Keystone Vampires

Keystone Vampires

By Sylvia Volk

NOTES

Rating: NC 17
Pairing: B/S.
Summary:This is a comedy-drama, sent during AtS s5.
Notes: All Jossed by the actual events of the season, but still fun to read.

***

When Buffy at last burst into the lobby of Wolfram & Hart, she came with an axe in her right hand, Mr. Pointy in her left, catapulting through the glass doors with a resounding crash, and with fear and anticipation in her breast; it was a dark and stormy night; and the creature she pursued was muscular and glistening and red, bounding ahead of her in ceiling-high bounces, a trail of gore splattering behind, till Buffy tackled it and swung Axcalibur--and then it lay with heaving flanks, all oozy, spurting arterial blood from odd tentacular protuberances . . . and she exclaimed aloud, "Boy, I thought I lost this thing in San Francisco, but here it's tracked me all the way to L. A.," just as Angel and Spike sprinted up from opposite directions.

And their world stood still.

She didn't see them; they were behind her. Both vampires ploughed to a halt, frozen, aghast; they shot suspicious glances at each other. Meanwhile Buffy, her back to them, tucked Mr. Pointy away. She dug a scrap of paper out of her purse and consulted it, saying, "Hey. Anyone? I'm looking for a guy named Angel, can anyone help me find him?"

Through the street doors, a pint-sized demon in dungarees advanced, bearing a mirror upon its shoulder. The demon was maybe four feet tall. Its shoulders were maybe four feet broad, and its free arm was so long that its knuckles brushed the ground; all that could be seen of its face were bristling whiskers, out of which projected an unlit cigar. Its baseball cap proudly sported the logo THREE TINY TRUCKERS WITH GREAT BIG HEARTS. And it hefted the immense mirror as if it was nothing.

The mirror was three times the size of its carrier. Eight feet high and five feet wide, with occult runes carved into its fancy gilt frame. It was formidable.

The delivery demon said, "Where you want it, mister? Time's money." Knox, from the company research department, let the electric doors swoosh shut. He had been standing against them, holding them open. He accepted a clipboard from the trucker. "You okay with that? Looks kinda awkward. Look, you can set it down right there." To Buffy: "Miss, I'm sorry, but you'll have to move your pet."

The tiny trucker bounced the mirror on its shoulder, like an ape with a stick of wood. As it did, it took the opportunity to scratch its rump. Then out shot its hairy arm, grabbed hold--and now the mirror was balanced smack atop its head, horizontal to the floor. Swaying gently, as if in an ocean breeze. The trucker about-faced leftward and the tail of the mirror swung right, and two Wolfram & Hart lawyers doubled up over their briefcases, walked right underneath and out onto the street--never pausing in their conversation.

"It's not a pet," said Buffy, "it's a Sagging Staggered. Listen, I'm looking . . ." She extended her crumpled piece of paper. "--for a guy named-- Hey. You look familiar. Ever been to--"

Knox was doing his own double-take. "Hey, do I know . . . ?"

"Naw," Buffy decided. "Can't be." She set her foot against the side of the quivering Thing, rolled it casually out of the way. It made a bolt for it, and she stamped her heel down on one tentacle; Knox watched, jaw dropping. Meanwhile the trucker set the mirror upright, stood back to admire the effect. Buffy stiffened instinctively; her hand went into her little purse, and out came a lipstick. Then: "Huh?" she said. "No reflection?" Pause. "Oh. No glass?"

"Sign right there," said the trucker to Knox.

"Wait a minute, I have to check it. It's a Mirror of Mihr," said Knox to Buffy, "there really is glass in it, but in a mystically inactive state." He peered at the mirror, as did Buffy. "Totally and absolutely transparent, check. You should even be able to step right through--until the charm is triggered."

"Looks like a door," Buffy agreed.

"I'll move it into a better light," said the trucker. He grabbed the mirror, flipped it back atop his head. As he turned, it swung in an arc. Buffy bent over, Knox bent over. The mirror swung past, Buffy and Knox shook hands, and Buffy said, gesturing toward the Thing, "Sorry about the mess, hope your janitors can--" She looked at the floor, broke off.

"Oh, that's fine," said Knox gallantly.

The Thing chose that moment to make another break for it. Buffy yelled, "No you don't!" and brought Axcalibur down.

Gore splattered across the lobby.

"Uh," she continued, very red-faced, "anyway, uh-- Sorry about that. I'm looking for a man named--" Knox wiped nameless ichor off his chin, regarded his hand, and held it wordlessly in mid-air. Buffy sprang to wipe it with a kleenex from her purse. "It's a really nice mirror," she concluded, weakly.

"Suck-up present for the boss," said Knox. "Quarterly reviews are coming and he's a real monster in the boardroom." Throughout all this, neither he or Buffy had yet spotted the vampires watching transfixed from the sidelines.

"Anyway, I'm looking for--"

"Just a sec here," Knox told Buffy. He waved the clipboard.

"Light's not good here either," said the trucker, shaking his head in disgust. "Miss, I'll have to ask you to step aside again, and I'm gonna move it over another couple of feet. If I don't get the merchandise properly inspected on arrival, my union will have hell to pay."

The mirror swung past again. Buffy bent backwards, evading it. Knox bent forward, and the trucker deftly handed him a small device like a remote. "Mystic key," he said, "gotta sign for it too," and Knox nodded, telling Buffy, "Once I press this button, you should be able to see how it works." He clicked the remote.

"There!" she said, as a ripple passed over the apparently empty frame. "I can see myself perfectly now." She applied lipstick, patted her lips with the kleenex. Angel and Spike were directly behind her and she was actually looking straight at them, but in the mirror; and they had no reflections, of course.

"No," Knox was exclaiming. "That's not right either." Buffy smiled doubtfully at him in the mirror. "It's not supposed to reflect human beings. It's supposed to reflect only--" He clicked the remote again.

And like magic, the reflection changed.

Another ripple went across its surface; Buffy and Knox vanished from it, and then it became a doorway indeed for Buffy, befuddled, to look into and see--framed in it, exactly as if the glass had again gone poof--Spike and Angel, side by side, both gaping.

The lipstick fell from her limp fingers and bounced.

She wore cute little hotpants with BORN TO DANCE embroidered across the seat, but nothing could have disguised the hammering of her pulse. Not to a vampire. Not to them. Her blood was racing, her eyes big and vulnerable; she squeezed her thighs together without knowing she did, and the Thing on the floor quivered all over, its sides pumping in double-quick time. She didn't know which to look at first: her boyfriends, one dead and--well, they were both dead, of course, but one was dead dead, and--except Spike wasn't dead, no more than Angel--except that they were both, of course, the living dead, and--

She didn't care. "You!" Buffy squealed, and sprang at them.

Straight into the mirror.

She caught herself just in time. One inch further and she would have smashed the glass, seven years bad luck, probably another apocalypse too, she certainly didn't want that. Where were they? She spun, she spotted them--and then her foot came down in the mess that the Thing had pumped out on the floor, and over she went, backwards. Skidding, then slipping. Then tumbling. "Whoo-whooo-whooop--!"

She landed on the Thing; the Thing howled like a banshee, and then Buffy and Thing were rolling madly over and over--wrestling, while Axcalibur clattered across the floor, knocked just out of reach--and she had just got the Thing pinned when her flailing foot hit the mirror-frame, and the whole mirror came crashing down. Right. On. Them.

When she opened her eyes again, she was sitting on the floor in a puddle of glass and gore, with her vampire lovers standing over her, staring.

Meanwhile, the Thing had escaped.

#

"The Sanguine Staggard beast," said Wesley, "is extraordinarily rare." He steepled his fingers, trying in vain to sound nonchalant. "I've read of them, of course--every Watcher has--but actual sightings are, ah, once in a lifetime. They are supposedly associated with Slayers, but no man knows how or why. Their properties are legend, their habits merely a matter for wild conjecture--they are eccentric even among demons--and, in sum, it must be admitted that--oh, hell. This is highly exciting, Buffy. It's been hunting you, did you say?"

"Sure did," said Buffy; she sat at the long formal conference table, surrounded by Wolfram & Hart researchers. Books were scattered everywhere. Half the researchers looked juvenile, wore lab coats, had laptops open on the table in front of them and were busy typing away; the other half were their exact opposites, tweedy gentlemen with spectacles and prim women in linen skirts and tight buns--pseudo-Watcherly costume. They sat in two tightly bunched cliques. One clique centered around Wesley, the other encircled Knox. Buffy, the odd girl out, made her own little isolated group of one . . . or she would have, but for Angel's company.

He perched on the table, at her right hand, leaning back on his arms and craning round to cast ominous glances at his employees (who shrank from him); a fearsome Chairman, even casually informal in black leather pants, extra glossy. Buffy, beside him, surreptitiously pulled at the short hem of her hotpants; she was sticking to the upholstery, and felt out of place. She looked leftwards and there were Wesley's researchers, examining her disapprovingly over the tops of their spectacles. She looked right, and Knox's researchers pointed meters at her, and clicked. She scooted her chair an inch or two closer to Angel, and Angel patted her on the shoulder.

It was still dark, still stormy. Still night. The view through the wide sheet of windows showed Los Angeles skyscrapers beneath skies black as pitch. Lightning flashed in the middle distance, and thunder cracked.

"No living specimen of the Sanguine Staggard has ever been captured," said Wesley.

Ka-ba-boooom!

Buffy said, "See, I knew its name was something like Sagging Staggers."

"Please, Buffy. The Sanguine Staggard--or 'bloody staggard beast' to those of an informal bent--" Wesley permitted himself a smile, "--is no laughing matter. For one thing, it sports six-inch fangs." He consulted his books. "And is capable of leaping twenty feet in a single bound. Impressive! A most energetic beast. One might even call it the ping-pong ball of the demon set."

"Messiest demon I ever did fight, too," muttered Buffy to Angel. "You should see my dry-cleaning bills."

"Buffy, I've heard," Wesley said, "through second-hand sources, that you and yours have resurrected the Watcher Council, is that true?" She nodded warily, and he went on, "I'd be most interested to know what your own researchers make of this."

"They're not quite sure," said Buffy.

"But Giles . . . ?"

Ka-bada-booom! went the thunder.

"He hasn't reached a conclusion yet," Buffy mumbled. More loudly: "I have my own question. Where's Spike?"

Da-dadada-BOOM!

Angel stiffened. Wesley pinched the bridge of his nose. "Spike? What does Spike have to do with this?"

"Well, he did the fastest disappearing act in the lobby that I've ever seen, and there hasn't been hide or hair of him since, and . . ." With big betrayed eyes she looked at Angel. "Nobody told me he wasn't dead. I'd have been here so fast that-- Why isn't he dead, Angel?"

"But," Wesley blurted, "I told Giles over the phone--our monthly chat, a good two months ago--and I believe that Fred and Willow email one another regularly-- Neither Giles nor Willow passed on the news to you?"

"I have to find him," said Buffy. She jumped to her feet and bolted from the room.

Angel's expression was blacker than the storm outside. Knox said loudly, "Well, that Staggard creature is a puzzle, sure enough. Lots of work still to be done!" and his researchers leaped up, slammed their laptops shut, and fled from their employer's glares. Wesley exchanged glances with his own researchers, who made haste to gather their reference books and follow suite. One could never be too far from the boss; this was plainly their philosophy.

"Angel?" said Wesley.

"I have to find her," Angel said, slid off the table, and marched out.

All alone in the enormous conference room, Wesley surveyed the empty table and sighed. After a moment's reflection he pulled out his cellphone and dialed Rupert Giles' number.

Boom-badabada-BOOOOM!!

#

Angel found Buffy on the roof.

Here was the helicopter pad, rain pattering across it; gusts of wind blew Buffy's hair back. She stood on the edge of the rooftop, arms folded. When he came up behind her, she tucked her chin defensively down against her chest and said, "This is a really big building you have here. I got lost about eleven times."

"Hard place to search," Angel agreed.

"What? Oh--I came up after that Bleeding Braggard beast, spotted it on the thirty-first floor and chased it up the elevator shaft. Almost caught it, too." She leaned out over the roof-coping, pointing downward. "But when it heard you coming, it--well--plummeted." She added, "I actually gave up searching for Spike over an hour ago."

She was so beautiful, blazing with butterfly-color: bright blue heels to her shoes, bright pink pants emblazoned with that ridiculous logo, and her brief blouse was primary yellow, patterned with macaws and parrots on the wing. Like something that could take off and fly, herself. A flower-girl. Even at night, she shone. Angel felt a lump in his throat, swallowed. Memory by memory their love stretched back, a thousand-linked gold chain wound round a palace gate; where was that love buried now? In what midden heap?

"Buffy." The words were jerked out of him. "About Spike. I don't see why the attraction--I mean, I do, how there could be a physical thing between you, you're a grown woman and you have needs. Needs that I can't--" Angel stopped. "It would be so much simpler if the two of us were one man. One for the physical, and one for, well, love. Because you need both."

"Spike's not your business! Neither is what I need."

"I know. I know that, Buffy. But you're still my business. You always will be."

Buffy peered up at him, and her stony expression softened. So he opened his arms, and she went into them, and buried her face against his chest.

Angel ruffled her hair gently with one big hand, dropped a kiss on the crown of her head. He could never be angry with her, no matter what. She brought out the very best in him, always had, always would: called forth the hero within the man.

Except that she didn't, he thought dully. What she called forth from him was the monster, not the hero.

"Why didn't he phone me?" she said, muffled.

"There were . . . circumstances. You'll find him when he's ready to be found. I think he's bedding down in the basement these days. As far from my apartment as he can get."

"I heard you had a penthouse apartment here or something." Buffy sniffed and rubbed her little nose against the thick silk of his shirt. "Can I stay here tonight? I don't have a hotel room yet."

Angel said, "You can sleep in my bed anytime. That is-- What I meant was, I'll sleep on the couch--I didn't mean it the way it sounded--"

Buffy said, "Oh, I don't want to put you out, I can snuggle up on your couch, all I need is a blanket really--"

They broke off simultaneously.

"Buffy," said Angel, "you know that everything I have is yours."

"Yes," Buffy said. "I know."

So beautiful, that small girl with her yellow pony-tail. Irresistible to every part of him: the hero, the monster, and the man.

#

"Well, this is luxurious."

"Yeah. I like the windows. Special necro-tinted glass."

"And there's your new mirror. Hey, look, it's got its glass replaced!"

"Right. Knox and the Knoxlettes must have sneaked in and set it up while I was gone. Look, they even left an instruction book." Angel picked up the booklet between finger and thumb. "'You are now the proud owner of a Mirror of Mihr, please to read instructions before attempting to program . . ." He tossed the book aside. "Doesn't go with the decor."

Meanwhile Buffy drifted toward the mirror, mesmerized. "It certainly is big, isn't it?"

"I guess. I hate furniture with occult glyphs on it. Always looks so . . . tacky." Angel ducked into the bedroom. "I'll just get some sheets and make up the couch. Be perfectly comfortable there."

"Really big. Pretty wide too. Girthsome. Could even call it hefty."

Angel reappeared, his arms heaped with sheets. ". . . o-kay! Bedroom's all yours." She was in front of the mirror, her fingers wandering restlessly over the frame. "Buffy?"

"Yep, a girl could get a grip on something like this."

"On second thought, maybe the couch is too close to the bedroom. Think out in the hall might be better."

". . . a big swinging mirror-- Where are you going?"

"Bye!"

Left alone, Buffy drooped. "This is my life. Men never stay." She stroked the mirror-frame again, but her heart wasn't in it. "Can't even see myself in this thing, what's the use of a mirror that doesn't reflect?" She spotted the instruction book, and pounced. And pouted. "What is this, Latin? Where's Willow when I need her?" She dropped it. "Bet I can figure out the remote on my own, though--all it has is one button anyway, what could be so complicated about that?" She aimed the remote, clicked the button several times. "There we go," she said, satisfied.

Now she pirouetted in front of the mirror, flounced her hair and went up very close to peer at her chin and forehead. Finding no new lines, she turned sideways, eyed her rump and the fit of her skin-tight pants, measured her hips and frowned in dissatisfaction. "Maybe I need to diet. I've gained eleven ounces since Sunnydale, can barely wiggle into a size four anymore--"

She stood regarding herself mournfully, hands clasped in front of her. "No wonder Angel can't get away from me fast enough. And Spike took one look and bolted." The tragedy of it made her eyes well up. She clicked the remote one last time, dropped it. "All vampires want me," she told the mirror. "Don't they?" Suddenly she skinned out of her blouse, bent over and pinched her belly to see if the skin folded, then began to jump in place. "I'm not pert anymore! Where's that perkiness? Ohmigod! No bounce?? Have I gone to pot?"

