A/N: We're taking a break from our regularly scheduled program to enjoy a little Buffy and Angel holiday cheer. Before we get to the story, though, there are several points I need to explain. For one, I have not read the comics, so I do not know what happens after the final episode of Angel. What you will read in this story is simply one option… as is the plotline I devised for Illyria in this one shot. Also, I, in no way, tolerate the other relationships the latter seasons presented for Buffy and Angel. This becomes obvious with how I handle the lasting loyalty Angel feels towards Cordelia and Buffy feels for Spike. Although I enjoyed their characters during the early seasons, it's safe to say that my fondness waned. If you are either a Cordelia fan, a Spike fan, or a fan of both of them, just be warned that you might not agree with or like everything presented in this story. Other than that, I hope you enjoy the fic. May your holiday season – whatever you choose to celebrate – be merry.

~Charlynn~

Winter Solstice Blues

Seven months later and still the biggest mystery in Los Angeles was what had happened to the Wolf, Ram, and Heart's private jet. Nobody asked about the dragon, or the demon hoards, or even about the law firm itself being destroyed twice in as many years, further proving her point that humans were incompetent, unworthy of the world they now controlled through nothing more than naively grand illusions and stupidity. The entire race deserved to be destroyed, and she had the mind and drive to do so, but, unfortunately, she no longer had the power.

At first, she had been content to rain her wrath down upon the evil which threatened the humans, not in some ill-gained sense of loyalty towards the shell she inhabited and the people the shell had cared for but simply as a means to an end. If she couldn't beat them, and she certainly had no desire to join them, then, at least, she could fight their enemies for them, especially given their absolute lack of capability to do so themselves. Quickly, though, after the most recent but certainly not the last apocalypse, such aggression had lost its appeal for Illyria.

For one, it was pointless. Despite what the warrior vampire claimed (even if she wasn't sure he believed it himself), there would always be another monster to battle. As long as there was good, there would be evil, which meant that as long as she continued to fight against said monsters, she would be exhausting her energies for nothing. It was a fruitless war. Yes, she liked death, and, yes, she liked administering it, but even she knew such empty deaths were unfulfilling.

Secondly, her team's numbers had been cut in half by their last great battle. Without Wesley, she had lost the one human she didn't entirely mind associating with. He had been useful and a fount of knowledge. If nothing else, he had also saved her life, albeit doing so by removing the majority of her power. And then there was the one who was pleasant to look at, the one with the bare, shiny head – Gunn, an adequate fighter for a human but in no way strong enough to serve at a god's side.

Only the two half breeds remained, two vampires with souls, no less. Of the two of them, she spent more of her time with Spike. He was amusing... in a lesser being sort of way. He had introduced her to tiny toy fighters controlled by buttons, and he was not adverse to the ideas of destruction and mayhem. Apparently, even with a soul, he did not possess much of a conscience, something she could appreciate. He had no qualms about stealing what he wanted, drinking too much and starting bar fights, and taking advantage of humans. In Illyria's opinion, they were his best qualities.

As for Angel, he was too somber, too serious. Despite the fact that she enjoyed killing things, unlike him, she did so for fun. He murdered monsters seeking redemption. Why anyone would ever apologize for their actions, she did not understand. Illyria was of the mind to own one's behavior; good or bad, it did not matter. However, unlike Angel, she was a god and did not have to answer to the powers. No matter, though, she still respected the warrior. He fought valiantly, and he, in part, had helped her to live again. If only he wasn't so intent upon protecting the human race, she'd be able to tolerate him more.

It didn't matter, though, because two half breeds and their everyday squabbles against evil were not enough to keep her interested in the mortal world. Add to that the fact that she now had superficial followers – humans who would dare to mimic her look but then run in fear when she ordered them to sacrifice themselves upon her alter, and Illyria had quickly tired of her new existence. Although she had been corporeal again for less than a year, she knew enough about the current age to realize she did not want to be a part of it and to believe that, given enough time, the human race would be obliterated and the earth would be fit again for her return.

Until then, though, she would rest. She would let go of the inhospitable shell she currently occupied and return to the well, not as a resident but as its new guardian. If she couldn't rule over the world, then she would rule over other gods, controlling their fates. As an incorporeal being, she wouldn't be subjected to the weaknesses of her human host, the frailties, and she would eventually return to her former level of power, materializing only when a threat presented itself and she would be forced to occupy its form temporarily. Before she could leave, though, Illyria felt an irrational, rather disgusting urge to offer her human... acquaintances one last parting gift each.

If she wasn't fundamentally against every single facet of their race's lifestyles, especially those that served to honor and worship other gods, then she would have considered her goodbyes to be Christmas presents, but such grotesquely sentimental gestures were beneath her, and, besides, she much preferred the celebration of the winter solstice anyway. Didn't humans realize their beloved Christmas was simply a substitute for an earlier, pagan holiday? They were fools, the entire lot of them.

