By mid-July, the Children of the Hellmouth had set up an impressive schedule of patrols and observation posts. As a result, the Scoobies were able to wander around the town fair, pointedly not stalking Dawn. Technically Megan's dad had taken the pack of girls as an unobtrusive chauffer- he hung around the quieter adult tables and avoided the crowd of young people milling around over by the stage waiting for the band to start. Megan's dad, however, was a moron with absolutely no survival instinct, which was why Xander was lounging on the grass in the park at 10:30 P.M., instead of in bed with Spike taking advantage of a night off. Megan's family had moved in from the Bay area about three years ago and each Memorial Day weekend since had thrown an open house barbeque with a large banner strung over their door saying 'Everybody Welcome!' If they hadn't lived across the street from the Slayer there would have been a large group of drained corpses that first year.

Spike strolled over in a tight black tee shirt and jeans, carrying a cardboard tray of cheese fries and chicken fingers. He leered at Xander's cut-offs and tank. After setting the food down and joining him on the grass, Spike ran his fingers over Xander's tanned, well-muscled thigh.

"You get us busted for PDAs and we'll have a hell of a time keeping an eye on the Dawnster," Xander said but made no move to stop the roaming hand.

Spike's questing touch traveled up to stroke along the zipper of Xander's shorts "Now, Pet, give daddy some..."

"Eww! Yuck! Gross! I can't stress strongly enough how wrong it is to have the word 'daddy' and the concept of sex in the same hemisphere." Xander sat up, pushing Spike away.

Spike snorted, extended a fried peace offering and said, "Dru always liked it."

"News flash: Drucilla is insane." Xander stayed upright, but tentatively reached for a chicken finger. "You've met my father."

Any response Spike may have made was preempted by Willow and Tara joining them. "Oooo, fries!" Willow helped herself as she and Tara sat down next to the men. "Dawn is so on to us, don't even try to be discreet when you make your next lap. Hey, look, there's Giles." Giles and Olivia were even further away from the stage, standing in a crowd near a game of chance. "Xander, go get them." Xander shrugged and kissed his mate before going to carry out the redhead's orders.

As soon as he was a few yards away Willow leaned in, grabbing Spike's arm and hissed, "How could you not call? What happened?" At his incredulous look she added, "Dinner! Duh! You had dinner with Xander's parents, what happened, question mark!"

"We had dinner with Xander's parents. I forcibly restrained myself from having them for dinner. Insert large awkward silence culminating with the Harris himself telling my boy he was killing his mother. Mum got drunk and sobbed thought most of the meal. By the by, how did he grow into such a large bugger eating that crap? There was colorful language, much yelling, and disappointingly, no violence. Xander said we only have to see them about once a month."

"Wait-you're seeing them again?" Tara asked.

"Well, I'm family now, aren't I?" Spike smirked.

"Yeah, honey, that's pretty much how all Harris family dinners go." Willow put in with a solemn nod.

Spike watched Xander break away from the Watcher and his bird, who remained at their game. Xander strolled across the gravel-filled parking area, which had been converted into the midway, toward the grassy park where Spike and the witches waited. He didn't make it halfway to them before one of his minions bounced up and babbled at him, gesturing toward the carnival rides and then pointing over toward the many parked trailers behind the fair area. Xander listened, hands on hips and scowling off into the darkness. When he turned his attention back to the dark-haired girl he nodded and made a few clipped comments, probably orders and she skipped off, now babbling into a cell phone.

"Problem?" Spike asked, voicing the concern they all had.

"Sunnydale. We have surveillance on it. Nothing definite, someone's ookie detector when off and they think something's up with the haunted castle ride-- how cliche-- and we're watching the residential area of the staff here, since they're transient. They'll keep us updated. Oh, Giles said they'd head over as soon as Olivia wins the stuffed Clifford she has an eye on."

"Tara and I will pick up some more food. Spike, you save this spot-it's perfect. We can see Dawn from here and have dinner. Xander, you help carry."

"Cheese fries." Xander gestured to his food and looked pitiful.

"Xander." Willow used her mommy voice.

"Wiccans. Girl power. Big gun. Hunt, gather, you go, you bring-home-the-chili-dogs girl." The end of his babble was almost incomprehensible as he shoved a whole chicken finger dipped in honey mustard sauce into his mouth.

Tara laughed and tugged Willow's arm, saying, "We can manage. Xander will help save the spot."

The band was bad and the food was nasty, in a good way. They were all heavy-lidded and sprawled on the grass listening to Olivia giggle though an embarrassing story from Giles' past when Spike sprang up, sprinting toward the rides and shouting, "That was Dawn!"

How the vampire was able to distinguish Dawn from the hundreds of kids screaming on the rides and distinguish her come-help-me scream from a 'this is fun' scream Willow didn't know. Nor did she know how Xander had managed to stay right on his lover's heels as they bolted off to find Dawn. She and Tara ran after them and just managed to keep them in sight as they cut into the line in front of the haunted castle and ran inside it without paying. A quick look over her shoulder showed Giles and Olivia were following at a distance but there wasn't time-Xander had gone in unarmed. Well, unarmed except for Spike. Tara was breathing heavily and speaking into her phone saying, "The haunted castle; Xander and Spike went in."

There was unrest at the entrance to the ride when the witches arrived and an older man with few teeth and lethal breath was trying to calm down the outraged patrons. "No one else goes in," Willow said.

"Who are you?" the man asked.

"I'm the one shutting down this ride. No one goes in until I tell you differently." Willow put herself in front of the door and Tara moved beside her.

The old man blew on a whistle and men jogged over from the surrounding booths and rides glaring at the girls. Surrounding them, out of the darkness, young men with crossbows and staffs stepped up and moved into the tensesituation.

"Willow?" Jonathan asked.

"Keep order out here, Giles is in charge." Willow nodded to the Watcher, who had just arrived. She and Tara went in, instinctively reaching for each other's hands.

Inside the door of the haunted castle attraction Willow saw a nondescript curtain behind the sign which said 'This Way' and pointed to the right. She pushed the curtain aside and saw a box of light switches. She pushed each lever from left to right and the lights came on. Together the girls walked warily, as if the lights were still off.

The corridors were oddly deserted considering the crowd outside. As they rounded a corner a werewolf sprang from a ledge above their heads and they let out a stereo squeak. The wolfman saw their squeak with a whimper when he found himself slammed into the ceiling instead of plummeting to the floor.

The girls exchanged wide-eyed looks and stepped closer to the man pinned to the ceiling. " you think he's an actor?" Tara asked.

"He does look kind of fake." Willow said.

"Fake? Fake!" The carney spat out through the false fangs. "Who are you?"

"Oops." The man dropped to the floor. As he picked himself up and pulled off his mask Willow added, "Just go straight out the entrance carefully, with both hands in sight."

"What's going on? Who are you?" He showed no signs of following her orders.

Girlish shrieks echoed from further into the house and Willow leveled a black gaze on him and said, "Just go, now!"

The witches hurried into the attraction, stumbling through a nauseating room of black and white squares designed to mislead perspective. Entering a large diorama of the 'Aliens' movie queen's egg chamber they found Dawn cowering with a group of girls under the mock-up of the queen. The last shrieks had been inspired by the thick, dripping, chunk-filled goo the color of dried blood that had splattered the room. The original shrieks must have been brought on by the massive eight-legged spider/turtle demon whose head Spike had ripped out of its shell.

Xander was on his cell phone. "Yeah, it's toast. I got five girls here. I don't know if a head count at the exit is worth anything since we don't know how many people were in here. Leave everyone on alert. Send two teams in here, I want every inch checked. Beef up the perimeter patrols and flush out those trailers and the backs of the booths. I noticed they have them back to back with missing space boxed up in there, and I want to know everything that's being hidden. This thing is too big to have slipped in unnoticed."

He crossed to the witches who had coaxed the girls out of hiding. He gave Dawn a tight hug and kiss on the forehead before handing her over to Tara. He shared a rueful smile with Willow before going over to Spike, who by now was jumping up and down on the carcass, driving both Doc into a dent he had managed to start in the shell's shiny coating. "Ah... is it dead?"


Considering its head and three of its legs were piled in the far corner of the room Spike snorted and stopped his assault. "Dead, Pet," Spike said.

"Smells better than dragon-but what's with the chunky blood?" Xander asked.

"S'not blood-it's partially digested prey." Spike paused to appreciate the chorus of 'ewws' and added, "It injects its prey with an acid that turns the insides to mush, then it drinks them."

"Dawn?" Willow and Xander said.

"It didn't touch me! It didn't touch any of us! was drinking this...person..." She buried her face in Tara's hair and started to sob.

"We couldn't tell if it was a man or woman," Stephanie added to Willow. "It heard us and moved so fast to block the doors. We couldn't get out but it was too big to get at us." She held a hysterical Megan with one arm and the hand of a quiet girl, obviously in shock, whose name escaped Willow.

Willow shared a look with Xander who nodded toward the door and said, "Get them out, we'll take care of this."

Later that night, the slumber party planned to commemorate the last night before the closure on the sale of the Summers' house, was subdued to say the least. Xander and Spike were not on the scheduled guest list, but Dawn had turned puppy eyes on them and they had caved like well-trained poodles. Since her friends, minus Jenna who had demanded to go home as soon as they had left the castle, seemed to be in shock and two were trying to work the denial groove, there wasn't much happening in the way of party games. The furniture was all in storage and the carpet had been steamed only two days before. The sleeping bags were semi-circled around the television and videos and cd were still neatly stacked.

The events of the carnival had warped the dynamic of this little clique. Willow sighed as Xander tried valiantly to steer the girls back to normalcy, joking and teasing as he had done hundreds of times with she and Buffy and Cordy back in high school. It was different though. It wasn't reassuring to the girls because he wasn't goofy Xander to them. He was an outsider to their daytime world of school and boys. He was Dawn's hot older brother, even though they knew he wasn't her real brother. The fact that he was talking to them at all just created more tension, since usually he just checked them over for demon possession and told Dawn when she had to be home. Willow wondered if any of them had connected how overprotective Dawn's 'family' was to the demon attack or if like Cordy they had managed to banish their first up-close encounter with the Hellmouth with some not-remotely-plausible excuse.

Willow rolled off her sleeping bag and tried to unobtrusively elbow Xander into silence, but she slipped and they both ended up sprawled against Spike who had been sitting against the living room wall. Willow looked at Xander. Xander tried to glare at her, but his eyes were laughing. She giggled. He snickered. They both lost it. The teens were watching them with varying degrees of wariness. Dawn looked worried that they had finally cracked from the pressure. Megan blinked and looked around as if expecting some sort of attack. Stephanie looked pleadingly at Tara as if she was hoping that she would be the one to slap them. The quiet girl, whose name was Mia, bite her lip and divided her attention between the hysterical adults and her friends' reactions to them.

"Egg babies," Willow said, when she had caught her breath.

"Ted's cookies," Xander countered.

"Hyenas," Willow tagged Xander to make it a game.

"Werewolves," Xander tagged her back. Spike and Tara exchanged a look that spoke volumes and Dawn started to laugh.

"Zombies," Willow said.

"You never met the zombies," Xander said.

"At the party-Joyce's mask," Willow frowned.

"Oh, never mind. Love spell." Xander tagged her.

"Tart. Mummy girl." Willow giggled.

"Computer geek. Cyber-gypsies," Xander said pulling back, trying to dodge her next tag.

"King of Cretins. Swim team," Willow laughed.


"Demon magnet."

It was fitting that the Summer's homestead was relinquished with 'remember whens' that stretched until early morning. Xander and Willow had started by filling in their lovers on the stories behind their memories. Dawn's friends sat in awe. They teetered between disbelief and wonder. They remembered Dawn's pretty older sister but like everyone else had never known just how much they owed her. Hearing the adventures surrounded by stories of her being grounded because she got caught sneaking in after saving the world would have been dismissed if not for the equally unbelievable night at the carnival and the way Willow and Xander finished each others sentences as if these memories were well-worn and cherished.

* * * * *

Spike sneezed. Unusual for someone who didn't have to breathe but a predictable reaction by his oversensitive sense of smell to the strong paint fumes. He realized when he and Xander had been drafted to help the witches move into the little two-bedroom over by campus that Xander's nesting instinct would kick them both in the ass soon. Whether it had been more than a century devoted to observation of the prey or just three solid months of living with Xander, Spike had known his mate would want Dawn to have her own room with them as well. Xander was reluctant to leave their apartment complex though, since it was close to his work and the magic shop. After charming the apartment manager, Xander had arranged to move into another unit in the same building. He had opted for a three bedroom instead of a two, since the only two bedroom available had been on the ground floor. There had to be some sort of Hellmouthy logic to that reasoning, although for the life... er, undeath of him, Spike couldn't figure out what demon would be deterred by a flight of stairs. He had been meaning to ask Xander about that but kept having the thought driven from his head by unbridled, mindblowing sex. Ah, well, no one ever said unlife was easy.

The fumes were the primary reason Xander had arranged to paint the vacant apartment before they left on vacation. He planned to move everything from the old apartment to the new when they got home, thus giving the smell a chance to dissipate so that it wouldn't torment his sensitive lover.

Spike turned around in the spacious living room/dining room area. It was all one space and Xander had chosen a vivid blue-green from a tiny speck of color in the kitchen tiles and had covered all the walls in the main room with that shade, except a large rectangle of silver grey over the spot where the couch would be. Xander asked Spike to pick their bedroom color and Spike had surprised him, intentionally, by not picking black. Just to keep Xander guessing he had picked that same shade of silver gray for three of the walls and a dark red for the wall that the headboard of their bed would be against. Dawn had chosen the same silver gray for one wall of her bedroom and a dusty pink for the rest. Xander painted the third room a vivid yellow, adding another rectangle of Spike's gray, as he called it. He said it would tie it all together and it might have but obviously, Spike thought, Xander had neglected to visualize all the blinding throws, pillows and other Xander-inspired clutter from their current place against this background. Xander intended to use the spare room as an office-cum-headquarters for managing his vigilante group. Spike chuckled to himself; Xander didn't like it when Spike referred to the 'Children' as vigilantes any more than he liked the term minions.

A gentle breeze wafted the smell of the early evening through the open, uncovered windows. The smell and the fact that the walls couldn't be painted with blackout curtains up had gotten Spike relieved of all the labor involved in the redecorating. The sound of the shower shutting off pulled Spike's attention away from contemplating how much work Xander had done on the place. The paint was dry in all except the third bedroom and the trim gleamed wetly. Hooks were up in all the dry areas to hang their art and photos and Xander had built in a shelving unit to house the stereo and the telly. Xander emerged from the master bath, dark hair plastered about his neck. He wore loose grey draw-string pants and was absently stuffing his work clothes into a plastic sack. His attention to that detail was just one more way Xander unconsciously took care of his mate.

Spike had never been the focus of such cherishing. He had known Xander loved him. He knew Xander was a good person, and not just the 'white knight/warrior of light' type of good but an intensely loyal and loving man. But it wasn't until that night, the night the chip had been removed, the night Spike could once again kill and if he wished, seek vengeance, that he realized just how protective Xander was of him. Even after the witches had removed the chip, Xander's first thought was seeing to it that the Initiative never got their hands on Spike again. Spike had started right then, watching Xander to see what else he had missed. He had missed quite a lot. Spike had written off the supply of fresh human blood; after all it kept him from dining on the populace. After closer observation Spike realized Xander had learned that he preferred O negative and blood that had been rejected for its alcohol content versus certain other medications and that was now the bulk of his supply. Also, whenever they were together during the day Xander managed to unobtrusively position himself between Spike and any source of natural light. Xander seemed to do the same with holy objects and any wooden weapons, as if he were willing to place his fragile mortal life between Spike and any danger.

It was some consolation to Spike that he had picked up on Xander's shielding him before the rest of the Scoobies had. Of course, now that quirk was out of the bag to everyone. The other day in the shop Giles had acquired a particular cross, once purported to belong to a reputedly pious Slayer who had almost lived long enough to take her religious vows. The fool, Jonothan, had brandished it about after he opened its shipping crate and Spike had been blinded by its holy glow. None of the humans could see the pure white light of devout faith that had built up in the object during the years that a lonely young woman had treasured it. Spike had winced away, covering his watering eyes with his arm and mentally chanting 'don't fucking kill the moron', in hopes of keeping in Xander's good graces. Xander had hissed and jumped the counter. He was slamming the lid down on the crate before anyone realized he had pulled the cross from Jonothan's stunned grip. When it was Xander who growled 'keep that thing covered' and pulled Spike into the back to bathe his reddened eyes. The rest of the Scoobies' shocked silence had lasted almost as long as Xander's fussing over his wounded lover had. Spike's head had still been cradled in Xander's lap when the little blonde witch had come back and heated a cup of blood from the fridge and extended Jonothan's apologies.

"Remind me to come down and shut the windows before we leave," Xander said as he crossed the room and kissed Spike.

Spike grabbed him as he made to pull away and growled playfully into Xander's neck. Xander giggled and squirmed and they both ended up in a heap on the floor. "Have you where I want you now," Spike leered.

"You can have me anywhere," Xander laughed. "But you'd enjoy it more if we got out of the smelly place." Xander punctuated his suggestion by biting Spike's ear lobe hard enough to draw blood. Spike purred as Xander licked the blood off his ear, then scooped the young man up off the floor and started carrying him toward the door. "Whoa, Cassanova! Unless you want to see my dinner do its impression of a Monet, you gotta let me walk."

Spike laughed and pinned Xander to the door, the only safe place to pin him since Spike was sure the door hadn't been painted. After a long probing kiss that left Xander breathless Spike shifted to his game face and said, "Not walk, Pet-run." He gave Xander just enough space to open the door and took a step back into a fighting stance.

Xander eyes darted about, gauging the distance and Spike and probably a hundred things Spike would never think of, then he shot Spike a hungry smile and bolted out the door.

Xander's reflexes were noticeably faster and not all of it had to do with their bond. Spike had insisted that Xander start training with him. Xander made time in each of his busy days to work out with Spike. Their sparring matches weren't always in the practice room; they had played this chase game in cemeteries and tunnels all over Sunnydale. Spike had been touched when Xander gave him the Kevlar vest to go with his suit which mimicked body heat but had balked when his mate insisted he wear the vest on patrols. He was the Big Bad and had been kicking Slayer ass for over a century. Thankfully, Xander had refrained from saying 'I told you so' when it had stopped the crossbow bolt that an overprotective minion had fired the first time one of Xander's precious 'Children' had caught the vampire ravishing their beloved General.

Spike heard the heavy security door at the end of the hall slam. That would put him out on the side of the building near the park. The park had privacy to play and Xander wouldn't be running far barefoot. Spike waited another count of ten before leaving the apartment, then started toward the fire exit. He ran out into the night scenting the air, but the lingering paint fumes made him unsure if he were smelling it on the wind from Xander's passing or if it were just traces on him from the apartment. He circled the park, nodding to one of the patrols and clearing his head of the smell of paint. Cutting through the playground he was disgusted to realize that Xander, nearly naked and completely unprepared, had managed to lose him. He was worried. Even with the minions patrolling Sunnydale was still dangerous. The idea that Xander was outside, weaponless, and hiding caused him a moment of panic. As he came to the entrance of the park again he glanced over to their building to see if he had missed any signs at the exit. The light in their bedroom window caught Spike's attention. He knew he had turned the light out before going to find Xander.

Spike ran up the stairs, too impatient for the elevator. The little shit, he thought. He doubled back on me! He cursed himself for not realizing that Xander of all people would not run around Sunnydale after dark, shoeless and weaponless. Xander must have slammed the fire door and then taken the elevator to their floor. Spike slipped into their apartment, expecting to find a smug human in front of the telly. Instead he found the plastic bag Xander hadn't dropped thoughout their roughhousing was tossed in the corner nearest the door and the pants Xander had worn were laying a little farther along. Dim flickering light spilled out of the door of their bedroom. Spike prowled around the corner. In the center of the bed, Xander lay naked. Languid amid the pillows, the soft light of a multitude of unscented candles caressed his body and he smiled seductively at Spike while holding out a hand invitingly.

Spike began to slowly stalk toward Xander as he removed his shirt. He circled around to his side of the bed and Xander pouted at him when he didn't immediately pounce. Spike snickered. He tossed the lube off the nightstand and it landed next to Xander. As he removed his boots, Spike nodded at the lube and leered at Xander. Taking the hint, Xander opened it and squeezed some into his hand. He looked up, wide-eyed, and then smiled as he realized how intently Spike was watching him. Spike kicked his boots under the bed and sat on the edge still wearing his jeans. Xander blushed as Spike made no move toward him, just watched. Spike nodded his encouragement and grinned as Xander ducked his head and then looked up with a guilty grin before slowly trailing the slick fingers down along his body. He wiggled some and spread his legs, lifting his hips for better access. He began by just trailing his finger back and forth across the puckered opening. Spike watched as Xander's cock twitched and a flush spread down his body. The pupils of his dark eyes opened fully and Spike thought he just might fall into them.

"Wicked, Pet." Spike purred. "What would you have done if I had stayed out looking for you?"

Xander moaned softly as he slipped a finger inside himself. "You''re," he panted softly, "too smart. Knew you'd figure it out... Please."

Spike laid down on his side and propped his head on his hand. With his other hand, he traced idle patterns in the slippery traces that lingered on Xander's abdomen. Spike smirked as his mate increased the rhythm of the finger which loosened his ring of muscles. A second finger joined it and Spike let his hand come closer and closer to Xander's straining erection. Xander whimpered and started to reach his free hand toward the aching flesh. "Now, now," Spike whispered, leaning close to Xander's ear, "that'll never do." Spike sat up. He held the hand Xander wasn't using to prepare himself with down against mattress. He used his other to stroke Xander's cock with a feather-soft caress from base to tip. Xander groaned his frustration at the lack of friction and bucked his hips up into the touch. Spike kept up the unsatisfying contact, delighting in the way Xander began to piston his fingers in and out of his ass. A third finger was added as Xander bit through his own lip, blood trickling down his chin. Spike leaned forward and licked it off and continued to trace kitten-like licks up Xander's face to lap up the beads of sweat forming on his brow.

"Damn it," Xander growled. "Fuck me."

Spike stopped his soft caresses of Xander's leaking erection. He chuckled low in his throat and leered. "Not yet, Love."

He leaned down as if to suck Xander's cock and then looked up into those wide pleading eyes and grinned. Xander screamed his frustration when Spike blew across the moist head. Xander's hand faltered in its pumping and he came without any contact, his come coating his stomach and chest as Spike leaned back and laughed.

Before his mate's devious mind could plot retaliation, Spike grabbed hold of Xander's knees and pulled them up and apart. Xander gave what Spike was sure he would deny was a girly squeak as he was lifted ass over head. Spike quickly unbuttoned his jeans and gave up trying to remove them once they were at mid-thigh. He slid into Xander in one smooth stroke. His balls smacked satisfyingly against Xander's ass. Leaning over his pretzel-like lover, Spike hissed, "Now. Now, I fuck you."

Spike set up a speed-metal rhythm and was pleased to see Xander's revived erection brushing the human's stomach minutes later. He lost track of time but was aware that the phone had rung twice in the space of their coupling. Just as Xander's muscles contracted again in orgasm, Spike sank his fangs into the fading scar of his mate's mark and came. He collapsed on top of the boneless human. Xander murmured, "Mmmm, sticky," before dropping into a light doze.

Spike played back the messages while his blood heated. Dawn had called. She had been planning to stay with Stephanie and ride to LA with the rest of her friends on Saturday. But her message said she would be coming to LA with them Thursday night. Dawn had been wary of them all staying with Angel now that reports had Riley and his commando friend living in the hotel with him. Xander had had Cordelia call her and talk about the ex-Initiative members and reassure her that no one would be coming after Spike. The second message was from Jonothan; apparently a patrol had called in something suspicious and were going to check it out. Spike took his mug and went to wake his mate.

Xander and Spike showered quickly and were both dressed and heading to the sewage treatment plant within thirty minutes. They arrived on the scene just as four of the minions had cornered a scrawny Ayin demon. They were scavengers and lived mostly on exotic molds, so unless this one had ambitions of world domination Spike couldn't see what the fuss was about. The vampire growled when one of the minions swung a Supersoaker of holy water to bear on him. Xander stepped in front of him and barked, "Stand down," at the boy.

"Holy water doesn't work on Ayins," Spike said. He usually didn't give pointers to the humans but knew they were impressed by his extensive knowledge of what was what and how to kill it.

"What does?" asked a heavy girl in dark, layered clothing and too much makeup.

"What did it do?" Xander interrupted.

"Huh?" The boy with the gun pointed it at the floor now that he knew it wouldn't hurt his prey.

"What. Did. It. Do." Xander circled the group and stepped closer to the demon. Still out of reach he looked questioningly at Spike.

"Don't worry, Pet, no fangs. Those claws are for scraping food--slimes and molds---off of ....well just about everything. It doesn't have stingers or venom or emit poison gas or, well... anything, much."

"They're good guys?" a tall redheaded male minion asked, lowering a crossbow.

"Well, not good like collecting money for widows and orphans, more just disinterested in humans except for your garbage and waste," Spike snarked.

The minion 'ewwed' appropriately and Xander stepped closer to the little Ayin. The thing was shaking and had apparently lost control of certain bodily functions in its fear as a pungent aroma of sulfur filled the air. Xander squatted in an attempt to look less threatening. "Shh, you're okay, shh, no one's going to hurt you."

Spike growled out a stream of incomprehensible guttural syllables and then said, "Pet, we are not adopting that thing. It's an adult and they smell."

The demon raised large cloudy blue eyes and spit out a string of similar gibberish.

"What'd he say?" Xander asked.

There were several more of the incomprehensible exchanges, then Spike said. "He thinks you're gonna eat him."

"Why?" Xander asked over the chorus of 'ewws' from the minions.

"S'not that bright. That was what they figured the Initiative was doing. The nightbreed, they know you lot run the Hellmouth, but they don't see much different between you and the Initiative." Spike said.

"But... we're not like them," the girl said.

"You had it cornered for the kill, right?" Spike asked.

The girl nodded reluctantly and Xander said, "What made you target it? Did it kill someone?" As the minions shook their head Xander added, "Hurt someone?" They shook their heads again and looked away from Xander. "You think we should let him go?" Xander asked Spike.

"Dunno, Pet. Some big bad could use one of their lot to run errands, I guess. They got some human in their bloodline... like the rest of you, they're just as capable of doing harm." Spike smiled at how uncomfortable the minions were looking.

"He... he wasn't doing anything... other than being a demon," the girl said.

Spike was surprised by the humans' reactions. Before he had met up with the Initiative and basically began living with food, he would have seen their visible relief at not having to kill the Ayin as a weakness. Now, as Xander told them to keep erring on the side of caution, but to call if they had the luxury to be unsure, he realized how that weakness served them. Their willingness to let Xander make life and death decisions wasn't compelled or enforced by fear, as it would have been with vampires. They simple assumed Xander knew best. Whether it was his experience with all matters unnatural or the air he projected that no matter how strange things got it was just another night on the Hellmouth was unclear, but Spike would continue his observation of his favorite subject. Xander, unlike a master vampire, didn't play his minions against each other or make them feel questioning their own actions would reduce them in his eyes. He used their uncertainties as he used their abilities and was stronger for it.

Xander stood and dismissed his minions. Spike spat out a string of the ratlike demon's native language, punctuated with a demonic trade tongue and told them that Hellmouth's ruler was sparing his life but to spread the word that the humans were watching. The night was still young when they headed over to the magic shop.

* * * * *

"Oh, no," Cordelia gasped, just before shutting her eyes. She felt that free-fall sensation which accompanies vivid dreams and far too frequently indicated she had lost her balance while enduring a vision, thus foreshadowing her hitting the floor-hard. She hadn't told the guys, partly to prevent them from teasing her and partly because she knew her three big strong men already sympathized with her pain, but she had been reading up on breathing techniques and meditation. She had picked up several volumes on natural childbirth at the library, reasoning that if Lamaze could help women focus past that pain it would help her endure her visions while gleaning important details from the messages.

As the images faded and she became aware of the world around her once again, she felt Angel's cool hands holding her. Her back was against his chest and he waited still and silent for her to nod and indicate she was ready to move. Fortunately, she had skipped breakfast. Sometime the pain of the visions was so intense that if she moved too quickly afterward she would become violently nauseous. She took three deep cleansing breaths before unclenching one hand from where it was gripped tightly around Angel's forearm and trailed it down to clasp his hand. He helped her to the couch and sat close with his other arm still loosely around her. Gunn appeared and knelt before her holding a glass of water and two aspirin. Wesley hovered, still holding his book and visibly restraining himself from asking what she had seen.

"Are you all right?" Angel asked.

Cordelia nodded and gave them a weak smile. "I saw...Lindsey," she said. "Route 909, just past a speck on the map called Silver River, mile marker 103. Truck's broke, he's going to need a ride."

Angel growled. Really growled, Cordelia thought, and wasn't that surreal. Ever since the Darla incident he had gave good grovel but seemed to be hiding the fact that he was a vampire less and less. Which, she reflected, was good, since he was a vampire and working on redemption wasn't going to change that until he was actually redeemed. Then again maybe it wasn't Darla that brought him out of the vampy closet, maybe it was losing Buffy. Aside from slaying, Cordelia hadn't spent much time with Angel when he and Buffy had... well, could you call that dating? Xander and Angel had always rubbed each other the wrong way and to be frank, the less time her boyfriend had spent with his first crush had been the better as far as Cordelia had been concerned. She had always expected to walk in on Xander with Buffy some night, which was why Willow had been such a shock. It's always the quiet ones, she thought, noticing Fred creeping down the stairs and staying in the shadows.

For all she knew, Angel had behaved like this-- protective and kind of possessive--with Buffy. More than any of the Scoobies, Cordelia knew that a good deal of Xander's animosity toward Angel was because he was a vampire rather than because he was involved with Buffy. Which made Xander's current choice of snuggle bunny just a touch hypocritical, if you asked her. So perhaps Angel letting down his human mask was a sign that he was feeling secure in their little family. Cordy was aware of Fred inching closer. The girl looking longingly at Angel as he danced attendance on Cordelia.

"He can walk," Angel said.

"No." Cordelia was firm. "If I have to have the vision, he's going to be rescued."

"So now we're the auto club?" Angel muttered.

Cordelia turned in his arms, momentarily surprised by just how close they were sitting. She wasn't as blind as she pretended to be. You didn't run in the social circles she had without knowing how to read what people tried to keep hidden. It had had been rather obvious in Pylea that he considered her to be his. It was just more and more apparent that the possessiveness he felt about her wasn't entirely the same way as he felt toward Wesley, Gunn, Fred and even Lorne. She knew what he felt for her was more than just a vamp thing, or would have been if he were human. But he was a vampire, and living practically on top of him over the past couple years, Cordelia had learned that everything in Angel's existence was altered, changed and influenced by that reality. Just what this increasing familiarity would mean, in conjunction with the curse and all, was what kept her silent regarding their enigmatic relationship.

"Hellhounds, Angel. You remember, like the ones that attacked me at the dress shop, before the prom? A pack of about twenty will show up about an hour before dawn. If he's still there he won't manage to fend them off. For some reason the PTBs don't want that, so..." she trailed off.

"I'll go." Gunn said with a shrug which indicated he knew Angel hated the lawyer and pretty much agreed with him.

"Take Misters Finn and Miller with you," Wesley said.

Gunn rolled his eyes and held out his hand for Angel's keys, as his truck wouldn't seat four comfortably.

Angel continued to fuss over Cordelia. He insisted she lay down and shadowed her to the room just off the lobby which he had arraigned as a place for Cordelia to rest and recover from her visions. It had originally been a coat-check room and was large but had no windows. It was dim and quiet, conducive to soothing her pain.

"I'm fine, really." Cordelia lay on top of the daybed and Angel sat at the end and removed her shoes. She really didn't want to lay down but wasn't about to refuse a foot massage.

"You're sure?" He watched carefully to see if she were hiding any pain. Angel sometimes thought Cordelia hid just how traumatic Seeing could be. He knew she had survived eighteen years on the Hellmouth but there was a limit to event Cordelia Chase's fabled resilience.

She gifted him with a weaker version of her million-dollar smile and nodded. As he applied gentle pressure to the arches of her feet she sighed and closed her eyes.

He worried about the damage the visions could do to her fragile human brain. He could tell by her scent and the way she held her head at times that the pain was far greater than she let on. Angel had secretly been consulting a Wiccan priestess to see if there were a safe way to have the visions transferred to him. Unfortunately, the woman had said that only death would relieve the Seer of her burden. Her response had made him flash back to just how irritating Buffy had found his cryptic comments when they had first met.

The tension had bled out of Cordelia's body and her breathing was just evening out when her eyes snapped open. She shuddered, then looked embarrassed and smiled. "I can't nap, I have too much to do."

Angel shifted closer and brushed her hair back. "What was it? A dream?"

"Just high school and Sunnydale-they both taint you for life," she said softly. "You wouldn't really have left him to the hellhounds? I mean... sure he's oily and evil-on-sabbatical, but hellhounds?" she said and shuddered again.

"Bad memories?" Angel asked. He expected Wes or Fred to pop in at any moment. He wondered sometimes if that was intentional, the way that he and Cordy only seemed to be left alone when they sparred. Fred, well she just had a harmless crush, but Wes... sometimes Angel though that the ex-Watcher was too attentive in his efforts to keep Angel's demon under-control.

"Good actually, except for the whole nearly dying theme that followed me from sophomore year 'til now. I just had way too much up close and personal time with hellhounds," she said.

"Yeah, I remember the tape. You and Xander both could have been killed while you were shopping for the prom." Angel said. Cordelia hadn't mentioned her ex much, not even after the brief return to her hometown where she was treated to a glimpse of his current courtship.

"As if! Shopping? With Xander Harris? Saint is not on my resume." She laughed. Angel had heard that sound far too infrequently lately. "Truth? Swear you won't tell."

"Promise." He grinned. Her laughter was infectious. "I was working--a job--in retail. Me. Some things are just so wrong." She shook her head, fanning her dark hair across the pillow. "Xander saved me- again. Being that you know first hand how much I love having someone save my life when I'm trying to stay angry at them, I reacted as you might expect. And I ended up owing him big time. Not only did he keep my secret..."

"But?" Angel watched Cordelia's smile turn sad and wistful.

"You don't remember my prom dress, do you?" she said.

"It was midnight blue and it shimmered." Her smile blossomed up to full voltage at his reply.

"Normally, I had a dress and at least two back up dresses and I would finalize the decision based on my hair or the weather or whoever I ended up going with... but that wasn't an option for prom. I could only pick one dress and if I could only have one I wanted that one-not that I had any idea of how I was going to pay for it. But I deluded myself that with an employee discount and if I warped the quantum continuum I could somehow work enough hours to pay for it." She shook her head ruefully and Angel was transfixed by the highlights in her hair that only vampiric vision could see in the dim light. "So, prom night comes and my shift ends--I know I can't pay off the layaway--and the boss is so not simpatico with my charms. But as I go to leave, the other salesgirl said, "Chase, don't forget your dress," and lo and behold 'someone' had paid for it. 'Someone' who knew I was working there. 'Someone' who could have paid me back big time for what a total bitch I was to him by telling everyone that Daddy lost his money, but didn't. 'Someone' who never had a dollar in his life that he didn't earn by his own sweat. 'Someone' who never said a word about it except 'it looks good on you.' I dated a lot of guys but..."

"But Xander?" Angel wasn't sure he wanted to know Cordelia feelings about Xander. She had seemed happy that he was involved. She certainly hadn't shown any signs of interest. Angel realized just how closely he had been monitoring her scent when Xander had been near.

"Xander treated me the best. No diamonds or ski weekends, but he was always a good friend. Even with the sarcasm and the digs, no matter how outwardly shitty we were to each other after we broke up, I always knew he would do anything..." Cordelia's looked away, her eyes were bright with unshed tears.

"Cordy? I thought you were okay with Xander..." Angel said.

"It's not that. I just...Doyle, you know?" She looked back at Angel and said, "Why do I never realize how lucky I am until I lose it all...? I just wish we had had a chance... that I had pulled my head out my... well, I didn't. Angel, what's wrong with me? I throw away kind, loving men and end up with Hacksaw spawn."