But . . . even as she did, something stirred. In the darkest, furthest corner of Angel's unlit bedroom. Something waited there, against the wall, behind the enormous bed. Something opened yellow eyes, and flowed into a sinuous crouch.

Outside in the hallway, Angel was glancing warily in the direction of the elevators, and hoping that the Wolfram & Hart maid service didn't decide to come by earlier than their usual hour; the embarrassment would be too much. He folded himself a pallet at the foot of the water fountain. I'm too old for this, he thought.

In front of the mirror, Buffy was doing jumping-jacks, saying, "Jiggle, damn you! Don't just plop! Hey, guys?!"

Something padded on silent feet toward the bedroom doorway.

"This is my life," Buffy repeated. She now stood drooping, the filmy blouse clutched against her breasts. "Men never stay. Here I am, all blonde and sun-kissed and totally yummy, and the only real men I ever attract are vampires." She held the blouse a couple of inches away from herself, peered down and addressed her chest. "What does that say about me, huh? I don't even like vamps. Always got the feeling they're neck men, like they're gonna go all Donner-party any moment and then it's goodbye, Buffy, cookie dough and all. Like when they drool over me, they're really drooling. Like when they look at me all they see is, well, basically, dinner."

Impalpable dark shadows gathered around the doorway, thick as cobwebs, clinging. Ominous as pounding-heartbeat music.

"Like I might as well be a giant chicken."

The tiniest sound alerted her. Buffy whirled, her powerful Slayer hands crushing the only weapon she had--her blouse--and, wadding it swiftly into a ball, she flung it with unerring aim straight at--

"Spike!"

"Christ, pet, haven't lost your strength of ten, have you?" The blouse slithered to the ground. Spike stepped over it, coatless--a slim figure all in black, eyes bright with sly delight and dyed hair pale as winter hay--stalking toward her, a predatory swagger in every step. "Nice soliloquy, especially the part where you were talking to your own boo--"

"Spike! What were you doing in Angel's bedroom?"

"Keeping watch, wasn't I? Not going to be any hanky-panky between Grandsire and Slayer tonight. Not if I had any say about it. Staked out the back corner of his bedroom hours ago, been there ever since. Knew he'd bring you here, if he brought you anywhere."

"But he was in there just now! Why didn't he smell you hiding?"

"Oh, my scent's all over this place anyhow," said Spike, shrugging. "No mystery in that."

"I'm not even gonna get into that," Buffy said. They now stood very close, close enough to touch. Buffy lifted her chin, felt it wobble. "Spike. Sp-spike, I--" Helplessly, her hand patted at his face. And he was real, she could touch him, he was with her, he was back. "Oh, Spike," she said, and he smiled and tilted his head at last, lifting one hand to fold over hers. Their fingers entwined. He cradled her hand against his cheek. And Buffy sighed, and just let herself be happy.

"Missed you," Spike said.

"Shhh! Angel is out in the hall. If he hears--"

"Better keep it down then." He pulled her hand down, kissed the cup of her palm. "No screaming, no moaning. Iron self-control." Pause. Then: "Kinky."

She shivered all over, as his eyes gleamed at hers and his pink tongue licked between her rigid fingers.

And . . . back in the dark and ominous corners of Angel's bedroom, something else moved. The shadows thickened. Stirred. Bubbled, and scorched. Something had materialized. It crouched immobile, gathering itself . . . and waiting.

"You set me free," Buffy was saying, swaying forward, resting at last against him. "Oh, Spike. You're back, you're back, you're-- How?"

"Dunno. Doesn't matter. Angel wouldn't give me your phone number, damn 'im. Forget that, Buffy--" He tugged at her pony-tail, turning her face up toward his, bent toward her mouth. Their noses bumped, and Spike started and drew back, then made a sudden dart at her and kissed the tip of her nose swiftly--while his hands slid along the length of her naked back. Then the two of them broke apart, simultaneously, as they both realized that her blouse still lay by the bedroom doorway.

And they burst out laughing. There were new lines in his face, he looked somehow older; but his soul was still there, she could see it in the way he held himself. With shyness in the line of his shoulders--when no vampire was ever shy. Awkward and knowing, both at once. And she cupped his cheek in her palm again, irresistibly. She couldn't stop touching him.

"William," she said, drew his face down toward hers, and kissed him full on the mouth.

And the Thing exploded out of the shadows, took out half the frame of the bedroom door on its way--wood sprayed across Angel's gracious living room, as the Sanguine Staggard beast shot past Spike and Buffy, ricocheted off the wall in a splatter of red, caroomed off two more walls--took out the coffee-table as Spike threw himself headlong to the floor and Buffy dived for cover behind the mirror and the Thing whizzed overhead like a frenzied cannonball, a circus-prop with attitude, a deflating jet-propelled balloon. Everywhere. Smashing headlong into furniture, upholstery flying in its wake. The noise was unbelievable. Buffy screamed. "Stand and fight me, you--you--Thing!"

It shot straight at her. Buffy went over backwards, and the Thing bounced off the Mirror of Mihr, the ceiling, the walls, the floor, and the last thing it did was to smash Angel's apartment door to smithereens on its way out.

With a crash and a bang it was off down the hall. With a fearful cry--"Buffy!"--Angel ran to the rescue. Into his wrecked apartment. Where Spike was just helping a topless Buffy off the floor.

Angel gaped.

"Run, Spike!" Buffy yelled.

"Yoicks!" said Spike, shot past Angel, and was gone.

There was an awful dead-silent moment while Angel finished taking in the ruins of his once-serene home. Buffy stood wavering next to the mirror. It was the only intact object left in the whole apartment--well, the mirror, and the green-glazed urn Buffy now clutched in front of her chest.

"That's it," said Angel, "he's dust," and ran after Spike.

Buffy sank down in the wreckage, sat on something knobby, groped, and came up with the Mirror of Mihr's remote. She stared blankly at it, then waved it and clicked. Naturally, nothing happened.

"My love-life is a farce!" she cried.





Act Two

Steamboat Bill, Jr





Day dawned, serene, unruffled; an aura like silver light and little twittering birds fell over peaceable downtown L.A. Sunbeams slid along the faces of skyscrapers. In the penthouse apartment atop the Wolfram & Hart building, sunlight fell through broken windows, and prisms reflected from triangles of glass scattered across Angel's posh carpets. Rainbows laid their fingertips on the walls, bright. Sunshine kissed the shadows away. Light warmed the wreckage. Day dawned.

Buffy came yawning out of the bedroom, a midnight-blue sheet draped around herself. She held it wadded into a knot at collarbone level, and it slithered behind her like a royal train. Eyes screwed up with sleepiness, she wobbled across to the overturned couch, groped under it and fumbled out her purse, withdrew a toothbrush and vanished in the direction of the bathroom.

Sometime later she reappeared, teeth brushed, hair combed, clothes donned, still miraculously avoiding the broken glass--all this, despite still being three-quarters asleep. All the mirrors in Angel's bathroom had been wrecked, smashed to empty frames; so she planted herself before the untouched Mirror of Mihr, tied her hair back in a chignon, leaned close and made faces to ascertain if her teeth were okay, checked her front view, her side view, her rear view; then she exited, stage right, purse slung over shoulder--off to confront the world.

The Mirror of Mihr witnessed all this.

Perhaps half a minute passed.

From the hallway outside the trashed door of Angel's apartment, came the sound of an elevator going down as Buffy left; then the sound of an elevator coming up. Ding went the elevator door. Enter Spike, somewhat the worse for wear: bruised about the chin, and with a big black eye.

"Buffy?" He whistled, as if calling a dog. "Rise and shine, love, well-met by daylight--God, there's enough sun in here to burn up the whole Order of Aurelius--I've been over hill, over dale and through flood and fire, running from Angel everywhere, but I gave him the slip between the trash compactor and the incinerator, and here I am--wake up, Slayer!" He looked into the bedroom. "She's already gone? I lost her?" He looked around. "Damn what a mess this place is! When I see Buffy's demon again, gotta give it the scout's badge for thorough-going destruction: it shows promise. And there's that bloody mirror."

Spike glanced into the mirror. "Been a long time since I've been able to see myself in a mirror." He turned sideways, looked again. "So it's really true what they say about photography? Really does put ten pounds on."

His image showed in it, just as Buffy's had; but of course, neither of them knew that it now reflected both humans and vampires.

"I need to eat more." Spike made a beeline for an inconspicuous cupboard and banged it open, revealing a mini-fridge. "Any of the chihuahua blood left? Aha. Now, where's that burba weed?"

Down the hall, the elevator once more went ding.

"Angelus!" said Spike. Without a second's pause he threw down the whole jar of burba weed, pungent leaves scattering everywhere. Then, with his cup of chihauhua blood, he ducked into the bedroom.

Enter Angel.

"Buffy?" he said diffidently. His arms were loaded; he was toting a huge bouquet of red roses, a Starbucks cup, and a paper bag from which delicious scents gently wafted. He raised the bag and swung it so it rustled enticingly. "Good morning. I've brought coffee. And chocolate-dipped almond-custard croissants?"

Hearing no answer, he looked around for an intact table, but found nothing; finally he settled for setting bouquet and coffee and croissant-bag down on the carpet, in front of the mirror. This, naturally, led him to look at the mirror itself. At it, into it. His troubled face smoothed, and he took a step closer to the glass, straightened his shoulders, checked the hang of his coat with approval. Fussed at his hair. Then he tore himself away. "Er . . . Buffy?" He went into the bedroom.

A split-second later, Spike shot through the bedroom door, cast a furtive glance behind him, and ducked for cover just as Angel reappeared. The only cover was, of course, the mirror. He ended up behind it.

Angel ended up in front of it again, once more fussing at his hair.

"Why does everything smell of burba weed?"

Spike, in his hiding place, kept very still.

"Doesn't matter," said Angel heavily. "I suppose she's gone out for breakfast. I wish . . . God, how I wish. Oh, Buffy, you'll never know." With that, he ran both hands into his hair, setting it on end--still staring into the glass, but never seeing it. Behind the mirror, Spike rolled his eyes, and his mouth formed a silent word: ponce.

And a ripple passed over the mirror-glass.

It cleared--as transparent as crystal.

Angel looked through it at Spike. "Hey," he said slowly, in vague confusion. Spike (utterly horrified) looked back at Angel. He didn't think, his hands went up--and he mimicked Angel's posture, instinctively.

Angel's face smoothed out. "Must be more tired than I thought," he said under his breath. Then he frowned, squinted. "Hey . . ."

Angel tilted his head rightwards. Spike tilted his head leftwards.

Angel waved his left hand. Spike waved his right hand.

Angel took a half-step sideways. Spike did the same.

Slowly, Angel reached toward the surface of the mirror. Slowly, Spike echoed his movement. The tips of their fingers met at the glass, and merged--as if reflection passed into reflection, mirages meeting and passing through each other. Two into one. For an instant they froze that way. When Angel drew his hand back, Spike drew his back too. Then Angel reached down swiftly toward the carpet at his feet.

Spike mirrored him. When a triumphant smile appeared on Angel's face, Spike switched on a faithful reflection of it.

Angel straightened--holding the bouquet of roses.

There was only one thing to do, and Spike did it. His hand shot through the glass. He grabbed the bouquet and tried to yank it over to his side.

"Aha!" said Angel. Spike ended up holding the roses, Angel ended up with a death-grip on Spike's wrist. Both vampires began to pull. They set their feet, they didn't say a word. First the bouquet inclined toward Spike, then toward Angel. A full minute inched by. Two minutes, three. Angel bared his teeth. Suddenly he yanked Spike's arm sideways. It hit the mirror-frame, and Angel growled out loud. He whammed Spike's arm across in the other direction, hitting the other side of the frame; the whole mirror shook. "When I get you over here," Angel began.

"Arghh!" said Spike. And lunged through the mirror. The roses went everywhere.

Angel and Spike rolled over and over across the rubble-strewn carpet. They tumbled through patches of sunlight, leaving trails of smoke. Then Spike was up and running, snatching a rose as he went. A fading cry of, "Didn't know you cared!" hung behind him.

Left alone, Angel reached underneath himself and extracted a pancake-flat paper bag with grease stains. Chocolate-colored grease stains. And then a sad and crumpled cup which had once held Starbucks coffee. The coffee, alas, was now soaking all through the seat of Angel's pants.

Eyes narrowed, he regarded the Mirror of Mihr.

"What the hell is happening?"

#

Even as Angel pulled out his phone and called Fred in the science division, Buffy was strolling through the Wolfram & Hart lobby. She looked around, interested. What a busy place it was, so much more bustling now at nine a.m. than it had been last night at eleven! (To his phone, Angel was saying, "--well, something is very wrong, because I looked at Spike just now and thought that he was me--") Buffy twirled a stake as she sauntered along. Axcalibur was still upstairs in the wreck of Angel's apartment, underneath Angel's bed in fact. She dodged lawyers with briefcases, leaping out of the way just before they mowed her down. "Hey!" No one paid the slightest attention to her. She pouted, hurt; was she invisible or something? And she whispered, "This is my life," and blinked away a tear . . . thinking of Angel, of Spike, and love.

A tall black hottie in a GQ suit and tie sailed past, talking. His chin was lifted, and a furious little man--a Yorkshire terrier of a man, all bristling hair and yapping voice--was running in circles around him, irate. Barking. The little guy brandished his fist under the hottie's nose. "I'll law you in criminal court, and I'll law you in civil court too!"

"We're up for that," said the hottie, unimpressed.

"An' I'll law you all the way to the Supreme Court, after!"

"Bring it on!" said the hottie, who was Gunn.

"An' if I lose in the Supreme Court, then I'll law you right to hell!"

"Our attorneys are already there waiting," said Gunn. He waved the irate little man off, spotted Buffy. "Ah! Ms. Summers, I presume?"

"Am I notorious?"

"In my circle, yes," Gunn said. "Wes and Cordie both described you to me. Several times." Buffy's face softened, but just as she was about to say something about Cordelia, Gunn began to shepherd her gently toward the elevators. "Also, Angel caught me earlier and told me to look out for you. Did you get breakfast? Cause we can get something brought in. Just ask."

"Oh, I'm fine, I don't usually eat much breakfast. I've just been looking around. Did you know you had a nest of vampires in your loading dock?"

"What?"

"And had is the exact right word," said Buffy happily.

She was about to say more, but then an anguished cry rang through the lobby: "Where is she? Where's the monster who killed Ralph and Louie?"

Buffy turned. Gunn turned.

"There she is! Mr. Gunn, sir, she staked our Louie! Right in the middle of punching the timeclock he was, and she put a stake right through him! Then she beat Ralph into a bloody pulp and ripped his head off! Do you know how that mucks up our internal paperwork?"

"Sneidermeier, from Personnel," said Gunn to Buffy.

"Ralph never missed a night's work! We'll never find a better night watchman--him and Louie together was better than a pack of rabid Dobermans--why, we discontinued the extra protection spells, saved a bundle, got a bonus for fiscal merit at our last budget meeting--"

"The vampires worked for you?" Buffy said.

"Firm signed 'em on when Angel took over as CEO," said Gunn. "Gesture of solidarity."

"--never had to worry about muggers in the parkade--sure, we lost a few lawyers who worked nights too often, but what the hell, I always say the lawyer who can't fight off a pair of hungry vampires doesn't deserve a job at Wolfram & Hart--"

"Well, I was doing my job too," said Buffy crisply, "I'm the Slayer."

Wrong words.

They were barely two steps from the information desk; the girl there was the first to react. She yelled, "Slayer?" and started hitting buttons. Lights came on, flashing, all over her station. "Slayer?" said a nearby security officer, going pale; his eyes nictiated, coarse hair fluffed out at his shirt-cuffs and collar, and he ran out the nearest door, a long barbed tail whipping behind him. A trio of lawyers dropped their briefcases, papers cascaded across the floor: "Slayer in the building!" they shouted. They whipped out talismans, began to chant. The elevator doors clanged. The doors sliced open, and a flood of armed guards piled out. They wore gas-masks. One had a flamethrower. "Slayer in the building, everyone down, put your arms over your heads, nobody panic!"

"There she is!" the girl at the information desk screamed. "That's her! That's the Slayer!" Then her eyes rolled up and she collapsed in a dead faint, vanishing behind her desk.

"PEOPLE!" That was Gunn. Buffy cowered beside him. The armed guards skidded to a halt. "It's okay, she's with me, she's been cleared with the CEO!" In a bellow: "Everything is all right, so calm down!"

The information girl's head popped up. "Evacuate the building!" she squeaked, and fainted again.

Gunn took Buffy's arm. "Let's go upstairs," he said.

