SOULWORLD III
by Philip S.

SUMMARY: Set two and a half years after Soulworld II, the presence of Vampires has changed American society. Not necessarily for the better, as it raises a lot of questions on the issues of religion and faith. Meanwhile Buffy has some questions of her own about living with a guy who doesn't grow any older.

SPOILERS: None, complete AU. You should have read the first two Soulworld stories, otherwise this story will not make much sense to you.

NOTE: This story contains some issues about the Christian faith. Despite my own total lack of religious faith I do not intend to insult any member of that religion or make fun of their belief. This story is pure entertainment and should be taken as such.

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1 - Empty Mirror, Empty Bed

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Buffy Summers, the Vampire Slayer, stood nude in front of the large mirror and watched as the hands of an invisible sculptor moved across her flesh, unseen fingers leaving visible markings as they moved over skin, playing her passion like a violin. She shivered under the touch of her unseen lover and had to bite her lower lip to suppress a moan.

"Like it?" He asked her, his words coming from thin air.

She looked into the mirror again and saw unneeded breath flowing across her neck, softly moving strands of her hair, even as the invisible hands softly kneaded her breasts. It was incredible to watch herself this way.

"Very!" She whispered as she felt soft kiss trail along her neck and shoulder.

"Look at yourself!" He whispered. "You look so very beautiful, beloved."

She gasped as her invisible lover entered her from behind, imprints of large hands on her belly and chest holding her steady as they rocked back and forth in an increasing rhythm.

"Angel!" She whispered.

They came together, but the mirror in front of her still showed but one body in the throes of orgasm. Buffy watched herself with fascination, even as invisible arms slowly lowered her to the floor and she leaned back against an invisible chest.

"What would I do without you, Angel?" She asked him, turning around to look at the beautiful man the mirror refused to show her.

Angel smiled. "Well, you have the chance to find out now, don't you?"

With those words he was gone.

#

Buffy woke from sleep and stared around the dark bedroom, drenched in sweat. A dream, yet another dream. Unconsciously she reached out with her hand, searching for the cold body that had shared her bed for nearly three years.

He was not to be found, of course.

She sighed. Angel wasn't there anymore. Or rather he was still there, but she wasn't. This wasn't their bedroom in the Hyperion. It was the bedroom of a small and lonely apartment Buffy had rented for herself when living in the Hyperion had ceased to be a possibility for her.

Angel was gone. Once upon a time, with the portal of hell opening in front of them, he had promised that he would never leave her. Two months ago he had broken that promise and sent her away.

She drew her knees up and hugged her legs, trying to keep the cold of night at bay. He had sent her away. One angry word had resulted in another until they had screamed at each other, bodies trembling with fury, both saying things they knew they would regret later on, but unable to keep them inside. Until they had both had enough and she had stormed off into the night with Angel yelling after her, telling her not to come back until and unless she came to her senses.

She sighed. All because of one argument. They had had arguments before, of course. What couple didn't? Looking at the fact that they had different opinions about a lot of things, it was a miracle they hadn't argued more often. After all there were more than 250 years between them.

Yet they had never had an argument of the screaming kind until that one night two months ago. That one had been uglier and more severe than ever before and they had lashed out at each other like she never would have believed either of them able to.

He was the one who was wrong, she knew that. He had to know it, too, didn't he?

Then why didn't he call?

She looked at the clock standing beside the bed. Four o'clock in the morning. She had gone to bed but two hours earlier. Even without a Vampire lover by her side she was still mostly a creature of the night. She wouldn't have to get up for work until well past noon, yet she knew that she wouldn't be able to go to sleep again tonight.

She didn't want to dream of him again.

Ten minutes later she was out in the streets, looking for something to distract her. She had turned twenty-one this year (she had still celebrated with Angel on that day) and was now allowed to drink herself into a coma, wasn't she? Maybe she should try that one of these days. Maybe it would make her feel better.

Then again, it had never worked for Spike, the only hard drinker she knew, so she was a bit discouraged. Spike. Faith. Darla. She hadn't seen most of them either these last two months. Small wonder, she thought. All of them had been Angel's friends long before they had become her friends.

Giles was still there, of course, the man who was more her father than the seldom present Hank Summers ever had been. Through him she kept more or less up to date about the others, as Giles still had an on-again, off-again relationship with Darla, Angel's Sire. She wondered whether Angel asked him for news about Buffy in turn.

She shook her head. It shouldn't matter to her. Angel was the one who was wrong, he was the one who had to make amends. Some days she cursed that stubborn pride she felt, the one that prevented her from just going back to him, yet she could no more turn it off than she could take off her skin. He was the one who was wrong, he was the one who had to crawl.

Didn't he?

One stupid argument, she thought once more. She had been so sure of herself, so sure that he would be happy with her decision. Didn't he see it was for the best of them both? She still couldn't understand why he'd been so mad about it. The only reason she could come up with was one that she didn't want to consider.

Angel still loved her every bit as much as she loved him. That couldn't possibly have changed.

Could it?

She turned around a corner, still lost in thought, and almost bumped into a man going the other way. Before she even properly saw him her instincts were already screaming at her.

Vampire!

Old habits died hard, so she had her hand on the stake she always carried with her before she even knew it. The man she had bumped into, though, just fought for balance a moment and then apologized to her, smiling.

"I am sorry, I did not see you." He said.

She studied him for a moment. These days the average Vampire was no more a potential danger than any given human man she might meet after dark, which wasn't to say she could let her guard down. But he just smiled at her and seemed uninterested in a fight.

Too bad, Buffy thought.

"I wasn't watching, either." She told him.

She was about to walk past him when he moved a step to the side, halfway blocking her route. She looked up, a bit of anger penetrating into her face.

"I am sorry to intrude," he said, "but you look rather down."

Only now did she notice that he had a pack of fliers under his arm. That, combined with the tone of his voice, told her all she needed to know.

"I am not interested in whatever you're selling." She said and started brushing past him.

"I am not selling anything." He said and put one of his fliers into her hand with practised speed and ease. She was tempted to just crumble it up, but one look wouldn't hurt.

CHURCH OF THE HOLY BLOOD
BECAUSE PARADISE IS HERE ON EARTH

She looked up at the Vampire again. She knew that some Vampires practiced religion despite their inability to face the cross or other symbols of faith. She had been to a ceremony once herself. She had never been overly religious, though. She believed in God, more or less, but didn't see the need to visit a church or memorize prayers because of that. She was sure the big guy didn't mind.

"Why don't you come by once, when you have time?" The Vampire said. "Listening to what we have to say won't kill you, will it?"

Again she was tempted to just throw the flier away. The honest look on the Vampire's face dissuaded her, though. With a sigh she tucked the piece of paper into her pocket.

"I might." She said. This time the Vampire did nothing further to keep her.

Half a minute later she had forgotten him, her thoughts once again returning to the topic that had plagued her non-stop these past two months.

When would Angel call? Would he?


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2 - Beer, Bars, Brawls, and Thoughts On Safer Sex

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"Marilyn Monroe?" Faith asked him.

"Met her just once!" Spike said between two sips of beer. "Looks better on celluloid than in real life, I tell you."

"Don't they all?" Faith said, laughing.

"Don't know. Never saw you on film, pet!"

She gave him a mock slap on the shoulder and took a swig from her own beer. Spike marvelled at how much he had become used to having her around. Hard to imagine that, just three years ago, she had been a brat whose favourite pastime had been driving him up the nearest wall (and succeeding at it much too often for his taste). Now he could barely imagine that he had ever hated her guts.

Faith had changed a lot since then. Not only had she grown up to become a truly beautiful woman, she had also matured from the brat into a someone he wasn't shy to kiss in public. She still practiced her constant one-up-manship with him, but he no longer minded and gave as good as he got.

He shook his head. So much had changed and not just concerning his sex life. He carried an ID with his real name in his pocket these days, complete with his real date of birth. September 3, 1873. There had been some problems, of course, since he wasn't technically an American. But seeing as he'd come here long before they'd closed down Ellis Island he had been given citizenship without too much fuss.

He even had a job these days. He and Faith were both in the bodyguard business, having taken a page out of Buffy's book. Spike especially was much in demand, as lots of rich people liked having Vampires as bodyguards, go figure! These last two years Spike had met more movie stars than in his preceding century of life.

"You jobbed for this Raven chick last week, didn't you?" Faith asked. "Rebecca something, right?"

"Rebecca Lowell, yeah. Chick told the police she was threatened, but it was just a publicity gag. Also she wanted to become one of the club. Tried to make me turn her, can you believe that?"

"You didn't ..."

"Of course not, do I look dumb to you?"

"Well ..."

"It was a rhetorical question pet, don't get your little brain in an uproar about it!"

"Talking about little brains, when did you learn to use fancy words like rhetorical anyway?"

They both laughed. Of course he hadn't turned Lowell when she had tried to seduce him, and not just because it was illegal to do so without the written consent of both parties, as witnessed by an attorney. Most humans didn't understand it, but eternal life wasn't all it was cracked up to be, especially with the limitations a Vampire had to deal with.

"Where do you get off ...?" Someone yelled from the other side of the bar.

"If the shoe fits ...!" Someone else yelled back.

"What's going on over there?" Faith asked, leaning out of their booth to look.

Spike followed her gaze and saw three people standing near the pool tables, two of them staring at each other. He didn't need over a century of experience to interpret their body language. The two staring ones had their fists clenched and looked like they would start hammering each other in a second.

"Just a few fellows that can't hold their beers." He told Faith and turned away again. "Ignore them. Maybe they'll do us the favour and beat each other into submission real soon."

Faith nodded, but didn't take her eyes away from the quarrelling threesome just yet. Spike downed another sip of beer when the sound of a breaking glass drew his attention back.

"They going at it yet?" He asked Faith.

"Just about to, I'd wager."

Spike turned around again and saw that one of the men was right in the face of the other.

"You're a fuckin' traitor to you race, that's what you are!"

"If you're an example of 'my race' I'd just as well quit the club, all right!"

"You wanna turn yourself into a bloodsucker? Fine! I'll give you some blood to suck, all right!"

That drew Spike's attention more thoroughly than before. One of the men wanted to become a Vampire? Apparently the other didn't like that. The third man that stood with them gave a half-hearted attempt to break up the other two, but without much success.

"You think we should ..." Faith began.

"Godless mother-fucking son of a bitch!" The swearing was followed by the sound of a fist hitting flesh and bone, shortly followed by that of a large body smashing through a cheap table. Spike jumped to his feet, as did Faith.

"You're not gonna live long enough to spend eternity, boy!" The man who had been put through a table staggered back to his feet, murder in his eyes.

"Okay, boys!" Faith and Spike walked between them. "That's quite enough!"

"Mind your own business!" Both men snarled at them almost at the same time.

"I never do!" Spike grinned.

The guy who didn't particularly like Vampires launched himself at Spike and threw a fist. Spike caught it and applied some pressure, forcing the man to his knees with a pain-filled groan.

"Are you quite finished?" He asked, sounding bored.

"Let go of Marty!" Another man joined the fun and raised a bar chair to smash it across Spike's back. He never got that far. Faith snatched the chair away, kicked his legs out from under him, and pinned him to the floor with the chair, on which she sat down to smile at him.

"No cheap shots allowed!" She told him.

"You stupid bitch! Get off me!"

"I didn't need your help!" The man who wanted to become a Vampire told Spike.

"Mate, you sure do need help!" Spike shook his head. "Go home and take a good, long look at the sun when it rises, okay? Believe me, it's not worth giving up. I speak from experience!"

The other man froze. "You're a Vampire."

"Yeah, me and Dracula! It's not fun, okay? Now go home and sober up!"

"We don't want no stinking bloodsuckers here!" Three more men had risen from their tables and stood behind Spike, looking eager for a fight.

"You talkin' to me?" Spike turned to look at them, his face changing in the process.

One of the men took a step back, but none of them turned to run.

"We don't need you or your stinking heresy!" Another man snarled. "You and yours got some nerve, calling the good Lord Jesus a Vampire! Get your fuckin' church out of our city or, by God, we will give you some of God's own kindness!"

Spike had no idea what the man was talking about and didn't particularly care.

"I haven't been to church since your granddaddy shit his diapers, mate. Now you better get out of my face before you regret it, boys!"

Faith saw that they wouldn't back down and neither would Spike. She knew her bleached lover quite well by now and while he wasn't the sort to start a fight unless seriously pissed, he was the sort to finish it. She rose and walked toward him. The man she had held down got out from under the chair, gasping for air.

"I ain't finished with you, bitch!" He snarled between gasps, having a hard time getting back to his feet.

She didn't pay attention to him. What she did notice was the fact that three more men had entered the bar. Her Slayer sense tingled. Vampires, all of them. She knew them, in fact. Some of Lenny's men, the local Vampire gang leader. One could call them friends of Spike and Angel's, if one used the term loosely.

None of them were too shy of brawling either.

"Hey Spike," one of them called over, "got a problem there?"

Spike looked at them. The men facing him looked at them. Human faces morphed into demonic ones. Fists were clenched and tempers flared high.

The man called Marty was back on his feet and punched Spike in the face.

"Oh great!" Faith mumbled.

"You got it coming, bloodsucker!" He screamed.

Spike slowly and deliberately wiped the droplets of blood from his split lip and stared at the man who had struck him.

"You're gonna wish your daddy'd pulled out early, mate!"

Ten minutes later the police arrived and arrested everybody they found, conscious or not. There were quite a few of the latter by that time. The bar was so much splinters and wreckage.

Another twenty minutes later Angel received a phone call, swore under his breath, and got his coat to make a trip to the local Police station.

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3 - The Word is Forever

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Giles and Darla looked up as Angel walked into the lobby of the Hyperion, closely followed by Spike and Faith. The sun was about to rise outside, the Vampires were cutting it close. It wasn't the rising sun, though, that had put the dark circles under Angel's eyes. Darla knew better than that. They all did.

"Not as if it was our fault!" Spike complained.

"Oh, it wasn't?" Angel said, sounding not the least bit amused. "Which of them forced you to knock five men unconscious in that bar, William?"

Darla shook her head. Boys would be boys, she guessed, no matter how many centuries they had under their belts.

"They started it!" Faith muttered, hands thrust deep into her pockets and looking to all the world like a sullen teenager.

"So you had to finish it?" Angel asked.

"Damn right!" Faith said, daring him to continue the argument.

Angel just sighed and dropped into the love seat near Giles and Darla, looking incredibly tired. All of them knew that he hadn't slept much these last two months. He had also started to brood again, a lot. Darla had gotten so used to a livelier, happier Angel that she almost didn't recognize her Childe anymore.

"You said the fight started because one of those men wanted to become a Vampire?" Angel asked Spike.

"Yeah, stupid idiot. His fellows didn't feel so hot about that idea, it seems. Then they started throwing something about bloody Jesus Christ in my face. No idea what that was about. I was too busy pounding them into the floor a minute later to ask."

Angel shook his head, but didn't say anymore.

"It could be connected with that new Vampire religion we have heard about." Darla said. "The Church of the Holy Blood. It's one of those that make the Last Supper into a Vampire ceremony, you know the kind."

Angel nodded. During the last hundred years there had been a lot of Vampires that, looking for answers about their cursed condition, had turned toward religion. Angel admitted that the Last Supper ceremony could be interpreted in a certain way. Jesus sharing his blood with his apostles, promising them eternal life. Then rising after three days and such.

Angel didn't believe a word of it. He had been a good Christian, more or less, before he had died. These days he didn't give much of a damn one way or the other.

"We should probably look into that." He told the others. "The state of affairs between humans and Vampires is still fragile enough as it is. We don't need religious nuts around jeopardizing things."

"I will call Wesley and Doyle to make some discreet inquiries." Darla said. "You should probably put Gunn on the case, too. Cults like to recruit among the poor and displeased."

Angel nodded.

"Sun's up!" Spike said. "So unless you want to bitch some more, peaches, I will hit the sack!"

Angel didn't say anything and Spike shrugged, heading upstairs to the suite of rooms he used when staying at the Hyperion. Faith followed him after a moment, looking eager to get the stench of spilled alcohol and overcrowded holding cells off her.

"Giles, do you have a moment?" Angel said when the ex-Watcher and Darla were about to retire as well. Giles nodded at Darla to go ahead.

"Any news about Buffy?" Angel asked the other man once they were alone.

"It would be easier for you to keep apprised about her if you picked up the phone and called her."

Angel just looked at him and Giles sighed.

"Nothing new." He just said. "She keeps working overtime and doesn't sleep all that good. I really think you should ..."

"Anything about her mad idea?" Angel interrupted her.

