Author's Note: This story, especially the end, has turned into my love letter to both series. I guess it's my way of saying goodbye - to the shows, not to fanfic. Don't panic. Or party. Whichever. Anyway, I hope you enjoy.
"NO!" screamed Buffy.
Mikey emerged from the swirling dust, practically dragging Willow along. Willow took one look at the situation and began to chant through labored breaths, trying to bring down the shield.
Inside the pavilion, Dawn and Illyria stood immobile. Illyria began to distort, its true form showing through the shell of Fred's body, as Dawn started to fade into energy. Outside, Buffy threw herself at the barrier, crying out her sister's name, and Angel watched in despair as Spike shouted at Illyria to stop, for God's sake, stop. Willow fought to control the energies of the dead world to break through to Dawn, but the sick desperation in her face said that she wasn't getting anywhere.
But then, Illyria's form suddenly stopped changing. Dawn grew more solid. And inside her mind, Dawn found a strange calm.
I am myself, she said in her own mind. She pulled her sense of self around her like a cloak, taking it back from Illyria.
You resist me, said Illyria, not aloud.
I want to live!
For what seemed like an eternity, they struggled. Illyria fought to regain control of the Key, but what it hadn't counted on was the Key not only becoming more powerful than itself, but gaining a sense of self and a mind of its own - a self and mind that now fought against Illyria with all its strength. And Illyria's power, weakened as it was, could not overcome that resistance. The realization was infinitely bitter.
I was god-king of the Primordeum, Illyria told Dawn. If I cannot reclaim my power, I can never again be as I was. If I can never again be as I was, what am I?
Despair flooded the link between them. It sparked the oddest of emotions in Dawn: compassion.
You become something else, said Dawn. You can change.
There was only silence from the link for a meaningless amount of time. Slowly, the image of a temple - larger than any human city, ancient beyond comprehension, and ruined beyond repair - took shape in Dawn's mind. Then Illyria spoke again.
I cannot change, my child. To become other than what I am is something I am unable to do. Since my resurrection, I have strived to understand your world, with the objective to somehow break it and put it under me again. Yet now, I understand only that that possibility is lost to me forever. Perhaps the ability to change is the true strength of humans, and the answer to why you have grown strong. As for myself, I am left with but one option. But perhaps there is a way to keep all from being lost.
There was a shift in the tide. Illyria's mind flowed into Dawn.
Images reeled through the link. Ancient beings taller than skyscrapers, warring so that their blood flowed like rivers over the chaotic earth. Insanely beautiful worlds filled with creatures that could tear humans apart with merely a look. Temples that made the Seven Wonders of the World look like child's toys.
A woman, her brown arms warm and dry as they clutched an infant girl tight, taking her across the sea to a fish-headed god. The sun breaking out after an endless night. A young boy in monk's robes smiling in wonder as he beheld the Key. The strange sensation of being clothed in flesh again.
Seeing Buffy's face and knowing family for the first time in her long existence.
Illyria's voice whispered to her again.
Do you understand, my child?
I think so. Do you?
Yes. I understand why you resist me - and why Wesley chose to die. I ask only one last thing.
Outside, the onlookers watched as a bright orb of energy detached itself from Dawn into Illyria's hand. Dawn dropped to the floor immediately as Illyria let her go.
"Dawn!" cried Connor.
Illyria backed up until it stood almost on top of Wesley and Gunn. "All is lost," it said. "I do not belong in your world - or any other. My time is spent. I will cling no longer to that which I cannot have."
The orb of energy glowed brighter and grew larger until it enveloped Illyria, Wesley, and Gunn. The air distorted around them, pulsating and crackling with power. Illyria threw its arms wide. Its leathery armor faded from its body, leaving a naked, blue-streaked female form with dead-white skin. A stream of something like dust shot out of its open mouth with a mournful cry, and flew upward and outward, joining the swirling, howling whirlwind.
Illyria's skin flushed pink just as Gunn gave a sudden cough and Wesley groaned. Then Illyria fell to lie beside them, its head at their feet. Outside, the dust began to settle, and the sun peeked out from behind the moon.
The observers stumbled forward as the shield dropped. Buffy took less than a second to regain her balance and ran to Dawn, Connor right behind her.
"Dios," whispered Mikey.
"Got that right," agreed Willow. She headed for Dawn while Spike and Angel made for their friends. Mikey, utterly stunned, tentatively followed Angel and Spike, keeping her distance.
Spike stopped at Illyria. He stared down at the body, then knelt and looked at its face.
