Tyger,Tyger

Tyger,Tyger

Spoilers: BtVS season 2. Angel never got his soul back. Oz isn't a werewolf - yet. Do not get me started on who sired Spike - it's exactly as it says in this story.
Rating: NC17 for sex, some of which is non-consensual, the odd bit of bad language and some violence.
Content: B/A(us) Alternate future reality
Summary: The follow-up to 'To Kill a Cat'. If you haven't read that, it might be best if you do.

Author's notes

****

Angelus awoke to the setting sun, savouring the naked female flesh in his arms. She had been willing and compliant last night. As always. She had catered to his every appetite. She had given him pleasure. She had given him release. But she had not given him satisfaction.

Damn.

He rolled out of bed quickly, pushing Drusilla away, refusing for the moment to think about the woman who would have given him satisfaction. He wouldn't think about her. He simply wouldn't.

He showered and dressed quickly. The leather suited his mood. Dark. He set off to find a kill that would also suit his mood. In the end, he settled on a male witch practicing some dark magic in the Cemetery of Eternal Rest, the cemetery he had come to regard as peculiarly his own. Well, his and...NO! He was not going to think about that. The spell-spiced sweetness of the blood as he tore into the man's throat was a welcome, if brief, distraction.

He had thought about the Slayer every night for the 21 nights since he had let her return to her home after their stolen weekend. Now he wondered if she had infected him, rather as a vampire infects a human. Had possessed him. NO! He had already had too much experience of possession. A century of being possessed by that whiney soul was definitely a hundred years too long. Nothing would ever possess him like that again. *Nothing!*

But that weekend had been one of the most erotic of his life. Unlife. Any of them, really. Oh, she was innocent - that had only made it better. Of course, he hadn't introduced her to any of the darker pleasures. An innocent such as she would not have been ready for those, yet; would not have enjoyed them. He scowled at that thought, as he allowed the cooling, emptied body to drop from his deadly embrace. NO! He was simply saving those until later, for when he wanted variety - there was no need to rush into everything at once. Time was something he had plenty of. There would be time enough before he tired of his toy.

At first he had stayed away from her because there were plenty of other pleasures in life, weren't there? Other things to do, places to be, people to sample. Weren't there? Then he had decided that what he was really doing was playing a game. The teasing game. Give them - her - a taste and leave her wanting more. Make her desperate for his attentions. It would spice the next encounter, wouldn't it? But now he was afraid. Afraid that he might actually be hunting in earnest. And he was even more afraid that he didn't know, even in the innermost depths of his demonic mind, what the truth of it really was.

Damn!

He flung away from the site of his latest kill in what, had it been Drusilla, he would have described as a childish tantrum. He was just understandably pissed, of course. Time to find the Slayer, and do what he had done for the last 21 days. Watch her from afar, relish the pure animal grace of her, make sure she wasn't taken unawares and...damaged. Well, unless it were by him.

***

Buffy dusted off the remnants of her latest kill and headed out of the Shady Elms Cemetery, making for the next one on her patrol route, the Cemetery of Eternal Rest, the one she had started to think of as peculiarly her own. Well, hers and...NO!

Don't go there, she thought. Not again. But it was too late. Her thoughts had already travelled the road to that weekend in the mansion, just as surely as her feet were travelling the road to Eternal Rest. She could never imagine anything more...more, well just *more*, than that weekend with her demon lover. That was what he had become. Not the demon who raped her in cemeteries. Her lover. He had been so gentle, so tender. No. Those weren't the right words. After all, at times he had been almost aggressive, almost violent. It was just that he had been unfailingly...considerate. That was the word. Everything that would please her, he had known about. Had done. He had done nothing to hurt or displease her. She was sure that he had held back - he was a demon, after all, a demon of passion and excess, and she was an innocent, an almost virgin. But the things he *had* done - she blushed now, to think of them, swiping her hand angrily across her reddened cheek, as if anyone could see her in the darkness. She was even more angry that she had wanted him to do those things again. And other things, perhaps, that she as yet knew nothing about.

But he hadn't. She hadn't seen him since. Oh, he'd left plenty of bodies around, almost as a calling card. Just to remind her that he was still there, and what she was missing. Just like all men, once he'd had his way. Why should vampires be different?

Bastard!

***

He could smell her anger and arousal from where he lurked behind the mausoleum. Good. He was a demon, dammit!

He shadowed her along the rest of her patrol route, watching with unacknowledged pride the ease with which she had taken out a newly risen fledgling in the Golden Memories Garden of Rest. He smiled, fondly. He'd left that one just for her. A present for her, like the half-dead birds and mice that a cat will leave its human, a training aid to teach them how to hunt and kill for themselves.

She returned to Eternal Rest. For some reason, she always finished off here, sitting in the doorway of the mausoleum for a few minutes. She had done for the last 21 nights. Having satisfied himself that the night now held nothing more dangerous to her than himself, he quickly headed back to the mansion. Drusilla could take care of the painful erection he'd had for the last two hours. Had had for the last 21 nights.

***

She stayed sitting in the mausoleum doorway for a few moments longer, leaning her back against the coolness of the bronze cladding, cool and firm as his...NO! Don't go there!

Sighing, she stood up, tucking her stakes away, preparing to go home. She could feel that there was no threat in Eternal Rest tonight. What she didn't expect was the small, neat portal that opened several yards away, disgorging the unwelcome but familiar form of the Keeper, and then winking out of existence.

What the...?

She stood her ground as the Hylekian demon approached her, surreptitiously drawing one of the stakes out of the back of her waistband. She probably wouldn't need it - the Keeper had never represented a threat to them, but there's always a first time... The Keeper smiled in welcome.

"Slayer! I am so glad I found you. Your mate is here, too?"

"No! He most definitely isn't!" It came out almost as a snarl.

The Keeper looked puzzled, and glanced down at what he held in his hands - two sets of clothing and a scrap of paper.

"Oh? I felt sure that the two of you were here. Never mind." He smiled again, trying to be at his most charming. "He can join us later, I suppose. I have a proposition to negotiate with both of you."

"What!"

***

Giles had just told everyone to wrap up what they were doing. It was late enough, and they were too tired to carry on. Whilst Buffy patrolled, the rest of them were trying to find more information on a current planetary conjunction that he was concerned about, but all they had managed to uncover was the worryingly familiar 'Trouble ahead' signals. Nothing more specific. Well, tomorrow was another night.

He was slightly worried about Buffy, too. She hadn't seemed quite the same since her stay in Hylek. He knew that three weeks ago, she and Willow and Cordelia had had a girls' weekend together - Buffy had rung him that Friday night to say she needed some time with her girlfriends, and would be out of touch until Monday - although, unusually, all three of them were saying nothing about what had happened. He assumed that they had shared some of their teenage woes. Buffy's woes, of course, were in a different league to other teenagers, but he'd hoped the girls' weekend would give her a bit of space, a bit of normality; that sharing with them about her experiences in Hylek, with *that thing* - no, he amended reluctantly, with *him* - would lighten her burden a little. And it had. For a few days. She had smiled more, looked almost happy. Then the load had seemed to settle more heavily than ever before.

He was probably worrying for nothing. What did a middle-aged man know of the cares of a teenage girl? At least Angelus hadn't been around after that extraordinary night when he had almost died returning her from the demon dimension. Buffy had given him what was clearly an abridged account of what had happened in Hylek. Equally clearly, the vampire had protected her. Had not forced himself upon her. Had acted almost as ...Angel... would have acted. Giles didn't like to think about the implications of that. It was a good thing that Buffy hadn't seen him since, despite the demon's claim that Buffy was his. He could only cut up her peace even more, and lacerate her soul.

Of course, there had been the bodies. Angelus seemed to be in a particularly destructive mood. True, most of the bodies had been those of drug users, pushers, muggers and other assorted lowlifes, which in itself was strange - Angelus usually chose the more affluent or more innocent. Not all were lowlifes, though. In one apparent fit of whimsy or temper - who knew, with that demon - he had turned fully a quarter of the high school football team in a single night. Some of them were still around, but Giles was sure Buffy would find them all eventually.

It was during these musings that he heard Buffy coming back down the corridor - he could distinguish her footsteps now, in the late night silence. He sighed. There was a certain quality of...stomping...perhaps, that he was sure boded no good. He was even more certain of it when she burst through the library doors, followed by a strange demon. A smiling, personable one to be sure, but a demon nonetheless. Oh dear. Trouble ahead.

"Giles. Guys. Here's someone I so want to introduce you to." The sarcasm positively dripped from her voice. Oh dear. Definitely trouble ahead.

"This is the Keeper. He's the guy from Hylek who kept our cage clean! And who painted us up - when *are* these things going to wear off, by the way?" She glowered at the hapless demon, who stood clutching a bundle of assorted clothing and a scrap of paper.

There was an astonished silence, and then all the teenagers started talking at once. Or shouting, in the case of Xander. Giles moved in to quell the noise.

"I'm Rupert Giles. You are...?"

"I am Ezrafel, Keeper of the Great Games, currently assigned to House Orbath. Are you the Slayer's Watcher? Is her mate not here?"

The silence was deafening. And even more astonished than the last one. For a few seconds. Then Xander became even more strident.

"Mate? MATE? You don't mean that blood-sucking fiend who ought to have been left in Hylek?" Giles shushed him.

Ezrafel looked shocked. "The Master Vampire, yes. Both he and his mate should have stayed in Hylek. I have come to speak to them, to negotiate with them, about returning to finish the Games. It is necessary. In exchange, I have important information for you."

The pandemonium was absolute.

***

Giles could feel the beginnings of a headache. Were all young people so ...loud? Just when he needed to be able to think particularly clearly, he had that ominous throb in his temples. Just ignore it.

He had managed to get everyone quietened down, and was now making tea. Tea always helped. He looked out into the main library, and saw the demon, sitting uncomfortably at the table, surrounded by a group of hostile teenagers. Maybe tea wouldn't be enough. He sighed again.

Ezrafel could sense every hostile emotion from the people around him. Perhaps it wasn't surprising. He knew that the Slayer had originally been taken without her consent. Well, at least he had come with something in his pocket for the negotiations. The Watcher seemed a man of wisdom - there was something of interest for him. And when the Slayer's mate came, Ezrafel hoped he would have something of interest for him, too. He had been pleasantly surprised by what he had seen of this world so far. He had expected it to be far more primitive. Perhaps the trade would be easier than he had initially supposed. He didn't mind the young ones staying - they were undisciplined, but surely they would learn something from their elders. He just wished they would find the vampire. Time was pressing.

Giles returned with the tea and made a small ritual of pouring it - it gave him a little more time to think. Just as he was finishing, Buffy broke the silence.

"You didn't answer my question. When does this blue stuff wear off?"

"Oh, when the Games are finished, of course. After that they will fade naturally, unless you choose to keep them."

"No, I don't think so!"

"Then they will fade. But not until the need for them has ended."

Buffy had to be satisfied with that.

"Where is your mate? I must speak to both of you together. And your Watcher, of course."

Giles interrupted hastily. "Do we need Angelus? Can you not say what you have come to say without him?"

Again, the demon was shocked. "No! The offer I have is for the mated pair."

Xander could restrain himself no longer. "You keep saying that. Mates, mated pair. No way! That *thing* is her mortal enemy. No mating here."

It was Buffy who hurriedly interrupted, deflecting the demon who had started to speak in puzzlement, and deflecting Xander who looked as if he would continue his rant. One of them might start asking the wrong questions. The right questions, really...

"Even if we ask Angelus to come, he might decide not to."

"Why would he not answer the call of his mate? Besides, I have information for him, too."

Giles sighed. He really wanted this demon to go away and leave them alone. But he said he had information. Ignoring information was often unwise. And there was this wretched planetary conjunction... If the two things were tied up, he would be foolish not to at least hear what the Hylekian had to say. And the only way to do that seemed to involve getting the vampire here. Giles could hardly bear to think his name. Well, if something hurts, get it over quickly.

