Pride

Pride

Spoilers: BtVS seasons 4/5. AtS seasons 1/4. Do not get me started on who sired Spike - it's exactly as it says in this story.
Rating: NC17 for a bit of sex, a couple of bad words, a bit of torture and some violence. Angelus is here, right? Some of the thinking is from a demonic point of view and it's, well, demonic. Oh, and there are some character deaths. Sort of.
Content: B/A/A(us) Alternate past reality leading to an alternate future, which is where we began, in 'The Nature of the Beast', and continued in 'To Kill A Cat', 'Tyger, Tyger', 'Cometh the Hour' and 'Lionesses'.
Summary: In 'Cometh the Hour' we left Angel on a hillside waiting for the sunrise. This is what happened next. It might help you to read the previous stories in this cycle first, but it probably isn't essential.
The story is told from several different points of view.

Some people like to see these notes at the beginning, and some people like to see them at the end. They're here. You choose when to read them. If you don't read them at all, you'll miss stuff, but that's up to you.

****

At the end of 'Cometh the Hour'

Buffy
I see by the lightening sky that it is almost dawn. And then I know true terror. I only thought I'd known it before. I feel him. I feel my sweet, gentle Angel. I feel the iron grip he has on my demon lover, who is begging, pleading and raging. Who is crying. And Angel is saying goodbye.

He is saying goodbye and it is nearly dawn, and I don't know where he is, and I cannot reach him. I feel my scream echo through the bond. "NO...!" The sun lifts above the horizon. The rest is silence.

Angel
I have felt her for days, trying to soothe me, to reassure me. Her kind and generous spirit opened itself to me, but I could only ever pollute it. There is nothing good to be got from me or from my worthless carcass. So I ended the connection. I will open it one more time, to say farewell, and to let her know that she will be troubled by me no more. At least my ashes can fertilise next year's wildflowers, here where they overlook the city that she once lived in. That's the only good I can ever hope to come to. So I will sit on this hillside, and welcome the sunrise. I will not have long to wait.

***

Now

The brightest intellects in Physics today have concluded that, in String Theory, they have the much sought after Unified Theory of Everything. String Theory requires that there be eleven dimensions. We see three of them - these we know as, breadth, length and depth, or words to that effect. The fourth one is time. Six of the others are small and curled up on themselves, so that we cannot see them. But the eleventh? Ah, the eleventh; that is a dimension in which universes are carried on membranes, or branes, drifting around and perhaps colliding with each other from time to time. They think that may be how the Big Bang happened.

And this, indeed, is the nature of the beast, that universes are carried in stately patterns around their dimension, a saraband of star systems, a pavane in the cosmos. These universes do not connect; they cannot be felt or seen, since they are in a different dimension, yet they may be only an inch away. If we could only reach out and touch them...

They are parallel universes, many much like ours, and yet, there are some that have learnt other ways. Or perhaps they never moved on from their primitive beginnings. Who knows? They are not just parallel universes, they are para-universes. Parasite universes.

And just as the cosmos as we know it has an order, a rhythm, of planets sweeping around suns and of suns circling galaxies, so there is a rhythm to the dance of the branes, and their freight of matter. Every so often, as branes circle around they bring universes into contact. Bring them into a position in which a parasite universe has a chance to feed, to stock up on resources for the next long hunger. To find new hunting grounds. When that happens to our universe, no planet or star is safe, not even whole galaxies, and Earth suffers a Mass Extinction, a Great Dying.

In another place, another dimension, perhaps, an indistinct figure, a creature of smoke and mirrors, examines the gaming pieces on the ornate board in front of...him. It. Let's call it 'him' as a matter of convenience.

He picks one of the pieces from the board, a fearsome warrior, his face as stern and grim as an angel, his body that of a winged lion. It had been standing next to the figure of a woman, her hands resting on a sword, a victor's chaplet of leaves around her head.

He places the warrior amongst a clutter of other fallen pieces, and, sorting through the pile, he picks up a new one. A male, with battle-scarred and broken wings, his sword held easily in one hand. As he peruses the new piece, contemplating its placement, perhaps, another comes to join him. The newcomer is as indistinct as he, but this time a creature of mists and rainbows, with crystalline edges sparkling in an unseen sun. He points to a square far from the figure of the woman, and his seated companion obediently places the piece.

The creature of light asks, "There is no weapon to replace Acathla?"

The reply is a shrug. Probably.

"Are they strong enough yet?"

The creature of shadow has no face as we would define a face, no features to give expression to his thoughts, yet he smiles, a small feral smile.

"No."

***

'And nothing to look backward to with pride,
And nothing to look forward to with hope.'
Robert Frost
'The Death of the Hired Man' (1914)

January

Sunrise seems to be such a long time coming.

I can hear them all, screaming for vengeance. All the ones I have killed, maimed, tortured. All the families I have left bereaved of husband, wife or child. My soul can never be free of them, even in the afterlife. They will be my Furies throughout all eternity. I hear them in my mind, and always will, but there are others, too. Others whom I only hear in my blood.

And oh, I can hear her, fused into every cell of me, wrapping her thoughts around me like the warmth of the morning sun, trying to stop me, telling me she loves me. Loves him. Weeping for loss of us. And I can hear him, raging, begging, weeping. Nothing will change my mind, though. Not even her. The world will breathe easier without me. I am a vicious, unredeemable demon. There is nothing of humanity in me - the Judge told me so, remember? Having my soul back doesn't change a thing. It only gives me the strength of purpose that I need to bring an end to this farce that has been my life. She will find someone better. Someone worthy of her. That can never be me.

I can hear the others, too. Those demons with whom I share blood, so many of them, evil like me. The call of some is stronger than others. The Aventi, that shamefully bonded master and childe; Ahmed, my latest childe, whom I was pleased to call Bariel after one of the rulers of the guardian angels. Another unconscionable fit of whimsy. I make my apologies to those three; say my farewell. Even though they cannot hear the words, they can feel me, sense something. They seem sad. I don't know why that should be.

Dru is catatonic somewhere. Her voice in my blood is just a litany of pleas.

Will is pacing like a caged lion. He wants to tear something apart, and he doesn't know whether it should be himself or me. But I know.

Estevan, Thomaso, Bariel.

Dru.

Spike.

Buffy...

My sad little pride. Buffy will care for them. And the others.

And Aurelius. I know him now. I should have recognised it before - all that time I was with him, and my mind skirted around it. But I know him now, him and his soul. Did he try to beat the demon out of me? I don't know, but I should have let him kill me. It would have been more merciful.

Not long now. I can see the sky lightening. Once, such a long time ago, it seems, I was given another chance, a chance to redeem myself, a chance to save the world. But everything comes in its own fashion. I can and will save the world. Save it from me. My death will do that. There can never be redemption, though. That was just smoke and mirrors, a palatable lie. There will only be punishment. Forever. Does that work for you?

***

My name's Whistler, and I'm in a bit of a rush, so do you mind if we talk as we walk? Or run. Running would be better.

I'm on my way to a case right now, a really important one. I've been assured that I shall be in a world of pain if I fail this one, and I believe it. I believe it absolutely. This case? He should have been here *months* ago, but things went very wrong. Now it's a case of tying knots and carrying on. I think it was the Duke of Wellington who said that about the Battle of Waterloo. Pretty appropriate for me today as well. If I'm too late, all I'll find is ash. If I'm not too late, it still might not be any better. He's one stubborn demon.

It's dark as Hades up in these hills. The darkness before the dawn, you know. Moon's gone down, sun's not up yet. Makes sense. Thank the Powers for demonic eyesight, or I'd be stumbling around all over the place. Ah, there's a dark-looking huddle that could be him. Just where he was supposed to be.

I get messages from the Powers, you know - I'm their errand boy, I suppose - but normally all I get are vague instructions that could use 30 pages of interpretation and commentary. Not this time. The message I got was very specific and very, very clear. Oh, and very, very late. I know he's really important, I just don't know who to, or why. Still, at present that's not my problem. My problem is much more immediate and it will be hauling its ass over the shoulder of yon high eastern hill any minute now, giving us a definite rosy-fingered dawn and one very crispy vampire. What, not up on your Shakespeare and Homer? Kids today! What? Even Angel's a kid to me.

Nearly there now.

"Hey, Angel. How're you doing?"

Okay, so it's not my best line, but I'm a little out of breath. And ideas. And time. I'm coming up behind him, and he turns round, very slowly.

"Whistler."

His expression is as grey as his face. He looks worse than he did when I found him in 1996. Much worse. He doesn't say anything else, just turns back around and looks at the skyline that will mean his death. The inky blue darkness there has already turned to a lighter turquoise.

"Angel, man, why don't we get out of the sun and talk? If you really want to end it all, you can still do it tomorrow. The sun isn't going anywhere."

"I'm not a man."

Oh, for goodness sake!

"Angel, I've been sent to help you fix what needs fixing. Come on, man, not everyone gets personal service."

Nothing.

"Angel, the sun is going to be up any minute. Talk to me!"

Nothing.

"You want to die as a nobody then? As someone who was too weak to make a difference? Or as someone who didn't give a shit?"

Nothing.

"Look, it's awfully hard to have a meaningful conversation with a pile of ash. Can we continue this somewhere else? Like I said, there's always tomorrow to do this."

Nothing.

The eastern sky contains colours now, purples and pinks as well as the pale grey of clouds across the horizon. Each cloud is limned in silver, illuminated by the approaching sun. There's something romantic, even mythic, about sunrise, as if that simple event, that simple driving away of the shadows of night, could also wipe away all our doubts and fears and troubles; as if it could bring new hope to blighted lives. Just now, it's an extremely unwelcome ball of flaming gas, bringing death and destruction in its wake. And a world of pain for me.

Any second now, and the topmost sliver of sun will clear that hill. I look around for what I need. It's there almost at my feet, but I try again.

"Angel, do you think that you'll get any peace in the afterlife, if you go like this? Do you think this will make it all better? What are you looking for?"

And as the very first sliver, the thickness of a fingernail, tops the shadow of the hill, he answers.

"I'm praying for oblivion."

Okay, I can do that.

That's when I hit him, hard, from behind, with the rock that I have picked up. Twice, just to be sure. He's sick and weak, but it still pays to make sure. The line of light is racing down the hill, now, almost faster than the eye can follow. It will be here, on our hill, in the blink of an eye. I just have time to pull the blanket out of the satchel I'm carrying, and roll him in it. A quick fireman's lift, and we're off to the Powers' contingency plan, a culvert in the hillside.

I can't resist muttering, "Angel, I really don't have time for this suicide crap."

When we get into the culvert, I find a nice dry spot - well, as dry as it can be in a culvert - and rig up the chains I also have in my satchel. Like I said, it pays to be sure. I'm going to have to leave him here alone for a while, because I had no time to get supplies, and I can see that this guy is starved. Perhaps he'll feel better when he's eaten. Well, we can only hope.

There, manacles nice and secure, and we have one chained vampire. Sleep tight, Angel, I'll be back soon.

***

February

My name is Ezrafel. You may remember me. I am a demon from Hylek, and I was lucky enough to be the Keeper for the Master Vampire and the Slayer, the Mated Pair, during the Hylekian Games. When I have finished my treatise on them, it will be submitted for review by the Society of Merit. There is no greater academic honour here than admission to that august body. All that is on hold, though. We must first help them survive, we who consider ourselves bound to them.

Our king, Haraeth of the House of Orbath, has many cares in dealing with the aftermath of our civil war, but he does not forget that he owes his throne to Angelus and Buffy. It is more complicated than that, though. On Hylek, Angelus is his liegeman, lord of the Hantar estate. Here, heads of Houses have responsibilities to their liegemen. Is it not the same with you?

And to spice the brew a little more, Haraeth feels responsible for what happened. It was his House that persuaded the Mated Pair to fight in the games with promises of information on a new Hellmouth, a Hellmouth that we now know does not exist. Oh, we thought it did at the time. The Seers working for the Royal Household had found it, and they have never been wrong. Until now. We have consulted the Adraste, who found residual magic around the casting. Someone had interfered with the visions, someone of enormous power, but we don't know who. Our king feels the weight of this turn of events on his shoulders, and he is not inclined to differentiate between Angelus and Angel. He wants to help. But what to do?

He has called a counsel meeting. Not a meeting with his royal council, but a meeting of those who might give counsel to him in this specific matter. It is a very mixed bunch. We have the Watcher, who has brought the youngsters with him, including the witch and the werewolf; Angelus' servants, the Aventi and the Norags; his childer, Drusilla the Mad and William the Bloody; myself; and the Slayer and her mother. These are the people that Angelus considered to be his pride, his responsibility; at least, they are the ones we know about. These discussions will not be easy.

***

As a Watcher, I have had to do many difficult things, but this may be the most difficult of all. To simply watch. Now that she knows he is still alive, Buffy's first and only instinct is to go to Angel. At the moment, he is chained in a culvert, where he has been for the last two weeks. Whistler is caring for him, but for Buffy, it isn't enough.

We are all agreed, though. He ran from her, and in his state of mind, her presence could only make things worse. Spike will go and the rest of us will wait. She's not happy, but she sees the sense of it.

I was surprised by Orbath. He's young, of course, but he seems to have a lot of good sense. He's clearly tied to Angelus and Buffy in some very complicated ways, ties of debt and honour, and I don't see him letting go of those. I think that might be a good thing. Buffy needs as many friends around her as possible, whatever their species.

Her responsibilities will help her, too. Mind you, they should have helped Angel, but they haven't. She will remain mistress of the Hantar estate - there was never any doubt about that - but she will also remain mistress of Angelus' holdings on Earth. She'd fight to the death for the Hellmouth, of course. That, after all, is what she was born to do. But she is temporarily head of his family, his court. It's a court in waiting, and none of us know how long the waiting will be. Some of us hope the wait will be forever. I for one think that our world will be the better without Angelus. How can something so evil and vicious, so profoundly selfish, ever do any good? At least Angel might achieve something, if he can hold onto that soul.

The Hylekian seers say that the course of destiny is suddenly in flux. They can offer no advice. There are absolutely no beacons in the murk ahead. We must travel on instinct and in hope. They are on their guard now against distorting magic - that will not happen again - but the future is uncharted territory, even to the best of them. One thing, though, and one thing only can they tell us. The curse that has been re-cast on Angelus is the curse of the Rom. It still has the happiness clause. That is why Spike is going. I insisted. Angel would have wanted me to.

So, we will carry on as best we can. And we will watch.

***

March

I have written as much of my treatise as I can, but there is a great deal still to do, and I have yet to draw my conclusions. I think those will be some time coming. Still we watch and wait. Spike, Angelus' childe, went to see him. The one called Whistler left them alone together. Events showed that to be a wise decision.

Spike could not restrain himself. He shouted and raged and accused Angelus...Angel, I must learn to call him Angel, now...of abandoning us, of abandoning him. At first, it seems, Angel simply cowered away from him, unable to face him, withdrawing as far as the chains would permit. Then Spike accused him of abandoning the Slayer, of making her into his mate, then destroying her life. Of burying the better demon beneath the weight of the soul. Something seemed to snap in...Angel...then, and he leapt for Spike with such fury that he broke the chains. They fought, and at the end it was Angel who demonstrated his mastery of Spike in the accepted Sire/childe way. They had sex and it involved blood, and the exercise of dominance. Blood, sex and power - the way in which vampires view those things, and use them, is fascinating. Spike told me of their importance on that terrible trip back from Canada, and I see now how those things rule their lives. I wonder how Angel will manage without any of them? At least, Spike and the Slayer tell me that he won't use them in the way that Angelus is accustomed to. They say that, although Angel's nature is still that of a vampire, he will deny everything about himself that is demonic. Surely that isn't healthy?

And after all, the exercise of a Sire's rights over his childe seemed to break a spell that has held Angel in its grasp since we found him. Our seers now are sure that a great deal of magic was worked on him, including something that sent him back to that newly ensouled state of madness that he endured in your year of 1898. Now, I am told, he at least seems to be the vampire that he was before he lost the soul, a little over two years ago. And he's safe to be left.

It was difficult for Spike to speak of these things to the Slayer, but he did so, in the end. I was there, too, a great privilege. She has appointed me as Keeper of their records. Their Chronicler. Apparently she has no wish for anything to find its way back to the Council of Watchers, an untrustworthy, overly self-aggrandising organisation, it seems to me, and her Watcher concurs. I have his diaries now, for safekeeping. They are fascinating.

The fact that Angel is no longer in the grip of madness was a comfort to her, but she misses him dreadfully. So do his childer. Still, at least he seems safe from self-harm now. Perhaps she will be better able to concentrate on ridding this town of some truly dreadful evil that has settled here, and is hunting demons. But not to kill. They are whispering about experiments and the military. If so, it's inhuman. Our word for that is different, of course, but the meaning is the same.

Meantime, we have watched Whistler help Angel find accommodation, and a purpose, and then leave. Cordelia, the cheerleader, has disappeared from Sunnydale - such quaint names your towns have - following a visit from some Government officials to her family. She seemed to leave in reduced circumstances. Something to do with taxes. And we have seen her meet with Angel in this city, Los Angeles. At least he is not entirely alone now.

November

The Seers in Hylek have told us of a great danger to the vampire, both to his body and his soul, although they cannot say what it is. They believe it to be initiated by the one who left him in the cave, or that one's master. In that case, bearing in mind what happened then, and the power of the magic used, it is a miracle they can see anything at all. Angel has never spoken of his ordeal in the cave, but the Seers have sketched out some very discomforting outlines. What we do not understand at all was the motive. That is a concern.

The Seers say that trying to foresee events now is like gazing into the heart of a star. Destiny is still in flux. Futures are being burned away. They have no landmarks to steer by. But danger seems to threaten him in a way that threatens fate, too. The Slayer cannot be restrained. She has gone to him. She doesn't care about fate, only him. The Seers were dismayed, saying she would make matters worse. They have gone into a huddle and now refuse to speak to anyone. This doesn't look like a good sign to me. They have done one thing, and one thing only before going into seclusion - they have given me an address and some instructions, and they say the Slayer will need this if and when things go wrong. I am very confused. The Post Office?

***

'If only it were possible to love without injury - fidelity isn't enough...The hurt is in the act of possession: we are too small in mind and body to possess another person without pride or to be possessed without humiliation.'
Graham Greene
'The Quiet American' (1955) pt 2 ch 3

I haven't seen Angel since New Year, since he ran away from me, and I have a fluttering in my stomach. To be honest, I feel sick. I don't know what will happen when he sees me. Will he leave me again? Will he simply send me away?

I've checked into a motel - I don't want to pressure him by asking to stay at his apartment, and I can't risk being alone with him, not until things are clearer. Who would I be alone with the next morning, anyway, Angel or Angelus? Would I really mind? See? Too dangerous. Not for me. For you.

And now I'm on my way to see him. I didn't call to say I was coming. He doesn't know to expect me. I'm so afraid. I wish I were battling vampires... although I suppose I am, in a way. I can feel myself retreat behind a shield of formality - this is going to be a prickly encounter. It's probably best that way. Okay, here's the office door. I can do this.

"Hello, Cordelia. Angel."

I can't get any more words out. He's taken my breath away, as he always does. Physically, I can see that he's recovered from his ordeal in Canada, but I'm not sure about the rest. He has a haunted look to his eyes - well, it was always there in Angel, when he had his soul, but this is different. Before, it was just the weight of his sins, but bad as that was, it seems worse now - as if the weight of the world were on his shoulders. I wonder if I've done that, or is it something to do with the work he has here? I wish I knew. He manages to speak.

"Buffy."

He's never said my name quite like that before. Longing, and pain, for sure, but he sounds as if he's given up, as if he's warding off a haunting dream. All that in a single word. My being here might be a mistake. He looks as if I'd just punched him in the gut. In fact, I think he would have preferred that. I think that I should just have watched, stalked him, kept him safe in secret. No, that would never have worked. He's better at using the bond than I am yet. He would have known I was there. Well, Angelus would. Surely the same applies to Angel? Doesn't it?