"Angel," he said, sounding shocked, "I think this is Fred."
Angel looked up from where he was examining Gunn and Wesley. "What?"
"She's warm. She has a heartbeat. She smells like Fred. And - and she has a soul!" Spike looked at Angel, joy in his face. "Illyria must've reversed time for her, too." Quickly, he stripped out of his coat and gently tucked it around Fred's naked form.
Angel stared at him briefly, hope in his eyes, as he helped Gunn into a sitting position. The young man seemed dazed and disoriented (for which nobody could blame him), but otherwise whole.
"Mikey, would you help me out?" Angel asked. The young Slayer blinked, came over, and supported Gunn while Angel tended to Wesley.
Connor, meanwhile, had gathered Dawn into his arms. She was alive, but very cold, when Buffy touched her.
"Your jacket, Connor," said the Slayer.
Connor quickly stripped it off and put it around Dawn's shoulders. Buffy moved closer, wrapping her arms around both of them to give Dawn her own body heat.
As soon as Angel had seen that Wesley was recovering, he moved to Fred's side. He touched her face, and a smile grew on his.
"It's Fred," he said. "It's really Fred."
She moved feebly and opened her eyes. They focused on Angel's face.
"Angel?" she murmured. "What . . . what happened?" She raised her head just enough to look around at the pavilion. "Where am I? And why am I, um, naked?"
Angel laughed happily. "It's a long story. Fred - you can't imagine how glad we are to see you."
Fred craned her neck around to see who was supporting her. "Hey, Spike." She clutched his coat to her chest.
At that moment, Wesley opened his eyes. He looked around, obviously confused and badly disoriented. His eyes found Angel.
"Angel," he gasped.
"Easy, Wes," said Angel going back to his side and helping him sit up. "You've been through a lot."
"I-I was with Vail. I don't remember much," said Wesley. "Where are we?"
"One of Illyria's temples, I think. Wesley, you need to know -" But Angel was cut off mid-sentence as Wesley saw Fred.
"Illyria," he said, but he didn't sound sure.
Gunn was looking, too. He shook his head. "That ain't Illyria," he said, voice faint.
Fred struggled to sit up with Spike's help. "Wesley! Are you all right? What happened to him?" She asked the last question of Angel.
"Fred." Wesley said her name softly, as if afraid to break the spell. "Fred?"
"It's her, Wes," said Angel. "Illyria's gone. It's Fred."
Wesley pulled away from Angel, still shaking and unsteady. Fred met him halfway, still holding Spike's coat around her. Slowly, carefully, Wesley reached out, and his fingers brushed her face. He pressed his palm to her cheek, wonder warring with more emotions than anyone there could name in his face.
"You're warm," he breathed. "Fred - you're alive."
Fred's eyes found Gunn next, and the tears streaking his face told the story. "I died?" she asked wonderingly.
Wesley could wait no longer to pull her into his arms, holding her crushingly close as he sobbed into her shoulder.
"Oh, Wesley," she murmured, wrapping her arms around him.
Mikey grinned broadly from Gunn's side. "This is some cool shit, yo."
"Yeah," whispered Gunn, not bothering to wipe his tears away.
Buffy tore her eyes from the reunited lovers as Dawn stirred. "Dawnie?" she asked.
Dawn's eyes opened a slit. "Buffy?"
"It's okay, honey, you're safe," Buffy reassured her.
"I know." Her voice was faint and dreamy. "Um, could you tell Connor I'll be late for dinner?"
Connor laughed, as did Buffy and Willow. "Dawn, I'm here," he told her.
"Mm-hmm." Dawn closed her eyes again, and then re-opened them. "Connor?" She craned her neck.
He smiled at her. "I'm here. It's okay - I know about this stuff."
"He helped find you," said Buffy.
"Oh." Dawn looked at her boyfriend, and sighed. "I guess I don't have to explain, then."
"Actually, we really want to know what happened, Dawnie," said Willow.
"Hey, Will." Dawn smiled cheerfully and reached out to give the witch a hug. "Thanks for coming."
The reunion was interrupted by a sudden thunk. Buffy's head snapped around to see where Angel had just killed another of the squat demons via spearing it with his sword. It had scuttled up to the pavilion unnoticed. Somehow, in the reunion of friends, family, and lovers, they'd all but forgotten where they were. It came back with a rude shock.
"I think we'd better get out of here now," said the vampire. "We can sort all this out later."
Fred and Wesley reluctantly pulled apart, and Fred awkwardly managed to work the coat around so she could wear it.
