***

As the vampires fell away from him, Angel sprinted across the slick grass toward Buffy's supine form. His ears registered strange popping noises behind him, but he did not look back. He dropped to his knees beside her. She looked so small and frail and seemed to weigh nothing at all as he lifted her up. The blood that soaked her shirt and coated her neck looked black. One of the two circular wounds in her neck was a bit larger and more ragged where her flesh had torn as she struggled in the first seconds of the attack. Angel stared at the shimmering veil of her life's blood and cursed his own life, the world and whatever else might exist in the universe. He had lost her again, lost her by being too late, just like before, when the Master took her. Only this time, no amount of CPR would revive her.

It was the blood that penetrated Angel's haze of grief. Even as sorrow crashed down on him like a tidal wave, he was drawn to the blood. Self-loathing choked him. She was dead in his arms and still some part of him wanted to taste, to slake the thirst that burned within him, to gorge on the crimson flow. It was a few moments before the realization penetrated his conscious mind. The blood was still oozing from the wounds. Angel clasped Buffy to him more tightly. He looked at the puncture marks. Fluid still seeped and bubbled, propelled by a beating heart. There, he could feel it, a pulse, faint but regular.

"Giles," he yelled, struggling to his feet. "Willow! Somebody! She's alive! Help me."

***

Giles heard Willow screaming and someone else yelling. He looked over his shoulder. A black-clad figure holding Buffy. Recognition clicked into place as Giles turned. A short film starring Rupert Giles unspooled in his mind. He was bound in a chair as a remorseless captor leaned close, took his right hand, and casually broke first the index, then the middle finger.

The rifle flew unbidden to his shoulder. The crosshairs rested on the nape of Angel's neck. Giles' finger trembled on the trigger, then he lowered the rifle. The dart wouldn't effect Angel anyway. He dropped the gun and sprinted toward them.

The scene was chaotic. Willow stared at the werewolf corpses, which were starting to lose their wolfy look. Sleek pelts vanished, replaced by pale, lifeless human limbs. Xander looked for the source of the blood on Cordelia's face. Faith dropped to her knees, clothing and hair saturated with perspiration and clinging to her. Lindsay remained alert, rifle at the ready. Gerard approached the werewolves. Willow was still screaming. He shied away from the piercing sound, then grabbed her by the shoulders and gave her one sharp shake. Willow's head jerked and her teeth snapped shut with an audible click. She blinked and stared at him. Gerard ignored her and knelt beside the cadavers. Willow looked around. Oz stood a few yards away, staring at the dead with a feverish sparkle in his eyes.

Angel looked up as Giles skidded to a halt. There was a click in his eyes and a flash of painful remorse across his features. "Giles, I..." His voice trailed away. The Watcher kept his emotions clenched like a fist.

"How long?" Giles asked. Angel stared at him, uncomprehending. "How long did Trick drain her?"

Angel shook his head as the librarian took Buffy from him and lowered her to the ground. "I don't know. It was combat... hard to judge time..."

"Well was it a bloody half-hour or a shorter interval," Giles snapped, the ragged edges of his psyche pushing into his voice.

Angel blinked. "Maybe... fifteen seconds."

Giles felt Buffy's wrist, then the unbitten side of her neck. He turned her head gently to examine the wound, then sank back on his heels. A shaky breath escaped his lungs. "I think she'll be all right," he said. "Her pulse is getting stronger."

"How long will she be unconscious?" Angel asked.

"Probably a few more minutes," Giles replied.

"Rupert," Lindsay called out. "How do we get werewolves when it's not a full moon?" Xander limped toward Giles. The boy held Cordelia's hand in his. She pressed a piece of his torn shirt to her forehead. Giles heaved himself to his feet.

"Here," he said, reaching out to Cordelia, "let me see."

"It's okay." She shied away. "I'll need some stitches at the emergency room."

"Let me see." Giles was firm. "You're right. As for the other," he said, turning to Lindsay, "I've no idea. I'd also like to know what happened to them."

"I can answer that." Gerard held out an open palm. A malignant shiny mushroom lay there. "A silver bullet. Actually, a high-velocity hollow-point round fired from a rifle. I extracted this one from the ground."

"Where did Angel go?" Xander asked. Fourteen eyes searched for an answer but could find none. Angel had vanished. Before anyone could comment on his disappearance, Buffy groaned. Her eyes fluttered, then opened.