He's inviting me down to the apartment. Cordelia is looking at me as if he's inviting a plague carrier in. Perhaps he is.

It's very Angel, down here. Not all that different to Angelus, either. Weapons all neatly displayed and ready to hand. Minimal dÚcor, but what there is, is all of the best, deep colours and rich textures, just as he always liked. Soft lighting. It's easy to forget how sensitive his eyes are. Impossible to forget how much I love him. And I'm babbling because I'm so on edge.

We exchange small greetings, the things you concentrate on when you can't say the big things, and then I tell him that he is in danger from the one who left him in the cave. I say it very quickly, because I can see what the memory does to him.

"I'm in danger all the time, Buffy." He stops. I know it's because he can't squeeze any more words out through the lump in his throat. Neither can I. Then I can no longer bear it. I close the distance between us and place my finger on his lips. I *know* that we cannot be together here and now; I *know* that he has to find his own place, his own equilibrium; Ezrafel and Giles have told me often enough for me to believe it. In his own way, so has Spike. But I cannot bear that he keeps shrinking back from me, as if by touching me he would pollute me. That simply has to stop. Or perhaps he thinks I might pollute him? No, don't go there.

I move my hand from his mouth, and stroke his cheek, gently, as if he were a wild creature, about to take flight, and he almost does.

"Angel. There's a lot to say between us, but not here, and not now. You aren't ready to hear it, and maybe I'm not ready to say it. Just know this."

And I kiss him. I don't have the words, and actions speak louder than words, anyway. He seems to hear me, though. He's hesitant at first, heartbreakingly shy, and then he's just Angel, and he's kissing me, as I'm kissing him, as if our souls could touch, and speak naked words of love. His arms are around me, as mine are around him, and his hands slide up my back as if they had never stopped doing this. Just like mine.

It is me that breaks the kiss. Slowly and gently. He drops his hands as I pull away. I look at him, and try to tell him with my eyes what I want to say. Suddenly, I wonder whether my thoughts are being carried to him on my scent. I think that might be true. It gives me an idea.

"And know this."

We are close to the kitchen area. I take a knife from the block and drag my palm up the blade. His expression can only be described as anguished. And needy. I press my bloody palm to his lips. His eyes close, but he doesn't pull away. His tongue, tentative and reluctant, gathers up the blood.

"Yours. I am always yours. No matter what. In this life and the next."

"Buffy, you should forget about me. I can bring you nothing but pain."

He pauses and takes a deep, unnecessary and shuddering breath, steadying himself for what he is about to say.

"If you could have your choice, what is the one thing in the world you would wish for?"

His voice sounds harsher, as if he is steeling himself to do something. He knows the answer to this. We used to talk about it sometimes, on patrol.

"A picket fence, kids, a dog. You."

"And I want you to have all those things. But you can't. You can't have a normal life, and me. I'm not human, and I'm never going to be human again. Ever. I would give up everything I ever had to be human for you, but I'm not and I can't. Forget me. Find yourself a human boy who can take you out in the sunlight. Who won't do to you the things that I did."

Oh, my poor demon.

Full frontal attack, then.

"What did you taste in my blood? TELL ME! And tell me the truth."

He shakes his head. I raise my voice even more. Cordelia will hear, but I don't care.

"TELL ME!"

He turns away from me, and I really don't know where this is going to go when the light from the window suddenly darkens and the glass shatters. A body tumbles into the room, in full fighting stance. A demon. And it's big. It's all padded up with that quilted armour that samurai use, and a helmet. A battle demon, then. With a very big, curved sword. I remember that the sword is called a katana. Right now? A rose by any other name can still chop your head off. And it's got a second, short, sword still sheathed. This is going to be fun.

Angel gets to the demon first. Why does he have to do that? I'm the Slayer, I don't need protection. Since he has, though, I take the opportunity to run to the nearest weapons display to grab a couple of swords. I'm only gone a few seconds, but even so, it's clear that this is one very strong fighter. Angel has a claw mark on one cheek that's already fading, but the broken furniture tells me that he got flung across the room - very hard. I toss him a broadsword, one that I remember was always his favourite, just as the demon lunges for him with its own. And, for the second time, he's in front of me, protecting me from the charge, even though it's clear that the demon is more interested in him than in me. At least, that's what I think. This fighter has come specifically for him.

He brings his own sword hard down onto the katana, forcing his opponent to let go of it. This time, the demon tries to grapple him. I recognise the manoeuvre. It's trying to break his neck. I charge in from the side while it's busy trying to get a hold on him, and it certainly seems to want to concentrate on him rather than me. That works well, because he manages to put an enormous burst of strength into a blow to its throat and it staggers backwards, towards me. I simply have to hold out my own sword for the demon to fall on it. And it does.

It's messy, though, with strings of green goop flowing over the sword and onto my hand. And although it's very badly wounded, it isn't dead. It tears itself from the blade, catches up its own weapon and tumbles deliberately backwards through the broken window. We rush over to catch sight of it, both of us at the same time, and for a split second our bodies touch from shoulder to hip to thigh.

My mouth goes dry, and I almost don't see the wounded demon slip into a sewer entrance. I think Angel almost misses it, too, but we need to focus. We cannot allow a wounded battle demon loose in the city.

"There's a tunnel entrance here."

Angel points to a grating in the floor. Well, there would be, wouldn't there? I go first, grabbing a cloth on the way down to clean the demon goop from my hand. I don't want my grip on the sword slipping in blood at the wrong moment. And the demon blood is stinging the cut on my palm. The cut that's almost healed.

Angel clearly knows his way around the underground tunnels by now, and it's only a matter of minutes before we find traces of green blood. The trail peters out very shortly afterwards, and it seems that the demon has staunched the bleeding somehow. Not much further, and I start to feel very strange indeed. Hot, with ice-cold spiders crawling inside me. That's the best description I can give. I have to stop for a second with my hand against the wall, supporting me. My arm is trembling. He's with me in a moment, his arm around my shoulders, concern written all over his face.

"I'm okay, I just feel really weird. It'll pass. Let's get going."

I'm talking big, but I'm not sure it will pass soon at all. I'm beginning to feel really weak, as if I had a sudden attack of flu. You know, where your bones seem hot and not made of bone. Jelly, maybe, but not bone.

"No."

He puts that cool hand to my forehead, and it's like a spring breeze in the desert. I'm burning up.

"Come on, I'll get you back."

He bends to pick me up, and I cannot bear that...I remember too many other times when he - or Angelus - has carried me so. I push him away, and hand the sword over.

"Just take me to the nearest entrance, and I'll get a cab back to the motel."

He gets the mulish look - one that I know very well - but I forestall him.

"I'll be fine. I'll call you tomorrow." I take a deep breath. "Angel, I can't stay with you - it's not safe for either of us."

He knows I'm right, and he takes me to the nearest exit. It's daylight, so he can't come with me, but he boosts me up the ladder as far as he can. Something is nagging at me, and I decide to take a chance.

"Angel, he's you, too. Cut him some slack. Please."

Before he can reply, I'm gone.

When I get back to the motel, I call Giles. The weird sensations are beginning to pass, but I feel as weak as a baby. I give him as good a description of the demon as I can - big, green-skinned, armoured, Samurai sword, jewel in its forehead like a third eye. And I tell him about the green, glowing blood leaking into my cut, although I don't tell him how I got the cut. It must have something to do with how I feel. I can think of no other explanation. Then I lie down to sleep. I feel battered and bruised all over.

It's dark when Giles calls me back. His voice is serious.

"Buffy, you need to come home."

"Giles, I haven't finished what I came here to do."

There's a silence on the line, and I don't like the sound of it. Eventually, he speaks again.

"Buffy, we don't think you *can* finish it."

"Why? What do you know?"

"Just come home. We can talk about it then."

"Stop being cryptic guy. What do you know?"

The silence is louder this time.

"We might be wrong, of course, but we think it was a Mohra demon."

"So what's a Murray demon?"

"Mohra. They are warriors of darkness, sent to take out warriors from the other side. Warriors like you."

"But it came for Angel. He was the one it concentrated on."

"Then it may come back for him. We think this was definitely the danger we were warned of, but you got in the way. Buffy...go and hit something, anything."

"What?"

"Please - just do it."

I walk into the bathroom and hit the tiled wall as hard as I can. For a moment, the pain is all consuming. I think I may have broken my hand. The tiles are untouched. When I get back to the 'phone, I'm frightened of what Giles will say.

"What's happened to me, Giles?"

Another one of those silences, stretching from here to Sunnydale.

"Mohra demons can regenerate themselves indefinitely, unless they're killed in the right way. We think that its blood has regenerated you."

"Giles, what aren't you saying?"

Even over the telephone, I can hear the emotions in Giles' voice when he eventually answers. Pain. Fear. Love.

"Remember when the Hylekian shaman was examining your blood for traces of werewolf, and he said that your power came from something that wasn't quite soul and wasn't quite demon, but demon was the closer of the two? That you have something at the core of you that is...different?"

I remember. How could I ever forget? He goes on.

"We think that something, that power, has gone. We think you've been regenerated as a normal human."

We talk for a little longer. No, that's not true. Giles talks, meaningless words of reassurance, and I sit in stunned silence. At last I can muster enough reason to ask one question.

"Am I still the Slayer?"

His voice is very gentle, the one you use to a loved one in deep grief.

"You're human, Buffy. Your powers are gone."

Human. I no longer have to save the world. That is now someone else's responsibility. It should be a whole new future opening up for me, but it feels like a loss. Something in which I felt a proper pride has been taken from me, before I was quite ready to let it go. I am no longer what I was. No longer *who* I was. So who am I now?

He insists on telling me one more thing. Giving me an address that Ezrafel has for me. It's meaningless, but he makes me write it down and put it in my pocket. It was given, he says, for when things go wrong, and perhaps that is now. Under the Post Office? And take a gift? I sit there for a very long time after hanging up the phone. Then I curl up on the bed, although sleep is a million miles away. I stay like that, my body numb, my mind in meltdown, for another very long time. A very long time indeed. Then I realise that there is only one place I want to be. One person to tell. One person who will understand and perhaps comfort me. Angel.

I hadn't realised how much time had passed. It's afternoon again. I should be hungry, but the thought of food makes me nauseous.

When I get to his office door, my nerve almost fails me. What will he think of me? Will he feel differently now that I am fully human? Did he love Buffy the Slayer, the dark and light of me, or did he just love Buffy, whoever she was? Angel, that is. I can't bear to even think about his dark half, and who it was that he might have loved.

When I can muster the courage to walk in, the office is empty. I look in Cordelia's desk diary. The afternoon section for today contains just two words in large print. 'StayGone Audition.' She's gone for an *advertising audition*? And she's left the door unlocked on a sleeping vampire? Left him vulnerable to the world. I'll kill her if any harm has come to him. Perhaps I'll just kill her anyway.

My heart is thudding against my ribs as I walk as stealthily as I can - less so than I could have done yesterday - down the stairs to his apartment. It's pumping very human blood around to my leaden limbs. I'm full of fear, making me stiff and clumsy; fear of finding just a small pile of ash.

The bedroom door is ajar. He's there, unharmed. He's beautiful. That isn't a word you can use about many men, but it's perfect for him. There's only a blood red sheet and a richly woven coverlet, in clean jewel colours, both of which are pushed down to his waist. He's lying on his left side, curled into a ball, his fists knotted, even in sleep. His face looks troubled. I don't think he's getting much rest, then.

His right shoulder is curved inwards a little, showing his tattoo. I still have the inked copy of it on my right shoulder, with an omega instead of the 'A', the alpha. It's a reminder of the Games and of what came after. Ezrafel says mine can be removed by magic, but otherwise it will stay, continually renewing itself, fed by the magic that created it and by the magic within us.

The magic within us.

Surely there's a mirror in the bathroom! If nowhere else, surely he has one there! He does. I tear off my top and turn around. All that I can see in that hateful mirror is skin. Nothing else.

It's then that I understand what I can only call the silence.

When you're in a room with a ticking clock, at first you notice it all the time, then it fades into the background and becomes just a comfortable sound that you only hear when you want to. Or when the clock stops ticking. Then the silence is very loud indeed.

It has been the same with Angel's presence. Our bond means that I am always aware of him in some measure, but I have become accustomed to it, like the clock. It's a comfort, and I can focus on it whenever I want. And it isn't there any more.

The magic has truly left me, and I am less than I was. At least I am in all the ways that have mattered to me in the last 4 years. Still, this is my chance to start my life over, right? To leave the cares of the Slayer behind me and just be a normal girl? Surely I should grasp this opportunity with both hands? Why, then, do I have such a feeling of loss?

It's as I am putting my top back on that I hear the grate of shifting metal from somewhere in the apartment. I look towards the entrance to the tunnels, and see the Mohra demon hoisting itself up through the opening. A sound from the bedroom tells me that Angel is awake. I realise then, without even taking the time to think, that I know so little about him, as opposed to Angelus. Is he one of those guys who's up and ready for anything? Or does he take a few minutes to get it together? Angelus had the waking reflexes of a cat, all tooth and claw. Is Angel the same? It might be the difference between life and death today. And I'm not the Slayer anymore, but it seems I've still got the job to do this one last time.

Before the Mohra can clear the entrance, I race to the nearest weapons display and pull down a sword and an axe - the first things I can reach.

"Angel! The Mohra!"

And then I'm in the bedroom, with the Mohra closing fast. It looks much bigger than last time. Angel is naked. There is no time to drink down the sight of him, so I toss him the axe and turn to face the demon.

I take a practiced swing with the sword - at least my muscles remember their years of training - but even though it feels heavier than my arms will bear for long, I might as well be hitting the demon with a strand of spaghetti. It brushes me out of the way with a blow that lands me outside the bedroom door. Angel fares better - his axe bites into the Mohra's hip but, in return, that curved sword catches him in the ribs.

The Mohra is still ignoring me, and so I reach for another sword, this one a short, stabbing one, and toss that to my vampire. It's only left to me then to move out of the way as the fight leaves the confines of the bedroom and moves into the main apartment. Whenever I can, I try to get in some stabs from behind, and once, I get a swing at the Mohra's neck. It would have worked, too, but I'm neither quick enough nor strong enough. The demon simply reaches behind itself and knocks the sword from my hand. But my effort has distracted it.

Angel buries his axe in that thick neck. As he does so, he tries to fend off the katana with his gladius, although my experience tells me he expects the Mohra to sheathe its own sword in him somewhere. He's accepted that such a wound will be the price of getting close enough for what should be a killing blow. Warriors need to do that, sometimes.

The Mohra surprises both of us, though. Angel's blow isn't mortal, although it does finish this particular combat, because the Mohra staggers back to the tunnel entrance. But not before it has taken a huge swing with the lethal sword it carries, and then hit Angel so hard on the temple with its fist that he lies crumpled and unconscious on the floor. On its way out, it pulls the axe from that place where its neck meets the shoulder and tosses it onto the floor.

As it prepares to leap down into the tunnels, it smiles at me, a smile full of secret, malicious knowledge. Then it speaks.

"Together you were strong. Alone you will be powerless. Both of you." Then it is gone.

All I have is bruises and hurt pride. Angel lies naked and unconscious on the floor, bleeding from a slash across his ribs, and his injured right arm cradled across his chest. Part of it, anyway. The rest lies about two feet away. That last swing of the Mohra's sword has severed it halfway between wrist and elbow.

Can vampires grow new limbs? I don't know.

It feels as if I'm in a dream. A nightmare. Nothing seems real; I can't seem to touch anything that feels real, as I crawl on hands and knees over to my lover. The air seems as if it's solid, though, and I can't get my breath. My mind and my body seem to be two different people, and the mind person is paralysed by the horror of it.

My body does the next thing on its own. I have no control, I swear. I stand up and walk over to the axe. It is covered in demon blood. I carry that, and Angel's arm, back to where he lies. I watch myself coat the wounds on both parts with the demon's blood from the axe, and I hold the parts together. Then my body closes my eyes and my mind prays. I stay like that for several long minutes.

When I open my eyes again, his arm is whole and unblemished. Somehow, I had known that would be the case. But there have been other changes. Angel is regaining consciousness. And he is warm. I can hear his heart beat. My own heart soars at the sound. The future is ours.

***

The first thing I realise as I regain consciousness is that Buffy is lying with her arms around me, amongst the wreckage left by the fight. The second thing is that I can no longer hear her in my blood. Before the distress of that can really hit me, I understand that, although I can't hear Buffy, my body is very noisy indeed. The loudest sound is the rush of blood through my veins. My heart is beating. A miracle has happened. I am alive. Just as the prophecy said would happen. The prophecy that I have never dared to share with her, although everything within me has desperately wanted to for weeks, ever since Wesley finished translating it during his brief stay here. The prophecy that, deep down, I thought was just another torment from Wolfram & Hart. Or at best, perhaps, a carrot from the Powers that Be. A lie, concocted to keep me enslaved.

Buffy coaxes me to my feet - I'm having trouble taking all of this in - and she leads me to the shower. We are, after all, covered in sweat and blood, not all of it red. As we shower, she explains to me that blood from the demon, mixing with mine, has regenerated me.

As it did with her yesterday.

I cannot hope to describe the emotions sheeting through me as I begin to understand the changes that have been made to us, and the implications. I am no longer a vampire, she is no longer a slayer, and we have a future ahead of us. One in which it seems possible to include picket fences, kids and dogs. And her.

This is a gift from a demon, though. Nothing will be what it seems, I'm certain of that. Something must remain, a worm in this Eden's apple, surely? Is this truly the humanity that was prophesied?

But we are here and now. Let the future wait for a few minutes. The hot water from the showerhead prickles my skin quite differently to the way it did yesterday. The feel of Buffy's hands on my flesh as she kneels to soap my legs - oh, dear God, I never thought this would ever happen again - the feel is different to when my body was cool and dead and demonic. Her hands burned like a welcome fire, then. Now they are like the touch of silk, the whispering wings of a butterfly.

She stands up, soap in one hand, and turns me round to face the wall, intent on finishing off what she has started. I hear her sharp intake of breath.

"Buffy, what is it? What's wrong?"

She leans against me, her whole body cleaving to me, her arms around me. I have somehow kept myself in check until now, but I cannot, cannot bear it any longer. I am hard and ready for her. More than ready. Then she answers.

"Your tattoo."

"Yes?"

"It's gone."

My ties with the Aurelians, with Aurelius himself, are gone. I can no longer feel my family, my pride, those for whom I should be responsible. They aren't mine any longer.

I truly am human. Why do I feel such a sense of loss? A sense of being no one and nothing? Of being separated from everything that has defined me for the best part of three centuries. Is that because I am a clean slate? Have all those terrible acts I committed been wiped out? How could that be? If I needed to make reparation yesterday, if I needed to atone this morning, how can my sins be wiped clean today, my life given back anew this afternoon? I am still me. Aren't I? If not, who am I?

When I came here, I was like the Hired Man. I had nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope. For different reasons, of course, but the effect was the same.

That was me, without point or purpose. The Powers offered me a chance at redemption, but that has always seemed so far away, something that would be hard earned. Then I found the prophecy, that I might one day be in a state of being that allowed me to be with the woman I loved. If she still lived when the time came. The prophecy that I doubted - had to doubt, to keep my sanity. Is this it, though? In the short time since I came here, how can I have done enough to earn a reward?

Then all thoughts of existential philosophy are driven from me as her little hands travel over my body. Every fibre of my being has thirsted for her as a man in the desert thirsts for water, but some parts have made that thirst a little more evident than others. I turn, and wrap my arms around her. Even after a long drought, and even with only human stamina between us, I don't want this to be over too quickly. After all, I still have two hundred and fifty years of experience. That should count for something. I may have my weaknesses, but knowing how to please a woman isn't one of them.