"No way you can walk out there without shoes, love," said Spike, and he scooped her up into his arms.
"I can carry her," said Angel.
"No way. She's wearing my coat, so I get to carry her," shot back Spike. "Tough luck, grandsire. Help those two." He indicated Wesley and Gunn, who were both very unsteady on their feet. Mikey and Angel helped support them.
Connor followed Spike's example and picked up Dawn, who was still too weak to stand. Buffy went to the side of the pavilion and tried to get her bearings.
"Anybody have any clue what direction we came in?" she inquired.
"Glad you asked!" said Willow. "I've kept a magical trace on where we came from. It hardly takes any energy at all, and I thought it'd come in handy." She opened her palm to release a little ball of light. "Just follow the cute little light."
"I could've used you when we first came to Rome," said Buffy. "You wouldn't believe how many times Dawn and I managed to get lost the first week."
The light floated out of the pavilion, and Buffy led the group after it. Angel brought up the rear, keeping a careful eye out for any threats.
Fortunately, the return journey went smoothly, and perhaps a half-hour later, they stood at the gates.
"This one'll take us back to Rome," said Willow, nodding to where the light had come to a halt under one of the arches.
Spike looked down the line of gates. "We came in somewhere down there," he said, nodding off to the left. "Bugger if I know which one, though. 'Sides, we weren't too safe coming in."
"More of the Senior Partners' assassins," explained Angel.
"You should come through with us to Rome, then," said Buffy firmly. "I have the feeling it would be a bad idea to start trying out the other ones. Who knows where you could end up?"
"She's quite right, Angel," said Wesley. He and Gunn were more or less supporting each other, but they looked like they were getting stronger.
Angel looked hesitant, but nodded after a moment. "Yeah. Yeah, that's probably for the best."
Buffy turned to Willow. "How hard will it be to get back through?"
"Not hard at all, unless I'm seriously wrong." Willow reached out and passed a hand through the gate - and her hand disappeared. "Yep. It's meant to keep people and things out, not in." With that, she walked through. Buffy was next, then Connor and Dawn, and then the rest. Angel, again, brought up the rear, joining the others in the catacombs after they were all through.
"Feels good to be out of that dust," remarked Connor.
"Yeah, no kidding," said Buffy. "Okay, we need to get Fred some clothes, so why don't we all head to my apartment?"
"You guys go," said Angel. "Spike and I should leave."
That brought a whole chorus of "What?" "Why?" and "Angel!"
"I'm serious," said the elder vampire. "Look, Wes, Fred, Gunn - the Senior Partners think you're all dead. They're only after Spike and me. You guys can all start new lives without being hunted. Mikey, you should stay with them."
"Wrong," said Gunn.
"No," said Fred.
"We're not leaving," said Wesley.
"Jogate!" said Mikey.
"Listen, you all don't -" Angel began to argue, but Spike cut him off.
"Oh, for God's sake, Angel, you're not going to convince them, so don't waste our time trying. Besides, Fred is wearing my coat, and I'm not leaving without it. And I, for one, am too much of a gentleman to ask a lady to strip in public," said the younger vampire.
"Sure, now he is," muttered Buffy.
Dawn looked at her, alarmed. "TMI territory, Buff."
Buffy blushed and hastily gathered everyone up to go to her apartment. The trek from the catacombs to her home drew many funny looks from passers-by, what with Spike carrying a coat-clad Fred and Connor carrying Dawn, but as they'd all dealt with their share of embarrassing and unexplainable situations, it bothered none of them especially.
As Buffy opened the door, she was greeted by Andrew's voice.
". . . and I'm just saying that this whole kerfuffle wouldn't be happening if someone like Johnny Depp was playing Constantine instead of Keanu," Andrew was saying.
"Bosh! How would you like a British Batman or Superman?" snapped Rebecca's voice from the speakerphone. "Besides, much as I love Depp, considering what a mush From Hell was, I doubt any Constantine fans would be mollified. I'm sure Alan Moore is in despair."
"Well, I think a British Superman would be just dandy, personally. Besides, Christian Bale's playing Batman," said Andrew. By this time, Buffy was far enough inside the apartment to see that Andrew was in the kitchen making something that smelled wonderful while he and Rebecca argued. When he turned around, he spotted Buffy. "Hey, Buffy's back!"
"Really? What's the word?" asked Rebecca.
"Everything's okay," said Buffy. Connor entered with Dawn and went over to gently lay her on the couch.