"I suppose I could go over to the mansion, see whether he's there," he offered.

"Erm...I've got his 'phone number."

Everybody looked hard at Willow. "Um, you remember, he 'phoned me for Buffy's clothes. I made a note of the number. Just in case."

Giles dialled it. Angelus was at home to callers.

***

The phone call took him quite by surprise. He was unaware that the little gang even had his number. Giles had been extremely cryptic, and that alone had piqued Angelus' curiosity. He had been waiting for Drusilla to get back from hunting, but perhaps it would be amusing to visit the Watcher, find out what he wanted. So he agreed.

When he arrived, he was even more surprised by the size of the reception committee that awaited him. Giles was frosty, Xander was openly hostile, Cordelia was angry, and Oz and Willow were frankly interested. He found to his surprise that he liked those two. Buffy. Ah, Buffy. She was what she always was...a melange of the most delectable teenage hormones laced with the power of the Slayer. With his mark on her. He'd made sure of that, on that dreadful night in the park, when he'd thought he might die. His reasons had been complex, but his scent was there. He wondered, not for the first time, whether perhaps he ought to ask himself just why he wasn't taking full advantage of her delights as often and as thoroughly as possible.

And the Hylekian Keeper. My, my, he thought sourly, what a surprise.

He stood and surveyed the assemblage, and their varied reactions to him.

"Tea?" Trust Giles to try to normalise everything.

"Thank you, yes." He would add a touch of normality himself - until he found out what was going on.

The Keeper, unable to wait any longer for formalities to be observed, rose and bowed elegantly to both Master Vampire and Slayer. Then he handed to Buffy the clothes she had worn when she had been taken to Hylek, and to Angelus those he had given up in the cage. And the slip of paper. It was the incantation that Willow had written down.

"I return these to you as an act of good faith." He was addressing himself to Angelus now.

"I am here to negotiate with you both for your return to Hylek, to complete the Games."

Angelus blinked in surprise. That was the last thing he expected to hear. He shuddered at the memory, though, and his reply was unequivocal. He hoped never to go near Hylek again. If he did, there was a pair of Hylekians and a keeper who would never see the light of day again. That would be just for starters.

"No. Not under any circumstances whatsoever."

Buffy voiced her agreement to that, in no uncertain terms. Giles breathed a sigh of relief. For some reason, he had worried that she might actually go. Foolishness. Then the Hylekian dropped his bombshell.

"I am authorised to speak to you of a new Hellmouth, to tell you that we can give you information about where and when it will open, and who is performing the opening, so that you can prepare for it, or, indeed, prevent it. You do not have the means at your disposal to anticipate it yourselves, and it is imminent. We will tell you this if you agree to come to Hylek, and are successful in promoting the interests of House Orbath."

Oh dear. Trouble ahead.

The Keeper turned his attention from the Watcher to the vampire.

"You will find that information of interest, too, since the new Hellmouth will threaten your mastery of this one. Additionally, I am authorised to offer you this."

He reached into his travelling scrip and pulled out a small, cloth-wrapped bundle and a scroll of parchment. He put both on the table, and unwrapped the little bundle. It was a blue-white diamond of the first water. A large one.

"I am instructed to leave this here, as payment for your time already spent in Hylek, and to offer you 5,000 similar diamonds in the event that you agree to come to Hylek and are successful in promoting the interests of House Orbath. I understand that these have some substantial value on this world." That was an understatement of massive proportions.

"I also offer this." He unwrapped the scroll. The language was unfamiliar to Angelus, and he said so.

"It is land and title in Hylek. It was the estate of one of the smaller Houses, now defunct, and will come into the possession of House Orbath, if they succeed in the Games, since that is the most closely related House. The House of Hantar became defunct because of their inability to breed, not because of lack of wealth and assets. This will make you a substantial landowner, although you would be subject to House Orbath. I am also authorised to offer you the wherewithal to come and go between our dimensions as you please. This estate would make an ideal retreat for you and your mate, and has excellent income earning potential."

Angelus' nostrils flared at that. So did Giles'. For different reasons. Xander had to be physically restrained by Oz and Cordelia.

"All of these offers are made contingent upon you, both of you, that is, returning willingly to complete the Games, and completing them successfully. Except for this, which is now yours by right."

He held out the diamond to Angelus, who took it, and examined it in silence. The whole package was a king's ransom. Well, it would put a new king on the throne, so perhaps it should be. He was, indeed, tempted. With the wealth and influence offered here, he could begin to establish an unassailable power base on Earth. Even when he had spent some of the wealth on Buffy. And if he could prevent another Hellmouth from diverting demonic power away from Sunnydale... The world would not be enough to contain him. But Buffy...

He looked at her, and saw that she was frowning in thought. Ah, at least it wasn't an immediate no, then. He tested the water.

"If a new Hellmouth is to be opened, that could create difficulties for all of us. Perhaps you and I and Giles should discuss this, think about our response? We could gather again tomorrow night after sleeping on it? It might be foolish to turn this offer down out of hand."

It was the Keeper who answered him.

"My apologies. I have failed to make everything clear. It has taken all this time for the Council to agree to these negotiations, and those contests involving House Orbath have been suspended during deliberations. It is the Council's decision that the Games cannot be delayed - House Orbath must compete in tomorrow's contest. If you agree, I need you to come with me now. That is why I have not held back in the negotiations, not bargained as you might expect. I have offered all that I have to offer so as not to waste time. If you do not return with me, House Orbath will be eliminated from the Games, and may not contend until the next Heptad - in seven years time."

Oh.

Buffy walked over to the Keeper until she was almost nose-to-nose with him. "Is this true? About the Hellmouth?" He assured her that it was. She looked askance at Angelus. Reluctantly, he nodded. The scent coming from the Keeper told him all.

"He's telling the truth - or at least the truth as he knows it."

Buffy turned to Giles. "Then we have to go. We can't have another Hellmouth popping open without any warning. I have no choice." She glowered at Angelus. "What about you?"

He frowned in thought as Giles, then the teenagers, remonstrated with her. Eventually, everyone was silent again. Giles looked drawn and grey. The Watcher had accepted it then. He made his decision. But some things must change.

"We would require different accommodation than before."

The Keeper thought for a moment. "You will be required to enter the arena from the cages, and to return to there. However, there should be no difficulty about providing different, more private accommodation at all times other than during each session of the Games. You have my word."

That would do. And something else. His voice was pitched so softly that it was hard for the others to catch, but had steel in its inflection.

"There will be no more Hiring. None."

The Keeper was honestly perplexed. "But there is much demand for both of you. You could choose whoever you wish..."

Angelus ruthlessly cut him off before he could say more, before he said too much.

"That is non-negotiable and you will not discuss it further. Yes or no."

Buffy, too, was honestly perplexed. "What do you mean, 'No more hiring'? I don't understand." Angelus stared at her, his eyes flashing amber in warning. Giles, looking just a little greyer, squeezed her wrist, and shushed her. The teenagers were looking from one to another in puzzlement. It was Willow, seeing Giles' grim expression, who finally understood, although she said nothing, just clapped her hand to her mouth in shock. Since Buffy's return, Willow had, from interest, read a little of the practices in Roman arenas. Just for comparison. Clearly Buffy didn't understand. Had they...to Angelus...? If so, why hadn't Buffy...? Dear Lord. She felt an unwonted rush of sympathy. Looking at Giles so did he.

Angelus felt anger roiling through him. This was not a matter for public consumption. Already the witch and Ripper had understood. He looked at Willow. She gave a tiny shake of her head. Oh? She wouldn't tell. And he believed her. If she was true to her word that was another debt he owed her. She was rapidly building up an account with him. He looked at Giles. Ripper looked vaguely sickened, but he, too, gave a tiny shake of his head. Good. His word was trustworthy. Especially given the circumstances.

The Keeper felt the vampire focus all his attention onto him. He did not understand. Vampires were creatures of sexual excess, surely? Yet he knew that this one had not taken his mate during the 26 days they had both been in Hylek. And his fury, after that one and only hiring, had been palpable. Perhaps vampires were more complex creatures than he had been led to understand? He had certainly thought so, during his dealings with this one. He could not give his word on this, though. He was not authorised. The codicil on Hiring the mated pair, separately or together, had the full weight of the law behind it. Clearly, none of those here had known of the Hiring, not even the Slayer, the vampire's mate, which was a surprise. Perhaps it was a taboo? He hadn't thought that vampires had any. Oh, he would dearly love to study this one, write an academic treatise on him and his Slayer mate. It would surely earn him a place in the Society of Merit.

But it was not his intention to conclude these negotiations fraudulently. That would be beyond the pale.

He chose his words with care. "I am not authorised to make any agreement with you on this, and the codicil is now part of our statute. However, if you choose to return with me, leaving our agreement inconclusive until my seniors are able to give you a response, you have my guarantee that I will return you immediately if that response is unacceptable to you."

The vampire considered carefully. Buffy watched, still mystified. "Done." And it was.

***

There had been a moment of uncertainty, when the Slayer had asked the Keeper to give Giles details of the new Hellmouth before they left. She had offered her word that she would see the bargain through.

"I am sorry," he had replied, "but I do not have that information. Neither does House Orbath, yet." There had been some protests at that.

"You do not understand. All of these things are contingent upon success in the Games, because all I have offered are perquisites of the Royal Household. Only by succeeding can House Orbath honour the bargain, but honour it they will in the event that you win the throne for them." The vampire had clearly understood that already, but the humans had to be satisfied with what he told them. It was the truth.

It was arranged that Angelus would rejoin the group in an hour, after briefing Spike and Drusilla. He spoke privately to Willow before he left, staring down the questions from her friends with haughty disdain, and a flash of amber eyes.

His main purpose in returning to the mansion was precautionary. He wanted to collect Mr Pointy. He had the stake in his rooms. The claddagh ring remained embedded in it, and it was still stained with his own blood. It had brought the two of them back once. He hoped that if push came to shove, it would do so again. The Keeper thought that it was a religious devotional object and wouldn't take it away; and he still had the incantation from Willow committed to memory. Better safe than sorry. Now, if Willow could just adapt the spell she had used to make sure there was something here to call them back...

***

Spike was frankly aghast that Angelus would even contemplate returning to Hylek. He feared that it would be certain death for his Sire. Oh, yes, there would have been a time, not so very long ago, when he would have welcomed that; would have been pleased to be rid of the insane creature that had replaced the Angelus of a century ago. That Angelus was a very different demon. Spike remembered even all these years later how he had fretted and chafed at Angelus' hand on his bridle, but he had worshipped the ground his Sire had walked on. His Sire. His Yoda.

Now, the insane creature made fewer and fewer appearances, to Spike's relief, and the old Angelus was being restored. And since Egypt, since that dreadful debacle, his devotion to the older male was complete...again. Well, now that the wanker wasn't trying to send the world to Hell. And not that he was going to show it very often...

Spike didn't want to lose this restored demon. He'd had a run as an alpha male, but never established much of a territory. Something had always been missing. The hand on the bridle. He'd resented the losses suffered by giving up his alpha status, true, but as Angelus' beta male, the gains were so much greater. Spike had been amused that the poor bastard had still been as obsessed with the Slayer as the soul had been, but there were possibilities there, too. Not the least of them was that if his Sire were more ...occupied... Spike himself would get more time alone with Drusilla. Although the real Angelus had always made sure he kept his whole family satisfied in every way.

Whatever, he simply didn't want to lose this newly restored relationship, this *belonging*, for some bloody quixotic adventure that could easily come back and bite them on the ass. So he bitched and whined and shouted. Angelus simply cocked an eyebrow at him and let him rant.

Drusilla definitely pouted. Insane she might be, but she knew her restored Daddy when she saw him, and she was just as determined as Spike to keep their Sire safely in the bosom of their little family.

