Buffy's Slayer sense was tingling. Something wasn't right. Whenever she showed, the air changed, the beings she thought she knew became secretive. Something was going on right under her nose and she didn't like it one bit. Finally, she couldn't stand it any longer.

Leaping out at the scurrying redhead, she said, "Willow!"

Not having seen her, Willow nearly leaped into the air. "Buffy!" she squeaked. "Are you trying to give me a heart attack?"

"No. I just want to know what's been going on with you and Xander."

"Going on? There hasn't been any going-ons. Especially with Xander. That ship has definitely sailed. And sank. And taken all my Xander-shaped hopes with it. Now I'm on my way to class so…" She tried to shuffle around Buffy only to find her way blocked by one determined Slayer.

"Willow, you've been acting sneaky and dodge-y all week. I hardly ever see you and Xander, you don't hang out at the Bronze any more and whenever I see you in the halls or the library, you get this deer-caught-in-the-lights-of-an-oncoming-truck look. What's the haps?"

Willow bleated, "Buffy, that's just silly! You're being paranoid. Xander is just all caught up in his muy macho manly 'See me. I am Tool Guy' mode and I've just been busy with schoolwork."

"So busy you only have time to talk to me on patrol?" Buffy said, a hurt tone in her voice.

Willow cast about frantically in her mind to get the suspicious Slayer off her back. They were all busily preparing for Buffy's surprise birthday party and had so far managed to keep the Slayer in the dark. But Willow had always found it hard to keep a secret. Now Buffy was putting her on the spot and she had to think of something to throw her off the scent. Finally she seized on the one most likely thing that would grab Buffy's attention. "I-I think things between me and Oz are getting serious and I guess it's been bothering me a little."

Buffy beamed. "You and Oz? Way to go, Willow!" Then she reconsidered. "Why should that be making you all of the anxious? I thought that'd be good news."

"Oh, it is! It's just…I haven't told him about you and the slaying thing. And since I'm part of the slaying thing, that's a big part of me being kept secret and a relationship has to be built on trust and honesty. At least that's what all the popular magazines say not that I read Cosmopolitan or anything 'cause that's more Cordelia's thing. I don't know if I should come clean or when I should come clean. What if I tell him and he bolts because he thinks I'm all nutso in the head? But keeping things secret is making me feel all nervy and knotted up inside and it's like Clark Kent hiding his secret life from Lois Lane and could I sound any more like Xander?" Willow moaned.

"Golly, Willow. Tell me everything; don't hold back," Buffy said teasingly. Then she sobered up when she saw the redheaded girl's unhappy frown. "I guess that has been a big load to carry. Have you told Xander about this?"

Willow snorted delicately. "I think Xander's a little on the jealous side now that I'm not mooning over him any more. He makes all these cracks about Oz not being reliable 'cause he's in a rock band and has a different hairstyle every week. He's no help."

"Then why not come to me? If it's the slaying gig that's got you tied up in the nervy knots, then I definitely should have been consulted," Buffy stated.

"I-I know. But like I said, I think things are getting serious. I'm not sure how Oz feels about me. He's a senior and older and maybe he thinks I'm a little on the young side. Also, he's kinda of the not talky. He could give Angel lessons on 'How to Have a Conversation in Ten Words or Less,' " Willow responded, sighing.

"Hey, Willow. Buffy." The boy in question stepped quietly into place and it was Buffy's turn to start. Oz was certainly good at the sneaking around. No wonder Xander was a little wiggy about him. Buffy also noted distractedly that Oz's hair was a brilliant blue. It matched his fingernails.

"Oz," Willow replied in a dreamy voice.

"Hey, Oz. I caught your set earlier this week. Not bad," Buffy observed.

"Yeah. If we can master another change of chords, Devon's thinking we could be real pros."

Buffy didn't know much about music but she remembered ice skating along to canned songs when she was a little girl. "Oh, really? How many chords can you manage now?"

"Two. But if we really stretch and fake it, it sounds like we can do three," he said, his face deadpan.

"Uh huh." Buffy wasn't sure if he was kidding or not. She didn't know Oz that well. But Willow was right; he and Angel definitely shared the same kind of laidback, non-speaking style.

Oz was talking to Willow now. "Hey, you think you can swing by the Bronze and hear us tonight?"

Willow perked up right away. "Oh, I'd love to!" Then she caught Buffy's eye and quickly revised her statement. "Only I can't. I promised Buffy I'd be with her tonight. Girl stuff. You know."

"No, can't say as I do. The downside to being an only child. But I can use my imagination." He smiled slightly at the two girls, darted a quick peck at the red-haired girl's cheek and ducked down the corridor to his next class.

"Okay, that was a guy joke, right? Sorta on the level of Xander's talk about girls' underwear and X-rated female prison movies only way more of the subtle?" Buffy mused.

"That's my Oz. A class act all the way," Willow said, a big smile creasing her features.

"A gentleman with gentian blue hair," Buffy quipped.

The redhead raised her eyebrows in surprise. "Gentian? That's a Giles-y word. Somebody's been spending a lot of quality time with everybody's favorite librarian."

"What am I supposed to do when my best girlfriend spends all her free time with a rock band?" Buffy pretended to wipe away a tear. "I've been abandoned for a musician. Who else can I turn to?"

"What about Angel?"

As always the mention of her undead boyfriend made Buffy pensive and happy at once. "Ya got me there. Angel has been around a lot lately. He's being Mr. Over-Protective. I think my experiment with being a human shish kabob has him seriously wigged. So he's sticking close."

"That's so sweet," Willow sighed. "If you leave out the part about the shish kabobbing, that is."

"I guess it is." Buffy noted the other students hurrying along and waved goodbye to Willow. "Bye, Willow. See you after class."

"See ya later."

"Over 300 answers? That's rather excessive, isn't it? Not all of them can be related to our, ah, unique dilemma, can they?" Giles leaned over Ms. Calendar as they both eyed the screen, noting absently how her dark hair curled over her neck and the sweet scent that wafted from it whenever she moved. It was an odd but not unpleasing mixture of honeysuckle and sage although he noticed it varied on occasion. From time to time, she seemed to smell of different herbs along with her floral scent. Did she practice spells as he and Willow did? His attention was drawn back to her as she answered his question.

"Well, actually that's how many I've narrowed the list down to. There were originally more than 500 responses. One of them was actually a recipe for nut cake."

"Good Lord." He pinched the bridge of his nose wearily. "Why did I think that this would make things easier?" he sighed.

"Hey, don't give up hope yet. These responses come from all over the world. There's bound to be something that deals with soul loss and retrieval that can help us. It's too soon to get all mopey over it."

"I-I realize that and I do appreciate the help. I've had a lot on my mind lately."

She flashed him a quick, unreadable glance. "Such as?"

"Mr. Giles, I wasn't aware they were opening up an annex of the library in the computer room." The nasal whine came from the door and Giles stiffened at the unmistakable accents of Principal Snyder. The little toad stood in the doorway, his arms crossed and the habitual sour expression on his face. "I don't think you're being paid to flirt on school time. What kind of example does that set for our students?"

"I imagine that they'd wonder at their principal having such a salacious mind," Giles replied, the ice barely perceptible in his voice.

"It's my job to see that order, discipline and propriety are maintained. We can't have the students getting any ideas in their heads, can we? The dirty-minded little creeps get enough of that from their MTV videos without being subjected to seeing fraternizing among the faculty."

Mr. Giles heaved a silent sigh of exasperation and counted rapidly to ten before trusting himself to speak. "I merely came to Ms. Calendar to explore the possibility of installing computers for student aid in the library."

Ms. Calendar took up her cue without so much as a blink. "That's right. There's plenty of room in the library. They might have to put in a few more tables, of course, and open up extra phone lines to accommodate the Internet. But all things considered I'd say the idea was doable," she mused in a considering tone.

"And who would be paying for this extravagance, exactly? You think because we're Americans we have money to spend on every cockamamie scheme that comes along? Besides, this isn't a matter you take up with other teachers, Mr. Giles. I don't know how they did things back in that antiquated country of yours but here we leave such things up to administration not faculty!" the principal remarked with acid in his voice.

The comment about his country's backwardness caused Giles to clench his jaw. But otherwise he made no sign that he was annoyed. Instead he sighed as if disappointed and turned to Ms. Calendar. "Ah well. It was just a suggestion."

She shrugged. "It's no loss. Nowadays most kids have their own home computers. Goodbye, Mr. Giles."

He inclined his head. "Ms. Calendar." He exited the room without another glance at Snyder.

The principal was vaguely aware that he'd been snubbed. But he wasn't one to challenge a man of Mr. Giles's height. He merely rotated his neck in his collar in an obvious gesture of self-importance, shot a glare at Ms. Calendar that she completely ignored and then exited the room to harass an unsuspecting student.

Mrs. Summers was rather reluctant about Willow's idea. "Tell me why this party has to be held at the Bronze. If it's a nightclub it must be a very large space. Just our tiny group will look a little lonely in there, won't we?"

Willow's voice came over the phone in an excited burble. "Well, there'll be Oz's band playing. He says he'll do it for a reduced price since I'm asking. And vamps usually come out to play and eat the kids there. So that night's rental will mean the walking undead will have to chow down somewhere else to get their teenage snacks."

"Well, that's a logical yet absolutely bizarre reason if I've ever heard one," Joyce replied as she repressed a shudder.

"Buffy doesn't suspect anything?" Willow asked.

"Not a thing." She kept an ear cocked towards the stairs to see when her daughter would come flying down the stairs for her nightly patrol.

"Good. I'm meeting her tonight. We've got to keep up our routine or she'll get all suspicious. She's already cornered me once today to ask me about me being so avoid-y and everything."