Fools or not, though – Wesley, Gunn, Spike, and Angel, they were her fools, and, when she was gone, she wanted to make sure none of them forgot that fact. The only way she could do such a thing was to alter their lives, change the world for them, no small task considering the fact that two of them were dead humans and the other two undead half breeds completely incapable of remaining emotionally detached from their lesser, mortal counterparts. But she was a god, after all. If she could manage to slip to the Wolf, Ram, and Heart airfield between watching Wesley die and joining her team in the rather impressive alley battle, putting a glamour on the plane to hide it, its fuel tanks, its demon pilot, and a few of the law firm's other choice possessions in plain sight, then surely she could manage changing the very fate of the world.

~ * ~

"Blue, you look even more smug than usual," Spike announced in lieu of a proper greeting when he opened his door to her. "What are you up to?"

She ignored him. While he certainly was a part of her plan, he did not need to know the various aspects of it. He did not need to know that she had already managed to speak to the shell's parents, pretending, once more, to be their daughter, comforting them one last time before 'Fred' was no longer her responsibility. He did not need to know that she had shipped a rather large box to one Rupert Giles, passing on to the leader of the new Watcher's Council the template books she had stolen on Wesley's behalf from the Wolf, Ram, and Heart offices. Whether or not this Rupert (what was with these humans and their odd names?) was worthy of Wesley's things, his knowledge, she did not know, but she was certain that Wesley would have wanted the tomes to be somewhere he deemed safe. And, finally, Spike did not need to know that she had managed to do in one evening what the visually pleasing one had failed to do during his entire lifetime: wipe out all the vampires from his neighborhood, if one could even refer to such a slovenly place by such a name.

Besides, Spike would be sullen that she had failed to invite him to such a party, and she was not of the mind to deal with his petty moods. She still had two more stops, following her visit with him, to make before she returned to the well, and her last two tasks would be the most difficult to accomplish of all but, appropriately, also the most important as well.

Speaking succinctly, Illyria immediately expressed the point behind her visit. "I am here to offer you a gift." Unlike humans, she did not see the point in wasting words on pleasantries. Such banal customs of asking someone how they were or speaking of one's own health were nothing more than a poor use of one's time.

Animatedly, Spike said, "with that second skin you consider clothes that you're wearing, not that I'm complaining, mind you, I can tell you're not carrying a present on your person, so does that mean it's too big for even you to carry, Blue? I know," he announced, slapping his hands together triumphantly. "You stole me a car."

"Don't be ridiculous. Of course I am strong enough to lift and carry a car."

"But you couldn't bring it inside. The doorways are too small," he pointed out.

She was tiring of his meaningless chatter quickly, more quickly than she usually did given the press of time upon her. It was already the very early morning of December 24th, and she had every intention of being in England and safely ensconced in her well before the skies became even more clogged with holiday travelers the next day. "I did not steal for you a vehicle, Spike. Such an action would be beneath me, for even a half breed such as yourself should be able to manage such a simple theft. Rather, I come to you with a solution to your problem."

"From where I'm sitting, love, there's more than one of those pestering me at the moment. Just which one exactly are you proposing you have the power to fix?"

"The fact that you are, once more, incorporeal," Illyria told him. After the apocalypse, Spike had returned to his ghostly ways without any warning or explanation. Though he had survived the fight, helping to push back the demon hoards, he had lost the battle over his own body, unwillingly surrendering control of it to the powers he perpetually cursed. Though Spike claimed no knowledge as to why he was being punished so properly, Illyria knew the truth behind the half breed's evolution, and, though she did not care for such inconsequential human trivialities, she did relish the thought of one-upping Spike's powers that be.

"I have tired of my shell," she stated, looking down momentarily to sneer at the unsightly mortal body. "Seeing as how I no longer have use of it, I am prepared to bequeath it to you. Though you will be human, you, at least, won't be an incorporeal demon, perhaps the only thing worse than actually being a human."

"You mean I'll be a girl," Spike declared hotly, obviously displeased with her offer. "I'd rather have a set of bit and tackle that my hand passes through than no set at all. How am I supposed to play tiddlywinks without my tiddle?" Backing away from her, he held up his hands in opposition. "No thanks. You can keep your shell, Blue. It's better to be a ghost of a man than a woman."

"Very well," she sighed. "Apparently, you care more for besting the warrior Angel than you do about the actual Shanshu Prophecy."

"He wants that prophecy so he can be with Buffy," Spike explained. "I can be with Buffy as a vampire without worrying about losing my soul. I just want to win the pretty prize to make sure that he doesn't get what we both want." And that was why, no matter how much more fun Spike was, he was the lesser of the two half breeds. "That doesn't mean, though, that I'd be against the idea of you giving me a gift. I just don't want what's behind door number one."

"I don't understand your reference."

"It's a game show, love, from the seventies or some other decade of the past with horrendous fashion sense."

"Did it involve the killing, maiming, or the torturing of humans," she queried.

"Afraid not, Blue."

"Then I am not interested in this thing you refer to as a game show." Because she needed to be on her way soon, Illyria moved their conversation back to the previous topic. "If you do not want my shell, what is that I possess that you are interested in?"

"I wouldn't turn down you giving me that private jet you finagled out from underneath Wolfram and Hart. That would just kill Peaches and his over-inflated ego. Why, the only things bigger than his ego are his forehead and my..."