Never mind - Angelus had made them both understand that this was his will. He also made them understand the need to leave Buffy's friends alone whilst he was gone - he didn't want the Slayer sulking because one of her little gang had finished up as someone's dinner during her absence - and the need to keep a sharp eye on the Hellmouth in his stead. He had no intention of allowing the Kahlavi cult to sneak back in after so much strenuous effort recently to keep them out of it.

Carefully tucking Mr Pointy, still hanging on Willow's necklace, inside his shirt, he set off back to the library.

***

The atmosphere was tense when he returned. Willow and Oz sat by the computer, Cordelia was whispering angrily to a sulking Xander. Buffy had been home to spin her mother some extremely thin story about a last minute place on a residential study course. She sat by herself, a packed suitcase nearby. Only Giles' confirmation in a telephone conversation had mollified Joyce. And Giles and Ezrafel were in earnest conversation. Clearly they had found something in common, and had circumstances been less dire, Angelus suspected they might have enjoyed each other's company. At his glance, the witch gave a brief nod. Good. She had found a way to anchor them back in this dimension.

Willow walked over to meet him in the doorway, out of earshot of the others. She handed him her necklace.

"Use the thong from this instead of the one you have," she whispered. "It's already spelled to anchor Mr Pointy here. The same incantation will bring you back." Then she returned to sit next to Oz.

The others were frankly curious, but Angelus merely smiled enigmatically and went to join Buffy. He held out his hand to her. "Shall we?" As if they were at a ball and he were simply asking her to dance. He liked the picture that presented.

She regarded him steadily, her gaze flat and expressionless. Her scent, though, was like a wildly swinging pendulum, beating between loathing and attraction, spiced with fear of what they were going to do. But she simply nodded curtly and allowed him to hand her out of her seat. She did not pick up her suitcase. He looked askance at it, and she shook her head.

"Just for show. I don't suppose there's anything useful I could take that I'll be allowed to keep."

She turned that flat stare upon the keeper, seeking confirmation or denial.

"Everything that you need will be provided for you." He bowed to his two latest charges. "If you are quite ready, we must leave now."

He made a few motions in the air with a small device he carried, spoke a few words, and a neat little portal appeared. He stood back and gestured to Buffy and Angelus to precede him. Seconds later, the portal was gone.

***

True to his word, Ezrafel took them to see his seniors, those in charge of the Games. Angelus was surprised to find that representatives of House Orbath were also present. The Keeper introduced him to the head of the small delegation from House Orbath, a young demon named Haraeth.

"My House welcomes you, Angelus...Slayer. I was chosen to meet you, since it was felt that I might be more acceptable to you than my father and grandfather. I am Heir to the House, but if their absence is offensive to you, they are close by, and could join us."

Angelus regarded the young demon intently. Intelligent and steady, was his assessment, but ripe for youthful mischief. Perhaps he could get to like this one.

"No offence is taken, provided you are authorised to negotiate. I...," he glanced at Buffy, and continued smoothly, "We have not yet agreed to remain. There is one outstanding matter."

Haraeth looked disconcerted. Angelus motioned to Ezrafel. "Explain."

Ezrafel had never been accused of being stupid, and he understood. The vampire did not wish the Slayer to know what was being discussed. He explained the issue of Hiring, using the Hylek tongue. Haraeth replied to Angelus in English.

"I have authority to speak on behalf of the House in this matter, but the decision does not belong to House Orbath alone."

"Then find me the others!"

It was at that moment that the Council, trailed by a small caravan of bureaucrats and assorted hangers-on, entered the chamber. Wonderful. A public hearing, if ever he saw one. The snarl was instinctive, and caused no little edginess amongst those in the chamber. At least, the newly arrived hangers-on edged as far away as possible. Haraeth simply looked amused. Yes, Angelus could like this demon.

He made Buffy wait outside the council chamber. A strange keeper waited with her. The Hylekians were bemused that the Slayer should be excluded from the discussions, but Angelus was adamant. She was furious, and he knew that he would suffer some dire consequences - he was already anticipating with enjoyment how that might turn out - but this was not a conversation he wished to share with her.

The Keeper turned to him.

"The discussions will be in the Hylek tongue. If it is acceptable to you, I will translate. If you prefer someone else, a translator can be found quickly."

"No! You do it."

The discussions were difficult. Hiring was a popular and profitable venture. Both the owning House and the Arena benefited from the Hiring fee, and from the kudos of the most popular gladiators.

House Orbath waived all rights to Hire their Mated Pair.

The Arena did not.

House Orbath offered recompense to the Arena for lost income from the Hiring.

The Arena could not possibly agree to forego the Hiring.

House Orbath offered a handsome extra sum to soothe the Arena bursar.

The Arena had no wish to disappoint its other wealthy and desirous patrons.

House Orbath offered to replace the Mated Pair with other entertainments to appeal to the Arena's patrons. Entirely at House Orbath's expense, of course.

The Arena regretfully declined.

House Orbath asked what it could do to assist the Arena in waiving their Hiring rights.

Nothing.

Angelus, the Keeper and Haraeth retired to one end of the chamber. Haraeth admitted defeat, and asked whether he should seek counsel of his father and grandfather. It would be pointless, Angelus thought. The demon had done everything conceivably possible. Quite clearly the Arena had already taken bookings, contingent upon his and Buffy's return, from powerful patrons whom they did not wish to offend. Perhaps currently more powerful than House Orbath. He wondered who that could be. Did one of the other challenging Houses have a hot favourite up their sleeves? Or did the Arena know something about the current rulers and their chances of making a second term of office? That was for the future, though.

The question for now was, was the prize worth the cost? And who would have to pay it? If it were simply the diamonds and the estates, well, they were attractive, but he had time. He could find other routes to power. But the new Hellmouth? A Hellmouth not under his control? That was definitely a horse of another colour. Could he afford to turn down House Orbath's offer to give him all the information needed to scotch that opening? He rather thought not. And Buffy... If a new Hellmouth opened, she would be there, fighting. She might be hurt. She might die. A growl rumbled up from deep within his chest. Never! She was his plaything, not some other demon's. The only way that he could ensure her safety would be to chain her to his bed. He seriously considered that. But only for a moment. If he went to contend for mastery of the new Hellmouth and were dusted, she wouldn't be safe even there. He saw no choice.

Gritting his teeth, he motioned his companions to return to the Council members, and asked Ezrafel to translate for him.

"What is your minimum requirement? Speak the truth, or I shall know."

The bursar spoke for them all.

"Six sessions, between you, or three double sessions as a pair."

He was a dominant, alpha male, master vampire, dammit. Could he possibly submit to this? The Hellmouth, he reminded himself. The price must be paid.

"The Slayer will not be involved. Neither will she know. That requirement is absolute. If you don't like it, you can stuff your patrons and their bookings up your collective asses." He glowered at the assembled Council. There was hasty, murmured consultation. The Bursar opened a ledger. The bookings ledger, thought Angelus grimly. He wondered what was in it. There was more discussion.

The bursar responded. "For you alone, 2 double sessions plus one entire night. That is final."

Angelus looked at the Keeper and Haraeth. They nodded. They saw no way to reduce that price. His jaw clenched.

"Done," and on that he turned and stalked out of the room, wrapped in a black cloud of rage, Ezrafel and Haraeth scurrying in his wake.

***

They had, of course, been given a room together. Just for the moment, he wished they hadn't. Ezrafel and Haraeth had gone, after ensuring they had everything for their comfort. Haraeth had thanked them for returning to fight for House Orbath. Ezrafel had said that supper would be brought for them shortly, and then they would be undisturbed until morning. Buffy had said nothing. She didn't need to. Her body language said it all. The Keeper and the Heir of House Orbath were pleased to make their escape and leave the master vampire to the fury of his diminutive slayer mate.

Since then, she hadn't shut up.

Servitors had come with supper. Cheese, meat, bread, dried and fresh fruits for her. A jug of fresh, warm horse blood for him. A very good red wine for both of them. The tirade had continued without falter. The servitors had escaped, breathing sighs of relief. Outside the door, they had nudged each other in sympathy for the vampire and fled the rising tide of complaint.

And still it had gone on.

She flung across the room, a fury of perpetual sound and motion, while he lay on the bed trying not to get a headache. Suddenly, in one fluid movement that should have been impossible, even for one with slayer strength, she grabbed him by the shirtfront and hauled him from horizontal to vertical, pinned against the wall. Then she hit him, her fist connecting with his jaw with every ounce of her strength.

"And that's for dropping me, like...like some street walker!"

He lay in an untidy heap, trying to get some feeling back into the left side of his face. It took a moment for the last complaint to penetrate, and from what he could remember, it bore no relation to anything she'd said before. Despite his aching, and possibly broken, jaw, he grinned. He was definitely under her skin. The teasing game had worked. Just as he'd wanted. Hadn't he? Then she said something that wiped the grin off his face.

"And you excluded me from the discussions with your demon buddies for reasons you aren't prepared to share. What have you DONE? Have you sold me to them when all this is over? You got tired of me so they can have me now? Is that it? When should I expect the first of them? Tonight? You both going to have me at once? Well, mister, you're going to have a hard time trying, let me tell you!"

With that, she burst into tears and flung herself onto the newly-vacated bed, sobbing out her misery.

Gingerly, he rose to his feet and crossed over to the bed. He sat on the edge and, tenderly, laid his hand on her neck, stroking her as he might a frightened bird. The smile on his face was bitter and humourless, but his voice was a caress.

"Nothing, absolutely nothing, will hurt you here. I will not permit it."

His voice might have been gentle, but it rang with conviction. To him, it was absolute truth. A strange thing to say to a gladiator about to re-enter the arena? Perhaps, but she was the strongest slayer there had ever been, and he was a legend among vampires. Nothing would hurt this girl. She was his property. If he had harboured the least doubt about that, they would not have returned to Hylek, Hellmouth or no Hellmouth.

"You mean that?" Her voice was small, scared.

"Yes."

"Then what were you talking about, that I couldn't be there?"

"It was...vampire stuff. It need not concern you at all. I promise. Nothing from that will ever cause you difficulty or pain. Word of a demon." He tried to make his smile warmer, in case she turned over. She didn't.

"Oh."

He lay down on the bed behind her, and moved forward to nestle against her warmth, his arm around her waist.

"You are MINE," he whispered. "NO-ONE will ever touch you without my permission, and that will NEVER be given. If you believe nothing else, believe that."

She did believe. And she hated herself for her weakness and neediness, but she wanted this vampire. If only it could be body and soul.

He contemplated what he had just said. Every word of it was true. He was never going to tire of her and he knew it. Possessed! He fought the snarl of rage that threatened, the sudden need to tear this woman to shreds and feast on her remains. Buffy never knew her danger that night, but she had never been closer to death than she was at that moment.

They fell asleep like that, the vampire and the Slayer.

***

They had a battle the next day, and it was hard. They had been given battle wear again, just loincloths and the breast band. Everything seemed even skimpier than before. The Keeper had scrutinised the artwork that still adorned their bodies and pronounced himself satisfied. Then they had been led to the cages surrounding the Arena, and installed in their old quarters.

Their opponents were two demons, from different houses, co-operating against this Mated Pair from House Orbath. For the first time they could recognise someone in the tiered seating. Haraeth was on the front row. He seemed to be surrounded by the rest of his House.

The demons from House Demeral and House Ryath were strong and fast. They were also very experienced warriors. Angelus and Buffy were better. They didn't come away unscathed - Angelus took in his right thigh the spear thrust intended for Buffy, and Buffy was scored across her back by razor sharp talons intended to rip out Angelus' throat - but they did come away the victors. House Orbath was not fighting the following day. They had time to heal. After that day's session ended, when they were returning to their quarters, Ezrafel whispered to Angelus that the next encounter, the one of the other sort, would be the following night, after the vampire had rested and healed. Should he send a strange keeper to Angelus, one that he wouldn't have to see again? Angelus was oddly touched by this consideration.

