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Emergence III

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Wiping his chin free of blood, Ichimaru Gin rapped on the door. When it didn't open, he thumped loudly on it.

"What does a vampire need to do to get some fresh young blood?" he asked.

A voice came through. "Kitsune?"

"Taishou," the silver-haired vampire answered, "So good to hear your voice again."

It was Aizen and he opened the door, scanning around the room very casually. Then he smiled and sighed when he saw the sprawled body of Urahara Kisuke. "I promised that he'll get to walk out of here alive."

Gin smiled thinly. "No one told me."

Kira peered into the room, curious and apprehensive, and beamed when he saw his sire wiping blood from the corner of his mouth. "Daddy, you're home!"

As the blond ran into the room and hugged Gin, the other two younger vampires stepped into the Red Room. Aizen just watched as Gin preened under their attention.

"You know, I heard something about Acathla being opened tonight... shall we drop by to take a peek?" asked Kira coyly. "Ringside seats to the end of the world."

"Sounds good," said Gin, kissing the side of Kira's neck. "Taishou, shall we?"

The oldest vampire shook his head. "You have fun with the children. I have a demon upstairs to release from its human host."

"All right then. Let me grab something less bloodstained and we'll visit our neighbors downtown," said Gin breezily.

Shuuhei looked over his shoulder at the body on the floor. "What about him?"

"He ain't going anywhere." Gin's nonchalant tone seemed to satisfy some criteria; Aizen pulled him in for a deep kiss until Kira coughed delicately. Gin grinned cheekily. "Children present, taishou. Not nice."

"We do worse than that with them," retorted Aizen and he stepped aside, allowing Gin to precede him out of the Red Room.

The younger vamps waited downstairs while Gin and Aizen took their time upstairs, until Gin emerged freshly scrubbed and dressed in a dark chambray shirt. Shinsou hanging from his belt. Kira beamed at his sire again, linked his slender arm through Gin's, and led the way out of the house.

It was almost five in the morning by then.

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Ichigo screwed his eyes shut as Shirosaki screamed in his head. He had not battled the incubus/succubus like this before, and it took every ounce of his self-focus to remember that he, Kurosaki Ichigo, owned the body and that Shirosaki was the invader. And yet, as time passed, Ichigo knew he would lose in the end. Shirosaki had everything to fight for now.

But I have Urahara. The thought came to the redhead in a quick flash. He had to smile even as agony assaulted his brain. He had Urahara, and that would make the difference.

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Giles had difficulty breathing and his mind was swimming. There was no doubt that Angelus would kill him soon, even if he didn't get the information that he needed to release Acathla. All things considered, Giles would rather die and delay the end of the world than live knowing he had betrayed the trust placed on him by the Council and the trust Buffy had in him.

"Rupert?"

The voice made Giles open his one good eye. The other was bruised and swollen. He could not believe what he was hearing. He swallowed to wet his dry throat. "Jenny?"

"Rupert. Oh my god, what has he done to you?"

It was Jenny, Jenny Calender with her lustrous dark hair and porcelain skin. Jenny, the woman Giles loved and...

"Jenny?" breathed the Watcher again. "I buried you."

"Oh Rupert... come on, we've got to get you out of here." Jenny hurried over and undid his bonds. "They've been at you so bad."

Giles blinked. "This can't be real..."

Jenny caressed Giles across his cheek and brow before saying, "Come on, we've got to get you away from Angelus. He's close to opening the portal, isn't he?"

"Yes. If he finds out how, we're all dead."

"Maybe we can remove the item he needs to open the portal." Jenny clasped Giles' hand before going forward to peer around the corner. "No one's around right now; Buffy's got a diversion going on outside so I can grab you. We can find the thing and leave-"

"We can't," interrupted Giles. He had trouble walking but he limped forward to Jenny.

Jenny supported him. "Why? What's the problem?"

"We can't remove Angelus." Giles inhaled and savored the fragrance of Jenny's hair. His lovely Jenny, beside him, in his arms.

"He's the key to releasing Acathla?"

"Yes."

The brunette looped her arms about the Watcher's waist and whispered, "I've missed you."

