YearsContactFictionIWRY 2013



Schism

Schism

Author:  Jo

Feedback:  thelibrarian2003@yahoo.com

LiveJournal: http://librarian2003.livejournal.com/

 

Rating: Adult

 

Thanks to Ares for tirelessly reading and commenting!

 

Previously: For anyone who has not read the previous stories in this series, I have tried to make this final story as standalone as possible.  However, it does follow almost half a million words and eleven stories, so please bear with that.

 

At the beginning of the series, Angelus was the demon we know from the show, but life with the Slayer has given him a new focus for his obsessions and his passions.  It has also given him a veneer of civilization.  That evolution is what this series has been about.

 

All you really need to know before starting this is that, after many trials and tribulations, Buffy lived a long and mostly happy life with Angelus, then she died, and now she’s alive again, a sixteen year old schoolgirl.  In the previous story, Hound of Heaven, she thought that Angelus, a stranger to her now, had attacked her, but he was innocent.  That was where we left them. 

 

Summary:  An Apocalypse is upon them.  Can they be saved?  Can the world be saved?  Is there the slightest hope of a happy ending?

 

**

 

 

SCHISM

 

And so we come to the last of my chronicles.  I, Ezrafel, Archivist of the House of Aurelius, servant of Angelus... and friend...  I am ready to close my book as we leave behind the life that we knew and move on, into the unknown.

 

And what of you?  We have one more story to tell, but let me ask something of you now.  What are your feelings for Angelus?  Do you love him?  Hate him?  Fear him?  All of those?  He has done things that seem unforgiveable, things to disgust the ordinary man in the street, even the ordinary demon in the street.  And yet, he has followed only his nature, and in all things since he met the Slayer, he has remained true to her.  His mistakes have never been for want of courage or resolution.  Who is responsible for that nature, do you think?  Who made this beast into what he is?

 

Why did the Slayer love him so unreservedly?  She was more human than I, so perhaps you can give a human reason for it where I can only speculate.

 

And Angel.  She loved Angel, too, but we have seen little of him in these chronicles.  If you subscribe to the many-worlds theory, perhaps, in one of those other worlds, Angel would have been the main player, and he and the Slayer would have had a very different life.  Would I have ever known them?  Would you have read a chronicle such as this?  Who can say.

 

And yet, here we are, in a tale that spreads across space and time, and spans the dimensions.  Despite that, at this tiny point in time, as I read the start of this final narrative, I can see him in my mind’s eye as I saw him then.  What I see is...

 

I am watching my master sleep.  He has thrown off the eiderdown, and I gather it up from the floor.  As I prepare to cover him once more, I cannot help but look at him.  He is more than four centuries old, and yet he is youthful still, unscarred, perfect, except for the pale scar over his heart that was left by Buffy when they mated, all those years ago.  His beautiful face is contorted into a silent scream, the tendons in his neck standing out with the tension of that silence as his body writhes in his nightmare.  Around his neck, a braided black leather thong carries a black circular stone, spider-webbed with veins of white quartz, a water-worn stone with a hole in the centre.  A hagstone.  It was given to him by five-year old Buffy, reincarnated in the face of all his disbelief, and it should ward off the hags of nightmare.  It cannot ward off this one, though.

 

Also on the thong is a link of black iron.  It is the last remaining piece of the cruel collar and leash that marked his century of bondage to the Dark Lady, and this, I think, is the cause of his nightmare.  Not the Lady, or the horrors she heaped on him, and not the link itself.  No, he has used it to travel between her dimension and ours, and he has nightmares now because of what he has done there.

 

He is afraid that he has nothing of humanity in him to offer this new Buffy, that the totality of him now is worse than the original demon.  Personally, I think that his life has forced him to combine the complexity of the human with the power and passion of the demon.  It was the demon that did what he has just done, but it is his learned humanity that is giving him nightmares.

 

Perhaps I should let you hear it in his own words.

 

++

 

I have tried to do it the way that Buffy would have wished.  The old Buffy.  My Buffy.  I don’t know what the new Buffy wants.

 

But I have tried.  A hundred years ago, I could not have controlled my anger at the rape of my golden girl, not even if it were demanded of me by Buffy herself, but I learned control during my time in the Dark Lady’s realm.  She was useful for something, then.  I went to the police, and said that I had seen a girl attacked.  I told them that I could identify the six culprits.  They didn’t quite laugh at me, but they said that they were unable to consider unsubstantiated accusations against the scions of six of the town’s most respected families.

 

I have clearly been away from Sunnydale too long.

 

That was when I decided to do it my way.  I started to follow my prey, to watch them, to learn about them.  I wanted to find some way of exposing the truth.  Killing them wouldn’t do that.  They raped my girl, and she thinks that it was me.  I have to show her the truth, or I am lost.  Two weeks after they raped Buffy, they attacked another young woman.   I don’t know what I am to do now, because I truly lost my temper.  I have done many dreadful things in the white hot heat of anger, but the worst of those things have been when the rage ran like ice in my veins.  Never has it been as frigid and heartless as this.  I could only see Buffy there, in place of that girl.  Where there had been six rampaging young men, I left only six about-to-be vampires.  I wasn’t going to keep any of them.  I had a much colder, crueller purpose.

 

Stacking the bodies at my feet, I put my faith in Father Robert’s tools.  I do not know what magic he has spelled into this last remaining link in the Dark Lady’s chain, but he has told me its name, and I can command it.  I called its name, and then I channelled all my grief and rage into my unspoken desire.  And it obeyed.  I found myself and my victims at the foot of what I can only describe as a giant termite mound built of dressed stone.

 

Do you remember the Jun?

 

I expect you do.  They are the two species that live in symbiosis, each hive subject to a Queen, and each hive in need of captives into whom the Queen can lay her eggs.  Captives for her young to feed on.  It was because the Jun captured me that Ezrafel sold me into slavery to the Dark Lady in exchange for rescue.  Now I’m going to use the Jun.

 

Two prospective queens were birthed from me.  One of them I killed, but the other, I learned, was sent to found a new hive.  This one.  It’s on the very edge of empire.  I slaughtered many of the Jun, but for one reason or another, this one always escaped my attentions, until now.

 

We’ve been seen.  A group of their warriors rides out to where I wait.  I should have brought a sword, but I shall have to rely on my reputation.

 

They slide to a halt a few yards from me.

 

“You know who I am,” I say to the leader.  I never learned to speak much of their heathen language of clicks and whistles, but most of them learned mine.

 

He hesitates only briefly and then his mandibles chew the syllables and spit them at me.

 

“Angelus Abaddon.”

 

“Yes.  And now I have brought you a gift.”  I stir the closest body with my toe.  “In a few hours, these will become vampires.  I remember how you prize vampires for... nurturing... new queens.  And how rare they are here.  These will give you years of service, help your hives to spread.”

 

“Why?”

 

They’re never very chatty.  It’s the mandibles, I suppose.

 

“Perhaps, in the future, we can make common cause.”

 

They’ve never been anything except enemies of the Dark Lady.

 

The leader gestures to his men to pick up the corpses, watching them as they ride back to the castle.  Then he spurs his mount closer to me.  Slowly, he unfastens his harness and bares his skin to me.  In the centre of his thorax is a golden tattoo of a winged lion.  My winged lion.

 

And then he’s gone, riding fast.  I have no idea what has been happening, but I can’t stay to find out.  I will come back, but it’s too soon now.  I must leave before She ever learns that I was here.  I hold the link of chain in my hand, together with Buffy’s hagstone, and it takes me back to Sunnydale.

 

++

 

In his younger days, Angelus would have laughed at the fate of those he has condemned to eternal torment with the Jun.  Now, he has nightmares about it, although whether he is reliving his own experience or theirs, I cannot say.  I reach out to him in the depths of his hell.  Not physically, because I value my life.  But, once I have drawn the eiderdown back over him, I call to him, and bring him back to this time and place, where he can, I hope, rest just a little more easily.  If I could mend his relationship with Buffy, then I would.  All I can do for him there is pray to your gods.

 

++

 

I’ve dealt with Buffy’s despoilers, but that hasn’t solved my problem.  How do I persuade her that – this time – I’m innocent?  Perhaps not that, not innocent, because I had to kill the Slayer to get to Buffy’s aid, which is why Buffy is now the Slayer again, but not guilty of that particular sin.

