Introduction ~ *takes deep breath* This is a severely AU fic where I have messed around the entire 'Angel' and BtVS story arcs

Timeline ~ Set anytime in S5 before Riley leaves and while Angel is still reasonably in the land of the sane. 

Disclaimer ~ Does anybody actually pay any attention to these, like, ever? 

Author's Note ~ This is written as a series of POVs, with the name of the person whose turn it is to narrate the story given at the beginning of each section.

A/N 2 ~ Anyone who is a regular reader of mine will know I am a B/A fanatical, but for this fic I've tried to explore the B/R and B/S relationships as well – just with an inherent B/A bias, which basically equals much Riley-bashing and a (hopefully) interesting plot twist involving Spike. There's also some gratuitous Willow/Tara shippery thrown in as well, because they seem to my second favourite couple at the moment.

Chapter One

Willow:

            The place is full of smoke. It chokes my lungs and I try to breathe as little of it as possible in. Somewhere at the back of my mind the voice of reason is telling me to get down on the floor, to crawl on my hands and knees, because that's where the coolest air is. But panic is busy overtaking me and all I can think of is 'where are they?'.

            "Buffy!" I try to yell, but the cry turns into a coughing fit as I inhale a mouthful of smoke. My chest aches and my eyes sting, and still I stagger onwards, towards the flames rather than away from them. I don't think I've ever been this frightened in my entire life, not when the mayor turned into a giant snake at graduation and not even when I saw that look in Oz's eyes and I knew that the next thing he was going to say was that he was leaving me. Those times I was scared for myself, but now I've learned a much deeper fear – that for the people you love.

            "Tara," I gasp out in a strangled whisper. She is in here somewhere and I can't find her. I'm not leaving without her – I can't just let her die, she's my strength, my support, I don't think I could survive without her in my life.

            "Tara!" I call more loudly this time, using reserves of strength and determination I never even knew I had to do so. I tip my head to one side, listening, as I think I hear, above the crackling and the spitting and the wild roaring of the fire, the sound of my name being cried in return. A surge of relief floods through me, its effects almost physical in the way it seems to cool the air around me and pump new energy into my tired limbs. I stumble towards the sound, ignoring the intense heat that reflects off my face and hands, burning my skin and singeing my hair without the flames even needing to touch me.

            "Tara!" I shout once again and this time the answer comes more strongly. Willow, I'm here. It is strange, the words don't seem to reach my ears and yet I feel them in my heart. I scan the room desperately, my eyes finally locking with the familiar blue pair belonging to the woman whom I love. We are separated by a solid wall of fire, fifteen foot deep, and panic rises in me anew – how am I going to reach her, how can we possibly escape together? Tara, however reaches her hand out to me and her expression implores me to do the same. I stretch out my fingers, focusing intently on the one thought that consumes my entire mind – bringing her back to me.

            Suddenly, through some magic spell, that I didn't even realise I was casting, the flames in front of me part. I drop my arm in shock and the flames begin to edge back again. Tara wildly gestures for me to return to my previous position and I do so, this time focusing on creating a passageway through the fire. I close my eyes tightly, concentrating with all my might as Tara begins to head towards me down the gap we have created together. Seconds take hours to tick by and I am afraid to look again, afraid that my magic is not enough, that I will see her swallowed by the flames, writhing in pain, her final look accusing. Why wasn't your love strong enough to save me?

            Then I feel soft arms encircle me and tender lips find mine. Her sweet, heady scent, of roses and spun sugar, is unmistakeable, even amidst the thick, acrid smoke. Tara. She is here. We've done it. Clinging tightly together we rush towards the door, using a combination of magic and plain brute force to smash it open then toppling out into the cool, fresh night air. Gripping her hand tightly I pull us both away from the burning warehouse, colliding with Buffy on the way out, her expression one of business-like concern.