"Angel," she whispered as she tried to sit up. Faith grabbed her shoulders.

"Whoa B," she said. "Take it easy. You picked up a bad hickey."

Buffy swallowed and touched her neck. Her fingers came away bloody. "I remember... Was that Trick?" Her eyes closed. "And Angel was here?"

"Yes," said Giles.

"And now he's gone?"

"Yes," Giles said again.

"Perhaps," Gerard said, "we should follow his example and leave this place."

Faith helped Buffy up and slung the blond girl's arm over her shoulder. "We're good to go."

Xander pointed. "Cars are that way, maybe a half-mile." He looked at the Watchers. "You guys may have to ride in the back of the van."

***

Buffy touched the thick pad of gauze Giles had taped over the wound. "How's it look?" she asked.

"I'd stick to turtlenecks for a while," Faith said.

Xander and Cordelia had headed for the emergency room. Oz and Willow had dropped them at the library and gone home. Lindsay was cleaning rifles and putting them away. Gerard sat at the table, hands playing with the silver bullet. Buffy went into the office. Giles was almost finished putting away the first-aid kit.

***

Oz pulled to the curb in front of Willow's house. "Crazy night," he said.

Willow's mouth was set in a firm line. "Okay, you've been acting all I've-got-a-secret- wiggly. Now make like the Exxon Valdez and spill."

Oz thought about forming a denial and decided against it. "It wasn't a full moon."

"That weirdness has been commented on."

"No, look at it another way. If they can change when it's not a full moon, then maybe you can keep from changing when it is."

Willow's eyes narrowed. "Were those guys..."

Oz shrugged. "Maybe. I think so. It was hard to tell after they... what happened to them, but I know that none of them were Zane. But that's not the point. You can control the change." His eyes clouded. "You can leash the wolf."

"Oz, this could be dangerous."

"Your spells aren't?" Oz leaned toward her, his green eyes burning into hers. "Willow, if I can control the wolf, I've got to try."

Willow swallowed. "Promise you'll be careful?"

Oz took her hand. "Always."

***

"I understand it was successful," Mr. Quisling said.

Mr. Trick finished hanging his jacket. "Exactly as planned."

"So I can notify the Mayor that phase one is completed?"

"Oh yeah. By the way, he'll probably whine about losing his pets. If he gets too obnoxious remind him of our final goal. Probably wouldn't hurt to mention our losses either." Trick turned away.

"Sir."

"Yes?" Trick turned back. Quisling shifted his weight slightly. The vampire made a beckoning gesture. "What is it?"

"I'm not trying to be forward, but I was wondering... You seem rather elated."

Trick shook his head. "It's her blood, that's what it is." His eyes hooded like a cobra's. "You can't imagine what it was like, Quisling. It was so complex, so rich, so powerful. The first taste was like an explosion. I almost drained her right there."

"But you didn't." Quisling did not seem surprised.

"No, I did not." Trick took a deep breath. "Where would we be if I surrendered to every impulse? Besides, when we're done here, I can keep her alive and sip from her every day."

***

The clear chime of a spoon upon a glass resonated through the room. The conversation around the table shushed. Joyce Summers stood up. All eyes turned toward her. Her smile was nervous and shy.

"It's Thanksgiving, which is a day for giving thanks..." Joyce put a hand to her forehead. "I'm sorry. That was incredibly stupid. I'm a little nervous. Bear with me." She took a deep breath. "What I meant to say is that sometimes it's easy to overlook the good things in your life, but not for me, not this year." She blinked. "My daughter came back to me..."

Buffy ducked her head and felt the bandage on her neck pull.

"...And I found out that she's even more special than I thought. I am thankful for that, but I'm also thankful for the friends who look after her and who have gathered with us today." Joyce bit her lip, eyes shining. "Thank you for being here."

"Can we eat?" Faith asked. She wore a dark red sweater that matched her lipstick and sat directly across from Buffy. Lindsay and Giles sat across from each other. Lindsay was elegant in emerald-green silk but she seemed preoccupied. Giles looked even stiffer than usual. Perhaps his jacket was particularly hairy. Lindsay shushed Faith with a look.

"Yes," Joyce said. "We can eat." And they did.