 

If she doesn’t remember me, then she might not remember what a Slayer is, might not understand her new strength and abilities, or her responsibilities.  If I can’t sort this mess out, then I might have to send to Father Robert and ask him to choose someone as her Watcher, someone she can trust.  I wonder whether Giles is ready yet?

 

In the meantime, I patrol each night.  Almost every non-human creature in this town is in my service, but the most active Hellmouth in the world is here and it attracts all sorts of strangers.  They all get the same offer, but some of them choose to die instead of bowing to me.

 

About a month after that fateful night, I go to visit Alysia, the mate of Max, the wolf who spent his life guarding this new Buffy as she grew up, and who was killed by Wesley as I tried to get to Buffy’s rescue.  At the time, Alysia was heavily pregnant with Max’s pups.  We’ve left more rabbits for her and her new pups since then, but it’s time I found out what else she needs. 

 

As I approach the den, I can smell blood, and it isn’t rabbit.  I break into a run.  It’s carnage.  Around the mouth of the den lie the bodies of the three other adults in this tiny pack.  There have never been more of them than this small family.

 

The bodies are still warm, although not very.  They’ve been dead for less than an hour, though.  Down on my knees, I slither into the entrance of the den and reach in.  There are four dead pups. 

 

All the adult wolves have been killed with a crossbow, although the quarrels have gone.  The pups have died on something more like a sword.

 

I don’t even take the time to dust myself down, but cast around for sign.  What I find is a last, lingering scent.

 

Wesley.

 

And Alysia is missing.

 

The blood trail is easy to find at first, but I lose it in a small stream.  The alpha female is a wily old wolf.  From the scent trail, Wesley lost her, too.

 

When I get back to my own front door, a clot of shadow detaches itself from the deeper darkness of a mock orange shrub.  The stake is already in my hand when I see that it’s Alysia.  She stumbles towards me before collapsing onto her belly.  A crossbow quarrel juts out from her rib cage.  It’s a miracle she got this far.

 

I offer her my wrist – I haven’t made a vampire wolf before, but I like this old girl.  She averts her face, however, clearly unprepared for eternity.  And then a noise tells me why she’s here, and what gave her the strength to make the journey.  Between her front legs huddles her only surviving pup.

 

I stroke her head to reassure her, and pick up the pup.  At four weeks old, they’re too young to have ventured out of the den, and I haven’t seen them before.  The pup stares at me myopically from its cloudy blue eyes, and then takes my hand between its needle-sharp teeth, with a baby growl.  In the centre of its chest is a cluster of white hairs, like the scar of an old wound.  He rags my hand again, as Max loved to do.   Could it be...? I’ve known stranger things.

 

“Max?” I ask him, feeling singularly stupid.

 

He yips with puppyish enthusiasm.

 

“Well, Max or not, let’s get you and your mother inside.”

 

It’s only been seconds, but when I bend down to Alysia, she’s dead.  She lasted just long enough to see her son safe.  I hope he’s onto solids, because I’m not sure I can provide a wet nurse for him.

 

++

 

We lay Alysia to rest alongside her mate, Max, the wolf who saved my life so recently from Wesley’s crossbow, at the cost of his own.  They’re in what used to be Buffy’s rose garden, where all our dead are, or as many as we have been able to gather together.

 

Young Max, it seems, can do very nicely on eggs and cow’s milk and raw beef mince.  And, for some reason, tinned rice pudding.  Well, it will give Ixolon something to do, although he’s unable to stop the pup from making a racket at my bedroom door during the time when I should be sleeping.  They try locking him away, but his infant’s howls are so pitiful that I decide to let him in, just for a day or two.  Besides, he’s warm in his chosen spot, curled up against my belly.

 

Meanwhile, I have something of my own to do.  I need to find Wesley.

 

Over the next few nights, I find signs of his activities.  A pile of vampire ash – one of my senior minions – one night, a passing Seilon demon the next, and then a Theran.  The Theran had already accepted my authority, and is, therefore, technically, one of mine.  As I gaze down at his cold corpse, I decide that this has to stop.

 

Father Robert has, on more than one occasion, instructed me to reflect on the nature of servitude.  Here are my reflections, standing over the Theran.  At first my household served me because I wished it, and I required their service.  I was greedy for power and its trappings – well, I was in a pissing match with Aurelius then – and I wanted something worthy of the Slayer.  Now, they serve because they wish it, because they can’t think of severing their connection.  I suppose it’s always exciting, in my household.  They have become the sort of long-standing retainers who can be trusted to do everything, including telling the head of the household what he should be doing.

 

As for myself, I was arrogant and cocksure, taking everyone’s service as my due.  Buffy wanted me to make a safe place for humanity, and in so doing, to earn redemption.  Then it seemed as though demons must be classed as part of humanity.  After all, how could beings such as Ezrafel or Ixolon not be kept safe?  How could Haraeth and his people not be allies?  And so, Buffy designated me as protector of humanity, and then protector of... everything that wasn’t an enemy.  Together we threw the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart out of our dimensions, but I have continued to shoulder the responsibility of keeping everyone safe.  I am the servant of all, when I thought I was the master.

 

Even this Theran.  Three nights ago, he bowed to me, promised to keep my peace, and to give me service if I required it.  Now I must do him the service of avenging him.  And the minion of mine who has been dusted – he had been my servant for fifteen years, and he, too, deserves my service. 

 

Darla once said that ‘What we were informs all that we will become.’  She wasn’t wrong, but it’s not what she meant.

 

“Father Robert’s lessons coming home to roost, boy?”  Angel’s laugh is shaky, but it’s one of genuine amusement.  Well, I’m glad that he can see me as a figure of fun.  Nevertheless, I spend my nights hunting in earnest.

 

My days, after I’ve spent a few hours curled up with the wolfling, are devoted to excoriating my deepest wounds.  The deepest room in my basement contains all my relics of my past life with Buffy.  Her clothes are here, carefully shrouded under holland covers, her jewellery, her diaries, everything that I have left of her.  I’m here to remember, and to try to understand what I should do next, how I should repair what stands between us, as though her ghost were here to advise me.

 

I meant to do my communing alone, but after half an hour of piteous whines and scrabbling the paint off the door, I let Max in, and he totters around the room, happily sniffing at all the new smells and rolling around in the holland covers.  When he eventually tires himself out, he collapses, dead to the world, across my foot, and so I continue my reminiscences with him cradled in my arm.

 

I finish up looking longingly at a photograph in an old silver art nouveau frame.  It’s me and Buffy on her fortieth birthday.  She looks about twenty-five.  We’re standing on top of one of the pyramids at Giza, and the Nile is a silver ribbon in the distance.  It was on that holiday that I took umbrage with Aurelius, and it was another thirty years before we exchanged a civil word again.  But you already know what happened then.  Still, we were so happy then, unaware of what the future held.

 

Max stirs, whining in his sleep, and I almost drop the frame.  As I clutch at it, a sharp snag of silver catches my thumb, drawing blood.  I would have given my heart’s blood for her.  I still would.  This tiny wound is nothing.  Max is awake now, and pawing at my mouth, yipping to be fed.  It’s time for his mid-afternoon snack of scrambled egg, and so my stroll through the past comes to an end, and I put the photograph down in favour of the living.

 

A week after the slaughter of the wolf family, I’m out looking for the one who is hunting my people when a familiar, beloved scent reaches out to me from the rotten land around the Pit that almost took five-year old Buffy’s life.  It’s her.  Buffy.  I spring over the fencing that should keep people out and run towards a dark huddle on the ground.  It’s a Trochlar demon, a barely intelligent battle species, fortunately very rare.  They’re even rarer now.  I see, but don’t consciously register until later, that it’s been killed by a crossbow bolt.  I don’t register the fact, because my attention is entirely focused on the body lying half under the demon.  It’s Buffy.

 

“I’m here, you’re safe now,” I tell her, although she shows no sign of consciousness.  Her heart is beating a rapid tattoo, which is odd, if she’s unconscious.  There’s no sign of bleeding from her...  And then my arms are around her, and I’m pushing the demon off her, and her beautiful eyes open as she turns to me...

 

And there’s a sharp stab in my thigh as she brings down the syringe in her hand, and before I can even protest, I’m sinking into a cold, dark void of nothingness.