Giles shook his head. He hated being stuck between the two lovers, if lovers they still were. Under normal circumstances he would have been solidly on Buffy's side in any argument between the two, even though he regarded Angel as a friend and an honourable man. In this special case, though ...

"Nothing. Though I doubt she has let it go. She can be stubborn that way. Besides, if she had, I have no doubt she would have called you by now."

Angel sighed, clearly not very happy with Giles' answers.

"I am doing the right thing, am I not?" He asked the ex-Watcher after a moment.

"I am honestly not sure." Giles said after a moment's consideration. "I agree that you could not just go along with her, Angel, but I don't think this separation is doing either of you much good, either."

The Vampire nodded. "I want to call her, Giles! Every day I have to restrain myself from picking up the phone and calling her. Or going by her place to knock her door down."

"Then do it!" Giles urged him.

"And then what? The argument would just continue where it left off, Giles. Buffy needs to see that she is wrong."

"And you think she will see that while she is alone, holed up in that apartment, while you are holing up in here?"

Angel sunk deeper into his seat, sighing deeply.

"I don't know what to do, Giles. I love her, but right now I don't particularly want her around, not as along as she persists with that idiot idea. How anyone could want ..."

He stopped himself. Giles wasn't the one he had to have that argument with. He knew the ex-Watcher shared his sentiments on that topic.

"Something has to be done, though." Giles reminded him. "I don't want either of you to be this unhappy, Angel."

"I am open to every idea, Giles, believe me."

Both men fell into silence as no ideas were forthcoming.

"Did the topic ever come up with you and Darla?" Angel asked all of a sudden.

"Not in so many words, no." Giles said after a moment. "The idea occurred to me, of course. I would be more than human if it hadn't. I have lived a long and mostly good life, though. The idea of mortality doesn't frighten me much."

"Buffy is still so young, though." Angel said.

"That she is, yes. To be honest I was afraid something like that would come up between you sooner or later. I have seldom seen people so much in love with each other, Angel. Is it so far-fetched for Buffy to hope that it will go on forever?"

Angel shook his head.

"I will not turn her into a Vampire, Giles. Under no circumstances."

He still remembered the day Buffy had approached him with the idea. She had beaten around the bush for quite some time, dropping hints. Angel had ignored them, hoping he was just reading her wrong. Then she had gone flat out and asked him.

He had not seen her since that night.

"I am just afraid," he continued, "that Buffy will do something stupid, Giles. There are a lot of Vampires running around these days. Some of them are bound to be willing to give her what she wants if she asks them."

Giles shook his head.

"I don't think you have to worry about that. The only reason Buffy wants to become a Vampire is to be with you forever. She wouldn't want anyone else as her Sire."

"And I won't do it!" Angel repeated.

"I hope not." Giles said. "I don't want her to become a Vampire anymore than you do, Angel."

"She has no idea what she is giving up." Angel said. "Sunlight. Food. Children. I can't take that away from her."

Giles sighed.

"I just hope that, given time, she will come around."

"What if she doesn't, Giles?" Angel asked him. "What if she doesn't?"

To that the former Watcher knew no answer.


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4 - What's That Look In Your Eyes, Girl?

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„For centuries, no, millennia we were hunted as monsters!" The speaker in front of the crowd said, his voice ringing out across the room. The building had started life as a warehouse, it seemed, but had undergone extensive renovation in the not too recent past and now looked like the holiest of churches.

Except for the conspicuous absence of crosses and other items of faith.

„When our savior Jesus Christ," the speaker continued, „shared his gift of eternal life with his apostles, they did not understand him. They did not know what power flowed through their veins now. They thought his giving them their blood but symbolic in nature, when in truth it was so much more. One of them betrayed him. And so the gift was tainted and those who received it were found wanting.

„And so, yes, we were monsters! For we had fallen away from our true path. We allowed ourselves to be seduced by the gift we had been given. Like Judas Iscariot once turned away from the savior, so did we. We fled into the dark and preyed on those whom we should have enlightened."

At the back of the crowd, close to the exit, Doyle listened to the words of the speaker and gave the man in the long black robe a quiet nod of respect. He was an excellent speaker. He had charisma, no doubt about that, and knew how to make the crowd listen to his every word. There had to be two to three hundred people assembled here and everyone was hanging on his lips.

He was a Vampire, as were many other people present.

The presence of Vampires always made Doyle a little nervous. One would think he'd gotten used to it after so long in the company of Vampires, some of whom he considered his closest friends. Yet something about them always gave him an itch somewhere he couldn't scratch. Maybe it was just the demon part of his being, telling him to stay away from the predators.

He didn't like being here. Over the years he had done a lot of things for Angel. As the Vampire had done for him in return. They were friends, they helped each other. That was what friends did, especially when you only had very few to begin with. Still, this place gave him the creeps, and not just because of the many Vampires.

Doyle had a few unpleasant memories concerning churches and religious men.

He sighed. Ever since Harry had left him for good, he hadn't had much of a social life. He had started drinking again, too, which didn't help much, but made him feel better for a short time. He never drank when he did a favor for Angel, though. The Vampire knew that and knew he could count on Doyle.

Sometimes he thought it was sad that the only people who thought good of him were Vampires.

„Now, though, we are on the road to redemption." The speaker's voice rang out again. „The Restoration has given us a second chance. We have a lot of things to make up for. The Lord still rejects us, his symbol of purity repulses us. We may not walk in the light of day, for to look upon his face is to be found wanting. Yet we are on the way, my brothers and sisters. We are on the way into the light and soon, soon we will prove ourselves worthy of his grace once more."

Doyle subtracted a few points from his estimation. The guy had emphasized the down points of becoming a Vampire a little too much for his taste. The crowd, though, the better part of them human, didn't seem to mind. Doyle wondered how many of these people actually wanted to become Vampires. How many of them would get their wish fulfilled? Maybe tonight? Did the church accept on-the-spot converts?

He toned out the ongoing preaching and concentrated instead on the man who was talking. Young on the outside, but with a feeling of power around him that the demon inside Doyle couldn't have missed. A Vampire, and rather old at that. Maybe older than Angel even. Doyle wished that Angel or Darla were here, they would be able to tell such things with a glance instead of having to rely on gut-level estimation.

The Vampires in the crowd, though, those were mostly fledglings, none of them with that sense of age about them that helped identify those truly ancient. Most of them had probably been turned after the Restoration, meaning none of them had ever known what it was like to be a bloodthirsty demon without conscience or compassion.

Doyle nodded. Those were probably the best to use in converting others. They didn't know about the downside of being a Vampire and could honestly say that being a Vampire was a blast. Nothing comes over better than naive honesty.

The humans present all looked like they hailed from the lower levels of society. Figured, Doyle thought. Those with no hope and nothing to lose are always the easiest to recruit into this kind of cult. He looked up at the people assembled around the speaker.

There were a dozen of them, all dressed in the same black robes with a few patches of red visible on the shoulders and the hems. The costumes didn't look that impressive, but the people wearing them had that same smell of age around them.

More old bloodsuckers. Doyle wondered if any of them truly believed the crap they were telling.

He looked at the speaker again. According to the leaflet he had been given upon entering this 'church' he was called Revered Geoffrey Jerome, founder of the Church of the Holy Blood. Doyle slowly made his way forward in the crowd until he was close enough to see Jerome's eyes.

They were almost glowing, not with the demon amber of a Vampire's demonic face, but with the kind of intense fervor Doyle knew only too well.

He had seen it in the eyes of the village priest that had ordered him burned at the stake as a child when his demonic side first manifested.

Yes, he thought, this man believed every word he was saying. That made him dangerous, Doyle knew. A man who thought he was doing God's work was hard to argue with.

He shook his head. Angel wanted this church checked out because he believed it could become a threat and Doyle found himself forced to agree. Immortality delivered on a silver platter, along with a little mythology that made the monsters into God's chosen, what was not to like about it?

How were they to prevent people from joining up in droves? Vampires were legal. Religious freedom was part of the Constitution. Sure, a lot of hardcore Christians would probably get in an uproar about this blatant rewriting of Christian mythology, yet legally there was nothing wrong about it. And if people wanted to have themselves turned into immortals, there was nothing to stop them from doing that, either.

Doyle thought on possible consequences. Lots of static from the established Christians, that much was for sure. Maybe enough to really get ugly. If that didn't happen, a rapid increase in the Vampire population would certainly spell trouble. If everyone stopped aging and started sucking blood, what then?

He resolved to let the deep thinkers figure that out. Wes and this Giles guy would probably have a field day doing estimations and shitting out theories about a world filled to the breaking point with Vampires. His job was to check out this gathering.

His eyes moved across the crowd again as the Revered droned on in front. He saw no familiar faces as of yet, which made him glad. He had few friends and figured all of them too smart to be caught up in something like this. He knew that Gunn had to be around here somewhere, also checking things out, but he hadn't seen the black boy yet.

Suddenly, though, he did see a familiar face.

„Buffy?" He whispered to himself. Yes, it was the little Slayer. What was she doing here? Also checking things out? Doyle knew that she and Angel had had some trouble lately, though he wasn't much into details about them. Had he sent her here as well?

Doyle was on the verge of going over to join here, but then he thought it better not to. This was a covert mission, kind of, so better if no one saw them together. Yeah, better that way. He was about to look away again when Buffy turned her head a bit, allowing him to see her eyes.

He didn't like what he saw in those eyes, not one bit. The same thing he saw in the eyes of lots of other people present.

Why was she looking at that Revered with this longing in her eyes?

She couldn't possibly be considering ...

Could she?


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5 - What's a Best Friend to Do?

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The bell on the door chimed and Willow turned around to look at the potential customer who had just entered the shop. She smiled when she recognized the person.

„Buffy!" The witch greeted her friend. „I haven't seen you in ages."

Buffy smiled back at the red-haired witch. Willow, like most people she knew these days, had originally been introduced to her through Angel, but after a while the two girls had become the best of friends and to Buffy it felt like she had known Willow since her early school days.

„Hi, Will!" She greeted her. „Sorry I haven't been around much. Things have been ... not easy."

Willow recognized the dark look on her friend's face. She knew, of course, that Angel and Buffy had had a falling out. She hated it when her friends didn't get along with each other. Angel and her weren't really close friends, though, more like comrades in arms or something similar. At one time the Vampire had needed the help of a witch and had found one, or two to be exact. Buffy, on the other hand, was her best friend.

„Hi, Buffy!" Tara came in from the back of the shop she and Willow ran together. The Magic Box was the largest store for occult shopping in the greater Los Angeles area and the two witches made a healthy profit here. Most of it came from black candles and glow-in-the-dark posters, though. There weren't a whole lot of real witches or other mystics around.

„Hi, Tara! Mind if I steal your girl for a minute?" Buffy smiled. She knew that Willow and Tara were lovers. Some days it freaked her out a bit, but she had learned to be, if not exactly supportive, then at least neutral on the subject. She liked Willow and Tara too much to let the bigot inside her ruin their friendship.

„S-Sure!" The blonde witch said, leaning on the counter and studying some papers. Buffy motioned for Willow to go outside and the two young women sat down in an outdoor cafe but minutes later, ordering milk shakes.

„What's up?" Willow asked her friend.

„I ... I wanted to talk to you about a few things that ... that have been going through my mind these last few weeks."

Willow nodded, motioning for Buffy to go on. Was this about her and Angel? Willow didn't know why the two of them had broken up and curiosity was getting the better of her.

„I ... tell me when I stop making sense okay? I ... had a long talk with Angel a few weeks ago. The night we broke up. I'd been dropping hints a long time before that, but he never picked up on them. So I just went out and told him."

„Told him what?" Willow asked.

„That I wanted him to turn me into a Vampire."

For a long moment Willow just stared at her best friend, unable to say anything. Had she heard that right? Had Buffy really just told her that she'd asked Angel to turn her into a Vampire?

„Buffy," she managed after a while, „why did you do that? You can't really be considering ..."

„Of course I can." She interrupted. „Why does everyone think I am loony? Willow, I love Angel. He is immortal, I am not. If we do nothing I will grow old while he will stay twenty-six for the rest of eternity. I think he might even stay with me when I'm an old hag, but that isn't the point. I want to be with him. Forever. That's the whole point of it."

Willow was surprised by the intensity of Buffy's outburst. Looking into her friend's eyes the witch saw that she meant every word of it. Every single word.

„What did Angel say?" Willow asked, playing for time to figure out what she was supposed to say.

Buffy laughed without humor.

„His reaction was pretty much the same as yours. He said I couldn't possibly want this, that it would be wrong, that he would never be able to do this to me. God, he sounded like I'd asked him to kill me, not ..."

„But that's exactly what you asked, Buffy." Willow interrupted her now. „You asked him to sink his fangs into your neck. To drain your blood. That is what you asked of him."

„I wouldn't really be dead." Buffy said. „Just ..."

„Buffy, you have to look at things from Angel's point of view." Willow interrupted her again. „The woman he loves asks him to kill her. How would you react?"

Willow's words got Buffy thinking. Was that the way Angel looked at it? Was that why he was so strongly set against it? Only because he couldn't bring himself to do it?

„I have been thinking about ... other ways." Buffy said after a while. „I mean, if Angel can't do it, there are others ..."

„Are you really considering asking some strange Vampire to turn you?" Willow asked, disbelief in her voice. „God, Buffy, what is happening here? What has made you so desperate? You are twenty-one for God's sake. You won't be a hag for a long, long time."

Buffy had never known her best friend to be so worked up about anything. Normally Willow was one of the shyest people around, only her girlfriend Tara was worse. One wouldn't know it right now, though.

„I love him so much, Willow." Buffy said, searching for the words to express what she felt inside her. „I can see it happening every day. He stays the same, but I am changing. He always tells me I am growing more beautiful, but that is but temporary. I am changing, he is not. I will go right on changing until I die a few decades from now and then he will be alone. He will never die and once I am gone we will be apart forever."

Some tears were trailing down her cheeks now.

„I want things to stay like they are, Will!" Buffy said. „I want to be twenty-one year old happy Buffy forever, with my Angel by my side. Is that so hard to understand?"

Willow just stared at her.

„It's not about becoming a Vampire!" Buffy continued. „It's about being with him. I am not eager to say good bye to the sun forever. I will miss tasting real food. But all that isn't important when I can be with him forever. If there were another way to accomplish that I would be upon it in a second. But only Vampires live forever, Will. It's the only way."

The two friends descended into silence for a few minutes, Willow trying to wrap her mind around the things Buffy had just told her, Buffy waiting for Willow's reaction.

„You are serious." Willow said finally. „You really want to do this."

„When I talked to Angel about it, I didn't want him to change me right then and there, Will. Maybe in another ten years or so. As you said, I am still young. But now I don't see any other way but to present him with fait accompli. I ... I can't stand being apart from him, Will!"

Willow nodded, slowly coming to understand, or at least appreciate, the depth of her friend's feelings. Never in her wildest dreams would she have imagined having such a conversation with Buffy, but looking back, it was to be expected. Seldom had she seen two people so much in love with each other. Could she really blame Buffy for wanting it to last forever?

„Buffy," she began, „I think ... I think I am beginning to understand why you want to do it. But you can't honestly want to just collect some Vampire from the street and make him turn you, can you?"

Buffy shook her head. „I want Angel to do it, Will. He is the only one I would want as my Sire. But if he won't do it ..."

She looked up again.

„There is that new Vampire church setting up shop in town. They call themselves Church of the Holy Blood. Religious nuts who think Jesus was a Vampire and giving his blood to his apostles to give them all eternal life."

„You don't ..." Willow began.

„Believe that? Of course not. But Will, I talked to them. If I convert to their religion, they will make me a Vampire. It won't take place in a filthy back alley or something. There will be an attorney, medical people will supervise it, all will be legal and safe."

It was Willow's turn to shake her head now.

„Buffy, please! Don't do something like that spur of the moment! Think about it! You're talking about joining some kind of cult."

„Only for show, Willow. I don't like these people, but they can give me what I need. So who cares if I have to mouth some words about believing all that stuff? I'm sure the big guy knows what I really believe."

Willow closed her eyes. What her friend was planning was wrong, she knew that, but she didn't find the words to convince her of it. What was she supposed to say when it was obvious that Buffy was already set in her plan?

„Willow, please! I was hoping you would understand. If there was any other way, I would do it, but the way things are ..."

She stopped talking as she saw Willow's brow furrowing. The words Buffy had just spoken sparked something inside the witch's head. Another way to be immortal? She had read something about that just a short time ago, hadn't she?

„If there was another way you would drop this entire becoming a Vampire thing?" Willow asked.