As I bend to this most pleasurable of tasks, I want to worship her body, to come to her as a supplicant and show her how much I adore everything that is her. But there is something even more urgent. She has her legs wrapped around my waist, and I could take her here and now, against the tiled wall of the shower, with the cooling water sliding over our skin. I hold her to me with some effort - even one as slight as she is heavier than she would have been when I was a vampire - and carry her towards the bedroom. As the urgency overwhelms me, the bedroom is too far. I sweep all the crockery from the kitchen table and lay her back onto its wooden surface. There is something that I must do, and it has less to do with love than with other emotions. Emotions I had forgotten that humans might recognise and own - a fierce and savage pride of possession. Perhaps it is better to do this here, than in my bed, where I want her to know only love. I am no longer able to smell where he has been, but I know that he has been here, and I want him gone. This woman is mine, and I am going to take her and wipe away from her body and her mind every vestige of the demon she said she loved. Although it's impossible, I want to sink my teeth into her neck and make sure that his scent no longer taints her blood. Mine.

***

He's sleeping now. We've made love for hours, and we are spent and exhausted. We're human now, after all. I thought he was going to take me in the shower, but he managed to get as far as the kitchen. The kitchen table was fine by me. His lovemaking there seemed almost...Angelus-like. He made sure that every part of me was screaming for his attention, but there was a hint of savagery, of wildness, of *possession*, that belonged to my demon.

Then he carried me into the bedroom and showed me that 250 years of experience hadn't been forgotten in the transition to human. I can't wait to sample all of it. Everything. And we have all the years of our lives to come.

We took a break a couple of hours ago, and sent out for groceries. He says that before, when he tasted human food, it always seemed to lack savour, to be bland and insipid, like a stew without salt and herbs. At least, that's how he's always described it. It wasn't blood, you see. Now? Well, let's just say he's discovered a whole new world. And it really is, because most of this stuff wasn't around when he was last human. Cookie dough fudge mint chip ice cream, for example. So, while there are things he's going to show me, there are definitely things I can show him.

One of those things is how much I love him. During another brief, quiet period of recovery, we talked about the future. Our future. A home. Children. A life together. No monsters, no curses, nothing but the normal human trials, and those we can deal with, together.

There is only one thing that I regret. Well, a couple, perhaps. Being the Slayer defined who I was, and although it was hard, and separated me from the rest of the world, I mattered. I made a difference. Will I miss that? Will I look for the next Chosen one, and bitch about whether I could have done better? Yes, in all honesty, I think so. Would I trade it for what I have been given? No, never. Everything has a price, and this is one I'm happy to pay.

The second thing? Need you ask? It's shameful, considering the calling that I have just lost. I will miss my demon. I loved him. He was part of Angel, and I loved him. He may have been vicious and evil, but he had some surprising aspects. And he loved me. How could I not miss him? Neither of us are quite what we were, but it will be enough. We will make sure that it is.

We agreed earlier that I would stay here for a few days, move my things from the motel. A few days in which to start planning the rest of our lives. Then I need to get back to Sunnydale, to college. After all, if I am no longer the Slayer, and he is no longer a champion, we will need to earn a living some other way. Education might actually matter, if I'm going to live long enough to benefit from it.

I've left him a note on the pillow to say that I'll be there and back as fast as the cabs can go.

Cordelia isn't there. She has been, though; there's a note on her desk: 'Angel, a man called from Egypt. He sounded expensive. Wanted to know about you and Buffy. I think he was worried about something, but wouldn't leave his name or number. If you know him, give me the address and I'll send him our business terms.'

Someone wanted to know about Angel and me? Who would I know in Egypt? I'll ask him when I get back.

***

He's dead. I can't feel him, so he's dead. My Sire. Oh, yes, I can always feel him, but I'm only aware of it when I concentrate on him. Are you aware of the blood flowing through your veins? Of the hormones speeding around your body? Of the press of air against your skin as you simply sit in a room? Most of the time, no, you aren't. That is what it is like with us. I can feel him, a part of me, but it's at a subconscious level. What I can feel now is...nothing. He's simply gone. Only death does that.

And Aurelius has just telephoned. I didn't even know he had the number here. All those months we spent in Egypt, and I never saw Aurelius out of countenance. He was trying to be calm, now, but he's panicked and full of fear. I can tell. He asked about the Slayer, too. Can he feel her? Are they both dead, my Sire and his mate? They'd bloody well better not be, now that I have this family again. A family that I missed for a hundred years.

I've fought against his authority, I've cursed him and made his life a misery. But I love him. Him, not that pale and spineless Soul. Him. Let him not be dead.

But I can't feel him.

If she is involved, though, I had better speak to the Watcher. He needs to be warned. Perhaps we can make things right. When we have tried everything else - *everything* - only then will it be time for mourning.

***

She's gone when I wake up, but her note tells me she won't be long. Perhaps not long enough for something I need to do. I am worried that what we have been given will not last, that we will revert to what we were. To what I was. Or that there are consequences that we cannot foresee. The worm in the apple. I know where to go to ask the question - Whistler gave me an address when he first brought me here. Real emergencies only. This might be one. Maybe it can wait a little longer, though, to find out whether this is a poisoned apple. Maybe it will be all right to just enjoy what is. For a little while.

And I need to find out who and what I am. I have been a vampire for so long that I can't remember how to be human. But perhaps it's like riding a bicycle - it will all come back to me.

I don't know what I am, though. I thought I was going to be a warrior for the Powers that Be. I have been, for the last few months. What am I now? I don't imagine there's much call for a linen merchant's failure of a son. And I am such a weak man. I've always been weak. I remember thinking often that it was not only the demon in me that needed killing, that the man did, too. Can the man be strong without the demon?

And what about atonement? I cannot have earned peace yet, I am sure of that. There is just too much that I have done. Too much deliberate, selfish evil over too long a time. How am I, a human, to atone for such demonic deeds? Perhaps the Oracles can tell me.

At least, with God's good grace, it seems I won't have to deal with her request. That might have been the hardest thing of all. To cut him some slack. After all, he isn't part of me any more.

***

It's dark and cold here, and I must keep moving, keep trying to find somewhere - other. I don't know where I am. Not exactly. My senses are blinded. That's what this place does to you. But I know what I am. Dead. Not dead as in undead. Not dead as in a vampire. I am simply dead. My mate has killed me. That much I know. And she wasn't exactly my mate when she did. Still, it isn't quite the behaviour of a loyal and loving mate, now, is it? I should feel angry, but I don't. Perhaps it's something to do with glands. I don't have any, here. I'm just a wraith, a spirit. A non-corporeal demon.

That doesn't seem to mean that I can't feel, though. I believe that I have been here a long time and - they - have been pursuing me all this time. I have been harried through different lands in this place, wherever this is. Oh, they could catch me any time they liked, I think. They prefer the fun of the chase, allowing me to have a little hope that I may have won free of them, although I know that I have not, really. The Erinnyes. The Furies. I know them. Alecto, Tisiphone and Megaera. Three beauties sent from Tartarus to punish wrongdoers, especially those who have killed their kin. Like me. But I'm a demon. I'm *meant* to do things like that. Why do they chase me? I'm not the Soul.

The sound of their wings is the first indication you have that they have found you - those leathery, bat wings, beating through the air. The faint sound of it in your ears, the brush of displaced air on your skin - I'm naked here - these are the things that tell you, warn you of what is to come. You don't see them here. I've told you, it's dark in this particular place, this special corner of Hell that they have driven me to. I mean dark. Absolutely no light of any sort. Blind.

Then they choose how to harry you. They have snakes for hair. Just like Medusa. If they choose to use those, you can expect to feel those sharp little fangs somewhere on your body. Anywhere. They especially go for the places that are most sensitive, feel the most pain. Do I need to spell it out? There are three of them, so they have plenty of coverage. And it isn't just the bite. They inject a toxin from all those dozens of little mouths. It's like fire. They have had me screaming many, many times.

Or they have teeth and claws. They have the heads of dogs, with blackened and savage fangs. Not sharp teeth; that wouldn't hurt so much as they tear into you. These are big and blunt and stinking with shreds of rotted flesh. It's probably my own by now. If they choose to use those, they simply rip the flesh from your body; gobbets of it, left bleeding into the muck. I can't see it here, of course, but I've seen it in the other places. They aren't all dark. I have no real body, you see, but that doesn't help. I remember the body, and that is quite enough. I don't know whether I remember the pain or imagine it, but that's quite enough, too. It heals, of course. Every single time.

Or they simply use those wings to herd me in whichever direction they choose. The last time they did that, I could still see, could still *anticipate* what they were herding me towards. That makes it worse in some ways. It was a lava field, just cooling. Between the smouldering rock and the slicingly sharp edges, my feet were burned and shredded. They still are. I don't always heal as quickly as I did when I was - alive.

Why have they come for me, these creatures of Hell? What, because they are spoken of in myth, you think that they don't exist, that they are figments of my imagination? What do you know, human? I can very easily make a believer of you. Come here and change places.

They pursue you humans in life, you know, as remorse, guilt, and shame. Well, most of you. Not me, of course. But here, they are made manifest. Given flesh. And jaws.

And so I must keep moving. They are my own personal Furies, and they have forever to hunt me. I can run. Or I can hide; but I've found nowhere to do that. Nowhere they cannot follow. So I run until my legs can no longer bear me, until the agony they have inflicted on me is beyond even my capacity, until I can do nothing but lie as a weeping, shuddering ball of too solid flesh. Then they can have their way with me. They gather around, stroking me, fondling me, using every wile known to woman to ensure that every nerve I have is aflame with desire. I often used to like to do that with my own victims. Make their nerves as receptive as possible. It makes the agony you then inflict even more exquisite. I learned that from Darla. I wonder if these ones taught her everything she knew? If they did, they didn't teach her everything *they* knew, I can attest to that.

I can't stay here. Hell is not what it should be. I am a demon, damn it! I should be welcome here. Why am I not? I *must* win back my freedom. Win back my life, my mate. Everything is for sale, even here. The only question is the price. Can it be afforded? And who must pay? But I must keep moving, and find someone, anyone, willing and able to trade.

And I must keep moving, because here they come again.

***

So little to pack. A few clothes - I didn't intend to be here for long. As for weapons, I only brought stakes; I knew that Angel would have enough of everything else. Before I start, I decide to put in a call to Giles, let him know that I'll be staying for a few days. Let him know what's happened. He'll understand.

When I talk to him, though, his voice is strained, and he doesn't seem exactly pleased to hear from me. No, that's not right. It's as if he dreaded hearing from me, but knew it had to be done. He listens to me, though, and is shocked by what has happened to Angel. I can't bring myself to say that I did it. Not yet. I ask him whether the next Slayer is coming to the Hellmouth. I have to ask him to repeat his reply.

"Buffy, there is no other Slayer."

"But Giles, there's *always* a slayer. She must not have been chosen yet." Kendra's death hadn't resulted in another Slayer being called. I was the one and only. There must always be one. Mustn't there?

I can hear his sigh over the phone.

"Buffy, because I'm older than you, and a Watcher, it doesn't mean that I'm always perfectly right, I'm afraid. I wish it did, that everything I did and said was exactly so. In this case, I was wrong. There *is* a slayer. She just doesn't have any powers any more."

He explains, as for the second time in twenty-four hours, I sit incapable of movement or thought. When he has finished, I don't give him a chance to say more - I hang up with barely a goodbye.

Powers are given to the chosen one to allow her to fulfil her calling, but, with or without those powers, she is still the Slayer. It's a permanent state of affairs. Only death ends the tenure. There's no retirement plan. So long as I live, there will be no other slayer. And I'm not enough. I'll probably die in the first battle. I don't even have my guardian demon to protect me, my beloved vampire in either of his guises. He's dead, and Angel is only human. I don't want either of us to die. I want to live for him. And I want him to live for me.

But I'm what I always wanted to be - normal. So is he. Damn it all to hell.

I stand up to pace - perhaps I'll think better if I pace. As I do, I thrust my hands into my pockets, and feel a square of paper. Under the Post Office. Take a gift. What more have I got to lose?

When they let me in, I enter a hall that has doorways that seem to go on forever. Two...beings...Oracles, my paper says, come towards me. They look as if they've overdone the blue body paint and gold artwork. They also look unhappy to see me. I offer my gift - best Belgian truffles. Well, how was I to know who I was visiting? What does 'under the Post Office' say to you?

Still, they seem pleased. Perhaps they don't get too many goodies down here.

"What are you doing here, mortal? You have forfeited your heritage and stolen another. What do you think to do here?"

'Stolen another?' What do they mean by that? But they seem to know what has happened to me.

"My powers have been taken from me, but I am still the Slayer. Without them I cannot be what I was born to be. I will die. Can you help?" Well, I must have been given the address for a reason.

"What is done is done. The future goes on from the past, albeit a different one. A Slayer dies, another is chosen."

Enough with the philosophy!

"My Watcher and the Hylekians say that the Mohra demon was sent to take out a warrior for your cause. It came for Angel, but it took both of us. Can you give me back my powers? So that I can fight again?"

"The Mohra didn't take both of you. You were the one that took your mate's destiny. You killed the vampire, and did the work of the Mohra. We cannot help."

I don't want to think about that.

"You don't understand! I need to be able to fight. I need to be able to protect my own. And I need my calling back again."

As I say it, I realise that it's true. They say that you can never go back. Believe it.

"What of your mate?"

"He'll understand. I'll make him understand."

"You speak of your lover, the human. Liam. I speak of your mate. He is dead."

My heart screams, but I try not to show it.

"I love Angel. I'll protect him, if I have my powers back again." And I will. I'll just have to forget my demon. I can love the man without the demon. I know I can. And Angel desperately wanted to be human.

"There will be a price for the path you have chosen."

"I'm sure. I'll pay it."

"Death will come...sooner." That was from the male Oracle, the first time he has spoken.

"Fine!" The answer comes out with more of a snap than I intend.

"Remember. Together you are strong. Alone, you are weak. You and he both."

Where have I heard that before?

The Oracles turn away, the female simply waving her hand in a gesture of dismissal. I'm thrown back out through the door, and hit the wall on the other side with bone-crunching force. But my bones don't crunch. I'm back.

***

The Oracles stand gazing backwards at the doorway through which they have sent the Slayer back into her own dimension.

"Have we done the right thing, sister? Her decision takes us further from the path."

"She will come to understand that. She must."

"You think she will be back?"

"I have no doubt of it." She doesn't. Well, not much. You can never be absolutely sure, with humans.

Her brother smiles. It is a small smile, with a hint of sadness, to be sure, but it is a warm one, nonetheless.

"The price will be higher for the delay, if she returns."

"In the end the price will be the same. She will pay it, he will pay it, and so shall we. Death comes for us all down any of the roads from here. She just makes it harder, that's all."

"Do you think either of them can ever accept that only together can they be strong? Demon and mortal? That they can accomplish nothing if they divide themselves in this way?"

She looks uncertain for a moment. "They are not yet ready to embrace what they are, what they must be, but we cannot help them in that. They must learn for themselves. There should be time enough for that."

He nods, and the two beings close the door on the temporal diversion they have created, the one that will give the Slayer time to reassess, to learn, to come back and ask to undo what she, in her pride, has done.

***

When Buffy returns, I can see that she doesn't have her travel bag with her, but I don't know that she has changed. Not until she tells me. You would think I would have known. John Donne said 'No man is an Island, entire of it self,' but it isn't true. You live your lives so separate from the rest of your kind, at least compared to vampires. I should have known. I should have felt her singing through my blood. The Slayer. My mate. But I feel nothing of it.

She walks into my arms, and holds me tight. Tight enough to almost crack my ribs, and I have to loosen her hold on me. We're going to have to watch that. We have been so much a match for each other that anything else will be difficult. Even in my mind I'm babbling, trying to avoid thinking about the repercussions of what has happened.

She had been told about the Oracles, and has been to see them. Strange. That was what I was planning to do. She tells me everything - well, I think it's everything, but how would I know, now? I can no longer smell the truth on her, so I must trust. And I do. I bury my face in her hair, and use all these blunted senses to drink her in. She's the Slayer again, and I am simply human. Whatever that means. She has told me many times how she longed to be just a normal girl, but she has given that up for me. I wonder if, as a normal human, I'll be enough for her? I'm suddenly more afraid for the future than I have ever been. For some reason, the picket fence, and kids, and dogs, seem to recede into the distance. I pray that it is just my imagination.

Then, I remember the urges that demanded to be fulfilled in our first human lovemaking. The need to wipe *him* away. Was that human, or demonic?

I have the unfulfilled, impossible desire to renew our bond by taking her blood. Is that just a leftover habit from the demon? Or has he imprinted his urges indelibly on me? More indelibly than the tattoo? Has he left something of himself behind? And have I left something of myself behind in him? I am surprised to find myself hoping not. Unless he has gone to oblivion, then after death, it will be better if he is as much of a demon as he can be. I don't know what Hell would be like, otherwise.

Whatever the truth of those things, I know that I have only human strength now. It will have to be enough. Enough to fight next to her, to watch her back, to protect her. I hope that my muscles still remember their training.

We stay like that for a little while, until I hear the telephone upstairs ring. It quickly stops, so perhaps Cordelia has answered. It's midmorning, after all.

And indeed she has, because she comes running down the stairs now. It was Wesley, back in LA. He got as far as the hospital, it seems. He's badly hurt. He'd been following a family of battle demons, and they were much too strong for him. They are killers. We have to go and find them, finish the job.

Cordelia doesn't know anything of what has happened to us, and there doesn't seem any point in telling her, just yet. But she is right. We have to go. But, how will I protect Buffy now?

So, now we are as prepared for combat as we can get. I have an axe and a sword, Buffy has a sword and her stakes. She says she's comfortable with those, although I'm not sure how effective they will be on these demons. They are in the sewers, according to Wesley, and if his description is correct, I know roughly where. We are headed there now.

There is always a nervous tension about going into battle. Even Angelus was never quite as cocky as he seemed to be. Even the most proficient fighter can have bad luck. And if you fight long enough, you'll eventually meet someone stronger. Or simply luckier. Today, I am afraid. Today will be the day I meet someone stronger. I just hope Liam will be brave enough when the time comes.

But I'm what I've wanted to be ever since I met her - human. Damn it all to hell.

***

Angel seems to know where we are going. He leads us straight to the lair. There are five of them, two much bigger and stronger than the others, but all of them are fearsome. They look like a family. We'll have to take them all.

The male and female charge, leaving the younger demons behind and I move to meet them with my sword. Stakes will be no use here. I need to be in front of Angel now that he is human and...dammit! He's pushed in front of me as if he were still the old Angel, and able to take the punishment of the first charge. He has to learn that this is my fight, now, not his.

***

I have made the deal. I really don't like it, but it's done now, and there can be no regrets. Time runs differently in this place, and I think I've been here for months, years maybe; this was the only one I have met who could restore me. I don't know how it will be done, but it will be soon, and then I can go back to my mate. I'll deal with the consequences later. They won't harm her - that was part of the deal. But there will be a new power on Earth, and I will serve it. I have given my word, and a demon has nothing but their word. So I will serve it. Until I can find another way.

***

The battle is over now, and I've managed to get him back to his apartment. The demons are all dead, but Angel is badly hurt. Very badly hurt. Cordelia, may she rot in hell, is off at another audition. Still, that may be for the best. I know what I have to do, and it is better there is no one to witness it.

He will *never* stop protecting me. Not ever. It's in his bones. If he comes back to Sunnydale with me, he will die. We might both die, if I'm distracted by having another human warrior to safeguard. The Oracles said death would come sooner. Was that what they meant?

If I leave him here, he will continue with his self-appointed mission. And he will die. He's much too proud to depend on anyone else.

The Oracles said I had stolen another's heritage, that I had taken my mate's destiny. Done the work of the Mohra demon. I really didn't listen to those things at the time. I was focused on my own need to be the Slayer again. But they were right. We are who we are, and perhaps we are that for a purpose. Angel has a destiny, and so do I. We have to see the game out. All I can do is pray that those destinies meet. Sometime. Somewhere.

