Bring Me To Life – A Buffy the Vampire Slayer / Angel Crossover Event

Part 42

Dirty Girls, Part 3


Sunnydale, CA—Xander Harris's Apartment

11:47 p.m.

Days Left Before the End of Days—17


There would have been a time in a young 17 year-old Xander Harris's life when the idea of having a dozen pretty teenage girls-better yet, future Slayers, like beautiful Buffy and sultry Faith-sleeping around his house at night would have been enough to have made him die a happy man right then and there.

He would have imagined those young, nubile, flexible and fit gaggle of young, bouncy girls having a pillow fight. All gorgeous, all scantily clad, all . . . there and young and so, um, buoyant . . . Feathers flying through the air, girlish laughter, and bouncing and flouncing and jiggling, nighties and bras and panties, all his favorite "ies . . ."

But as he'd quickly discovered over the last two nights, the fantasy had fallen way off from reality.

After the Scoobies, Team Angel-or the 'Fang Gang', as Dawn had gotten used to calling them-and their allies had managed to return to Sunnydale following the Fall of the Hyperion Hotel, the Summers home had become too inundated to handle so many people. Even with more than 60 girls dead in the attack, there were simply too many people to fit into such limited space. So with that in mind, both teams had opted to split their resources and spread out so as to conserve space, water and food. Angel still owned the mansion on Crawford Street, which would have had more than enough space for everyone, but he needed time to get the place up to par for human living standards. Aside from that, part of Angel realized the Scoobies might be reluctant to re-enter that place after all the awful things that happened there, especially Giles, so he opted to keep that option quiet for now while he made calls to get it ready just in case.

With Buffy still resting from her near-death battle with The First, Angel decided he, Willow, Faith, Spike, Oz, Wesley, Darla and some of the others would remain at the Summers home (though Angel had to be talked into letting Spike stay by Willow, if only to avoid another pissing contest between them over who should stay at Buffy's house). That left Gunn, Fred and Giles to watch over a dozen girls at Giles's apartment, while Lorne, Kate and Anya took another Potentials batch over to Anya's apartment (with Angel telling Kate poignantly to keep an eye on the boys in her crew, as he had caught them brazenly flirting with some of the more giggly, reciprocant of the girls. Safe sex wasn't something he cared to worry about with so many bigger matters to attend to).

That left the last group to Xander, who quickly discovered handling a bunch of energetic, antsy and chronically-hungry teenage girls had been less oogle-time fun and more hard-time labor. They'd emptied his refrigerator and most of his cupboards twice, clogged the toilet at least 4 times, used up the hot water once and the less considerate of them had been leaving crumbs on the carpet and dirty dishes piling up in the sink. All on top of him having to manage work at the construction site, rush back to the Summers home to help train the girls and then head back home, all to play host to these girls who were eating him out of house and home.

As he lay in bed listening to the giggling and clanking plates outside, Xander tiredly realized he was starting to feel less like Hugh Hefner and more like The Old Woman...er, Man...That Lived In A Shoe, as he had so many Potentials he didn't know what to do.

Here he was, just hours before his 22nd birthday, and instead of having the joyful youth of freedom that came with it, he was feeling more like 22 going on 62 with all these responsibilities heaped on him, not to mention the End of All Time looming closer.

Yet, there was one thing that did make him smile...Cordelia.

Much to his surprise, Cordelia quickly volunteered to give Xander a hand in taking care of the girls at his place, much to Angel's reluctance, Buffy's later surprise upon waking up, and Anya's stunned and seething jealousy. And Xander had thanked his lucky stars that she did. In the time she had been there over the last two days, Xander watched with surprise as she had taken to handling the girls with ease. She brooked no sass, offered a gentle shoulder to cry on and was not above a little intimidation, easily cowing the more unruly of the Potentials into cleaning up after themselves. Xander couldn't help but think back to when Cordy had used that same intimidating tone and body language when she ruled Sunnydale High as its Undisputed Queen Bee. Only now she had used that power she once abused on bullying the nerdier kids and toying with jocks in order to help Xander save his apartment and keep these scared, energetic and overwhelming kids in line. Pushing aside her own pain and trauma from the horrors she had dealt with recently all to help him. Xander watched it all with a sense of awe, and gratitude, and comfort...and something deeper. Something powerful.

Something that scared the bejeezus out of him.

He still felt guilty about experiencing this newfound...whatever this was...feelings?...for Cordelia again. He'd been avidly trying the last few days to keep them locked away in a corner of his heart where he would secretly always treasure them, but never take them out.

But it was getting harder. And it grew harder with every laugh they shared when she splashed him playfully with the kitchen hose as they washed the dishes. With every shy, secret smile she threw his way whenever their eyes met as she passed the vacuum on one end of the living room while he swept the floor on the other end. With every accidental touch of her soft, pearl-smooth skin against his work-calloused hands when they accidentally both reached for the carving knife to get dinner ready for the girls. With every moment her beautiful dark brown irises met his hazel eyes afterwards, the becoming pink blush on her tan skin always making his breath catch in his throat.

Here they were, all this time later, under his apartment roof. Under the same space. So close...and yet she might as well be a million miles away, Xander realized in misery. He didn't want to put Cordelia through another mistake, another heartbreak like the last time they were together. It was the last thing she needed in her state. And he wasn't sure he could deal with his heart breaking again, as it was. After all, he still had no idea where his feelings for Anya were-if they were still even there at all-and this new sparkage with Cordelia had come under such stress, world-in-peril, high-stakes situations again. Yes, it was always hella-sexy, Xander realized, but that didn't work out for them the last time, and he didn't think he could take trying again with Cordelia only to fail a second time. He could only put scotch tape around his often-broken heart so many times before it became unusable.

So he put such thoughts away and tried to forget his sorry state of mind as he leaned back into his pillow and closed his eyes…

"Xander?"

At that soft, familiar and feminine voice, he sat up, wide awake and gaped at the sight just a few feet in front of his bed.

Cordelia.

Stunningly gorgeous, ever-so-beautiful-and-sexy Cordelia. Here. In his bedroom. At night. Wearing only a baby-blue bathrobe that barely covered her long, sculpted thighs, sheathed in black nylon tights, and man, did she look like she needed...er, comforting.

If his old friend Jesse were still alive, he'd be giving him a Wayne's World-style "We're Not Worthy!" salute with tears of pride, Xander realized and bit back a laugh at the bittersweet thought.

Shaking that thought off, he eyed her with concern...and tried to keep his eyes above her neckline. "Cor?" he asked, worried. "What...what's wrong?"

"Sorry, I…" she broke off, hesitating. "Forget it, it's nothing," she stammered, turning to go.

"No-no-no, wait! It's...it's fine," Xander called out. "Seriously...talk to me, Cor. You can always talk to me." The last part he added with a goofy smile and a gentle timber in his voice that made her smile, as she slowly turned back to him, walked back over to where she was standing.

"Can't sleep, huh?" he guessed at her late night visit.

"Not really, no," she replied. Her eyes fell. "I….I haven't been able to sleep the last few nights," she said in a hushed voice, trying not to wake the others.

He sighed, looking at her remorsefully. "Yeah. Me, either," he admitted. "But it's okay."

"Is it, though?" she asked, skeptically. "I mean, we've lost the Keystone, the First and its goons burnt down our super-posh hotel, our top guns are looking toppled and we've got a bunch of horny, jumpy teenage girls eating us out of house and home with a timer set on our Event Horizon-less apocalypse coming down the pike, but hey...it's all okay, right?"

Another sigh escaped his lips. Honestly, Xander was starting to doubt his own assurances. But he couldn't let Cordelia know that. Hell, he was usually the one who kept her from freaking out back in her early days as a fledgling Scooby Gang member. He had to keep a brave face for her, if only to help her keep it together. Heck, it might even help him get it together, he realized.