            Doggedly continuing forwards until I can no longer feel the heat prickling my skin, I finally collapse into lush, wet grass, dragging Tara down on top of me. I roll out from underneath her, so that we lie side-by-side, my ragged breathing synchronising its rhythm with hers as I re-infuse my lungs with badly needed oxygen. I gaze up at the huge, open, endless sky above me, its vastness reminding me of my own insignificance, and I thank the Powers That Be for letting me live. For saving not only my life but also the reason I am living it. 

Buffy:

            It feels awful being in Giles' home without him there, almost like we're trespassing, like we're sneaking around behind his back. I keep expecting him to jump out and chastise me for going through his things when he's not there. For touching his books and his weapons and everything that speaks so clearly of his personality. But then I remember that he won't suddenly appear, he can't – he's lying in a hospital bed in intensive care – and I don't feel guilty anymore, just lonely.

            "I should be with Xander," Anya twitters. "He's in pain, he needs me. Good girlfriends always sit by the bedside of their dying boyfriends. I've seen it on television."

            "Xander's not dying!" I snap at her. "He's suffering a few burns and some smoke inhalation. The doctors are just keeping him in hospital a couple of days for observation. He's going to be fine." I rub my temples tiredly where a headache is just starting to form.

            Anya's expression twists into a frown. "There's no need to shout. I don't have a hearing difficulty, you know."

            "We know!" I bite back at her. "We know all about you and Xander and the intimate details of your sex life. Now do you think it's actually possible for you to shut up for once, so the rest of us can at least hear ourselves think?"

            Anya's face falls. She stares at me for a long time, her hurt hidden by impassive eyes and yet clear nonetheless. "Fine, I'll try to be less noisy in future. Now, if my presence is upsetting you that much, I think I go and see Xander."

            "Anya, wait!" I call after her, feeling bad about my harsh comments. I didn't really mean them. It's true, I guess, that I don't like Anya, but in some bizarre way she's good for Xander, and so I want her to be part of the group for his sake. I'm just stressed and upset and I seem to have lost the link between my brain and my mouth. "I'm sorry." I shout as she walks out the door, but my apology is too little too late and she is gone, further reducing the numbers of our little posse. I do a head count. Five of us in the room. Five miss-matched individuals the only people standing between the world and its total destruction. Why am I getting the horrible feeling the odds aren't exactly on our side?

            "Nice one, Slayer." Spike jeers. "Way to inspire team morale."

            "What are you still doing here, anyway?" I ask harshly. I can't help myself; I'm so on edge. I keep remembering Giles' ashen face as I pulled him out of the burning warehouse. He was unconscious, a large cut on his forehead dripping blood. I couldn't wake him up, I tried to, but I couldn't. And Xander was in heap on the floor, bright red and gasping for air. I wanted to tell him to stop wheezing because I couldn't hear whether Giles was breathing or not. Then the paramedics came with their grave faces and their hushed expressions and I felt utterly helpless. I'd let this happen to my friends and now there was nothing I could do to fix it. Plus, it's Spike I'm talking to here, so verbal abuse is pretty much force of habit for me.

            "Well, I was going to hang around and help out." He shrugs casually. "Do my bit for humanity and that sort of thing. But if you don't want me here, then I'll leave you on your own to face the big bad demons intent on ending the world."

            I just glare at him as he moves to leave and I can tell he's waiting for me to stop him, but I can't – I won't give him the satisfaction.

            "Spike," it is Willow who speaks up in a slightly shaky voice. I'm worried about her; she hasn't let go of Tara's hand since it happened. Her hair is an unruly mess, where some of its ends were burnt in the fire, and there are dark black circles under her eyes. Though, thinking about it, I probably look just as bad.

            "Please will you stay," she asks and if anything it makes me feel even worse about the situation. I have reduced my friends, whom I ought to be protecting, to the level of begging a soulless vampire (and one who used to be a mortal enemy at that) for help.

            Spike looks uncertainly around the room, his gaze finally fixing on me. "I want her to say it."

            I look up sharply. "Forget it, Spike. Never gonna happen."