I'm on my way back to the Post Office. I have a gift. Angel's axe. I'll use it if I have to. Things cannot stay as they are.

***

The Oracles gaze at the fading doorway where the Slayer has just left. Just been ejected.

"Well, brother, she seems to have learned."

"You judged her well, sister."

"We are supposed to be Oracles," snaps the female, with some tartness.

"You are sure that the other will remember, and guide his aim when the time comes?"

"Palestrina? She will remember. I have made sure that she has power enough for that."

The male still looks troubled - or as troubled as an Oracle can seem, with those smooth features.

"The Balance is still disturbed, and must be corrected if survival is to be a possibility."

"It will become even more disturbed as these events unfold. But there is time - just. And the one in Egypt understands the Balance, the need for Ma'at. He will help when we no longer can."

Her brother smiles for her. He strokes the battleaxe, admiring its workmanship. "This will come in very useful."

She smiles back. "I won't like being dead at all, but I shall see you on the other side."

He takes a firmer grip on the axe, and they wait for their next visitor.

***

When I get back to the apartment, he's in very bad shape. I think he has internal injuries. He should be in a hospital, but even if I had done that, they could only have saved him in the short term. I have to think of the future. The future of mankind, that is. Not our future. Not ever again. There won't be one. There will be him and me, separate for the rest of our lives. I hate the Rom. Oh, not for giving him the soul. Never that. But why couldn't they have cursed him with boils, or something, if ever he got happy?

I try not to think of my demon lover, my mate, the one who throbbed through my blood until I killed him, as surely as if I had thrust a stake into his heart.

I take him in my arms, as best I can, trying not to hurt him too much. Only a few minutes now. At least neither of us will remember. Neither will anyone else, although the Oracles said that one of us would know what to do when the Mohra came again. I don't think he can hear me, but I whisper to him of my love and my treachery. Of what I have just done.

They knew I would be back. That I would give up his humanity, his cherished dream. Our future. The one I had fantasized over almost since I met him. The one that he said he would have given everything up for. I killed the demon, now I'm killing the man. I'm his mate. He trusted me, and I've killed both of him.

God help me, but there was no choice - there can be no future if one or both of us is dead. They knew that I would be back, that I had made the wrong decisions, not understood that we are what we are, and must make the best of it. That change has consequences, and some of those consequences are too heavy to bear. That perhaps we are given what we have for a purpose, a purpose we cannot fulfil otherwise. I don't know - I'm sure Angel will understand better. He's lived longer, after all.

The Oracles said that when they changed me the first time, they put us into some very small dimension. A dimensionette, perhaps. Easier for them to undo later. And they have. They've folded time for me, for the world. They said the price would be heavy, but they didn't say what it would be. Let's hope it isn't one of those shops where if you have to ask the price, you can't afford it. And they didn't say just who would be asked to pay. Or how.

He rouses. I don't want him to speak, so I kiss him. I feel as if I want to swallow everything that is him, so that he will be part of me forever. The Hylekian shaman said that I had something close to a demon at my core. Perhaps it's a vampire. I remember my dreams, all those months ago after I first released Angelus, when he and his family were away. I dreamed that Angel was in hell, and I had gone to ease his pain, to stop him from crying out. It feels like that now. I wish there were someone to ease my pain.

So I kiss him with everything that is in me, praying that something of both of us will remember, will...

I am standing with a kitchen knife in one hand, and a cut on my palm, already starting to heal.

"What did you taste in my blood? TELL ME! And tell me the truth."

He shakes his head. I raise my voice even more. Cordelia will hear, but I don't care.

"TELL ME!"

He turns away from me, and I really don't know where this is going to go when the light from the window suddenly darkens and the glass shatters. A body tumbles into the room, in full fighting stance. A demon. And it's big. With a very big, curved sword. A katana.

Angel picks up a short throwing axe from where it had been propped against the wall. Boy Scout motto, I presume. He hurls it at the large red jewel in the demon's forehead. As the jewel shatters, the demon crumples into death.

"How did you know how to kill it?"

He rubs his forehead. "I...I don't really know. I seem to remember reading about it somewhere. Buffy..."

He steels himself, and I know something unpleasant is coming.

"Buffy. You need to forget about me. I want you to find someone else. Someone who can take you out into the light. Someone who can offer you more than the freak show that is all that I can give you."

I can't find my voice at first. When I do, it is barely a whisper.

"But you are my mate. How can I find someone else?" My throat has closed up and I can't manage any more, but it isn't enough.

"I renounce you. You are free of me."

NO....

"Now go, please. There's nothing more to say."

I feel the anger rising in my blood, a red tide of rage such as I have never before felt. A killing rage. It is a long time later that I realise whose rage that is. Angelus'. And I cannot imagine how Angel is staying so calm, with that boiling rage inside him. Oh, I'm angry, too, but it's a candle to the sun of his rage, the rage that is echoing through my blood. His selfishness means that he will never give me up. At least I will have that to hang on to.

But now, when I just feel the rage and have no means of controlling it, I sink one fist into his gut, and as he jack-knifes forward, I hit him as hard as I can on the temple with the other. He drops like a stone. Before I can pick up the axe and finish it, some small, sane part of me propels me back up to the office and out onto the street without a word to Cordelia. I can't see anything for the veil of tears, but somehow I manage to find a cab and get back to the motel. And somehow I manage to get back to Sunnydale.

***

The Soul is in despair. His mate has left him. And I am in the grip of such a rage as I have not known since I was a newly birthed demon.

He has renounced her. If only I had the strength to dominate him as he now dominates me. If only I could find a way to *get rid of him*! He *cannot* renounce her. She is my mate, and she will be that forever. The spineless, spiritless, pathetic moron. I'll kill him!

And why do only I remember what has happened to me? He does not know what I have endured, nor the bargain I made to return. Why have I not forgotten my time in Hell, if he has no memory of it? I wonder, can the body not remember what happens to the spirit alone? I do not understand.

One thing is clear, though. I may know what is to come, but Soul Boy does not. That could work to my advantage, if I keep it from him.

Now, if I could only find a way to be free of him before it happens. He won't have the spine to do what must be done. The servitude must be accommodated, for a time at least. I gave my word.

But, you know, perhaps my stay in Hell has done some good. My separation from him has cleared my mind a little. And I think I can see a way to get rid of that snivelling soul. I need to weaken him beyond despair, or I need to find him a moment of pure happiness. And I think I may know how.

Cordelia.

Ever since our stay in Egypt, it seems to me that I have a little more strength given to me by Aurelius' blood. And there is the added power from the werewolf. He doesn't use them - although he does use the strength we got from the Slayer's blood; he can't help himself - but I can, and will. If I am very, very careful not to let him notice what I am doing, I think that I can make him fancy himself just a little in love with Cordelia. On the rebound.

Whyever not? What is love, after all, but chemicals in the blood? The chemicals of emotional addiction. Being so newly returned to the body, I can tell exactly which chemicals they are - they are in his blood now, screaming for the Slayer. If I can find how to exert this small amount of extra power, to make this body secrete those chemicals, without him knowing, then I will have him at my mercy. Or rather, at hers.

He's a man. He's lonely and he's frustrated.

He's a vampire. He's lonely and he's frustrated.

His soul? His goodness? His self-control? Listen. He's *dead*. His body is that of a *vampire*. Matter over mind, in this case. My - our - mate? He really, really wants to do her. He can't even think of her without getting a hard-on, believe me. Okay, so he thinks of her rather more romantically than that. The verb might change, but the need doesn't. And he can never have her again. He can't even trust himself to touch her, because he knows how bad his need is. And I'm always there to help it along a little. Not only can he never have her again, he can never again have *anybody* that he loves, in all the long ages that are still to come. Ever. Wouldn't that sort of get you down? And don't you know that we always (and here I include humans as well as demons) want to do the things we are absolutely forbidden to do. Don't we? In fact, those things often grow in importance until they fill our minds to the exclusion of all else. He's in real trouble, let me tell you.

Blood, sex and power. Remember? That's what vampires are all about.

Blood? He goes out to save the innocent, and blood gets spilled. Sometimes it's his, sometimes it isn't. Do you think he can't smell it? Do you think he really *wants* pig's blood? Do you think the smell of spilled human blood doesn't wind him up as tight as a spring? Cordelia comes into work each day, but some days, well, you know what it's like with women? One week in four? You can bet that he knows the time of the month at least as well as she does. All that blood, around him all the time, winding the spring a little tighter. You wouldn't believe the number of times he has woken up to find that he has been biting on his own arm, just for the taste. It's hell on the laundry, I can tell you.

Sex? She comes into the office, smelling of her liaisons. She'll never be a virgin bride. Snigger? Who, me? He knows each one, now, the odd regular, and the one-night stands. He'd recognise them in the street. And the days when she's ovulating, when she's at her most receptive? In animals, you call it 'in oestrus', and say that humans have no such mindless urges. Please! On those days, she fills his nostrils as if she were a bitch in heat, or a calling queen. Those are the days when he daren't come out of his cave until she's pretty well ready to go home. That spring just went 'tick' again.

And when he patrols at night? The hookers turning tricks in the alleys he frequents? Do you know how often he watches them from cover, under pretence of keeping them safe? How often he goes home and jacks off in the shower? It's a most unsatisfactory act, let me tell you. And there are other apartments in this building, as well as offices. Do you think a vampire cannot hear very well what goes on, even across all this distance? Can't smell it? The creak of the bed - he can even tell which one is doing the creaking - the slap of skin on skin, the breathy moans and the cries of ecstasy? He knows all the pairings, now. Can you imagine how often his hands are busy under the sheets? He's a vampire, damn it! Vampires *need* sex almost as much as we need blood. He's no exception, no matter how much he acts the stoic. Someone tried to tell him once that he is a man with a demon inside him. He knows better. He's a vampire, a demon. He's me, with a side order of soul. And he has my urges.

Oh, he's tried all the normal remedies over the last hundred years. Not that he knew then that there was a barrier to sex, you understand. He just went through periods when he tried to deny his vampiric nature completely. And deny himself any comforts - another part of his hairshirt penance. The religious zealots of old made an art form of mortification of the flesh by discipline and self-denial. He's read all about it, tried it all. The self-denial is a bust, and discipline? Don't make me laugh - *that* only serves to turn him on even more. Vampires get off on pain, don't forget.

Power? Well, she's the only one here, and he already thinks of her as his responsibility, the only member so far of his new pride. He's her alpha, her pride master. Possession is nine tenths of the law, isn't it? And possession can, in the short term, be mistaken for love. I only need the short term. The very short term.

So, that spring is just getting tighter and tighter. If I can find the right chemical switches, and make them work when I want them to, subtly, he'll never know. Oh, intellectually he'll know that he's in love with the Slayer, and will never stop, that Cordelia is nothing more than a convenience. That won't prevent him having enough feelings for the cheerleader to serve my purpose. Don't blame me - don't you always say that men think with their gonads, anyway? That's what I intend him to do.

What have I got to lose? If I can give him enough of a happy with Cordelia, I win.

If I can tweak his bloodlust to the point where he drinks from her as well, even if he isn't happy enough to lose his soul, he'll be in such despair that I might, just might, be able to break through and gain the upper hand. And keep it.

And anyway, thinking back, she has been putting out the right pheromones whenever he's around - she wouldn't be averse to entrapping Mr Broody, especially after the Slayer's abrupt departure, I'm sure. And do you know, I think there is something strange happening. Now that I turn all my corrupted senses to the problem, there seems to be some sort of mojo working here. From her. She's doing something to entrap him. Well, let's just help that along. I'll worry about exactly what it is later. Small steps.

You don't think I can do it? You don't think that the bodies we inhabit still have the mechanisms to secrete the chemicals I need? You think the internal organs, the inner working parts are shrivelled and dead? Foolishness. I suppose you think the brain is shrivelled and dead? The bones crumbling to dust? The eyes rotting, the tongue swollen and black, the flesh putrid, and the skin flaking off in layers? No? Well, if *they* are functioning, why should the rest not be? You humans! You think you know everything, and you know nothing.

We don't breathe, so you think the lungs are dust? Yet we can talk. Does that not require air, moved by the lungs and diaphragm? Our hearts do not pump as yours do, so you think the blood doesn't circulate? Yet prick us, do we not bleed? A real life stiff certainly doesn't. If our bodies are dead, why do we feel pain? And believe me, we do. A sword in the gut is very, very painful indeed. Would that be so if our guts were languishing palsied and dead? If our hearts were dried and withered in our breasts, so much useless rotten meat, why would a stake affect them? We are corpses, that much is true, but demonically activated ones. And the demon uses all of us, each and every part to achieve, and to enhance, the semblance of life in us. Waste not, want not. Otherwise, we would be no better than zombies. No, thank you!

You have heard that vampires can hypnotise their human prey? Lure you to us, make you do things you would not normally do? It's all nonsense, such hypnotism in the way that you suppose. But we can do something that produces the same effect. We can choose to use whichever pheromones will serve us. You are creatures of your senses, just as much as any other beast. Scent is the most primal sense of all. But, you cannot consciously distinguish the scents that rule you, and so you believe they do not exist, that you are not reacting to them all the time, that you are better than the other animals.

You fool yourselves. You may not be able to recognise their scent, yet they still have you by the balls. Or whatever. The way you look when an attractive partner enters the room; the way your eyes dilate; the tingling up your spine and in your groin; ladies, the way your womb clenches at the thought of his hands on you; gentlemen, the way your cock twitches as you imagine her lips on you. Or whichever way round turns you on. The sly glances, the preening, the 'accidental' touching as you pass each other; the expansion of your personal space so that your very skin can *feel* the object of your desire even though they are on the other side of the room. Pheromones, children. Hormones. The chemicals of emotional addiction. Nothing more.

If I can gain just enough control of the small functions of the body, just enough to activate these primal mechanisms, I can start a veritable avalanche of hormones that could bring him down.

I think it's worth a shot. Don't you? Well, what else am I going to do? Besides, can you doubt that I'll succeed? I'm too good not to. If it all goes down while he's still in charge, he'll never serve his new master. He'll get us both killed. And her.

***

April

I have faithfully chronicled those years of separation. I may be a demon, and an alien to your planet, but I am bound to the Mated Pair in a way that you do not understand. I am their servant here, bound by oaths of fidelity and service. I have felt their pain.

We have watched. We have watched their triumphs and failures, their small happinesses and their larger sorrows. Their disasters. The Slayer's new sister. Angel's new family. Their efforts to find comfort away from each other, none of them successful.

I was only a little surprised when Angelus - Angel - gradually turned his attentions to Cordelia - after all, the head of a vampire family surely has rights over all the members of that family? That is what I have been given to believe. I can certainly understand him exercising his position and his rights, as her dominant male, but he seems to be trying to replace Buffy. Does he wish to lose his soul again? Or does he know that he does not care for her in the same way, so there is no danger in that liaison, only relief? He's a virile male, after all. Fascinating.

Spike seemed very surprised, though, and Buffy seemed hurt. I am given to believe that, in vampire families, there is no such thing as total fidelity. If the mate of one whose attention was wandering did not approve of the object of that pursuit, the worst that would happen would be a bout of physical violence, probably followed by rambunctious (is that truly a word?) and lengthy sex. That, of course, is not possible here, and Buffy is more or less human. So she seemed hurt. Certainly, she gave herself to several other males soon afterwards, callow youths all, and none of them could in any way compare to Angelus, so she quickly cast them off.

Spike went so far as to visit Los Angeles, although he was careful to remain unseen by Angel. He does not care that Angel might lose his soul - in fact he would welcome that. But he finds the behaviour to be out of character, and he was intrigued. He was very disturbed when he returned, saying that he thought there was 'some mojo' in operation, with Cordelia at its centre. He had to explain that to me, and we watched very carefully afterwards, but Angel seemed to remain unharmed, even if he still did seem to be enamoured of Cordelia. Spike was disappointed. I may be mistaken, but I think that the Slayer was, too, just a little.

I spoke to the Watcher, and we decided to leave things be. It was with reluctance on his part, but he truly believes that a moment of real happiness, such as that which cost Angel his soul with Buffy, is not easy to come by. I think he is of the opinion that, on balance, a vampire who is sexually satisfied but not contented would be safer for the world than one who is as taut as a bowstring. Who someday might not be able to resist returning to Sunnydale. He did not say so, but I gained the distinct impression that he could not envisage such a moment of happiness occurring with Cordelia. He did not explain his reason, but even I feel that he might be correct.

Still, I am less worried about the possible return of Angelus than he is. I am bound to Angelus after all. And to the Slayer. I must beware of the Watcher, though. He was not called 'Ripper' for nothing. I believe that, if Angelus were to return, the Watcher would not rely on the Slayer fulfilling her duty as he sees it, but would try to kill the vampire himself. That is why he has not taken action against the liaison with Cordelia, I think. If the soul is lost, he might have an excuse to do something he feels will spare his Slayer future pain. He has not, though, seen Angelus and the Slayer together in the way that I have, during those weeks of the Hylekian Games. So, I will watch him, and make sure that, if Angelus returns, no harm comes to him, if I can possibly prevent it.

Drusilla has gone, unable to stay where she had found such disappointment and loss. We do not know where, and Spike misses her dreadfully. We do not know what Angel thinks of her departure.

We have seen Angel's struggles against the lawyers at Wolfram & Hart - paid lawyers, such a quaint notion. One would think that the profession had only been invented to provide gainful employment for those who would otherwise be indigent. Certainly, I have never seen it anywhere except on this planet.

And we have seen the Slayer and Angelus' childe, William, find some small solace in each other.

All of his family, his pride, have suffered their losses, had moments of victory, but none have been tried so much as the Mated Pair.

You have a saying in your world, 'What doesn't kill us makes us stronger.' It is as if we were all foot soldiers, cannon fodder, our mettle to be tested to make sure we were fit for battle. But the Master Vampire and the Slayer? It is as if they must be tested to destruction. Yet the Seers find nothing helpful.

The Seers came out of their seclusion after the Slayer's visit to her mate, and would not speak of the event. Now, almost two years later, what they do say is that they can see some of the paths to the future. Well, path is not perhaps the right word. At its simplest, one might say that a path has two ends, but these have only one as yet. The paths are floating free, twisting in the winds of fate, no one knowing where any of them might lead, or whether any of them lead anywhere.

You can imagine that no seer would be very pleased with that.

They also say that futures are still being burned away in the fires of chaos, that freedom to choose is being extinguished, choice-by-choice. They have never known anything like it. May the Powers help us all.

And now we have watched whilst Angel was killed by his new family - there is no word more suitable than 'killed' - and Angelus released once more. Some of us see that more equably than others. The Watcher and Xander Harris are particularly... exercised... by that development. I think it is time for me to return from this visit to Hylek. Things might be changing.

***

Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.
The Bible
Proverbs, chapter 16 verse 18

Who would have thought it? After all that effort I put in to finding ways to bring him down, tied in with the magic that Cordelia was working on him, it was his gang of so-called friends who did the deed in the end. Murdered him, and freed me. I'm pretty sure that Cordelia was being manipulated by the one who struck a deal with me whilst I was in Hell. What do you think? Do you think it preferred to deal with me, a demon who keeps my word, or him, a souled vampire who would do his best to stop its grand designs? I know, there's no contest.

And then it had to go and send The Beast as a minion. Now, why did it have to do that? I certainly didn't sign up for earthquakes and rains of fire. This is MY state, and this most certainly is MY city. What? Because he thought of it as his you think I can't claim it too? Think again. There's a lot of underworld in this city. Just what I need. And I do not need all these out-of-town losers come to take advantage of the no-sun effect in Los Angeles. I have the Gem of Amara, if I need it, remember? Well, the Slayer does, on my behalf. This is not good enough, and has to stop. Giving your word to a bargain is one thing. Being screwed over is quite another. No one does that to me.

Unfortunately, they've all tried to stop it, and been pretty well beaten to a pulp. Even him, and he was fighting with almost as much power as me. Not quite - if he drank more human blood, it would give him more of an edge, and if he would just let himself go... - but he's afraid that I'll get loose. Was afraid. Past tense. It's all past tense for him now.