There wasn't really anything he could say to that. Angel was uncomfortably aware that he wasn't in Doyle's class and reluctantly admitted he probably wasn't in Xander's either. The boy had a tenacious loyalty Angel had admired even when he had been lacking his soul. While Cordelia seemed to be willing to forgive if not forget his sojourn with Darla, he knew he had deeply betrayed her trust in him during that fiasco and had a great deal make up for.

Fortunately, Fred chose that moment to creep in with a steaming paper tumbler of the chai from the coffee shop down the street that Cordelia loved. Since the young woman still hadn't ventured out of the Hyperion, she answered Angel questioning look with a whisper. "Wesley went and got it." After Cordelia thanked her, Fred said, "You have a half an hour 'til when Graham said that the caterer woman would be here."

"Catering?" Angel asked. Cordelia was planning a reception and dinner for the Sunnydale group for the evening they arrived, but Angel had assumed she would be budget-conscious. Having seen Xander and the newest members of Angel Investigations eat he had hoped that the massive amounts of food needed to sate the men would consist of high-carb junk food like pizza or donuts.

"Graham has a trust fund. It's your fault, you sent Riley and Graham with me to shop. After forty minutes at Safeway and having only half of what was on the list he said he would foot the bill for having the gourmet food department cater the whole visit if I would just let them get the hell out of there. I thought Marines has more stamina." She sat up straighter and brushed back her shorter hair in a gesture he had seen a hundred times when she was trying to point out that she wasn't selfish, she just wanted to have her own way.

"Cordelia, Graham is not paying to entertain people he doesn't know," Angel said, opening his wallet.

"Not the whole visit, I have some standards." Fred scooted into the far corner, away from the former cheerleader. Cordelia stood and put a hand on her hip while sipping her sweet tea. "He grew up in a house that was on 'America's Castles'. Who knew one of the Millers was risking his life in some covert-y, elite, military task force? Anyway, Graham is taking care of the welcome dinner, and you are taking us all for a night at Lorne's and to dinner at Jobarr's."

"A demon restaurant? Cordelia..." Angel was fighting the urge to laugh, Fred's eyes were the size of saucers. Cordelia had only been to the exotic eatery once with Angel, Wes and Harry before Gunn had joined the group. Cordelia had been shocked at the varied menu with had numerous delicacies that were potentially fatal to humans.

"They're from Sunnydale," Cordelia said, as if that was the end of the discussion.

* * * * *

Spike inhaled. Heaven and hell, he loved that scent- himself, on, in, around Xander. His. His boy, his mate, his world. It was an ascension, a boon, a bounty that he hadn't earned and didn't deserve. Here, now, for however long he could hold onto him given the violent nature of Xander's life and the fact that Fate, cruel bitch that she was, had fucked up every good thing in Spike's life- Xander was his paradise.

Indistinct voices tickled at Spike's ears. Willow and Dawn had arrived for the meeting, and he could hear them catching up with Tara in the shop above. The blonde witch had been working the evening shift and had closed up upon the men's arrival. The shy one had blushed a charming shade of pink when Xander said he needed Spike's help in the storeroom.

Spike stood up straight, having been bent over the table while Xander prepared him. Xander made a delicious growling noise at having his plans interrupted. Still evil, Spike smirked as he contemplated just how far to push his focused lover to achieve maximum results.

"Girls are here, Pet. Shall we go up?" Spike asked as he leaned back, luxuriating in the flesh-to-flesh contact as Xander's bare chest felt warm against his back.

"Huh?" Spike felt Xander's hair lightly lash the back of his neck as his mate tried to shake of his 'shag now' thought process and participate in the conversation. Xander's hair was getting long, to Spike's delight and Xander's chagrin. Every time Xander headed for the door with the intention of getting it cut, Spike shagged him silly.

Spike turned slowly in Xander's arms, so that he could enjoy this mate's struggle to speak. "Red and the Nibblet-they're here." Spike knew that he had no intention of stopping, and Xander had better know the same if he knew what was good for him. Still it was fun to wind the boy up. "We can order that pizza you've been hankering after."

Whack! Xander slapped the back of Spike's head and hissed out, "Rule number one!" He then pulled up on Spike's hips, lifting the smaller man and pushing him back over the table with his greater bulk. The human's warm hands slid down to the inside of the vampire's thighs and in a surprisingly gentle move nudged them apart before trailing up to spread the cheeks of his ass.

Spike's throaty chuckle morphed into a purr as Xander slid home.

* * * * *

"Yes," Wesley was musing out loud. "It's possible Mr. McDonald is our soul-wounded bard."

"Hm?" Cordelia turned her attention back to the matter at hand. The woman from the catering service had stayed only ten minutes. After briskly checking the facility for working outlets she had reviewed Cordelia's menu selection and efficiently diagramed the layout of serving table and seating.

Wesley put down his book and crossed a shelf. He sorted though some wooden scroll cases and unsheathed a parchment which he spread out on his desk. He moved the mouse on a nearby computer and after a moment said, "I gave up on this--the original language is too obscure and the translation I managed to .... well, never mind." He read from the screen, "She who waits will unlock the door as darkness comes to light again. The one cast out by light and shadow will show the way and succor the twain. Two tainted hearts of light will seek and find the soul-wounded bard. Reasoned by heart instead of head the warrior frees the demon bold. Demon and slayer will storm the citadel yet the heart will reduce it to rubble. The Slayer will fail and rise again, united in pain with the world wrecker."

"Not the end of the world again-I'm coordinating dinner for ten, no way is the world ending after all the work I've done." Cordelia strode over to the desk and a scowl marred her perfect face as she contemplated the offending document. "This is gibberish. Are you sure it's an apocalypse? Maybe we should scan it and send a copy to Giles."

"This document is older than any civilization on the planet; we will not be scanning it. Anyway, I believe that Rupert Giles learned the hazards eminent in scanning magical text."

"Have Spike take a look tomorrow night, he always liked to puzzle out secrets and odd languages." Angel said, causing Wesley to jump as the vampire had silently glided up to peer over Cordelia's shoulder at the parchment. "I don't see why he would be a bard," Angel continued, either oblivious to or unrepentant for the start he gave the ex-Watcher, "it wasn't as if he sang all that well."

Cordelia rolled her eyes at Wesley. She wasn't sure if Angel really was tone deaf, as his own singing had implied, or his feelings for Lindsey colored his judgment, but she made a mental note to call the caterer and change the order for service from ten to twelve. It might be prudent, given the bard mention, to invite Lorne to the dinner party as well.

* * * * *

Xander had, in the course of stuffing himself with barbequed chicken pizza, managed to avert Dawn's crisis. In the manner only known to fifteen year old girls, her life had been ruined. Stephanie's mom, who had been going to take the girls to a fashion show Saturday had had to move it to Friday so that she could fly out of town on business. This was apparently not an acceptable substitute. The Friday show was at a large department store, where the Saturday one was semi-haute couture and featured a designer that Dawn aspired to be able to afford one day.

Spike had sat blinking through Dawn's outrage, obviously wanting to make it all better but befuddled by the ins and outs of the power of popularity and the importance of Dawn being able to start school by saying she had actually seen Tommy and not just his clothes. Xander flashed on all the conversations--well, monologues--of Cordelia, which he had tuned out while trying to think of the best way to ask her into the utility closet with out sounding desperate. While Willow and Tara had smiled and nodded sympathetically and Spike had agreed with everything Dawn said, Xander had slipped into the office and made two phone calls. The first had been to Stephanie's mom. Although he hadn't been able to charm her into leaving her daughter in LA with them he did manage to take the tickets off her hands. The second had been to Cordy. The girlish squeal she had let loose with told him that she wasn't too put out at going to a private showing of the latest fashions with Dawn. She even found use for the third ticket, although Xander hoped Fred, whoever he was, knew what he was in for.

Dawn had made him feel like he saved the world from certain destruction when she hugged his neck. Spike looked profoundly relieved that he had a happy Niblet again, without being forced to attend the show himself. Willow smiled and winked, the only one there who realized that the real added bonus was that this would curtail a full day of Queen C's concept of organized fun. From all the conference calls, the ex-cheerleader had been planning quite an active week. It was a week now. What had started out as plans for a long weekend was now starting with the Scoobies heading to LA on Thursday night and leaving for Sunnydale the wee hours of following Friday. Xander had a vague memory about something his granddad used to say about fish and guests, he wondered if it only applied to the Hellmouth variety of both.

* * * * *

Willow skipped, which when you thought about it was what happened when you bounced while walking. She smiled at Xander. Tara and Spike were following behind them, each sporting individual looks of indulgence. Her lover had confided that the sight of Xander and Willow in full-out babble-mode doing their tandem talking was a mind-boggling sight. The times when they tandem-talked--covering two entirely different subjects and alternating simultaneous questions and replies--were rare. Tonight, though, Xander was angsting over leaving TJ in charge of the Hellmouth, albeit with Giles watching over him, while she was detailing the plans for their vacation, which she had been coordinating with Cordelia. Spike managed to keep an eye on Xander and on the surroundings as the four of them moved briskly down the sidewalk.

Upon reaching the girls' new apartment Xander and Spike were invited up to move Willow's grandmother's highboy one more time. The monstrosity really wasn't suited to their kitschy little place but Willow was determined to find a place for it. As Xander and Spike carefully moved the cumbersome antique from one corner to the other, Willow stood in the doorway to the kitchen tilting her head to one side.

"Do not even think of saying you liked back there better," Xander grunted.

"No, no. I was just thinking..." she said.

Xander leaned against the highboy and gestured for her to continue.

"It would be ... bad manners, to kill Riley while he's living with Angel." She darted a nervous glance from Xander to Spike. "I mean, Cordy says Angel is all on board the Riley reclamation project, and, well, that Graham guy and he are kinda on Angel's team and all."

"Only a bleeding wanker like the poof would choose minions from the Initiative." Spike shifted to game face and back.

Tara slipped past Willow carrying a tray of four tumblers of homemade wine. She set it on the spot she had cleared on the end table before going for the drinks. She took a seat on the couch. "You're right," she said, "it looks much better there."

Willow smiled at her and nodded, but continued, "I'm not saying Riley should be forgiven, 'cause...well, I owe him a bludgeoning with a shovel, but well, in the interest of family relations and this is a vacation..."

"Relax, Will. We'll be good." Xander gave her a warm smile and plopped down with exaggerated exhaustion into an overstuffed, well-worn armchair. Spike moved to lean on its back and absently stroked Xander's thick dark hair. "So," he said with a twinkle in his brown eyes, "if you're sure no apocalypses are going to happen here while we're gone... think it'll follow us to LA?"

* * * * *

There was nothing like a pre-catalytic converter engine, Gunn thought as he accelerated to pass a little import on the open highway. Finn was riding shotgun and Miller was behind Gunn in the convertible. The top was up to keep down the wind. They had made good time once they were out of city traffic. Away from all the light and noise, the sky spread out with stars scattered like sequins on a fine woman's dress. It was easy, spending so much time surrounded by teeming masses of people and buildings, to forget that there were things bigger and broader that LA.

Alonna would have loved this. Instead, he was sharing all this beauty with a couple of white ex-military guys he hardly knew. Cordy seemed to take it in stride that these guys had gone from being members of an invasion force they had been sent to stop to Angel's roomies in the space of a couple months. Not that they were actually sharing a room, or a bed, with anyone but each other. Angel had moved them into the hotel and seemed to be watching over the Finn guy's addiction. You wouldn't know they were queer from the way they acted, no flirting or effeminate behavior. The fact that Miller shadowed Finn unless Riley was with Angel could have been chalked up to being his bodyguard or warden. No, the only reason Gunn had been clued into the fact they were together was when he helped them move in the large bed to replace the two smaller ones their suite had contained. One room, one bed; they got up together in the morning and went to bed together at night. They were pretty damn near inseparable. Judging by the limited history Finn had shared with Gunn, he would have been dead if Miller hadn't shown up at his parent's farm and dragged him to LA.

Riley spent sometime alone with Angel almost everyday. Gunn hoped that it had to do with breaking the young man's cravings to be fed from and wasn't an indication of a change in Angel's diet. After finding Miller pacing outside Angel's office, Gunn had persuaded him to come back to the neighborhood with him. The ex-Marine had been met with the same hostility all of Gunn's co-workers were until he'd proven himself. Now, his friends trusted Miller and they were adopting his strategy tips and letting him instruct them in hand to hand combat.

The two of them had taken Riley with them last time, but Finn was quiet and hung back when presented with the boisterous hunters. Some of Gunn's crew thought he was acting as if he were too good for them and had made comments. What could have turned into a free for all was forestalled when Miller looked at Riley and asked for permission to give their new friends a little background. Instead of explaining Finn's addiction and recovery, Miller told them about the Initiative. In short, blunt statements he shared with them an experience they had all had at one time or another-what it was like to find out that monsters were real. The example of the Initiative's racial cleansing program couldn't have come at a better time. Some loud-mouthed out-of-towner had joined the crew and was advocating wholesale slaughter of demons, whether that demon was a threat to humans or not. The story of Maggie Walsh and her boy Adam shook up the hardened fighters. As Riley took a photo out of his wallet and passed it around, Gunn and the rest of his friends were shaken to the core by the story of what had happened to Forrest.

Gunn liked Miller, but he didn't trust Finn. He remembered what Harris had said in that burned out building. Finn was weak, which, okay, that was who they were supposed to protect, but that didn't mean he felt safe having a junkie watch his back. He consoled himself with the knowledge that if they made good time they could scoop up the evil ex-lawyer and be out of there before any fur-bearing demons showed.

* * * * *

Xander was still a bundle of energy when they returned from the witches' place. Spike smiled as he tried to unlock the door while Xander pawed at his body and nibbled at his ear. The vampire chuckled and said, "If this is how you react to homemade wine, I'm going to have a standing order with the shy one-she won't be able to keep it in stock."

"You drank it? Spike, it tasted like cough medicine. I'm glad you didn't notice me pour into that big potted bamboo thing cause then I know Tara didn't see." Xander said pushing Spike though the now open door. "I didn't want to hurt her feelings, but blech," Xander ended with an elaborate, full-bodied shudder and made a face that should have been impossible for someone with a pulse and no demon.

"Then what's got you in a state, Pet? Not that I mind, a horny Xander is a thing of beauty." Spike paused as his amorous mate licked his face and then laughed and bit his neck.

"No work-for a whole week! Spike, it's summer vacation all over again. Sure, I'm ricocheting between 'Oh, God! The site will go to hell without me' and 'Oh, God! The site won't go to hell without me'. And I can't decide which is worse and if I'm a horrible person for not wanting them to be entirely okay without me but not wanting them to bother me on vacation." Having finished his panic attack in a burst of babble, Xander breathed in deeply, then he smiled and licked Spike's face again, following the angular cheekbone and then kissing his ear.

Spike snorted as Xander continued his assault and pushed/pulled him toward the couch. He was torn between fucking Xander into unconsciousness to encourage him getting the rest he deserved, and using this nervous energy to let his mate wear him out in sticky, wicked ways. Xander made the decision for him by pulling Spike down on top of him as he plopped down. They lay in a heap on the couch while Xander nipped his way along Spike's jaw ear to ear. Spike purred and decided to just enjoy whatever Xander wanted to do.

Xander, it seemed, wanted to do everything. He rolled them over until he was on top, nearly sending them both onto the floor. He lingered over Spike's neck, following the path of the veins down to the shoulders and chest. The human was developing a knack for getting the vampire undressed without swerving from his appointed task. Sucking gently first on one pale nipple and then the other Xander purred himself, or at least emitted a reasonably good imitation of Spike's purr. The vibrations released a moan from the vampire and as Spike buried both hands in Xander's thick dark hair he sent a silent thanks to the witches. He knew that by the time Xander reached his destination he would be in no state to worry about the chip, and thanks to them he wouldn't have to. He tried to guide his lover's course but the human was stubborn and nipped the sensitive nipple, then licked it to make up. Xander laughed, sending delicious vibrations though Spike's body.

It occurred to Spike that in over a hundred years he had never had a lover who laughed as much as Xander. How the hell the boy managed to laugh though all the crap his life threw at him and how he had made Spike laugh before the chip had been removed was amazing. Now, no matter how stressful or dangerous Xander's life was, he enjoyed it thoroughly. Spike had often wondered, after he had been turned, how humans made it from day to day. They were so far down on the food chain, their fates so uncertain and at the mercy of so many merciless creatures, he marveled that they got out of bed in the morning.

Xander was finally working his way down. Unexpectedly he grasped the hairs which grew in a fine line down below Spike's navel in his teeth and pulled up. A tingle of not-quite pain set sparks off behind Spike's eyes. There was nothing on Earth or in Hell to compare with a playful Xander-this had to be a little slice of Heaven. As Xander bit the inside of his thigh, ignoring the weeping cock, Spike cried out, "Bloody hell, Pet, I'm the one's supposed to be evil here."

Xander relented and took Spike's length into his mouth just as he started to laugh again. The vampire squirmed as he supressed the desire to thrust into his mate's warm, wet mouth. There was no chip to worry about, but an unconscious Xander couldn't do what he was doing.

* * * * *

Lindsey scanned the horizon. Dusk had been brief in the desert; the sun dropped all too fast. It was a hell of a spot to break down. It was miles from the last gas station he has passed and the map in his car told him that he would have a least a couple hours' walk to the next town. That walk would have to wait until after dawn.

He had made it as far east as Provo before doubling back, and he was thinking of heading south once he hit the coast again. For all his posturing at his 'exit interview', he didn't feel comfortable staying still. He hadn't spent more than twelve hours in any one place since he had left LA. Intellectually, he felt he should be safe. He had enough of the firm's secrets squirreled away that his continued health should be in their best interest, but he couldn't shake the feeling that he was being watched-followed.

He knew he had survived his tenure at Wolfram and Hart only because of incredible luck, absolute ruthlessness and a Machiavellian sense of self-preservation. So, just because the firm hadn't made a move yet, didn't stop him from anticipating their possible gambits.

He had everything he needed in the cramped cab of the truck. Stretching out in the bed might be more comfortable but knowing just what could go bump in the night made slinging his long legs over the gearshift infinitely more appealing. All in all, a motel might give him more of an illusion of privacy but he remembered how Drucilla had been able to waltz right into Darla's room without so much as a by-your-leave. Being that he had the pink slip on the beat up old pickup and pretty much was using it as his primary residence, he was hoping the PTBs would count it as his home.

Lindsey's back was against the passenger side door. He had shucked off his boots and they lay next to the crowbar, stakes and flask of holy water on the floor. His feet were propped on the steering wheel and if he twisted at the hip, into a slightly awkward position, he could play his guitar. Sometimes it was all that kept him sane, provide he was still sane. On sleepless nights like this he wasn't so sure. At least he had his music back. No matter how bad the nightmares got he couldn't imagine doing without it again.

Oddly enough, playing seemed to calm his hand; not that it was still giving him messages like 'kill, kill, kill' but sometimes Lindsey could swear it made decisions without consulting him. Like now, he had intended to play something that sang the praises of being footloose and instead he had started on a ballad with a freight train rhythm that bordered on a lament. He sang anyway.

"The tar in the street starts to melt from the heat
And the sweats runnin' down from my hair
I walked 20 miles and I'm dragging my feet
And I'll walk 20 more I don't care

And I'll wander this world, wander this world
Wander this world, wander this world all alone

I'm like a ghost some people can't see
Others drive by and stare
A shadow that drifts by the side of the road
It's like I'm not even there

And I'll wander this world, wander this world
Wander this world, wander this world all alone

Well I've never been a part of the game
The life that I live is my own
All that I know is that I was born
To wander this world all alone, all alone

Some people are born with their lives all laid out
And all their success is assured
Some people work hard all their lives for nothin'
They take it and they don't say a word
They don't say a word

Sometimes it's like I don't even exist
Even God has lost track of my soul
Why else would he leave me out here like this
To wander this world all alone

And I'll wander this world, wander this world
Wander this world, wander this world all alone" (1)

He continued to play after he finished the turn, improvising around the melody and humming under his breath, until headlights in the distance jarred him out of his music-induced meditation. He reached for his boots.

* * * * *

Gunn parked about twenty feet behind the pickup. He left the headlights on as he stepped from the convertible. The beams spotlighted the back of the truck, giving a limited view of the cab. McDonald appeared to be alone, but he wasn't taking any chances. He pulled his ax from the back seat and sensed more than saw the commandos fall in behind him. He knew Miller would watch the surroundings, leaving him to deal with the lawyer. He hoped that Finn could be depended on to do the same.

Cordelia had called it to within a tenth of a mile. Sometimes, with all her high maintenance attitude, it was hard to remember just how spooky she was. Wes had given him a brief rundown of hellhounds, having apparently crossed paths with them with Cordy back in Sunnydale. Until he had visited there himself, he hadn't understood Cordelia's battle-weary dismissal of some of the freakier aspects of their job. Once he had seen some of what she had survived in high school, he realized that when she said, "I'm from Sunnydale-we have our own Hellmouth," it meant something. That old beau of hers was just the type of tenacious warrior he would have expected a class act like Cordy to have been involved with-no wonder she had survived with him looking out for her.

The lawyer stepped down from the cab. Worn jeans battered boots had replaced the suits that had probably cost more than Gunn had ever earned in a given year. "Charles Gunn." The lawyer's voice held a trace of an accent Gunn couldn't place and which he wasn't sure had ever been noticeable before.

"McDonald," Gunn nodded.

"Little out of your element, aren't you?" McDonald's eyes shifted nervously from Gunn to his backup and continued to survey the surrounding area, as if expecting an attack.

"Not really. Still helping the hopeless. That would be you. Cordy said you're about to be turned into a great big chew toy for a pack of hellhounds. You want to come with us, or should we just videotape it?" Gunn waited, enjoying the shocked look that crossed the lawyer's face before years of dissembling enabled him to hide it with a bored expression.

* * * * *

Xander woke up naked and spread-eagled on the bed. A lazy smile crossed his face as the memory of the activities leading up to his nap replayed behind his closed eyelids. It felt so good to not have to worry about an alarm or how many things he had to squeeze into the next day. Steam wafted out the open bathroom door and over the sound of the shower Spike sang,

"They look
so lovely and pale
When they kiss the third rail
and they won't step lively any more." (2)

Xander laughed to himself and crawled across the rumpled bed toward the bathroom. He hoped their new neighbors liked Spike's voice, since he had had no luck getting his lover to conform to human sleep cycles. They had been fortunate that none of their current neighbors had complained of Spike's odd hours.

It was the wee hours of the morning--dawn wasn't yet lighting the sky--but the smell of the breeze had changed. Sometimes, like now, Xander tried to remember if he had been able to sense the smell of dawn before Spike had claimed him. He though he might have, if he had tried, but it hadn't mattered before. He was jarred out of his musings by Spike playing air guitar in the shower. Bleached hair stood up in tufts as he mimicked a riff and jumped up and down. Xander bit his lip to keep from laughing as his lover's dangly bits flopped up and down as he got into the imaginary music. Xander supposed he was lucky it was imaginary and figured he owed Spike for that-among other things.

Xander slipped into the shower and wrestled Spike up against the wall. "Think I could get a private performance of that?"

"Like the classics, do you?" Spike leered.

"You might say I've developed a taste for fine antiques." Xander leered back.

"Oy! Antique? Who're you...?" Spike's protest morphed into a purr when Xander demonstrated the taste he had developed by biting down on the same spot of flesh above Spike's collarbone that sported the mark on his own.

Spike had picked him up and carried him, wet and naked, halfway back to the bed before Xander had finished licking off the blood he had drawn. Spike tossed him into the middle of the mattress and pounced before Xander finished bouncing. Xander couldn't stop giggling as Spike nipped his way up from his knee to his navel, growling and in gameface the whole time. Xander grabbed his lover's hair and pulled him up to face him. Feathering kisses over the demonic ridges of his brow Xander whispered over and over, "I love you."

Spike purred and held himself just over Xander's body on strong forearms. He lowered himself into the kisses and rubbed up along his mate's long frame, brushing their ready erections together and causing Xander's breathy words to transform into a moan.

Spike trailed his fangs along the erotically exposed throat of his mate and Xander shuddered with desire beneath him. He increased the tempo of the friction between them, working all of Xander's hot spots until the human came hard against his stomach. Spike waited until he felt the post-climax languor spread through Xander's body before lifting his mate's hips. He slid in with ease, since they had coupled only an hour before, and was rewarded with the look of utter contentment in those dreamy, sated brown eyes. Xander reached up and pulled Spike down into a long, slow kiss. Spike lost himself in those eyes when he pulled back and began an equally slow rhythm.

* * * * *

Day was breaking in the city by the time the four of them returned to the Hyperion. Lindsey had his guitar and his duffel bag. He wondered if he'd ever see the truck again. He had liked that truck. The muscle followed him into the hotel after Gunn had tossed them the keys and taken off in his truck. To be fair, Angel's flunkie had introduced them as Finn and Miller, but the ride back had been in silence. Lindsey hadn't wanted to ask any questions and give away how little he knew. He was sorry to see that the lobby was empty; Cordelia was always good for information, whether she intended to spill it or not.

Finn looked nervous and edgy. The young man had been shooting him cautious glances since they had pick him up. Miller was as impassive as he had been since they met. Lindsey had dealt with a number of people like him at the firm and wondered if he was a sociopath-there was something unnerving about that controlled discipline.

Angel descended the darkened staircase. Smirking at Lindsey, he silently made his way across the lobby. "Problems?" he asked Finn.

"No sign of the hellhounds, but he was right where Cordelia said he would be." The young man ducked his head as he gave his report then looked up at the vampire as if looking for approval.

"Good, get some rest. Graham, show Lindsey to a room, Wes wants to have a chat with him in the morning." Angel turned to go.

Lindsey wasn't standing for that. He may or may not be in the damned corpse's debt, yet again, but he wouldn't stand by and be dismissed.

"It's morning now. If he wants to talk to me before I leave, he better do it now," Lindsey drawled. He was pretty sure he remembered how to push his host's buttons.

"You'll talk when he's ready," Angel said without turning around. "Take the room, McDonald. Don't make me hunt you."

Xander shifted his feet in an attempt to give Dawn more room. He was wedged in a corner of the back seat, his long legs spilling across the limited space. Dawn was in the other corner, too engrossed with IM-ing her friends on the phone the Scoobies insisted she carry at all times. Spike was between them, or more accurately, on top of Xander. The blonde was sprawled over Xander's chest and his Docs were wedged out Dawn's window. She was using the vampire's legs like a desk to steady her hands as she typed text messages, but otherwise seemed oblivious to them.

The noise of the wind drowned out Tara and Willow's conversation from the front seat. The witches had pulled their seats up as far as they would go. Spike had complained that this was taking girl power too far when the wee ones had relegated the men to the back seat. Xander had laughed and pushed Spike into the car. He was too tired to drive, given last night's and today's activities, and he sure as hell wasn't going to let Spike drive with Dawn in the car. Having safe-driver Willow behind the wheel was well worth any discomfort on the ride. Besides as he had pointed out to his mate, it was only for a couple hours.

Spike was in gameface, his eyes half open but showing only the whites as Xander stoked his now-darker hair. He seemed dead to the world, but Xander could feel the tension in his body. Spike was not as blase as he tried to project about the visit to LA. Xander was a little nervous, but then Angel wasn't his Sire-his Yoda. Xander smiled at that memory. He really didn't give a damn what Deadboy thought.

They had spoken a couple times. Angel talked about souls and the danger of vampires, as if Xander wasn't Hellmouth born and bred. Xander had done his best to control his sarcasm. He hadn't blurted out that it had been too late to worry about Xander binding himself to Spike, even before Angel had visited Sunnydale and voiced his disapproval. Xander figured he owed Angel the same courtesy that the brooding one had given him regarding Xander's take on the Angel and Buffy affair, which was none. Spike seemed to feel that Angel's blessing mattered to Xander; thus the human had spent the better part of the day trying to shag that illusion out of his lover's now chipless brain.

Of course he could be wrong, Xander thought. Spike's reluctance to see his Sire could have less to do with Angel's reaction to their blood-bond and more to do with taking shit for the new hair color. Xander loved it. Not that he gave a damn what color Spike's hair was, but it had given him a taste of power to know that the big bad had changed his look just because Xander had brought home the wrong color. Until Spike had come out of the bathroom and asked how it looked in that insecure voice, Xander had never been able to figure out why Spike did his best to distract him whenever he started to go for a haircut. Now that he knew that feeling, that he could influence this fierce, obstinate man, it a huge rush.

Just a week ago, Xander had come home early, rain having closed the site, loaded down with groceries. Spike had padded out to the kitchen, naked and adorable with his hair standing up every which way. He had made a small noise of joy and rewarded Xander with a kiss upon finding a carton of his smokes, a bottle of JD, and a new tube of hair gel. But after the food had been put away and Xander had sorted out the lube and other bed and bath products, Spike had just stood there holding the box of hair coloring and scratching his head.

"What's this, Pet?" Nothing was as cute as a naked vampire looking scared of a small box of bleach, Xander thought.

"It's haircolor; you said you wanted to do your roots before we head to LA." Xander had slipped around behind Spike and wrapped his arms around him to read the box over his shoulder. He knew when he bought it Spike would have problems with the name.

"Yeah, it is, isn't it." Xander could almost hear the wheels turning in his lover's head. He pressed his ear to Spike's waiting, for the 'click, click, ping!' of an idea to herald the vampire somehow getting out of using that color. "It was the whitest shade they had," he said, and then waited and just when he felt Spike take a breath to reply added in a soft whisper, "Don't you like it? It reminded me of you."

Xander laughed at the memory, causing Dawn to look over questioningly. He shook his head and she went back to her messages. He stroked Spike's hair and whispered, knowing the vampire would hear even over the sound of the air, "Moonbeam."

Spike growled, but his eyes remained rolled back in his head and he still feigned sleep.

* * * * *

Lindsey skirted the edge of the Hyperion's lobby. The settees had been moved and a long dining table had been centered under the glowing art deco chandelier. Vast assortments of dishes were being fussed over by the catering workers. Cordelia Chase stood amid the chaos like a drill sergeant inspecting her troops. Graham and Riley were hiding out in the office behind the reception desk with Fred, as they tried to avoid Cordelia's critical eye. Just as she focused on Lindsey, obviously unhappy he was there at all, Angel came in from the back of the hotel carrying a two-headed helm ax and covered in blue ichor.

Lindsey stood back and enjoyed the show as Cordelia chewed Angel out. His years of honing his instinct for self-preservation at the firm aided him in hiding his smirk as the tall, powerful vampire hung his head at the Seer's tirade and mumbled an apology. Lindsey wondered if Angel had any idea just how tightly he was wrapped around the young woman's finger. After she admonished him for showing up looking a mess with company coming she segued into a diatribe over Lindsey's presence at the 'family' dinner.

Angel staged a strategic retreat and went to clean up as Gunn and Wesley came in the front doors. "Cordelia, this is impressive," the Englishman said. Their arrival caused Fred and the young men to venture out of the safety of the office.

"Hey, I do good work with the right budget." She beamed at Wesley and then turned her blinding smile on Graham, causing Riley to poke him in the ribs eliciting a slight smile from the quiet man.

Lindsey knew he was an unwelcome addition to this celebration, but it wasn't as if he wanted to be here. As the detective agency's staff began bantering and socializing, Lindsey backed away from the group. He continued meandering around the outer edges of the lobby hoping to sneak up to his room before the guests arrived. He was almost to the stairs when a familiar voice said, "Hey, cowboy, I thought you got the hell out of Dodge?"

He turned to see Lorne striding in from the same back entrance Angel had come through, resplendent in a gold-toned Dior suit that complemented his green skin and red eyes. Lindsey couldn't help returning his friend's wide smile. He shook his head ruefully and said, "So did I. Bat-vamp stumbled over some prophesy or vision that caused him to send his boy wonders after me."

The caterers had been staring openly at the demon and Lindsey's remark silenced everyone else. Lorne continued, ignoring the silence or perhaps reveling in being the center of attention, "You'll have to treat me to a sample of those golden pipes. I'll see what comes up." The showman crossed to Cordelia, gesturing dramatically, "So where is tall, dark and broodingly handsome? Love the spread, but isn't it a bit too Thanksgiving for a vampire?"

"Lorne." Cordelia fake-kissed his cheeks and said, "So glad you could make it. Please keep Lindsey from skulking around, plotting mayhem. This is my party and it is going smoothly if I have to behead everyone involved. Out." She directed the last to the gaping staff who had frozen in the process of packing up the crates in which they had delivered dinner. They scampered out with the packing crates, muttering something about special effects and pretentious actresses.

"I wouldn't miss a chance to see Angelkins bond with his favorite Childe." Lorne nudged Gunn with an elbow, inviting him to join in the teasing. "I heard from a Traxorian that Junior has quite a set of pipes himself."

"Yeah, if you like Sex Pistols," Cordelia said with a roll of her eyes.

Before anyone else could join in the conversation, Lorne nodded to the elaborate spread and gushed, "This is a big event for you, hm? This the first time Junior and company have come home to meet Daddy's minions?"

"Minions?" Cordelia hissed and glared at Lorne.

Lorne continued, heedless of the outrage in his audience as he gestured dramatically while circling the banquet table. "Gotta admit, the idea of all this family together brings a tear to my eye. Almost makes me miss my family-may magic and the portals keep them far away."

Lorne circled around and started to chat up Angel's new boys, while Wesley calmed the Seer. Since he was no longer the focus of anyone's attention Lindsey stopped fighting the desire to smirk-with Lorne here to bait Angel the evening was looking up.

Before he had a chance to think of more than five ways he could use this to his advantage his train of thought was derailed by the entrance of an arrogant young man. The blonde strutted in, opening both doors, palms flat and arms stretched wide. He stopped to survey the room, or perhaps to give its occupants a chance to admire his lean frame. Mouth-watering in tight black jeans and a tee shirt over his whipcord muscles, he was riveting. The blonde sneered and stalked forward. His hair was bleached a pale, delicate blonde and was quite striking when paired with his clear blue eyes and porcelain-like complexion. The combination should have made him look fragile or waiflike; instead he was every inch a predator-dangerous and hard. Lindsey hadn't survived at the firm as long as he had without being able to spot a vampire in a room full of humans. The vampire's thin-lipped sneer changed to contemptuous smirk as he purred out seductively, "So kiddies, did everyone miss me?"

So this was Angel's Childe? Wolfram and Hart had a file on him but had contacted Drusilla when looking to turn Darla, thinking she would be more malleable. A prudent move, since William the Bloody had been known to hunt Slayers for sport. That and the fact the in the demon community Drusilla had been much easier to locate. William, or rather Spike as he went by now, had dropped out of sight about two years ago. Since it had happened shortly after rumor had had the Childe torturing his Sire, many had thought he was dead, perhaps one more blood kin sacrificed to Angel's need for redemption. Well, he obviously was dead, but the Slayer of Slayers was still walking-around-dead and still apparently primed to annoy his Sire.

The 'minions' Lorne had mentioned were now entering behind him, two young women and a girl hardly into her teens by the look of her, followed by a tall, broad-shouldered brunette with dark, laughing eyes. Cordelia greeted them all enthusiastically. Well, she pretty much ignored the vampire, but the rest seemed human and they all appeared to know and like the Seer.

"Hey, food! Real food." The young man's attention was absorbed by the buffet of chafing dishes and deserts. He bounded toward the table but was detoured by Cordelia who grabbed his arm and used this momentum and centrifugal force to propel him with her over to meet Lorne.

"Hi, Wesley," the redhead said with a wave. Her blond shadow gave the Brit a tiny smile and a shy nod.

The only other member of the vampire's entourage was the young girl. She stayed close to the vampire, appearing a bit ill at ease in the crowd. Lindsey followed her wide-eyed gaze, expecting her to be thrown by Lorne's appearance, even if she had arrived with a master vampire. He was surprised to find that instead of the demon she was watching the two most recent additions to the detective agency staff. When Lindsey looked back to see if he could determine why these men made her ill at ease he was shocked again to find the vampire soothing her worries with softly-whispered words while stroking her long brown hair.

