A/N: "the Passion of Angels and Demons" began in 2007, on scraps of notebook paper hidden from teachers while I was supposed to be paying attention in class. It's grown a lot since then, and become a project so consuming I've had to take great breaks from it. This is the longest, however, and it's something I deeply apologize for. I didn't mean to set the pen down in 2010; however, circumstances dictated a long break from writing of any kind. The most serious I've managed in the years that this story has been dormant has been in the whimsical musical world of Glee.

In a lot of ways, this year has been full of new beginnings for me. It's with that spirit that I finally set out to finish not only this chapter, but this story and its sequel. We are nearing the end of Passion, finally and forever.

I could write a terribly maudlin note about my apologies for the delay, but I'm more interested in telling the story. It's with no small amount of pride and hope that I finally present this chapter to you readers.

Warning (Please Read): I deeply respect Angelus as a villain. He is an artist of torture, both physical and psychological, and was one of the only truly scary bad guys in Buffy's seven years of slaying. In that respect, this chapter does explore that darkness. There are things in here that may be extreme – I have rated this story as M for a reason: it's meant for a mature audience. I'm not saying that the pages will be soaked with gore, but we are dealing with vampires. Expect some bloodshed.

This chapter is, as always, dedicated to my readers, especially those who take the time to review. Thank you for sticking with me this far, and I hope that these final chapters are worth it for you.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

the Passion of Angels and Demons

Chapter XXV—

The Madness of the Vampire King, Part II: The Angels' Lament

Businessman: The thing I remember most is thinking how...artful it was. In the dark, it looked just like they were sleeping. It wasn't until I bent down and kissed them goodnight that I felt how...cold they were. You grabbed me, and I thought: Who would go to so much trouble to arrange them like that?

Margaret: But you see, that's what makes you different than other beasts. They kill to feed, but you took more kinds of pleasure in it than any creature that walks or crawls!

The First Evil (in the form of Angelus' victims), from "Amends" (Written by Joss Whedon)

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For two weeks, Xander's world was blissfully normal. He got up on Monday and went to school with Giles, in a routine that was quickly becoming dear to Xander's heart (not that he'd ever let Giles know that). In the afternoons, he studied in the library with the entire Scooby Gang as they bothered Buffy and Giles, who were still making plans, though they shut up whenever Xander was in the room. He figured they were doing something about Angelus, and he chose to ignore their plans as well. Ever since the thing with the Claim scar, he hadn't thought about Angelus nearly as much, and he was becoming addicted to those hours of daylight where he would wake up as a normal guy.

The Scooby Gang got more griping and gossiping done than studying, though Willow kept them on-track as their exams were only a month and a half away. It was hard to feel pressured, though. The Hellmouth had been unusually quiet for more than a week, and with no demons du jour to research or dispose of, the long, lazy days of early summer heat had Xander feeling as languid as a cat napping in a sunbeam. As Cordelia ruthlessly pointed out, however, the smile on his face when the afternoons rolled around were about more than just the weather, as every afternoon at around 4:30 Mitch Johnson walked into the library to pick Xander up.

They never went to the same place twice – different spots on the beach, different parks, Mitch's living room, Xander's living room, the library, the woods. Mitch wanted Xander to practice controlling his powers both indoors and out, as well as learning small magic stuff that went with novice training. Xander felt like he was finally taking the reins back in his hands to control where his life was going. As he began to stir up breezes around him, block Willow out of his mind with a form of mental electricity, raise electricity in the air and bring down summer showers, Xander felt like something was waking up within him, a song primal in its beauty and half-remembered but never fully forgotten. It was like that strange, dark place within him that he'd always been aware of and that...he had woken up with disastrous results was no longer so dark. Xander became less afraid of that part of himself, less forceful in pushing it away.

He'd woken up the first Friday after days of lessons with Mitch and picked out one of Cordelia's new outfits, striding into school feeling more confident than he could remember, and other people were picking up on it. Football players who'd shoved him into the lockers every day of his life were leaving him alone, and even Harmony and the Cordettes didn't have a single disparaging remark to say about his appearance (though he did admit to himself that that could be because all of them were still kowtowing around Cordy every time she walked into a room). Indeed, as Willow and Oz snuggled in the library and Buffy alternated between studying schoolwork and studying battle tactics and weaponry, Xander and Cordelia's friendship bloomed.

That Saturday, she drove them to the mall and he put up with shopping with her for an hour before deciding it was time for lunch. They spent a strangely enjoyable lunch hour eating bad mall food and catcalling at various fashion victims, talking about boys and school and friends, leaving demons and Hellmouths out of their world for an entire blissful hour (though Cordelia had to be comforted with chocolate and hugs when she spotted a middle-aged businesswoman who was actually walking in public with a horrendous case of camel toe).

"I miss this, you know," Cordy said finally as they gathered their trash together.

"What?" Xander asked, pausing. She glanced down and plucked at her skirt.

"The normals – me and you. It's so strange thinking of you as anything but normal, but I know that you're not. And what does that make me? I mean, think about it: you're my best friend, and you're a demon, and amongst my circle of true friends I've got a Slayer, a witch, and a werewolf." She ticked them off of her fingers one by one. "And then there's Giles, who gets his own tweedy category."

"Well, Cordy...I think that you're a really strong person," Xander said after a moment. She gave him a look, but he soldiered on. "I mean, look at everything you just listed. How many people do you know who could have friends like that and still run the school the way you do, without wigging out and pulling a Stephen King massacre on the unsuspecting populace and end up in a straightjacket howling about your padded cell?"

"Thank you, I think," Cordelia said acidly.

"And—hey!" Xander said hotly. "I'm not a demon all the way!"

"Whatever," she said loftily. "You're a demon/witch/teenage loser, so take your tossup of which one's worse. Of course, all three in one and you pretty much suck at life."

Xander took the last of his french fries and dumped them, grease and all, in her chocolate milkshake. Cordelia stared at him in rage before taking the milkshake and dumping it on his head, which prompted Xander to smack her in the face with an open packet of ketchup, leaving red streaks of tomato sauce on her perfectly made-up cheek. She shrieked in horror as she whipped out a compact mirror and began inspecting the damage.

"Hey, is this loser bugging you?" asked a big, burly Tommy Hilfiger clone. "Why don't you clear off, you little freak?" He shoved Xander rudely off of his chair.

"Excuse me, poser," Cordelia said coldly, storming to her feet. "No one abuses him but me, understand?"

"Sorry," the mall rat protested, backing up. "It just looked like you didn't want him to—"

"Are you kidding?" She giggled flirtatiously. "We love each other!" She swung her purse onto her shoulder, handily beating Xander round the head as she adjusted it.

"We're bestest of best buds!" Xander agreed, tearing a hole in her designer jeans with a spork as he hauled himself to his feet. They slung their arms around each other's shoulders, digging their fingers in until the other winced in pain, still smiling. At this point, the model had all but run away in the other direction. "Why are all the cute ones morons?" Xander mourned, watching him go.

"Like you can talk, with that Mitch guy trying to get in your pants every time you go out with him," Cordelia snapped waspishly. "Do you have any idea what it's going to cost to fix these jeans?"

"Mitch is not trying to get in my pants!" Xander protested, blushing furiously. "He doesn't like me like that!"

"Men!" Cordelia said, throwing her hands in the air as they started walking toward the exits. "No matter how Bewitched they start getting they still can't figure things like that out!"

"Do you really think..." Xander started, smiling stupidly.

"Xander, I'm fairly certain. And besides, you like him, I know you do," Cordelia said irritably. "You're not the most unattractive catch in Sunnydale; just get over yourself and flirt with him! What's the worst that could happen?"

"Humiliation, teen angst, and country music marathons," Xander answered instantly.

"You're a pathetic bitch," she said sweetly. Xander smiled poisonously and shoved her toward the wall. She straightened herself out and calmly shoulder-rammed him into the drink machines, making a horrendously loud bong noise. They both burst out laughing, until they looked back and saw mall security heading their way with frowns on their faces. Holding hands and slipping on sunglasses, the two headed out into the bright summer air, laughing.

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Buffy met Spike in the ruins of the old factory, after making absolutely certain that she wasn't followed. Neither of them could afford to be found out, or the entire plan that she and Giles were formulating was going to crash down to nothing. As close as she was to success, every single second of planning was crucial, and it was stressing her out big time. Buffy was fine with the research, but usually when it came to slaying it was Giles pointing her in a direction and her punching her way through it. All of this battle planning and cloak-and-dagger with the enemy was giving her a hell of a headache. Still, when she was certain she hadn't been followed and tapped three times on one of the blackened steel columns, her breath caught in something like excitement when Spike appeared out of the shadows.

Even after their first two meetings, it was still unsettling to Buffy how...human Spike could be sometimes: the depth of emotion in his eyes, the nervous way he smoked cigarettes and his knowledge of pop culture and...It almost hurt, how Spike had the potential in him to be the kind of monster that would want to change for the better some day, but Angelus would never be like that. She put the thought out of her head and stepped forward, until they were ten paces apart. She still never came to these meetings without packing weaponry, and she was certain that Spike did the same.

"Tomorrow night," she said finally, breaking the silence. Spike nodded, looking almost jittery. "What is it? Are you still with me?"

"I gave my word, Slayer. I keep that," Spike snapped. "This is hard for me, alright?" He looked away from her, catching himself before he revealed any more weaknesses. She allowed no pity or empathy to show on her face. "Have you put together what's going to happen to me after this, especially if this little plan of yours fails? And what about our other condition?"

"We've got a safe place set up for you – it's a crypt in an abandoned cemetery about a half an hour from Sunnydale. It's got a fridge full of blood that I smuggled out of the hospital for you, and Willow managed to throw a box full of books together from Goodwill." He shot her an evil stare, and she sighed. "Look, I'm doing what I can, okay? I keep my word, too; I said you'd be alive at the end of this and you will be, if you just stay where I put you!"

"And what about the rest?" he asked after a pained silence.

"That part has to be up to you," Buffy said. "We're going in guns blazing and magic hot, which is why you have to get the hell out of there when I say. If you want Drusilla to stay alive, you have to keep her away from the mansion tomorrow night, or she might be caught in the crossfire."

"I'll do what I can. But you understand, Slayer, if she's hurt the deal is off," Spike warned.

"I know," Buffy said quietly. "Now, the last thing we need is timing and to know what kind of defenses he's put up around the mansion."

"Alright," Spike said, relaxing slightly. He moved closer, gesturing with his hands as he spoke. "By about two, most of the vampires will have been let out to hunt. There are two witches in the house, and they pretty much settle down in their room after the witching hour is up. They aren't that strong, so if your witch can knock them out that'll kill the magics shielding the house. That's another reason you need to do this quick; they're talking to other dark witches and warlocks around these parts, and he's planning to put together a whole coven to back him up."

"That's a comforting thought," Buffy commented. "What else?"

"Inside, there are two Ch'thins who worship the ground he walks on," Spike said, sounding strangely bitter. "They mainly stay in the gardens and they guard the door during the day. They hate fire, so if you've still got some of that hellfire potion you whipped up last time, it'll keep 'em there. After that, there are a couple of Kellsnar demons – nasty things, covered in spikes that'll hurt the hell out of you if they catch you with them. They're good fighters, too. Everything else is vampires. Now, vamp-wise, you've gotta watch out for Ella."