With supernatural cool, he ushered her to the elevators. Everywhere Buffy looked, lawyers went green with fear, and clerical staff froze like deer caught in headlights. The faint rustle of the papers strewn underfoot was the only sound. Sneidermeier from Personnel lay on the floor with his arms wrapped over his head, twitching; a sheet of paper blew across him, and stuck to his bald spot. And flapped. It was surreal. "Wow," said Buffy.

Gunn hit the UP button, the elevator opened and there was Harmony, on her way up to the executive offices.

She took one look at Buffy, and vamped out.

"You!" she said.

"You!" said Buffy.

"The homewrecker!"

"The world's dumbest vamp!"

"The hussy who stole my Spike!"

"Nice ensemble, Harmony. Pretty classy for a cheap little two-bit hustler like you. You been letting someone else dress you?"

"A lot classier than the street-corner Lolita-wear you're sporting, Slayer!"

"Oh yeah? Bet your makeover hasn't got you Spike back, though," said Buffy.

"That's it," Harmony said, "you die!"

#

"It turned transparent," said Angel, to Fred. She was measuring the mirror-frame with a pair of calipers, jotting notes on a clipboard as she went. "I'd take an oath on it. It turned transparent, and I looked through it at Spike, and he looked just like me." Here Angel paused, obviously in the grip of powerful feelings. Fred patted him soothingly. "And I swear Spike put his arm right through it. All the way through. I saw him do it."

The Mirror of Mihr stood in solitary state in the middle of Fred's lab. Technicians eyed it from a respectful distance. One of them was prodding it with a yardstick. Buffy, arms crossed, stood nearby like a vigilant guardian; technicians eyed her, too, from a respectful distance. "--chickfight with Harmony over Blondie Bear," Gunn was saying into Wesley's ear. "Almost didn't get them separated in time. Could have been ugly."

"Well, I don't see what she sees in him," Wesley whispered back. "Not when--"

"Shhh! She's listening."

"Hmm," said Wesley. He stared at Buffy, and Buffy blushed and looked elsewhere.

"I really don't understand," Knox was saying to Angel and Fred, at that very moment. "I mean, the brochure called it a fun party gift, uh, 'material for endless practical jokes', and then there was this blurb, 'Give It To The Vampire In Your Life' because it reflects vampires, if you set it right . . . Seemed perfect. So we all clubbed together and ordered it. Wasn't even very expensive."

"It reflects both humans and vampires now," Fred said, busily scribbling. "Somehow it reminds me of Newton's hypothesis on the interaction of light with matter--you know, how particles oscillate periodically between fits of easy reflection and fits of easy transmission? See," she told Angel, "when light is incident in a perpendicular direction on the surface of a piece of glass, part is transmitted and part is reflected. This may be what is happening here. True, Fresnel later assumed certain boundary conditions for this kind of phenomena, but this mirror--" she pointed at the Mirror of Mihr "--couldn't a sheet of mirror-glass under occult strain be described as a boundary condition for total--or rather, truthful, if you want to get philosophic--reflection of light?" Here she realized that everyone was staring at her (and Buffy's mouth was actually hanging open). "Anyone else has an opinion, just jump right in!" she finished.

"I don't know," said Knox, "if we go with a wave rather than a particle or even elastic solid theory of light--"

"Well, I think I understand," said Wesley, drawing his hand across his chin and frowning in concentration. "It's reminiscent of the work of certain Irish sorcerers in the twenties--they were experimenting with the reflection of light from the surface of transparent anisotropic crystals--"

"Calcites?" said Fred and Knox, simultaneously.

"--yes, exactly. Mirrors made of polished calcite crystal, to be precise. They were trying to explain rainbows. Actually, they were trying to reach the pots of gold at the end of rainbows, but their conclusions were very much like yours, Fred."

"Of course," said Fred.

"Obviously!" said Knox.

"Now, according to these sorcerers," Wesley went on, "the thing to do was to invoke the angel Miniel through the medium of an enchanted looking-glass--"

"I did that once," said a husky voice, unexpectedly, from the direction of the door; Spike had just brazenly walked in. "Invoked Miniel, that is. Didn't work. Chanted all night long, and all that happened was my bedside rug took off and started flying round my crypt. Damn thing dive-bombed me for weeks afterwards, till I caught it and killed it. Hallo, Buffy."

Buffy brightened. Angel, however, darkened. "Well, if it isn't Buster," he said. "Had any more episodes of incorporeality lately, Spike?"

"Of course!" said Wesley. "Spike was merely suffering a renewed bout of incorporeality! That could explain how he reached through the glass."

"I doubt it," Fred remarked. Some of her scientists had just brought her a stack of test results and she was paging through them. "Because according to our investigations, there is no glass in that mirror-frame."

"But it was glass yesterday," Buffy protested. "Didn't I break it?"

"Maybe you thought you did," said Fred. She held up the printouts of the test results. "But see here? It's the refractive index that tells the tale. Unbacked glass has an index of one point five and reflects no more than four percent of light trained upon it. Even diamond never reflects more than seventeen percent of a beam of light."

"That's why you can't see a vampire's image even in a diamond mirror," Wesley chimed in.

"But whatever is in that frame is presently reflecting--" again Fred consulted the printout "--ninety-nine point nine percent of the light it receives." (Everyone looked at the mirror in awe.) "So it isn't glass. Knox, by the time the mirror was taken up to Angel's apartment, wasn't it no longer broken?"

"That's what I told you before," Knox broke in, "the brochure said the Mirror of Mihr was unshatterable. 'Spontaneously reglazing within twenty-two minutes of breakage,'" he quoted, "'or your money back.'"

"Of course," said Fred.

"So much is obvious," agreed Wesley.

"Exactly!" said Knox.

"I feel kinda spontaneously glazed myself," said Buffy. "Do you three want the rest of us to go away and give you some privacy?"

Angel said nothing; he had just noticed Spike sidling in Buffy's direction, his hands behind his back. A quick sidestep, and . . . Aha! "Give me that rose," he said in an undertone. "It's mine."

Caught, Spike gave up the rose without a peep of protest, and Angel bore the flower in triumph to Buffy, whipped it out of hiding and presented it with a flourish. It was the ravishing-red long-stemmed tearose Spike had stolen from Angel's bouquet. "For you," he said.

"Oooh," said Buffy. "I . . . why . . . thank you, Angel. Thank you very much."

She raised the rose to her lips, overcome.

"And this is from me," said Spike, appearing at her other side. "For you, lamb."

"Ohmigod! That's just so big! That's the, the biggest dagger I've ever seen, Spike! Wow!"

"Use it in bad health, Slayer," Spike said, "somebody else's, that is."

"That's my knife," said Angel, "that's mine too--" and Spike just laughed. But Buffy didn't know which to admire most: the dagger, or the rose.

Meanwhile, Knox, Fred and Wesley were still conferring over the Mirror of Mihr. "We should test its occult properties," said Wesley, "see whether it might present a danger to Angel, but how to do it without endangering him anyway? We have no vampire test subjects."

"Oh!" said Knox, "we can try it out on the lab rats! Our new test-subject division."

"What?"

"Didn't you read my memo, Fred? You remember you closed down our old Experimental Medicine Department? Because we were getting our subjects by referral from Internal Discipline? Well, we've found replacements." He made shooing gestures, and Fred let herself be hustled off, everyone else following. "Over here, over here--and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised--" Through an inconspicuous door, into an adjoining department, and--

Fifty vampires surged to their feet, snarling and snapping their teeth.

Everyone recoiled--except Buffy, who instinctively dropped her rose and hefted her new dagger. "Vamps," she said. Then: "Oh. Yeah. Vamps behind bars, okay."

But the vampires plastered themselves against the bars that separated her from them. They were enormous hulking specimens, every one in vamp-face, and all (by some coincidence) abundantly male. Their enclosure was decorated vamp-style, like a condemned building strewn with broken packing crates. Buffy, completely unafraid, picked her way over power cables and around equipment consoles to stand just out of reach of the cage. The vampires grabbed their crotches and made lewd gestures; all she did was gesture back, and laugh. And they called to her through the bars.

"Sweetie-pot! My honey-pie! C'mere, cutie!"

"Is that a knife in your hand, or are you just glad to see me?"

"Hot mama, wanna screw?"

"Knox," said Angel. "Knox. Fred? This is a cage full of vampires I'm looking at, right? Why is it a cage full of vampires, and what is it doing in my building?"

"It's employment equity!" said Knox. "Vampires make the ideal test subjects--they're tough, impossible to kill by chemical means, and they're willing to try almost anything. Plus they work for peanuts. Only problem, we have to keep them, er, restrained like that. Because when we try out certain drugs on them, sometimes they get violent."

"Ate one of your PhDs," called a particularly large and rowdy-looking punk vampire. He made a show of picking his fangs. "He was tasty."

"His name was Armbruster and he was going to be published in Nature for the first time just this week, you yahoo," Knox scolded. Then he perked up: "But what are a few researchers, if we can meet our new vamp-equity quota?"

"Goodness, is that what happened to Armbruster?" said Fred. "I thought he'd jumped ships to the Mayo."

"I'm not sure this is entirely ethical," Wesley said.

"Why not?" Knox asked. "They're all volunteers."

Most of the vampires had returned to what they had been doing: sitting on the floor of their cage, playing cards. Only a half-dozen still hung on the bars, lolling out their tongues and drooling at Buffy.

Angel made a mental calculation to do with the strength of those bars and the cage lock. This was a simple electronic push-pad, but placed well out of the reach of the vampire test subjects. He also wondered what had become of Spike, who had disappeared. The rose lay abandoned on the floor near the doorway; Angel picked it up, moved toward Buffy. Tentatively, he held it out. "Buffy?"

"Hey, Buffy!" That was Spike, dodging around him like Mercury. Angel, the rose gripped hard in whitening fingers, stopped short and seethed as Spike slid to a halt in front of Buffy, smiled blindingly into her eyes, and held something out. "Figure you might need something to fight off all those apes there."

"That's my axe," said Angel, grinding the words out--but to himself, because Buffy wasn't listening. "That's my biggest fighting axe." Buffy was swinging the axe, blushing prettily over it--like a sixteen-year-old with her first set of car-keys. And Spike, arriving back beside Angel, said out of the corner of his mouth, "Her axe now, mate," and grinned.

Angel's rose drooped.

"Y'know, I've never been down here before," Gunn said, looking around. "Seems like we find a new corner of this place almost every day. Er, Fred. Over here. What's this . . . thing?"

"What? Oh, that's just Old Faithful. Isn't that what you call it, Knox--Old Faithful?"

"Fascinating," said Wesley. Even as Knox hastened to Fred's right hand, he moved to stand on her left; both men hovered over her. "Is that a Freudebeest?"

"Yes, we use it for research too, because it has such a fast metabolism," said Knox. "Feed something into one end and, zzzp! instant results. And, uh, before anybody gets their fruit wadded up the loom, Old Faithful is the ultimate ethical test subject. No brain. No nervous system? Can't feel a thing. Sure, we've got it chained to the wall, but that's just because otherwise it'd ooze down the drain and plug the city sewers. It's basically just a rudimentary digestive tract attached to an enormous set of gonads."

Spike had vanished again. Angel looked around warily, expecting the sky to fall at any moment; Buffy was still fondling her axe too. He's probably down in Security this very moment, Angel though to himself, trying to steal one of the missile-launchers--

Angel shut his eyes, and ran one finger gently round the rim of his rose. He at least refused to humiliate himself for love.

"That thing is repulsive," said Gunn, peering at Old Faithful. "Looks like a big dick. Knoxie, do you guys hafta use rifles to restrain it?" It was true, there were tranquilizer rifles racked on wall mounts just above and beside the objectionable pulsating object which was Old Faithful.

"No, those are for the test subjects. Just in case."

Gunn was still more interested in Old Faithful--as, in fact, were most of the men. They stared. They stared in fascination, and Old Faithful lay there and quivered. Even Buffy had laid aside her axe, and was watching with a kind of queasy titillation. "What kind of experiments do you run on a thing like that, anyway?"

"Marital-aid research. We're subcontracting to Pfizer."

"And why is it called--"

"Perhaps," Wesley said, "Buffy could tell us something about Freudebeests. Since in her work with the Watchers, she must be somewhat of an authority on demons." There was an odd note in his voice. Buffy heard it; she took an uncertain step backwards. Wesley crossed his arms. "Perhaps we should phone Giles and ask him about it," he added.

"W-why would we do that?"

"Or perhaps you should just phone Giles to say hello," said Wesley, and now he held out his cellphone to her. "Since he told me yesterday that you vanished weeks ago, that your bank account is empty and you don't even have a working charge card, and that he and all the others are worried sick about you. And he begged me to call him the instant I heard word of you, if I had even a clue as to your location."

"There were reasons," said Buffy, like a little girl. She had gone dead white. "I-- Don't phone Giles, I don't want him to know where I am."

"Buffy, he's afraid for you. He--all your friends--don't want you out on your own--"

"You mean they don't think I'm competent to be out on my own," said Buffy, her chin quivering.

"They don't think this is a time you should be by yourself--penniless, sleeping God knows where, doing God knows what to get by--after all, Buffy, you're still a very young woman, Slayer or no, and the world is--"

"Oh go ahead and spit it out! 'Buffy has no skills, she can't make it in the real world and she's depressive anyway, she's probably slitting her wrists in some alley right now,' right? Isn't that what Giles said to you?"

"Buffy--" Wesley started. But she made a sudden violent gesture, and he shut up.

She felt as if everyone was looking at her. She stood as if in a circle of staring eyes--a small, frail figure in pointlessly bright summer-wear, slight as a child, isolated--and now Angel was looking, too, and with a sort of wondering concern, a devouring tenderness . . . everything she had hoped to avoid. Even the vamps in the cage had roused and were jeering, pointing at her and making derisive faces; it was the final straw.

So she drew herself up, spoke like steel.

"Enough. Drop the subject, everybody. Okay?"

A moment passed. Then Gunn said brightly, "Okay! Knox, Fred, you were tellin' us why you named the Inferiority-complex Monster here 'Old Faithful'--"

It was at this point that Spike returned. He came sailing into the room, dragging a sword behind him, like a dog with a particularly big bone--and it was a very big sword indeed, Angel's biggest two-handed Crusader broadsword--and as Buffy took a blind step away from Angel, Spike took in the scene and broke into a spontaneous smile. "Here, love," he started, but Buffy shouldered him aside, hard enough so that he lost his balance--

He took two swift steps, and fell sword-first into Old Faithful.

Old Faithful, punctured, reared up and gushed like a geyser.

All over Spike. But mostly, all over Buffy.

Ooze showered down on her, plastered her from head to heels. Thick, clotted, off-white, stinking gunk. Gobs of it, coming in spurts. It looked like--it felt like--it was just like-- Buffy cried, "Eeeew!" and batted helplessly at the air, and a cascade of goo rolled down her cheek and ear, dripped off her chin and hit the toe of her stylish boot. In comparison, Spike had barely been splattered; he had rolled aside just in time. But Buffy hadn't had his advance warning.

Old Faithful, having proved its name, sank back into flaccidity.

"---ooogh." Buffy's teeth came together with an audible click. Her feet went out from under her, and she sat down in a puddle of goop.

Fred had clapped both hands over her eyes; most of the others (Buffy was dimly aware) were trying hard not to laugh. Angel was rushing to the rescue, properly aghast. But mostly what she focused on was Spike--his hand gripping hers, lifting her to her feet; the sheepish grin that spread over his face, his dancing eyes . . . and the way he opened his mouth and blurted out the fatal words: "Buffy--don't swallow."

He picked her up, and then she punched him with every ounce of strength she had. "That's for whatever you did with Harmony while I was gone," Buffy announced, and marched off to let a horrified Fred tend to her.

Spike remained where he had landed, propped against the wall; he was bent over with one arm wrapped around his ribs, and cracks spread from the plaster behind him. Buffy and Fred had left, wafted away on a wind of indignation. Bound for a bathroom and strong disinfectants, no doubt. Dimly, Spike was aware of Gunn and Angel, Wesley and a mystified and scandalized Knox--all gathered around him, peering. In concern. Amazingly, even Angel seemed sympathetic. Gunn said, "You gonna live, blondie?"

Spike shook his head. "I'll just stay here, catch my breath a minute, alright?"

"Don't think this is the moment to run any experiments," Gunn told Knox. He snagged Wesley's arm. "C'mon, let's leave the man in peace."

That left Angel. Angel loomed over Spike, and Spike lifted his head and snarled wordlessly at him. "I don't even know you," Angel said.

After Angel too had gone, Spike straightened himself, with some difficulty. He brushed at a stain on his black leather coat, and silently thanked whatever fates had saved him from landing on Old Faithful a second time. Then he sniffled and rubbed his nose with the back of one hand.