"Oh Jenny... I thought I've lost you forever," murmured Giles brokenly. His mouth sought out hers, desperate for a confirmation that she was here, she was real. "Jenny, don't leave me again."

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Angelus smiled. "So. I'm the key, huh."

"Huh. Who knew?" Spike grinned, though he was suddenly worried. If Giles had outlived his usefulness, then Angelus would definitely want the Watcher killed.

As if he was reading the platinum-blond's mind, Angelus said, "All right, kill him."

"And if he was lying?" retorted Spike, keeping his voice as disdainful as he could.

"Would he?"

"He might be. Test it out. If he was honest with ya, it doesn't matter. If he lied, you could have another go at him and eat his eyeballs out of his sockets for all I care."

Angelus smiled at Spike. The white-haired vampire frowned, wary of that expression. Angelus placed a hand on Spike's shoulder, almost friendly. "I kinda miss this, you watching my back."

"That's because you lack impulse control," snapped Spike.

They both heard the moans and looked up at Drusilla, who was still enjoying a kiss with Giles.

"Uh, Dru?" said Spike, brows raised.

The brunette vamp pulled away with a sheepishly coy expression. "Sorry. Was into the moment."

The Watcher blinked and slowly realized with growing horror what just occurred.

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Whistler scratched his stubbly chin. "Straight up? I have no clue other than 'someone worthy, put a sword through that big fat mouth'."

"You certain of your facts?" There was no hint of levity in Buffy's eyes. There was no time for levity.

"Yeah. That was how he was stopped the last time," said the half-demon. "Listen. The danger isn't Acathla, it's the one that releases him. If the one who releases him isn't stopped, Acathla doesn't stop."

"The only one who can activate Acathla is Angel."

"Yes." The half-demon looked sad for her. "You have a lot to lose."

Buffy regarded Whistler for a long, steady beat. Then she headed out the door and, without a backward glance, added, "There is nothing left for me to lose."

"You're wrong." Whistler watched the Slayer disappear down the street. "There is one thing left for you to lose."

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Willow stumbled over the words that Oz had printed out from his computer at home. The language was unfamiliar, of course, and the phonetic guide that Oz had found didn't guide her as much as confuse her. Still, she soldiered on, aware that her head pounded heavily and that her best friend needed this to work.

Beside her, Oz waved a sprig of some herb he couldn't recall the name of, and Cordelia let a censer pendulum from her hand. Xander had, on Willow's orders, taken Cordelia's car to get Ichigo out of the mess if possible or else get to Buffy.

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Kira was ecstatic that Gin was back. True, there was still a hint of humanity about his beloved sire, but that was probably just a taint left from the spell the bitch Momo put on him. Behind him and Gin walked Shuuhei and Nanao, as vigilant as ever.

Suddenly, Gin stopped walking.

"Why are we stopping?" asked Shuuhei.

"I forgot to tell you all something," said Gin quietly. He smiled down at Kira. "Y'know, all three of you are the pride and joy of our lives. Kira is beautifully violent; Nanao is methodical and cruel; Numbers is loyally brutal. I've never once regretted turning you, my darling Kira – you brought so much suffering and pain into this world."

The blond vampire preened slightly and cocked his head up at Gin. "I brought Shuuhei into this world too."

"Oh yes, you did. And Nanao was Hinamori's devoted friend, as I recall." Gin now surveyed the younger vampires. "And you are my family now."

Nanao smiled slightly. "We will always be your family, daddy."

Gin smiled wider. Then there was a choked gasp from Kira, who staggered back, fell on the ground, and exploded into dust. A stake was clutched in Gin's left hand.

"No," said Gin. "I've done enough harm." The smile disappeared and with his right hand he drew Shinsou from his belt. The two dark-haired younger vamps changed but before they could attack, Gin slid between them – past them – stood up. Nanao was decapitated, and Shuuhei had time to stare at the stake in his chest before he also became dust.

Gin stared at the empty space where the vampires had been, and then headed back to the mansion.

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Aizen saw Gin returning and waited at the main door. "Where are the children?"