Buffy looked at her, confused. „Yes. But Will, there isn't. I didn't just jump into this, you know? I researched. Don't look at me like that, okay? I can read, you know? There are about a thousand spells and rituals that are supposed to make you immortal, but none of them work and most of them are fatal. I'm not the first human to look for immortality, Will."

Willow stood up from the table and grabbed Buffy by the arm.

„Willow, what ...?"

„I read about something like that." The witch told her friend as she dragged her back to the Magic shop. „And that means you won't go one step further with that plan of yours until I've read it again, okay? If I can't stop you from doing this, then by God I'm gonna make sure that you do it right."

Buffy was taken aback by Willow's forcefulness, but inside she smiled. Finally she had found someone who didn't want to immediately institutionalize her because of her idea. And who knew, if Willow really knew a better way to become immortal ...

It might turn out to be a good day after all.


#

6 - You Can't See Tears In the Rain

#

NOTE: The Latin phrase Buffy reads from the book is freely translated from English, using an online dictionary. All Latin-speakers, please don't be mad at me for my no doubt horrible translation. I just looked up the words and threw them together until they sounded cool. Forgive me!

#


The Hyperion Hotel loomed in front of Buffy like a great dark fortress and she felt a chill in her bones. She hadn't been back here since the day Angel had sent her away, refusing to be the one to come crawling back to him. She had been here often before that, of course, had practically lived here for close to three years.

Never before had the building looked that intimidating to her.

„Get your act together, Summers!" She admonished herself. „Everything will turn out right tonight and how come the big heap Vampire Slayer is scared of a building anyway?"

With new resolve, or maybe just the illusion of resolve, she walked toward the entrance of the Hotel. This time it would work out right. It wasn't like she would try and make him turn her into a Vampire tonight. He would be happy that she had found an alternative and then everything would be fine.

She didn't allow herself to remember that she had thought the same two months ago, on the night they had broken up.

Pushing open the doors she walked into the lobby, the chatter of several people reaching her ears.

„I still think I should tell him." That was Doyle's voice.

„And I think you should keep your nose out of his fucking business, man!" That was Gunn.

„Look!" Doyle again. „I know she is a tough lady and all, but I know how cults like that one operate. It's brainwashing and if she is getting caught up in that ..."

„You are not, by chance, speaking about me, are you?" Buffy walked into view.

Doyle and Gunn stood face to face, but turned to look at her with identical expressions of surprise on their faces.

„Buffy!" Doyle managed after a minute or so. „Princess, nice to see you back."

„Yeah!" Gunn added. „What he said."

„Is Angel in?" Buffy asked them.

„Angel? Oh yeah, Angel! He's in, yeah! Upstairs. You know, his rooms. Of course you know, you were there a couple of times."

Buffy smiled as she walked past the rambling Doyle.

„Don't worry, Doyle! I'm not planning on converting anytime soon, okay? But it's sweet of you to worry!"

She left him standing with his mouth wide open and walked up the stairs to the rooms she had shared with Angel until two months ago. She wouldn't really have needed Doyle to tell her that he was in. She knew. Somehow she knew.

He knew, too, as was apparent by the fact that he was looking at her the moment she walked in.

„Hi!" Buffy said, suppressing the urge to give him a stupid wave or something.

„Buffy!" He just said, his face carefully neutral. What was going on inside his head, she wondered. Gladness to see her warring with worry over what she was up to now? Probably something like that.

„I was hoping ... can we talk? If you have the time, I mean."

Angel stayed silent, but motioned for her to come in. Buffy quickly walked over to where he sat and dropped into the chair close to him, scooting it around until they sat face to face.

„Angel, I ... I did a lot of thinking these past two months. About ... about what I asked you to do and why it managed to drive such a wedge between us."

He said nothing, just looked at her with that terribly neutral face. It was a Vampire thing, she suspected. That thing where they just stopped moving, stopped breathing, until you could mistake them for wax dolls. So terribly silent that you were afraid they'd vanish the moment you blinked.

„Do you still love me?" She asked him suddenly. She hadn't planned to ask that, but suddenly she had to know. She had to be certain.

„Of course I do." He said without hesitation. „But that was never the question, was it?"

She shook her head. No, it had never been the question. She had never truly believed that he had sent her away and refused to call because he didn't love her anymore. She just had to be certain.

„I regret ... some of the things I said to you two months ago." She said after another awkward moment of silence.

„Some?" Angel asked.

„You are not an antique, prude asshole." She said with the barest hint of a smile on her lips.

Angel remained stoic for a moment, but then a shadow of a smile played across his features as well.

„Okay." He said. „You remember that I called you a stubborn and thickheaded idiot?"

„Yes."

„I don't think you're an idiot."

For a moment she just stared at him, then both chuckled and the smiles grew broader. Buffy reached out and clasped her hand in his.

„God, I missed you so much, Angel." She whispered.

„I missed you, too, beloved."

They embraced and for a long moment Buffy forgot everything about her plan, immortality, and Vampires. She was back in the arms of her Angel and that was the only thing that mattered to her right now. God, how had she managed two months without him?

The moment passed, however, and Buffy remembered the reason why she was here.

„Angel!" She gently slipped from his embrace. „We need to talk. About ... about what we discussed the last time."

Angel's neutral face immediately snapped back into place like a solid mask, a poker face he had perfected in more than two centuries. Try as she might, Buffy could not see past that mask.

„About you wanting to become a Vampire." He said, his voice flat and emotionless.

„Yes, that."

She looked down, looking for the words she had put together so well when practicing this talk before the mirror last night. It had sounded so easy back then.

„Angel, I ... I didn't think what I was asking from you. I am sorry that I didn't think what it would mean for you."

She could see the barest crack in his mask.

„So you have given up on this insane idea?" He asked, a glimmer of hope in his eyes.

„It's not insane." She said before she had time to think about it. His face immediately darkened.

„I am not prepared to go through this again." He said, beginning to rise from his chair.

„Angel! Wait!" She put her hand on his shoulder and gently pressed him back into the chair. „It won't be a repeat of the argument we had two months ago, okay? I won't ask you to turn me into a Vampire again, I promise!"

He sat back down, but there was suspicion in his eyes.

„What then, Buffy? Why are you here?" The cold in his voice surprised her. What was so terrible about her idea that it made him behave like this?

„It was never about becoming a Vampire, Angel!" She told him. „It was about being with you forever and I thought that becoming a Vampire was the only way. But I was wrong."

„Wrong in what way?" Angel asked.

„I found a better way!" She informed him, smiling.

„A ... better way?"

She took the book Willow had given her from her rucksack and showed it to him. For a moment he was confused, the cover read „Vampiric Rituals and Magic" in Latin. Then his face darkened again.

„Buffy?" He asked, fearing that he already knew what she had uncovered.

„Vinculum Dies Noctis Cruentos!" Buffy read from one of the pages. „Sorry, couldn't memorize the words. It means ..."

„Day and Night, bonded in Blood." Angel said.

She looked up at him. „You know the words?"

„I know the ritual." Angel said and stood, walking out of the room. Buffy was confused. He knew the ritual? Then why ...? She quickly stood, the book under her arm, and ran after him.

Angel stood on the balcony and looked out into the night of LA, the city that had been his home for over half a century now. Rain clouds were gathering in the skies above, hiding what few stars the lights of the city allowed him to see.

He closed his eyes as he heard Buffy coming onto the balcony behind him.

„Angel, what is the matter with you?" She demanded. „I thought you'd be happy to ..."

„Happy?" He twisted around to face her and she gasped when she saw that his demon face had slipped over his human features. „Happy? Buffy, do you have any idea what you are asking me?"

She didn't break away from his gaze.

„I'm asking to be with you forever. This blood bond allows a Vampire to bond with a human. The human will gain immortality without becoming a Vampire, the two will be bonded for all time."

„Did you read that to the end?" Angel growled at her. „It also says the bond is irreversible. Eternal. And when one of those bonded dies, the other will die with him."

„So?" Buffy yelled at him. „Do you honestly think I care about that? I want to be with you forever, damn it! If you were to die I wouldn't want to continue living."

He turned away and Buffy felt tears in her eyes.

„Angel! What the hell is the matter with you? Why are you so afraid of this? I ... I thought you wanted the same. I thought you would want to be with me forever."

When he didn't react she angrily wiped the tears from her face, even as the first raindrops began to fall down on them.

„But if I was wrong, if you don't want that, then tell me now! Tell me so I can forget this stupid idea and we can go our separate ways!"

She could see him tensing, his hands clenching into fists, but he didn't turn around. After a minute or so Buffy dropped the book to the floor and turned away from him.

„Sorry to waste your time." She said. „I won't bother you again!"

All the way to the door she hoped that Angel would call after her, that he would come running and tell her why he was behaving this way. Tell her that he loved her.

He didn't.

Buffy left the Hyperion without looking back, her tears lost in the rain that was now pouring down on the city of angels.

#

7 - Right of Assembly

#


"I don't like this." Spike mumbled under his breath for what had to be the hundredth time.

"I get the message." Faith said. "Though maybe you'd want to repeat it one more time so I can be certain I understood you correctly."

"Bugger off!"

Truth to tell they were both miserable. The rain had been pouring down for three nights straight now and showed no sign of letting up. Unfortunately the lousy weather hadn't kept the idiots off the streets. So here they were, getting soaked, while a parade of idiots parroted in front of them.

"First public assembly my ass." Spike mumbled. "Couldn't they have picked another night?"

The Church of the Holy Blood had invited everyone interested in their message to attend a public gathering in one of Los Angeles' parks. Angel had had Kate check things out and the assembly was a hundred percent legal, approved by the city government, all the papers filled
out and stamped. There was nothing they could do about it.

Faith watched the representatives of the church wearily. She had lived on the streets for a good long while, mostly to escape from the latest bunch of foster parents the state had handed her off to, and was suspicious of all kinds of people that promised you heaven on earth if only you would do what they told you. Who knew, if not for Angel, maybe she would be caught up in one of those cults by now. She shuddered at the thought.

Doyle had told them that he had seen Buffy during one of the church's gatherings. She also knew that her sister Slayer had had another falling out with Angel, though she still didn't know what it was about. Faith didn't like it. She didn't like it at all.

The church people had erected a podium in the middle of a large clearing, complete with speakers, lights, and everything else you needed for a good show. Except the necessary weather for it, Faith added. Rain storms weren't the right atmosphere for a holy message.

About a hundred people were already gathered in the clearing. Taking the miserable weather into account, that was a whole lot. She also saw a few people who didn't look like they were here to convert. They watched the proceedings with grim faces and some of them carried
posters.

Faith could just make out one of them. It read JESUS IS NO BLOODSUCKER!!!.

"This could be trouble." She told Spike, who was busy being miserable.

"That's what them are here for, I'd wager."

A full compliment of LA's finest were also present, wearing rain gear and looking every bit as miserable as most other people present. No, she resolved, this wouldn't be a great night for the Church of the Holy Blood.

A dozen or so Vampires stood on the podium, looking out at the gathering crowd. Some workers were busy trying to fix a huge canopy over the clearing to keep out the rain, but only two corners of it were fastened by now. Sadly the rain didn't seem to bother the Vamps. They just stood there and looked around.

Her eyes traveled to the Vampire called Jerome, by all accounts the leader of this bunch. He was handsome, she had to admit, and even standing still and doing nothing he did emit some kind of charisma that easily drew eyes toward him. He would have made a good politician, Faith thought.

"What do you think?" She asked Spike, nudging him to look in Jerome's direction.

"Old bugger." Spike just said. "I'd say two centuries and change. Maybe three."

Faith knew that Darla had tried to gather some more information about Jerome, but so far they only knew that he was not a member of the Order of Aurelius, the Vampire bloodline that Darla headed. There were eleven other bloodlines - ten if you omitted the nearly defunct
Order of Grigori - and there was no central database or anything for their members.

"The others?"

"Some of them might just be old enough to remember being monsters." Spike said. "Most are under a hundred, though. Jerome's the bugger we have to look out for."

Faith nodded. After nearly three years of training and working out with Buffy she had the Slayer instincts down pat and zeroed in on Jerome. Her instincts were calling for her to just jump him and ram a stake into his heart. Of course they were saying the same about the Vampire standing by her side.

Jerome looked in her direction and their eyes locked. For a moment Faith was sure that he knew exactly what, if not who she was. His eyes flashed demon amber.

"Yeah, fucker!" She mumbled. "Slayer's here to keep an eye on you."

Jerome held her gaze for a moment longer, then looked away again, behaving as if nothing was wrong. Maybe he hadn't recognized her after all. Or maybe he just felt safe with the law protecting him.

"Don't feel too safe!" Faith mumbled again.

Half an hour later the rain had faded to a light drizzle and the clearing, now shielded by the canopy, was packed with people. About a third of them seemed to be Vampires, although pretty young ones all around. Of the remaining two thirds Faith estimated about half were interested, while the other half was here to make trouble.

"Welcome brothers and sisters!" Jerome finally started speaking.

Faith tuned out his voice. She had heard it all from Doyle. Sure, Jesus had been a Vampire. Right, the Last Supper ceremony was a Vampire sharing his blood. Certainly, Jesus had risen after three days. Yada, yada, yada.

About two minutes into his speech a tomato went flying and hit him in the chest. The red stain looked remarkably like blood.

"We've heard enough of your crap!" Someone yelled from within the crowd holding the signs.

"Got your holy blood right there on your chest, buster!" A few other items of food went flying.

"Hey, let the man speak!" Someone else yelled.

Within a minute the crowd was divided into two factions facing off. The police stood close, ready to jump into the fray, yet with too little manpower to actually stop a full-blown fight if it started. Faith sighed.

"Here we go again."

"If we get arrested again you owe me." Spike grumbled.

"Why's that? As far as I remember it was you who got us arrested the last time."

"Guy had it coming."

The two of them moved closer to the gathering crowd, even as Jerome apparently tried to ease the tempers a bit.

"This is a peaceful gathering!" He told everyone. "Violence is not the answer to your questions."

"Answer this!" Another tomato went flying and Jerome evaded it easily, moving in a blur. For a moment Faith feared he would attack whoever had thrown the thing, but he didn't move from the podium. Only his eyes glared a demon amber as his face changed.

"We're not gonna stand by while you disgrace the good Lord!" Someone yelled and that, combined with the sight of Jerome's true face, was more than enough to start the fun. Suddenly people were going at each other all over the clearing. The cops tried to keep the two sides apart, but there were too few of them.

"Just great!" Spike grumbled and jumped into the crowd. Faith followed him a moment later, loosening a long string of curses as she started knocking out people left and right.

The cops managed to restore order about half an hour later, which was mostly due to the fact that a good number of people on both sides of the fight, including a lot of Vampires, had been rendered unconscious. The cops apparently didn't care about that fact and started arresting people.

"You owe me one!" Spike grumbled.

"In your dreams!" She grumbled back.

"No talking!" The officer that had arrested them shouted.


#

8 - Doing Hard Time

#


"That's the second time." Angel mumbled.

"Stuff it, okay?" Spike mumbled back.

"Two times in less than two weeks that I have to get you out of jail." Angel continued on, oblivious to Spike's comments. "I'm going to start not answering the phone soon."

"I wouldn't have gone to that bloody gathering if you hadn't been so worried about everything. So friggin' stuff it!"

Angel and Spike walked through the corridors of the police station. Spike, as well as the other Vampires arrested during the gathering had been put into special windowless cells in the basement of the station. The law about proper treatment of Vampire prisoners had come through very quickly after an idiot rookie cop had put a Vampire into a cell with eastward-facing windows.

The human prisoners were kept in another part of the station and they still needed to get Faith out.

"Jerome in no way got involved in the fighting?" Angel asked Spike, deciding that grumbling to his childe was useless.

"Bastard just stood there and tried to preach love and understanding. Nobody listened, though. Big surprise, eh?"

"You get a reading on him?"

"He's old, that much's for sure. Maybe older than you, Peaches. He believes what he says, too. You can see it in his eyes. Bloody fanatic."

"Doyle said the same thing. I don't like it."

Spike was tempted to say that Angel hadn't had much liking to spare ever since Buffy had checked out of the Hyperion, but as Angel seemed to be in an even worse mood these past few days, if that was even possible, Spike kept his mouth shut for once.

It was no fun needling the big poof when he was in full brood-mode.

A police officer stopped them in front of the cell tract and Angel flashed his badge. The officer checked the records and then proceeded to let them through. The police station had five cells and all of them were filled with numerous people. Spike recognized many of them from the gathering.

"LAPD got a full house tonight." He said. Angel didn't laugh. Well, okay, it hadn't been very funny.

Two of the cells were occupied by female prisoners. To be more exact one of the cells was filled to the breaking point, while the other cell just held one prisoner.

"What can I say?" Faith shrugged, doing her best to look innocent. "Nobody wants to bunk with me."