"What did you tell her?"

"I said I was having boyfriend trouble. I think she bought it."

"And are you having boyfriend trouble?" Joyce didn't believe it was her place to interfere with Willow's love life. But she felt a motherly concern for Buffy's friends. None of them seemed to possess what she would consider a happy home life and the urge to be supportive was very strong.

The sigh that came from the other end of the line held a world of adolescent exasperation. "Yes. No. Not exactly. You see, I haven't known him long and…"

Hearing footsteps stomp down the stairs, Joyce hurriedly said, "She's coming!"

"Ooh! Then goodbye!" There was a quick click and Mrs. Summers hung up just as her daughter came downstairs. Joyce scanned Buffy critically. Her daughter's hair was tied back in a no-nonsense bun and she was sporting a close-fitting, long-sleeved top. It fit her snugly without being too revealing; Buffy said she didn't want to have her clothes flapping around her when she fought.

Buffy paused and looked at the telephone curiously. "Who was that, Mom?"

"Wrong number," Joyce replied innocently. "Will you be meeting any of your friends for patrol tonight?"

"Only Willow. And Angel," she added, her reluctance to tell this to her mother very clear.

"That's good. What about Xander? Where is he?"

"Strangely enough, he decided to go Bronzing alone tonight. Said he wanted to keep an eye on things there." She hesitated and then probed her mother cautiously. "You're okay with my being around Angel and all? 'Cause I know how much you hate the thought of him hanging with me what with the whole unbreathing act of his."

"I-I saw the way he took care of you that night. If he hadn't been around, I don't like to think what might have happened. Besides, I have the feeling if I told you to stay away from him, you'd just meet him in secret. I remember enough of my own days as a wild young girl to know that."

"You were wild? What did you do, chew gum in class?" Buffy snorted.

"I'll have you know I was quite the rebel in my day, young lady. Of course, I never came close to your level of juvenile delinquency. Somehow my pranks stopped short of arson and destruction of public property," Joyce ended.

Even though her mother was only teasing, Buffy felt immediately on the defensive. "Hey, that wasn't juvenile hijinks! That was a public service. The gym was full of vampires," Buffy protested.

"I know, dear. It's nice to know the truth at last and that my daughter isn't a dangerous felon." She kissed Buffy lightly on the forehead. "Have a good patrol. Be careful."

"So then Devon is singing and the band is playing like wow! And the crowd is yelling for the Dingoes to encore the last song 'cause it was totally kickin' only one of their amps blew at the wrong moment 'cause the wires were worn out or something. So they had to quit early and the manager stiffed them out of part of their fee. But other than that it was a great night." Willow had been chattering non-stop about Oz since Buffy and Angel picked her up at her place.

"Willow, did you take caffeine before coming out with us on patrol tonight? You know how bad that is for you," Buffy chided.

"Only a little chocolate, I swear!" Willow protested.

"So Oz is the guy I smell on you?" Angel murmured. He had been content to let the two women talk, keeping an eye out for newly risen vampires. Older vampires avoided graveyards. Not only did they consider them clichéd images of vampire hideaways and hangouts, there was precious little to be found in the way of decent fresh, young meat. Clubs like the Bronze were a much better feeding ground in terms of variety and quantity. But with the Anointed One still gathering minions to swell his depleted ranks, it was a good idea to make a clean sweep before heading back into the more populated areas.

"Yeah. Willow's become a band groupie," Buffy teased.

"Buffy!" He didn't have to look at the redhead to know she was blushing furiously. Then she asked, "Y-you can smell Oz on me? What does he smell like?" She was curious to know what her boyfriend was like from Angel's unique point of view.

"Well, I can smell a really strong hair dye."

"Oh, yeah. His hair is blue this week."

This week? Angel wondered what other colors the boy favored. "I'd guess that he's a guitarist, right?"

"How'd you know?" Buffy was envious of Angel's sharpened senses. She wished she could sense things the way he did and wondered how she smelled to him. Something to find out for later…

Angel explained, "I can smell this resinous odor—probably from the stuff he uses on the strings."

"Cool," Willow exclaimed. When Angel didn't continue, she egged him on. "What else?"

"He had a chili dog with onions today—unless that was Xander."

"No. That was Oz all right. This is so neat!" Willow giggled.

"He favors natural fibers, cottons and light wools—but no leather or furs."

"Wow. You can tell all that from secondhand whiffing? I am impressed," Buffy responded.

Angel smiled and raised his arm so she nestled under it. After all the nights when he had denied himself her touch such simple gestures were enough to make his skin tingle. He could smell the spiciness of her desire, impatience and warmth as well. He was just considering snatching a kiss when he was reminded of the third person in their party.

Willow cleared her throat noisily before bringing Angel's attention back to the topic. "You are so on about the fibers. He likes wearing flannel. I think that's a grunge/slacker thing. Anything else?"

Angel shrugged. "That's about it. I'd have to meet him to know any more."

Willow bounced a little with enthusiasm. "Well, maybe after the slaying we could swing by the Bronze. He's playing there tonight."

Angel didn't answer. There was something else under the secondhand odor he could scent about Willow's person. He wasn't certain what it was. It smelt only vaguely familiar but he was sure it wasn't entirely human. However without being sure of his ground he said nothing to alarm the redheaded girl. He was genuinely fond of Willow. She was helpful, sweet, and shy and devoted to Buffy just like all the members of the Slayer's circle. She was exactly the sort of girl his mother would have wanted him to marry if he ever had put his philandering ways behind him. There was no way he'd hurt her until he had concrete evidence of what was so off about her new boyfriend's odor. Checking out the Bronze sounded like a good idea.

"Penny for your thoughts?"

He glanced down to see Buffy staring at him intently through the darkness. He leaned down and brushed her lips fleetingly with his before drawing back. "Have you told your mother about my little problem yet?"

She looked down at the ground but the guilty flicker he caught in her eyes told him the truth. "I-I don't know how to tell her, Angel. She's just starting to warm up to you. Tonight she told me she was impressed with how you played doctor when I was jabbed with Mr. Pointy. Besides, I don't want to tell her when we could be finding a cure any day now. We fix this stupid curse thing-y, then I'll spill the beans to mom."

Angel was worried at Buffy's continued silence about the curse to her mother. The longer she kept this to herself, the greater Mrs. Summers's anger was likely to be when she found out the truth. But he knew there was no budging Buffy on the subject. So he picked up on the other matter that concerned him. "I'm also hoping we can find that vampire you saw with that box. I'm thinking it had to be important otherwise they wouldn't have made such an effort to stop you."

Buffy sighed. "Yeah. I still feel stupid I let him get away."

"Not your fault, beloved. If anything I should have been able to stop him. There were two of us."

"Only you had to take care of me what with the impaledness," Buffy groused.

She could talk of her brush with death in that flippant style of hers but Angel didn't like to think about how close he'd come to losing her. Holding her just a little bit tighter, they continued to search through the darkness for fledglings and other things that went bump in the dark.

This was going to be one of the good sets; Oz knew it. The band was in sync and the crowd was totally feeling them, getting into the vibe. It was always a challenge to be heard over dozens the mindless chatter of buzzing voices, the shatter of glasses being dropped or gum wrappers being snapped open as people surreptitiously tried to freshen their breaths. But when everything was clicking, it was like nothing else.

Lately, though, things had been different. He wasn't sure what it was, but it was like he could sense when the club was getting really excited, when the teenagers milling on the dance floor turned their attention towards the stage and not just the hot young bodies pressing up against theirs. He could hear the people and knew when they were talking about him, Devon or some other member of the band. Musky scents would blow towards him courtesy of the Bronze's air conditioning and he could tell that it was the smell of teenaged lust. He didn't know how he knew. He simply could, just as he could tell when it came from a guy or a girl.

He tried to shake off the sensation and tell himself it was only the residual effects of secondhand smoke. He had refused—again—one of Devon's persistent offers of weed. Devon himself didn't take all that much but when he had some he always liked to share. It was his idea of being generous. Oz didn't care for it and had told Devon politely but firmly that he didn't think they had to take drugs just because they were in a band. Devon didn't press the issue but he always offered anyway in case Oz changed his mind.

Oz had sniffed the tangy odor of the weed and shaken his head irritatingly. Somehow the smell had been more troubling this night than usual and his head had swum briefly before stepping into the relatively clearer air of the stage. That's when it began.

As the teenagers filled the club, he smelled the cloying odor of perfume, sweat, nervous sweat (decidedly different from the other kind) and picked up various clear snatches of conversation.

"I'm telling you, Aura, that is not a Gucci handbag!" Harmony sniped.

"It is so, Harmony. My father got it for me and he's been trying to stay on my good side ever since he divorced from my mom. You just can't tell because it's so dark in here," Aura shot back. Then Cordelia Chase sat beside them and Oz pricked up his ears as the others began talking about the new company she was keeping.

"Well, look who it is! Wait, who is it? Aura, do you know this girl?" Harmony queried, ostentatiously turning her shoulder on the slender brunette.

"Ha ha. Funny, Harmony. Your wit is as high as your grades," Cordelia murmured, her eyes searching out Devon. Oz wasn't sure but she didn't seem as focused on Devon as usual. It was like she was going through the motions and only pretending to be interested in him.

"Oh, wait! I remember who you are. You're Cordelia Chase. It's been so long since you've hung with us, instead of that group of losers like that Willow freak, I'd almost forgotten your name. So how is Xander and his pals? Still on the Fashion Deficient list?" Harmony's eyebrows arched as if she'd made a particularly funny joke while Aura, Deborah, Lily and the other Cordettes tittered dutifully.

"God, Harmony, you are such a sheep. Did it ever occur to you that there are other things in life besides fashion and shoes?" Cordelia snapped, her temper clearly frayed.