Anyway, what I do know is that he was nowhere near beating The Beast. That's why they let me out. They think I know something that he doesn't. The Beast knows me. In truth, I don't know why. I don't remember ever meeting it before. But I know why it's here. It's the appointed date and time. It must be the one I was told would come to set our bargain in place. I would be returned from the Underworld, but I would be in service to a *master*, this creature of smoke and shadows, for an unspecified time. Hey, it was the best I could do. Do you think I wanted the Furies to continue feeding on me for eternity?

Now, I have to deal with this monster that's laying waste to my territory. And I've had a little unexpected help - you think I'm too proud to accept help? Not when it would be suicidal to refuse.

This morning, a parcel came. From Egypt. Aurelius. It's the Gebel el-Arak knife - you know about that, I think? When Aurelius made it, it was a carved ivory handle - depicting Aurelius' own becoming - with a bronze blade. Some Pharaoh or another broke the blade and had a flint one put in. Oh, I still have Aurelius' Book of the Dead, but no one else has seen it. Not Wes, not Giles, not Ezrafel. No one. I haven't read it all, but I've read about the knife. Last I knew, it was in the Louvre. Now it's in Los Angeles. Mine.

Flint is very, very sharp, but too brittle. The Beast has manifested as something damned close to rock and lava. But the knife has a new blade now. Brand new. Obsidian. Volcanic glass, made from hardened lava. That might just do the job. And I can feel the tang of magic in it. Aurelius might have his uses, after all. He has collected a lot of prophecies, and he's no slouch at seeing the future himself. Perhaps he knows what will kill The Beast, so I'll take his help, for now. It won't prevent him from getting his, though. I won't forget how he's treated me.

I know something that no one else here knows. I'm back, and for good. That *pathetic* soul will never trouble me again. Oh, that isn't just wishful thinking. I do believe I told you once before to beware the power of three. Three is the number of completion, and the curse of the Rom has run to its completion. There's nothing anybody can do to me to bring the soul back now. He's lost it three times; once to Darla; once to the Slayer; and once to his friends in LA. Third time pays for all, don't you say? In this case it does. The soul is gone to wherever souls go, never, ever to return. I'll never have to listen to him again. It's my time now.

I'll decide later what to do with this little group of do-gooders, the ones he considered to be his family. It isn't that I feel I have any obligation to them, you understand. It's just that I have more urgent matters to attend to. I've been kept chained and caged by him, but I've been able to see and to feel. Only through him, but better than nothing. Lately, I've had some disturbing feelings about my mate. That's where I'm off to next, as soon as I've rammed this excellent knife into The Beast's skull.

***

I can hear the Slayer coming now. You might think that my circumstances are reduced since last we spoke. I was living in a mansion then, I'm in a crypt now. It's fine by me. I couldn't bear the mansion after we lost *him*, but I stayed there for Dru. Then, when she decided to leave, I had the choice of going with her or staying here, in Sunnydale. I stayed, but I couldn't live in the mansion. Too many memories. The others are there, but not me. There's more privacy here, any way.

Privacy is good. She misses him, too, and privacy is better so that we can miss him together. We've been having... carnal relations is, I think, how you would put it politely, for a while now. I have something she wants, and she has something I want. Him. For a little while, we can pretend. Her human senses can't detect it, but her Slayer senses know that I still smell of him. I'm his childe. I will always carry his scent. So does she. She's his mate. Oh, she told me - eventually - about that pillock renouncing her. He can't. An eternal mate can never be renounced, and somehow, that's the mating they've created. There should have been the proper rites and ceremonies, but I can smell what they are. They own each other, body and spirit, forever. Even the final death of one can only separate them until the survivor dies too. You have no appreciation of the complexities of scent, so don't ask me to explain. Just accept it. Accept - that's something they ought to do. The Sire hasn't explained it to her, and he damned well should have.

So, she comes here to be with the little of him that is left to her. I stay here to be with the little of him that is left to me. And we have... carnal relations... pretending it's with the one we both miss.

Apart from anything else, she can't have sex with a normal guy. At least, not the sort of sex where she can let herself go, let herself just *be*. She'd break his spine, for one thing. And I still have this bloody chip in my head. I'm not a proper vampire anymore - that's why Dru left, in the end. Who could I have sex with now? But also, it's the vampire way. Mates and childer console themselves with each other when the mate, the sire, the master of the pride, is absent for long periods. Or lost.

She's here now. She looks forlorn. We have a godling on our hands, and none of us can beat her. Glory. She's after the key to open the dimensions, so that she can go home. Dawn, the Slayer's pseudo-sister, made flesh by some bloody monks. There's nothing pseudo about her feelings for Dawn, though. Not like her feelings for me.

Oh, she likes me well enough. As well as she can like any demon that isn't the Sire. She is, after all, head of the family, what he liked to think of as his pride, in his absence. The head of the family has never been anything but a vampire, of course, but Aurelians have always been a bit unconventional. Why should we change now?

She just doesn't like me in the love me way. She never will. It's all about him.

She's undressing now. She doesn't speak, we rarely do. Sometimes we speak afterwards, but it's always about him. There's never much conversation in these encounters. It would spoil the illusion. And I am desperate for the illusion not to be spoiled tonight. I cannot begin to explain how much I have missed him. How much I have felt his call in my blood. Things in LA are going to hell in a hand basket, and we have had no news from them for weeks, since that one phone call telling us they could cope, and to tend to our own problems. He has felt very close in recent days, though, and his smell on her is much stronger.

I need him. I damn well wish he were here, of course, but after the beating I got from Glory, I really do need him. We all do, even those that won't accept it.

Now she's stretching out beside me, lithe as a cat, and I can just breathe in the scent of her. Of him. I run my hand over her flank, just like he would let me do with him, sometimes, feeling the tremors in the flesh. She's in a submissive mood. It won't last long, it never does, but just for the moment, she wants to feel that she's got someone stronger than herself around. After all, she has to be the strong one when it comes to fighting Glory, and even that isn't strong enough. We're all worried about Dawn, and whether we can hide her, but Buffy most of all. Just for now, just for the hour she is going to spend here, she needs to be taken care of. And if it can't be him, I'm the next best thing. I think harder about him, conjure his picture in my mind, and imagine his hand on my flesh. It will bring out his scent on me, and whether her senses recognise it or not, the mate in her will respond. She will be comforted.

My hands move up her body, finding each tender spot, each place that she loved him to touch. I know all of them now. She's shown me. When it gets to be my turn, she knows, too. I've shown her.

I roll over a little and cover her body with mine. She's ready for me, I can tell. I lift her thighs and slide gently in. I'm not delaying too much, this first time, not tormenting her. She needs the edge taken off - so do I - and I'll be able to take more time with her once I've done that. The rhythm I set is hard, but she needs it. Just a little more, I can see by the look on her face, and I bite my lip to hold back my own fulfilment. Then she holds her hand out and cries 'Angel!'. But she isn't looking at me. And the scent of him fills my nostrils, warms my blood.

I look behind me, and it's him. Not Angel. Angelus. Thank the dark lords. He's back.

"Si..."

***

I remember when I felt differently. I remember the days when I felt more... amenable. When I felt that there might be more to existence than a demon's passion, a demon's rage. When I thought that perhaps there were other emotions worth sampling. How stupid could I be? A brainless, thick-witted, vacuous, puerile *simpleton*! A moonstruck gowk, a ridiculous schoolboy!

Now, as I stand here in demon face, the black rage consuming all other emotion in its fury, watching the ashes of my erstwhile childe sifting down over her, staining her sweat-sodden skin, I know that I will never feel anything again other than those feelings proper to a demon. She will feel them too.

I look at my hands for one moment, still held out as if in supplication ... as if! ... still held out from where they ripped his faithless head from his traitorous shoulders. And dusted him. Then I deliver one felling blow to her, and as she slumps into unconsciousness, I lift her onto my shoulder - never mind her clothes, she'll have no need of those where she's going - and I leave this place of betrayal, leave the remains of my very own Judas. He deserves nothing better. And we'll see what she deserves.

I haven't been back to the mansion yet. I started to go there, but I knew that was the wrong place. Hiding themselves and their infidelities away in a *crypt*! Did they think I wouldn't find them? I can smell him on her, him and his seed. I cannot tell you what an offence that is to me. Does she carry his fang marks, too? If she does...

I remember how I felt, sitting in the oak tree outside her bedroom window after the werewolf had bitten me. The tide of unreasoning rage. The need to tear into her flesh, to feel her blood sliding over my jaws. How hard I fought to control myself so as not to hurt her. Those were feelings of bliss, compared to how I feel now. I wish I had never bothered. I am beside myself, and I really don't know how this will end.

The mansion is clearly occupied, but equally clearly, they don't expect me. It seems that Soul Boy's second family haven't told the people here how they killed him. Of course they wouldn't. They expected to be able to slip that greasy soul right back in. And it was easy to make them believe they had, with Witchy Willow casting her spells. They should feel lucky that I left them alive and untouched. That might not be the case in Sunnydale.

Ah, there's a minion opening the door - I don't recognise him, but I'll worry about that later. And about how long he kept me on the doorstep. His Lord and Master! I can only smell Dru faintly. She's gone from here, and she's been gone a long time. Who's left, I wonder? But that, too, can wait until later. Everyone I see knows enough to avert their eyes in submission as I stalk through my Hall, and take the stairs to my rooms three at a time. These had better have been kept ready for me.

They have. Someone will be rewarded for that. I'll let them live. I don't know who else will be that lucky. Mundane thoughts, all. Mundane thoughts to fend off the larger thoughts? Or to keep my brain thinking at all? To stop me from simply tearing her to shreds and feasting on her remains. I remember having that thought before, when she was not at fault. At least, no more at fault than her simple existence warranted. She lived through that. I don't know whether she will live through this. Whether I want her to. But I know that if I give in to that urge, the world will burn. Perhaps I should let it. It contains nothing but pain, in any event. Such a pity that I was in so much haste to slay The Beast, and get back here to her. I should have let it continue its path of destruction.

There's a hook in the ceiling, for the chains. There's a lot more ironwork on the other side of the ceiling, holding that hook secure. It will hold the strongest vampire. It will hold her. The chains are in the bottom drawer of the dresser, just where they should be. She'll waken before long. To try and clear my clouded mind, ready for the hours, days, or even years, to come, I'll take a shower. Have some blood. Mundane thoughts. Mundane deeds. For now.

***

I think it's the pain in my arms that awakens me. It takes a few moments for my shocked mind to face the reality of what is happening. Angelus is back. Spike is dead. Angelus killed Spike. But the thoughts are simply words. They don't seem to have any meaning. Just words in my head.

Until I look down, that is, and see Spike. What's left of him. Dust and ashes, sticking to the sweat of my body. Then, I can barely keep in the scream. But I mustn't show weakness, never weakness, in front of this strongest of vampires. This demon, who is almost certainly mad again from the years of incarceration by Angel.

Angel.

I need him now. Where is he?

I'm hanging from some strong, heavy chains fixed to a hook in the ceiling. I remember the hook well. In happier times, we've joked about it. The joking's over now. I'm hanging in manacles that are a far cry from the delicate, padded toys we laughed about. They're solid and cold, and digging into the flesh of my wrists. Blood has dribbled down my arms already. I'm standing on my toes, and the joints are aching. I'm naked, and my only covering is ... Spike. This is not how Angelus and I teased each other it would be.

Neither is he. The bed, that huge, once-comfortable haven, in which I've known nothing but pleasure, is right in front of me. He's lounging on it, propped up against the headboard, one arm thrown negligently over the pile of pillows next to him, the other hand holding a cut crystal goblet. It's full of something red, and I really don't think it's wine. Even at his worst, I have never seen him look so. His human face, his eyes, have the flatness, the blankness, of a snake. He's wearing only a pair of black leather pants, and a black shirt, completely unbuttoned, showing his pale and still chest.

A whimper tells me that someone is in the room with us. Angelus turns his head a little in the direction of that sound, and I can see her, on the floor by the bed. A woman, small and blonde. Like me. Naked. Like me. Cowering in a huddle. Chained to the floor by a shackle around her ankle. She's covered in bite marks.

He turns back to me, and suddenly he's on his feet, gone from lounging to standing with no apparent state in between. He puts the glass down carefully and stalks over to me. One thing I've noticed - his hands are shaking. Why would that be? Is it rage, still? God help me, for no one else can.

He's standing right in front of me, now. Close enough that our almost-touching skin creates a tingling charge between us. There is no point of contact, but I can feel him in every pore, raising every hair. And then he moves back a step and he's in demon face. Will I finish up like that girl? Only if I'm very lucky.

He runs one claw gently down the angles of my face.

"My beautiful, faithless jade."

His voice is soft as silk, harsh as iron. He circles around me, and I can feel that questing finger gently exploring the contours of my spine.

"My harlot."

Now it's my hip.

"My fair Cyprian."

He stops talking as he circles round to where he started, facing me. With one hand, he lifts my chin until he can look in my eyes. And I can look in his. There's nothing there. Angelus has always been soulless, so it's pointless to say that's what's lacking in his eyes. Before, they've always sparkled with life; been full of fire and passion, full of excess of every kind. Now it's an excess of nothing.

He brings his lips close to my ear.

"My mate."

He grinds the words out as though they are intolerable to him. I don't understand half the words he's using, but I don't suppose they are words of love. I can only guess that these are spiteful words from his youth. The timbre of his voice changes as he speaks, an edge of madness creeping in that I've heard before. Except that it was saner, then, when he only wanted to destroy the world.

"My doxy, rather. My wanton Messalina. My little grisette. I should have known. I should have known by the way you first gave it up to that whimpering, spineless apology for a vampire that you were nothing but another barque of frailty, just another trull. A prettier piece than most, but a common drab, nonetheless."

He's shouting now, his spittle spraying over my cheek.

He moves behind me again, and I can hear the small noises of his buckle being undone, and of his zipper. And then he's in me, his claws digging into my breasts, drawing blood, as he thrusts with all his vampiric strength. He isn't holding back. This is punishment and dominance. And it hurts like hell. He has no intention that it should do anything else.

I want to cry. I want to cry out. Like a terrified dog, I want to empty my bladder. But some instinct tells me that I dare not do any of those things. I *know* that if I show weakness, his predator instincts, so close to the surface at the best of times, might just appear and allow him to tear me limb from limb. I can only afford to show him strength - the strength he expects in a mate. And so I endure.

Then, he's finished. With a roar, not of pleasure, but of possession, dominance and rage, he finishes, resting most of his weight on me, tearing at my shoulders and wrists. Fresh blood trickles down my arms, and he growls, the growl of a large and hungry cat. A big cat, defending its kill. When I can't see his face or his form, it's easy to forget that he's anything like human. He loosens the grip that his claws have on my breasts, and as he does so I can see that his hands are still shaking.

It's going to be a long night. I don't know whether to hope for that or not.

***

Nobody can find Buffy or Spike, and it's been over 24 hours since either of them was seen. I'm less worried about Spike. He can look after himself, and even if he can't, it wouldn't cause me to lose any sleep. But I'm worried about Buffy, as her Watcher and as her friend. As her Watcher, I must wonder, does Glory have her? We really can't afford to lose the Slayer with a demented goddess running around. As her friend, her surrogate father, I'm frantic.

The rest of our little band? They're here and worried too. You see, Willow has just got back from Los Angeles, and she has told us how Angel's so-called friends murdered him. Had they lost their minds? How could they release Angelus? And even worse, how could they lose Angel's soul? Willow has done her very best. More than her best, but she has failed. And Cordelia lies in a coma. Stupid, stupid, stupid...

Apparently, the apocalyptic events they faced there seem to have had some connection to Angelus. Some fiend that he had a bargain with, sometime or another - Willow couldn't make head or tail of it, so neither can I - is now raining fiery destruction onto Los Angeles - or was until the day before yesterday. Angelus somehow managed to stop Angel from accessing those memories, they think, and so they came up with this cockeyed folly of stripping out Angel's soul, storing it, finding out what Angelus knew - and how they hoped to make him tell that, I really can't imagine - and then just popping his soul back! Angelus got free of their cages and their chains, and had to be tempted into a trap, with live bait. They drew lots, and it turned out to be Cordelia. She took some designer drug or another - I think Willow actually knows which one, but she's pretending she doesn't - that they hoped would incapacitate the demon when he drank from Cordelia.

They set themselves up in their pride - gods, I sound like some old-time Bible thumper, but it's true - and then came the destruction and the fall. Angelus drank from Cordelia, and was slightly incapacitated. Cordelia had taken so much, she's now lying in a coma. She's had some sort of brain seizure. And Willow, brave little Willow, tried to do the spell to restore his soul. She worked for years to get it, until she found a hidden file in the library computers. Jenny had put it there for safekeeping. It was a first draft, not quite complete, but Willow managed to finish the job. And, so far as we can tell, it was without the happiness clause.

But the spell didn't work. Oh, they thought it had. And it should have. The soul came out of its little magical jar, and disappeared, just as it should. Angelus pretended - not the first time, apparently - that Angel was safely back. And the blithering idiots fell for it.

I've been in touch with some friends of mine, The Coven, who are very powerful witches indeed. They don't know for sure what has happened - after all, popping souls in and out of their bodies isn't a common recreational activity - but their hasty researches suggest that perhaps there are a finite number of times such soul magic can be performed on any individual. Three times. Three times, and that's your lot. Three times in and three times out. If they are right, Angel is dead, and is never coming back. Ever. I think that is probably for the best. He can rest in peace now, and we can deal with his murderer. His original murderer, that is, not that bunch of lunatics in Los Angeles. I'll deal with them myself, later.

But for now, Angelus is loose; I'm told he isn't in his sanest mood after his years of imprisonment. And Buffy and Spike are missing; have been missing since last night. We'll wait until daylight, and go to the mansion. It has to be the best place to look. But by then they'll have been missing for 36 hours. A lot can happen in that time.

Dear God, Xander is on the telephone now. There's been some sort of break-in at Buffy's house. Joyce is badly hurt, and in critical condition. And Dawn is missing, too. Well, at least I'm damn sure who's got her. Glory. Can things possibly get worse? We have to get Buffy back.

***

My hands have stopped shaking. Almost. My mind hasn't though.

It's been nearly 36 hours. What the fuck is wrong with me? I can't seem to string two thoughts together, and whatever I want to do, I can't settle to it for more than a few moments. And I need to drink all the time. That blonde bimbo by the bed? The minions fetched her on my instructions, and I've drained her dry, now. I've had two others since then, but I can't seem to get any benefit from their blood. I feel weak, and confused, and I *cannot get it together*. Damn that trollop and my fornicating childe. What have they done to me?

I know how to make it stop.

She's still hanging in the chains. I've expressed my dominance quite a few times in the traditional way, my position as master of this pride. Blood, sex and power. Those are the important things to a vampire. We've been through all three. The first few times, I made no effort to let her accommodate me. Those were punishment, pure and simple, as were the times I took her in the ass. Pain is a very good teacher. And a demonstration of my power.

After that? Well, let's just say she's coming in her own blood, now. Her slayer healing abilities can't compensate quickly enough to heal her. She just can't keep up with me. And I don't intend her to, not just yet. It may be a long time before I allow that. And yet, she can't deny the way I can play her body, make her sing to my tune.

This blood-sex has been something else again, for a vampire, let me tell you. You can have no possible conception of what a turn-on it is, how it feeds the deepest, darkest parts of me. Particularly after the long period of celibacy that the Soul made us endure.

And I've taken more of her blood in the traditional way. She's covered in bite marks - *my* bite marks, not his - her neck, her breasts, her stomach, her thighs. And other places. I've been quite thorough. She'll heal from those, when I let her. The only mark of mine that she keeps permanently is the one on her arm, from that night in the park, when I first made sure that she was mine. Mine to do with as I please. Always, and only, mine. She should have remembered that. So should he.