The rose lay at his feet, where Angel had dropped it before he went to join Buffy.

#

Moments ticked by.

Some of the tranquilizer rifles had been jarred right off the wall, had fallen to the floor; when Spike moved experimentally, one rattled. The test-subject vamps, interested in his plight, threw wadded-up papers at him and catcalled. "The little woman packs a big punch, huh? Pow--straight to the moon, Alice!" But when he fumbled out his cigarettes and lit one, they changed their tune in a hurry. "Hey, friend--we're all vampires together here. Give us a smoke, willya? Those damn scientists won't let us light up."

Spike tilted his head, noticing the many prominent DON'T SMOKE signs on the walls. And he smiled, even though it hurt. Then he bent down and skated his crumpled pack of cigarettes across the floor--sent it skidding the length of the room, to within arm's-reach of the cage. He sent his lighter careening after. "Knock yourselves out."

On his way up, he collected the rose.

Quiet fell, save for a few guttural growls as the caged vampires sorted out their pecking order. The vamps at the top got the cigarettes; the vamps at the bottom hovered vigilantly, hoping someone would drop a butt. Spike smoked, leaning against the wall, one foot propped back, head bent over the cigarette cupped in his hands. He had stuck the rose through his buttonhole.

But presently he let the cigarette fall, crushed it out under his heel. His head fell back, against the wall; his arms dangled. Behind him, the cracks in the plaster radiated in a crucifix pattern--the mark of his hard landing. "We're a funny pair, me and Angel. A regular Lewis and Groucho that's what we are." In a parody of Angel's diction: "Eiron and alazon." In his own voice, with a snicker: "Shlemiel and shlimazel."

The caged vamps were pointing at him, and laughing.

"Shut it, you lot. You don't have anything on me. It's pathetic--proud vampires working for humans. Don't you have any backbone?"

"Hell, it's dangerous out on the streets these days," the biggest of the vamps called back. "Crazy little girls running around all over, they're on crack or something, super-strong. And homicidal. It's nuts. We're better off in here."

"They started surfacing about six months back," another chimed in. "Now we can't call our lives our own. What's wrong with the world, when we hafta run scared o' our natural prey?"

"Good question." Spike pulled out the rose, contemplated it. "I been asking myself that question anytime these last five years. Still haven't got a good answer."

"I know what I want," said the biggest vampire suddenly. "Speaking of girls. That blondie, the one that hit you--she smelled like Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas presents and a New Year's Eve bender all wrapped up in one. The scientists don't let us have any women in here, think we offend them or something with our be-ha-vior." All the other vamps guffawed. "I want that girl. She looked like fun."

"Oh, she is," said Spike. "The grandest fun in the whole wide world."

"Let us out, bro," called the big vampire, and then the whole cageful took up the chorus: "Let us out. Unlock the door. Let us out--" stomping their feet in time to the music, rocking the bars, till the whole room rang. "Let us out, let us out, let us out, we want the girl!"

"You're singing my song," said Spike, and closed his eyes.

He leaned against the wall and thought of her, while the caged vampires gradually chanted themselves out and subsided into silence.

Then at a strange sound, he cracked an eyelid . . . and found himself confronting the Sanguine Staggard.

There it was, in all its glory, having melted into the room like magic and now it crouched poised at Spike's knee, close enough to touch. Eyeless. Faceless. Monstrous. Spike stiffened. "Oh it's you. Buffy's thingie--her Swooping Codswallop beast or whatever you are. Got an ugly puss on you like the world's nastiest debutante-ball reject. What do y'want?" The Thing came a little closer. It was barely waist-high, not nearly so imposing as Old Faithful for instance, but it moved with a glide that intrigued Spike. "If you think I'm going to scratch behind your nonexistent ears, Rover, then you've got another think coming--" And it opened its mouth and yawned at him with six-inch scimitar teeth.

"Whoa!" said Spike, and he could have sworn that the Thing smirked. All the vamps, he saw, were thronging the cage bars, watching. Spike took a tentative step sideways, but the Thing moved like lightning and cornered him again. "What do you want, hm?" he repeated. "This?"

He extended the hand with the rose. And the Thing lifted itself, swaying forward, and those horrible teeth nibbled gently at the air.

He looked left, he looked right; the crowded room was full of props--for instance, Buffy's new weapons lying abandoned, the knife, the axe, the broadsword--and obstacles like computer chairs, desks and consoles, power-cords snaking underfoot like lianas. Spike feinted sideways with the rose, and the Thing followed the gesture, leaning toward the flower, intent on it. When he had the Staggard well and truly distracted, he stooped and grabbed the knife.

Now he held both rose and dagger, and his black coat swirled as he made a long step past the Thing, turning as he did, facing it always; it seemed to crouch, it seemed to spring, it seemed to leap like a leopard in his wake. Spike grinned. He made the knife swoop. The Staggard beast bounded over the blow. It tumbled through the air, coming at him, and Spike threw himself straight forward. He somersaulted off one shoulder, rolled, and bounced up as the creature landed--their places reversed. Turning to face one another. Spike was laughing. In delight.

As if in a dream, they began to dance: the demon, and the vampire.

Spike backed away, on tiptoes, and Buffy's demon stalked him. He extended and fluttered the rose. Wafted it in mid-air till a single petal came loose. Spiraling down, slow-motion. Floating. Falling. Through a moment like eternity. Then the Staggard pounced on the petal, and Spike pounced on the Staggard. There was a flurry of violent action. Spike broke out of it, ran with the rose; neither one was injured; the Thing followed.

They covered the whole room in a madcap dance--from the cage, where the other vamps watched hypnotized, to the door, where Spike could have escaped, but didn't. He was having too much fun. He kicked chairs over, gleefully broke things. He and the beast chased one another across the computer consoles and the medical tables, bounded from table to table, made them fall, smash, break--left chaos in their wake. Spike threw the rose up in the air, tossed the knife from hand to hand and struck as the Staggard hurled straight after its trophy; both missed, and Spike snatched back the rose as it fell. His injuries were healed, forgotten. There was only the moment, the adversary. The beast. It sprang higher and higher as they circled, seemed to vie to make him show off his paces. It became a game. Till it ended as suddenly as it had begun, with the man frozen--all in black leather, bent over the blood-red beast--and his arm extended, holding the flower out. The red, red rose. With infinite slowness, Spike lowered the rose. The beast opened up and there were those teeth, and he dipped the rose into that deadly mouth. Snick went the Staggard's fangs. Spike tossed away the severed stem, and forgetting his knife, dropped to one knee and laid his palm against the Thing, like a caress.

As it had before, when he had kissed Buffy in Angel's bedroom, the Thing exploded into motion. It knocked him flat--as good as the girl anyday--went ricocheting across the laboratory--off the ceiling, the floor, the walls--rebounded fair and square off the push-pad that unlocked the vampire cage--and having done its worst, rocketed through the doorway in a crash of falling glass. Down went the door. Exit, beast.

The caged vamps, too, exploded into motion.

Spike was climbing to his feet, half-concussed. But he did try to stop them. No use. The biggest vampire put his head down and charged him, and poor Spike hit the floor again and lay blinking under a table.

From a very great distance, he heard someone snarl, "C'mon, lemme stake him," and the biggest vamp snapping back, "Forget him, let's go get the girl," and then a tidal wave of vampires surged for the door, chanting. "The girl, the girl, the girl, we want that girl!"

In passing, the big vamp picked up one of the fallen tranquilizer rifles, aimed it at Spike's black t-shirt, and fired. "There you go," he said, and loped out of the room.

Off to find Buffy--him and his friends.

It was total disaster.

Spike slept.





Act Three

Screwball





He woke to an empty room.

Spike yelped and shot to his feet. "Where are they?" Silence answered. He looked wildly around him. The lights were all broken, the whole place was half-dark

A vague illumination shone through the smashed door-frame. The door itself was off its hinges, gone.

Spike listened intently, and heard nothing.

Still unsteady on his feet, he staggered toward the doorway--and stopped short.

The lab looked like a wrecking ball had hit it.

The big room was empty. How long had passed? The ceiling sagged, the acoustic tile partially fallen from the metal crosswork of its braces; some sheets were hanging, about to come down. Much of the floor was simply gone--nothing left except wooden beams, and those had heaved up and, in places, cracked in two. Pieces of equipment sat tilted sideways, like the aftermath of an earthquake.

"Those vampires," he said under his breath. "Must have been them. Regular barrelful of monkeys they are. But what the hell?"

He inched one foot out onto the floorboards, and felt them give.

It was then that something moist touched the back of his hand.

Spike yelled and spun, swinging one fist hard and fast. Something hurled past him. It was a streak of red motion, hitting the ceiling, the wall, a table-top--then it bounded away across Fred's lab. Spike reeled, the floor rocking under him; he grabbed at the door-frame for support, and the door-frame came away from the wall and fell at him. He bolted forward.

Behind him, the floor caved in.

When the dust settled, Spike was halfway across the room, crouched on a naked beam, wild-eyed. The pole was swaying gently. Spike was utterly still. If he moved--if he so much as breathed--he could feel the beam start to sink beneath his weight.

The Sanguine Staggard demon--the thing that had crept up on him and nosed him from behind--crouched in front of him. About four inches from his face, to be exact. At rest on the narrow beam, a beachball poised on a tree-limb. Showing its teeth in a Cheshire Cat grin.

Beyond it was the Mirror of Mihr. By some trick of fate, the mirror stood on the only remaining intact section of floor in the entire lab. Spike focused suddenly and sharply on it: the tall sheet of dazzling light, looming in the middle distance, promising safety. Twelve feet beyond the crouching Staggard. And--what was that? Something was moving in the mirror; Spike frowned, leaned a little sideways, craned. Creaaak went the beam. What . . . ? He couldn't look away.

The mirror's surface rippled, cleared. It became a perfect window.

On the other side of the glass were images of Buffy and Angel. Spike hissed in a breath, and the beam swayed under him. Creak. He could see them clearly. Buffy was smiling up at Angel, rubbing a towel over her hair; Angel, stooping over her, was putting his long coat around her shoulders. He lingered over the gesture, looking into her upturned face. There was something uncertain, girlishly endearing, in the way she cast her gaze down and blushed. Finally he folded his arms around her, and Buffy sighed and leaned into his embrace.

Had he but known, Angel was saying, "But why leave Giles and the others?" and Buffy, troubled, was replying, "I--I don't really know, but something made me--all I knew was that I had to come here. To come to you." But Spike didn't know. Gaze riveted on the mirror, fangs bared in a jealous snarl, he inched forward fractionally on the beam. He half-rose, perfectly balanced. Another inch forward, the beam swaying lightly under him, still seeing nothing but the mirror--

The Staggard bounced excitedly, and Spike almost fell through the floor. He ended up on all fours, clinging. Once again, nose to nose with the watching Staggard. "You stupid bint!" he yelled. "Could have killed me! Do you mind?!?"

It put out a long pink tongue and licked his face.

"Oh you sad, sorry, rotten excuse for a demon," he whispered, "you leaking, pus-filled, scummy medicine ball, you bleeding reject from an abortion clinic picket poster, you nasty little pile of wombat's do's--"

In the mirror, Buffy laid one hand hesitantly on Angel's chest, bit her lip, looked away, and blushed.

The Staggard made a dart forward, and caught the lapel of Spike's leather jacket between his teeth. And tugged.

"Yow! Get off, you organ donation from Hell!"

Spike twisted, caught himself with a knee hooked over the beam, and hung on. He dug his fingernails into the wooden surface, almost went over again, saved himself. Creakkk. The Staggard, concerned, hauled him up with a jerk that yanked his coat half-off one shoulder. Creaakkk. Crickk! And Spike--the beast holding him suspended with his coat twisted strangling-tight round his throat--looked down, horrified. Craning to see. Freezing in morbid fascination, as he watched the first crack appear in the beam. Right under his left knee.

Meanwhile the Staggard growled a warning, much as a cat reproves its wayward kitten. A powerful heave, and he was back on all fours. "Perishing bleeder! Let go of me!" Creaaakkkk. It nosed him curiously. Out shot its tongue, and left half his face painted with Staggard spit. The beam was now beginning to slant, the crack widening, long splinters lifting and projecting from the wood. "Or at least give me a hammer and a couple of nails!" Another pounce, a wild jolt of the beam--and the Staggard had hold of his coat again, this time by the back of the collar. "You pig on a boil's behind!"

It started backing up, pulling Spike after it.

The surface of the beam was smeared with Staggard ooze, all red and slippery-slick and glistening.

In the mirror, Buffy had laid her head on Angel's chest, and was explaining something, at length, with gestures. Angel was gazing with a noble profile into the middle distance. Then at something she said, he smiled sadly. He lifted a strand of her golden hair, and bent to press his lips to it.

"You great big gob of marmelized poodle! You gutless, nutness--!" Spike yelled. At the mirror.

The Staggard shook him reprovingly.

The slanting beam jounced, groaned through its length--and cracked in two with a noise like an exclamation mark.

It was the final straw. To the right, an enormous MRI suddenly collapsed, the floor caving in under it. It smashed straight down, hit the floor of the storey beneath, went right on through and continued down like a missile. Crash crash crash went its wake. Behind Spike, the laboratory wall ripped free of the ceiling, an immense crack running along it. The ceiling in that corner began to dip dangerously floorward.

Spike felt himself sliding back, back--

One final mad scramble. One final despairing oath: "Leggo, you twat with teeth!" The Staggard leaped away, frightened by the mad glare of Spike's eyes. He made it to solid ground, collapsed panting in front of the Mirror of Mihr. "Safe--at--last--"

One last furious glance at the glass showed him Buffy and Angel, kissing.

Then the ceiling fell down on him.

#

"So," said Angel, straightening; they had just kissed. "About the cookie thing. Think you're, ah, half-baked yet?" Pause. "That didn't come out the way I meant it."

"I dunno," Buffy mumbled, touching her lips. "Half-baked: the word pretty well describes my life right now. And I guess I owe you mucho explanations, huh? About what Wesley said? Me throwing myself destitute at your feet--only it's not really like that--"

"It's alright, Buffy, you don't need to explain--"

"No, no, I have to. Only it's complicated. Why I came here." Buffy hesitated. "Spike," she said at last.

Angel stiffened.

"He's not my boyfriend," Buffy said to the floor. "No more than you are, right? But both of you are in my heart." She sniffled and rubbed her nose with the back of one wrist. "Words from the half-baked," she concluded.

"Well. That's the way the cookie crumbles."

"No!" She grabbed his collar, reeled him in, took a firm hold on his shirt-front. "Don't you back off like that! I mean, when he died, everything changed for me. And I, well, really really really wanted to see you. So I headed here. And now he's back, and--" She paused. "Why do you do that, anyway? Back off, when you should fight? Fight for what you want. Doncha want to fight over me? Cause when it seems like you don't, it makes me feel all--scuzzy."

"I'm not backing off. I--it's complicated."

"Lots of that going around," said Buffy.

"Well, there's something called shanshu--"

"Gesundheit," Buffy said.

"No no no. Shanshu. It's, uh, a prophecy. Wesley translated it. It's about a vampire with a soul, who saves the world, and shanshu is his reward. It means, uh, to die in order to live. That is, the vampire gets to live, in order to eventually die. That is, death is the result of life, and in order to die, you've got to live first, or maybe it would be clearer to say that if you live, of course someday you'll die, which is the promise of shanshu. Its meaning. Death at the end. And, Buffy, that's what I want for us." Angel paused. "I mean, I don't want death for us, it's life I want--I never wanted just to live in your past, to live in your memories-- Look, I want to earn life!" This did not sound quite right to Angel, but he soldiered on valiantly: "Look, it might be easier to put it this way. There used to be this Irish legend about a cauldron into which dead heroes were dipped, and they returned to life. And there's, uh, another legend, about the Holy Grail--"

Buffy gave a slight jerk when he stopped speaking, as might one who has just started from a moment's furtive doze. "You mean, like in Monty Python?"

"Monty Python?"

"Sure. Monty Python and the Holy Grail? The movie. See, there was this knight who said 'Meep', and he sought a shrubbery. And Sir Lancelot chopped him to pieces, till all was left was one leg, but he just kept on fighting, and-- Hey, is that you? Is that what you mean?"

"Lancelot? Well, I always thought of myself as more the King Arthur type--"

"No, the Black Knight! See, he would never give up, even when the good guys chopped everything off, his arms, his legs, everything he had--he never gave up fighting even though he had to hop toward the fray on bloody stumps-- You're like the Black Knight. You'll never give up. And in the end, he earned the Grail."

"Buffy," said Angel, overcome, "that's exactly right."