 

++

 

As I shake off that void, I feel as though a bomb had exploded in my head.  And in my heart.  Whatever shit she used on me was certainly powerful.  Certain other discomforts tell me that I’m in chains, shackled hand and foot.  I try to get myself together, to get my feet under me to relieve the screaming agony in my shoulders, but my knees don’t seem all that ready to take the strain.  I wonder how long I’ve been out.

 

Eventually I manage to get myself straightened up and take stock of my surroundings.  In the larger scheme of things, I’m somewhere with no windows, and if there’s a door, then it has to be behind me.  It’s brick-built, and the scents of old oil and rust and rotten wood and general mustiness make me think that I’m probably in one of the buildings in an area of town that has a lot of derelict warehouse and factories.  I’ve been meaning to get it knocked down and redeveloped.  I think I should have acted on that idea earlier.  If, that is, I’m still in town at all.

 

In the nearer scheme of things, I’m tightly shackled, as I said, but clearly someone is taking no chances.  Around me is a circular cage of impressively solid iron bars, rather like one of those that the Victorians kept lions and bears in.

 

And I’ve been partly stripped.  I’m down to just my jeans.  Even my shoes are gone.  I tug hard on my chains, but whoever has done this knows what they are about.  Seems I have no choice but to wait.

 

When he comes, he isn’t unexpected.  Wesley.  Buffy is behind him.

 

I thought we’d already agreed that Wesley would be the worst possible Watcher for Buffy?”  Angel’s voice is weak but definitely disapproving.

 

“Yeah, well, it’s not my partnership of preference, either.  I’ll have to do something about that, I expect.”  I don’t say it out loud, though.

 

When he speaks, Wesley’s voice is in lecture mode, and very impersonal, as only Wesley can manage.

 

“As the Slayer, you need to understand your enemy, its strengths and its weaknesses.  Now that it’s awake...”

 

“You didn’t need to go to all this trouble,” I interrupt, craning my neck to look at Buffy, who’s standing to one side.  My words are for her.  “All you needed to do was call.  I would have come.”

 

Buffy stares hard at me, but Wesley simply ignores me, and carries on.

 

“Remember what I told you about holy water.  It doesn’t work on other demons, but is very useful against vampires.”

 

He turns to a large plastic container by the wall.  Standing in it is a long wooden stick, and when he pulls it out, there’s a dripping sponge on the end.  I don’t need to be psychic to guess the rest.  He shoves the stick through the bars, and presses the sponge against my breastbone.  Liquid sizzles its way around my ribcage and down my belly, burning into my flesh like acid.  He presses harder, and gets the scream he’s waiting for.

 

“See?  Want to try?”

 

Buffy shakes her head.  Wesley lifts the rod, but only to press it against my cheek, burning away skin and muscle.

 

“They look human, Buffy, but they aren’t.  You should remember that.”

 

He moves round the cage, and then comes back to stand in front of me.  He’s holding a loaded crossbow.  He can’t miss at that distance.  The bolt takes me in the chest, exactly where my heart would be if he’d aimed at the left side instead of the right.  It’s buried right up to the fletching. 

 

“Now for their healing powers,” he instructs.

 

I’m not going to heal around the shaft, not until it’s removed.  Wesley has thought of this.  He has a line attached to the bolt, and now he starts to reel it in.  Gradually, the bolt is dragged back out of my quivering flesh, the head lacerating flesh and blood and bone, and he gets the second scream of the night.

 

“Now, Buffy, if you watch, you will see how quickly it heals.  The older they are, the stronger, and the better their healing response.  I should say that this one has some age to it.”

 

Buffy comes to stand next to him, her face impassive, and they watch as my abused flesh heals itself, leaving me as unmarked as before.  The burns take longer than the chest wound, but before long, it’s done.

 

“What about that scar over his heart?” she asks, at last.  “That hasn’t healed the same way.”

 

Wesley shrugs.  “I don’t know.”

 

No, he doesn’t.  Mea culpa.  Everyone at the Alchemists’ School knows about the mating scar, but Wesley never made it there.  I should have made sure that he would.  I knew that his father had plans for him to take over from his cousin, Morris, who reopened the School.  I left matters to pursue their course, instead of making sure.  I assumed there was plenty of time.  All my fault.  Now, Wesley is following a different path, and he has found my Slayer.

 

She walks around me, appraising me through the bars.

 

“What about this tattoo on his back?  Does it mean anything?”

 

Buffy used to know this, of course, but so did Wesley and Giles.  It was put there by Aurelius and it binds us together in ways that are more mystical than you can imagine.  But Wesley doesn’t know, anymore.  He sees only skin deep.

 

“It identifies him as Angelus, the worst of them all.”

 

“Worst in what way?”

 

“As I told you, the New Watcher’s Council...”

 

New Watcher’s Council?  New Watcher’s Council?  That wasn’t supposed to happen. 

 

“...New Watcher’s Council has sent me here to find a way to recover the resources that were pillaged from us.  Most of our sources are a century old or more, so we have no reliable information on his latest depredations, but all those older sources speak of him as a mass murderer, a torturer, the cruellest of the vampires, without pity or remorse.  He’s a...perfect object lesson for you.”

 

Oh, Wesley, what have I done to you?  I should have come for you before now.  I should not have left you with your despot of a father.  After Father Robert saw Morris off from his position in Alchemy, did he go back to England, to drip more poison into your ear?  Be sure your sins will find you out, and this is my sin of omission.  I was afraid to interfere too much, or perhaps just too wrapped up in my own affairs, and see what has happened.

 

“The heart in a vampire occupies a rather smaller area than the human heart.  They don’t use it, and it atrophies.  This makes it a harder target to hit.  You must be precise if you are to slay your opponent.”

 

Wesley levels the crossbow again, and this time it’s aimed at that atrophied part of me.

 

“Is this what your father taught you, Wesley?  Shoot first, ask questions later, torturing as you go?  How does that make you better than me?”

 

“How do you know who I am?”

 

His jaw tightens, but his aim doesn’t falter.  His finger curls round the trigger and the bolt flies.  It misses my heart by the skin of a heart-string, as he intended it to.

 

“Wesley, just kill him or let him go.  Stop torturing him.”  Buffy’s voice has a decided snap to it.

 

Wesley turns a deaf ear.  He’s always been good at that.

 

“Tomorrow, I’ll show you the effect that fire has on them, and then you can use it for target practice.  You still need to make your first kill.”

 

Buffy’s mouth turns down in disapproval.  “That first vampire didn’t even try to fight.  He looked surprised anyone would want to slay him.”

 

“I told you, in Sunnydale they seem to be more careful than most.  It’s the Hellmouth, and yet the mortality rate is no greater than average.  Less, in fact.  Doesn’t mean these things are safe to leave alive.   The Slayer’s duty is to kill them all.”

 

“There’s a better way, Buffy, and you know it.”  I will her to remember, but she simply looks unconvinced. 

 

“It’s not a ‘him’, Buffy.  And this one is very important for the vampires around here, from what I’ve seen.  We can find out where its nest is before we kill it, then slay the rest.”

 

Buffy’s silence is stony, and I watch her carefully.  She knows exactly where I live.  But she says nothing.

 

“And may I remind you, Buffy, this is the one that killed the Slayer before you.  She was in the park, hunting, and she almost staked him.  That was when you became the Slayer.  This vampire...” he gestures dramatically to me, “killed a Slayer.  It’s a very dangerous demon.”

 

Her expression is stonier still. She has the last word, though.

 

“Leave him alone, Wesley.”

 

They do just that, leaving me with a shaft buried to its feathers in my chest, rubbing shoulders with my heart.

 

++

 

Before I became the Slayer, whatever that really means, I tried to be a normal girl, with normal dreams.  I don’t sleep much nowadays.  It makes me grouchy, the loss of sleep, but it’s better than the alternative.  If I sleep, I have nightmares.  Not, not nightmares, plural.  A nightmare, singular.

 

It’s of the night I was raped.  I was stupid enough to agree to meet this man...  Well, I thought he was a man, but he seems to be something entirely different.  Why am I not surprised...  My life has always been strange, in one way or another.