But those punishments have only taken up a small fraction of the hours she's been here. Most of the time, I've simply watched her, from my position on our - NO! - *my* bed, drinking down the lives of girls who resemble her. Although none truly do. Watching her, because I dare not do more. Not until I have some control of myself, because otherwise her punishment would be over too quickly. I want it to last a lifetime. I think.

I am so fucked up.

She thinks that she is at the end of her stamina. Her head is drooping, her hair a sweaty curtain over her face. She's still gritty with his ashes. Sackcloth and ashes, but without the sackcloth. Mourning, the old-fashioned way. I'll allow her some mourning, of a sort, although exactly what and who she'll mourn I've yet to clarify.

But we have only just started. She has a lifetime of regret to come. Or an eternity.

And the others? Oh, yes, I could smell others on her, apart from Spike. Very faint, very old, but only I, her mate, can wipe them away entirely. All these months, these years, she's carried on her scent a reminder of those who've had her. I've already hunted one of them down. Parker, his companions called him, before I cut him out of the herd. His death was... appropriate. Painful. Piece by piece. I'll do that with all of them. His entire body was an offence to me, although he made an adequate meal at the end, but some bits offended me more than others. Those parts are at her feet now, torn from his still-living body. She was almost sick when I told her what they were, but she managed to hold it back. Gotta give her credit for that.

I know; displacement activity. I need to deal with her, but I haven't been able to make up my mind how. That stops now.

Ah, this is what I have been looking for. My old whip. The one I've used on Dru and ... him ... when necessary. Or even when not necessary. Often when not necessary. It's an old, still-supple bullwhip, and it can do significant damage. Not like Aurelius' whip - and I *will* take that from him some day; use him as he used me - but good enough for what I have in mind.

As I stand in front of her, the coils of the whip held in my hand, she raises her head to look at me, to determine what I mean to do next. She sees the whip, and her eyes are huge in her face, a face that is as pale as mine. She has never dreamt that it would come to this. I move behind her, and reach up to adjust the chains a little, make sure that they are taut. I want her body taut for what will come next. And it is. I avoid actually touching her, feeling her warmth. I must be detached, for what I have in mind. Detached. What an appropriate word...

When I am facing her again, I gauge the distance. It looks just right. But is my hand still shaking too much? The whip strikes out, swift as a snake, and just the very tip catches her, a red thread on her skin immediately behind her left nipple. Exactly right. She hasn't screamed - good girl - but she has bitten her lip in her effort to remain silent. More red.

I draw the lash through my fist, coiling it just so. Her eyes still gaze at me, calm, accepting. And the whip strikes out again, the tip catching her in the very same place. This time, there is just the hiss of breath from her.

I can do this all night. I *have* done this all night. The last time was a long time ago, but I remember it well. The girl was very comfortably proportioned. Ample. It took me all night to cut through.

On a thought, I put the whip down on the bed and walk over to her. Her huge eyes follow me. I crouch down in front of her and place just my fingertips on her instep and trace the outlines of her foot. My fingers travel around her ankle, feeling each bone and hollow, and up the swell of her calf. Then to her thigh, her hip, the delightfully rounded curve of her buttocks, the gentle dip of her waist and slowly moving ribcage. I stand back up and my palms travel to her shoulder blades, the fingers of my left hand spreading over the outlines of the inked tattoo, the one that stays there because of her innate magic, and over to her collarbones, fragile and delicate as a bird. When I have finished with her, she will never look like this again. Never feel like this. Both hands reach for the softness of her breasts, the touch of her damask skin warm against my palms. Never again.

I can feel against my fingers the slight trickle of blood from the cut on her breast. I can scent it, the ambrosia of a slayer. I have not permitted her to wash or to toilet herself. The odour of her sweat fills my nostrils, overlaid with the bitter aroma of vampire ash. Of Will. But there is more. She uses fragrances of lavender and of vanilla, but they are faint now. The scent that surrounds me is simply her. As I breathe it in, it fills me, completes that most primal of senses. The feel of her overwhelms me. Her body speaks to me. But so does her soul.

Never again.

I remember the way her eyes sparkle when she is pleased with me. The touch of her tongue as she tastes mine. The feel of her skin moving in rhythm against mine. The warmth of her, removing the chill of the tomb from my dead flesh, bringing an inner warmth that is otherwise denied to me. One hand moves to cup her face, my thumb caressing her cheek bone, the other threads through her hair, which slips though my fingers like liquid silk, cool and smooth and heavy. Her eyes close, but she doesn't pull away from me.

Never again.

And I cannot. My hands are no longer shaking, steadied by the hold she has on me.

I love her.

She has betrayed me. I don't care. She has allowed others to trespass where only I should be allowed. I. Don't. Care. Her very essence is sliding through the palms of my hands, etching itself once more into my flesh and bones, suffusing itself into every cell of my body. The fires of my rage are suddenly banked. Not extinguished, never that; but banked, and under my control. She has done that. She has caged me and chained me more surely than ever the soul did.

I love her.

If I continue with what I intended, I will spend from here to eternity a lost and damned spirit searching for what I can never again have. Her. And the world will burn. I won't just be the Scourge of Europe: I shall scourge the world. She would be so disappointed in me. But whatever I did to the world, it could never bring her back to me.

I love her.

I cannot do it.

I reach up to the chains, to unfasten them. I will bathe her, bind her wounds, and find a way to make her forgive me. I, the proudest of the creatures ever spawned by Hell, will abase myself in whatever way is necessary in penance to her. She must forgive me.

I love her.

It is as my hands reach up to the manacles, as I unfasten them, that something heavy slams into my back and agony lances through me. The head of a crossbow bolt stands proud of my chest, glistening with my blood, and with the remnants of some blue, vile-smelling substance. Only my action in reaching up has moved my heart from its path. Kept it from penetrating her, too.

The strength has suddenly gone from my legs and I start to crumple to the floor. But Buffy is free from the chains, and she, too, is falling. I twist my body under her, to cushion her from the fall. I won't allow her to be hurt again - I have already hurt her too much this day. As I catch her, I turn to face my attacker.

Ripper.

***

Getting in is much easier than I had expected. Most of Angelus' household is in Hylek just now, looking after his interests in that dimension. The time is high noon - how apt - and there are only a few minions on duty who are no trouble to dispose of - after all, they are accustomed to us, if not as friends, then certainly not as enemies, provided they obey the rules that Angelus himself laid down, long ago.

So here we are, myself, Xander and Wesley, standing at the door to his chambers. Does he know we are here, I wonder? I nod to Xander, who quietly opens the door then throws it back wide. The monster has his back to me, standing in front of my Slayer, who is hanging in chains. I am surprised that he appears not to know that we are here. Is too preoccupied to detect us. That must be a first. I already have the special bolt loaded into the crossbow. It doesn't even take a heartbeat for me to aim and pull the trigger. And then it is in his back. I had aimed for the heart, but he moved. No matter. The bolt is coated with a preparation of my own. He won't last long. He's sinking to his knees now, bringing her with him.

Coward! If he thinks that holding her in front of him will save him from me, he's fair and far off. And too late. The poison will kill him, as certainly and as painfully as I could devise. There is no antidote available to him.

It pays to be sure, though. Especially with this vampire.

"Wesley. Get Buffy."

He does so, wrapping her in the coverlet from the bed. So many marks on her. His marks. So much blood.

"Xander. Get him in the chains."

Xander, who has always distrusted Angel and hated Angelus, obeys with a will. And I keep the crossbow trained on the beast, just in case. I could just shoot him again, of course, put him down without giving it a second thought, and that is a tempting course of action, but I remember the blood on my Slayer. A slower, and much more painful, death seems more appropriate.

That is how we leave him.

***

I know what I have to do, and it is easier than I might have thought. Willow has helped me, she and Tara, now that Oz is no longer here. They have bathed me and dressed my wounds, and Giles has told me of my losses. My mother, in critical condition in the hospital. Dawn, taken. Angel, gone forever. He didn't need to tell me of the other. Angelus hates me, that much is plain. I have lost everything that has real meaning for me, everything that has kept me tied to the world. And now I'm so tired of it all. Dusk is on us, but I must go and find Dawn. My Slayer healing powers are kicking in, although I won't be at my peak. I wish that those powers could help my mind as well as my body, but they can't. So, I'll go and find Dawn, and try to give her the chance to live even if I die fighting.

I have lost two lovers, two soul mates, whom I shall never find again. I pray that if I die, at least I may be granted oblivion if I can't be with them both in the aether.

***

When I return from Hylek, everything has gone wrong. The minions I left on duty are nowhere to be seen, and I suspect are the ashes drifted around the front door. The mansion does not quite feel deserted, though, and eventually I find Angelus in his rooms. He is strung up in chains, and a crossbow bolt, stinking of poison, stands a hand's breadth from both the front and back of his torso. How it missed his heart, I do not know. But the poison is at work, black tendrils spreading from the wound across his pale flesh. Even though he is barely conscious, his face is contorted with pain. I fear the worst.

I unhook him from the chains, and lay him gently on the bed. He seems to rouse a little, and grips my wrist with more strength than I would have thought possible.

"Get me some blood, Ezrafel. Please."

He can manage no more. I don't think that pig's blood will do him a great deal of good, but mine will do him even less. And pig's blood is all there is. He can only manage a pint, but at least he can stand, even if shakily.

"Help me to find Buffy. I must find her."

His voice is urgent. I suspect he knows how bad his case is. Perhaps he wishes to say farewell to her. So, I pull the bolt from him, and then I help him into a fresh shirt, of deep wine red. I almost carry him to the car. I haven't really learned how to drive it, but even with me at the wheel, it will be quicker than walking.

It is dark, now, but as soon as we get outside, I can see where we need to go. There is a light show in the sky, one that shouldn't be there at all. A portal. Drive very quickly, then.

***

I am as weak as a child. Weaker. Whatever power in my blood helped me before, with the werewolf's bite, is trying to rise and help me now. But it has not enough strength. My veins are on fire, carrying agony to every part of my body. My blood is burning me alive. I know that I am going to die from this wound, but I cannot die unforgiven. Unforgiven by her. I must find her. But as Ezrafel drives - I can think of no better word for it - I see where he is going. The portal in the heavens. She'll be there, of course. Damaged and weak, but still fighting. Damn me and my pride. My jealousy.

When we arrive, everything is in desperate case. My sight is failing, but it is still good enough to see Dawn tied at the end of the gantry jutting from a scaffolding tower. She is bleeding. There are a number of bodies around. Wesley and Giles are hurt, Willow and a girl, both of them hurt, are hugging each other, Xander and another girl sit on the ground, looking shocked. All of them are looking at my beloved, climbing the tower. A huge portal spins slowly across the sky, and enormous beasts are crossing from whichever dimension they started in; crossing into ours. My mate intends to stop that. I can feel her determination even through this burning in my blood.

Ezrafel helps me over to Willow. It's hard to talk now, but I must try.

"Willow, tell me quickly what she is doing. How does she intend to close the portal?"

Willow's eyes are red with weeping, but her voice is brave.

"Summers' blood."

That is all I need to hear.

Summers' blood.

I have some of that, too. I drank quite a lot of it today. Perhaps it will be enough, if Giles' poison hasn't tainted it too much. A throng of what I take to be the godling's minions are massed around the base of the tower.

"Can you clear a space for me?" I have no strength to drive through.

Willow looks to the other girl, then they both nod. They start to chant, and it is as if a wind were parting a cornfield. The more energy I use, the quicker death will come for me. I don't care. That might even be an unlooked for blessing, provided I can do what needs to be done. Get the forgiveness I need before I die. Gathering myself, I run through and in three bounds, I reach the top of the tower. I can see very little now, but I see that my beloved has freed Dawn and is hugging her. Then she leaps gracefully off the tower, and towards the portal. She doesn't even give me a backwards glance.

Why am I always too late?

I leap after her, powering through the air as best I can. My fingers reach out and touch her ankle as she enters the portal. Then, before I can get a grip, I have slammed into an invisible barrier, and she is gone. Something has prevented me entering the portal after her, and I don't know what. It felt like the barrier of invitation, but surely that can't apply to a complete dimension? Unless... unless it was heaven, from which I would understandably be debarred. And I must know.

My fall to earth continues, but Buffy has emerged from where the portal was, from where the portal is no longer, and I am now below her. Her body looks broken and lifeless, and she is silent in my blood. Nevertheless, I must try. If I fall and roll, I will prevent most injuries to myself. In my weakened state, if I try to catch her, to cushion her, my lower body will suffer extensively. What does that matter, now?

I reach for her, and she is in my arms as my feet touch the ground. My shins are splintered and broken, my knees shattered, my hip joints sheared and my lower spine crushed. The pain is a roaring giant, drowning out for a moment even the agony of the Watcher's poison. But she takes no further hurt. And again I am too late. She is quite dead.

I sink down to the muck, kneeling as best I can, in my broken state. My beloved's body is sprawled over my knees, like some bloody pagan sacrifice, or an exotic pietÓ. And I shall die unforgiven. I must try.

"Willow."

My voice is a whisper now. If she is in heaven - no doubt with him - there is nothing I could or should do. The anger howls within me at that thought, but I hold onto my control. I must be sure, though. Because if she is elsewhere, if she is somewhere - less tranquil - I must try to bring her back.

"Send me after her. If she isn't...safe...I must try to bring her back. Watcher. You must give me the antidote and quickly. I must have the strength to follow her."

Neither of them seems to understand the urgency. The Watcher looks at me with contempt. The words of refusal are unnecessary, but he says them anyway. The witch simply looks horrified.

It takes a moment, a precious moment that we do not have, to muster my strength for more words. "You need the Slayer. Look to the skies."

Many demons have decided to use the portal to seek pastures new. The winged ones are circling even now. And their escape route back to their own dimension is gone, with the closing of the portal. These children will not be able to deal with such demons alone, and the new Slayer - for one will certainly have been called now - will be young and untried. And who knows where in the world she is.

"You know what to do, don't you, Willow? You must do it quickly, and the Watcher must give me the antidote." I have faith in Willow. She has always been the most honourable one of the lot, except for Oz, and he is no longer here. I also have faith in her witchery. The spell will have to be a powerful one.

She pulls herself together. She understands. So does Ripper. He looks as if the knowledge is like gall in his mouth.

"I don't know the spell. I'm sorry. I'll ask Tara if she knows."

Willow and the girl, Tara, start to speak quickly together. So, the other girl is a witch, too? Neither of them knows how to do what I need. No matter. I do. It was in Aurelius' book. But my mind is not as sharp as it should be, thanks to Ripper's poison. Its progress is accelerating, and he shows no sign of relenting.

I visualise the section of the scroll, the columns of hieroglyphics and the Egyptian demotic script, deciphered with such difficulty. Aurelius reads them as easily as you and I read English, but I do not. I have read only small portions of the book but, thankfully, I have read this. I repeat the words of the spell to the two witches. It is relatively simple, although they have none of the magical props, here in a construction yard. I must hope that they are powerful enough to overcome that. I do not tell them how they can call on the power of the Hellmouth. That way is fraught with danger, introducing them to such dark forces that they might not have the strength to control. Buffy will kill me if I harm them.

They go over to the Watcher, who is standing a little apart, watching my beloved's sister, the one for whom she gave her life, being brought down from the tower. I cannot see who is doing that, my sight is so dimmed. They speak to him, urgently, with many gestures to the sky. And to the body of my love, broken and bloodied in my arms.

His face grey and grim, Ripper walks over to me and squats by my shoulder. Everyone stops to listen. The words are torn from him. "You must drain the Slayer's blood. With my blessing."

Ah. The very last thing in the world he would ever wish to do. Isn't it strange how events continually conspire to leave us no option but the very last thing in the world we should ever wish to do?

The witches have decided how to go about their task. Willow looks defiantly at the Watcher.

"Well? Does he have your blessing? He can't try to rescue her from the Underworld if he is dead."

Perhaps Ripper thinks I can. Perhaps he thinks that is the best way. Or perhaps he just hates me more than he loves the Slayer. No, that is unfair. Nothing could exceed his love for her. He thinks of her as his daughter.

He is silent.

"Giles, if we don't send him quickly, Buffy may have travelled too far. We may not have enough power as it is." Tears fill her eyes as she looks at the girl-woman that I know is her lover. "Neither of us is in prime condition, and we have nothing to help us do the spells. He needs to go. Now."

Defeated, the Watcher chants a few words of blessing in Latin, and then walks away unable, I'm sure, to watch. I understand him. I'm almost unable to do what I need to do. The act makes me sick at heart as well as sick to my stomach. But I must. Somehow, through the gathering shadows in my mind, and the roiling agony in my gut, I find my demon face and sink my fangs gently into my beloved's throat. It is hard work taking blood from the dead. The heart no longer pumps it around, it no longer spurts freely, but must be pulled with effort. And the sweet taste of her is threaded through with the bitter tastes of pain and sacrifice and death. It is the most unpalatable blood I have ever taken. And the most precious, because it is hers. If I fail, it will be the last.

The witches and the Watcher are speaking, but I do not care to hear. I bury myself in my lost love, in the taste and scent of her, in the touch of her cooling body in my arms. And I feel her, returning my strength to me. Giving me the pain of renewal in my broken bones. Cleansing the poison from my system. If I had a deity to pray to, I would pray that this would not be her last gift to me.

***

I see Willow walk over to me as I watch the vampire drinking down the girl I think of as my daughter. He's no doubt revelling in this moment. He'll be full of slayer's blood - what better meal can a vampire want? And he'll be free of my poison. He must think that he has gained a victory, and I suppose he has. For the moment. The future is a long time.

"We're ready, Giles. But..."

She hesitates, and I tear my attention away from the travesty of love. Willow has something to say, and I can tell that I'm not going to like it.

"Tara and I will have to keep the spell going as long as Angelus is in the Underworld, and we don't know how long that will be. Between us we will also have to stop Buffy's body from...deteriorating, and his from turning to ash whilst the demon is gone. We'll be lucky to be able to do all that. But something else needs to be done. He needs a way back."

"What?"

"If he is to come back, he needs a consciousness to follow, like...like a trail of breadcrumbs. Tara and I think that has to be you. Xander doesn't understand magic, and we don't know Wesley well enough to be sure of keeping hold of him. Anya...well, we don't know what it might do to her, to let her loose in the Underworld again. You're the only one."

"I don't understand..."

"You need to remain anchored here, but share part of your consciousness with him, to give him a path back. Him and Buffy."

"You mean that he will share my mind, my thoughts?" The idea of that must be akin to the idea of rape.

"No. You might share some of his - but only the surface thoughts - we don't need to implant you too deeply. If we do it right, it will be just a small part of you and you won't really be aware of what he is doing - you just need to concentrate on staying linked with yourself back here. And if anything...goes wrong, Wesley and Ezrafel and Anya will be here to find help."

That is hardly any better. Perhaps share the demon's thoughts? And if it goes wrong? I really don't think I can do it. I turn to look at him again, and I'm disgusted by the sucking sounds as he draws the blood from her. It seems that he's just finishing, because he stops drinking, gives the wounds a gentle lick, then turns to look at me. Those yellow eyes seem to glint in triumph, but perhaps that is just my imagination. His demon face changes as he looks at me, but the blood on his mouth remains. Murderer. Monster. Share his consciousness? Never.

It is then that a deep cawing sound overhead attracts my attention. Flying demons. He was right. We need a slayer, and we need her now. The new one may be too late. In the end, it's the easiest decision I've ever made. And the hardest.

"Very well. Let's get them back to my place."

"No! There's no time. Tara says we are already almost too late. We must start now. Here." She hesitates, "And anyway, here is where it happened. We have the best chance of linking to them here. Of finding her."

She's seen me look askance at the sky, though - it can't be all that long until dawn.

"If necessary, the others will build a shelter, but we need to start. Now."

She's right, of course. As I sit down next to him, I wonder what the monster will think of it. But there is no time to ask, because the girls have already started their chant. They have nothing to help them, no herbs or candles or crystals or amulets, just their own abilities and strengths. I pray it will be enough. Then everything goes black.