Interrupting him, Illyria questioned, "how do you know about that?"

"About you and the plane, Blue," Spike asked. "Easy," he responded, grinning wickedly and shrugging. "Back a few months when I introduced you to my friend Jose..."

"Mr. Cuervo, yes," she remembered, "from the land of Tequila."

"Mind like a steel trap you have there, pet," Spike complemented, tapping his own head for emphasis. "Anyway, it was around the time that you kicked my ass for the right to eat the worm when you let it slip, you know, about you nicking the law firm's fancy toy. For the record, I just want you to know that I let you beat me that night. Couldn't properly introduce you to the joy that is a tequila hangover without allowing you to eat the tasty critter at the bottle of the bottle."

She allowed him his grand illusions. After all, in a matter of hours, they would no longer be of any consequence. "Though I have grown tired of this shell, I still have use for the plane. You may not have it, half breed."

"You aren't, perchance, a follower of Cher, are you there, Blue?"

"Your logic leaves me baffled, and I do not know of this god to whom you refer. Though it does not matter, for I am no one's follower." During their entire discussion thus far, Spike had remained lounged upon his couch as she stood directly in front of him, hands upon hips, feet spread a shoulder length apart, battle ready at all times, but, needing to reach for something, she moved for the first time, bending at the waist to procure the device she kept tucked into the side of her left boot. "However, if it is only a means to one-up Angel that you desire..."

"You're bloody well right I want something to lord over the Poof's inordinately large head. The wanker's got it coming, as far as I'm concerned. He needs to be kicked down a peg or twenty, and, from where I'm sitting, I'm the best man for such a job."

"Very well, then," Illyria commented. With that, she thrust her recently retrieved device into Spike's gesturing hands. "Here, consider this my parting gift to you."

"A mobile, Blue," he questioned, frowning. "If I'm not mistaken, Angel already has one of these. In fact, he has a better one. How exactly is this supposed to help me best Peaches once and for all?"

Half breeds were entirely incapable of doing anything on their own. "When that device awakens, it sings to me, horrendously, I might add, in the warrior Angel's voice, something about a mortal named Mandy."

"Oh, this is bloody priceless," Spike crowed, suddenly extremely pleased with his present.

"Although I am perplexed by many aspects of your human world, I do understand the idea of embarrassment. I feel it every day, knowing that I must lower myself to associate with your kind, and your rival will never be able to explain or excuse the awful racket that machine makes. Use it, half breed," she instructed him, "to keep Angel, as you say, in his place."

Finally standing, Spike addressed her warmly. "If I wasn't afraid you'd eviscerate me for getting fresh on you, I'd kiss you right now, Blue. This is the best bloody gift anybody's ever given me." Holding the device close to his chest where his former human heart now rested, unbeating, he pledged, "I'll treasure it always."

"Then this is goodbye," Illyria said, turning her back upon him. Allowing herself out of the small, basement apartment, she added, "I hope to never see you again."

Spike might have said something in return, but she paid him no attention. With her final favor towards him complete, Illyria had already put the souled half breed out of her mind. Rather, she had more important things to think about, to focus her waning energies upon. Next, she had to confront Angel and his ridiculous notions of love, life, and self-punishment. While the vampire might be a good fighter, he was an idiot when it came to what he was fighting for.

~ * ~

Though he attempted to hide his disappoint, following the apocalypse, Angel had retreated back to his hotel, intent upon brooding over the fact that he was still a vampire and, apparently, no closer to attaining his Shanshu Prophecy than he had been before attempting to take down the Senior Partners of the Wolf, Ram, and Heart. At first, he had tried to explain the fact that he had signed the prophecy away in order to gain the favor and the trust of the Black Thorn, but Illyria had set him straight, railing against him for having the audacity to believe he had the power to alter the gods' plans, to give away something that actually belonged to the powers that they had simply deigned to be, in part, about him. As she had painstakingly pointed out, the prophecy still very much existed and always would, no matter what Angel did.

"Just show yourself in, Illyria," he remarked caustically as she sauntered into the shadowed office he always seemed to be occupying unless he was out slaughtering a demon. "It's not like I'm working here or anything."

"No, you're feeling sorry for yourself." To argue his point, Angel nodded towards the mounds of books piled high upon his desk. "Do not insult my intelligence with lies and deceit," she ordered him. "We both know that you on today of all days are not thinking about a case but rather the people you lost and the person you still want."

Sighing wearily, the half breed asked her, "why are you here?"

"I have come because I am confused upon a matter, and I was hoping you'd be able to explain it to me. With Wesley dead, I fear that duty has now fallen upon your unworthy and probably incapable shoulders."

She was lying, of course. Though she would not tolerate Angel lying to her, she had no qualms about doing so to him. After all, she was a god, and he was nothing more than part demon. He was lucky she wasn't forcing him to bow at her feet, let alone allowing him to speak at all in her presence. If she needed to speak untruths to engage him in introspective conversation, then she would.