"World's ending but I'm not with the one I love – what's the point?" Gin smiled. "I left them there before Momo saw me. They've promised to bring her back and we can celebrate in style."

Although not quite convinced, Aizen nevertheless took gin's hands and kissed the knuckles. "You've been away so long, Kitsune."

"I've missed you too," said Gin, snuggling under Aizen's jaw. "I was just thinking about the time when we saw your son again, when he was all grown up. Good times, hmm?"

"Good times. He was an honorable fighter." Aizen stroked Gin's fine, silky hair. "So like you, yet not like you. It was fascinating."

Gin laughed softly. "He was your son, not mine. He was more like you than I."

"Oh no, Gin my love..." Aizen's voice trailed off almost delicately, "he had a soul... just like you do."

Gin's fingers clenched on the back of Aizen's shirt.

"I went back to check on Urahara. He was still breathing," Aizen explained very calmly. "My real Kitsune would have torn into him like a wolf. You're still poisoned with a soul."

"Then why didn't you just lock me up then? Or kill me?"

Aizen chuckled and patted Gin on the back. "Because you and I know that I love you. I will do anything to get you back, even if it means playing along for a while." He sighed. "You shouldn't have slain our children, Gin. They were good kids."

Gin closed his eyes, fully expecting to die now. "You were good, once. Now you're just evil."

"Maybe," agreed Aizen calmly. "You were good once too, if memory serves me. Better than I was – you looked death in the face and didn't walk away."

The two vampires held each other in a gentle embrace until the first rays of the sun started peeking up the horizon.

"Taishou... You were the one who killed me then." Gin's voice was very small, lost, confused. "May I die now?"

"Yes."

Gin stepped away from Aizen and gazed into brown eyes he had known for practically his whole existence. They were cold, hard, and cruel: not the eyes he remembered. He smiled at his sire and, as the sunbeams touched him and he felt the first burn, Ichimaru Gin moved faster than he had ever moved.

To his surprise, Aizen was not even trying to defend himself when Gin grabbed him, pulled him out onto the grassy lawn, and kissed him with burning lips. The two vampires embraced for the last time before they were incinerated into nothing -

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Ichimaru Gin screamed and bolted upright in bed. His wrists and ankles were chained, his body naked and wet with perspiration, and there was no one in the room with him. His eyes were wide open and he was gasping for air he did not need.

Aizen was watching from the narrow aperture set in the door. He sniffed experimentally and then smiled coldly. With a nod he indicated that Grimmjow should let go of his prisoner. Urahara Kisuke glared at Aizen from his place on the stone floor.

"You did well," said Aizen. "That soul is gone. What did you do?"

"Gave him perfect happiness," said Urahara. "Now fulfill your promise and let me and Ichigo out of here."

Aizen tilted his head. "I did promise to release both of you, didn't I? Kira, be a darling and get Ichigo, will you? If Ulquiorra protests, let him know that I have made the decision."

"Certainly, father," said Kira with a delighted grin. He could scent his sire again, without the cloying stench of a soul, and he was looking forward to the games they could play tonight.

As the mage was dragged out of the cellar, he saw Ichigo being pushed down the stairs. Urahara rushed forward and caught hold of Ichigo.

"What have you done to him?" he shouted at Ulquiorra. The pale half-demon was impassive and ignored him entirely, turning around and going back into a room.

Ichigo groaned and opened his eyes a small fraction. "Urahara? You're all right?"

"Yes, I am," said Urahara. He helped Ichigo into a sitting position and then assisted him into standing up. "Come on."

"We get – we get to go?"

"You are released," Aizen said from the back of the house. Hisagi Shuuhei and Ise Nanao flanked him, while on the steps an anticipatory Kira stood at the ready. "But we start hunting again in one minute."

Urahara didn't waste his breath and pulled Ichigo from the mansion, breaking into a run as soon as he got some of his energy back from the spell. Ichigo, despite the tumble down the steps, was able to keep pace and soon the two were loping towards safety – wherever they may be.

Back in the mansion, Aizen watched the second hand tick towards the one minute mark. Then he waved his children forward. With a growl all three raced out for blood. Outside, a dark shadow leapt from the roof and swept forward.

