place.

But he couldn't bring himself to strip off the sheets and put on fresh ones, so he just closed his eyes and let slumber take him.

A few weeks passed. Buffy grew more brittle, Angel more sullen. Their mutual friends tiptoed around them, not sure what might set them off. And, both Giles and Wesley began to feel that the battle against evil was going a bit more slowly than it should. Not that Buffy and Angel didn't ultimately destroy whatever needed destroying, but it just seemed like they were getting a bit careless, as if their energies were focused elsewhere. Both former Watchers decided to keep close eyes on the situation, ready to step in if matters should get serious.

Matters got serious without their knowledge.

About a month after he had seen her, Angel finished up a case by early evening. Wesley and Cordy had wanted to have dinner to celebrate. He begged off, saying he just wanted to drive around, clear his head. He gave them his credit card and his blessing. Cordy accepted both with alacrity.

Angel had no clear idea where he was heading, just knew he needed to do something mindless, and taking to the California freeways late at night seemed as good an idea as any. He was halfway to Sunnydale before he even realized it…and he decided to keep going.

Maybe he and the bitch needed to have it out, again. Maybe he needed to tell her exactly what he thought of her after her last little stunt. Yeah, that was it. It occurred to him that he didn't know her address. She had gotten her own apartment, but that was after he had publicly told her he wanted nothing more to do with her, and he hadn't wanted or needed to know her address before. It didn't matter. He knew he would find her, anyway.

If I were blind, I would see you… He frowned, puzzled. Where had that thought come from? No where! a more rational internal voice told him. You just think you can find her. But you won't. This is stupid. You should just go back to LA and get some sleep. He realized that that was probably the right thing to do. He was tired and not thinking clearly. He really should stop the car, and either find a hotel for the night, or go back to LA.

But he continued to drive.

Buffy woke with a gasp, on the edge of orgasm. But then the dream of Angel, the memory of their last encounter, faded away, and she was left wanting. With a moan, she collapsed back against her pillows. One change that had come about after the disastrous visit to LA was that she had stopped reliving the time when Angel had told her he never wanted to see her again. Instead, she relived the battle that had ended with them fighting between the sheets. Hell, the nightmares had been better than this. Now, she would be frustrated for the rest of the night. With a sigh, she pushed the covers back, reaching for the embroidered silk kimono that served as her night-robe, and drawing it around her nakedness. Maybe a hot bath…a knock sounded at her front door. Buffy glanced at her bedside clock. It was midnight. She gave a sigh. Probably Giles with news of something dire. Which, given her present state, would be a good thing.

"Coming," she called softly, so that he wouldn’t keep knocking and wake her neighbors. She stifled a yawn as she reached for the doorknob… and came wide-awake as she saw who was waiting on the other side.

He can't come in! Don't invite him and he can't hurt you! The thoughts were fairly shouted into her mind. Logically, Buffy knew they were sensible thoughts. Something inside her didn't care.

"Angel," she said coldly. "Do come in." She turned her back on him as if dismissing whatever threat he held for her. Angel snarled softly, not missing the insult.

He also couldn’t miss the fact that she was naked underneath the thin silk of her robe.

And that she looked far, far more enticing than he had seen her look for a long, long time.

Her hair was falling down her back in a cascade of silky golden ringlets that made him want to run his fingers through them. The robe was a cerulean blue embroidered in shades of white and pale pink and lilac. The effect was to make her eyes look misty and luminous, and her skin lustrous. He wanted to lick every inch of that silky skin…no, that wasn't why he was here. They had to talk. He opened his mouth to say something. She turned to face him and took his breath away.

The robe was loosely belted, and the creamy skin of her firm, high breasts was visible above the closing. More, she stared at him with those luminous green eyes and he knew he was lost and damned and drowning, and that he should have turned around on the road from LA.

"What do you want?" She intended it to be cold, businesslike, but the words sounded throaty and seductive to her own ears. She could only imagine how they sounded to Angel. Then, she looked into his eyes, saw the way her words turned the cold rage in them to hot desire and knew she wouldn’t have to imagine for very long.

 

Part 5

 

The robe was no obstacle. He slid his hands beneath the opening as he pulled her toward him, and she was naked by the time he had her flush against his body and was claiming her mouth with his.

This is a mistake! the voices inside him screamed. But she was raising her arms to wrap them around his neck, her mouth was opening beneath his, and she was standing on her tiptoes to press herself against him, and he didn't give a damn about the little voices in his head.

Buffy moaned as Angel's mouth covered her own. It wasn't like last time, when he had been in gameface and she had cut her mouth against his fangs. He was still human, still handsome enough to steal her breath, and her sanity. Which is what must have happened, she concluded. Because the voices inside her head were screaming that she was making a huge and terrible and deadly mistake and she didn't give a damn at all.

"Bedroom?" he demanded tersely between kisses.

"Left," she returned as tersely before getting back to more important things. He lifted her in his arms, not breaking the kiss, and headed for the left-hand door she had indicated. He kicked the door closed behind him, and carried her to the bed, lowering her to the mattress.

That damned vanilla scent…he licked at her skin, needing to taste it as well as smell it. She moaned softly, and tried to pull his own clothes off. He helped her, but he wasn't about to stop tasting her and his tongue licked a hot path over her flesh. The first time they had made love, there hadn't been time for everything. He remembered that on the day the Oracles had swallowed, even though she had taken another lover, she still hadn't experienced certain forms of lovemaking. Had Riley introduced her to them? They hadn't dated all that long. Had there been time for…?

He knew by her gasped, "No!" when his mouth found the sensitive spot in her nest of curls that there hadn't. Something inside him was savagely pleased by the idea that he would be first, here.

Buffy sat up, her hands gripping his hair, intending to pull him away, to make him stop doing something so appalling…then a wave of wet, hot pleasure swamped her, and she instead held him closer.

She was ready for him, so ready that her inner honey was pouring out of her into his waiting, eager mouth. He lapped and suckled, as she gave a series of breathy, cooing cries, caught up in the utter sensuality of the act he was introducing her to. And each breathy cry, each roll of her hips, each drop of honey made him increasingly hard, achingly hard, ready to drive into her and drive both of them over the edge. He sucked harder on the little nub, and bit oh so delicately with blunt teeth. She screamed--his name--her inner wetness flooding him as she climaxed. He lashed his tongue mercilessly against the throbbing nubbin, drawing out her peak for several intense minutes. Finally she collapsed back, her hands loosing their death grip on his hair, her body relaxed and pliant beneath him. He kissed his way back to her mouth, and with a soft sigh, she opened for him, her thighs parting for him, her mouth opening beneath his.

His face was wet with her, and he forced her to taste herself. Moaning she pulled him closer. His achingly hard manhood brushed against her sated flesh, giving her a frisson of almost painful pleasure. She tilted her hips just enough and he slid inside the tight, welcoming wetness of her body.

So tight, so hot, so wet. He had to stop, afraid he would spill too soon.

Why too soon? She had hers, get yours, and get gone. But he didn't want that. He wanted to drive her as crazy as she drove him, and he wanted to come with the feel of her coming around him, wanted to know that however much she was under his skin, he was under hers. So he held still until he got his control back, and then he began an excruciatingly slow rhythm that he knew from centuries of experience would soon have her writhing and screaming and pleading for release.

He badly wanted to hear Buffy Summers beg.

She didn't know what was happening at first, why he went so still when he entered her. She had started to wriggle to get him moving, but his hands on her hips held her ruthlessly still. Now, at last, he was moving, filling her, making her feel complete in a way only he could ever do, and then withdrawing until just the velvety tip of his manhood was still inside her, and she was trembling with the need to pull him back in. But he still had his hands on her hips, and his grip was unbreakable. He wouldn't let her speed things up and he was driving her crazy. She gave a soft cry of despair against his mouth.

That mouth…she could die from pleasure on his mouth alone. What he had done to her…she had heard about that form of sex, but had never gotten around to trying it. Hell, she could count the times she had had sex in her life. Once with Angel in love. Once with Parker. Four times with Riley, because he had been injured so soon after the first time, and she had been a little standoffish after he hadn't been able to tell the difference between herself and Faith. Not long after, he had been injured again, helping Angel, and somehow, their relationship had never gotten back on track after that. He had gone home to Iowa for the summer, and even though he had returned to UC Sunnydale afterward, they were over.

She had dated a few other guys casually, but hadn't really felt interested enough to become intimate with them. Then had come that horrible battle with the demons, and Angel's bitter denouncement, and she lost whatever interest she had in dating.

So, there had been no one until Angel, again. Their last encounter had ended her moping, so that she took an interest in life once more. But even though she had gone dancing, looking around to see if there was anyone datable, and though a number of cute guys had approached her, somehow she had never gone beyond the initial drink or dance.

Now, if she were honest with herself, she knew why she hadn't. Riley and even Parker had been fun, and she had enjoyed sex with them. But even when she hated him, even when she wanted to just drive a stake through his heart and dance in the dust left behind, Angel could make her body sing with life and quiver with need. Nothing was comparable to the steel and velvet feel of him inside her, nothing tasted as good as his mouth on hers, nothing was as right as the weight of him pressing her down, the cool texture of his flesh against hers, the movement of their bodies in perfect harmony, whether they battled side by side or made love--and hate--face to face.

She was hungry for him, starved for him, and the famine had ended, the drought was over.

Even if only for tonight.

Buffy pushed the thought away, and gave herself over to what Angel was giving her. She stopped trying to fight what he was doing, and relaxed into his rhythm, content to just meet his thrusts. Sensing the change, Angel released his death grip on her hips and slid his hands caressingly over her body. Her curves were more deliciously rounded than last time, and he approved of the change, however little else he approved of.

None of that mattered right now. What mattered was sinking into the velvet wet heat of her, pretending that she still cared about him the way he now had to admit to himself he would always care about her, pretending that they were making love, not simply adding a new dimension to the hatred they felt for each other.

He shut his mind to all the rancor, and gave himself over to the sweetness her flesh had always held for his. She was kissing him back as if she cared, moving with him as if his pleasure were as important to her as his own, and even if he knew it was a lie, for the moment he would pretend otherwise.

He filled his hands with her full breasts, flicking the pebbled nipples until she moaned against his mouth and thrust them into his hands. He nibbled at her full lips, drinking in the taste of her, and still he kept his rhythm inside her achingly slow.

Each time he went a bit deeper, withdrew to the very edge, and pushed back a tiny bit further again. Sweat slicked her skin as she tried to contain herself. Every stroke unerringly hit her sensitive g-spot, and she was going crazy as he built her need without giving her release. Finally, he was so deep, he was touching the mouth of her womb, and she screamed as pleasure was leavened with a hint of pain, which somehow, appallingly, sweetened the pleasure.

She was so ripe, so ready, he could feel her tremble on the edge, knew he could push her over in a single thrust. Not yet, though, not until she begged. He forced himself to slow yet further. Her plaintive wail as she pulled from his kiss was the sweetest of sounds to him.

"Angel!" she gasped, not caring how much he hated her or how humiliating it was to have to plead with him for this. "Please!" she wept. It was what he had been waiting for, the Slayer to beg him for what she wanted. Angel thrust home.

Deeper than before, deeper than he had ever been, and suddenly he was thrusting into her ruthlessly, with all the power she craved, and she sobbed helplessly as climax washed over her in a crashing wave of ecstasy and all she could do was hold on to him.

Her deceptively soft body clung to his, her hips meeting him, and her steel-like internal muscles clamping down like a vise. Angel hissed in painful pleasure as she rippled around him in her release, triggering his own. He roared again, vamping out as he pumped helplessly, driven by primal instinct to plant his seed as deeply inside her womb as he could get. No matter that such seed could not take root. Some instincts survived even the change to vampirism.

The feel of his seed surging inside her intensified her own release. Another orgasm began even as the first one ended. Not content with having driven her out of her mind, Angel reached between their straining bodies and stroked her overly sensitive clit, making her scream again as yet a third shock of rapture crashed through her system.

The rhythmic contractions of her release were milking every drop from him, and he just might die of an excess of pleasure. But what a way to go. His fingers danced across her clit, not letting her down, not letting her escape. Spent, he had slipped from her still, quivering body, but he wouldn't stop. Not until she was screaming, he told himself, not until he had wrenched every sensation from her as she had drained everything from him.

Slayer stamina, Buffy realized, had its drawbacks. How many orgasms could she have, one right after another, before delicious pleasure became delicate pain? Angel seemed determined to find out. His long fingers replaced his cock, and he pressed up inside her, finding the most sensitive places, unerringly knowing where to put pressure, where to lightly stroke. She clamped her thighs together, trapping his hand. He chuckled. She tightened her arms around his neck, and buried her face in his shoulder as yet another peak made her shake and tremble in his arms.

There was something about his ability to make her respond that acted on Angel like an aphrodisiac. Angel found himself getting hard again, knew by the way Buffy pressed her warm thigh against his erection that she could tell. He pulled her closer, kissed her savagely, then pulled his fingers from her still quaking center. Before she could react, he knelt up, then rolled her so that she was on her stomach. Grabbing the pillows, he shoved them under her hips, lifting them to an enticing angle. With a groan, he pulled her legs further apart, stopping just long enough to deliver nipping little kisses to the inside of each firm thigh before positioning himself behind her.

He sank once more into her hot sweet tightness as she sighed beneath him. Reaching around he cupped her breasts again, and she bucked back against him, keening in need, a need that couldn't possibly be any greater than his. Slow, this time, like before, because the edge was off for him and he wanted to test the limits of Slayer stamina. Her responsiveness made it so damned easy.

Hot tears were running down Buffy's face, as the new position made it easier for her to take Angel even deeper, without the twinge of discomfort she had felt before. He was stretching her, testing limits she didn't know she had, and she opened for him, letting him slide in deeper yet. His skilled fingers caressed her breasts until they were so sensitive, she didn't think she could handle one more touch, one more stroke. She screamed his name as one more climax ripped through her.

Angel shook in delight as her soft little body convulsed beneath his, and her strong internal muscles once more brought him to the edge. This time, he ruthlessly held back, knowing the next time would be the last for him, and also knowing that he hadn't fully plumbed the limits of the woman beneath him. He waited until the contractions of her tight core eased up, and she had gone limp again. Only then did he start to move.

He was trying to kill her, Buffy decided as reluctant muscles and overwrought nerves were once more brought to quivering life. Not that she minded this particular form of execution, which beat the hell out of fighting, or arguing, or moping around for five or six years. She forced herself to her knees, thrusting back against him, and adding a purely instinctive roll of her hips that spread delicious sensation throughout her womb, and by his soft groan, tantalized his steel-hard manhood, as well. She smiled. Good. When it came to Angel and the intimate warfare they waged against each other, he had about two and half centuries of experience on her, and she needed all the weapons she could get. She rolled her hips again, he squeezed her breasts. She thrust them more fully into his hands, eyes shut as she surrendered to the rhythm they were developing between them. Needing to feel him more intensely, she concentrated, trying something else, also out of instinct, deliberately tightening the muscles that ordinarily slipped out her control in climax.

Where the hell had she learned to do that? Angel wondered. And did he really care? She was rhythmically squeezing him, and rolling her hips in a way that sent quivers of delight down the length of his hard shaft. He closed his eyes, surrendering to whatever she wanted to do to him, not even realizing he was moaning her name, over and over. She did, and her smile grew.

As ever, they matched each other, whether in bed or in battle. He slowly began to pick up the pace, and she thrust back eagerly, meeting him, the roll of her hips adjusting to his tempo, her internal muscles adding tantalizing sensations to every move. He hauled her upright, so that they were both kneeling on the bed, her thighs spread over his, riding him. Her head rested against his shoulder, the white column of her throat exposed and temptingly vulnerable beneath his lips. He bent his head, and sucked the sweet skin into his mouth, one hand slipping from her lush breasts over her rib cage, down her rounded belly to the nest of curls where he could feel himself being rhythmically engulfed and released, engulfed and released. His fingers flicked lightly across the swollen, slick bud of flesh there, and she spun out of control once more, screaming his name as she slammed down on his erection, impaling herself urgently and completely, her body clenching around his, destroying his own control so that he did, as he had once before, the unthinkable. He had been in vamp face, and before he could stop himself, his fangs moved the tiniest fraction needed, piercing skin and vein and delivering the hot liquor of her blood into his waiting mouth, even as his seed spurted into her waiting womb.

She didn’t have words for what was happening to her, couldn’t think coherently. Buffy reached her arms behind her, tangling her hands in Angel's hair, pressing him closer to her throat even as her hips jackhammered down on his. If this was how he planned to kill her, let him. Nothing her empty, bitter life held for her was worth giving up this matchless ecstasy.

Take it all! Put an end to it! the voice inside him screamed. But if he did that, it would be over forever, and no way was that happening now, because nothing in his empty, bitter life was worth giving up this matchless ecstasy, no matter how infrequently he got to experience it. Angel gently retracted his fangs licking closed the tiny wounds he had made as their bodies surged together in the ebbing spasms of their mutual completion. His fingers eased up on her, soothing her down, and he slowed and stopped the thrust of his hips, letting her have control. With a sigh, Buffy settled over him, her body trying desperately to hold his softening manhood inside her. She managed for a few minutes, but neither Slayer stamina nor vampiric endurance could argue with simple biology, and eventually, he slipped free.

But he was still holding her gently, still nuzzling her neck, and she began weeping again, quietly, as all the anger and pain, pushed aside during their passion, returned.

You've let yourself become his fucktoy, the voice inside her whispered, and she sobbed as she realized that was probably true.

"Let me go," she demanded, trying to mask her pain with anger.