"Everything's fine, she says," Andrew told Rebecca. "Dawn's back . . . oh, hey, and here's Angel. And Sp - wait, not supposed to mention that. And Willow. And Fred. And your Uncle Wesley. And Gunn. And . . . a girl I've never seen before. Anybody else out there?"
"Just us kids," said Buffy. She brushed her hands through her hair, letting loose a small red dust cloud. "Tell Giles to call off the troops, Beck. We got Dawn back - with interest."
"Rebecca's on the phone?" Wesley asked, picking up on his niece's name.
"Uncle Wesley!" she cried. "We've been so worried about you! Where have you been?"
Buffy gave him a grin. "Why don't you pick up the phone? Sounds like this explanation could take a while."
"Speaking of explanations," said Angel, "I'd like to know what happened with Illyria, Dawn."
"Oh, boy," sighed Dawn. "This'll take a while, and I'm starving. What's that you're cooking, Andrew?"
"A nice, big pot of bucatini all'amatriciana. There should be plenty for our guests, too; I made enough for leftovers." Andrew lifted a huge colander of pasta over the sink to let it drain. "Almost ready! I managed to rescue our dessert, too, Dawnie. It's a bit smushed, but smushed lemon cream cake is still lemon cream cake."
Buffy turned to her guests. "All right. How about we get some clothes for Fred and some dinner, and then Dawn can tell us what happened?"
"My sweats might work for her," offered Dawn, dragging herself to her feet. "She's a little taller than me, but a lot skinnier."
"I'm not inclined to be picky right now," said Fred. She followed Dawn out of the living room.
"While we're here, we ought to stick Mikey under a shower," Spike pointed out.
"Good idea," agreed Angel.
"She's gettin' kind of ripe," added Spike.
"Hey!" said Mikey.
"I can fix her up with some of my sweats," said Buffy, who'd also noticed the aroma of the younger Slayer. "She's not that much shorter than me."
"I don' want no shower," protested Mikey.
"Here's a towel," said Buffy. "Bathroom's over there. You can use the soap and shampoo. I'll get you some clothes."
"I be wearing clothes," said the young Slayer, sulking.
"We'll be burning those," said Spike. "Shower, Puss."
Outnumbered, Mikey sullenly stomped off to the bathroom, muttering in Spanish.
Buffy watched until she'd disappeared behind the door, then turned to Angel. "Where'd you pick her up?"
"L.A. Kinda hard to explain, but she pretty much adopted us after I saved her life." Angel scratched his head, initiating an avalanche of dust from his hair. "She's a good kid. Been a lot of help. She never listens, though."
"Slayer trait," deadpanned Buffy.
Wesley hung up the phone and joined the others. "Rebecca has offered to wire me some money. I told her I'd get back to her after I figured out just what the hell is happening."
"Good luck with that," scoffed Spike.
Dawn and Fred re-entered, both of them clad in sweats. Andrew gallantly served them heaping helpings of pasta and sauce, and after Buffy, Connor, Gunn, and Wesley had also helped themselves, the questions started.
First up was Fred, asking about Illyria. The last thing she remembered was seeing the sarcophagus in the lab. Angel explained, in short form, how Illyria had taken over Fred's body, killing her in the process, and gave a brief rundown on its activities afterward. Then he suddenly paused, mid-sentence, and turned to Spike.
"I think I may have figured out why the Senior Partners have been holding back," said the elder vampire.
Spike looked from Angel to Fred, and back to Angel. "Illyria."
"Right. They were never too keen on it being free and out of their control, and if they couldn't track Illyria, my guess is that they hoped we could," said Angel.
"She - It did say something about wreaking serious vengeance on the Wolf, the Ram, and the Hart once it got its power back," put in Dawn.
Spike chuckled bitterly. "Too bad Bluebird couldn't have done that without inconveniencing Dawn. Could've been funny."
Mikey exited the bathroom, hair wet, with a pair of Buffy's sweats positively hanging off her. She made a beeline for the kitchen, where she closely examined the plate of pasta Andrew had made up for her.
"Whazzat shit?" she asked.
"Next on the agenda: table manners," muttered Spike.
"Bucatini all'amatriciana," Andrew informed her stiffly. He was rather proud of his culinary skills.
"It's really good is what it is," said Gunn, coming back for a second helping. Mikey looked him up and down, decided he didn't look like he'd lie to her, and deigned to try a bite. The bite proved to be so good that she immediately set to shoveling it down her throat as fast as she could.
Buffy, who'd been watching her with some amusement, suddenly felt Angel's eyes on her face. He was watching the elder Slayer's expression carefully, as if trying to gauge her response to Mikey.