            "Then I walk," he replies nonchalantly. "You want me to stay, then you're going to have to ask me to, Slayer."

            I feel Riley's body tense beside me, as he jumps to my defence. He always has to play the hero and I stopped being able to tell a while ago whether it is for my benefit or his own. "Just leave Buffy alone will you," he demands, jumping to his feet in a show of macho posturing. "She's been through enough recently."

            "Yeah, like nearly getting all her friends killed."

            Something inside me crumbles at Spike's words, at the voicing of my all internal guilt and fear. He was right; I should have done more to protect them. I shouldn't have led them into danger like that. I should have got them out of there sooner.

            Riley hovers concernedly next to me and he awkwardly reaches out to pat my shoulder, like you'd treat puppy someone had just kicked. "It wasn't your fault," he implores, a note of desperation tingeing his voice, as if he is trying to convince himself as well as me. Or maybe that's just my imagination.

            "It was a trap," I say in a voice barely above a whisper. "I should have realised. It was just too easy." I remember the previous evening, the certainty we had felt that we'd located the demons' hideout. We had done this so many times before. Show up armed to the teeth. Kill a few demons. Stop the ritual. Apocalypse averted. Easy as pie. We even had a movie rented for the wind down session afterwards. Die Hard – it was Xander's choice – how's that for irony?

            We arrived at the warehouse full of confidence. There weren't even any demons guarding its entrance, so we just strode straight in. All of us. Willow, Tara and Giles to perform the magic to stop the ritual to bring forth Armageddon. Me as the muscle and Riley and Xander as my back-ups. We heard the sound of chanting coming from a back room and after quickly formulating a plan I rushed in to confront the demons. And I found… a tape recorder. It took me a while to realise what was going on, before reality suddenly dawned. We had been set-up. These weren't your average mindless demons, bent on causing destruction wherever they could. They were clever, organised, they knew their enemies and how to take them out. I started yelling at people to get out quick, that we were all in danger, then the explosion happened.

            The whole warehouse burst into flames. Suddenly there was fire and smoke and heat surrounding me. I smashed a window and helped Riley out of it, going back in for Xander and then finally Giles, as Will and Tara managed to escape of their own accord. We were left broken and defeated, our wounds ranging from the superficial to the life threatening and with the police even hinting at arresting us for arson. And to make matters worse we still have the impending apocalypse hanging over our heads, and now our team is two members down, with the rest of us suffering from shock and exhaustion. I drop my head in my hands. I'm their leader now Giles is in hospital. I have to call the shots, take responsibility for the future of the whole earth and I'm, not sure if I can do it.

            "I s'pose you weren't to know what was gonna happen," Spike concedes, a look almost akin to guilt on his face, as he sees how upset I am. I almost want to laugh at the sight, it is so incongruous.

            "Just shut up and sit down," I tell him tiredly. He seems to accept this as an invitation to stay and does as I tell him.

            He leans back in the armchair and folds his arms across his chest. "So, when are you going to call the sodding wanker, anyway?"

            I freeze and for a second it feels like my whole body has stopped functioning. My heart skips a beat and my breath catches in my throat. I even imagine that my cells stop their activities while my brain tries to process Spike's suggestion. Call Angel. My heart starts beating again and time continues to tick by and yet I still stare off into the distance, imagining what it would be like to see Him again. Painful, awkward, my mind interjects. Remember last time? Remember laughing with him in the corridor, because if you didn't laugh you were going to cry. Remember wishing he'd hit you again, so you could get mad, or yell, or lash out, or do anything that didn't involve polite smiles and platitudes and your boyfriend waiting the next room for you to come back to him. And remember your heart breaking yet again as Angel walked away and you let him go.

           

            But my pulse is already racing and the weight on my shoulders seems lighter. No matter what our history, Angel is a warrior. He can fight and he can help and he can share with me the burden of protecting the world. I think that maybe now I need him more than I have ever done before.