Angel pulled away, eyes narrowing. The little bitch! Now that she's used you, she's back to showing her true colors. He lifted her from his body in disgust, tossing her amongst the pillows. She fell, boneless as a rag doll, her face turned from him as if the mere sight of him were unbearable. With a snort of self-loathing, ashamed that he could want her so badly when she had such contempt for him, Angel got off the bed, quickly dressed, and got the hell out of her apartment, heading back to LA.

And under Sunnydale, It told Itself that It had matters under control, and nothing would go wrong.

Buffy's temper was absolutely waspish for the next few weeks. Her renewed friendships were jeopardized, and even Giles found himself taking her to task. Her kills were back to being very efficient, however. If anything, she was going out of her way to find things to attack and destroy. However, when she stormed out of his home one night after reducing Willow to tears over a fairly trivial piece of research, Giles knew something was still badly wrong. On a hunch he called Cordelia in LA.

"So that's what's behind his sudden one man war tactics," Cordy said thoughtfully.

"Angel has been, um, out of sorts?"

They compared notes, coming up with a date, as well as a scenario that was correct in one assumption--that Buffy and Angel had seen each other and had had another quarrel--and utterly wrong in all other details. They realized that if things kept going this way, something disastrous was bound to happen. They began to make plans to bring the two combatants together on neutral territory to get whatever the hell was going on out in the open where it could be dealt with. It would be tricky, and would take some planning. But before they could pull it off, events took another surprising turn, and they reluctantly decided to let matters rest as they were.

Not realizing that matters were anything but restful.

Buffy had managed a full month after Angel's visit before she decided that what was sauce for the goose was sauce for the gander. Just because he was bigger and stronger than she was didn't mean that he had the upper hand, or that he called all the shots. She was the Slayer, damn it, and she had ways of evening the score. Smiling to herself, she grabbed her rarely used credit-card and went to a particular store she had seen during her patrols, but had never had the nerve to go into before….

Angel couldn't sleep. It had been bad just after his stupid and pointless visit to Sunnydale, and it had only gotten worse. He would close his eyes, and he would see her, the silk robe sliding off her shoulders, the cascade of her golden hair a glorious nimbus of light around her face. The scent of vanilla would drift across his senses, the silken feel of her skin linger on his fingertips.

He was going out of his mind.

He knew he was taking his frustration and anger out on Wesley and Cordy, but he couldn't seem to stop himself. Tonight was just the last straw. He had fallen asleep, dreaming the same dream which wasn't a dream but a memory, and he had woken hard and aching and missing her. With a growl, Angel tossed off his covers and headed for a cold shower.

The noise of the ancient plumbing covered the sound of the descending elevator, and he was so used to the phantom scent of vanilla drifting in the air at unexpected moments that he thought nothing of it other than he had wasted his time in the shower, because the scent had him as hard and aching as ever. Snarling he wrapped a towel around his hips and flung open the door…

…stopping dead in his tracks when he saw what waited on the other side of it.

Buffy's aim was as unerring as Giles had been. The crossbow quarrel would be through his heart if he made one wrong move. She was wearing a leather coat, and probably a very short skirt and low cut top, because the only thing he could see beside the coat--and the crossbow--was a pair of very high heels and dark, sheer, seamed stockings. He licked his lips as he became harder than ever.

"I am so sick and tired of your shit," Buffy told him. His eyes flashed resentfully to hers. His shit? What the hell was she talking about? The crossbow decided him against demanding she answer those questions, however. A moment later, the crossbow decided him against something else, too, though his rage mounted to the point where his demon slipped free and he went into gameface. She had tossed a set of manacles onto the bed and given him explicit instructions about what to do with them. Blood boiling, Angel obeyed, promising himself that when he got the crossbow away from her, she would pay for this humiliation if he burned for it.

Buffy watched critically as he wound each manacle around the headboard. When they were attached to her satisfaction, when she was sure he wouldn't be able to pull them loose without breaking the bed, she gave him the next order. He turned to her with a growl, she gestured with the crossbow. He knew she wasn't bluffing. Stiffly, he climbed onto the bed, sitting against the headboard, raising his arms to the manacles, pressing his wrists into them until the locks snapped shut automatically.

"That's better," she said with a cold smile, setting down the crossbow. Angel glared at her. She ignored the rage in his yellow eyes, and untied the belt of her coat. Angel's eyes widened and he swallowed convulsively, his demon melting away.

It was a very tight corset, lace, not leather, the black fabric making her skin look lustrous as an uncultured pearl. Her full breasts swelled over the top, and he could almost see the tempting bronze aureoles. He began to break out in a sweat, something exceedingly rare for a vampire. The stockings and shoes were the only other things she was wearing. His eyes were drawn to the dark thatch of curls hiding her feminine secrets.

"I've had about enough of you," Buffy said, coming slowly toward the bed. He could smell not only the vanilla, but the musk of her desire. "I've had enough of you calling the shots and making the decisions." She had reached the bed and began to crawl onto it, by his feet, moving like a pantheress stalking its prey…or its mate. "Turn about is fair play, you bastard."

"Buffy," Angel growled, "What the hell--"

"Shut. Up." She pulled a stake from the bodice of her corset and Angel shut up. She smirked at him. "That's better. Now, let's get something straight. I am not your fucktoy. I am not going to be used at your convenience. Not without getting to use you right back."

The injustice of that remark left him speechless.

"Understand?"

Not trusting himself to say a word, Angel nodded brusquely. Buffy rewarded him with another cold smile. "Good," she said. "Now, there's something I've always wanted to try…." She crawled up a few more feet to his hips, stretching luxuriously like the cat he had named her, before settling so that she was kneeling over him, and pulling the towel away from his body. When her small, warm hands closed over his straining cock, Angel's hips nearly bucked off the bed. She smiled smugly, then she stopped looking at his face. It hurt too much, seeing all that anger. It was much easier to watch his body, which was still responsive to her even if she had lost any sway over his heart.

He doesn’t have one, remember? That was right. So why worry about it? Buffy stroked her hands over the strong flesh that could bring her such incomparable pleasure and turned her mind away from all the things that she wanted from him that she could never have.

At least she could have something.

Part 6

 

His size and length fascinated her. It was unbelievable that she had had all of that inside herself. No wonder it hurt sometimes. Even if she liked the way it hurt. With a sigh, Buffy continued her explorations. The contrast between the rigidity of the underlying muscle and the velvet softness of his skin fascinated her, as did the contrast between his vampiric cold and her human warmth. As her fingers stroked lightly across his flesh, making his manhood jump in response, she smiled. Also fascinating was the foreskin, so different from Parker and Riley. She closed both hands around him, drawing back the hood, noting the clear drops of pre-cum already gathering at the weeping tip. An utterly wicked thought came to her, and she leaned down, licking at the tip.

"Buffy!" Angel roared, unable to control himself as her warm little tongue licked hesitantly. He bucked his hips, trying to force himself into her mouth. With a giggle she drew back. Angel pulled on the chains, but they held. No matter. She couldn't keep him chained up forever, and when he got free…. Another tentative stroke of her tongue drove that thought, and all others, from his mind.

The tortured groans coming from the vampire beside her delighted Buffy. Encouraged by the reaction she was getting, she opened her mouth over the velvety head and sucked it slowly into her mouth. He tried to ram his hips upward, but she had learned, and she used her hands backed up by considerable Slayer strength to hold him down. She sucked more of the hard, cold flesh down, but realized she couldn't take too much of it without choking. Hmm. Something was wrong, here. She knew it was possible to go further. She adjusted her position, angled her head differently, opened her mouth wider….

Angel groaned as the most delectable wet heat in the world engulfed him, Buffy somehow managing to take him almost down to the root. If she didn't let him move soon, he was going to expire and she'd be left with nothing but a pile of dust and a pair of empty manacles.

She didn't seem too worried about that prospect. Buffy continued to experiment on her helpless victim, trying different types of suction and friction, different speeds and angles, each of which combined to drive him slowly out of his mind. She released him all together at one point, then set her tongue licking in a series of feather light, hummingbird-quick flicks down the underside of his shaft that had him groaning aloud. She liked the feel of him on her tongue, all that deceptive, velvet softness, and she liked how cold he was, like a frozen treat, soothing her throat as her untried muscles opened wider than they really wanted to go. And she liked the taste of him, sweet and tart and tangy all at once. She sucked him back down, reveling in his whimpers of lust, and then, wanting to taste more, she drove the tip of her little tongue into the weeping slit at the tip. The manacles rattled on the headboard in a frenzy as Angel shouted her name. She decided to take pity on him. Buffy let go of Angel's hips, not surprised or unprepared when they surged upward, forcing him deeper down her throat. She obliged him, then set her now freed hands to helping her establish a rhythm that would complete what she had started.

She could have taught the Hoover people a few things about vacuums Angel thought, as his hips thrust helplessly upward, desperate to drive deeper into that divine wet heat. She was kneeling over him now, the firm globes of her white bottom temptingly near. His gaze went lower, and he could see the pouting lips of her sex peeking from beneath the nest of rich brown curls. A pearly drop of moisture glistened on those lips, and he realized with a start that this wasn't just payback; she was as aroused as he was by what she was doing to him. Then he dismissed her interest as a power trip, closed his eyes, and gave himself up to whatever the hell she wanted to do.

He tasted so damned good, Buffy had to try one more thing. Taking a deep breath to sustain her lungs, she swallowed as much of him as she could force down her throat, sucked hard…and began to hum, while swirling the tip of her tongue over the sensitive head of his cock.

Wet heat, hot hard suction, and now vibrations shivering up and down his length matched by the swirling caress of her tongue. Angel felt his control begin to slip….

There was something else she had wanted to try, she remembered, and used her teeth to scrape oh so gently….

With a shout, Angel came, pouring his cold seed into her waiting mouth. Buffy was a little startled, but not too badly. This was what she had been working for, after all. She drew back just enough to keep from choking and began to eagerly swallow. Cold and still with that tantalizing mix of sweet and tangy, soothing aching muscles and intoxicating her with a feel of feminine power….

She sucked him dry, her tongue laving up every last drop, her throat working to keep him hard as long as possible. When he had softened and was beginning to beg her to stop, she relented, letting him slip out of her mouth, and curling up beside his hips. She was confident that he didn't pose a threat right now, while chained and well, drained. She chuckled at her own joke. Of course, the point of this exercise would be rather lost if he stayed drained, but Buffy was pretty sure she could handle that. Catlike, she rubbed her cheek against his thigh, and was pleasantly surprised when his quiescent flesh gave a little jump of interest. Good. She wouldn’t have to wait too long. She patted him fondly and got off the bed.

Angel pried open heavy lidded eyes, wondering what the little bitch was up to this time. He wouldn't put it past her to leave him chained up for Cordy to find…Not that Cordy would. He was pretty sure he could break out of these cuffs if he had to. The crossbow and the stake had decided him against trying…the stake which, as he watched, rolled off the bed to the floor, landing soundlessly on the rug beside his bed. Angel grinned wolfishly behind Buffy's back. The game had just changed, but he wouldn't reveal that until he had to. Buffy was rooting around in her bag. She made a soft sound of triumph and turned back to him, stalking back toward the bed with her prize.

A bottle of Motion Lotion? Angel spent enough time in the seedier parts of LA to know what that was. Where the hell had Buffy learned about it? Again, it didn't matter. The idea that Buffy intended to use it on him had him hard again even before she got back to the bed.

"One thing I have to give you murderous bloodsucking fiends," she said sweetly, knowing the words would hurt and not caring, "you do have the preternatural stamina thing going."

"Just like you treacherous Slaying sluts," Angel countered. Her smile hardened.

"Play nice, Angel," she warned.

"You first," he returned, not backing down.

"Fair enough," she decided. "Let's see how you like this game." She poured some of the oil onto her hands, and set the bottle down on the nightstand beside him. She had come close to him, her full breasts, almost overflowing the corset, temptingly near his mouth, but not quite near enough. She drew back, and once more took his manhood in her hands, slowly covering him with the cherry flavored oil. Angel closed his eyes and rested his head against the back of the headboard.

She was caressing him as if she couldn't touch him enough, as if her hands craved the feel of his flesh. It was a dangerously seductive illusion, but an irresistible one, as well. Angel gave himself up to it, pretending she was doing this because she wanted him the way, despite everything, he still wanted her, not because she had an itch that needed scratching and she could do this and humiliate him into the bargain. Her hands stroked over him in delicate exploration, the oil still cool and soothing. Soon, he knew, that would change, and sure enough, as her strokes became more insistent and firm, the first hints of warmth shivered through him.

Buffy smiled when she got that reaction, and when she could feel the change in the palms of her hands. It was time. She moved, straddling his hips, and positioned him at her wet entrance. Her glazed eyes sought his. Realizing he had closed them, she felt anger lick at her.

"Look at me," she demanded in quiet rage. His eyes snapped open, meeting hers.

"Don't think you can pretend," she taunted him. He wondered how she had known, but the rest of her speech made no sense to him. "I'm not someone else, not Darla or Drusilla. This is me, Buffy. The woman you hate. And I am going to give you the ride of your unlife."

He swallowed his own rage as she lifted herself and slid him into her hot core. The lotion was having the desired effect, burning him up, making him desperate for the friction her tight little body could provide. She began to move up and down, slowly, her eyes locked to his. He couldn't look away from her eyes, fascinated by the passion in their green depths. Once that passion had been his, her love had been his anchor, calling him back from Hell itself. Now, her hatred was all he had left.

Well, if that was how she wanted it….

He thrust his hips upward, driving deeper. She mewled and met him, her own head falling back and her eyes closing, this time letting her shut him out. He didn't like it. Angel tugged harder on the chains. Buffy ignored him, rolling her hips and taking him deeper.

He kept trying to get free, but her hips were distracting his attention, her tight core driving him into a frenzy…until she arched her back and reached behind her and gently fondled his balls and he knew he couldn't let her keep control.

With a roar, Angel tore free of the cuffs, hauling Buffy closer and kissing her with a ferocity that left her breathless. Not so breathless that she couldn’t struggle, desperate to keep control of the situation, something Angel wasn’t about to tolerate. Not breaking the kiss, he clamped one arm around her, rolled to the side and used his free hand to root through his night stand drawer. He found what he needed almost at once.

"If you want to get serious about bondage," he told her, breaking the kiss as he forced her wrists into the heavy steel manacles, "Don't settle for the restraints they have in sex toy shops. This is the real deal, lover, heavy gauge steel, reinforced by medieval binding spells. No getting out of these without a key." Buffy looked at him, her green eyes gone wide and vulnerable, but he was immune to that look, now. He wrestled her onto her back, then pulled out of her. Only so that he could wrap the chains around the headboard, stretching her arms helplessly taut above her head…which lifted her lovely breasts so that the dusky aureoles peeked above the neckline of her corset. With a groan, Angel bent his head to lave his tongue over the tempting bits of flesh. She gasped again, and thrust them upward into his eager mouth.

His cock was heating from the Motion Lotion, burning to be inside her again. Angel parted her thighs and drove deep, ducking his head to keep one pert nipple trapped in his mouth. Buffy moaned, her head thrashing against the pillows, her hair fanning out across his bed like a captured sunrise. Angel could barely appreciate the view, his senses overwhelmed by the taste of the sweet flesh in his mouth, the feel of the stroking wet heat enveloping his manhood. Angel braced himself over her on his arms, leaning slightly sideways, so that he could slip one hand between their bodies. He found her clit, and rubbed hard, was rewarded when she sobbed and twisted beneath him, going off like a fire cracker as he pounded into her. Merciless, he kept her at her peak for several minutes, the oil now spread to her internal tissues, making her as hot and hard and hungry as he was himself.

What followed was frenzy, as he became mindless for her, forgetting their bitter hatred, forgetting what a user she was, forgetting everything but the feel of her surrounding him, her soft cries muffled as his mouth claimed hers. He lost track of how long they battled, of how many peaks he made her reach, lost track of everything but her feel, her scent, her taste.

Until he realized that the Motion Lotion was having an unexpected side effect on his unliving flesh. Close as he got to the edge, he wasn't going over. Buffy was in the middle of another climax. He held her to it, then eased her down, then lay over her, unmoving, still painfully hard.

After a moment she stirred.

"Angel?" she questioned softly, almost fearfully. Well, she was right to be afraid.

"You knew this would happen, didn't you?"

"I knew…what are you talking about?" She looked confused, but he knew better.

"Well, bitch, you should get your money's worth out of this. You said you wanted to try something new." He pulled out of her, reached for her chains, and twisted them, simultaneously flipping her over so that she was on her belly.

"We've done this," she said waspishly.

He pulled her hips upward until she was kneeling before him, and he forced her thighs more widely apart. He reached for the damned oil, spreading a little on his finger, then parted the globes of her plump ass apart and rubbed the finger against an unexpected place.

"No, we haven't," he said smugly as she gasped in shock and tried to pull away. She couldn't go far, thanks to the chains, and he hauled her back, positioned himself, and forced himself into the tight, reluctant darkness. She gave a cry of real pain, and it cut through his anger and his own pain, getting to the little bit of his heart that she had left unscathed.

"Shhh," he said soothingly, despite himself. He stopped moving, letting her get used to the unfamiliar fullness. "If you relax, this won't hurt."

"Do you have a clue how much I hate you?" she said bitterly, but he could feel her begin to relax, forcing her muscles to loosen. He gave her a moment to adjust, then pushed inside gently. He felt himself slip past the tight ring of her sphincter, and reached around to fondle her clit. She sighed, and he felt her open further, until he could slide all the way in.

Buffy couldn’t believe it. Her bottom was burning, and it felt like she was going to be split in half with his next thrust. But his fingers were stroking her delicately, almost lovingly, and somehow, her initial discomfort was vanishing to be replaced by something very close to pleasure.