Cordelia briefly demanded everyone's attention as she introduced he and Lorne. Apparently, everyone else had been previously acquainted. He quickly put faces to names and tried to think if he had heard of any of them from the firm's files.

Angel stopped at the top of the stairs. Cordelia was wearing a red sleeveless wrap dress. Her sun-kissed skin and gleaming hair radiated life and health. He warred briefly with the side of him that would either consider this a dinner invitation or long to make that beauty eternal. He watched as she worked the room, making sure the two groups mingled while keeping an eye on their reluctant guest.

Angel knew he should go down and play host; if he didn't she would surely make him pay. He smiled at the thought of those flashing brown eyes. He hadn't meant to be late or come back smelling of Ithor demon ichor, but he had to work off the nervous tension the impending visit had caused. If the recent updates from Willow were anything to go by it was probably too late to stop Xander from becoming fully blood-bonded to Spike. Angel understood the selfishness that would drive a demon to grab what he wanted regardless of the consequences; he had felt it himself when claiming each of his Childer. What he couldn't fathom was how Xander, who had the best sense of self-preservation of the lot of them, could throw all his years of experience aside and willingly embrace hellspawn in the name of love.

It was love. Angel couldn't deny that. He had seen them together, the way they moved, unconsciously shadowing each other, protecting each other. He remembered Xander's eyes before the battle, when he had asked what he should do about Spike if Xander died. Already there had been a level of intimacy that spoke of a bond deeper than even Angelus' had been with Darla. But, he knew firsthand the dangers of such a bond. Surely, Xander realized that Spike would never willingly be parted from him. That alone almost guaranteed that the boy would be turned eventually. Even if Spike could fight his desire to hold on to his ephemeral lover, what would such darkness do to Xander's soul? Did he truly understand what bonding like this to a demon could do to his soul?

He watched now as Spike's eyes tracked Xander's movement around the room. Typically, Xander was making more of a circuit of the trays of hors d'oeuvres than attempting to socialize, yet he seemed to be the one person who effortlessly laughed and talked with each person. Wes was carefully easing Fred into a conversation as she matched Xander in scarfing the chilled shrimp. Spike stayed close to Dawn. This was the first Angel had seen her since she had been giving him baleful glares for roughing up his obnoxious Childe. Angel thought, judging by the look she was giving Riley, that Dawn had inherited Buffy's ability to hold a grudge.

Rather than get called on for lurking by Cordelia, Angel reluctantly descended the stairs. After greeting the new arrivals, Angel was rescued from the awkward cocktail party-like setting by Xander, of all people. It had seemed like just small talk at first but Angel found himself opening up to the young man when he asked about the hotel and the renovations that were possible.

Finally, it was time for dinner. Cordelia had agonized over the seating each time she had added a member to the party. She had wanted to keep Riley away from the Scoobies and Spike away from the LA people and in the end everyone away from Lindsey. Unfortunately all her planning went to hell, due to Xander and Gunn being engrossed in a conversation. The two men took adjoining seats, thus prompting Spike to sit on Xander's right and of course keep Dawn on his right. The shuffling planted Riley right next to Willow and somehow ended up with Lindsey between Tara and Fred.

Sitting at the end of the long table, as massive amounts of roast vegetables and rare meat were being consumed, Angel noticed Cordelia's forced grin and raised eyebrow frequently drawing his attention to the ex-lawyer, who was bent on charming their more innocent guests. He assumed she wanted him to keep a close eye on Fred who was seated on his right. He preferred to let Wesley, who was across from her, engage her in conversation, since at least Wes had a chance of understanding some of what she said.

Angel didn't think it was the crisis Cordelia was making it out to be. Dawn seemed perfectly at ease next to Lorne and after an initial glare Willow promptly ignored Riley. Although each spoke privately with their dining partners, the bulk of the table's attention was on the two young men swapping tales of slaying. Gunn briefed Xander on the recent and not-so-recent events. Using colorful language, he abbreviated the events surrounding Wolfram and Hart, Darla's resurrection and turning, Angel firing them all and Wesley now being in charge. Xander showed no surprise at the mention of Darla and confirmed that Dru had made a brief and bloody visit to the Dale before vanishing again. Dawn elbowed Spike and giggled during that tale and Angel watched his Childe duck his head as if he were still able to blush.

After dinner, they separated into smaller groups. Lindsey bid a reluctant goodnight to Fred, whose quirky babble he found charming, as the painfully shy young woman offered to show Dawn to her room. The girl was going out with friends first thing in the morning, or so Lindsey had overheard her confide in Lorne at dinner.

The two young women, witches if rumor were to be believed, were over on the settee with Cordelia. She and the redhead seemed to know many of the same people and the young woman was updating her at an amazing rate of speech. The blonde woman sat silently at her side, radiating a tranquility unobtainable by the magic users the firm had contracted. Obviously, Cordelia and this Willow had known each other for quite some time. Lindsey wondered if the Sire had given the witch to the Childe or if the Seer had been gifted to the Sire by the Childe. As of Lindsey's departure from the firm over six months ago it had been assumed that Angel had met Cordelia when he saved her life from the unfortunate Russell Winters.

Xander, the human male who had accompanied Angel's Childe's group, was standing at the serving table with Gunn, Finn, and Miller, trading stories while picking at the leftover prime rib. Spike and Wesley had gone into some kind of a library or study off the lobby where they were examining a scroll. Lorne and Angel were at the bar that had been set up at the reception desk.

Lindsey had taken a seat out of the way and with a view of all the groups. Lorne looked bored to tears and Angel looked like he would prefer to be working on a case. Lindsey was just considering going to rescue his friend when the dark-eyed human from Sunnydale left his companions guarding the food and crossed the lobby to take a seat near him. "Hi, I'm Xander."

"Yeah, Cordelia introduced you." Lindsey was instantly on his guard.

"True, but there are only two of you for us to remember. But, I guess being an evil lawyer, that you'd have to keep all the names and faces straight or risk pissing of the wrong demon, huh?" Guileless brown eyes blinked and an open, friendly grin replaced the slightly pensive look which had accompanied that speech.

Reluctantly, Lindsey found himself returning that easy smile. "Know a lot of demons, do you?"

"You'd be surprised," the young man quipped. Given his choice of companions Lindsey supposed he should have expected that.

It was odd that the people Spike had chosen to come with him to visit his Sire, they were all still human. Xander didn't have the acquiescent attitude of a pet or slave. Human consorts were rare and would still be expected to show a certain deference to the vampire which this man lacked. He could see the vampire keeping the witches for their power and the girl perhaps as a pure offering to some higher demon, but the young man had him stumped. Not only did he appear too average for this master vampire to notice but his whole attitude was far too alpha for someone who dealt with a being that could squash him like a bug. His unbroken spirit along with his easy banter with both Angel and his Childe completely threw Lindsey in regard to his status in the vampire's entourage.

Lindsey considered and discarded a variety of small talk. If he asked how Xander knew Angel, the young man would just point out that they were family. The young man would never volunteer the real reason for their visit. It was unlikely that, after all this time, the vampires had suddenly had a yen for family togetherness. Something was up, that much was obvious. This evening had a formal feel to it. The catering of food for the humans. The Childe arriving and filling his Sire's refrigerator with units of human blood. How had the firm missed this connection? They had written off this dangerous opponent. No, worse than written him off, they assumed, seemingly incorrectly, that the Slayer of Slayers was an enemy of Angel's. Yet they had been in contact for quite some time, if the level of intimacy between their humans was any way to judge. This information could be invaluable, Lindsey thought.

Lindsey nodded in the direction of the gossiping women and said, "They seem to be enjoying themselves." It seemed a safe comment and just might elicit more information on how close the two circles were, depending on how savvy the human was at withholding information.

"Yeah, hard to believe there was a time when I was about all those two had in common." The brunette smiled inwardly and shook his head at some memory. "So, how does one decide to be an evil lawyer? Do you do an internship or do they recruit you by your LSAT scores?"

Lindsey couldn't help smiling at Xander. The man projected an air of 'I'm too dumb to come out of the rain' but a flash in those dark eyes told him that this rube had no intention of telling him anything he didn't already know.

Lindsey leaned in, preparing to charm the man with a well-tested ice breaker about his first year as a clerk when he heard a low growl and looked up into yellow eyes. The vampire must have crossed the lobby in a flash. He had been a good forty feet away only a moment ago. Gone was the smooth, controlled predator, this was a salivating beast looking at Lindsey as if he were dessert and the entertainment rolled into one. As Lindsey's life flashed before his eyes, in one fluid movement Xander pulled the vampire down on to his lap and bit into the heavy muscle where Spike's neck joined his shoulder. Xander lapped gently at the blood he had drawn and whispered an amused, "As if," into the vampire's ear.

Angel was there in an instant, but whether he intended to protect Lindsey or assist his Childe in rending him limb from limb the ex-lawyer wasn't sure. Lorne had followed and put a restraining hand on the hulking vampire's arm. Lindsey turned back to the pair in the chair just in time to see Xander lick the blood from his lips.

"Use your words. We talked about this. You agreed to use words when something was bothering you and not just pounce," Xander said softly, and while speaking, brought his gaze eye to eye with Spike. Without breaking that gaze he said in a more forceful voice, "Lighten up, Deadboy, it's under control." Spike broke their impromptu staring match and seemed no less murderous but at least now his glare was for his Sire and not for Lindsey.

Thankfully, Lorne stepped in and said, "How about you play for me now? I think we could all stand a change of pace."

* * * * *

Across town in the a gleaming office building, the lawyers had finally left. Glory stretched out on the fluffy towel. It seemed coarse against her gleaming skin and was an inadequate cushion against the dry wood of the bench on which she reclined. The sauna's dry air coaxed jewel-like beads of sweat from her most magnificent form. Already her golden curls were wild and damp from the combination of sweat and dry heat. A scowl marred her perfect features as she considered the minions--guards? not likely--who stood at attention by the door. The towering figures looked carved out of highly polished onyx and were naked but for elaborately embroidered loincloths. The obsequious lawyers had offered to provide for her every need and craving. The two well-muscled beings, each with the head of a jackal, could either have been sent as a meal or an amusement.

Stretching again, she bit her lip trying to discern what had brought on the itchy feeling of restlessness that throbbed through her body. It almost felt as if Ben... "Get out!" she hissed and didn't even take the time to enjoy the minions scuttling out the door, their now-visible tails tucked between their legs. "No, no, no, no..." Glory chanted and jumped up holding her hands up-willing the delicate manicured fingers to remain. The lawyers had sworn Ben was gone, she would vivisect the lot of them. Angry blue eyes were replaced by confused hazel and Buffy Summers slowly lowered her hands and tried to figure out where she was and how she had gotten there.

* * * * *


Lindsey focused on tuning his guitar. It didn't need it but it gave him something to do while he considered what to sing. He had long since lost his fear of tough crowds, not that he could recall ever playing one that held the level of animosity currently directed at him. He wondered how soon after his arrival that the spies from the firm had passed along the news. Or, perhaps they had known he was coming before he arrived-there had been a great many hungry young turks pursuing junior partner status when he had left.

Then there was Lorne's nagging habit of always questioning why he chose a particular piece. Maybe he should deliberately break with his bluesy standards... or keep the sliding chords of a blues ballad and wrap it around an unexpected song? That might work. Lindsey hid his smirk behind his shaggy hair as he bent over his guitar-he knew just the song to make the sanctimonious vampire uncomfortable.

Lifting his head he sang in clear and seductive voice,

"The day rolls in,
the night rolls out
Desire rules without a doubt
The heart beats fast, you salivate
And when you come it won't be late
I guess by now you got the score
A little taste you want it more
From San Antonio to Marrakesh
Yeah when the night comes
Every body's gotta have

Lindsey watched his audiences reaction. Angel, who had been standing close to where Cordelia sat, stepped back. His Childe, though, slipped silently behind Xander, who had moved to sit next to the witch Willow when Lorne had gathered them for the readings. Her girlfriend had reached out to clasp her hand as the music started.

Linsey continued,

"The prince of lust has met his match
The witch has brewed her baddest batch
His sword is sharp and hard as stone
Her cauldron begs for one more bone
And so my love, this story's told
>From modern times to days of old
From Boston Mass. to Bangladesh
Yeah, when the night comes
Everybody got to have
Flesh" [1]

Spike leaned forward over the back of the divan and buried his gameface in the crook of Xander's neck. Lindsey knew he murmured something after inhaling deeply but couldn't hear what. Whatever it was it caused a leering grin to cross the human's face. Lindsey watched Xander tilt his head back into a deep kiss. Spike stroked back the thick dark hair of his human and trailed his slim pale fingers down his heavily muscled neck pushing back the shirt collar. That was when Lindsey saw it, vivid and white against the warmly tanned skin-a scar. A mark-Consort? No, impossible. Even if Spike were as unconventional as his Sire, no Master would tolerate the brash self-assurance this human radiated, especially not in front of another vampire. As unbelievable a concept as it was, they had to be mated.

Lindsey hadn't realized he had finished until they began to applaud. He had been too wrapped up in the snatches of information he had picked up from watching his audience. Not that the fact that Riley had some subtle---or not so subtle--dependence on his quiet friend was news. But watching them had yielded a depth to their nonverbal communication that belied what he had thought was a new relationship. Cordelia, it seemed, was well aware of Angel's growing attraction to her and also seemed to genuinely regret how much stress it caused the gloomy corpse. Lindsey had realized when Xander had crossed to the divan that he had a gun in the waistband of his jeans at the small of his back and now he was sure Xander also had a weapon in his left boot, but couldn't tell what it was. The fact that Spike was jealous wasn't news but Lindsey was amused to note the vampire leveled that possessive, threatening glare which he had turned on Lindsey at nearly everyone else, as well.

Angel watched as his friends and guests fawned over Lindsey's sensuous, bluesy rendition of a pop ballad. Even Cordy seemed to forget that the whole purpose of the performance was so that Lorne could interpret the ex-lawyer's role, if any, in the prophesy. For all they knew, Cordy's vision's sole purpose was to save the Lindsey's worthless skin. Lorne seemed lost in thought. Angel wanted to know what Lorne had picked up but didn't want to disturb him if he was still receiving information. Besides that, he had other worries-Spike and Xander looked ready to rip each other's clothes off and the scent of their arousal was making it impossible to think.

Angel growled softly. Cordelia and Wes didn't seem to notice him, but Willow's girlfriend turned wise eyes on him and then darted that gaze around the room, as if seeking the source of his displeasure. Spike buried a snicker in Xander's neck. Xander cocked his head, only partly to give Spike better access. He shot Angel a suspicious look, quickly hidden behind a grin, but not before Angel was reminded of the scent of holy water he had caught when the boy--no, young man--had first approached him. Angel knew that the water pistol, conveniently strapped at the base of Xander's back, wasn't for him or his infamous Childe, and worried that the pressure of guarding the Hellmouth was making the human paranoid. Surely, he thought, Xander could relax here.

Angel had hated how Xander constantly suspected his motives and actions, even before he had lost his soul. Now, watching the dark-eyed young man turn laughing eyes on William the Bloody, Angel realized that just as Xander had been willing to trust him to take care of Dawn and the witches if the human hadn't survived their skirmish with the Initiative, Angel could trust this quick-minded, wary survivor to protect his family if something were to happen to him.

Almost as if Xander heard his thoughts he looked up at him. Angel was pinned by the open laughing look of pure enjoyment. Gone was the forced grin that was second nature to the hyperactive human when hiding anything, replaced by open amusement. Xander nudged Spike into a sprawling position between he and Willow and turned his attention to Lorne.

"Honey, if an expensive blond hasn't grabbed you yet, you might want to run now," Lorne mused as he slowly paced near the musician.

"Angel, does this guy come with a translator? 'Cause Giles is easier to understand," Xander drawled.

"Yeah, Peaches, and our Watcher is better than yours with prophesies, too," Spike chimed in.

"Hush!" Willow slapped Spike's knee and Angel wondered if she had been aiming for Xander.

"Anything else?" Angel asked, quietly as Lorne's red eyes met his.

"Just, music, a lot of music... a vague sense of a woman... nothing dramatic, no apocalypse, no... none of the things I saw when you were trying to decide whether to leave the firm," he whispered the last to Lindsey and trailed his fingers gently through the musician's shaggy hair.

Willow looked up. Tara had just whispered something to her that even Angel hadn't heard with his enhanced senses. The redhead turned a guarded look on Lindsey and said, with a look of resolve that still had shades of the babbling fifteen-year-old Angel had first met. "Lindsey? If you don't mind my asking? Ah, how come your hand doesn't have an aura?"

Spike had heard odder tales than the lawyer's explanation of his evil hand, but he didn't like the idea of this law firm. If they had gone to all the trouble of bringing Darla back and having her turned, Angel was in the middle of an all-out war, whether he admitted it to himself or not. Spike had no intention of letting his mate or their 'pack' get caught in the crossfire. Peaches was going to get a piece of his mind if that scrap of skin held anything that could hurt what was his.

"Er, Angel... we don't have to listen to you sing, do we? 'Cause, hey, been warned," Xander sounded like he was joking but Spike recognized the real panic in his eyes. Spike knew that this Xander-babble was being used to distract the others from his mate's very real stage fright. Xander may have turned the tale of the talent show into an amusing bedtime story for Spike, but he had ended it with 'and that is why I'll never set foot in front of an audience again'.

"You know," Xander added, "Spike does a killer rendition of I Wanna Be Sedated." [2]

Spike smirked as his mate pushed him forward, or at least tried to-a vampire made a hell of an immovable object. The witches were giggling at Xander's babble. He heard Red ask her honey to sing, but doubted that the shy one would be willing to in front of all these strangers, but decided that he'd like to hear her some movie night when it was just the four of them.

Spike wanted a better look at the skin that the Watcher had shown him. He hadn't had time to do more than glance at the notes before he'd caught this musician of Angel's trying to make time with Xander. But he'd realized that, judging by the age and material used to make up the scroll, he didn't want anything it foretold happening while his humans were visiting.

"Er, what about you, Pet? How about you sing for us?" Spike grabbed his struggling mate and manhandled him to the center of the room. He loved to watch the wheels turn behind those intelligent eyes. He knew Xander would maneuver his way out of singing and wanted to see how.

Gasping for air over his laughter Xander said, "Because I have a voice that would bend metal, peel paint and sends bats reeling for miles."

"Who told you that? I like when you sing, luv. Just your choice of material I find disturbing." Spike held on, both to keep Xander from bolting and to ensure the boy didn't slip to the floor since he was still laughing.

"Willow. Which, talk about glass houses..." Xander snickered as Willow whirled on him with her mouth open to protest.

"Willow has a lovely voice," Tara said clearly and firmly. Xander and Willow traded smiles, having once again caused Tara to step out of her shell.

"I want to hear Cordy sing Oh, Lord, Won't You Buy Me A Mercedes Benz," Xander smirked at his new target. [3]

"As opposed to Sid Vicious does Frank Sinatra?" she shot back, rolling her eyes.

Spike wondered if Angel's impassive expression as he watched the banter had to do with the vague impressions that the demon Seer friend of his had voiced, or merely indicated the Poof had no idea what they were talking about. You would think with all the hours he devoted to brooding he could have turned on a telly or a radio in the last fifty years, Spike mused. Spike magnanimously let Xander slide down onto the couch again, back between the witch and the brunette. Xander had promised delicious things if Spike made and effort to get along with Cordelia.

It turned out that no one wanted to take the stage. Some claimed lack of talent but it was more likely none of them wanted to be read. Cordelia was reassuring the witches that they would stop by Lorne's place the next night and have a go at the real thing. She seemed to be bubbling over with plans and Spike got the feeling that the Seer missed her old mates.

The humans slipped off to their respective beds at around three thirty. Spike settled down at the wide conference table in the makeshift library, with a tumbler of Angel's best whiskey. He waited until the allegedly ex Watcher headed up to bed, not sure he wanted his gift with languages in their bleeding archives. Wesley had chosen to stay over rather than drive home after consuming too much of the aforementioned whiskey. Spike sensed Xander padding barefoot down the thickly carpeted stairs. He had hoped to slink into their room before daybreak, keeping his mate none the wiser about this prophesy nonsense. Briefly, he considered trying to distract the boy with Angel's laughably shoddy shelving units; those alone should have Xander reaching for a tape measure and drawing up plans.

"I love a man with a brain," Xander teased as he slid behind Spike, who was perched on the edge of a straight-backed chair and scowling at a tattered scroll. Xander wrapped his arm around his distracted lover's waist for a quick squeeze before trailing his hands back and up to the vampire's shoulders. Kneading the hard, corded muscles he asked, "I don't want to know what that's made of, do I?"

"Relax, Pet-s'not human." Spike's voice was shaded with a tired smile.

"But that is skin, right?" Xander's hesitant gesture toward the document fell short of physical contact, perhaps because of the dubious material that the prophesy was written on or because that Spike had been handling it as if it were made of cobwebs.

"Yeah. Vamp. Lasts longer than just about anything they used to record on in the day this was created. Not as indestructible as stone tables, but the ink doesn't fade." Spike said, leaning back into the warm, strong hands and closed his eyes in pleasure.

"How? I mean... wouldn't the vamp... dust when... How did they keep the skin?" Xander stopped his loving ministrations and cocked his head to see clearly into Spike's eyes, looking innocent and adorably confused.

Spike quickly weighed the enjoyment he got from making Xander go 'ewww' against an uncomfortable desire to keep those eyes wide and naive. But Xander wasn't naive, not with being Hellmouth born and bred and if he weren't as knackered as Spike, he would have pieced it together by now. Rather than letting his mate either work it out on his own or worse, go ask Angel, Spike said. "Simple, luv. You just tattoo your words on the vamp, remove his skin, then dust him."

Instead of an 'ewww', Xander shuddered and looked quickly into his lover's eyes. Spike was still amazed to see the flare of protective passion flash across Xander's warm brown eyes. Never mind that he was the Big Bad, never mind that he was a soulless, chipless, evil undead killer, Xander still reacted to any threat to Spike as if he could somehow protect the vampire from the world. Oddly enough, when it was just the two of them and Xander wrapped Spike in his warmth--like now---Spike believed he could.

"Maybe he volunteered, so that the information would be saved longer... maybe he wasn't dusted?" In an instant, Spike's fierce warrior was a boy, asking to be told that the world wasn't the cruel, self-serving place it was, and Spike actually considered feeding him that lie.

"Xan, luv, this... this prophesy, it was laid down by the Powers that Be, eh? The same ones Angel gets his marching orders from-the same ones who call the Slayer. You think they just let this bastard," Spike nodded at the skin, "loose? Dusting him would have been the compassionate thing to do, compared to keeping him around as a renewable supply of paper." Spike softened his words by soothingly stroking the side of Xander's troubled face. "'Sides, was an evil undead bastard-don't you go jumping teams on me, Pet. You're allowed to take my side 'cause we're shagging, but I don't want you to turn all 'vampires're people too' on me."

"Umm.." Xander blushed and chuckled, "not going to be an issue."

"Any luck?" Wesley asked. He came through door while reading a fax; obviously he hadn't gone to bed. When he looked up at the men sharing the chair he backpedaled, "Er... that is.."

Xander laughed and Spike groused, "Too much luck. Like all Ephratian this shit has layers and layers of meanings. Trouble is there's no way to know how the illusions and metaphors have changed... Shakespeare and Springsteen are both written in English but translations have to take into account the cultural nuances and social mores of each writer."

Wesley stopped still, his eyes narrowed as Spike's accent has shifted. He cocked his head and started to ask a question but Spike hummed briefly as he looked at Xander and sang, "The street's alive as secret debts are paid, Contacts made, they vanished unseen, Kids flash guitars just like switch-blades hustling for the record machine, The hungry and the hunted explode into rock'n'roll bands, That face off against each other out in the street down in Jungleland." [4 Spike pulled Xander's arms around him and leaned back to enjoy Wesley's confusion.

"You were actually able to read it? In its original text?" Wesley stepped up to the table and picked up the notebook in which Spike had been mapping out his translation.

"Reading it's no problem, understanding it..." Spike shrugged and Xander squeezed tighter. His enjoyment of Wesley's open-mouthed amazement outweighed his previous caution. Even Rupert didn't know just how much time he had whiled away while babysitting Dru in learning various demonic tongues. This one belonged to his Sire and he would just have to trust Angel to keep any contact he still had with the Watchers to a minimum.

Spike had heard Angel's soft tread on the stairs up from his basement lair and was pleased to feel Xander tense behind him. Wesley, however, jumped slightly when the dark vampire spoke.

"Any luck?" Angel leaned against the door frame. He had evidently only come up to check on the prophesy research. He was barefoot and wore only loose silk drawstring pajama bottoms.

"Got you a better translation." Spike sighed, running his hands back though his hair and leaning into Xander. "Not sure it makes any more sense what with all the bleeding symbolic crap."

"It might make more sense if someone," Xander emphasized just who someone was by sinking his teeth into the muscle over Spike's collarbone, "fed and got some sleep."

"You've a one track mind, Pet. Like that about you, I do." Spike offered a tired leer and nuzzled Xander's neck. "What say we leave Peaches to pull his over-moussed hair out over this shit and have ourselves a nap?"

"Spike, I could spend all night on this-you know I can't read Ephratian," Angel said while puzzling over Spike's notes.

As Xander was dragging Spike over to the stairs, Spike called back. "S'not like you were gonna do anything but wank, Soulboy."

Angel growled.

"Did he just do Lurch?" Xander asked.

"Pet, Peaches wouldn't know the Addams Family if one of them bit him in is ass." Spike snickered.

"Well, that's a disturbing image." Xander said, and the two left taking the disconcerting scent of arousal with them.

* * * * *

Lilah schooled her expression. It could be fatal to let the Diva know she was more trouble than she was worth. The plan was going to hell. They hadn't budgeted for this contingency. A routine security check had found the remains of Glorificus' two Anubian guards. She had beheaded one and impaled the other on his own sword. She hadn't even fed on the minions. The earliest prediction of her destabilizing to the point where she would need to feed was six months, which would have been plenty of time to carry out the firm's plans.

Acquiring such exotic attendants was expensive. The firm had plans to house a supply of disposable humans when the need arose but the preliminary reports Lilah's assistant had drawn up, based upon finding Glory naked in the arboretum shrieking that 'heads would roll' was not good. There had to be some way to distance herself from his disaster.

Lilah walked into the richly appointed suite. There was no sign that it was on an upper floor of the firm's office building. It looked like any five-star hotel-provided that hotel offered an extremely exotic catering menu. The room was banked with flowers, large vases overflowing with lilies. Silver sparkled in dainty serving dishes, an ornate tea service and ice buckets stocked with bottles of champagne and beaded with water droplets. Glory was the jewel in this opulent setting. She lay naked on her stomach on the white silk divan while a small blue Noxxian kneaded her back by walking in place on it.

"I'm bored," the Goddess spat out as soon as Lilah entered.

"You have only to ask and it will be provided, most magnificent one," Lilah smiled, deeply grateful that telepathy wasn't one of this bitch's powers.

* * * * *

Spike had got up to see Dawn off and to make sure that this Stephanie and her mother were still human. Instead of getting to go back and snuggle with his warm sleeping mate he had ended up going with the Poof to shake down some snitch about one of his bleeding-heart cases.

The walk back through the sewers had been filled with awkward silences and feeble attempts to talk while avoiding sensitive subjects like Dru, the past, Xander and the future. Spike had to forcibly remind himself that dusting his Sire would get him in dutch with Red and the Nibblet, if not Xander. They emerged in the catacomb of the hotel's single-level parking garage. On the far side from the gated tunnel entrance, past closely spaced support pillars, was a heavy bag and free standing weights. From the scent of sweat, Gunn and Xander had been passing time down here.

Spike and Angel walked toward the indistinct sound of voices. They slowed their strides simultaneously at the sound of the young men's conversation.

"...she trusted me to make everything all right-I let her down. She should never have been involved with the fight." Gunn's voice was raw with suppressed emotions. As Angel and Spike peered around the pillar they saw Xander and Gunn sitting on the floor, their backs against a wall passing a bottle of green liquid back and forth.

"You didn't know-no one can. That friend of mine--the one I told you about-if he had known what was out there, I don't know that he would have been any more careful... hell, I don't know if he would have fought the good fight or hid under the bed. Jesse was always a hell of a lot smarter than me. But I do know that if he had been asked before....before it h.. happened... he would have told me to stop him from hurting anyone."

"But that doesn't make it easier," Gunn said. His voice was toneless and battle-weary and he shared a knowing look with Xander.

"No. Not one little bit." Xander swallowed hard. He said, "I was fifteen when Giles told me... 'that's not your friend, that's what killed him' but even then I knew that that wasn't the whole truth... sure, there was something else, something... dark and hungry looking out of his eyes, but part of Jesse was there too-at least some part of him. I knew that. Maybe not his soul, but something that made him Jesse and not the guy down the street... that was what made me hesitate, made me unable to..." Xander cleared his thoat. "That's what haunts my dreams too. The look in his eyes, so familiar and so different. My hesitation could have gotten Cordy killed, or me. If he hadn't been shoved..."Xander handed the bottle back to Gunn.

"You were fifteen?" Gunn said.

"So was he." Xander said.

Gunn passed the almost-empty bottle back and asked, "You really think that there's something there--beside the demon--in all vamps?"

"There has to be, man-Angel's proof of that." Xander said.

"Huh?" Gunn looked at Xander like he doubted the young man's sanity.

"Look. I should probably just shut up-more than anyone, I don't want to add to your pain. I know how it haunts you. It doesn't ever really stop and I so don't want to make things worse..."

"No. I get it. It's okay, I really want to know what you think." Gunn said.

"Angel-the souled version, he's really into paying for his sins, right?" Xander said.

"Yeah, I guess once an 18th-century Catholic always an 18th-century Catholic-he's real big on penance." Gunn said.

"Whatever. So, if he, all of him, was evicted out of the body during the bad old days....what's he got to repent? All that death, all that mayhem, that's someone else's sin-the demon, the Powers That Be, Darla; doesn't matter who, just that he wasn't there. If he wasn't even there, how could he be responsible?" Xander drained the bottle of sports drink and idly spun the plastic bottle on a fingertip.

As Gunn thought deeply, Spike watched Angel's reactions to the conversation. His face had been unguarded as the two humans speculated about the nature of souls and conscience. Gunn slowly asked, "You don't like Angel, do you?"

"Deadboy?" Xander smiled and shook his head. "Don't let this get out, but he's okay-he's really grown up."Gunn's open laughter rang and hid Spike's snicker at the incredulous look that flashed across Angel's face. Gunn gasped for air and said, "But, Cordy said..."

"Dude, I was fifteen. This tall, buff guy was stepping out of the shadows, spouting cryptic comments and stealing all the attention-of course I hated him. He looks the same now as he did when he was stalking Buffy. Buffy was exactly the same age as Dawn is now when she came to Sunnydale. That would be like you making a play for Dawn. Which, by the way, I would so kick you ass for; we clear? That was gross even before I found out he had a couple centuries on Joyce and lacked a pulse. To tell the truth, once I found out about the vampire shit he could have been a saint and... you know? He got to have friends, he got the girl, he got a shot at redemption and Jesse got swept up off the dance floor and tossed out with the trash." Xander tossed the empty bottle, banked it off the wall and the rim of a waste can. It echoed hollowly in the silence.

Angel turned away and bolted back toward the entrance to the tunnels. Spike grabbed him by the shoulder just before he reached it, turning him around and shoved him against the wall. "He's entitled to an opinion-he lived through that." Spike's hissed words were accompanied by a baleful yellow-eyed glare.

"D... don't you think I know that?" Angel choked. "If I had just stood up to Darla..."

"You? Couldn't have happened, not then. When you were able, you did. Souled or unsouled, you dusting her was the most surprising thing you ever did, Peaches. Still have trouble believing it. You were always so whipped," Spike said.

"You know... she's..." he said.

"Yeah, Dru said something semi-coherent regarding that. Just... don't say anything near Xander, eh? Last thing I need is him saddling up a posse of his minions to go hunt the bitch," Spike leaned against the wall beside Angel. He lit up a smoke and before pocketing the pack offer one to his Sire. To his surprise the older vampire accepted.

After a moment of listening to each other simulate breathing as they recycled the smoke, Angel said, "Xander has minions?"

* * * * *

That evening, Angel looked down to hide his amused smirk at his Childe's impatient fidgeting. They stood in the garish illumination of the West Hollywood strip outside a nondescript door nestled between a dance club and a sex shop. Rather Angel stood, Spike paced and smoked, alternately checking his watch and scanning the street in the direction from which the others were expected. Graham and Riley had gone into the unmarked door of the restaurant with Lindsey only a few moments ago. Angel waited outside, not liking Cordelia to be walking in this neighborhood even with Xander and the witches. Spike was with him in hopes of seeing Xander sooner.

The witches had kidnapped Xander out of bed four hours ago. As soon as Dawn had been picked up by her friend, Cordelia had mapped out her power-shopping plan and dragged off Willow and her girlfriend. They had returned that afternoon to drop off packages and enslave Xander as bag-boy/valet to give them all a chance to catch up on gossip. Spike had slept two more hours and then started bouncing off the walls and driving everyone in the hotel crazy as he bitched about everything except his Xanderless state.

The red-gold glow of the nearby shop caressed the sharp angles of his Childe's face, making soft shadows and darkening his unnatural hair color to some semblance of its original shade. Spike truly was a work of art. In flesh and form he outshone any of Angel's feeble attempts at art or creation. No mere drawing had ever captured the fierce beauty or violent tenderness that was this being. All the effort Angelus had heaped upon Drusilla's torment, or expended in teaching his cruel Penn were but a shadow of the jewel his mad daughter had plucked from the refuse in that London alley. Here was a demon unbridled by ritual or hierarchy, who had achieved infamy in a scant hundred years, even though he had been turned by a madwoman-hardly more than a fledgling herself. Spike had from the beginning only paid attention to the rules so he would know what to break. Clawing his way to Master status before most fledges would be trusted to hunt on their own Spike had made a name for himself before he had seen his first decade. Angel shook his head. It was so easy to forget. To see the childlike impatience which he displayed now or the pout he used when manipulating Xander and to forget that here stood--or rather lounged--a legend.

Spike had, in the space of Angel's contemplation, moved from kicking the tire of some parked BMW to sitting on its hood and leaning back against its windshield. A scuffed Doc Martin rested in front of him and a casually draped arm on his knee. He finished his cigarette, blowing the smoke out in an exasperated sigh as he tossed it into the street. A steely blue-eyed glare was turned on Angel and Spike's lips narrowed dangerously.

Fortunately for Angel, before Spike could relieve his boredom by beginning a round of Sire bashing, Cordelia's laugher drifted over the night sounds, heralding the arrival of the shoppers. Looking down the strip he spotted the four of them about a block away, strolling leisurely. The witches had their heads together sharing some secret. Cordelia, showing more tanned flesh than she covered in a red halter-topped sundress, was flashing her brilliant smile, obviously amused by something Xander had said. Angel smiled at the sight of them. The fact that they had lived though half of what they had was amazing, but the fact that they had come though it and could still enjoy life was a miracle.

A day didn't go by when he didn't worry about Cordelia. When it had been just her and Doyle with him, Angel had always believed that she could walk away at anytime and be safe. Now that she had inherited the visions, the Powers That Be had effectively bound them together in the fight against evil. He hated that her fragile body was subjected to the pain that had knocked a half-demon off his feet and he hated that her all-too-brief mortal existence was being spent in such a frightening and dangerous manner. She had nothing to atone for, yet she was with him every step of the way in his struggle for redemption.

She looked ahead and spotted him. Her face lit up and Angel felt an answering smile stretch across his face. He had come too close to losing her in Pylea. Since their return and Buffy's death they had been dancing around each other in sparring sessions and during late night research. Wesley seemed to think he was still trying to make up for the Darla debacle but Gunn had been shooting nervous glances at both of them, obviously due to the Angelus factor of his curse.