"Let me guess – she's the brunette with the moves right out of Enter the Dragon," Buffy ventured, thinking back to the attack in the cemetery.

"Spot-on," Spike acknowledged. "She's a wild card – she doesn't respect Angelus, or act like a newborn should. She's dangerous. And her Sire, Lucy – if she's got a sword in her hand you stay away, because I haven't seen anyone get anywhere near hurting her when she's packing a blade. After that, your greatest threat will be—"

"Angelus," Buffy finished.

"That's right," Spike said quietly. "Listen, Slayer – if I were you, I'd send up as many as you could against everyone else. He's training harder, he's got strength potions in him, a ton of blood, and he's one of the best fighters I know of. You need everything you have to beat him, and then some. Not to mention, he's been right off his rocker the last few days. He looks paranoid as hell, and he's been terrorizing the house. The minions're eatin' it up, but I can tell that he's got a stake up his arse and it's not the kind that's gonna go away any time soon. What about the boy?"

"I'm not telling him about this," Buffy admitted, "until after it's done."

"Won't he be a mite brassed off about that?" Spike asked.

"Oh, he'll be furious," Buffy said, trying to sound lackadaisical and failing miserably. "But the last time he came anywhere near Angelus, he completely lost it. And with him there, Angelus would just be even more focused on getting him back. I want to knock the wind out of Angelus' sails, not put it back. And I can deal with damage control after this is done. But lately the whole claim thing has been fading, or at least Xander's starting to get his life back together or under control. I know that he'll be angry, but if I can just free him from this, maybe we can all move past this."

"Angelus has a way of not letting you move past him, even when he's gone," Spike said, his voice heavy with bitter knowledge.

"I have to try," Buffy said softly, looking down. Spike made a sound, almost like he was going to say something, and she looked up to see one of his hands moving toward her. He came within a hairsbreadth of touching her, before he turned around and vanished into the shadows, leaving her behind with too many thoughts of electric blue eyes and warm brown eyes staring at her in the dark and saying the same thing.

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"I'm really nervous," Willow admitted. She and Oz were sitting at Lover's Lookout, a small promontory in the woods overlooking Sunnydale. It was still getting cool enough at night that there weren't many people there. "I don't know if I can control it, no matter how much practice I've been getting with the spell lately."

"Have you had any more explosive practices with Mitch?" Oz asked, lightly stroking the top of her hand. They were on the hood of his van, their shoulders and hands touching and nothing else. Still, it was an intimate moment for the two of them, and Willow felt tingly down her right side where light touches of Oz were brushing against her.

"No," she said. They were talking in almost-whispers. "They've been really hard, though. I guess I appreciate now that Miss Calendar isn't a formal teacher. There are some things where I feel like I'm walking up a hill with stones strapped to my back, and other times where I feel like I'm a freshman in college sitting through a kindergarten class. But Mitch says that if I don't have patience with the small stuff I'll be bad at the big stuff because I won't know how to control it."

"That's probably true," Oz allowed. "I mean, if you can't control it then it controls you. Isn't that what we were talking about with Xander?"

"You're changing the subject," Willow challenged.

"So are you," Oz returned teasingly, twining their fingers together. "But on my part, I don't worry about it because I trust you, Willow, and I know that when it comes to the people you love being in danger you can do extraordinary things. I think that's why I don't worry about your magic as much as you do: you're strongest when you're working on love. That's why I don't worry, and why I knew that you were going to be able to do that soul spell with Xander and Buffy last month – because you were working from your heart."

"But—"

He silenced her with a light kiss, and Willow sighed happily as his calm, meditative aura washed over hers with the light press of his thin lips on hers. She liked it best when he hadn't shaved in a day or two and his light stubble scratched at her lips in a tickly sort of way. It wasn't a deep kiss, but it held plenty of promise for further days and more kisses in the future, and that more than anything had Willow feeling like she was wrapped in a large, safe, warm hug. The warm moon was waxing in the sky and it made the air feel charged with magic, and she used one of the tricks that Mitch had taught her to bring some of the light of the moon into herself, and Oz opened his eyes in a stunned sort of wonder as Willow tingled through the touch of his skin on hers.

They separated for a moment and sat staring at the stars.

"What else are you worried about?" Oz wondered.

"Xander," Willow admitted. "How he's going to react to all of this...and...whether or not it's going to send him off the deep end. I've felt his power when he loses control of it, Oz. I don't know if we could stop him if it was really him going off, and not some demon possessing thing. And what about Buffy? She's still in love with Angel, even if she thinks that she's started to move past it. If we succeed, she's going to crumble, and I'm going to have to pick up the pieces of that, too, while I'm worrying about Xander. And then there's just general nerves about what we're gonna be up against tomorrow night. It's all so huge, and we have to go meet the plane in a half an hour!"

There was a moment of silence. "Okay, I don't really feel better," Willow said, quieting down.

"It's fine that you feel like this before something this big, Willow," Oz said, squeezing her hand tighter. "It just means that you're human. And like Buffy and Giles and Miss Calendar all said, it's not too late to back out of this. You could take Mitch's place and stay with Xander, and let Mitch be the witch in the mix tomorrow night. No one would blame you or judge you if you thought that you really weren't ready to pull this off."

"It isn't about what others would think," Willow said after a while. "It's about what I would think. I remember when Buffy first came to town, and I first heard about vampires. I almost died that first night, you know, but she rescued me. Xander and I lost our best friend, though. And I told her that I needed to help. And I still do, because, if I don't, then that means that evil wins, because I let it happen when I have the power to stop it. I think that not doing something to stop evil is the same thing as doing evil, and I don't ever want to become someone who just gets bystander syndrome and lets something this huge happen without her just because she gets the wiggins the night before."

"You're a really beautiful person, Willow," Oz whispered.

"You're the only person who's ever said that to me who I believe," Willow answered, and then they kissed again, briefly and sweetly, before they had to get back in the van and run to the airport to complete the next part of Buffy's plan.

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Sunday night, the Scooby Gang met in the library for one of Buffy's training sessions. Buffy wanted them all there for different bits of practice before she had to go have dinner with her mother. Xander and Mitch had spent the afternoon training, though it had been harder and harder for Xander to keep his concentration. Each time his mind connected with Mitch's, he just flashed back to his and Cordelia's conversation in the mall earlier that week and then he'd blush and lose control of whatever task Mitch had set him, before Mitch finally called it to a stop and took them for burgers.

They'd eaten lunch together and talked about movies and music and nothing about magic whatsoever. When Xander's foot brushed against Mitch's under the table, Mitch didn't move his foot away; instead, he brushed back. They'd fallen into a comfortable silence as they played a slow game of footsie under the table, eating their way through fries and sodas, until Mitch finally stood up and drove them to the library. Xander didn't know what was going on between them, but it was light, easy, and safe – it wasn't huge and dramatic, which was perfect. Mitch was becoming more than a close friend, he was becoming a safe harbor against all the dark things in Xander's life that he felt like he was finally, finally leaving behind.

Cordelia had declined to show up and stayed home to study in silence, instead, because she wasn't feeling like watching people spar. Xander wasn't entirely sure what Buffy expected him to do, but Mitch wanted to watch whatever Willow had been working on with him and Miss Calendar, so Xander was here too. He'd probably just hitch a ride home with Giles. So he was surprised when Mitch and Buffy pulled out a pair of swords and started circling each other in the center of the library, which had been cleared out to make room for them.

"Um, Giles," he said nervously, edging toward the wall. "What's going on?"

"Buffy wants to step up her training in weaponry, and Mr. Johnson is an extremely capable fencer, as it turns out," Giles said. "She and I already trained in hand-to-hand, so he's going to let me catch my breath and regain feeling in my limbs before Willow and Jenny arrive."

"Are you sure that's safe?" Xander asked doubtfully, eying the sharp sabers Mitch and Buffy were packing in genuine trepidation.

It's fine, Xan, Mitch thought, playfully nudging at Xander's mind. A bolt of warmth shot up Xander's leg at the thought of the nickname rolling easily from Mitch's voice. Look. As Xander watched, Mitch ran a length of energy that vibrated along the blade from his finger, blocking the sharp edges with magic. The worst this'll do will bruise. I've had worse.

I hope she kicks your cocky ass, Xander shot back, and Mitch looked up and chuckled.

"Did we miss something?" Buffy asked, looking between him and Mitch with furrowed brows. Xander shrugged, and she shot him a droll stare as she took her sword from the Wiccan. "Xander and Mitch, sitting in a tree," she sang under her breath. Mitch looked up, startled, and Buffy took the opportunity to whirl around in a blindingly fast circle to slice straight at his chest. Mitch reacted nearly as quickly as Buffy did with magically-enhanced reflexes, slicing upward in a vicious uppercut that knocked her sword half out of her hand. "Not bad," Buffy acknowledged, and then she attacked.

Xander's breath caught in his throat as Buffy weaved her sword in a blinding fury of steel, Mitch responding with less finesse but equal brutality. It was a dance that had a goal of death, intricate in its beauty and almost sad in its performance. Xander thought that he might have been converted to a fan of fencing by the end of it. Mitch was a tricky fighter, using his free fist and his feet as much as his sword to beat Buffy back into a retreat, though Buffy soon learned to avoid this and employed her days as a cheerleader to use gymnastics to flip over boundaries and attacks with equal grace, striking at Mitch in his weak and unprotected points.

It seemed like it had gone on forever before Mitch bodyslammed her into the wall, knocking the air out of her, and held his sword directly at her throat, the magical edge shielding the weapon falling away. "You're dead, Slayer," he informed her formally.

"I'm not alone," Buffy sang out, and he glanced down in surprise to see that she had her sword poised to stab directly up through his gut and into his sternum to pierce his heart. Mitch chuckled and shrugged gracelessly as he backed up, tossing his sword with a tired fling onto one of the tables they'd fought past during the half-hour long bout.

"That was pretty impressive for a girl who hasn't had years of formal training," Mitch praised her. "You pick up on your enemies' moves pretty fast."

"Just one of those weird little survival skills I picked up here and there," Buffy shrugged. She took a long drink out of her water bottle. "It's been awhile since I've had a swordfight with someone who can keep up with me – no offense, Giles," she said, glancing apologetically in his direction.

"None taken," Giles said, sipping tea. "That was a very impressive fight, Buffy; you're improving at a remarkable rate."

"Good," Buffy said darkly, but when Xander shot her a questioning look, she didn't elaborate. Instead, Mitch came over, almost strutting – was he showing off?

"That was pretty cool," Xander admitted.

"Well, you know, I'm a bit rusty," Mitch said, shrugging in what Xander was now fairly certain was false modesty. "I'd've had her if I'd been in practice."

"Well, Mr. Johnson," Xander said, wide-eyed, "from your tone I'd almost think that you weren't all that keen on the fact that a girl kicked your ass without any magic helping her out."

"She is the Slayer, you know," Mitch said, affronted.

"Excuses, loser," Xander teased mercilessly. "Too bad you didn't win, because then you'd get a prize."

"There were prizes for winning?" Mitch asked, smiling at him. His green-hazel eyes were twinkling in that special way that they had, and Xander flushed slightly as he continued.

"There's always a prize for winning," Xander said quietly.

"Well, who gives out these prizes?" Mitch questioned, moving closer.

"Since I'm usually watching, me," Xander said. Mitch's eyes were very close.

"Maybe if I'd known that, I'd've fought harder," Mitch breathed.