 

I don’t remember what he did to me exactly, only the fact of the violation.  I was almost unconscious from the beating, and from having my head banged on the floor, and all I have are vague impressions.  My first clear memory, other than the pain and humiliation, is of waking up in his bed.  He’d taken me to his home.  And he’d dared to wash me and tend my hurts while I was still out of it.

 

I threw something at him – I don’t remember what it was, but it hit him with a force that I didn’t expect, and then I ran away.  That night changed my life in more ways than one.  That was also the night when I found I had become this shadowy creature, the Slayer, who seems almost to be something out of myth.

 

And then there is my nightmare.  He’s always there, the man who I now know is the vampire in Wesley’s basement.  But I can hear him crying out to me at the same time as someone else is holding me down – several pairs of hands, holding me down, and one man’s weight on me, with his voice in my head and in my heart.  Angel.  In the Bronze, he’d said his name was Angel, not Angelus.  Is there a difference?  But his voice is distant, not close, and my heart is crying out to him for help.  In my nightmare, he isn’t one of those that I’m fighting.

 

And then, in my nightmare, I feel something different.  Me.  I’m different.  I hit out at the nearest unseen man, and he falls away from me with a grunt of pain.  I hit out at another with a strength I never knew that I possessed, and then they’re banging my head on the hard paving of the path, and the little consciousness I had slips away, as does Angel’s voice.

 

And then I always wake up.  And I don’t know what’s truth and what’s nightmare.  But I do know there’s a nightmare in Wesley’s basement.  I just don’t know whether the nightmare is Angelus or Wesley.  I think that might be a strange thing for a Slayer to say.

 

I have to go to school, which seems a bit lacking in consequence just now, but there’s something I need to do there, and so I’m going to go.  But there’s something else I want to do first.  That will be best done about dawn, I guess.  I’m going to where Angel lives.  I want to find out about him.

 

++

 

Angel lives in the largest, most imposing mansion in Sunnydale.  As I climb the path with the rising sun, it seems deserted, but as soon as I can I skirt round a patch of shrubbery, looking for cover.  Before long, I’ve reached the mausoleum on the top of the hill, set in its own rose gardens.  This was where I found my crystal pendant, a circular stone with a hole in the middle that Willow says is for good luck.  I wish I was wearing it now.

 

From here, I get a good view of the mansion.  There’s no sign of anyone up and about, so I set off on a quick recce of the outside.  The doors and windows are secure, and each window has heavy drapes, so I can’t see who or what might be inside.  Wesley spoke of a nest of vamps, but that doesn’t feel right, doesn’t sit properly with the feelings I have about this place.  It’s as though I know it, although I can’t possibly, except for that one night.  Still, it won’t do to jump through a broken window into more than I bargained for.

 

Then I see a panel of glass bricks at ground level.  The rising sun is shining directly on them, so there won’t be a vampire on the other side.  A few kicks, and the bricks are history, and I’m in.

 

What I’m in is a corridor with four doors, and a flight of steps at the far end, which I guess leads up to the ground floor of the house.  I try the first door.  It’s locked, but the lock soon gives way to me.  If I expected to see a basement full of vamps in coffins, then I’m disappointed.  It looks just like a storage room.  Racks of clothing are swathed in heavy linen covers, and there are tiers of shelves and rows of cupboards.

 

I pull open a drawer, and it’s full of jewellery boxes.  The first one, a black box, holds a large, shiny silver cross on a chain.  I run my finger down it, and wonder what this is doing in the home of a vampire.  The racks of clothing are full of things made for someone my size.  Exactly my size.  With my tastes, too, or my tastes if I could afford them.

 

And one of the shelves has a row of thick leather diaries.  With some feelings of guilt, I pick one at random.  That’s because I would hate anyone to read any of my diaries.  It’s ingrained, I suppose.

 

The first entry talks about Angel.  It’s dated over twenty years ago, and it’s very, very personal.  The diarist has discovered that he or she has cancer, and has written at length of Angel’s reaction to the news.  Tears and agony and love, and desperate possession.  The description is so immediate, so moving that I put the diary back.  I don’t think I should read any more.

 

But... This doesn’t sound like the monster that Wesley has described to me.  And if the writer had got cancer, they couldn’t have been a vampire, could they?

 

Puzzled, I look round some more, and find a photograph frame laid face down on a low sideboard.  When I pick it up, I see a smear of blackish-red on the frame, where a snag of silver has made someone bleed.  And then I see the photograph, and I forget to breathe.

 

The photograph is taken at night, but it’s very, very clear.  The couple seem to be on a high place, with a city behind them, and a broad shining river snaking through the landscape.  They look so happy, and so very much in love.  He’s the man – Angel, that is.  He’s unmistakeable.  The woman is me.  An older version of me.

 

My fingers seem not to belong to me.  They’re numb, like every other part of me, and as I try to stop it falling, the bloody snag on the ornate silver frame catches on my palm, leaving a gash.  The frame falls to the ground with a clatter, and the glass breaks.

 

Still in shock, I suck at the bleeding cut, and above the coppery taste of my blood, there’s something else.  It’s the other person’s blood, I assume, but it’s old and musky and... infinitely desirable.

 

And I remember.

 

That is, a lifetime of memories come crashing down on me.  Her memories.  What the hell have I done?  Was that a drop of her blood?  His?  But it feels like me, remembering things that I’d just forgotten.

 

The cross that he gave her/me the first time they met.  The photograph on the pyramids in Egypt.  The way she loved him beyond all else.  How he loved her beyond life itself.  More memories than I can possibly process, so that I’m lost in the torrent.

 

It’s a noise that brings me back to the reality of now, the sound of a puppy whining.  The broken lock can’t hold the door and a fat little grey pup bundles in, fawning around my feet.  In the doorway are two men.  Almost men, but not, I think, vampires.

 

I expect them to raise the alarm, but they don’t.  Instead, the dark-haired one, with just the suggestion of scales around the hairline, and a drier, cooler scent than humans have, bows to me.

 

“Mistress.”

 

From somewhere, I find a name.

 

“Ezrafel?”

 

He grins with delight.  “Yes, Mistress.”

 

I want to say ‘Less of the Mistress thing,’ but the other man, a tall man with one arm, and hair like autumn leaves and a different non-human scent bows.

 

Another name.

 

“Ixolon?”

 

“We are happy to see you, Mistress.  Do you require anything?  Was Angelus with you?”

 

That cuts through the entire tangle of my thoughts.  Angelus is in Wesley’s basement, and Wesley is going to kill him.

 

“I... I have to go.  To go to Angelus...”

 

I want to take some of the diaries with me, but before I read any more, I need to sort out what’s her and what’s me.  And I don’t want Wesley to see them.  I look towards the gap made of the broken glass bricks.

 

“Not to worry about those, madam.  I’ll get them repaired.”  That’s Ixolon.

 

Ezrafel gives me a smile of real amusement.  “Do you remember where the front door is?  No, of course not.  You were so young, and you don’t have Max to bring you.  This way, if you please.” 

 

He scoops up the pup while he’s talking.  She doesn’t have any of those memories, and they mean nothing to me.  Except...  I’ve no time to examine that thought, of some déjà that I definitely need to view.  I suspect that Wesley will leave Angelus alone until I’m back from school, but I don’t know that.  So, I follow the demon called Ezrafel, with my mind fighting a whirlpool of memories.

 

The house is splendid, definitely not my definition of a vampire nest.  As the demon opens the front door, he gives a little bow again.

 

“This door will always be open for you, Mistress, day or night.  And...”  For the first time, he looks uncertain.  “Ah... Should you wish it, your private apartments will always be in readiness for you.”

 

He must see the shock on my face, because I could swear he blushes.

 

Wesley has an apartment in the Old Town, but he’s rented some old falling-down building, and that’s where he’s keeping Angelus.

 

++

 

I can only be grateful that this basement is sun-proof, but then I don’t suppose that Wesley wants me to have a premature death.  When the door opens, I expect him, come to continue torturing me for whatever purpose is in his head, but it’s Buffy.  Does she mean to follow his advice and use me as target practice?  As it is, I’ve spent the night hardly daring to move.  If that shaft grazes too hard against my heart, then all they’ll find is a pile of ash.

 

She comes down the stairs in what I can only think of as stalking mode, as elegant as a leopard.  She paces around my cage, her gaze fixed on mine, and comes to a rest directly in front of me, her fingers wrapped around the bars.  She’s different, I can smell it.  It might just be the newness of Slayerhood settling in, but I don’t think so.  And she’s bleeding.