Aizen smiled thinly. There was still the issue of the renegade Momo, so whether his children got to the mage or not they would still have another, far more satisfying hunt.

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Xander drove like a bat out of hell. He knew he had some time – he had no idea how much – but he had to have some time. He had to.

After all, don't the bad guys gloat or something? They gloat, talk about their plans or whatever, and then just as the hero is about to be killed he is saved in the nick of time by the sidekick OH SHIT THAT'S ICHIGO ohgodohgodohgod I'mgonnacrash-

The car screeched and narrowly avoided a lamp post. Xander had slammed on the brakes just as Ichigo and Urahara sprinted down the street. Behind them were three vampires, game faces on, and if Xander wasn't seeing things, then freaking BATMAN was right above them.

"Get in the car!" yelled Xander unnecessarily as he revved the engine to life again. Ichigo loped forward, yanked the door open and threw himself in, but Urahara's right arm had been caught by the winged demon and was being carried upwards.

Ichigo swore in Japanese and clambered out again, leaping from the top of the car to grab Urahara's ankles. Xander turned the car around and, despite his shaking fingers, aimed the vehicle directly at the vampires. The engine growled and they paused, backing away slightly, fangs bared.

A sudden thump made Xander yelp in surprise. Two figures rolled off the top of the car and pushed their way into the back seat.

"Hospital!" screamed Ichigo.

Xander wanted to look behind and ask why, but he had no time. Another solid thump and mutant Batman was on the hood, his brilliant green eyes burning with rage. He had a spear and was drawing his arm back-

"Bloody hell!" Xander floored the accelerator in his shock and then, when mutant Batman lost his balance and sprawled forward, jammed on the brakes and turned tail towards the hospital. "What the hell was that?"

Ichigo wasn't listening. "Come on, don't die on me now, you can't die on me now, don't you dare leave me now! Don't you dare close your eyes, look at me, look at me Kisuke!"

At the tone of his friend's voice, Xander was suddenly terrified. Then his senses kicked in and he realized that Cordelia might just kill all of them later. The stench of blood permeated the entire car.

Forget safe driving. Xander ran all the red lights.

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"Not that I'm not glad to be back," drawled Ichimaru Gin, "but where is Peaches?"

"We'll get her now," Aizen said, running his fingers lovingly through silver hair. Grimmjow caught Aizen's nod and faded into the shadows. Soon there was the roar of the Ferrari speeding into the night.

Now alone with his sire and lover, Gin purred with pleasure, and his smile darkened. "I can still feel it."

"Your soul?"

"Oh yes." The smile turned into a snarl. "Like someone else's vomit crawling through my veins."

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"What happened to him?"

"An accident."

"What kind of accident?"

"One that ripped his fucking arm off! Stop asking me these questions and save him!"

Xander bit his upper lip to stop himself from screaming. Only a minute ago when he arrived at the hospital then did he see the extent of Urahara's injury. Ichigo was almost demented with fear and rage, but Xander had another friend to worry about. Should he go?

When Urahara was wheeled away into the ER, Ichigo seemed to calm down a little. "Xander, why were you there?"

"To get you if I could. Then I was supposed to go to Buffy – I've no idea where she is now and... I gotta find her."

"She'll be on her way to Angel's." Ichigo turned haunted eyes to Xander. "I should go with you, though I don't think I'm in any shape to help."

Xander managed a wry smile. "You think?"

"I'll still come." Ichigo glanced once more in the direction of the ER. "Personal isn't the same as important and right now, we gotta stop Angelus from raising Acathla."

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Hinamori Momo hummed softly. The tune was an old air from Kyoto, from the days when she was still human. It had been a long time since she recalled that song; she had sung it on religious occasions to keep herself from being too bored.

Rather apt for this moment.

Earlier on she had felt an odd metallic taste in the back of her throat, which she usually got only when she completed a spell. She put it down to the presence of Acathla and the imminent end of the world.

"You never showed them your full healing," she remarked when Spike rolled into the room.

"That's because I wasn't fully healed," he retorted.