"So what happened next?" asked Fred, pressing against Wesley. "How'd you get out of Wolfram & Hart? Sounds like they're pretty angry with you."
Angel finished his overview of the last months at Wolfram & Hart. "After Spike was able to walk again, we went to see the Three. They gave us enough clues that we were able to track Illyria's globetrotting, but we weren't ever able to quite catch up. Not until we found an entrance to that temple."
"Guess that's about when it nabbed me," said Dawn. She accepted a slightly-mutated piece of lemon cream cake and a cup of strong coffee from Andrew.
"So what happened?" asked Connor. He was seated beside her on the couch, one arm protectively around her shoulders.
Dawn was silent a long moment, fiddling with her fork. "I - it's hard to explain. It made me." She looked at Connor. "Did Buffy tell you about me being the Key?"
Connor smiled. "Yeah. I've got your fourteen years of fake memories beat by four, by the way." Dawn blinked. "Long story. I'll tell you later and . . . I guess you can decide if I'm too freaky for you." He said it in a light, joking tone, but his eyes fell.
"Angel's his father," said Buffy bluntly.
"Huh? What?" Dawn sat upright, looking from Angel to Connor and back again. "How - when - who's his mother?"
"Could we get back to that later?" asked Angel.
"Seconded," said Willow. "I want to hear what happened with Illyria. Dawn, you said it made you?"
"Um, yeah," said Dawn. She explained what Illyria had told her about her origins. "And the thing is, it said that I - the Key - was made to get more powerful with time. I suppose I did. It couldn't control the energy in me anymore, and I-I guess that's what made it do what it did. I think I was its last hope of getting back what it'd lost." She sipped her coffee. "At the end, it asked me to give it enough of my energy to reverse time and bring back Wesley and Gunn. And somehow, I knew how to do it. I don't - it didn't seem to expect that the Key would ever become sentient." She shook her head. "I don't understand it all. I'm just making guesses here. Maybe it'll make more sense once I've had time to process."
"In that case, I suppose the next question is what to do now," said Wesley.
"I still think you guys -" began Angel.
Gunn cut him off. "Not happening, man."
Angel doggedly pressed on. "The Senior Partners are still coming after us. If I'm right and they were only keeping us alive so we could lead them to Illyria, what's to stop them from unleashing hell again the second they realize that it's no longer a factor? You guys have a chance to avoid all that; take it."
"And if they discover we're alive again?" asked Wesley. "If what Lindsey told you is correct - and I imagine it is - they'll notice a couple of souls missing from Hell. We're not safe, Angel, not any more than you are. Our best chance of survival is to stay together."
"Besides, I've still got their handy-dandy implant in my head," said Gunn, tapping his forehead. "Could be helpful."
"And I'm just not leaving, so don't try to make me," said Fred. "Wish I could write my parents, though."
"Hey, I might be able to help with that," said Willow. "I've got the best encryption program in this dimension, and probably a few others."
"Really? Show me." Fred pulled away from Wesley and went for the computer, where Willow met her.
Dawn and Connor started talking then, probably about his parentage, and Buffy caught Angel's eye and made a minute gesture toward the door with her head. He followed her into the hall.
"I'll tell Rebecca to send me the money, and I'll pass it on to you guys," said Buffy once he shut the door. "There's nothing unusual about the Watchers sending me money to cover my expenses, or another Slayer's, and it looks like you guys could use some new clothes, at least."
Angel nodded. "Good idea. Thanks."
There was an awkward pause. Finally, Buffy said, "You're expecting me to tell you to get Mikey to the Watchers, stat."
Buffy shrugged. "If you want to, Faith's in Cleveland. She'd probably be best with someone like Mikey. But if not, well . . . you've got two souled vampires, an ex-Watcher, a guy who came off the streets himself, and a girl. There are worse places for her to be."
Angel examined her very carefully with his eyes. "You're not telling me to ditch her? Even after everything that's happened and us being number one on the Senior Partners' shit list?"
"It's not like she'd be any safer in Cleveland, Angel. Spreading out the Calling just evened the odds a bit. From what I've seen, you guys would be good for her." She looked back into his face, at the amazement there, and her voice softened. "It was never you I didn't trust. It was only the CEO of Wolfram & Hart."
"Same person," he insisted.
Angel's eyes dropped. "No. Not really." He drew in an unneeded breath. "And the worst thing is that I can't tell you that you were wrong. After everything that's happened, I know you weren't."
"At least now I know why you did it." Buffy glanced back at the door. "I like Connor. He and Dawn sure look cute together, don't they?"