"No. I prefer it to be you."

Ezrafel blushed at the implied trust, and nodded.

He had known that the encounter would be bad. He hadn't imagined how bad. He had been Hired for two hours, and taken in shackles to a different part of the Arena. One with comfortable facilities for private parties. A powerful patron was rewarding some of his acolytes. It was clear that the gathering had worked its way through the starters and the entrees. Angelus was the main course. The patron lounged on a couch on the dais. He would have droit de seigneur, of course.

When that was done, Angelus was shackled, on his knees, on the dais, available to all. They preferred him shackled, of course. It gave them such a feeling of power over this mighty gladiator, this darling of the masses. On his knees. At their mercy.

He pictured the alternatives. Buffy, her diminutive body kneeling in his place, her golden limbs encircled by the rough embrace of the shackles. Here, in this arena of sex and death, or there, where a new Hellmouth might see him dead and unable to protect her from this. So he endured.

Afterwards, the Keeper helped him bathe in a nearby bathhouse area, and brought fresh blood. It was human. Angelus decided not to ask how it had been obtained. He was grateful for it - it would help the scratches, bite marks and other assorted injuries to heal more quickly. Buffy might not see.

He was then returned to their quarters. She was feigning sleep. Good. He climbed into their bed, turning his back on her as he did so. He was unclean, and couldn't bear to touch her, pollute her golden beauty with his soiled body. Not yet. Sleep was a long time coming.

The next morning, most of the marks had disappeared. A few, the deeper ones, were only half-healed, and she saw those, frowning, but said nothing. He was grateful for that, too.

***

They were, indeed, unbeatable in the arena. They were real crowd pleasers, their fighting elegant, their kills quick and clean. But they had a lot of catching up to do. In one of the battles, they had been pitted against a family of five demons fighting as one. The Keeper hinted darkly that huge bribes had been given to have that accepted as a single unit warrior. He was sure there would be a stink about it after the Games. It would almost certainly never happen again. But it was happening now. Five demons, powerful creatures, like lithe and slender bears, but sufficiently humanoid to enable them to swing a sword with rare skill. Three had already fallen to the Master Vampire and the Slayer, and Buffy was just finishing off the fourth. Angelus was stalking the fifth. Stalking. There was no other word for it, she thought, as she pulled the sword from the bleeding body. If he had had a tail, it would be swishing. She watched with admiration the ripple of muscle as he made his final charge, and she was reminded of a poem she had once read.

Tyger, Tyger. burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

She had seen the pair of white Siberian tigers at Sunnydale Zoo. Most of the time they were somnolent beasts, soaking up the sun among the bushes, trees and play gear of their enclosure. But one day, one of them had been missing. Then, a peacock had unwisely fluttered down into the enclosure and started to display. The missing male tiger had risen silently from the shadows, and before anyone knew it, the peacock was just feathers and a meal. He had come from nowhere, his camouflage perfect, his muscles rippling, every fibre of his body attuned to the hunt. He was a clumsy beginner, compared to Angelus.

The crowd were ecstatic with their darlings.

The next encounter for Angelus was that night. While the blood of the kill was still hot, he thought. It was even worse than the last one. As the Keeper helped him bathe afterwards he thought of how the party was more drunken, the things that had been required of him more demeaning. NO! Better not to think about it. He could never forget - a demon's memory was an eternal steel trap, after all - but there was no need to score the wound so deeply that even the scar tissue would hurt. Even after the most thorough bathing, the stink of them was still all over his skin, ground into his bones it seemed. He couldn't escape it. There were more bites and claw marks to keep the memory fresh. Some were so deep, it would be a day or two before they completely healed. He wondered whether to ask the Keeper to simply put him into their cage until morning, but Buffy would ask questions he couldn't answer. No. Best to slip in quietly, hope that she was asleep, and lie in the shelter of the bed until afternoon.

The Keeper finished drying him off, and offered his clothing back. Such as it was. As he was fastening the ties, the Keeper stood with downcast eyes.

"I am sorry, Angelus."

The vampire looked up in startlement. The Keeper never used his given name. Just like Buffy. The Keeper's eyes were sad.

"When you first came here, I understood nothing of you and your people. I know more now. I am beginning to understand how unbearable this is for you. I am sorry."

Angelus smiled, a thin, papercut smile. "Don't. I did it to myself, and you know there was no other option. But if I do not get what has been promised to me, if I am not given every last iota of information about the new Hellmouth, a great many people will regret not only that, but also what has happened here."

"House Orbath is one of the most honourable of our houses. They will keep their promise."

Angelus gave a curt nod. There was nothing more to say.

The Keeper bade him goodnight at the door to their rooms, then went on down the corridor. Angelus stood for a moment steeling himself, then entered. His heart sank. Buffy was awake, and not in a good mood. He could tell she had been pacing. Normally, she reminded him of a leopard or a cheetah, depending on whether she was stalking from cover or sprinting for her prey. Now, as she turned and walked towards him, fury in every line, she resembled nothing so much as an enraged lioness. He didn't need to wait long to find out what had enraged her.

She drew herself up to her full height, and despite the discrepancy, managed to stand almost nose-to-nose with him.

"How. Many. More?" She was practically spitting.

"I beg your pardon?"

She looked as if she wanted to grab something - his throat, perhaps, but lacking any clothing to wrap her fist around, she made do with Mr Pointy. She clenched her fist around it, then turned it so that the needle-sharp point pricked the skin immediately over his heart.

"How. Many. More? Don't lie to me - ever! I can see the marks of them on you. You're covered with demon stink again."

Fuck. Slayer senses.

"When are they coming for me? How many and how often?"

Mr Pointy pressed a little further home and a tiny bead of blood ran down his chest, like a raindrop on a window, a herald of more to come.

He remained mute, unable to form words, not knowing what to say and what to hide. He, the supreme hunter, never saw her fist, the one not holding Mr Pointy, as it crashed into his face, knocking him off his feet. He finished up sprawled sideways across the bed. Before he could recover, she had straddled him and was once more pressing the point of her question home. The stake was in about half an inch now. The raindrop was joined by others.

But the important thing was that she be reassured. He could not allow her to think that she would be defiled as he had been.

He clasped his hand around her wrist, not pushing the stake away, simply holding it steady. With his other hand he cupped her cheek.

"I have already told you. No one here will bother you. You are not for Hire." Damn. He hadn't meant to mention that word. She picked up on it though.

"But you are?"

"Don't worry about anything. Just trust me."

The stake pressed in a hairsbreadth further.

"I'll trust you when you trust me. Now. Tell. Me. The. Truth." At each word, the stake pressed harder.

She looked down at some of the marks on him, then locked her gaze with his. It was as if she had laid the demon bare. Understanding flooded her face.

"This is what you meant by Hiring, isn't it? You've been..." she couldn't say the words. "But you said there wouldn't be any. I remember, because I couldn't understand what you meant." The understanding grew. "You wouldn't sell them me, so you sold them you. Is that it? Why? I thought you were too alpha for that? I didn't think Angelus would stoop to prostituting himself! What did you get for it? A nice fat fee?"

He sighed. Nothing to hide now. The lie was worse than the truth. "The Hellmouth."

"What?"

"It was the only way we could be readmitted. House Orbath waived their rights, but the Arena wouldn't. We have to know about the Hellmouth. You said so yourself."

"What about me - am I sold too?"

"NO! I have told you. No-one touches you without my permission, and that will never be granted."

She could see the truth of that in his eyes and her expression softened. Mr Pointy lifted a little, and she ran the fingers of her other hand over his cheek.

"What have you done?"

He said nothing. What was there to say?

Mr. Pointy pressed down a little more.

"Don't lie to me. A price had to be paid, yes? And you've protected me with your own body again?"

He had no reply to give. She must have seen something in his face, though.

"Have you bathed?"

"Yes."

"Doesn't help, does it?"

He knew what she meant, and for some reason couldn't look her in the eye. He just shook his head in quiet misery.

She remembered those times in the cemetery, and how she had felt. This demon surely had retribution coming to him. But she also thought of why he had done this. She needed to know about the Hellmouth. Oh, he wanted to know, too, but he would have managed, she had no doubt about that. Humanity's need was greater. Her need to know. He could have expected her to pay the price for the knowledge, but he hadn't. He had paid it for her. She couldn't imagine what it might mean for a creature such as him to submit as he must have done.

And she remembered their last stay here. That night before they came home; his absence from the cage; his anger and vulnerability. She hadn't understood, then. She'd done nothing to help him then, but he had still saved her life, over and over. And he had never spoken of his shameful ordeal.

She thought of how their stolen weekend had helped to...cleanse...her, in body and in spirit.

She released her hold on the stake, and reached down to the fastenings of his loincloth. Then she rose slightly and loosened the ties of her own, throwing them both to the floor, together with the breast band.

"Bathing doesn't help. This might, though." She stretched along his length, like the big cat he saw in his imagination, skin to skin and reached forward to kiss him.

It was a little while before the kiss broke. When it did, he was hard, and ready. She straddled him again, and moved into position. He wanted to reach up and touch her, his palms burning with need, but this was her idea, so he lay still, letting her decide what to do. She ran her fingers over his chest, making him purr in pleasure then she bent over and licked his ear.

"Do you need to be cleansed? Reclaimed?" He knew exactly what she was offering.

"Yesss."

And she did. Thoroughly.

He let her do exactly as she wished. Here, his submission seemed right, seemed essential to the magic of ritual purification that she was working on him. Then, as she was impaled by him and nearing her climax, she took his hands in hers and pushed them outwards and downwards until the two of them were breast to breast. And she bent her head and bit down on his jugular with her little human teeth. His howl of pleasure must have echoed through the building, but he was mindless, beyond caring, as he burst into orgasm. It was only as he came back to himself, and saw her enter the first spasms of her own fulfilment, that he saw the bead of blood on her lip. His blood. He wanted to reach up, to wipe away something that she could not understand the consequences of, but then her tongue darted out to lick it away as she entered the throes of rapture, and it was too late. And then he ceased to care, as he felt himself harden and reach fulfilment again, in company with her.

It was later, as he lay with his head cushioned on her breast that he thought of that bead of blood. When a vampire takes a human mate, the vampire is always the dominant partner. When he had drunk from her, back in the park, he had marked her as his and, weak as he was, he had willed himself to dominance. That was as it should be.

Now, she had taken him, she had drunk his blood, from a wound that she herself had made, whilst he had submitted to her will. She had been the dominant one. She had marked him as hers. In all things now, they were equals. It had never been done that way before, so far as he knew.

Still, he was certain that no vampire had ever taken a slayer as mate before, so perhaps it was fitting that they do things differently. They were true and equal mates now, although the ritual had been a bit flaky, and she was quite unaware of the fact.

Damn.

He would either have to kill her or make sure the ritual was done properly at some time in the future, with her full knowledge and understanding. But nothing, absolutely nothing, other than death would change the nature of their relationship as it was now established.

Damn.

He really wasn't sure which alternative to opt for.

Fuck.

The next morning, she awoke with Angelus' head on her breast. For the only time in her brief experience, he had fallen asleep in her arms, rather than the other way round. She felt what it might be like to have power over this demon, as she was afraid that he had power over her. If only it could be her Angel. But he was gone, and she was afraid he was never coming back.

This was all she might ever have of him - was it enough? Could she set aside her sacred duty for this vampire? She looked at him, relaxed in sleep, impossible to tell apart from Angel just at this moment. She thought of the beauty and deadliness of this tiger again, and then she remembered another small piece of the poem. She thought it had stuck in her mind because Angelus seemed to be essence of tiger; tiger writ large, as it were. So had Angel, when he had fought alongside her.