Xander seemed also to sense the change in his companion as he broke off his monologue with a knowing smirk. Xander looked down and Angel couldn't see what expression followed. The young man's hair was getting long and obscured most of his face when his head was tilted forward. His rolling gait had little of the bouncing stride that Angel remembered of the boy. His long legs were wrapped in a pair of black jeans and he wore a gauze shirt open at the neck and with its long sleeves rolled up his forearms. No, these were not the kids Angel remembered from their sophomore year in high school-they were adults. Adults who had been tempered by adversity and grief. It was no wonder that they were turning heads as they moved effortlessly through the gathering club crowd.

Being West Hollywood, it wasn't at all unusual when a strange man, after watching Xander walk past, approached him and started talking. Spike went past in a blur and Angel pounced and put him into a head lock. Cordelia, who had been watching Angel, started to laugh and nudged the witches before pointing. Xander was blinking in confusion. His attention was on the young man attempting to pick him up and so remained oblivious to the source of his friends' amusement. It apparently never occurred to Xander that he was being chatted up since he looked even more baffled when his new friend stepped closer.

Angel marveled that the brilliant mind, which was able to organize a civilian militia against both the forces of darkness and the secret government agency attempting racial cleansing had never served Harris well in interpersonal relationships. Xander seemed to have a blind spot concerning his personal magnetism. It apparently never occurred to him that random strangers found him attractive.

"I'm not going to kill him, you tosser. Let me go, before..." Angel released Spike mid-threat. It was odd that he felt he could take his psychotic Childe at his word but he did.

Covering the distance between the two groups in a flash, Spike pulled Xander back flush against his chest and growled, "Mine!"

Xander turned his head slightly to look at Spike, and then turned back to the man he had been speaking to. He blinked, smiled, shrugged and said, "His."

The Hagan demons who owned and ran the restaurant had been contacts of Doyle's. Angel had returned their half-human granddaughter to them after a local wizard had abducted her for dubious purposes. They were an excellent connection to the more mundane portion of the demon community. They had operated a safe-haven tavern on this site in one form or another over the past one hundred and fifty years.

Cordelia got the wide-eyed reaction from her friends she had apparently wanted. The witches were absorbed in the details of the decor and Xander was fascinated by the green flames on the open grill. After a baffled glance at the menu, Xander had whispered to Spike, "Order me something that isn't human, but won't kill me." The witches had followed his lead, only amending their request to include no meat. Wesley arrived late, having managed to persuade Fred to venture out as a sort of trial run for her excursion with Cordy and Dawn the next day. Gunn had bowed out but was planning to meet them later at Lorne's.

Apparently sometime during the morning shopping Cordelia and the witches had decided that they were going to get Xander on stage. He was currently not having any luck using puppy eyes to try and persuade Spike to defend him, or at least take his place.

* * * * *

Lilah was working late, having ordered in sushi. She was just biting into the spicy salmon when Gavin popped his head in without knocking. She loathed the little upstart. He had the nerve to imagine he was her rival. The manipulative bastard played the role of a sycophant but his ambition hung around him like a bad smell. He was young and ruthless but he was no Lindsey McDonald.

"I don't recall us having an appointment," Lilah started.

"We don't. Just thought you could use my help," Gavin interjected smoothly.

Given his penchant to help himself to everything including the credit for others' work Lilah didn't think that that was likely. "I really don't think you have the security clearance to help with any of my projects, Gavin."

Recognizing the frosty dismissal for what it was Gavin smiled and started to leave, but added just before closing the door, "Of course, Ma'am. I just thought you should know your project just hurled a Noxxian out of the forty eighth-floor window."

* * * * *

They lingered over dinner. It seemed more intimate wedged around the table in the back booth than the long table had the night before. Though their number wasn't diminished much the conversation flowed more around the large circular table. Cordelia didn't seem to mind Lindsey coaxing Fred into the conversation as much, although Wes was keeping a sharp eye on the ex-lawyer. Willow had pointedly not sat next to Riley but overheard the young man apologizing to Spike. Hearing him admit to Hostile 17 that Xander had been right and that Spike's intervention, regardless of the motivation, had saved his life, went a long way to dissuading her from the whole shovel concept. Although, she reflected, she would like to know what he had been referring to when he mentioned something regarding the 'fake stake'. Unfortunately, that conversation had ended upon Xander returning from the men's room.

Lorne's club was close enough for them to walk to in the warm summer night. Cordy had said something about the neighborhood being dangerous but judging how Angel was shadowing her Willow was willing to bet she couldn't be safer. Squeezing Tara's hand and sharing a smile, she tried to put her concerns about Angel's curse out of her mind. She tried to appreciate a rare slaying-free night without an apocalypse to abort where she could just show off her girlfriend and relax with her favorite people.

Wes took Fred back to the Hyperion. He was going to join them later. Fred had had her fill of crowds and chose to call it a night rather than go with them to meet Gunn at the karaoke bar. She offered to wait for Stephanie 's mom to drop off Dawn and make sure she was safe.

Walking down into Caritas was like stepping into some old movie, except everything wasn't in black and white. Actually, Willow thought it was quite colorful; not only the decor but the patrons were vivid and memorable. There was a six-armed woman with two mouths singing close harmony with herself to "Mama He's Crazy" on stage . Lorne's attention was on the performer but a sleek, silver, androgynous demon, slightly taller than Xander, greeted them at the door and silently, with a nod, escorted them to a reserved section with three tables pushed together.

Angel took their order up to the bar. Cordy whispered to Willow that he had an ulterior motive and was bypassing the waiter so that he could check with one of his informants. It was nice that she and Cordelia had outgrown their... well, it hadn't been a rivalry. Willow was just relieved that now that all the forced structure of high school was gone that she and Cordy could treat each other like adults. The harder part was admitting she had been as much to blame for the roles they played as Cordy. Willow knew she had let her geeky insecurity trap her in the role of research girl. It had been so easy then to blame Cordelia for putting her there instead of admitting that being homework helper and book study girl had made her feel safe in their very scary high school-even before they knew about the Hellmouth. When she thought back to her reaction to Xander and Cordy dating she realized she had been the one who was obsessed with labels and panicked when Cordy had stepped out of the stereotype. Deep down she had known she would never lose Xander's friendship but had told herself that was why she had reacted so badly. The truth was uglier. She hadn't been ready to take off her mask and if Cordy was willing to admit that there was more to Queen C than a vain, shallow beauty queen, people might have wanted Willow to look behind the computer nerd on the honor roll.

Shopping with the bitch queen of Sunnydale had been eye-opening. Cordy had known every resale shop and bargain basement in the metro area. She could assess the store with a glance and had pulled them out of a couple before Willow had seen more than the inside of the door. But she had found a lovely jacket for Tara in the perfect color.

Willow was a little in awe of how independent Cordy was. She couldn't have imagined doing what Cordy had done. The thought of picking up and relocating to a different city, getting an apartment alone... Well, sure, there was Dennis, she thought, which was probably nice when you heard a noise in the middle of the night, but Cordy paid all the bills. It seemed so grown up, more so than it had when Xander had gotten his own place. Willow was kind of dreading graduation, and not just due to crispy mayor flashbacks. If they kept up their course load, what with all the summer work, she and Tara would be graduating in the spring. She wasn't sure she was ready to start interviewing and, gasp, working. Tara read her mind, like always, and squeezed her hand under the table.

Cordy had been full of tips that, oddly enough, no longer sounded like put-downs. She had found several plain silk knit tees in Willow's size. When Willow pointed out that they weren't her style Cordelia said, "They're washable silk. First, silk wears like iron and the colors do not fade like cotton. Second, these have no style, they're a staple, like flour. You build your style around them. You can wear them with jeans or a skirt and go casual or under a suit jacket. You should start building a professional wardrobe now, slowly, so you get just what you want. You'll need at least a week or two's worth of clothing to start a job, and the chances of your first paycheck covering it are slim. Use your accessories to personalize your style. You buy if an item meets three requirements and only then; if the fit is perfect, if the color is flattering and if it has classic lines. Nothing dates clothing faster than froufrous. Trust me, it kills me to think how much I spent on trendy crap that I can't wear because it's so out of style."

Cordy had sighed wistfully over lattes before they headed back to the hotel to get Xander. Tara had been talking about an internship she had applied for in a holistic healing center just outside Sunnydale. Willow didn't know what had surprised her more, Tara pausing mid-story and saying to Cordelia, "You can always go part time," or Cordy's sad headshake. It was easy to forget how well Cordy had done in school--she had always hidden her intelligence--and college, although always treated as a given, had been more of a social event in the brunette's plans.

Cordy sighed again now as she looked around for Angel and their drinks. She had only ordered a mineral water and Willow wondered if she were impatient for its arrival because she wanted to take something for her headache. Tara seemed to have warmed to the outgoing brunette and in an uncharacteristic burst of stubbornness, while they had shopped, had refused to take one more step until Cordelia sat down and rested. Cordy had tried to brush it off, but had finally admitted how much pain the visions were causing her and how scared she was.

Just as Cordy started to stand, Spike said, "You stay with your mates, Princess, I'll find the bloody tosser." He stood in his seat, which was behind the table and against he wall, and vaulted the table in a powerful jump. Landing perfectly in the aisle he bowed to the smattering of applause and crossed the crowed lounge, heading for the bar.

* * * * *

Buffy was wide-eyed with panic. After running out the strange room into a richly paneled corridor, she found herself at the far end of a hallway lined with locked doors. She wrapped the sheet tighter around herself and forced the lock on the closest door. It was an office. The room she had been in before seemed like a private home or a hotel, but once she had reached the corridor it had seemed like the same building she had tried to get out of before. She didn't remember anything about her last escape attempt after reaching the ground floor. Failing to find a door which lead out she had just reached the point where she was going to throw something though one of the thick glass-like walls and suddenly, bam, she was laying naked while a little blue demon gibbered and jumped up and down on her back.

The door opened on a dim spacious office with a wide view of the L. A. skyline. As she frantically bolted to the phone on the desk, she thought about the demon who had been with her when she appeared in the room. She wondered if he had teleported her from the atrium to that room and if there were any more of the little blue creatures. She hadn't meant to hurl him through one of the windows, just to get him off her. Of course, it could be lucky she had slayed him before he spit something icky or stabbed her with some hidden poison. Maybe he worked for the big dog-headed guys with the swords.

She dialed home and was startled to hear that the line was no longer in service. As she wondered what had happened to the sword she had taken from the guard demons, her eyes strayed to a page-a-day calendar on the desk. August 31, 2001. Shit. Giles, she thought, I have to find Giles. There was no answer at Giles' home number and the magic shop line was busy. Willow wouldn't still be in the same dorm room, and then she thought, Xander. Buffy dialed the familiar number and almost screamed when his machine picked up after three rings. What the hell was the etiquette for this? Should she say 'Hi, not dead. Yeah, I know its been like, six months, but could you come get me? I'm in some demon-infested high rise in downtown L. A. and I really need a ride home-and a shower 'cause some creepy blue guy had his toes on me.' No, that would send him into full-out babble mode when he got the message. Speaking of message, this was just weird. Xander's voice said, "This is the Xand-man. If you want anything to do with Luther Construction, contact Abby at the site during normal business hours. If you need anything to do with the COTH," and there was an awkward pause, "er, gaming group, contact Jonothan at the Magic Box or his pager. If you want Spike, too bad, he's mine. But feel free to leave a message anyway. We'll be out of town until September 7th. Oh, and if you're planning on robbing my place, my best friend's a witch and you'll be turned into a potted plant, which won't get watered because, hey, I'm going to L. A."

She started to dial the magic shop's number again only to morph into Glorificus. Glory shrieked as she tore the sheet from her body. The receiver of the phone crushed under the power of her delicate fist. When she jumped up and down, the floor of the building shook. She shoved the desk and it crashed halfway through the opposite wall. She whirled as Lilah entered the office, "You. Said. He. Was. Gone!"

* * * * *

Spike sidled up to Angel and said, "Pet, you should have sent the drinks on over, your little girl smells of pain."

Angel whipped his head around to look at Cordelia. Before he could start over to her Lorne said, "Torsten, honey, chop chop. Can't have our guests wasting away now." The silent silver demon bowed with a smirk and carried a tray far too large and heavy for a human to lift over to the VIP area. "So, muffin," Lorne addressed Angel, "just here to wow the out-of-town family or looking for info on that prophesy you mentioned?"

"Actually, I was wondering if you had heard anything on that story that Bennie was telling when I got here?" Angel said.

"What, about how a 120 lb blueberry splattered on to the pavement outside of everybody's favorite evil law firm? Granted, Noxxians tend toward the lighter side of darkness, but anyone working upstairs would have been screened. Still, not their usual way to dispose of the hired help. Why?" Lorne lounged against the bar as he spoke and lifted his wrist to shoulder level. He held his empty hand in the shape of a glass and didn't so much as glance at it. After a moment his red eyes narrowed and he turned his head just as Torsten returned and slipped a Sea Breeze into his waiting hand. The smirk was back as the silver demon slipped behind the bar.

Ignoring the bartender, Lorne said to Spike, "That's a lovely necklace. I don't recognize the stone, what is it?"

"Silicon," Spike said flatly, draining his glass and nodding to Torsten for a refill.

Angel was torn. He wanted to find out what Lorne had heard about the incident over at Wolfram and Hart, but he wanted Cordelia to enjoy her time with her friends. She had always been surrounded by people in Sunnydale, and though she had made quite a few acquaintances during her arduous auditions, the nature of their work isolated her almost as much his demon did Angel. He wanted her to have a chance to just be a normal young woman visiting with her old chums and not drag her into yet another life-or-death situation. Surely whatever was going on could wait until the Scoobies returned to Sunnydale. Spike was obviously not happy about being reminded about the chip, although he had been frighteningly reasonable about Angel taking in two of the commandoes who had captured him. Angel suspected that Spike was keeping close tabs on him to make sure that his humans didn't get dragged into any local animosity centered around the agency.

After how well the dinner had gone last night he hadn't been prepared for Willow shifting from foot to foot out side the door to his suite early in the morning. She had followed him back to his office, saying much but communicating little. Angel had just considered sending for Xander to translate when Wes came down from one of the guest rooms still wet from his morning shower. It was all Angel could do not to physically restrain the Brit from giving the already bouncing Willow coffee before they sat down to sort through Willow's news.

After a few more minutes of beating around the bush and apologizing and explaining it was just second nature, not that she didn't trust Angel, but as she had clarified, Xander had fast and firm rules about a secure perimeter, Willow had whispered, "You have bugs."

"Well, it's an old hotel. We have a service, I could call..." Angel had been at a loss as to why this would shake the girl up so until he had seen Wesley's eyes widen and then look suspiciously around the office.

"No, oh, well, we cleaned, it's just I thought you should know... It was just a little spell, I could set up something stronger and leave you... well, kind of the magical equivalent of a virus scan, er... I figured you didn't know, what with them being a techno-magic blend, " she had added hurriedly.

"Listening devices, Angel. She found..." Wes turned a questioning look on Willow.

"Mostly listening, lucky you're a vampire... Oh, not lucky for you, but... well, if you had more mirrors around there would have been visual access as well as sound. Someone went to a lot of trouble... Is everything okay? Is there anything I can do? Angel, are you in trouble? It's just if it's dangerous... We'll all help of course, but Xan will freak if we don't relocate Dawn. He's got this wicked maternal thing going and Spike will pull you apart if you keep him in the dark... He was like that even before we lost Buffy," she said with a wince. She still tiptoed around Buffy's name where he was concerned.

Watching his impatient Childe scowl into his drink, Angel remembered how good it had felt to have Spike at his side when he had gone to check some sources as to where the listening devices had come from and how they might have been set up. The thought that they might have been there ever since their trip to Pylea was disconcerting. Leaning back on the bar, Angel was treated to the sight of Xander slipping through the crowd and heading for the bar. In Angel's opinion Xander's hair was getting far too long to leave loose. Overlong and scruffy, it had dried in soft waves that were only partly out of the collar of the white gauze shirt he had slipped over a black tank top. Paired with dark black jeans the ensemble little resembled the bright primary colors Xander had preferred when Angel knew him.

"Hey, Deadboy, all this partying cutting into your brooding schedule?" Well, he might look different but it was the same old Xander. He let Angel buy him a beer and groped Spike before heading over to chat with Lorne and be introduced to the bartender of the week.

Angel had only intended to make small talk and had meant the remark as a compliment when he had commented on how much Xander had changed. Spike growled at him and said, "Would you lay off! Know him? You don't know him--you never knew any of them--all you ever saw was her. Which is typically blind of you-they're so much of who she was."

He had loved Buffy but the Scoobies held him forever frozen in their minds as her angst-ridden vampire boyfriend. He would take it from humans but not from someone who should know him better. "Don't bring this back to Buffy..."

"I'm not, but you were so obsessed with her you never saw him. Do you remember coming back to the mansion and raging about the Slayer's white knight, that night he thwarted you at the hospital? You went on and on, told me all about the time he forced his way into your lair, the smell of fear rolling off him, and shamed you into helping the Slayer fight the Master," Spike said.

Angel was almost relieved. Of course, Spike would see all things in how they related to Xander. He wasn't blind to the way Willow had been watching him and Cordelia. He was glad Spike had not felt the need to make public everyone's concerns about his sex life and the state of his soul. So he was more than willing to let Spike say his piece, even if his impetuous Childe would insist on painting him as the villain to Xander's shining example. "I never said shamed..."

"Oh, no-not the might Angelus. Cor, I can just see it; a skinny, scared kid with nothing but a wooden cross and stones twice the size of yours..." Spike turned and leaned next to him, smirking and obviously enjoying whatever mental images his twisted imagination was providing.

"Your point?" Angel tried to sound bored but was having trouble suppressing an answering smirk.

"Did you see him, really? Angelus, he was fifteen when you were too 'afraid'--wasn't that what you told the Slayer?--to go with her to hunt her lost friend in the tunnels under the cemetery." Spike's voice had softened from his usual derisive tone. Shades of William's original accent colored it and he seemed serious.

"He told you?" Had Buffy shared that conversation with her friends? He wondered. It wasn't one of his proudest moments. He had still been deluding himself that he could remain in the shadows and merely point her in the right direction. Buffy may have been reluctant to embrace her destiny as the Slayer, but Angel had needed to be dragged, fighting it all the way, to the path of redemption.

"Willow," Spike said with a shrug and set his empty glass down on the bar. "Fifteen and he went down into the tunnels with Buffy to find his friend and you the big strong vampire...

"Spike- " Angel said. This was neither the time nor the place for them to get into this.

"Fifteen when he had to dust the same friend to save that cheerleader of yours," Spike continued.

"Spike- " Angel knew it was futile. Spike was relentless. If Angel didn't stay and listen the blond would be shouting it from the top of a table soon.

"Sixteen when he bullied you into taking a stand against the Master. Seventeen when he decided to spare Buffy the decision and tried to keep her from knowing she was killing someone she loved. Eighteen when he led tots he used to play with into battle against an ascending demon. Nineteen when he stormed the Initiative and risked his life and his sanity in that soul-melding spell. Twenty when he stood against a hellgod without a prayer. Did you ever see? Any of them? They were kids. He's not yet twenty-one and you were following his orders in that dust-up back in the Dale," Spike finished in that oddly vulnerable voice.

His humans, Angel thought, William the Bloody has indeed claimed the Slayer's team as his own. Angel shook his head with rueful acceptance and then realized something Spike had just said, "He's not twenty-one? Spike, I just gave him beer."

"Relax, you pillock. October. Hey, you didn't give me beer," Spike chuckled.

Angel smiled back, oddly glad to have his Childe at his side. "Spike...You want a beer?"

* * * * *

The crackling blue light that had surrounded Glorificus when she ransacked the atrium had shorted out much of their monitoring equipment. It was bad enough that they now had to see the goddess to know what she was up to, but this inconvenience left them amazingly vulnerable to their own people. The last thing they needed was some enterprising snake, like McDonald had been, getting his hands on sensitive material. Speaking of snake, Murrow slipped into Lilah Morgan's office unannounced.

Linwood Murrow rarely came to the thirty-sixth floor. It was the highest of the junior partner floors and Lilah had been awarded a coveted spot there shortly after Lindsey had jumped ship. Security was now the only staff present besides Lilah, and a few industrious sycophants. That last little temper tantrum Glorificus had thrown had damaged the structural integrity of the forty-eighth floor and caused malfunctions in both the main and one of the backup electrical systems. Combined with the damage from her previous attempt to amuse herself, upper management had ordered the building evacuated. They had cited concerns for the safety of the staff as their reason, as if the well-being of the janitorial staff was of great importance. Murrow himself would be more concerned with the apparent breakdown in security. Now that all the monitors were dark, he had ordered foot patrols but must be concerned with who would police the security staff. The opportunities for internal espionage were endless, and must seem a little too convenient to management if Linwood was checking up on her at this hour.

"As I recall, your budget for this project didn't mention destroying the building," he said.

"Linwood." Lilah acknowledged his presence, but was rubbing the bridge of her nose and resting both elbows heavily on her desk. "Power's a tricky thing." She lifted her head from her hand and glared at him. "She wants to see the ritual. She said we screwed up. She's sure 'he' is back."

This 'project' was Murrow's folly. Lilah was just unfortunate enough to have won the prize of working for him. It had made sense when they considered reining in the energy that had been released when Glory lost her corporeal form in this realm. For the goddess, it was surely more appealing to have sentience and cognizance. It would enable her to once again start building power, and in time perhaps lower the right wall, to if not to get back to her own world, to at least get to another which had more powerful beings to feed on. All the firm's precogs had been adamant that they would need her ability to punch into other dimensions sometime within the next six months. But Lilah was beginning to doubt that the building would still be standing by then.

"We can't allow that. She'll know..." Murrow said, as he crossed to the sidebar to help himself to the liquor Lilah kept for clients.

"I know that! We followed the ritual to the letter, but somehow she'll be able to tell that the sacrifice didn't work. Instead of a vampire as her corporeal form we ended up with a pile of dust," Lilah said. "No matter what we show her on paper she will know... I'm surprised she hasn't figured it out already."

"Are you sure she hasn't? She's not acting rationally." Linwood stopped in front of the window; whether to contemplate his reflection or watch the lights of the city, Lilah didn't know. Now he was worrying about what the Diva knew. He couldn't have worried about this before they had sucked her back into their world with a death sentence hanging over her head? Which, without a host to ground her consciousness, was just a matter of time.

"Did she ever act rationally? I'm even more uncomfortable with the six-month window now that I've met her. Until her energy begins to dissipate due to the lack of a host, she is damn near invincible." Lilah rose to pour herself a drink.

"Not so-she was defeated somehow. Has she elaborated on what stopped her from opening the portal?" He turned away from his reflection and looked at Lilah with dawning hope.

"She blames 'him', by which I gather her host screwed the pooch," Lilah said. Swirling the amber liquid in the short tumbler and wishing for ice, she added, "I wouldn't count on that kind of luck a second time."

* * * * *

Lindsey was having trouble dividing his attention between the soft-spoken witch he was conversing with and the rest of the activities going on at their table. There was a time he would not only have been able to do both with ease, but also monitor the rest of the club and mentally review his agenda for an early morning meeting. He was woefully out of practice. At least he hoped he was; the alternative was that the skills he had developed during his tenure at Wolfram and Hart only worked on evil lawyers. Mentally he groaned as he realized he was starting to use their bizarre turns of phrase in his internal monologues. He needed a drink.

Lindsey noticed Gunn struggling not to snort soda through his nose. Gunn and Xander shared an odd camaraderie. From first impressions, the young men appeared to have little in common-one from the an inner city neighborhood blighted by both crime and predators of the less mundane variety, the other from a sleepy little town and a clearly middle class background. One killed vampires, and the other slept with one. Yet they shared a blunt manner and love of the fight.

Both Xander and Gunn were making an effort to draw Miller and Finn into their conversation. Neither of Angel's newest employees possessed Xander's natural ability as a storyteller, but both listened with interest as he was recounting some tale of a beautiful Incan princess-who he had apparently dated in high school. Lindsey thought about mentioning that the last of the Incan princesses had perished hundreds of years ago, but figured if some exchange student had told him she was a princess it wasn't his place to disillusion the young man. His mind boggled, however, as he wondered how the young man had moved from a princess and Miss Cordelia Chase to the infamous William the Bloody.

Realizing he had lost track of the conversation, Tara said to Lindsey, just as Xander paused for breath, "You're making this all much more complicated than it is." Her girlfriend gaped at her and Xander grinned, mid-story.

"Pardon?" Lindsey was uncomfortably aware that he was now the focus of everyone's attention.

"You're trying to figure all this out, right? Who knows who and what it all means? We're friends. I know that the people you used to work for... they wouldn't understand, but I think you can. We're not as sinister as you think. We're just friends." Tara ended by lowering her lashes, and then looking up and shrugging. Willow smiled at her and squeezed her hand.

Xander, whose smile had grown while she spoke and seemed in danger of splitting his face said, "Cordy? You wanna give it a shot?"

Lindsey was, if anything, more confused. The stunning brunette flashed everyone one her bright smiles, including him. She continued to grin, albeit shark-like as she turned her attention fully on him. Her eyes were dancing with amusement and she folded her hands in front of her on the table. "Well, let's see." She winked at Xander. "You'll stop me if I mess up, right? Of course you will."

Xander leaned back, still smiling, and Miller and Finn leaned forward in anticipation of Cordelia's explanation.

"First, Willow fell for Xander, then Xander fell for Buffy, who fell for Angel, who fell right back at her. Then Xander fell for me, naturally, and Tara fell for Willow, who fell back, and Buffy fell for Riley, who fell back too. Then Spike fell for Xander, who apparently lost his mind and any sense of self-preservation and jumped him. And Riley fell for Graham, ditto, because apparently there's something in the water. And being that this is Hellmouth 90210, Lorne will eventually fall for Gunn, and Wesley, poor soul, will most likely end up with you." She smirked and looked over to Xander and said, "I intentionally left out the werewolf and the vengeance demon and the psycho-bitch-Slayer. Oh, and Xander's near-death adventures with Bug-Woman and Incan Mummy Girl."

That remark had Lindsey rethinking just how many of Xander's tall tales were true.

"And Dru," Willow said, smiling at Spike, who came up behind Xander and rested his hands on his mate's broad shoulders.

"I'm pretending that there is no Dru," Cordelia said. Turning her attention to Xander, she frowned with real concern and added, "You know, when she finds out you stole her honey... she's not going to be offering to turn you and telling you your face is a poem. She'll drain you."

"What?" Spike growled. Lindsey winced as he saw how tightly the vamp gripped his mate's shoulders.

"Er..." Xander said, "I told you about that, right?"

* * * * *

Dawn sank into one of the lobby chairs. Fred laughed at her exaggerated exhaustion. She liked Fred. The girl--well, Dawn knew she was a young woman, but she seemed closer to her age than Willow and Xander--was almost a cross between Willow and Tara. She would babble on like Willow about stuff Dawn could barely follow and then abruptly blush and stutter like Tara. She was glad Cordy was bringing her with them tomorrow; it would mean they wouldn't have to act like grown-ups all the time.

Stephanie's mom had been relieved to find an adult, or adult-like, person to leave Dawn with, as she was in a hurry to return to Sunnydale. Fred did most of the listening as they went upstairs and started to get ready for bed. Dawn gave her a fast-forward version of the day.

Dawn went into her room and changed into her favorite pajama bottoms. They were pink and had little yellow fortune cookies on them. Truthfully, they had been Buffy's, but Dawn remembered buying them on that last trip to Old Navy the girls had gone on with Joyce. She and Fred laughed when they met in the bathroom that their rooms shared, since they both wore the same pink Victoria Secret's tee shirt that said 'Angel' in silver script.

They were laughing too hard to brush their teeth as Dawn made up an impromptu cheer that ended with "Go, Brood-boy!" Suddenly, Fred wasn't laughing. She crouched down in the small space between the sink and the toilet, her wide eyes frantically scanning the room. "What's wrong?" Dawn whispered, hunching down herself. Year of experience, or at least invented memories of experience, taught her to always assume everything was dangerous.

"Someone's here," Fred whispered back.

Dawn started to listen then could almost hear Xander's voice saying, 'run if you can, but if you can't, hide-then figure out what's after you.' She looked at Fred and said, "Come on."

* * * * *

Xander inhaled deeply. The air felt cooler after the stuffy club. He was glad that they had decided to take a walk to talk in private. They weren't fighting, not really. Spike had stalked ahead of him but Xander figured he was just enjoying the drama. They hardly ever fought. Snarked? All the time. Bickered? Sure, just another form of foreplay. With Anya, he had always expected her to someday start acting human, to get with the program. But, Spike? Yeah, right. Xander smiled to himself. His thumbs were hitched in the back pockets of his jeans, a distinct disadvantage over baggy cargos, into which he could have shoved his hands in the pockets.

He noticed Spike unobtrusively looking into the windows of the shops they passed. Since the blonde was deprived of the privilege of seeing himself, Xander figured it was his way to make sure Xander kept his attention on his allegedly pissed-off lover. Not exactly a hardship, seeing that the one downfall of having Spike up close and personal as much as he was, was that Xander didn't get nearly enough chances to check out that ass. Well, if you didn't count all the quality naked time they spent.

Xander ambled along, not looking the least bit contrite for supposedly making time with another vamp. He hoped Spike was doing the fake-angry stalk in the direction of the hotel; it had been a long day. Several of the shops were open, which freaked him out since it was after midnight. Not just the mini-mart but a massage parlor, a movie house, and a tattoo and piercing emporium.

Xander paused to examine the colorful anime designs in the window. He had only meant to glance but some of the drawings were amazingly detailed.

"Not getting any of that kiddie stuff, are you?" Spike purred in his ear and slid his arms around Xander's waist. Obviously, short-attention-span boy had decided to forget how offended he had been that Xander hadn't shared the story of his encounter with Drusilla. "Should get a spike, luv, one dripping with blood."

"I have a Spike and if I wanted you dripping with blood I'd open a vein," Xander murmured and leaned back into Spike's arms.

After Spike was able to pull his attention away from Xander's neck, he seemed as fascinated by the photos and drawings as Xander. "Let's go in, Pet."

"No, no," Xander said, shaking his head and digging in his heels. "I know you. You'll kiss me until my brains leak out my ears and I'll end up doing something stupid."

"Xander." Spike nibbled on Xander's ear lobe, sucking the tiny bit of flesh between his blunt teeth.

"Umph," Xander gasped and clarified, "Spike, I am morally opposed to paying people to hurt me."

"Er?" Spike pulled his face away and gave Xander a questioning look.

"Needles, ergo oww," Xander said.

"How about me?" Spike asked, cocking his head.

"No crisis of conscience at all in paying someone to hurt you. Let's go." Xander grabbed Spike's hand and pulled him into the shop.

* * * * *

Six months. Lilah stared out the window. Linwood, of course, had called it a night after dumping the Diva back into her lap. Home to his wife, fifteen years younger than he was supposed to be, and a perfectly groomed trophy picked from the cream of the debs ten years ago. Susan resembled his physical age now and would most likely be traded in within the next five years. He'd do the same with the next one, provided he stayed in the good graces of the firm. Disposability like that was one of the reasons Lilah willingly squandered her Friday nights pursuing her career. Sure, she was just as likely to get thrown to the wolves here, but at least then it would be the result of her own actions and not on the whim of some creature like Linwood.

Glory was unstable. Quite the understatement, but it needed to be addressed. Lilah had spent the better part of the evening--when not playing nanny, guard, press secretary and gofer for the Diva--reviewing the projected time frame of the degeneration of the goddess' cognitive processes. Their best guess when the planned host disintegrated from the influx of power had been a full year before she would have to be put in receivership. If the recent incidents were any indication, they would be lucky to keep her lucid for the full six months.

It was time to hedge her bets. Lilah moved purposefully to her desk and pulled her rolodex up on her computer. She began to sort through her contacts, looking for another way to open a portal.

* * * * *

Xander held Spike at arm's length as he examined Spike's new piercing. The harsh fluorescent lights accentuated his lover's extreme pallor. The two bars which now bracketed Spike's scarred brow seemed jarring and new. Spike had opted for niobium barbells because he could get the cool matte black, so that they wouldn't reflect any light while on patrols. They did look good, and Spike hadn't even flinched when they had been inserted. Xander had shut his eyes and flinched in anticipation-twice. Spike had assured him it didn't hurt and had done his best to talk Xander into piercing a nipple. Xander tried to imagine wearing something as obvious as Spike's piercing to the site and couldn't. He just didn't have Spike's brazenness, which he figured must be necessary to carry off this look without appearing to be a total zeppo. Of course, he could always get a less-visible piercing, like Spike wanted, if he got extremely drunk.

"S'not permanent," Spike whispered into his silent contemplation. "I can take it out anytime and it'll heal right up."

"No, I like it." Xander blushed at the thought of the hemostats that had pinched Spike's brow at a more intimate and easily concealable spot. "I think it's sexy. Can't wait until Dawn sees it. Er... Back me up here, Dawn is not piercing anything until she is sixteen-come on, say it with me."

Spike chuckled and leaned into a kiss, pulling Xander into his arms. The staff was apparently immune to PDAs among their clients and didn't so much as glance over from their own private conversation at the two men kissing.

They stepped out onto the night sidewalk as Xander was once again vetoing the idea of getting 'Property of Spike' tattooed on his ass. Spike pretended to pout and Xander pretended to believe it was real.

A short distance from the brightly lit strip of stores they passed a small park. Xander jumped up onto the retaining wall and walked its narrow waist-high ledge and Spike followed beside him on the sidewalk. Their conversation veered from their impressions of the fang gang and plans on what to do while in L.A., to the politics of the Hellmouth and whether or not Giles would think they were checking up on him if they called home.

Not surprisingly, the subject of Angel and Angelus came up. "So... How does that work?" Xander asked, and abruptly sat down on the end of the wall.

"Huh?" was Spike's coherent reply, which Xander thought was understandable, since the vampire had probably assumed that he tripped and been preparing to catch him.

"Well..." Xander looked up at Spike. "If I understand it, Darla gets dusted, the lawyers from hell suck her back into her human form... not any human form, but Darla-the-hooker from way back, currently dying of VD, but she's alive. Why? I mean, why not take any random girl and have the demon formerly know as Darla inhabit that corpse?"

"Wouldn't have been the same. Definitely wouldn't have had the same pull on Peaches." Spike scuffed his Docs and didn't meet Xander's eyes. The vampire had been shocked that Xander knew about Darla, but Cordy had spilled that when she came to Sunnydale. Xander was more concerned with Spike and his reaction to the conversation. Spike often proclaimed that he was evil and that he was a demon, but he rarely talked about what that meant to him. Most of the time Xander was okay with that-it wasn't like he went on and on about what being human meant. But then, Spike had an idea of what being human was-Xander didn't want to remain completely in the dark about the most important being in his life.

"Do... do you remember?" Xander felt himself blush and pulled Spike closer by his belt loops. Spike now stood between his knees, but was still doing the bashful examination of his boots. "I know you remember being William, or rather, remember what William knew and felt before he died... but... do you remember a time before you were a vampire? The part of you that makes you a vampire... your demon, does that part remember a time before... I'm not saying this right..."

"No, Pet, I understand," Spike whispered and buried his face in Xander's hair, still not meeting his eyes. "It's... part of me. I mean, the memories don't fade, they're just... this would be easier if you had ever done hallucinogens."

"What?" Xander pulled away with a startled laugh. Even in the dim light he could see how intense Spike's eyes were. He reached up and fisted the loose blond locks, pulling his lover down for a kiss. "Translate, please," he murmured.

"See.. when I look at you like this... well, you look eminently fuckable, but pretty much how you would have looked to me when I was human. When I shift to my true face, what you lot call my game face, I see other stuff; heat, movement, even a bit of mage sight-just enough to tell if someone is sporting a glamour or whatnot. But I know how to interpret between the two types of sight, so I would recognize a photo of someone with my human eyes, even if in person I had only seen them with my demon eyes. But... in the before... I had... different senses, different ways of processing the input and I was in another realm with other physical laws."

"Hell?" Xander whispered.

"One of them... there's a lot of hell dimensions, luv. Some are horrific, others are like... the world of perpetual Tuesday," Spike said and smirked.

"Eek," Xander said. He lifted his face to kiss his lover and groaned, not because of the pleasant grope Spike was initiating, but because his phone vibrated.