 

“You’ve cut yourself.”

 

She looks at the palm of her hand, almost as though she had forgotten.  Then she turns her attention back to me.

 

“I’ve been to your house.”

 

I try not to show surprise.  “Did you leave anyone alive, or did you follow Wesley’s advice?”

 

“Everyone’s fine.  I cut myself on a photograph frame, that’s all.”

 

That really gets my attention.  “Where?”

 

“In that basement room with all the clothes and stuff.”

 

Ah.  She cut herself.  So did I.  Is that what I detect in her scent?

 

“What were you doing in that room?”

 

She answers a question with a question.  “Do I know you?”

 

I don’t pretend to misunderstand, but I don’t know what to say.  Eventually I offer, “Do you think you remember something?”

 

“How did you get that scar over your heart?”

 

“Let me out of these shackles, and I’ll tell you.”

 

“Tell me, before I decide what to do with you.”

 

I choose my words carefully.  “In my world, very rarely, two people can elect to commit to a relationship that they believe will last forever.  Beyond life, beyond death, perhaps even beyond the end of the world.  My... wife... made that scar as a sign of her commitment.”

 

“Your wife?  Surely vampires don’t have wives?”

 

“Not often,” I admit, “but we were properly married, too.”

 

“Where is she?”

 

My heart still aches, even though she’s standing in front of me.”  “She... died.  Seventeen years ago.”

 

Buffy tenses, her face white.  “Who was she?”

 

“If you’ve been in that room, handled that photograph, then you’ve seen her.”

 

Her knuckles are white as she grips the bars.  Then she turns away and walks to a cupboard on the wall.  She comes back with keys in her hand.

 

“Do you still love her?”

 

I have to swallow hard.  “Always.”

 

She stares at me, perhaps weighing my truthfulness, and then she opens my cage door.  When she frees me from the shackles, my legs just don’t want to hold me any more, and I sink to my knees, trying desperately not to crush my heart against the arrow.  She kneels in front of me.

 

“Does it... does it hurt?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Will it kill you?”

 

“If I move too quickly, it might.”

 

“Shall I pull it out?”

 

Should I let her?  If she pulls it in the wrong direction, she’ll finish the job that Wesley started.

 

“Do you think you can pull it straight?”

 

She nods.

 

“Go on, then.”

 

I think that surprises her.  I wind the chains from the ankle shackles tightly around my wrists to brace me, and I wait.  She grasps the feathered end of the quarrel, and pulls.  The searing pain tells me that I’m still alive, and that surprises me, too.

 

“Thank you,” I say, when I can speak.

 

She stands up, and brings my clothes from where they’ve been left on the floor.

 

“You’d better get out of here before Wesley comes back,” she says, as she tosses them to me.

 

“In case you haven’t noticed, it’s daylight outside.”

 

“Can’t you...”  Her glance ticks down to my hands, which are bare of anything except my wedding ring.  “No...”

 

I don’t know what she’s thinking, but it seems to me she was expecting me to have something to ward off the daylight.  The Gem of Amara, perhaps?  Just what is going on in her brain?

 

I hold my hand out to her.  “Buffy...”

 

Her hand goes out, too, but in a gesture of denial.

 

“I don’t know you.  I don’t...”

 

“Buffy, just hear this.  I promise you I didn’t harm you that night in the park.  My oath on it.”

 

She shakes her head, and I’m not sure if she doesn’t believe it or doesn’t want to hear it.

 

“Was Wesley right?  Did you kill that girl... that Slayer?”

 

“I tried so hard not to.  I’ve been guarding new Slayers since...  But Wesley got to her first.  She didn’t know me, and she wouldn’t let me come to you.  You were calling me...”

 

Damn.  I hadn’t meant to say that.  The hand goes up in denial again.  But she knows that was what she was doing.

 

“Buffy, please, let me talk to you, explain...”

 

“No!  Don’t come looking for me.  I need to understand what’s her and what’s me.  If I want to see you, I know where to find you.”

 

She turns, and then turns back.  “Don’t hurt Wesley.”

 

“I’ve got to get out of here, remember.  He might not want me to.”

 

“Promise me.”

 

“Not more than I have to, then.”

 

She nods, accepting that.  And then she’s gone, running up the stairs as lightly as a gazelle, leaving me stunned.  So, she remembers, does she?  My blood has done this to her?  Or was it seeing Buffy’s – her – belongings?  I simply can’t stay away from her.  But first, I have to get away from here without letting Wesley kill me.

 

++

 

By the time I get back home, I still haven’t decided what I’m going to tell Wesley about letting Angelus go.  I’m finding it hard to think, and so I concentrate on something small.  Ezrafel said, ‘You were so young, and you don’t have Max to bring you.’

 

So young.

 

I open my jewellery box.  On top, there’s the crystal pendant that I found outside the mausoleum.  Suddenly, it seems brighter than it did before, like a diamond that has been cleaned, and then held to the light.  Next to it is an elaborate silver chain and cross.  They were given to me by a man who rescued me when I fell down a hole in the ground.  I don’t really remember it, but Mom still has the press cutting.  It doesn’t mention the cross and chain, of course, but I remember that much.

 

For a week afterwards, that man came to me at night, to make sure I was safe, and he always brought something.  I pick up a tiny fossil fish.  He brought me this.  Afterwards, for a while, he would leave things on my windowsill.  I still have, in this box, a small black pebble shot through with gold, and a brilliantly coloured feather from some unidentified bird.

 

His face appears, in my mind’s eye.  It’s Angelus.

 

And something else.  A long, grey shadow that I often saw out of the corner of my eye.  A wolf?  Max?  Did Angelus send him to me?  And the pup at my feet today...  A wolf?  I remember with a start that Wesley said something about getting rid of some dangerous wolves.  Was that Max?

 

And I am really late for school.  A brief acquaintanceship with soap and water, and I’m off.  At the last minute, I grab the cross and chain, and put it on.

 

I don’t want to dwell on that morning in school – I didn’t pay attention to anything, except...  Except looking at Xander, and seeing him with an eye patch; Willow, who is trying to master a spell to move pencils around, but I remember her working the deepest, darkest magic with Tara; Cordelia, whose primary thoughts are of shoes, and who was just the same then, although she grew a different personality; and Oz – is he a werewolf, like I remember?  And most of all, Angel, my first love.  This new part of me wants to know if he’s safe, the soul of a man the rest of me has never known.

 

Last night, I’d intended to come to school with one aim in mind, one person to talk to.  I’m not really sure I need to do that now, but I think it will resolve my nightmare, and that might not be bad.  I manage to catch her alone.

 

Jessica Allen was attacked in the park, like me.  Unlike me, ambulances and policemen got involved.  From that night, I’ve started healing really quickly, and no one noticed my bruises, not even Mom.  When Jessica learns that I was too embarrassed to go to the police, she unbends and tells me about it.  A bunch of guys a couple of years older than us, and a man who came out of nowhere and drove them off.  He dialled 911, and then went after them.

 

And half a dozen boys have gone missing.  They’ve been missing since the night of her attack.  What has he done?

 

++

 

She’s patrolling on her own.  I would have expected Wesley to be with her.  Maybe he’s washed his hands of her.  I’m sitting on a tomb in the Eternal Rest cemetery, always a favourite with us when she was this age.  She walks up to me as though this were an entirely common occurrence. 

 

“You don’t actually need to patrol,” I tell her.  “I keep a pretty tight check on things around here.  Things non-human, anyway.”

 

“Wesley’s interested in why the death rate is so low, on what he calls a Hellmouth.”

 

“It is a Hellmouth.  It used to be dreadful, until we decided to make it different.  Where is Wesley, by the way?”

 

She shrugs.  “Haven’t seen him.”

 

I pat the surface of the tomb invitingly.  “Come sit with me?”

 

She regards me as though I was an interesting specimen, but then she surprises me, and hops up, an arm’s length away from me.  I decide to go for broke, and find out what she remembers.

 

“Do you remember our first date?”

 

“When I knocked you on your ass, or when you pulled me out of that hole in the ground?”

 

She has been busy.  “Actually, I was more thinking of Willow bullocking me into asking you out for a coffee.”