More than close she realized, as he gently withdrew and thrust forward again. This was…nice. Wickedly nice. Nastily nice. Naughty and decadent and her hips began to thrust back to meet him, encouraging him to go just a little faster, a little harder.

Angel couldn’t believe how tight she was, or how responsive. She was thrusting back, accepting all of his swollen length into her tiny body. If this didn't push him over the edge, nothing would.

It seemed like she might be there before him. He heard her breathing become uneven, and he could feel her heart rate speed up. His fingers were becoming coated with her inner moisture, and he knew this felt as good to her as it did to him. He smiled and nuzzled her neck, his hips speeding up their rhythm. Shivering, remembering what had happened the last few times they had come together, she pressed her neck backward, silently begging him to take her completely.

Angel licked at the rapidly beating pulse beneath his lips, tempted to vamp out and bite through. From the way she was squirming against him, from the way she arched her throat backward, he could almost believe she wanted that, wanted the bloodsucking fiend to suck her own sweet Slayer's blood. But no, she must hate that.

Which, now that he thought about it, was as good a reason as any to do it. Angel let his demon slip, and sank his fangs into the sweet, pulsing vein. Her reaction was instantaneous, her hips slamming back into his, her internal muscles contracting helplessly, squeezing him until he popped, as the golden elixir of her blood hit his tongue and the combination of sensations brought him the release he hadn't expected to achieve.

No longer caring whether he hurt her, he slammed into her, mindless in his orgasm, knowing only he had to go deeper, harder, faster, until he had gone so deep, she would never be able to abandon him again. Mewling, Buffy met each punishing thrust, the climax he had brought her to making her uncaring of everything but taking him deeper, harder, faster, until she had him so deep he could never escape her, never leave her lonely and wanting again.

The frenzy continued for long moments as they drove each other to new heights, and hit peaks that neither could ever have contemplated. But their endurance was not illimitable, and soon, even their preternatural strength gave out. Buffy collapsed beneath him, her shaking legs no longer able to keep her kneeling on the bed. Angel followed, retracting his fangs and shifting his weight so that he didn't crush her or tear her tender flesh. The wound he had given her trickled blood, and he leant forward to lap up the tiny rivulet. Sighing, she pushed against his lips, and he could no longer doubt that she took as much pleasure from the act as he. He ought, he knew, to find the damned key, unlock the manacles, and throw her out of bed. Instead, he made sure there was enough give in the chain not to cramp her arms, pulled her against him, and drew his quilt over them both.

"You are such a bastard," she grumbled as she wiggled her sore bottom against his hips and snuggled back against his cool chest.

"And you're such a bitch," he growled, wrapping his arms possessively around her waist, and resting his chin on the top of her head. In a few moments, both had fallen contentedly asleep.

While miles away, beneath the foundations of Sunnydale, something stirred in faint alarm.

That night, both Buffy and Angel were visited by dreams that left them vaguely unhappy and ill at ease when they awoke. When memory returned, both felt even more awkward. Wordlessly, Angel unlocked the cuffs. As wordlessly, Buffy sat up, massaging her wrists, and eyeing him warily. Again without words, she got out of the bed, and pulled on her coat. She was halfway to the elevator before something inside Angel snapped.

"Next time," he drawled, "forget the Motion Lotion and get a water-soluble massage oil." Buffy froze, as the delicious implications sank in. She turned and gave him an utterly feline smile.

"Next time," she said huskily. He growled and lunged off the bed after her, but she was already in the elevator and giggled at him as she sailed out of his reach. He grinned wickedly back.

So it was that both Rupert Giles and Cordelia Chase got the mistaken impression that whatever had gone wrong between Buffy and Angel, both had put it behind them and were moving on with their lives.

Buffy was sweetly apologetic to her friends, while Angel actually started cracking jokes and humming around the office. Both were in far better moods, were working at top efficiency, and seemed to be relatively content with life. And the chance mention of the other's name no longer drove either one to a rampage. Instead, they calmly offered to help each other when the need arose. Giles and Cordy decided there was no need for a confrontation.

Unbeknownst to them, the confrontations were happening on at least a weekly basis.

It wasn't that she hated him any less, Buffy decided as she dusted herself with the edible body powder she had found in the sex toy shop that had become her favorite place to go. It was that he had his uses, and she might as well accept that.

After all, he thought as he ran the electric shaver over his face, making sure there was no annoying stubble to irritate delicate tissues or sensitive flesh, if she wanted to use him, he might as well use her right back.

It wasn't, each thought, as if the other had a heart to break like their own hearts broke every single time. And at least each could pretend that the other cared.

 

Part 7

 

It went on that way for years. They would stay apart as long as they could bear, but within days mutual need drove them to seek each other out. Sometimes he would go to her, sometimes she would find him, never by pre-arrangement so much as by unspoken agreement. Once, both had been driven to find the other, and they met halfway between their two cities.

If I were blind, I would see you…

Angel's cold skin felt as if it were on fire. He hadn't wanted to get into his car and drive toward Sunnydale. He never wanted to. But he could never stop himself. Hunger and need would hound him, until there was no rest for him in his bed, no peace for him in his home, no place for him in the city he protected. On this night, as on so many others, Angel gave in to the inevitable, praying to the God he believed was deaf to his prayers that this time would be different, that this time he would be able to walk away from her forever.

But the moment he was on the highway toward her, he wasn't thinking about saying good bye. He was thinking about the silkiness of her skin, the scent of her perfume, the sensitive flesh of her inner thigh, the succulent warmth when he set his lips there, the way she trembled beneath his mouth when he took little nipping bites. He was thinking of the little gasping cries she gave as arousal washed over her, the honeyed taste of her femininity, drenchingly wet on his tongue, the silken steel strength of her womanly core gripping his manhood as she found her pleasure in his arms. He was thinking of burying himself in her flesh until night was done and the sun found him and he burned to ash in a fire no more heated than the one he found in her body.

He was thinking that two hours was too long a drive when he suddenly realized that, tonight, he wouldn't need to wait that long. He felt it in his gut, along every nerve ending in his skin: she was near. A quick glance in his rear-view mirror proved it. A petite blond in the opposite lane was pulling her car to the side: he had just passed Buffy as she headed toward LA. Angel quickly scanned the road, making sure there were no other cars around, and pulled an illegal ubie into the opposite lane.

…when you're around, whether I see you or not, I feel you--inside…

She felt a shimmer of heat along her flesh, an electric current through her nerves. Gasping, Buffy pulled off to the shoulder, knowing that Angel had to have passed her on the road, heading toward her just as she had been heading toward him. Sure enough, a look in her rearview mirror confirmed her suspicions. A familiar black convertible performed an illegal u-turn, crossing over lines that weren't supposed to be crossed…but then, wasn't that the problem with them from the first? Fortunately, it was late, and an off night, with almost no one on this particular stretch of road. She watched her mirror as the car pulled into the lane going toward LA and sped toward her, pulling aside in its turn, a few yards behind her. The door opened…but the mirror did not show anyone getting out, or who slammed the door closed once more.

Buffy turned off her own engine, and got out of her car. He was stalking toward her, black duster billowing out behind him. He looked a predator, and he looked angry. Buffy's bruised heart took another blow. She realized he was angry at himself for wanting her. He hated her, and she supposed she hated him. But that didn’t mean a thing beside the craving they had for each other, the sheer hunger of their desire. Looking at him, she realized how much he despised his need of her. And so she kept her own expression cool, neutral, unwilling to show him how much she yearned for him when he cared nothing for her feelings at all.

She looked so cool, so indifferent, leaning against her car in a simple sheath dress of pale lavender, her dainty feet encased in a pair of thin strap sandals; scraps of leather with a bare suggestion of a heel. She looked conservative and untouchable, not like the wanton he knew her to be. Angel's ever-present anger toward her increased…but not as much as the heat in his loins. She seemed calm as he came closer. Well, he thought to himself, let's just see how calm she stays.

He said nothing by way of greeting, but pulled her into his arms, kissing her with bruising thoroughness. She responded instantly, hands going about his neck, lips opening beneath his. Vampirically enhanced senses detected the heady odor of her arousal as a rush of moisture seeped from her core. At least she could not deny him her body, however completely she denied him her heart. With a growl, Angel wrapped his arms around her, lifting her off her feet to a more convenient angle, bracing her against the side of the car as he ground himself against her. She responded by wrapping her legs around his hips and grinding right back. Through the denim of his jeans and the lace of her own panties he could feel her enticing heat, her seductive dampness. He was so hard he was afraid he would burst. No way was he going to last until they made it all the way back to one or the other of their apartments.

A wash of light spilled over them: headlights from a car driving past in the opposite lane. Angel snarled in frustration. Buffy reluctantly pulled her mouth free of his.

"Not here," she said. Angel looked around, realized there was a decently wooded area a few yards to the side of the road.

"Fine," he said, and tightened his grip on her. She yelped a little in surprise as he lifted her off the car, with her legs still tight about his hips, and proceeded to carry her the short distance into the woods. When they had gone far enough to be invisible from the road, Angel pushed her up against the first suitable tree he could find, and pulled away just enough to unzip his pants and free his straining erection. Buffy caught on, and wriggled against him in an effort to get her own clothing out of the way, an effort he was only too happy to abet. Angel solved the problem by the simple expedient of pushing her dress up to her waist, then ripping apart the scrap of lace beneath. Buffy gasped as cool air hit her intimate flesh, realizing her sex was bare to him, vulnerable to his touch. A brush of his fingers told him she was as ready as he was, so he drove into her with no further preliminaries, relishing her scream of need as he forced himself in as far as he could go, as far as her tiny, infinitely yielding body would take him: all the way to the root.

She tightened her legs about him, encouraging him to try to get even deeper. He rose to the challenge, pulling out and slamming back home. She whimpered against his mouth, hips pistoning to meet his hard, savage thrusts.

They coupled as if it had been years since they had come together instead of days, and as if this joining might be the last they would ever have. It was fierce and violent in its passion, consuming them both. Which suited them perfectly. Estranged as their hearts had become, angry as they found themselves, neither had the inclination for tenderness.

Buffy moaned at the lovely fullness deep inside her. She concentrated, squeezing her internal muscles around the steel-hard shaft within her, making Angel moan in his turn as she clamped down on his manhood. She sucked his cool tongue into her mouth, hungry for the taste of him. His tongue battled hers, sweeping into the heated cavern of her mouth and drinking in her own taste just as fiercely as she drank his. Their kisses were devouring, ruthless, as untamed and dark as the feelings they held for each other.

Buffy didn't care about the rough bark of the tree digging into her back, the discomfort of the restrictive clothing coming between his body and her own. All she cared about was that her Angel was with her, his mouth claiming hers, his body joined to hers. She flexed and tightened around him once more, hips pumping to meet him as he drove into her again and again. He was hitting the most sensitive places inside her, and she knew she wasn't going to be able to hold out for long. She wanted to feel him shooting inside her when she climaxed, wanted his cool seed to sooth her burning. She deliberately squeezed him again, setting up an internal rhythm to compliment the bucking of her hips. She was rewarded by the feel of his fangs descending as his passions heated and he slid into game face. With a growl, Angel slid one hand between their bodies, fingering the slick little bud of flesh between her thighs. It was too much. She came, screaming into his mouth, her body convulsing around his in pleasure. He couldn't resist the pull of her flesh. His own orgasm hit, and he thrust harder, spilling inside her just the way she had wanted, had needed him to do. They thrust together violently, hanging on to the peak as long as they could.

Long moments later, they remained locked together, recovering from the passing tempest of desire. Angel realized that he couldn't keep her pinned to the tree indefinitely, much as the idea appealed. With another brutal kiss, he pulled himself out of her, waiting as she uncoiled her legs from about him, before setting her down on her own two feet. Face morphing back to human, he stepped away and tucked himself back into his pants, while she recovered her ruined underwear and smoothed down her skirts.

She did not meet his eyes. Angel forced his anger down. If she thought he was done with her tonight, she would learn her mistake. The edge ought to be off his hunger, but it wasn't. Next week was too far away. So were their respective apartments. Fortunately, that wasn't their only option.

"There's a motel about half a mile ahead," he said coolly. "I'll register."

Buffy's startled gaze flew to his. She had been afraid that he was just going to get back in his car and head for LA, leaving her sated, yet still needy. She wasn't sure why he wasn't, but she was not inclined to argue the point. The anonymity of a motel along the highway suited her just fine. She nodded her agreement, and they walked back to their respective cars.

She followed the convertible, pulling into the motel driveway behind Angel, waiting while he took care of matters. She looked around as she waited. The place didn't seem too bad as such things went; part of a reputable, if inexpensive, chain. Still, it seemed so illicit. She knew, because Giles kept in touch with Wesley, that he and Cordy were as ignorant as everyone in Sunnydale about the affair Angel and she continued to have. She had to think of it as an affair, not as a relationship. The only thing between them, after all, was sex. Sex in secret, sex behind people's backs. Sex at a cheap motel, or, even though at their apartments, at times when no one would think to come by. She wondered at herself, wondered why she was willing to put up with the tawdry aspects of her need for him. Then he emerged from the office and she knew: she needed him however she could get him, and if that meant going to a cheap motel and keeping one last secret from her friends, then she would do it.

Angel came over to her car and leaned in as she lowered the window.

"Room 125," he said simply, and headed over to his own car. Buffy drove hers toward the indicated room and parked. The convertible slid in to the spot next to hers, and Angel got out. She pressed the release on her trunk, got out, and was lifting her bag out when she found herself hoisted into the air and tossed over Angel's shoulder. He grabbed her bag, slammed down the trunk, and carried her, protesting, toward the room.

"Dammit, I can walk!" she groused.

He said nothing, simply opened the door to the room, and stepped inside, dropping her bag just inside. He kicked the door closed, and kept walking until he reached the bed. Only then did he set her down, tossing her unceremoniously into the center. Her gasp of outrage turned to one of pure need as he fell to his knees at the foot of the bed, grabbed her ankles and pulled her toward him, wrapping her legs around his neck as he bent toward her feminine core, which became instantly molten and damp. His tongue licked along her crevice, teasing her swollen folds.

She smelled of both of them, and he could taste the salt tang of his own seed on her nether lips. He growled in fierce, possessive male satisfaction at the taste and the smell of her, so completely marked as his. She was making the little cries he relished, and he stiffened his tongue, stabbing it inside her. She gave a high cry, arching into his mouth, and he intensified the assault, licking into her, then away, swirling his tongue over the plump little bud of flesh at the top of her nest of curls. Buffy moaned and writhed against him, pressing her hot core into his mouth, desperate for the relief he intended to deny her until she begged.

He didn’t have long to wait. Primed by her recent orgasm, she was close to another peak, her body desperate for fulfillment. She wound her hands into his hair, trying to make him increase his pressure, and bring her off. He growled against her clit, and pulled back. She nearly wept.

"Dammit Angel!" she shouted. A nip along her thigh warned her. She relaxed the grip of her hands and stopped trying to force matters. But the delectable assault was too knowing. Her breasts were stiff and swollen, the fabric of her lacy bra irritating her tender nipples. Buffy moaned as her head tossed restlessly from side to side. He would bring her close, then move away, just as she thought she was going to go over, finding another spot to lick and nibble, until she was close again…The fourth time was too much for her.

"Angel! Please!" she sobbed. And suddenly the pressure she needed was there, his cool moist tongue forceful against her delicate flesh, a long, strong finger sliding into her slick depths, adding a delicious fullness. Buffy screamed and climaxed, bucking into his mouth, churning on his finger, body spiraling out of control. Angel sucked down her honeyed sweetness as she came for him, her body yielding to him what she herself would not. He drank in the taste of her, reveling in her complete abandonment to rapture. Let her hate him, as long as she continued to give him this. He suckled delicately on her little bud until her sobs of release turned to satisfied groans, and the tension in her body relaxed. Only when she was utterly still beneath him did he move. Angel stood up, licking delectable moisture from his face, staring down at her. She looked utterly wanton, her blond hair a damp tangle about her head, her eyes heavy lidded, her face flushed from satisfaction, her pouting mouth slightly open as she drew in breath. He quickly stripped down, then joined her on the bed.

Buffy sat up to remove her dress and slip, but evidently, she didn't move quickly enough for him. Angel pushed her hands out of the way, and lifted the garments over her head, tossing them aside. Her bra almost went the way of her panties, but he found the front clasp quickly, unhooked it, and pulled it off of her, tossing it onto the discarded dress beside the bed. Buffy was beyond caring about her clothing. She simply opened her arms and let him come into them.

She tasted herself on his mouth, and suddenly she was as wet as if she hadn't just come for him twice. She parted her legs, and moaned as he reached for her thighs, lifting her hips higher. She felt him, not at the usual entrance, but at the other, tighter opening to her body. A fresh flood of moisture trickled out of her. He had taught her to enjoy this form of sex, and she couldn't wait to feel him in her tight back passage.

Angel was too impatient to stop and find a lubricant, and Buffy wasn't objecting. Indeed, she was lifting her hips higher, rubbing the rosette opening against the head of his cock, enticing him inside. He obliged her. She moaned against his mouth as he pressed slowly forward, careful not to tear her. Her body clamped down against the intrusion, making him hiss in pleasurable pain. Then she forced her muscles to relax, and he slid further in.

Tight as her silken sheath was, this darker channel was even tighter. Angel thought he might die on the spot. He shuddered, coming to rest fully seated inside her. She whimpered, wriggling, and he began to move. Angel reached his hand between their bodies, stroking her clit in time with his thrusts into her. Her moans grew louder, the movement of her hips more frenzied. Soon, gentleness was forgotten as he slammed into her willing, yielding flesh. Suddenly, her body stiffened, and she threw her head back, crying his name as her body convulsed once more into orgasm. With a growl, he joined her, vamping out and sinking his fangs into her vulnerable throat. If anything, the spasms hugging his cock grew even more intense as a another orgasm crashed over her, building on the first. His own orgasm intensified with the spill of her salt, hot blood on his tongue, as he spilled his cold seed into her, pumping into her until she had drained him of every last drop, then collapsing over her unmoving from, still wrapped in her arms.