"Well, not 'okay' in the traditional sense, but….hey, listen, it's going to be okay," he soothed. "Buffy knows what she's doing. And between her and Angel…" Xander begrudgingly bit back the realization that he was relying on Angel-or any other man-as a point to comfort Cordelia as he continued, "They've usually got this kind of thing down. This is their wheelhouse, Cordy, you know that. When the time comes, they'll be ready. And they won't go into battle until we're sure we're all ready for . . . action." He swallowed hard, realizing the word "action" might not have been the best choice of words considering their proximity and this intimate situation.

"That's just it, though. How will I know when I'm ready?" she asked anxiously. "To get back in...action?"

There's that word again, Xander gulped silently. Oy vey...

It was still alien to Xander, seeing what were the normally confident, bold, brazen at times brown eyes of Cordelia Chase so clouded with self-doubt, mistrust, melancholy. She'd been through so much, he realized. It made him want to help her even more. The White Knight part of him that had gotten him flack sometimes, he sardonically realized, but that he still couldn't ignore when it came to someone he still cared about so much.

"You will, Cordelia. You're one of the bravest people I've ever known. You'll be back in the game in no time. For now, you just have to . . . trust us," he told her sincerely. Trust me, were the words echoing in his head that he dared not give voice to, for fear of where they led right now.

Yet she gave him a wane, but sincere smile nonetheless. "I always have."

He returned her smile with one of his sloppy lopsided grins, constantly amazed at how beautiful she was. Clearing his throat and shaking his head, Xander awkwardly turned and looked at his door, where the Potentials were sound asleep on the other side. "Hard to believe we were younger than they were when we started all this."

Cordelia wistfully chuckled. "We were just kids."

"Yeah," he quietly agreed. "Just a bunch of dumb, pesky kids trying to save the world."

They were so young, and it was only a few years back. But it still felt sometimes like it was just yesterday for Xander. All the wacky, crazy, world-saving, life-threatening Weird-O-Rama that their lives had become since first day of sophomore year, when a little blonde cheerleader from Los Angeles walked into their school and turned their lives upside down. It was wild, and thrilling and painful and heartbreaking and it was the hardest thing he'd ever done...but Xander wouldn't trade it for the world, he realized with a somewhat grateful chuckle.

"I'm so scared, Xander," she confided softly, "and I'm still so...young."

She looked somber, wistful . . . so very, very young. And lonely. "I mean, what if this is really it? I came that close to dying when Jas-Bitch and that lickspittle parasite thing-y turned me all Mama Evil, y'know? A gal can only cheat death so many times before her number's called. What if...what if I'm due this time?" She asked that question, so softly, so filled with doubt and fear, that it made something in him snap defensively to attention.

"That's not gonna happen," Xander promised her, a fervent, almost hardened edge in his voice at the thought. "Not on my...uh, our watch," he corrected himself, blushing. His slip of tongue was not unnoticed by Cordelia, whose cheeks tinted pink in return, causing the red-blooded male in him to stir subconsciously.

"There's just...so much I haven't done. So much I need to do."

"I know," he replied earnestly.

She looked at him with a sad, somewhat wistful smile. "Wanna know something? Of all the things I regret, when I look back at my life...I've never really...made love, you know?"

"Yeah?" he croaked, his voice cracking slightly and his nether regions feeling uncomfortably tight.

She traced the bed sheet with her finger. "I mean, I've slept with guys before. But it usually ends with me getting knocked up with evil demon spawn. And it always ends up with me regretting picking the guy. Hell, four years in L.A., and the best action I've gotten is an invisible ghost who's good with the loofah." She chuckled, as did Xander, until he frowned, suddenly a little jealous of the ghostly roommate Cordelia had told him about once. Softly, she continued, "If I could've done something over just once...I...I would've wanted it to be you. At least one time. I mean, we cared so much about each other, yet we never were really...together...like that. I could die tomorrow, and . . . I'd die knowing that I never showed you how much you mean to me..."

Her look was vulnerable and seductive, her voice all throaty and enticing in a way that made Xander's throat dry and his heart hammer excitedly. "How much I care about you."

"Cordy," Xander murmured, trying to calm them both down, despite every primal instinct in his body screaming at him to take the stunning, goddess-like beauty before him here and now. "Wait...this isn't...you're not…"

Cordelia crawled on the bed toward him. "Xander," Cordelia said in a breathy voice.

"We can't," Xander said anxiously. "Cordelia, I…"

But she silenced his half-hearted protests, giving him a soft "shhhh" while pressing a soft finger on his lips, winking knowingly as music began to fill the air. Whoa...music? Where the hell did that come from? he wondered in some surprise, but unable to concentrate on anything other than Cordelia, who slowly rose to her feet atop his bed, like the goddess Venus rising all beautiful and bare from out of the foaming sea.

Slowly, Cordelia's perfectly sculpted hips began to rock and sway hypnotically to the rhythm of a song that sounded Middle Eastern at first. It wasn't until the lyrics began that Xander recognized the tune, a song from Sting called "Desert Rose".

I dream of rain, elay elay,

I dream of gardens in the desert sand,

I wake in pain, elay elay,

I dream of love as time runs through my hand

Xander could only stare at the sight of Cordelia-beautiful, sweet, oh-so-stunning Cordelia-dancing, dancing, for him and him alone in the dark of night in his room, while he watched entranced, mouth dry and slack-jawed, heart racing, his left finger twitching, his more private regions now fully attentive to her, and only her.

I dream of fire, elay elay,

Those dreams are tied to a horse that will never tire,

And in the flames, elay elay,

Her shadows play in the shape of a man's desire.

Ay,mama-chihuahua..."Cordy…" Xander tried to speak, but his brain failed to generate anything beyond that. Couldn't go beyond that.

Cordelia's smile was impish, teasing even as she continued to move, hips swaying, moving all slow and sexy and inviting-ly. "What? It's your birthday tomorrow. Think of it as an early birthday present." Her smile grew smoldering. "Maybe I'll even let you unwrap it."

This desert rose, elay elay,

Each of her veils, a secret promise,

This desert flower, elay elay,

No sweet perfume ever tortured me more than this

And then like a butterfly exploding out of its cocoon, Cordelia's robe suddenly flew up and backwards away from her body, giving Xander a sight he would take with him forever to his last days. Cordelia, perfect body encased in a sheer black nylon bodysuit, enveloping her from her slender shoulders down those shapely legs that went on for days and days all the way down to her feet. Slender, toned stomach gyrating, twisting, undulating to the tone of the music like some kind of exotic belly dancer. Rocking her hips suggestively to the music, rotating her hips in unhurried, torturous circles.

And as she turns, elay elay,

this way she moves in the logic of all my dreams,

this fire burns, elay elay,

I realize that nothing's as it seems

Running her perfectly manicured hands from the top of her dusky raven-hued hair and slowly inching, trickling down her body, tracing like dew drops down her perfect breasts…

...then hips...

...then sliding her hands down her tan, sculpted, nylon-sheathed thighs to put both hands on the bed, her dark, smokey eyes staring lustily at Xander.

I dream of rain, elay elay,

I dream of gardens in the desert sand,

I wake in pain, elay elay,

I dream of love as time runs through my hands

It was all Xander could do from melting into a pile of mush and hormones right then and there, his heart beating so fast he could feel it slamming into his ribcage.

Part of him tried to remember that he was supposed to talk Cordelia out of this, get her to stop, but as she crawled slowly towards him…

...wrapping her arms around his neck, then rose up to her knees, arching backwards, grinding her hips against his torso so agonizingly slow to the music, smelling like lavender and nylon and sex…

...a dazed, enraptured Xander, aching in ways and places that would drive any red-blooded male insane, found he could barely remember his own name, let alone his objections.

I dream of rain, elay elay,

I lift my gaze to empty skies above,

I close my eyes, this rare perfume is the sweet intoxication of her love

"Xander," Cordelia gently murmured, her lips barely a few slivers of light from his own.

"Cor...I….The others….they'll...hear...us," Xander breathlessly, weakly tried as she glided toward him, wanting him, desirous of his special brand of comfort.

"No, they won't. They're okay," she smiled, gently biting her lip and wrinkling her pixyish nose in that sexy way she always used to do right before they kissed when they were together. "Happy birthday."