 

She gives me a small smile.  “Yeah.  I remember.”

 

I reach round the corner of the tomb, and pick up the two takeaway coffees that I’ve got stashed there, offering one to her.  “It’s how... she... used to like it.”

 

She takes the lid off and sniffs.  “Smells good to me.”

 

She takes a drink, and then asks me, without any further preamble, “Where are the boys?”

 

I could lie to her.  I could fail to understand what she means.  I take a sip of coffee while I think.  She must see the coming prevarication.

 

“Would you have lied to her?”

 

“They’re somewhere they won’t hurt any other girls.”

 

“Are they dead?”

 

“Not as such.”

 

“Couldn’t you do what everyone else does, and go to the police?”

 

“I did.  They didn’t want to know.”

 

She doesn’t ask for more information, but I expect we’ll be revisiting this.

 

She’s silent, drinking her coffee.  I decide to try something different.  “Would you like some help with your training?”

 

“Maybe.”  Then, abruptly, “You killed that girl, the Slayer.  I don’t know if I can get past that.”

 

“I’ve killed a lot of people over the years.  You know that must be true.  But I’ve largely given it up.”

 

“This one seems very... personal.”  She slips down off the tomb.  “I’ve got to go.”

 

“I could have killed the policemen, but I haven’t.”

 

She gives me the look that that deserves.

 

“I’ll walk with you.”

 

“No.  I don’t want you to do that.”

 

That stings, but I try not to show it.  She takes a step or two down the path and then turns back.

 

“Do you know whether Angel’s soul is... safe?”

 

This is something she doesn’t know.  “Can’t say, really.  Stick around, maybe we’ll find out together.”

 

She stalks off into the darkness, leaving me alone on the tomb.  For once it’s me doing the brooding, not Angel.  And that’s where Wesley finds me a little later.  He’s carrying the crossbow, and he fires off a bolt, but I catch it with ease and snap it in two.

 

“Who let you out?” he demands, all chilly British rancour.

 

“Shouldn’t leave the keys on the wall,” I tell him with a smirk as I hop off my seat.  “Don’t make an enemy of me, Wesley.  I would much rather be your friend.”

 

“Friends?  With a vampire?”  He makes the words sound as though they are made from acid.  “You’ll rot in Hell first.”

 

“Haven’t you been to Alchemy?  You’d find humans being friends with more than vampires there.”

 

“That obscenity!  My father told me...”

 

Wesley never made it to Alchemy, then.  I should have known.  I should have taken more interest.  I should have taken him from his father.  Another mea culpa, and I have no doubt that Father Robert will have something to say about that.  I stayed as far away from Alchemy as possible, far from Father Robert, and far from that sword and dagger that he has smithed for me.  My gut boded no good about any of it.  Angel has stayed silent so far, but I can almost see his pursed-lip disapproval.

 

“I’ll say it again, Wesley.  I’m not your enemy.  Don’t make me into one.”  And then I slip into the shadows, without any idea of how I’m going to make things right.

 

++

 

I shadow Buffy for the next few nights, but Wesley is with her, and I don’t show myself.  She knows I’m there, though.  Several times she stares at my hiding place of the moment, and then turns Wesley in a different direction.  None of her friends are with her, and I wonder whether she’s told them yet that her... status... has changed.

 

The first night, he apologises in a remarkably clumsy fashion, for having allowed one of Angelus’ henchmen to set him free.  She looks sharply at him and then tells him magnanimously that no one’s perfect all the time, and she’s sure he couldn’t have foreseen it.  I almost feel sorry for him.

 

I’m patient, though, and after a while, I find her alone.  I slide up behind her, to be greeted by a flying kick that knocks me on my ass, and a stake pressed against my heart.  But the position of the stake means that at least she’s kneeling over my chest.

 

“Comfy?” I ask her, with a smile.

 

She starts to get up, but I grab her wrists.  “I only want to help you.”  That’s nearly true.

 

She shakes me off, and the loss of her slight weight is a disappointment.  “I thought you’d never get rid of Wesley.”  I try to keep the bitterness out of my voice.

 

“Wesley isn’t like he was when he first came to Sunnydale.  You know... The first time.  He’s darker.”  She looks sad when she says it.

 

“My fault.  I should have taken him away from his father.  But I was afraid to interfere too much.”

 

“You?  Afraid to interfere?  And blaming yourself?  That was always Angel’s gig.”

 

“Funny what sticks in the memory, isn’t it?”

 

We’re both silent for a moment.  I’m remembering what might have been too much interference when I killed Giles’ wife and child.  That’s really why I never went back for Wesley, I think.  She’s the one who breaks the silence.

 

“Stop following me.”

 

“I really do want to help you.  And to get to know you again.”

 

That makes her angry.  “How can you get to know me?  I don’t know me!  It was hard enough just being a typical teenager, and now I’ve got a whole other life to get to know!  I already had half a dozen people to be, and now I’ve got this other one who did so much with her life and I’ve got to learn to be Slayer!  Which is all your fault as well!”

 

She stalks away, and I follow.  “Both Angel and I have a lot of experience of living with someone else’s life,” I tell her.  She just walks faster.  The rest of the walk is accomplished in silence, but I see her all the way to her door.

 

We spend several more nights in this more or less silent stand-off.   My time during the day is spent brooding, to the extent that Ezrafel asks me whether I’m feeling quite well, and gets a curt look for his trouble.  It doesn’t worry him.  That’s the trouble with old retainers – and friends.

 

I take my sketch pad with me, when next I go to see her.

 

“What’s this for?”

 

“Look at the first page.”

 

She opens the pad.  There’s a detailed drawing on the first sheet.

 

“That’s a Plath demon.”

 

“I can read.  How do I kill it?”

 

“You don’t.  Plath demons are entirely harmless.  They’re skilled artisans, making luxury goods, and they visit once a year to take orders for their work.  They know I’m back in residence, and they’ll be arriving any day.  Probably from the south.  It would be a great favour if you kept Wesley away from them.”

 

She tears off the sheet and tucks it into her jacket, and then she sees the next sheet.  It’s a drawing of Willow, as a mature woman.  There are others.  Xander, with his eye patch.  Tara, working her gentle magic.  Giles, as he was when we all first knew him.  Then one that makes her gasp.  It’s Dawn, as she was just before Buffy’s death.  The final one makes her shut the pad up with a decided snap.  It’s her, as she was in her mid-twenties, in her wedding gown.  Perhaps that wasn’t wise of me, but it came from the heart I don’t have.

 

“Leave me alone,” she says, her voice cold, and then she runs off towards her home.  But she takes the pad with her.

 

I go back to watching from the shadows for a couple of days, and she patrols with Wesley.  But she takes him to the northern parts of Sunnydale, and the Plath demons arrive safely.  I wonder whether she’s remembered that they have made some beautiful pieces of jewellery for her, not least her engagement and wedding rings.

 

I do have some commissions for them, and then I see them safely out of town.

 

She and Wesley are patrolling together again, and so each day I draw, and I make notes on the back of the drawing.  Which demons are harmless, which have accepted my authority and my rules, which are dangerous and how to slay them, or where their bodies are so that she can see them in the flesh.  Each morning, before sunrise, I leave the drawings on her dressing table, trying not to be seduced by the sight of her, sleeping, and not knowing whether she’s angry with me for coming to her room like this.  At the moment it’s the best I can do, without stealing her away – and that always remains an option – so I must try to make my peace with Wesley.

 

++

 

I consider using the Gem of Amara, and visiting in daylight, but if things go wrong, I don’t want to risk it falling into Wesley’s hands.  Not this Wesley.  I learned over the years not to underestimate him, and this one is... harder.  So, it’s after sunset when I knock on the door of his apartment.  He’s not home.  It’s too early for Buffy to be patrolling, so I try the next most probable place, the building where he held me captive for a while.

 

It’s locked, but that isn’t a problem.  Once inside, I call out for him, but the place is silent.  His scent is quite strong in here, though.  I don’t think he’s been gone long.  On the off-chance that he might still be somewhere in the building, I go down the stairs to the basement where he kept me.  The cage has gone, and so have the shackles.  Perhaps he’s given the place up. 