A few minutes later, she shifted in slight discomfort, and he gently withdrew. They continued to rest together, unspeaking and relatively content. After a while, Buffy drew away, and he let her go. She stood, looking down at him, then surprised him by extending a hand to him. Warily, he took it. She gave him a small smile, then tugged on his hand. Curious, he followed.

Buffy hadn't wanted to ruin the accord between them with words. So she said nothing, but led Angel into the bathroom. It was roomy enough. Both of them would be able to fit into the shower. She bent to adjust the water temperature. Angel raised a brow when he realized what she was up to. She wanted to shower together? Fine by him. He could think of a number of delightful ways to get both of them clean.

He quickly discovered that she had ideas of her own.

She washed him first, attentive as an houri to the faithful in paradise. Angel groaned, giving in to the sheer sybaritic, sensual pleasure of her small hands caressing over his body with the soap-covered cloth, the warmth of the water pouring over his chill flesh as she rinsed him. He grew hard in her hands when she turned her attentions to thoroughly cleaning his manhood of all traces of their most recent activity. She smiled wickedly up at him, and he smiled just as wickedly back. She took her time here, using the cloth languidly, in firm, slow strokes that had him purring. It was a good long while before she rinsed him clean, and she kept the warm water directed at him for several more delicious moments. He sighed with regret when she finally replaced the detachable shower head back on its mooring. But he was utterly unprepared when, the next moment, she sank gracefully to her knees and unhesitatingly took his rigid member into her mouth.

He had already come twice that night. He knew he could last for a long, long time.

Or, he thought he could.

She was using her hands to fondle his balls while her lips and tongue laved his shaft. One of those hands began to move inward, between his thighs, and suddenly a small, delicate finger probed lightly at his own back passage. Gasping, Angel widened his stance, letting her have better access. Unspoken permission granted, Buffy wriggled the finger gently into the opening, sucking harder on his shaft as Angel groaned his approval. She edged her finger as far inside as she could get, finding the little bump of his prostate and massaging delicately.

It had been centuries since anyone had done this to him. Sensations that were all but forgotten flooded back into his mind and body, and Angel came with a roar, pumping down Buffy's throat. She met him with enthusiasm, practically purring with pleasure, delighted with her ability to force such a response from him.

By the time she was done, it was all Angel could do to stand upright, even leaning against the cool tile of the shower, while she smirked at him, then turned to finish her own ablutions.

He regarded her thorough heavy lidded eyes, deciding that she was entirely too smug. He was going to have to fix that….

The rest of the night passed in an unending round of flesh and fulfillment. They took each other in a dozen ways, experimenting with new ideas, or returning to ones they knew from experience offered particular delights. Only as dawn approached did Buffy grow restless. Still keeping their fragile, comforting silence, Angel got out of the bed, closing the inner curtains, and drawing the heavier drapes over those. Assured that the soon-to-be-rising sun wouldn't pose a problem, he returned to the bed, where Buffy, reassured that their time together was not about to come to an end, welcomed him back eagerly.

They did not sleep until early morning, and they rose by early afternoon. Food was forgotten, unnecessary. The only hunger that mattered was the one they had for each other, and that could never be fully sated, only temporarily appeased.

Still, by the time the sun had set once more, both were close to contentment. He was resting in her arms, considering the gathering darkness outside their room, and the gathering heaviness in his heart.

He ought to go back to LA now, he realized. He had a case that could stand a brief delay, but not a long one. Too, Cordy and Wesley would question his absence. They had seen him last night, and might think nothing of his not being around this morning. If he failed to show up tonight, no telling what mischief they'd get themselves into, trying to find out if he needed rescuing. Sighing, he sat up slowly, gently disengaging Buffy's arms. She made no move to pull him back into her embrace. Part of him ached for that. He couldn't help wishing that he mattered enough to her that she would object to his leaving.

Buffy fought to remain impassive as Angel freed himself from her arms. She couldn't help wishing that she mattered enough to him that he would not want to leave until the last possible moment…or better yet, not leave at all. But there was no point in regret. Things were what they were. She supposed she should count herself lucky that they were together at all.

Angel dressed quickly, still maintaining the silence that had cocooned them. Until he was about to leave. He turned to her then, one hand hesitant on the door knob.

"The room is paid for through noon tomorrow," he told her.

"All right," she said softly. He seemed about to say something else, but closed his mouth. Almost angrily, he let go of the door knob and came back to the bed. He pulled her into his arms, kissing her fiercely, possessively. She wrapped her arms about him, and kissed him as fiercely back. He pulled away again, and looked down at her, his expression unreadable.

"See you," he said quietly, finally, and walked away, this time leaving the room and heading out into the night.

Buffy sighed and slid back under the covers. She should go back to Sunnydale, she told herself. She had packed a change of clothes. She should grab a shower, get dressed and head back.

But she wasn't going to.

She picked up the phone. A brief discussion with Giles assured her that patrol was covered. No, there weren't any dire warnings, no suspicious new demons, nothing that demanded her attention. If she wanted to take a night off, he was perfectly willing to let her. She'd call him back at eleven, after he and Xander were through with patrol, to check in? Fine. Reassured, Buffy hung up the phone.

Then she curled around the pillow that Angel had used, inhaling the lingering masculine scent of him, and wept.

So it went. Every week brought another clandestine, unplanned yet inevitable meeting. And each time there was no time for words, no thought for anything but the need for flesh and forgetfulness. If something inside them moved them to speak, to reach toward each other, something else insidiously whispered inside their minds, suggesting a thousand reasons to hold back. And because those reasons were so carefully built on all that had gone before, neither ever questioned the logic by which they were driven apart, no matter how often they were driven to be together. Publicly, they were disinterested allies. Privately, they were amorous enemies. And inside, each became a little colder, a little more bitter, with every passing encounter, until the thing beneath Sunnydale decided they would never be a threat again, and It could now focus Its attention on the real agenda.

And, because It did so, It missed stopping what happened on Buffy's twenty-ninth birthday.

 

Part 8

 

Over the course of their seemingly loveless affair, they had avoided being together on Buffy's birthday. For different reasons, the memory of their one perfect night together was entirely too painful. All that had gone wrong between them was rooted in that night, or so they each believed. But as Buffy's twenty-ninth birthday drew closer, each realized that all that had been right between them had been hallowed on that one night, as well. Each suspected that if there were ever to be a way back toward, if not the complete and unquestioning love they had shared, then at least some kind of peace, it would have to start on that night.

But each had grown far to vulnerable to simply be honest about it. Instead, Buffy groused about the approaching date and how she was getting older. Angel came back with something suitably sarcastic. They bickered, and argued. But they also made plans.

The coldness, felt even in the most heated of their embraces, was slowly killing them. And finally, each in their own way, Buffy and Angel came to understand that. It was not something they could admit to each other, but it had finally driven each to the breaking point.

Their hearts hungered for the love each was convinced the other no longer felt. They were starved of that love, and only the passion they permitted themselves could feed that particular hunger. But they came to realize that the very passion which sustained them was in fact poisoning them, that sex without love was destroying them more surely than any enemy they had ever faced.

Awkwardly, because each needed to do so as a matter of survival, not because either felt the other really cared, they began to soften towards each other.

And for once, It was too busy elsewhere to notice.

Sunnydale, 2010

She was quiet that night, remembering the one time she and Angel had made love in tenderness, exactly twelve years before. It was, she realized, the only time in her life she had actually made love, not just had sex. She had tried with both Parker and Riley, but she had never felt for them what she felt for Angel. And by the time Angel's curse was modified so that intimacy was no longer a problem, love had no longer existed between them. What they had now was sex, angry sex, and it was hot and it was satisfying and for a long time she thought it might be enough, but tonight she didn't think she could stand it if that were the only thing between them.

Neither did he. He decided he didn't care if all she wanted were angry sex. He wanted more and it was about time he got it.

She wore a simple white dress, with pearl buttons down the front, and she looked as beautiful and innocent as the first time he had ever seen her. He had worn a tux, because he had told her, in the most insulting manner possible, that he might as well show her there was life after McDonalds. She had expected the tux, and she had expected flowers. She hadn't expected her reaction to them.

There were a dozen roses, one for every year that had passed. And they were so deeply red, the petals so soft and full, they might have been cut from ruby-colored velvet. She gasped when he gave them to her, there in her apartment, and tears came to her lovely green eyes, and he pretended that they were because she still loved him as he bent to kiss her. His lips were soft on her own, almost tender, and she pretended that it was because he still loved her as she lifted herself to wrap her arms around him and the roses were set down gently on a table and ignored as dinner plans were forgotten, because it was more important that he carry her to the bedroom, more important that she keep him beside her, more important that tonight they celebrate her birthday the way they had meant to when she was seventeen, before the world and an old grudge turned them into enemies and everything that had been so right had gone so wrong.

Tonight, nothing went wrong. From the first tender kiss, to the slow, reverent undressing, sweet touches and gentle caresses followed whispered endearments. For the first time since the Oracles had swallowed their lost day, they made love, with both tenderness and hunger, all rancor and anger left aside.

Even Buffy's whispered "I love you," didn't break the spell, as Angel hoarsely whispered his own love in return, and both dared to hope that there was no pretense this time.

She was holding on to him as he delicately unfastened each pearl button, and the gentleness he was showing her, a gentleness that she could only remember having been shown one other time, was her undoing. The words broke out of her, wrenched from her heart without her volition, and she held her breath, knowing that she had just given him the most potent, deadly weapon he could possibly use against her. Tears gathered anew in her eyes as she waited for him to use it.

Angel looked at her, not quite willing to believe what he had just heard. Buffy's eyes were luminous with tears, and he decided that if it were some new game on her part, he didn't care. He needed to believe, if only for a few moments, that she really did love him the way she once had.

And maybe, just maybe, he could believe it so hard it would come true.…

"I love you too," he risked saying, and he leaned towards her, slowly, his lips just tasting hers, just sipping the sweetness.

She savored the taste of him, the gentleness. He had said he loved her, and she wanted desperately to believe it wasn't just another way of hurting her, something to be offered only to be ripped away when it would do the most damage. She realized that tonight was a turning point. This was the way things were supposed to be between them, this infinite tenderness and aching beauty. She had almost forgotten it, because she had only had it once, and so much time and bitterness had come between them before they had become lovers again.

But being lovers without love was too empty. She realized that now. Here in his arms, with Angel cherishing her the way he once had, with every touch a caress, every kiss a declaration, she knew that she simply couldn't go back to the physically satisfying but emotionally empty sex she had been making do with for years. If she couldn't have Angel's love, she didn't want anyone's. And if she couldn't have sex with love, she was no longer willing to settle for sex without it.

For tonight, it seemed she had his love, and she determined to hold onto it for as long as she could. She reached up to unfasten the tiny black buttons of his dress shirt. He had never looked so handsome, she thought.

She had never been more beautiful, he thought as he slipped the straps of the dress down her shoulders and off her arms. Even in her innocent teens, she had lacked the depth the lovely woman before him had gained. Mere girlish prettiness had given way before womanly voluptuousness. Right now, he felt humbled that he had been privileged to know both the girl and the woman, and he was determined to keep the woman with him as long as he possibly could.

His hands slid over her warm flesh, as if discovering her for the first time. Buffy pushed aside his shirt, running her own hands over the hard planes of his chest and shoulders, down his back as she held him close for another tender kiss. Slowly, because, no demons were attacking, no monsters planned the end of the world, and no wicked spells seemed to need countering, they undressed each other until nothing physical was left between them. And if there were still years of bitterness in the way, they set those aside, the moment too important to be sullied by such things.

Buffy kissed her way up his chest, licking at his tight male nipples, needing to taste him, to savor the way his flesh tasted on her tongue. He rumbled deep in his chest, a masculine purr of satisfaction as she bit lightly on the dark bits of flesh. She smiled and nipped again. He let her play, tangling his hands in the raw silk of her hair to hold her close. When she had her fill, she kissed her way further; up the strong column of his throat, along his jaw, to his mouth.

His mouth…she loved his mouth, loved the way it curled at the corner in his half smiles when he was amused. What wouldn't she give to see him really smile, to see him laugh unrestrainedly? His lips were soft on hers, gentle kisses turning more demanding; she stopped thinking and allowed him to deepen the kiss.

He was going to drown in her kisses, but not before he shattered her with pleasure. Angel pressed her into the softness of the mattress, following her down. Her thighs parted, cradling his hips, allowing his manhood to nestle against her thatch of curls. Lazily, he rolled his hips to put light, teasing pressure on her sensitive bud. Restless, she stirred against him seeking more pressure. He smiled against her mouth, his mood oddly playful.

It had never been about sex for him. He had done without sex for decades at a time, had been prepared to do without it for the rest of his unnatural life. But sex with Buffy was never simply sex, no matter how much he tried to deny it. It had always been about how badly he needed her, how he was incomplete without her, about finding redemption and renewal in her arms. That hadn't changed, and it had never been more true than right now, when he dared to hope that this time, things could be set right between them.

He didn’t want to rush things, needing this to be perfect. Buffy's breathing quickly spiraled out of control as Angel slowly tormented her into a state of desperate need. She pulled him closer, lifting her hips, trying to get him nearer to where she needed him to be. He laughed and drew away: never too far, but not letting her have what she wanted just yet. She beat on his shoulders in frustration, and he grabbed her hands, holding them over her head, leaning up to smile down at her. Her frustration dissolved in the heat of that smile, warm and sensuous as a cat's.

"Patience, little one," he said, an endearment he had not used with her for years. That alone made her forget her impatience, and she shivered, allowing him to do what he wanted.

He wanted to bathe her in kisses, so he did, trailing his lips lightly over her brow, along her temples, upon the lids of each eye and down the bridge of her nose. He kissed her cheeks and her throat and her collarbone, the gentle swell of her breasts and the sweet valley between them. And all the while his manhood brushed against her femininity, promising that this was but prelude. She sighed, offering herself to his willing mouth, dissolving in the sensual bliss of his tenderness.

Her honeyed wetness was seeping from her body. He could feel the enticing dampness on his manhood, and knew that he wouldn't be able to keep himself away from her much longer. But he wanted to taste more of her satin skin and secret flesh, so he knelt up, kissing a path down her ribs to her rounded belly to her succulent thighs. He kissed the sensitive insides until she was writhing beneath him, and he had to use a firm hand on her waist to hold her down. He chuckled at her impatience, at how easily she responded to him. Still teasing, he kissed his way down her thighs to the sensitive flesh behind each knee, sucking delicately as she whimpered in need. Down her firm calves to the high arched little feet, not letting an inch of her flesh escape his tender ministrations, until she was weeping openly, and his own need was becoming almost painful.

But he could hold out just a little longer, draw it out the tiniest bit more.

When his mouth found her hidden pearl, she sobbed, arching off the bed, tangling her hands in his hair. She was so sensitized by then, he knew she would shatter for him in just a few flicks of his tongue, the right pressure from his fingers. He opened his mouth to suck in the delicious bit of flesh, when her breathy plea changed everything.

"Angel, please. I need you inside me."

Something primal and urgent in her voice made the need not only hers but his as well. Angel quickly moved over her, into her welcoming arms, kissing her hungrily even as his manhood unerringly found the entrance and plunged within.

Buffy lifted herself to fully engulf her beloved, and for a moment, the two clung together unmoving, just savoring the feel of being locked together, of the rightness of it, the completion of it.

And then, because their bond and synchronicity had only grown stronger over time, at the same instant, they began to move.

He slowly pulled out of her, until only the velvet tip of his manhood was still sheathed inside her. She tightened around him to draw him back. Slowly at first, their tongues following the same rhythm as their bodies, they celebrated the reunion of their hearts.

Angel shivered as she rippled around him, silken wet warmth intimately caressing his cock. Buffy gasped as he filled her, her body yielding around him, surrendering to the glorious sensations he created inside her. Together they sought out each nuance of sensation, each aspect of rapture, relearning the face of ecstasy that had been revealed to them once before.

Gradually, as her pleasure climbed higher and his own needs clamored for release, Angel picked up the pace. With a sigh of rapture Buffy met him, tilting her hips just a bit to bring him more deeply into her. Angel groaned, bracing himself up on his forearms, so that he could thrust harder, taking care to ensure that each strong, steady stroke hit her most sensitive inner tissues, building her need…as she built his, hips gliding up to meet his thrusts, rolling to add another twist to their mutual pleasure, her body opening to accept him more completely than ever. He growled deep in his throat, primal male possessiveness making him want to lay a final claim to her, to take her completely, to mark her as his. Angel's strokes increased in tempo and power. Crooning her delight, Buffy responded, running her hands feverishly up and down his back, surging against him, encouraging him to make her completely his. Closer they came, and closer, a firestorm of passion twelve years in the making breaking over them both. And yet, no matter how violent their need of each other, how forceful the physical expression they gave it, there was still, over and above it all, that aching tenderness and sublime beauty.

The firestorm approached rapidly, burning all before it, ensuring that nothing afterward could be the same between them. He felt the frenzy begin deep inside her, as she trembled in his arms, shattering for him in wave after wave of completion in which he was caught up, shaken in the storm, burying himself repeatedly in her silken flesh, his seed pouring into her in a cool flood of rapture which somehow intensified her own. In the height of her pleasure she broke their passionate kisses, calling his name. He frenziedly recaptured her mouth, drinking down her cries as he drank down the taste of her. She clung to him, her body no longer her own, but a vessel with which to express her love for him. Together, they endured the fires burning along their nerves and consuming their flesh. Together, they reached heights of rapture neither had ever imagined before, and sustained each other at those heights for long ecstatic moments of unrivaled bliss. And, together, they returned from those heights, coming to rest safely in the shelter of each other's arms.