Sweet desert rose, elay elay,

this memory of Eden haunts us all,

this desert flower, this rare perfume,

is the sweet intoxication of the fall...

Giving up, his mind relenting to his body...and maybe his heart...Xander gently pulled Cordelia down on top of him, his heart ablaze, his senses on fire and his body halfway to Valhalla...

"Xander, goddamn it!" the voice of Rona angrily barked.

Then the door jerked open and Xander jerked . . . awake, realizing he had been dreaming.

At his now-open room were Cordelia, an annoyed Rona and several other Potentials. Instinctively, Xander rolled to his side, careful to...mind the tent, so to speak.

"What-what?" he asked guiltily. "I'm...sleeping?"

Cordelia, dressed in loose slacks and a flattering, form-fitting maroon T-shirt, gave him an apologetic look. "Sorry. It's just...we have a little situation," she ruefully explained.

Rona, lacking patience, further elaborated. "Dominique has the stomach flu and the toilet's backed up."

Behind her, the Potentials were milling around, displeased, in their full-body jammies and um, orthodontic headgear.

"It actually backed up while she was on the toilet," Rona continued. "And she has the stomach flu." She gave him a moment to . . . digest that. "You should probably visualize that before you go in there. It'll make it easier to deal with."

Xander made a disgusted face at that mental image that he was not looking forward to making reality.

"Be right out," Xander tiredly told her, moving to get up before he became painfully aware of how alert the rest of his body was from that dream earlier. He paused, awkwardly, averting their gazes, particularly the brunette Seer he had so vividly been dreaming about only a few moments ago.

Taking notice of his odd behavior, Cordelia eyed him with concern. "Xander? You okay?"

Blushing for a moment, he blurted out the first thing he thought of. "Uh...yeah! Right as rain. Be right there. Just have a . . . leg cramp. Thing."

Thinking nothing of it, Cordelia merely nodded, smiled faintly and shooed the girls out of the doorway as they went downstairs...leaving Xander to grab his pillow and gently smack his head with it, frustrated beyond belief for more than just one reason.

Yeah, he thought tiredly, Happy Birthday to me, indeed.


Sunnydale, CA-Rupert Giles's Apartment

4:21 p.m.-Earlier That Day

Days Before The End Of Days: 17


Xander had not been the only one feeling the strain of overcrowding on him. Giles's apartment, as spacious as it was, had become just as packed. Especially due to some unexpected arrivals.

While Buffy had been mending and fearing the need for more people with their numbers dwindling and the stakes now so high, Gunn-unbeknownst to the rest of the group-made a few calls to his childhood friend Rondell, the leader of Gunn's old vampire hunting crew. Gunn made no mention to his fellow vampire hunter about the Awakening or the pending apocalypse looming, out of fear Rondell would reject his plea for help at a time when Gunn knew they needed more soldiers on the front lines. He only told him they were having trouble with demons, they were in short supply of allies and they needed help with this life-or-death situation.

Within a day or so, Rondell had shown up to the Summers House on Revello Drive with 30 armed and ready crew members. While Gunn and Rondell heartily embraced each other, Angel was not pleased. The undead detective had scolded Gunn in privacy for not discussing his decision with the team first, tersely pointing out the lack of space and food to accommodate Gunn's former crew in Buffy's home and reminding Gunn of Angel Investigations' tense past run-ins with the demon-wary Los Angeles youths, most notably the fiasco at Caritas with the late fanatical, murderous crew member Gio. But a belligerent Gunn would not back down, pointedly reminding Angel their numbers were in short supply with so many Potentials murdered in the Hyperion Hotel attack, Buffy wounded and everyone else reeling. It took both a pleading Fred and a level-headed Giles to quell the simmering tempers of both fighters. Despite knowing that Angel was right about supplies dwindling, Giles reluctantly admitted they could all use some extra help right about now. So the senior Watcher suggested housing half of Gunn's Crew at the Summers residence, while the others stayed at his apartment.

Between Fred volunteering to go with Giles to help settle in the girls and Gunn's Crew, and Rondell deciding to follow them, it was an easy decision for Gunn to hunker down with Giles. It would give him time to catch up with his old friend, reconnect with some of his old friends...and maybe, just maybe…

Gunn couldn't finish that thought as he peered at Fred from the balcony of the upper level of the apartment as he, Giles and Rondell were going back and forth between the blueprints for Sunnydale High School, texts for more possible information about the Eye of Creation and battle strategies. He could barely take his eyes off her as she poured through each of the old books she researched. He was enraptured as he watched her light brown eyes squint in concentration, her brow furrowed in thought, her soft, slender fingers glide gracefully over the yellowed pages as she skimmed through it for valuable info. Even with her ailing arm, still on the mend after the hotel attack, wrapped in a soft cast and her ponytail tied sloppily, Gunn was amazed at how beautiful she was. So goddamn beautiful, he thought to himself in amazement.

His distraction didn't go unnoticed as Giles, briefly annoyed at Gunn's distraction, motioned to Rondell, who promptly waved a book in front of the daydreaming Gunn's face. Irritated, Gunn turned back and scowled at the smirking Rondell and somewhat consternated Giles.

"You go any further away and we might have to start calling you 'Brother from Another Planet,' G-Man," Rondell said with a chuckle. For a moment, Giles couldn't help but to be reminded at that nickname of the similar one Xander had often ribbed him with for years during what the Scoobies had dubbed "Research Mode."

"Whatever, man, stop trippin', 'Dell," Gunn grumbled in response.

"Look, uh...Gunn, is it?" Giles said cautiously, but with a hint of British stern. "I realize searching through texts that date back thousands of years isn't the most glamorous way to spend an afternoon, but we should marshal our concentration towards it if we want to have a chance to stop The First, yes? Regardless of our...personal issues."

Gunn eyed Giles warningly. "Back it up, Prince Charles. I might listen to Angel, but you don't know me. You don't get to talk about my issues. What do you know about 'em, anyway?"

"Easy, bro, he didn't mean it like that," Rondell said placatingly.

Giles, unafraid but with some empathy, patiently met the younger man's tense eyes. "Perhaps I understand better than you think," Giles replied knowingly, his eyes drifting down to Fred.

As much as Gunn wanted to deny it, he found he could not. "Crap. Did Lorne say something? It was Lorne, wasn't it?"

Giles cracked a hint of a smile as Rondell giggled slightly at his friend's frustration.

"I have heard that you've had to make some...difficult...choices lately for your young lady friend, yes?" GIles prompted knowingly.

Off that, Gunn guiltily looked away, the crack of Professor Seidel's neck still making his hands vibrate. Rondell's smile faded, he himself having learned about Gunn's decision to murder the evil professor for Fred's sake.

"I don't want to talk about that," Gunn said. Quietly. Defensively.

Giles sighed in understanding. "Fair enough," he said, letting it go as he turned back to his books, Rondell shrugging and joining him. That lasted for about a few seconds when…

"It's just...it's really complicated," Gunn at last shared, frustrated. "I mean, we've...only really talked about it once. But Fred still doesn't get it. I'd do anything for her. And yet she's been keeping me at arm's length ever since….well, what happened with her professor. Lately, it's been like we're drifting further away. Just a month ago, I wouldn't have thought too hard about putting a ring on that girl's finger. Now…"

He stared at her wistfully below them as she poured herself into her research. "...Now, we might as well be a million miles away from each other."

Giles patiently listened as Gunn described the tattered state of his relationship with Fred, holding back a bit of a smile. The people around him, young as they were, always seemed to get lost in the romantic entanglements of their lives, even in the most stressful of times. But he supposed he couldn't fault them for that. He was young once, too. And even in his more, well...seasoned years...he was not unfamiliar with how the ways of the heart had a funny way of consuming one's time even in times like these Wistfully, the lovely face of Jenny Calendar passed through his mind for a fleeting moment. As did the enchanting features of his on-again, off-again flame Olivia Williams, whom he hadn't spoken to in some time. Despite Olivia being no stranger to the occult herself, having known Giles in his "ripper" days, Giles had made a conscious decision to keep contact with her as limited as possible. It wasn't for lack of caring for Olivia, because he did, and greatly so. Rather, it was the decision to do so out of fear for her safety. GIles knew as the Watcher to the Slayer, his life was more perilous than most. That peril had claimed Jenny's life. Giles had managed to move on after quite some time in mourning, but losing Jenny had made him realize the risks exposed others to if he let them in too close. So he made the selfless, but lonely decision to keep Olivia as separate from his life as possible. He would not be the one to bury another dead paramour because he put them at risk just by knowing him.