Taking in the terrified looks on the faces of the female prisoners in the adjoining cell, Spike couldn't suppress a laugh. Yes, that was his Faith all right.

The officer opened the cell and let Faith out, looking rather relieved to get her out of there and making sure to stand a good distance away from her.

Faith calmly walked by the other cell, only to suddenly whirl around to face the watching prisoners.

"Boo!" She yelled, causing everyone to jump back and press against the rear wall.

"Stop that, Faith!" Angel chided her, though Spike was sure he saw the barest shadow of a smile on his Sire's face.

"Sorry, girls!" Faith smiled at the prisoners, which probably caused more of a scare than the boo.

"Let's get out of here, luv!" Spike said, just managing to keep his voice earnest. "We got fresh babies for you to eat at home."

„Oh, yummy!" Faith said, licking her lips.

Apparently some of the prisoners were not a hundred percent certain they were joking and kept watching them intently until they were out the door. Faith walked out with a happy smile on her face, ignoring the dark stare Angel gave both her and Spike.

#

"William, I need to talk to you for a moment!" Angel said as they walked into the Hyperion.

Spike saw the look on Angel's face and just nodded, motioning for Faith to go up without him. Angel and Spike constantly needled each other, or to be more precise Spike was the one that did most of the needling, but that didn't change the fact that they had been best friends for over a hundred years now.

"What is it, peaches?" Spike asked. He never called Angel by his true name, Liam. Angel tended to get all depressed and guilty when someone did that.

"Buffy was here three days ago." Angel just said.

They sat down in the lobby chairs.

"She still hung up on that Vampire idea?" Spike asked, his voice serious.

"No."

"No? Well, than I'd say all is well again, right?"

"No, it isn't. She now wants to perform the Vinculum Dies Noctis Cruentos."

That managed to strike even Spike speechless for a minute. The blood bond? Buffy wanted to perform the blood bond with Angel?

"How did she learn about that?" He asked when he found his voice once more.

"I'm not sure, though I suspect Willow and Tara have a hand in this."

Spike shook his head. "No one has performed that bloody ritual in ages. I doubt there is more than a friggin' handful of people alive who even saw it done, much less actually did it."

Angel nodded.

"I know that. I tried to explain to her that ... that ..."

Spike shook his head, seeing the look in his face. "Stuff it, peaches! I know you too well for that. You didn't try to explain anything to her. You just told her to forget about it, right? Right?"

Angel nodded after a moment. Spike sighed.

"Peaches, peaches! You should know better by now. Buffy ain't no 18th century girl that will do what she's told by her big, strong hubby. She has to be the most stubborn and thickheaded person I've ever met and believe me, that says a lot coming from someone who's paired off with Faith."

"Hey!" Faith's voice came from above them.

"Will you ever stop listening in on other people's conversations?" Angel asked her, sounding more tired than actually annoyed.

"Got to bed, luv!" Spike told her. "I'll come and tuck you in soon, I promise!"

"You can sleep on the couch tonight if I hear one more comment like that!" Faith told him, shortly followed by the sound of a closing door.

"Some days I wonder why we keep her." Spike sighed.

"You can't keep your hands off her body, that's why." Angel reminded him.

"I knew there was a reason." He shook his head. "But coming back to that other hot Slayer chick in our lives, you won't get Buffy off that idea unless you tell her why you don't want to do it."

Angel looked down and rubbed his forehead, which caused Spike to sigh once more. Getting Angel to talk about his feelings was like pulling teeth, only a lot harder. Nearly three years with the Slayer had gone a long way toward cracking that stoic countenance of his, but two months of separation had caused it to snap right back into place.

„Just friggin' talk to her! It ain't that hard, you know? People do it all the time."

Spike took his friend by the shoulders and shook him gently.

„Don't lose her, okay? Don't lose her because you can't get your bloody mouth open! Find her! Talk to her! Pound some sense into her if you need to, but don't just let things die, okay? I don't want to go through another century of Brooding 101."

That actually managed to produce a smile on Angel.

„That's the spirit, mate!" Spike cheered him on. „Now you go and find that Slayer of yours! Me, I'm gonna take care of that other Slayer until she begs me to stop."

„In your dreams!" Faith called out from above.



#

9 - Mother Knows Best?

#


Two days ago Joyce Summers had opened the door of her house and found her daughter standing outside, drenched from the pouring rain, shivering, looking like she would collapse any moment now. Her eyes had been red and puffy, mascara streaking down her cheeks from the rain and tears. Motherly concern had blotted out everything else but that bundle of misery her daughter had become.

She had almost manhandled Buffy into the bathroom, disposed of the drenched clothing, and dried her off with a towel. Buffy hadn't spoken more than three words the whole time. Without pressing any questions Joyce had then tucked her daughter into her old bed in her old room, where she had slept for nearly twenty hours straight. Joyce had heard Buffy cry herself to sleep.

Joyce knew she would never get the prize for most insightful mother of the year. She had missed too much of her daughter's life, even though it had been right under her nose. She had never had an inkling that her daughter was a supernatural warrior, tasked with protecting the world from evil, until the day Buffy returned after having been kidnapped by a Vampire.

The same Vampire she had lived with these last three years. Even without being the most insightful mother of the year Joyce knew that, whatever worries Buffy had, it was connected with Angel. Most mothers would probably have freaked finding out their daughters were in love with a Vampire. Joyce had been well on the way towards freaking herself, butt then she had met Angel.

He was a good man, she knew that, no matter that he had actually been dead for over 250 years and a genuine cradle-robbing creature of the night for 150 of those years. He was a man who loved her daughter like nothing else in the world, who would give his life for her in a heartbeat. Joyce had come to like Angel and, after three years, regarded him as her son-in-law, no matter that legal America might disagree.

She also knew that no one but Angel would be able to get her daughter into so distraught a state. She remembered her years with her own husband well enough to know that no one could possibly hurt you like the ones you loved. She just didn't know what had happened. Oh, she knew the two had had a falling out with each other, yet she had been certain they would get over it. They loved each other too much for that.

Now she was no longer sure.

Her daughter had just told her the entire story from start to finish. How she had asked Angel to make her a Vampire because she couldn't take losing him to time. How Angel had refused her, which had led to their separation. How Willow had found out about the blood bond and how Buffy had approached Angel with that idea. How it had all ended.

The story had taken most of the evening and it was already dark outside as Buffy sat on the couch, eyes red and puffy from fresh tears, and waited for her mother to say something. Anything.

"Mom?" She asked when the silence grew too long.

"I am not sure what I should say, Buffy." Joyce admitted. "The thought of you turning yourself into a Vampire ..." Her voice trailed off.

"It wouldn't change who I am, mom." Buffy reminded her. "Ever since the Restoration every newly made Vampire has retained her soul. And I don't even want to become a Vampire anymore. I wanted to be bonded to Angel, only he wanted ... he didn't want to. Didn't want me."

More tears spilled down her cheeks and Joyce draped her arm around Buffy's shoulders, pulling her in closer.

"I don't think that is even possible, Buffy." She said. "Angel loves you like I have seldom seen anyone love another person. Didn't you say that, earlier that evening, you two almost made up? That he said he missed you?"

"Yes."

"Maybe he has another reason, Buffy. Angel would give his life to protect you, you know that. Maybe you don't know everything about this bond. Maybe he wants to protect you from something."

Buffy gave a mocking laugh.

"Protect me, right! Like he did when he knocked me unconscious so he could sacrifice his own life to close the doors to Hell. He is such a bastard that way! So ..."

"Old-fashioned?" Joyce offered. "Buffy, you have to remember that Angel is an 18th century man. I am sure he loves you, sees you as an equal, but he probably can't help these ingrained instincts of his."

"You mean treating me like a dumb girl that has to be protected from her own stupid ideas?"

"Something like that, yes!" Joyce said.

Buffy was taken a bit aback by her mother's blunt honesty.

"Buffy," Joyce continued, "I know you really want to be with him forever, but - and you're gonna hate me for saying this - you're still a child." Buffy opened her mouth to protest, but Joyce held up her hand to silence her. "Especially by Angel's standards, Buffy. He's nearly three centuries old now. He might not like to talk about it, but he knows a lot more about the ups and downs of immortality than you or I do."

"It's not about the immortality!" Buffy cut in. "It's about being with him. If he were mortal things would be fine. We'd grow old together, no problem with that. But he isn't mortal. He will stay twenty-six forever. I will grow old and die, he never will. He can't become what I am, a mortal, so I have to become what he is."

Joyce saw the desperation in her daughter's eyes, knew that she wanted this more than anything else. It scared her. Desperate people often did desperate and stupid things.

"Buffy, what do you really know about this bond thing?" Joyce asked her, hoping to steer this conversation back to a more practical line. "You read a passage about it in a book, right? Angel probably knows a lot more about it. Maybe it's very dangerous."

Buffy stood from the couch and started pacing the room.

"I don't know if it's dangerous. I don't know the ups and downs of immortality. And you know why?" She didn't wait for her mother to answer. "Because that stupid bastard won't talk to me. He just decided that it's all a stupid idea and that's it as far as he is concerned. He'd rather let me walk away than talk to me. You know how tired I am of this attitude of his?"

Joyce nodded. "I know, honey. I know how bad things get when people who love each other stop talking to each other. When they no longer understand each other. When even the little shows of affection that were so automatic at first become an effort. Soon you start wondering if it's even worth the effort and once you start wondering that it's too late."

Buffy realized what her mom was talking about. "Mom! Sorry, I didn't want to ..."

"It's okay, Buffy. It's been a long time since your father left me. I won't pretend it doesn't still hurt now and then, but I've accepted it."

Buffy looked at her mother for a long time.

"Had it been possible, would you have wanted to stay with dad forever?"

Joyce sighed. "At the beginning, yes. We were very much in love with each other. Had someone offered me eternity on a silver platter at that time I would probably have jumped for it without a single moment's hesitation. Things change, though. And most times even love doesn't last forever."

She looked up at her daughter.

"Oh, Buffy! You know I want nothing less than eternal happiness for you. You and Angel ... maybe the two of you are one of those precious few loves that really can last forever. I don't know. I'm just saying that you should be certain about it before you do anything rash, you know?"

She stood and hugged her daughter. "Talk to him, Buffy. Better yet, make him talk to you! Force him to voice the things he doesn't want to talk about, okay? Don't let him go without a fight!"

Buffy hugged her mother back. The deep well of despair she had fallen into after walking away from the Hyperion that rainy night was a dark and lonely place. She had felt like someone had torn out her heart and replaced with a block of ice. If Angel didn't love her enough to spend eternity with her, then what was left in this world?

She shook her head. Maybe her mother was right. Maybe she had behaved like a stupid school girl during this entire thing. Want to be a Vampire, so make me! Angel hadn't volunteered his thoughts about it and she had been too in love with her own idea to really ask.

She just hoped it wasn't too late to ask him.

"Thanks mom!" She said. "I will try to do just that."

"Be happy, Buffy!" Joyce said. "That's all I expect from you. Just be happy!"

Buffy nodded. "I will try that, too."


#

10 - 'Till Death Leaves Us Alone Forever?

#


It was still raining.

Angel stood in front of the off-white apartment door, his coat dripping on the corridor floor, and knocked once more. It was mostly a gesture in futility, as he already knew that no one was home. He didn't exactly know how, but he could feel that the apartment beyond was dark and empty.

He brushed his wet hair back, sighing. Where could she be on a miserable night like this one? Even the Vampires stayed clear of the streets with the water pouring down the way it did, but this stubborn girl was out there somewhere, doing God knew what.

Didn't matter, he resolved. He had to find her and if she wasn't here, maybe she was at Willow and Tara's place. Or maybe her mother's. One of her favourite hangouts was also not far away from here. Maybe there ...

„Are you looking for me?" Her voice rang out from behind him.

There she was, standing in front of the closing elevator doors. Her long blonde hair hung down in wet strands, her white coat was soaked through and through. She carried an umbrella, but apparently the small thing had not done much good in the monsoon-like rain outside.

She was beautiful.

„I was about to scour the city for you, actually." Angel said.

She nodded and walked up to him until they stood just out of arm's reach, both of them wet, cold, miserable, and completely unaware of it and everything else except each other. Angel looked down at this small woman he loved so much and wondered how he could have been so stupid. How could he have allowed things to come this far? So close to losing her.

„Do ... do you want to come in and dry off?" Buffy asked finally. „I mean ... not like you can catch a cold or something, but you should really get out of those clothes and ... and I didn't mean that the way it just sounded, I ..."

He silenced her ramble by taking her hand in his and giving it a gentle squeeze.

„Yes, I would like to come in." He just said, giving her half a smile.

Buffy smiled back, a blush creeping up her cheeks as Angel's half-smile did its usual magic on her. She fumbled into her pockets for her keys and it seemed to take an eternity until she finally managed to open the door.

They both hung their dripping coats and Buffy walked toward her closet, taking out some dry clothes for herself. Then she hesitated and gave Angel a sheepish smile.

„I ... do you want ... I mean, I have some of your shirts here, if you want to ..." She shut herself up and handed him a large silk shirt. Black, of course.

„I was wondering where that one went." Angel said.

„As if you can tell. All your shirts are black." She shot back, then smiled again. „Sorry, I ... I took them along, because ... because ..."

„I know." Angel just said. „Me, too."

Buffy nodded and went into the bathroom to change. It was a bit strange to show modesty in front of Angel, seeing as he had seen and had his hands on pretty much every part of her body, yet undressing in front of him right now was not something she was able to do. Two minutes later she walked back out, dressed in dry jeans and shirt. Angel had disposed of his wet shirt and replaced it with the one she had given him.

„So ..." Buffy said, sitting down on the couch. „You wanted to see me?"

Angel nodded, sitting down beside her.

„I ... it occurred to me that I still owe you some answers, Buffy. I left a lot of things unsaid and ... I was wrong not to really talk things through with you."

Buffy nodded for him to go on.

„I'm not sure where I should start. I ... you might have noticed that this whole talking about my feelings thing is not what I do best."

„I noticed." Buffy said with a slight smile.

„Three nights ago ... when you approached me with the blood bond ... I have taken a look at the book you found it in, Buffy. It's woefully incomplete, I'm afraid. It tells about the bond, but not about it's consequences."

„And those are ...?" She prodded him.

Angel moved his hand through his wet hair again, looking for the words.

„The bond, it's ... no Vampire has bonded himself to a human in this way for centuries. The ritual was originally conceived to give a Vampire a daytime helper. A servant, a slave. The Vampire can use the bond to control the human's thoughts and actions.

„But the bond works too well, is too deep. Some Vampires bonded themselves to humans of greater willpower than themselves and winded up the slaves instead of the masters. And once the bond is established it can never be severed. It exists as long as both of them exist and when one dies, the other dies with him."

Angel looked up to meet her eyes.

„Do you understand, Buffy? The bond isn't a blessing, it's a curse. An eternal struggle for dominance, a chain that can never be broken."

„Only if the two who are bonded want to fight." Buffy said calmly. „You wouldn't try and use the bond to control me, Angel, I know that. Neither would I. I hope you know that, too."

Angel shook his head.

„I know that now, Buffy. But I don't know what will be in a hundred years. In a thousand years. Buffy, you don't know what it means to live so long. You are twenty-one. A person changes over so long a time, sometimes changes so much you wouldn't even recognize it as the same person.

„When I was your age, I was a good-for-nothing brat, the spoiled son of a rich man, my only pastimes were drinking and women. I was that man, yet today he might as well be a total stranger for all I still have in common with him."

„Angel, you never know how people will change over time. It's a risk, sure, but the same risk that every couple that enters into marriage takes. We can't base our future on the people we might become in a hundred years."

„But a married couple can divorce, Buffy." Angel said. „The bond, though, that can not be broken. I can't imagine a time when I would ever want to be apart from you, Buffy, but that doesn't mean this time could never come. And then we would be forced to spend eternity with someone we didn't want anymore."

Buffy regarded him for a long moment.

„So what you're telling me is that you don't want to do this because you might get second thoughts a thousand year from now. Because 1000-year-old-Angel might be sore with 280-year-old-Angel for bonding him with me, is that it?"

Angel almost flinched at the sarcastic tone of her voice, but forced himself to nod.

„Yes, bluntly spoken."

„Even if I believed a single word of that," Buffy said, „it doesn't cut, Angel. So maybe that bond thing could pose some problems for us a long, long time in the future. That doesn't explain why you didn't even want to consider the option of turning me into a Vampire."

He opened his mouth to protest, but she cut him off.