Buffy's nose wrinkled. "Actually, I haven't seen that movie in years, 'cause Anya made Xander throw his video away, because the rabbit scene gave her screaming nightmares? And I think the Black Knight was really a bad guy, so the good guys just cut off his head and rode away laughing. And these French knights threw cows at King Arthur. And then the whole quest turned out to be a great big fake, and the police arrested Lancelot and took him away."

"I need an aspirin," said Angel.

It was then that the lights went out and the building's alarm system began to bray.

#

In the ruins of Fred's lab, the Mirror of Mihr on its small patch of intact floor was virtually the only thing left; it hung there like treasure in a swallow's cliff-nest. A stray beam of light sought it out, slid slowly across it. In its depths moved images: Buffy and Spike and Angel. The Staggard. The wild vamp test subjects on the rampage. Old Faithful, no longer chained to the wall.

After a while the whole mirror began to flash with light.

#

In the reception area of the executive floor of Wolfram & Hart, the following extraordinary spectacle was seen.

Out of the executive elevator, the wild vampires were spilling. They tumbled out head over heels, so many had been jammed in. They rolled across the floor like tumbleweeds. One somersaulted across the lobby and landed upside-down against a wall, legs spread in splits. While behind him, more and more vampires piled out of the elevator.

Lawyers ran with dreamlike slowness for safety.

Harmony fled squealing, a posse of vampires on her heels. Her brief pink skirt bobbed behind her, her rainbow cardigan fluttered. A swirl of leaves of paper floated in her wake. One of her shoes flew off and fell abandoned, and a vampire--stalking snarl-faced and beastlike through the ultra-civilized decor--pounced on it, passed it under his nose as if to savor some fine perfume, and drooled.

Another vamp took off in a full-body tackle lunge, managed to lay hold of Harmony's skirt-hem before he measured his length on the floor. Off ripped the skirt. Down it flounced and forlornly lay, the world's smallest pinkest matador's cape; Harm ran on, hands clapped to her cheeks. Behind her, her remaining pursuers ran straight onto the scrap of slippery rayon, and went down in a heap--skidding, flailing, arms windmilling. The skirt like a wild banana peel flew as high as the ceiling above. It clung there, hanging from a light fixture, full of static. Harmony swerved through an office door, and was gone.

There were vampires flinging the furniture aside, whacking each other with chairs and falling full-length, stiff as boards on the floor.

Vampires running every which way, colliding head-first with each other and dropping as if pole-axed.

Vampires ramming into walls.

Vampires leaping with gusto at the lawyers, till their big leader cuffed them away, shaking an admonitory finger under their noses; for it was not fair play to eat their fellow employees. And besides, they were there for a different game.

"We want the girl." They growled it in chorus, bayed it like questing beasts. "Where's that blonde cutie?" They threw out their chests, threw back their heads, howled it at some invisible moon: "We want the girl! Give us the girl! Give us the girl, 'cause we won't go away till we get her!!"

Elsewhere, Spike in a long stretch of hallway was holding his own against at least twenty vampires. The hallway was entirely walled down one side with ceiling-high necro-tinted windows. Spike leaped at a reception table, swung it overhead in a splatter of magazines and expensive flower arrangements--and knocked a section of windows crashing out. His opponents scattered away from the unfiltered light. One of them grabbed for a chair, tried to hurl it at the windows opposite Spike. But what he came up with was an overstuffed upholstery cushion, which promptly rebounded and bounced off his head.

The next throw, though, scored with a whole chair straight through a stretch of window-glass.

Spike simply stepped aside. Another vamp, grinning, hurled a matching chair; and another, and another. When almost half of the windows had been shattered and glass lay in glittering shards on the luxury carpet, Spike began to leap and dance in and out of bars of sunlight, while the vamps threw things and tried to pot him.

They stood in a row, roaring with laughter, and shied vases and pillows and telephones. It was like a shooting gallery at a circus. Spike whirled out of the path of a computer-keyboard, then caught a table-leg as it flew past. He brandished it, threateningly. The wild vamps guffawed and kept up the hail of debris; they had driven him halfway down the length of the hall, and now there was nowhere for him to go except into the sun.

He fired his table-leg at them. It ricocheted off the ceiling, and they laughed harder. But when it scored a hit on the windows directly behind them, down came the glass and they scattered, screaming, in trails of smoke.

Spike dusted off his hands and sauntered away, whistling.

Meanwhile, Angel and Buffy were in the throes of their own wild chase. From office to hall to stair they dashed, with vampires baying behind them. Running into a dead-end office, they exchanged glances and then took up positions, one on either side of the door. Angel smashed a chair, tossing Buffy one arm and keeping the other for himself. "Don't stake them, they're employees!" he ordered. And as a cascade of vampires burst in through the door, he and Buffy both brained the hindermost with their improvised clubs. And raced out.

The other vamps piled into reverse, sorted themselves out, and ran after, yipping.

Buffy and Angel instantly dove back through the same doorway into the same office where one lonely vampire was just struggling to his feet, mumbling, "Whassup?" Without a second's pause, Buffy whomped him on the noggin, laying him flat. Angel grabbed his ankles. Buffy grabbed his arms. They hoisted him up, leaned back, braced themselves--and all the other vampires burst through the doorway again, hit this improvised clothesline, and went flying.

As they all hit the floor, Angel and Buffy made their escape.

About two minutes later, Spike skidded into the room, saying, "Lost 'em!" He piled to a stop as he spotted the vampires. They saw him. Both parties froze. Spike about-faced, and ran like hell.

The vamps rose, growling, and followed.

As they did, Spike's voice was heard off-scene, saying, "Sic 'em, love!"

Then the Staggard, six-inch fangs bared, came flying through the doorway and hit them.

#

In the building lobby, Fred and Gunn and Wesley were supervising an orderly evacuation. As the last group of employees filed into the revolving doors of the building entrance, wild vampires burst out of every elevator and doorway, streamed across the lobby, and attacked.

Gunn and Wesley were caught in the open, near the information desk; they immediately dived behind it and hit the floor. As for Fred, she ran into the revolving door. The door revolved, with her pushing it while looking nervously back over her shoulder. She was just fast enough to get out of their way; but in a trice, the section of door behind her filled to the brim with jostling, pushing, shoving, slavering vampires.

They gave the revolving door a powerful shove, and around it spun. Fred had been on the verge of slipping out of her section, reaching the sunlight and the safety of the outer world--but she was caught by surprise and sent staggering, trapped. "Eeep!" she said. One second more, and she would be out in the lobby again--

Then another gang of vampires piled into the section of revolving door directly in front of hers.

They shoved.

The first gang shoved back.

They were poised like a snapshot, perfectly balanced: vamps to the left of Fred, vamps to the right, and her caught in her glass-walled trap in the middle. Both gangs pushed mightily, trying to revolve the door in different directions. Neither one succeeded.

A shout rose: "Push the other damn way, willya!"

In unison, both gangs of vamps reversed and threw themselves against the opposite sides of their glass cages--again ending up at loggerheads, perfectly counter-balanced. "No! No! The other way, you lunkheads!"

Again, with exactly the same results. The first gang of vamps was stranded half in unfiltered sunlight, slapping at their smouldering clothing, and cursing. "I'm in deep trouble, aren't I?" Fred said to nobody in particular.

Then, "Aw, hell," said one vampire, put his head down, and rammed the glass partition nearest him.

The resulting impact shattered every pane in the revolving door and left a dead-white Fred surrounded by hungry vampires. All of them, unfortunately, now silhouetted in a blaze of golden sunlight. With Fred on the inside.

She went under in the ensuing stampede for shadier territory, and Wes and Gunn, drawing their weapons, leaped over the top of the information desk and to her rescue. "Poor Fred," Wesley choked out. "Molested by those--" Grimly.

The vampires had vanished as quickly as they had first appeared. Fred was sitting in a daze on the floor, unbitten, uninjured. She looked at Gunn and Wesley with huge shocked eyes and said, "They all--kissed me!"

"Not just like your average vampire," Gunn remarked, helping her to her feet.

"And I think I've been groped," added Fred. She picked up the hem of her long cotton skirt, bent over and peered under it, then straightened in a hurry. "And they stole my--never mind!" she said.

"Not like regular vamps at all," Gunn repeated.

Wesley, who had been staring at nothing in particular for several seconds, snapped out of it and said, "We have to get to Angel."

#

Angel himself had just run into Spike. He did this literally: both men dashed round the same corner in opposite directions, slammed into each other, and fell down, heads ringing. "Hey! Gerroff, you great big dick!" "Will you look where you're going for once in your life--" While Buffy stood over them and rolled her eyes.

"We've been searching for you," Angel told Spike, after they had both gotten up and were dusting themselves off. "Why are you looking behind you like that? Are more of those vamps--"

"Think I lost Gertie," said Spike. They raised their eyebrows at him, and he shrugged. "Uh, never mind."

"Have you noticed something odd about these vampires?" Angel asked. "That they're not--"

"--so much interested in the biting as in the Buffying? Yeah, noticed that." Spike said to Buffy, "Single-minded puppies they all are. An' you're their bitch in heat."

"I beg your pardon," said Buffy icily.

"Meant it in the nicest way, love. Seems they're all under your spell."

"Some sort of influence is working on them," Angel agreed. "Come on. I want to find Wes."

"Let's go," said Buffy. She started impatiently for the neatest door, but before she could get to it, Spike was already there and had opened it for her. Buffy halted, eyeing him. But there was the hint of a smile on her face, especially when Angel stalked up and stood to bow her through, like a gentleman. She stepped through the door, and her two suitors (watching each other like hawks) moved to follow in her wake.

They collided. For an instant, they shoved.

Angel sighed. "Go on, Will," he said, gesturing, and Spike lifted his chin and preceded him.

At the next door, Angel waved Spike on and let him do what he wanted, which was of course to hold the door for Buffy, usher her through. Then Angel (shaking his head) walked through after her, bowed on by Spike, who blew him a kiss and then had to scurry to catch up. But he had foiled himself, because Angel was already walking beside Buffy, offering her his arm. Spike scuffed along in his grandsire's and his Slayer's wake, kicking at the floor and pretending to whistle. But when Angel happened to glance back at him and smile, Spike seethed.

Another smile. "Gonna get you," Spike promised, inaudibly, to the floor.

"There's the elevator," Angel told Buffy. "Allow me?" He reached for the button--beating Spike to it by a split second. So Spike went ahead and, in a lightning continuation of the same motion, brought his stiffened fingers up and boinged Angel in the eyes.

Angel merely blinked hard, his eyes watering; Buffy hadn't seen, she was concentrating on the elevator door, mentally tallying her weapons. Spike beamed at Angel. Satisfied that Angel's dignity prevented any retaliation, he turned half away, teetering on his heels and grinning. It was then that Angel swatted him. Hard.

Buffy glanced over in time to catch one of her vampire lovers with both hands clapped to his rump, and the other one nonchalantly buffing his fingernails.

"Oh, for God's sake," she said. "Anything could come through that door, you know?"

"Yes, of course, Buffy."

"Yeah, yeah, okay, love."

She crossed her arms, tapped her toe, returned her attention to the elevator. It had almost reached their floor--

Spike feinted toward Angel, who growled sotto voce and slapped his hand down. At this point, Buffy whipped around and slammed them both with elbows to the ribs. Spike whoofed and doubled over; so did Angel. "No more monkey business!" she ordered.

The elevator dinged. Its door swept open, catching them framed--two breathless vampires and a fulminating Slayer.

The Staggard beast erupted out of the elevator and hurled itself at Buffy's throat.

The next few moments were tumultuous. When events had sorted themselves out again, Angel was holding Buffy back by main force, and Spike was restraining the Staggard. "Gonna pound that thing into the ground," Buffy yelled, while Spike shouted, "Down, down, Gertie!" Angel was merely saying, "What the hell--?" in confusion. As for the Staggard, it snapped its teeth and meepled.

It seemed hellbent on protecting Spike. Not till he had patted and soothed it back to equanimity, saying several times, "Calm down Gertie, there's a good girl," did it subside, literally deflating (for it had puffed itself three sizes larger in its fury) and rubbing up affectionately against his thighs. And grinning. A Cheshire cat combined with a beachball.

"That's a very strange demon," said Angel. "Is it . . . ?"

"Dunno, think it fancies itself my pet or something. Aggressive little thing, innit?"

"Little?" said Buffy. "Look at those fangs!"

"I'll say." Angel extended a hand, tentatively. The Staggard bristled and hissed. "And in love with you, I think. Buffy, look. Spike's got a new flame."

"No I don't," Spike said quickly.

"Don't you? Because it--I mean, she--certainly seems attached." Again, Angel extended his hand, and yanked it back when the Staggard yipped and bounced. "And it makes noises rather like Drusilla, too. You always claimed to adore the animal in her, Spike. Didn't you once tell me--"

"Oi! No telling Dru stories out of church!"

"Both of you, quit it," Buffy commanded. "Spike, put your new girlfriend on guard. Here comes the elevator again."

All three of them--and the Staggard--tensed, crouched, oriented themselves toward the elevator. A moment passed, on tenterhooks. Then-- Ding! The door whisked open. Spike yelled, "Sic 'em, girl!" as Angel surged forward, and Buffy lunged with stake at ready--

Wesley, Fred and Gunn all put their hands up. "Uh--we surrender?" Fred ventured.

#

"These vampires are obviously under a mystical influence," said Wesley.

"I blame the mirror," Angel said.

"But not Knox!" Fred broke in anxiously.

There was a long pause.

"I suppose not," Wesley agreed, at last. "I have never suspected Knox of that kind of . . . hijinks. Angel?"

"Oh, I never thought Knox had the wits for hijinks."

"Hey!"

"Sorry, Fred. But given some of the dumb stunts he's pulled on his expense chits--"

"I'm almost convinced," said Wesley, overriding Angel, "that, yes, the Mirror of Mihr is our culprit. Perhaps its occult programming is the real root of our problems. Magic mirrors can be capricious. Why, I remember once having to deal with a rogue Chimerical Witchball. Rather amusingly, it had the property of reflecting not only images inverted, but speech backwards. As you can imagine, we ran into quite a bit of trouble uttering the necessary disarmament cantrips! Why, Buffy, I recall that your own Giles sported a newt's tail for three days, and--"

"Wesley," Angel interrupted. "Getting back to the matter at hand?"

"Oh! Excuse me, Angel. Well, yesterday, out of sheer curiosity, I looked out a few references to mirrors of Mihr. They aren't listed in Wallis Budge's Hidden Chapter of the Rosy Dawn, which is reassuring, but the 1834 edition of the Arkham Arcanum has some alarming things to say about the angel Mihr. Now, Mihr is classically the angel of friendship and love, but if improperly evoked, mirrors consecrated to his name have been known to go . . ."

"Wacky?" said Buffy.

"Haywire?" Angel suggested.

"Love-happy?" Spike said. "Monkey-business? Screwball? Completely and totally Archie Bonkers?"

"In a word, yes," said Wesley. "They achieve their ends by casting shadows--or perhaps reflections--which fall outside the mirror's frame, but exactly how that works was not made clear in the text."

"So how do you deactivate them?"

"Well, to start, we need the mirror's remote and instruction book. And the mirror too, of course."

"Forget that," said Spike. "The mirror's in the ruins of Fred's lab. Impossible to get at, now. Gertie 'n me, we both saw it." He patted the attentive Staggard, which licked his hand. Spike lifted his hand and looked at it, horrified. Then he wiped his fingers off surreptitiously on the tail of Angel's coat.

"I'll go take a look of my own at the mirror," said Angel. "Buffy? Would you mind getting the remote and the instruction book? They're still in my living room somewhere. Take Spike," he added heroically. "Those vampires might still be hunting for you."

#

Buffy and Spike made their way up to Angel's penthouse unmolested, and mostly in silence. Buffy scarcely said a word. Spike, equally quiet, kept a careful watch on her out of the corner of his eye. They met no one. The building might as well have been deserted. The Staggard lurked in the background, keeping well away from Buffy--it seemed to fight shy of her, probably for good reason. Spike caught sight of it once or twice, appearing round distant corners and promptly vanishing again. That was all.

It was not until they had successfully collected the remote and the manual and were on their way back that the argument began.

"What are you doing here?" Buffy burst out.

"What? Wild vamps about, remember, love? You need a chaperone in case they overpower you by numbers, knock you down and have their wicked way with you."

"You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

"What? Course I wouldn't."

"Cause they're just like you anyway, those vamps. Admit it. Running around, wrecking things, chasing skirts? And hot on my tail. That's you to a T. All the time, pretending you're the big bad--but you're not, and they're not either. Just . . . sheep! Dressed up as wolves."

"More like bloody rams on Viagra, pet."

"It hurts that I can get to the heart of it, huh?" Buffy jabbed Spike with a finger. "They're jokes. And so are you."