Hinamori narrowed her large eyes. "You are. After all... you walked out to find the Slayer, didn't you?"

"That a threat, miss?" Spike bared his teeth.

"Perhaps."

"I guess that's all right then," said the platinum-blond vampire. He nodded at someone outside Hinamori's range of vision. "Because I invited my friends along first."

Too late, Hinamori got to her feet and swiveled around.

Grimmjow. Kira. Shuuhei. Nanao. Ulquiorra.

"All five of you?" she asked with a small smile, though nervousness suddenly pooled in her gut. "That's rare."

"What can we say?" Kira shrugged elegantly. "Daddy wants you home, Peaches."

Hinamori changed into her vamp form but before she could charge or sound a warning, she was struck in the back of her neck with a dart. She collapsed to her knees and swooned into unconsciousness.

Spike towered over her. "And that's for toying with all of us here." He nodded at Aizen's family. "We're square now, right?"

"Right," said Kira. He sauntered up and prodded at Hinamori with his toes. There was an anticipatory gleam in his cold, blue eyes. "We're gonna have a long family reunion now."

Spike grabbed Grimmjow's arm. "About the deal?"

"I've fulfilled my part," said Grimmjow. "It's all you now."

Briefly Spike thought about arguing, but since he was outnumbered he decided to play it safe. As he watched them leave, he wondered if the Slayer could make it here in time.

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Buffy almost staked Xander and Ichigo.

"Don't kill the cavalry," said the orange-haired boy, for once not holding his black sword. In his fist was a longish stake. Ichigo looked like death warmed over, and patches of what appeared to be congealing blood were spattered all over him. Ichigo saw Buffy staring and said, "It's Urahara's."

"That's supposed to make me feel better?"

"He's in the hospital now," said Xander. "He's... well, safer than where he was. We're here to back you up."

The Chosen One nodded and resumed walking. She had stopped earlier to plan out her attack, because her priority was Giles, and now that her friends had come she had to reassess her strategy. "All right. I'll take on Angelus, make sure he doesn't get to release Acathla. Ichigo, everyone else."

"What about me?" asked Xander. He hefted a rock experimentally. Off the other two's curious glance, he said, "I don't have a weapon."

Wordlessly Buffy passed him a wooden cross. Ichigo frowned and said, "What about Giles?"

"Xander, your job is to get Giles. That's the most important." Buffy breathed out slowly. "Get Giles out and to the hospital safely. Ichigo, you're covering them until they're safe."

"Got it." Ichigo breathed out slowly. He had to slam down Shirosaki's voice in his head and it was costing him some of his energy, but Ichigo had to hold it together. "What about you?"

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Angelus hissed at the sting of the blade across his torso. Drusilla was taking far too much pleasure in drawing blood from him; then again, it was Dru. Smearing the blood over his palms, Angelus took the hilt of the sword sticking out of the stone statue.

"At last," he breathed out. He could feel the tingle in the blade. Before he could pull the sword out, a crash from the side of the room distracted him. Drusilla crashed into him and pushed him off balance.

"Sorry," Spike said without a shred of apology. "I really don't want this world to end."

He was standing. The wheelchair had been kicked into a wall and its wheels spun uselessly.

Angelus was stunned, but not as much as Drusilla. Clambering to her feet, the brunette vampire's wild eyes took in the deception. She screamed and leaped for Spike's throat, the two of them tumbling into the antechamber.

"Huh." Angelus shrugged and took hold of the sword again, but before he could do anything more a blade swung down out of nowhere and almost cut off his arm. Another swing forced Angelus back further and he saw who his attacker was.

Buffy stood between him and the statue of Acathla. Her face was set and resolute.

Angelus smiled his most charming smile. "I thought you wouldn't come."

"Wouldn't miss this for the world," she replied. Their fight circled outside, leaving Drusilla with Spike. The male vampire tossed Drusilla aside but she sprang back, claws bared for his eyes.

"I don't wanna hurt you, baby," said Spike.

The brunette vampire snarled and backhanded Spike, but her wrist was caught and twisted up. Spike levered his other arm under Drusilla's chin and locked it tight. She kicked out a few times, to no avail, and her struggles eased while circulation was cut off from her brain.

