Author's Note: Took me a while to get around to writing this chapter, what with the exams and assignments piling up. It was written during the past two or three days, so it's probably more than a little unpolished, but typos/mistakes will be fixed when I find them. As usual, reviews for the past chapter have made me very happy, and I want to thank everyone who dropped a line. :-)

29. The Crush

Shelves lined the walls of the store's hidden room, crammed with jars of various shapes and colors. Although many of the jars seemed to be filled with strange, dried herbs, there were others that Buffy really didn't want to look at too closely. Against the far wall, several shelves were devoted to books – all of the titles indicated some kind of magick-related content, and Buffy found herself eyeing one in particular: Vengeance Spells. She looked away quickly, hoping Angel hadn't followed her line of sight. She turned to Ripper.

"What is all this?"

"Magick supplies." Ripper pulled a jar off the shelf, smiling fondly at the chopped octopus tentacles stuffed inside it. "Only the best. I had to completely re-stock the place after I threw out all the mangy New Age crap the last chap was trying to sell, but it was worth it."

"Wait – this was a magick store before you bought it? How come I never heard of it?"

Ripper raised an eyebrow. "When was the last time you needed to buy a pound of arrowgrass?"

"Good point. I guess I'm not much of a magick-supply-buyer."

"I could say the same for most of the humans in this town," Ripper said, carefully sliding the jar he was holding back into its place.

"So who buys this stuff?" Buffy asked.

"Witches," Ripper said. "Warlocks. Neo-pagans, cyber-pagans, druids, neo-druids..." he shrugged. "It's a fairly long list. And those are just the humans. The demons are usually the more demanding customers."

"Meaning that they have a tendency to harm you unless you hand over what they want," Angel said evenly.

Ripper shrugged again. "They're not exactly soft-hearted pansies, no. I haven't had any real trouble with them yet, but…"

"But?" Angel prompted harshly.

"Well, I suppose it wouldn't hurt to have the Slayer on my side in case things get unpleasant."

"You want me to help you deal with your demon customers?" Buffy stared at him incredulously. "Have you been rolling up some of those magic herbs and smoking them? 'Cause there's really no other excuse for –"

"For collecting my payment?" Ripper finished silkily.

Buffy fell silent and Ripper continued. "You owe me, Summers. I saved your dearly departed boyfriend over there from a lifetime of peroxide and black leather, and now you're in my debt."

"Fine, so I owe you," Buffy said, trying to sound unconcerned. "Have you ever heard of money? It's this green papery stuff people use when they can't get away with leaving an I.O.U. note. How about I just give you some of that?"

"I don't need money," Ripper said dismissively. "I need protection."

"You're a warlock!" Buffy said, losing her temper. "I've seen you vanish into thin air! You don't need protection!"

"Let's just say I want it, then," Ripper retorted. "I'm not asking for your sodding firstborn child here. All you have to do is spend a few hours here every week, keeping an eye out while I deal with my non-human customers. It's not much to ask."

"She's not going to do it, so I suggest you drop the subject. Quickly." Angel's voice was a low, threatening rumble, but it didn't seem to affect Ripper at all.

"Does your boyfriend make all your decisions for you, then, Slayer? Isn't that just a little too Donna Reed for someone like you?"

"Someone like me?"

"Strong, skilled with weaponry, intelligent. All that sort of thing."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "I'm hearing the flattery, but it's just bouncing straight off me. I am one hundred percent flattery-proof, mister."

"Really? Shame. I was hoping I wouldn't have to remind you – yet again – that you owe me."

Buffy sighed, and Angel could see that she was beginning to relent. "No," he said fiercely. "You don't owe him anything."

Buffy looked at him silently. I do, though. He told me about the Brotherhood, he gave me the Gem, he brought you back to your body. I do owe him. As if he could hear her thoughts, Angel shook his head. "It didn't cost him anything to perform that spell!"

"And it won't cost you anything to come here regularly for a little while," Ripper said to her, not missing a beat. "Say, an hour a day, three days a week…"

"Once a week," Buffy corrected him.

"Twice," Ripper countered. "It's only fair, considering that I'll have to squeeze all my demon clients into that time slot."

"Fine, twice."

"And it'll only be until I can find myself a proper bodyguard or security bloke," Ripper said reassuringly, with just the shadow of a smug glance in Angel's direction. "Three months, at the most."

"One month," Buffy said firmly. "One month, and we're even."

"Buffy, no." Angel was shocked that she would even consider taking up Ripper's bizarre offer. "It's some kind of trap, or game – this is Ripper we're talking about here! Don't do this."

Buffy stood on tiptoe and pressed a kiss to his mouth, trying to ease away the expression of stony disapproval on his handsome face. He didn't respond and his dark eyes bored into her until she looked away. "I know," she said quietly. "But I owe him."

And she felt suddenly, desperately, that she needed to be free of the burden of owing him, or there was no telling what he might try to demand from her – or do to her – in future. She was the Slayer, but Ripper had powerful magick on his side. This way is easier.