When I wake, I'm not sure that I have, at first. Everything is still black. Then I realise that I am looking through Angelus' eyes, and he is only just rousing. I think that this is a really bad idea. It takes a few moments to understand just how bad. The girls, in their haste and inexperience, and in their anxiety to use me as a hook, have planted the fully functional me right in the centre of him. I am privy to his inmost thoughts and secrets. And he has no idea. I seem to be unable to affect him in any way, and he is blind to me. I am just squatting here, like a toad in a stone. In a maelstrom of rage and hate and lust. Now I see why Angelus must surely be regarded as largely insane. And I simply do not understand how Angel was able to keep this beast in check. He had far more strength than ever I gave him credit for.

Then he opens his eyes and kneels up. We are in an endless expanse of black sand. In the distance, three winged figures are approaching. He recognises them. He's been here before. Is this Hell, then?

The three figures are close, now, and his memory tells me what they are. The Furies. Alecto, Tisiphone and Megaera. Three nightmares from the deepest level of Hell, surely? He curls into a ball, and I realise that he is naked, here. *We* are naked, because as the first one sinks its fangs into him, I feel the agony of it, too. And so as these three goddesses start to tear into his - our - flesh he rises to his feet and begins to run.

He runs for a long time. This place is absolutely timeless and featureless, just plains of black sand, but it seems like a very long time. Hours. Days. When I can think, I pray that time runs differently here. And I pray that we are in the wrong place. Surely Buffy can never have come here. Strangely, so does he. He has been here before, on a day when Angel was human. So was Buffy. A leviathan stirs in the deeps of my memory, then sinks again, and is lost. But there is something that he remembers. Something that he has never tormented Angel with, has kept to himself. If Angel had ever been human, even if only for a day, and had lost that, why would this demon not use it for the most exquisite torment of his captor? Why do I not remember it? I don't know.

And I can't think, for the pain. I always thought that demons felt little pain. I was wrong. They feel more acutely than you can imagine. They just live with it.

After a while, it becomes clear that the Furies are herding him. In the far distance, he can make out something that looks different. An outcropping of rock, perhaps. Still black, but different. That is where they are sending him. There are no footprints in the sand in front of us, but did Buffy come this way, too?

At last, torn and bleeding, he reaches a tall cliff. A tunnel cuts through it, black and unwholesome. The Furies hover behind him, urging him on with shakes of their snaky locks. He - we - have been bitten by them many times. Exquisite agony. He enters the tunnel. The Furies, thank God, remain behind, barring his exit.

At last, he emerges into a huge cavern. Unlike the tunnel, which was smooth and perfectly dark, the walls here are made of huge, multifaceted crystals, reflecting a blaze of light enough to dazzle him. It's rather like one of those egg-shaped geodes that a geologist cracks open to find that it is perfectly lined with amethyst, or some other sparkling gemstone. It is amazing. He cannot find the source of the light, but a figure is coming towards him. A figure of smoke and dark crystal edges, cloaked in black. He cannot see a face, but he has seen it before, and rage courses through him. Rage, and fear.

"Angelus."

Despite his rage and fear, he remains silent, dignified, waiting for this creature to speak.

"You slew my messenger."

"It was laying waste to my territories. I made an agreement with you, but not one that would permit destruction of my possessions in earthquakes and a rain of fire."

Los Angeles. *He* was part of that? The lunatics were right? And yet I sense absolute reluctance. Then the memory drifts through my consciousness. The pain and despair on that black sand, the last time he was here. The agreement, to be restored to life. And the betrayal, because the demons here had no part of the restoration. At least he doesn't believe so. He was sold a pup, and cannot forgive that.

"You still killed my messenger, and prevented my sending you a new master. Your life is forfeit for that."

"I think I may insist on appealing that decision."

The creature has no features, yet it seems to smile.

"What makes you believe that there is a court that would listen to you?"

"The fact that you don't like the idea of me appealing. But I am here for something else."

"Another *bargain*, where your word will not hold good?"

"I have come to retrieve the Slayer."

"I know. What makes you think she is here?"

"The witches sent me to follow her. I don't think that they made a mistake. Not using one of Aurelius' spells. I think you know where she is."

The creature appears to muse for a while. If Angelus had a heart, it would be beating wildly. He may look cool and dignified, but he is afraid. Only rage permits him to stand here, unflustered. Rage, and something else.

"It was perhaps not her time to die. Not yet." Angelus does have a heart, of sorts, because it lurches. "I will hazard another bargain with you. If you can find her, you may have the right to contest for her release. At least I am in a position here to ensure that you keep your word this time." The creature waves its hand, and the light changes. The vampire sees now that the cavern we are in is lined with tunnels at many different levels. It looks like a warren. Flickers of light in all the colours of the rainbow, and many others, come from the tunnel entrances.

Angelus stalks off to the nearest opening. The creature follows. Inside the tunnel, I see that this place is like the Catacombs of Rome. The sides are gouged out to provide small shelves and niches. In each niche rests...how to describe it? A being - he senses that they are, were, beings. Souls, perhaps. But like nothing I have ever seen. They are shapes of crystalline light, refractions of a myriad colours around a darker heart. Beautiful but frozen. Angelus looks hard at them, then turns angrily to the creature.

"What have you done here?"

I search amongst his feelings, and discover his question. These are all slayers, or something similar. Judging by the number of tunnels, these may be all the slayers who have ever lived. If this is Heaven, they have, indeed, been short-changed. He doesn't care about these, though. He only cares about her. To tell the truth, at this moment, so do I.

The creature refuses to respond to his question. Instead, it looks at him with what I could swear was mockery on its non-existent features.

"Choose."

Angelus sets off down the tunnel, anger driving out all other emotions. He is angry because he is afraid he will fail, and he would rather live in anger than in fear. I can understand that, strange though it is to say so.

There are hundreds of them, if not thousands, these beautiful frozen spirits. He knows that they are not all the same. There are many slayers here, but he recognises other types of being, too. I don't know what. The place is a maze. He is never lost, but he is losing hope. He cannot find her. Then I feel something within him, something...different...something soothing him, urging him to think, to use his senses. He stops, and I can feel him reaching deep within himself. And he feels the call of blood, here where there is none. He opens himself up entirely to this call, and amid the corruption and darkness that is his being, there is a bright and shining light. He knows what it is, so I do, too. Her. He sets off with renewed hope, threading his way through this labyrinth of adamantine death.

***

I left the others in Los Angeles and came here to either rescue my employer, my friend, the man who offered me a chance to become somebody, or to slay his murderer. I find that my friend, Angel, is gone forever, and I am that murderer. This will not be easy knowledge to live with, but I must deal with that later. Now, there are more important things at stake. Mr Giles has not bothered to hide his well-deserved contempt for me, and for the others. We were desperate, but he is right. We should have researched more, understood better, what we were proposing. But we had no idea that there might be a limit to the soul magic. That is no excuse, of course. I should have known better.

I have not even been able to slay the dragon that I created. Despite the fact that he was torturing her, might even have been killing her, the demon has shown himself to be a better man than me. He has gone to see whether the Slayer can be recovered, something I should not have dared. And I am left to stand watch.

The vampire is kneeling on the ground, the girl lying across him, held firmly in his embrace. Mr Giles is kneeling next to them. The two witches are sitting cross-legged in front of them, holding hands and chanting in a low monotone. No one in this tableau is conscious of anything happening around them. A demon, whom I do not know, together with Xander and myself, stands guard. Anyanka has fetched Dawn down from the tower and is binding her wounds as best she can. Neither is willing to leave until this is played out. Xander is building a shelter of wood and blankets and any other debris that he can find, in case the sun comes up before Angelus completes his task. He hates doing it, but he loves Buffy more. Like Mr Giles, he is doing the last thing in the world he would ever wish to do - protecting Angelus.

Dawn is only a couple of hours away, surely, and there will be serious complications if the waking world finds us here. I wish I knew what was happening. And why the monster is doing this.

***

He is standing at the end of an almost empty tunnel. There are only a few spirits here, but the inner light that is guiding him is brighter than ever. He almost runs to a niche in the tunnel wall, and stops before the spirit that it contains. Trying to see with human eyes, I am sure that they would all look alike. But with his eyes? This one glows in a way that the others do not. As we approached it, it had gleamed softly, a scintilla of colour here and there. Now? It coruscates with the brilliance of diamond in a spotlight, the radiance of light illuminating the entire corridor. He puts out a hand to touch it, then, uncertain of whether his touch will damage it, *hurt her*, he pulls back. The light, which had flared to meet his hand, dies down a little, as if disappointed.

He wants to simply stay here and bathe in this light, in the warmth that has enveloped his being. I had never understood that demons could experience the gentler feelings, but this dead girl - for I have no doubt that it is she - is lying like a balm over the maelstrom of passion that is his spirit. He loves her. I can never doubt that again. It is here, displayed before me. His inmost secrets, nothing is hidden from me. He does not understand how he can do so, and he hates it that he does. But he loves her.

Something attracts his attention, then, and reluctantly he pulls away from his lodestar.

He moves a little way down the tunnel to another spirit. This, too, is a coruscation of light, planes and angles of crystalline colour surrounding a darker centre. He recognises it, and in doing so, he flays my own spirit. Jenny. The woman I loved, murdered by Angelus. He feels that she is pleased that he is here, close to her, even though she can have no conscious awareness. Can she feel me, I wonder? Is she pleased that he is here, or is it me? I push the selfish thought down. She is lying at his mercy now. Will he try to destroy her forever? Brag to me later? To punish me for the hurt I have done him? His emotions are turbulent and threaded through with an overwhelming desire to return to his own love. I cannot quite read him yet. Then the creature joins us.

"You have found the Slayer?"

Angelus points mutely to the spirit he first found. Then he says something that causes hope to soar in me.

"This one. The Gypsy. I wish to contest for her release, too."

As he says the words, I can discern his thoughts. He has no regrets that he killed her before she could re-ensoul him. But he regrets the pain that my loss causes Buffy. And he looks on me as one of his *possessions*? A treacherous one to be sure, and there must be a reckoning, but he still sees me as his possession. My welfare is his concern. I may resent that, but my understanding of this demon has been shaken to its foundations.

The creature dashes both our hopes.

"You may not contest for both. You must choose one or the other. You have not the wherewithal to purchase both."

He does not give up easily, though.

"Can I find the wherewithal? Can I change the balance?"

"No. You may ransom one life, and one only."

There is, of course, no choice. He moves back to Buffy, and I am surprised to find that he has a small lingering regret that Jenny must stay here.

"The souls here - are they happy? Is this their Heaven? Is this all there is?"

"I believe that they are dreaming. What they dream is none of my concern, whether it be of the moment of their death, or of happier times. How can I know? For these, though, there is no other place that can take them. Only this place. This Limbo. Champions must have a heart of darkness, to give them the strength to kill, to do things that the gentler beings in their charge are unable to do for themselves. Their souls will always carry sins. Perhaps you would prefer them to be out on the black sand?"

The creature has a sly look to it, sly and knowing, as if there were more to the story than that, and as if our ignorance might be the death of us. I have no doubt, though, that it is telling the truth. He believes that, too.

Rage rises in him like an inferno, threatening to engulf us both, for I feel it too. This is the reward, then. A lifetime of struggle against the forces of darkness, followed by the ultimate sacrifice, and they lie here as unforgiven sinners, alone, unloved, on a shelf. Is that divine mercy? Is it even justice? Those are my thoughts, but I find that they are also his. That gives me a moment of panic. More and more, I find that my thoughts and his converge. Am I losing myself in him? Who will I be at the end of all this? He keeps a tenuous grasp on his temper, calling on the balm of his love for the Slayer to strengthen him.

"Very well, then. What must I do to be able to bring the Slayer back? What sort of contest?"

The creature looks at him. At us. It has no features, yet I can tell that the look is long and measured.

"I think you misunderstand. You may not bring her back. You may go back, knowing where she is, or you may send her back. You must choose."

"Explain!"

He wants to rend this being into pieces, to tear down this entire edifice that seems to stand between himself and the Slayer. He is holding himself in check by the slimmest of threads, now.

"Your life is forfeit, remember? You broke our agreement; you prevented the manifestation of a new master on Earth; you escaped from death on a false promise. Your life and your spirit are forfeit to me."

He snarls; he cannot help himself.

"The Oracles turned back time, restored me to the body, took away Angel's humanity. You had nothing to do with that. Under our contract, you still owe me my life. There is no bargain for me to keep, yet."

I don't understand any of this.

"How your return to life was achieved is immaterial to our agreement. I simply agreed that it would be done. I did not specify that I would do it. You have reneged. It is as simple as that. You may go, or she may go, if you succeed in your challenge."

He doesn't actually say 'Take it or leave it,' but he might as well have done. Angelus' thoughts and emotions stream around me. The knowledge that the Oracles intervened once and the certainty that they must have done so again; that he is being short-changed here - well, what can you expect of a bargain made in Hell - and the acceptance that he must decide. The rage and hate and passion of this monster, this most evil and vicious of all vampires, wrap themselves around me, cut through by the bright, shining path of his decision. He will sacrifice anything and anybody - no, *everything* and *everybody* -for this woman-child-warrior. Including himself. How can this beast, spawned from the deepest pits of corruption, possibly feel the purity of love that he has for her. I do not understand.

He sinks to his knees in front of her frozen spirit, as if in an act of worship. There is an element of that, but overwhelmingly his feelings are those of utmost despair and loss. It doesn't change his mind, though.

"Her. I choose her."

Immediately, the black rock of the labyrinth disappears, and we are kneeling on the black sand in this lighter, but sunless, place. The dark cliffs, shadowless but terrible, loom all around. Encircling us are dozens of demons of all varieties. All battle demons. There are no weapons, no armaments that I can see, but they have no need of them. All those here have natural armour and weaponry, tooth and claw, that make Angelus' own look like those of an infant. Buffy's body is lying across his knees.

The creature stands in front of him and gestures to something outside the encircling demons. It is a catafalque, draped in purple and white, a pillow at one end. Angelus rises gracefully and lays her gently on it. He kisses her forehead and then returns to the circle. His gaze runs around the gathered multitude, weighing them up. He knows them all. He, or Angel, has killed all of them at some point in his life. These are their shades, but they look as solid as he is.

"Tell me with whom I must contest."

"Why, all of them, of course."

***

The trio before me is unchanged. The vampire is still kneeling, with the girl sprawled bonelessly across his lap, held firmly in his embrace. Only Mr Giles moves at all, the shallow rise and fall of his rib cage as he breathes showing that he is alive. The witches continue to chant. Nothing else in the tableau changes.

And then it does. Xander has erected a structure around them, and is about to drape it with blankets and sheets of corrugated iron when I stop him. A bruise has bloomed on the vampire's cheek, and then blood swells from claw marks gashing deeply into his neck. Blood roses blossom on his clothing, black against the darkness of his shirt, testaments to unseen wounds, and I hear the occasional crack of bone. Yet he is unmoved and unmoving. As quickly as he heals, more wounds tear his flesh. Xander and Ezrafel have seen now, and are watching in horror as hurts that are deeper and more terrible appear on him. What in God's name is happening?

***

I am lying on my back in this arena of flesh, staring at, without actually seeing, the featureless sky above. There is no real sky, no clouds, no sun, just a shade of grey paler than the black sand, and an unseen light source. Nothing else. Just grey. Grey like my heart. I am tired beyond all words. In her death, Buffy gave me a gift, the gift of her life. It drove away the Watcher's poison, and it has given me the strength to defeat each of the opponents that have been sent against me. But I cannot kill them, and this is a contest to the death. I have met each and every one and defeated them, but they will not die. Or rather, they die and then they live again. And they line up to come at me again. I have not the strength to face even one more. My blood, Buffy's last gift, is used up and stale. There is none to replace it. I have failed. I have failed to win her freedom from this place of death, from this nowhereness. What a useless piece of work I am, if I cannot even deliver my mate into safety. More useless even than the human this body used to be. I never thought I'd say that, but it's true.

And it seems that I am mistaken about having defeated them all, because there is one opponent still to come, one I have not yet fought. I cannot make out his features since the light, which otherwise has no direction, seems to be behind him. All I can see is a figure in a long coat. What is it about this place and clothes? I have had none since I arrived, yet he does. Is this trying to tell me something? Is it all a figment of my imagination? Is all this really just happening in my head? A result of the Watcher's poison, perhaps? Just what is going on here? But I'm too weary, too thoroughly drained and simply exhausted to think further.

Now he is standing over me, and, quick as thought, he has dropped to his knees, straddling my chest, no doubt to make it easier to use the stake he has in his fist; the stake that even now is pressed into the muscle over my heart. I can see his face now, although it is not one that I would have expected in the same place as the entire line of slayers. Still, my opponents have all been demons killed by the Soul, or by me, so I expect it's appropriate that he be here. At my demise. Probably presiding over my demise, if truth be told.

"Spike."

"You dusted me, you pillock! What were you thinking?"

Only now do I fully realise that that, indeed, is what I have done. Only now does that truth embed itself into my psyche. I have killed him. I'll never see him again. Never hold him, never have to punish him, never have to rescue him from some ridiculous escapade. It is not at all unusual for vampires to kill their childer - I've done it myself once or twice, when I needed to. But Will? He bitched and whined and made my life a living hell. And I loved him. He was my favourite childe. And now he is dead. Although looking at him, not quite dust.

His rage is palpable. So, this is to be my end, then. Or am I able to die here? Perhaps I will die up there, but here be doomed to relive this moment for eternity? No. That would be far too merciful a damnation. The stake is sharp, and presses through the skin into flesh. A tiny runnel of blood leaks out and trickles over my ribs to join the blood that has already soaked into this sand from the much larger wounds that I have taken. I have no answer for him. Even if I did, I could not find the strength to voice it. So I lie here, accepting. A thought occurs to me. Perhaps he will prove stronger than me. Perhaps he can take her out of here. I must try to ask him.

But it seems he might know what is in my mind.

"She never wanted me, you prat. And I liked her well enough, but I didn't love her. It was always about you. You left us. You abandoned us and we kept trying to find you in each other. That's the vampire way, dammit! And you killed me for it. You condemned me to...this!"

His arm sweeps round to indicate the vast expanse of nothing. Of black sand. His chest is heaving, as if he needed to breathe, as if emotion has robbed him of breath. For the moment, he cannot continue. But I think he has said enough. Because he is right. He hasn't finished yet, though. The stake sinks a little deeper.

"What you did was bloody *human*! That bloody soul has corrupted you. Before, you would never have minded - you'd have wanted us to remember you, try to feel you again in each other. You would have got pleasure from *watching* us! Only humans are jealous of that. What other maggot could have got in your head, you stupid wanker? And how are you going to get out of this, now."

How, indeed? And he is right; I am not the demon I used to be. I don't know why that is, but I'm sure that there is no Hell that will welcome me now. At least, not in the way I would wish to be welcomed. Remember the Furies? But now is not the time to think of what might become of me, only of what is to become of her. And of my other possessions still on Earth, still threatened by an influx of demons that are too strong for them to kill, with or without a new Slayer. And I still need to gain her forgiveness.

He looks round at the circle of waiting demons. Suddenly, he tosses the stake behind him with an expression of disgust. Another new figure has appeared, another in a long coat. What *is* it with clothes here?

Spike rises to his feet, graceful as always, and stands to one side, slouching, with his hands in his pockets. The new arrival bends to pick up the stake and walks towards me. He looks familiar, but I can't see his face. Truth to tell, everything is somewhat blurred now as my sight fades and unconsciousness beckons. Where, I wonder, is the brash and cocky demon of yesterday? What has become of my pride, my amour propre? Lying in the dust, like the rest of me. Only she is important, and I have failed even her.

The newcomer has reached me, stands toying with the stake, his features shadowed. Still I have not an ounce of strength. He seems to be debating with himself whether or not to stake me. I wonder why he should be in any doubt. Suddenly, the shadows shift, and I see him. It is me. Well, not me precisely. Him. The Soul. What the Hell is he doing here?