Spike sighed and swept Drusilla up in his arms. For a second he thought about helping the Slayer.

He looked at the two locked in combat. "Meh," said Spike, and headed to his car.

Time to get out of town.

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Ichigo already missed Zangetsu. Though the stakes were effective at mowing down the vampire lackeys, there was something to be said for the satisfaction of beheading the undead. Still, the main thing was to get Giles.

Xander followed close behind Ichigo, the cross occasionally coming out into play whenever vampires tried to sneak around Ichigo or when they come at them too fast – the cross stunned them for just that moment enough for the redheaded boy to dust them.

They found the Watcher in one of the smaller rooms and Xander got to work.

Giles felt the tug on his wrists and opened his eyes.

"Giles, come on, let's go," said Xander who was untying the knots around the Watcher's arms.

To Xander's surprise, Giles merely closed his eyes again. Ichigo rushed in and asked, "What's taking so long? We have to go now."

"Giles, Giles, come on, let's go." Xander pulled the librarian out of his chair.

Giles shook his head and said, "You're not real. You're just a hallucination. Both of you – they've put me under a spell, make me see what I want."

Ichigo and Xander exchanged a look. Xander tugged the Watcher forward and supported Giles on one side. "Then why would you see us?"

Giles blinked a few times. "Oh, right. Let's go."

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Buffy kept her stance low, knowing that she had to stay between Angelus and the stone statue of Acathla. She just wished she knew for sure that Giles was safe, but she had to trust her friends.

Angelus kept a taunting smirk on his face. Buffy's swipes and slashes kept him a few feet away, but he was able to press his advantage every now and then. However, despite his air of effortless superiority, Buffy could see Angelus's anxiety. It would be dawn soon. Already a pale wash of light filled the sky.

"Honestly, lover," asked Angelus, "I really don't have time for you."

"You don't have a lot of time left." The Slayer shifted her grip.

Angelus bared his teeth. "You think you can stop me?"

Buffy risked a sardonic smile. "Of course."

Finally the lack of noises from the rest of the house got Angelus's attention. Buffy took the chance to slash at him, missed, and had to duck away from a well-aimed back kick. What she didn't expect was for that to be a feint. Angelus rolled into the room, jumped up and gripped the hilt of the sword in the statue's chest. Buffy had just turned around in time to see him pull the blade out of Acathla.

"You almost made it, Buff." Angelus shrugged in mock-pity.

The Chosen One squared her shoulders. "It's not over yet."

"Acathla's awake and ready to party," drawled the male vampire, "so I'd have to say that... you're toast. You, darling girl, are going to hell."

Buffy narrowed her eyes. "Save me a seat."

Knowing that she had to end this, Buffy charged at Angelus, who parried with the just-released sword. Behind them, a vortex started spinning, light emitting from Acathla's mouth.

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"Bind him... save... from his-" Willow could barely keep from keeling over.

Cordelia kept waving the sprig of herbs that was smoking gently, but her expression was of mingled fear and worry. "Are you okay?"

Oz wasn't asking because he knew. He gripped Willow's left hand, his own still swinging a censer.

Willow was sweating buckets and her breathing was so heavy, it was as if she had just run ten miles uphill. Yet she held on and tried to enunciate the unfamiliar words, substituting English whenever the text called for it. She could feel darkness inching in about her vision; her pulse was hammering in her temples.

She pleaded desperately in her heart; she needed power right now to finish this spell.

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Aizen held Gin in his arms, cradling the slender vampire about his waist. Gin leaned his head back, taking comfort in Aizen's strength. Before them, Nanao, Hisagi and Kira had bound Momo with thick ropes and manacles.

"Look what the cat dragged in," drawled Gin. The curl of his lip held more sincerity than spite, which made Kira tingle with predatory glee.

Hinamori Momo glared at him, but most of her attention was on Aizen. Whenever her gaze darted to her sire, it would be one of terror and pleading, in the hopes that he might – just might – have mercy on her.

Aizen pulled Gin tighter into his embrace. "You feel up to telling us your plan, Kitsune?"