„And don't give me that loss of sunlight or children angle, Angel. None of that means a thing without you and you know that I think that way. You came here to be honest with me? Than start being honest, mister! Fuck the bond! Fuck being a Vampire! Why are you so afraid of me becoming an immortal like you? Why are you so afraid of being with me forever?"

Angel looked at her for a long moment, then sighed and shook his head.

„You have no idea what you are giving up, Buffy. No idea at all. It's not about sunlight. It's not about children. Not about being able to taste food or feeling a heartbeat under your skin. It's not about any of that, though I miss it every day of my life."

He looked up again.

„I wish I could really explain what I feel, Buffy, but it's so hard. It's a feeling that you are one step removed from the world. This body I live in is dead flesh and I am aware of that every second of my existence. Everything feels less real, like watching a TV movie instead of really taking part in it. You see so much in an eternal life, experience so much, but somewhere along the line it stops making an impact on you because you know that you are all you can ever be and that will not change."

„Didn't you just tell me five minutes ago that you are afraid we will change in a few hundred years?" She asked him.

„We do change, Buffy, in the way that we get tired of things and want to move on to others. Because no matter how detached we feel from the world, it's still the only thing around to experience. Our feelings change, maybe even our character, but only in the way that things cease to be important to us. Everything around you becomes meaningless and you no longer care."

His dark eyes locked with hers and she could see deep sadness inside them.

„I don't want to take this from you, Buffy. I don't want to make you less than you are. You are so beautiful, so very alive. Whenever you are close the very air around me seems to vibrate with energy, your glorious light. I've seen it lots of times, though. That light will fade when the centuries begin to pile up.

„I've seen Vampires who were really old, Vampires to whom I am but a child, and they are shadows, hollow beings. Thousands of years have burnt them out, leaving nothing but the outer shell. Everything they were has long ago been lost, because time might not touch our bodies, but it erodes everything else.

„I can feel it's beginnings even in myself. Before you came along I was well on my way toward it. Detachment. Aloofness. Most things around me had ceased to be of interest to me. I had my quest to help my people, a few friends, and that was it. Everything else was meaningless.

„When you stepped into my life you brought me alive again, but I know it will not last. Especially not when you want to me to extinguish that flame you are to me."

Buffy looked at him, really looked at him, and saw the dark abyss in those eyes. It was as if the man she loved so much was but a curtain, which had now been flung aside. Somewhere in those depths was the demon, the thing that still animated his dead body and would continue to do so for eternity, yet beyond that there was ... nothing. Only darkness.

She shook her head, dispelling the image. This was not the Angel she knew. It couldn't be.

„Is that all I am to you?" She asked him, bitterness seeping into her voice despite herself. „A fire to huddle close to until it burns out and you continue on your way?"

„You are a mortal, Buffy. I am not. We have known each other for three years now. A long time for you, but an eyeblink to me. Three years I wouldn't trade for anything in my life, because I've been happier than ever before, but still just an eyeblink. That is what it means to be an immortal, Buffy. Everything lasts but a few moments and the rest is dark night between the scattered few warm fires."

He took her hand in his and for the first time its cold feeling did not give her an erotic thrill. Rather it drove his point home. He was cold, dead. A being wrapped in dead flesh, one step removed from the world.

He was right in one aspect. She hadn't thought about what being an immortal might mean. The only thing on her mind had been to be with him forever. Now she thought about everything else it would mean. She would see her mother and her friends crumble into dust. Everything around her would vanish and be replaced by something new, something changed, over and over again.

She looked at Angel and the weight of nearly three centuries of existence rested solidly on her as he looked back.

It didn't make a difference, though.

„I love you, Angel." She told him. „And I feel the same way about you that you do about me. When you are close I feel more alive than ever before. To me YOU are the fire in the dark night, YOU are the man who saved my soul. I don't care what happened to those other Vampires, I don't care that they turned into vegetables after a few millennia. It won't be like that for us."

„You can't know that, Buffy!" Angel said sadly.

„No, I can't. But neither can you! I don't care that 1000-year-old-Angel might have some regrets about being with me forever, because 1001-year-old-Angel will be over it and happy again. We are so much more together than we are apart, Angel. Don't you see that?"

She could see a bloodred tear trail down his cheek and the words died in her throat. He looked up at her, his eyes rimmed red.

„Don't make me do this, Buffy!" He pleaded with her. „Don't make me kill this light you are to me!"

It tore her heart out to see him like this, so open and raw. In their three years together she had never seen so deep into his heart. Which was precisely why she continued.

„That light will be killed when time takes me away from you, Angel! When death separates us forever because I am mortal and you are not."

Angel didn't say anything after that. He slowly got to his feet, picked up his coat, and walked out of her apartment. Buffy didn't go after him. She had said everything she could think of and could only pray now.

„Please, make him see it!" She pleaded to whatever deity might be listening. „Just make him see it!"


#

11 - We Need a Miracle and We Need It Fast

#


The Vampire's name was James Reuben. He had come to America via Ellis Island in 1921 and had stayed here ever since. In 1928 he had had a strange midnight encounter in a side alley of New York and had not aged a day since then. His Sire, though, was long dead, hunted down by a Vampire society that no longer tolerated those that fed on humans. Or changed them against their will.

All in all Reuben would have told them to just let the poor Vampire go, as he didn't mind much being a Vampire. No one had asked him, though. He didn't even know the name of his Sire. Sometimes he regretted that, having heard that the relationship between a Sire and a Childe was something truly special. He had not yet found someone he would have wanted as his own Childe.

Reuben liked being a Vampire. Sure, there were drawbacks, but he had learned to live with those. He sure as hell didn't mind that he had civil rights once more. During the Vampire legalization campaign he had been one of the most avid helpers in Cordelia Chase's pro-Vampire lobby, although he had never met the girl in person. He believed he had done his part to make the VLA a success and these days life as a Vampire was really good.

Most of the times anyway, Reuben corrected himself as he looked across the table at Geoffrey Jerome.

"This is not acceptable." Jerome said.

"It is fact." Reuben said, not for the first time. "The American public does not like us. Too many hardcore Christians out there, Puritans, they think we are perverting their teachings."

Jerome scoffed, something he never did in public. When he was talking to his followers or the public he always had a smile, never a frown, never seemed anything but the friendly neighborhood preacher. Amongst his inner circle, though, Jerome showed his true face.

Reuben had few illusions about Jerome. He was, at best, a fanatic. At worst, a madman. 300 years old if he was a day and convinced that he was God's own chosen. Reuben held some prejudice against the old ones, meaning those who had been made before the Restoration of Souls. Most of them were bloody lunatics.

Reuben knew what it was like to have a demon inside himself, who constantly whispered temptation into his ear. He couldn't image what if must have been like, though, to be controlled by that demon. To be, in fact, nothing but that demon, an animal that desired nothing but pain and destruction. He was convinced that none of the old ones had ever really gotten over that and that more than a few of them were certifiable raving madmen.

"We speak but the truth!" Jerome growled. "We are God's Chosen. And the truth shall set them free."

Case in point, Reuben thought.

"I fear we will need more than the truth on our side, Geoffrey!" One of Jerome's other lieutenants said. Reuben didn't particularly like Kurt Jugens, who was nothing but a slimy reptile in his mind. Still, Jugens was their public relations expert and he knew what he was talking about.

"Our flock has grown steadily," Jugens said, "yet the opposition has grown much faster. The way things are going we will soon have a worse reputation than Scientology."

"There are always those wanting to oppose the Righteous." Jerome said with a dark look in his eyes.

"One would think that eternal life on a silver platter would make even the most conservative man weak." Jugens said.

"This is not about eternal life!" Jerome reminded him quite forcefully. "This is about doing God's work! It is about making people see God's grace, so that they can stand proud and tall come the day."

Reuben and Jugens looked at each other across the table, sharing a moment of understanding. It was an open secret among the inner circle of the Church of the Holy Blood that Jerome was the only one among their number who believed what he was preaching. He had founded the church and the others had come aboard for various reasons.

Jugens was in it for the money, something he had never made a secret of. The church dealt with a product no sane man would not want, eternal life. Lots of money to be made there.

Reuben himself was, truth to be told, in for much the same reason, though money wasn't the only deciding factor. It was also about making other people aware of how great it was to be a Vampire. Reuben didn't give much of a shit about religion and felt that an eternal life in the here and now, no faith needed, was much preferable to very uncertain eternal bliss in the next world. That was the message he wanted to spread. Take eternal life while you can get it, people, it beats the alternative.

"Still, Geoffrey," Reuben entered the discussion once more, "we need something else. Something to make the people want to accept us."

A thought suddenly came to Jerome, as they sometimes did. One could see it in the dangerous glimmer that had found its way into his eyes. Reuben didn't particularly like that glimmer. Jerome was a very charismatic man and Reuben's ticket to lots of earthly riches, but that didn't change the fact that he was a dangerous man.

"The Romans fed the Christians to the lions," Jerome murmured to himself, "but then it took but a single generation for the Roman Empire to become Christian."

"What are you mumbling about, Geoffrey?" Jugens asked.

"The Romans all became Christians because the Emperor converted, Kurt!" Jerome said. "Convert the leaders, and the rabble will follow."

There was still more of that glimmer in his eyes now. It said that Jerome had latched onto something like a leech and would never let go again. Come to think of it, the idea didn't sound all that bad.

"The leaders." Reuben said. "Yes, that could work."

"The Vampirium?" Jugens asked, shaking his head. "Forget about it! Most of these old buzzards are still stuck in the middle ages."

The Vampirium, the council of elders that ruled the Vampire race, was certainly that. The youngest council member, as far as Reuben knew, was still a century older than Jerome, while the oldest ranged somewhere in the multi-millennial range.

Everybody had heard the rumors on how the Vampirium had come down like a hammer on one of its own members, the late Nikolai Grigori. Nobody was quite sure what Grigori had done to deserve the wrath of the Vampirium, yet the Order of Grigori had been smashed and the old Vampire himself was dust.

Reuben did not want to be the one to convince the Council of the righteousness of their way. Fortunately a look at Jerome's face told Reuben that neither of them was planning anything of the sort.

"The Vampirium Elders are has-beens." Jerome said with a satisfied grin. "They meet in their shadowy rooms and no one gives a damn what they do. No, Jugens. The Vampirium are not the leaders of the Vampire race. They haven't been for nearly a century."

Jerome suddenly rose and laughed.

"Yes, why didn't I see it sooner? The man who has saved us all, the man who has returned our souls to us. He brought us back on the path to redemption and now he will lead us into the light."

"Angelus?" Jugens asked skeptically. "You want to convince Angelus to speak for our Church? I am not sure that is a good idea."

Jerome turned on him with fire in his eyes.

"Hold your tongue! Angelus will speak for us. Has he not set us on this path? Like the Lord's own begotten son once gave his blood to bestow immortality on his children, so did Angelus give us the light of our souls. He will aid us in our work, for it is his work that we do."

Reuben listened to Jerome's words and did not share the other's optimism. True, with Angelus speaking for them the church's popularity was sure to rise, especially among Vampires. Among humans ... maybe. Since Vampire history had become a more or less public topic the name of Angelus had certainly become a household word in America, yet few mortals connected the legendary worker of the Restoration with a Vampire called Angel who worked as a federal marshal in Los Angeles.

Still, once Angel was on board his friends and allies would certainly follow. Maybe even Cordelia Chase herself, who had worked wonders with American public opinion during the VLA campaign. Yes, getting Angelus to speak for them was definitely the right thing to do.

Reuben just wondered whether it would truly be as easy as Jerome thought it would be. He rather doubted it, actually.


#

12 - The Price of Immortality

#


Buffy looked at the empty glass sitting in front of her on the bar counter and tried to remember how many empty glasses had stood in that same place tonight. Five? Six? She wasn't certain any longer. Math had never been her strong point and her current state of intoxication did nothing to improve her calculating skills.

She was drunk, she knew that. Hey, she had turned twenty-one not long ago, so she was legally and officially getting drunk. No one could keep her from getting drunk. She could get drunk all she wanted to whenever she wanted to and no one could tell her differently.

Three days since she and Angel had talked. Three days without a word from him. It was still raining outside. The weather people on the TV called it the worst rainstorm California had seen in years. Buffy didn't mind much right now. It fit her mood to a T.

"Gimme another one!" She mumbled at the bartender.

"Are you sure you haven't had enough, girl?" He asked her.

"I'll tell you once I've had enough!" She slurred the words. "Now gimme another one!"

He sighed and refilled the glass once more, the brown liquid reflecting the overhead lights. Buffy stared into her drink - scotch, was it? - and wondered how many more she would have to drink until it was enough.

Enough for what? Enough to stop thinking about Angel? Enough to forget that he was keeping away from her because he was so fucking afraid of being with her? She snorted. Yeah, as if drinks would help with that. Still, as senseless distraction went ...

"Hello, Buffy!"

Buffy started and lost her balance, tumbling off the stool and to the floor with a string of curses escaping her mouth, ending up on her butt, looking more than a bit undignified.

Darla smiled at her from the neighboring bar stool.

"Nice one, but you have to work on the landing."

Buffy grumbled under her breath as she struggled back to her feet, the room not cooperating by spinning around her and continuously tilting the floor into a different direction. She finally managed to get back on her stool, holding on to the counter to steady herself, and glared at the Vampire sitting beside her.

"Wadda you want?"

Darla was dressed as inconspicuously as she had ever seen her. Blue jeans, black jacket, her blonde hair tied back in a pony tail, she looked not a day over eighteen. Darla was pretty much a celebrity these days, her Playboy issue from two years ago was scoring sterling prices on e-bay, and there were even rumors of a movie role. She never went out in public without a little camouflage.

"I originally planned to talk to you, dear, but I'm afraid you are not in any condition to do that right now. How many drinks did you have?"

Buffy shrugged. "Six or seven. Not sure."

Darla sighed. "Guess we have to do something about that first."

Without further warning her hands flashed out to cup Buffy's face and turn it toward her. Before she knew what was happening she was staring into Darla's electric blue eyes and felt something inside her head part like a curtain. Power poured into her and washed through her mind like a flood wave.

"Shit!" She cursed, struggling out of Darla's grip. She was about to lose her balance once more, but caught herself with an ease that didn't go together with six or seven glasses of scotch.

The room wasn't spinning anymore either.

"Feeling better now?" Darla asked.

Buffy shook her head to clear out the cobwebs and found that she was completely sober, the nice buzz and feeling of numbness gone without a trace.

"What did you do to me?" She asked Darla accusingly.

"Nothing much." The Vampire smiled at her. "Just slipped a little suggestion into your brain, kicking your Slayer healing into overdrive to metabolize the alcohol more quickly. I'm sure Giles could explain it better. Just think of it as instant soberness."

"You should bottle that up and sell it. Would do great." Buffy mumbled. "I spent the better part of the night getting drunk, Darla. Now I have to start from scratch. Scotch doesn't come cheap, you know?"

"It doesn't help much, either."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah. I got a drunk a lot at the beginning of the last century. Never lasted and didn't help."

Buffy looked down at the full glass in front of her.

"Why are you here, Darla?" She asked when the silence between them grew to uncomfortable.

"I want to talk to you."

"I think I can guess the topic." Buffy said resignedly.

"You want to invoke the Vinculum Dies Noctis Cruentos with Angel. The ritual of blood bonding. You want to be with him forever."

Buffy looked at the woman sitting beside her. They looked about the same age, yet more than four centuries separated them. Darla didn't seem like a hollow, burnt-out person, not at all.

"Do you think making me immortal will kill something inside me?" Buffy asked her.

"Yes." Darla said without hesitation. "And no."

"Thanks for the cryptic answer. Lorn couldn't have done better."

"What I mean, Buffy, is that becoming an immortal will change you. You will become more removed from the world, that is inevitable. This is a world of mortals, it always will be. You take yourself out of it and you lose something."

Darla looked somber and serious for another moment, then broke into a smile again.

"But it will not kill you, Buffy. Not the person you are."

"Angel appears to think so." Buffy mumbled.

"Angel." Darla said with humorous resignation in her voice. "In many ways he is the best of us, yet in others he is so incredibly stupid."

Buffy looked up sharply at these words.

"Stupid?"

"Buffy, I have known Angel his entire life. I know him better than he knows himself, which actually isn't all that hard. Angel is one of those people that don't have a clue about their own feelings."

Darla took the glass away from before Buffy's nose and drained it in a single gulp.

"I will tell you a story, dear." She said. "A story about a guy who wanted to see the world, get out from under his oppressive father, and make something of himself. He met a demon that wore the face of a young woman and she made him like herself."

"I think I know that story." Buffy said.