The way the other girls gaped at her it was obvious such a thought had never entered their tiny little minds. "Cordy, what is wrong with you? Did you hit your head or something?" another girl demanded. Oz thought her name was Candy or something equally babyish; he couldn't really remember.

"It's just there are…things going on in the world and this town and you people can't see past the ends of your surgically altered noses!" Cordelia replied with an irritated toss of her hair.

"Hey, that's not fair! My nose isn't altered," Aura said triumphantly.

"Oh, you mean those three weeks you disappeared you really were in Italy?" Lily purred.

"That's right!" Aura huffed.

"So how come you didn't come back with a tan?" Harmony demanded, a question that was repeated by the others.

"It-it rained the whole time," Aura muttered defiantly.

"In July?" Lily exclaimed.

Oz could see Cordelia mentally tuning out her friends. She fairly reeked of dissatisfaction and her eyes were roaming the club as if searching for another face. If he didn't know any better, he'd think she had another boyfriend. But he'd have known if Devon had dumped her. The guy would have mentioned it even in passing.

He shook his head. This was insane. Cordelia and her friends were sitting in the back row of the club. He shouldn't have been able to hear them at all. What the hell was going on?!

Dismissing Cordelia and her equally vapid friends for the moment, he let his attention drift to other people. It helped reap positive karma to maintain eye contact especially with the girls and the fingering he practiced for the band's songs wasn't intricate enough to require his entire attention.

That's when he felt it. A sensation like an icy dagger shot up his spine and his hands faltered, an ugly screech erupting from his guitar. Devon shot him a look out of the corner of his eye but to his credit kept right on singing.

Oz cast his eye around for the source of the nasty sensation and his eyes locked on a tall guy with pink hair and three earrings in one ear. The punk look was so 70s but this guy wore it as if he'd known nothing else in his life. He was currently leaning over a pretty brunette girl with purple dye running along the bottom edge of her hair.

There was something wrong with that dude. The very sight of him was making Oz's skin crawl and he had to resist the urge to leap through the air and drag him off that girl by force. He didn't understand it; it was a combination of gut-wrenching disgust and the feeling he was going to rolf. But he'd never seen that guy before in his life! Why the total hate?

Oz started to hyperventilate. The sounds in the club shot up until the din seemed to attack him from all sides; they even drowned out the music. The low lights turned blinding, became klieg intensity, and the smells were too much with a rancid combo of sour sweat, nacho cheese, pretzels, makeup, beer and piss. In a minute he was going to hurl all over the front rows and wouldn't the manager be super pissed about that?

He blinked hard, forcing back the nausea. When reality snapped back into place, he saw to his dismay that Pink Hair and Purple Streak had disappeared. Where could they have gone?

The song ended and Devon was just about to launch into another tune when Oz pulled at the bottom of his shirt. "Yo, Dev. Gotta take a quick break."

Devon scowled at him and covered the mike so the audience couldn't hear. "Oz, are you nuts? We've got another six songs to play! Can't you hold it until after the set?"

"No. It's a puking thing. Gotta let it out or else."

Devon ran his hand through his hair and did a quick calculation. "You still gonna be well enough to play?"

Oz had already hopped off the stage. "In a minute, I'll either know or won't care." Devon held a hasty whispered conference with the other members and started up another song, one that didn't require a guitarist only a soft beat of the drums and heavy crooning. Oz jumped off the stage and ran his eye quickly around the club. The guy was gone along with the creepy-spinal-cord impression he'd roused in Oz. Following a hunch, he quickly opened the Bronze's side door and stepped into the alley. He paused as he took in the scene before him.

Purple Streak was crouched, crying and shaking, on the cement as a dark-haired boy hugged her body and spoke soothingly to her. "It's okay. You're safe now. But you should probably join your friends and go home in a group."

The girl lifted a teary face to his. "Wh-what was that thing?"

"It was…" The boy became aware of Oz's presence and turned his head sharply in his direction. "Oh, hey! Oz, right? Um, what are you doing out here?"

"I could ask you that. It's Xander, isn't it? Willow's friend? So what happened here?"

"Oh, um, well, this girl was being molested by this Sid Vicious throwback and I thought I'd lend my manly assistance by sticking my face in the way of his fist." Indeed, the guy was sporting a dark, ugly bruise on his right cheek. It looked painful.

Xander staggered up, dragging Purple Streak's dead weight. She clung to his shirt—a loud combination of colors that should never have been in the same room together much less the same piece of fabric—and sniffed loudly. "T-thanks for saving me. I'd better get inside. I feel like such an idiot, coming out here alone with some guy I didn't even know!" She scrubbed at her face hard as if punishing herself for not thinking straight.

"Hey, we've all made mistakes with the Dating Game. If I knew you better, I could tell you some stories. The important thing is we've all survived. Now get your friends, run along home and from now on get in before dark just like your mother told you to."

The girl smiled feebly at him, darted towards the alley entranceway and after looking both ways ran back towards the Bronze front door. Her heels also kicked up a small dust cloud as she walked away. Oz could detect an odd ashyness in the air that was nothing like cigarettes. He lifted his head and sniffed before wondering what the hell he was doing.

Oz and Xander looked at each other for a moment. Xander stuck his hands deep in his pocket and rocked back and forth on his sneakered feet. He'd come to the Bronze tonight so he could check out Willow's new squeeze unhindered by his best friend's presence. The vampire had distracted him, though, and now he found himself scrambling to explain himself. "So, Oz. How was the playing tonight?"

"All right."

"Uh huh." The talk petered out uncomfortably. "So…I wanted to thank you. You know, for that thing you're doing for Willow. That's, that's really upstanding. Buffy'll be thrilled."

"Welcome. Devon's not too happy but we've done enough private gigs for his friends so he shouldn't complain."

The silence returned and Xander shuffled his feet. "I, uh, gotta get going and see if I can keep this swelling down to Quasimodo size."

"Sure." Oz paused. "What about the little pink powder puff?"

"Him? Gone. Guess taking on a helpless girl was one thing. But one look at the Xandman and he took a powder!" The forced humor didn't make any impression on Oz and Xander's pained grimace showed he was just as unimpressed at it. "Why, were you after him? He a pal of yours?"

"No. He just didn't…feel right."

"Feel right? I didn't feel him myself. Well, not much." Xander raised his hand to his cheekbone and winced at the contact. "Look, Oz, this kinda stings so I'm heading home to put something cold on it. Sorry I can't catch the rest of your act."

"It's called a set, actually," Oz corrected absently.

Xander nodded vigorously, his dark hair flopping over his eyes. "Right, right. Got that. Well, see you tomorrow at school!" Waving goodbye, he turned and strode off down the street. Oz's sharpened eyesight just barely made out the bulge of a long, skinny object stuck in Xander's back pocket and making a bulge under his shirt.

"Huh. Weird," he commented.

Buffy shifted in her hard seat and made an effort to look interested in the trig problem marked out on the chalkboard. The graveyards had been dead last night (pardon the pun) and, by the time they got to the Bronze, the show was over. The lead guitarist had taken ill and had to go home anyway. That had freaked Willow a little and she'd rushed home to call Oz and see if he was all right. Angel had accompanied her to see that she made it home safely.

Buffy would have liked to think all the non-activity was a blessing. But maybe all it meant was that evil was just gearing up to do something really spectacular. She frowned. She was starting to think like Giles. Things were bad; call in the Slayer. Things were good, call in the Slayer and dump on her with warnings about all the nastily brewing evil out there. She just couldn't win.

[Well, no news is good news. Best not look this gift donkey in the mouth.] She smiled at another thought. She was 17 today! As of 12:00 this morning she was legally of age! She'd be able to drive—well, she would if she could persuade her mother to see reason, pass the driver's test and handle the car. She was a few years away from being legal to drink and vote but she wasn't particularly interested in those things anyway. There was really only one thing that was weighing on her mind.

Being 17 meant that she was officially ready for sex. She knew what that was about; she was exposed to enough of it through the media to have a pretty good handle on the subject. And with thoughts of sex came thoughts of Angel. She'd already seen him half naked and had fantasized extensively about the other half. However, her mind drew a blank when it came to his—well, you know. She'd seen pictures back in Hemery in pilfered Playgirl mags and giggled over them with her friends. But the actuality was an unseen mystery.

Angel was so…attentive to her, more so since they'd reconciled. She figured it was partially because he was so afraid of losing her he wanted to spend every moment together that he could. Ever since the encounter with her own stake lodged in her stomach, Angel and Buffy had stepped things up in their nightly groping sessions.

Those cool hands and lips that stirred parts of her body and made her tingle would glide expertly over her skin, leaving her panting and eager for more. He always knew just how far he could push things. The slightest hint of nerviness on her part and he would back off. It never seemed to bother him to have to cut things short and he never sulked or pouted about being "led on" the way human boys would have. However, she often felt a hardness pressing into her belly that told her what they did together left him as pent up as it did her. On nights like those she was glad to crawl in through her bedroom window and tidy herself a bit before her mother could see her. One look at her mussed hair and clothing and kiss-swollen lips and her mom would have a pretty good idea that patrolling had involved more than vampire kills.

But the curse…that always drenched her happy thoughts. There was big fear as well as lustiness in those penetrating dark eyes when he was with her now. Often Angel backed off before she did, panting needlessly for air, gold flickering in his eyes. She was foolishly proud that she could make him lose control like that but pride disappeared before the worry she could see etched on his handsome face.

She was jolted out of Angel thoughts when the class bell rang. She gathered up her books and decided to make a quick swing by the library. There had to be some good news about the whole curse dealie. If not, then she was sure her Watcher would come up with an apocalypse or two to keep her minds on less lusty thoughts.