By his silence, she understood him to be sympathetic to her request. "I am trying to understand this concept of love you mortals are so obsessed with," Moving closer to his desk, Illyria leaned against it, lowering herself slightly so she could lock her gaze with his. "You shared relations with the human mutt, yes; you made love with her?"

"Her name's Nina," Angel corrected.

"You human place so much importance upon nonsensical labels. By calling her Nina, you do not tell me anything, but by calling her the human mutt, I know exactly what she is."

Apparently ignoring her complaint, the half breed said, "Nina and I... we didn't... I had sex with her, Illyria."

"So, it was not love, then," she surmised. "You used her body for pleasure."

Protesting, Angel stated, "it wasn't like that. I liked her. We were seeing each other," but she could hear the weakness and lack of authority behind his words.

"You misunderstand me, vampire warrior," Illyria responded. "I was not chastising your treatment of the werewolf. To the contrary, I admire your self-awareness and execution of gratifying your base needs." Before he could counter her praise, she continued, "but this does not satisfy my curiosity; it does not answer my questions about love." Spitting out the last word as if it were literally poison in her mouth, she continued, "while you did not love the human mutt, you do claim that you loved the dead seer, yes?"

Angel visibly flinched. "Yes, I loved Cordelia."

"Why?" He stared at her, speechless, for several tense moments until Illyria pressed, "why did you love her?"

"I... she was my best friend!"

"Aw, yes, this companionable love that you speak of, you felt it for the shell, correct, and for Gunn, and Wesley, too? However, I do not speak of such friendly sentiments, for I have, in my own way, come to appreciate it. The love I speak of, the love I question you about, it is the romantic kind."

"Alright, then," Angel answered, rising to pace around his small office as he talked. "For one, I romantically loved Cordelia because of the way she cared for my son."

"The son that she later had relations and conceived a child with."

"No," the half breed had the nerve to argue with her. "That wasn't Cordy. That was the thing she was possessed by."

"Jasmine, I have heard of her. Her power was nothing compared to what mine should and could be."

Ignoring her, Angel continued, "and I loved Cordy because she gave up being human for me. She took on the visions, and she took on being a demon so that she could show me my path from the powers and fight by my side."

Illyria pretended to brighten. "I have read of this sacrifice in Wesley's journals. The dead seer was visited by the same guardian who later turned her into a higher being and allowed for Jasmine to gain control of her body at an earlier date. She was going to die as a result of her visions, her brain literally blowing out the back of her skull, but the powers gave her a second chance. She could either give back the visions and live the life of a famous actress or keep them and die. Initially, after overhearing your attempt to save her life, she, having her feelings hurt, chose to become a star. However, as fate sometimes has a way of working out, she later crossed paths with you anyway, noticed you had inherited the visions yourself and, as a result, had lost your mind, and decided to play hero and save you, all by requesting to become a demon so she could keep the visions herself."

"See, that's exactly why I loved... love her," Angel responded. "She gave up her dream for me."

"No, not for you," she argued, "but for herself and certainly not for the betterment of the world you fight so hard for. She chose her path in order to be your savior, not in an effort to help you save yourself. Can you not see the difference, warrior vampire?" As he fell silent, she stood up from where her arms were braced, turned around, and leaned back against the desk. "And, don't forget the fact the guardian which presented to her this option was the very same one who facilitated Jasmine's birth. In Wesley's journals, he questioned just when exactly Cordelia lost her free will. Was it when she became a higher power, was it when she chose to become a demon, was it when she moved to L.A., or could it have even been the moment she was conceived?" Shrugging her shoulders, Illyria, in a bored fashion remarked, "everything she felt for you and everything you've been manipulated into believing you feel for her could have been nothing more than an elaborate ruse."

"No, you're wrong," Angel defended, once more collapsing into his chair, but she could hear the confusion and the denial in his voice and the fact that he didn't completely trust in himself and what he was saying now at that point.

"So, that leaves us with the slayer, yes? You love her."

He chuckled derisively. "I think, at this point, the whole world knows that I love Buffy."

"You exaggerate your importance, half breed," Illyria criticized. "Again, though, I ask," she redirected their conversation, "why do you love her?"

This time, when he smiled, the gesture was sincere. The small grin that played itself upon the warrior vampire's lips was nostalgic yet firmly rooted in the present, alive with friendly warmth yet also crooked with undeniable lust. She had never quite seen such an expression upon Angel's face before. "There's no easy way to explain my feelings for Buffy, and there's a big part of me that wonders if I've even capable of not loving her."

"Try to explain."

"She gave me a purpose," he shared, shrugging his shoulders. "Before her, I simply existed. For nearly a hundred years, I fed off rats, kept to the shadows, and survived only because I was too much of a coward to end my own life, but, from the moment I first saw her, I had a reason to fight. Suddenly, I had a purpose. I wanted, needed to make sure she stayed alive, that she was happy, and healthy, and that the weight of the world upon her shoulders did not become too heavy. And, then, when she returned my love, she gave me a second purpose: to redeem myself so that I could maybe, someday, become worthy of her love. She's why I'm alive, why I was able to come back from hell, why I didn't greet the sun when the first evil was tormenting me, why I can lose everybody else that I care for and still want to live because, somewhere in the world, she's out there fighting, too.