"If that's one of your fucking Children..." Spike growled.

Xander glanced at the number and keyed the phone on. "Dawn?"

* * * * *


Wesley was deep in a conversation with a Noxxian when Lorne stopped by their tiny out-of-the way table. "Lovely, you better get ready to leave. I have a feeling your party is clearing out. You have trouble at home."

Wes apologized to his companion in the being's native tongue and laid a number of bills on the table, more than necessary to cover the drinks they had shared. He followed Lorne over to where Cordelia was still sitting with Lindsey and the witches. Wes felt eyes tracking their movement and turned to see Miller nudge Finn and nod to Gunn over by the bar. The three men moved with purpose and demons stepped out of their way as they too converged on the Seer. Angel appeared swiftly, standing behind Cordelia's chair, looking both concerned and protective.

"Fred called, you have uninvited guest. She was scared and not too clear, but she's not alone. She handed the phone to Dawn. Dawn said they would hide and that Spike and Xander were en route," Lorne said.

Almost as one they headed for the door. Lorne stopped Cordelia with a touch on the elbow. "I know everything will be fine, but call and let me know that, all right?"

"Sure. Of course, if Spike gets a hold of anyone going near Dawn, I am so billing him for the cost of cleaning." She smiled, but her eyes were worried.

* * * * *

Dawn added Xander to the mental tally of Scooby traits that Fred possessed. They had scampered up a cordoned off stairway to the more derelict levels of the hotel. Not content to just find an out-of-the-way closet and wait for rescue, Fred was setting traps. Quietly, she would scan a room and grab an object and then move to the next room. She had chosen a corner suite as their hide-out. Now Fred struggled to lift an old-fashioned fire extinguisher half as big as she was up almost to ceiling height.

"If you tell me what to do, I'll help," Dawn whispered.

Fred jumped as if she had zoned to some place inside her where she was alone in this. Dawn watched her swallow and wondered if she were trying to remember how to talk.

Unfortunately, once she focused on Dawn she not only would tell her what to lift or tie off, but ramble on in a disjointed whisper about the physical principles behind the traps they were rigging. She sounded a bit like Willow when she was thinking of combining two or more spells and somewhat like Xander when he was arming and assigning patrols. Either way, it was making Dawn more nervous.

Dawn was just glad they had managed two calls before the battery on her cell phone died. Xander was going to kill her if he found out she had drained most of it during the fashion show, IMing Stephanie, who had sat next to her.

* * * * *

The look on the vampire's face was one of shocked confusion as his companion suddenly dissipated in a cloud of ash for no apparent reason. Unbelievably, a human pushed him back against the black Mercedes they had requisitioned from the firm to come check on the hotel. Gavin had told them that the listening devices had all suddenly cut out in the early hours. Given the chaos that had plagued the security division, he wasn't surprised. This was supposed to be a routine mission, just wait outside while the sweepers went through and checked and replaced the bugs. If it hadn't been another vampire's lair the firm wouldn't have bothered to send vamps as look-outs.

The dark eyes of the human that held a gun to his throat were hard and crazed. The vamp knew all the faces of Angel's people, and this wasn't one of them. Must be one of the vigilantes that worked with Charles Gunn. The vamp almost smiled in anticipation-he was going to have a snack. The gun turned until it was just under his chin, pointing up toward his brain. Sure he was strong enough to toss this human a good twenty feet, but if the guy got off a shot, would he want to survive with a big hole in his head?

"It's a squirt gun, moron. Filled with holy water," the human said levelly. That was disturbing, the vamp thought. That, and the obvious lack of fear in the human's scent. "How many?" The gun began to burn against his neck and the vamp realized that if the human pulled the trigger he would be dust. "How many others? What's your mission? Make it quick or I go find out myself, and you'll join your friend."

"You won't shoot? Promise?" The vamp looked into the hard eyes of the human and wondered if he were dead either way.

"You have my word; if you tell me the truth, I won't shoot," the human said.

"Three. Technicians. They're to check the basement, the lobby and the two floors above it. This is just a security sweep. We," the vamp thought quickly, "we're part of a service. The owner hires us to monitor his security system."

"Any other sentries?" The human didn't blink at the lie, and the vamp hoped he bought it.

"No," the vamp said.

"What's the all-clear sign?" the human asked.

"What?" the vamp asked.

"How do you let who... ordered the sweep know that everything is fine?" the human asked.

"I file a report with my superior... Why do you need to know?" The vamp felt the stake and realized he was about to meet his partner's fate.

The last sound he heard before oblivion was a deep accented voice say, "Well, Pet, you kept your promise. You didn't shoot him."

* * * * *

Cordelia floored the gas pedal before taking the car out of park. Angel, of course, had dashed off to his car before the rest of them had made it out of the club. Gunn, Graham and Riley had run down the block to where Gunn's truck was parked and she had gotten Wes and the witches. Wes had parked Cordelia's car around the back of the club after taking Fred home. It seemed to take forever for the four of them to get in her little Neon. She swung out onto the main drag, cursing her father and missing the shiny red sports car she had had in high school. She knew Angel would get there first but hoped they would get there before the boys; the witches had the best shot at keeping down the body count. Fred might annoy her at times, but no one was hurting Cordelia Chase's family.

She saw a light change ahead and cut illegally through a gas station and out the other side, swinging back onto the street beyond of the paused traffic. Wes was braced in the front passenger side, hanging on to the 'oh shit' handle. The witches slid around the back seat, into each other and the doors. Cordelia spared a brief thought to the packages in the trunk and ran the next light.

* * * * *

Lilah waited for the elevator, then on a whim walked to the security station on that floor. She hoped that the guards had checked on Glorificus recently and she wouldn't have to risk a visit. She slowed as she heard voices arguing. Gavin was hissing out orders to one of the guards to send someone to check on his people.

"Well, well, you have people now? You are moving up in the world. What are you doing here, Gavin? You're not on the list of people cleared to be in the building," Lilah said. She briefly turned her attention to the three security guards, who rapidly found some other place to be under her calculating stare.

"There... was a break down in communication. I was merely seeing that security continued to monitor an important project," he covered smoothly.

Lilah longed to make this obsequious boy sweat. How dare he think he could play in her league? Did he really thing she was as gullible as his last boss? His machinations had earned him a promotion but he had no idea the kind of players he was up against-she could work with that. Come to think of it, he might make the perfect fall guy when the Diva project went down the toilet. Now to just find out what kind of trouble he was up to on his own.

"Unfortunately for you, this kind of break in communications is fatal. I have the authority to have you executed for being here during a lockdown," Lilah said smoothly.

"What?" Gavin lost some of his oily smoothness as he looked around to see if they were alone.

"Don't even think about it," Lilah interrupted his train of thought. "What have you screwed up? I'm not having the senior partners find out I let a bumpkin like you stumble around a supposedly secure site."

"I haven't 'screwed up' anything. I sent a patrol over to sweep the Hyperion. Surveillance cut out this morning," he said.

"Surveillance?" Lilah hissed. "By whose authority did you plant surveillance equipment around Angel? This hasn't been sanctioned. You're going to end up as spare parts if 'your people' implicate Wolfram and Hart in any illegal activity. Angel is far too important for the likes of you to deal with-"

"MacDonald is back. He's staying in the hotel," Gavin said.

"What? Damn it! How long have you known?" Lilah glared.

"Less than twenty-four hours..." Gavin gulped at the look.

"And it never occurred to you that that might have something to do with your surveillance cutting out?" Lilah said.

* * * * *

Angel expected to see many things after finding the abandoned car out front, surrounded by the scent of holy water and two piles of dust. Two humans in black coveralls dangling upside-down from leg irons attached to the frame of the chandelier wasn't one of them. The chain that lifted and lowered the chandelier had been adjusted so that the human's faces hung at eye level. He knew the shackles would support their weight, having been designed to hold him, should it be necessary. However, he had his doubts about the ceiling joists of the old hotel, as his enhanced hearing picked up the ominous creaking from above.

The sound of scuffling from the stairway leading down to the parking garage and gym drew his attention away from the flailing humans. Xander manhandled his captive up the stairs and sent him sprawling onto the floor of the lobby. "Hey! Deadboy! Just in time for the fun. Let's make popcorn."

"Xander..." Angel's attention jarred once again, although he didn't take it entirely off of the wild-eyed young man, to the sound of Fred and Dawn coming down the stairs. They were helping Spike walk, one under each shoulder. Fred was apologizing at a rapid rate and Dawn was begging Spike not to kill Fred because Dawn liked her.

Xander's captive made the mistake of trying to stand, only to have one of Xander's large feet placed in the center of his back and push him flat onto the floor again. Xander ignored the man's cry as he was stepped on and crossed to his mate. "What happened?" Xander lead Spike to a couch and sent Dawn to get blood.

It was Fred, who came over to clutch Angel's arm, that broke his stunned speechlessness. "I'm so sorry I hurt your Childe, Angel. Really. I didn't mean to... well, it worked, the trap, and I meant that, but I didn't want that... not that I didn't want it to work, but I wanted it to work on whoever was here and well, he was here but he wasn't... I may have used to much centrifugal force..."

"We hid upstairs," Dawn clarified, as she sat on Spike's other side and offered him a mug of blood. "Fred and I made traps, she's real smart," Dawn directed the last comment to Xander, who merely nodded and stroked Spike's now-healing skull. "We rigged this real heavy fire thingy to fall when the door opened, um... a dead weight, right?" She looked at Fred, who nodded and scooted a bit further behind Angel. "It worked, but the bad guys never made it up that far, only Spike did. It fell, caught him square in the chest and sent him about twelve feet through the air to land head first in a plaster wall, which, by the way, is now pretty much toast."

"At least you didn't damage your piercing," Xander whispered, brushing his lips against his lover's hair.

"You got pierced? Oh, that's so cool! I want one!" Dawn said, just now noticing it.

"No, not until you're sixteen," Spike and Xander said together.

* * * * *

Cordy pulled to a stop next to Angel's convertible just as Gunn's truck pulled up behind the Mercedes. When the two groups emerged from their respective vehicles, they looked at each other over the piles of dust and realized two things. One, all the lights in the lobby were on; and two, neither of them had grabbed Lindsey when they left the bar.

Together they filed through the main entrance, only to interrupt a fight between Angel and Xander over whether or not to add the third intruder to the chandelier. Dawn was sitting next to Spike, dabbing at his hair and remarking that she hoped the blood wouldn't ruin his new color. Fred walked out of the kitchen with an enormous pink bowl filled with popcorn, thus silencing Angel and Xander.

"Now there's a woman who knows how to think in a crisis," Xander said, relieving Fred of her burden and joining Spike and Dawn on the couch. "If we haven't told you," he added to Dawn, "we're very happy you got those calls out." She smiled and traded him her bowl of bloody water and her damp cloth for the popcorn.

Tara and Willow hugged Dawn and took her up to bed to debrief her on her day with Stephanie and make sure she was really as okay as she said she was. Cordy called Lorne, both to let him know Fred and Dawn were safe and to make sure he still had Lindsey. He did, and Gunn went to retrieve him, hopefully before Angel realized he had been misplaced.

* * * * *

Gavin drove by the Hyperion. The company car was parked out front and the services van was down the block. The place was lit up like a Christmas tree, but no one was outside. He let two security guards out and they each drove one of the vehicles away. Once the lawyer was sure no one had seen them leave, he followed. He wondered if he would be able to pad the Diva project with the cost of the missing team. Judging from the ash on the Mercedes, Lilah was not going to be happy.

* * * * *

Xander yawned hugely. Angel had lowered the chandelier so that the intruders were on the floor, but had left the leg irons on them and still attached to the frame of the chandelier. He looked at Spike, who rolled his eyes. He could almost read Spike's mind. The fun was over. Angel wouldn't let them even scare the humans. If it had been back in Sunnydale, Xander would have wrung out every last scrap of information out of them. He knew that whoever they worked for would terminate them, whether they talked or not, and if someone was out there gunning for him or his he wanted to know about it. But this was Angel's town and Angel's enemy; as long as his people weren't the target he would let Angel handle it. It wasn't like they would be here that long.

It was too late to pack up the girls and head for Sunnydale without risking getting stuck on the road at sunrise. Not to mention, Dawn's life would be utterly ruined if she didn't see designer boy tomorrow.

But unless Deadboy leveled with them tomorrow, they were out of here at sunset. Willow should be able to keep a magical eye on Dawn while she did the town with Cordy. They should be safe in public places, at least with the witches keeping an eye on them, magically speaking.

Xander figured Angel needed some privacy to talk this over with the fang gang. He wanted to hash this out with Spike; more than anyone, Xander trusted Spike's instincts when it came to protecting Dawn. They needed to talk, and Xander needed his lover's cool strong arms around him to help soothe the adrenaline that was still rushing through his system from this near miss. He caught Spike's eye and felt that odd vertigo that sometimes hit when they seemed to be almost one entity. He knew with utter certainty that Spike wanted to talk as well.

"Well, thanks for dinner. You got a real interesting town here, Deadboy. We're going to turn in. Good night," Xander said.

"Xander?" Cordelia said. "You're just going to bed?" She gestured to their captives.

Xander shrugged. "Not really our business, is it? Say good night, Spike."

"Good night, Spike," Spike said dutifully, winking at Fred as he went past.

* * * * *

Lilah almost growled as her secretary-of-the-week scurried out of the office after leaving the carafe of black coffee. If Lilah got her hands on Gavin before Linwood did, she would skin him alive-literally. That fool's pitiful attempt at 'surveillance' had cost them five personnel, two of whom had been with the special security unit. Linwood was livid over the morning news. Instead of discreetly disposing of his hirelings, Gavin had made an amateur attempt to rattle Angel.

She swallowed two aspirin and washed them down with the coffee. It had been a long night and the coffee had been a peace offering from the assistant to cushion the news that the Diva was bored-again. Maybe she could kill two birds and send Gavin to entertain her; if he didn't survive the experience, no harm done.

She had spent most of the wee hours of the morning going over every scrap of information in both the Glorificus project and the Angelus scenarios. The precogs were unsure why a portal would be necessary to facilitate his changing sides but were making dire predictions that Darla's return to L.A. would herald the need to either bring in or remove a major player, and that whoever this random factor was, killing them wouldn't make Angel's fall as probable as sending them to another world.

Lindsey was what was most troubling. He had shown an unparalleled ability to shake every tail that the firm put on him. As whatever information he had left with became less and less timely, his attempts at extorting his own safety should have failed. Unfathomably, the senior partners were insistent that he be 'persuaded' back into the fold, rather than eliminated. This odd response to his defection from their consortium was definitely not a whim.

Somehow, McDonald must have transformed from a lackey to a major player in the end game. The fact that he was alive and that all of his records were not sealed but nonexistent spoke volumes. A newcomer to the firm would never know he had worked here. If Lilah had not kept her own notes of their time as co-managers of the Special Clients Division she might have conveniently forgotten the smarmy bastard too. It was only through a careful review of petty expenditures that she had been able to piece together the efforts the firm had made to turn McDonald's path away from the city of angels-or would that be, she thought, the city of Angel?

Putting on a headset attached to the jack in her personal laptop, Lilah keyed the first of many files recorded in the Hyperion over twenty-four hours prior to the surveillance cutting out. Maybe there was something salvageable from Gavin's train wreck.

* * * * *

Cordelia dashed toward the sound of the crash, and stopped in the doorway of the lounge. The small television, which normally sat on a counter off of the employee kitchen, had been tuned to the local news, although she hadn't been listening to the chatter. Angel apparently had been, as he had just hurled it into the wall.

"What is your damage?" she said, to cover her shock at his behavior.

"You saw?" Riley asked as he and Graham came up behind her. Angel's response was to shift back out of game face.

Graham elaborated, "It's all over the news. The guys from last night were found drained down by the wharf."

"What?!" Cordelia whirled to look toward Angel, confusion clouding her face.

"You know I didn't..." he started.

"Of course you didn't," she said. Sitting down on one of the straight-backed chairs next to the dining table she paled with shock. "I can't believe this."

"Where was Spike?" Riley asked.

"Spike never left his room after we released the captives. And for God's sake, if you want to keep your kneecaps intact, don't even think that question too loud near Xander," Angel said, as he stopped behind Cordelia and stroked her hair.

Graham stepped closer to Riley and placed a hand on his shoulder. He said to Angel, but watched Riley intently, "We knew that whether they talked or not Wolfram and Hart would consider them compromised. This 'message' is only an efficient use of resources."

"What message?" Cordy said.

"That they can frame him at anytime. The Initiative, the Watchers-they're not the only ones who know about vampires. A few strategically placed corpses and we'll have a mob of villagers with torches outside this place." Graham's frank statement and utter lack of concern in his voice made the words more chilling.

"No," Angel said, as Cordelia grasped his hand and looked up with concern. "This... incident, it's... this doesn't feel right. There's something off."

"It's a new player." Lindsey's soft drawl preceded him into the kitchen area. He was barefoot and shirtless, in a worn pair of soft blue jeans. "Whoever it is knows that you're the target," he continued, leaning his shoulder against the door frame and hooking his fingers in his belt loops, "but they either don't know, or have lost sight of, the objective." He laughed softly. "Lilah must be venting steam from her ears."

"Could you explain to the new guys?" Riley said, indicating Graham and himself with a jerk of his head.

Cordelia seemed much calmer at Lindsey's words and explained, "Wolfram and Hart don't want Angel dead; if they did, he would be. Er, more dead. They want Angelus in the driver's seat and wreaking havoc in the final conflict. Yeah, I know, sounds like some straight-to-video flick, but that's their goal."

* * * * *

Upstairs, Spike lay awake-worried not about Dawn, but about Xander. His mate slept heavily beside him. Xander was all for heading back to Sunnydale as soon as the sun set. The boy had always been a believer in overkill as the best insurance policy, but he was rapidly surpassing Spike in the 'solving your problems with violence' arena. Before Buffy had died, Xander had made the perfect second-in-command. Unquestioningly loyal, he had still never hesitated to point out flaws in her admittedly limited strategies and offer up ingenious solutions to the threat of the week.

Spike had thought, when Xander had begun to shine after taking up not only leadership of the Scoobies, but acting as Master of the Hellmouth, that the boy was simply growing into his own. More and more though, he noticed the fine cracks that the unimaginable pressure was putting in Xander's iron will. The young man felt so responsible, for all of them. Truth was, no matter how good Xander was at protecting them, they would die-they would all die eventually.

Buffy had understood when Spike had pointed out that eventually the tide of evil seeking to take her down had to succeed. Xander had never accepted that his love wasn't enough to protect his friends. Losing Buffy had almost broken him, and Spike didn't want to contemplate what losing one of the girls would do to his boy.

Last night, Spike has suffered one brief moment in the lobby where he couldn't have said with any conviction that Xander was just playing the part of the crazed, let's-kill-em-all human to frighten the intruders. Spike had played along. On their patrols where he was forced to act as interpreter, they had often adopted roles, with Spike as the reasonable vampire who acted as if he cared about whatever demon snitch they were roughing up, leaving Xander to be the wild-eyed human with a hard-on for vengeance. He only hoped that the fact that it had been their girl who had been frightened by the intruders hadn't pushed Xander to choose the peace of mind that having them safely disposed of would bring, over remembering he was a white hat.

Speaking of vengeance, Spike had had a word with Angel, vamp detective, about tracking down the demon bint. He knew Red could probably do it with a few keystrokes, since she had been the one to give Anya a paper identity in the human world, but he also knew the witch couldn't keep a secret from Xander, if the news turned out bad. Not that it wouldn't be tempting to string Anya's entrails on their tree this Christmas, but he just wanted Xander to know she was all right. He wanted Xander to know that where she was, wherever she was, it was where she chose to be. Then, maybe Xander wouldn't feel guilt that he was happy without her.

Xander rolled over, slinging an arm over Spike's thighs, since the vampire was sitting up against the headboard. Xander nuzzled Spike's flank and then opened one bleary, brown eye and growled, "You're up? Why are you up?" He accompanied his questions by stretching said arm further across Spike's lap and attempting to pull him back to the glomping hug which was his preferred position whenever their sleeping times coincided.

"Pet, we have to talk," Spike said.

Xander turned his face back against Spike's thigh and bit him.

"Xander!" Spike pinned the human in the blink of an eye.

Xander smiled, and without one ounce of sincerity said, "Uhm, I slipped."

"You slipped?" Spike said. His hold on Xander's wrist was loose but firm and would have been effective if Xander had made any attempt to be released. Instead his clever human simply faked a yawn, and as he stretched his longer arms out to the side pulled Spike down flush onto his chest.

Leaving his arms out Xander kissed and nipped at Spike's mouth until the vampire began to return his attention. Spike released his hold on Xander's wrists and slowly moved his hands along the warm, tan arms, reveling in the feel of Xander's skin and the relaxed muscles moving under it. Xander smiled into his kisses as Spike began to rub against him. As Xander bucked up into the contact he also tilted his head, offering up a mouth-watering expanse of neck, which Spike licked from shoulder to earlobe, stopping briefly to suck over his binding scar. Xander began to make delicious breathless moans in anticipation of a different sort of climax.

The scent of his mate's arousal hit Spike like a board to the back of the head-not that had ever happened. Er, often. It was overpowering, and he shifted to his demon visage without any conscious effort. The strong man whimpering underneath him demanded attention. Spike pulled back to appreciate the sight of Xander's passion. Those soul-filled eyes held only desire and love as they steadfastly met his golden gaze. Xander laughed and lifted his head. Forehead to forehead, his eyes dancing with glee, Xander whispered, "You're such a tease."

Spike laughed through his fangs. Only this man had ever brought him this singular joy. He kissed Xander almost chastely and lay him back on the pillow. With a sudden reverence, Spike slowly lowered his fangs to the mark and sank them into Xander's flesh. Life, fresh and flowing, exploded onto his taste buds as Xander's semen exploded against his flank. The smell of his mate's spent desire mingled with the succulent scent of his blood. Killing a Slayer, pickling himself in Jack, a thousand high-risk moments in over a hundred years of unlife and nothing--nothing--was as intoxicating as this connection that just seemed to keep getting more amazing by the day.

He only tasted the blood that rose to his mark. It was the taste and aroma he savored, as he had no need to feed. Swallowing Xander's warm coppery blood, Spike came against his panting mate. As the flow quickly stopped, Spike carded Xander's thick hair and enjoyed the sight of his sated lover. When it seemed as if his favorite work of art would doze off again Spike prompted, "Talk, Pet."

"Talk?" Xander whispered, and pulled Spike down to lie beside him. Opening his eyes, Xander blinked in confusion. Spike mentally slapped himself; he had forgotten rule number seven-talk first, sex after. Apparently sex did something bizarre to human brains and made Xander incapable of being coherent. Not that Xander's odd inability to talk during sex, when he could babble on at during just about any other extreme situation Spike had ever seen him in, was news. It's just that Spike was usually the one trying to initiate sex when Xander was trying to sort through the relevant facts of a blatantly unnecessary conversation. Looking into his mate's uncomprehending eyes, Spike had an idea why, at those times, Xander looked so frustrated.

"Yes, Pet, but it'll wait 'til after our nap," he whispered and snuggled down next to his human.

* * * * *

"I'm bored!" Crash. Water dripped down the richly papered wall on to the pile of drenched lilies and shards of shattered crystal now heaped on the credenza. Glorificus had already turned her attention away from the mess. It no more distracted her than had the fizzling crackle produced when she had hurled the serving bowl full of fruit through the wide screen television.

Gavin smoothed an agreeable expression onto his face. He knew Lilah was punishing him for the unsanctioned surveillance. He had been sure he could show her up in front of Linwood. Perhaps he still could. She had given rather vague orders to keep the hell god happy. He could use that. If he succeeded he would have major influence over this project, and if anything went wrong it would all be Lilah's fault.

* * * * *

Faith slowly climbed the metal stairs. It was dark, but then it was often dark. There was a feel to the air, a scent of impending violence and the coiled anticipation slaying had always brought her. As she reached the top of the stairs she saw she was on a large scaffolding. Standing at its edge was Buffy. It was then she knew it was a dream. She had never had the ability to control her dreams. Way back, when it had all seemed so new and as if she were some superhero, her Watcher had told her she would eventually be able to use her dreams. Something about how once she realized she was dreaming she could focus on the prophetic elements, but that had never happened.

Buffy looked so different from the teen queen of Sunnydale High. Different even from the happy co-ed whose body Faith had borrowed. She seemed pared down, honed to her most basic elements. God, she looked thin; not healthy thin or I-work-out-a-lot thin, but the sparse lean frame of a survivor who had shed all but the most necessary elements.

Faith must have made a noise in the dream. Perhaps her footsteps had echoed or she had gasped at the sight of the other Slayer. Buffy turned to look at her. Her eyes were sad and there was an air of defeat about her. Faith started to speak, not knowing what to say, but Buffy gave her a small, understanding smile and turned back to contemplate something over the edge of the metal scaffolding on which they both now stood. Faith moved to stand beside Buffy and looked down into a whirling blue maelstrom. A large portal gaped below them.

"Buffy! No!" The cry came from the stairs that Faith had just come up. Whirling toward the voice, Faith saw a girl, roughly the age she had been when she became had been chosen, clutching tightly to the railing and sobbing. There was something so familiar about her. Faith tried to remember something, like when a word or name was so close that you really understood where the expression 'on the tip of my tongue' came from.

Faith looked at Buffy to see if she knew who the girl was. As their eyes met all the pain and pride, the anger and angst seemed to well up and fall away. "You'll have to help them," Buffy said.

"Wait, B., I..." Faith reached out hesitantly. So often their attempts to understand each other had erupted into violence and that seemed dangerous here above that gaping maw.

"The hardest thing to do in this world, is live in it," Buffy said, and dove off the platform, taking sound and sight with her.

Faith jolted awake. She looked around the rec room. None of the other inmates currently watching Rickie Lake seemed to have noticed she had dozed off. Hard to believe she could, with how vocal they all were while shouting at some no-good ex, who had just been asking for a bashing being on that show. Slayer strength made her less vulnerable than most; still she didn't normally doze in the public areas. She'd had a dream, and it had seemed important. She struggled to hold on to the details before they faded.

She wondered about the girl. Was she the next Slayer? Was the dream sent to her to somehow get word to the Watchers on who to look for? She hadn't been impressed when they had stopped by to see her. She had been paranoid ever since. The desperation in their eyes might have been due to not having a Slayer to watch, but Faith had been expecting them to correct that problem at any time.

* * * * *

Lindsey ducked out of the lobby as he heard Cordelia, Fred and Dawn getting ready to leave. Angel had been shadowing his Seer all morning and Lindsey didn't feel like encountering the thick-headed lunk. The more he saw the souled vampire try to interact with the human world the more he could kick himself for how much he had overestimated him in the past. Angel had almost no interpersonal skills, and seemed to rely on standing around looking deep and thoughtful to cover the fact that he really wasn't that bright. Except for the whole 'Scourge of Europe' rep, Lindsey couldn't fathom why the vampire was at all important in how the final battle would swing. Maybe Angel was some sort of idiot savant and would stumble into a fate that would save the world, Lindsey thought, because if this was their best hope, he'd picked the wrong side again. It had been easier back when Angel, merely being a vampire and having a soul, had been enough to make Lindsey stunned at all the implications and possibilities.

Unfortunately, familiarity had indeed bred contempt. Angel reminded Lindsey of far too many darlings of the campus who found that by standing around and keeping their mouths shut, that people would, if not think they were deep at least not realize how truly dim they were. Good-looking men who had never tried to make conversation or turn on the charm, rivals whose only obligation seemed to be to look decorative-they had infuriated him in the days when he was working two jobs and trying to put himself through school. Angel sometimes seemed the embodiment of those favorites of fate. Being a ne'er-do-well had earned the rebellious son eternal life, being the embodiment of evil had earned the vampire a soul; all the pitfalls that destroyed other men seemed to bless this creature, and yet Angel brooded and sighed as his minions danced around, anxious to make it all better.

Lindsey looked up to find Wesley watching him with quiet amusement. The room he had ducked into was lined with mediocre shelving and had a battered conference table covered with notes and books. The Brit sat in one of the armless straight-back chairs that surrounded the table, looking as if he had been up all night studying for a final he knew he would flunk. Of course, being the brains of this operation must be a high pressure job, and quite frustrating given the candlepower of the rest of Angel's staff. Lindsey wondered if Wesley had to break all his thoughts into Angel-sized pieces or if the vamp just trusted him and realized he wasn't the thinking part of the team.

"This secret, forces-of-good information or can anybody take a gander?" Lindsey gestured to the scrolls and notes.

"Gander? Umm, yes, feel free, this may actually concern you," Wesley said. The Brit adjusted his glasses and made a point of lifting the volume he was currently perusing, but as Lindsey pulled up a chair across from him he felt the other man's gaze linger on him. If it hadn't been for Cordelia's off-the-cuff comment the previous night he would have chalked it up to the normal mistrust Angel's staff seemed to have for an allegedly former 'lawyer from hell', but now he was uncomfortably glad he had put on a shirt. Soon though, all thoughts of the ex-Watcher were driven from his mind as he became absorbed in the dark flowing script on a legal pad offering translation notes on an obscure prophecy regarding the world wrecker.

* * * * *

Cordelia laughed as Dawn gaped at the tiny, ancient woman, who emerged from the long black limo clad from head to toe in red leather. The delicate grande dame wore skin-tight leather pants paired with a bolero jacket and accompanied by calf-high boots and a jaunty cap which sported silver studs. The woman crossed not ten feet from where Cordy, Fred and Dawn were sitting in the sidewalk cafe and walked into the boutique next door as if she owned the place. Given her dubious fashion sense, Cordelia thought, that was highly unlikely. Cordelia had put the morning news out of her mind and was dedicating the day to schooling Dawn on the secrets of appearing haute couture on a limited budget. After the fashion show, they had spent the day prowling the stores of Rodeo Drive, although they had yet to make a purchase.

Once they had refueled on mochas Cordelia would steer her apprentice to the best second-hand and knock-off shops in LA to apply their current research. She was glad that her previous trip with the witches would enable her to weed out the ones without fresh merchandise. They really needed a couple days to get a working wardrobe for the new school year. Maybe Xander could be talked into staying-they rarely got invaded twice in one week.

The waiter was just clearing away their cups when Dawn went silent in the middle of a story about what a member of the audience had been wearing at the fashion show she had attended the day before. At first, Cordelia attributed this to the presence of the waiter, who was cute in a loser/not-working actor sort of way. Yet when she looked at Dawn she saw that rather than blushing, the girl had turned white as a sheet. Cordelia quickly followed Dawn's wide-eyed gaze and saw a stunning blonde on the arm of a well dressed Asian man.

They had emerged from a white limousine, crossed the sidewalk without so much as a glance in either direction and went into the neighboring boutique. The woman was elegantly understated in a simple blue dress that probably cost at least two months' rent on Cordelia's apartment. She could have been an actress or model but was more likely some trophy wife to a balding, fat, inattentive husband. Sour grapes much, Cordy thought, but pushed her uncharitable jealousy aside and tried to figure out what was the matter with Dawn. The girl was almost hyperventilating and was still staring at the door of the boutique.

Cordelia reached across the small table and laid her hand over Dawn's, "Dawnie?"

Dawn blinked and turned her fearful look on Cordelia but said nothing. She then gasped and looked around frantically. Fred, with survival instincts honed from years of hiding, whispered, "Let's go home."

Cordy wasn't sure if Dawn was looking for someone or for some place to hide. "Dawnie, honey, what's the matter?" Looking back at the limo idling by the curb, Cordelia noticed the vanity plate which read WH666.

"We have to go!" There were tears forming in Dawn's eyes as she struggled to communicate through her obvious terror. "I... We... Xander... Take me back. Take me to Spike and Xander...please!"

"It's okay. Come on." Cordelia quickly paid the check and hustled the girl and a wide-eyed Fred to Angel's car. Everything about Dawn's reactions screamed Hellmouth and she didn't feel ready to deal with whatever it was on her own. Rather than set off their brood of overprotective men with a phone call in which she could convey no details, Cordelia engaged her Sunnydale driving mode.

Dawn hugged her knees to her chest the entire ride home and bolted past a startled Angel and up the stairs as soon as she entered the hotel.

"What happened?" Angel was at Cordelia side before she could blink.

"I'm not sure, but it's not good," she said.

Dawn burst through the door sobbing and practically dove onto Spike. The vampire scrambled to make sure all his dangly bits were covered as his mate shook off his post-coital sleep.

"She's back. She's back. She's back." Dawn's whispered words had an oddly autistic feel to it and Spike feared they were going to lose her to the near catatonia that had claimed her after Buffy's death.

"Hold on, Nibblet," he said, pulling her into his covered lap and stroking her hair as Xander looked at him wide-eyed and helpless. "We're here. I've got you."

"Talk to me, Dawnie," Xander said, reaching for his jeans and trying to dress under the sheet. "Who's 'she'? What's got you scared? We'll take her down together, honey, just talk to me."

"Glory. I saw Glory. She got out of a limousine. Oh, God! I saw Glory," Dawn's voice rose in volume and in pitch.

Xander looked up as Willow and Tara came through the still-open door followed closely by Angel and Cordy. "What the hell happened?" he snapped at Cordelia as he stood and zipped his jeans, wishing he had had time to wash up and put on underwear. While part of his mind catalogued Tara taking Dawn into her arms while Spike dressed, unconcerned for his audience once Dawn's attention was off him and Angel's nose twitching at the musky scent of sex, the bulk of his attention was on Cordelia.

"This blonde got out of a limo, with one of the lawyers from Wolfram and Hart. She walked right by us and didn't pay any attention, just went into a story, but Dawn freaked. Who is she? What's going on?" Cordelia stepped back into Angel's arms and he pulled her back against his chest.

"Glory?" Angel's vampiric hearing had obviously caught every word Dawn had said. "I thought she was dead. Didn't you say Buffy had destroyed her?"

Xander snagged Spike's discarded tee shirt from the night before. "Hey," Xander said, his voice muffled as he put it on, "I saw you dust Darla-these friends of yours have issues with letting dead demons stay that way."

"Then it's a good thing you were planning to leave tonight," Angel said, seeming already lost in thought about what he was going to do.

"No way. You can't run from Glory. We tried that. We're taking her out. It's the only way to be sure." Xander shoved past the stunned vampire followed closely by Spike.

Angel and Cordelia followed, leaving the witches to look after Dawn. Still shadowed by his lover, Xander strode down the wide staircase into the lobby. Ignoring a cringing Fred he shouted, "Hey, lawyer-boy!" As Lindsey emerged from the library with Wesley he continued, "I need a core dump on everything you know about Wolfram and Hart."

* * * * *

Lilah rounded on Gavin, fists clenched at her sides. The boutique was oddly untouched, given the shambles the Diva had left of her quarters. An old woman, dressed expensively and obviously a customer, was dead and the shop girl sat drooling in the corner, rocking back and forth, murmuring some nonsense rhyme. The Diva stood like a statue her-a beautiful and deadly work of art. Glorificus had her fingertips pressed gently against her temples, and had a look of rapture on her face. Not that after the last twenty-four hours Lilah wouldn't like some of whatever it was she was on, but the last thing she wanted to explain to Linwood was a stoned hellgod.

"You said to keep her amused." Gavin backpedaled in the face of Lilah's near-homicidal rage. Around them a cleaner crew from the firm was getting rid of the evidence. Hopefully, by evening the strange and mysterious disappearance of the two women wouldn't even be a blurb on the news.

"By which I meant anything up to and including your own ritual suicide, but I never gave you permission to remove her from a controlled environment," Lilah snapped.

The cleaners lifted the mindless shopgirl off the floor by her elbows, and as they dragged the limp form past her, Lilah heard her chanting, "Two Slayers, no waiting," over and over.

* * * * *

"Stop sulking," Cordelia said, and handed him a warm mug of blood.

Angel had no time to wonder when the impeccable Cordelia Chase had overcome her aversion to icky bodily fluids to see that he feed. He wasn't sulking, but thought he would sound like a four-year-old if he pointed that out.