She bumped into Willow who was slouching through the halls and Buffy sighed to herself. She could guess what was making the redhead look so down in the mouth. "Hey, Willow. Oz still on the sick list?"

"Yeah. He said he was just a little sick when I talked to him. But he's been staying home more often these days. I talked to a couple of his teachers and they said he always had perfect attendance before this year. He's been casual in classes but he always did the homework and aced the tests and they say this just isn't like him. Not that I really know what he's like. But you gotta admit it's of the weird."

"What's of the weird? Is this more Sunnydale weirdness we're talking about, ladies?" Xander walked up behind them and punched Willow lightly in the arm.

She shook her head and then shrugged helplessly. "I don't think so. Oz is all sick-y." Then she noticed the bruise on his face. Overnight it had gone from being reddish to a dark purple. Oh no. Had his dad done that? She averted her eyes but Buffy saw it as well.

The Slayer was appalled at the ugly mark. "Xander? What happened to your face?"

"Had a little run-in with a guy who evidently didn't get the word that punk is as dead as he was. Speaking of Oz, I ran into him last night. He seemed all right when I saw him," Xander commented.

"Last night? You saw Oz last night? He didn't tell me that when I called him!" Willow was upset. She thought Oz should have mentioned this to her. She was supposed to be his girlfriend—wasn't she?

"Maybe he thought it wasn't important. It was a totally non-special bonding moment between two guys. Unless you count the part where I dusted that vamp in the Bronze alleyway," Xander added as he opened his locker.

"You dusted the vamp?" Buffy asked, disbelief evident in her eyes.

"Hey, you don't have to sound so surprised, you know! I've killed a couple of bloodsuckers in my day!" Xander retorted.

Willow rushed to soothe Xander's ego. "We know, Xander. I think Buffy was just wondering whether Oz saw you."

"No. He came out after all the excitement was over. But he was following the guy like he knew there was something odd about him. He didn't say word one about being sick."

"That is weird. He tells Willow he's sick but he wasn't when you saw him. Then he's of the non-showing in school today. Think something's up with him?" Buffy mused.

"No up with Oz. He's perfectly okay. He's just having an off day, that's all," Willow stressed. She wasn't going to let Buffy get any ideas about her boyfriend. One of them had to have a normal guy in her life.

"Off days. Plural. Remember?" Buffy turned to Xander. "But what did he have to say about the vamp you dusted that he totally didn't see you dust?"

"Just that the guy didn't feel right to him." Xander made air quotes with his fingers. "If I didn't know it, I'd say he came out there to help the girl the vamp was macking on. It's a good thing I was there otherwise Oz might have wound up being snack food, too."

"Yay you, Xand." Willow beamed at her childhood friend.

"Ditto." Now it was Buffy's turn to punch Xander on the arm and he pretended to stagger as he complained about her Slayer strength.

"Ow! Watch it, you murderous woman, you! I bruise easily. See?" He pointed to the bruise on his cheek and Willow jumped up to kiss it lightly.

"You poor boy. Maybe you should be staying at home with Oz," she teased.

"Yeah. The two of you could have more guy bonding moments," Buffy chimed in.

Xander immediately protested the implied assault on his manhood. "No way! I am totally into girls. Willow, you know that."

"There was Ms. French. You had the whole older woman thing that's supposed to be such a scoring point with high schoolers," Buffy mused.

"If you ignore the part where she turned into a mantis who wanted to cut your head off during sex," Willow added.

"Miss French doesn't count. She only wanted me for my body."

"No. Just your sperm," Buffy teased.

Willow thought about his other dating choice. "Then there was Ampata. She really liked Xander. I don't think she would have killed him. But the life sucking thing would have gotten old after awhile. After she ran through your friends, you'd have had to start ordering in pizza delivery boys just to keep her happy."

"Ampata was…okay, not such good luck there. But may I point out your dating choices, ladies?"

"Yeah, yeah, we know. Me dating the undead, Willow hooking up with a demon computer. Blah blah blah. But Ms. French was wrongness from the word 'go,' Xander. Even if she wasn't an insect, she was a teacher macking on a student! That's wrong on so many levels. You should never have gone to her house."

"I guess. But she made it sound so innocent and I was really into her. Proof positive the Xandman prefers the ladies." He waggled his eyebrows and said the last two words with a suggestive leer.

"Too bad the ladies don't want you, Xander. Were any of you at the Bronze last night?" Cordelia Chase came sauntering over and began rummaging in her locker, pointedly not looking at any of them.

"No. What happened at the Bronze?" Buffy's tone was cool. She couldn't really warm up to Cordelia although she had to admit the cheerleader was useful at times. At least with her they didn't have to pretend Sunnydale was a normal little burg the way they did with the other students.

"Nothing, that's what. It was total Deadsville and I'm not just talking about vamps. Even the band sucked."

Willow bristled at the unintended insult to her boyfriend. "What was wrong with the band? Dingoes Ate My Baby totally rocks!"

"Oh, please. I've found better rocking skiing in Aspen," Cordelia said slightingly. "And what kind of a name is that anyway? Basing your band name on a tragic trial concerning a woman who may have killed her own kid is majorly uncool. It'd be like naming the pet dog Jeffrey Dahmer. Total ick."

"How can you talk about them like that? Aren't you dating Devon?"

At the mention of her boyfriend, Cordelia appeared a trifle uneasy. "Yeah, well, just because I'm seeing the lead singer doesn't mean I automatically approve of everything he stands for. I'm his girlfriend not a sheep."

Willow opened her mouth to retort when Xander asked, "Look, Cordelia. If there's no news of demonness to report and you didn't see anything at the Bronze, why are you talking to us? You're not going to talk about shoes, are you?" He cringed away from her in mock horror.

"Like you know anything about shoes, Harris," she sniffed, staring down at his sneakers with open disdain. "I-I just wondered if there were any danger going on that I should know about. Just to be on the safe side," she added hastily. "I don't want to be hanging out with you losers if I can help it."

"Nada. Zip. Zilch. Just the Sunnydale usual," Buffy said. "If we find out somebody's targeted you, we'll give you a head's up."

"Thanks, Buffy. In the meantime you can handle all the Sunnydale horror and I'll get on with having a life." Cordelia finished packing her bag with whatever she needed. She shut her locker door and swung away without another glance at them.

Xander stared thoughtfully at the departing cheerleader. "Is it my imagination or was she trying to hold a civilized conversation?"

Buffy shrugged as she pushed away thoughts of Cordelia Chase. "Who knows? I'm gonna drop by the library during lunch and see if Giles has any good news to tell me."

Buffy was halfway down the hall when she realized that none of her friends had mentioned her birthday. Maybe Slayers didn't live all that long but you'd think Willow would have remembered. She was swept by a wave of self-pity when she considered it. Well, maybe there was one person who'd be more excited about the good news…

That night, as they patrolled near the docks following a lead from Willy, she cautiously sounded him out about his feelings. "Angel, I wanted to talk you about something."

"What is it, Buffy?" She'd been unusually animated, chattering away like an over-stimulated magpie. But he had detected the tension running under her words and wondered what was causing it. He held his peace and waited for her to come clean with whatever was bothering her.

"You know I'm 17 today. As of this morning, I officially became a grownup."

"Congratulations. Is this your way of asking me what I got you?" he murmured, his eye teasing.

"Uh, yeah, I guess." Actually, it wasn't the gift she was thinking about. When he didn't answer, she peered into his face and gulped. How could she say this? How could she inform him about how important 17 was in terms of her life? Was he even aware of California's laws about the age of consent? What should she say anyway? "I'm ready, big guy. Take me?" "I think, since a Slayer's life is so short, we should be seizing the moment. So here I am—ready to do some seizing?" It wasn't even a consideration what with the other problem. She thought and shifted the line of conversation a bit.

"I-is it really hard?" Thinking about what she'd said, she flushed crimson and fumbled for better phrasing. "I mean, is it bad…being around me?"

"It's not bad. Knowing that I can't be with you…like that isn't great. But I'm not completely unhappy spending time with you." His face softened slightly and she could see the hints of a rare smile hovering around his lips. "You're the best part of my unlife, Buffy. I wouldn't trade these moments with you for anything."

"But no happiness for you. Not from me anyway." They were approaching the waterside now. Willy had told them, after a certain amount of dual persuasion by her fists and Angel's casual breakage, that strange deliveries had been coming into Sunnydale, attended by an unusually large number of vampires. Rumor had it they weren't just there for the sailor snacks either.

"You make me as happy as you can. This curse isn't your fault or your problem to fix," Angel told her.

"No, but it is a big old crimp in the Buffy-and-Angel scenario." She breathed a gusty sigh and kicked at a piece of broken bottle on the pavement. The next moment she chided herself. She should be all stealthy like Angel not making noises so the demons could hear her coming. "Giles says he hasn't come up with anything yet. But he's got Jenny Calendar helping."

Angel's surprise was apparent even if his expression didn't change much. "She is? I would have thought…I didn't think she'd want to help."

"That's what Giles said. But I told him Ms. Calendar probably didn't want to keep following you around worrying about the 'moment of happiness' loophole and he went to talk to her. She's totally on board with our little plan. She's even got friends helping her on the Internet."

Angel cocked his head at a human-shaped person flitting ahead and gestured minutely. Buffy couldn't seem to sense other vamps the way she could him. But she had learned to interpret his signals. Striding away from him to give herself fighting room, she twirled Mr. Pointy between her fingers and continued musing about Giles and Jenny Calendar. "I'm thinking that if we find a spell that'll help you, Ms. Calendar can get a normal life—well, as normal as one ever gets here on the Hellmouth. Maybe she and Giles can get together and do adult stuff."