"Yes, but not quite the entire story." Darla said. "You see, I was there when Angel and Spike were cursed with their souls by the Gypsies. Or rather my demon was there. She was not very fond of her favored childe and grandchilde suddenly stinking of humanity, so she cast them out into the night and hoped that they would greet the dawn, so that she would never have to see them again."

"They didn't." Buffy said, unimpressed. "They went out to find the Necronomicon Nocturnum and gave all Vampires back their souls. As I said, I know the story."

"No, you don't!" Darla said, shaking her head.

Buffy looked at her, curious at last.

"Angel and Spike didn't go looking for the Necronomicon Nocturnum, Buffy. Not at first, anyway. It was but the consolation prize when they weren't able to fulfill Angel's true objective during those dark years."

Darla looked at her, her blue eyes without their magnetic pull this time.

"Angel didn't want to give all Vampires souls, Buffy. He wanted to make everyone human again."

Buffy nodded, not sure how this was such a great revelation. She knew that Angel had tried numerous times over the last century to find a way to turn Vampires back into humans.

"You don't understand, do you?" Darla said. Buffy shook her head and Darla sighed.

"The point, Buffy, is that Angel might have told you all about the drawbacks of immortality, how foolish you would be to give up your precious human life, and how he didn't want to take that from you. I am sure he believes that, too, but it isn't the real reason why he won't make you an immortal."

The barkeeper had once again refilled the glass and Darla emptied it again.

"Remember our first meeting, Buffy? On the rooftop of the Hyperion?"

Buffy did remember, of course. She had still been a prisoner then, only allowed outside in cuffs and under observation. Darla had taken her to the Hyperion's roof and told her a little bit about her jailer. Angel.

"That night I told you that Angel is the most human of us all. That is true, even more than you know. Not only is he the most human of us, Buffy, he is also the one who hates himself more than anyone else. He hates what he is, what he has become that night in Galway.

"Ever since regaining his soul Angel has looked for a way to make himself, and everyone else, human again. He wants to shed that dead body he is stuck in, get rid of the demon that lives in his heart. He would sacrifice everything if only he could make that happen."

Darla took Buffy's hand in her own cold one, looking at her intently.

"He loves you, Buffy, more than anything. But deep inside he doesn't feel worthy of it because he isn't human. The one thing that has kept him so strong and unrelenting this past century is the hope that one day he might succeed in becoming human once more."

Buffy suddenly understood.

"And by bonding himself to me that chance would be gone forever."

"Not just with the bond." Darla said. "It's not about the bond. The same would be true if you were to become one of us, Buffy. He doesn't want you to enter his world because he hopes that he can enter yours. When you become an immortal that door will be forever closed to him, because the one thing he wouldn't be able to give up in return for mortality is you."

Buffy realized that Darla was telling her the truth. She should have seen it herself. How often had she seen envy in Angel's eyes when she was standing in front of their bedroom window, letting the morning sun spill over her flesh, while he had to stay back in the shadows. How often had sadness crept into his face when she relished in the taste of an ice-cream cone or chocolate.

She had told him that the one thing he wanted more than anything else in the world didn't mean shit to her and that she wanted to throw it away.

"Oh God!" She whispered.

"Angel has looked for a way to become human again for over a hundred years now." Darla said sadly. "Any other man would have given up long ago. He hasn't. Maybe he doesn't actively look anymore, maybe he even thinks that he has given up, but in his heart he still hopes."

"I've asked him to give up his dream for me." Buffy said, more to herself than Darla.

"And he will." Darla said. "He loves you enough for that. In time he will do what you ask of him, I'm sure of that. The question is just whether you think that your love is worth more than his dream."

It was a cruel question, but Buffy understood why Darla had to ask it.

"Do you think it is?" She asked the Vampire in a small voice.

"I can't answer that question, Buffy. Only you and Angel can do that. I just wanted to make sure that you both know what it will cost you, both of you. No matter what that stupid church may say, Buffy, eternal life doesn't come for free. Not nearly."

With that Darla placed a few bills on the counter and rose to leave. Buffy touched her arm as she passed, causing their eyes to meet once more.

"Thank you, Darla." Buffy said.

"My pleasure."

"Did you ... did you ever think about spending eternity with Giles?" She asked.

Darla smiled. "No. He is a good man, Buffy. I'm very fond of him. But not enough for eternity, I'm afraid."

Buffy nodded and Darla left, leaving the Slayer to ponder a question she wasn't sure there was a good answer for.


#

13 - Who Wants to be a Saint?

#


Angel leaned back in his chair and regarded the man sitting on the other side of his desk. The room was darkened, as it was day outside, the heavy shutters dipping the room into a twilight neither man much minded. They could both see each other very well.

Geoffrey Jerome was dressed in a finely tailored black suit, a blood red shirt, and a black tie. Along with the easy smile he carried on his youthful face it gave him an air of dangerous glamour, the saint from hell. Angel was not surprised that this man had so easily captured so many people in his thrall. He positively oozed charisma.

Jerome was equally busy assessing the man he was facing. Angelus had become a legend but a few decades after his making. A sadist of insatiable appetite, they said. A true master of pain and torture. Master Heinrich Nest had once said of him that he had never met a more vicious or cruel creature in all his days on earth, which was a great compliment from a demon over a thousand years old.

Angelus had indeed been a legend, but the Restoration had elevated him even more. Not a single Vampire on Earth did not know the name of Angelus. Some praised him for what he did, some cursed him, but in the end it didn't really make a difference. Angelus had made himself the central figure of his race and the Vampirium Elders could fool no one but themselves into thinking they still ran their own house.

The measuring gazes between the two men went on for some time, neither of them moving or even breathing. To an onlooker it might have appeared that they were but statues, part of a painting so real it took one's breath away, yet still a motionless painting.

Angel was not sure why Jerome has asked a private conversation between them. Truth to tell the entire topic of the Church of the Holy Blood and the danger it represented to the coexistence between Vampires and humans had retreated quite far from Angel's mind. Thoughts of immortality, love, and the virtues of mortal existence had kept him awake these last few days.

"Thank you for sparing the time to see me, Angelus." Jerome said, his smooth voice breaking the silence around them. "I am sure a man of your stature has many things to keep him busy."

"I always look forward to meeting the new players in town." Angel said courtly. "You have turned yourself into a player in quite a short time, Jerome."

"You are too kind. I do but meager work compared to everything you have done for our kind."

Angel nodded, the exchange of empty compliments an easy exercise after centuries of practice. Jerome kept his face carefully guarded, not a single emotion penetrating past his pale countenance. Angel knew they were of almost equal age, Jerome slightly older, and personal power. The air between them almost crackled.

"I do not want to take more of your time than I must," Jerome said, "so I will come to the point of my visit."

"Please do so." Angel gestured.

"Angelus, I am glad to hear my humble attempts at bringing the light of God to those who walk at night have not escaped your attention. Maybe you are also aware that we are encountering some very stiff opposition."

"You should not be surprised." Angel said. "America is, at heart, a Puritan country. Is it a wonder that they oppose what they regard as blatant rewriting of their own history?"

"It is not a rewriting." Jerome said. For a moment Angel saw a dangerous glint in his eyes. "I am merely trying to show them a new perspective of our good Lord's plans for his children. And I do not force anyone to subscribe to my way of thinking, Angelus. This is, after all, the land of the free, is it not? The practice of free religion included, I believe."

"That is certainly the case." Angel said. "Yet it is also the land where every man may freely voice his opinion. Those that do not like what they see in your church have certainly made use of that, as is their right."

Another glimmer in Jerome's eyes. Angel kept his own face immobile, though the depth of emotions he could glimpse behind the other man's eyes was a disturbing sight. Jerome didn't give a damn about the right of free religion of opinion.

"Also," Angel continued, "are you not worried that many people who flock to your church are more interested in the gift of eternal life rather than the message you want them to hear?"

Like one particular person he knew who had taken a - hopefully passing - interest in the church's offer of immortality.

"I would be a fool if I were not aware of that." And I am no one's fool, his eyes told Angel without words. "Yet I believe that receiving our Lord's gift of eternal life will open their eyes quite thoroughly in time. And time is something we have plenty of, is that not the case?"

Yes, Angel thought. They had all the time in the world. Buffy did not, though. She would be gone in a few decades unless he ... what was he thinking? He couldn't do it. Could he?

He realized he was getting distracted and focused back on Jerome.

"The point is," Jerome said, "that my church is in trouble, Angelus. While my flock is growing every day, the opposition is growing much faster. I fear for the future of my church with the way things are going."

Angel once again found his thoughts straying. The future. It stretched out ahead of him without break, no end in sight. Most of it would be without her. Damn, why was all this occupying him now?

"Over ninety years ago," Jerome continued, "you saved us, Angelus. We were lost in the night and you brought us back. Once again we carry our Lord's greatest gift inside of us, our humanity, but we have yet to regain His grace.

"We need to redeem ourselves in His eyes. Shed the sin of the darkness that clung to us for so long. The time will come when we will once again walk in the light of day, Angelus, and will be able to look at his face and his symbol without having to avert our eyes."

"And you believe your church is the way to accomplish this?" Angel asked, somehow managing to keep the sarcasm from his tone.

"A first step." Jerome said, spreading his hands in a gesture of humility. "I do not profess to know all the steps on the way to salvation for our people, Angelus. That is why I have come to you."

Angel looked at him, his eyes narrowing just the slightest bit. Jerome was a dangerous man. If he'd had any doubts about that before there were gone now. Jerome believed every word he preached, Doyle had said. Angel believed him now. This man truly considered himself God's own chosen.

And now he wanted Angel's help, it seemed.

"Explain, please!" Angel said, his voice never sounding anything but courteous.

Jerome smiled. "No need for false modesty, Angelus. It is a fact that you are the Vampire all other Vampires look upon as their leader, their role-model. You are our salvation, the man who restored our souls."

Angel clearly remembered more than a few Vampires who had considered him anything but a role-model or their salvation. Grigori had tried to use him to reverse the Restoration. More than one Vampire had cursed him for the return of their conscience. If he were to die today there would be quite a few parties thrown to celebrate that event to the fullest.

"If you were to speak for our church, Angelus," Jerome continued, "the path to true salvation would be open for us all. You and I, Angelus, we can lead our people into the light."

There it was, Angel thought. Jerome looked at him with fire blazing in his eyes and a part of Angel was actually tempted. He knew that many a Vampire would follow wherever he led. Jerome promised, if nothing else, a power the likes of which Angelus, the Scourge of Europe, would not have hesitated to grasp.

He was not Angelus, though.

"Your offer is tempting, Jerome." Angel said, which was the truth. "Yet I am worried about the implications of your church."

"Such as?" Jerome asked, a bit taken aback by his less than enthusiastic response, but still smiling and charismatic.

"A rapid increase in the Vampire population for example. The presence of Vampires has already changed society very rapidly, a lot of people still hate us, yet so far we barely classify as a minority. There are so few of us. If that were to change I fear it would lead to lots of unrest, both of social and also economic nature."

Jerome waved his concern away. "Despite what you may hear on the streets, Angelus, I do not plan to have my church be a recluse for everyone looking for eternity. Everyone who petitions to us will be carefully evaluated. Our numbers will be brought up but slowly. Only those worthy of God's gift will drink eternity from our veins."

He shrugged. "Humans easily adapt to new circumstances. That is one thing they might actually do better than we. If we make our way a careful and gradual one, there will be no problems we can not handle."

He was probably right, Angel thought. If his church was able to overcome this initial barrier of hatred and resentment it would probably flourish. And a gradual increase of the Vampire population would probably be something American society could survive, though not without changing in the process.

For all his mania, Jerome had thoughts things through, it seemed.

"Will you speak for us, Angelus? Will you once more lead your people into the light?"

The largest part of him wanted to throw Jerome out of his office. Wanted to tell him exactly what he thought of all this religious nonsense and Jerome's mania. The man obviously thought very highly of the saint he imagined Angel to be. It would probably be fun to see his illusions shatter.

Angel didn't give in to this impulse. There was no telling what Jerome might do if he was rebutted in this way. He might strike out like a wounded animal and with the power base he had already built himself that could result in a lot of carnage.

There was no legal way to dismantle the Church of the Holy Blood. With Jerome offering him leadership and sainthood, though, there might just be another way.

"Very well, Jerome." He said, watching his opposite's face start to beam with joy. "You make a convincing argument. If you organize the audience, I will speak to them."

Jerome was barely able to suppress his happiness. He jumped out of his chair and shook Angel's hand enthusiastically.

"You will not regret this, Angelus." He beamed. "You will see, together we will save our race. We will regain God's grace and make paradise here on Earth."

Angel nodded in all the right places until Jerome finally left. Alone at last he dropped back into his chair.

"Angel, old boy!" He muttered to himself. "I just hope you didn't make a big mistake here."

With any kind of divine inspiration conspicuous by its absence Angel's thoughts inevitably returned to the other large problem he had on his mind.

Buffy.


#

14 - On Sunday All Dead Christians Go to Church

#


Darla's little mind trick had helped her shake off the effects of the alcohol on her brain, but not on her body. Buffy had dropped into her bed dead tired, her mind whirling around the question over and over again.

Was it worth it? Was her dream to stay with Angel forever more important than his dream to become human again?

She hadn't found any answer by morning. There were a few messages on her answering machine, most of them from work. Buffy had acquired quite a reputation in the bodyguard business during these last three years and the firm she freelanced for never had any trouble finding people who wanted to hire her.

Right now Buffy didn't much care. She had enough money to be unemployed for a while and was much too distracted for that kind of work right now away. She quickly dropped a message to her firm that she wouldn't be available for the next few weeks and hung up before
her boss, or the closest thing she had to one, could bitch about it.

She didn't know what to do. At the beginning it had all seemed so easy, so reasonable. Angel, I want to be with you forever. She had never even imagined that he might not want it, too. Much less the reason why he did not want it.

It was like she had told her mother. If Angel were a mortal, if he were the human he dreamed of becoming, she wouldn't have a problem with that. They would grow old together and when the time came to depart this world she would do so gladly as long as he was by her side.

Was it possible? Could he still become human? Darla obviously didn't think so. Angel had looked for a way to make Vampires human for a century now and hadn't succeeded. How great was the chance that he would yet find a way within her life time? Before she was too old to enjoy mortal existence with a man of twenty-six.

Buffy stomped down and made a decision. She had to talk to Angel. Considering how their last two talks had gone there wasn't all that much reason to be optimistic, but it was the only way. They had to talk this out because Buffy was sure of one thing. She would take Angel every way she could get him. Living like this, without having him close, wasn't what she wanted. Wasn't what he wanted, she was certain.

One way or another they had to get back together. She was still young, everybody told her so, so maybe they could spend some years, maybe a decade or two, trying to make Angel's dream reality. And if that didn't work maybe then ...

Stop with the speculation, Buffy! She told herself. Talk to Angel, that was step one. That was what she had to do now. Holding on to that resolution she grabbed her coat and went out of her apartment.

#

"It's the stupidest thing he ever did and that is saying a lot, believe me!" Spike's voice bellowed through the lobby of the Hyperion as Buffy came in.

"Angel knows what he's doing!" Faith shot back, though not nearly as loud.

"Sure he does!" Spike threw his arms up in frustration. "That's why he ... oh, Buffy!"

Faith and Spike both looked at her now, as well as Gunn, Doyle, and Wesley. Buffy was a bit surprised to see the former Watcher here, as he had been out of town for quite some time now.

"That's why Angel what?" Buffy asked. "What's up, guys?"

Everyone stared at her for a long moment, then Doyle made a step forward, awkwardly brushing his hair with his fingers.

"Princess, Angel met with Geoffrey Jerome."

The name didn't click with Buffy for a moment, but then she remembered her visit to the Church of the Holy Blood. Jerome had been the speaker, the leader of the church. He had made the promise of eternal life to her - and all the others present - and she had been tempted. Very much so. If she hadn't found the information on the blood bond, if she hadn't talked with Willow, Angel, Darla, ...

"What do you mean, met with him?" Buffy asked. "I thought Angel was anything but fond of the church."

"He's gonna speak for them." Spike snarled. "The bloody poof will speak for the church at their next big gathering."

Disbelief spread through Buffy. Angel would speak for the church? After lecturing her about the virtues of mortal existence he would now speak for those who gave immortality away like candy?

"I don't believe this." She whispered.

"Now don't get your mind in an uproar, pet!" Spike said. "Peaches isn't converting, no sir. The poof wants to go up there and hold a speech that will knock some sense back into all these idiots that want to join the immortal monk club."

"If he succeeds it will mean the end of the church." Wesley said.

"Or he could get torn apart by a mob." Spike shot back. "This Jerome fellow is completely nuts and from all I've seen he handles his crowd like a puppeteer. He'll blow his whole fuse box when Peaches does his stuff. Gee, our messiah has turned out to be a bloody blasphemer,
let's crucify him, shall we?"