He bends down, and holds out his hand to me. What? He expects me to sit up in order to be staked? Still, what difference does it make? I reach out to him, and he wraps his hand firmly around my wrist, yanking me to my feet. The contact is electrifying, as if I have been given a transfusion of blood. His other hand, which I see no longer holds the stake, wraps around my throat.

"If you mean to get her out of here, then fight for her. Stop whimpering and just fight."

He lets me go and stands back to back with me as the first two demons charge.

***

'Tis pride, rank pride, and haughtiness of soul;
I think the Romans call it stoicism.
Joseph Addison
'Cato' (1713)
Act 1 scene 4, 1.82

'Together you are strong. Alone you are powerless.' I know that is what the Mohra demon said to Buffy, even though I was unconscious at the time. Down here, I know a lot of things that I missed before. As if my soul had picked up things that my unconscious mind missed. As if I have been permitted to know things that were kept from me before. The lost day, for example.

I have been allowed to watch what has been happening since Angelus came to retrieve Buffy, since he appeared on the black sand of this arena, with my beloved sprawled dead across his knees. It galls me to say that he has acquitted himself well. I'll never tell him, of course. He doesn't need to be more puffed up in his own self-importance than he already is.

Then I understand the problem. He can put down the demons he is fighting, but here he lacks something. He lacks the power to make an end of them. That is when I remember the words of the Mohra demon, and I wonder whether it could possibly apply to him and me.

I see him sprawled on the sand, and I know that he is at the end of his strength. I can never go back - I know about the limits on the soul magic now, when it is too late - but he can. He must. He has to take Buffy with him. And he has tried. Further, he must be the one to protect her for the rest of her life. I find the idea hard to accept, but he is all there is. No, not hard to accept. Almost impossible. She is the most precious thing in the world to me, and the last thing I would ever wish to do is to see her in his care. Yet that seems to be my only choice, to hand her over to a demon. To surely the most vicious demon that Hell has ever spawned. To the demon that has ruled me for a hundred and fifty years, and fought me to the point of despair for the last century.

Yet, without him, I have always known that her life would be short. And he made her an oath. I remember it well, now, although I wasn't there. '...I will cherish and protect you in every way known to human or demon kind. I will never leave you or abandon you, and we will face together everything the future brings to us.' He meant it. I'm sure he still means it. I was the one who abandoned her, not him. If I cannot go back, he must. And at least neither of them will have to worry about the happiness clause. The knowledge of what I am doing, of what I might be condemning her to, will tear me apart for eternity, more surely than anything devised within Hell ever could. It is the last thing in the world that I want to do, but what choice do I have?

The one who brought me here is a creature of light, and crystal planes. A thing of beauty but entirely inhuman. I don't know why I am here, or what I am able to do. I have to ask.

"May I help him?"

"He may only help himself."

Spike walks out onto the sand. Now where did he come from? Is he dead, too? He looks real enough as he presses that stake to his, to my, heart. Then I realise what the creature has said. 'He may only help himself.' I have never been able to distinguish between us. I am he, and he is me. Buffy said so, as well. Remember? 'Angel, he's you, too. Cut him some slack. Please.' Here, I have perfect recall of every moment of that lost day. Every syllable. Every touch.

I go to walk through the transparency, the glassy wall that separates us, and it simply parts for me. As I look back, the creature seems to smile, although he has no face.

And it seems the Mohra was right. When I reach for Angelus, to pull him up, I can feel the life force pass from me to him, and yet I am not diminished. And so we face the horde together. One by one they die. Or at least disappear from this arena, which is all that we need.

When the last one is gone, we both stand, battered and bruised - and worse. We are alone except for Spike and the body of Buffy. Spike is standing by the catafalque. He gives us a clear-eyed gaze, then turns and walks back towards the black cliffs. Angelus looks at me with something that, for him, must approach gratitude. He says, gruffly, "Do you wish to make your farewells to her?" I do. I walk over to her, and he allows me to do that alone. I am grateful to him.

She looks so beautiful, and so lost, alone on that huge purple deathbed. It is as if she were alive, but sleeping, except that there is no sign of a heartbeat or of breath. As if she were like me, then. Like I was. My fingers remember the feel of her skin, the heavy silk of her hair. My lips remember the sweetness of her taste, the way her own lips yield to mine. This will be all I have to remember, in all the ages to come. No. She left me with more than this dead shell. She left me with hope. She left me with living memories, which I must and shall hold on to.

I turn and walk back to my place in the black cliff, without once looking back. If I did, I should shame myself. She is his, now, and I must be satisfied with that. At least he will give his life to protect her, just as I would have done. Perhaps it's the best I ever had the right to hope for.

As I take my place beside my guide, he turns to go. His look requires me to follow. I pray for one last bounty. One more torment.

"May I watch? Until it is done? Until she is gone?"

He nods, and returns to my side. The creature that appears to be his counterpart, the one of smoke and shadows, of dark light, approaches my alter ego. The demon. My nemesis.

"You have been successful. She may leave."

He stretches forth his hand, and my beloved takes a deep and shuddering breath. Her eyes open. Angelus takes her hand and helps her to rise from the purple satin. She stands, in a dream state, unknowing, unmoving. Unaware.

"Do you wish to say farewell to her?"

What? He has won her freedom, her life. What is happening here?

My guide explains.

"He has been told that his life is forfeit for failing to honour the bargain he made during his last stay here. He stopped the rain of fire and prevented the appearance in your dimension of a new master for the Earth. That cannot go unremarked and unpunished."

He did what I failed to do. Bully for him. My guide continues.

"Because of that, he may only ransom one life. He chose her. He must therefore remain."

Oh.

His arms are around her, now, although she does not respond. She is still completely unaware, an automaton, without feelings. He is not. He is crying into her hair.

***

I am becoming more than a little fearful as I think of the consequences of what is happening. I sit here, a secret part of Angelus' psyche; what will happen to me now that he cannot leave? Will I be here forever? Will I share his torments here for eternity? Can Willow and Tara retrieve me? Or will they be left with an empty, comatose husk? Am I still conscious, back in my own place and time? Am I now split into two beings? Is that what Angel and Angelus are? If so, what sort of creature is left in my flesh, wearing my clothes?

If it is down to me to make an effort, to separate myself from the demon, I don't know how. And already it becomes harder to think of myself as a separate entity, to know what is 'I' and what is 'he'. I thought before that Angel was stronger than I gave him credit for. I am beginning to understand just how strong, now that I am in danger of losing myself.

And perhaps some of the fear I feel is Angelus' own fear, because that is one of the emotions roiling through him. Anger, that he should have to remain here, parted from her. Fear, at what might happen to him. Frustration, that he cannot find a way out of this. But above all, love. Love for her, and sorrow that he will never see her again. Who would have thought it?

He has been crying into her hair, re-baptising her, perhaps, with his sacrifice. Now he looks to the shadow creature.

"Will she remember that I loved her? Will she remember that I begged her forgiveness?"

This is of paramount importance to him, a sin weighing on him like the Mariner's albatross. He must be reassured, I can sense it.

"She will remember nothing of her stay here. She will know nothing of the time between her fall from the tower and her awakening in your ashes. But others will tell her."

The creature looks at Angelus. No, not *at* Angelus. Into him. He looks at me. He knows I am here. I think he has always known, and he has given me my task. If this demon is to sacrifice his life for her, he deserves that I should tell her something of that sacrifice. But does that mean that I will be returned? That I will be permitted to remember?

"I can take her back to her world?"

"You may lead her so far. You will not be permitted to cross the barrier. She will follow behind you, but remember this. You must never look back at her. If you do, she will be lost. Her chance to rejoin the living will be gone, and you will leave in her place."

Another test then. Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus failed. Lot's wife failed. The urge to look back is irresistible, and he knows it. I feel a slight tug on my consciousness, and I know that the task I have been sent for is about to be fulfilled. My consciousness, stretched between these two dimensions like Ariadne's thread, is guiding him back, Theseus from the Labyrinth of the Minotaur. Behind us, I hear the rustle of leathery wings, and the hissing of snakes. Surely that is what awaits him, when he has delivered her back to life. He starts to walk. I do not know whether Buffy is behind us. And he desperately needs to look. So do I.

***

I watch them leave. My feelings I can only describe as disbelief. Horror. Rage. For perhaps the first time, my anger must surely match his. Who will protect her now? I must have spoken that out loud, because my guide answers.

"She is the Slayer. Why should she need to be protected?"

"Slayers die young. They always have. And they do so because they work alone. Every warrior needs someone to watch their back. Even a Slayer."

The creature remains silent. I can never go back to her, but perhaps I can make sure that he does. He has forfeited his existence because he chose to do what I could not. He killed The Beast. Perhaps I can repay him. Anything can be purchased here. For the right price.

"Can his life be purchased?"

"It can. You may nominate someone else to take his place."

"Anyone?"

"Anyone. His is a spirit of particular power and destiny. If the person you choose does not have power to match, you may need to nominate more than one. A pure soul will purchase a great deal. But, whoever you nominate will take his eternal fate."

"The Furies." I know now how he suffered.

"The Furies are only the start of it. There will be very much worse to follow."

Faces come to mind, as I think of those whom I might condemn. Forever.

***

I cannot look back. I can never look back. She is behind me, and I can never see her, never hold her, again. If I try to, everything I have done will have been in vain. Yet I am weak. The need to look back is overwhelming. Spike was right. The human soul, in residence for so long, has contaminated me. I am no longer as pure a demon as I should be. Aurelius has done something, too. I can feel it in my blood. Perhaps it is good that I shall not see the Earth again. Perhaps I would feel the need to cleanse myself of these corruptions. That could only bring me into conflict with her. So, as I stalk across these black sands, I try to concentrate on what I truly am, a manifestation of evil, and the most vicious demon ever to have prowled the night. I will need to remember that, in the ages to come.

Is she still behind me? Dare I risk just the smallest glance? No.

I don't know how I know where to go, but I do. It is as if I am following a lifeline, a trail of breadcrumbs in the forest. In the distance, I see the Furies pursuing another naked and bleeding sinner. They are vicious in their attacks. It is the only other spirit that I have seen on these black sands. I wonder who or what it is? Still, it is no business of mine. My task is to look ahead, to not look back.

And now I see the shadow creature, waiting for me. Behind him, a barrier sparkles darkly, as if beyond it lay a billion stars in the blackness of night.

"You have not looked back. You have done well."

I incline my head in acknowledgement of the compliment, but say nothing. What is there to say?

"The price has been paid. You may leave with her."

What? I try to ask for an explanation, the words tumbling over themselves in their haste. Never have I been so inarticulate. But he has gone, and so has the barrier. Still I dare not look back until we are returned to our own place. My dead heart lurches in hope as I lead my beloved back to life.

***

Who shall I condemn? Who has hurt me enough to feel the fires of Hell?

The Watcher? He has power, and he hates me now. Hates Angelus. Simply hates, for what has been done to Jenny. He would make a good substitute.

Xander? He has always hated both of us, even when I was whole, and was trying to do good, to atone. I would need to include someone else in the bargain, because he has not enough power himself, but that shouldn't be hard.

Willow? She has enormous power, and there might even be some change from that trade. But she has tried to help me. And to help him. He might need her in the battles to come. So might Buffy.

Wesley? Cordelia? Or one or two of the others from Los Angeles? They murdered me, after all, before I had the chance to win my redemption. What better justice could there be?

Aurelius? He founded the line of vampires that has swallowed my life. He is rich in power, too. Like Willow. There might be something left over.

Others, names and faces, pass through my mind. There is something deeply satisfying in reviewing the roll of those who have done me harm. But there is only one possible choice, has only ever been one that could and should take his place.

The creature asks, "Have you chosen?"

I watch Angelus, trailed by that automaton that is my beloved, walking across the black sand.

"Yes. Me."

***

When I awaken, I am surprised to find that I am back in my own body, and separate from Angelus' thoughts. And I still remember. Wesley comes to help me up, and Ezrafel goes to him. To them.

Buffy is still sprawled across him as he kneels, then she takes a deep, shuddering breath. Just as she did before. Her eyes open. Just as they did before. But she is alive and aware. She is herself. Xander lifts and holds her, steadying her, and Angelus rises gracefully. Both of them are fully healed of all their hurts. Only I see the look on his face. It is one of unconditional love. It is gone in a moment, hidden behind his more stock expression of mockery, but I saw it. And I know it. And, although I still hate him, I remember that he was willing to sacrifice his existence for her, and that he tried to ransom Jenny.

He turns towards Buffy, and holds out his hand to her. Her look is one of loathing.

"Get away from me. If I ever see you again, I'll kill you. Do you understand?"

Now is my time to say something. Thoughts of Jenny fill my mind, but they are overlaid with thoughts of how I found Buffy today, of what he had done to her. God help me, I remain silent.

He stands there for a moment, his face frozen. Then he turns and struts off into the remnants of the night.

'And the Devil did grin, for his darling sin
Is pride that apes humility.'
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
'The Devil's Thoughts' (1799)

***

I have returned to Hylek. I hastened after Angelus when his mate rejected him, hoping that the others would tell her that he went into the Underworld after her, to fetch her back. I do not know what he encountered there, but he was successful, that much is clear. I must ask him, for the sake of the chronicle.

He ignored my presence for some hours, sitting in his darkened chambers, brooding. Then he started to pack. When I asked him where he was intending to go, he simply said 'Away from Sunnydale,' his voice as bitter as I have ever heard it. Then he snarled at me and told me to go away. He was in vampire face at the time, so I did.

I have come back to Hylek, for the time being, at least. And Haraeth gave me leave to consult the Seers. I have done so and, together, we have told our king of the new developments.

The fires of chaos still rage, burning away futures one by one. On the other side of that chaos, far in the future - although no one can see quite how far - a blackness has appeared. A nothingness. There is no better word to describe it. It lies in wait for us all. For your Earth, your solar system, your universe. For the Adraste. For Hylek. For other dimensions that we know nothing of. The Seers cannot tell how far this blackness, this all-devouring nothingness, spreads. Every path to the future that still survives the fires of chaos, every new path that struggles to be born, enters the blackness and ceases to be. Not one of them emerges from the other side. Until now. It would be foolishly optimistic to call this new thing a path. Still, from the furnace of destruction a few small signs, like footprints in shifting sand, lead directly into that heart of darkness. And come out at the other side.

***

The creature of smoke and shadow, of dark crystalline reflections, bends over the ornate gaming board. Amongst the other pieces, there are some that we should recognise. The woman, leaning on her sword, with a victor's chaplet around her head, is placed at one corner of the board. The warrior with the stern and grim face of an angel, and the body of a winged lion, is placed at the diametrically opposed corner. The figure of a man, a book held in his hands, stands between them. The other sword-bearing warrior, with torn and broken wings, stands in a third corner. All of them are surrounded by figures of demons. Beseiged.

His brother, the creature of mists and rainbows, asks, "Are they strong enough yet?"

The dark creature looks up. His face is insubstantial, yet his smile is warmer than we have seen before.

"No. But now there is hope."

THE END
January 2004

This is the sixth story in 'The Nature of the Beast' cycle. Read the seventh story, Ma'at.

AUTHOR'S NOTES:

1. Because this series is changing the events of the past, and because the inertia of narrative history is trying to tie knots and carry on, you can expect to see artefacts, and events, and perhaps meet people, in unexpected times and places. The timeline is fractured. If you don't like it, that's fine. Just make it your turn to write something for the rest of us to read.

2. Pride: noun & verb
Noun
1a. a feeling of elation or satisfaction at achievements or qualities or possessions etc. that do one credit.
2. a high or overbearing opinion of one's worth or importance.
3. (in full, proper pride) - a proper sense of what befits one's position; self-respect.
4. a group or company (of animals, esp. lions). Concise Oxford Dictionary

3. String Theory This is really true. If you don't believe me, look it up. I don't think the physicists have caught up with parasite universes yet, though.

4. Mass Extinction A regular, if thankfully infrequent, event in Earth's history. Five Mass Extinctions are known. The best-known was that at the boundary of the Cretaceous and the Tertiary periods, 65 million years ago, which saw off the dinosaurs and allowed mammals to evolve into the many life-forms, including ourselves, that we see today. The largest, though, was the extinction at the end of the Permian era, 225 million years ago, in which 95% of all marine species and 70% of all land families were lost. Just remember that for a family to be lost, every single species in that family must die out. That truly was a mass extinction. It normally takes 1-2 million years for Earth's fauna and flora to recover its diversity after a mass extinction. After the Permian, it took 10 million years. It really is fascinating stuff, if slightly scary. Wouldn't want one of those extinctions to happen again, would we? Would we?

5. Acathla 'There is no weapon to replace Acathla?' Check out 'Lionesses' if you haven't already read it for the relevance of this.

6. Palestrina Aurelius' lost soul mate. See 'Lionesses'.

7. Ma'at An Egyptian goddess, personifying the concepts of truth, order and balance, of the right way of doing things.

8. Calling queen A female cat in heat. If you live with, or near, one you know that the term is exactly right, particularly at 2.00 am.

9. Gebel el-Arak knife A 5,500 year-old ivory and flint knife, currently in The Louvre. See 'Lionesses'.

10. Obsidian Obsidian is natural glass that was originally molten magma from a volcano. The fracture surfaces can be sharper than a razor. This had obvious advantages for our Stone Age ancestors, who used obsidian extensively for tool making. It is chemically similar to granite, which was also originally molten. Technically obsidian is not a true "rock." It is really a congealed liquid. Obsidian scalpels are the sharpest in the world, and plastic surgeons rely on them more and more for operations where scarring must be minimized. Flint, which was the original blade of the real knife of Gebel el-Arak, is quite different. It is formed by silica, dissolved in seawater, settling into spaces in limestone. Where does the silica come from? From the skeletons of sponges - sometimes, the nodules of flint even contain a fossilised sponge. Isn't that weird? Like obsidian, flint was a highly prized tool-making rock. Agate and chalcedony are forms of flint. It seemed to me that an obsidian blade, from the fires of a volcano, might be more effective against The Beast than a sedimentary rock from the bottom of the sea.

11. The Albatross See Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'.

12. Orpheus and Eurydice Orpheus was the son of Apollo and the Muse, Calliope. His father taught him to play the lyre and he could charm anything - absolutely anything - with his music. He married Eurydice, but a year and a day later she died. Orpheus determined to bring her back from Hades, the Underworld. He charmed his way past Cerberus, the 3-headed watchdog and Charon, the ferryman of the Styx. Even Hades cried iron tears and granted Orpheus' plea that he be allowed to take Eurydice back with him, provided that he promise not to look at her until they reached home. Orpheus played and sang while Eurydice followed but, overcome with fear, he turned back to see if she was there. She was. She instantly faded away to become once again only a shade. When Orpheus tried to re-enter Hades, his way was barred. He never got her back. Operas, and other things, have been written about it.

13. Lot's wife Lot was a resident of Sodom, and being a good man was allowed to escape its destruction, with his family. They were instructed not to look back. Lot's wife, though, could not resist, and was turned into a pillar of salt. The story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is a very...robust...tale, and well worth reading again. Find it in Genesis 19: 1-27

14. Theseus and Ariadne In Greek mythology, Theseus went into the Labyrinth (the palace of Knossos) to slay the Minotaur (the offspring of Pasiphae, wife of King Minos of Crete, and the Cretan Bull). Ariadne, daughter of Minos and Pasiphae, fell in love with Theseus, and when he promised to marry her if he returned alive, she gave him a ball of thread so that he could follow it back out. He slew the Minotaur, followed the thread back out, then sailed away and abandoned Ariadne. Nothing new there, then. Mythology is wonderful - all human life is there.

This story is for Chrislee, at Octaves of the Heart, who gave me a website of my own. Thank you, Chrislee. Read her fiction - you'll love it.

Feedback : Pretty please. Send it to Jo
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