"Adult stuff?" Angel raised his eyebrows and that same half-smile flickered across his mouth before vanishing again. "You mean like what your mother wanted with Ted?"

"Ewwww! No going into Ted-and-mom ickiness. I don't want to think how far things might have gotten with him if we hadn't found out he was a robot." Buffy gave a shudder and hugged herself against the memories.

"But you think Giles and Ms. Calendar might get close if she didn't have to worry about me," Angel probed.

"Get close. I guess they could except that Giles is so old," Buffy said in the casual way of all kids dismissing their elders' sexual drives.

"He's not as old as I am, Buffy."

"Yeah, but that's different. Giles looks old and his…equipment is old-being while yours is always gonna be young and I hope we get to the docks soon 'cause I haven't killed anything all night and Mr. Pointy is getting antsy." Buffy began pacing faster, glad the night hid her face because she was sure she was turning all shades of red. She could feel Angel's amused stare on her back and wanted to slug him. She knew she was being prejudiced and unfair about her assessment of Giles's desires and abilities in bed. She just didn't like to think of her Watcher getting up to those kinds of shenanigans. There was a sick-making factor in those ideas that flung her into full denial mode whenever the subject was broached.

"You can't deny that Giles deserves to be happy with a woman if that's what he wants. And if Ms. Calendar feels the same way, then I shouldn't stand in the way of that. And neither should you," he added.

"But, Angel, this is GILES. Old, tweedy, boring book guy! He shouldn't—I mean, he doesn't get…"

"What? A normal, human life? Love? Joy? There are those who would say the Slayer isn't supposed to have those things either. And yet you try," he pointed out as gently as he could.

She huffed noisily. "I hate it when you're all logic-y." The vampire stiffened and cast his head up sharply. "What is it?"

"I recognize one of those vampires." He nodded at a vamp that was runty and kinda small heading towards one of the dock warehouses. "It's Dalton."

"Dalton?" The name was unfamiliar to her.

"He was in the cavern with the Anointed One when they were trying to recruit me. Remember?"

"Uh, no. There were a lot of vamps in that place. I was kinda focused on just one." She smiled at him, a ray of sunshine in the eternal gloom of his night. He had to resist pulling her into the shadows for a quick makeout session.

"Well, it looks like he's involved in more night work." The vampire in question darted into a patch of streetlight before disappearing into the shadows again and Buffy was struck with the sense of recognition.

"Hey, I know him. That's my mystery vamp from when I was going toe to toe with the heavyweight champion of the vampire world." Buffy squinted. But without vampire night vision all she could see was a swirl of shadowy figures converging on one of the warehouses. The crates had all been unloaded hours before and now the demons were breaking in to seize whatever prize caught their interest. "Unless some kids have decided that's the new place for making out, I'd say we have undead activity."

"I'll put the scare into them. Dalton isn't much of a scrapper. When the fighting starts..."

"…I'll deal with Short and Scrawny. Got it." Angel nodded sharply. He loped off and was soon lost to sight in the darkness.

Buffy waited until she heard the sounds of shock and fighting coming from inside the warehouse. Sure enough, her target came bursting out of the doors, carrying another package. She stepped into his path and graced him with a mocking smile. "Ooh, finally. And here I thought this was going to be a dull night."

Dalton skidded to a stop when he saw her and began trembling. "Slayer…"

"You remember me! I'm flattered. Now hand over the box, Tiny, and I'll make this quick."

The trembling increased and then he did something that completely floored her. He began crying.

"Oh, come on!" she fumed. "I haven't even touched you yet. Even Willy doesn't cry until I've actually started pummeling him. What kind of a vamp are you?"

"A cowardly one if I remember Dalton. He always did hide behind the strongest vampire around." Angel came sauntering out of the warehouse, lightly flicking vamp dust from his clothes. The creatures in there obviously hadn't been much of a challenge. He grabbed Dalton by the scruff of his neck and forced him to the pavement.

Dalton hadn't stopped blubbering and crying since confronting Buffy. "Angelus, please. Don't hurt me! I-I can help you. Honestly!"

"Vampires aren't known for their honesty, Dalton. And weren't you with the Anointed One when I saw you last? You were making a big stink about how I'd killed Darla and wasn't to be trusted." Angel's ridges appeared and he growled through his fangs. "You may have been right about the not trusting part."

Dalton gulped and his yellowed eyes behind the glasses shot between Angel and the Slayer. "But I can tell you where the Anointed One is, what his plans are…" He lifted the oblong box in his arms. "Just take a look at what's inside this!"

"How stupid do you think we are? We open that and probably something nasty comes out." Angel shook the little guy until Dalton's head flopped back and forth on his shoulders.

"Y-you're right! Only I don't know what it is. He hasn't told me the details. He just told me to pick up the pieces. He sends me. I go." He lowered his voice dramatically. "I can tell you this much. It's some plan about destroying the righteous."

"Destroying the righteous? Well, that's helpful. Only not. Angel, do you want to stake this guy or should I?" Buffy yawned, spinning Mr. Pointy meaningfully.

"Wait, please, don't!" Buffy was getting bored. She'd never seen any vampire beg for its life before much less cry like this one did and frankly it was kinda disgusting.

"Buffy, I think Dalton could be useful."

"Useful? He's a vampire!" At Angel's look, she amended, "Without a soul."

"Soul?" Dalton echoed, obviously confused.

"I remember Dalton from when he was with the Master. He was turned because he was an expert at deciphering ancient texts. He was always basically harmless. He never even liked to go hunting with the other vampires. He preferred to stay in with his books. Isn't that right, Dalton?" Angel asked, clapping his hand hard enough on Dalton's shoulder to make the smaller vamp wince. "Let's just get the box and Dalton safe and see what it is we're dealing with here."

"Fine. Whatever." Buffy picked up the box and stomped along behind Angel. "Some birthday this is shaping up to be," she muttered.

Buffy glanced again at the box on the car seat beside her. It was the same funny shape as the other box she'd seen this vampire carrying. The Anointed One wanted it, too, which meant it was mundo important. Was it an artifact? A weapon? She wondered if it would explode when they opened it. Dalton hadn't been able to tell them anything—only that it and several other boxes had been gathered by the Anointed from all over the world. He hadn't been allowed to see what was inside them.

When the car finally stopped, Buffy looked up and frowned at the exterior of the building. "Uh, Angel? Did you take a wrong turn somewhere? Why are we at the Bronze?"

"I want a clear open space but one where he can't escape. This should be perfect." Angel headed towards the Bronze, pushing the reluctant Dalton in front of him with Buffy in tow carrying the package.

"But the Bronze isn't exactly open. We'd have to—" She watched as Angel pulled open the side door without any apparent difficulty with the lock. "Okay, problem solved." She entered behind him, treading with care in the darkness. "How did you know the door would be open?"

"SURPRISE!!!!" All the lights came on and Buffy crouched reflexively. She saw Giles, Xander, Willow, her mom, Cordelia and Ms. Calendar all beaming at her. A large banner reading "Happy Birthday, Buffy" was strung from the ceiling and a small pile of presents was on one table. On cue, Dingoes Ate My Baby began playing a fractured, frantic version of "Happy Birthday."

Dalton gaped in stupefaction while Angel smiled at Buffy. "Happy birthday, love."

"Oh, Angel." Tears sparkled in her eyes. Her friends hadn't forgotten. This was so wonderful.

Then Xander noticed the uninvited guest. "Hey, who's this guy?"

Buffy shot a quick glance at the watchful members of the band. "Um, this is Dalton, he's an old friend of Angel's."

The emphasis was lost on Xander. "Deadboy has friends? I thought you were working the anti-social bit pretty hard there." Then he understood and his eyes widened. "Oh. A FRIEND!" He peered at Dalton who was apparently trying to make himself look even smaller. Xander lowered his voice. "Just a Deadboy friend or a friend of ours, too?"

Buffy murmured with an innocent smile, "That all depends on him and whether he wants to remain unstaked. Could we all go to the back room, guys?" The others surrounded Buffy and Angel, the latter keeping a keen eye on Dalton the whole time.

The Dingoes finished their song and Devon watched them leave, scowling at their backs. "Man, I don't believe it. We go to all the trouble to play for these clowns and they just walk off! Remind me again why we're doing this, Oz?"

"'Cause I asked you nicely. And you owe me for that time you woke up naked in that—"

Devon interrupted him. "Okay, man, you promised never to talk about that!"

"No problems, then? We'll just play some tunes until they come back."

"Whatever." Devon swung into a cover of the Beatles's "I Saw Her Standing There." Oz followed him with practiced ease but his mind was elsewhere. He was no longer so psyched about this gig any more. That tall, dark-haired guy and the little weasel with him were giving him the same fingernails-on-a-chalkboard vibe he'd gotten off the Pink Punk from last night. Xander had shown up then out of the blue. Now these creepy dudes were hanging out with Willow and her friends. Just what kind of crowd did Willow run with, anyway?

Buffy fumbled around the lid of the box until she triggered the latch. When the lid flew up, she peered into the opening. "Oh. Just what I always wanted for my birthday. An arm in armor."

Angel had stepped back, a look of fear on his face. It was different from the expression he'd had in the library when he'd seen the Kalderash symbol. There was outrage and disbelief mingled with it and he grabbed Dalton and dragged him over to the miniature casket. "You little bastard. THIS is what the Anointed One's been up to!?! Is he insane?"

Cordelia was instantly on the alert. "Who's the Anointed One?"

Dalton peered into the depths of the box. Now it was his turn to be shocked. "No, it can't be."

Buffy didn't get it. What was so spooky about an arm? "Guys. So it's an arm. What's the big—?"