So it went through the night. They made love endlessly, repeatedly, until the darkness was fled and dawn lightened the sky. Then Buffy shut the blinds and pulled heavy curtains over them, sealing out the killing daylight and returning to her lover's arms. Wrapped around each other in a sweet tangle of limbs, they fell into the deepest, most restful sleep either had experienced in twelve long years.

When It realized what had happened, It panicked. It tried to send more dreams, but It couldn’t reach them. This was bad. Fretful, It settled down to wait, knowing It would have to be very, very careful, now.

Fortunately for It, the past ten years had given It plenty of options, had sown the fields of distrust and fear so that there was a harvest of bitterness to work with. It started almost as soon as they opened their eyes.

Buffy found herself smiling into Angel's eyes and his returning smile…until she remembered the way she had declared her love to him, leaving herself vulnerable to him as never before. What had she done? Had his own declaration been real, or a vicious mockery?

Her smile had faded as soon as she woke up. Had it all been a sham, a way to get him in the last vulnerable place left to him?

Misunderstandings followed as inevitably as the unfolding of a Greek tragedy. Angel grabbed up his clothing and stormed out of her apartment, telling her he had had it with her games, and that he was through being her lap dog. She needed him to save the world? Fine. He'd be there. She needed him to save her ass? Too damned bad.

She told him his own ass wasn't worth the price of the phone call Cordy would make for him, and that she didn't need his help to save the world, either. He slammed the door shut and she gathered the roses to throw after him…but instead held them to her chest as she rocked back and forth, sobbing in despair…not knowing that Angel was braced on the other side of the door, weeping like the lost soul he was.

But It had learned Its lesson, and wasted no time moving ahead with the ultimate plan.

Outwardly, nothing much changed. If Giles and Cordy noticed that Buffy and Angel were each a bit more subdued than usual, they put it down to other problems. Giles thought the dead end on the Slayer prophecies was likely getting to Buffy as her thirtieth birthday loomed ahead. Cordy figured that Angel was just down because with Wolfram and Hart out of the picture, demonic activity in LA was at a record low, and his new cases were almost all mundane investigations an ordinary PI could handle. Her seer's visions had been coming less and less frequently, while almost all of Angel's new clients found their way to him by word of mouth. His mission to redeem himself was, by sheer body count, all but complete, as far as Cordy could tell.

So the final vision knocked her on her ass both by its power and the subject matter. And as she staggered up from the floor, heading for the bottle of aspirin she was pretty sure was still left in the medicine cabinet, she was very grateful that Angel hadn't been around when it had struck.

Because the message she had received wasn't for him, but for Rupert Giles.

"They've been what?"

"Lovers," Cordy repeated, as she reached for another cup of tea. She didn't particularly like tea, but she was still recovering from the vision that had compelled her to make the two-hour drive to Sunnydale that morning. "Except without the love. Just lots of down and dirty sex and may I just say EWW??? I so did not need to have those images burned into my brain! Scarred for life, here!" She dumped a packet of sugar substitute into her tea and took a large gulp.

"Cordelia, you have been married to Wesley for three years now. I had imagined that you would be--ah, unmoved?--by…er…displays of…of..." He gave it up as she looked at him crossly, and returned to the important point. "Buffy and Angel have been, ah, intimate, again?"

"For years, Giles. Gees! Get with the program. Yes. Buffy and Angel. Who hate each other. And who apparently can't keep their hands off each other, anyway. Why are you so surprised? They couldn't keep their hands off each other when it might have meant the return of Angelus, the Serial Killer and the End of the Entire World. Why should they let a little thing like the fact that they hate each other's guts get in the way?"

"Well, yes but," Giles paused, frowning. Cordelia's words had started him thinking, and an idea was forming in his mind. "Cordelia," he said slowly, "why do they hate each other?" She looked at him as if he had lost his mind.

"Because Buffy hurt him when she called him a blood sucking fiend when Riley got injured helping him?"

"Yes," Giles continued as the idea began to take shape. "And doesn't it strike you as a trifle odd that Angel would hold that against her for so long? Or that she would even say such a thing to him in the first place?"

"Well of course it doesn't strike me as….Oh. Wait. Actually, it does." Cordy put down her cup of tea, thinking back. "I remember that I couldn’t believe it when he told me what she had said. I wanted to come back to Sunnydale and deck her myself. But I didn't hate her for it, just thought she was being more of a bitka than usual, like the time after the Master's death. I thought it would pass. Then, when he didn't go to her to fight those demons…I mean, sure, I knew he was hurting, but he was so indifferent, telling me that the world would go on without her, that another Slayer would be called. It wasn't until later that I realized how lucky we had all been, how if she hadn't stopped those demons, the whole town would have been overrun that night, and the Hellmouth would probably have been opened at last. But Angel never even thought about it…and until it no longer mattered, neither did I. Even then, I just thought…I didn't think. I just accepted."

"As we all did," Giles said thoughtfully. "Every one of us, although we knew how deeply they had loved each other, knew the price each had paid in suffering and loss for that love…we all just accepted it would come to an end with a few heedless words."

"God, Giles," Cordy whispered, eyes round, "What were we thinking? And, what' s going on?"

"First off, I'd say we weren't thinking. And as to what's going on…well, I suppose that's why that vision you had was directed to me. Obviously your Powers think I know something that will be useful."

"Cool," said Cordy. "So…what do you know?"

They decided to leave Buffy and Angel out of it. The situation was volatile enough. Until they knew why the lovers were being driven apart, it was best to keep them in the dark. Acting prematurely might simply force things in the wrong direction, arousing suspicions and angers no one could allay just now. Meanwhile, Willow, Tara, Xander, Anya, Cordy and Wesley went over all the events of the past twelve years, trying to make sense of what was going on.

"It's no use," Giles declared at last. "We haven't gotten anywhere in months, and I've spent far too much time away from Buffy's birthday prophecies. I might as well give up on them all together.

"Buffy's Birthday Prophecies?" Tara questioned. Briefly, Giles filled them in, reading the excerpts from the Metzynsk Tablets, the Compton Scrolls, the Tarquinia Fragment, and the entire text of what had been written by the Tibetan Buddhist Nun.

"Well, I don’t know about circles," Willow said of the Tarquinia Fragment. "Could it mean rings?"

"I suppose. Although I don't see how that would make a difference," Giles said.

"Because rings thrice blessed could mean rings that are exchanged as a promise, you know, the way wedding rings are blessed by a priest. This shield person may have to exchange rings with Buffy."

"You mean marry her?" Anya asked interestedly.

"Not a marriage in the usual sense," Giles said thoughtfully. "But a union of sorts, I suppose, the uniting of the Warrior and her Shield. And if a formal declaration is made, as it seems is required, the exchange of rings in token of that declaration could very well be a part of a ritual," Giles agreed. "And Buffy does wear a lot of rings."

"Yeah, but not blessed ones," Cordy pointed out.

"Perhaps the Shield will provide the blessed rings," Wesley mused, hunting for another volume, this one on mystic artifacts, such as rings. Before he uncovered it, Cordy asked another question.

"And what's all that stuff that gets traded?"

"Gets…? Oh, invincibility and immutability," Giles said as he took the book Wesley handed him. "Umm. Undefeatable and unchangeable. I haven't a clue what it means."

"You haven't?" Cordy asked in shock. "Hello? Only Slayer to make it to twenty-nine? Undefeatable, much? And Angel? Two hundred and fifty-some years after Darla put the bite on him and he hasn't aged a day? No change there!"

"Oh. Bloody. Hell," Rupert Giles said as rather a lot of things clicked into place at once. "Of course. The Slayer who lives to be thirty is supposed to take the fight against evil from our own dimension into the heart of Hell itself. But how could she do that if she were simply a mortal girl, er, woman? Invincibility immutability trading…And how could even an immortal vampire shield her against all the evils of the demon dimension if he were still vulnerable to sunlight, stake and holy water? Somehow, Buffy has to acquire Angel's unchanging nature, and he has to acquire her ability to win every combat."

"And then he has to vow to protect her against every evil she will ever face," Willow added, excited.

"Man, we are in deep, deep trouble," Xander offered. The others looked at him, puzzled. He couldn't believe they were being this obtuse. "Angel doesn't even want to see her, let alone vow to protect her. I'd say that something nasty figured the prophecy out before we did, and has been doing it's best to screw things up."

"Which means that the prophecy could go unfulfilled, and Buffy wouldn’t become a super weapon on her thirtieth birthday," Giles said grimly. "Instead, she would die, and the fight against evil would suffer a blow from which it might never recover."

"We've got to tell them," Willow said, frightened.

"And we've also got to figure out what's been keeping them apart," Cordy added. "Because the way things have been going between those two for the past ten years, I don't think they will believe this, even if we tell them."

Unfortunately, she was right.

 

Part 9

 

"There has to be another interpretation," Buffy said flatly when her friends tried to tell her what was going on. "Giles, you said yourself that prophecies often don't make sense until the events surrounding them unfold."

"Very true. But it seems to us that some of those events are unfolding. Buffy, you can't just dismiss the interpretation of yourself as the Invincible and Angel as both the Immutable and your destined Shield."

"Yes, actually I can," she argued. "I'm not invincible, Giles. I never was. I lost to the Master, but Xander pulled me out of the water and gave me a chance to go after him again. Even before that…Catherine Madison would have killed me if you hadn't reversed the spell turning my blood to pure alcohol. God, I could list battle after battle where Buffy was Burnt Toast until one of you stepped in. Even Cordelia, with the fire hose, when they were doing the book-and-witch burning thing at city hall."

"Or when Angel saved you from the Judge, or kept that vampire from you while you were an 18th century noble woman, or pulled the Tarakan assassin off of you in the skating rink or--"

"You've made your point, Willow," Buffy said tightly.

"No, I haven't," Willow said, "Because you are still angry, still resisting. Buffy, something is very wrong here. You and Angel loved each other in a way most of us only dream about. I mean, look at you! Even now when you claim you hate each other you can't keep apart. You have got to take this seriously. You have got to at least consider the possibility that something is behind your anger, that something really, really evil wants to keep you two apart because together, you can accomplish something really, really good."

Buffy frowned, a memory tickling the edge of her mind. Together, you were--

They don't understand, a sudden whisper reassured her. They don't realize that even if he has a soul, Angel is still a vampire, still capable of things no human would ever do. They can't solve the prophecy and they are grasping at straws. Go along with it. But don't pay it any mind. Buffy smiled sweetly.

"Okay. I'll give what you're saying some thought. Maybe Angel is supposed to be this shield thingy, and we are supposed to exchange rings." An image of her lost claddagh rose in her mind, and she gasped in remembered pain. She recovered quickly and went on, before the others noticed. "And so I guess…what? We call him and have the LA bunch over for tea?"

"Not a bad idea," Giles said, pleased that she seemed disposed to be reasonable.

Angel proved unreasonable enough for both of them.

"If you truly think I'm immutable," he said, hurt, "then everything I've done for the past ten years has been meaningless."

"Angel, we know you've changed spiritually," Wesley reassured him. "The Powers That Be would never have anchored your soul again if you hadn't made large strides in your fight to redeem yourself."

"But you are physically immutable," Giles pointed out. "You heal from most wounds within moments. Even serious injuries fade as if they never happened. And you haven't aged since Darla turned you two and half centuries ago. You are about as immutable, physically, at least, as a living creature can be."

"I'm not living," he pointed out.

"Not in the usual sense, no," Giles agreed. "But you aren't dead in the usual sense, either. And that is rather my point. You are uniquely qualified to fit the prophecy. I don't really see any other interpretation."

Angel looked at the girl--woman, he corrected himself--who was the focus of this discussion. She stared solemnly back, clearly uncomfortable with what the others were trying to tell them. Buffy was nearly thirty, now, and more beautiful than ever, fulfilling the promise of beauty that had only been hinted at in her teen years. She had lost the baby fat years ago, almost as soon as he met her, and she had been one of the most gorgeous young women he had ever seen. Her current beauty beggared that, if it were possible. She was more rounded, lush as a painting by Botticelli, her skin was as pure and translucent as porcelain, and her green eyes…a man could fall into those eyes and drown there, losing all sense of who he was, all sense of anything but her…could lose his very soul…

"There has to be another interpretation," he said firmly. Buffy turned away from him.

"That's what I said," she agreed quietly.

"Gees, will the two of you lose the stubborn and just listen," Cordy said, annoyed. "Okay. Maybe there's another interpretation, which six hundred years of Watchers couldn't come up with and which none of us can figure out. Maybe there's this big old coven of warriors for good running around that we've never heard of, and they are going to arrive in Sunnydale just in time for Buffy's birthday, and one of them is going to give her a ring and go off with her to Hell and you can go back to brooding for another two and a half centuries and everything will be just fine. But just in the really small and unlikely chance that that doesn't happen, the two of you need to be prepared."

"Prepared for what?" Buffy asked tiredly.

"Prepared to exchange rings," Cordy said bluntly. "Prepared to put aside your mad and work together, not just for a few hours, but for…as long as it takes. And Angel, you have to be prepared to swear to protect her." Cordy's voice softened, knowing how much her words would sting. "The way you used to, without needing to swear." Angel and Buffy exchanged uneasy glances…and it was too much. Buffy broke away first, turning to the others in the room. She could see the struggle going on inside him, and it hurt, knowing that even if the others were proved correct and he was her destined shield, that any oaths he took would be bitterly reluctant ones. He would agree to protect her only because she was a weapon for good…not because he cared anything about her personally. Hell, personally, he was probably one of the things she needed protection from.

Angel had felt himself hovering on the brink…until she turned away, her own disdain made clear. He opened his mouth to speak, instead shook his head and stormed out of Giles home without another word.

She felt the cool air on her back as he opened the door, and she knew that she had been right. Buffy closed her eyes, then shook off the momentary weakness. An old memory surfaced and she smiled wryly, finding the energy to turn back to the gang and give them a light response.

"'Prophecies are tricky beasts,'" she told them as the Master had told her, so long ago. "This one is bound to have meanings we haven't guessed at."

"Buffy, we can't just leave it like this," Willow pleaded softly. "We have to do something!"

"No, Will, you don't," Buffy said firmly, sure of something for the first time in what felt like ages. "You guys have done everything you can do. I'm the one who has to do something now."

"Go after Angel?" Cordy said hopefully. Buffy threw her a sad smile.

"No, Cord. I just have to turn thirty." And with that, she, too, left Giles house and walked off into the night.

Desperately hoping things weren't as bad as they looked, the gang kept researching. Within days, they all came to the conclusion that things were every bit as bad as they looked. Reluctantly, Giles informed his contacts in the Watchers Council of the dire turn of events. As far as he could tell, if the Prophecies were true, the Slayer was going to turn thirty without fulfilling them, and the world would lose its opportunity to truly turn the tables on evil.

When the Traditionalists intercepted the message, they decided that desperate times called for desperate measures. After all, the Prophecy concerned a Slayer who reached thirty. If the Summers woman didn't reach thirty, the Prophecy would have to apply to another Slayer, a Slayer who would be more malleable, more amenable to her duties. They grabbed the excuse to justify their top-secret assembly of the hit squad that would ensure that Buffy Summers didn't get to see her thirtieth birthday.

LA, 2011

Angel was getting drunk. If he could just stay drunk for another forty-eight hours, everything would be fine. Buffy's thirtieth birthday would be over, the prophecy would be fulfilled, and she would no longer be his problem. She would be off in the demon dimension with some other poor sap who thought she needed protection, fighting evil…and leaving him the hell alone.

Alone. He had been alone for two and a half centuries, and no matter how fond he had become of Cordy and Wesley, only one person had ever been able to really ease that loneliness…Angel pushed the thought away and took another drink. All she did was leave you lonelier than ever, the comforting whisper came. That was right. Buffy had taken his heart, stomped on it, cut it into pieces and thrown it back into his face. He hated her so much, he trembled with rage at the mere mention of her name.

…hate each other 'til it makes you quiver…

Angel frowned, trying to remember who had said that and when. Doesn't matter. Old memories, best left in the past. The future will be here soon enough. That's what you should be thinking about. The future… Right. A future without Buffy Summers. Angel gasped with the pain of that thought. He wouldn't think about that, either, he decided, lifting the bottle to pour himself another drink, and deciding that he'd skip the glass and just finish off the bottle…

...which Wesley twisted out his hands.

"You had bloody well sober up bloody quickly," the Englishman said in the most furious and determined voice Angel could ever recall hearing him use. "Because we have got real trouble here, old man."

"Demons?" Angel said, shaking his head to clear it, and discovering that that was a huge mistake as the room seemed to spin nauseatingly around him.

"Almost as bad," Wesley told him, handing him a cold cloth that Cordelia had wisely fetched from the bathroom when she saw the shape Angel was in. "Watcher's Council."

As the room steadied, Angel looked at his helpers incredulously and burst out laughing.

"The WC? What could that bunch of old maids possibly--"

"They've sent a team of assassins after Buffy," Cordy said.

Angel looked at her, the alcoholic fumes dissipating as the anger that name always evoked cleared his mind.

"More fools they," he shrugged, grabbing the bottle back from Wesley. This time it was Cordy who snatched it out of his grip, showing her own temper by flinging the bottle into a wall."