However, the others around him didn't care to make such choices. Buffy. Willow. Xander. Now young Dawn. This Gunn chap. They made the choice to love as hard as they fought, no matter the risks. Part of him wanted to caution them against it, but he knew that would be a futile endeavor. They were young. Youth would do as it would. So, if they insisted on following that painful path, Giles knew it was all he could do to at least help guide them along that path, as it was one he knew the pitfalls and stumbling blocks of all to well.

"Mr. Gunn...I know how hard this life makes it to find someone special. It's hard. And lonely. And sometimes, it might not feel like it's worth it at all," the older man said patiently. Gunn's gaze now meeting his, the Englishman continued with a patient smile. "But when you are lucky enough to find someone who shares this life...and is willing to share their heart with you...that's something worth fighting for. No matter how hard it is."

"How?" Gunn asked, frustrated and letting his guard down for a moment to let GIles see something Gunn raraly let anyone else see...his vulnerability.

GIles sighed, smiling wisely. "Well, in my time, I've found there's one thing that always works in this situation."

Gunn, raptly listening, leaned n closer.

GIles took a breath as he was about to deliver his advice. "No matter what, you must always-"

PWOOOOSH!

A sudden burst of blue light and swirl of wind near them caught them off guard as papers were sent scattering and flying about.

Alert as ever, Gunn reached for his ax and Rondell grabbed his sword and stood in battle formation. The cries of surprise from the others in the house were audible as all eyes darted to the brilliant blue light now forming in the second floor of the home just a few feet from Giles. While the rest of the Potentials downstairs were shrieking in fear, Fred, her training with Team Angel having been learned well, immediately dropped her book and reached for a nearby crossbow, disarming the safety and charging up the stairs to back up the others.

Quickly, Giles picked up a nearby sword and stood ready to fight whatever threat this was…

..when the light died down, revealing an old, white-bearded, balding man holding a brilliantly glowing blue lamp and a duffel bag.

Coughing in irritation, the man dusted himself off. "Hmm...that spell still needs work," he muttered dismissively.

Giles's eyes widened as he took in the older man now. "Alasdair?"

Off hearing that name, the man looked to Giles, hsi old eyes brightening in delight. "Rupert! My old friend. Good to see you again."

Shaking off his previous alertness, Giles stepped forward, laughing as he embraced his old friend.

"Goodness, you arrived faster than I expected," Giles said warmly.

"Forgive me, my friend. Unfortunately, I had to hasten my timetable," Alasdair shrugged. "But my God! Look at you, you still look great even after all these years."

Giles gave him a weary grin. "Not for life's lack of trying, thought. THe last few years have been challenging."

"Good, that's what makes them any kind of fun," Alasdair said with a twinkle of mischief in his eye that drew a laugh from both old friends.

"So...I take it I'm not gonna have to use this?" Fred asked, gesturing to her crossbow.

Off her question, Giles realized explanations were needed. "Oh!...Um, no, it's quite alright. Miss Burkle, Mister Gunn, Rondell, this is, uh, Alasdair Coames. An old friend and a very powerful archmage whose help I asked for the other day."

"And, what...they don't have planes in Jolly Old England?" Gunn brusquely asked, annoyed at the sudden entrance of this mystery magick man.

Looking around at the mess of scattered books and papers in his wake, Alasdair sheepishly rubbed the back of his head. "Oh, right...my apologies, my young friends. But I'm afraid that my situation had required some, well, hasty travel arrangements."

Fred wasn't sure why, but she kind of liked the man. He was a bit heavy- set and clearly his methods were unorthodox, but he had a friendly face and his eyes were filled with experience and wisdom. She kind of reminded Fred of an old uncle she used to visit back in Texas.

"Well, um, that's okay I guess," Fred shrugged, before smiling brightly at him. "Welcome to America!"

"Why thank you, my dear," Alasdair greeted warmly.

Bu Giles's smile suddenly faded as he thought about what his old friend said. "Alasdair...what do you mean about your situation? Are you in some kind of danger?"

"Not as extreme as what you've told me about the situation we're all facing now with that Awakening business, but...yes, I'm afraid," Alasdair explained. "A few hours ago, my home was broken and entered into. Thankfully, the magickal safeguards were more than enough to chase them off. But it was what they looked like that was the problem. Four armed men...actually, not men at all, They were dressed in black robes, their eyes were sewn shut and they were all wielding knives."

"B-black robes?" a stunned Fred asked, realization washing over her as she shared a startled gaze with Gunn.

"Eyes sewn?" Gunn asked, that same note of concern in his voice as he understood what that meant.

Pulling off his glasses, Giles's eyes darkened as he voiced their fears. "Harbingers."

"As in The First Evil's agents?" Alasdair asked in alarm.

"Those freaky guys that tore up that sweet hotel in LA y'all used to kick it at?" Rondell asked in confusion.

"I'm afraid so," Giles said, troubled. "Alasdair, it doesn't sound like this was a break-in attempt. This might have been an assassination attempt."

"What? Why?" a startled Fred asked Giles. "I thought The First had everything it needed already. Why would they want to go after him?"

"W-well, Alasdair is one of the most formidable magick practitioners on Earth," Giles mused. "Perhaps this was the First's way of ensuring there were no more potentially powerful foes that could oppose him, or…"

"...or maybe your buddy has something Ghost Boy and the Legion of Doom want," Gunn mused, eyeing the archmage suspiciously.

Alasdair's face went hard in thought for a moment...and then he suddenly brightened. "Ah, well. No matter. It's been a good long time since my last near-death brush. It's somewhat...refreshing, actually! Oh, goodness, it's wonderful to have a hand in the game again."

Giles shook his head and smiled ruefully. As long as he had known Alasdair, he was never one to shy away from action of any sort, Onl the contrary, he lived for it. In years and battles past when he and Giles had foguth side-by-side cleansing demon nests and solving occult cases, Giles could always see a glint of excitement in his friends eye even when the odds were against them. Retirement, Giles suspected, didn't sit well with Alasdair, so it was little wonder to Rupert that the archmage would welcome a change to get his hands dirty again.

"Obviously, we have a lot to talk about, old friend," Giles said, clasping his shoulder. "Come, I need to fill you in more on our situation. I'm afraid we haven't much time."

At that, Gunn balked, annoyed as he suddenly remembered Giles hadn't finished advising him how to deal with his Fred troubles. "Hey, yo! Wait a sec, G-Man, you were telling me about-"

But Giles had barely heard a word the younger man said as the two older men loudly began talking as they headed downstairs to Giles's study.

Fred rubbed her slender forearms as she watched them go. "Well...he seemed nice," she offered helpfully.

"Yeah…" Hunn trailed off as he, Rondell and Fred suddenly looked at the large mess behind them in the wake of Alasdair's sudden arrival.

An annoyed Gunn let out a grumble as he realized who would have to clean that up. "...Real nice."


Sunnydale, CA-Summers Residence, Kitchen

4:25 p.m.—Earlier that Day

Days Before The End Of Days: 17


"Lucerna, ignium."

Her face etched in determination, eyes narrowed in resolve, Willow's undeterred gaze zeroed in on the object of her frustration…

...a lone, white wax candle.

"Lucerna, ignium."

One that she had been trying to light up using her magickal abilities...impaired as they've been over the last three days…

"Lucerna, ignium."

...Emphasis on "trying."

"Lucerna,ig….oh, screw it, just light up, you stupid candle!" the witch growled in frustration, slamming her hand on the table in frustration.

But to no avail. The candle still stood atop the countertop, its fresh white wick untouched, unscorched.