He rounded on her, blinking; his eyes were suddenly overbright. "What? I'm no--"

"Joke? So what are you doing here? When if you loved me, if you had really loved me, you would have gotten yourself to Europe no matter what and told me you were alive. Stead of leaving me crying, Spike, crying every night--I even got this picture of you from Andrew, you swaggering in the basement, pretending to be tough--God, I can't believe that I wept on that picture." She swung away from him, crossing her arms. "While all the time you were here, and all the phones in L. A. were out of commission for, what, four months?"

"Stop it! There were reasons, Buffy. Buffy?""

"I like Old Faithful better," Buffy said, addressing a point in midair, "at least with Old Faithful, I knew what was happening."

#

Angel, an ingenious and methodical man, didn't waste his time with playing trapeze-artist in the ruins. Instead, he got a rope and rappeled in from several floors above Fred's lab. And it turned out to be ridiculously easy; he could have done it without the rope. That part of the Wolfram & Hart building had been reduced almost to the rebar and steel beams of its framework. Angel had to avoid some sections near the elevator shafts, where the cantilevering from which the structure depended shone eerie blue with occult reinforcements. These obstacles avoided, he was soon hanging from his rope directly above the Mirror of Mihr.

It looked so harmless, perched on its small section of floor. Angel considered the surroundings, got one foot against a beam and gave a gentle shove, which swung him far enough sideways to drop the last few feet and land. Right in front of the mirror. Home plate. "What a fiasco of a gift you were," he told it. "What's that flashing . . . ? Yes, I think Wesley was right: you're the cause of all this. Was Buffy monkeying with your controls last night? Making you go crazy." It made sense to him. A strange aroma hung in the air, so that he pinched his nose and winced; sometimes, being a vampire stank. "What's that? Oh." It was the Freudebeest, freed from its chains. Old Faithful.

Like a great glistening organic multi-hued blob, redolent of symbolism--or maybe just a giant mutant snail--it clung to a half-intact wall, a trail of ooze dripping from it and neatly peeling the paint away in blisters. Slowly yet steadily, it was hitching itself along the wall. There was a weird fascination to its movement. It seemed to advance in quivers and shakes . . . a jello-shimmy action, suggestive of all sorts of unsavoriness . . . but even as Angel watched, it crawled almost a yard's distance. Moving toward the mirror.

"Let's get you out of here," said Angel, to the mirror. He had a second rope, slung in a neat coil over one shoulder. Unslinging it, he laid a hand on the mirror's frame, and--

Looked into the glass.

He saw Buffy and Spike.

They were arguing. This was obvious to Angel, who knew them both about as well as he knew anyone on earth. Buffy had crossed her arms and assumed that strange, stony, mask-like expression that made her resemble nothing so much as a modern-day Greek gorgon. Spike, stalking along next to her, appeared ready to explode in fireworks like Guy Fawkes Day. The Staggard was nowhere in evidence. Buffy and Spike did have what they had been sent to get: the remote was clutched in Buffy's fist, and the instruction manual, rolled-up, stuck out of the back pocket of Spike's black leather coat. They did not have unanimity, mutual admiration or agreement . . . not that Angel could detect.

"No love lost," he said to the mirror. "That's something, anyway."

Even as he watched, Buffy halted in her tracks and began to yell. The Mirror of Mihr had no soundtrack, but Angel still winced. She went on and on, shook her finger under Spike's nose and sounded off at length. Spike, to give him credit, did not do what Angel half-expected him to do, which was to take a swing at her. And then go down at one punch, probably with a black eye--because Spike was no match for Buffy.

"A knock-down drag-out brawl, that's your style," he said to Spike-in-the-mirror. "And she's bigger than you, too--you'd like it better that way. So what's stopping you?"

Something was. Spike seemed to be nobly holding his cool in the face of provocation. The wilder Buffy's ranting, the more he backed down.

"Come on!" said Angel. "What, are you going to let her walk all over you? Who is she, Dru? Not likely. I know what you got from Drusilla, and you're not going to get that from Buffy. Buffy's about . . . love, and--and self-restraint, and honor and sacrifice . . . and doing the right thing, no matter what--" And what the hell did Spike care for any of that?

He never had.

He never would.

Spike just wasn't like that.

But, now, Spike was evidently explaining himself, with considerable self-restraint. His head was hanging, and he was addressing a spot on the floor between his boots. Never even looking up. His body language was subdued, as Angel had seldom seen it. This was, of course, something no girl could take calmly, and Buffy responded by simply turning her back and walking away. She rounded a corner, vanished from sight, and Spike (who had continued explaining himself all the while) looked up and did a double-take. He was alone.

"Abandoned!" said Angel, with satisfaction. "And now you'll kick a hole in the wall."

But he didn't. He sighed. His shoulders sagged. Then, like Buffy, he walked on. The Staggard demon trailed into Angel's field of view, faithfully following Spike--a boy and his dog. Buffy had gone one way, picking her corner at random, and Spike did the same but turned left where she had turned right. That left them walking along the same corridor, but in opposite directions. Their backs were to one another, and neither one had spotted the other. Together, but still alone.

Spike's mouth expressed silent words, not curses but apologies. Angel peered at the mirror, his triumph fading. To tell the truth, he was flabbergasted. This was a Spike he didn't know.

Whereas Buffy, marching along her separate stretch of hall, was making wild frustrated faces--no stony mask for her, now!--and waving her arms in the air. Suddenly changing her mind, she swung around and started back to where she had left Spike. And halted, finding herself looking at his back. She started and then began to walk hurriedly after him. Chasing the boy? But irresolute. Then she faltered, swung back around, and was walking away again.

A split-second later, Spike underwent a change of mind, turned . . . and there she was, almost on his heels, but retreating fast. Spike's jaw dropped. He took three quick steps in pursuit, then slowed. And slowed. And stopped, having plainly lost all heart for the pursuit.

He heaved another sigh, raked distracted fingers through his hair; then about-faced and dug his hands deep in his pockets. His back to Buffy. A statue entitled Just Let The Girl Go. And the Staggard crept close, onto his feet, and huddled consolingly against him.

A mere twenty feet down the empty hall, Buffy too had come to an independent (but almost simultaneous) stop. Now she stood with her back to him, as his was to hers. Her lower lip quivered, till she caught it between her teeth; her beautiful eyes seemed to become impossibly large. And there they loitered, both obviously dejected almost to tears. Separate. Alone. Facing different directions. But perfectly in concert with each other.

In this picture, Angel at last caught a glimpse of how things had been between them: Buffy and Spike as a couple.

The vision faded. He was alone, like them . . . just an unlikely vampire champion, looking at his own reflection in a mirror that flashed mysteriously. Angel lowered his hand. He swallowed and looked down at his feet. Something wet, a drop like a tear, hit the floor by his shoe and glistened there. He stiffened suddenly. More drops pattered down, a swift splatter of them. Oily rainbows chased themselves across their surfaces. As he stepped back, as he looked up in alarm, the reflective surfaces of the droplets filled with images from directly overhead--of something monstrous moving among the beams, coiling tentacles, opening eyes, slime that hung gleaming like Spanish moss. Then Old Faithful dropped on him from the ceiling.

It landed square on Angel and embraced him affectionately. It had changed shapes, lengthening and thickening its already cucumber-like midsection to hideous proportions, and it drooled. In a trice it had draped itself round Angel's shoulder and chest like a noose. Then it began to tighten around him. Angel let out a muffled shout. He wriggled, he writhed, he inserted a hand between his shoulder and Old Faithful's tentacular undersurface and began to pry the beast off him by sheer strength. He felt like a woman peeling herself out of the world's tightest corset.

"Need . . . a crowbar . . . arghh . . . will you get off, you--! Ow! What do you want, damn you!" This last, as Old Faithful shifted its grip in discomfort, ending up wrapped round the opposite shoulder and also around Angel's neck. Not just a noose, but a hangman's noose. Its stench made Angel gag. He stopped breathing and concentrating on working himself free. After hard work, he had managed to get both hands under the beast's coils, and lever it off his neck, over his shoulder, down his body . . . till he ended up with it around his waist, and then it stuck.

Stuck fast, lovingly clinging. The more Angel pried, the tighter it curled. A human being would have suffocated already.

He couldn't get at any of his weapons, and no way--considering the smell--was he going to try to bite himself free.

He pulled his hand loose (it came out from under Old Faithful with a noise like a drain being unplugged), made a fist, and punched the beast hard. "Take that!" Angel wheezed. Old Faithful creaked like a squeezed bagpipe. But the sound it made was, well, more one of gratification than pain. It seemed to take his attack as a come-hither gesture. A horrible suspicion sprang into Angel's mind--he had just enough time to regret ever being born--and then one end of Old Faithful writhed up, groped amorously in midair, found its bearings and came straight at his face.

Slap.

Squelchh.

Juicy wet sounds and muffled swear-words ensued.

Oh, the indignity!

#

Buffy loitered in the lonely and maze-like depths of the Wolfram & Hart building; to tell the truth, she was lost. Why had she sent Spike away? She certainly repented now. He was probably being trounced by hordes of vamps right now . . . probably fighting them off tooth and nail, no quarter asked or given, his back against the wall, a snarl of defiance on his mouth, no doubt outnumbered ten to one . . . and she wasn't there to share the fun with him! Oh, life was sometimes just a suck.

She hurried along one long hall after another, high heels echoing. Maybe she'd run into Angel. Maybe Angel would be in a fight.

Every so often, she checked to make sure that the mirror's remote was still tucked into the back of her skirt's waistband.

Spike! He was such a pain. Never considering her feelings. No manners, no culture, no couth . . . you'd think that living for years with the Scoobies would have taught him how to behave, but no. Nooo nellie. Once a pig, always a pig. And him? He was an oinkmeister. She liked Angel better. Angel didn't make demands. At least with Angel, she knew where she was.

But every time she managed to work herself into a good satisfying rant, the images came back: Spike's face when she yelled at him, coming apart with unhappiness; the unsteady way he spoke back, in pain but insistent, never giving in to her . . . the softness of his mouth, super-kissable. How his abs rippled when he heaved a sigh. The way he moved, that prowling walk, hips swinging while he paced--like a caged panther, only with no cage, and of course no fur, furry Spike would be gross--wonder what it would be like with a werewolf? Hm. And if a vamp bit a werewolf, would it become a vamp-wolf? Like in that movie. She'd have to ask. A Slayer must know.

Spike here all these months, and never a clue to her. And why? Was it because . . . oh no, was it because of Harmony?

Spike with Harmony. Spike in bed with Harmony! Oh, he was so gonna die.

Spike in the Hellmouth, burning up for her.

Her heart wept.

Buffy gulped. Oh, Spike! She was such a worm. He'd got a soul, suffered and died--all for her--and this was the reward she had to give? Bitching on and on, till she drove him away. She'd be lucky if he ever spoke to her again. Well, she knew what she had to do (Buffy thought, summoning up every ounce of maturity and womanly strength) starting from this hour forward, Spike would be seeing a different Buffy. A Buffy who went about things the right way. A Buffy who was sweet, and gentle, and compassionate, and giving.

A Buffy who, for starters, was going to march up to that bitch Harm and say, "Harmony, I know Spike isn't my slave, and once he makes his choice, no force on earth can make him change his mind. So I'm warning you. Hurt him, and I'll shove my fist into your big mouth so hard it bursts right through your undead prune of a heart--"

A Buffy who, at this point, glanced up and found herself surrounded by vampires. The wild vamps had returned.

#

Angel, covered with goo, staggered into the executive floor lobby, slumped briefly against Harmony's desk--and found his cohorts surrounding a wildly gesticulating Spike. They all broke off when he appeared, though. Fred shot to Angel's side. "Oh my goodness! You look terrible."

"It was awful," Angel managed to say, "grabbed me and wouldn't let go, and then we overbalanced and fell about three floors-- The slime was the worst part. I'll be tasting that slime for weeks."

"Old Faithful?" Wesley guessed.

"It got loose?" gasped Fred.

"You got it. And every time I tried to get at the mirror, it jumped me again." Angel squeezed his eyes shut, pinched the bridge of his nose. "God, I feel so violated."

"We have worse news," said Wesley darkly.

"What? Wait. Where's Buffy?"

"I came along just in time to see the tail end of it," said Spike. "It was like watching bloody King Kong getting clobbered by Fay Wray, mate. But they outnumbered her by too many."

The vamps had captured Buffy.





Act Four

Tie Penelope on the Railroad Track





Spike was beside himself.

"Time's a-wasting--saddle up, people, get the bloody cavalry on the go, eh, let's get outa here, got to save the girl-- What's wrong with all of you? Angel? Tell them! Angel?? Oi, lemme go!"

Angel held him back him with one hand firmly clamped on the collar of Spike's coat, like a lion pinning down its frantic cub. "Quit jittering. We have to plan."

"We have to rescue Buffy!"

"All in good time. Before," Angel said, keeping calm, though at heart he was as frightened as Spike, "Buffy stakes too many of my poor demented employees." He shot a look in Fred's direction. "Not that I ever okayed their hire. But we have an obligation to save them from the consequences of their folly."

"They're like Lilliputians, and she's Gulliver?" said Fred.

"Or the seven dwarves, but she's no Snow White," Angel said. "Especially since they may be under occult influences. No, our best bet is to rely on Wesley." Wesley, frowning in dire concentration over the mirror's manual, didn't even look up. Nevertheless, Angel went on, "Let him do his job, find out exactly what we're up against. Then, once we know, we can come up with a plan. But we have to trust him to translate the instructions--"

"Well how friggin' hard can it be to read the damn thing!!"

At this point, Wesley came to life, hurled the manual to the floor and announced, "This is complete gibberish!"

"Pretty hard, evidently," Spike concluded.

Wesley, with a look of disgust, picked the manual off the floor and began to read aloud. "Here. The instructions, and I use the term loosely, state Those who temere dirumpere, blindly sever friendships, can non temere stringere, not easily join together or be united, coniumctim, in common. Those left lucifugus, shunning the light of love, and then it says, in order to restore complexus, which is to say an embrace or grasp, either in love or in combat, uh, the mirror will reflect and in its reflection, teach valuable lesson. Then Let one who pines, press button quickly several times while contemplating errors in light of affectionate reflection, ah, and retire while Mihr casts the image-- Then, You who seek to . . . reddere ius . . . no, this has to be properly se reddere, to translate, translate these instructions ... the purpose of mirror is to judiciously provoke via cogitatio, I can only suppose that when they wrote 'thought' they meant 'reflection' and then 'consulto', deliberately--hence, the purpose of the mirror is to judiciously provoke via deliberate reflection--but they don't seem to know the difference between specularis and speculum and specularia!" Here Wesley almost gave up and hurled the book floorward again. "They use the words interchangeably. This is the most inept-- Angel, I'm sorry, but this gets us nowhere. I can only suppose that I'm reading some Oriental language badly translated into Latin and garbled in the process. Probably an early Japanese dialect, but--"

Here, Angel interrupted. "The Mirror of Mihr was made in Japan?"

"Well, yes. Probably."

"Why am I not surprised?"

"I did puzzle out a few passages," said Wesley. "Here, under the heading Bucca, bucca, quot sunt hic? This section pertains to the mirror's owner, and wayward or tricksy lovers. He or she who is vexed by straying affections must activate the mirror--by clicking the remote several times, as stated elsewhere--and then the mirror casts reflections. Which by their action provoke, ah, a change in mind among all principals." Everyone looked blankly at him, and Spike muttered something about "Wood, again?" which no one understood. Wesley sighed, went on, "Someone clicked the remote while thinking about love. That triggered the mirror. The mirror cast reflections of the lovers involved. Mayhem, mayhem, mayhem. Does that sound close to our predicament?"

"Well, I didn't do it," said Angel. "I mean, I did look at the remote, but I didn't use it. Spike? You were there."

"Never touched the thing."

"Do you suppose Buffy--?"

"Hello big surfer, your brain-wave beckons," Spike said. "Leave the girl alone with a mirror and a gadget that turns it on, and what do you think she'll do? Course it was her. But how do we turn the bloody thing back off?"

Wesley consulted the book. "Hm, Mihr the angel of love and friendship casts the light of turmoil upon those who offend, let them pursue their vain reflections till satisfaction obtained, to end action of mirror do the same, no money back, tampering with frame of Mirror of Mihr shall negate all warrantees. Fiat fiat fiat. The end." He looked up. "Deal with the reflections, and you solve the problem."

"So those vampires are reflections," Angel said. "Vainglorious, imbecilic, scatter-brained, sex-obsessed reflections. Of someone." An expression of vast distaste crossed his face. "And I think I know who."

"Yes, they do seem preoccupied with chasing Buffy," said Wesley.