"You stupid, arrogant bastard!" she screamed at him. "Do you know what it cost to get this message to you? A man bled to death in my arms, Angel, and I couldn't stop it! I couldn't keep him from dying! He and three others fought their way out of Council headquarters --which, by the way, is in the midst of a revolution bloodier than the Reign of Terror. The four of them tried to make it here to the states to warn us. And they had something they said would be crucial, something they said had been recovered from the demon dimension of Hell, something only you could use. Only one of them lived to get it here. Just long enough to get it here."

She held out a small black box. "I don't know what it is or why it's important," Cordy said. "But people are dying, here Angel. And if your redemption is worth anything at all…you can't let that happen."

"No," Angel said as the truth hit home. "I can't." He got unsteadily to his feet, and came around to the front of the desk, taking the box from Cordy's hand. He opened it.

It hadn't been particularly elaborate or expensive. He hadn't wanted to frighten her with anything too obviously permanent. So there were probably a million of them floating around the world, each indistinguishable from the other.

But he knew in his aching soul that this was the one, which he had never thought to see again.

The claddagh he had given Buffy on her seventeenth birthday.

"They recovered this from the demon dimension?" Angel said now, wondering how it had gotten there, as a vague memory stirred.

"Sutcliffe, the man who got that to us, wasn't terribly lucid, poor chap," Wesley said. "But I gather this was used as some sort of key to open a portal into Hell, for some reason. And once it opened that portal, it was lost. He said he and a few others realized it had to be there and used a spell to get it back. But he wasn't clear about why they thought it was important. He insisted you would know. Do you?"

"I think so," Angel said, closing his hand about the bit of silver. "Call Giles," he tossed over his shoulder as he headed for the elevator to his apartment. "Warn him about what's happening. If there's out and out warfare in the Council and they've sent a team after Buffy, we have to pull out all the stops. You guys ready to roll?"

"Well, no, I haven't packed--," Cordy began, following him toward the elevator while Wesley made the phone call to Sunnydale.

"No time. We'll buy what you need there," Angel called up to her as the elevator began its descent.

"And what are you doing going back to your apartment if not packing?" she demanded angrily.

"Fulfilling a prophecy," he said, stepping out of the elevator, and heading for his bureau. He hadn't looked at in years, not since he had taken it off in pain and anger nearly eleven years ago. But he knew exactly where it was. He shoved aside the old letters and the few other mementos he'd kept. Before he found it, his hand brushed across something else, and he spared a few precious seconds to pull out the object and look at it. The photograph was worn because in that first year in LA, he had spent endless hours just staring at it, hiding it in a book so that Doyle, and later Cordy and Wesley, wouldn't know how deeply he missed her. Buffy at eighteen, taken after he had returned from hell…

Returned because she had set her claddagh down in the spot in which she had sent him to Hell, her love strong enough to call him back from there, his love strong enough to call him back to sanity…

Maybe she wasn't worth the love he had poured out on her so unstintingly. Maybe he wasn't either, if it came to that. But the world deserved better than to lose its strongest champion just because that champion was a selfish little bitch and her lover a bloodsucking fiend. Hell, maybe they deserved each other. With an ironic grimace, Angel put aside the photograph and found what he was looking for, tossed into a corner of his bureau drawer. His hand closed over the cool metal, and he drew it out. He stared at the two bits of metal in the palm of his large hand, the matched pair of claddagh which he had never had the courage to tell her the complete truth about. He told her that his people had exchanged them as signs of affection. He had neglected to mention that the exchanges had been very specific and very formal declarations of affection, or that, in his time, the claddagh were wedding bands.

When he had come across them in the antique jewelry store, the elderly shopkeeper said they had belonged to distant relatives.

"And you'd think they would have wanted to be buried with them," the shopkeeper said, smiling. "But Cousin Maeve said that would be like burying the happiness. She said the rings had blessed three happy marriages that she knew of; her great-grandaunt's being the first, and her grandparents --my great-grandparents-- the second. She said they were an eternal symbol of love and that once they were reunited in Heaven, she and Colm wouldn't have any need for symbols. She wanted to know that they blessed another union as hers had been blessed."

"She didn't want to give them to her own children?" Angel asked.

"Maeve's children were already married and happy. Claimed she had a dream in which her great grand aunt and our Gran said that it was time to share the happiness with those outside the family, that the rings should be allowed to bless someone else's happiness. So, knowing that I was keen on setting up my own shop and dealing with old things, she thought that this might be the very place to put them, when the time came, which it did. God rest her, Maeve has been gone more than sixty years now, buried next to her Colm in County Cork."

"You brought these from Ireland?" Angel had been amazed.

"Aye. More than fifty years ago, during the War."

"Something like this," Angel said, "is very special. You should only sell them to someone who appreciates that." He wasn't sure he qualified, but he couldn’t help look at the simple silver bands longingly.

The shopkeeper chuckled.

"Those rings have been in my shops, in County Cork, and in New York and finally here in LA, for more than sixty years, young man. I've moved more merchandise through those shops than I can remember. But one thing I can remember, is everyone who has ever shown an interest in those rings."

"I get engaged couples, every now and then, looking for something special. And I always show them these rings, and even the ones who know what a claddagh is look right past them to the fancier rings, or to something just as plain but a bit different. Once in a while a young man or a young woman will even come in looking specifically for a claddagh but they never settle on this pair."

"What are you saying?" Angel asked.

"You almost walked by my shop, but you hesitated. And you walked in and asked that I show you rings, something for a young lady, you said. But when I got out the tray, your eyes went right over the other rings, and lit on this pair, these plain bits of silver. There are other rings in here, lovely pieces any young lady would adore. There are even other claddagh. But you saw this pair and you didn't even notice anything else. So the only real question is…this young lady, just how special is she to you?"

Angel had smiled, the question had been so easy.

"The most special person in the world," he had said, knowing he had found the perfect gift for his beloved.

She was still his beloved, he finally admitted to himself. If her thoughtless remarks all those years ago had shown him how thin the line was between love and hate, had made him cross over it, he had long ago crossed back. Even if he hated her, the stubborn love refused to completely die.

And in the end, he couldn't really let her die, either. He put the two rings into the box, grabbed a fresh shirt and his duster, dressing as he walked back to the elevator. Wesley was still on the phone when Angel returned to the offices.

"That was quick," Cordy said, and Angel realized he had only been gone one or two minutes.

"I found what I needed right away." As Angel spoke, Wesley hung up the phone, his expression grim.

"Buffy's already had one visit from the assassins. Giles was getting ready to call me. He's trying to keep Buffy from doing anything foolish, but she's furious and she wants to take the fight to them."

"And he's trying to keep her under wraps until her birthday passes and the danger is over," Angel guessed.

"Yes," Wesley nodded.

"You'd think he'd know better by now," Angel sighed, shrugging into his duster. "Let's go."

He pushed the speed limit all the way to Sunnydale, but it was still too late.

"They grabbed Joyce," Giles said.

"We should have anticipated that," Wesley said.

"We did," Giles said. "Buffy sent her out of town. The bastards intercepted her."

"How long ago did Buffy leave?" Angel demanded.

"Less than half an hour."

"Where is she?"

Giles told him all he knew.

"Stay here," he told the others. "There's nothing you can do but get in the way, now. The Council assassins are deadly, and they are the kind of fanatics who can justify murder and torture in their own minds because they think they are serving the 'greater good'." Reluctantly, the gang did as he --and Buffy before him-- had asked.

Less than half an hour…

Angel knew he might be too late. If Buffy just walked in to their set-up, expecting them to honor their bargain, she and Joyce might be dead before he could get there. Angel hoped to God she was still too sharp for that.

The crash of a large table through a window, Joyce fleeing out the front door of the long-abandoned school building reassured him that she was.

"Where is she?" he stopped Joyce long enough to ask.

"The old library," Joyce gasped out. He laughed. Right over the Hellmouth. He should have realized…

"Go to Giles," he told Joyce, "Everyone's there. They'll take care of you." He started to head off, but Joyce reached for his arm, restraining him.

"You'll help Buffy?" she said, mindful of the estrangement between the two. Angel smiled at her ruefully.

"Count on it," he said. She looked him in the eyes, and seemed satisfied by whatever she saw there. Joyce let him go.

Angel raced into the building, unerringly following hallways he could still remember, despite the fallen masonry and dust from demolition that had, for one reason or another, been constantly delayed. He found himself on the balcony, overlooking the scene as Buffy punched and kicked her way through a wave of assassins that kept coming. He wondered why one didn't just use a gun, saw the telltale infrared light on her temple an instant before she moved to counter another blow, and knew he had his answer. He located the source, diving off the balcony to take out the sharpshooter before his aim got any better.

They were prepared. They had crosses. He howled and retreated…just far enough to pick up the remnant of a chair and toss it at the nearest assassin, who went down, cross and all. A side kick to another assassin took a second cross out of the picture, and three other assassins had their hands full with Buffy. Angel spun, finishing off the sixth assassin, and sprinting across the room to pull one of the other assailants off of her. He roared in pain as a vial of holy water exploded across his chest, but his clothing absorbed the worst of it, and he gritted his teeth against the agony, knocking yet another cross out of the way as he grabbed his assailant and twisted his neck. He turned back to Buffy, just as she dropped the last man. She looked over at Angel, and he noticed she had grown thin again, though not as thin as before.

"You need to get out of that shirt," she said calmly. "It'll just keep burning you until the holy water dries." He was already stripping out of it.

"You need to do something, too," he said fishing the box out of his pocket.

"Like, get out of this crumbling heap before it collapses and we find ourselves inside the Hellmouth?"

"That too," he agreed, pulling out the rings and striding over to her as he shrugged back into his duster. Distantly, he heard a clock chime, and realized it was midnight…and Buffy Summers thirtieth birthday. Time was running out.

"Put this on," he said gruffly, reaching for her hand. She let him take it, but her eyes widened when she saw what he held, recognizing it instantly.

"Is this your idea of a sick joke?" she said in a strangled voice, snatching her hand back.

"Buffy, "he snarled, grabbing her and trying to hold her still despite her struggles, "there isn't time..."

And there wasn't. Just then, the weakened floor collapsed beneath them, and they fell, not just through the basement, where Xander had had his long ago confrontation with Jack, or through the stone foundations, split apart by the bombs Buffy had used against the Mayor, foundations under which the Mama Bezoar had once hibernated. They plunged beneath all manmade structures, which had been weakened by time and exposure to the elements; through to a cavern lying just above the entrance to Hell, where something that had taken on the form of Jenny Calendar impatiently awaited their arrival.

"No," the First told them pleasantly as they landed in front of Its throne, Angel having instinctively twisted his body to cushion Buffy's fall. "There isn't any time at all."

 

Part 10

 

Smiling, It lifted Its hand, and a bolt of pure energy headed toward the pair…who rolled in separate directions, avoiding the bolt. The First frowned, more annoyed than worried. "You can't keep dodging the bullet," It said, raising Its other hand and shooting out two bolts at once. Vampire and Slayer managed another dodge, both ending up behind an outcropping of rock. Angel wasted no time, grabbing Buffy's hand.

"Stop it!" she hissed, trying to pull her hand free. Prepared, he simply tightened his grip and began shoving the claddagh onto her ring finger, the heart pointing toward her. "Stubborn wench," he snarled back. "I swear I'm going to protect you forever if it kills both of us!"

Buffy's eyes flashed in anger. The feel of the silver was achingly familiar, as if it had not been thirteen years since she had taken it from her hand, only one day after he had given it to her. Part of her wanted to hold the ring to her heart, and never remove it again. But another part wanted to rip it off and stuff it down Angel's throat.

Not an option, right now.

"Don't argue," he growled handing her his and holding out his hand expectantly. She glared at him, just as a bolt of energy took off the top of their shelter. Ducking, Buffy snatched his hand and pushed the ring onto his finger.

"Guess I'm gonna protect you right back," she groused. A second bolt took out the rest of the outcrop, but Angel had rolled with her again, shielding her body with his own, taking the diffuse edge of the blast…which singed his duster and left the disturbing scent of charred leather in the air.

"That was too close," Buffy hissed. "We have to take the battle to It." Angel nodded agreement, and as ever, their synchronicity helped them do what had to be done.

The emerged at either end of the cavern, so that the First Evil would have to divide Its attention between them. The First laughed in delight.

"You didn't think that was the only weapon I had, did you?" It purred. "For two such preternatural beings as yourselves? Oh, no, nothing but the best preternatural weapons money could buy--not that I have any use for money, but you get the point. Nothing but the best for you two.

"Gee, you really shouldn't have bothered," Buffy said, circling in closer, ready to spring away if she needed to. She saw out of the corner of her eye that Angel was doing the same.

The First seemed unconcerned. "It's amazing, but despite all the changes in technology down through the millennia--with metal forging and magic swords and silver bullets and split atoms--the best way to take out a vampire is still with a sharpened piece of wood. You probably don't realize this, because it happens so quickly, but different kinds of wood have different effects on vampires. Stake them with one kind, and they feel no pain, they just explode. Stake them with another, and the few seconds they have left are spent in the most exquisite agony as their hearts burn up inside them. You can guess my preference in all this, can't you? Oak and ash are best, although there's something to be said for Rowan."

"I prefer Mr. Pointy," Buffy said, eyes narrowing as the First allowed her to move closer. "Gets the job done."

"So will this," the First said, as It lifted a spear into Its hand, and stood up from Its throne. "Silver can't really hurt vampires, but it makes the entrance easier. So that the three woods that went into making this thing can all do their part."

"That's your weapon?" Buffy smirked. "Oh, please. I can snatch it out of the air before it gets anywhere near Angel's heart."

"You know, I just bet you could," the First agreed pleasantly. "If it were just an ordinary spear, your Slayer reflexes would probably be enough to blow all my plans out of the water." Its voice hardened, the stolen features of Jenny Calendar twisting in anger. "Pay attention, little girl. Preternatural weapons. Once this thing is aimed, no force between heaven and hell can stop it from driving through the heart. It will ignore stone and steel, flesh and bone, until it tastes heart's blood…which it is going to do right now." It drew Its arm back for the throw.

So, this is how it ends, Buffy thought, oddly calm, as Angel straightened and stepped forward, almost as if he welcomed an end to his bitter existence. She hated him so much, she could only be glad….

The First brought Its arm forward, sending the spear flying straight and true.

Except that Buffy was Slayer quick, quicker even than ensorcelled silver, and in the split second between the First Evil drawing back Its arm and hurling the spear, Buffy had come face to face with what it would really mean to her to watch Angel die again, and why it was she hated him so fiercely.

In an instant…

She was a step away from him, and it was the easiest thing in the world to simply step in front of him and present the spear with another target, another heart's blood to taste…

And seeing her do it, realizing that her hatred of him never had been and never would be as strong as her love, the last of his own hatred evaporated like steam from a hot grill and he screamed her name in protest, moving forward, trying to lift her and hurl her out of the way…

…which was how the spearhead pierced both hearts at once, carrying Buffy's living human blood into Angel's undead heart, and allowing his own unliving blood to seep into hers.

Love isn't brains, children, it's blood…

In an instant…

When the lost becomes found

Why didn't you ever tell me about chocolate and peanut butter? Buffy's eyes widened, the pain of returning memory outweighing the merely physical pain of the silver piercing her heart.

as hearts blood is blending

The rush of blood from both wounds quickened, as the memories Angel had carried in his blood were restored to Buffy.

that the broken is bound

The spear still transfixed them, they could not have pulled apart from each other, and they, who had been broken apart by a misguided curse and foolish misunderstanding fostered by a malevolent will, were bound together once more.

and unstrained is unending

Angel groaned softly. He had been too late to save Buffy, too late to save either of them, and he had allowed the last few years of their lives to be wasted in bitterness. Giles had warned him, had told him how deeply he regretted not having forgiven Jenny earlier, had missed the chance to reconcile with her. Angel was on the verge of missing his chance, too, and he understood, suddenly, what the female Oracle had meant. She had been referring to the same play, the same speech, Giles had quoted. Portia, in The Merchant of Venice: "The quality of mercy is not strained, but falleth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath…"

"Oh, God, Buffy, I'm so sorry," Angel said.

She could not turn to see him, but she could hear in his voice, could feel in the way his body curved around hers, as if to offer comfort and protection, the way his arms came up to gently wrap around her waist, to enfold her in his restored and renewed love. He had forgiven her, as she now forgave him.

"I'm sorry, too" she told him, her face wet with tears. "I love you, so much."

"I love you, too."

The Invincible the Immutable aiding

She had been invincible, winning every battle she had ever fought, despite the price of desperate pain and heartache she had all too often paid for her triumphs. He had been immutable, unchanging since the moment Darla's blood infected him two and a half centuries before. And in stepping before the spear, the Invincible had come to the aid of the Immutable.

Invincibility immutability trading

The conditions of the prophecy had been met. Now, the consequences could unfold. The First Evil, seeing what was about to happen began screaming in utterly impotent rage.

New vampires were made in the exchange of blood, but Angel was no ordinary vampire, and neither he nor Buffy had fed from the other. And they had once again exchanged their claddagh, rings which had been blessed by priests performing the sacrament of marriage thrice before. As their blood commingled, his did not dominate and change her. Instead, their natures commingled: altering, synchronizing, blending.

He felt his heart beat.

"Buffy…"

She could feel it, too, a strong, sudden rhythm in the body behind her. Tears of pain became tears of joy. And spent, the mystic weapon pinning them together began to dissolve in the mystic marriage of their blood.

Not until it was gone did they realize that the change was working both ways. Buffy gasped as she felt the spearhead dissolve, looked down at the ruin of her blouse to see the impossible, her wound closing over the gaping hole in her breast. The First was a howling wreck twisting in fury on Its throne. Buffy ignored It, concerned with more important matters. She turned in the circle of her lover's arms, looking up into his face, seeing both his love for her and his confusion at what was happening.