Out of patience after 30 minutes of the fruitless exercise, Willow lashed out and swatted the candle off the table, the wax object clattering to the floor. Letting out a loud growl of frustration, Willow tiredly leaned her head against her right hand. It had been a long three days for the young witch. For the last four years since she cast her first spell, the re-ensoulment of Angel, she had always felt connected to magick. It was a part of her, and she was a part of it. Both bound by a strong tether that pulled each other one way or the other. Whether asleep or awake, happy or sad, angry or calm, high or low, she could feel the mystical energy in everything around her.

And now...it was gone.

And it hurt.

Goddess, did it hurt. The more powerful Willow had become in the last few years, the more connected to magick she had become. The loss of that power, the deafening silence she heard now in the air and world around her...it was like someone had ripped off her own arm.

Yet another thing Warren had taken from her, she bitterly realized. Just like Tara.

Yet as much as she hated him, part of Willow couldn't help but wonder if this was finally the universe's way of punishing her. Paying her back for daring to abuse magick as she did over the last year and change. Humbling her at the worst possible time for having the audacity to think she could control anything around her with the power she had, and yes...at her lowest point, she really did think that, Willow realized in shame. She thought she was above everything and that rules didn't apply to her, the way Amy did. Maybe this was karhma finally coming to collect.

The scary part was even with Willow trying so hard these days to contain her power, facing her fear of going over the edge, gaining a newfound respect for the power she had, she was thankful that she still had this amazing power, this awesome responsibility. It had been almost a lifetime ago that she hadn't had the familiar buzz and rush of magick inside her. It had become part of who she was. Without it, she wondered...who was she?

So lost in those depressing thoughts was Willow that she almost didn't hear a friendly, melodic yet male voice behind her.

"I'd ask how our resident 'Black Magic Woman' is doing, but given your situation, I'm not so sure that'd be in good taste."

Willow turned to see Lorne, leaning casually in the kitchen doorway and sporting a violet-colored shirt and mustard yellow suit jacket and dress pants. Despite her frustration, Willow barely stifled a chuckle as she mused to herself how much the green-skinned Pylean demon resembled Jim Carrey in "The Mask" with that get-up.

"Probably not," Willow sighed, nodding in greeting. "Hey, Lorne."

"Hey, Velvet Cake," Lorne greeted, rubbing the red-tipped horns on his head gingerly as he strode for the refrigerator. "Just looking for some seltzer water to wash down some aspirin."

"Headache?" Willow ventured.

"Bingo. Nagging one," Lorne nodded. "Those future Slayerettes might be shook as halfway crooks after the Hyperion came a'tumblin' down, but they still love their singing. One can only hear so much Pink and Britney Spears before you'd want to drill a hole in your head."

Willow cracked a small smile at that. Ah, the teen years. Willow was glad she never had to go through that again.

"Yeah, well...at least they're alive enough to sing crappily," Willow shrugged, sobering slightly. "That's more than we can say for the ones who...y'know...didn't make it out of the hotel."

Lorne returned her sad gaze with one of his own. "Yeah...poor kids. Hell, that's part of why I got a headache. All that singing's making my anagogic senses go on overload and I'm trying my damndest to tune it out. Would rather not have a sneak preview as to who's making it to age 21 and who doesn't. If I wanted to be that depressed, I'd start binge-listening to the Sarah Mclachlan oeuvre."

Off Willow's morose nod, Lorne's ruby red eyes glanced at her in sympathy. "Speaking of depression, you look like you've seen better days."

Willow looked down, her eyes clouded with frustration and self-pity. "My magick, Lorne. I just...I can't…"

"Still no luck getting your mojo risin'?" Lorne asked.

"No rising, no stirring, not even a twitching. I'd do backflips for some twitching right now," Willow sighed, grabbing the white candle. "I used to be able to light 100 of these with a wave of my hand. Now, I could have a damn aneurysm and I still wouldn't be able to even cause a spark around one of these! And it sucks!"

Angrily, she chucked the candle all the way to the other side of the wall. Frustrated, she rubbed her hand over her pretty face as she leaned against the kitchen counter.

"Whoa, easy there, Cherry Drop," Lorne gently said. "No need to lose your cool. Isn't your buddy Giles supposed to come up with some kind of diagnostic or something for you?"

"Yeah, tomorrow, maybe," Willow grumbled. "In the meantime, I'm back to being as useful as the 'G' in 'Lasagna'. Magick is what makes me who I am, Lorne. If-if-if there's an attack or-or some kind of emergency, I can't of any kind of help except going back to being Computer Girl."

Lorne, inching closer to her, patted her back reassuringly. "Look, my little pomegranate. I know that I don't exactly know you as well as your friends do...but I've seen you. Watched you. And trust me. There's a lot more to you than just magick. Yeah, it was part of you, but only part of it."

"I don't know," Willow sighed, unsure of herself. Goddess, how she hated being this unsure of herself. It made her feel like she was sixteen years old again, wearing ugly sweaters and lacking in everything but the brains department. "I'm not sure of anything right now."

"Kiddo, I owned a demon bar for about six years before a crazy Victorian-era English guy got car-bombed into oblivion," Lorne said, wistfully thinking back to the glory days of his beloved 'Caritas' bar. "I've served drinks to warlocks, witches, sorcerers, you name it. Most of them were all the same, just a bunch of jerks hiding behind awesome power to make up for their shortcomings as people. Or demons. Or demon-people hybrids, whatever. Those guys needed that power like a crutch. Without it, all they would be are just sad, lonely creatures." He put a lime-green finger under Willow's chin and gently lifted her head to meet his gaze. "That ain't you, kid. I've seen your aura. Whenever you have to dig down, dig deep and fight, you bring out something in you that even you don't think you have. The magick isn't what makes you strong, Red. You make you strong."

A fleeting sense of comfort filled Willow at the green demon's words. "Thanks, Lorne," she smiled.

"No problem," Lorne waved her off. "Besides, I'm sure I'm not the only one who'd agree with that idea. Like maybe that dapper little lupine friend of yours, perhaps?"

Off the reminder of Oz, Willow's smile faded and she looked away again.

"Oops," a remorseful Lorne backpedaled. "Sorry, I didn't mean to pry…"

"No, no, it's...not that," Willow sighed. "It's just...it's been confusing with Oz, is all. And that was before what...well, with what happened in the park a few nights ago."

"When he went all Cujo and tried to make a chew toy out of you mid-battle?" Lorne ventured.

Off Willow's surprised stare, Lorne shrugged. "I've heard him spend some time on his guitar in his room a day or two ago. He hummed a few bars, and I caught the gist of what happened. I can see why he's freaked out."

Willow winced at the thought of that. Oz had barely spoken to anyone since returning to Sunnydale. He'd followed this odd routine of helping the wounded, occasionally watching the girls train, eating his usual meals, getting whatever briefs on the situation were available from Giles, Wesley or Whistler and locking himself in his room, ignoring any other attempts at conversation that deviated from what was necessary. It was as if he nothing else mattered to him right now, Willow mused sadly. Including me.

"He...he's not talking about it right now," Willow sighed. "I-I mean, he was never really Joe Here's-What-I'm-Thinking, even when Oz and I were...well, 'Oz and I.'"

The red-haired witch rubbed her arms as she slowly paced around the counter, green eyes sad and pensive. "But now, it's like...like he's put up this invisible wall between us. He won't talk to me about what happened. He...he won't even look at me."

"Well, if you could...what would you say to him?" Lorne gently prompted.

Willow bit her lip, eyes clouded in hesitation as she looked away. "I...I don't know."

To that, Lorne smiled. "Yeah...I think you do." Off Willow's confused look his way, Lorne explained. "Even if you won't say it, you don't have to. He's still in your heart, Red. And he's definitely in your aura. Even if I wasn't anagogic, I wouldn't have to be with the way I've seen you too look at each other since he got here."

Blushing, Willow shook her head. "I...no, I d-d-don't know what you're talking about, I haven't been...there's no looking!…"

"Looks, glances, longing stares, whatever you want to call it, I've seen it," Lorne said knowingly.