            "Call who?" Riley asks and I wonder how he can possibly be so slow on the uptake, whereas, judging by the wide blue eyes that gaze at me in concern, even Tara caught the reference to Angel and she has never even met him. But then I remember that Riley doesn't know about Spike and Angel being family, I have been deliberately sketchy on the details, whilst I'm sure Tara has heard the full story from Willow. Riley only knows about Spike's presence in Sunnydale since Angel left, so would have no idea that Spike could talk about Angel with such familiarity. After all, there are a lot of vampires in this world and no reason to assume that they all know once another.

            I don't answer Riley's question, as I'm not sure how to. How do you say thanks for all your support honey, but now I'm gonna phone my ex-boyfriend, the evil fiend whom you hate, to give me the help you can't. I just sit there shifting uncomfortably and finally he gets it. He recognises the awkward silence that falls over the room whenever anybody mentions Angel and his face darkens.

            "We don't need him here," Riley announces in a strained voice. "We can sort this problem easily without him. I'll get some of my army buddies to help out."

            Spike gives a derisive snort. "What? The same buddies who last year created a virtually unkillable human/demon/machine hybrid that nearly destroyed the whole town? I think I'd rather take my chances facing the apocalypse, thank you very much."

            "Buffy," Riley turns to me, ignoring Spike. "You don't actually want him to come do you? Not after all the trouble he caused last time."

            I refuse to look into Riley's plaintive eyes, instead staring across the room to where Willow and Tara sit snuggled together. They are so close to one another – best friends as well as lovers. I miss that.

            "I can't face this alone," I tell him.

            He slips an arm around my shoulders pulling me close to him in a hug that is supposed to be reassuring but comes across as needy. "You're not alone. You have me."

            I bite back the first words that come to mind – you're not enough – instead standing up and pulling away from him. "We need some serious help to deal with this, Riley. Now isn't exactly the time to let personal feelings get in the way."

            Willow looks up at me and I suddenly realise how young she is, how young we all are. I need someone older to guide me, to lean on when the going gets rough. I need someone to protect me, rather than the other way round. With Giles gone the group feels unformed, leaderless. We are just a bunch of kids, really, barely out of our teens, dealing with responsibilities far too heavy for us to carry.

            "Do you want someone else to call?" She asks. Willow knows how difficult it is for me to see him and how especially difficult it will be to ask for his help, especially after our words last year. I told him I'd moved on to someone new, that he wasn't a part of my life anymore. God, I even told him I never trusted him then was too pig-headed to apologise for it afterwards. But now none of that matters, now my hand shakes and I know the sound of his voice will steady it for me.

            "It's okay Will," I shake my head. "I can do it." I glance around at the expectant faces lining the room, then decide I should do this in private. Excusing myself, I head upstairs, ignoring the very bizarre feeling of sitting on Giles' bed, and pick up the phone receiver from his bedside cabinet. The new number Giles gave to me a few weeks ago springs easily to my mind and my fingers fly over the digits, even though I have never dialled them in this order before. I hear ringing on the other end of the line and hold my breath, waiting for him to answer…

Angel:

            The shrill ringing of the phone shatters the quiet of the hotel and rudely jolts me out of my reverie. I can't remember what I was thinking about, but that's hardly unusual. I often sink deep inside myself, images from the past dancing through my subconscious. I relive my time as Angelus and sometimes even my time as Liam, relishing the pain these memories bring, because sometimes I think that pain is the only emotion I have left to feel. I can spend hours just sitting – brooding Cordelia calls it – because being a vampire, time is the one gift I have. Or maybe it's a curse – I don't know anymore. In the years after my soul was first restored I would spend whole decades like this, huge chunks of time I have no memory of, because I spent them living in my own head.

            After meeting Buffy I came out of myself. I began to take notice of the present again, because now there were things there I wanted to see. Once you've lived long enough, time becomes relative to how you occupy it. One hundred years passed in a blur for me and yet the few months I spent with Buffy seemed to last for an eternity. I forgot the past then. I ignored it, pretended it didn't matter, and I paid for it. I am still paying for it now, as memories rise up to claim me. The abstract nightmares seem to take physical form, pulling at me with insistent hands, their immense weight dragging me down into the darkness once more.