"Hey, why is everybody looking at me?"

"But if the vamps are Spike's reflections, then what about Buffy's . . . ?" Angel trailed off. His gaze dropped. From Spike, even now looking indignantly back at him, to a point somewhat below Spike's waist. And the Staggard beast grinned and drooled.

#

But Angel, too, had a reflection.

His doppelganger guarded the magic mirror, in the ruined heart of the skyscraper, circling it endlessly . . . dripping ichor with a mad rainbow gleam, stalk-like eyes quivering as it watched for challengers . . . sliding along beams, upside-down, like some enormous and particularly repulsive snail. A gleam of daylight had penetrated its prison, and it had broken its chains and gone searching, searching for something it could never comprehend (being completely unequipped with brain cells) only yearn after, with a yearning that would not die. (Because glands it had, plenty and to spare.) An occult attraction had slowly drawn it to the Mirror of Mihr. Then it had looked into the glass, and fallen in love. With its own image, which it would guard against all comers till hell froze over. It was the Freudebeest.

Old Faithful.

#

And Buffy?

The vamps had dragged her home to their lair.

They had taken her back to the lab from which they (and Old Faithful) had escaped. There, after a great deal of argument and confusion--and one Buffy-escape attempt, which had almost succeeded--they had locked her away in their old cage, behind bars. Buffy had flung herself at the bars, shaken and rattled them, and shouted wild abuse. Her captors had gathered round to watch in awe, lustful admiration glazing their eyeballs, and say, "She the woman!" and, "This girl rocks," and, "Yo' one feisty mama, Slayer!"

"Who goes first?" they asked one another. Then they had fallen to fighting over the privilege. A few of them knocked themselves unconscious on each others' fists, and one combatant managed to fall on a stake . . . but when the dust cleared, it turned out that nobody was actually willing to enter Buffy's cage. Maybe it was something about her hungry smile that discouraged them. So they sat down outside and licked their wounds, and Buffy, inside, sat down too. And played solitaire with a pack of cards she found.

"No need to go at her one on one," one of the vamps eventually proposed, leering. "Seeing as we outnumber her and all."

"Share and share alike?"

Buffy in the cage stiffened over her game of cards. The only weapon they had left her was the mirror's remote. Her posture became less nonchalant, and more like a huntress' crouch. Meanwhile, the vampires were whipping themselves into a froth.

"Yeah! Let's do it! Right now!"

"We can take her! What say we go in there eight at a time--errr, nine maybe--"

"Hold on, that's not anatomically possible, izzat?"

"You idiot! Gonna need at least four to hold her down."

"Uhh, doesn't that still leave-- Hey, ow! Whydja do that? That hurt!"

"What say you stay out there and I stay in here. That way nobody gets hurt," Buffy called through the bars. She was sitting on a crate, which she patted meaningfully. "Cause I can smash this into stakes way faster than you can get that door unlocked, I bet."

But the vamps merely jeered at her threat. "Take another look, cutie. Solid plastic. Wolfram & Hart scientists took away our real crates, didn't leave us as much as a toothpick. Said we'd only stake each other when we got bored, the killjoys--spoiled all our fun."

"The nerve of those guys," said Buffy hollowly.

She looked around with increasing worry. Her captors were all but beating their chests now, making small abortive rushes at the cage door. The noise increased; as they got bolder, they got louder too. "Yeah yeah yeah! Let's do it! Everybody rush her at once!--no, you first, you're bigger 'n me, I'll be right behind you--"

"Come and get it then," whispered Buffy.

The card she was holding crumpled in her whitening fist. And one of the vamps hit the cage-door release. As the door swung open, fifty-odd vampires rushed in. The noise level crescendoed; Buffy leaped to her feet and charged--and fifty vampires, fighting and milling to get at her, reversed direction and all rushed out again.

When the dust cleared, forty-odd vamps were on the outside, slapping each others' backs and congratulating one another on their escape from the monster's den. The door was, again, securely locked. Nine or ten trapped vamps huddled in a terrified little knot in the furthermost corner of Buffy's cage. As for Buffy, she was stalking back and forth in the middle distance, teeth bared, fire in her eye.

The big bad Slayer.

#

"C'mon, what's the delay, let's go already! Rescue in the offing, you twit."

"Quit jittering, junior."

"I am not--"

"Shut up and inhale," Angel ordered. "We have to get the scent."

Angel and Spike stood in the empty corridor, in the empty building, alone. By now, the Wolfram & Hart skyscraper had been completely evacuated, save for Wesley and the others waiting on the executive floor. Everyone else had run for it. As for the building itself, it was much the worse for wear. Wherever the vamps had passed, they had gone like a whirlwind of destruction, Tasmanian devils on the loose. Everything was wrecked.

This was the hall where Buffy had met her abductors. Spike tilted his head and sniffed the air; Angel merely took a deep breath. Their gazes met. They nodded, and set out, walking swiftly, side by side. Spike's coat swirled with his strides; he was unarmed, an odd sight next to an icily furious Angel with a sword. The Staggard rolled blithely at Spike's heels.

"Doesn't smell like they fazed her much, anyway," Spike ventured eventually. "Just got her hopping mad."

"I'd expect that. Buffy's never been one to suffer unwelcome advances. I remember her in high school." They came to a corner. "This way?"

"Yeah. That way."

"Yes. She's had to fight off her share of boys she didn't want. What's that expression on your face?"

"Nothing."

Spike dropped back a bit, looked down and found the Staggard right there, expectant. He sighed, reached out. It bounced upward, hit the palm of his hand like a pat from a basketball--if there were basketballs that resembled giant animated aortas, that is. Bounce and pat, bounce and pat, and then it took his hand gently between its jaws and held it, quivering with ridiculous emotion.

A hideously dangerous act, considering those teeth. Just because the creature seemed to love him in its dumb way, didn't mean it couldn't bite down anytime, eat his whole hand like crunching a crisp. Might as well stick his head into the lion's mouth.

He'd do that for Buffy anytime.

"Are you coming?" asked Angel, curtly, and Spike came to himself with a start and hurried to catch up.

They came to another cross-corridor, paused to be sure of the scent--though the aroma of a pack of lustful vampires was (to put it politely) hard to miss, it was possible that they'd be smart enough to try a split and diversion. With Buffy hustled off one way, while most of the vampires laid a false trail elsewhere. But yes, Buffy's scent was still with the pack. Spike and Angel, without a word needed, swung left and continued to track her. Halfway down the hall, and there was a stairwell. Its door hung off its hinges, a splintered mess, and there were other signs of a tussle. "She almost got away here," Angel observed. "Up or down?"

"Up. Heading back to the lab, maybe."

"Up it is."

Walking in step, they headed up the stairs. The Staggard bounded after.

"I expected her to freak," said Spike. "Expected dust all over the fixtures."

"Why's that?"

"Nothin'."

They went up another flight.

"I saw you two," Angel said abruptly. "In the mirror. Together. Part of the spell, I suppose--or maybe just an illusion--but you were arguing--"

Spike halted. "Saw you two, too. Chatting together, and then you kissed. She had her hair all wrapped up in a towel. And you took your coat off, put it around her shoulders. Cosy."

"Then . . . it was real. What I saw. You and Buffy."

"Not exactly Romeo and Juliet," Spike muttered, "more like you-are-the-weakest-link time. She was in a powerful bad mood, chewed me out good and proper. Know you like the sound of that. Well, enjoy it. She seemed a lot less Bride of Frankenstein when she was with you."

Angel cleared his throat. "If you ever hurt her," he said, "better run, because once I catch up to you, there won't be enough ash left to scrape into a dustpan."

Wild surprise in Spike's eyes. The two men stared at each other for a long moment. Then Spike said, "I already hurt her. That's why I expect her to freak today. There's something I got to tell you."

#

Wesley was seated at Harmony's desk, the mirror's manual spread open in front of him, and his hand flattening the pages. He read with his head bent, lips sometimes moving in a curse. He was still trying to puzzle out a more accurate translation. Fred and Gunn leaned on the counter beside him; Gunn was fingering an axe, Fred held a crossbow. Fred lifted her free hand, fisted. She shook it in the air ritually. "Shake, shake . . . stone!"

"Scissors," said Gunn. "Damn. Lost again. Best two out of three?"

"Sure. Shake, shake . . . paper!"

"Ahhh, I'm just chasing my tail here. Wes?"

Wesley had suddenly stiffened, intent on the manual. "'Let them pursue their vain reflections till satisfaction obtained,'" he muttered. "Is it 'the fate of the looker shall be seen in the reflection', or, 'what becomes of his reflection, shall befall he who looks'? My goodness. If it's the latter . . ." He jumped to his feet. "I seem to have made an error in translation. We've got to get to Angel at once."

#

In the wreck of the laboratory, a fan of sunlight spread. It shone full into the mirror, and the mirror scattered it in every direction in a rain of prisms. A dreadful transformation was coming over Old Faithful. Sunshine painted it (for the first time in years or perhaps even decades) and the Freudebeest felt the mirror's subtle alchemy. It looked upon its own reflection, and began to change shape.

It throbbed. Inflated. And pulsed. A couple of the enchanted vampires from the adjacent lab came to gawk, drawn by the odd noises emanating from next-door. Their jaws dropped, and then they were riveted with sympathetic interest (as a tide of obscene shimmies swept along the Freudebeest's already not inconsiderable length) and then expressions of alarm came onto their faces. Then they ran for their lives--but it was already too late.

Old Faithful exploded. Ah, perfect bliss!

#

". . . tell me again," Angel ordered, "what she did to you." A velvet note crept into his voice. "Every detail, Spike. Particularly the painful ones."

He held Spike dangling, pinned against the wall, feet six inches off the floor and both hands prying at Angel's grip round his throat. With his other hand, Angel held off the Staggard. It leaped around him, uttering shrill cries, and then rushed in all distressed and sprang to Spike's rescue, and Angel plucked it out of midair and held it, swinging, at arm's-length. Effortlessly. He wasn't even sweating.

"Threw me into a wall," Spike said indistinctly, "halfway through it more like. Didn't matter." He shut his eyes, hung limp in Angel's grasp. "I deserved it, right? Deserved all of it and more."

"Go on."

"So I crawled home, got plastered. Went to Africa."

"And that was when you . . . ?"

"Got the soul? Yeah."

Angel dropped him. Spike landed in an unjointed heap in the stairwell, a huddle of leather, mussed ivory hair and beautiful bones, defiance and guilt--all swagger gone. Angel reached down, took Spike by the hair and raised his head. Indirect sunshine lit the scene; somewhere above, a wall had been knocked out. "So," he said. "Not so noble, your reasons for going after it."

"Not so noble," said Spike to a point in midair. "But . . . it was the right thing to do." He suffered Angel to lift him, his steps stumbling till he got his feet back under him and managed to find his balance; his head was ringing hollowly, and he thought it might be a concussion. Angel hadn't been gentle. "Deserved it," he repeated, under his breath. "You bloody big sadist." Under his breath.

"Keep going," said Angel, jerking his head up.

"That was it, the end of us. Not the moment she said it was over, but then. Could never be the same between us again. Not anymore, not after what I'd done. Couldn't make it up to her, could only make sure it never happened again."

Angel regarded him. Then he stepped back, swung the Staggard around. And dropped it. It landed approximately halfway between Spike and Angel, bounced once in place, and took off like a rocket. Straight at Spike. It huddled protectively against Spike, and oozed on him.

"Buffy's always been too soft-hearted for her own good," Angel remarked, watching them.

Spike nudged the Staggard. "Dumb thing's getting goo all over my pants. Christ, love's a bitch, innit? And are we done yet? Cause the girl's still waiting."

"In a moment. I always wondered," Angel said, "why you weren't together. She denied you were her boyfriend, but . . . It didn't make sense to me. You getting a soul for love of her, that's completely you. The exact kind of puerile romantic gesture you revel in. But I'd expect it to bind you closer to Buffy, not split you apart. The man who got a soul for her--surely she'd treasure him? Because of me." He went silent, brooding, till he caught Spike making a derisive face. Then he shook himself out of it, and glared. "Now I understand. You shouldn't have told me. So why confess?"

"I don't know! Just because."

"Oh, you can do a little bit better than that . . . ?"

Angel moved again, a flash of menace; his hand closed on Spike's wrist, and he wrenched it sideways--stepping sideways himself--forcing them both closer to the sunlight falling down the stairwell. Undiluted sunlight, that gave clear sight, undimmed vision. To a vampire, lethal. Spike growled and tried to pull them both away from the danger, but Angel was too strong. "Let go of me! Sic him, Gertie! Bite him!"

"I don't think she's quite the obedient pussy you think she is," said Angel. "Well, Spike?"

Another step sideways, taking Spike with him. The sun was warm on their arms now. The leather of Spike's duster began to smoulder.

"Cause you said if I didn't, you'd sodding stake me and scatter my ashes at Disneyland. On the Small World ride! And that's going low even for demons."

"Cut the smokescreen, you know even I wouldn't do that to you." Spike looked past Angel and his eyes suddenly widened, but Angel refused to rise to the bait. "Don't pull that trick! It's centuries old. Talk, or--"

At this point, the stairwell above them exploded.

They were only two landings from the lab with the mirror, the source of the explosion had originated from. Pieces of the building came raining down, and there were falling vampires, and tentacles snaking after. Spike threw himself forward, catching Angel as he did and taking him along. They both landed flat, side by side--and behind them, lethal wooden shards thudded into the wall, the floor, the risers of the stair. The Staggard hurled over Spike, bounded up the stairs and vanished above, squealing like a girl. Spike was up, coat swinging. "Sometimes I do things and I don't know why!" he said, and went after the Staggard in a rush of black leather and pure style. Off to save the girl.

#

Buffy in a cage, in sunlight.

Terrified vampires huddled in the corner behind her, too intimidated even to twitch. Beyond the bars that kept her prisoner, terrified vampires rushed to and fro. Shafts of golden sunshine fell, scattered coins on the floor and walls. The remaining partition wall between this annex and the main laboratory was now entirely gone--smashed down, like much of Angel's building elsewhere, by the action of the Mirror of Mihr. The view toward the mirror itself was a maelstrom of the lashing tentacles, the weaving eyestalks, the serpentine coils that were Old Faithful, transformed. Dozens of tentacles, eyestalks beyond the counting, and a whole lotta coils, slithering, sliding--certainly enough to appal Buffy. All in frenzied motion, lit by the rays of sunlight. And sunlight fell on Buffy's small figure, that would be no more than doll-sized against the Freudebeest. She took hold of two of the bars, braced her feet, and pulled mightily.

With a hideous grating noise, the bars began to bend.

"Geez!" said one of the vamps trapped with her in the cage, "bet the girl's got muscles in places we can't even imag--" and one of the other vamps smacked him.

Buffy's golden head bobbed with the effort. She let out a shout, and there was a ferocious clang. Then she staggered back, one of the bars still gripped in her small fist, like a bent-out-of-shape quarterstaff. She sat down hard on the floor, said, "Whoa!"

Slowly, her cage-mates crept up and surrounded her. But there was no menace in their actions; all they did was help Buffy up, slap her on the back admiringly, pinch her biceps and say, "You're a Terminator, blondie!" and, "Whoo-ee! Warrior princess!" Buffy raised her new quarterstaff, strode out of the small pack of vampires. She eyed the bent and broken bars, turned sideways, and stepped through into freedom.

"Well," she said, to the vamps, "coming?"

They looked at her and past her. Then one of them put up a hand, waved it feebly. "Hasta la vista, baby!" he said, and the whole pack broke and fled back to their safe corner.

Buffy snorted and headed toward the fray.

Out of the brilliant sunshine, a vampire came hurling--long black leather coat pulled over his head to ward off spontaneous combustion, and a makeshift stake in his hand. A red beast bounded at his heels. One of the Fruedebeest's tentacles whipped after them, coiled around Spike's ankle; he started to go down with a shout. The Staggard pounced on the tentacle and snapped its teeth. The severed tentacle went into a convulsion of blind flailing, was jerked back and vanished--and by then Buffy had reached the scene. "Spike! You okay?"

"Come to the rescue," panted Spike. "Single-handed and all. Glad I arrived in time."

"You idiot," said Buffy, and hugged him.

The Staggard, a twitching length of tentacle hanging out of its jaws, looked up at them and gulped. The tentacle vanished, swallowed whole. The Staggard let its tongue loll out. If it had possessed a tail, it would have been wagging it.

"It was the weirdest thing," Buffy said, "there was some kind of eruption, and then that Yellowstone-geyser demon? Turned into a monster! No other way to say it. Then it took after my vamps and started to wallop them."

"Wesley says this whole mess is a spell cast by that mirror. Seems likely that creature's been affected too."

"Hey, watch it!"