"Maybe," Xander said softly. Mitch was so close and he smelled so good...The library door opened with a swish and a bang and then they were both jumping away from each other, leaning casually against the library counter as if nothing had happened, as if Xander's hands weren't sweaty and Mitch's cheeks weren't flushed and Xander's heart wasn't beating at a million miles a minute. Xander looked up in an effort to distract himself and saw Willow and Jenny Calendar walking into the library. Willow waved brightly, and Xander waved back. When he turned around, he caught Buffy turning away from him, a look of almost-pain on her face as she turned back to Giles to discuss something in a quiet voice.

Mitch's hand caught his, lightly brushing against his, and Xander turned to him with a question on his face. "You know, if I didn't know better, I'd think that you were trying to distract me."

"Distract you from what?" Mitch asked, his eyes a little too wide, but Willow came over before Xander could press his questioning any further. "Are you ready for tonight, Willow?" Mitch asked, his voice bright and cheerful and clear of the quiet intimacy of a moment before.

"I'm pretty sure," Willow said, sounding unreasonably anxious.

"So everything's ready?" Buffy asked, coming out of Giles' office. When Willow nodded, Xander finally jumped up.

"Okay – what is going on? You guys have been all secret-having all week, and it's really starting to wig me out! And stop trying to distract me!" Xander glared in Mitch's direction, who subsided. Xander was surprised at how hurt he felt at the suspicion that Mitch's attention his way had just been smoke and mirrors, and he waved the thought away.

"Way to give away your surprise party," Mitch said, and Xander paused.

"My what?" he asked, confused.

"Your birthday is coming up soon, isn't it?" Mitch continued.

"Oh," Xander said, feeling somewhat stupid.

"Yeah, dummy," Buffy said, smiling. "Happy birthday."

"Well, I mean, surprise parties have never gone well around us," Xander stammered. "I had reason for wigging out! Do you remember the clown, Willow?"

"The clown!" Willow cried, bursting into laughter.

"It's not funny!" Xander snapped.

"Yes it is!" Willow wheezed.

"You suck," Xander complained.

"Why don't you go ahead and head home, Xander," Buffy suggested, slinging her arm around Willow's shoulders.

"Okay," Xander said after a moment. He had the oddest thought that Willow's laughter was forced, but it passed from his mind when Mitch smiled and offered him a ride home. Xander accepted.

As Mitch drove through the streets of Sunnydale toward the center of town where Giles' apartment was located, Xander was quiet, trying to ignore the way his eyes would sometimes meet Mitch's when he flicked his gaze over to the driver's side of the car. It was somehow intimate, this silence, as Mitch sat not two feet from him and drove him home after spending the day together, almost like...a date. Xander blushed at the thought and rolled his window down to feel the warm air rolling sultry over his skin.

When they rolled into the parking lot of the apartment complex, Mitch got out and walked Xander to the front door, and Xander wasn't inclined to ask him why. Instead, they paused on the doorstep and Mitch sighed. "The moon is nearly full," he said after a moment.

"The flowers in the garden will bloom brighter tonight," Xander said, remembering something Mitch had told him on one of their lessons.

"Do you want to see something?" Mitch asked, his eyes glittering in a way that sent shivers down Xander's spine.

"Yes," Xander whispered. Mitch smiled as he took Xander's hand in his large, warm hand, and led him toward the garden, away from the porch light and into the white natural light of the moon. Mitch gave Xander another smile that wasn't easily read as he put their joined hands on the edge of the trellis, and whispered something Xander couldn't hear. Xander felt something warm and bubbly shoot through him as his aura connected with Mitch's once more, and then it was like everything in front of him was glowing with diamond-like lights as the flowers burst into bloom around them, filling the garden with fragrance and making Xander catch his breath with a gasp.

Do you like it? Mitch whispered in his mind, stepping behind him and letting his nose be tickled by Xander's hair. In answer, Xander turned toward Mitch and called on his power from behind the leash of control they'd been working on. Mitch watched in something like awe as the wind stilled around them, whirling warmly and soothingly close to them as it bowed to Xander's whim, curling around them and lifting the flower petals that had fallen to the ground in a hazy curtain around the two of them, closing them off from the rest of the world.

Mitch was awfully close, Xander thought, and then Mitch's mouth was on his, and Xander felt a bolt of something shoot from his lips all the way through his body. Mitch was warm and his lips were surprisingly soft, never pressing Xander to open his mouth or deepen the kiss, instead content with lightly massaging Xander's lips with his own. It was a kiss blessed with the thrum of the magic in the air around them, unbearably sweet and tingling with the kind of power of the heart that despite everything he'd been through Xander still knew nothing about.

When the kiss broke, they both sighed with the loss of it.

"I shouldn't have done that," Mitch said softly, but he was still holding Xander loosely in his arms.

"Why?" Xander asked.

Mitch smiled and leaned in, stealing another kiss, before he trailed his lips along the side of Xander's mouth to lay a small one on Xander's cheek. "You should get inside, Xan," he said instead.

"I'll see you tomorrow?" Xander asked.

"Tomorrow night," Mitch whispered. "Good night."

"Good night," Xander said softly, as Mitch left up the stairs and out of the courtyard. When he walked inside, Xander felt like he was floating to bed on a cloud.

888

"Buffy," Willow said softly, after they'd finished training. Willow, Jenny, Oz and Giles were seated around the central table while Buffy toweled herself off and drank some water. "I'm...I just..." she fumbled for words, and Buffy sighed as she took her seat at the head of the table.

"Willow, you know why I told you not to include Xander in any of this, right?" Buffy asked. Willow nodded miserably. "Look, Wills – I know how hard this is for you; I love Xander, too! But after what happened in the cemetery, we can't risk it. And you're right," Buffy continued, before Willow could speak. "It isn't fair to Xander. But I've been researching the Claim that Angelus did, and – it's bad, Willow. Other than his own feelings, Xander and Angelus are connected on some inner mystical level that magic can't even undo once it's done. That's why Xander had the breakdown in the cemetery, because when it comes to Angelus he can't see straight. And if we were facing off against Angelus, and Xander lost it, and suddenly we had to fight Angelus and Xander gone off the deep end?"

"I know, Buffy," Willow said. She picked at the table. "But sometimes when it comes to Angelus, you don't see straight, either."

There was a somber silence in the library as Buffy gathered her thoughts. "You're right," she said finally. "I'm still not over Angel. I don't know if I ever will be. And when it comes to thinking of putting that stake in his heart, I start shaking and I start doubting whether or not I'm going to be able to do it." She stood up, looking away from all of them. "But when I was in Xander's mind with Angelus, I saw it: what Angel and I had was an illusion. And it was that illusion that lost Angel his soul in the first place. And every single dead body we've found since then landed at my feet.

"And now, he's taken Xander, and torn any chance of a normal life away from him. I'm not gonna lie to any of you. Angelus is the worst enemy we've ever gone up against. And if you think that I'm not scared about tomorrow night, you're dead wrong. I'm beyond terrified. I don't need to tell you how dangerous Angelus is on his own. But that's not what we're up against. We're up against demons, witches, and vampires – and I'm not talking the usual 'grr argh' snap snap vamps we take out everyday; I'm talking full-fledged, trained, loyal to the death vampires, and Drusilla, and maybe more. The only reason – the only reason this plan is going forward is because we've got three huge surprises on our hands, and if we had any less than that, we wouldn't be doing this at all. But this is our best chance: if we do this now, we can stop him from taking over this entire town.

"So, that's why I've gotta do this," Buffy continued, turning to face them with tears in her eyes. "Because I want to see Xander smiling the way that he used to, and I want my friends to be able to sleep at night without checking that the spells keeping things out of their houses are working, and for parents to be able to send their children to the park even after the sun has gone down because they aren't afraid that demons have taken over their town. And if I get that one smile, and that one night when no one dies and children get older, then everything I've done and everything I've been through is worth it. I'm the Slayer, and this is the choice that I've got to make – but you're not."

She knelt down next to Willow, who was watching her with shining eyes, and took her hand. "Willow, you don't have to do this. Jenny could do it for you, or even Mitch has said that he could step in for you if you want to take his place in all this. If you're too scared, or you have too many doubts, then I want you to know that no one is going to make you do this."

"I've got to do this," Willow said strongly, clenching Buffy's hand. "I'm stronger than Mitch is, Buffy, even if I'm not as trained. And I'm your best shot at getting this done."

"We're behind you, all the way," Oz said firmly, and Giles and Jenny nodded.

"Good," Buffy said, standing up and wiping her eyes. "Then we all need to get home and sleep tonight, because tomorrow is going to be a long day. We meet back here at one tomorrow night, and then we move out." Giles was the last to leave the library, turning to stare back at it with an odd light in his eyes as he switched the light off and then turned to follow his Slayer home.

888

"He kissed you?!" Cordelia demanded, nearly leaping up and down in excitement. Xander shot a dark look around the school hallways. "Yes!"

"Yes, he did, and tell the entire school, why don't you," Xander said acidly.

"What was it like? Is he as good as he looks?" she asked gleefully, scattering passerby away from her with a regal strut. Xander followed along behind her, sending bemused glances at the near-worshipful awe that filled people's eyes as Cordelia Chase reigned over them all with a cold fist.

"Yes, actually, he is," Xander said loftily. "And it was...really, really romantic."

"And you're going out again tonight, of course," Cordelia said. "Which means I get to take you home to pick out your wardrobe."

"I dress fine!" Xander protested hotly. "And besides, it's not like we're going out on a date. We're going to train!"

"And there's every opportunity for you to get hot and sweaty and fall into each other's arms and/or lips," Cordelia pressed ruthlessly. "You wait. We'll have him eating candy from your hand by the end of an hour when I'm done with you."

Xander followed behind her with far more trepidation than when he'd first began talking to her.

8

The day passed by with blessed quickness, and Xander tried not to be hurt when both Willow and Buffy were absent. Giles had said they were both worn out from training the night before, but Xander couldn't fight the sneaking suspicion that they were planning something without him, and that it wasn't a birthday party. Cordelia ignored his suspicions and instead began planning everything from his wardrobe to Mitch's reactions to how the night was going to go, shutting up when Giles asked them why they were talking about Mr. Johnson in such low voices.

Even Jenny shot him a droll stare at that one, but Xander just smiled.

By the time the evening had rolled around, Cordelia had driven Xander home, forced him to take an hour long shower, and then dressed him in eight different outfits before finally settling on black slacks and a white undershirt that was thin enough that Xander could see his own nipples, which Cordelia assured him was a good thing. She then attacked his hair until it was stylishly tousled and shoved his feet in leather shoes before sitting back with a satisfied sigh and announcing herself queen.

"Is there anything else?" Xander asked her through gritted teeth.

"Fetch me something chocolate from your refrigerator," she commanded, snapping her fingers. Xander sighed and left to do her bidding, but he didn't miss the way that she gave him her unguarded smile, the smile that so few people actually were allowed to see beneath her regal demeanor. He snagged two 3 Musketeers bars from the fridge and took one for himself. As they chewed, they reclined on his bed, their shoulders touching. Her silky brown hair smelled like jasmine as it spread out on his pillow, and Xander sighed in comfort.

"So, have you decided what to do about Perry?" Xander asked.

"What do you mean?" Cordelia responded, resolutely taking a chunk out of her candy bar.