 

Back on the ground floor, there’s a stronger scent coming from the door at the back, which leads to a small wooden lean-to, but there’s another door.  Remember what I said about never under-estimating Wesley?  As I cross the floor, it collapses under me.  There’s a very deep pit, carpeted with long, thin wooden stakes.  A stake doesn’t need to be thick to kill me.  Even a pencil would do the job.

 

Twisting like a cat, I manage to keep them out of my heart, but several of them find a home in my flesh.  I’m lying eyeball to point with one of them, and that point is glistening unnaturally.  And something is happening to me.  I try to push myself off the spikes, but something has made me as weak as a kitten.

 

A shadow falls over the pit.  It’s Wesley.

 

“It’s poison, Angelus.  A poison that even vampires aren’t immune to.  My sources may be out of date, but I’ve read enough about you.  Leopards don’t change their spots.  You will not try to corrupt the Slayer any longer.”

 

Another figure joins his, at the edge of the pit.  Oh, merciful gods...  It’s Lilah Morgan.  Her neck is bare, and she doesn’t have the thin red line that marked where Wesley decapitated her, all those years ago.  Has she been brought back, too?  But there’s no time to think about the ramifications.

 

“Good riddance, Angelus.”  As he speaks, Wesley tosses a carpet over the pit.  I can’t imagine how he thinks that a carpet will keep me in here, once I get off these spikes, but then my nose tells me.  He’s torching the place.

 

Poison or no, as fear cramps my gut, I find the strength to push myself off the stakes.  I can hear the crackle of the inferno, smell the heat of my death.  No!  I will not give in!

 

In what might be my last act of folly, I leap up into the flames above me, the carpet a fiery shroud on my back.  I manage to shrug it off, but now my coat is ablaze.  The ceiling is dripping liquid fire and curtains of flame are drawing across the walls.  The burning coat held in front of me, as though it could be a shield, I stumble into a wall.  Fire is running over my body now, searing and scorching, burning away skin and nerves, but the wall crumbles beneath me.  It’s more of a crawl, now to get off the burning wood, but my clothes are aflame, and I won’t last much longer.  You know about vampires and fire, just as much as Wesley does.

 

++

 

I was unbelievably angry with Angelus when he gave me the drawing of me – her – me in a wedding dress.  There are so many new memories in my head, it’s like being custodian of the school library.  But, like the books, I’ve got to look at them to know what they say.  The one in the wedding dress really made me look.  And then I understood a bit more about her.  She loved him.  She loved the other one, the one called Angel, but she loved this one, too.  And she knew exactly what he was, what he’d done, yet she still loved him.  But, she decided to use him, as well.  She was a Slayer, above everything else.  She just decided to tame the beast instead of fighting him, and to use him to create a peace for humanity.  She did it, too, but if she hadn’t loved him, she would have died rather than submit to him.

 

For myself, I hardly know him, but yet I do.  Not the way she knew him, but the way a small child knows someone.  Children see a lot of truths, and the truths that I saw as a small child are surprising.

 

I’m unwilling to give up my anger, but it somehow burns itself out that night.  It’s reignited though, on the morning I find a drawing of a demon on my dressing table.  He’s been in my room!  Then I realise I don’t know whether the anger is aimed at him for breaking and entering without so much as a by-your-leave, or for breaking out again without so much as a by-your-leave.  Told you.  I am so screwed up.

 

And I have Wesley at night, wanting to know what I know about Angelus.  She remembers Wesley well, and the pompous, arrogant Wesley she first met was a very different character to the Wesley of later years.  And yet... there was always a darkness there, right to the end.  Angel, apparently, was the one who introduced him to the light, so to speak, but it was never a complete job.

 

I’ve told Wesley nothing, at least not deliberately, but he’s very sharp, and I don’t think I’m a very good liar.  Usually I deal by saying nothing.

 

So, I keep getting these training-aid drawings, and I don’t tell Wesley about them.  One of them says there’s a body for me to see.  I steer Wesley in that direction, as if by accident, but he’s suspicious when we find a demon stuffed into a culvert.  If I’d had any sense I would have told him that I killed it and hid it for him to tell me about.  But I didn’t.

 

“It’s a Trigon,” he says. 

 

It’s big and it’s strong, and it’s currently in four pieces.  Angelus must have had trouble with it, just as he did before.  The name hadn’t meant anything, but all I have to do is see it in the flesh, and I remember.  I remember her memories of it.

 

She and Angelus faced three of them in the Arena of Hylek, when they fought for survival, and to decide the occupant of the throne.  It was after that that she decided there was more than one way to kill a cat, that Angelus was more use to her alive than dead.  It was then that he truly became her lover.

 

Wesley is pointing out to me the long length of hardened tendon and scaly skin that extends from one forearm to make an effective bullwhip, and that the demon’s killer has chopped off.  The other arm has been hacked off at the elbow, and he presses what looks like a swelling on the forearm.  A foot-long bone dagger slides out, with what looks like venom sparkling from its tip.  He tells me how effective these are as weapons.  I remember.  I remember the marks of the whip as Angelus shielded me with his body.  And I remember the bone dagger delivering its poison into Angelus’ chest, and the terrible effect it had on him.

 

Wesley says that he will dispose of the body, and we part for the night.  What Wesley doesn’t tell me is that the Trigon is a hive species that travels in numbers, never less than three.  They think as one, they act as one.  Where are the other two?  Or more?  How many did Angelus find?  I’m sure he wouldn’t leave these running around Sunnydale.  And why hasn’t Wesley said anything?

 

I’m a long time getting to sleep, and I half hope that I will be awake to catch Angelus delivering the next of his training aids.  Eventually, though, I fall asleep, and when I wake up, I’m disappointed to see that there’s nothing on the dressing table for me.

 

I’m distracted at school – well, the rampant goings-on at the Tudor Court can’t compare to things that I now remember.  At one point, I decide that my memories should be rated Adult Only, and my amused distraction gets a rebuke from the teacher.

 

I fend off all questions from my friends about why I’m a million miles away – a whole dimension away, if anyone knew it – because I haven’t told them anything yet about what’s going on.  They don’t know about Slayers and vampires and Watchers-gone-wrong.  Maybe they won’t ever remember what they were before.  Sometimes I think that would be a blessing.  Apart from anything else, they wouldn’t have impossible things to live up to.

 

As soon as I can, I go out on patrol.  I know that he waits for me each evening.  I can feel him lurking in the shadows.  I get a whole-body tingle when he’s near.  There are no tingles tonight, and then Wesley catches up with me, and I stop looking.

 

It’s the same the next day.  No drawing in the morning, and no vampire in the evening.  I start to get a very different sort of tingle in my gut, so I get up early next morning for a run.  It just so happens that my run takes me past the place that Wesley rented.

 

It’s a burned ruin.  I ignore the tape that declares the site to be unsafe.  I know that I wouldn’t be able to recognise vampire ash among all this other ash, but I need to see what I can see.  What I find is a pit lined with charred stakes.  And a few fragments of burned cloth that I recognise as Angelus’ coat.

 

My legs don’t feel very steady, and the breath is burning in my lungs.  My first thought is to get Wesley by the throat, but my legs seem to have a mind of their own.  When I can think again, I’m halfway to Angelus’ mansion.

 

It’s a stranger who answers to my hammering on the door, but he ushers me in with a small bow.  Ixolon greets me in the hall. 

 

“Is he here?  Angelus?  Is he here?”

 

“Madam...”

 

“Don’t ‘madam’ me!  Just tell me!”

 

He looks around as if for support, but there’s only him.

 

“No, madam, he isn’t.”

 

“Do you know where he is?”

 

Together with my anxious face, this seems to be too much for him.  He takes my arm and leads me into a small room off the hall, with a desk and a couple of couches.  Ixolon sits me on a couch, and says he’ll be back in a minute.  When he returns, he’s got Ezrafel with him.  They sit down on the other couch.  It’s Ixolon who starts.

 

“Angelus has said very little to us about what he has been doing recently, but he made it clear that he was fixed at the mansion for some time to come.  On the first night, we thought that he might have been caught out by the sun and had to take shelter, or....  Well, it wouldn’t be the first time.  But a second night without hearing from him?  No.”

 

He looks across at Ezrafel, who comes to kneel in front of me.  He takes my hand.

 

“Have you seen him?”

 

I shake my head.  “No... No, but I found bits of his coat in a burnt-out building.”  I’m leaving Wesley out of this, for the time being.  He’s my problem.