"Oh yes," purred the silver-haired vampire. "I love teaching history. Kira, lovely, bring the net over here, will you?"

The blond vampire did so.

"Nanao, Numbers, remove Peaches' clothes. They will get in the way."

Perhaps that was a little too much. Momo changed into game face and snapped at her childe as well as Hisagi, but neither Nanao nor Hisagi were deterred. Nanaos took the chance to dig her lacquered nails into Momo's skin, ripping it as the clothing was removed.

Gin freed himself from Aizen's hold and picked up the net.

"You know," he said conversationally, "I think Acathla is opened."

"I felt it," answered Aizen. "We're safe, though."

Gin smiled. "Oh yes. We won't be sucked into hell." He hunkered down in front of Momo. "I guess that just means I have to craft one especially for you, Peaches."

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"Te implor Doamne, nu ignora accasta rugaminte! Lasa orbita sa fie vasul care-I va transporta sufletul la el!"

"Speak English!" Cordelia cried out, majorly freaked by Willow. The redhead had suddenly sat up, rigid and her eyes wide and unseeing, and spouted some weird language.

Oz dropped the censer carefully and held both Willow's hands. They were cold as stone. "Willow?"

The chanting grew stronger and the pressure in the room heavier. Oz had to bend over; Cordelia was thrown against a wall, the herbs no longer smoking but blazing. With a small shriek she tossed them out the open window.

Willow threw her head back and shouted, "Asa sa fie! Acum!"

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Buffy tumbled out into the court. The sun had risen enough to illuminate half the staircase but that was of no help to Buffy. Before she could get up, a chair hit her shoulder and sent her sprawling again. Scrabbling, Buffy crawled to her feet. A huge bruise was forming near her eye and she knew her lip had split from a punch earlier. The blood tasted alien and acidic.

Angelus strode out. His swagger was definitely in place. When Buffy moved to attack, he swept a roundhouse kick and his heel knocked the sword out of her hand. She didn't have time to recover before he slammed her into the wall with yet another kick to the midriff.

"So that's it, huh?" Angelus played the point of the sword about Buffy's face. "No friends, no family. No weapons. No hope."

The Slayer sat silent. She had nothing to say. The vortex was growing at a faster rate; she was weakened already. Her eyelids lowered.

Gods, she was so tired.

"Take all that away..." Angelus drew back his arm. "What's left?"

He thrust the sword forward – only for it to be caught inches from Buffy's face. Her eyes snapped open. Her gaze burned.

With the blade still caught between her palms she shoved it backwards, surprising Angelus enough for him to lose his grip.

"Me," she said, tossing the sword into her own hands. Now weaponless, Angelus fled into the mansion and out of the sunlight. Buffy advanced.

It was true. She had nothing left to lose.

Angelus tried to grapple with her but Buffy was too swift for him, ducking and throwing punches. There was little room for fighting but they tried their best. Angelus narrowly avoided being beheaded and Buffy leaped from the low table as Angelus ducked further into the house. Soon they were back in front of Acathla. Already the jaws of the statue were impossibly wide; the vortex swirled with sickening brightness and hue.

"You'll go to hell," snarled Angelus, his bravado gone.

"You said that already." The Slayer drew the sword back. Just when she was about to impale Angelus a burst of power knocked them both off their feet.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

"You see, in ancient China, they had a horrible way of torturing people to death." Gin waved at the scene before him. Kira, Hisagi and Nanao were listening, rapt with attention. "They wrapped up the naked prisoners in nets, and with a blade – which is heated over open fire – slices off the bits of flesh poking out from the spaces among the lines of netting."

He demonstrated.

Aizen chuckled.

Momo screamed.

"In those days, the prisoners were then force fed their own flesh so they don't starve to death. They will be cut – in little bits, daily – until they died. Questions?"

"I have a question!" Kira raised a hand eagerly. "Why are the blades heated?"

"Ah yes. It's to ensure that the wounds are cauterized so the prisoners don't die of something simple, like blood poisoning or an infection." Gin gestured to the pit of red hot coals on the left. "It's time for the hands on activity, children. Remember to play nice and take turns."