"You know: the obnoxiously puppy-cute sophomore that worships you with his eyes every time you walk into a room?"

"Oh, that Perry," Cordelia said, feigning indifference.

"Oh, so you really do like him!"

"Shut up or I'll poison you," she warned. "And, I don't know what I want to do. The last puppy-cute boy I allowed to date me turned out to be a gay demon-witch-freak." She nudged him with her elbow.

"Well, not everyone that goes to Sunnydale High is a demon, Cordy, and I have it on locker-room authority that Perry's strictly into skirts," Xander joked, nudging back.

"Are you so sure? Every time we turn around, someone's a demon, a witch, a werewolf, a Slayer, a vampire, a giant insect, a reincarnated mummy, a Frankenstein-like creation...must I continue?"

"You left out Willow's brief engagement to a demon-possessed robot," Xander reminded her.

"Go to hell," Cordy responded without heat.

"We live there," Xander said cheerfully. "And I'm not letting you dodge the question that easily. It takes more than wordplay to get rid of me!" When the doorbell rang, Cordelia laughed meanly as Xander darted toward the door.

"No, it just takes the right piece of hot ass," she remarked, trailing behind him.

"Oh, god, do I look okay? What if—" Xander started. Cordelia shot him a scathing look and he shut up, and then she opened the door. Mitch was standing there in a pair of uncharacteristically dark pants and a white button-up, and she smiled brilliantly.

"Oh, look, it's Mitch. What a shock. Xander, leave now." She physically hurled Xander from his apartment with a cheery shove and slammed the door shut and locked it behind him before he could turn around. Mitch caught him, and Xander had a moment of warmth as Mitch's arms automatically wrapped around him before steadying him and letting him go.

"Did she just lock you out of your own house?" Mitch asked, nonplussed.

"She's Cordelia," Xander said, by way of explanation. Mitch just chuckled and shook his head as he led Xander out of the courtyard, the brilliant red light of the setting sun making the flowers look as if they had burst into bloom as red as Xander's heart.

888

"Buffy, what's wrong?" Joyce asked from the doorway. Her daughter was sitting on a chest that was set up next to her window, silent as if meditating as she watched the blood-red sunset fire Revello Drive. Joyce knew without being told that Buffy was staring at the Sutters' house, and she sighed as she walked into the bedroom and lightly rubbed Buffy's shoulders. Buffy sent her a vague smile before watching the sun, almost as if waiting for something, but dreading it at the same time. The same feeling of indefinable dread that had held Joyce throughout her work at the gallery today gripped her once more, as if something were brewing around her daughter that would snatch her away.

It was a feeling that she had almost gotten used to, these past two years. Ever since the bad times, the troubles, as Joyce sometimes thought of them. It was hard not to blame yourself as a parent for your child's misbehavior, but somehow Joyce knew that there was more to the nightmare that had been their final months in Los Angeles than her and Hank's divorce. Children lashed out, especially during divorces...but a mediocre student and a hot cheerleader who was the most popular student at school gaining advanced martial arts techniques, taking on a roving gang and setting fire to the school gym while there were still students reported inside? Something had happened – something fundamental and irreversible had changed in her daughter's life, and Joyce felt completely powerless to stop it.

And now, in Sunnydale, that small, quiet little town that was supposed to be their fresh start, it was all happening all over again, but worse this time. Something had happened here, around Buffy's seventeenth birthday, that had changed her. She was now eerily like an adult, and as she watched her once bright and bubbly daughter sit in the window and watch another day die with cynicism, all Joyce wanted to do was have Buffy do a stupid cartwheel, or dress up in her Power Girl costume. She settled for sitting down behind her daughter and holding her tightly to her breast, as if she could somehow fix everything that she couldn't put into words.

"Be careful, Buffy," she whispered into Buffy's soft, golden hair. "I don't know why I'm saying this, but...come back to me, always."

"I love you, too, mommy," Buffy whispered, and neither of the Summers women said anything else after that. Instead, they watched the sun set, until night descended, and Buffy announced that she was going over to Willow's house to study for the final exams. Joyce watched her walk down the street through her upstairs window, and just when she thought that Buffy was going to turn off of their road, Buffy turned back, briefly, and surveyed the house and Joyce's lit window, almost as if she were reassuring herself that it was still there...or as if she were saying goodbye.

Joyce fought the irrational urge to run out and drag Buffy back home and lock her in her bedroom. She couldn't protect her daughter from everything in the world, and Buffy was no longer her little girl. Joyce burst into tears and went downstairs to sit by the phone with a cup of hot chocolate, even though she knew that Buffy wouldn't be home until tomorrow morning and no one would be calling.

888

Mitch was silent on the drive over, and Xander was starting to get so nervous that he didn't know what to say to break the silence that was fast growing awkward. Mitch drove them to a spot they'd been to before, on the beach, and as they stepped out of his car the first stars were beginning to shine in the heavens. Xander wasn't sure how nervous he was until he wiped his sweaty palms on his pants and left behind two wet patches. He took a deep breath and followed Mitch toward the waves, stirred up by the wind that Xander's own mind was conjuring without bidding. He had to take a deep breath and relax into a moment of deep concentration, fighting his emotions back until the breeze subsided.

"You've come a long way since we've started training," Mitch noted. "Two weeks ago, you wouldn't have been able to do that."

"You're leaving," Xander finished for him, feeling his heart plummet when Mitch nodded. The other man turned and grasped Xander's hands in his, and Xander was surprised to find that Mitch's palms were as sweaty as his were. Mitch was nervous about this, too.

"Xander...I shouldn't have kissed you, last night. I'm your teacher, and with the link we've established...it would be wrong, it would be taking advantage of you," Mitch said firmly.

"Shouldn't I be the one to decide whether or not I think I'm being taken advantage of?" Xander fumbled, not even sure that he'd said a sentence but then deciding that he didn't really care.

"Xander...you still love him – Angel," Mitch said softly, and Xander froze, feeling like he'd been gutpunched. "It's in your soul, and the way I feel about you, I'm not sure that you could return it. And I don't want to stay, to jeopardize your training, if...I don't know if I'm saying this right," Mitch said in frustration, turning toward the ocean and combing his fingers through his hair.

"Weren't we supposed to be training now?" Xander grated out, and he saw and felt Mitch stiffen before turning around with closed-off eyes and nodding finally.

For the next few hours, as the time ticked past the witching hour, the two of them went through the motions of magic and control, power concentration and weather manipulation, and Xander tried to keep his mind away from Mitch's, making what was usually a joyous experience something almost cold and dead. The workout was strenuous, but the sweat felt good, and neither were inclined to give an inch in what was almost feeling like a battle. Xander's thoughts were swirling in a morass of confusion. Was Mitch right to pull away from him? Was he, Xander, in fact 'damaged goods,' as it were? The thought of stringing Mitch along only to pull the rug out from under him was enough to make Xander's stomach churn in guilt and confusion.

He wanted to be angry with Mitch for surprising him like that, for just hitting him with that without any thought or warning. But if even mentioning Angel had Xander on the ropes, wasn't Mitch right to say that Xander couldn't reciprocate the deeper feelings that Mitch had hinted at? Xander hadn't had the most experience when it came to relationships to begin with, and he wasn't sure where to turn. But what bothered him most was the idea that Mitch just might have more than a point: Mitch could very well be right.

Angel was gone, and it was a harsh and brutal truth. What was left was a psychotic murderer masquerading through the Hellmouth with Angel's face, using it to lure people to their deaths. Xander's feelings on Angelus were so confused, so filled with bitterness and desire that he felt caught in a painful, snaring net. But had he ever felt in love with Angelus? Attached to him, certainly – almost like obsession, really, his relationship with the vampire. And that was what Angelus felt when he looked at him – obsession. And it was dark, and brutal, and it made that dark part within Xander sing with joy...but there wasn't those feelings that had swelled within Xander like a symphony the night before when Mitch had kissed him. When Angelus kissed him, it was with passion, with intent, with demand; whatever Xander responded with Angelus took greedily and demanded more. But Mitch's kiss had been soft, and it didn't press for anything Xander wasn't ready for.

The closest experience that Xander had even had to that was that bittersweet kiss with Angel in that hazy, dreamlike meadow he'd found himself in when he had been possessed, and that wasn't even real. But Mitch was real, hiding his hurt behind hazel-green eyes whenever their skin met, and his kiss had sent bolts of electricity through Xander's whole body, and that had been real.

This whole time, Xander had been trying to move past that dark place his heart had been in when he'd been in Angelus' possession. And could he truly say that he had moved on, that he had been set free, if he kept his heart closed off? Angel was gone, and there was nothing that could bring him back. And even if they could bring Angel back, he would just be with Buffy, wouldn't he? Angel didn't love him. And Xander could continue chasing the ghost of unrequited love, surrender to the vampire who wanted to possess his body, mind and soul, or...he could take the leap into the unexpected sunlight and see where it took him.

Xander felt the salt of the sea on his brow, and tried to decide whether to jump or to run, even as the full moon rose with burning white radiance over the sea, a goddess keeping watch over her children and charging the night air with magic.

888

By two o'clock that morning, Buffy was on her stomach atop a large grass hill, watching the entrance to Angelus' mansion fortress with eyes like a hawk. Her stomach dropped at the first obstacle to her possibly suicidal plan, as the Ch'thin demons guarding the front door took position. Spike had said that it was entirely possible that they'd be home, but she'd been hoping against hope that they would be out terrorizing the populace elsewhere. She forced herself to breathe, to calm herself back down. She had fully expected every obstacle to be thrown at her tonight, and she had sworn to face them all down. As the full moon rose higher in the sky, lighting the way, Buffy clenched her fists and waited for the final piece of the puzzle to fall into place – for the King of the Vampires to return.

Buffy's entire body was thrumming with tension. She felt like a bowstring drawn back taut against a hunter's arm. She checked once more to make sure that everyone was in position, the way that they'd mapped out. She felt the slight tingle on her skin of Willow's magic, and she instantly checked the upstairs window. A light went out, and she huddled further down on the hill – that was Spike's sign. She turned her head and squinted, and there, on the road, coming back toward the house, was Angelus. Buffy fought down the usual lancet of pain she felt in her heart at the sight of him as he strode toward the mansion. She was no longer Buffy, she was the Slayer, and she had work to do.

Closing her eyes and taking one last, deep breath, Buffy unsheathed her sword and stood at the top of the hill, leaping down and landing nimbly not ten feet in front of Angelus, her blade directed toward his heart.

"Buffy," he said, and she had the brief pleasure of seeing the flicker of surprise across his face before his emotions hid themselves again; Willow's spell had worked.

"Mitch," Buffy said, waiting until they were alone in the library. "I have a question for you."

"Sure," he said easily, cracking open a soda can. He offered her a sip and she waved her hand. "What do you need?"

"You've been working with Xander, being able to control his powers – like wind, right?"

"Yes," he said slowly, sitting back and regarding her.

"So that means that you could maybe cast a spell to shift the direction of the wind – to hide someone's scent from an animal—"

"Or a vampire," Mitch acknowledged.

"Any way that you could teach that spell to Willow?" Buffy asked, leaning in closer.

"That's a nice piece of equipment," Angelus said admiringly. "In fact, that looks like a weapon from the Watchers' Vaults."

"I'm impressed," Buffy said softly, lowering the blade so that the moonlight caught it, glinting off of the magical symbols it had been blessed with to protect her from harm.