"That's why my soul loves her, but the demon does, too… in its own way. He's obsessed with her, craves both her body and her blood. He hates her for making him feel but loves her for how she did it, for her strength, and because she's the only human who has ever been his equal match. He's possessive of her, would kill anyone or anything that ever stood in his way from having her. Besides his own pleasure, she's all he thinks about, and most of his more pleasurable desires and thoughts revolve around her somehow anyway. There isn't a single part of me that does not belong completely and entirely to Buffy, but I'm sure you're going to argue with me, aren't you, Illyria," he challenged her. Rolling his eyes, Angel added, "I'm sure you're going to find fault with me again and tell me that what I feel for Buffy isn't love."

"No," she defended. "To the contrary, I was going to question why it is that you are not with her if you love her so much." Before he could answer, she pressed, "you fight for this Shanshu Prophecy, for this chance to live again as a human, but, yet, you refuse to live as a vampire. You mortals accuse me of being too literal, but you are the ones, you and Wesley, who translated the prophecy to mean to literally live again – to breathe. What if it simply meant that you, one day, as your reward for fighting in the apocalypse and saving the world, would embrace life again, would stop punishing yourself for your demon's so called crimes, and would return to your slayer's side, determined to make the most out of the love you share for each other? You lived once before when you were with her, you died when you left her, and, now, your chance to live again is simply there, waiting for you to take advantage of it before it's too late."

Objectively, Angel pushed his chair back, reclining in it as he observed her still form before him. Finally, after several tense, silent moments, he responded, "but you're forgetting something important here, Illyria. You're forgetting my curse, and the fact that, if I'm with Buffy, I risk losing my soul again, and all the other reasons why I left her."

"Wesley commented about your sacrifice in his writings, how you wanted the slayer to live a normal life with sunshine, and picnics, and babies, but I think you are an imbecile."

His chair dropped forward, and he sat up straight. "Excuse me?"

"You heard me, half breed," Illyria countered. "How can you think that a warrior of the light would ever be able to live a normal life? She can't enjoy the sunshine when she fights all her battles at night, slayers should not have children, and, as for these picnic things you are obsessed with, I have no idea what they are, but, surely, they're not important enough to sacrifice the very thing that makes both you and the slayer better warriors."

Although she had not intended for the half breed to still be arguing with her over something as insignificant as his curse after she managed to clear the delusion from his gaze concerning both his heart and his prophecy, her earlier visit to Spike facilitated her dismissal of his last remaining protest quite nicely. "As for your curse," she said, "after the parting gift I gave Spike, I don't think such a simpering, human idea of perfect happiness will ever be possible for you again."

Suddenly fully alert and with his demon carefully strangled with a tight lease, Angel demanded, "what do you mean," gritting the words out between clenched teeth.

"I have tired of this faulty shell and weary of this humanity you fight so steadfastly for and have decided to go back to the well."

"That wasn't what I meant, Illyria," the half breed dared to bark at her. "What did you give Spike?"

"I simply handed over to him a device the shell possessed before me, something that, if you ever dare to become too happy, I'm positive Spike will use against you in the most humiliating of ways."

"And let me guess," he realized. "You're not going to tell me what this device is?"

"How will you be able to surmount it if you are unaware of its powers," Illyria asked rhetorically. "Now, if you will excuse me, warrior Angel, I have one last task to complete before I can be rid of this mortal world once and for all."

He didn't stop her. In fact, he was probably relieved to see her leave, just as she was relieved by the knowledge that she'd never see the half breed again. Now, all she had to do was confront the slayer with her own similar disillusions, shatter them, and leave her ever-lasting, unseen mark upon humanity. It wasn't a kingdom erected in her name or a population comprised entirely of those who worshiped her, but that day would come again, sooner than the current powers expected if she were to have her way, and, in the meantime, if she could unite the only two forces on earth worthy of her respect, then so be it, the powers, and their prophecies, and anything else that stood in her way be damned.

~ * ~

It was nearing ten o'clock, and the stores were about to close, but Illyria did not want to confront the slayer in the presence of others. She was waiting for the warrior to leave the crowded shopping center, but Buffy was tenacious, refusing to cease her purchasing until she was absolutely forced to do so. She was running behind on her holiday shopping or incapable of refusing a last minute sale. Either way, though, it was obvious to Illyria that slayers were not exempt from human frailties.

"Look, I've tried to be patient. I thought, if I just ignore my stalker shopper, she'll go away, but I've had it up to here, lady. I don't care who you are, or who you plan on giving this jacket to if you get your grubby little paws on it, but I am not putting this coat down. It's Italian leather. If you think I'm going to sacrifice my retail happiness for yours, then you have a rude awakening coming your way."

As the slayer finished her impassioned speech, she whirled around to confront her audience, her action a blur of golden hair and skin so bright it hurt Illyria's eyes. Why the warrior Angel insisted upon wanting a life in the sun when the woman he loved was a living and breathing human visual representation of it, she would never know. But she watched in amusement, of course not displaying her silent laughter, as Buffy's eyes widened, her shock apparent.