When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Are we all God's creatures, she wondered? All playthings for the powers that be? If she could not be with Angel, if she and he could not fulfil their destiny together because of that insane happiness clause, could Angelus take his place? Was that meant to be? That she take this demon and mould him to her own purposes? Just what was the difference between a soul and a demon anyway? When the soul at times acted like the demon, and the demon at times acted like the soul? In this being, did they complete each other? How could she ever know? If only Angel's soul were here, she would cleave to this demon for eternity. Small steps, she thought. One at a time. And go with gut instinct. It seemed to serve slayers well.

Her arms tightened of their own accord, and she dropped a light kiss on the top of his head, trying not to awaken him. The rest would do him good. But he was awake already. When he felt the kiss, he feathered one of his own across her midriff. Neither of them slept for a while after that.

***

In the afternoons, they rested in their cage, or fought and won their battles. Then it was time for the very last battle. All but one of the other comers had been defeated.

At night, they had waited for the call that didn't come, the summons to Angelus for his third and final humiliation. Each night, when they were sure there would be no call, they had offered each other comfort in the oldest way known to man and demon. Nothing fancy. Just simple lovemaking. Simple as it was, it took both of them to the places where galaxies are born, and universes die. It left them sated, cleansed and claimed. Each night the demon fell asleep curled around the Slayer, one arm and one leg thrown possessively over her.

Then it was time for the final humiliation, too.

Ezrafel came to them one afternoon, when they had been in Hylek for almost a month, bringing with him the servitors that supplied their meals. They brought fish, a dish of eggs, hot crusty bread and fresh fruit for Buffy, and a jug of blood for Angelus. Human blood.

When the servitors had gone, Ezrafel lingered.

"I must come for you tonight."

He hesitated, and as they waited, Buffy wrapped her arms around Angelus' waist, leaning her head against his chest. Suddenly the Hylekian picked up the water jug from the table and hurled it across the room. They had never seen him angry before. He stood silent, hugging himself, his head bowed low. Angelus disengaged himself from Buffy, very gently, and moved over to the Keeper. He put a hand on the demon's shoulder.

"Tell me. It is better that I know and can be prepared."

When the Hylekian looked up, there were tears standing in his eyes.

"Never has this been done before! It is beyond all fairness. It is quite unthinkable. Infamous!"

For a moment he was unable to continue. Angelus looked helplessly at Buffy. She, too, moved over to join them, and together they embraced the distressed Keeper. At that moment, Buffy saw little difference between the demon Keeper and her human Watcher. They both seemed to be made of similar stuff.

Angelus tried again.

"Come. Tell me what is wrong."

The Keeper straightened himself. "Your third Hiring is at the Palace, and may not be gainsaid. You will be there all night tonight, returning at dawn."

Oh.

"Very well. But we knew that one of the Hirings must be all night." He felt Buffy stiffen - she hadn't known. Damn. "What is so terrible about this?"

"Your final battle, the one to determine which House will take the Royal Standard, is tomorrow, at noon."

Sonofabitch! He had a suspicion of what was happening. "Which House are we competing against? Which is the one left?"

"The House of Vermald. The current Royal Household."

Ah. They were the ones in the Bursar's ledger, then. This was their back-up plan.

"And the Council thinks that's fair play?" That was Buffy, his angry lioness. He had to smile.

The Keeper went on, "It has been deemed fair because only one of you is involved. The other will be fresh and...uninjured."

Buffy intervened again. "Can we appeal? We must be able to, right?"

"No. The only appeal is to the Royal Household. They have done this deliberately. There is more. There is intelligence that they are unwilling to relinquish their current status and are taking steps to make sure they are not ousted. I do not believe you will be killed tonight - there is too big a risk of mob riots, you are so popular - but you may be harmed so that you cannot fight, or at least cannot fight well."

They both took in the implications of what the Keeper had said. All three remained in an embrace of mutual comfort for a long time, before Ezrafel called in a servitor to clear up the broken glass.

***

When it was over, when Ezrafel helped Angelus back into their room, Buffy was shocked. The claw and bite marks were only a little worse than she had seen before, but the vampire was stiff and ungainly, with none of his accustomed animal grace. When the door had opened, he had not tried to hide the pain on his face, a reflection of both mind and body. When he saw her companion, though, his expression closed down, became carefully neutral. Haraeth. He had come a little before dawn, with a gift.

Haraeth rose from his chair now and stood before Angelus. He seemed lost for words. His jaw tightened, and he simply pressed the small enamelled box into Angelus' hand then strode from the room.

Buffy moved to help Ezrafel, and together, they lowered Angelus to the bed. She took the box from him.

"The Orbaths are furious. The entire House has spent all night finding this. They had to go outside this dimension. It's spelled, and they say it'll heal you in time for the contest. I think Haraeth would be happy to take a swing at those rulers himself." She ran her fingers down his cheek. "Those sonsofbitches aren't going to know what's hit them when I find them!"

He smiled for her. His lioness.

Ezrafel hurried off to fetch some more blood. He had a small supply of fresh human blood, obtained against this day. It would help Angelus heal more quickly, give him more strength, than animal blood.

Buffy had something else in mind. She put her wrist to Angelus' mouth.

"Drink."

"No." He pushed her arm away. "You will need all your strength. You cannot afford to lose any." He reached up and stroked her hair. "But thank you."

She started to argue, but he put his finger over her lips.

"No. That is final." He looked at her. His golden girl. His obsession. He had to admit that now. An unaccustomed warmth swept through him. "I..."

He bit off the rest of the words he had been about to say. They had nothing to do with demons. They were impossible. Unthinkable. He wouldn't lie to her, make her think that he was capable of...No!

"Turn over."

He didn't; he simply reached for the box. "I can manage."

She wouldn't let go of it. "Turn over. Now!" She stroked his face again. "Angelus, I know you've got a chunk of pride as big as Texas, but we're in this thing together. Turn over, dammit or I'll turn you over!"

He did. His lioness. She was a fit mate for him. She was the only possible mate for him. In a fit of unaccustomed self-introspection, he wondered whether he was ready for her as his mate, whether the Hylekians had seen something that he hadn't acknowledged? Well, perhaps time would tell. She unfastened the loincloth, and he heard her sharp intake of breath at the damage she found there. Then she set to work.

The ointment felt wonderful. Soothing and cooling. Buffy's little fingers made sure it reached where it was needed. He could feel it working immediately. She was in the middle of her ministrations when Ezrafel returned, carrying a pitcher of blood.

The demon blushed when he saw what he had interrupted. If Angelus could have blushed, he would have too. It was an unaccustomed feeling for him. Only Buffy seemed completely unfazed.

"Thank you Ezrafel. Can you bring a glassful over here?"

She finished her work, and Angelus turned over to take the brimming glass of blood. It was good. He felt better already.

"You have 6 hours to rest and heal. I will come for you then. The servitors will bring your breakfast, Slayer, in about an hour. Otherwise you will be undisturbed." With a small bow, he turned and left.

Buffy ran a fingernail down Angelus' chest, scraping over his nipple as she did so. He hissed in pleasure. She smiled, and as she bent to kiss him she murmured, "We've got an hour, anyway." Then she proceeded to purify him and reclaim him in her own special way.

***

When they entered the arena, Angelus looked towards the Royal Box. He saw a number of faces that he recognised. Smug faces, pointing and gesturing. He was unaware of the deep growl that rumbled through his chest. More demons with a reckoning to settle. He walked stiffly, deliberately feigning discomfort and pain. No point giving away their advantage too soon. He saw Haraeth and the rest of House Orbath. They looked concerned, afraid that their efforts on his behalf had been fruitless. Never mind. They'd find the truth soon enough.

Their opponents, as representatives of the reigning champions, were last out; two demons, with dragon's scales. The scales were armour that was light enough not to slow them down, but strong enough to protect against an edged weapon such as a sword. The two performed some showy warm-up exercises, demonstrating that they were fast and agile. This was going to be interesting.

The four gladiators were already armed with broadswords and long, slim daggers, almost swords in themselves. With these two pairs, there was no need to spice the event with an initial period of unarmed combat. The crowd would have its entertainment. And they did.

The dragon demons were possibly the stronger pair. There was little to choose otherwise, except that they were naturally armoured, Angelus and Buffy were not. Vampire and Slayer landed many blows on those glittering silver scales, but they simply glanced off. Angelus knew that the earthly knights of old, with their plate armour, unable to land a single killing blow, had simply used their broadswords to beat each other to death. He desperately hoped it wouldn't come to that. He didn't think that he and Buffy would last long enough. Already they had taken a few superficial wounds, and too much of their energy was spent in dodging their opponents' weapons.

As soon as battle was joined, he had given up any pretence at infirmity, and regained his true feline agility. He was too hard pressed to notice the looks of relief that members of House Orbath wore, and the looks of hatred from House Vermald.

In the end, it was probably decided by the word that neither vampire nor slayer were yet willing to consciously acknowledge. Love. Not lust, not affection, need or worship. Not even obsession. Love. Although they would have denied it if asked, neither was willing to allow the other to die, and both were willing to spend every drop of their own blood to ensure that the other survived. It made the difference. The dragon demons did not have that level of devotion.

There was a long period of desperate sparring, accompanied by shouts and cheers from the crowd. When the first opening came, it was tiny, a small movement in the wrong direction from one of the dragon demons. Angelus saw it, and leapt. He took the sword in his midriff, making sure that it was trapped there. His own dagger found its way underneath one of the silver scales where the scale overlay the one beneath, thrusting upwards towards the heart. His fangs found the softer skin at the creature's throat and tore. The rest was simple. Comparatively.

The demon did not die easily, but it did die. With his opponent dispatched, he could help Buffy, even weakened as he was by the sword thrust he had taken. With his help to distract the second demon, she managed to angle her sword into its groin, where the scales were softer. As it sank to its knees, her dagger thrust up under its chin into its brain.

It was over.

And then it wasn't. The crowd went wild. With the level of mayhem, it took a few moments before they realised that all was not as it should be. Armed Hylekians - and others - were pouring into the seating area. In no time at all, the area would be under martial law. Already, soldiers had surrounded the boxes where the Houses sat. They sprinted to the arena wall. Angelus boosted Buffy up to reach the top, but as soon as she did, she dropped back down again, clutching her arm in pain. The shield barrier was still in place. They heard a piercing whistle. It came from the area of their cage. The Keeper was crouched there, gesturing to them.

He showed them a way out. Armed demons - mercenaries, by the look of them - commanded the surrounding streets, but somehow they managed to avoid them all. When they came to a sewer entrance, they slid gratefully down.

***

They waited until nightfall. Angelus, ignoring the pain from his half-healed wound, and the hunger caused by the need to heal, slithered out. He brought back two dead mercenaries. The clothes of the smallest were still much too large for Buffy, but they were the closest he had been able to find. They were wearing good, strong leather, though, which was as good armour as they were going to find in a hurry. The softer leather of the loincloths they used to bind up their wounds from the contest.

They managed to find a quiet place to exit the sewers. The Keeper led them into an area of grand mansions and estates. There was a low level hubbub from each one. Angelus could smell the panic of the beta males left leaderless. He told Buffy and Ezrafel what he could sense.

"If House Vermald has slaughtered all the main members of the Great Houses, who is there to fight them?"

The Keeper shook his head in despair.

At the next mansion, there was a different scent. It was an alpha male, clearly in charge. They decided to take a closer look at House Demeral. The Keeper recognised the alpha male as the Head of the House. They approached him with weapons sheathed. Well, belted, at least - they'd taken as many weapons from the dead mercenaries as they could.

He greeted them warmly when he recognised who they were. His courtesy came as a surprise, in the midst of the chaos.

"I'm sorry that you should see our society descend into such lawlessness. If you are patient, I am sure I can find someone who can return you to your own dimension." Angelus looked at the Keeper, who produced his own little gadget. He could send them, if necessary. Angelus then looked at Buffy. She was adamant.