"You should be," Angelus said coldly. "I killed the Slayer who tried to use it the first time."

"Giles, I need more than a stake for this," Buffy said, pacing through Giles' living room. The rest of the gang were out at the Bronze, and she would need to be meeting them soon. She couldn't approach any of them yet, not while this plan was still taking place. "I need a Slayer's weapon; something that'll give me an edge."

"I had thought of that," Giles said slowly. "Buffy, how refreshed are you on your swordplay?"

"Swordplay?"

"In the vaults of the Watchers' Council," Giles said, standing up and going to his office to fetch a large, dusty book, "there is a sword – a very old, very powerful weapon that was enchanted to protect its user. A Slayer once tried to use it against Angelus, actually, though he defeated her."

"If he already beat it, then why should we try it?" Buffy asked, looking at the illustration Giles put in front of her. The sword itself was a thing of beauty, with arcane symbols carved over it.

"Because that Slayer – she was very young, and she'd just come into her powers in the south of France – merely found the sword. Her Watcher wrote of its powers, but he never wrote in any of his Journals whether or not he actually used the magic of the sword, or, woke it up," Giles said, leaning forward. "And now that we have Mr. Johnson here, in Sunnydale—"

"Then I get a magic sword," Buffy finished.

"I know," Buffy said. "She was only fourteen. You're playing with me now." She tightened her grip on the handle, but not enough to endanger her of losing feeling in her fingers. Angelus was watching her every move like a hawk, and he slowly began to circle her, his gait loose and predatory. Buffy felt the light tingle of the magic in the blade race up her arm. The weapon was enchanted to protect her in battle; if she was wounded it wouldn't help, but according to Giles and Mitch it would more than give her an edge in a fight.

"So, here you are, little girl," Angelus whispered, his voice sibilant as his game-face emerged and his viciously cruel fangs descending. "Walking right into my lair. Tired of being toyed with like the mouse you are. But now you have to fight the lion."

"I'm not afraid of you anymore," Buffy said, moving lightly, keeping him in her sights but not allowing herself to be maneuvered closer to the mansion.

"Then why is your heart pounding?" Angelus asked, smiling coldly. He hefted his sword and spun in artfully, but Buffy spied a near-tremble in his movements: bravado. She declined to answer him, and instead took a step forward, ending the circling and posturing, and bent at the knees, assuming an ancient Chinese stance as she lifted her blade above her head, holding it in an artful pose. She went as still as a mannequin and stayed there, waiting.

Unnerved, Angelus sneered at her, and then sprang into movement, moving like the demon that he was as he swung his sword down with all of his might at her...but Buffy simply wasn't there. In a move more from a dance than a fight, Buffy easily sidestepped his attack, feeling the swoosh of displaced air as his murderously sharp weapon split the air to the side of her. Angelus stared almost dumbly as his sword bounced off of the asphalt in front of him, and glanced down at his arm, which was bleeding freely – in her swirl, Buffy had sliced clean through the leather of his overcoat and slashed his skin almost to the bone.

"Tai chi? Giles, I'm not working out with him!" Buffy protested as Giles tossed her a sword.

"Tai chi sword is an ancient fighting technique," Giles said patiently. "It focuses on balance, movement, and fluidity."

"We'll be trying to kill each other," Buffy said patiently. "I don't think there's much grace in that."

"Try to strike me, then," Giles challenged her calmly. "With the flat of your blade, mind you."

"Fine," Buffy said, and curved her weapon toward him in an easy fencing strike – but Giles had easily sidestepped her attack and was already swinging; she barely got her sword up in time to block his first counterattack and the second landed on her lower back, stinging humiliatingly. She stared at Giles and sighed as she fell back, lifting her sword into the stance that he had assumed, and started trying to copy his movements.

"I'm giving you one last chance, Buffy," Angelus said softly, moving to defend his wounded arm and raising his sword to face her once more. They were both deathly still, Willow's spell blocking the sounds of their confrontation from reaching the Ch'thin guards at Angelus' front door. "Back off, now, and the consequences will be less severe."

"Why are you stalling, Angel?" Buffy asked him, and swung.

They met in a fury of slashes, chops, ripostes and counterattacks, their swords flashing in the cold light of the moon like tongues of flame extending from their arms. In another time, another life, they had been lovers, friends, partners; now, the vampire and the Slayer fought for their lives against their most implacable enemies. Buffy did not think – she let her mind go and her subconscious take over as she attacked and retreated over and over, giving no ground and taking none in return as Angelus, uncharacteristically silent as well, matched her stroke for stroke.

As she went for an overhead strike, Angelus took her by surprise by throwing himself to the ground, letting the flaps of his coat take the brunt of the strike as he barreled into her legs. It was a sneaky move and one that she herself had used many times while on patrol with Angel, and the memories and pain combined to have her stumbling. Angelus pressed his advantage, swinging to his feet with the grace of a bat as he hacked at her defenses. He was on her with a fury, and Buffy watched his confidence returning to his features. She weakly raised her sword and he struck it to the ground, holding her sword hand there with the tip of his.

"Sorry, lover," Angelus said, his beautiful human face returning as he smiled down at her benevolently. "You lose." He lifted his foot and his boot shot towards her face with blinding speed. Buffy smirked and snatched his ankle as soon as it extended from the protection of the ground, digging her sharp fingernails into a pressure point near his Achilles tendon until Angelus yelled in pain. She flung him away from her and launched herself into the air, arcing high above Angelus' head and landing with her feet on the ground, gathering all of the impact's energy into her core and using it to swing her sword in a sweeping arc toward his chest as hard as she could.

The enchanted blade whistled through the air, feeling light as a feather to the Slayer's grasp, and Angelus threw his sword up in a block – and stared in shock as, with a horrendous clang, Buffy's weapon bit into the metal of his blade and tore a strip of metal from one of the edges, leaving it dull and useless. The sliver of metal fell to the ground with a chink as Buffy stabbed at his unprotected belly. And that was when Buffy saw it – Angelus' face was as expressive as an actor's, and with all of his defenses down, she could read him like a book: shock, anger...fear. With the look of one who is unwilling to die facing down the Grim Reaper, Angelus, self-proclaimed vampire king, turned on his foot and sprinted away from her as fast as he could go.

Buffy stepped forward, kneeling to the ground and slamming the tip of her sword into the pavement. The signal was received, and Buffy heard a rush of wind as Willow's spell abruptly ended, the sound and the smells of the night returning to the area with speed. The two demon guards jerked up, looking around stupidly, and making grunting noises of surprise as their master approached them running like the devil himself. Their surprise would not last long, and now it was time for the second surprise of Buffy's:

"NOW!" she called out, her voice ringing clear as a bell in the night air.

"Hai-yah!" Kendra the Vampire Slayer screamed a battle cry to the night as she threw herself from the roof of the vampires' mansion and landed in between the two Ch'thin demons, swinging chains that entangled them from defending themselves. They landed in a heap at the petite Jamaican girl's feet, and she grinned viciously as she drew two small hand-axes from their holsters at her waist and began slashing furiously at the tough hide of the demons, drawing small wounds where she could.

"Hey, Kendra!" Willow called at the airport. The slender black girl glanced up from the arrivals counter and relaxed slightly as she saw the redhead and her boyfriend coming toward her. Buffy's call had been unexpected, but not as much as Kendra had at first thought: her Watcher, Mr. Zabuto, had been troubled by dark signs from Sunnydale for nigh onto a month now, and so when Kendra had presented Buffy's request for aid to him, he had quickly agreed.

"No one – no one – but me and a few others can know that you're in the area if this trap is going to work," Buffy had said. "So I'm going to send Willow to get you. She's been studying witchcraft, so she'll be able to cloak you in magic and then take you to where you'll be staying. I'll be waiting there to talk you over the plan. And, Kendra? Thanks."

Buffy stood up as Angelus pulled to a halt, staring in disbelief at the trap the two Slayers had laid for him. He couldn't go forward or back without running into one of them, both armed and ready for his blood. He took an uncertain step to the side, and froze as Willow and Jenny revealed themselves, stepping through the rock wall that they'd cast an illusion spell over to give them a space to hide as they worked their magic. Hand in hand, the two witches faced him with fire burning in their eyes. Giles stepped out from a copse of trees on the other side of the mansion, a huge broadsword in hand as he cut off Angelus' last route of escape.

Angelus tossed aside his useless sword and turned to face Buffy as she approached him with the implacable gaze of the executioner. "Quite the trap you've laid, Buffy," he said softly, his brown eyes glinting with emotions she could only guess at. He looked mad – not angry, but close to losing control, and that thought was almost enough to scare her. But she forced it down to that place inside of her where she could keep emotions that she couldn't face or deal with tonight.

"I learned underhanded tricks from the best of them," she returned, gesturing toward him. "It's over, Angel – and you're never going to hurt one of my friends or any human being again."

"Noticed that you didn't bring Xander with you tonight – you afraid what he's going to say to you when I'm dust?" Angelus guessed intuitively. She paused, but lifted her sword higher.

"That's something I'll have to live with," Buffy said.

"Not tonight," Angelus said softly, looking down. When he looked back up, his eyes were the glowing yellow of a vampire as his demonic features rose once more, his eyes smoldering with a kind of madness as he lifted his head and roared into the night. It was a horrendous sound, like the roar of a lion or a tiger but higher, a sound that resonated from the bowels of Hell itself. It was unearthly, raising the hair on her arms, and her entire body shivered involuntarily from the force of it. The lights in the mansion began to surge on as those left inside began to wake up and come to their master's aid.

"Willow," Buffy suggested, and Willow and Jenny stepped to the side.

"Lian fallas," they said in unison, tying off a spell that was merely waiting for conclusion, and a burst of ethereal purple light exploded from their conjoined hands, firing toward the mansion and splitting into twin balls of witchfire. There was a howl of pain from inside, and Angelus turned toward the mansion with fury in his gaze as Willow reported: "The two witches inside are down for the count."

The doors to the mansion burst open, and Kendra leapt out of the way as a small hoard of vampires surged from the door. Angelus growled threateningly at them to keep them back, leaping toward safety as Kendra was no longer a threat. Five more steps and he would be inside...

But Willow and Jenny weren't done, as they began to chant in a language older than America itself, their eyes glowing with silvery light as the wards around the mansion began to crumble, one by one – the wards keeping invaders out. Realizing what they were doing, Angelus turned and watched as Buffy and Kendra stood side by side, their weapons raised and ready, and he howled in a maddened rage as he threw the first of his allies toward the Slayer's forces. "Kill them!" Angelus roared, and stepped inside.

"Willow, NOW!" Buffy snapped, and Willow nodded to her, disengaging from Jenny as she lifted her hands in a summoning gesture. Before Angelus escaped, a howl filled the night air, and Buffy's third ace revealed himself as Oz, in werewolf form, bowed to the force of Willow's magic and bounded toward the attacking vampires, downing three of them and biting one's head clean off. The wolf spit and sneezed as vampire dust burst into its mouth, and, maddened, it turned its enraged black eyes on the remaining twenty vampires.

"Drusilla! Spike! Help me!" Angelus yelled, retreating further into the mansion. Buffy glanced at Willow, who nodded, trying to appear calmer than she was. She and Jenny joined hands once more, their auras joining together and a shimmering haze of magic appearing around them as Drusilla, in a red velvet dress, swept out of the front of the house, blocking her sire from the others' view.