A grin slowly formed on Ripper's face. "Do we have a deal, then?"

"Yes." The moment she spoke the word into the still air of the magick store, she felt as though she'd signed a contract with the devil. Which isn't such a weird thought, considering who I'm dealing with.

"Excellent." Ripper rubbed his hands together in satisfaction. "I'll see you tomorrow afternoon, then."


"You're angry at me."

Angel sighed, turning to look at her. She stood just inside the mansion's living room doorway, arms loose at her sides, an uncertain expression on her face. He allowed himself a moment to admire the way the soft, muted lighting in the room enhanced her loveliness, reminding him forcibly of just how lucky he was. The book he'd been pretending to read for the past hour slipped out of his hands as he rose to embrace her.

"No," he disagreed, speaking softly into the seashell curve of her ear. "Not angry. Just disappointed. And can you blame me?"

"It's just Ripper." She was divided evenly between desire for him and a need to justify her actions. His lips brushed her earlobe on their way to her neck and she felt the balance shift decidedly in desire's favor.

"He's always 'just' Ripper until he decides it would be in his best interests to do something evil," Angel countered, grasping her hips gently to pull her closer. "He can't be trusted." His voice had become a vague murmur against her skin, and part of his mind was telling him to shut up about the warlock and just focus on Buffy.

She didn't reply, partly because she knew he was right, but mostly because she was tired of the conversation and would rather just be kissed. "What's done is done," she said quietly. She took a few slow, deliberate steps backwards, pulling Angel with her by the belt-hooks on his jeans until she felt the edge of the nearest armchair against her knees. "I'll play along with Ripper's weird little charade, do the whole Helpful Assistant thing and that'll be that."

She swiveled until their positions were reversed and pushed him into the armchair, momentarily abandoning gentleness for real force. And judging by the expression in his eyes as he looked up at her, Angel didn't mind at all. If anything, the hunger in his eyes only intensified. "There's really no need to get all patriarchal and worried about it."

She slipped comfortably onto his lap, leaning in to plant a teasingly chaste kiss on his smooth, cool lips. It was barely even a peck. She heard a predictably irritated growl in the region of his throat and laughed, leaning back to smile at him. "Okay?"

He loved that smile, loved the way it lit up her forest-green eyes. He couldn't completely remember what it was they were arguing about, but he found himself decidedly not caring. "Okay."

"Good." She leaned closer again, pausing just before her lips met his. They were almost unbearably close, her hips melded onto his, his hands pressed against the warm plane of her back, her hair brushing his chest and shoulders. Angel had the fleeting idea of totally ignoring his own raging arousal and simply sitting there like that, with her, until the closeness became too much bear. But then she spoke in that husky whisper she reserved entirely for him and the idea went straight out the window. "Now, kiss me."

And he did. He kissed her there, in the armchair, until their surroundings stilled and the only sound he could hear was her breathing. He kissed her while her heartbeat thrummed in her chest and her petite hands slipped over his body, caressing him with an urgency he didn't know she was capable of. He kissed her as they made their way irregularly up the stairs, stopping every few steps to tug off an item of clothing that seemed to be getting in the way, taking the time to appreciate every new limb revealed with careful intensity.

He kissed her later on, in his bed. He swallowed almost every breathless sigh and moan she made, because he felt instinctively that it would be a waste to allow a sound so delicious to float into the air; but she was too delirious with pleasure to care about his reasons for doing it, and so the compliment was lost on her.

There were others, though. She knew she would never tire of Angel's particular brand of compliments – intimate, exquisitely worded and designed to dismantle even the shadow of a doubt as to how beautiful she was, or how much he loved her. He instilled her with the kind of confidence she didn't think she'd ever have, and in return she explored novel new ways of thanking him.

Somewhere in the transition between the first hour and the second, her vocabulary became a store of very few words, which she spoke with varying degrees of intensity and repeated often: Angel, yes, oh God, please, and I love you.

It was strange, then, that with that small stock of language she was able to say everything and anything he'd ever wanted to hear.


"So, are we all clear on this?" Xander fixed his two oldest friends with the only serious look he was capable of.

"Yes," Willow agreed sadly. "Even though I still think that if you just told her the truth, you'd feel – "

"Slightly less crappy than I do now? Yeah, thanks Will, but I'm not too sure about that theory." He turned his attention to Jesse. "What about you?"

Jesse held up his hands. "Hey, I'm cool with it. I've signed the dotted line, man; I won't get in the way of you keeping your secret until you get so pent-up and lovesick that you end up OD-ing on cough syrup, or blowing stuff up. Or both."

Xander glared at him. "Exaggerating much, drama queen? Look, all I need you guys to do is keep it to yourselves until it becomes yesterday's news in Xanderland and I get over her."

Never gonna happen, kid, said a somber little voice in his head that sounded surprisingly like his uncle Marty. You're too far gone.

Shut up, Xander told the voice. This is a minor blip, a tiny crush on a girl who barely even looks at me. It'll be over before I know it.

"Hey, guys." Buffy came walking up to them, wearing an attractively semi-skimpy tank top and a megawatt smile. "What's with the poker faces?"