***

Oz tested the chains one last time. Sundown was coming and he needed time to collect himself. He sat down and arranged his legs in the lotus position. The books hadn't been specific about this, but it felt more like meditation when he did it. He began to breathe deeply, clearing his mind, willing his pulse to remain steady and regular.

The sun settled toward the horizon. The moment of truth was only seconds away. He concentrated on his focal point and kept his breathing regular.

The sun slipped away. He felt it begin, the blood roaring in his ears, the tightening and strain of muscles and ligaments shifting. He closed his eyes and fought to keep his mind clear. He felt the change advance and then stop. It did not recede, but clawed at his psyche like a dog at the door. Sweat poured down his face. His limbs quivered as his lips pulled back from his teeth in a grimace. It was all balanced on the most delicate of fulcra.

Then his tarsals contracted and that exquisite pain broke the wall. The wolf rushed forward to claim him but as the last of his human consciousness ebbed away Oz was ecstatic.

It could be done.

***

Cordelia smoothed the blue, black and yellow Rossignol jacket and then tucked it away in the closet. Her room was immaculate again. Her skis were put away, all her ski clothing was in its special section of the closet, and the rest of her travel clothes were in the laundry.

She sat on the edge of the bed and reached up to push a stray wisp of hair out of her face. Her fingernail caught on one of the sutures and she winced. They were right at the hairline but it still would have been nice if one of her parents had noticed their only daughter sporting six stitches in her head.

She heard the grinding of the garage door as it opened, followed by the roar of the Jaguar's engine as it pulled away. Cordelia lowered her head. Not even home three hours. A new Chase land-speed record.

The phone rang. She would let the machine get it; let someone else dispense fashion tips. Then she reached over and picked up the receiver. She was who she was. She might as well get back in the groove right now. "Hello?"

"Hey, this is the official welcome-back call. How was the skiing?"

Cordy's hand flew to her mouth to cover the grin that emerged, even though he couldn't see it. "Well, let's see, there were lots of really cute guys there. Who dressed well."

"Sure," Xander said. "Anyone can dress well if they're willing to spend money. Let's see any of those guys procure an entire ensemble for five bucks."

Cordelia smiled and tasted salt as a tear slipped over her lip. "Yeah, that would probably be beyond them. How was your Thanksgiving?"

"Very typical. Two hours of incredible tension followed by three hours of yelling culminating in an orgy of drunken revelations, mostly involving how badly I've disappointed them. Just another Harris family holiday." Xander paused. "You okay? You sound funky."

Cordelia wiped at her eyes with her free hand. "Oh, just tired."

"Yeah, I bet." Xander paused. When he spoke again, his voice was free of levity. "I missed you. See you at school tomorrow."

***

Gerard Roland closed his eyes as he savored the bourbon. "Thank you," he said, "I was growing rather tired of tea."

Stefan Warner sat down, his long frame folding onto the sofa. He looked at Gerard across the coffee table. "So it's back to Montreal?"

Gerard nodded. "My flight leaves in three hours. I wanted to thank you for your help."

Warner shrugged. "You told us what was going down."

Gerard waved a hand. "Not only for the other night. Thank you for your ongoing assistance. I realize that it is an imposition."

"We're here anyway." Matti Hollis sat down beside Warner.

"True, but your superiors might not be so understanding."

"Well, that's why we're not telling them about it," Warner said.

"How is your mission proceeding?"

Warner's grin was sardonic. "Sorry, you're not on the need-to-know list."

"Very true." Gerard tossed back the remainder of his drink and stood. "Thank you again for your aid and your hospitality. I trust you will continue to, how is it the children put it? Oh yes, I trust you will continue to have Rupert's back."

One corner of Matti Hollis's mouth lifted. "That may be the first time the name Rupert and the phrase 'got your back' have been used in the same sentence."

***

The Mayor was not happy, just as Mr. Trick predicted. He was, in fact, in a deep funk on this Monday after Thanksgiving. When Ms. Wopner announced a visitor, he did not expect good news.

Which was the correct assumption. A tall, lean man with a shock of hair the color of a crow's wing entered. He held a sheet of fax paper in his right hand.

"Yes?" the Mayor snapped.

"We have a slight problem." The man glanced down at the paper in his hand and spoke in a softly accented voice. "There appears to be a curse."

***

End of "For The Blessings We Are About To Receive."