"Little witches," she crooned, stepping towards the two of them. Oz gave her a wide berth as he stepped toward the other vampires. Willow and Jenny appeared pained as an invisible force rippled towards them, and Buffy tore her gaze away from the magic battle as she turned to Kendra.

"Get Angelus," Kendra said, hefting her axes. "I will continue to fight the demons." She gestured toward the Ch'thins, who were beginning to disentangle themselves from her chains. Buffy nodded toward her, and threw herself toward the battle. Giles and Oz were tearing into the vampires, Giles marked with the scent that they all were that Willow had rubbed on them, explaining that it would keep Oz from attacking them when it was charged with her magic. Buffy wove through the panicking crowd of vampires, wincing as Angelus released an additional force from the depths of the mansion – the newly-turned minions. Spike had warned her that they might awaken early, but she'd hoped that they wouldn't.

Still, she leapt through them with grace as she threw herself into the mansion, landing in the opulent foyer as she saw Angelus heading toward the stairs. She ran after him and slashed at his feet as he hit the steps. He jumped over her attack and reached toward a set of swords displayed on the wall. Spike silently appeared at the top of the stairs, in his black muscle tee-shirt and black jeans. Angelus sagged in something like relief, and Buffy surprised herself by feeling a pang of near-sympathy for the monster as he tossed one of the swords to Spike, who caught it by reflex.

Angelus turned to face Buffy confidently, and Buffy sighed as she lifted her blade.

"I'm sorry, sire," Spike said quietly, and his boot-clad foot landed squarely in Angelus' back, sending him careening down the stairs. He screamed in agony as Buffy's blade impaled him through the left side of his midsection – it wasn't a killing blow, but it was a start, Buffy thought as she viciously twisted the blade and pulled it out. Spike stepped toward them, cutting off any hope of retreat.

All four aces, Buffy thought, and she didn't meet Spike's eyes as she stepped toward Angelus. She didn't want to see the hurt in them that she'd seen when he'd attacked Angelus. Angelus himself looked pitiful, broken and bleeding at the foot of the stairs.

"Childe?" he asked, staring at Spike in disbelief.

"Things change," Spike said, lifting his sword.

One thing that Buffy hadn't counted on, in all her hours of planning and preparing this offensive, was the wild card: the heart. In that moment, something in Angelus' face snapped. He flinched, and shuddered, and his demonic face surged to the fore. Roaring wildly in a screeching howl, the vampire, driven beyond all means, threw himself to his feet and wrapped his clawed fist around Spike's throat. The British vampire choked, shocked, as his sire threw him off the stairs, grabbing his sword from him.

Buffy barely managed to lift her weapon up and parry as his blow hit her with bone-crushing force, driving her backward. Despite his wound, Angelus fought her like a man possessed. There was no understanding left in his glowing yellow eyes; he looked insane as he slashed at her, snapping his fangs and growling for her blood. Approaching this fight, Buffy hadn't allowed herself to think of the risks, but now, she was genuinely afraid for her life as the vampire advanced on her.

There weren't any words; they were both beyond them – fighting for their lives and more than that. Buffy's careful training and confidence flew out of the window as she relied on every trick she could send Angelus' way to deter him. The vampire snarled and swung with the strength of a demon, rattling her bones as she met his blows with parries and thrusts. For long minutes, as sweat poured down Buffy's face and hideous snarls escaped from Angelus' mouth, they battled. Spike had picked himself up off the floor, but Buffy knew from the conflicted look on his face that she could rely on no more help from him.

Just then, the door crashed open as Kendra rolled in, one of the Ch'thins unconscious at her feet. The other was battling with Oz, and Buffy winced as the werewolf yelped in pain and rolled away from a vicious blow from the brutish creature. "Buffy!" she called. Angelus spat out a curse as the other Slayer ran to Buffy's aid. Defeat rang hollow in the halls of Angelus' home. He stared from Slayer to Slayer, his eyes roving wildly, no trace of humanity left in his demonic eyes.

Howling in rage, Angelus reached in his jacket and pulled a strange, pulsing emerald pendant from his pocket. Uttering something that Buffy couldn't hear, Angelus threw it down to the floor and stomped on the crystal. It cracked with a sound that rang like thunder, shaking the entire mansion with sheer mystical force. Buffy had never felt anything like it; it was as if there was nothing left to hold the world together. Her bones vibrated and her blood boiled. She wanted to vomit and to laugh and pass out. Next to her, Kendra staggered to her knees, moaning.

A whirlwind seemed to open from the amulet that Angelus had stepped on – a wild card, one to trump all of Buffy's aces. Buffy gasped with the sheer force of what was happening as she watched her hands literally blurring in front of her vision. "Oh...god..." she whispered, and then the world blacked out and she was gone, gone, gone...

8

Angelus watched with fire running through his veins as his enemies warped and vanished from his path, and there was no satisfaction – nothing but pain. He turned dully and noticed that Spike was vanishing as well. Wasn't that appropriate? His Childe was now his enemy. A betrayal in his future to turn the world to chaos...Angelus surged forward and caught Spike's foot in his own, preventing the slim blonde vampire from vanishing as well. A still unconscious Spike lay there as the windstorm finally died down. Silence rang around them. While no one was watching, he lightly stroked down the side of Spike's face, before he sat back and removed his hands from his Childe's body.

"Master," said one of the Ch'thins, standing before him. Angelus glanced up. His forces had been decimated – there had been forty in the house when the Slayer had struck, and there were perhaps eighteen standing before him in various stages of pain and dismemberment.

"Gather all the survivors. And you—" He pointed at a minion whose name he didn't know. "Take this filth to the dungeons. I want him stripped and hanging in chains."

8

Buffy groggily opened her eyes. She was laying on a field of grass surrounded by trees; it took her a moment to realize that she was somewhere in the hills of Breaker's Woods. "Guys?" she asked, then hacked – her throat was on fire and speaking had put pain down through her toes. She heard some groaning, which sounded encouraging. She managed to move her head to the side and sighed. Willow and Jenny were near each other – Willow looked better than the others, but Jenny was vomiting on the grass. Giles, looking banged all to hell, was still out near her. Oz was still in werewolf form, but he was staggering around and whimpering at the trees. Kendra was trying to kneel, but kept stumbling down.

"Well-played, Slayer," said a deep voice from the trees. Buffy turned and gasped in horror as a chaos demon stepped from the trees. It was a huge, nasty thing, all green and covered in rot with massive horns dripping with slime. The smell coming off of it was horrendous and tinged with the ozone that she had come to associate with strong magic. "You very nearly pulled it off. But I gave my word that the vampire Angelus could call me for aid, and so I came – though there should be another here, no? Your betrayer..." The demon shrugged. "Your unusually strong powers as a Slayer combined with the witches will make for excellent feeding tonight."

He smiled, baring his slimy fangs, and the world split apart as Buffy screamed in the greatest pain that she had ever felt.

888

"Xander, if you're not going to even try, I'm not going to waste my time with this," Mitch said tiredly. It would have been better if he were actually angry, but the tone of defeat in Mitch's usually sunny voice made Xander feel like a kicked puppy. But...he wasn't sure of what he wanted, of what he wanted to say to Mitch...was he? Xander turned to look at him, and the young man was standing there staring at him with his heart in his eyes. Xander opened his mouth, unsure, but unwilling to leave this thing between them like this.

"Mitch...oh, GOD!" he yelped, as searing, uncontrollable pain shot through his body. Whining like a hurt dog, Xander collapsed to the sand, clutching his head as if that would accomplish something, anything. He'd never felt like this in his entire life that he could remember – it was as if he were being torn in two, as if part of him were shattering and the other part was reveling. It was a sickening feeling – the part of him, that dark, angry part of him could sense something in the darkness that made everything human and bright and warm in Xander feel as if it were splintering apart.

"Xander!" Mitch yelled, catching him up in his strong arms, holding Xander tightly to his chest. "What's happening? Are you alright?"

"No, I'm not alright!" Xander snarled irritably. Mitch chuckled and cradled him closer as Xander shuddered, the first wave of nauseous pain washing through him. "Mitch, something's wrong...really wrong...I..." Xander huddled closer to Mitch's chest, feeling cold.

"Xander, listen to your instincts," Mitch murmured in his ear. "What's wrong?"

"I don't know," Xander insisted, but Mitch just rocked him a little.

Yes, you do, his voice whispered calmly in Xander's mind, their link opening back up warmly, the light and warmth and protectiveness of Mitch's aura surrounding him like a soft blanket. Xander closed his eyes and followed Mitch's direction toward the feeling, probing, worrying...

"My friends are in trouble," Xander said certainly. "Willow and Buffy and the others..."

"Alright," Mitch said, without a trace of doubt in his voice. "I trust you." Standing, he left Xander to regain his footing and walked toward the sea, lifting his arms in the traditional pose for drawing the power of the moon down to yourself. Xander watched, his vision clearing as the dizzy feeling that had overtaken him started to pass. Muttering something, Mitch waved his arm and leaned into the sea, looking at the reflection of the moon on the water as if it were telling him a story. "They're on top of a hill..." he said, his voice sounding lost and far away. "There's something there...it's killing them...everything is going..."

What the hell are we going to do? Xander thought frantically. He pulled out his cell phone as Mitch continued to scry, unsure of what he was even doing, but Cordelia picked up on the first ring.

"Are you two having sex yet?" she asked breezily.

"Cordy, the gang's in serious trouble," Xander said breathlessly. "There's something bad going on, they're dying and I don't know what to do!" He was yelling into the phone, but he couldn't have stopped himself if he wanted to.

"What?" she snapped. "Okay, hold up – where are you?"

"The beach; Mitch is scrying and he says that there's something going on on top of a hill or something—"

"Xander, give the phone to Mitch," Cordelia ordered, her implacable tone cutting through his panic. Xander stumbled toward Mitch and thrust the phone into the witch's hand. Mitch jerked back as if being pulled out of a trance and automatically held the phone up to his ear.

"Yeah?" he asked tersely. He nodded. "They're on a big hill somewhere, there's woods all around them – I don't know, big oak trees and you can see the moon right overhead...Yeah, there's a car track near them...Okay...It's huge, and it's got antler-like things all covered with slime. It's pretty damn powerful; it was giving me a hell of a migraine to even use magic to look at it...What? Why? Fine! We'll meet you there!" He hung the phone up and passed it back to Xander.

"What's going on?" Xander asked, confused.

"Cordelia says that it's a chaos demon," Mitch said, running his hands through his hair. "She said that Giles was worried there was one in the area and she's been researching it with him, and she's got an idea. But we need to move fast, Xander – chaos demons are capable of warping reality around them until everything ceases to exist...including your friends."

"They went after a chaos demon without backup?" Xander asked. "That's so freaking stupid!"

"Yes, it is," Mitch hedged. Xander shot him a suspicious look.

"You know something, Mitch," he accused, and when the witch dropped his eyes, Xander jerked back. "You want me to trust you with...just, stop lying to me and tell me what the hell is going on!" Despite everything that was happening, beneath his sense of blind panic, Xander disbelievingly felt a twinge of genuine hurt that Mitch had been keeping something from him despite all the times they'd joined their auras together, but he fought down the childish feeling impatiently.