"But...look, Lorne, e-even if there's been staring , and there hasn't been!...but even if…" Willow protested, somewhat half-heartedly. "Even if...there's still Kennedy. I'm with her now. I-I can't just push her aside. "

"It kinda looks like you've been doing that," Lorne said. "Not that I can blame you. The girl's gone way past ''clingy' and into the borderline 'possessive' state. Couldn't blame you for thinking about greener pastures."

Realizing Lorne was starting to poke away at some of her defenses, Willow scurried to find another one. "Well... I'm kinda gay now, so...so there's no way I could…"

"Love ain't all about what's below the waist, Snickerdoodle," Lorne sagely shook his head. "It's about what someone makes you feel above it." Off Willow's confused stare, Lorne realized he needed to be more anatomically specific. "The heart, I mean the heart. Not the...well, the fun fleshy stuff around it. You get what I mean. Although my kind actually has our hearts in our tushes, so I guess it would be below the waist, in my case."

Flustered, Willow tried something else...anything else...than to dare keep going on this road. "It...it's been years, Lorne. Oz doesn't think of me that way anymore. He's...he's over me." As she quietly finished those words, part of Willow ached at even uttering them. And she desperately tried to ignore it. But it ached. And she was too scared to concentrate too hard so as to wonder why it did.

"Oh, honey, if you were any farther from the truth, you'd need to hitch a ride to it," Lorne shook his head with a slight smile. "You probably know him better than anyone else he's ever been with. The guy wouldn't have to whistle one note, and I could tell that. You're inside him in a way that I've only been lucky enough to see a handful of times. And, sugar, I've seen a lot." Off the conflicted look in Willow's eyes, Lorne carefully prompted again. "He might not say it, but he needs you right now. That thing inside him? The beast in him that tore you two apart in the first place...without someone else to fill the void in his heart, the wolf is all he has. That's enough to drive a man crazy. Even a strong one like him. It's a terrible, lonely life for someone like that to live."

The thought almost brought tears to Willow's eyes. Poor Oz...was he really that alone? Didn't he realize that he didn't have to be? She had tried to convince him of that once before, when he left her years ago, but she failed. Part of her always wondered if she had tried hard enough to stop him. Part of her wondered if he could have stayed if she had tried harder…

Hearing a gaggle of voices just outside near the porch, Lorne looked over...and smiled.

"Let's take a walk, Red," Lorne said, nudging her near the main doorway. "I have a feeling you might want to hear this."

Confused, but intrigued, Willow followed him through the living room and towards the closest window...where beyond the curtain and on the porch of the door sat Oz, a guitar strap hung around his shoulder and the instrument cradled in both hands. Sporting a gray t-shirt and ripped blue jeans, a kind of grung-y 90s Nirvana-type look that Willow always found to be lowkey sexy. Despite her current sexual orientation, Willow could feel her heart jump a little inside her chest, and she cursed it silently for betraying her.

Around him, a couple of the Potentials were gathered, some of them giggling and clearly smitten by the handsome musician. That part didn't really surprise Willow. Oz was always kind of a smokeshow, with his lowkey, mysterious intensity and that handsome face of his.

"He's been doing a little bit to entertain the troops, so to speak, after training," Lorne explained. "The boy can play the hell out of that Blueridge guitar, lemme tell ya."

Willow sighed. "Well, he was always good with his hands." Off Lorne's devilish grin at her comment, Willow blushed furiously and scowled. "I-I-I mean with playing! Instruments!"

"Suuure," Lorne teased, which only darkened Willow's scowl. "Just watch."

Neither of them noticed that just above them on the stairs leading to the second floor, having just changed into new clothes to finish off the final session of training the Potentials, hidden just high enough to avoid being seen, but low enough where she could eavesdrop on every word the witch and demon had spoken to each other…

...stood a sole Kennedy.

And she did not look happy. At all.


**(See author's note)


Sunnydale, CA-Summers Residence, Buffy's Room

6:57 p.m.-Sunset

Days Before The End Of Days: 17


Sunset fell upon the landscape facing Buffy's window to the outside world out on the streets of Revello Drive, yet despite the fading presence of the sun the brought comfort to his kind, Angel was anything but comforted.

He'd been waiting here inside Buffy's room for the last half-hour or so. She was due to be back any moment, that much she had told the others over the phone. Part of Angel wanted to put this off longer, maybe even forget about it altogether. But knew this could not be held off any longer. He'd put it off long enough, and while it might hurt-actually, he knew full well that it would, and hurt in a way that brought him unbearable pain-he knew he had no other choice.

He absently walked around the room taking a look at the familiar place of Buffy's shelves. In many ways, it hadn't changed at all since the first time he had been here seven years ago, when Buffy gave him refuge in her most hallowed, safest place when they hid from the ruthless vampire warriors known as The Three. He'd spent an entire day and night in here, and despite it being unfamiliar surroundings, he had felt like he was at home. Just like he did now. Faint traces of vanilla and honey and lotion that made up part of Buffy's warm and inviting scent were everywhere. If Angel could bottle part of that smell up and keep it in his pocket, he would have, and it would have been the closest to feeling any sense of true comfort, true peace that he thought he would ever come.

Buffy's old cheerleading trophies, pictures of her, Joyce and Dawn and a bevy of stuffed animals lined her top shelf. Symbols of the happiest times of her life. He didn't have to look too far before he came across an old friend, so to speak…

...Mr. Gordo. Buffy's beloved stuffed pig.

Despite himself, Angel couldn't help but to smile faintly at the pink felt pig with the two black button eyes as he picked it up. To this day, Buffy had still never explained to him the mystery behind why she named her stuffed pig with a Spanish name that equated to calling it "Mister Fat One." He figured it was one of her quirks that made her so strange and yet so beautiful, so...so Buffy, he mused.

He remembered the night he found out the pig's name, in her junior year, when he and Buffy, only having started dating for less than two months, had talked about the life Buffy wistfully watched pass her by as Career Week had gotten her down. Watching all her friends and classmates get to experiment with all these grown up roles and careers they could explore as part of their future, while she could not share that excitement because she knew what her future held. Stakes and vampires and patrolling cemeteries. The not-so-glamorous, ever-abbreviated life of The Slayer. At the time, Angel had begun to worry that her desire to have the normal life she had before her Calling meant she wanted to leave him behind with the other "freaky things" that made up her life those days. Instead, she soothed his worries with a smile, a soft hand against his cheek and words that showed him how much she had begun to see him not as a creature...but as someone equal to her. Someone..special to her. "You're the one freaky thing in my freaky world that still makes sense to me."

But even then, Angel had begun to realize he would never be able to give Buffy the kind of life that she desired. The life she deserved. In a perfect world, Angel mused as he held the soft pink toy in his hands, a toy like this would've belonged to his and Buffy's own child by now. At least two of them: a boy that would've been all the best parts of him and everything perfect about Buffy, with his strong chin and his mother's eyes. And a girl that would've been the spitting image of her mother, beautiful blonde hair, bright green eyes and brave, with a hint of his own cheekbones. Both of them taking turns picking up the children each school day, laughing in the park as she would wipe ice cream their daughter had dabbed on Angel's face during the weekends, tucking in the kids at night with a story and loving kisses, an making love to each other when the kids were sound asleep, their passion for each other only having grown through the years. Their life perfect bliss…

...but this was not a perfect world, Angel remembered, jerking back from his brief daydream as if reality dumped a bucket of cold water all over him. This was a world where he couldn't touch the woman he loved in the way he wanted to express how much he loved her without turning into a vicious, violent monster capable of unspeakable horror. A world where he couldn't walk with her in the daylight without burning into ashes. A world where anyone who touched his life, from Buffy to his friends to even his own son, ultimately suffered simply because they were part of his life.

This world sucked, Angel knew that better than most...but it was the one he lived in. And he couldn't do anything about that...except what he had to do.

So lost in his musings was Angel that he barely noticed the soft padding of familiar footsteps entering the room.