He was irritated. Xander Harris had gotten more information out of Lindsey McDonald in the last hour than Angel had gotten in the entire time he had dealt with the lawyer. He refused to admit that it might be because Xander showed no emotional reaction to any answer, didn't interrupt, and had an uncanny ability to drill down on important details. Spike was taking notes on everything Lindsey said and making lists of information Xander told him they would need.

When Tara came down to update them on Dawn, Xander gave her the list and told her to have Willow power up the laptop. As she headed back upstairs, Angel felt a strange prickling sensation when Xander added, "Tell her we're going all out, and have her make up a shopping list."

"Xander," Angel said. "You can't declare war on these people. Lindsey, tell him..."

"Tell him what? That they're dangerous? I think he gets that better than you," Lindsey grimaced at the cold coffee he had just sipped.

"Listen, Deadboy, I get it, but you have been doing the whole diplomacy dance with these guys for what? Three years? Fine. You can go right back to dancing once I disarm the hellgod. The lawyers from hell are yours, but Glory is ours and we are not turning tail and hoping she doesn't hold a grudge." Xander rubbed his eyes.

"Xander?" Willow's voice came down from the gallery. "I started... stuff, and I can get most of what I need delivered 'cause hey, it's L.A., but can you get me five hundred gallons of holy water?"

"I'll make some calls-give me an hour," he said. At Angel's incredulous look he added, "What?"

* * * * *

Cordelia marveled as, true to form, a U-Haul showed up within the hour. "Oh, my God, Aura! How are you!" The former Cordette was a junior at UCLA, but they rarely crossed paths; Cordy had avoided her friend, ashamed to no longer be the Queen C everyone expected. Aura introduced her friends. One was a fellow coed, but the other two were aspiring young actress, one of whom--Janet--Cordy had met at an audition.

"We're part of the L.A. branch of C.O.T.H.," Aura said.

The young women shamelessly ogled Gunn and the commandos as they unloaded the truck and stacked its contents in the lobby.

"This been tested?" Spike asked as Graham sat down a ten gallon jug of Polar water.

"We use it all the time, and it's never failed before," said one of the girls.

"Open it." Spike nodded to Finn, who was putting down the container he had just carried in. Riley broke the plastic seal and peeled it off. "Stick your fingers in, " Spike commanded. Riley complied and Graham stood close. Holding out his forearm, Spike said, "Touch me." Riley extended one damp finger to the vampire's exposed flesh. A sizzle sounded as he made contact.

"Vampire!" The young ladies each reached for one of the large bottles.

"Hold it." Xander's voice boomed from above and he ran down the stairs to his lover. "He's with me," he said putting himself between Spike and the women.

"Oh, my God! You're like, him, right? You're that Spike guy! This is so cool! You killed a dragon and you're like five thousand years old and you killed that hell-god person and... this is so cool! Really, it's an honor," the tiny brunette gushed as her sidekick giggled and nodded.

Cordy looked at Xander, who shrugged. Interrupting Spike's fan club, which had grown to include the two other women now clustering around the blonde--who to be honest looked rather dazed--she said, "Not that I'm complaining, but where did you get five hundred gallons of holy water? Do you know how expensive this is?"

"Oh," Janet dismissed the growing pile of bottles, "Father Juan, down at IC, he's like a hundred and three. He doesn't say mass any more but he'd bless anything, including a truck, for a fifty-dollar donation to the orphans and hey, if the truck is filled with bottled water... "

After the girls left, Cordy lifted an eyebrow and said, "Five thousand years old?"

"Don't look at me," Xander said.

Gunn, Finn, and Miller started to move the water to where Willow had set up her magic lab. Xander dragged Spike up to their room to go over the plan. As they crossed the lobby and walked up the stairs Cordy heard Spike say, "What the hell was that about, Pet?"

"Hey, you were a legend long before you started dating me. You know legends... well, they grow a little with each telling." Xander sounded embarrassed.

"Yeah, not what I meant. I know why all your friends are birds--'cause you're a nancy boy--but why are they all insane?" Spike drawled.

"Whoa, glasshouse-boy, you dated Drusilla for like a million years. I may have you beat on quantity, but you win, hands down-" Xander said.

"Right, don't go there, luv." Finally they were out of earshot.

* * * * *

Lilah watched Glory. The crew had simply picked her up as if she were frozen in place. The hellgod now stood in the center of her room. She hadn't moved so much as an eyelash since Lilah had burst onto the scene at the shop. This was more than some sort of intoxication brought on from her impromptu meal. After grilling Gavin about just what had sparked this episode, Lilah had determined that the Diva had fed not from hunger, but from boredom.

Gavin had sounded surprised that Glorificus hadn't even looked at the merchandise. The stupid boy had actually thought to amuse a god with shopping. The Diva's minions had most likely procured everything for her in the past, and if the hellgod had thought at all about why they were at the boutique, shopping would not have crossed her mind. Gavin had described the amused look in Glorificus' eyes as she slipped behind the women as they examined a handbag and how she had plunged her fingers into both skulls.

The idiot boy wouldn't live long enough to develop the ability to shrug off the habit of thinking of their clients as human. Lilah had long ago given up any surprise at the actions of the special clients. Gavin had made a fatal mistake in assuming that because the hellgod looked like a beautiful woman that she could be treated as such. Lilah was sure she could use this to get Linwood to terminate the obsequious young lawyer. Now, she just had to find away to cover up a dysfunctional hellgod, should Glorificus not emerge from contemplating her inner beauty.

Her earlier calls had not led to a connection who could generate portals at will, but a rumor that there was a player in town who might be able to deliver Angelus to the firm before the precogs indicated Darla would return, thus negating the need to open the portal. Her contact was going to set up a meeting with the one being who had survived several previous encounters with the souled vampire, and had almost as deep a connection to him as Darla.

* * * * *

Faith rolled over, pushing her sweat-soaked hair off her face. Dim light streamed though the bars of her tiny cell and she opened all her senses to the stillness of the prison's night. There was none of the muffled sobs or nighttime ravings she had become so accustomed to and she cautiously lowered herself down from the upper bunk. Her cell, for the moment, was private.

The unnatural stillness was broken by the sound of the cell door, all the cell doors, rolling open. That in itself should have set off a multitude of alarms and brought guards running from all directions, but there wasn't a sound. There was a muffled feeling to the air that she had always associated with major magic. Remembering Wolfram and Hart owed her major payback, Faith crouched in the far corner of her cell and prepared for the worst.

The worst came in the form of a tiny bouncing blue spark. The spark zoomed straight for her and stopped instantly an inch above the tip of her nose.

"What the fuck?" She tried to pull back and see the spark without crossing her eyes but it followed.

"Come. Come," It hummed in a genderless buzz.

"What? Why? Would you back off?" She swatted at it, furiously waving her hand in front of her face.

It bounced back and continued bouncing about the cell and sort of giggled, all the while saying "Come. Come."

"I am not going anywhere-especially with you." Faith frowned and began to get dressed. If this thing was setting her up, well, she had fought naked before but no matter what she had told Buffy's little entourage, it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. The thought of the late Slayer gave her pause. Maybe this wasn't payback from the lawyers. Maybe the Watchers needed a new Slayer. As in brand new. As in whack Faith.

That gave her an uncomfortable feeling, to say the least. On one hand, she really didn't want to die. On the other, there were things out there, and while she was in here, dallying with redemption, people were dying. Maybe she owed it to her destiny to let the bastards kill her, to let another, better suited to the role, be called. The world was a fucked up place and without B. to watch over it, there was no telling how bad things could get.

"Who wants me to come?" she asked the still-humming spark.

"The seer says come. Come. Come." Its hum increased in volume and Faith got the impression that the spark was fond of this seer.

"What seer? Who does this seer work for?" She wondered if it could answer. Anyone trying to set her up would be hiding who they were-wouldn't they?

"The seer of the unbreathing warrior of light. Come. Come. Hurry. Come." It bounced out the door to the cell and back in like a tiny dog trying to coax a walk out of its owner.

Faith knew only one unbreathing warrior of light, but the spark hadn't said Angel sent it. Why would Cordelia want her to come? Glancing around the cell, she grabbed a few personal items--there weren't many--and followed the spark.

The reason for the eerie silence was evident in her trek out though the open doors. Every being in the prison--guards, prisoners, other staff--was stock still in place, like a giant game of freeze tag. Each one was paused between one instant and the next. All the doors were wide open and as Faith finally stepped off the prison grounds, she heard each and every one swing shut in unison.

"Hurry. Hurry. Come. Come." The spark urged her by zipping around her head and dashing off repeatedly into the darkness. Faith followed the spark at a jog for almost a mile before looking back to see all of the outer lights, which had been noticeably absent, blink on. "Hurry. Not stand-come." The spark began its zipping again.

"All right already, I'm coming." she said with irritation. After another mile she saw it. Sitting in the middle of nowhere, without a light or a building in sight was Angel's great big old boat of a car.

* * * * *

McDonald had to admit he was impressed. Angel had invited Lorne over to pick his brain about any rumors concerning this Glorificus. Xander, however, had latched on to Lorne with the same tenacity he had used in questioning Lindsey. Xander asked questions that never seemed to occur to the souled vamp. The human appeared to be better versed in the subtle dealings of the demon world; he not only asked who was doing what and who was talking to whom, but would ask how another, unrelated third party felt about certain recent alliances. He seemed to realize that a single change anywhere could set off a wealth of consequences. The young man would have made a great lawyer.

Xander had, at first, appeared willing to just listen to Angel question Lorne, until the Pylean had mentioned that someone had been asking for Spike that afternoon. The person had been a half-breed from whom the firm occasionally bought information, and had only heard that Spike might have been there the night before. Given that Spike and Xander had left early, the snitch was unaware that Spike had been with Angel's party. The informant seemed to think it had been a chance meeting of Sire and Childe and that only the location--Caritas being magically-enforced neutral ground--had prevented one of their legendary dust-ups. Upon hearing this, Xander's eyes had lit with unholy glee and he had started interrogating Lorne about the snitch. He had even somehow co-opted Lindsey to play secretary, since his lover was off on some errand for him.

"Xander, I don't think..." Angel said. The detective was shifting uncomfortably in the doorway of the library as Lindsey, Wesley, Lorne and Xander sat around the conference table. The notes on the prophesy had been usurped by schematics of the firm's office building, detailed charts of the surrounding buildings and underground structures, along with various lists in Xander's nearly illegible handwriting and Spike's precise clerk-like script.

"No, no. I can work with this..." Xander bounced in his chair and clicked the speed dial on his cell phone. "Are you done?" He asked by way of greeting. "Well, what's taking so long?" Lindsey thought that the young man sounded like an anxious lover rather than someone plotting to invade the devil's law firm. "Well, hurry up... I got an idea! We're gonna have so much fun." Angel groaned and Lindsey smothered his smirk in his hand. "Uh huh," Xander said. "No, go as fast as you can, Angel will understand if you get a ticket. Hurry back."

"Why will I understand..." Angel started and stopped when the young man disconnected the call and batted his long lashes, while giving him an innocent smile. Lindsey lost it and made an odd snorking sound when the vamp said, "Where's my car?"

* * * * *

Cordelia bit her lip and sorted through the pile of clothes. Xander had asked her to put together something stealthy. Of course, being a man, when she had asked him what sizehe needed, he had blinked in confusion and then said, "About your size." Her brief sojourn into working retail had shown her that every man answered that question the same way. She had taken in returns size two through twenty for women who brought in birthday presents she had sold their husbands.

Thankfully, Tara and Dawn had donated clothing and spilled the beans about who would be wearing it. In addition to wondering if there was anything here slutty enough, Cordelia now had to anticipate Angel's reaction-not to mention Wesley's.

Abandoning her task, Cordy decided that although she had promised to let Xander break the news to Angel, it would be best if she had a word with Wesley herself. She left the third-floor bedroom and stopped next door to see if Fred knew where he was, and ask if she had extras of shampoo and stuff for their 'guest'.

* * * * *

Gunn waited in the cab of his pickup. He had adopted the spy system which had worked so well for the C.O.T.H. when the Initiative had shut down all the cell phones. Miller had been impressed with how the kids had passed messages via joggers from civilians loitering in the area. Gunn had borrowed the manpower from his crew. He felt a little guilty in disrupting their regular patrols, but as his buddy Carl had pointed out, it all balanced out in that this way they didn't feel as indebted for all the commando training.

He noticed Carl rounding the corner, and wondered if anyone would notice that this was the third time this evening that this guy had stopped to tie his shoe by his truck.

"They're still lapping the lobby. It's odd-all the foot patrols. All that should be on their monitors. They have a guy checking all the cars-not that any are let into the garage, but he's waiting at the entrance. He sent two away. " Carl took his time, not looking up as he tied.

"Anything else?" Gunn asked.

"Yeah, I just noticed. That upscale bar off the lobby-it's closed, on a Saturday night," he said.

* * * * *

Lilah sank into the chair behind her desk. She was getting too old for this. She lifted her purse out of a drawer and removed a bottle of pills. She had a prescription, so that there could be no question as to her right to have them, but she rarely permitted herself this weakness. It would too easy for someone like Gavin to exploit. But, as this looked to be her second sleepless night, she shook out two of the tiny white tablets and rinsed them down with cold coffee.

It was just possible that all her phone calls would pay off. She had someone working on setting up a meeting, which would be tonight if fortune smiled. Hopefully she could make Glorificus obsolete before upper management realized the expense this defunct project was going to generate. How does one disposed of a used hellgod?

* * * * *

Faith was almost to the car when a light flared in the deepest shadows off to the left. A sharp, aristocratic face was highlighted by the flickering flame of a lighter. Definitely not Angel, but her senses screamed 'vampire'.

"Get in-now," he said. William the Bloody, dressed in black jeans and a tee shirt and looking like a wet dream. She remembered him from her brief sojourn in Buffy's body. He hadn't seemed dangerous that night in the Bronze; she had even toyed with him. God, she thought, had she really been that stupid or just incredibly naive? She hadn't thought she had much to lose then, but he wasn't some freshly risen minion-she must have been fucking suicidal.

"Well, don't just stand there," he growled, "get in!" He nodded toward the passenger side. It had been so long since she had been this close to any vamp but Angel. Angel no longer sent her instincts into Slayer mode, but she had no idea how long she could stay near this... creature, without doing something stupid.

He said nothing on the ride into LA. He drove fast but safely and didn't appear to be watching her. Of course, if she staked him going ninety down the freeway she'd be a pile of ash too, or worse. As he parked across from a creepy old hotel she asked, "What's going on?"

"Innit obvious?" He pinned her with his laser-blue gaze and said, "It's the end of the world."

The vampire followed her up to the hotel entrance in a silent glide. As Faith opened the door she heard raised voice. One she had almost expected, and one which made her want to squirm with guilt.

"You can't just make a decision like that," Angel shouted. From the entryway Faith could see Cordelia pulling on Angel's arm while Xander held a sobbing Dawn tucked under his arm.

Dawn. How could she have forgotten Buffy's kid sister? She was obviously the girl from the dream, but until that moment Faith had somehow completely erased the girl from her memory.

"Made and done, Deadboy-and if not me, who?" Faith was stunned at the aggressive growl in the young man's voice; this wasn't the Xander she remembered.

She hadn't really paid any attention when she was last in Sunnydale. She vaguely remembered a girl hanging on him... Ann? Anna? He looked good in clothes that molded themselves to his body. And what a body; this wasn't the same skinny boy she had known. He stood toe to toe and eye to eye with Angel. His shoulders were just as broad as the vampire's and even though Xander was only human he radiated a restrained violence that was new and exciting.

"Glory is our responsibility," Xander insisted as Willow's quiet girlfriend took Dawn from him and ushered her up the stairs.

* * * * *

Gavin slammed the door to his office, which was six floors below where he deserved to be. Lilah had suggested he go home and get some rest. He knew she was up to something, but with the security system still sporadically on and off line he couldn't bribe a guard to leak any information to him. She had gone so far as to imply she would need his help with Glory tomorrow, which almost guaranteed that something was going down tonight. Using his private line he called his contact at Caritas.

* * * * *

Gunn had left Carl in charge of the surveillance. He had a feeling that Harris was only going to use his own people, but wanted to see if he could get dealt into the game. It was probably smart to stick with faces that Wolfram and Hart weren't familiar with but he had enjoyed working with the Sunnydale crew and wanted to again.

As he entered the hotel, Gunn noticed a big-eyed girl looking like she would like to bolt right back outside lingering at the doors. Spike was nearby, but it was unclear if he were her guard or just an amused member of the audience. The girl was a pretty, fragile-looking thing that reminded Gunn strongly of Fred.

"It's okay," he said to her, hoping to put her at ease. "They butt heads all the time but it doesn't mean anything."

She turned a stunned look on him and then smiled tentatively. She really was beautiful. Without any sign of make-up and in nondescript gray attire she still radiated an energy. She wasn't the only one startled by his comment. Spike snickered and Angel gaped and said, "Faith?"

"I... I understand that the world's going to end, again," she said. She pushed back her long brown hair and twisted her fingers around a lock in a nervous gesture.

"I can't believe you did this," Angel said to Xander.

Xander ignored him and nodded to the tiny brunette. "Faith," he said.

"Xander," she said, looking down and shuffling her feet.

Gunn tentatively touched her arm and asked, "Are you all right?"

Xander cleared his throat and seemed to shake off whatever tension the girl's presence had added to the room. "Gunn? Cordy has a room ready for Faith, next to Fred's. Would you show her the way? Faith... you may want to clean up; we're going to go dancing. Your kind of dancing."

As they went up the stairs, Gunn noticed that the arguing was much more subdued.

* * * * *

Tara had taken Dawn out of the battle zone. Willow was frantically preparing for the rest of the evening and Tara needed to rest after what they had just pulled off. It was one thing to see the 'Omega Plan' on paper, and quite another to implement it.

Willow had been right; most of the work had gone into the preparation. The actual spells done tonight had mostly involved setting off other spells that had been primed by ritual all through the summer. She was almost grateful for all of Xander's contingency plans. Willow really needed an outlet to stretch her powers and to hone that clever mind of hers, and preparing for the worst kept her busy, and prevented her from meddling with more dangerous magics out of boredom.

Up on the third floor she and Dawn settled into a cozy alcove, much more like a living room than the spacious lobby. She was unsure where to start and Dawn was tensing up in anticipation.

"Ah... Dawn. Willow wanted me to ask you, just... How much do you remember about Faith?"

"Well, Mom liked her. Buffy was jealous at first. Willow used to defend her and then... something happened, besides the Mayor, because Willow was really angry..."

"Yeah, about that... Listen, it's really important that we don't mention Faith and Xander around Spike. Willow... well, I agree with her, she thinks that we should try to leave the past in the past," Tara said.

Tara was twisting her fingers together and focused on her hands in her lap, so she missed Dawn's shocked look until the girl gasped, "Faith and Xander dated!"

"No! Well, not exactly dated. It's just better if Spike doesn't know-" Tara broke off as one of the old floorboards creaked. She was sure that with the luck of the Hellmouth, Spike would be standing there.

Instead, Gunn nodded and smiled. "She's going to shower. I didn't want to hang around outside her room so... if you could just send her down, I'll go see if we have any leftovers. She shouldn't go on whatever Xander has planned without eating."

As Gunn headed down the stairs, Dawn leaned over to Tara and giggled. "He has it bad."

* * * * *

It had been heaven to shower alone. Faith had changed into a pair of workout pants and a black camisole. She assumed Cordelia had supplied the toiletries. Most were trial-size samples, but she had been grateful for the mascara and lipstick, even though they were obviously the free gifts offered with a fragrance purchase. She had felt naked without makeup and could now face Buffy's team and their justified hostility.

Faith heard the music as soon as she left her room. She followed the soft guitar and a sweet smoky voice to a small parlor in front of the now-defunct elevators. It had a homey look but she figured Angel spent few of his daylight hours there since wide floor-to-ceiling windows looked down over the front drive. The singer had his back to her and his audience consisted of Willow's girlfriend and Buffy's little sister. He sang,

"Through the storm we reach the shore
You give it all but I want more
And I'm waiting for you

With or without you
With or without you
I can't live
With or without you" [4]

"Faith." Dawn interrupted his song and Faith couldn't have been more surprised when she saw that the singer, who turned quickly, was Lindsey McDonald.

The lawyer looked ten years younger without his corporate suit. He was well-tanned and his sun-streaked hair fell into his eyes. As he pushed it back, she noticed a beaded turquoise bracelet around his wrist.

"Um, hi," Dawn said, with a ghost of her sister's smile. She waved nervously and looked to the blonde beside her.

"You're looking well," Lindsey said. He appeared relaxed as he watched her step further into the room, but Faith could almost see the wheels turning behind his eyes. Apparently she was a bit of a surprise to more than just Angel.

"I'm Tara. We met before... when... you weren't yourself," the blonde woman said with a sly smile.

Faith returned the smile. The shy girl had hardly been able to speak to Faith when she thought Faith was Buffy and Faith appreciated Tara's attempt to lighten the atmosphere. The dark Slayer felt awkward and she was consciously trying not to make fists. Circling around Lindsey, she still hung back, not wanting to appear threatening and unsure of just how relaxed she should try to act. She put both hands behind her and clasped them tightly together so she wouldn't look as nervous as she felt.

Desperate to break the growing silence Faith said, "So... does anyone know what's going on?"

"Being an ex-evil lawyer," Lindsey drawled and winked at Dawn, "I'm kind of out of the loop. But I think that the out-of-town team is planning to take down Wolfram and Hart."

"Oh, no." Dawn bounced. "We... " She looked at Tara and at her nod continued, "That's not in the plan. Xander promised Angel the lawyers are his. We're just going to use the Olaf maneuver on Glory."

"Okay," Lindsey said to the nodding, bouncing teen. He looked at Faith, who was now in front of him and a little to the left of the sofa that Dawn and Tara were on. Faith answered his raised eyebrow with a shrug.

"Glory..." she said. "Angel said that she killed Buffy." Faith winced as she saw pain in the girl's eyes.

Tara put an arm around Dawn's shoulder and said, "No. Buffy defeated Glory-we all thought she was dead. Buffy died to keep the walls between the worlds intact. Glory had already started to lower them and Buffy used her life force to heal the breach."

"But now this Glory is back?" Faith asked.

"Having a hellgod in your debt could be useful in many ways. It looks like the firm has either taken her on as a client or has a client in need of her abilities," Lindsey said.

"So, why am I here?" Faith perched tentatively on the arm of the sofa.

"You and Xander are going to bust Glory out, Spike is going undercover, and once we get her out of their wards, Willow and Tara are sending her to the world without shrimp," Dawn said.

"Huh?" Lindsey and Faith said together.

"Oh, there's a world without shrimp, and a world of perpetual Tuesday, but Willow thought that would be too cruel even for Glory." Tara said.

* * * * *

Lilah stationed the remaining four Anubians inside Glorificus' chamber. There was little danger of her wreaking havoc in her earlier manner as she still stood in the center of the room in almost the same position as earlier. The building was almost as secure as normal so Lilah's biggest concern was that some internal threat would use the hellgod's vulnerability to discredit her. She knew Gavin had remained in the building, so she gave orders that permitted him to visit but that would prevent the Diva from being taken on anymore unauthorized field trips.

The silent jackal-headed demons had refitted the room after her earlier morning tantrum. It was once again an elegant boudoir filled with frilly amenities. Almost as an afterthought as she left, Lilah ordered the demons to place Glorificus on the divan.

She decided to stay close. Besides, she thought, this floor was much better warded. Lilah ordered a sycophant to set up the conference room for her meeting. Once everything was to her liking, she sent the last of the staff home. It was hard to train help and she didn't want her 10:30 mistaking anyone for an appetizer-his file said he was impetuous.

* * * * *

Gunn sat in awe as the tiny brunette polished off her third roast beef sandwich. She licked her fingers and flirted shamelessly, asking if he had said something about dessert. Faith seemed less defensive once she had showered and changed. Or maybe it was just seeing old friends, although there was something up with her and the Sunnydale crew. He was glad he had overheard Tara briefing Dawn on Faith and Xander's history. It put the awkwardness he sensed into perspective. Gunn mused that Harris had been really chancing it to send his current to pick up his ex, but apparently no harm had come from it. He still wasn't sure where Xander had sent the vampire, having skirted the muted muttering coming from the library when he had been hunting up some food for their guest. He hoped that Faith was going to stick around once Xander had taken care of this Glory. Since Xander seemed to have gotten custody of the friends after their break-up, maybe Faith could be persuaded to join the agency.

* * * * *

Lorne disconnected the call on his cell phone . He looked at Spike, sitting next to him at the darkened conference table, and said, "She is expecting you at 10:30. Are you sure this is a good idea?"

"Spike," Angel interjected before the blonde could answer, "this isn't a game. This firm is made up of, and deals with, demons of all natures, including vampires. The building has unimaginable wards and security systems-"

"Covered, Deadboy," Xander said and nodded to Willow.

Willow set down her mocha and started to tap out a key sequence on her laptop. A wire ran from the computer to a slide projector and schematics appeared on a screen fastened to the front of the far set of bookshelves. She bounced in her chair as she outlined the information she had borrowed from the firm and added the addendums Lindsey had supplied. "Fortunately for us, they had some sort of accident last night."

"Accident?" Angel asked.

"Glory is notoriously hard on property," Xander said.

"I've been tweaking their system, both magically and software-wise, off and on. It appears to them as if the problems are improving, but I can control the level of surveillance their system will offer and shut it down entirely if you need," she said.

As she reached for the coffee again her hand encountered Tara's. "I think you've had enough for now," the blonde said, having slipped in during Willow's rapid fire lecture.

"How's Dawn?" Willow, Xander and Spike said in unison.

"She fine," Dawn said from her seat near the door.

Angel chuckled and smirked at his Childe. Spike growled and said, "You shouldn't be here, Nibblet. What say the Seer takes you to her place?"

"I'm staying. It's bad enough you're walking right in there... I can't be expected to just not think about it. I want to be here so I'll know... if anything..."

Spike was by her side in a instant. He knelt next to her and whispered, "Hush, now. None of that."

A few tears had slipped out and she wiped them away and said, "I saw what she did... before. You were... God, you couldn't see, you could hardly move... she ... "

Xander left his lists and rose from his seat. He crossed cautiously to Dawn and looked down at the frightened girl. "I swear to you, I won't let anything happen to him... Dawnie, I ... " He cupped her cheek and she threw her arms around him, pressing her face to his stomach.

"It's all right, luv. I'm not taking her on alone this time. Got Red watching my back, " Spike said. "You trust us, Nibblet. We'll make sure the nasty bitch never frightens you again."

"It's just... when I thought about you using the Olaf maneuver on her, I never thought you would be up close and personal. This," she said and gestured to the projection, "all seems too real."

* * * * *

When the time came, there was organized chaos. Last minute instructions from the witch, Xander going over the plan one more time, Spike wrapping Dawn in his duster even though it was almost ninety degrees outside. Gunn pulled back his people and he, Angel, Miller, and Finn each took a compass point one block from the firm and waited. Faith followed Xander and Spike, hoping they had a chance in hell to pull this off without someone dying. Riley hadn't so much as looked her in the eye and his friend looked ready to kill her.

They walked swiftly down the sidewalk. Outwardly, she guessed she looked as if she were being protected, flanked as she was by the two larger men. They ducked down into the entrance of the parking garage. Xander bounced and babbled about calling the Triple A while Spike took the guard out, snapping his neck with a eerie calm. The vampire buttoned up the shirt of the blood-free uniform over Xander's broad chest. While the corpse cooled, he looked deep into the young man's eyes and whispered, "No heroics, eh? Generals're supposed to think up the plans, not die on the field of battle."

Faith got the shock of her life when the lethal blond pulled Xander's face down to his and kissed him with an intensity that could melt asphalt.

Xander laughed and said, "Don't do that-you know my brain shuts down for sex." He was still smiling when he traced the angular line of the vampire's cheek. He sighed and said, "Okay, from here on in it's by the numbers. Give me 20 minutes--that'll make you 10 minutes late for your meeting and she'll expect at least that--then go in the front. I'll be back here in 30 and let Faith in. You stall, be annoying, pretend she's Angel, but keep her talking. Wait for the signal-"

"What signal?" Faith said.

"The scent of my blood. He can sense it... well, pretty far," Xander said.

"I can't give that signal. What if something happens to you?" Faith said.

"Don't let anything happen to him, Slayer," Spike hissed, shifting to gameface.

"Do I have to separate the two of you? Because I will. I mean it, I'll turn this car right around." Xander poked Spike in the chest as he spoke.

Spike gave him a rueful smile and said, "You're not indestructible, Pet."

"I'm a hell of a lot harder to kill than I used to be, and I survived fine before I became your snuggle bunny," Xander said. "I need you two to work together. If I come down here and find one of you dead or dusted, the one still standing is going to wish Glory was all they had to worry about."

Faith nodded and looked down. Peeking up under her lashes she saw William the Bloody capitulate to please his human lover and be rewarded with a deep kiss, heedless of his fangs. They broke apart, eyes wide and lips kiss-bruised. Spike had shifted to his human guise during the kiss. Xander seemed to waver for the first time since she saw him in heated debate with Angel, but shook off whatever doubts he had and stepped through the service access to the building.

She wished she had more information. Which, when she thought about it, was pretty amusing. She had spent most of her career as a Slayer just wanting to be told what to kill and how. Now, basically that was how she was being treated, and surprise, she didn't like being treated like a weapon.

Patience was not one of the vampire's virtues, if he had any. Spike paced and smoked and whirled on her suddenly and hissed, "Slayer, quit your wool-gathering. You be ready when my boy comes back. Anything happens to him and I'll make you beg to die."

"Some of us have never fought hellgods. I'm just trying to be prepared, okay?" Faith was feeling cornered. In the past, running had always solved that problem, but she doubted she would be able to run from the witches who had basically erased her existence. Willow's girlfriend had provided the clearest translation of Sunnydale-speak to explain that although everyone in the Scoobies and Angel's little family would remember her, only those carefully warded would remember any previous encounters. That might cover some of the Watchers; Willow wasn't sure. Lindsey thought it might cover some of Wolfram and Hart's upper echelons.

Spike seemed to be considering her closely. She doubted it was pity. More likely he felt the knowledge would protect Xander, but he began to detail Glory's strengths--she was like Superman in drag--and weaknesses--she had none. He told her how she fed and what the results were.

Soon it was time, and he left to enter the building through the front entrance.

* * * * *

Willow sat in front of her laptop, her hand phased into the keyboard. Images flashed across the screen, reflected in her mirror-like eyes. Her hair lifted in a gentle breeze that blew from the screen. Tara stood behind her. The blond held her palms inches away from her lover's temples and a soft blue-green glow surrounded her fingertips. Wesley turned away from the images frantically flashing across the screen when Willow whispered in an unearthly voice, "They're in."

* * * * *

Xander opened the door to the deserted office with his pass key. He closed and locked it as soon as Faith slipped in behind him. Lindsey had been sure that that the firm's 'guests' would be held on the next floor up. Above that one, only the senior partners had space. After the Darla incident, Lindsey had been sure they wouldn't let any acquisitions out of the building's most secure areas. Which, Xander thought, didn't explain the shopping. He jumped on a desk and removed the air conditioning vent cover. Cupping his hands, Xander silently offered Faith a boost. She gave him an odd look before placing her foot in them and pulling herself up into the vent. Turning around, she had the same puzzled look when Xander handed her up the vent cover. He then climbed up after her and used a few precious minutes reattaching the cover. They followed the vent to a vertical shaft and began the grueling climb up to the next floor. The sides were smooth and slick and the only way to move was by keeping pressure on either side of the vent as they slowly shimmied up. Faith reached the next floor's ceiling long before Xander and when he pulled himself up she was already down at the access a good fifty feet away, laying in a glow of light. He slowly crept closer and heard voices before he reached the light.

"Oy, I am not bleeding Drusilla. You cannot pay me off with dolls and ribbons. If I help you on this, the poof is mine." Spike growled.

"Master...Spike. Be reasonable. The firm can't have you dusting Angel-that would defeat the purpose," a woman's voice said.

"Dust him? Who said I want to dust him? What kind of monster do you take me for? He's my Sire. I'm not some soul-having poofter, nancing about doing good for puppies and children and sugar plum fairies. Just want to tie him up, burn his hair and beat him senseless... 'til he loves me again." Spike ended by putting his feet up on an expensive desk. His back was to the vent the woman who was facing him looked as if she didn't like her job at the moment.

Faith was stifling a snicker. Whether it was at the mental image of Spike beating Angel, or of Angel with burnt hair, Xander wasn't sure, but he nudged her and they moved on down the vent. So far the plan was holding together-that had Xander worried.

The sight of Spike's lean form lounging with his back to the vent had gone a long way to relaxing Xander's screaming nerves. With a practiced eye he had evaluated the well-dressed lawyer meeting with his lover. She looked old. Older that Lindsey had made her sound, if this was the Morgan woman who had scheduled the meeting with Spike. Not that he would have bet on Lara Croft against William the Bloody, but then Willow didn't look all that dangerous either.

* * * * *

Gavin dismissed the Anubian demons and shut the door. Glorificus lounged on a backless couch, her eyes unfocused and her features slack. She was humming tunelessly. That was new; something was wrong. He wouldn't have been concerned if he could have been certain that Lilah would get the blame, but Lilah had an irritating habit of coming out of these debacles smelling like a rose. After all the time and resources the firm had invested in this project, he shuddered to think what would happen if the senior partners found out they had a malfunctioning hellgod.

When he had stumbled onto Lilah's plan, it had seemed well worth weaseling his way onboard. Although the window of opportunity for Glorificus to return to her own realm was forever gone, her ability to access other worlds was invaluable. From the files he had pilfered it seemed that the cost in keeping the hellgod fed had been deemed a fiscally sound investment. The shopping incident was unfortunate, not in the mundane people who had served as lunch, but in this unexpected result.

The dossier that Wolfram and Hart had on Glorificus indicated that without draining the minds of mortals she would become weakened and disoriented, but after feeding she was strong and in control of her not inconsiderable power. Yet this feeding had seemed as painful for Glorificus as it was for the worthless humans. Glory had neither moved nor spoken since feeding. This deficit was not something Lilah could sweep under the rug, and Gavin was here to make sure he didn't take the fall.

Glory's couch was surrounded by fresh flowers and a fruit basket was on a low table next to it. She showed no recognition of the lawyer and did not acknowledge his presence. She sat, still in the short blue shift from earlier.

"Well now," Gavin attempted to sound unconcerned, "I hope everything is to your liking." He crossed to her and lifted a chilled bottle of champagne from its icy home in an ornate silver holder. "If there is anything you need, you must let me know and it will immediately be provided." He filled a glass and gently placed in next to her lax hand.

He started in shock when the fingers twitched and for just an instant blurred. The hand that lifted the glass from his was smaller and lacked Glory's red lacquered nails. Gavin looked up, stunned, into now-hazel eyes. This blond was unexpected. Glory had hidden for years in the mortal she had been bound to, but that one had been male. Confident that the pretty young girl was no threat, he pulled out his phone, intent on informing the upper echelons of this development. The shock of seeing the stranger in place of the hellgod was nothing compared to the astonishment he experienced when that slender young woman's hand moved like a striking cobra to first grab and then crush his phone to fragments in her delicate grip.

"This place..." The woman spoke hesitantly. Looking around with dazed eyes, her forehead scrunched up confusion. "This place feels...bad." She turned hard eyes on Gavin and looked as if she would say more but cocked her head at the sounds of a scuffle outside.

* * * * *

"Er, hello?" A distinctly British voice called out from the lobby.

"Giles!" Dawn jumped up and rushed to the Watcher.

Cordelia turned in astonishment from the show Willow was still putting on and followed her out of the library. "Giles?"

Wesley was in his office and looked up from his phone call to nod a greeting.

"Not that we're not happy to see you, but what are you doing here?" Cordelia asked.

"I called him. He brought the thing. In case, well, it looks like the thing that worked on Glory before... and... I was worried, all right?" Dawn stomped her foot and sat down heavily. Fred crept out from a dim corridor that lead off the lobby and sat next to her.

"Hi," Fred waved. Cordelia did the introductions and was in the middle of bringing Giles up to speed on Xander's plan. It wasn't long before Fred and Dawn brought in a tray of tea.