"Xander..." Mitch sighed, then stepped forward and placed his hands on Xander's temples. Before Xander could say anything, Mitch's eyes glowed purple and then a beam of pure knowledge shot from Mitch to Xander, letting him see everything, feel every one of the memories that Mitch was sending him – of Buffy's near-suicidal plan of going against Angelus with guns blazing, killing the vampire, leaving Xander out of it...

Xander stumbled away in shock. "What the hell is going on? You tell me all of this stuff just to keep me away from Buffy's plan, is that it? You son of a bitch!"

"What?! No, Xander – I never would have—" Mitch reeled, hurt and anger on his face.

"Save it!" Xander snapped. "Right now, we have to go save my friends so I can kick their asses!" He paused. "And, did you possibly have a plan as to how we were going to get there quick enough?"

"Yes," Mitch said after a brief pause. "But I need you to trust me to do it." Xander snorted, and Mitch angrily surged forward and before Xander could say a word, kissed him as hard as he could. Breathless, and scared of the feelings shooting through him, Xander stared up at Mitch, confused. "Xander, I would never kiss you unless I meant it," Mitch said flatly. Their auras combined, connected, and Xander believed him totally because it was Mitch and Mitch wouldn't lie to him, not about this. "Xander, take my hands and close your eyes," Mitch instructed him softly, and he did.

He felt magic tickling up his arms from where his hands were joined with Mitch's, and he sighed and allowed the sunny feel of Mitch's magic to wash over him, lowering barriers around his power, and then wind kicked up around them, fierce and angry, and Xander and Mitch held each other tightly, their hearts pounding, as Xander grasped what Mitch was doing and urged the miniature tornado to sling them into the air and toward his friends.

It was oddly intimate and electrifying, their hearts pounding in tandem as they flew a thousand feet above the earth, holding each other for dear life, and in that moment Xander felt more connected to Mitch than ever before. Mitch wouldn't let him go, nor would he let him fall, and he expected the same out of Xander, and in that moment Xander knew how human Mitch was, and it struck him with a furious power that he never wanted to let Mitch go. He wanted Mitch's sunlight to save the darkness boiling inside of him, and the thought made his final barriers around his heart surrender themselves.

They landed with a thud, and held each other steady so they wouldn't fall. Cordelia was already there, her tires smoking with the rubber she'd burned on her way to them. "Good, you're here," she said. They all looked around. The wood was intensely quiet, all of the animals scared from the area. There was the reek of power and ozone around them, and as Xander stared toward the top of the hill they were at the bottom of, his eyes began to burn as the air around the top seemed to blur. "We don't have a lot of time," Cordelia whispered, breaking the spell.

"What's your plan?" Mitch asked.

"Do that magic thing and let yourselves in on it; we don't have time to waste explaining it – we've got one shot at this!" she ordered them as she began running up the hill.

A bolt of knowledge shot through Xander's mind as Mitch did as she suggested, and they were both running as Xander contemplated the sheer insanity of what she was suggesting, and what could go wrong, and whether they could pull it off – but Cordy was right: they had exactly one shot at this, and if they failed, not only would all of his friends die, but the demon would then turn his gaze to the three of them and they'd likely die as well. As they approached the top, it got harder and harder to run as the world seemed to ooze out of control around them. Xander found himself gasping for air as it got harder and thicker to breathe. But he could hear screams in the clearing ahead of them, and he knew without being told that his Willow was screaming for help. The thought stirred him on, until he and Mitch and Cordelia were at the edge of the clearing.

It was a horrifying sight: the massive chaos demon was in the middle of the clearing, holding its huge paws out. The very air was warping around the edges of its sphere of influence, the moon glowing a wretched, sickly green as it highlighted his friends laying in a scattered circle, unable to move, screaming in pain and agony as they were wrenched from reality to chaos, a process that was killing them slowly and painfully. "Mitch," he gasped, and Mitch joined his hands together and shot a beam of pure magical power toward Willow and Jenny. The two witches screamed in pain as Mitch forced their overstimulated minds to accept the knowledge he was sending them, and the power he was stealing from them, and then Mitch began to glow, a red aura surrounding him as he lifted off his feet with pure power.

A triangle of glowing red light flickered into light between Mitch, Willow and Jenny, and the chaos demon turned its massive head in confusion and looked at them. The thing's eyes held the promise of the destruction of order in the world, and before he could be cowed, Xander threw his hands to the sky. Xander, no, Mitch commanded him – Mitch wanted to use Xander's power himself, but Xander knew the witch was already at his limits controlling the magic of three in his mind, and no way was Xander going to let Mitch put himself in danger over something this stupid. So he blocked Mitch out of his mind.

He'd never done this before, but there was no time for hesitance or uncertainty. Instead, he plunged into the darkness within himself and found a core of power that was waiting to be unleashed. Striding into the clearing, the chaos magic clearing before him, Xander stood like a young god and lifted his hands. A bolt of pure power laced through him, orgasmic in its passing and gleeful in its destructive potential, and an enormous bolt of lightning arced down from the heavens, beckoned from Xander's call.

Without missing a beat, Mitch followed through with the rest of Cordelia's plan and threw every ounce of magic he could summon into the lightning bolt. Briefly glowing so red that it burned Xander's eyes, the lightning bolt struck the stunned chaos demon like a nuclear detonation. Xander screamed as the demon exploded, the air rippling around where its body used to be as every ounce of chaos magic it had summoned exploded outward in a ripple of power. It struck Xander like a freight train, knocking him down and beating the breath from him, and Cordelia yelped as she toppled over and slammed painfully into a tree. Mitch had already collapsed after releasing the magic, and Xander watched in awe as the trees immediately surrounding the clearing collapsed and burned to cinders in seconds, leaving the group of them in a burned out hollow, the air sparking with decaying magic.

Xander was the first to stir, slowly getting to his knees as he put his head down, trying hard not to vomit. The groans and moans and cries of pain emerging from the clearing were encouraging, and he lifted his head and watched as the others stirred to life. Was that Kendra? He stared, confused, as Oz – in full werewolf mode, no less – staggered to his feet and then promptly collapsed back down again, letting out a snort and seeming to fall asleep. Beneath his pain, relief, surprise, Xander felt a strong stirring of feeling.

"Is everyone okay?" Buffy asked as she staggered to her feet.

"No," Cordelia complained. She mournfully held up a leather shoe, which was now ruined beyond repair.

"Cordy?" Buffy asked, turning around. "What...where...guh?"

"Ooh," Willow moaned, staggering to her feet and promptly vomiting as Jenny stood next to her. "What the heck happened?"

"I did," Mitch volunteered, walking toward them, looking like a drunk as he swayed unsteadily on his feet. "And, for the record, ow."

"What happened to the chaos demon?" Giles asked, sounding cranky as he held up his broken glasses. "What on earth are the three of you doing here? What's going on?"

"Oh, yeah," Xander said quietly, drawing all of the attention in the clearing to him. "About that." He surged forward, unaware of what he was about to do until he'd cocked a fist back and slugged Buffy in the arm as hard as he could.

"OW!" she yelped, jerking back.

"Don't ever do anything like that to me again!" Xander snapped angrily. "What the hell? If you didn't want me in on it, the least you could have done was inform me! And you all went around behind my back for weeks now! I can't live, Buffy, trying to put my life back together, if I can't move past this, and you won't let me! How could you guys do this? And don't look all innocent, Cordelia – you were in on it too!"

"Xander, we were worried that...what happened in the cemetery..." Willow mumbled. She quelled under the furious look Xander threw her.

"And you couldn't have told me that? I'm sick and tired of everyone around me trying to control my life! I just want to...I want my life back! You can't do something like this and not tell me! What were you going to do, come up and say, oh, by the way, Angelus is dead and you need to pick up the pieces, let's have lunch?!" Giles looked down at the ground, ashamed.

"And what would you have done?" Mitch snapped, unexpectedly stepping forward. "They were trying to protect you! We're all trying to protect you, and you keep doing stupid, stupid reckless things! You should have let me try what you did back there, that could have overwhelmed you! Don't you understand, Xander? You could have been killed!" Mitch's eyes were huge and he was breathing hard. But he wasn't angry; he was afraid – afraid of losing him.

You've been telling everyone not to control your life, Xander thought. Are you going to let Angel's ghost do it too? Before Mitch could say another word, Xander grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him into a kiss. Mitch froze for half a second before he was pulling Xander in close, kissing him back, holding him tight, and it was everything that Xander wanted it to be.

"Then stay, if you're so busy protecting me," Xander challenged him as they pulled apart. "Don't run away from this. Take a jump – isn't that what you're always telling me?"

"You really want me to stay?" Mitch whispered, as if they were the only ones in the clearing.

"Yes," Xander said firmly.

"Do you want to go out tomorrow night, then?" Mitch asked, his eyes twinkling as his hands rested lightly on Xander's waist.

"I don't know," Xander said, smiling up at him. "Will it be as boring as some of our other dates?"

"Oh, I haven't dated you yet," Mitch assured him. Xander grinned and took Mitch's hands in his.

"Finally!" Cordelia sighed. "God, the two of you are like some crappy WB soap opera." Xander and Mitch chuckled as the others around the clearing led a weak cheer as Mitch kissed him again.

Behind them, Buffy sighed as Giles laid his hand on her shoulder. "He's right – I should have told him," she admitted. "But I was afraid that this wouldn't happen if he was worried about...him. I want Xander to get his life back more than he does – I want everything back the way it was. But it won't be that way again."

"No, it won't," Giles said gravely. "But we did a good thing tonight, Buffy. We at least halved Angelus' forces, destroyed a chaos demon, and gravely weakened him. It will be months before he can build his way back up to where he was again, and that's only if we allow him to accomplish it."

"I know," Buffy said.

She stepped back from her Watcher as he went to clap Xander on the shoulder, and she looked around at her circle of friends as they recovered. Cordelia was threatening Mitch's life if he ever hurt Xander, and Willow was stroking through Oz's fur as the werewolf slept. Kendra was talking to Jenny about something. They were all smiling, as if something great had occurred tonight. Maybe it had. But all she could think about was what they lost.

Xander would never be who he was, and neither would Cordelia or Willow. She herself had changed, become almost unrecognizable from the girl she'd been in Los Angeles. They had all lost and battled through so much. She was the Slayer, but they were in the crossfire. It wasn't fair. Buffy glanced around the clearing and sighed as her eyes failed to spot Spike. She knew without a doubt that he was trapped in the mansion. It was like she could see the phantoms of his blue eyes holding her in place, begging her for help. She'd made him betray Angelus, even though it had killed him. One more victim to the pain that seemed to be following her around lately.

But, somehow, as the moon shone down in the clearing, watching Xander smile and Mitch hold his hand, she felt like something great could still happen somewhere in the world. Feeling more lonely than ever, Buffy shared a glance with Kendra, and she knew that the other girl was the only one in the world who understood the tear slipping down her cheek as she stared at her friends.

888

The dungeon was dark, cold, and dank. The mansion itself was nearly 100 years old, and it had taken minimal retrofitting by the vampires to turn the basement into a dungeon for their master's enemies. Angelus' vampiric eyes penetrated the darkness to the heart of the room, where his beloved William was hanging from the ceiling in chains. He was naked and ashamed, moaning in agony – Angelus had given the Ch'thins the freedom to rape him, and they had, enjoying the slender vampire's body immensely before going to root in the garden. They had served him valiantly and it was only through magic that they'd been taken unawares; there was no need to punish them.