"Wow," Buffy's soft, teasing voice called behind him. "Didn't know you two had become so attached."

Briefly startled, Angel turned around to see Buffy, an amused look on her face as she eyed Angel with her prized stuffed pig while she casually began taking off her jacket. Angel was briefly thankful his lack of circulation prevented what would certainly have been a blush that would have come over his sheepish face.

"Buffy," he said in some surprise, realizing how odd he must look to her right now holding this toy in his hands.

"Hey, relax," she smiled easily at him as she began to hang her jacket. "Bot the first time you've been here, Stealth Guy. No need to give me the 'Hand in the Cookie Jar Face.'" Pausing, she flashed him another teasing smile. "For the record, he missed you, too."

Off that, Angel looked at her puzzled. "Who did?"

Buffy barely stifled a chuckle. "The pig," she clarified.

Cursing silently, Angel hastily placed the stuffed animal back on the shelf. Smooth, Angel. Real smooth, he mentally chastised himself. Sometimes, he swore he was 247-going-on-17 when he was around her.

Seeing his troubled, tense movements, Buffy frowned. Even though Angel wasn't exactly Joe Have-A-Good-Time, she had gotten to know enough of him to see when there was something troubling him. "Angel?" she asked, a tone of concern in her voice. "What's up? Are you okay?"

Not in the slightest, Angel thought bitterly. But he pushed that thought aside for a moment. He had to focus on what he was here to do. How to best approach this. How to delicately broach this subject…

"Did you have a dream about me recently?" Angel asked suddenly. Inwardly, he winced. Damn it, Angel!

Startled, Buffy's cheeks flushed. "W-what?"

Cursing his lack of subtlety, Angel shook his head. "Sorry. I...it's just...earlier today, I came up here to check on you. See how you were feeling. And...well, I overheard you talking to Cordelia about a dream you had."

Buffy's confusion faded for a moment as an accusatory look crossed her beautiful face. "Wait...you were spying on me?"

"No! I...well, I was just...I didn't mean to, but…" Angel sighed, gesticulating with his hands. "Well, vampire hearing. Couldn't be helped." He sighed breathlessly. "Sorry."

Annoyed, Buffy shook her head. "We clearly need to talk about some kind of vampire etiquette needing to be set up here. A 'No Smelly Sense or Eavesdropp-y Sense' sign on the front lawn or something," she grumbled.

"Sorry," Angel apologized again. Yet, he still continued to probe. "So...did you have a dream about me?"

Buffy sighed, sitting down on her bed. "Well...wouldn't be the first time I've ever done that," she muttered, blushing as she admitted it. She had a lot of Angel dreams since they had met years ago. Some of them were good dreams. Some of them really good dreams, involving whipped cream and leather pants. And others...others sometimes weren't so good. Like that one she had today. And the one she had a few nights ago, when he turned her into a vampire amid the both of them lying in the throes of passion…

Sighing, she looked up at Angel. "Yeah. I had a dream. about you today. Not a big deal."

Looking down, Angel took a few small paces around the room as he processed that information with a troubled look on his face. "Except it might be a bigger deal than you think it is," he said cautiously.

Defensively, Buffy replied, "Hey. Leave the dream interpretation to me, Miss Cleo. They're my dreams."

"Which connect you to the visions," Angel replied, unconvinced.

"I'm connected to a lot of things," Buffy scoffed. "I'm not going to jump the gun at every little thing because of my Slayer...ness."

Seeing her bristle, Angel tried another way. "And in this dream...what happened?"

"You tell me. You were the one who already listened in on all the juicy bits with your Super Listen-y Powers," Buffy muttered, annoyed. But off Angel's pleading, yet patient gaze, Buffy sighed and began recalling what she dreamt about. "We were...here. In bed. And we were...well, making love…" She looked away for a moment, hating the way her cheeks were suddenly burning. "And The First was there. With The Beast. And some...this guy. Someone I'd never seen before…"

"What guy?" Angel asked, curious.

Buffy frowned as she thought about him. The Mystery Man in the preacher's outfit. "Not sure. He was some guy in a...a preacher's outfit, I think. Looked like one of those guys who works at Sunday Mass. Brown hair, dark eyes. Vaguely good-looking in a 'I'm A Total Whackjob' kind of way. I've never seen him before in my life. But there was something about him, Angel, something was off. He felt…"

Buffy barely repressed a shiver as she thought of the lifeless void in his dark eyes. "...dangerous. I never met him, and I can already tell he was bad news."

"Could be a new player, Angel mused. "New enemy...or maybe an ally?"

"Trust me, there was nothing friendly about the way this guy looked," Buffy said, shaking her head.

Angel frowned, but made it a point to remember that. "Okay...what else did you see?"

Buffy hesitated for a moment. They were all there, watching us while we were...you know…" Blushing again, Buffy's eyes pointedly looked towards her bed.

For a moment, Angel had to squash down the flare of desire that sparked inside him at the thought of him and Buffy making love here. In her room. She wasn't the only one who had ever dreamed about that, he silently admitted. Pressing that thought down as hard as he could, Angel let her continue,

"Then The First said something. Couldn;t make sense of it. It said, 'Sometimes, sharing the love can set you free.'" Buffy frowned as she thought on those words, before she sobered as she remembered what happened next. "And then, you looked up at me. Holding me down. Fangs and all."

Angel felt his chest tighten at the thought. Hesitantly, he asked, "Was I...still me?"

She knew exactly what he meant. Deciding it would be useless to lie to him, Buffy swallowed and told him the truth. "No," she shook her head. "You were...him."

'Him.'

Angelus.

Closing his eyes, Angel turned away as he paced slowly towards the window, where the sun had just finished its descent into the horizon and the last embers of daylight had begun to fade into a darkening night blue sky. So, his worst fears were confirmed.

Sensing his tension, Buffy tried to soothe him. "Angel...it was just a dream," she quickly assured him. "It might have just been part of the concussion I got. It doesn't mean anything."

But Angel was far from assured. "But what if it does, Buffy?"

"Look, it was just a stupid dream," Buffy sighed. "What's the big deal?"

"The big deal is the last time you had a dream about me, I ended up killing a few dozen people all over town," Angel said tersely, turning to face her. "The big deal is the last time, I almost destroyed the world, and you had to send me to Hell to stop it."

"Gee, thanks for the play-by-play, Marv Albert," Buffy snarked, getting irritated at his attitude as she stood up. "It's not like I wasn't there with front row seats, or like it wasn't the hardest time of my life or anything."

"All the more reason why we need to take this seriously," Angel said sternly.

The way Buffy's nostrils flared angrily told Angel that might have been a poor choice of words. "Right," she said snappishly. "Because this is me, thinking all this is 'Oh, so hilaaarious!'"

Damn it all, Angel cursed inwardly. He knew this was going to get ugly. Buffy only knew how to love one way—the same way she fought. With no compromises and no excuses. Even after all these years and all the hardships she had faced, it was the one part of her that she refused to change or alter or give away. It was part of what he loved about her. But for her sake...for everyone's sake...Angel knew he had to focus on what had to be done. No matter how much he hated himself for doing it.

"Buffy," he started again. Patiently. But strong. "All I'm saying is we have to think about the big picture here."

Buffy stared at him for a moment.

A long moment.

"Exactly what kind of picture are we talking about here?" she asked him. Slowly. Accusingly. And her eyes betraying a bit of fear.

Angel ran his hand down the back of his head. There wasn't any easy way to do this. Or say this. And his heart cried out at him not to do it. But the rest of him knew he had no choice. He never really had one, to begin with. He saw that now.

"The kind where I made a mistake," Angel sighed, turning away from her as he took a few paces away from her and to the left. of the room. "Buffy...we both know the dangers of what happens when we get...too close…"

"Yeah, I get that. And I don't care," Buffy protested. "Angel, we've been doing this dance way too many times. I pull close, you pull away, then you come close, I pull away, we come together, we drift apart, and I'm over it! I'm done with it, I don't want to have you pull away anymore. What, am I going to have to die a third time before I get something in my life that feels even close to some kind of happiness?"