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

"Buffy?"

The Slayer stood up carefully. That voice... that tone of voice, to be more specific.

"Buffy?" said the tall vampire. "What's going on? Where... I thought we were..."

Not daring to hope, Buffy whispered, "Angel?"

"You're hurt!" Angelus – or Angel? - quickly hurried over to check on Buffy's wounds. Buffy lowered the sword, relief flooding her like a drug. "God... I feel like I haven't seen you in months – my memory's... where are we?"

Buffy's eyes weren't closed. Her grip wasn't loose. But her gaze was infinitely tender as she touched Angel's cheek and smiled at him.

"It doesn't matter," she murmured.

He was back.

She closed her eyes as she kissed him. Their lips met, and she was kissing the man she loved. The vampire she loved. The person she loved – and had finally gotten back. His strong arms folded around her shoulders; his scent enveloped her softly.

It didn't matter.

"I love you," she whispered.

Angel's embrace tightened. "I love you."

The vortex was rumbling now. She watched in mute horror and sorrow.

Then she pulled away and, refusing to meet his eyes, ran him through with the sword into Acathla's vortex.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Giles hobbled into the hospital ward, his crutches hindering his usual Watcherly grace.

At the bedside, Ichigo looked up and smiled tiredly. "Hi Giles. You look better."

"Uh, thanks." Giles took the other seat in the room. "Has he woken up?"

"Once. The pain meds they have him on has knocked him right back into sleep, which is good, except that he snores," said Ichigo, but the look he directed at Urahara was a fond one. Then, seeming to recall that there was another person in the room, Ichigo cleared his throat and turned around. "Has anyone seen Buffy?"

"Alas, no. Joyce says they had an argument and then pointedly shut the door in my face. Willow and Xander have not received any correspondence from her either."

Ichigo looked guilty. "I should've stayed on to help her fight."

"It wasn't your fault. She had to kill Angel – or the creature wearing Angel's face – and I doubt anyone can emerge from that experience without any emotional scars." Giles tone was kindly, but the teenager could sense the librarian's concern. "I'll be looking for her, not to worry. You focus on Urahara and his, um. Helping him adapt."

"I will."

With that, Giles hobbled out and left Ichigo alone with Urahara. When the teen got up to get a glass of water, he heard a faint raspy voice complaining, "I don't snore."

Ichigo smiled. "Yes you do."

Urahara Kisuke cracked open his eyes. "How long have I been asleep?"

"Long enough," said Ichigo. He brought the glass to Urahara's bedside and gently eased the older man into a sitting position. "Here. Sip slowly."

"It's all right, I can hold that for m-" Urahara suddenly stopped talking as he tried to move his right arm – an arm that wasn't there. "I forgot."

Manfully, Ichigo held back a comment, but there must have been a look in his eyes because Urahara reached up with his left hand and stroked Ichigo's hair. The redhead bit down on his lower lip and turned his gaze away from the older male's bandaged stump.

"Don't cry," whispered Urahara.

Ichigo tried to smile but failed spectacularly. His hand wobbled and he put the glass down to swipe at the wetness rolling down his cheeks. Touched, the blond tucked Ichigo's face under his chin and held the teen there, close to his heart. Ichigo could hear Urahara's quiet sniffs.

"Don't cry," Urahara repeated softly, though his own tears kept seeping out of his eyes. "I can get through this. Don't you believe me?"

Nodding, Ichigo buried his face deeper into Urahara's chest, his fingers clinging to the hospital gown that Urahara wore. The two held each other, each refusing to see the other weep.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

The bus trundled along. Buffy stared out the window.

She felt numb and cold and painful and lost.

Maybe she would get lost.

Maybe. Perhaps.

Buffy stared out the window. The bus trundled along.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

A/N: Finally I had time to sit and write this chapter! I'm looking forward to the next season, but unfortunately due to professional issues (i.e. work is getting on top of me) I have to take a hiatus from writing. I'll be back ASAP - wish me luck and rest :) I love all of you!

PPS: Do let us pray for Japan right now - they so very need our love and help. Donate where you can please!