All of this was minimal thinking, enough to keep his brain occupied and away from the spiraling darkness that he could feel licking at his insides like black flames. He closed his eyes, and then stepped into the dark room, closing the door behind him.

"I was warned by the chaos demon," Angelus said softly. Spike jerked toward the sound of his voice, but he didn't show any other signs of weakness. "Betrayal comes in your future. I never, not for a moment, thought that it would be from you. You used to be a demon, William. You used to be a proud vampire, a slayer of Slayers, the greatest of my children...and here you are." He chuckled humorlessly. "You betrayed me to that bitch, and you nearly destroyed everything in one minute of...what? Lust? Is that it? You want to fuck Buffy? You tired of getting my sloppy seconds from Drusilla so you have to chase after the Slayer now? I've been there too, boy – aren't you tired of not getting anything of your own?"

"Fuck...you..." Spike said coldly, hanging his head.

"Why, Spike?" Angelus asked, voice deathly quiet. "Why did you betray me?"

"Did you really think that you could just come back, after a century, and destroy my entire existence all over again so that I would just fall back in line?" Spike snarled. "Any fool could've seen this coming – but you're no fool, you bastard; you're bloody mad!"

For one moment, Angelus was silent, taking Spike's words in. Upstairs, his kingdom lay in ruins. The Chaos demon had fulfilled his promise and was hopefully killing the Slayer and her allies slowly and painfully, but Angelus wouldn't trust that that bitch was truly dead until he tasted her heart's end himself. He had come out the victor – but at this cost? His forces had been halved, and those that remained were disheartened; did they have a reason not to be? He had been bested, even he could admit that. Buffy had very nearly destroyed him, with the help of his Childe. He had gained nothing by taking over the Hellmouth. His family had turned on him, and his boy…

Insanity didn't begin to cover what he was feeling at the moment. Angelus felt his control slipping as his face rippled to its demonic countenance, his true nature as a demon rising to the fore. A demon, a beast, did not feel, and in that moment, Angelus felt like an animal. There was a freedom in this bestial awakening…and may the gods help whoever stood in his way now.

The vampire turned his back on his betrayer and walked slowly upstairs, to where the remnants of his forces had gathered, waiting for him to be finished dealing with Spike. But Angelus was not finished, not by a long shot – indeed, he was just beginning.

In the main room stood what remained of his immortal army. They turned to see their master, and he let out a demonic growl, a sound designed to chill the very bones. He would not masquerade as the angel any longer; he faced them as a demon, and stood before them as their King. "Look at you – my great army," he sneered. "The Slayer comes with five allies, and here you stand, cowed and culled. I should finish the job that she started and tear the very flesh from your bones for your failure.

"But I find myself in a difficult position," he continued, coming to a halt as he stood near the windows, unafraid of the sunrise soon to come at his back. "I am to blame as much as you are for the night's disaster. I have been…distracted." The vampires assembled schooled their faces carefully to hide their shock at the admission, particularly Lucy and Allen. Ella's face showed nothing but her usual dispassion. But the younger minions were beginning to look truly uneasy at the utter ice in their master's voice. "This will no longer be tolerated.

"We are an army, immortal and strong, and we bow to no one," Angelus hissed. "The Slayer has shown her weakness tonight when she brought that imitation Slayer to aid her. She is afraid of what we are, and what we will become. She has a powerful witch with her, it's true, but other than that? A mindless werewolf and a pack of humans." He spat the word like a snake spits venom. "I will not kill the Slayers – I will imprison them and end the threat of the Slayer forever."

The vampires gathered roared their approval, and Angelus growled bestially. The black flames licking through his mind flared as his demon fed on the pandemonium before him. The vampires were still firmly in his thrall. Buffy may have culled the weak ones from the herd for him, and he would use the fires of their hatred for her to forge an invincible weapon. He would see Buffy and Kendra locked in a padded cell, unable to even commit suicide, forced to live as long as he could extend their miserable lives, unable to pass on the mantle of Slayer to any girl who could oppose him. He would see Willow dead or turned, her magic either under his command or eliminated. He would have the werewolf in shackles and the cheerleader's head. He would have the Watcher and the Gypsy strung up by their innards in the dungeon. And if he had to break Xander to return him to his place in Court, then that was his boy's choice for rejecting his master.

"Bring the witches," he snarled to the Ch'thins, who had been waiting for his command. The hulking demons dragged the two witches, still hazy from Willow's stunning spell, into the hall. The stronger of the two, Erin, was beginning to emerge from the haze in her mind as fear crept into her eyes. Angelus stood above the two of them dispassionately as the vampires around him glared down at the witches who had failed to protect them from the Slayer's forces.

"Please…" Erin whispered, and Angelus laughed cruelly.

"You failed me, witch," he said. "You allowed a slip of a girl years your junior to not only destroy the defenses you placed around the mansion, but to render you and Beth unconscious, unable to even help your master fight. Do you think I should let you live?"

"She had help! She's stronger than anything I've ever felt before, I can't…you can't…please!" Erin started babbling, her panic bleeding into Beth, who began to struggle sluggishly against the demon holding her.

"I will not kill the both of you," Angelus said after a moment, and he smirked as Erin sagged in something like relief. "But one of you must die for this little incident, and it's up to you, my dear." Erin paled white as a sheet, staring at him in horror. "Do you have the strength to fall on the knife yourself? Or do you consign your friend to hell itself?"

"You can't—"

Angelus strode forward and slapped her so hard about the face that she spit blood. "Don't you ever tell me what I can and cannot do, you pathetic human," he hissed. "Now, choose – who do you want to die?"

"You're serious," Erin whispered, her eyes filling with tears. Angelus didn't deign to respond, merely narrowed his yellow eyes and bared his fangs.

"Erin, please…" Beth whispered, starting to catch on to what was about to happen. And exactly as Angelus had predicted, the stronger witch hung her head let out a gasping sob.

"I don't want to die," Erin murmured finally, her voice deadening. Beth's eyes widened in horror as Angelus nodded regally to the other witch and turned to Beth, who began to struggle wildly against the Ch'thin holding her to the ground.

"Ella, I want this witch naked and crucified to the very ground," Angelus ordered coldly. Ella stepped forward quickly and surely, tearing the flimsy nightdress from Beth with her claws, slinging the fabric to the ground.

"Please, please, oh Goddess, God, I can't, don't, please please please…" Beth began to babble in terror as Ella reached to her side and pulled out a wickedly sharp dagger. Erin sagged, looking like she might pass out or vomit or both. Angelus nodded sharply to Allen and Lucy, who both moved forward respectfully and held the witch up to behold the consequences of her selfish choice. Angelus watched predatorily as the light of innocence died in Erin's eyes as the first dagger sliced into Beth's flesh, nailing her left hand to the floor. Beth screamed in pain as Ella held her hand out, and another vampire, fascinated by the scent of magical blood in the air, hurried forward and gave her another dagger.

In a matter of minutes, Ella had each of Beth's hands and both of her feet stuck to the floor, and even the normally icy vampire's eyes were wide with bloodlust at the scent of the witch's blood high in the air. Angelus growled once more, warning his forces back as Beth moaned in exquisite agony. He turned to Erin, who stood brokenly before him, waiting for whatever he did next.

"In the old days, if a witch betrayed her coven, she would be killed," Angelus said dispassionately. "If you ever displease me again, Erin, you will find my mercy at its limits. Now, you will use your contacts in the world and gather together a coven strong enough to fight off the mighty Willow." He sneered. "Karl will go with you to ensure that you are following orders. You will be killed if you aren't back within two weeks with a force that I approve of. Do you understand?"

She nodded mutely, tears streaming down her face, and Angelus nodded to Karl, the vampire he had named. "Take her, and get out of here," he hissed. Karl rushed to obey, his eyes shining with fanaticism, and Erin stumbled behind him as Beth screamed for her friend, for her parents, for her goddess, for anyone's mercy. Angelus regarded the bleeding witch in disgust, and lifted his gaze to the vampires in the hall. "Never, ever fail me," he warned them softly, chillingly. Then he shrugged. "Devour the witch."

He turned his back on Beth's wild screams as the vampires fell like pigs to the trough, biting into whatever inch of flesh their fangs could penetrate as she was bled dry in a matter of minutes. Angelus had more on his mind than witch blood, however, as he once again descended the steps to the dungeons. Spike, he was sure, had heard every word. Angelus shrugged out of his leather coat, dropping it on the floor, as he surveyed his once-mighty William the Bloody, hanging in chains.

"What now, then?" Spike demanded, struggling slightly in his chains.

"Now, Spike?" Angelus said, beginning to smile. He reached for a whip, a special whip that he'd designed with Lucy's help, and chuckled to himself as he carefully touched only the handle. "I owe you pain." Exploding into motion, the whip cracked sickeningly against Spike's bare flesh. The younger vampire had bared his teeth in derision at the whip – what was a whiplash at this point in his life? – but he screamed as he hadn't screamed in years. Angelus had covered the whip in tiny spikes dripping with the Fellsor demon's venom mixed with an anti-coagulant potion concocted from vampire saliva, and the two sliced into Spike's skin with acid that couldn't heal.

Five lashes into the torture and Spike was screaming like a little girl, begging for it to stop. Angelus wasn't satisfied until Spike passed out from the pain, like a human. Only then did he set the whip down and stalk up the stairs, snapping at the lingering vampires in the main rooms to clean the mess of human flesh that was still speared to the floor. He gave strict instructions that Spike was only to be given enough blood to begin to heal, enough blood to keep him barely alive, and then Angelus was moving towards his room.

According to his instruction, Ella was waiting in his rooms.

"You asked for me?" she said when he stepped in.

Angelus was already moving, slamming her up against the wall and smashing her face in with his fist. Ella was quick, and she was a good fighter, but even she was no match for the raw force in Angelus' rage when he delivered the first beating of her vampiric life. She slid to the floor under the force of his punches and kicks, finally just shielding herself from the worst of the damage until he drew back. She stared at him in something like shock, like Spike had when the whip had bit him – she thought him mad as well? Angelus growled at her viciously.

"I've had enough of your attitude in my court. You will call me master or you will die," he snapped. She hesitated, just for an instant, and he reached for the stake on the desk near him before she bowed her head in obedience.

"Forgive me…master." There was still some defiance in her voice, but he couldn't afford to lose her fighting skills. So he lifted her up by the throat and slammed her against the wall.

"Never forget, Ella. Ever." Then he tossed her aside like a rag doll and fearlessly turned his back on her. "Dismissed." There was a moment of silence, and then she dragged herself slowly from the bedroom, shutting the door behind her.

It was only after she'd limped down the corridor that Angelus finally gave in to the black flames in his mind, and roared his rage, his pain, every inch of control lost, as he slammed his fists into the desk, the bedside table, the armoire, destroying anything he could reach until he slammed to his knees, his fists bleeding, and raised his yellow demonic eyes to the heavens.

Someday, though he knew not when, somehow, though he knew not how, he would own this world, and when that day came, the stars themselves would hide from his fury.

the Passion of Angels and Demons

As Angelus gives in to the demon within, Xander begins to try to live a normal life back with his friends. But starting over in the daylight has its consequences – in fact, all actions have their consequences, and the fallout of the battle fought between light and dark may just impact everyone's lives on the Hellmouth as passion turns to madness in Chapter XXVI — Bones to Ashes.