The next second the arm leaped out of the box and clamped onto her throat. She grabbed at it, wheezing, as the fingers dug into her tender skin. Giles and her mother both grabbed at the arm as the whole room erupted into cries of alarm. Neither of them seemed to make any impression and the fingers tightened their grip. In the end it took Angel and Buffy's combined strength to make the arm release its grip. Together the pair of them threw the limb back into the box and slammed down the cover.

Buffy leaned on the closed lid, gasping for breath. Her mother rubbed her back and cradled her shaking body. "Buffy, are you all right? Maybe you should sit down."

She pulled in more air through her burning throat and shook her head. When she could speak again, she rasped, "No, I'm good. Not gonna be jogging a marathon in the next few minutes but at least I can breathe. Man, that thing had major grip."

Dalton had made no move to run even when the two warriors had been distracted. He only slumped into a chair and stared vacantly at the box. Xander shoved him hard and snapped, "All right, shorty. Start talking. What's with the vamp version of 'snakes in a can?' "

Angel was the one to answer. "I-it's the Judge. Well, uh, part of him anyway. It's from a legend, older even than most vampires. He's a demon that was once brought forth to rid the Earth of the plague of humanity. He's supposed to separate the righteous from the wicked and to burn the righteous down."

"How terrible a problem could that be? There aren't many righteous humans in the world," Cordelia said. At everyone's exasperated stares, she shrugged. "Well, there aren't. Just listen to the news. Most people are totally selfish and only care about what they can get from you."

"An attitude you're deeply familiar with, I'm sure," Giles murmured.

"Oh, that's the gratitude I get for putting up those streamers? Next time you want help with decorating tips you're on your own, mister," the brunette girl carped.

Now Dalton spoke up, his voice timid in front of so many strangers. "Actually, the Judge is supposed to do more than destroy the righteous. H-he targets anything with human feeling—love, tenderness, jealousy, kindness, affection—and destroys it. That would affect a lot of demons as well."

"Riiiiight. Because demons are so known for their wuvving hearts," Xander said mockingly.

Dalton glared at him, angry for the first time since being captured. "Look, a lot of demons hate humans. I won't lie about that. But there are some who live peacefully in society. There are things we really enjoy in the world and we care about our families, same as humans do. Vampires are people, too, you know."

"Sure, you are. Only people who regularly kill human beings for their food. Not a great selling point in my book," Cordelia returned, sarcasm dripping from every word.

"Another reason why the Judge is a bad idea. We like the earth the way it is, humans and all, and it'd be a catastrophe for us if all the humans were gone. For one thing, what would we vampires eat?" At the reminder that there was a soulless demon in their midst, Dalton shrank from their baleful stares. "Not that I eat any humans. I usually just go for the butchers' blend," he muttered. "But other vampires would have a problem. I don't know what the Anointed One could be thinking!"

"Who is this Anointed One?" Cordelia demanded. "Is he the latest Sunnydale baddie? Why am I always the last to know these things?"

The others ignored her as Willow gestured at the lid of the sealed box, careful to keep her distance. "What about the Judge? Why is there only an arm here?"

Giles murmured, "If I recall the story correctly, t-the Judge couldn't be killed. An army was sent against him and most of the poor unfortunates mustered to f-fight him…died in the attempt. In the end, they were able to dismember him but, uh, not kill him."

"Explains the liveliness of the one-armed bandit here." Buffy peered at Dalton. "So where's the rest of him?"

"With the Anointed One and his minions in an underground crypt. He's been having the pieces brought to him for assembly. The crypt is much deeper down than any of the ones you've been to, Slayer," Dalton responded.

"So that's why I haven't been able to track him down," Buffy exclaimed. "Then I guess you're gonna help us find him, Dalton."

The demon's eyes gleamed behind his glasses. "You can count on it."

Buffy blinked. She hadn't expected cooperation. Frankly, she had thought she would have to beat up Dalton to get him to play ball. "You will? Why the helpy-ness? Not that I'm not complaining about it. It's just a little on the suspicious side, you being one of his loyal minions and all."

Dalton bent his head almost shamefully. "W-well, I like books. Love them, really. Something tells me that, if the Judge were brought together in one piece, I'd be one of those targeted for slaughter."

"You guess rightly," Angel murmured. "In any military coup, the intelligentsia are always the first ones up against the wall."

Xander added, "Boy, when they say a little learning is a dangerous thing, they're not kidding."

"What about this piece? W-what do we do with it?" Willow asked.

"The Judge is only dangerous to the human populace when it's finally assembled. If even one piece is missing, then the Anointed One's plans fall through," Dalton explained.

"Then it can't stay here. If this Anointed One is assembling the pieces, then the sooner we get this one out of Sunnydale, the better. Angel will have to take care of it," Jenny said. She locked eyes with the vampire and he read her intentions. His face assumed its usual stoicism as he strode over to the box.

Buffy didn't like where this was headed. All at once, she was reminded that Jenny wasn't necessarily batting for Angel's team. "Why does Angel have to be the one to go? I can take care of this just as easily as him."

"Are you prepared to leave the Hellmouth undefended for months?" Jenny demanded.

Buffy said, "Months?" What was the computer teacher asking Angel to do?

"Months? Just to dispose of an arm?" Mrs. Summers asked.

"W-why should it take months?" Willow added. "Can't we just bury it somewhere? Hello, this is Sunnydale, home of the excess graveyards."

The Kalderash woman was obviously not on board with this idea. "And risk the Anointed finding it and digging it up again? Not a great plan."

"I'm with Ms. Calendar. Let's get this thing out of Sunnydale—far, far away from me," Cordelia threw in.

Buffy turned to her boyfriend. "But why months, Angel?"

"I have to take this arm to the remotest part of the world to ensure its safety. I'll have to catch a cargo ship to Asia, maybe trek to Nepal…" Angel picked up the box as if the matter were already settled.

Buffy crossed her arms. She knew she was turning mulish, belying her newfound maturity, but she didn't care. "You know, those newfangled flying machines really are much safer than they used to be."

"I-I can't fly, Buffy. There's no sure way to guard against the daylight. The plane might have to touch down somewhere for an emergency stop or be forced to stall because of fog and the passengers forced off the plane."

"Not to mention all those big, shiny, oversized windows airports always seem to go in for. Guess you're taking a road trip, Deadboy. Don't let the Sunnydale door hit you in the butt on the way out!" Xander said with barely suppressed glee.

Angel ignored his jab. He stepped over to his unhappy girlfriend. "I-I don't like this any more than you do, Buffy. But there's no other choice."

"But it's my birthday." Her voice sounded treacherously close to a whine and Angel's unhappy silence shamed her. This was much more important than her own petty hopes and dreams. But she had only just renewed her closeness to her boyfriend and now he was going away, possibly for months, just to bury a stupid arm.

"I'll drive you to the docks," Jenny said and Buffy's eyes narrowed.

"You'd like that, wouldn't you? All this time you said you'd try to help Angel and now you can't wait to run him out of town. I should have known better…" Too late she recalled that her mother was listening and Buffy clammed up.

"Help Angel with what? What does Angel need help with?" Mrs. Summers noted the tense, furtive looks on almost everyone's faces. Cordelia's wore an expression of annoyed confusion. "Mr. Giles? Is there something I need to know?"

"Not any more," Buffy muttered.

Giles sighed. Their attempts to give Buffy a happy birthday had come to naught, it appeared. There was no point in keeping up the pretense of jollity any longer. "Buffy, I thought you'd told your mother about this aspect of Angel's curse. Don't you think she needed to be informed?"

Cordelia was getting fed up with all the secrecy. "Huh? Informed about what? What am I missing here? What am I, invisible all of a sudden?"

"Buffy, we've tried. We've been trying for days and are no nearer a solution. This will give us some time. While he's gone we'll keep searching…" Jenny said.

"Sure. Unless he gets killed while he's away. I'd never know but that would solve the problem for you, wouldn't it?" Buffy replied bitterly.

"Buffy, that's not fair!" Willow chided. "Ms. Calendar, Giles and me, well, w-we've gone through all these books until our eyes are red and rolling in our sockets but we're coming up empty."

"Empty on what? Excuse me, could you people please focus on me and tell me what is the problem with Angel?" Cordelia demanded. If there was one thing she couldn't stand, it was to be ignored and no one seemed to care enough to keep her in the loop.

Dalton fidgeted, unnoticed, in the corner. Now that he had time to think things through, he wasn't certain going up against the Anointed One was such a good idea. Collin was small but he had already proven to have a lethal temper. He was growing into his strength as a vampire, too. A few vampires who had underestimated him had abruptly found themselves without eyeballs or missing fingers. If the boy learned he'd betrayed him, his punishment would be brutal. Dalton might even find himself on the business end of a stake.

He began to edge away from the bickering humans and Angel. He'd almost made it to the beaded curtain hanging over the opening to the back room when he nearly bumped into Oz. "Hey, guys. I think you should know the band got bored with playing to an empty room. They started helping themselves to the party snacks. Hope that's okay with you folks."

Dalton tried to rush him only to be jerked to a halt by Angel's meaty hand on his shoulder. "Hold it right there, you." The taller vampire slugged him so hard that Dalton crumpled to the floor. Oz raised his eyebrow at this show of gratuitous violence but nobody else seemed to think it was the least bit odd.

"Thanks, Oz. But I think we're gonna have to break things up early," Willow mumbled. The guitarist for the Dingoes saw the discontent in everybody's faces. Well, almost everybody's. Xander Harris seemed really happy for some reason. Also, the screwy vibe he was getting from the little guy sprawled on the floor and the big male who'd clocked him was even stronger up close and it took every bit of courage Oz had not to bolt screaming like a little girl.