Wesley joined them and confirmed that the warehouse where they planned to do the transport spell was set up and secure. It was only two blocks away and they would move the witches as soon as they had confirmation that their people had left the Wolfram and Hart's building.

* * * * *

So much for the plan, Xander thought. Faith was in her element, waling away on some dog-headed guard. A slam into the wall had given Xander a nose bleed, which had brought Spike barreling down the hall. His overprotective lover had remembered enough of the plan to bring his lawyer friend with him, but apparently the sight of Xander fighting of one of the dog-demons had Spike embracing his inner demon. He dove into the fray.

The lawyer woman was turning gray. Xander wasn't sure if it was the sight of the carnage, or the fact that until the last second, even Xander hadn't thought Spike was going to let go of her arm before engaging the guards.

The door that the demon-guards had been stationed at was the most likely place to find Glory. The melee left the door unguarded and Xander kicked it open. Pushing the lawyer in ahead of him, he figured that at least it would be out of the bloodbath in the corridor.

* * * * *

Gunn kept the binoculars trained on the entrance to the parking garage. Miller and Finn had a van, rented for the transport to the warehouse. If everything went according to Harris' plan he would call them for the pick up and that tiny girl and the vamp would help shove the hellgod into the back. The witches had put up a field that had contained the god briefly before and they hoped it would work until they could teleport her to another dimension. Xander had mumbled "without the van, please" when detailing that part of the plan since he had rented it with his credit card and was not looking forward to reporting it stolen.

* * * * *

Lilah wished she had time to savor the smug look on Gavin's face turn to shock as she was hurled though the doorway to the floor to his feet. He had no time to enjoy her submissive position before the tall, dark-haired security guard followed her into the room.

"What is the meaning of..." As Gavin stood, the sounds of fighting in the corridor consisted of low grunts and the unmistakable sound of flesh against flesh. Dark blood splattered the door and continued to splurt in decreasing arcs. A severed limb of one of the demons dropped into view in the partially open door way.

"Sit down, shut up and don't move," the guard said.

Lilah tried to reach for her phone and had it kicked out of her hand by the guard's heavy boot. There was a cracking sound when her fingers broke. Gavin tried to use the distraction to reach for his gun. He fell back onto the couch with a scream of indescribable pain. Lilah had been told once that a broken kneecap felt like your leg from the knee down had been dipped in molten metal. His gun had landed on the floor over by the wall, there was no way she was going to try and get it. She hadn't seen the man kick, hadn't seen that heavily-booted foot connect with Gavin's knee cap, but the result was apparent. As the sobbing lawyer lay on the floor, she idly wondered if he would ever walk again; provided, of course, he lived though this-whatever this was.

"I thought lawyers were supposed to develop listening skills?" the guard asked.

Gavin could only manage to whimper. Lilah was in pain but she wasn't as afraid of the hard-eyed young man as she was the vampire who strolled into the room. William the Bloody. She had reviewed the file on him-first when they had contacted Drusilla and then again when she had set up her meeting. In the hallway, Lilah had thought that the Lady Drusilla had accompanied her paramour on this invasion. But Drusilla had barely consented to modern fashion, and then only long dresses, and the tiny blood-covered brunette who followed the vampire in from the battle was in skin-tight leather pants and a black camisole.

"Oh, God. Faith," Lilah whispered.

Gavin had thankfully missed the firm's venture into contracting a Slayer, but Lilah was willing to bet he had heard the tales. The night had just gotten worse, she thought, and it took a lot to make a shattered kneecap the upside of the evening.

"B., is that you?" Faith said.

The tiny blond turned toward the dark slayer. Gavin's crushed cell phone was still in her hand. She held out the remnants, palm up, like a child with a sticky candy. The guard, who was obviously not a guard, took the shattered pieces and stroked the side of the girl's face. "What have they done to you?" he asked, before turning hard eyes onto the lawyers.

The girl moaned softly and was replaced by the Glorificus. The guard drew back quickly and ended up on his ass, swearing under his breath. Glory's eyes were still unfocused. The vampire helped the human stand and the dark Slayer stepped close to them. "This changes the plan, right? What do you want me to do?" Before the man could answer, Lilah watched the god's strong, delicate fingers grab Gavin's head and his face contort with excruciating pain as they slipped inside.

Glory's scream drowned out Gavin's and Lilah tried to crawl away as his corpse hit the floor. This was not in the profile. They had expected have to living beings after she fed on their minds. Her proposal had shown that Glory could feed off of those individuals scheduled to be deposited into the now-reestablished body bank. The fiscal viability of this venture would change drastically if they couldn't recycle the victims. First the shopkeeper and the old woman, and now Gavin. Not only was her feeding changing styles but it was more rapid than predicted. Glorificus' body convulsed. The 'feedings' were hurting her as much as her prey. Suddenly the host was back, panting and blinking in confusion.

"Spike, carry her. Do not let her hands near your head, drop her if you have to. Faith, grab the lawyer." The two killers followed the human's orders. As they headed down the service corridors, he continued, "Stealth is out. Spike, take them both to the pick-up site. Faith, try and keep the lawyer conscious. I want her to deliver a message."

"Xan..." the vampire whispered and leaned into the human, seeming to ignore the almost catatonic host in his arms.

They crowded into a service elevator and the human dressed as a guard used a passkey to control it. Lilah wasn't sure which was more frightening; the fact that William the Bloody was not only obeying but concerned for this human, or the fact that her only hope of escaping Faith's homicidal tendencies was to hope that she would listen to this Xan.

"Let the Slayer take..." "Once these two are in the witches' care-make sure you tell Wills the change in the plan," he said, pausing to brush back the long hair of the new host, "just get them out of here and see that Gunn gets everyone out of the area. Now go, I have a building to level." Lilah didn't have time to gasp as he shoved them out into the parking garage before taking the elevator back up.

* * * * *

Despite the Englishman's distaste for him, Angel came close to hugging Giles when he found him waiting at the warehouse. The past thirty minutes, since Faith and Spike had emerged from the parking garage with not only the hellgod but Lilah Morgan, had been like something out of his worst nightmares.

Spike had shoved a limp Glorificus at him with an absent, "Mind her hands," and started back into the building.

Faith had stopped the vampire with a soft, "Xander said to go to the beta site." Amazingly Spike had stomped back to the waiting vehicle with nothing more than a glare.

Angel spent the ride from the pick-up point watching his hyper Childe divide his glares between the hellgod and the lawyer, while Faith worried her blood-red lip between her teeth and mournfully watched the vacant expression on Glorificus' face. Finally she whispered to Lilah, "What's wrong with her?"

Lilah, whose drawn face had transformed to the set cast of a superior smirk the moment she had spotted Angel, said, "I'm not telling you anything."

Spike reached over, not even sparing the lawyer a glance, and squeezed the swelling fingers of Lilah's right hand. She shrieked and fell forward off of the bench seat onto her knees. Looking up at Angel she sobbed out, "Help me."

Angel had had it with Lilah. She wanted to dance with the devil but not pay the price. She was willing to do anything for her employers to maintain her career and her lifestyle, but still wanted to call on him to protect her when the monsters she chose to deal with became too dangerous and too threatening.

"He's a Master vampire in his own right. You chose to deal with him. Your prime concern right now should be not pissing him off," Angel said. He turned his attention to Faith. She seemed... concerned for the welfare of the hellgod.

"She... when we collected her essence, the chosen host wasn't strong enough to survive the spell. We knew that it would diminish the time she could survive in this form, but we didn't anticipate this reaction," Lilah said. Spike had released her broken fingers when she started to answer Faith's question. The lawyer licked her lips and cradled her hand, holding it to her chest. "Feeding... " Lilah's gaze flicked from the impassive face of the souled vampire to the vacant look of the hellgod. "When she fed, there were unforeseen results. She's been like this ever since."

* * * * *

Lindsey watched the van pull into the warehouse. Dawn hit the switch to lower the door before it had cleared the entrance. The girl made as if to run to the van and was stopped by a firm grip on her shoulder. Mr. Giles seemed oblivious to her dramatic sigh and rolling of eyes. He absently sent her to where Fred and Cordelia were preparing hastily acquired hibachis with a mixture of magical herbs.

"Xander changed the plan, we're keeping her," Spike said as he stalked out of the van. He only lifted an eyebrow at the sight of the recently arrived Englishman. With a nod of his head he left the cargo with Angel and Faith.

Lindsey was shocked to see a battered and rumpled Lilah step down from the van. He was torn between prodding her for information and seeing if he could eavesdrop on the huddle Spike had pulled the little red-headed witch and Giles into. Since Lilah didn't look as if she were going anywhere he slipped closer to the vampire and his humans.

The musician had had no preconceived expectations on just what form the hellgod would take. His liked to think his tenure with the firm had made him unshockable. He wasn't, however, prepared for the sight of the stunningly beautiful woman who was carried across the warehouse by the souled vampire. With perfect posture, she sat where he placed her, like a living work of art, marred only by the vacant expression on her face.

"Oh, dear," Giles turned away from the vampire and walked slowly toward Glorificus. He walked cautiously over to the hellgod and passed a hand back and forth in front of her unfocused eyes. "Well, this changes everything," he said.

"Careful, she ate a lawyer while we were busting her out," Spike drawled. Then, turning to the witches, he added, "You lot get back to the hotel. Red, can you keep an eye on her? I'm going to get Xan."

* * * * *

Thankfully, Giles was the one who would be sorting out the reasons behind the change in Xander's plan, while Angel followed Spike back into the night. Angel had stayed only long enough to confirm that they would all be heading back to the Hyperion, and still his Childe had a wide head start. Scenting Spike's passing on the wind, Angel blocked out all other stimuli and ran through the night hunting his Childe.

He caught up with Spike only because the younger vampire had stopped in the shadow of an abstract sculpture in a courtyard between three buildings. The business district was never deserted but usually quite subdued at this hour. Now, however, the area was painted with the flashing lights of police and EMS vehicles. Less than a block from the burning building, the vampires could have blended in quite well with the crowd of onlookers but chose to remain hidden.

The headquarters of Wolfram and Hart slowly sank into the ground. Lava churned in a perfect rectangle outlining the foundation of the building. The heat given off was tremendous, but suspiciously contained. Trucks parked only meters from the site didn't even have their paint bubble, but the amazed firefighters threw bricks and metal through the sinking windows over the site, only to watch the debris burst into flame at precisely sixteen inches above the foundation.

Angel tore his gaze away from the phenomenon. He turned to Spike and realized his Childe was paying no attention to the melting skyscraper but was concentration on one of the men holding back the crowd. Xander, still dressed as Wolfram and Hart security, was assisting in setting up barricades and taping off the area around the fire trucks and ambulances. Angel marveled as the young man slapped the back of a police officer and shook hands with several of the others.

Jumping the wooden horses used to cordon off the area, Xander strode toward the darkened courtyard, removing the shirt of his uniform as he walked. He headed straight for the vampires. Spike waited only until the human entered the shadows before pouncing and pinning him to the sculpture. The blond buried his face in his mate's hair and thrust against his thigh. Angel could have sworn he heard Xander whisper 'moonbeam' but dismissed it as unbelievable. Finally, Xander seemed to realize that they weren't alone and chuckled, "If I knew fire got you this hot, I'd destroy stuff more often."

Spike pulled back, licking the brunette's neck and said, "I was worried about you, Pet."

Xander smiled softly and brushed back Spike's hair. "And you, Deadboy? Were you worried about me? " Xander asked turning a wicked grin on Angel.

"No, Xander," Angel said. "I was worried about L.A. Think you could leave some of it standing when you go back to Sunnydale?"

* * * * *

Lindsey was relieved that Lilah had given up trying to charm Wesley. Given that efforts the ex-Watcher put into hiding his marked interest in Fred, Lindsey reasoned Lilah didn't have the brains or the virtue that seemed appeal to Wes. Lilah had threatened them with all manner of lawsuits until Lindsey pointed out that she wasn't exactly making a case for them to let her live. When that had failed, she had tried to appeal to Wesley's reason by pointing out that any harm to her would affect Angel's redemption. Cordelia had ended that line of attack by speculating out loud that they didn't really have to harm her to put her in a Habitrail. Lindsey wasn't sure what the term 'Amyizing' meant, but it had brought a speculative gleam to Willow's eyes.

Although they had been overtly cautious around the hellgod upon her arrival, her inactivity had a hard time competing with the rest of the commotion in the lobby. In addition to Lilah's machinations, the witches and Watchers were huddled around the former reception area, dividing their attention between Glorificus and research. Fred had taken Dawn upstairs as the hellgod made the girl nervous. Lindsey was sure that there was more than even the girl knew, given some of the troubled looks exchanged by Giles and Willow. Lorne was called, although Lindsey was unsure how he could read the unresponsive hellgod. Faith was sitting across from Glorificus, looking frustrated. Lindsey was amused by Gunn's attempts to distract the troubled Slayer, wondering if anyone had filled the young man in on Faith's history with his friends.

His guitar remained propped against a nearby chair. He had been fetched as an afterthought when they were going to the warehouse and he hadn't had time to take it to the case he had left upstairs. He sat and absently ran through a few fingerings. He was tired. Tired of watching Miller shoot Faith hostile and suspicious looks. Tired of Finn looking drawn and whipped. Tired of caring what interest the firm had in a hellgod and just what kind of spin Lilah was planning to put on this situation. Lindsey was surprised that he actually wanted the pompous corpse to come back and take over this circus. He wondered why he didn't just head up to his room and use his music to shut out the world.

As dangerous as Glorificus was reputed to be, she certainly wasn't hard on the eyes. He wasn't sure what Spike had meant earlier when he said that the hellgod had eaten a lawyer. Feeling as if he were tempting fate Lindsey started to play the song he would have had he been alone, and sang softly.

Call you up in the middle of the night
Like a firefly without a light
You were there like a blow torch burning
I was a key that could use a little turning

So tired that I couldn't even sleep
So many secrets I couldn't keep
Promised myself I wouldn't weep
One more promise I couldn't keep

It seems no one can help me now
I'm in too deep
There's no way out
This time I have really led myself astray [1]

Lindsey stopped abruptly at the sound of Faith's gasp. He looked up, not into the nearly violet-blue eyes of the hellgod, but to warm hazel eyes of a pretty young woman. She blinked slowly and then looked directly into his
eyes. She smiled, a small hesitant smile, before turning a confused look on the rest of the lobby. Her lips parted, as if she would speak and then Glorificus shimmered back into place, still gazing vacantly.

The others had crowded around. They stared unbelievingly at the hellgod.

"Dear God. Spike told us... I just couldn't..." Rupert Giles slowly approached Glorificus.

As he came close, Faith said, "Be careful, Giles. One of the lawyers fell, practically into her lap, and she slipped her hands into his head. He died."

"He died?" Giles looked sharply at Faith.

She nodded and said, "It hurt. He screamed. She screamed too. I think... she was in pain, and Buffy came back, but she didn't stay long. Shortly after Xander went back in, she was replaced by her." Faith finished by nodding at Glorificus.

"What's going on?" Angel's voice came from the entrance.

Lindsey looked over to see the vampire, flanked by Spike and Xander, stepping down into the lobby. Giles and Wesley took him into the library. Xander stopped to talk to Willow before saying he was going up to check on
Dawn. Spike sprawled on the stairs, positioning himself between the hellgod and where his mate was.

* * * * *

Xander came out of the bathroom, the towel slung loosely across his hips gaping wide on the side. Willow averted her eyes and he stepped back, blushing.

"I... uh, I... you seemed like you were in a rush to get away," she said, turning pointedly to address the wall.

"I just wanted to check on Dawn," Xander said.

"Well, I just wanted to check on you," she said. Willow shot a quick look over her shoulder at the sound of Xander pulling on his clothing only to catch sight of his ass as he pulled up a pair of silk boxers. "Erp... I...
Xan, what is it? You're all nervous and it's not the naked thing 'cause you were anxious as soon as you got here and you weren't naked then."

"Officially not naked now," he said. She turned to face him. He held his arms out demonstrating his attired state. He wore an incredibly large, bright-blue short sleeve shirt over a black tank and khaki shorts. He looked
very Xander-like as he looked down at his clothing before peering up through his long bangs at Willow.

"Xander," she said, crossing her arms and meeting his hesitant gaze.

"Will... I," he said as he started to bite his thumbnail.

"It's not the plan. That came off without a hitch, except for the not being able to ditch Glory because it's Buffy. But I thought you would be... Xan help me out here," she said.

"He loves her," Xander whispered.

"He loves you," Willow said.

"I know that... really, more than anything, I know that. But... he loved her first," Xander looked away.

Suddenly he held a warm Willow clasped to him. She squeezed tight and murmured, "Don't be such an ass."

"You tell him, Red," Spike said.

Both humans' reaction proved the Big Bad could do stealth with the best of them. Willow wiped her damp eyes and said, "I'll just check on Dawn. We'll need you both downstairs soon." She shot them a meaningful look before leaving their room.

Spike quietly shut the door and crossed to Xander. He stood right in front of his mate, pinning Xander with an unblinking stare. "So that's what has you clenching your jaw and grinding your teeth," he said softly.

Xander looked away, swallowing uncomfortably. Spike grasped Xander's stubborn chin and gently forced him to maintain eye contact. "You know I can hear it when you're tense. Gonna have to turn you just to keep your teeth from wearing down," Spike whispered.

Xander chuckled, relieved that Spike was willing to tease. He wasn't proud of his jealous nature. He knew his possessiveness had caused more than a few awkward moments with Buffy and Willow. He knew Spike was his. More than the lack of the chip, more than the mark on his neck, the fact that his lover was here, now, sensing his need for reassurance, told him that. He kissed Spike and leaned into him.

Taking a firm grip on Spike's denim clad hips, Xander rested his forehead against the vampire's. "It's just," he said, "she's here, now. I know how much she means to you," Xander started, only to be cut off.

"Us, luv. I loved her. You loved her. She's pack, eh?" Spike offered a wicked smile and ground his pelvis into Xander's. Peppering teasing bites across his lips and nibbling down the human's neck, he paused over the mark. He licked tentatively at first, then struck suddenly, sinking his fangs into the scarred flesh.

Xander moaned and pushed back against his lover until they both thudded against the wall. He swore as he fumbled with the fasteners on Spike's jeans, causing the vampire to chuckle and push back against him until they were both sprawled on the bed. There was a ripping sound as Xander's shorts tore along the zipper. "What is it with you and my clothes? They were neutral, not bright. "

"It was an accident," Spike said. He pulled Xander's shirt off over his head instead of attempting the buttons.

"Yeah, yeah," Xander hissed, reaching for the lube. "It's always an accident -but it's always my clothes."

"Take you shopping, I will," Spike murmured, lifting Xander's knees and positioning himself between the tanned, well-muscled legs.

"Oh, God!" Xander gasped. "Anything but that."

"Anything?" Spike leered.

* * * * *

"Dawn's with Fred. She really needs to get some sleep, but this has her, well..." Willow said, coming down the stairs.

"Xander and Spike?" Angel asked.

"They're... talking," Willow sat next to Tara. "They... might be a while."

"Is everything okay?" Tara asked.

"With them? I think so. What's going on with... Glory?" Willow nodded to the still-seated hellgod.

"Well, while you were gone, we noticed a pattern," Tara said

"Pattern?" Willow asked.

Tara said, "Lindsey. Do it again."

"Pardon?" Lindsey seemed distracted by the fact that Angel was looming over him.

"Sing. Please?" Tara stood up and crossed the lobby and sat next to him. "I just want to test something."

Can you help me remember how to smile
Make it somehow all seem worthwhile
How on earth did I get so jaded
Life's mystery seems so faded [1]

Once again Glorificus blurred and was replaced by the young woman. Her hair was darker and straight, her eyes warm, human and focused on him.

I can go where no one else can go
I know what no one else knows
Here I am just drownin' in the rain
With a ticket for a runaway train

And everything seems cut and dry
Day and night, earth and sky
Somehow I just don't believe it. [1]

"Well. That's... interesting," Giles said.

"Very interesting," Lilah added. She lifted her eyebrow and stood. Instantly, she was flanked by Miller and Finn. "Listen, boys, I know you're not going to kill me and you know you're not going to kill me, so you're wasting both our time with the menacing routine."

Willow looked at Angel and said, "I didn't get her name."

"Lilah. She works for Wolfram and Hart. I'm not sure why Xander... kidnapped her," Angel said.

"Because she is going to tell us everything about Glory, why she was brought back, and what this law firm from hell intended to do with her," Willow said.

"And why would I want to do that?" Lilah asked archly.

"Oh, I didn't say you would want to," Willow replied with a small, self-satisfied smile.

* * * * *

Cordelia stood in the doorway to the library. Wes had brought out the prophesy research again and he and Giles apparently hadn't been to bed. Giles seemed engrossed in Spike's translation notes but Wes gave her a weary
smile as she passed by to start the morning coffee. Someone had beaten her to the kitchen and the coffee machine burbled a greeting.

Riley poked his head out of the storage area off of the pantry and came out with a new package of paper plates. Two large boxed packages of sweet rolls from Sam's Club were stacked on the table. Cordelia opened one and helped herself to a cinnamon roll while waiting for the coffee to finish brewing.

"Who got breakfast?" she asked, hoping she sounded casual. Riley was pretty much Angel's project and Graham rarely let the young man out of his sight, but the last twenty-four hours had put an unusual amount of stress on all of them. She didn't want to seem as if she didn't trust the recovering addict, but she knew if she were him, she would have been tempted to seek some sort of comfort, or oblivion.

"We... I had trouble sleeping, so I just gave up. I knew we would need something for this horde... Graham drove... I didn't -" he said.

"I wasn't checking up-I just feel bad sticking you guys with the bills. Okay, that's so not me, but I told Angel he could pay for the rest of the week since Graham covered the caterer. Make sure you guys turn in the receipt to be reimbursed," she said, while filling her mug. Sipping the bitter black liquid she continued, "How are you? With all of this."

Riley sagged into a chair and looked up at her, "It's hard. This... you have no idea."

"Seeing Buffy?" Cordy asked.

"Buffy, Faith, Graham dealing with Buffy and Faith," Riley said, "He's pretty stressed."

"How can you tell?" she asked, with a smile.

"Very funny," Riley said.

* * * * *

Exhausted, Angel watched from the doorway. He worried that the spell Willow had used to gain compliance from the lawyer would tax Lilah beyond her endurance. As she settled into a deeper sleep, Xander shuffled though the
neat outline Lindsey had made of Lilah's tale-Xander and the witches had assigned Lindsey the role of both scribe and fact checker while they questioned the reluctant Ms. Morgan. Sweat beaded on Lilah's upper lip but
her eyes remained closed. Tara's soothing tones murmured soft reassurances that everything was fine. Her voice seemed to quiet the restless tossing and turning the lawyer had done throughout Xander's inquisition. Willow was carefully rewrapping the large uncut piece of yellow quartz she had used as a focus. Lilah had spilled everything. She had, as if under hypnosis, answered the multitude of questions Xander had thrown at her.

Tara and Willow each took a seat on the sofa, leaning against one another. They had done what Xander referred to as 'the core dump' in one of the unfinished suites on the third floor. They all seemed to be hovering close to the room in which they had placed the Glory-Buffy symbiont, who was now under Spike's watchful attendance.

"Well," Xander said, looking up from the notes, "that's about it. Anyone have any other questions?"

"She'll come after you, you know," Lindsey said. "She's like a pit bull."

"Cordy-like, huh?" Xander said to Lindsey with a wink. "Okay, wipe her clean and have Faith and Gunn dump her near the site," he added to Willow.

"Wipe her clean?" Angel asked, as Xander passed him on his way out into the hall.

Behind him, Angel heard Willow chanting, "Tabula rasa."

* * * * *

Buffy sat back against the headboard of the bed, blinking into the dim. She was aware she had a guardian, silent and still, sitting off to her left. She really hadn't paid attention to the room-now she did. It was large,
unfamiliar and furnished like some movie-an old movie. Except old movies were in black and white and even in the subdue glow of the desk lamp she could make out the faded gold brocade on the wall and the washed-out reds of the upholstery.

She must have been sitting a while in the broad bed, which was in an alcove off the better-lit part of the room that was her world, as her bottom felt numb. She couldn't remember how she had gotten here, nor how long she had been staring at the dated furnishings. The bed shared its nook with a sturdy desk and a straight-backed chair on one side, and an overstuffed loveseat next to a small round table on the other. Just outside the arch that sectioned the private portion of the open suite off from its public area were two couches and a chair around a low coffee table. Past that grouping of furniture was a long, low bureau that had a lit lamp with a shade of
stained glass. Buffy had been trying to figure out what kind of bug the lampshade's brightly colored pieces were supposed to be portraying but gave up as her eyes drifted to the door next to the bureau. It was of nondescript
wood and looked out of place next to the gilded trim and aged splendor of the room. It had a framed yellow strip of paper containing some sort of printing. A sleepy voice of reason in her head told her that meant this was a hotel. An old hotel.

Pleased that she had puzzled out her surroundings, a tiny smile almost made it to her face. She was torn between sitting still longer in her quiet, dim surroundings while trying to figure just how long she had been staring at the room and bolting though that door and running for her life. Deep in her gut some instinct was screaming at her, trying to wake up that sleep voice of reason with dire threats and warnings. Adrenaline, which the sleepy part of her mind ignored like a little sister's whining, had been flooding her system ever since she had realized she wasn't alone in this quiet haven. On her right, lounging in that loveseat, was a dangerous-looking blonde man whose intelligent blue eyes hadn't left her for a moment. Something about his stillness was unnatural. Where Buffy sat quietly thinking, he stayed completely and utterly still. He hadn't moved. He hadn't blinked. He hadn't breathed since she realized he was there. Something stirred in her memory...normally the not-breathing would precede a flurry of movement and violence -but somehow she felt safe with this man. What was up with that?

As the voice of reason and the voice of instinct competed for the attention and vied for a chance to answer that question, the door opened and a girl came in with a silver tray. She set the tray on the bureau, between the lamp and a large ball-like bowl which must have once held flowers. After she shut the door she picked up her burden and brought it to the alcove. As she was placing the tray on the table next to the loveseat, the girl shot Buffy
worried glances but spoke to the man.

"I brought coffee and juice and water and milk...she likes juice. I thought maybe one of these might... Well, not this one, of course," the girl handed the man a mug and was reward with a smile. He patted the seat next to him
and tucked her under one arm when she sat down. The girl sighed and rested her head on his shoulder. The man's eyes shifted to yellow and ridges sprang forth on his brow as he sipped from the mug.

Buffy didn't turn her head toward the couple, but watched from the corner of her eye. She was busy ignoring the voice of instinct, which was now jumping up and down, waving its arms and screaming 'told you, told you' at the top of its lungs. The voice of reason was noting how the vampire -which this man obviously was-idly stroked the girl's long hair with one hand while draining his 'victim' from a mug which said 'I brood because I know it makes me look good.'

"She's still out of it," the girl said. The vampire only answered with a nod. to the girl's statement. "Do you think her brain was damaged? You know, Glory was never too tightly wrapped."

Glory? Glory. That name seemed to bring reason and instinct both into a fighting stance, but Buffy couldn't remember who Glory was.

The girl sighed. She got up and brought a yummy-smelling mug closer and waved it slowly about eight inches in front of and below Buffy's nose. "Buffy?" The girl hardly whispered and her eyes were tearing. "It's mocha. Smell? You love mocha."

The cup was black with bright pink letters spelling 'Uberangst' and a sad, sighing bunny leaned against the 'U'. The smell stirred the most coherent memories yet. Buffy flashed on a bright sunny day, sitting across from was a bouncing redhead with happy green eyes, who was talking at an incredible rate. Then she was back in the room with the sad girl holding out the good smell. She smiled tentatively at the girl. A wide smile crossed the girl's face and she slowly brought the cup to Buffy's lips. The taste exploded across her tongue. She flashed on another sunny scene. The grass they were sitting on was cool in the shade of an ornamental tree near a red brick building, and a handsome boy with dancing chocolate eyes was laughing as he offered her half his candy bar.

The girl apparently had given up trying to get her to drink more. By the time Buffy gave up on chasing the elusive memories of the redheaded girl and the handsome boy, the girl was back on the loveseat next to the vampire. Buffy had been pulled out of her pondering of the flashes of memory by his slow, dramatic voice. His accented tones wrapped around a story that tugged at her memory as insistently as the coffee had.

"She was down. I had her at my non-existent mercy. I wanted to savor the moment. My third Slayer-struck down on her own ground... I felt like a god. I dove for the kill, ready to sink my fangs in and taste that unparalleled elixir." The vampire was sitting cross-legged and eye-to-eye with the girl, who hung on his every word.

The girl leaned forward in rapt attention, her forehead almost touching the smooth human mask of the dead man. "And then?" she asked with breathless anticipation.

"Then your mum hit me upside the head with and axe and said, 'Get the hell away from my daughter.' Nibblet, you know this story by heart, why do you always act like its the first time you've heard it?" There was laughing
affection in the vampire's tone and he smiled openly at the girl.

"I love this story. It's so romantic..." she said.

"It is not sodding romantic," the vampire sneered out the last word and rolled his eyes. "I got me bleeding skull cracked by a pissed-off housewife, the Slayer stopped the feast of St. Vigeous, and the Poof nanced about like the wanker he is. Where's the effin romance in that?"

"It's when Angel gave Xander to you." The girl giggled. Buffy got the impression that the girl was baiting the vampire. Her instinct said she should throw herself between the girl and the monster, but her reason said to wait and see.

Buffy's head seemed to turn of its own volition and she looked as the vampire sputtered out his reply. "Gave!? Dawn, he gave... he wanted us to eat Xander. And not in a good way, I might add. Don't you dare tell the whelp I said that! Besides, Soul Boy really wasn't givin' the boy to me... I knew that. Always could read the Poof like an open book. Great sodding fairycake." The girl raised an eyebrow and smirked at the vampire but said nothing.

Buffy looked back to the door when she heard the knob turn. In walked the boy, the handsome boy from her memory. Only he wasn't a boy. His shoulders were broader, his hair longer and there was a maturity to his face that was new to her. He was a man. How much time had passed since that sunny day under the tree? He was still handsome, but his eyes -though they still held laughter-were shaded by worry and an emotional pain she couldn't fathom.

He walked forward and put his hands in the pockets of his pants as he stood at the foot of her bed. "Hi, Buff."

She blinked and looked into his dark eyes. There was concern and unasked questions in them and she smiled. "Xander," she whispered, before she had even put the name to his face.

His smile was like the sun coming from behind a cloud. The girl, who the vampire-Spike?-had called Dawn, jumped up and grabbed Xander's arm. Dawn bounced up and down while tugging that arm with her, chanting, "She knows you! She knows you!" She stopped her impromptu celebration and turned to Buffy. "Buffy?"

Buffy was busy at the moment. The memory of Xander had been accompanied by a flood of images.

~ Flash~

Xander and her running with Willow, a name she now had for the girl in the other memory, through a cemetery.


Crawling frantically through air vents with monsters hot on their heels.


Xander looking down at her as he pinned her to the floor every muscle in his body vibrating with lust.


The burning pain of air being forced back into her lungs and the sick bile-like taste of death in her mouth.


The rage in Xander's eyes when he threatened to kill her if Willow had been hurt.


Xander, dressed as a soldier, beating the hell out of a pirate who had been about to rape her.


Xander reaching down to pull her up from the watery cage as pain ripped through the claw marks on her legs.


Angry words and a zombie crashing through the front window.


Xander, Larry and another boy laying out explosives in the library.


Her relief of finding Xander in the Bronze when she had been so lost and alone her first days at college.


Four hands placing cards into the center of a circle.


Xander following her from the alley to a warehouse and pulling no punches as his words lay bare her soul.


Xander holding Dawn beside her mother's grave.


Xander repairing a window she had broken.


A wrecking ball knocking the hellgod off her feet.

Buffy blinked. Three faces regarded her with concern. Xander had the scared-looking girl-Dawn, she reminded herself-wrapped in his arms. Buffy smiled. "Xander," she said again. "I remember you. You're my friend."

Xander smiled back. Not the blinding grin he had offered before, that seemed so much more natural to him; instead, a tired but genuine smile. "I am. I have always been and will always be your friend, Buffy." The vampire stepped closer to Dawn and Xander. Something about that seemed odd, but before she could wonder about it Xander asked, "Recognize anyone else?"

"I..." She didn't know what to say. She knew that the other two people were called Spike and Dawn, but did that mean she recognized them? She needed more time. She felt safe now. Unlike the confusing times she had awoken
alone in places that felt cold and malignant, this place felt restful and she knew these people would help her until she was less confused. Leaning back, she closed her eyes. She would answer that question when she was more sure of how all the fragments fit together.

* * * * *

Gunn handed Faith the binoculars once he saw Lilah emerge from the parking garage. The tiny brunette frowned as she looked all the way across the small park they had parked beside to watch the entrance of the building. They were about a half a mile from the disaster site, close enough that Lilah could walk there if she chose but far enough to be away from the crowds.

Another one of Willow's 'little nudges' had ensured that neither Gunn's truck nor its occupants would register on any surveillance cameras that were in the garage. Forty minutes ago, they had driven through the parking area
and slipped Lilah, still unconscious, onto the floor between two parked SUVs.

The destruction of the building, along with it being a holiday weekend, had kept most of the commuter traffic away, but the streets were still alive with people. Faith passed the binoculars back to Gunn and he watched Lilah
looking around in a daze at her surroundings. She had no identification, money or cell phone, and Willow had asked them to shadow her until she found someone like a police officer-apparently this memory-wipe spell was
untested and Willow had wanted to err on the side of caution. So while they were sure that Lilah would have no memory of what had happened the night before, they were a little unclear on whether she had any idea who she was.

She started to walk in the direction of the site on which the Wolfram and Hart building used to exist. She still cradled her hand to her chest. Gunn started the truck and followed well back at a crawl. Lilah stumbled as she
saw, or rather didn't see, the building. She sat down on the sidewalk, mouth open. The pedestrians stepped around her, seemingly torn between offering help and assuming she was homeless. Her well-tailored though rumpled suit tipped off one of the cops working crowd control and she was helped over to one of the emergency vehicles. Gunn saw her shaking her head at the questions she was being asked as they began to examine her.

Gunn grinned at Faith and said, "Mission accomplished."

Her answering smile lit up the cab of the truck.

"So," he asked, feeling suddenly self-conscious. "You want to go back and watch Angel stress over the news, or would you like to go get something to eat?"

"I vote for food," Faith laughed.

* * * * *

Being dead, he shouldn't be able to get migraines. Angel sat at his desk, cradling his head in his hands. He had thought he had been prepared. Really. Not that he expected a calm week-Spike always had been poster boy for ADD and Xander had apparently kissed what little sense of self-preservation he had been born with goodbye; add Lindsey's presence to the mix and chaos was a given. Chaos was nothing compared to this.

The first floor of the hotel vibrated with the sound coming from the salle off the lobby. It had originally been the atrium back in the Hyperion's heyday. Boards had replaced the shattered windows over the years, and Angel
had turned the open space into a place to train Cordelia with a sword-she had shown interest in the weapon since their ill-fated trip to Pylea. He had been relieved when Xander had snagged his hyperactive Childe and dragged him off to 'play'. Relieved until he realized Id Boy and his mate Destructo Man couldn't do anything quietly, as the current guitar solo gave testament.

He thought he had anticipated the worst. That was the whole point of brooding-to be prepared for every contingency-wasn't it? He had factored in the nebulous prophesy and Lindsey snarking about, Riley's reluctance to face the Scoobies, even Xander's new status as his Childe's mate. None of his careful planning had ended with every network on television endlessly looping the mysterious melting of a downtown LA office building into a
perfectly square pile of lava; two, count them, two, Slayers; a hellgod in residence, and a still-unsolved prophesy.