"Not without the information on the Hellmouth! And I seem to recall that we've got a pay cheque coming." He gave a shout of laughter, then turned to Demeral.

"I think we'll stay around and help. Just to safeguard our interests, you understand."

"You are more than welcome! We had some intelligence that a coup was planned. House Orbath had to appear in full at the Games, of course. Most of the other Houses sent their Heirs and men at arms to a rendezvous. I think we're the last to leave - we've done a few sweeps to pick up useful stragglers, but we must go. A siege will do us no good at all."

Horses were found for them, and the whole party, masters, servants, household guards and guests headed for the mountains. Angelus and Buffy rode side by side. At their first resting place, where the band stopped to water their horses and give them a breather, he took her to one side.

"You should allow the Keeper to send you back. If anything happens to him, I'll still have Mr Pointy."

She shook her head. "Angel, I'm in so much trouble now, I really don't think it could get worse. When I get back, I'm going to have to come clean with my Mom about who I am. What I am. She needs to understand what's what. But I'm staying."

He held her close, troubled by his feelings. Part of him was roaring in anger, wanting to beat her until she called him by his true name, not the name of that loser soul. The other part was determined that, when she faced her mother, he would be by her side to help her. And all of him wanted to howl in triumph that she chose to stay with him, here. But all of him also wanted to get her out of danger, send her to safety back home. Dammit, he thought he'd left schizophrenia behind when the soul had gone! It was worse than ever, now. In any event, she stayed.

A few hours later, they reached a fortified country estate. A well-disciplined guard challenged them, only admitting them when they were recognised as the Demeral party.

A surprising number of Hylekians had converged on this estate. It became clear that there were others, men at arms mainly, on nearby estates, waiting to be called. With Demeral's arrival, the Families went into conclave. Angelus went outside to find a likely looking horse and sate his hunger.

The conclave took hours. Angelus and Buffy lounged outside, in the warm afternoon sun, taking what rest they could. She was sitting in his loose embrace, her back leaning against his chest, when Demeral came to find them. He seemed uncomfortable.

"The Houses need to co-operate to defy this coup. This is not something they have ever had to do, and we are sure that House Vermald is relying on this. We are essentially a peaceable society. We have few battle skills - for hundreds of years, our battles have been fought in the arena. Household guards are primarily for show. They are trained and can fight bandits and such, but they are not experienced in actual warfare, and they are few, compared to this army of House Vermald. We believe they have brought in a large number of mercenaries, men more accustomed to fighting. So, we have to acknowledge that we have a problem there - not enough soldiers and not enough skill.

"But there is another problem. The Houses would unite behind House Orbath, since they are now our rightful ruling House. They will not unite behind any one else. But Orbath is not here. Only you. You are warriors and you represent House Orbath. We are agreed. One or both of you must lead us."

What!

***

Angelus had never fought in a pitched battle. Oh, he'd been around plenty of battlefields, back in the day, but usually making free with the officers' women whilst their men bled and died. But he'd read many works by military commanders through the ages. He drew now on every bit of knowledge he'd ever learned.

He sent out scouts. The first one to return came back at a flat gallop. An army was on its way. He estimated that around 10,000 soldiers were marching, of which only about 2,000 seemed to be from Hylek. The remainder looked like paid mercenaries, demons of many species. A tally of House troops had given a number around 3,000. They were outnumbered more than 3 to 1, by experienced troops. He reviewed his options.

He could fight a guerrilla war, during which time he was certain half his troops at least would take fright and desert. That was no strategy at all with untried green warriors. Even worse, if he did that, it was certain that the captured Heads of Houses, or at least House Orbath, would be executed. Every sensible tyrant in history had learned that removing the focus of a rebellion would cause that rebellion to fizzle out - why fight, when there is nothing left to fight for?

He could stay here and endure a siege. That was not an attractive option. The Houses had had little time to prepare a stronghold. The fortifications could be described as fair, at best. An army of 10,000 would make short work of them. And there weren't enough supplies.

Or he could join battle, outnumbered 3 to 1.

They were dead in the water. Nevertheless, he was not prepared to do nothing, to tamely surrender. That was the only remaining option, and the worst of all.

He went with his instincts. Taking Buffy to one side, out of earshot of the others, he gave her his analysis. She agreed. He gave her his preferred option. She agreed. Battle it was.

The army was estimated to be about thirty miles away. There were no maps available, but Demeral described the terrain over that distance. There was a great deal of forest, large stretches of open grassland and a large lake lying underneath the shoulders of a mountain range. There was only one area that seemed to offer hope. It was a place where the road passed close to the mountains, by a summer-dry riverbed, with the lake behind it. Here, the larger army would have less opportunity to manoeuvre, and would lose some of the advantages of size. And it would fence in his own army, reducing the opportunity for frightened troops to run. It was about 10 miles away. They would have to move swiftly, or the attacking army would be past it.

He pressed into military service every demon who could wield a weapon or fire an arrow. He had mounted soldiers, foot soldiers, archers and some who were good with a slingshot, and he appointed his lieutenants on that basis. They set off at a forced march.

They reached what he had decided would be the battlefield less than two hours before dusk. It was as good as could be expected. The opposing army was in sight. Its general was no slouch; on sighting the army deploying before him, he summoned an aide and sent a large detachment of soldiers up the flanks of the mountain where, once Angelus attacked, they could rain arrows down upon Angelus' men, no matter how he deployed. The general then settled in with his back to the mountains, behind the dried out riverbed, daring Angelus to come forward. His spearmen formed the front line of defence, with mounted soldiers and swordsmen behind. More mounted soldiers were starting to deploy away from the centre.

So far so good.

Angelus called first for Demeral, his chief lieutenant.

"Can you find a couple of hundred archers and slingers who are good in mountains. I need someone with them who can speak English." Demeral galloped away.

"Slayer." Formality was required here, within earshot of his commanders. "Will you take the men that Demeral selects, and guard our flanks? I need you to take out all those men up on the mountain side."

Buffy almost protested. She could see immediately that he was sending her to one of the safer places in the coming battle. Then her warrior's instinct saw something else. She was the only one that he could trust. If those archers on the mountain weren't removed, he and the army were dead. Everything depended on that.

"Angelus," she acknowledged, and wheeled her horse round to follow Demeral.

"Wait!"

She stopped, and he galloped over to her. He pulled her from the saddle and clasped her to him. In sight of both armies, they kissed with desperation. Then she was back in the saddle, and gone.

The opposing army was deploying its horsemen onto the right wing, along the lakeshore, where the terrain was flatter, and better suited to the use of horses. A phalanx of foot soldiers, mainly inexperienced Hylekians, by the look of it, were deployed on the left wing, covered by archers and slingers. That was the weak link, then. No general uses archers and slingers to cover troops he can trust.

Angelus had wondered whether to leave the situation as a standoff until morning, but having found the weakness, he didn't want to give their general time to reconsider, to stiffen the inexperienced Hylekian wing with tougher mercenary troops. Nor did he want to give his own troops time to melt away, having seen the size of the opposition. It was now or never.

His own mounted horsemen he divided into two groups. The larger group would face the horsemen by the lake. The smaller group would follow him to take on the weak left wing. His foot soldiers would meet the enemy centre. The rest was up to them. A small number of fast, lightly armed troops were kept back, in reserve, under Demeral himself. They were to go wherever they were most needed once the fighting started. Demeral had discretion, but his instructions were that if there were any danger of either wing being turned, he must at all costs prevent that. Seeing them all deployed to their assigned positions, he rode along the battle line, making a final check. It was as good as it could be. Time to say a few words.

His voice carried on the still evening air. Demeral roared out the translation.

"Men of Hylek! This may be our only chance to restore freedom to your land, to restore the traditions by which Rulers are selected. All I ask is that you kill three men. When you have done that, you will be free! Kill three men for freedom!"

The cry was taken up by every throat there. "Kill three! Kill three!"

Satisfied, he rode back to his right wing, drew his sword and waited. The battle cry behind him roared to a crescendo, and he charged. He desperately hoped that the army was following him, although there was no time to look, and he prayed to any god that would listen that the Slayer had her job well in hand.

The archers and slingers facing him loosed a volley of arrows and stones, but clearly had not expected any real opposition. They were inexperienced and afraid, as were the troops they were supposed to protect. They were taken aback by the speed of Angelus' charge, and after the second volley, they broke and fled. Angelus and his mounted wing were among the infantry like a fox in a henhouse.

The slaughter was bloody, and even with his vampiric strength, his arm was growing tired of wielding the sword and delivering death with each swingeing blow. In minutes, he was covered in gore, most of it not his own. The men with him were just as blood spattered, their faces masks of determination.

He risked a glance at the other troops. The enemy centre was holding his infantry attack, but at least his troops were still trying to press forward. His left wing, the stronger of the two mounted groups, was hard pressed by the much more numerous enemy, and in danger of being pushed back. It would be disaster if that left wing were turned, allowing the enemy's mounted soldiers to circle behind him and attack from the rear. Demeral had seen the danger. He and the reserves were sprinting to the wing, to prop it up. Good man!

And then his own opposition started to melt away as soldiers tried to flee the battlefield. Some ran to the shelter of their own centre, to be followed and slaughtered by his men. Others tried to run from the battlefield altogether, back the way they had come. He wanted to howl for joy - he thought that he probably did - when he saw the Slayer and her archers block the road and pick them off one by one. He had no intention of allowing news of the battle to reach House Vermald. Not until he was ready.

And then he was behind the enemy centre. His centre, seeing that the enemy were now surrounded, pressed forward with greater courage, whilst Angelus, accompanied by a few willing and courageous troops, drove into the melee. His intention was to find the opposing general. When he did, the contest was short. The general, and his head, were lying on the battlefield, and the enemy were laying down their arms. It had all taken much less than an hour.

He had survived. His horse had survived with him. Both of them were almost on their knees with exhaustion, his horse's head hanging almost to the ground. Exhausted, too, were the remnants of both armies. It was difficult to determine how many had survived, but he thought that the majority of his had. That was a miracle. He pulled up the horse, and started to pick his way over the bodies. It really had been carnage. His troops, seeing him, started to follow. Demeral rode across to him, covered in blood but smiling and happy.

"You have won a great victory Angelus! Against the odds, you have won!"

Angelus gave him a tired smile. "No. The Hylekians have won it. You did well, all of you." He looked around for Buffy, but couldn't see her yet. Her band had been a little way away.

"I'll be back in a few minutes - we haven't finished the day's work yet. Can you get some parties out hunting for the wounded. They'll need some attention." Already the black scavenger birds were flapping amongst the fallen. Demeral nodded and set about the task. Angelus turned his tired mount to where he had last seen his Slayer.

The light was fading now, but that wasn't a problem for him. He saw the remaining archers in a group, not moving towards the main army. As he drew closer, he felt his heart lurch. They were bent around something on the floor, and he couldn't see Buffy. His chosen mate. Where was she? He kicked the horse on. The men parted silently, to let him through.

The Slayer lay on the ground. A long arrow stood from her breast. It was as if he were moving through spun glass. Everything was slowed, nothing seemed to be within reach. His mind was screaming, and he was sure that he was making whimpering, keening sounds. And then he was kneeling by her side.

She was still alive, barely. She was losing blood fast, her face paler than his. Her lips were becoming blue from lack of oxygen. But she was still just conscious. She tried to reach for him, and he saw her mouth the words, "My love..." At least, that was what he thought she said. She must be hallucinating then and believe that he was Angel. He tried not to let that hurt him - it didn't matter. Only she mattered. He knelt beside her, careful not to move her and make things even worse. He placed a gentle kiss on her lips and held her hand.

She rallied a little and fixed her gaze on him. "Hurts..."

"Please, don't leave me. I need you. I love you." It was true. But was it too late?

She hadn't heard him though; she had faded into unconsciousness before the words were out. Later, he thought that he should be grateful for that. He had never wanted to lie to her, and demons could not feel love.

