At the sight of Buffy and Angel making their way into the mall, Spike growled low in his throat. He barely registered the First's words. Right in that moment, he could hardly think straight – had Buffy gotten rid of him as she knew Angel was coming – after all, it seemed that his Slayer was ridiculously ahead of the game recently. What was to say that she didn't know about him coming to Sunnydale? Did she still want the tosser? More than she wanted Spike? He didn't know and in that moment, he was too scared to go into the building in case his suspicions were confirmed. Because it wouldn't matter, would it? Even if she and Angel somehow had gotten past that curse and were getting back together, he would still be there, doing what he could to protect her and keep her safe. Fool for love indeed! He turned and eyed the First. "Get bent." He walked away from the mall, hoping to find a fight or two to help clear his head before he did something stupid.

The First pouted. "Hmm... looks like it won't be as easy as I thought." It disappeared to regroup.

eieio

Spike was stalking around the oldest graveyard in Sunnydale, searching in vain for a vampire or ten to dust when the annoying prat made his presence known. "What do you want, you big poofter? Haven't you got a city to save somewhere?"

Angel smirked. "Now is that any way to greet your older and better?"

Spike clenched his teeth, doing about all he could to damp down his anger – he doubted that Buffy would be pleased to know that the two had been fighting. "You might be older, but you're by no means my better."

Angel shrugged. "That's a matter of opinion, don't you think? Certainly Buffy seems to agree with me..."

The blonde's first instinct was to rush over and punch the asshole in the face right then but he didn't move an inch, only his fists clenching at his sides spoke of the anger that statement elicited. "Last time I checked, you two couldn't be together what with the whole temporary soul thing."

His grandsire smirked. "Seems I got my reward already... my soul's all nice and permanent so I'm just here to see you to tell you that you can go now. There's no need for you to hang around any more. It'd just get embarrassing. Really embarrassing. For you, obviously. It would just be awkward for Buffy."

Spike rolled his eyes. "I'm not going anywhere, mate! You really think that I would leave her here in your clutches? How many times have you hurt her now, hmm? What, going for the hat trick?"

Angel sighed and shook his head. "William, when will you ever learn, hmm? Wasn't the excruciating shame you felt whenever Cecily turned you down enough? And you were only infatuated with her pretty face – just imagine how bad it will hurt you whenever Buffy has to let you down. And you know she's never been one for doing things gently. She'll most likely rip your heart and soul out and stomp on it for good measure... what will you do then, hmm? I mean, when Cecily turned you down, you went out and found Dru and became a vampire. Can't exactly do that now, can you...?" He smirked as a thought came to him. "I guess you could always do us all a favour and kill yourself."

Calm stole over Spike then. "You know, you're really overselling this thing – you're not Angel. You're Angelus. Which makes you the First – Buffy might have been caught out in the past but she would never make that mistake again. She'd never give that bastard the time of day after all he's done to her."

Angel's face fell. "Well, damn." The First scowled and changed back to the form of Kennedy.

"It doesn't change a single thing you know – she'll still choose him over you. Every time. You should forget her - forget her and come back to the right side… My side!"

Spike rolled his eyes. "You really need to do your research – I'm William the Bloody. Only side I've ever been on is my own. That includes Buffy and her friends because I love her. I was never on your side. Besides, my soul is already damned but I'm fairly certain that siding with you now would ensure an even worse hell later. I think I'll pass... which is weird because you make it so very tempting..." The sarcasm literally dripped off his words as he spoke.

After a moment the vampire shook his head. "If that's the best that you can do to mess with my head, you really need to go take some classes or something. 'How to win people over to your way of thinking' would be a good place to start – not one of my better comebacks but it'll do. Now piss off." He turned and walked away, heading back to the mall and leaving the First to stew in its anger.

eieio

After bringing Angel in to the group to get reacquainted and bringing them up to speed (and introducing him to those he didn't know), Buffy slipped outside to clear her head. It had been a strange day indeed. She had known that Angel would be back but she wasn't sure when exactly. It was weird seeing him back there again, talking with Giles and the rest. Weirder still seeing the way that Faith was drawn to him. She hoped that he wasn't going to come between Faith and Robin – then again, maybe this time around, they wouldn't happen anyway.