Angel laughed. "Yeah. The irony's pretty thick, isn't it?"
"Noticed that myself. I just hope they're not an apocalypse waiting to happen." She grimaced at the thought.
"They're not." Angel sounded certain. "They'll be fine. You and I - we've sacrificed too much for them not to be."
Buffy smiled at him, and he reached out to take her in his arms. They kissed, a gesture that felt familiar and natural to them.
Angel pulled back as the kiss ended. "So, what about the Immortal?"
"I knew you'd get back to that!" She rolled her eyes. "Adam and I had some fun, and then one day, he got a phone call and said something about a stupid Boy Scout and having to go back to the States. I didn't get it, but there were no hard feelings." She looked down. "Thing is, he's older than dirt, but he's never gotten tired of living. He always manages to find something to make him want to go on. I needed that, at least for a little while."
"I get it," murmured Angel. He kissed her forehead.
"Your friends are pretty tired out," said Buffy. "Why don't you guys crash here and decide where to go tomorrow? Willow's probably already working on keeping you hidden."
"Yeah, they definitely need to rest." He released Buffy. "Thanks. I'll go tell them."
"Good. Send out Spike while you're at it, okay?" At the look on Angel's face, she said, "He and I need to talk, Angel. Please."
Angel disappeared through the door, visibly sulking, and a few moments later, Spike came out.
"You going to take a swing at me?" he asked without preamble.
"I'm considering it. Want to tell me why you're not a pile of ashes at the bottom of the Sunnydale crater?"
Spike sighed. "Long story involving a pretty-boy sorcerer who was obsessed with Angel and figured I'd be perfect to use in his complicated vengeance scheme or whatnot. Never did make a great deal of sense to me. I was a ghost for a little while, and then I got solid again after a month or so."
"And you didn't call me why?"
"It was my first thought," protested Spike. "When I first came back as a ghost, all I wanted to do was find you, but I couldn't. I couldn't leave L.A., and I wasn't about to ask Angel to dial the phone." He glanced downward. "But by the time I got solid, I'd had time to think about it."
Buffy swallowed hard. "And you thought it'd be better to just let me keep thinking you were gone? Why?"
Spike made an irritated gesture. "Well, how do you just call up someone and say, 'Hey, you know that big, self-sacrificial death thing? All better now!'"
"Like I wouldn't understand that!" She glared at him. "Try again, Spike. This time, make it real."
The vampire deflated a bit. "The truth is, by the time I was able to call you or see you, I'd had enough time that . . . I was afraid."
"Yes." He looked away from her, a muscle working in his jaw. "I was afraid I'd hear your voice, or look into your eyes . . . and know I was right. What I said to you there at the last."
It all came together in Buffy's mind. "You said I didn't love you."
"Exactly." He chuckled a bit. "Long as I was away from you, I could think that maybe I'd been wrong - that maybe you did love me, in some way. And as stupid and cowardly as it sounds, I didn't want to have to give up the fantasy."
"Well, you were wrong," said Buffy. Spike's head snapped up, his eyes wide. "You were. I thought about it, too, thinking maybe you saw something I didn't, but after turning it over and over in my head, I really, really wanted to just hit you, because you were wrong." She looked into his eyes. "I told you the truth. I did love you, Spike. Maybe not in the way you'd hoped for, but I did. The things you taught me about myself, all that we went through together, the way we learned to forgive each other - I loved you for that. It wasn't just pity there at the end. I wanted you to know how I felt."
One of Spike's hands came up to cradle her face very gently. "You mean it, Summers?"
She sighed, taking his hand. "I don't know. I mourned you, Spike. I thought you were dead and gone for over a year. Now, suddenly, you're back, and we're both different." She smiled gently, taking the sting out of her words. "You still have a place in my heart. You always will."
"But now's not exactly a good time to try to rekindle," he said, acknowledging what they both knew. "Doesn't matter. I got more than I could've asked for, anyway."
A simple embrace said everything else.
Almost. "So," said Buffy as they pulled apart. "How long did it take you and Angel to beat the crap out of each other once you got solid again?"
"Couple of hours. I won, by the way."
"I won the rematch!" called Angel's voice through the door.
Buffy opened it. "Have you been listening?"
"No!" Angel looked sheepish. "I mean, not the whole time. I was talking to the others about when we'd leave, and I thought I'd catch you when you came back in, and I just heard that last part. Really."
"You two," Buffy huffed with disgust as she brushed by Angel and re-entered her apartment.