            Today, I think my musings lead me back to the eighteenth century, some time with Darla, anyway. I know this because I can still sense her presence lingering in the air around me. I imagine I catch the scent of the rose water she used to dab on her pulse points – a ridiculous ritual since she had no pulse anyway. The phone is still ringing, its harsh mechanical sound shocking to me in comparison to the historical images my mind has been conjuring up. I don't think I will ever get used to the modern world – its obsession with technology is something completely unfathomable to me. I wonder why Cordelia isn't answering the phone, then I remember she's not here today – none of them are, it's just me.

            I feel suddenly and irrationally vulnerable. What if it's a client, someone needing help? Demon killing I can handle. I'm even getting good at the detective work – smash a few faces into walls, see what answers fall out of them – pretty easy stuff, really. Then there's the searching through musty tomes aspect of the job, and considering the musty tomes in question are actually what I proudly refer to as my antique book collection, I don't exactly mind this task either. But dealing with the clients – the victims – soothing their hysteria and reassuring them everything is going to be all right, well, that's not particularly what I excel at. To paraphrase Cordelia, I suck at it. My people skills are seriously hampered by the fact I'm not a person. But then isn't my humanity one of the areas I'm supposed to be working on here?

            I hurry across into the next room and snatch up the receiver of the phone, raising it hesitantly to my face.

            "Angel Investigations," I answer, cringing even as I say the words. I wish Cordelia had thought up another title for our business, preferably one that didn't feature my name in it. I like to keep a low profile and calling a company after myself isn't the best way to achieve that. In fact I hate the whole idea of it being a business at all. If people are paying me to help them, then I'm hardly discharging my debt to society am I? But that's an argument I could never win with Cordelia and I need her too much to risk upsetting her. She is a vital part of the firm, not only for her visions but also for her humanising influence.

            I realise the person on the end of the phone hasn't spoken yet. Then suddenly it hits me – I can feel her even down the phone line. I strain my hearing to catch her shallow, regular breathing, its rhythm one I would recognise anywhere. It is ridiculous to be this certain about something when there is absolutely no evidence of it, but I can't help it. I know it's her; I sense it in the dead space where my heart used to beat.

            "Buffy?"

            A small nervous giggle sounds in my ear, followed by a whispered "Hi."

            "Are you okay?" I ask, trying not to let the concern that utterly fills me become too obvious in my voice. "Did something happen?"

            There is another long pause, during which I practically have to bite my lip to stop myself jumping in with more questions, more demands about her welfare. I know she has to tell me this in her own time, though, so I wait for her to speak and finally she does.

            "Yeah, something happened." She takes a deep breath. "We-found-this-prophecy-and-demons-are-going-to-end-the-world-and-we-tried-to-stop-them-but-there-was-a-fire-and-Giles-and-Xander-are-really-sick-and-I-can't-deal-with-this-on-my-own-"

            She interrupts her virtually incoherent mumbling to choke out a stifled sob and I am filled with an overwhelming urge to gather her in my arms and wipe away her tears, to protect her from ever knowing pain or danger again. But clearly I can't, because she is on the phone to me, from two hours away, and I never protected her from hurt, anyway, I only brought more.

            "Shush, Buffy," I murmur. "It's okay, it's all right."

            "Can you come?" She says in a small voice and I realise how much it must be hurting her pride to be asking me for help and how bad things must be there for her to need it.

            "I'll be there as soon as I can." I think maybe there is a sigh of relief on the other end of the line as I say the words, but it's probably just my imagination, or my wishful thinking. "Everything's going to be fine, Buffy," I reassure her. "You know that, right?"

            "Thanks," she replies and I hear the smile in her voice. It is followed by the telltale click of the receiver being replaced, as Buffy hangs up. I stand there for a while, just listening to the hum of the dialling tone, before putting down my own phone and moving into action.

End of Part One