"You're so... blue!" With a slight twinge of cattiness entering her voice, she pressed, "and don't you think any more leather in that ensemble would just be tacky? Trust me; by me not giving you this jacket, I'm saving you from a terrible fashion faux-pas."

Cocking her head at the warrior's obvious quick wit and perky banter, Illyria could admit to herself how someone like Angel might find such behavior endearing, especially given his predilection for darker, more somber moods himself, but she had little time for such small talk. She had a well calling her name, a well of gods that stretched from one end of the earth to the other, just waiting for her to rule over it.

"Slayer," she attempted only to be interrupted by the target of her address.

By slapping a hand over Illyria's mouth, Buffy stemmed the words that had been prepared to leave her lips. "Ssh," the warrior hissed. Ix-nay on the layer-say, apiche-cay?" Screwing up her brows in bewilderment, Illyria simply waited for Buffy to explain herself. "It's pig Latin. It's the closest thing to a foreign language that I can speak, and, since I can't speak Italian, sometimes I try to use that when the locals don't comprehend my English. But what I was saying was cut the crap about the slayer business. I'm supposed to keep my secret identity just that. Secret. On the down low. Underwraps."

"You are a strange human, and I find your way of talking to be very perplexing, but you are far more interesting to me than any mortal I have, so far, come in contact with. I only wish, Buffy, that you would have been in Los Angeles during these past few months. You might have alleviated some of the monotony of my existence."

Smiling brightly, the warrior said, "thanks, I think. Anyway, it sounded like a compliment, and a girl just doesn't have one of those handed to her every day, what with living with her sister and a geek who gets more excited about his action heroes than he does at the chance of actually getting some action. Wait," Buffy stopped herself from continuing her ramble. "Did you just say L.A.?"

"Yes, this shell that I inhabit," Illyria answered, gesturing towards her body, "was from there. When I took over her form, I remained there as well."

"Let me guess, you know Angel, or Angel sent you, because, let me tell you, lady, you're too weird not to be associated with my... with him. And did you just refer to your body as a shell?"

"I am a god. To become corporeal once more, I took over this form from a human girl, but the mortal body was too frail to contain the vastness of my power. To survive, most of my power had to be stripped from me, but, still, I remain in my host, this shell. As for the warrior you speak of, Angel, I am acquainted with him. He fought with me in the great battle."

"Soooo," Buffy drawled out. "Needless to say, I doubt you came here to steal my jacket from me."

Illyria narrowed her eyes. "Still you persist with this fascination with clothes even after all that I have revealed to you."

"What, about you being a god? So what. I've fought a god before, and I beat her."

"By dying," she reminded the slayer. "And I read about your battle against the god you called Glory in Wesley's journals. She was weak, and she was superficial, and she was no match for the power I am capable of."

As Buffy walked off, somehow knowing that Illyria would follow her and further annoying the god, she remarked, "you're pretty full of yourself, aren't you?"

"One could say that your own pride is inflated, Slayer."

Without warning, Buffy whirled around to confront her. "Look, I asked you once already, nicely, too, to not call me that. Obviously, you have some beef you need to discuss with me, and I'll be all about the talking and the listening if you just put the brakes on for five minutes while I buy my coat, alright?"

Nodding once to show her acceptance, Illyria commented, "as you wish, warrior of the light."

"Yeah, calling me that isn't any better than what you were calling me before."

She didn't respond to the slayer's complaint, instead choosing to study her actions as she moved. Despite the fact that she wasn't fighting, it was obvious that Buffy possessed a tremendous amount of self-confidence. Unlike others Illyria had met since she took over the shell, the slayer did not fear her in the slightest. It was both a compelling aspect of her personality and an infuriating one. Her body was a fluid machine, graceful and lethal, capable of great strength and tenderness. She approved of her as a mate for the warrior vampire.

Once she was finished making her purchase, Buffy turned to her and suggested, "come on, I'll buy you a gelato while you tell me why you're here."

"Gelato?"

"Sorry, that's the one Italian word I'm very familiar with. It's like ice cream. Granted, they don't have cookie dough fudge mint chip here, but there are still plenty of other delicious flavors."

As they made their way out onto the crowded Roman street, Illyria informed her, "I do not need human sustenance to survive."

"And we humans don't eat ice cream for sustenance; we eat it because it tastes good."

In the end, she allowed the slayer to purchase her some gelato, and, admittedly, she did enjoy the burst of sensation she received whenever she placed a dollop of the cool, frozen concoction on her tongue. Once they were seated, though, she quickly got to the point of her visit. "If Angel were to come to you tomorrow and tell you that he was ready to be with you, you would turn him away, wouldn't you, not because of that ridiculous baking analogy you explained to him seven months..."

"How do you know about that," Buffy demanded.

"While I may be a god, and while I may be above the trivial foibles of human existence, I do have ears."

"And cute ones, too," the slayer complimented her. "You know, they don't stick out too far, and they're not too big."

"My shell was sufficient in this area, yes. However," Illyria refocused their conversation, "your refusal to be with Angel would not be because of your lack of cookies but because of your misplaced guilt and loyalty towards Spike, am I right?"