"Sure. No problem. Devon didn't want this gig anyway. Just make sure you take your presents before you go, Buffy." The blue-haired boy nodded to them before retreating from the little group.

Devon was busily packing away the band's equipment and grumbling to nobody in particular about the waste of the night's activities. They actually hadn't had anything better to do. It's just that, if they were gonna play to please a girlfriend, at least she should have been hot. Not to rag on Oz; Willow was a nice girl. She just wasn't rocker gal material.

Cordelia Chase hadn't even paid much attention to him and she was supposed to be his girlfriend. It wasn't that he was jealous, exactly. Devon wasn't really into her type. She talked way too much and always about herself; he'd actually been considering dumping her. But it appeared as if she'd already launched a preemptive strike. This evening she'd seemed more into that Harris doofus than himself. Women. Go figure.

He swung open the Bronze side door as the quickest way to the van. As he exited, a vampire grabbed him and slammed him against the wall. "The Slayer! She in there?"

"Holy shit!" Devon couldn't believe it. He was face to face with one of the ugliest mugs he'd ever seen. The man's brows were bulging and twisted like somebody with a major bone disease and yellowish pointed teeth like fangs were snapping at him. Several others with equally deformed faces were with him.

"Screw this. Just break his neck and let's search the place. I'm pretty sure I smell Dalton's sleazy little trail leading to the door," another of the freaks said.

"You smell correctly," a perky voice said from the side door. The creature holding Devon turned his head and then casually hurled the mortal boy headfirst into the dumpster. As he passed out, Devon swore hazily to himself that was the last time he was doing any drugs…

Buffy and Angel tore into the Anointed One's minions. There were a lot more of them than Buffy could have anticipated and she didn't have any weapons other than Mr. Pointy. She sincerely hoped that the others stayed inside and out of her way. Somehow she doubted whether any of the party favors included crossbows.

Inside the nightclub, Giles cast about helplessly for something, anything, which would prove a useful weapon. When a vampire managed to make it into the Bronze past Buffy's guard, he picked up one of the Dingoes's drums and smashed it over the creature's head. Staggering from finding his arms pinned, the bloodsucker ran right into a cymbal wielded by Xander Harris, neatly severing his head from his shoulders.

Cordelia Chase cowered with Joyce, Jenny and Willow in the back room, guarding the arm and the still-unconscious Dalton. Willow had sketched her in on recent developments and the brunette cheerleader was fully engaged in showering them with accusations and self-pity. "Oh my god! Only at a party for Buffy Summers would we end up with demon gatecrashers! Why do these things keep happening to me?" she wailed.

"Karma," Willow answered dryly.

Cordelia glared at her. "Very funny, Willow. And didn't I ask you guys just this afternoon if there was new danger on the Hellmouth? When were you going to tell me Angel could lose his soul like someone losing luggage at the LAX airport?"

The redhead pretended to think about it. "Um, let's see. Never?"

Mrs. Summers ignored the bickering and took a quick peek through the beaded hanging. It provided absolutely no feeling of safety whatsoever and she couldn't help feeling exposed. But as usual she couldn't abandon her daughter even if Angel was by her side.

By now a few of the combatants had spilled into the club and the older Summers woman sucked in her breath as she saw Angel's other face was the first time. Hideous bumps had sprouted on his forehead and amber eyes gleamed, apparently devoid of human feeling. He seemed to take an almost savage delight in tearing into his fellow creatures and she shuddered. In the midst of all the other vampires, he looked no different than they. How could Buffy feel anything for such a monster even with his soul?

The next moment she saw him pivot and his sword flash out to block an attack aimed at her daughter's back and she understood. This creature didn't fight for himself alone. He fought to protect Buffy as well. She turned to see Ms. Calendar watching the action with an inscrutable expression. "Ms. Calendar, Buffy told me about Angel's history with your people. I-I can't imagine what that must be like, having that burden to bear. Having Buffy thrown into the mix must have been an unsettling development."

The woman's dark eyes met hers. "You could say that."

Joyce and the other woman had chatted intermittently as they prepared the Bronze for Buffy's surprise party. But the woman still remained a mystery to her. Ms. Summers struggled to continue the conversation. "You have an obligation to your people. But I have one to my daughter. I want Buffy to live a long, long time."

"So do I." She didn't have to say what she meant; Mrs. Summers understood. Ms. Calendar saw Angel as a palpable threat and one that had to be dealt with severely.

"Then why the rush to get rid of him? He helps Buffy, certainly much more than we do. He's stronger, faster," she flicked an eye outwards as Angel's blade flashed with superhuman speed through their attackers, "and practically invulnerable. If he helps Buffy to avoid the early death that comes to Slayers, then I'm all for letting him stay. Heck, if he could take Buffy's place on the Hellmouth, I'd say, more power to him."

"Mrs. Summers, you haven't seen the things I have. You haven't seen how…intimate he and Buffy are."

"Intimate? W-what do you mean? He and Buffy haven't—?" Her throat closed up as she inwardly reeled from shock and indignation.

"No, I don't think so. That's what's got us worried about the 'happiness' clause. We don't know exactly what would make Angel perfectly happy. But we're thinking a moment like that between him and Buffy might be what pushes him over the edge. That's why he needs to get away from her," Ms. Calendar finished

"But if that would do it…" Her eye strayed again towards the inhuman fighter battling by her daughter's side. "Why hasn't it happened yet?"

"I-I couldn't say. I can only believe that, since Angel and Buffy have been warned of the danger, they've been holding themselves back. They've shown an incredible restraint. But I don't know how long that state of affairs can continue. Buffy is a hormonal teenager. Angel is a grown male. Couple that with a vampire's appetites and I'd say that's a recipe for trouble."

Joyce bit her lip. Ms. Calendar was voicing some of her very fears. But she turned over all that she knew of Angel's relationship with her daughter. He has known Buffy for over a year and held himself from having sex with her. He and Buffy saw each other practically every night without undue incident. She had let Angel spend the night in her daughter's room! Now that she knew the danger she had run, Joyce flushed to think how irresponsible she herself had been to allow such behavior.

Yet nothing had happened. True, she'd made it clear that she'd been awake and listening for trouble. But how about the many times she hadn't been home because she was out of town on business? Who knew what the two of them got up to when she wasn't around?

Ms. Calendar didn't trust Angel. But the woman didn't know Buffy like her mother did. Yet Buffy had managed to hide her identity as a Slayer for over a year before she'd found out the truth, proof positive at how good she was at hiding secrets. If Buffy and Angel decided to go too far, how would she know? What was she willing to do to stop it?

"Hey, man, what is going on?!?" one of the other band members yelled, crouching behind an amp that did very little to shield his precious hide.

"How should I know?" the second guy retorted, wincing as he heard more yells and snarls.

"I am never doing a charity gig again, so help me," the other guy whimpered.

Without thinking Oz picked up his guitar and swung it hard into the head of one of the attacking monsters. The instrument splintered but the thing merely smirked, completely unfazed by the solid blow. As the creature charged him, yellow eyes blazing, a pointed object that Oz recognized as one of the Dingoes's drumsticks protruded from his chest. Seconds later the guy exploded into dust. Buffy Summers stood before him, drumstick in hand, and smiled wanly at him before charging back into the fight.

"Cool," he muttered.

The vampires dusted, the remaining Dingoes members grabbed what was left of their valuable instruments, collected Devon and locked themselves in the van. Buffy, Angel and the others gathered together to check on their remaining company. Angel now had the mystery box tucked under one arm and was murmuring to Buffy. Oz scratched his hair and gazed curiously at his fingers as they came away coated with ashes. "So what's with that guy turning into dust?" he asked Xander.

"I'll let Willow field that one. She's your girlfriend, after all. Nice move with the guitar, by the way."

"That was a pretty neat thing you did with those cymbals. I wished the insurance covered the damage to the instruments." Oz paused. "That is, if we had insurance."

Willow stopped in front of Oz and shuffled from one foot to the other, unconsciously mimicking her best friend's movements from the previous night. "Hey."

"Hey," Oz replied.

"You're probably wondering what's with the spookiness and, and, all the fighting and the guys with the funny faces."

"Had crossed my mind."

She gulped and then raced into her explanation. "Vampires are real. A-a lot of them live in Sunnydale. Except that they don't actually live what with being undead and all. And it's not just vampires. There are other things out there, too." She stopped and peered anxiously at her boyfriend. "I-I know it's hard to accept at first."

"Actually, it explains a lot." Oz scratched at his head again. The dust was starting to itch his scalp. "And what about that tall guy with Buffy? What's his deal? I saw his face and it looked like the others."

"O-oh, t-that's Angel. He's a vampire, too. He helps us 'cause he's got a soul and he does good—with Buffy mostly."

Oz eyed the mysterious stranger. This guy was a vampire? With a soul? So that's what that weird feeling meant when he was around guys like this Angel. It said "VAMPIRE?" As if sensing his stare, Angel's head snapped towards his and a brilliant, probing gaze met Oz's. It was as if Angel sensed something odd about him as well and Oz was suddenly uneasy. He was the first to look away.

"Well, now that the Buffy-crisis is over, does anybody want cake? 'Cause I could sure go for a slice." Without waiting to see if anyone followed her example, Cordelia walked over to Buffy's cake and began cutting off a thin wedge.

Oblivious to all this, Buffy was trying to deal with the pain of knowing her lover was leaving her. "Can't I even come with you to the docks?" Buffy whispered.

"Who's going to guard Dalton when he comes to? You can't trust him around your friends. He may be the vampire world's answer to Willy the bartender but he's still an unsouled pest. He'll hurt them if he gets the opportunity."

"I-I understand. It's just…you're going away and I don't know when I'll see you again." Her voice broke and she hugged him hard.