Willow was, as Buffy had expected, now working on a spell to hide the apartment and those inside it from the Senior Partners. Fred was brushing Mikey's hair and telling the young Slayer about her years of hiding in Pylea. Wesley sat next to them, watching in quiet wonder, as if reassuring himself that yes, Fred really was alive again.
And Angel and Spike were still at it. "What rematch?" demanded Spike.
"You know what I'm talking about," said Angel sourly.
"Oh," said Spike, realization dawning. "You mean, when you were a -"
"Say it, and I'll rip out your vocal cords."
Connor leaned over to Willow. "Were they ever . . . you know?"
"I've got a whole theory on that," said the witch enthusiastically.
"Please, do not tell us," begged Dawn. She yawned hugely. "I need to get some sleep."
"I should go, then." Connor got up and started getting into his jacket. "Dawn? Can I call you?"
"If you don't, I'll have the Watchers hunt you down," she said, smiling.
"Then I'd better." He leaned down and kissed his girlfriend's forehead. "Good night."
" 'Night," she murmured, practically asleep on the couch already.
Connor left the apartment, but before he was even halfway down the hall, Angel's voice called, "Connor!"
The young man turned. "What is it?"
Angel looked like he didn't even know what he'd been about to say. Finally, he said, "How are you?"
"Doing okay." He shrugged a bit. "Been a hell of a day, but I'm okay. I like Rome. And -" His eyes strayed back to the apartment he'd just left.
Angel smiled a bit. "She's a Summers woman. They don't come much better." He bit his lip. "Buffy and I - there were lots of reasons we couldn't make it work. I hope you and Dawn do better."
"Yeah." Connor's smile echoed his father's. "Yeah, me, too."
He turned to leave again, but after a few steps, he turned back to Angel. "I will thank you for what you did, you know. Not today - but someday, I will."
Angel swallowed a lump in his throat. "I'm not getting any older."
Connor tossed him one last grin. "Try not to get killed."
"Back at you."
Angel watched his son leave, and all was well.
Fred and Mikey ended up sharing Buffy's bed, Wesley slept on the floor next to them, Gunn slept on the guest room floor while Andrew took the bed, and Spike attempted to make himself comfortable on the couch. Angel didn't sleep, choosing to watch the Roman night outside, his face inscrutable. Willow had long since teleported back to Brazil.
Buffy, meanwhile, crawled in with Dawn. As she settled herself, facing her sister across the pillows, Dawn's eyes opened just a little.
"I remember now," said the teen, her voice dreamy. "I remember when I first saw you. Illyria let me remember some things from when I was the Key."
"Dawnie?" Buffy placed her hand over her sister's.
"I was in your bedroom. You walked in and asked what I was doing, and . . . you were my sister. I remember things before that, but they didn't happen when I was human. That was the moment. You were the first person I saw." Dawn's eyes opened fully. "Do you think maybe the monks were right? That the Key can be used for good?"
Buffy, eyes moist, reached over to touch Dawn's hair. "I think it already has been."
Bright sun, gelato, and her boyfriend by her side made the Spanish Steps even more perfect, in Dawn's estimation. It felt good to just relax and let the chaos of the past few days fade away.
Angel and his friends had left the previous evening after spending a day in the Summers apartment. They'd needed the time to recuperate, discuss what had happened, and decide what to do next. At Buffy's insistence, the Watchers had hurriedly created false identities and documentation for all of them, leaving them free to move about the world as needed. Once that documentation was in their hands, Angel and his friends had left, not saying where they were going. Buffy hadn't asked - she just let them go with her best wishes and a standing offer of assistance if they ever needed her.
Dawn thought it was the best solution. Angel hadn't wanted to involve Buffy or the Watchers any more than absolutely necessary, wanting to keep them under the Senior Partners' radar. Buffy had understood his concern and appreciated it. As she'd told him, she had a responsibility to the Slayers she was training.
Then there was Mikey. The girl had been wary of Buffy, instinctively understanding that it could have been Buffy's prerogative to take Mikey away from her new friends. Buffy, however, had shown no such inclination, particularly as the young Slayer had immediately taken to Gunn, and Fred had immediately taken to mothering Mikey. Wesley had looked oddly grateful for the chance to be a Watcher again. It looked like the girl was on her way to a very interesting life.
Now they were all gone, and Dawn was just as glad to have some time to process all that had happened - both to herself and to Connor.
"Do you think I'm a freak?" Connor asked. He sounded so vulnerable, and Dawn could understand that all too well.
She smiled at him. "If you are, it's no big. Some of my favorite people are freaks."