"What do you know of..."

Tiring of Buffy's constant questions, she stopped her from completing her thought. "I know that you feel responsible for him, that you think he went and got a soul because of you, for you, and, now, you have to help save him. I know that you feel that you owe him because he wore the amulet that closed the hellmouth in Sunnydale. Well, he only did that to impress you and because Angel had intended upon wearing the amulet himself. Spike overheard you that night in the graveyard with your warrior vampire. He was jealous, and territorial, and desperate to win your favor. His gesture had nothing to do with wanting to save the world and everything to do with wanting to gain physical pleasure from you again."

"How do you know this," Buffy questioned, "because I highly doubt you just overheard this kind of information. If it's true, Spike would never have said any of it out loud where Angel would have been able to hear him."

"No, you are right about that, slayer, but he did speak of his actions with me. I learned of his motivations during the Sunnydale apocalypse the same way I learned that, when he left town the year before, it was after he attempted to force himself upon you. Despite the chip inside his head, without a soul, he realized that he was still a danger to you. His motives might have been less than selfish, but they were born from guilt he well deserved to feel. After the way he manipulated you after your return from heaven, after he attempted to rape you, he is the one who owes you, slayer, for your compassion; you are not indebted to him for his decision to fight for his soul. As for how I learned of this information, while the half breed Spike might amuse me, he does not hold his liquor that well and tends to talk, revealing his secrets, when he is inebriated."

For several minutes, Buffy remained silent, lulled into a state of shock. Finally, she asked, "so, you're telling me that that I shouldn't feel sorry for him?"

"Pity and loyalty are two completely different human sentiments and should always remain separate. I am sorry, warrior of the light, for your confusion, however, I do not have time to wait for your mortal emotions to catch up to what your mind now knows. I have somewhere else I need to be. But I didn't come here to hurt you; I came here to show you that you need not punish yourself or hold yourself back from being happy. When Angel comes to you..."

"Don't hold your breath for that one," the slayer warned.

"And don't you presume to believe that you are the only lesser being that I have visited today."

"But what about the curse," Buffy protested.

"Oh, not this again," Illyria complained. "I had hoped, foolishly so I now see, that you would not be as obtuse as your vampire warrior counterpart, but I can assure you that Angel will never again be capable of perfect happiness. I have, inadvertently, I admit, made sure of the fact."

"Well, considering it'll be me his fuzzy evil counterpart will come after first if you're wrong, would you mind telling me what exactly you did to make sure he doesn't go all Angelus again on me after we hit the sheets?"

She observed the slayer carefully. "I have not revealed the exact identity of the threat to Angel, and I'm not sure you can be trusted to keep it a secret from him if I reveal it to you. Are you capable of lying to the man you love?"

"I've dated three vampires, the most vain creatures ever to walk the earth, and one human who had an inferiority complex when it came to my ex," Buffy told her. "I'm pretty sure I can keep one teeny-tiny piece of information from Angel if I have to."

"Alright, then," Illyria agreed. "I will tell you, but only because it will have absolutely no consequence to me either way. To prevent the warrior Angel from perfect happiness, I have provided Spike with something he can lord over Angel's head. Angel just doesn't know what it is."

"And me, can I know?"

Standing, she answered, "it is a device that, when awakened, sings with Angel's voice to a girl named Mandy who seems to come and go a lot. I really didn't understand the song. It made no sense to me, but it was unmistakable just how dreadful the singing is. Spike was quite pleased with the parting gift I gave him, and Angel was properly horrified to know that his rival had something to threaten him with, and, now, you have the information you need to let go of the one thing that was holding you back from the life you've always wanted."

Illyria had meant to just slip away, but, before she could, Buffy asked, "why? Why are you doing this for me? You don't even know me, and I have a feeling that you don't particularly like me or Angel for that matter either."

"Because I could," she responded simply. "I have my reasons, but that's all you need to know," and, perhaps, as a human, all she'd be able to understand.

"Well, thanks," the slayer said, still sitting in her seat. Shrugging, she added, "for everything."

"And thank you, warrior of the light, for the gelato. You were right when you said I would enjoy it. Other than fighting and killing demons, it might be the only other thing I liked about your world. In fact, someday, when I awaken again and humans are extinct, I will have to remember it and make my followers serve it to me."

With that, Illyria silently slipped into the late night crush of pedestrians and disappeared, leaving Buffy alone at a tiny, corner Italian bistro, too lost in thought to even notice that the god was gone.

~ * ~

One Year Later...

"Larry, did I ever tell you about my friend Blue?"

"Spike," the bartender wearily replied, "if you're about to tell me that you were once Paul Bunyan, I'm going to have to stop you there. While I might believe that you're a ghost considering the fact that I clean up a puddle of booze from underneath your chair every night, you've also tried to sell me on the fact that you were once a poet, a vampire, and a slayer's bitch... whatever a slayer is, and even attempted to snow me into believing you once saved the world."

"Make that twice, mate."

The point is, Spike, that I just don't trust you."

"Well, then, it's a good thing I'm not about to claim being the figure of a tall tale now, isn't it? Besides, when have you ever seen me wear anything of the plaid variety?"