"What's going on?" she asked.

"I'm not sure. The spear didn't go all the way through me. The silver head pierced my heart, but the wooden shaft was in yours. That's why I'm not dust. Now…I feel my heart beat…but it's not like the last time, with the Mohra demon. I don't think I'm alive."

"But your heart is beating," she said.

"And your wound has healed," he agreed. "But you didn't die, either. You aren't a vampire. You still have your soul.

"Invincibility immutability trading," she murmured.

"What?"

"Lines from the prophecy. I think…you got my invincibility and I got your immutability."

"Wow," he said. He stood still for a moment, as a thousand implications flashed across his mind. Then, for the first time since the day that had been swallowed by the Oracles, which had been the first time since some long-forgotten moment in his living childhood, Angel laughed wholeheartedly and happily, picking Buffy up and spinning with her in his arms.

"You do realize what this means, don't you?" he said when he finally put her down.

"That we are both virtually immortal and invincible and we get to live happily ever after?" she said hopefully.

"Forever and ever," he promised.

"Oh, good," she said. "I can live with that."

"Live!" shrieked the First, furious that not only had the two before It foiled Its plans again, but they had totally ignored It and the infinite power It still wielded. "You will die soon, slow and in suffering!" It threw another bolt of pure energy at the couple before It, a bolt that would incinerate any human or vampire in its path.

Buffy and Angel had been too preoccupied with each other to escape this time. They couldn't get out of the way in time, and rocked backward at the force of the blow…getting their balance again a moment later as the energy dissipated harmlessly around them.

Buffy grinned up at her lover.

"Yep. Immortal and invincible."

The First Evil screamed Its rage once more. Pointing both hands at the lovers, it began to chant. Buffy did not like the looks of the ugly orange glare beginning to build around It. Neither did Angel. They looked around the cavern. Angel grinned wolfishly as his eyes lit on a stalagmite broken off in one of the First's attacks on them. He grabbed it, stood and aimed it at the First's heart with the power of his considerable vampiric strength behind the throw. Buffy caught on quickly, found another heavy shard of stone and did the same thing. Before either missal could find its mark, however, the First realized what was happening. The glare surrounding It abruptly dissipated as It broke off Its chant, howling in renewed, utterly impotently, fury.

The First Evil disappeared in a blast of fire.

"You know," Buffy sighed, "we really are going to have to do something about that thing."

"Track It to Its native dimension and destroy It, huh?" Angel agreed.

"Sounds like a plan," Buffy said not at all bothered by the prospect of going into the demon dimension of Hell now that she had Angel back, and both of them were stronger than they had ever been before. Another recently restored memory surfaced, and the last piece of the prophecy fell into place.

"Angel? Do you remember what the Mohra demon told us? That together we were invincible, apart we were dead?"

"I remember every moment of that day," he told her solemnly.

"So do I, now," she smiled at him, a little sadly. "But the thing is, I think that's what the prophecy means. Then invincible restored is immutable ever more."

"Now that we've forgiven each other, and we've exchanged rings, now that we are together again, we are invincible again" he said slowly. "And our love is immutable, this time. It will never change."

"It's for always," she whispered. "But then, even when we hated each other, wasn't it just because we loved each other so much?"

"Of course. We couldn’t have hurt each other so much if we didn't love each other more."

"I'm glad we got through this," she said, moving closer into his arms.

"Me too, my love, me too." Angel held her tightly, almost afraid to let go.

It was a long time before they moved apart…just far enough to walk out of the chamber hand in hand.

They called Giles from Buffy's apartment. Everyone was at the former Watcher's, including Joyce. The entire gang was very concerned, and wanted to see Angel and Buffy right away.

"Not tonight," Buffy said firmly. "Angel and I have things to talk over."

"But the prophecies--"

"We'll explain tomorrow," she interrupted. "Tell everyone to go home and get some rest. Really. Everything's fine."

"If you're sure," Rupert said doubtfully. Buffy lifted her gaze to drink in the sight of Angel, returning her gaze as he leaned casually against the doorframe of her dining room a few feet away. He had retrieved his shirt on their way out of the ruined school building, and, the holy water having long since dried, had been able to put it back on. For someone who had just survived a life-and-death battle with one of the most ruthless evils ever to haunt the world, he looked very good. And he was looking at Buffy as if he might be thinking that the same was true of her.

"I'm very, very sure, Giles" she said softly, then hung up.

Her hand rested for a moment on the phone. She was alone with Angel for the first time in one year. Alone, with their most recent battle won and nothing else demanding their immediate attention. And for the first time in far, far too long, she was sure of her feelings for him, and of his for her.

Mostly.

Oh, she knew she loved him, and that he loved her. But the love was not unmixed with pain. She remembered their lost day. That alone was worth a small lake of tears. She remembered how much it had hurt when he told her what he had done, her despair when she realized they had only seconds left before he reverted, her utter terror and renewed anger when she understood that even her memories of their precious day together would be stolen from her. She had swallowed the anger, their last few seconds together too important to waste in bitterness, but she had resented that he had made one more decision for her. He wanted her to live, even at the price of their love. She wanted their love, even at the price of her life.

She had been angry when she returned from LA. At the time, she thought it was because he hadn't told her he was in Sunnydale when he came to protect her. Looking back now, Buffy realized that part of her anger was rooted in some deeply buried awareness of the lost day. And in her pain. Because she had desperately wanted to keep hold of her memories, to have at least that comforting ray of light in what would be the darkness of her life without Angel. But she had failed him, failed both of them. She hadn't been able to hold on, to remember the appalling, selfless sacrifice he had made for her. A memory that would surely have insulated her from the machinations of the First Evil.

Instead, she had fallen all too easily into a clever, vicious trap. Over the past eleven years, she and Angel had hurt each other so much. Now, it was easy to see how the First Evil had influenced them, getting into their minds with Its insidious distortions of the truth, twisting their feelings out of true. And yet part of her felt so guilty. She should have known. From the very first, she should have known that Angel would never do anything to hurt her, and she should have held back her own anger long enough to ask why she wanted to hurt the man who had been the center of her entire existence. She hadn't and for eleven years, evil had run their lives. The attacks had been so subtle, she hadn't even known they were happening. Could they ever be that vulnerable again? She shuddered at the thought.

He was beside her in an instant.

"What's wrong?" he said softly, hands closing comfortingly on her upper arms. She looked up at him, and saw in his deep brown eyes the love and concern he felt for her. It was too much. This was the way it was supposed to be between them, the way it hadn't been between them for eleven long years.

"I'm sorry!" she found herself sobbing, throwing herself into his arms and burrowing into the solid, dependable bulwark of his chest, tears pouring out of her as she was immediately wrapped in his embrace, given the comfort denied her for so very, very long. "I'm sorry I didn't remember! I'm so sorry I hurt you! I should have known. I should have remembered, I--"

"Shhh," he soothed, "You weren't meant to remember, Buffy." She only cried harder.

"I know that! But I didn't want to forget. And you shouldn't have, you shouldn't have…" she broke down completely, unable to say more. Angel lifted her into his arms and carried her into the bedroom. Still holding her, he sat on the bed, and stretched out, resting against the headboard and settling Buffy across his lap.

"I had to, Buffy. There was no choice for me. There never was, when it came to you. Your life was a price I couldn't possibly pay for our happiness. It would have done more than kill me, it would have obliterated me, destroyed my soul and tuned the amends I had been trying to make into a mockery. How could I ask forgiveness for my sins, if I compounded them by willingly allowing the Chosen One to sacrifice herself?"

"It was my right to make that choice!" she sobbed.

"And my right to see that you didn't have to," he told her gravely.

"It wasn't fair!" she insisted.

"Life seldom is," he told her wryly. "And if our lives were ordinary, I'd say that the past eleven years were more unfairness than anyone should have to put up with. But they aren't ordinary. We've been given something most people never get, Buffy; a second chance, and all the time we need to make it right again."

"But I hurt you so much," she wept. "What I said, what I did…How can you forgive me?"

"How did you forgive me for Angelus?" he countered. "That was far worse. I can forgive you because I love you. And because I'm not completely without blame."

"But--"

"It's over, my love, it's all over."

"Is it?" she sniffled. "We didn't kill the First Evil, Angel. And we didn’t even realize what it was doing, not for years!"

"We know now," Angel said firmly. "It can't attack us that way, again, Buffy."

"We don't know that. It's so old, Angel, and so strong, and--"

"And we've been eating old, strong things for breakfast, together and apart, for years. According to the prophecies, we both just got a whole heck of a lot stronger ourselves," Angel said as he rubbed her back soothingly, not trying to stop her tears so much as offer support while she got things out of her system. "I vowed to protect you tonight. Protect you forever. This thing nearly took you from me once, and then it made our lives hell for eleven years. I owe it. Big time. I will not let it ever hurt you again."

She pulled away from where she had been sobbing into his chest, looking up at him with tear-filled eyes.

"Promise?" she asked wistfully.

"I swear," he said. He smiled ruefully, before giving her a tender kiss. "No more tears, my love. This isn't the way I want to spend our anniversary."

"Anniversary?" she questioned, wiping away the lingering tears with the back of her hand. "You mean, the anniversary of the first time we made love?"

"That too," he said agreeably. He was relaxed and confident. The things he hadn't told her about the claddagh on her seventeenth birthday, because he thought she was too young, were long overdue for an explanation now. He pulled her back into his arms, so that her head rested against his shoulder and he could drop the occasional kiss on her brow. Quietly, as her tears dried and she grew calm again, he explained the ancient traditions, telling her how he had found these particular rings, and what the shopkeeper had told him of their history.

"So, you married me?" she said. He was relieved to hear just a tinge of humor in her voice.

"Not legally," he said. "But in my heart, when I gave you that ring, I pledged myself to you forever."

"And you did it again, tonight," she said. He smiled at her tone. She was definitely happy, now. Then he realized that although the obvious barriers to their being together were finally down there were still obstacles to be overcome.

"Yes. I did. But…"

"But? There's a 'but'?" Buffy sat up in his lap, pouting. "After everything else, how can there be a 'but'?"

"I'm just not sure how easy it's going to be to find a church with a priest who will willingly perform a wedding mass for a vampire," he said simply.

Buffy was very, very still as she digested that statement.

"Wedding mass?"

"I am going to marry you in church, Buffy Summers. In front of God and His congregation. For the entire world to see. This time, when we make our vows, I want them consecrated and witnessed and backed up by the full might of Holy Mother Church, with no possible misunderstanding." His arms had tightened around her gradually as he spoke, as if to add weight to his declaration.

"Sounds heavenly," she sighed, lifting her face for his kiss.

It had been much too long since they had shared a kiss like that, full of tenderness, and love, an unbridled expression of all that was in their hearts. Much too long since they had been able to come together in complete joy, with no misunderstandings between them. It saddened Angel to realize that in the past four years since they'd become lovers again, the passion between them had been so tainted by bitterness, that he could truthfully say that he had only made love to the woman he loved three times: their first night together, the day he had given up for her, and on her twenty-ninth birthday. Each time had been achingly beautiful. And each time had ended in heartbreak.

No more. The Fates had relented, The Powers That Be had finally ended the torment. Buffy and Angel could be together the way they had wanted to be from the moment they met. And now, there was nothing to hold them back, nothing to get in the way, nothing to keep them from falling asleep in each other's arms every night and waking in each other's arms every morning.

Nothing to keep them from loving each other forever.

He kissed her with fierce joy, reveling in the sweet taste of her…

…until he tasted, as well, the unexpected salt of her tears.

A hot, damp stream trickled from her eyes, over her cheeks, to their joined mouths. So much bitterness. So much pain. Angel's heart ached for his beloved.

"It's all right," he whispered between kisses. "It's over." More kisses. "I'll never let It hurt you again."

"I know," she whispered back. But he heard in her voice…he hadn't quite soothed away all her pain. He had vowed, only a few hours before, to protect her for the rest of their lives. That vow, he realized now, must encompass more than demons and monsters, the evils that sought her life. Some things were more precious even than life itself. Angel broke off their kisses, pulling back just enough to meet her gaze, to let her see in his eyes the truth of the words he was about to speak, the depth of his meaning, all that was in his heart. Her hazel eyes, luminous with tears, stared as somberly back. He smiled tenderly down at her.

"I love you. In over two hundred and fifty years, I have only ever loved one woman, you. Should I go on for another two hundred and fifty, should I go on until the world ends and the last star burns out and time itself ceases to be…I will only ever love you. Death cannot change that. The First Evil could not, cannot change that. Forever, my love."

"Forever," she whispered back, her tears drying and a soft smile curving her lips. "I love you so much..."

They kissed again, sealing the promise held in their hearts: the promise of love forever true.

The covenant between them was sacred, and all consuming. A kiss could only be a symbol of the covenant, not a consummation.

The time had come to move beyond symbols. He gently turned, so that they lay side by side on the bed, still kissing joyously. There was no need for hurry. Though it had been a year since their last joining, there was no urgency. This was not a mere hunger of the flesh, not an appetite that needed sating or an itch that needed scratching. This was the long-awaited union of their bodies and souls, with no holding back. There were no more secrets, no more doubts, no more misunderstandings. Only the Slayer and her Sworn Shield, only Buffy and Angel, only a woman and her One True Love, making that love physical and real and tangible.

Part 11

 

Angel slowly undid the fastenings of her top and her jeans. He took his time, lingering. Buffy sighed in pleasure as his large hands worked slowly over her body, unbuttoning, unsnapping, unzipping. His hands brushed lightly against her breasts, making her shiver with arousal. She stroked her own hands against his shoulders, then lazily brought them down to unfasten the buttons of his own shirt. And still they kissed, drinking in each other's taste, thirsting for more.

The slide of cloth against skin, the slow caress of flesh on flesh. They took their time removing each other's clothing, and took their time exploring what that clothing had concealed. He pressed her onto her back, mapping the familiar terrain of her body with his hands, an explorer discovering new realms, as all was remade in their newly returned love. He had learned, of course, the things she liked; what turned her on, what made her hot, what made sex between them so spicy, no matter how unhappy they were. All of that was irrelevant now. It was time to wipe away the bitterness of the past, and recast those memories with the sweetness of the present. He had to learn, or relearn, how to make love to her, how to worship her body with his own, how to express the infinite depth and breadth of his love for her, to make it manifest and real and…immutable.

An easy lesson, a memory never far beneath the surface. His hands made plain his adoration, skimming across her flesh, arousing the sensitive nerves. His lips and tongue soon followed, bathing her in kisses, soothing or enflaming by turns. So many places cried out for his attention: the back of a dimpled knee, the tender bend of an elbow, the quivering crease of her thigh, the smooth, firm swell of her belly, the sensitive underside of her full breasts, the fragile column of her throat that yet bore his mark. She shivered when he kissed her there and moaned in pleasure when he scraped his fangs gently along the brand.

Buffy was beyond weeping. All the pain of the past few years was being washed away by Angel's tenderness. Part of her felt as if she didn't deserve this. She had betrayed their love, first by not remembering their lost day, and then by her bitter accusations against him. Logically, she knew she wasn't at fault, that forces beyond her control had done things to her she could not prevent. Yet the illogical guilt lingered.

Until Angel told her in a language that needed no words that he forgave her, that he loved her, that he had never stopped loving her as she knew, now, that she had never stopped loving him. And she realized that to hold on to her bitterness and pain would be to give the First Evil a victory It did not deserve to have. So Buffy let go of her guilt and her anger and her pain, and instead devoted herself to returning the expression of Angel's love for her in an expression of her love for him. Her own hands caressed him back, wherever they could reach, her lips adored his flesh. The scent of desire lay heavy on the air, her arousal the most delicious perfume he could imagine. It was time, and past time, for this consummation.

Angel moved over her. She opened for him, pulling him into her embrace. His manhood slid unerringly into her welcoming heat, and they became what they were meant to be: one.

This was joy and rapture, completion and redemption. They were whole at last, in heart and spirit and flesh. The synchronicity that had always existed between them flowered into a harmony of thought and feeling. He moved inside her with power and tenderness, seeking out the heart of her desire. She met him with joy, utterly his, devoted to his pleasure as he was to hers. What could it be but perfection?

Silken heat enveloped him, wet warmth caressed him, he was where he belonged. Angel kissed her, drinking her in like a man dying of thirst would drink life-giving water. She gave him life; redeeming him from the hell of his own guilt and despair. Now, it was time to return the gift. He drove himself deep inside her, reveling in her breathy cries, the fluttering of her sugared walls around him, the way she rose to meet him, matching him exquisitely, flawlessly. Her tongue caressed his, drawing his into the wet delight of her mouth as her welcoming sheath drew the sword of his flesh into the wet delight of her body. Angel neither wanted nor needed any other paradise than the embrace in which he found himself, the arms of his beloved Buffy.

She had found her heaven, her Angel, her love, and it was all she could ever desire. She had missed him so much, even when they had been physically close, because their hearts had been isolated. Now, their hearts were once again united, and they were celebrating that reunion. He was inside her, filling her utterly, making her ache deliciously, making her crave him more than she already did. Buffy lifted herself to engulf him more fully, to offer herself more completely. So deep, but she wanted him deeper, so close, but it could never be close enough.

"Come to me," she whispered between kisses. "I love you so much,"

"So much," he agreed. "Love you so much…." Her arms were wrapped around him, her hands caressing his back. His own hands caressed over her, down her sides to her hips. He settled his hands over the rounded curves, lifting, angling her just slightly, driving himself just a tiny bit further.

Buffy screamed into his mouth, shuddering around him. She wasn't peaking, but he was bringing her closer. Pleased by her response, he growled approvingly into her mouth, withdrawing almost completely, and plunging ruthlessly back inside. She gasped in pleasure, hips rising to meet his thrusts, her arms tightening their embrace.