He smiled back. "It's been so weird ever since I got those memories back. It's like I've been two different people. One of them is Connor Riley, normal guy. The other . . . I don't even know how to describe it. He - I was so messed up. I didn't know what it meant to love, not really. I didn't understand how people . . . interacted. How they understood each other." He lowered his head. "I just knew how to fight."
"It wasn't your fault," Dawn assured him softly. "I mean, you grew up in a demon dimension with a guy who just wanted to use you to get back at Angel. How's that supposed to add up to being well-adjusted?"
"I just sometimes wonder if that's the real me," he told her. "If maybe it's just the spell that put this shell of a civilized, normal guy on me, and I'm really that animal inside."
"Hey, you're not the only one. When I was fourteen, I went through this whole thing about how I wasn't real; I was just, like you said, a shell made out of energy, and Dawn Summers didn't mean anything." She looked out at the Piazza di Spagna, letting its beauty sink deeply into her soul. "When Buffy died for me, I used to lie awake thinking that she didn't know what she was doing. I wasn't worth it because I wasn't supposed to exist. I saw the power of the Key, and it was terrible, and I wondered how I could be anything but evil."
Connor ran his hand through her hair. "Well, I was born so I could bring a mind-controlling, people-eating goddess into the world."
"I was created so a demon god could travel into every dimension and maybe rip apart the universe," said Dawn, one-upping him.
He laughed, pulling her close. "I guess we're both pretty freaky."
She snuggled against him, laughing a little, too. After a moment, she sobered. "I think I'd go crazy if I thought about it too much. I know where the fake memories start now; Illyria gave me that much, at least. I dream about things that happened to the Key, and I remember what's happened to Dawn." She looked at her boyfriend. "I know things that Illyria knew. It's like it wanted to leave part of itself with me, since I used to be a part of it. I think . . . I think that someday, I might be able to control the power I have."
"Makes you a pretty intimidating girlfriend," said Connor. His smile faded. "Y'know, I remember being a little boy and pretending I was a superhero." He shook his head. "It never happened. I never was that little boy. But I am the superhero now. I guess the thing I get from my father is that I want to use that somehow. Help people. Maybe with your Watchers or whatever."
"You want to know my philosophy?" Dawn asked.
"I think we get to decide who we are. We've both got two pasts, and it's not all bad. We have a choice about what we'll be in the future, and that's the most important thing."
"We have a choice," murmured Connor. "Someone once told me I had a choice, but I didn't believe her. I didn't know how it could be true." He drew in a deep breath. "It was - it was my mother. Not my mom; my mother."
"Yeah. She came back long enough to tell me I could choose who I wanted to be. I didn't understand then, but I do now. And I know you're right." He set his empty gelato cup aside. "My mother staked herself so I could be born. It wasn't something I really understood, not until I had the memories of growing up with my mom. I always knew my mom would die for me; Darla really did. Angel told me once, before he set off this big apocalypse, that I was the only thing she'd ever loved. And Angel went to work for Wolfram & Hart to give me a new life."
"There's a big whoa of emotional debt," said Dawn. "I know what it's like to have someone die for you."
"Yeah. I'm kinda mixed up about Angel. I understand why he did what he did, and I'm glad I got a second chance, but it's just . . . things were really bad between us before. Like, homicidal bad. But I can see now that we were both pretty messed up, and I feel like I owe it to him to - to try and understand."
"Well, things were pretty rough between Buffy and me for a while, too. Not homicidal, but she was just-out-of-the-grave messed up, and I was fifteen-with-extreme-issues messed up, and it was not a good mix." She swallowed, leaning against Connor. "I miss my mom all the time, too. I know now that I only had her for a few months, but I treasure all my memories of her. Even the ones I know aren't real."
"I know what you mean. I have all these memories that I know never happened, but they're good. They're good. And who's to say they didn't happen in some dimension, somehow?"
"No one can say," murmured Dawn. "I don't care what we were supposed to be, Connor; I'm just glad I'm here with you now."
He turned her face up to his with his fingers. "You are so beautiful," he said. "And you're the only person who can really understand the weirdness that is my life. How's that for perfect?"
She brushed his bangs out of his eyes. "It'd be more perfect if you'd kiss me."
So he did, and it was.
Final note: Thanks for reading! Plus, there's a Special Limited-Time Offer! On Sunday, April 3, there will be an epilogue to this story posted in my LiveJournal, which is linked in my profile. It won't ever go up on FFN, so head over to my LJ to see what happens a few years down the road.