The all-too-familiar sorrow that was stamped on his features like a brand lowered over his face. Mrs. Summers didn't think she had ever seen Angel as far from happiness as he was right now. Her daughter's shoulders began to shake and Joyce thought she could hear muffled sobs. Resolving her inner struggle, she cleared her throat. "Actually, I think there might be a better way."

When everybody stopped talking and focused their attentions on her, she outlined her simple plan.

Early the next morning, Giles gazed critically at the package. It was bulky and oversized but was clearly stamped with a label warning "Art Material. FRAGILE. HANDLE WITH CARE." "I must say, this is a capital idea, Joyce. I doubt whether any vampire would think to look for the Judge's arm disguised as a painting. Are you sure your gallery can spare this piece?"

"Absolutely. The artist was a minor one; we never did manage to sell many of his works even though I always liked them. That's why I kept some of his pieces here at the house. I won't mind having the Council reimburse me for the loss, though. I do have a living to make and the artist needs to eat." She saw it loaded onto Oz's van, ready to be taken to the airport. "They'll keep the Judge's arm in a safe place?"

"O-of course. When I called and told the Council what we had in our possession, they were suitably impressed with the need for swiftness and caution. They sent a team of archivists and bodyguards to meet Oz at the airport. We have many vaults containing an impressive number of precious relics, artifacts and perilous items. The arm will not only be barricaded behind rather solid doors, it shall be shielded with magical wards as well. It would take more resources than the A-Anointed One possesses to breach that security. Mark my words, it shall be in safe hands."

She heaved a sigh of relief. "Well, that settles that." She yawned mightily, her face rather pale, the obvious result of no sleep. Then she made an attempt to smile. "Would you like to sit down for a cup of tea?"

Giles hesitated for only a second. Soon he would have to leave to resume his duties as school librarian. But right now a spot of tea sounded very appetizing. "T-that would be wonderful, yes." They headed back to the house on Revello and Giles finally spoke what was uppermost on his mind. "H-how is Buffy taking things? I know her birthday wasn't…quite what she had hoped. We did so want to make it a happy day for her but things got decidedly out of hand."

Joyce grimaced. "I really wanted to yell at her for not telling me about Angel. If she hadn't taken off with him to finish off that Anointed One, I would have. He's dangerous to her, to all of us, and she wouldn't tell me. I've told her over and over again since I learned about the slaying that she could come to me and tell me anything. But she still refuses to trust me." She went to put on the water and then stopped. "Sometimes I wonder if I'm doing such a great job as a mother."

Never having been a parent, Giles was momentarily at a loss as to how to reassure her. But he recalled how exceptional a person Buffy was and the words came easily. "How can you doubt it when you've reared such a fantastic child?"

There was another smile, this one easier, and she replied, "Thanks. That's what every mother wants to hear. But I think I know why she didn't want me to know about this." Giles privately thought he knew the reason as well. But he waited to hear Joyce confirm his suspicions.

"She knows that I don't approve of Angel as a boyfriend. I don't think anybody in her circle does," she added while darting a shrewd gaze at Giles.

He cleared his throat, turning over various responses in his head before answering. "W-well, I'm sure we each have our objections. But Angel has proven himself time and time again to be a formidable ally a-and I for one believe his love for Buffy to be entirely genuine."

"Maybe. But he's still a vampire. He's still older than she is by about…" She stopped talking as she considered she didn't know Angel's age. In the Bronze, Jenny had mentioned her people following Angel for over a century but she hadn't mentioned how old he was before then. "Just how old is he anyway?"

"The Council records aren't entirely certain. They didn't keep such accurate birth records back in those days. But we place his age around 242 years, give or take."

"Oh god. I knew he was old but I had no idea it was over two centuries." She let out a gusty sigh and sat in silence for a while. "How can he…? I mean, what can he see in her? What does she see in him?"

"Mysterious and strange are the ways of love, Joyce. I wouldn't try to explain it any more than I would try to explain to a fish what it is to walk on dry land. We'll just have to take their feelings on faith."

She sniffed, the explanation doing little to satisfy her maternal concerns. "Maybe. But that doesn't mean I have to like it."

That was rather a puzzling attitude to take, given what she'd done for the vampire. "If you're so disapproving, then might I ask why…?"

"Why I suggested the handy usage of Federal Express when I could have kept my mouth shut and let Angel disappear out of Buffy's life for months? I saw her face when she thought she had to say goodbye to him. She'd been looking forward to this birthday for months because she thought it meant she could drive. She's a Slayer to you but to me she's just my little girl with all the wants and needs of other girls—including the urge to be independently mobile. But when she knew Angel might leave, it was as if a…light had gone out of her and I knew that nothing else in her life mattered: not the driving, the presents, her schoolwork, the slaying. Nothing. She looked so empty and lost.

"And I've seen how Angel is around her and know that he'd never do anything to hurt her if he could avoid it. She has all of us to look out for her. But only Angel loves her as a man can. I-I don't know if I have the heart to take that away from her." The kettle began to whistle and she turned off the stove. She lifted the pot and hesitated. "You're all looking for a-a way to bind Angel's soul, aren't you? Willow told me while we were trapped in the Bronze."

"That's right. So far, we've had no success. But we shall persevere. For Buffy's sake."

She nodded, not trusting herself to speak. They drank their tea in silence.

Buffy hadn't wanted to part from Angel. The battle in the Bronze had left her keyed up and anxious to take the fight to the little brat. She'd been all for going to the Anointed One's lair with only Angel as backup until Giles had persuaded her it might be a good idea to procure weapons for her friends in order to even up the odds.

Dalton had been more than helpful, giving extensive details about the crypt's layout, the likely number of the Anointed's minions and the number of mystical texts they'd managed to pick up since Buffy had found their last place of residence. It was these books that had him the most anxious. Dalton wanted to make certain they weren't damaged in the upcoming fight and had been pathetically grateful when Giles had proven as eager to secure them intact as he was. Amused, Buffy had noted them carrying out the various dusty tomes as they chattered and exclaimed over the old books. [Looks like Giles has found himself another book geek. He's happy, anyway.] The books had been stashed at Giles's place where Dalton was forbidden entry until he could be proven trustworthy. If he wanted to get near his precious volumes, he was going to have to play nice with Buffy and her friends. Thus, Giles had neatly secured Dalton's loyalty.

Angel had wanted to sneak off in that melting-into-the-darkness routine he did so well. But Buffy wouldn't hear of it. It was still her birthday technically. She wanted to know what his present was. Angel had only told her it was something he wanted to give her in private. She'd been forced to let him go while she went home with her mother.

Now here she was rushing towards his apartment. She wondered what he had gotten her. This was Angel; whatever he got would be perfect if rather unusual. So it could be anything. She didn't care one way or the other. The only thing she truly wanted was on the other side of this door.

She stood before his door and raised her fist. It was opened before she could knock. Angel was dressed in black slacks and a sleeveless T-shirt that exposed his powerful shoulders and arms. He'd told her they were called wife beaters. She'd thought that a rather ugly name for clothes that did such flattering things to a body like his. "Buffy."

"Angel." It was silly, this habit they had of greeting each other by their first names. But everything they felt for each other were in those two little words. They merely gazed at each other for precious moments before she murmured, "I'd love to continue this stare-down contest but could we do it inside?"

"Uh sure." He stepped back. "You slept okay?"

"For the three hours between the throwdown with the Annoying One and his groupies and now? Terrific," she lied. "You?"

"It was night. Not really my time for sleeping."

"Right. You'd think that all the time we spent together I'd remember that. Chalk it up to 17th birthday jitters."

There was a blatant hint if he ever heard one. Angel smiled, one of his delicate ones, the shadow of a bird's wing over still water, and gathered Buffy close. Cool lips pressed over hers and his tongue slid along her mouth, coaxing it to open.

Her hands inched up his back and slid under the T-shirt, rubbing against his skin. He shivered perversely at that warm contact and pressed her closer. The kiss became fervent, the two bodies swaying together. The odor of her desire wafted up to tickle his nose and his hands slid down to cup her buttocks.

When she moaned against his mouth, he recalled the hour and the dual constraints of time and circumstances. "Um, Buffy?"

"Mmmm. What?" she murmured.

"Don't you have to be at school?"

She nestled into his arms, refusing to move. "Not for a couple of hours."

"Still, you should go."

He was telling her to leave? Stifling the feeling of disappointment, she pulled from his arms with a sigh. "You're right. This is me. Me going." She didn't move and neither did he. He could sense tension and desire building between them again and cast about for something to break the mood.

"Wait." He pulled a small velvet box out of his pocket and she felt her heart skip a beat. It looked smaller than the one he'd given her with the cross and she wondered what special bit of jewelry lay inside it. When he opened it, she peered quizzically at the content. A smile broke over her face like sunshine.

"Angel. It's beautiful."

He took out the ring and recited the lore he recalled from long ago when he'd still been a simple Irish lad with innocent longings for faraway places and unknown shores. "My people—before I was changed—they exchanged this as a sign of devotion. It's a claddagh ring. The hands represent friendship, the crown represents loyalty and the heart…well, you know," he added, sounding almost bashful. "If you wear it with the heart pointing towards you, it means you belong to somebody. Like this." He gestured towards the ring on his left hand.

Buffy had often noted that ring but assumed it had some other significance for him dealing with his past. Was it possible he wore it because of her? Through vision that had turned oddly hazy, she accepted the smaller ring he gave her and fitted it over her left ring finger, the heart pointing in. She stood up on her toes and wound her arms around his shoulders, drawing him down for a passionate kiss. "I love it, Angel. It's the perfect gift."

He kissed her soundly and drew back to whisper into her hair. "Happy birthday, Buffy."

TBC