The bartender considered the question before nodding his head in supplication. "Alright, you have a point there."

"You're bloody well right I do, and, if Blue were here, she'd skin you alive for thinking her an oxen. She was a god, you know."

"Oh, here we go again," Larry exclaimed, tossing aside his rag exasperatedly.

But Spike just ignored him, talking away as though he couldn't hear the complaint. Despite the fact that he still was incorporeal, he could get drunk. Somehow, as the booze splashed through the empty space his spirit occupied, his form's matter would absorb the liquor, eventually inebriating him. It was the one pleasure of the flesh Spike could still enjoy, but he was working on the others. Though he had figured out a way to hold a fag, he'd yet to discover how he could inhale the smoke and nicotine into his lungs, but he was determined. He'd either learn to smoke again or burn his apartment building down in the process. Either way, he was a ghost, so it really didn't matter.

"Anyway, this friend of mine, she was quite the bloody card, she was."

"If you say so, Spike."

"I do, mate, and I'll prove it to you, too," he argued. Clearing his throat, Spike recited, "there once was this bird from the vast well; she gave me a phone to cause the Poof hell. Her name was Illyria, she was way too seria, but her ass and tits were quite swell." Tossing back the shot before him, he waited until he heard the liquid splash onto the floor before he challenged, "I told you I was a damn poet."

The bartender, either a glutton for punishment or too bored to not play along with Spike's games, asked, "so, whatever happened to this friend of yours, this Blue?"

"The stupid wench threw in the towel, gave up the game, and left me here all alone to put up with a happy but not too happy Peaches making a go at ever after with my slayer. Worse yet, she tricked me into being his damn keeper in the process, too, watching to make sure he doesn't go breaking his curse and turning back into his less than cheery alter ego."

"Damn women," Larry cursed on Spike's behalf.

Seconding the thought, Spike himself added, "bloody bitches. They're all out to get me, mate, I swear, and, to make matters worse, Blue was the only chit I ever met who could hold her liquor as well as I do, and she up and left, leaving me to drink, once again, on my own. Well, here's to you, Blue," Spike toasted, lifting his half empty glass in a salute, "wherever you are. I hope your bloody well collapses on top of you. Merry Winter Solstice, pet," and, with that, he gulped down the rest of his tequila with a flourish.

~ * ~

As Buffy led a blindfolded Angel into their living room, he grumbled, "Buffy, I don't see why we had to wait until tonight to decorate the tree. Christmas is going to be over in less than twenty-four hours, and we'll have barely celebrated it."

She poked him in the side. "Quit whining. This is technically not only Christmas Eve but also our anniversary, seeing as how you made it here minutes before midnight and only an hour after Illyria left."

"I still can't believe she came to see you."

"I still can't believe you guys let her walk around outside looking like that," Buffy teased. "She nearly gave me a heart attack when I turned around and saw all that blue."

Angel shrugged. "It was better than when she pretended to look like Fred. That was just... too painful."

"No, I get it," the slayer reassured him. "Trust me, I sooo get it. Remember your friend The First? You put up with it for a few days; I had to deal with it for months wearing the faces of people I loved and lost. But anyway, stop distracting me," she ordered, emphasizing her remark with another jab to his muscled side.

"Hey," Angel protested. "You're the one who started talking about Illyria."

"Yeah, well, I figure, despite her less than kosher ways, she deserves to be remembered today. After all, without her interference, you never would have come for me."

"We don't know that. I might have come on my own... eventually."

Buffy snorted. "Yeah right, Mr. Woe-is-Me, I-Enjoy-Self-Flagellation-Way-Too-Much-For-It-Not-To-Possess-Some-Kind-of-Kink-Factor. You would have tortured yourself – and me – until the cows came home making chocolate instead of white milk."

"Hey, if we're calling each other names here, you've been known to blame yourself for things that weren't your fault, too."

"Oh, what, I'm sorry," Buffy teased as she stopped them in what felt like to Angel to be the center of their living room, "but I can't hear you. All I can hear is my wonderful boyfriend complimenting me on my amazing decorating talents." With that, she swept off his blind fold. "Merry Winter Solstice, Angel!"

He glanced around the room, taking in its bright and completely blue appearance. From the couch, to the rug, to the holiday decorations, everything was unrelentingly cobalt blue. "What in the...?"

"It's for Illyria," she explained unnecessarily. "I thought she'd appreciate it. And don't freak when you see your credit card bill this month, because the tree was really expensive. Who knew that customizing an order for an eight foot tall blue Christmas tree would be so costly?" Happily, Buffy reached over, hugged him, and kissed his cheek. "But it came with a lifetime guarantee, so we'll definitely get our money's worth out of it, and, at the same time, we'll never forget the creepy god who made it all possible. I'm a genius, right?"

"You're something, that's for sure," he agreed, both laughing at and laughing with his girlfriend. After dropping a quick kiss to her lips, he moved away towards the small bar they kept in the room while Buffy stood there and continued to admire their tree. He needed a drink, badly. He just hoped that the whiskey wasn't blue, too. That he could not handle.