Angel's kisses became more demanding, Buffy's response more heated. He pulled away from the honeyed sweetness of her mouth to press fevered kisses along her jaw and down her throat, licking at her flesh, savoring the subtle spice of it, moving lower until he could capture one rose-tipped breast, laving his tongue around the aureole until the nipple was an achingly tight bud begging for his mouth. He opened his mouth and sucked the delicacy inside. Buffy sobbed at the glorious sensation, arching into him, her hands clenching against him, her nails beginning to scrape demandingly down his back.

She wanted more. He wanted to give her what she wanted.

Angel turned his attention to the other plump breast. Buffy tangled her hands in his hair, holding him closer. He shifted slightly, making her mewl in pleasure. Angel growled against her breast. She arched against him again, driving him deeper, taking him closer to the edge.

He wanted her there with him. He stroked inside her steadily, building her own pleasure, angling himself to hit the most sensitive spots inside her, while allowing her to grind her clit against the base of his cock. She was whimpering, the power of the fire he was building inside her almost frightening in its intensity. With a groan, Angel abandoned her breast and returned to her mouth, kissing her fiercely, possessively, needing to burn out of her memory the taste or feel of any mouth but his own, kissing her in love and passion, not merely desire.

Fire and heat in her blood, rapture sizzling along the path of her nerves, Angel kissing, her embracing her, filling her, loving her. She needed only one thing more to make their reunion absolutely perfect.

Buffy broke the kiss, and gazed into his passion-glazed eyes, knowing her own were as heated.

"Drink me," she said seductively, smiling as his brown eyes glowed suddenly golden, her erotic invitation rousing the demon in him. He bent to her throat, tongue laving sensuously over the scar.

And then his fangs slid into her, piercing her skin, just as he manhood pierced her body, and she screamed as unutterable ecstasy consumed her.

Communion. There was no other word for it. They shared flesh and blood, soul and spirit, renewing and redeeming each other.

The life-giving stream of her blood poured into his mouth. Angel reveled in the pure deliciousness of Buffy, spiced by her Slayer's power, and now mixed with the tang of his own blood, commingled with hers only hours before. His pleasure mounted as her blood flowed into him, racing along every vein in his body, renewing, restoring, revitalizing him. And then she was coming, her body sealed around his like wax around a mold. He gave himself over to the delight of her tight channel grasping him convulsively, the intoxicating liquor of her blood pouring down his throat. He came with her, his seed flooding deep inside her womb, as he drove into her unrelentingly and she unhesitatingly met each thrust. Fierce joy possessed them as they reached this completion in each other's arms.

He drew it out as long as he could, needing her satisfaction to be thorough, needing to give himself to her utterly, to wipe away any lingering doubt or sorrow from the past eleven years. He succeeded. Buffy clung to him, as the fire burned through her, and the welcome coolness of his seed spurted within her while her life's blood pulsed into his mouth. The orgasm she endured was more a series of climaxes, each one building on the other until she was consumed in the fire of them, mindless with rapture, reduced to nothing but feeling…and the only thing she could feel was Angel, around her and within her. That was all she wanted to feel.

Gradually, the fires of passion that had consumed him burned down, allowing him to think. Angel gently retracted his fangs, licking the tiny wounds closed. He lifted his head to look down at her. Buffy's eyes were closed, her full lips parted in a small, replete smile. Her lids fluttered open as he watched, and she gazed up at him tenderly. He smiled as tenderly back, then rolled slightly, to spare her his weight. Their bodies still joined, he pulled her close into his arms, noting with pleasure how perfectly they fit together as she snuggled into him, resting her head against his shoulder.

The exchanged sleepy, sated kisses and tender words of love, then fell asleep wrapped safely in each other's arms. As she drifted off, a vague thought occurred to Buffy. Angel was still a vampire, but his heart beat. Perhaps there were other physical changes that had occurred as well. Somewhere in that idea was an important issue, but she was so very, very tired…

Buffy knew herself surrounded by love and protection. It wasn't like her other prophetic dreams, not filled with foreboding and fear. She was wearing her favorite floral print dress and the room she entered was filled with sunlight. She turned and Angel, handsome in dark slacks and one of his handmade Italian silk shirts, was beside her.

"Well, this is new," he said, trying not to sound worried. She couldn’t help giggling.

"I guess we're sharing more than immutability and invincibility, huh?" she teased.

"This is one of your prophetic dreams?" he asked.

"I think so."

Suddenly, they realized they weren't alone. Whistler stood before them, smiling.

"It's about time," he said.

"About time for what?" Angel asked worriedly, as visions of Armageddon rose in his mind. To his knowledge, Buffy's prophetic dream nearly always presaged some sort of disaster.

Whistler didn't look too worried, though, seemed relaxed and confident, in fact.

"Look around," he said now.

Angel looked around, but didn't see anything other than the tall windows, the curtains billowing in the soft breeze, sunlight streaming through…

"Sunlight!" Buffy gasped. "You're standing in sunlight." Angel realized she was right. He smiled at her.

"So, this is why we're having this dream?" he said to Whistler. "This is the message? I can walk into the sun, now?"

"Yep. Giles figured that part out already. He's planning on telling you in the morning. But that's not why you're here. This is about a lot of other things, most of which you won't remember until you need to, and none of which are my place to tell you about. So, I'm gonna leave. Just wanted to say that I'm glad you two kids finally made it." Buffy opened her mouth to thank him, but he had already faded away.

"I thought you should know, I'm honored," said a dark haired young man who had suddenly appeared beside her. He had very blue eyes and a dazzling smile. Buffy remembered their one brief meeting.

"Doyle?" Angel asked, his own smile lighting his face.

"Why do you feel honored?" Buffy asked.

He laughed. "I don't want to ruin the surprise, yeah? Just wanted you to know. And when you get back--because this is one thing you will remember--…tell Cordy I'm happy for her."

"We will," Angel promised.

His smile was infectious. Buffy couldn't help but smile back.

"We'll tell her," she agreed before Doyle, too, faded away.

Something was calling them forward. They reached for each other's hands and moved on.

A series of images swam before them: Dru, reaching out to someone, saying, "You'll help me then? I'm so tired…" Anya and Xander, with a pair of rambunctious little boys in their arms. Willow and Tara, hands joined over a cauldron as a pleasantly scented smoke rose from it and they chanted the words of a healing spell. Cordy and Wesley watching their daughter at her first piano recital, their son fidgeting at their side.

Then, oddly, it seemed that they saw Buffy herself. Her hair was dark brown again, and she was wearing something that looked oddly like a uniform, though one they couldn’t recognize. Also unrecognizable was the weapon in her hand, which seemed to be some sort of gun, but made of an oddly glittering metal. Spike, dressed in a uniform similar to hers, was at her side, brandishing a sword that seemed utterly incongruous with their clothing, yet utterly right in Spike's hands.

"When we get back to our own dimension," she said waspishly, "remind me to kick your ass."

"When we get back to our own dimension," he returned, hefting the sword while his eyes scanned the horizon for some threat neither Buffy nor Angel could see, "after I've kicked your ass from here to Sunday, you amazingly annoying chit, I'm going to give your mum and the poof a piece of my mind for blackmailing me into helping you."

"Not as big a piece as they're going to get from me, believe me." The figures dissolved in mist, leaving Buffy and Angel to stare at each other in confusion.

Before they could puzzle it out, however, other images demanded their attention, coming fast and furious, almost too quickly to be distinguished one from another. They turned, trying to keep up with it all, but couldn't. The images swirled around them, faster and faster, until the room seemed to spin about them…

and they woke up in each other's arms.

"Well, that was intense," Buffy sighed, snuggling more closely against Angel.

"What did it mean?" Angel asked, holding her tight.

"Don't know," she answered sleepily. "But it didn't seem bad."

He chuckled. No, it hadn't seemed bad at all. They drifted off again, secure in the knowledge that whatever was to come, they would face it together.

"Of course," Rupert Giles said excitedly. It was the night after their battle, and everyone had joined them at Joyce's home so that Buffy and Angel could explain what had happened. Giles was relieved, happier than he had been in a long time. His Slayer was radiant, blooming with health and happiness. "The First Evil tried to destroy you all those years ago. I should have realized It might be behind things." They were gathered around Joyce Summers' living room table, celebrating the good news.

"And I should have realized that, as well," Buffy said ruefully. "It told me, the first time we met, that It was responsible for 'every drop of hate' in the world. I should have figured It had something to do with mine. But we weren't meant to realize it." She and Angel were on her mother's new love seat, opposite the couch where Willow, Tara and Giles were sitting. Cordy, Wesley and Joyce, Xander and Anya were in chairs that had been drawn up around the coffee table, so that all of the gang formed a loose, companionable circle. "Not until it was time. Who knows? If we had figured out what It was up to, and stopped It, maybe It would have found some other way to destroy us. Maybe that's one of the reasons prophecies are obscure until the events surrounding them unfold…so that they can unfold without interference."

"I'd say we had plenty of interference," Angel said darkly, his arm tightening around her shoulder. She smiled at him reassuringly. "By the way, how do you think the WC are going to take this?" he asked grimly, directing the question to the two former Watchers.

"Wesley and I have been in contact with our friends. It looks like sending out the team of assassins and starting an internal war was the last gasp of the Traditionalists. The Neutrals were outraged, and sided with the Modernists. The Traditionalists who survived are all in custody. And Wesley and I have been formally invited back onto the Council by the new ruling board. I'd say that the threat to the Slayer is well and truly over, and the Watcher's Council can get back to doing what it has been supposed to be doing for the past several thousand years…helping the Slayer.

"That'll make a nice change," Angel said. "It will be easier if she doesn't have to fight her friends as well as her enemies." He looked into her eyes, his own eyes holding sorrow and regret. "Or her lover."

"It wasn't your fault," Buffy said firmly, not flinching away from the look in his eyes, or from her own responsibility. "We know now that the First was manipulating us both. The important thing is, we got past it," she told him. "When we had to, we did what needed to be done."

He quirked a smile. "Among other things," he teased.

Buffy giggled. Angry sex had been…hot. And she wouldn't mind repeating some of the things they had done in the heat of rage. But she could happily leave the rage itself in the past where it belonged.

"Well, that's just about everything," Buffy said, snuggling back into her beloved's arms. "Most of he indications in the Metzynsk Tablets and the Compton Scrolls have been realized. The Tibetan Prophecy is fulfilled. The Tarquinia Fragment ritual is completed, although Angel and I are going to exchange the rings again at our wedding, just to be on the safe side. Angel is my sworn shield…and eternal mate. And, yes, Wesley, before you point out that we aren't actually immortal, and that there are still some things that can kill us, especially if we are separated, let me assure you that we already know that. The prophecy said we would be immutable, but immutable vampires were always vulnerable to stakes and sunlight and other things. Even if Angel can withstand those things now, we both know that we aren't really going to live forever. Especially if we get overconfident or careless."

"Good," Wesley said. "I would hate to have you both come through so much just to be done in by sloppy technique at the end."

"Not gonna happen, if I can help it," Buffy assured him.

"But you will, like Angel, stop aging, yes?" Giles said.

"For what it's worth, yeah." Buffy agreed.

"For what it's worth?" her former Watcher questioned.

"Giles, I think we've always known that I wouldn't really live to be a little old lady with cats and a rocking chair." Buffy said gently. "Angel and I…we're warriors. Eventually, we're going to fall in battle."

"Buffy," Joyce choked out, her wineglass slipping from nerveless fingers. Angel snatched it out of the air before it spilled on the carpet.

"Mom, I'm thirty," Buffy said calmly. "No Slayer has ever lived that long. And all the indications are that I'm going to be around for a long, long time to come.

"A century or so, as near as we can tell," Giles agreed. Joyce's eyes widened in delight.

"Truly?" she asked.

"Truly," Buffy said. "There's language about the Shield that is pretty confusing until you realize that Angel is the Shield. For every year scourged, two shielded, until the balance is met.

"I spent over a hundred years as the Scourge of Europe," Angel added, "It takes time to build that sort of reputation. I don't think I was given that title much before 1770, and I was given my soul back the first time in 1898. One hundred and twenty-eight years, then, roughly."

"Translating to about two hundred and fifty six years you have to spend protecting my daughter," Joyce said with real satisfaction. "After twelve and a half years of worrying that every night might be her last, of sometimes being so frightened that I couldn't sleep at all unless I took enough sleeping pills to knock out a horse, do you have any idea how delightful that sounds to me?"

Buffy smiled. There was no need to tell her mother that there were no guarantees. She could die next week, and Angel would be left to shield the next Slayer. Still, everything they had learned pointed to a more hopeful outcome.

But there were some unanswered questions.

"About the only thing we haven't really figured out is part of the writing from the Metzynsk Tablets. What's the deal with the new Slayer? When is she going to arrive? And how is she going to be bound to me?"

They began to suspect they had their answer a few weeks later, when Buffy missed her first flow. Assuming that as Angel was still a vampire, he still couldn’t father children, Buffy's pregnancy caught them by surprise. But they quickly realized that he had gained more than just a heartbeat when their blood was mixed. Buffy had a moment of pure joy. She had been sixteen when he told her that vampires couldn't father children, and so she had begun to come to terms with the fact that she might never have her own at that time. Later, when it had seemed impossible for them to be together, she still hadn't thought too much about the issue. It had been all very well for Angel to say that she should have a full life, with someone who could give her everything he could not, but the truth was, advanced pregnancy was apt to play havoc with slaying. Buffy had pretty much expected that no matter who was in her life, children weren't going to be in the picture. Then, no one had been in her life, making the entire point moot.

Now, unlooked for miracle, she was pregnant. By her Angel. Who would Shield her, and the world, during the later, cumbersome stages of her pregnancy. She would give birth to a healthy, happy, loved and wanted child, who would grow up in a loving home…

…and age and die long before his or her parents did so. Buffy's moment of joy turned into pure hysteria. Angel found her sobbing on the bathroom floor, the pregancy test clutched in her hand, unable to articulate what was wrong.

Fortunately for him, it was at that moment that Whistler made an appearance. Whistler assured Buffy that the mystic properties of the parents would be mystically passed on to their child. Which would make it easier if they ever had to go to the demon dimensions--or any other alternate reality--for a prolonged period of time.

That matter dealt with, Buffy's joy was restored. They phoned Joyce and Giles, honeymooning in Hawaii, and broke the news. Joyce was ready to cut their trip short and return home, but Giles was able to persuade her that there really wasn't any rush, given that the blessed event was a good seven or eight months in the future. Willow and Tara were just as excited, delighted at the prospect of being aunts…three times over, as both Anya and Cordy had already discovered themselves to be in similar conditions.

"I just want to know why Slayers get to skip morning sickness," Cordy muttered on one visit. Anya nodded her head in agreement, handing Cordy another saltine cracker as they watched Buffy happily wolf down a breakfast that would have done a lumberjack proud.

As if to make up for the pain of the previous twelve years, everything went smoothly during Buffy's pregnancy. Still, it wasn't until their daughter was born at the end of summer and they saw the telltale birthmark that it all became clear.

"The next generation of Slayer," Buffy said proudly, as Frances--named in honor of a certain Irish half-demon--nursed hungrily at her breast.

"Immutable and invincible, like her parents," Angel said, grateful that Whistler had shown up to tell them that much when Buffy first learned she was pregnant.

Whistler came back within a few days of Frances' birth. He told them that this was the new method for calling Slayers. No longer would they be randomly chosen young women, but the oldest daughter of the current Slayer. These Slayers and all their children would have the same unnaturally long life expectancy as the founder of their line, as if The Powers That Be were making up for the deaths of so many young girls by ensuring that their successors had a better deal. However, the number of children each Slayer could bear would be small, to keep things in balance.

Whistler skirted Angel's fatherly question about where his children and grandchildren were going to find suitably long-lived mates. Whistler told him that he needn't worry about Frances, and said something about Buffy having managed nicely and how some vampires didn’t need an Orb of Thesulah to make them capable of love.

"You can't be serious! No vampire knows what love is! The only vampire I've ever met who had a clue was Spike and…" Angel froze, his eyes narrowing as her remembered the image from the dream he and Buffy had shared. Perhaps the dark-haired young woman with Spike hadn't been Buffy after all. He smiled in a way that made Whistler gulp and back up a step. "You wouldn't by any remote chance be trying to hint that Spike is going to marry my baby girl, would you?" he said in the most silkily deadly voice Whistler had ever heard.

"Angel, buddy, I wouldn't dream of dropping you that hint!" he said with perfect truth, desperately hoping that his curse of always being misunderstood would work in his favor, for once.

"Good," Angel growled, to Whistler's very great relief. Angel hadn't caught on.

"The only thing I can tell you about your daughter and, really, about all future Slayers, is that they are going to be like Buffy. They'll fall in love young and they'll fall in love forever. And, sorry, but in every case that love is going to be tested almost as severely as you and Buffy were tested. Because in every case, it's going to have to be for the long haul."

Angel nodded curtly to show that he understood. The father in him didn't like it a bit, but the warrior in him understood the necessity. Whistler gave him a few more pieces of information TPTB had told him he and Buffy would need, just before he decided that discretion was the better part of valor and disappeared. He planned on not returning for at least another fifty years, by which time Angel should have come to terms with his son-in-law.

But they had years before their daughter's romantic life became an issue. Right now, they could just enjoy being together and being a family, the way they had always wanted, and never expected, to be.

"I guess we really do get to live happily ever after, huh?" Buffy said softly, looking up into her husband's eyes, her own tender and luminous and shining with love.

"I guess we really do," Angel agreed, his smile blinding as he bent down to kiss his wife.

And so they did.

The End

 


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