The Slayer rubbed at the back of her neck and wished she had some ice. That of course made her think of Spike. She reached into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out her cellphone and checked for any calls or messages from Spike then just stared blankly at the screen when it showed nothing. After a moment of pouting, she decided to call him. It rang out. She did her best to ignore the butterflies in her stomach that caused – he was probably just busy driving or sleeping or chatting to someone. Didn't mean there was something wrong just because he didn't answer his phone.

eieio

Spike pulled his phone out and stared at the screen. Of course it was Buffy – only the main group had his number. Of those, only Buffy or Dawn bothered to ring him in his absence... and Dawn preferred to text. The only reason that the niblet would be calling was if something was wrong. He felt the usual first instance of relief at seeing Buffy's name flash up rather than her sister's (because that meant that nothing urgent was happening). He didn't bother to answer though – hardly much point when he was only a few minutes away.

Spike warily stepped up to the mall, not wanting to witness his lover hanging out (or worse) with the great poofter. It was therefore, a major relief, to discover Buffy standing out front by herself. He frowned. "Should you really be out here on your own, love?"

Buffy's worried expression lightened from worried to happy the moment she registered the voice. "Spike!" She beamed at him as he came into view. "I thought you were never going to get back," she paused, "what's wrong? Why are you just standing there looking confused?"

Spike looked at the woman he loved and tried to make his feet move forward but he seemed to be stuck fast to the ground. What if the First had been right about Angel getting his soul permanently through that stupid prophecy reward thing? What if Buffy had simply been waiting outside to break things off with him?

With a snarl, he pushed the stupid self-defeating thoughts aside and rolled his eyes at his own stupidity – it wasn't like Buffy had been expecting him back tonight. Why would she therefore be waiting outside for him? "How's Angel?"

Understanding dawned on the Slayer then. "Ah. Let me guess – you smelled him, huh?" She sighed and walked over to Spike, wrapping her arms around him. "You really don't believe I love you, do you?" She sighed heavily as she looked up into his eyes. "Well, I do. I always will." She shrugged. "I care for Angel. A part of me will always love him. The problem is that he only loves me with his soul – and if he was human, that would be perfect... but he's not and it isn't. The minute we do anything, that soul flees and Angelus wants to torture me and kill all my friends and family. You though, you love me with your soul and your demon. I want you Spike. I love you. You're not just the man I love but my best friend and I trust you completely. I don't have to worry that you're going to get bored of me and up and leave – you couldn't even leave me when you did hate me." She relaxed as Spike finally wrapped his arms around her. "I missed you."

Spike relaxed then as he nuzzled his nose against her neck, taking in the scent of her. "Missed you too... what's he doing here?"

Buffy sighed. "He comes bearing a gift – a really shiny pendant that will help us in our fight that has to be worn by someone more than human who has a soul."

The vampire's eyes narrowed and he looked at her. "Wouldn't I fit the bill? You don't really need Angel for that one, surely... or don't you trust me?" He moved to pull away but Buffy's arms wrapped more firmly around him, keeping him there. "Spike please – I told you already that I trust you completely and I do. Please don't doubt that. I am sure that your soul is at least as worthy as Angel's to wear the stupid trinket – personally, I think it's more worthy but hey! I'm just... it's volatile. We don't know what it does yet. Angel's willing to take the risk – plus, I'd like you by my side when the final fight comes. I don't think that I can do this alone."

Spike seemed to calm at that but the young woman chewed on her lip as she tried to further explain without actually telling Spike what the deal was – there was no way of knowing whether the First was around to hear and she couldn't risk giving away the ace up their sleeve. "Look, we're in the biggest fight of our lives, Spike. I'm honestly not sure that we'll get through this so at this stage, I'll take any help that I can get. It doesn't mean that I am going to get back with him or that what you and I have is over because that's the last thing I want to happen. I just... he can help."

Spike sighed and decided to take her words at face value. "What if we do fail though? Wouldn't it make more sense for him to be in L.A.? Because surely that'll be where the First and its minions will head next. To clear out the Potentials there."

Buffy sighed. "Probably. For once though, I'm going to be a little selfish. I actually think we can do this, Spike – I mean, obviously we can't kill the First but we could do some serious damage to its army. I have to believe that."

eieio

Xander had been released from the hospital finally. The doctor had left soon after as Willow and Tara had assured him that he would be better off. At present the husband and wife were resting at their home. Tara had tried to convince them to come to the mall but Xander had refused, claiming that he needed some time to clear his head.

There wasn't much left in the abode as they had already cleared out as per Buffy's orders but Willow and Tara had brought them an air bed to sleep on plus they had managed to find a toaster and microwave in the house next door. That would have to suffice.