"It's exactly the thought of you dying that's kept me up the last few nights," Angel mmuttered, honestly. His mournful eyes bored into hers. "Buffy, I'm tired of that game, too. There isn't a moment that goes by where I don't want to be near you. Take comfort in you. But nothing's changed, Buffy. I still can't give you the life you want. I can't give you a normal life—"

"Hello? I will never have a normal life!" Buffy snapped. "I gave up on normal about two deaths and a dead mom ago. All I have is this!" she gestured around the room, specifically to the closet where her weapons chest lie in wait. The tools of the Slayer. "And all I can do is try to make this as liveable as possible."

"Which is all the more reason why you deserve better," Angel said, self-loathing clouding his eyes as he looked away. "Buffy...every second I'm near you, I'm a danger to you. To Dawn. Willow and the others. This dream of yours proves it."

"We don't know that, Angel—"

"But we can't be sure I'm not, either," Angel cut off her protests. He paused, looking up to meet her beautiful sea-green eyes. All he had ever wanted was to stare into those eyes forever. He would give all of his immortal days just to have one day to lose himself in them. In her. The way his soul had long yearned for…

...but they didn't have forever. All they had were these moments. And as long as she was alive, she deserved for those moments to be the happiest they could be. That much he could give her...

"And if it puts you in danger...I can't take that risk," he said, his voice a hushed sorrowful whisper. "I'm sorry."

Even if those moments were without him, he thought miserably.

He watched as she stood there. frozen. Staring at him with those green eyes wide and glassy in hurt. Realizing what he was saying. That once again...he was leaving her.

She stood there seemingly forever…

...and then she laughed.

And laughed again.

A harsh laugh. An ironic, cold sound.

Hearing that sound, Angel braced himself. He knew that sound well enough. And it meant nothing good.

"No…, no, that's my fault," Buffy chuckled, shaking her head even as the corner of her eyes glistened. "I mean, I walked right into that one, didn't I? Fool me once, shame on you, fool me a bunch of other times, and I'm the assclown, right?"

Angel sadly shook his head. "No. No, Buffy, you weren't—"

"No, actually, you're right," Buffy said, her chuckling gone, her eyes hard and angry. Staring at him with a betrayed, glassy-eyed stare that hurt worse than any hit the Beast or Jasmine/The First had rocked him with these last few days. "After a while, the one playing the joke is just doing it for the sake of being an asshole, aren't they?"

His unbeating heart aching at the hurt on her face, Angel tried to make her understand. "You were never a joke to me, Buffy. Never. But I—"

"Oh, cut the shit, Angel," she said in a snarl. "You know what you are? You're worse than an asshole. You're...you're Lucy With the Football!"

For a moment, that odd comparison confused Angel. But he quickly caught on. The 'Peanuts' comic strip was an old one, and he had often glanced through the pages throughout the years, passing by the comic strip. Where Charlie Brown, every time, ran to kick the football set up by the mean-spirited Lucy Van Pelt. And every time he got close to kicking it, Lucy would pull it away and send the poor shmuck flying and landing on his ass. And he fell for it. Every. Single. Time.

And that's what she thinks of me, Angel realized in shame. She thinks I'm doing this on purpose. As a joke. But I'm not, Buffy. I'm doing this because I love you too damn much. I can't stand over your grave again. Hold your lifeless body in my arms again. Not because of me.

But Buffy was far from done, tears threatening to spill from her eyes as she angrily lashed out. "How many times has it been, Angel? How many times have you walked out on me now? Because at this point, it's becoming a game now. You-you-you keep dangling this carrot in front of me, you go all Dawson Leary on me every time I'm even close to finding someone new, yet the moment we have a shot at making this work, you pull away. Every. Damn. Time. And you get to go back to your perfect life in L.A., and I'm the one stuck picking up the pieces and trying to move on with this hole in my heart because I'm 'sooo strong.'"

How he ached to go to her. To hold her in his arms and wipe her tears away. To beg her for forgiveness for hurting her. To kiss her pain away with every ounce of love he had in his heart for her…

"You are strong," Angel said quietly. "But you deserve better, Buffy...better than me."

Blinking back tears furiously, she let her heart empty out its pain as she glared at him. "So, what is this, then? You just punishing yourself again because you can't move on and let yourself be happy even for a little while? And, what, I'm the lucky gal who gets to share a ride on the Misery Express with you?"

Flushed with guilt, Angel shook his head. "You know that's not it, Buffy."

She stared at him, trembling. Biting her lip hard so the tears wouldn't roll down her face.

No. No tears. She had cried over him long enough. If he was going to walk away again, he didn't deserve her tears.

"I break up with you," Buffy coldly told him, her eyes shining with anger and pain. "You understand? This time...I'm breaking up with you. And the moment you walk out that door? Do me a favor. Close it. Because after this? Don't you dare walk through it again. I mean it, Angel, I am done with this crap. I was willing to fight for you, for us, because I believed in us. In you. But if you can't be bothered with that...then you can go to hell."

For a moment, Angel stared at her in shock, hurt. After all that had happened between them, she, of all people, knew how deep those words cut into him. Especially from her.

But Angel forced himself to say nothing. He couldn't say anything. He didn't deserve to, a part of him hissed in taunting fashion. Not after what he did to her. Not after everything he's done. He was a monster, always had been. And monsters don't get to take the princess home and live happily ever after. Monsters deserved to suffer. Deserved to be alone.

And he could deal with that, Angel told himself. He would rather the love of his life hate him and live than love him and pay with her death. My heart for her life. Fair trade.

As he turned to go, Buffy's harsh, angry voice stopped him cold. "Don't you dare walk out on me!"

Confused, he turned to her. She suddenly walked in his direction, her eyes still glassy with tears, her face a portrait of anger. "This time…" she said as she brushed by him, staring at him dead in the eyes. "...this time, I get to walk out on you."

And so she did, turning her back to him as she walked quickly and angrily down the hallway and down the stairs, quickly disappearing from sight.

Misery fell over him like a depressing fog as Angel closed his eyes, his heart slowly breaking as he took in what happened. He did it again. Damn it all, he did it again, he cursed himself. How many times had he hurt Buffy? How many times had he caused her such pain? Such suffering? And now, of all times? When she had dreamed of a future with him, only for him to take it away again so cruelly?

He thought he knew Hell. Had burned , literally, in its fires and had suffered its most gruesome torments for a hundred years. But he was wrong. This was Hell. This was torment. To have the one he loved, the woman who shared his heart and soul, so close, so near...and yet not being able to touch her. To be with her. Because of who he was. What he was. What he had done.

His mind unbidden flashed back to the night he was granted his soul. That old Gypsy's words would haunt him across the decades. Everything you've done...will haunt you and you will know what true suffering is.

As Angel took one last look at Buffy's bedroom, taking in the smell of her one last time, it occurred to him that the old man was right as he slowly shut the door.

For if there was such thing as true suffering, Angel thought, surely it couldn't be more terrible than this.


To Be Continued...


Next: A heartbroken Buffy and Angel part as Angel begins his quest to find Hope's Dagger. And emotionally drained and physically worn, Buffy is strained further towards her limits when the First unleashes its next wave of destruction upon an unsuspecting Sunnydale.

And watching her from afar, ready to spring a deadly trap for the Slayer and her allies…the one called…

...Caleb...


**Author's Note: For more on the Willow-Oz scene, check out "Bring Me To Life: Behind The Lines", a companion piece featuring extra scenes from the story. Launching New Year's Eve weekend! (For anyone who has specific fan scenes, interactions and themes from the story you want me to explore in that story, please send your suggestions to me via Private Message, Twitter, or just review in the comments section.I would like to make that companion piece part fan-driven, part my own musings. So please, feel free to share your ideas!)

Thanks to everyone who reviewed the last chapter and followed. It's feedback like that which makes me keep going. And special thanks to that TVTropes page, I have been getting a kick out of that and am truly honored by it. :) More on the way soon, I promise. Thanks for following me along on this ride!

Got to go. As always, please read, review and follow. Happy Holidays!


-JtG