Buffy remembered the way Jerome's voice had spoken to her, made her feel as if she had been the only one in the room, all the others not even there, all his attention focused on her. Natural charisma or Vampire mind tricks? It didn't make much of a difference, really.

"Angel can handle it!" Faith said again. Buffy knew how much respect and confidence her sister Slayer held for Angel. Without wanting to she remembered a time not three years ago when Faith had tried to take Angel away from her by force. A small part of Buffy was still
irked that Faith had beaten her in the only real fight the two had ever gotten in.

"Maybe he can." Buffy said. "Or maybe he is, as always, completely blind to any personal danger he may be putting himself in."

"When they dished out common sense Peaches wasn't there, that's for sure." Spike muttered.

"Where is he?" Buffy asked.

"He left about an hour ago." Doyle said. "This church gathering is tonight. It seems Jerome started organizing it even before Angel said he would make an appearance. Pretty confident fellow."

"Whatever else he is, he is dangerous." Wesley said. "I have found out some more details about this Jerome fellow. He is almost 300 years old. A puritan from a family of religious immigrants. It appears he was raised with religion from day one."

Wesley looked into the file he carried with him.

"He was turned in 1711 and became the colonies' very own Angelus, it seems, though he never attained quite as much notoriety. Most of the murders he committed were religious in nature. He killed priests, monks, nuns, church boys, whatever. It appears his demon held a deep grudge against all things Christian, probably carried over from his deep-held convictions when he was human.

"After the Restoration there are but a few scattered reports. It seems Jerome spent many decades in seclusion. Maybe trying to do penance for his deeds, trying to find God again, I don't know. The first reports of him in public again are from but a few years ago. Pretty much when Vampires' went public and started rallying for civil rights."

Buffy listened to Wesley's report, but inside she wanted nothing more than to run to that church and drag Angel away from there. She remembered Grigori, who had tried to sacrifice Angel to his quest of getting rid of his soul. Remembered how Angel had played at being
back to his old evil self, only to then stab Grigori in the back. Angel had almost died that day. This seemed like a terrible repeat of history.

"We must go to that church!" Buffy said.

"Angel wanted to do this alone." Faith said.

"I don't give a damn what he wants!" Buffy yelled at her sister Slayer, her anger bubbling forth. "I will not stand by while he fucking gets himself killed again."

Faith was taken aback by the raw fury in Buffy's eyes.

"We don't even know if he's in any danger." Doyle said, trying to soothe the tempers. "Odds are he will do his speech and people will listen to him. Angel can be quite persuasive himself."

"If that happens, fine and dandy." Spike said. "But Slayer here is right. If it doesn't happen that way we'd better be there to kick Jerome's puritan ass all the way back to Pilgrims' Landing."

Without waiting for the others to decide Buffy and Spike walked out the lobby side by side. Faith looked after them for a moment, snorted, then hurried to catch up with them. She muttered "Angel'll be pissed." under her breath.

Doyle and Wesley looked at each other for a moment, then realized that Gunn was already gone as well. The young black man hadn't said anything the entire time, yet none of them doubted he was also on his way to the church gathering, probably with some of his people in tow.

"It seems the decision has been taken from our hands." Wesley remarked.

"I guess one of us should tell Darla that her boy is getting into trouble again." Doyle said. "I mean, if everyone else already knows and is on the way ..."

"Quite, yes." Wesley agreed. "I think I will call Mr. Giles. I have no doubt he will be able to inform her much better than we could."

The two men shared a short smile, then Wesley headed into the direction of the phone while Doyle tried to catch up with the determined stride of two Slayers and a Vampire.


#

15 - Life, Death, Green Hills, and Blue Skies

#


Angel slowly walked up the podium and looked at the assembled crowd standing before him. There had to be over a thousand people altogether out there, all eyes on him and waiting for what he had to say. Angel saw the reverence in their eyes and it sickened him.

Jerome had delivered. Much more than that, he had excelled. Only a day had passed since Angel had agreed to speak for the church and Jerome had organized a gathering that not only included just about every member of the Church of the Holy Blood, but several hundred that were interested in joining and, Angel saw, a few who were very opposed to everything the church represented.

The rumor that Angelus, the Vampire who had worked the Restoration, would appear at the gathering had attracted quite the media attention. Angel could see cameras and reporters from at least three different TV stations and half a dozen newspapers. They all would watch and listen to what he had to say.

He just hoped he didn't blow it.

„Thank you for coming, brothers and sisters." Jerome said as introduction, his charismatic voice ringing out, full of warmth and compassion. „We are very honored to have here with us tonight the man who is savior to us all. The man who restored our souls to us a hundred years ago. Angelus!"

A cheer went up from the crowd and Angel could feel the allure of power around him. All these people, Vampires and humans, would listen to his words. Many of them would believe whatever he told them, just because of something he had done nearly a century ago. This kind of power was intoxicating and could very well have tempted even the most righteous man.

Angel never wavered.

For a long moment he just stood and let his eyes travel across the assembled crowd. Vampires and humans, the latter being the vast majority. The Vampires were mostly young ones, made after the Restoration. It was easy to spot them. There was no trace of the darkness of guilt that the older ones always carried in their eyes.

„Thank you all for coming here." Angel said finally, his voice ringing out even and strong. „I was asked to speak here tonight on behalf of the Church of the Holy Blood. I know that many of those present here tonight are interested in joining this church. Some of you because you believe in their message. Others just because you want the gift they are offering you. The gift of eternal life."

Angel closed his eyes for a moment, listening to the platter of the rain on top of the canopy that protected the speaker's podium. Nothing else could be heard, a thick silence hung over of the crowd.

„Allow me to tell you something about this gift many of you are so eager to receive. Let me tell you what it means to be a Vampire and live forever."

A side glance showed him Jerome, who was looking out at the crowd with an air of supreme confidence. Close to him stood several other Vampires. A few of those were looking at Angel, some of them with the barest hint of suspicion in their eyes after the somber tone of his opening words. None of them made a move to interrupt him, though.

„More than a hundred years ago one of my childer and I suddenly found ourselves in a unique situation. Unique for the Vampires of that time. We were the only ones in possession of our souls. Gypsy elders of a tribe we had ravaged but days earlier had cursed us as punishment for our crimes. They cursed us with the return of our souls, our humanity, and our conscience.

„And what a curse it was. A 150 years of bloody slaughter caught up with me in a heartbeat. I saw the faces of all the people I had killed during these long, dark years. I felt the pain they must have felt when I tortured and killed them. The Gypsies had indeed found the perfect way to punish us for all the crimes we had committed.

„But then we realized the truth of our situation. We realized that what we thought to be a curse was actually a blessing in disguise. No matter the pain, no matter the torture, it was still a blessing. A gift. Our humanity was returned to us, something that had been extinguished so many years ago. And so we set about making things right in the world once more."

„To return our souls to us!" Someone in the crowd shouted.

„No!" Angel shook his head. „That was never my intention."

In the shocked silence that followed these words the sound of the raindrops rang out like falling bombs. Angel looked at all the eyes staring at him in shock.

„We did work the Restoration of Souls," Angel continued, „but only because were unsuccessful in our original endeavor. We did not want to create a race of ensouled Vampires, my childe and I. We wanted to destroy all Vampires and make them human once more."

A ripple of shock spread through the crowd, sounds of disbelief rang out.

„You, all of you," Angel raised his voice the first time, „that you want to become Vampires, you have no idea at all. These people," Angel gestured towards Jerome and his inner circle, „are telling you that it is something to strive for. That being a Vampire is a blessing, a way to be closer to God."

Angel reached into the bag he had carried with him and took out a large, golden cross. He raised it above his head, his hand starting to smoke where it touched the blessed symbol.

„This is the truth!" He said, even as his hand burst into flames. „This is how close we are to God. His very symbol repulses us. The light of day burns us. We must feed on the lives of others to survive while hiding in the dead of night."

He finally dropped the cross and the flames on his hand went out again, the skin blackened. Angel did not feel the pain.

„Everything this so-called Church has been telling you is a lie. Vampires have nothing to do with God, quite the opposite. We weren't cursed because we didn't understand the gift Jesus gave his apostles at the Last Supper. The oldest Vampires are far older than that. It is not a gift, it is a curse. A legacy of evil that reaches back to the very dawn of time and we carry it with us every day of our immortal lives."

Jerome and his people were staring at him, all of them too much in shock to do anything else. Jerome's air of confidence had fallen away to make way for complete disbelief. Was this not his savior? The man who had saved his race? Who would lead the way into the light? What was going on here?

„This evil we carry inside us has been tamed by the return of our souls," Angel said, „tamed to the point where we can once again lead something very close to a human existence, but it has not gone away. Our souls are human, our thoughts are human, but the thing inside of us, that which keeps us alive over the centuries, is not.

„Those of you who have never known what it was like to be without a soul, you don't know a thing about what it means to be a Vampire. You don't know the hunger we older ones feel inside ourselves every day, the constant battle to control this hunger. The hunger for human blood, the urge to sink our fangs into the soft flesh of human men, women, and children and watch as the light in their eyes goes out. Not because we need their blood to survive, but because we want to do it."

Angel sighed deeply.

„I returned the souls to the Vampires because I wanted to put a stop to that, to the killings. That was the only reason I had. I have not given up hope that, one day, we might fully regain our humanity. All that we have lost to the evil inside of us. That we might one day truly walk in the light again without the fear of being burned."

The crowd still watched him, all of them hanging on his every word. Angel was not finished and everyone seemed to know that. No one was able to turn away until he let them go.

„You want to know what it means to become a Vampire?" He asked them all. „It means losing something. Something you will not miss until it is gone forever. I have a dream almost every night. Always the same dream for coming up to 250 years now.

„I walk across the meadows near my home. At home, you know, the grass plains seem to stretch on forever, just an endless ocean of green, where the wind creates tides and waves, beautiful patterns and pictures, whispering sweet melodies between the grass blades.

„The grass tickles my bare feet. It is day and the sun shines on my skin, it warms me and chases away the cold of night. The sunlight is so bright, so very bright. I have to squint because of the brightness of the day.

„And the sky ... the sky is a perfect azure blue, a sky so blue that no other color seems to exist. I can see for miles all around and beneath that bottomless blue of the sky the endless grass plains are a rich, sated green, not the black and gray you see at night. There is nothing but infinite blue sky and endless green grass."

Angel looked down, the sadness in his eyes so deep that no one in the crowd could possibly miss it.

„I was one of the most powerful men that ever lived. A demon who was feared by thousands, every life that I wanted was mine for the taking and I never felt the slightest pang of remorse or pain. Even then, though, that was all I really wanted. Walk out into the sunlight and feel the grass beneath my toes."

He looked up again.

„Each of you must decide for yourself whether immortality is worth losing all that. Just don't expect it to be for free, for it is not. Not nearly. And don't expect it to bring you closer to God." He looked at the discarded cross on the ground, at his own blackened hand. „God wants no part of us. I understand why."

Thousands of people stared at him, the rain pouring down on them.

„Go home, all of you!" He told them. „Think about what I have told you. Think about whether you truly want to give up your humanity because of some lies and an eternal existence in the shadows, forever removed from the grace of God, if there is such a thing. Go home!"

For a minute or so everyone kept staring at him, the whole world seemed frozen except for the perpetual fall of the raindrops. Then a young woman in the front of the crowd turned around and started walking away. She was soon joined by another, who threw the leaflet of the church into the mud as he left. Others turned around as well and started walking away. Going home.

Angel sighed in relief.

„No!" Jerome's voice suddenly rang out across the crowd. The leader of the Church of the Holy Blood snapped out of his shock and screamed after the leaving people, every trace of warmth and compassion gone from his voice.

„Don't listen to this charlatan! He is deceiving you! Ours is the way into the light, you have to listen to me!"

No one did. A few turned around when Jerome screamed, but after looking at his frantic face for a moment they continued walking away, his words falling on deaf ears.

„You can't do this!" He screamed after them.

Angel watched the sad display for a moment, shaking his head.

„It's over, Jerome." He just said.

Jerome's head snapped around, his eyes glaring at Angel with the devil's own fury.

„You did this!" He snarled. „You, the demon spawn. Sent here to ruin my work, to deceive my children. I will not allow you to damn us all to eternal darkness!"

With a howl that sounded anything but human Jerome threw himself at Angel.


#

16 - And I Shall Strike Down Upon Thee ...

#


Spike, Buffy, and Faith had remained at the edge of the crowd, arriving shortly before Angel began his speech. Spike had been keeping an eye on Jerome and his people, looking for any sign that they might get antsy. Faith had quickly gotten bored, still convinced that Angel could handle everything, and spent her time being miserable about being dragged out here in the rain.

Buffy just stared and listened to Angel's speech.

She was so entranced that she froze for a full two seconds when Jerome jumped Angel.

„Get your butt in gear, B!" Faith yelled at her, she and Spike already halfway toward the podium. Buffy shook her head and started running as well, muddy water splashing with every step she took.

On the podium the two Vampires collided. Angel had suspected that Jerome might do something like this, though he had hoped it wouldn't come to that. The sheer ferocity of the other Vampire's attack did surprise him for a second, but then all thoughts save those of combat fled from his mind and the demon rose to the occasion.

Jerome tore into Angel like an animal, but his attack was all anger and fury, no technique or finesse. Angel stumbled back from his initial onslaught, but the follow-up blows hit nothing but his cover. The other Vampire's eyes blazed, nothing human remaining in them, snarling obscenities between blows.

Angel didn't remain on the defensive for long. Jerome left himself wide open and Angel took advantage, throwing a thundering spin kick that caused the other Vampire's head to snap back. A human would have been killed by the blow. Jerome was but taken aback for a moment.

„Blasphemer!" He snarled. „I will send you to meet your maker in Hell!"

Angel didn't plan to answer and Jerome left him no opportunity, attacking again. Ducking his blows, Angel delivered two jabs to Jerome's ribs, then drove his stiff fingers into his opponent's throat. Gagging, Jerome stumbled back. Angel followed up with another kick that sent him flying halfway across the podium.

„Stop this madness, Jerome!" Angel said while Jerome struggled to his feet.

„I will!" Jerome said and lunged again.

Angel was ready to meet him again, but someone else was faster. A booted foot was driven into Jerome's face, while at the same time a snarling bleached Vampire threw a punch that would have gone right through a human's gut. A blonde blur appeared on the podium and delivered a final kick that sent Jerome flying once again, even as Angel found himself surrounded by friends.

„Keep your dirty hands off my mate, you wanker!" Spike snarled.

„I still say he didn't need our help." Faith said, keeping a wary eye on the Vampire in front of her.

Buffy said nothing, just glared at Jerome, making Angel wonder if looks really could kill. The leader of the Church of the Holy Blood was on his knees, unneeded breath rattling in dead lungs, and stared at the people standing between him and the object of his wrath.

„And those who stand with evil shall be judged." He said, every word accompanied by a rattling that showed lung damage. Jerome didn't feel it. He didn't care.

„Stop this Jerome!" Angel said once again. „You can't win."

More people had arrived. About a dozen of Gunn's youths were there, surrounding the podium. Doyle stood with Gunn, drenched by the rain, but looking ready to mix it up as well. All of them stared at Jerome, daring him to try something.

Madness blazing in his eyes Jerome turned towards the other members of the church's inner circle, who stood at the far end of the podium. There were seven of them, all of them strong. Enough to help him defeat these sinners. God's children would triumph yet.

„Help me, brothers!" He ordered them. „Strike down these enemies of the Lord!"

For a moment no one moved or said anything. Then James Reuben shrugged, discarded the black and crimson robe of the church, and walked down from the podium. Gunn's people let him pass with a wary glance, stakes held at the ready.

„James!" Jerome yelled, outraged.

„Sorry, old man!" Reuben said. „But I didn't sign up for the crusades, you know?"

Jerome was still staring after Reuben's retreating form, his face once again frozen in disbelief, when Kurt Jugens also took off his robe and walked away as well.

„Kurt?" Jerome asked, no longer yelling or demanding.

„It was a fun score while it lasted, Geoffrey." Jugens just said. „Don't take it personally!"

One by one the members of Jerome's inner circle discarded their robes, unceremoniously dumping them into the mud, and walked away. None of the remaining five even saw the need to say something to Jerome, they just took off. Most of the crowd of onlookers had dispersed as well, just a few curious souls remained behind to watch the drama unfolding on the podium, though from a safe distance.

Jerome was alone, surrounded by Angel's friends and allies.

„It's over!" Angel said, slowly walking closer to Jerome's kneeling form.