Willow and Tara were stationed in their front room and had managed to find a kettle in a nearby home and so Anya was busy making tea. She looked at Willow. "I don't like it here, Willow. This isn't our home any more. It's just an empty place that once had potential. Now I don't feel at all safe. Why won't Xander go to the mall? I don't understand."

Willow sighed and patted the ex-demon's shoulder. "I don't really get it either Anya but he must have his reasons."

eieio

Anya sighed as she sat in front of the plank of wood settled over more wood, currently serving as the kitchen table – that conversation with Willow had happened over a week ago now and they were still 'living' in their old home with Tara and Willow nearby to ensure their safety.

Anya didn't feel safe though – Willow might be one of the most powerful witches she had ever known, add Tara to that mix and they were most certainly a duo to fear but, being so separated from the group played on Anya's nerves. Plus, it was rather depressing. Xander didn't even want to have sex – he just wanted to mope all the time and she had absolutely no clue as to how to console him. Yes, it was sad that he had lost an eye but at the same time, he still had one good one, right?

She stood up, resolved – it was time for her to do something… she headed into the room where Xander was currently moping, laying on the airbed and glaring at the ceiling. "Do you just intend to stay here forever? You know that us being here is probably a huge drain on everyone… we're splitting everyone up when Buffy could use everyone together to be at our strongest."

Xander scowled. "It's all about Buffy, isn't it Poor Buffy has it so hard, doesn't she?"

Anya blinked, taken aback by the resentment that was so clear in his tone. Directed at Buffy. This was a little new – for a moment, she could only stare at her husband in pure bafflement with even less of a clue than usual as to what to say."

Xander finally deigned to look over at her. "What, no jumping to her defence, huh?"

Anya frowned. "Why are you being like this? I don't understand why you're so angry."

The young man stared at her with an expression of astonishment. "I lost my eye, Anya! Isn't that a good reason?"

The ex-demon nodded. "Being angry I can understand to a point – though honestly, you have another eye… it's not like you're blind now. It could have been so much worse. You could have died, Xander! What then, huh? You would have left me after less than a year of married life… what if I'm pregnant right now, hmm?"

Xander's eyes widened in alarm, and Anya was honestly relieved to see an expression other than anger or resentment on the face she loved so much. "You're pregnant?"

Anya sighed. "No, of course not. At least, I don't think so… it's not the point. The point is, I could have been. You would have left us alone… what exactly did you think you were doing? If Buffy and Faith couldn't defeat Caleb, what were you planning to do, hmm? Scream him to death? You're a human, Xander – you don't have any special powers. I know that bothers you but you have to face that fact!"

Xander scowled. "My being human had nothing to do with it – she should have saved me!"

Anya's eyes narrowed. "She didn't even know that you were there! You just decided to follow them without letting them know, thinking you would save the day. I get it, okay? If we were normal, living a normal life, you'd be the man who would save us all but we're not. You have to accept the fact that Buffy is stronger than you and can survive just fine without you – otherwise you're just as bad as Riley… and look how badly that turned out!"

Xander shook his head, confused. "What has Riley got to do with anything?"

Anya sighed. "He left Buffy because he couldn't deal with the fact that she was stronger than him. It's that simple. He needed to be needed but Buffy didn't need him to protect her. Sure, she needed him to love her but he was never able to do that – not when she didn't also require his protection. Buffy would never be able to settle for a normal human relationship. She's not normal, Xander. She's got essence of demon in her, remember? That's why she could fall so hard for first Angel and then Spike."

Xander interrupted her. "You've completely lost me…"

Anya's sigh sounded rather like a growl that time. "She's not perfect, Xander. You put her up on this stupid pedestal years ago then you're stunned when she does something incredibly human – like falling for a vampire. Twice. Well, she did. She also wasn't able to save you this time. Deal with it. She can't be in all places at once and really, she has already saved you – saved all of us – more times than we can count so, why don't you cut her a bit of slack!"

Xander sighed. "I lost my eye, Anya."

Anya nodded. "I know. But you're still handsome. I still love you. I still want to have sex with you."

Xander couldn't help but laugh at his wife's usual bluntness. "Still, huh? Even now that I look like a pirate?"

Anya smirked and lay down on the bed beside him, trusting that the worst of the confrontation was over. "Oh even more so now." She smiled with relief as her husband's arms wrapped around her. "I love you."

"I love you too, Xander. No matter what."

He sighed and closed his eyes. His lovely woman was right – it was time to let it go. It wasn't fair to blame Buffy as he had been doing.