They leaped apart. A hapless vampire hurled between them, whammed into one of the few remaining walls, and slid down, stunned. Seconds later, Old Faithful sent a tentacle after, picked up the vamp, smacked him sharply on the floor a couple of times, and hauled him back into the fray.

"So how do we break the spell?" Buffy asked.

"Wes said, deal with the reflections . . . that'll be these vamps and, and Ol' Ugly there. And Gertie, here," Spike added, reluctantly. "Maybe--"

"Well--Ugly seems pretty good at taking out my boyfriends, and my boyfriends could deal with your little pet here anyday, but what could kill that thing--?" Buffy blinked at the Freudebeest. "It's so big," she finished, simply. Perhaps even with a hint of admiration--for a girl couldn't help having eyes.

Another vampire went past--sailing by, upside-down, borne by a tentacle wrapped round his waist. Buffy flinched. "Ouch! Something small and fast maybe," she concluded. "Coming?" She hefted her quarterstaff--

"--maybe we can do best two out of three--?"

"What?"

But then events were taken out of their hands. It happened in a split second: out of the tempest of flailing monster parts, the array of eyestalks abruptly swivelled. They all pointed one direction. Oriented away from the enchanted vampires in their moment of certain defeat. Bolt upright, and quivering. Something new had captured Old Faithful's fancy.

Buffy had just enough time to say, "Oops." Then twenty tentacles shot forth like lightning, grabbed her and yanked her into the embrace of the lustful Freudebeest.

"Let's go, Gertie!" There was no floor left where Buffy had gone. But Spike leaped without a moment's hesitation, and the Staggard hurled itself, teeth flashing, in his wake.

#

Meanwhile, Gunn, Fred and Wesley were trudging upstairs.

Fred held a blinking little gadget, which she said was calibrated to track vampires with souls . . . a tricky piece of magical engineering just perfected. "Blew our quarterly budget again," she added ruefully. "With the price tag on this little McGuffin, Wolfram & Hart could be sending demons to Mars. But at least it lets us keep track of our CEO."

Gunn and Wesley held axes. Gunn collapsed against the stair railing, rubbing his back. "I liked this place better when the elevators were working. How come they couldn't go fight down in the basement like usual? I wanna know."

"Words to live by." Wesley went on, keen-eyed and not even sweating, when both his companions were reeling and winded. "Charles, you've gone soft. Too many power lunches--"

"--not enough power crunches. Don't I know it. I swear, once we're out of this mess, I'll be first-man-in at the weight room five days a week, even if Gnrggashnihorr from the Accounts Arrears department is in there every day, hogging the Nautilis an' looking at me like I'm dinner." Gunn shivered. "Dude's got mighty big teeth, and he doesn't smile when he makes those dark-meat jokes."

"You can take him," said Wes heartlessly. "Soldier on, troops." He started up the stairs again, and Fred and Gunn groaned in unison and followed. Wesley patted the instruction manual, tucked in his pocket. "It's vital that we get to Angel and Spike before disaster ensues."

"Tell us why again," Gunn panted.

"I left them with the impression that in order to stop the mirror, they have to kill the reflections? But the real translation reads, pursue till satisfaction obtained. Angel and Spike have to let their reflections work out things out without interference. If they don't . . . well, consider a psychological metaphor. Those reflections are pure passion. Monsters from the Id. Bottle them up, deny their natural expression, and . . . well, what happens when one bottles up one's deepest frustrations? Nothing healthy. Usually, it only delays the explosion. In the case at hand," Wesley said, "certainly an explosion big enough to take out this entire building. And perhaps a good chunk of downtown Los Angeles as well."

"Wes, when I said 'tell us again', it was rhetorical, okay?"

All three of them came to a halt. The stairwell ahead was blocked--piled from floor to ceiling with debris. It was a dead end.

"Oh, no," said Wesley. He sat down abruptly on the stairs.

"Oh, good," said the other two. They sat down beside him.

#

Spike was in motion, somersaulting from beam to beam--spinning through the air, as only a vampire or Slayer could. Flailing tentacles passed over and under him. They snapped like whips, but Spike was faster. He wasn't attacking the Freudebeest directly. There was too much sunlight around it, and anyway, a vampire's natural weapons were no use against a thing that big; no, Spike was launching side-kicks against the remaining beams, driving his shoulder into them, slamming his fists against them. Systematically weakening them. They broke like matchsticks for him. He smashed them into jagged spears of wood, worked them free and launched them. Each missile speared a Freudebeest tentacle, nailed it to wall or ceiling or floor. Each time he scored, Old Faithful squalled. He was the irresistible force.

Angel crouched high above the battle scene. Through the wreck of his building, he could see it all. He had come up more slowly than Spike, circling around to approach by an indirect angle, and taking time to study the situation, as was his habit. Now he watched, from a projecting fragment of floor hard by an elevator shaft, and immobile as only a vampire can be--no pulse, no heartbeat, no need to breath. He could freeze like marble without even having to concentrate. Angel's face was stony. Even the focus of his eyes barely changed. He resembled the immoveable object.

He was thinking hard . . . while the whole building creaked and swayed with the violence of the battle taking place below him. It felt like the throes of an earthquake.

Angel came to life. He took a header off his ledge, and--

"Hey!! What's up, you sodding bleeding fricking bollixed-- Let me go!"

"Tsk tsk! Language."

"Arghh! What're you doing, ahh, ya wanker, we can't--! Let go-- let me--Buffy!"

"Still in there, yes. I know."

"That thing's going all Akira! It'll blow any minute. Big magic. Buffy!"

"Quit that kicking and get up here! And think! Think with your head, not your-- Ow! Gotcha, you idiot!"

"Buffy's in there!!!"

"Buffy can take care of herself," said Angel, demonstrating a Champion's nerves of steel. One last yank, and Spike was hauled onto the ledge. Then Angel cracked Spike's head methodically against the side of the elevator shaft. "Listen to me!" he roared. "This is powerful sympathetic magic. I know something about that stuff. Never mind what Wes said--" with another powerful whack of Spike's head against the concrete wall, "--we have to let it run--" Crack. "Its." Crack. "Course." Crack. "Uninterrupted!" One last slam. Spike sagged. "At last," said Angel. He peered toward the scene below. "And I think, just in--"

There came a crash like the San Andreas fault giving way. The building lurched. Then, with monumental majesty, the entire side of the building simply peeled off and fell.

The gap was filled with a vast billowing cloud of dust. And, gleaming through it, a world of golden sunlight . . . as alert Wolfram & Hart security officers on the plaza below kept innocent bystanders from being crushed by falling debris, and Angel dragged Spike a little further back onto his ledge. The ledge was, naturally, at an angle well sheltered from the lethal sun. Angel allowed himself a small smile. And settled back to watch the end of the fight.

A brief vision he had of lashing tentacles, and in the midst of them reared Old Faithful itself, now huge as a zeppelin and equally gassy, draped in endless coils and swells of flesh mystically transformed by the Mirror of Mihr. Buffy was invisible, lost somewhere in there. But in and out of the coils, a small red missile went flashing, moving so fast that it blurred. It was the Staggard, and it was on the attack. Escaping vampires flashed past Angel's niche, leaping frantically out of the light, their hair on fire. They had been unable to fight Old Faithful, but the Staggard--so mobile that it resembled a streak of red fire--was doing their job, and doing it well. Or was it? Angel blinked, and looked again. "Hey," he said slowly; he even shook a groggy Spike's shoulder. "I don't think they're fighting. I think they're--" Description failed him; he could only say, "I've never seen anything as disgusting in my whole life," and avert his eyes. And then all passed. Like towers falling, like mountains sliding; a spouting stream went up, up, up, till it showered down like the spume of a whale, and pattered foaming upon the sun-lit wreckage.

The dust settled in the aftermath.

The spell ended. Peace descended like the dust, like great rings of goodness spreading out from where, now seen at last, the Mirror of Mihr still stood on its fragment of floor. Peace spread over the half-ruined building. Friendship, love. Those were the virtues of the mirror. As, below in the blocked stairwell, Wesley looked up and said, "Listen. Can you hear anything? I think it's over," upon which Gunn replied, "Hallelujah!" and Fred shivered and shifted closer to Wes. They were all sitting in a row. And Fred was gazing at Wesley with her heart in her eyes, but Wesley didn't notice till Gunn grinned and nudged him, pushing him almost into Fred's lap.

He slung one arm around Fred's shoulders and one around Gunn's, and kissed Fred. Gunn was laughing. "To friendship," Wesley said. "And love."

Above in the wreckage, Spike stirred and came back to awareness with an aching pang of despair. He raised himself slightly, found Angel right next to him, turned his face away and made himself small. "Look," said Angel. "Here she comes."

Buffy was walking toward them, making her way along the tightrope-wire of a projecting beam. She was dusty, disheveled and festooned with goop; but she was alive, she was in one piece. From time to time she glanced back over her shoulder. Behind her, slowly yet triumphantly, came the Staggard. It was not unburdened. Its teeth were firmly clenched on a revolting empty bag of an object, something which could again be recognized as an ordinary Freudebeest. Albeit deflated to exhaustion.

Angel stood up and held out a hand to help Buffy leap the final couple of yards. They exchanged smiles. The Sanguine Staggard hauled its trophy along unflagging, and did not give up till it had deposited Old Faithful's sagging carcass like an offering in front of Spike.

Then it sidled up to him and nibbled on his hair. Spike wrapped his arms around himself. Angel's won, he thought. Even now, Buffy was telling Angel, "Touch that thing? You gotta be kidding. Do you see how slimy it is?"

They both glanced simultaneously at Old Faithful, and shared a shudder. Angel said, "Ah. Yes. Well. Do you want to do the honors?"

"I think this is something you have to do yourself," said Buffy solemnly. "Here dies a . . ." Angel still had his sword. He stepped up to the Freudebeest, raised the blade over his head, and brought it down. ". . . seriously icky demon," Buffy finished.

She braced a heel against the oozing side of the beast, pushed it over the edge, and watched it fall. Then she sat down, tugging Angel after--which put him in the middle, between her and Spike. Spike muttered a rude word under his breath, only to flinch as Buffy leaned across and smacked him. "Play nice," she ordered. And there they sat, all in a row: Buffy, Angel, and Spike.

After a moment, Angel lifted Buffy's hand and kissed it. "To friendship and love," he said.

"Spike? You're all over bloody. Angel, didja have to hit Spike like that?"

"Hey," said Angel. "Some people demonstrate affection with flowers and fancy speeches, and some demonstrate it by whacking other people's heads repeatedly against concrete."

It was, Spike thought, the thing he had forgotten, the thing he always failed to take into account. The story of his life: that the girl always won.

#

"The angel of friendship and love." Buffy stood in the lobby, watching Angel manouevre the Mirror of Mihr through the stairwell doorway. He had carried it down twenty flights of stairs single-handed, and Wesley had followed behind, solemnly holding the remote at arm's-length. Angel set the mirror down in the lobby, stretched, and rubbed the small of his back.

Outside, night had fallen: another dark, stormy night, very atmospheric. With intermittent booming thunder. A few staggering vampires went by, assisted by medics who helped hold them up, and tempted them onward with offers of blood-bags waiting in ambulances outside. Wolfram & Hart security workers had been extricating them from the wreckage all evening, and these were (hopefully) the very last. Their very survival was a miracle. The final few rolled their eyes in exhaustion at Angel as they staggered past, and one even said, "Hell of a party you throw, boss!" and summoned up a reminiscent leer.

"Take it easy," Angel called after them. To Wesley, and in a lower tone, he added, "Make sure they're all released with severance, okay? Because I don't want to ever see any of them again."

"Spoilsport," mumbled Spike, tossing the mirror's instruction manual onto the floor by the mirror itself. Angel glared at him, and the Staggard growled.

"You'll be laughing out of the other side of your mouth," Angel warned him, "when Gertie there starts whelping her puppies."

More Wolfram & Hart functionaries bustled up, like a train of native bearers laden with the provisions for a long, hard safari. A female staff member dressed in utter chic supervised this lot; she was armed with a clipboard, and kept checking off ticks. "Shoes, check. Sports-wear, check. Clubbing wear, check. Accessories, makeup, shampoos, purses? Check. And those little underthings I picked out at Il Milionne for you, honey--oh, you are going to go in style, Ms Summers." And boxes and shopping-bags and suitcases trooped by, supplied by Angel's personal line of credit. He had arranged for everything Buffy could possibly want . . . including the convertible waiting outside, enormous and black and glossy. Its keys lay in Angel's open hand, which was extended even now in Buffy's direction. Oh, it was every girl's dream come true!

"So this is goodbye," said Buffy, forlornly.

The mirror, disarmed and harmless, reflected glitters from the emergency lighting overhead. Buffy and Angel and Spike found themselves looking into it, at themselves--as before, all in a row with Angel in the middle. They all seemed reluctant to speak, to break the moment. Angel sighed. Spike kicked the floor. Buffy contemplated the mirror, and saw visions in it. Herself and Angel, face to face. Herself and Spike, backs turned to one another. Herself and . . . ?

She started to say, "You know, I--" just as Angel cleared his throat and began, "Buffy, I wanted to--" They both stopped.

"Go on," said Buffy.

"No, you first."

"No, no--you go ahead."

Spike had never before had the opportunity to observe them interacting in a social situation; he was amazed at how awkward they seemed.

"Buffy, I want you to feel welcome back whenever you please," said Angel stiffly. "And no thanks are needed for--" His hand clenched round the car keys. Then he relaxed, and held them out to her again. "Our paths have been separate for many years now, but a part of you will always . . ."

"All this stuff, it's more than I could ask for," Buffy was saying. "I mean, the shoes! The car! The lingerie! And, and your hospitality." She perked up. "And the nice fighting too! Mirth and mayhem, bonus."

Angel had stiffened again. "If you call that fun," he said. "I was going to say, all this should be put behind us." With a furtive glance at the wreckage strewn round his formerly pristine lobby. "It can be repaired," he concluded, averting his eyes. "Wherever you go next--"

"Las Vegas," said Buffy.

"Oh." Angel grimaced. "Bad memories of my last visit. But, Buffy. Our paths have been separate for many years, but you've always had a special place in my heart--"

"--and I know, our reflections did do it, uh, like on the Discovery channel, but--"

"--and, I mean--"

"--it doesn't mean--"

Again, they stopped.

"I'll always love you," they said together, two songs on one note--too softly for anything but vampire ears to hear. With simultaneous expressions of anguish.

It was too much.

"Ah, hell," said Spike loudly. One swift step, and he was between them, his arms round Buffy. As she let out a shriek, he dipped her and, saying, "You two! You slay me," kissed her. And kissed her--while her muffled cry of surprise became something else. And kissed her--while Angel recoiled, not knowing what to do. And kissed her. Buffy's slender body melted into his arms, Buffy's arms went around him, Buffy's fingers slid through his hair. Till Spike raised his head, swung her around and set her back on her feet with a yip of pure joy. "You know what? You two bloody well deserve each other!"

"Spike?" said Buffy.

"Pet! I adore you even if you're as dim as he is. Invite me along to Vegas?"

Angel surged forward with an instinctive growl. But even as he did, three people converged on him--Wesley, Fred, Gunn--and to his shock, he found himself surrounded, being restrained by his friends. "Oh no you don't," Gunn was commanding, and Fred joined in, "That way lies danger, remember?" and even Wes said firmly, "This is for your own good, Angel." He couldn't fight them. Away they went, Buffy and Spike--laughing and waving, out into the night. And the very last thing Spike did was to steal the car keys from Angel's hand.

"We'll be back in a couple of months, tops," Spike called over his shoulder.

And from Buffy, one last cry, "Phone Giles for me, okay?"

And thunder pealed overhead: ka-ba-da-booom!!

As the Staggard bounded after them, out into the dark and stormy night, Angel reflected that his life was like a comedy, or a pilgrim's progress; but one in which Luck, his guide, dressed in dreadfully loud clothing and smoked cheap cigars, yet promised him Love which transformed in the clinch to the Lechery of soulless Angelus; one in which little-looked-for death was around every corner; one in which redemption's lilied lawns of light beckoned, yet laughter's lodge proved let to fear, and love to worms must fall . . . and he, the hero, must hold off his sorrow, help the helpless and heal his heart's ill; through horrors and hardship, harbor hope for tomorrow . . . or languish locked in hell!

The End

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Eiron, alazon. Eiron is the root word for irony; in Greek comedy, an eiron was a self-deprecator. And an alazon is an imposter, the eiron's rival. Originally, the man who pretends to be less than he is, in order to triumph over the man who pretends to be more.

Shlemiel, shlimazel. The guy who spills the drinks, and the guy who gets the drinks spilled all over him.Bio: .