Buffy's return had shaken everyone in different ways. Riley was practically invisible. Faith had been wary and defensive; thankfully, Gunn had distracted her and taken her out of the now-crowded hotel and had offered to
show her around once they got rid of Lilah. Dawn had worn herself out keeping vigil only to have her existence called into question when Buffy didn't immediately remember her. Angel had been treated to the real story of
the Key in Willow-babble and Xander-speak, with Spike's colorfully irate footnotes. He was glad that Cordelia had taken the girl to her place for a lunch and a nap. Cordelia had shown her trademark resilience to Faith's
presence and Buffy's resurrection, but she had been watching him. He didn't know if she was waiting for a repeat to his behavior during Darla's return, or just feeling vulnerable. He rather hoped she was feeling as possessive as he had been when they made the trip to Sunnydale and he knew she would be seeing her ex-before he had smelled Spike all over Xander.

Angel got up, intent on telling the mischief twins to turn down the volume. He paused as he passed the door of the library. Giles and Lindsey were at opposite ends of the long table with books-open and being compared or closed with white satin ribbons marking pages-strewn between them. Lindsey was absorbed in a heavy volume which was resting in his lap while he jotted notes on a legal pad. The blunt, black writing didn't seem to say 'kill,
kill, kill' and when Angel gave Rupert a questioning look regarding their guest, the Watcher just smiled and shook his head.

"How can you to get any work done with all this noise?" Angel asked.

Giles tucked his amused look back into his notes and Lindsey looked at Angel like he doubted his intelligence, more than usual. Lindsey spoke slowly, as if to a child. "That's Carlos Santana."

Knowing any reply would leave him open to ridicule by the quick-witted ex-lawyer, and doubting his ability to keep from killing the potential participant in the prophesy, Angel continued back to the salle. He stopped
just behind Fred, who was lurking in the shadows watching Xander and Spike prowl around each other in slow, predatory steps as they both grinned maniacally. In a blur that was far to quick for a human, Xander swept
Spike's legs with his left foot. Spike anticipated the move and jumped over the kick and swung an open-handed strike at Xander's head. Xander leaned back, just under the swing, and continued his leg-sweep a full 360 degrees to catch Spike's ankles as he landed. The vampire came crashing down on top of the human. They landed in a laughing heap. Spike stood and pulled Xander up. Instead of retreating to attack again, they begin mirroring each other; as one pushed the other's hand forward the other rolled his hand into the motion and pushed the other's hand back.

"It's like a dance." Fred whispered.

The guitar solo ended and the words slid out of the speakers of the portable system.

"And if you say this life ain't good enough
I would give my world to lift you up
I could change my life to better suit your mood
Cause you're so smooth

And just like the ocean under the moon
Well that's the same emotion that I get from you
You got the kind of lovin that can be so smooth
Gimme your heart, make it real
Or else forget about it" [1]

On the last line, Xander grabbed Spike's wrist, pulling him off balance and then caught him as he stumbled. They stood, staring into each other's eyes, oblivious to their audience. Xander leaned forward slowly, ghosting a kiss against Spike's lips before burying his face in the blonde's neck. Inhaling deeply, the human then sighed with pleasure, eliciting an answering purr from his mate.

"Xander," Spike whispered.

Xander didn't lift his head. Instead, he sank his teeth into the corded muscle along Spike's neck, causing the vampire to throw back his head and shift to gameface.

"Xander." This time it came out as a moan.

Fred inhaled softly, jarring Angel from the scene in front of them. Her eyes were the size of saucers and Angel could have kicked himself for not stopping it sooner. He cleared his throat loudly. Not, however, loud enough
to compete with Carlos Santana.

"You have a room," he said, finally managing to get their attention.

"That we do, luv," Spike said with a smirk and lead his lover out of the salle at a rapid pace.

Fred frowned at Angel and then shrugged. "Dawn's right," she said. "They're so romantic."

Xander blinked. He was unaware of just how long he had lay lost in thought, but it was late afternoon. Spike was dozing while curled against him on the bed. Xander was sure if he ever called the vampire on being a closet cuddler, Spike would just gripe about being cold-regardless of the sweltering temperatures.

It was actually bearable in the unairconditioned hotel with the ceiling fan's soft, artificial breeze. The heavily draped widows kept out the sun's heat and since only the bottom few floors were in use the old elevator shafts acted as chimneys, letting the heat rise to the vacant floors. Xander rubbed soothing circles on Spike's back hoping to lull his room-temperature lover deeper into a light sleep. The whole lack of breathing thing gave Spike a huge advantage in making Xander unaware of if the vampire were asleep or awake. Xander had a lot to think about. He didn't want Giles to have to solve the Glory-Buffy dilemma himself and despite the talk he had had with Spike, Xander was nervous about how Buffy being alive, so to speak, would affect them all.

Dawn was distraught over Buffy's confusion, fearing that Buffy would never regain the memories they all shared of Dawn before she had been really sent to them. Xander wished he had the words to put her at ease. It really didn't matter to him how real the memories were, she was theirs, plain and simple. Xander had spent a long time after his very first meeting Giles and Buffy contemplating reality and perception. He didn't have any fancy degrees like Miller and Finn, or centuries of experience like Angel and Spike, but he knew what felt right. After losing Jessie and almost seeing the world sucked into hell the first time, Xander had decided that drawing the lines between fantasy and truth came in second to the people you loved.

Willow, he was sure, would be looking for a spell to 'fix' this. He would need to make sure she didn't take too much on. He sent up a pray of thanks that Spike had been able to put that horrifying idea Willow had been researching, of resurrecting Buffy, out of the witch's head. His heart-sib had suffered debilitating, recurring nightmares for weeks after they had lost Buffy. Looking into Willow's exhausted eyes, Xander had been on the verge of offering to participate in any ritual she wanted to spare her that pain. She was sure Buffy was languishing away in some hell-dimension. Oddly enough, it had been Spike's sarcastic ridicule of the idea that had dissuaded her. His rude comments about how unfair it was that all Slayers got a 'get outta hell free' card which allowed them to be utter bints when alive and still skip through the pearly gates had prevented Willow from venturing into some pretty scary magic.

Xander wasn't sure where Lindsey fit in. He knew Angel thought he needed him for that prophesy Wes had Spike translate, but Deadboy sure didn't seem to like the guy, although the trick he had pulled with the music had proved useful in putting Buffy back into the driver's seat. The more time Glory spent in control the more groggy Buffy would seem when she came back. If they could keep her with them the bulk of the time, she might start to remember Dawn again.

Abruptly, his view of the decorative molding on the ceiling was suddenly obstructed by a pair of glaring yellow eyes. Xander smiled. Lifting his hand, he traced Spike's new piercing with his finger. He pulled Spike's slight, muscular body on top of him and sighed. He had not only been brooding, he had been caught brooding. Once reassured that Xander's attention was firmly back where it should be-on him-Spike snuggled strike that-vampires do not snuggle buried his face in Xander's neck.

* * * * *

Gunn parked his jeep around the side of the old hotel. Faith was in high spirits, since their assignment had gone so smoothly. He had suggested they work out. The hotel was hushed without the blaring music from earlier that day. As they headed down to the parking level to warm up on the heavy bag, she noticed that Wes had finally taken a break from the prophesy research; the conference room was dim and empty. She assumed most of the others were napping as it was moving into the late afternoon and the hottest part of the day.

Gunn detoured toward the kitchen and said he would fetch some drinks and sent Faith ahead. Faith stepped back in surprise as she entered the lower level. At the sound of her footsteps on the stair, Riley had turned with a wide grin. His face had almost comically transformed into an expression that mirrored the shock Faith felt.

"Uhm...I was just," he said. He gestured vaguely at the free weights as his eyes darted nervously past her to the stairs.

Faith stepped aside, not wanting him to feel trapped, disappointed in her inability to say anything that wouldn't make both of them feel more awkward. She had never bought into all the twelve-step shit they dealt out at the weekly counseling sessions. Making amends might work if all you did was drugs or alcohol, but she had betrayed a sacred duty and used the strength given to her to serve mankind to harm and kill those she was meant to protect. Still, she thought, even though an apology wasn't enough to make up for using Riley in the guise of Buffy, she hadn't given him even that yet. Steeling herself for the rejection she was sure would follow, she took a deep breath and impulsively she touched his arm just as he went to pass by. "Wait," she said.

He tensed and pulled his arm away and she regretted acting so hastily, but knew if she didn't speak now she would lose her nerve. "I'm sorry," she said. "For everything. I know... I know it doesn't make up for anything, for what I did to you, what I did to B. I know it was wrong and... you didn't deserve it. Neither of you did."

"Well," Riley swallowed hard. He ran his palms nervously over his forearms, smoothing the hairs that had stood on end.

Relief swept over Riley's face. Graham stopped briefly at the bottom of the stairs. He looked calmly at Faith. She knew little about him other than his name, but he had given her a wide berth since she had arrived. Without a word he moved to stand at Riley's side. A light bulb came on in her head and Faith realized that they were together. So, on top of facing the woman who had ridden him into the ground using his lover's body, the poor kid had to face the same lover resurrected now that he had apparently started to move on.

"It's okay," Riley said. "You weren't yourself."

Faith found herself returning the self-conscious smile Finn sported when he realized his unintentional play on words, given that she hadn't been in her own body.

"It's okay?" Graham said with disbelief.

Gunn's arrival with the sports drinks brought back rather than dissipated the awkward tension.


Tara opened the door to Buffy's suite only a few inches. She peeked in, smiling tentatively at Lindsey. At his nod she opened the door wider and with her arm sheltering Dawn, steered the girl into the suite and over to the bed. Dawn shifted from foot to foot. Buffy had stayed present for hours now and was drifting in her own thoughts less. Lindsey watched as Buffy smiled at her 'sister'. She patted the bed and Dawn perched as if she would jump away at the first sign of Glory coming back.

McDonald nodded again to the shy blonde witch. She came over and sat next to him on the loveseat, probably more to give the sisters some time together than to keep him company. He found Tara's presence very soothing. He didn't stop the soft chords he was strumming. He appreciated that she had told him the truth, as far as she knew it, regarding the various blood and romantic ties which knit together these two independent fighting units for the Powers That Be. Although, given the news loops he had caught on television, she had seriously discounted just how dangerous this group of friends was.

Buffy had probably told him more than Angel would like. He was still unclear on just what was causing her memory loss of her sister. He dare not ask given how protective they all seemed of Dawn. He had no illusions about his life expectancy if William the Bloody or his apparently insane mate thought he might be threatening to the girl. Given what he had seen the tiny red haired witch do to Lilah, he wasn't even sure his thoughts were his own right now He was sure that he wanted away from Angel. If he ran though, he would now have the vampire and Wolfram and Hart after him. He wasn't up to the pressure of standing up to the firm. Some nebulous prophesy was not reason enough to risk being in the same city as his old employers. He had his doubts about Angel's ability to keep him out of their clutches. Xander, despite his casual violence, or perhaps because of it, seemed to have a much clearer picture of just how dangerous a game the souled vampire was playing in pitting his tiny agency against a multinational organization with ties to the powers of darkness.

He had tuned out the hushed voice of the girl but Lindsey's attention was drawn back at the sound of Buffy's hushed words.

"I remember...when you cut yourself and being... I was so afraid. I remember Mom... finding her, and the funeral -- all those hours waiting in the hospital. Did I really let Spike babysit?" Buffy turned a confused look to Tara. The witch nodded enthusiastically and offered an encouraging smile.


"What's up?" Xander asked. He didn't open his eyes and remained sprawled in one of the two wingback chairs clustered by the desk.

Angel sat down behind his desk, not for the first time regretting that Wesley had taken over his office when he had taken over the agency. Even though he had requested the meeting, the vampire was surprised to find Xander waiting for him. He had expected the young man to remain in bed most of the rest of the day. True, the witches has been the most physically drained by the assault on the law firm, but Angel had seen just how much energy the young man had poured into the planning and executing of the breakout. Xander also had the added demands of catering to Spike's endless energy.

Angel took a moment to contemplate his Childe's mate. Healthy and tan, Xander was flexible enough to sprawl bonelessly across the chair, yet had bulked up from the skinny boy who had stood up to Angelus not so very long ago. His long legs were bare in a pair of obscenely short cutoffs and he wore a red tee shirt with black writing that said 'C.O.T.H. Woodshop And Demolition Team'. Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the silkscreen was that it looked mass produced, as if it were part of some Hellmouth souvenir franchise. Angel's visions of a market for clothing that said 'I went to Boca del Inferno and all I got was possessed.' was interrupted by a laughing pair of brown eyes.

"Deadboy? You interrupted sex for this. Spill." Xander swung his legs off the arm of the chair and assumed a more upright position.


Charles Gunn waited patiently for the young woman to regain her composure. In the short time he had known the fiercely beautiful young Slayer he had begun to feel more than just an attraction for her. He felt connected with Faith on a level that frankly scared him. He saw a great deal of himself in her. She seemed so alone and he wondered if she wasn't an example of what could have happened to him if he hadn't been dragged into this ookie little family that the cheerleader-cum-seer and the odd, brooding souled vampire had formed out of what was essentially a bunch of cast-off misfits.

The recent confrontation with Riley had shocked the hell out of him. It was hard to believe that this vibrant soul had been doing hard time for murder. Then again, after losing Alana he had come damn close to killing Angel. He couldn't admit it to himself then, but he knew now that if he had been able to kill the vampire who had been trying to help him, then he would have crossed a line that would have led to humans. Faith had crossed that line-more than once.

Seeing that Angel was having a meeting off of the lobby Gunn led Faith upstairs to the area Cordelia called the living room. Once they were both seated he asked, "You wanna tell me what that was all about? What's with you and Finn?"

She sat, quietly biting her lip and chipping at the dark red polish on her nails. Finally she said, "I should probably start at the beginning."


"Here's Willow now," Angel said. He rose from his seat as the witch joined them in the alcove off the lobby in which his office area now resided.

"It's pretty bad when I beat you out of bed, Wills," Xander said by way of greeting.

"Sorry," Willow said. "Dawnie's back. She's really stressed, so I left her with Tara. What are we discussing?"

Xander nodded absently as the redhead took the chair next to his. She was in crisp walking shorts and a rich purple shirt. The tee was thin with cap sleeves and a scalloped neckline, its flowing white script proudly proclaimed 'Hellmouth Born and Bred'.

"I offered Angel Faith, for Lindsey and a player to be named later," Xander quipped before Angel could say anything.

"Xander," Willow scolded, "this isn't dodge ball."

Angel watched the two friends grinning at each other. Each brought light and warmth into the old hotel in their own manner. He marveled at how much they had been through and yet still managed to retain such youthful exuberance. They seemed to feed off of each other's boundless energy. Willow's allusion to dodge ball was accurate; they egged each other on like children on a playground. Angel shook his head. They were Peter Pan and Wendy, baiting him and teasing each other. It was easy to forget that they were the reason Wolfram and Hart's LA headquarters was now a city block of rapidly cooling lava.

The vampire cleared his throat and two pair of sparkling eyes locked on him. Willow sat up straight, as if getting caught passing notes in class. Xander bounced in his chair as if he was about to pull a prank on the teacher of that class. Angel shook his head again. He could almost see these two at five and nine and thirteen. Could almost catch a glimpse of the young adults they would have become had they not stumbled onto the mouth of hell. There had been another boy, hadn't there? If only he had taken a stand against Darla and the Master sooner. If he had done more than lurk about spouting cryptic comments, could he have saved the other one? Jesse, the one they didn't talk about. The one he had seen in the photos in Willow's room when Angelus had killed her fish. Would that tall dark-eyed boy have calmed Xander's nervous energy? Would he have bolstered Willow's self-confidence?

Well, it was too late. He had held back. He had been afraid to let Buffy know what he was and the boy had paid the price. The two friends had done their best without their missing third. Willow had found herself and was now grounded through Tara. Oddly enough, Angel's wayward Childe did seem to calm Xander, if not reign in his boundless energy. And Spike, whatever Spike had found with his mate, if it didn't control his homicidal violence, at least it channeled it.

"Giles," Angel started, shaking off is introspection, "would like to get Buffy away from L.A. as soon as possible."

Xander was instantly alert and his eyes took on the wary look they held when he was planning something. "Do you have reason to believe someone knows she's subletting from Glory?"

"We're just being cautious. But even if Wolfram and Hart are distracted by... recent events it's best to have her hidden before they start looking." Angel said


Riley stepped out of the shower. The emotional workout of dealing with Faith had been a lot more draining that working the heavy bag. Graham's sudden presence had been a mixed blessing. His old friend-and more recently, lover-had become his touchstone. He hadn't realized just how much he relied on Graham's steadfast support until the Scoobies had swept into town. But as reasonable and collected as Graham was about his own emotions he was fiercely protective of Riley.

Finn wiped steam off the mirror and decided after a quick glance that he could put off shaving until tomorrow. He stepped out into the bedroom with a towel slung across his hips. Graham looked up from working oil into the leather sheath of the two-headed ax he favored and asked, "You okay?"

Riley nodded. He smiled as Graham returned his attention to his tasked. He appreciated the trust Graham was willing to show in his judgment. He knew he hadn't been worthy of it before but he had been clean for almost two months and was surprised at how much he welcomed the opportunity to put that mess with Faith behind him.

He turned to pull clean clothes out of the bureau. He wasn't ready to deal with Buffy yet and with luck wouldn't have to since the Scoobies were bound to take her back to Sunnydale with them. Faith, on the other hand... Well, if the past twenty-four hours were any indication, Gunn would probably be interested in keeping her around. Angel wouldn't just cut her loose now that Willow had broken her out and erased all recorded of her crimes and punishment. He couldn't see her going back to Sunnydale with the Scoobies even if Buffy weren't back in the picture. So, seeking some sort of closure with the Slayer was for the best. He wasn't willing to take the easy way out and blame her for his behavior after her 'visit'; it would be too easy. Reasons became excuses and that way just led to justifying his repeating the same self-destructive behavior that had nearly gotten him killed or turned.

"You want to go see what kind of dinner plans are being made?" Riley asked as he pulled on a clean tee shirt.

By way of reply Graham quickly tidied up his work area with military neatness and followed him out into the corridor. They moved shoulder to shoulder down the hall. Their silences were always companionable and Riley was relieved that he never felt the need to make idle chatter with Graham. Therefore, it was no surprise when they heard Faith and Gunn in the sitting area as they headed toward the stairs to the lobby. Her back was to them and Gunn's attention was riveted on the brunette as she spoke.

"His...his lips turned blue and I remember being relieved that I wouldn't have to deal with him any more. He had seen me. Really seen me. I didn't want someone with that power... that knowledge to be around. He had saved my life, you know... that night when we... I tried to treat him like all the others, but he wouldn't... he, he still thought of me as a friend. I took what he offered-that friendship and when I couldn't destroy it, I tried to destroy him. If Angel hadn't stopped me... If he had been just a few heartbeats later... Xander would be dead."

Spike struck like a ballistic missile. He had come out of nowhere. Gunn was thrown to the floor. The couch crashed into the wall and the snarling vampire held Faith above him by her neck. Once Riley saw Graham pulled Gunn up and back away from the vampire, he vaulted a footstool and ran breakneck down the stair to the lobby. He hoped he could find Angel or Xander before someone got killed.

* * * * *

"So, we don't know anything for sure?" Xander looked from Angel to Willow.

"We know what Lilah knew, but frankly she's too far down in the power structure to be given full disclosure," Angel said with a sigh.

"But she thinks this is temporary?" Xander said. "That Glory will dissipate, or leave this plane. That's not good?"

"Not if Buffy loses cohesion too," Willow said softly.

"So. They come as a pair, all or nothing," Xander said.

"For now. Lilah was operating on the assumption that Glory had no host. They tried to tie her to a vampire, thinking it would be stronger and be able to survive longer between her. feedings. But the intended host didn't survive the ritual; it er, exploded. Buffy is stronger than a normal human, she's stronger than most vampire. There is no telling how long she has or how strong Glory could become. I hate to say this but I think. I think one of the reasons Giles wants to get back to Sunnydale is, well, in case." Willow trailed off, unable to meet either Angel's or Xander's eyes.

"Not again," Xander said softly. "I'm not letting him go through that again."

Angel watched them share a dark look. The weight of their many battles shone plainly on both young faces. As quickly as it came the brooding look left Xander's face, his mobile feature taking on an optimistic look. "So we don't let it happen. We find a way to either evict Glory and still keep Buffy or lull the bitch queen into dreaming away the next century or so."

"This is my favorite part," Dawn said softly. She smiled at Buffy. She glanced at Lindsey, almost dozing on the loveseat. Tara had stepped out to get Buffy something to eat, with a nod to the sleeping bard. Dawn had understood that to mean she felt Lindsey could slow Glory down, at least enough for her to bolt and call for help should the Hellgod crash her sister-time. Looking down at the book she read, "Since leaving the warren of the snares they had become warier, shrewder, a tenacious band who understood each other and worked together. There was no more quarreling. The truth about the warren had been a grim shock. They had come closer together, relying on and valuing each other's capacities. They knew now that it was on these and on nothing else that their lives depended, and they were not going to waste anything they possessed between them. In spite of Hazel's efforts beside the snare, there was not one of them who had not wondered, like Blackberry, what would become of them now. Without Hazel, without Blackberry, Buckthorn and Pipkin -- Bigwig would have died. Without himself he would have died, for which else, of them all, would not have stopped running after such punishment? There was no more questioning of Bigwig's strength, Fiver's insight, Blackberry's wits or Hazel's authority." [1]

"Do you remember Mom reading it?" Dawn bit her lip as Buffy got what was becoming a habitual dazed look, as if she were watching a video of the past that only she could see. The trouble was, as far as Dawn could tell her sister's memories were written on an old tape and sometime she saw their shared memories and sometime she saw the events taking place with no Dawn in the picture. Dawn fiddled nervously as she waited for Buffy to respond, and then added in a burst of Willow-like babble, "It's kind of like the Scoobies; see, Spike has the strength and Tara the insight, Willow the wits and Xander the authority... although that leaves me as Pipkin and there isn't anyone for you." She glanced down at the book and said, "Oh, you can be Bigwig and Spike could be Woundwort. He likes being scary although... Xander should be the General so maybe -"

"Dawn," Buffy said. Dawn stopped her ramble with a quick intake of breath and snapped her eyes back to her now clear-eyed, quietly smiling sister. "I remember," Buffy said. "She read it to us in LA just after they-they stopped shouting and started being disturbingly polite to each other, and then we took turns reading it to her in the hospital."

A crash sounded outside the room, waking Lindsey. Dawn was up and out the door before Buffy could stop her.


"I could tell Wesley," Willow was finishing up a recap of just what she did with the holy water that reduced LA's nexus of evil into a straight-to-video disaster flick that had caused even Angel's eyes to glaze over from information overload.

"But then we'd have to kill him," Xander interrupted, smoothly preventing Willow from jumping up to diagram the process.

"Xander," She huffed and rolled her eyes, before noticing Angel had stopped taking notes. "TMI?"

"No, it's fascinating," Angel lied.

"He's just glad you're on our side." Xander winked at Willow and turned his attention back to Angel. "I was serious about taking the lawyer - so far he's our best bet at keeping glamourapocalypse girl from reassembling her scabby little minions and rebuilding the tower o' crap."

"First, you can't trust him," Angel said. "And then there's the prophesy-"

"I'm not taking him over state lines," Xander sprung to his feet and paced restlessly, "and who the hell said I trusted anyone? Hello, Xander here. I still think you're going to go all evil so why would I trust a lawyer? He endangers my people I'll kill him myself."

"Xander!" Willow said sharply.

"Er, or I'll let Wills turn him into a rat. Amy could use some company, right?" Xander rocked on his heel and looked sheepish.

Angel marveled at the lightening quick transformation the young man could make between alpha male making decisions and defending his group to the wheedling tone of an over-indulged child. Willow's rueful grin indicated she knew he was playing her and the vampire wondered which one of them would strike first should MacDonald or anyone else threaten their family. The Sunnydale home team might just prove far more dangerous than any prophesied champion or Slayer with a built-in destiny. Willow's raw power and creativity paired with Xander's strategic skills and ruthlessness rivaled the Scourge of Europe in their destructive potential. Xander was right about Angel being glad Willow was on his side, he was glad they both were. He remembered the vampire version of Willow-turned at fifteen she had been frightening. If she were turned now she would be unstoppable, especially with Xander at her side.

Abruptly, Xander threw himself back into the chair. "Anyway," he continued, and Angel wondered where Xander would jump into the conversation, not having Willow's gift for following the rapid associations of Xander train of thought, "he's safer away from the LFH, right? And Giles and Wes can both work on the prophesy-it's not like you're sure it's him right? We promise we won't let him get killed, unless we have to."

"LFH?" Angel asked

"Lawyers from hell," Willow and Xander said in unison.

Riley skidded to a halt breathlessly leaning on Angel's desk and simply pointed back to the upper floor.


The world was blood-red. Heat, movement, the soft whimper as the prey struggled for breath -- its rapid escalating heartbeat crescendoing as it valiantly struggles to pump nonexistent oxygen to the rest of the body only to rupture into the silence of death. No! Not fast. Spike loosened his hold on the Slayer's neck. She noisily pulled in a gasp of air. Throwing her to the floor, he pinned her with a knee to her chest and watched tears slip from her dark eyes. She had ceased to struggle though both her hands still tried to pry his viselike grip from her throat. Envisaging peeling her skin off inch by inch, he was startled by the crash of Dawn suddenly hurling herself bodily into Gunn. She sent herself and the stake-wielding vampire hunter over the coffee table and though an antique straight-back chair. He appreciated having someone watch his back but wished it wasn't his fragile girl. Spike knew he would have stopped the human long before Gunn had made it across the scattered furniture but Dawn must have thought he was too focused on revenge to see the large lumbering human charging with his stake. Spike was able to admire how well she remembered her lessons, as she had managed to both surprise the larger man and use him to cushion her landing, while simultaneously mentally cursing his errant charge for distracting him from killing the Slayer.

The crash happened at the feet of the startled ex-commando. While Miller imposed his bulk between Dawn and Gunn to prevent either from entering the fight, Tara warily inched toward Spike, her hand low and extended as if it were a rabid dog glaring at her instead of a pissed-off vampire. Spike was torn between ripping off the stupid human's hand and rolling his eyes. It was impossible to get a decent disemboweling in when surrounded by children-and they were everywhere.

"Spike," Tara said, contriving to sound calm and in charge but coming off more like a game show host. "You're not going to kill her. You don't really want to kill her -"

"Why the bloody hell not!" Spike hissed.

"Uhm..." Tara hadn't apparently expected conversation.

Buffy came down the corridor Dawn had emerged from, followed warily by her musician. She turned a confused look on Xander, who came up from the lobby followed by Angel and Willow.

"Did she try to kill you?" Xander asked, strolling in ahead of the witch and Angel. He crossed to Spike but made no attempt to free Faith. Warm strong fingers carded though Spike's still-damp locks and Xander cupped his lover's chin to turn his face this way and that, as if looking for rapidly healing bruises.

"Tried to kill you, love," Spike whispered.

Xander smiled and looked pointedly down at his long bare legs. He held his arms out and tilted them one way and then the other. Shrugging he said, "Funny, she usually does a better job." His grin faded when Spike failed to laugh. "Come on, Spike, we're practically out the door and we haven't offed Angel or one of his crew. That offer still stands if we make it back to Sunnydale without killing any of them."

"She doesn't count. She touched what's mine." Spike growled.

"Bullshit. You just want your hat trick." Xander scuffed his bare foot on the area rug and then nudged Spike with it. "You're giving that whole thing way more meaning than it deserves.... please..."

The 'please' more than anything else shook off the remainder of Spike's blood lust. Looking around he realized he had quite an audience and that just maybe his mate didn't want them to know about his past with this Slayer. Spike was torn between anger at Xander for not telling him about Faith and a need to protect his mate's pride. Sure, the signs had been there if he had cared to look-back when Giles and Xander had been hunting the Slayer, the boy's scent had held fear and pain, but that had been long before Xander had become Spike's world.

Abruptly Spike stood, leaving Faith gasping at his feet. He pulled Xander flush against him and buried his face in the crook of the human's neck. Inhaling deeply, he shifted to his demon visage and hissed, "Mine."

"Yours," Xander responded instantly, bucking instinctively into his mate as Spike's fangs penetrated his neck.


Cordelia hated to be the last on the scene. She had been in the kitchen when she heard everyone running up the stairs. The tableau before her told her she had missed a great deal. She arrived at the back of the crowd just as Angel turned away from the sight and, if she figured correctly, the smell of Spike feeding from Xander. Meeting his yellow eyes she watched Angel duck his head the way he always did when he had trouble controlling his demon.

He wasn't the only one affected by the scene. Riley was visibly shaken and couldn't seem to look away, his breath hitching noticeably. She watched Graham pull Riley to him and turn him away from the pair. The two men rarely displayed any physical affection so she was stunned when Graham chose to distract his lover with a dominating kiss.

She turned to see Fred, Wes and Giles coming up the stairs. Consoled that she wasn't the only one out of the loop, Cordelia stepped closer to Angel and took his hand. "It's okay," she whispered, not knowing if she was talking about the situation, or his reaction to it.

Gunn was kneeling next to Faith. The Slayer just smiled and clasped his hand when he asked if she was all right. Cordy figured it would be a while, even with Slayer healing, before Faith would be speaking without pain.

Buffy walked over to Dawn, who upon seeing no one else attacking Spike, had stayed behind the overturned couch. She held out her hand and as Dawn took it and stood, said, "Don't I remember some rule that says you never run toward the fighting?" Cocking her head, Buffy watched Spike and Xander a moment and then turned to Lindsey. When he smiled, she smiled back and looked around at the crowd of people. She stopped smiling when she saw Riley, still in Graham's arms. She turned a confused look on Giles and started to speak, then stopped. Finally she said, "I want to go home."


Their audience dissipated. Some went down to the lobby to discuss heading home; others went back to their rooms. Spike hadn't let go of Xander after removing his fangs from his mate's neck. He shifted back out of his feeding face but kept his lips ghosting softly against the bite. He drank in Xander's scent as he licked the taste of his blood from his lips. When he lifted his eyes to Xander's he was surprised to see no condemnation for his behavior. Xander, in fact, sported a dopey lovesick smile and Spike realized that they were both swaying to some unheard music-almost dancing.

"Hey," Xander said, resting his forehead against Spike's.

"Hey, yourself, luv," Spike answered.

"Now would be the time I poke fun at you for being-what was it? All puffed up and manly or was it splotchy and possessive?" Warm brown eyes and the tilt of his lips took away any sting the words might have had.

Spike smirked and hoped he didn't look as silly as Xander did. "Yeah, whatever, as you lot say. You should have warned me, Xan. You know- I never want to- Well that's not true, I love overreacting, but I need to know -"

"About every thing or person who has every caused me discomfort, let alone pain or heartache?" Xander finished for him.

"Basically, yes," Spike said, pulling his head back just far enough for Xander to know he was serious without losing the delicious heat of his body against his.

"Spike-you're my now and my forever. Let that be enough. As much as you want to-kill Faith and possibly hunt down Sarah Olinsky, who called me a boogerhead in third grade, you just have to live with the me all that pain and heartache crafted. Can you do that?" Xander was taking unfair advantage as he was peppering his speech with tiny nips and kisses along Spike's jawline.

"I can try, Pet," Spike said.

"That's all I ask," Xander answered and added, "Look, we're dancing."

They stayed in each other's arms kissing softy until a noise at the top of the stair caught their attention. Surprisingly it wasn't Angel come to chuck them out now that the Scoobies were talking of heading home, but Lorne.

"Hey, glad we got to see you again before we left," Xander said and he started to release his hold on Spike, only to be pulled closer as his mate growled and shifted to gameface.

"It's been swell, handsome. Can't tell you what insight meeting Junior has given me to tall, dark and brooding," Lorne said, unfazed by Spike's antics. "I wanted to see Linds before he left. I know he and Angelkins never bonded but he's a sweet kid. You all keep an eye on him; word travels about Sunnydale and it's not the home I would have picked for him.

"I knew Peaches would find a way to saddle us with the lawyer and probably the bloody prophesy to boot," Spike hissed, his eyes flashing to gold and back to blue.

"Buffy likes him," Xander said in his ending-all-arguments voice. "We'll see he keeps in touch, Lorne."

"I appreciate that, dark eyes, but that's not why I came up. You're good. Between the jokes and using your friends as shields you are the one person who didn't get a reading. And you, besides Junior here, were the whole reason Angel arranged readings." Lorne sat down on the one chair that had remained upright during Spike's display of demon testosterone.

Xander looked away as if trying to find a way out. Spike chuckled and refused to relinquish his hold on his lover.

Lorne ventured, "I thought it might be easier here, alone. I have endured Angel and Cordelia -trust me you can't be that bad."

Xander shrugged and blushed and asked, "What should I sing?"

"Why don't you sing to him?" Lorne said. "You don't seem to care if he laughs at you."

Pulling Spike close and starting their swaying, almost dancing, again. Xander sang softly, almost whispering, "You make me laugh. Cause your eyes they light the night. They look right through me. You bashful boy. You're hiding something sweet-please give it to me. Yeah, to me. Talk to me some more, you don't have to go. You're the Poetry Man -you make things all rhyme. You are a genie all I ask is for you to smile each time I rub the lamp. When I am with you I have a giggling teen-age crush, then I'm a sultry vamp. Talk to me some more, you don't have to go. You're the Poetry Man-you make things all right." [2]

Spike pushed Xander back into the wall. He silenced him with a heated kiss. What Lorne may or may not have read would have to wait as the tall green demon slipped silently down the stairway, leaving the lovers to either make it back to their room or not.


Shortly before midnight, Angel watched Xander and Gunn exchange email information. Faith hung back until Xander nodded to her then she stepped up and Gunn put his arm around her. Cordy was making loud keep-in-touch noises to Willow, in between hissing warnings about Lindsey under her breath. Dawn hugged Fred while Wes looked on in fond amusement. The two girls were separated by years but had become quite close, sharing a common ground in being normal but surrounded by supernatural creatures. Dawn was the last to get into Giles' car.

Giles would be driving Lindsey, Buffy and Dawn back to Sunnydale. He was pretty sure that the extra space wasn't the only reason that Dawn had claimed the front seat. Angel wasn't sure what was more frightening: the thought of Willow in the confined space of a car for three hours on all the caffeine she had consumed, or of just what the mischief twins could get up to in the back seat. He couldn't help being relieved that they were leaving earlier than planned or that they were taking MacDonald with them. If Lindsey was the bard mentioned in the prophesy, it was probably smarter to stash him somewhere away from Wolfram and Hart.

Spike had implied that he wouldn't mind if Angel happened to see if he could find out where Xander's ex was, just to make sure she was doing all right, as he had put it. Angel almost believed that his now chipless Childe had no intention of tormenting his mate's former lover and said he would look into it.

Graham and Riley had disappeared after Spike's little claiming display. Angel wondered if he should wait until his scheduled time with Riley, tomorrow morning, to talk to him. Riley hadn't, as far as Angel knew, spoken with Buffy since she came back from the dead. Adding in Faith, who had tricked him into bed, Dawn's open resentment, and Spike, who went out of his way to rub in Finn's addiction at every chance, it was understandable that Riley was feeling off his game.

As Giles drove away with his carload, Xander walked over to Angel and extended his hand. As he shook it Xander said, "Deadboy, don't be such a stranger." Hugging Cordelia he added, "You're all coming up for Thanksgiving, right?"

Cordelia began to stammer out an excuse that they were far too busy at that time of year and Spike laughed loud and long. Pushing Xander in ahead of him, he climbed into the back seat while saying, "Right, so, we'll all be back same time next year." On that note Willow drove away honking her horn.

"He was joking, wasn't he? Wasn't he? Angel?" Cordelia followed him back into the hotel. He briefly considered pointing out that this visit had been her idea in the first place but simply shrugged and went inside to increase the insurance on the hotel.

1. 'Wander This World' Jonny Lang

2. 'Subway Terror.' Michael Lee Smith (Starz)


[1] Flesh-Aerosmith

[2] I Wanna Be Sedated-Ramones

[3] Oh, Lord, Won't You Buy Me A Mercedes Benz-Janis Joplin

[4] With or without you-U2

[4] Jungleland-Bruce Springsteen

[1] Watership Downs by Richard Adams

[2] Poetry Man-Phoebe Snow

[1] Runaway Train-Soul Asylum

[1] Smooth-Carlos Santana


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