Now, if he did nothing, she would be gone in minutes. There was only one thing to be done, but he must be careful. He didn't even need to think about it - he didn't want to turn her. He wanted her warm and human - or as nearly human as a slayer could be. He morphed and made a small bite mark on his wrist. Then he gave her a few drops of his blood. Just a few, to strengthen her, to try to close her wound, not to turn her. It could be done, with the human mate of a vampire, but it needed care. He'd never done it, and hoped he had it right. The flow of blood from the arrow wound seemed to falter a little and her fluttering heartbeat steadied. She needed a hospital. He looked around for help, for anyone who might have the means to send her back home, but there was no one nearby other than men-at-arms. Then he saw the moon, standing on the horizon in the gathering gloom, huge and pale. The full moon.

He took the stake from around his neck and pressed her fist around the claddagh ring. Then he recited the incantation. As he did so, she rallied, and he felt her claw at his hand, trying to get him to grasp the stake too. But he still had something to do. The war wasn't over. If House Orbath were slaughtered, he might never get to know about the new Hellmouth. He had a feeling that, alive or dead, she would never forgive him if he allowed that to open. He couldn't take that chance. It wasn't him she clung to anyway. He understood that. It was Angel. In her delirium, she thought he was Angel. That hurt, more than he thought that he could bear. And then it was done, and she was gone. But in clawing at his hand, she had taken with her Angel's claddagh ring. His hand felt naked and his heart empty.

His face was bleak, his eyes devoid of anything but an all-consuming rage as he stood in the spot where his mate had lain and started to issue his orders. Those fit to ride fast would accompany him to rescue House Orbath. House Vermald would not survive this night.

***

Giles and the teenagers were taking shifts in the Library, in case Buffy and Angelus came back in the same condition as last time. Giles was on shift tonight. He had a blanket and a pillow, and made himself as comfortable in his office chair as possible. The chair was placed so that he could see the main library floor, where the shadow Mr Pointy had been last time. Willow had told them what she had done for Angelus. She was sure that Mr Pointy would return them to the same spot. It did. There was a flash of white light, and Buffy lay bleeding on the floor, pierced close to the heart by a long arrow. Her right hand was tightly clenched. There was no sign of Angelus.

Without thought, acting purely on instinct, Giles scooped her up and raced out to the car. Sunnydale Hospital was his next stop.

***

In the end, the number of men who could accompany Angelus was dictated by the number of horses fit to travel. They found a picket line of horses that had been ridden by those enemy soldiers sent on to the mountainside. These were relatively rested and all uninjured. They used the best of them, each man taking a horse to ride and leading a spare remount. Demeral came with him, and some men of the other Houses. The rest stayed to deal with the aftermath of the battle.

The journey was too slow for Angelus, and it was Demeral who persuaded him to allow horses and men some small respite for rest and water, Demeral who persuaded him that he would get there quicker on the horse than by dismounting and running, Demeral who persuaded him that if he raced ahead and arrived alone, he could never accomplish his purpose; he would be killed. It was Demeral who, at their first stop, insisted that he remove his shirt and trousers, and who bound up the four sword slashes he hadn't even realised he'd got. And it was Demeral who, at the second stop, brought down a small deer and gave it, still living, to Angelus. The blood helped his wounds to heal, gave him strength for what he now needed to do.

When they reached the city, the horses were staggering with exhaustion, but their ride had been epic. They had accomplished it in a time that would almost certainly never be bettered. There were less than fifty of them left.

Angelus went over the palace wall first. When he had killed all seven of the guards in that area, the others joined him. They found a small window guarded by a rusted iron grating and, muffling the sound as well as they could with their jerkins, they stood back as Angelus pulled the grating out with one mighty effort.

Then they waited again while he slithered in and looked around. So they progressed through this lower part of the palace. Angelus could smell Haraeth, and it was a live scent. And he could smell some of his past tormentors. That was all he had to go on. No guard survived in any area that he wished to pass through. Eventually, he reached a grating in the floor of a large, empty hall. Another large, bare room could be seen below. Bare of furniture and comforts, that is. There were bodies enough. Hylekians were chained around the walls, and to posts in the centre, some dead, some alive. Haraeth was one of them, mercifully still living. Shockingly, at Haraeth's feet were two headless corpses. A swordsman walked into view, and took a stance. In seconds, Haraeth would join his kinsmen. With a sinew-bursting effort, Angelus ripped the grating from the floor and dropped onto the swordsman. It wasn't Haraeth who lost his head.

There were about twenty men-at-arms in the room, and half a dozen demons who by their dress and adornments were clearly senior members of the Royal House Vermald, here to watch the executions. Angelus didn't need the clues of dress or adornment, though. He recognised the demons from his ordeal in the palace. And he recognised one in particular. The snarl came unbidden.

It was like putting a stoat amongst chickens. Angelus didn't even stop to draw his sword until he had beheaded five men with his bare hands. By then, his companions had caught up to join him in the slaughter. The members of House Vermald were prevented at sword-point from leaving the chamber until they were the only ones left alive. Not for long.

Angelus stalked over to them as the last man-at-arms lay twitching on the floor. His voice slightly distorted by his fangs, he invited the king to join him. His companions pulled out a portly middle-aged demon from the huddled courtiers. Without even pausing, Angelus tore out the throats of the others. Then he went back to the king, standing only a hand's breadth away from him. His voice carried only a promise of death.

"Your actions have caused the deaths of too many of your countrymen and have threatened me and mine. My mate may even now be dead because of you." He looked at Demeral. "Do you have any procedures for dealing with a traitor such as this."

"No. There has been no such treachery for the last eight hundred years, at least. We would need to find a mechanism for dealing with this."

Angelus took that as acceptance of what he would do next.

"Are there any more of House Vermald? Any heirs, any young ones, any illegitimate brats?" Demeral whispered to the companions. A group left the chamber, while others moved around the chained Hylekians, freeing them from their fetters.

Angelus turned from Vermald, and walked over to Haraeth. He unfastened the fetters.

"Thank you." The young man was pale, and the side of his tunic was bloodied. He had been wounded, and was weak, unsteady on his feet. Angelus examined the wound. It was festering a little from lack of attention, and would leave an interesting scar, but the young man should heal.

There was movement in the doorway, and a group of demons were ushered in. Women and children, and half a dozen adult men. The rest of House Vermald. Accompanied by their screams of terror, Angelus took their throats out in the sight of their appalled patriarch. Then he leaned towards the man, his voice soft but sharp as flint.

"I will save your countrymen the need to invent a process of justice for you. Here, in this chamber, I AM justice." He took the king's head in one easy movement.

***

Giles sat by Buffy's bed. Joyce sat on the other side. The small hours of the morning were moving towards the not so small. The arrow had been removed and blood transfusions given. She was still unconscious, but she would live. The doctors had no idea why she was still alive. The arrow had grazed her heart, and the blood loss had been immense. She should be dead.

They had been unable to open her clenched right hand, and they had left it alone, needing to concentrate on the more critical issues. Now Joyce was stroking her daughter's arm and hand, trying to relax the muscles, trying to make her release her grip on what was so important to her. It gave the overwrought mother something to do. She had not yet asked Giles for an explanation, but he knew that would come. What he didn't know was what to say in answer. How could he tell her about the things her daughter had been doing? And the creature she had been doing them with? He couldn't imagine why cloth yard war arrows would be used in the arena. Something quite dreadful had clearly happened. He was almost sure that the vampire was the one who had sent her back, but why he hadn't also returned was a mystery. Whether they would be getting any information on the incipient Hellmouth seemed to be moot.

He watched Joyce smoothing Buffy's clenched muscles, tracing the entwined wolves that were inked over her golden skin, then suddenly her daughter relaxed, a soft smile of welcome coming to her lips, and she opened her hand. Lying on her palm was a silver ring. A man's claddagh. Angel's ring.

Giles bowed his head in sorrow. Sorrow, he was ashamed to realise, not because he thought that Angelus must be dead, or because Buffy would perhaps grieve for that, but because if the vampire were dead, it had not been his hand that killed him. Perhaps Buffy could get on with her life, now. Perhaps he could, as well. They'd deal with the new Hellmouth as they had dealt with everything else.

Joyce picked up the ring and looked at it. She turned to Giles. He knew she was going to ask about it, and again he had no answer that seemed suitable. That, Mrs Summers, is the ring worn by your daughter's creature of the night, murderous, vampire ex-boyfriend. That would go down well.

It was just as Joyce was trying to frame the question that the light in the room seemed to brighten, and a small, neat portal opened. Then it winked out, leaving Angelus standing by the foot of the bed.

Joyce was aghast, as well she might be, and not only at his magical entrance. The vampire was covered in blood. His face was streaked and splattered with it, his hair matted. His clothes were drenched in it. Rents in his clothing showed bloodstained bandaging on his thigh and his ribs. His face was gaunt and grey, and his eyes bleak and empty. A bloody sword and dagger were thrust bare-bladed into his belt. A pall of road dust coated his entire figure, blood and dust congealing together on his clothes and on his skin.

Joyce tried to scream, but no sound came out. Silently thanking the gods for that, at least, Giles moved round the bed towards her. Maternal instinct to the fore, Joyce moved towards the dreadful apparition, intent on keeping her daughter safe.

"Get away from her!" she hissed. "Don't you dare touch her!" She opened her mouth as if to scream for help.

Giles placed himself in front of her and took her by the shoulders.

"Joyce. For God's sake don't scream." She wasn't even looking at him so he shook her a little until he had her attention. He repeated what he had said, urgency harshening his voice.

"He's not going to hurt her. He got that way fighting for her." He was sure of that. "I'll explain, but not now, not here."

Mercifully, she remained silent but she shook him off and moved to stand bravely between the gore-soaked vampire and her unconscious daughter.

Angelus just moved around her, took no notice of her, walked stiffly to the side of the bed, where Giles had been. He ignored the chair, and simply knelt on the floor. He reached over for Buffy's hand, the one that had clutched the ring, and brought it over to meet the other. Then he held both gently in his own.

"I'm here now, my love, nothing can hurt you. I'm here." He continued murmuring soothing nonsenses to her until suddenly she opened her eyes. The dam that, since he had sent her back, had walled away everything inside him except his rage, burst. He leaned his head on her stomach and, regardless of Giles and Joyce, wept in relief. It was Buffy, then, who murmured soothing nonsenses to him until his tears ceased.

***

It was Giles who telephoned Willow, and Willow who telephoned the mansion. Fortunately, she got Spike, rather than Drusilla. And it was Spike who brought fresh clothes for Angelus, Spike who prised him away from the now-sleeping Slayer, who steered him into the tiny bathroom area, and who helped him to wash the worst of the blood off and to change. The bloodied clothing and the weapons he put into the holdall he had brought. Spike stayed, and it was as dawn threatened that Spike persuaded Angelus to leave the hospital room, where there was every chance of the sun catching him, and return to the mansion for some much needed sleep. Apart from the time in the bathroom, Angelus had spent the remainder of the night on his knees at Buffy's side, exhaustion etched into his every lineament.

As he rose to his feet, he turned to Joyce and Giles. Giles' face was still a frozen mask, and Joyce was still in shock. He gently took her hand.

"Mrs Summers, I know that you don't yet understand any of this, and we will explain it to you. But explanations must wait until tonight. I'll come back then, and Buffy, Giles and I will tell you what you want to know. Not until then, though. Do you understand?"

Joyce nodded, white faced and tight lipped. Angelus turned his gaze to the Watcher.

"Well?"

Giles hesitated, then nodded. Before he could say more, Angelus and Spike were gone.