„It's not possible." Jerome whispered to himself. „We are God's chosen people. We can't fail."

Angel stood directly behind him now, but Jerome didn't seem to notice him. A large puddle of rain water had collected directly in front of the podium and Jerome stared down. There was no reflection there. Nothing.

„Has He deserted me?" Jerome asked, his voice drowned out by the raindrops. He stared into the puddle, suddenly finding it incredibly important to find his reflection in the muddy depths of the puddle.

It was nowhere to be found.

„Let us help you, Jerome!" Angel said, gently putting a hand on the other Vampire's shoulder. „Together we can ..."

„No!" Jerome screamed, shrugging off Angel's hand and surging to his feet. Buffy and the others tensed, but Jerome made no move to attack Angel. He looked around himself like a cornered animal, enemies everywhere, panting hard, bloody sweat staining his forehead.

„Jerome!" Angel said, trying to get through to him.

Jerome's eyes fell on the golden cross Angel had dropped earlier. He jumped toward it, even as the demon inside him recoiled at the sight. His fingers closed around the metal hilt and held on tight, even as his skin began to sizzle.

„You can't desert me!" Jerome screamed, clutching the cross to his chest.

„Let go of the cross!" Angel yelled, trying to get closer, yet Jerome jumped to his feet and darted out of his reach.

„You will see!" Jerome screamed as his hands burst into flames. „I am God's chosen, he will not strike down upon me!" The flames climbed up his arms even as he jumped from the podium and ran out into the rain, Gunn's people flinching back from the fiery figure.

„Stop him!" Angel yelled, jumping after Jerome, the others just a few steps behind him.

The flames engulfed Jerome from head to toe now, but still he kept on running, still he held on to the cross that was killing him. He screamed something, but the flames devoured his words even as they devoured his flesh. Angel caught up with him, but it was too late.

With an animal scream Jerome crumbled to the ground, a bundle of burning flesh. The cross inside was untouched, gleaming golden in the light of the flames, and Angel had to avert his eyes.

A moment later it was over. The golden cross rested in the mud, raindrops falling down on it, quickly washing away the ashes.

„Angel?" Buffy asked as she arrived at his side. „Are you all right?"

Angel just nodded, his eyes staring at the ground just inches from the cross, where the last vestiges of Geoffrey Jerome were washed away by the rain.

„Guess now he knows whether God wants him or not." Spike said, sounding uncharacteristically somber for a change.

„Angel?" Buffy asked, softly placing her hand on Angel's shoulder.

He stared down at the mud for another minute, then shook his head and turned away.

„Let's get out of here!" He just said. „I want to get out of the rain."

Surrounded by his friends and loved ones, Angel managed half a smile and took Buffy's hand in his. „Let's go home!"

Everyone nodded and started turning away. Buffy stopped, though, when she saw Gunn reach for the golden cross that still lay in the mud. She was about to say something, but the dark-skinned youth just planted the cross upright in the ground and left it like that, joining the rest of his people beside Angel's group.

Angel gave him a thankful nod and they started walking away.

At the horizon the dark rain clouds slowly started breaking up, revealing the starry night sky.


#

17 - Just Before Dawn

#


Buffy found Angel sitting on the roof of the Hyperion Hotel, looking at the quickly brightening sky in the east. Sunrise was just ten minutes away and Buffy knew that Angel would sit here and watch until the very last second, only then would he take cover.

It is day and the sun shines on my skin, it warms me and chases away the cold of night. The sunlight is so bright, so very bright. I have to squint because of the brightness of the day.

She suddenly felt a great sadness, seeing how he tried to catch a glimpse of something he could never again behold without it killing him.

"How are you doing?" She asked, sitting down beside him, looking east.

"I'm thinking." Angel said, half a smile spreading on his face. "Or maybe brooding, as Cordy or Faith would call it."

"About Jerome?" Buffy asked. "Please don't blame yourself for what has happened to him!"

"I don't." Angel said softly. "I'm just ... he wasn't a bad man, Buffy. He was just desperate. Desperate to regain the favor of the God he had lost. Desperate to make some sense of this curse he had been burdened with. I can understand him. You don't know how many times I tried to find some hidden meaning or purpose in the darkness, something good to balance all the evil in my life."

He shook his head. "Jerome never found it."

"And you?" Buffy asked him.

For the first time he turned to look at her and the sparkle in his chocolate brown eyes, the first hints of dawn reflecting in them, took her breath away.

"I've thought long and hard about that." He said. "I'm not sure whether I believe in things like destiny, or a higher purpose. I know just one thing."

He reached out with his hand to softly caress her cheek.

"If not for the demon I would never have met you. I would have died 200 years before you were even conceived. That alone does a lot to balance things."

Buffy smiled.

"Angel, ... I couldn't help but hear your speech, the things you said to those people. Your dream."

And the sky ... the sky is a perfect azure blue, a sky so blue that no other color seems to exist. I can see for miles all around and beneath that bottomless blue of the sky the endless grass plains are a rich, sated green, not the black and gray you see at night. There is nothing but infinite blue sky and endless green grass.

She took his hand in hers and felt a lone tear trail down her cheek.

"I'm so sorry I tried to take that from you, Angel." She said. "I was only thinking of myself, what I wanted. I should have realized what was going through your head."

She sniffed back the other tears that were threatening to spill free from her eyes.

"I just wanted to tell you that I want to be with you, Angel. Mortal, immortal, or anything in between. I don't care as long as we're together. Forget about Vampires, blood bonds, or churches, okay? I just want to be with you. And maybe ... maybe we can still find a way to ... you know? Make you mortal?"

Angel smiled, a full and honest smile, not the half smile he usually did. Buffy felt like the sun had already risen when he looked at her like that.

"Buffy, I was thinking about a lot of things when I made that speech, too. About the talks we had on this topic, all the reasons we came up with for and against it. I realized something while I was talking up there. You see, when I told all these people about my dream, I didn't tell them everything."

He took her face between his hands and drew her in closer.

"For two and a half centuries I stood in that meadow, Buffy, the grass under my toes, the blue sky above me, but I was always alone. These last three years, though, ever since I met you, you were there with me. We stood there together and it made one thing perfectly clear to me.

"All the green hills and blue skies in the world don't mean a thing to me if you're not there with me."

She looked at him in wonder.

"Angel? What are you saying?"

He looked down, his hands dropping from her face.

"There is another thing I haven't told you, Buffy. These last hundred years that I spent looking for a way to make Vampires human again ... I did find a way."

Buffy was speechless for a long moment.

"What?"

"A way to make Vampires human again. I found it twenty years ago. I was so ecstatic that day. I thought I had found the answer to all my dreams. That I would be able to walk in the sunlight again."

He shook his head.

"I never will. The ritual would indeed exorcise the demons from our bodies, but without the demons' presence time would catch up with us. We are dead, Buffy, all of us. It's only the demon that keeps us alive. To become human again means our death."

He looked at her again.

"I don't want to die. I have too much to live for. I don't know, maybe there is another way to become human, really become human, but I am at long last weary of looking for it. These last three years have been the happiest of my life, Buffy. Being with you, in the night, it means much more than that old dream of daylight I've been clinging to these last 250 years."

"Angel?" She asked him, trying to wrap her minds around what he told her.

"I'm saying that you were right, Buffy. I don't care what 1000-year-old Angel will think, or whether 10,000-year-old Angel will be happy with my decision. Like you said, I want to be with you, no matter how. And if I never see the green hills of home in the sunlight again, it's a price I'm willing to pay if only I can be with you. Forever."

Buffy was speechless once again. Angel looked toward the east, where the sky was beginning to glow from the rays of the approaching sun. Another minute or so.

"I'm asking you to be with me forever, beloved." He said, taking her hand in his even as he dropped down on one knee. "I can never marry you the way one human would marry another, I can never take you to a church and have our union blessed by God. What I can give you, though, is myself. All of me, bonded to you. If you still want it."

Buffy slid down from where she had been sitting to kneel with him, clutching his hand with both of hers.

"Angel, are you really sure?" She asked him. "I ... I don't want to give up everything you've ever dreamed about."

"You are all I ever dreamed about, beloved." He said without hesitation. "You are the green hills of home that I've looked for so long. You are my blue sky, my blazing fire in the dark of night. My sunshine, the warmth on my skin that chases the cold away. I see the sun rise every time I look into your eyes. I won't give up anything. I will gain the world."

Tears now flowed freely from Buffy's eyes as she clutched Angel's hand, never to let go again. A smile spread on her face and the first ray of dawn fell on it, illuminating her features, making her eyes sparkle.

"I want you, Angel!" She said, tears glittering in the light. "I want you forever."

With that they fled from the dawn.


#

18 - With This Blood I Thee Wed

#


Six weeks later:

"I still think they're loony!" Faith whispered to Spike.

"Shut up and watch, luv!" Spike whispered back.

Buffy and Angel knelt in the center of a mystic circle, looking at each other like they were the only thing in the world. Angel was dressed in nothing but a pair of black pants, his bare chest gleaming like marble in the candlelight. Buffy, in turn, wore but a black skirt that fell to her knees and a black top, leaving her shoulders and neck bare to the gaze of her lover.

Four people kneeled on the outside of the circle, each marking a point of the compass. Darla knelt in the north, directly behind Buffy. Joyce Summers mirrored her on the other side, kneeling behind Angel. Willow and Tara knelt east and west of the circle, magic humming in the air between them.

The presence of Darla and Joyce was purely symbolic. Once they had managed to unearth the ancient ritual of the Vinculum Dies Noctis Cruentos, both Buffy and Angel had decided to add some other things to it. Buffy called it modernizing, having spared some not so kind words about dusty traditions and the likes. Angel had just smiled and gone along.

The two witches supplied the magic that would flow into the bond. The original ritual called for two Vampires to sit in their places, both of whom had to be strong in the mystical arts. Instead they each had a Vampire standing behind them, hands on their shoulders, adding their undead presence to the ritual.

The rest of the Hyperion's large ball room was filled with hundreds of candles, dipping the entire gathering into their soft light. Only their closest friends and family members were present. Giles stood behind Darla, flanked by Wesley and Doyle. Buffy had invited her best friend Xander and his girlfriend Anya, who stood behind Joyce. Spike and Faith stood off to one side, behind Willow, while the space behind Tara was filled by Cordelia and Gunn.

"Dies!" Tara whispered, dipping her fingers into a bowl of blood that stood in the center of the circle. The blood was Angel and Buffy's, mixed together into one. Tara used the blood to draw a rune on Buffy's chest.

"Noctis!" Willow whispered, drawing a different rune on Angel's pale chest. Neither Buffy nor Angel ever took their eyes away from each other.

The magic inside the circle grew thick enough to cut it with a knife. The potent brew of Slayer and Vampire blood stirring the power between the two people kneeling in front of each other. The line of the circle began shimmering in a dark red as more power gathered around them.

Willow and Tara murmured the incantations of the ritual, even as Angel reached out a hand to touch the rune on Buffy's chest.

"My eyes in the daylight." He whispered.

Buffy mirrored him, touching the rune on his chest with her fingers.

"My eyes in the nighttime." She whispered

"Through you I walk in the sun." Angel said, slowly drawing her closer.

"Through you I prowl with the moon." Buffy said, arching her head to one side.

"Vinculum Dies Noctis Cruentos!" Willow and Tara whispered, the blood in the bowl stirring as if moved by wind. The circle's glow intensified.

Darla now leaned forward, a tip of her own blood on her finger. She touched the back of Buffy's neck, the blood almost sizzling as it made contact with the Slayer's boiling skin.

"The family of Aurelius welcomes you," Darla whispered, "blood of our blood, though living, yet one of us."

This part was taken from the ritual of accepting a new member into an established Vampire Order. Darla's blood, as Master of Aurelius, marked Buffy as a member of her family.

Joyce Summers leaned forward and touched Angel's neck, feeling a little weird doing this, but taken in by the power of the ceremony.

"The family of Summers welcomes you," she whispered, "blood of our blood, though undead, yet one of us."

Buffy smiled hearing her mother utter the words, only slightly modified from the original rite. At first her mother had protested this part, using an ancient Vampire ritual to accept Angel as her son-in-law, but after much pleading and pouting on her daughter's part she had agreed. The only thing she would not do was prick her finger and smear her blood on Angel's neck. There were limits, she had said.

"Will you be my companion in the day?" Angel asked as he and Buffy were almost face to face. "Will you share the night with me until the stars themselves go out? Will you embrace my blood to make us one for all time?"

"Yes!" Buffy whispered and guided his head toward the bend of her neck. Angel slipped into his demon face and buried his fangs into Buffy's warm flesh. It was the exact same spot where she had forced him to drink from here two and a half years ago, to save his life. The scar from back then had faded with time. This mark, though, would never fade.

The air around them shimmered with magic as Angel drank at Buffy's neck, her heartbeat lying on his tongue, her warmth flooding into his body. Buffy gasped with the feel of his fangs inside her, her arms keeping him close to her.

Angel let go, having drunk but the barest tidbit, yet he felt more powerful and refreshed than ever before. Her life, her fire, it thundered through his veins, made his skin glow, chased the cold of the grave from his bones.

"Vinculum Dies Noctis Cruentos!" Willow and Tara whispered again, stirring the magic once more.

"Will you be my companion in the night?" Buffy asked once she had regained her breath. "Will you share the night with me until the stars themselves go out? Will you embrace my warmth to make us one for all time?"

"Yes!" Angel whispered and sliced across his own neck with a sharp fingernail, drawing blood. Buffy leaned forward, her small mouth fastening on his skin, and drank his blood where it welled forth from his body.

Angel's blood worked its magic as the world around Buffy seemed to change. She could see the blood pumping through the bodies of the two witches. She could hear the pulsing beat of a dozen living hearts here in this room. The smells, so unique to each of them. Willow, Tara, Joyce, Giles, Wesley, Doyle, Xander, Anya, Cordelia, Gunn, Faith, each of their scents as different as their faces. The cool aroma of death, new senses expanding to the feel of family blood. Darla, Spike, the two nameless Vampires behind Willow and Tara, all were family now.

Buffy pulled her head away from Angel's neck, droplets of blood on her lips. Their eyes locked, magic sparkling between them.

"Vinculum Dies Noctis Cruentos!" The whisper went out once more.

Their lips met in a bruising kiss, his blood on her lips, her blood on his lips, so much power between them.

A shudder went through both their bodies at the same time, the marks on their necks throbbing like beating hearts. The remaining blood in the bowl burst into crimson flame, fire leaping out to touch their skin, but not burning them. The runes on their chests flared and then vanished, burnt into their flesh without visible trace, but there nonetheless.

Their fingers interlaced as the power thundered between them, through them. Goosebumps broke out on every living human present, while the Vampires could feel their blood boil as the joining was completed.

Buffy and Angel sagged against each other as the circle around them flared one final time, then fell silent. They touched foreheads, looking into each other's eyes. Buffy saw her mirror image reflected in those dark orbs in front of her. Angel saw nothing in her eyes, but suddenly he could feel her heartbeat on his tongue again and saw himself. Saw himself as his mate saw him, through her wonderful eyes.

"You are my daylight." He whispered to her.

"You are my moonlight." She whispered back, then their lips met in another kiss.

Silence reigned in the room for a minute as the newly joined lovers kissed, only to be broken by an impatient voice.

"Okay, bonding's over." Faith said. "Let's eat!"

Buffy and Angel laughed.


#


Epilogue: One month later.


"Are you sure?" Buffy asked Angel as she climbed out of their rented van. Angel remained sitting in the dark interior, smiling at her.

"I will be perfectly safe in here," he reassured her, "now go on or we'll miss it!"

She nodded and slid the van's door shut. They had parked it by the side of the gravel road they had driven on to reach this secluded spot and Buffy now climbed up the steep hill on the side of it. To the east the darkness was slowly giving way to the approaching dawn.

Reaching the top of the hill Buffy removed her hiking boots and socks, wriggling her toes into the thaw-sprinkled grass with a sigh.

She then turned east where colors were creeping over the horizon faster and faster now, shadows fleeing from the approaching dawn like animals in flight from the predator. The dark hilltops around her shed their gray coat of night as the colors returned.

The first ray of dawn touched Buffy's face, touched the hilltops. The sun slowly rose over the horizon, coloring the ground in a rich, sated green, even as the soft wind played across the ocean of grass blades, a billion droplets of thaw sprinkling in the light of the new dawn.

The sky brightened, the black vanishing to be replaced by a perfect azure blue. There was not a cloud in sight and Buffy's eyes drank in the deep colors around her as morning came to the hills and meadows of Galway, Ireland.

Through the eyes of his lover Angel saw the green hills and blue skies, weeping in joy.


THE END