Xander could almost feel his resolve to stop being attracted to Buffy simply melt away under the influence of her actual presence. I'm in love with her, he thought miserably, aware of the difference between a crush and the deeper, more constant emotion of actual love. But he swept the thought away and bravely tacked a grin onto his face. "Morning, Buffster. How was your weekend?"

"It was… eventful," Buffy said, giving Willow a very deliberate glance.

Willow caught the meaning instantly – it was a "girl talk, right now" kind of look, and she'd be neglecting her duties as best friend if she ignored it. Not that she had any inclination to; she was wildly curious about the spring in Buffy's step and the happy smile that didn't seem to want to leave her face. "Uh, boys, how about we all meet up later for lunch?"

Jesse looked confused. "But I thought we were gonna walk to History class together."

"Not today," Willow said severely, hoping Jesse would take a hint. Besides her curiosity to hear whatever Buffy had to say, she also thought it would be a good idea to keep her separated from Xander, especially since he looked at her with a softened, almost tender expression whenever he thought she wouldn't notice. Which is bad news for our secret-keeping plan.

"But it's, like, tradition! We can't not go to History class as a group. We need each other's moral support to face Rayne." He turned to Xander. "Am I right or am I right?"

"Hm? Yeah," Xander said absently. "You're right."

But he was looking at Buffy as he said it, and Jesse suddenly saw the benefit in allowing the girls to wander off on their own. "Actually, on second thought, you girls should do your thing. It's not like we're dying to hear your opinions on the fashion section in the latest issue of Cosmo, or whatever."

"What's Cosmo?"

"It's a chick magazine."

Xander gave him an odd look. "And how do you know that?"

"Dude, it's on like every news stand in town."

"Yeah, but that doesn't explain how you know about their fashion section," Xander said sternly.

Jesse caved. "All right, so maybe I've flipped through my mom's copies… but only because I was totally bored, I swear! And only once!"

Xander shook his head. "Sad, man. Really sad. I'm not sure we can be friends anymore, not after this. I might get tainted with your sissy-ness."

"Come on." Buffy pulled Willow away, laughing. "Let's leave the boys to their sordid confessions."

"Speaking of which," Willow said once they'd moved out of earshot, "what is it you want to share?"

"Okay…" Buffy took a deep breath. "Remember how I said that Angel wanted to wait until I felt ready to sleep with him?"

"Yeah." Willow smiled. "He is such a gentleman."

"We-ell, two nights ago, I did. Feel ready, I mean."

Willow's eyes widened as the truth sank in. "So he – I mean, you – and then – I mean the two of you –" she dropped her voice to a stunned whisper. "You had sex?" The instant the words were out of her mouth she blushed furiously, looking around as though she was sure everyone on campus had heard her.

Buffy's expression softened as she recalled the events of last night. "Mm-hmm. And, Will, it was incredible. Really, really amazing. We're talking trashy-romance-novel-type pleasure here, except without the trashiness."

Willow smiled at the tone in her friend's voice. "You sound happy."

"I am." Buffy smiled as well, her eyes glowing. "After everything that happened in LA with Merrick, I thought my life was over. Now I can't believe I even used to call what I did in LA 'living'."

"So, just to summarize, you are happy?" Willow persisted, just to be able to hear it again. The next best thing to living out her own love story was knowing that her best friend was enjoying hers.

"Oh, yes. Put me in a gingham dress and call me Pollyanna, 'cause there's a new shiny happy girl in town." She lowered her voice as they approached the door of the History classroom. "I love him," she said, in a hushed whisper. "I don't know what I'd do without him."

Willow didn't have time to respond except with a quick smile before they were pulled into the stream of sophomores entering the classroom. Jesse and Xander had saved their seats for them, and it looked like they were still friends despite Jesse's earlier Cosmo revelation.

"Where's Rayne?" Jesse asked, twisting in his seat to look at Buffy.

She shrugged. "I haven't seen him since Friday. It's weird that he's late, though."

"Uh, I think he has a pretty good reason for it," Xander said. They all turned to follow his line of sight to the doorway, and Willow gasped faintly.

Rayne limped carefully into the room, supporting one side of his body on an ebony cane to make up for the apparent uselessness of his right leg. There was no cast in sight, but Buffy thought she could see the outline of a thick bandage wrapped around his leg, just above his right knee. His face was unshaven, covered in what could almost be called a beard rather than the usual stubble, and his skin had become alarmingly pale and wan.

"What the hell happened?" Xander wondered out loud, keeping his voice too low for Rayne to hear.

Judging by the buzz of conversation among the other students in the room, he wasn't the only one wondering, but Buffy could tell that Rayne wasn't about to indulge their curiosity by answering questions about it in class.

"We'll ask him after class," she said, surveying the Watcher's damaged leg grimly. "I have a feeling he didn't just have a run-in with an unfriendly dog."

"It was more likely an unfriendly monster," Jesse said under his breath.

Buffy nodded. "Yeah. And I am so going to enjoy killing it."