***

To say that Joyce was troubled would be a statement of the blindingly obvious, and would not even scratch the surface of the truth. She couldn't even find a word to describe how she felt. She had never considered herself to be a woman who had flights of fancy, and she knew what she had seen. A man had appeared in a flash of light in the middle of a hospital room, looking like a fugitive warrior from a mediaeval battlefield. This was clearly impossible, yet she had seen it with her own eyes.

And that grim, blood-soaked man had knelt by her daughter's side, called her his love, and wept to see that she was alive.

Rupert had clearly known what was happening. Rupert had lied to her about where her daughter had been for the last month. How many more lies had Rupert told her? How many lies had Buffy told her? What secrets had they been keeping, that neither of them dare tell her the truth? What the hell was going on?

So she waited for the night, and the explanations she had been promised.

Giles got to the hospital first. When Angelus came, he came alone. Joyce's inconsequential thought was that he certainly scrubbed up well, and that although he still looked very pale, the greyness was gone. Not the grimness, though. He looked like a man going to his execution. Or perhaps going to do the executing.

Buffy was still sleeping, and Joyce and Giles had made sure they didn't wake her. When this man arrived, Joyce noted that he moved even more silently than they had done. She knew who he was. Buffy had had a brief relationship with him, and had left him because he had...changed. Taken on an air of instability. Angel. That was his name.

He reached the side of the bed without looking at either herself or Rupert; he simply stood there, looking at Buffy. And Buffy awoke for him. The smile she bestowed on him would have lit up half of Sunnydale. So would the one he gave back to her.

"You won."

It was a statement, not a question. She had never doubted.

"We won. We won the battle, and House Vermald has been...extinguished. House Orbath is in control, aided by the other Houses, especially House Demeral."

"You'll tell me everything I missed - later."

"Yes."

"And you'll tell me about our prize. Don't tell me you came back without it."

"I came back the second that I'd finished with House Vermald - well, as soon as I could find someone to send me back. Haraeth is going to send the Keeper to fetch us back for our prize. He'll be here tomorrow."

She smiled again. "Good. We still have a couple of weeks of vacation left. Do you think we could have a look at that estate?"

Angelus looked uncomfortable. "I think there are one or two things to do first." He looked pointedly at Joyce. Then he took Buffy's hand. "Best get it over with, while we're all here." His smile was reassuring.

And so, the explanations began. Joyce was incredulous at the prospect that vampires might be real, and that her daughter might be a vampire slayer. Angelus obligingly demonstrated. Well, the vampire bit, anyway. So she had to believe. And Rupert Giles a Watcher, indeed? Whatever one of those turned out to be. It took a while before she could absorb what she had been told about that, what she had been shown. Buffy, Rupert and ...the vampire... sat silently whilst she wrestled with this new knowledge. The thing that her mind kept coming back to was the simple fact that her daughter was holding hands with a demon. When she was as ready to hear more as she would ever be, they continued.

The matter of the soul was explained, and the difference between Angel and Angelus. That worried her. What mother wouldn't be worried to find her daughter holding hands with a vicious, psychopathic killer? The soulless vampire part was quite superfluous. Again she focused on small facts, trying to keep at bay the larger truths.

"Just how old are you, anyway?"

"I was made in 1753. I was 26 at the time."

"You know how old Buffy is? Don't you think you're taking advantage of her?"

He smiled that billion-megawatt smile again. "I need every advantage I can get!"

Tick the sense of humour, and understanding of the female psyche, columns.

The duties of a slayer were explained. And the physical differences to ordinary mortals. Her worldview was rapidly crumbling, a new one not yet ready to emerge. Maternal instinct filled the gap, as it had the previous night.

"Is that why you've healed so fast?" So fast, indeed that the doctors were starting to ask questions. Joyce began to feel that the hospital might not be the best place for her daughter much longer. Buffy started to answer, but Angelus interrupted. Buffy needed to know what he had done. It was probably best that her Watcher knew, too. Blood tests in future might be a problem.

"Slayers do heal fast, but she has some of my blood now."

"What?" "What!" "I beg your pardon!"

Joyce had gone as white as one of the hospital sheets. Buffy was scowling furiously. Rupert was positively snarling. Angelus surveyed his audience with a bland face. But he knew he was in trouble.

He looked directly at Buffy.

"You were almost dead. Your heart was damaged and you had lost so much blood you would never have lived to even make it back to the Library, let alone the hospital. Believe that. I didn't want to turn you. That left only one thing. I gave you just a few drops of my blood. Vampires can do that with a mate without fear of turning, if they do it right. It was just enough to strengthen the heart and start to seal the wound until you could get medical attention. Apart from making you a vampire, it was the only thing to do, other than watch you die, and I wasn't prepared to do that." He paused. "But it will always be in your blood. Because of it, you will always be able to sense me, even from so small an amount, just as I can sense you. Should I have done differently?"

All three of them, Buffy, Joyce and Giles, started to say that of course he should have done differently. Then, in fairness, they all stopped. There was nothing else he could have done for her. At least, nothing else that Joyce or Giles would have wanted returned to them.

Tick the resourcefulness column, and probably the courage column for owning up to that.

"Why don't you want to turn me?"

He wasn't prepared to answer, so he warned her off with a flash of golden eyes and a flippant answer. "This way, you can warm my feet when I'm cold."

Buffy blushed and shut up, as he had intended. The mother in Joyce picked up on something, though.

"Mates. Does that mean what I think it means?" Her eyes would have flashed golden if they could.

"Mrs Summers, your daughter and I have a relationship that will last forever. The details of it are no-one's but our own, but do not doubt that she is mine. No one else will ever touch her or harm her, human, vampire or demon." He folded his arms across his chest and glowered.

Joyce recognised the testosterone-fuelled bluster for what it was. After all, her daughter had been under his care when she had been almost killed by that arrow. But she recognised something else, too. If her daughter were truly a slayer, and she had no reason to doubt the truth of that, then she was unlikely to have a long life expectancy. Surely, you can't hunt demons every night and stay safe? This creature was perhaps the best defence possible. After all, at his age, he had to have learned a lot of survival skills.

Tick the provider and defender columns.

She had also picked up on Rupert's hostility. Hatred and loathing, even. She asked about that. The emotional temperature in the room fell to somewhere near absolute zero.

It was a long time before she got an answer, and it was Angelus who gave it.

"His lover, Jenny, tried to restore the soul. I killed her before she could do it."

There, it was out.

Joyce was appalled. Unthinkingly, running on maternal instinct again, she took Rupert's hand and gave it a squeeze.

"Rupert, I'm so sorry - I knew Miss Calender had died, but I had no idea..." She trailed off, unable to find any words that sounded right. Rupert hung his head in sorrow; so did Buffy. Angelus looked defiant. Joyce asked the only thing she could think of that might help her understand this creature.

"Do you regret doing that?"

He looked startled that she should ask that, but appeared to give serious thought to his answer.

"Yes. Oh, don't misunderstand me. I would do it all over to prevent that nauseating soul from possessing me again. But it has distressed Buffy, and it has distressed one whom Buffy loves. So yes, I regret that. But I can't undo it."

Joyce pondered that answer. Leaving aside the demonic, vicious, killer part, it was the sort of answer a mother would look for.

Tick the devotion column.

But her beautiful daughter, so full of life, keeping company with a demon? Every finer feeling revolted against that thought. She was almost overwhelmed by the desire to scoop up her child and run from the hospital, away from this creature, keep her at home and safe. Then she looked at the others in the room, and really saw what she was looking at.

She looked at Rupert. He was grim and grey, remembering, no doubt, his lost love. And yet, much as he loathed the creature sitting at the other side of the bed, he still managed to work with him where it was necessary to do so, and he obviously loved and took care of her daughter. Just as a father would have. Terrible as the vampire was, he might be the best possible match for a vampire slayer. And her daughter loved Angelus, that much was clear. Joyce had seen how she smiled at him, starting with the previous night, when unconscious, even, she had felt his arrival and smiled her welcome for him.

And Joyce had no doubts at all that the vampire loved her daughter. She had no idea what love meant to a demon, although she was pretty sure it was not something a normal human would necessarily survive, but this one loved Buffy. It was there for all to see.

If she tried to deny them, what would happen? At best, there would be a breach between Buffy and herself, one that might never be healed. Particularly if Buffy met an enemy too strong for her...NO! Thinking like that would do Buffy no good at all.

And what was the worst that could happen, if she refused to countenance this unnatural liaison? At worst, this creature would simply kill her for standing in his way, as he had killed Jenny. Who would be a mother for Buffy then? Most likely, though, he would simply steal her daughter away, and she might never see her again. She realised that she couldn't deal with this vampire as if he were an undesirable human suitor. That would never work. If Rupert could handle it, so could she. And perhaps time would bring a change. Perhaps fate would intervene. Whatever, she must be there for her only offspring.

She reviewed the mental balance sheet and squared her shoulders, metaphorically speaking.

"I expect to know where she is at all times that she isn't at home or in school!"

A look of shock crossed all three faces.

"And when you see her I expect you to come and pick her up from home like any normal person. You'll come and introduce yourself to me properly, and you will treat me with the respect a mother deserves. The very first thing you are going to do is explain to me exactly where Buffy has been for the last month. And if you hurt her, I'll kill you myself. Is that clearly understood?"

Angelus gaped in disbelief. Buffy started to remonstrate with her mother, terrified that she had mortally offended the mercurial vampire. At the same time, she put out her arm, weak as she was, to restrain him. Rupert went to her aid, trying to insert himself between Joyce and the creature who had killed Jenny for less.

Both of Joyce's defenders felt a thrill of fear at the growl coming from the vampire, until they realised it was a different sound; one they weren't used to hearing. A rumbling chuckle, deep in his chest.

Like mother, like daughter, Angelus thought. Up to now, he had considered Joyce to be rather an irritation. But he had been wrong. She was so like her daughter he couldn't help but take to her. And he always respected a show of strength.

He stood then, and made her an elegant bow.

"May I start by calling you Joyce?"

***

Giles could not be happy about the turn of events, but he understood why Joyce had come to terms with the relationship. After all, he needed to do that himself. Oh, he still hated the vampire, and yearned to kill him. But the demon was the best protection his Slayer could have. An extremely rough road no doubt lay ahead of them, but he would not desert his charge. So he did his best to put his personal feelings behind him, as Joyce had done, and face the future as it actually was, not as he would wish it to be.

***

Joyce took Buffy from the hospital early the next morning, to avoid questions from the medical staff about her miraculous recovery. Soon after sundown, Angelus knocked on her front door, accompanied by a creature who looked almost human, but was just a little scaly around the edges. He was extremely polite, though. Angelus brought a large bouquet of red roses, and a large box of the most expensive chocolates. His experience showed when he left it to his two women to decide how to divide up the gifts.

The other demon brought a small gadget, and an invitation to return to his home. Buffy and Angelus would go. Joyce regretfully declined. One day, perhaps.

So, after visiting for an hour, during which both males...men...were affable and charming, they carried Buffy away through one of those portals.

For Buffy, weak, still, but recuperating, a few days at least of the long summer vacation were divided between helping Hylek deal with the after effects of House Vermald's treason, and lying in the arms of her demon lover.

THE END

Go on to the next part of the series, Cometh the Hour.

Author's notes

1. The title 'Tyger, Tyger' is taken from the poem 'The Tyger' by that driven genius William Blake. For purists among you, I looked at about a dozen versions, and the punctuation is different in every one. I've used the one that had a picture of the original illustrated page from Blake's book, 'Songs of Innocence and of Experience'. The printed version seemed to match. I can give you the web site if you want it.

2. I know nothing of military strategy. If you need to borrow, borrow from the best, I always say. The battle scene is therefore based on the Battle of Issus, 333BC, where Alexander the Great and his Macedonians comprehensively defeated a very much larger Persian army under Darius. I'm told it works very well if read to the soundtrack of the battle scene from 'Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers'. Thanks, Rusty.

3. Droit de seigneur - strictly, a lord's right to sample a bride on her wedding night. It's close enough.

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