 

Both of them turn pale at this news, and Ezrafel squeezes my hand.  “Buffy.  Tell me, can you feel him?”

 

I don’t have to ask what he means.  Her memories tell me of the link between them.  My memories tell me it’s still there.  I’ve used it twice now, unknowingly, to call for him when I needed him, and he has answered, no matter the cost.

 

“No.”

 

He persists.  “But can you feel his death?”

 

It’s not a word I’ve used to myself so far, and it robs me of speech, but I try to decide what I can feel, and then I shake my head.

 

Ezrafel and Ixolon exchange glances, and Ezrafel leans forward, still holding my hand.

 

He says, “He has always instructed us most strictly that if he should die before you, his death will affect you in ways that we do not understand.  In that case, we must help you to seek out Aurelius.”

 

Another memory is triggered.  It’s the way we have mated.  There’s not much precedent to go on where a human and a vampire have taken the oath of eternal mates, but chances are that if Angelus dies first, I will wither and die, too.  Only Aurelius, the head of the Clan, can sever the earthly tie that will kill me.  I nod to these two, in understanding.

 

“Do you feel... any different?”  Ezrafel’s voice is gentle.

 

I shake my head again, and he pats my hand.

 

“Then perhaps things are not so bad after all.”

 

He doesn’t say that perhaps there is no such thing as an eternal mate, or that if there is, the bond may be broken, although the idea must be there in all our minds.  Instead, he says, “That must mean he isn’t dead, and that we have to find him.  He’s always getting into trouble.”

 

Ixolon smiles ruefully.  “And always getting out of it again.”

 

Ezrafel is silent, and I think he must have some private memories.  I find myself looking at Ixolon’s missing arm.  He sees, and shuffles around uncomfortably.

 

“I’m sorry,” I say.  “I should have got there faster.”

 

He huffs a bit at that, and looks embarrassed.  He never could swing a sword worth a damn, but at least he tried, in our wars with Wolfram and Hart.  I shake my head and try to get a grip.  I’m me, not her.  But, she offers a memory worth having just now.

 

“Ixolon, Norags can find things, can’t they?  They can find anything they look for?”

 

“Yes.  Do you want me to try?”

 

Do I?  Damn right, I do.  I don’t know yet whether I want to even think about picking up where she left off, but I don’t want the choice taken from me by a can of gasoline, or whatever.

 

He stands up.  “It will be easier if I get Perami and Aseta to help.”

 

They must be the other Norags.  I remember that there are always at least three in Angelus’ household.

 

Ezrafel stands, too.  “Would you like some orange juice, Mistress?  And there are croissants, too.”

 

“Please... And hold the Mistress thing,” I call after him, but I remember he never would.

 

While he’s gone, I look around me.  There are ornaments and paintings, and they all look as though they belong in a museum or art gallery.  And they’re all, um, erotic.  Salacious, even, I think my English teacher might say.  When Ezrafel comes back with a tray in his hands, he sees me holding a particularly... instructive... figurine, and he definitely blushes.

 

“I didn’t think...  Perhaps we should go elsewhere...”

 

I put the figurine down.  “No, I’m okay here.”  I don’t think many Slayers get to see demons blushing.

 

Everything for breakfast is just as I like it, but then I have to go to school.  I’d prefer to go to Wesley’s, but I’ll save that for tonight.  Ezrafel takes my cell phone number.  He’ll text me to let me know what Ixolon finds.  Just before I walk out into the sunlight, he stops me.

 

“Do you wish me to ask Aurelius to come?”

 

“No.”  Definitely no.  Aurelius is one powerful vamp.  I don’t want him around me until I’ve got my head on straight, whether it’s her head or my head.  I don’t want him around here with Wesley in Sunnydale.  I don’t want him around unless.... No, Angelus will be fine.  I’d know if he were dead.  I really would.

 

++

 

Everything is fire.  My coat is gone, but too late.  Everything else is on fire.  I’m crawling on my belly, trying to roll in the dust, watching my hands burn.  And then other hands are beating at the flames, a coat is smothering them, and the hell that swallows me is black, instead of bloody scarlet.

 

When I wake up, it’s a struggle to come back to reality.  Me, the demon me, is locked behind a sticky gauze of spider webs, as strong as steel when I try to break through.  I’m like Samson after the haircut.  I hurt everywhere.  I’m naked, lying on a comfortable bed, and I can see the damage that was done by the flames.  I’m a mess.  The hurting thing?  It’s really, really bad.

 

It hurts even more to move but I try to look round where I am.  It’s a room, which is something of a relief, very sparely furnished.  A luxuriant green carpet, wallpaper that has trees on, so lifelike you can almost hear the leaves rustle.  Furniture made from curling cane.  A window with heavy, green drapes.  I can’t make out much more detail – I think my eyeballs got seared.

 

I’d like to go back to sleep again, to escape the agony, but the agony itself is too much to allow that, and besides, I ought to stay alert, to find out what’s going on.  To find out where I am, and with whom.  The place doesn’t smell of Wesley, but my sense of smell seems to be so fried that I can’t even be sure of that much.

 

Almost, I try to send a thought to Buffy, a plea for help, but the strength of the link diminishes with distance, and she doesn’t know enough about it yet to detect a faint pulse of an idea.  More important, I don’t want to put her in danger.  She’s too young and inexperienced, and I must remember that.  She isn’t my Buffy.  Not yet, anyway.

 

Eventually, the door opens, and a man comes in.  Not a man, actually, but he looks like one, so let’s go with that.  He looks young, about the same age as me, but he reeks of age.  Real and powerful age.  He might be older than Aurelius, which I find a bit of a shock.  Or maybe that’s just my fried senses. 

 

He’s got white hair.  Not the peroxide golden-white of Spike.  This is pure milk white, but his skin has a golden tan and his eyes are darkest brown, with long, long lashes.  He’s powerfully built, but delicate, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms.  I’ve never seen him before in my life.

 

“Ah, Angelus,” he says.  “I’m glad to see that you’re awake.”  He sits on the edge of the bed, lightly enough not to jolt me.  “How do you feel today?”

 

“As if I should be dead.”  I manage to get the words out through my cracked and scorched lips, my parched throat, but I don’t know how much more chat I’m up to.  He seems to understand.

 

“You are dead.  But at least you weren’t dusted this time round.  Don’t try to talk any more.  You’ve been poisoned.”

 

Yeah, I know that...

 

He gets up and leaves the room, and then comes back with a drinking vessel.  It seems to suit the surroundings.  It’s a rhyton, an ancient drinking horn in the form of an animal.  This is a silver running stag, its head held high, with sweeping antlers.  The forequarters of the animal give way to the horn-shaped silver vessel, heavily chased with flowers and vines.  I wish Aurelius were here to see it.  He might even have made something like it, two or three thousand years ago.

 

“It’s blood,” the man says, as he holds it to my lips.  “Human blood, but this is so much better than a plastic bag, don’t you think?”

 

It tastes wonderful, but it hurts like hell to drink it.  I seem to have breathed in fire, too.  And I don’t think it’s going to be enough.  The essential me is still imprisoned by the poison, and my body isn’t healing.

 

“Who are you?”  I whisper.

 

“Never mind me,” he answers.  “You can call me Servas, if you like.”

 

Servas.  No.  It doesn’t mean anything.

 

“But what are we going to do about you?  You’re pretty badly beaten up.”  He stands up, scrutinizing me with those darkly liquid eyes.

 

I’ve felt like this, inside, once before.  Not quite the same, but nearly.  Trigon poison, allied with some really serious stabbings and slashings.  Slayer’s blood broke its hold on me then, but there isn’t a Slayer around here, and if she were, I wouldn’t be asking her for blood.  Not just yet.

 

His brow furrows in thought.  “I may have a remedy if you will trust me.  Tell me, Angelus, will you put your faith in me?”

 

What choice do I have?  I’m completely in this guy’s power, so what’s to lose?  Well, there’s a lot, but I didn’t know it then.  I can be so simple sometimes.

 

“Seems I already have.”

 

He smiles gently.  “Good.  Bear with it for a little while.  I shall return soon.”

 

I miss him when he’s gone, and I spend my time trying to break out of the terrible shroud that imprisons my spirit, without the least success.

 

When he comes back, he’s carrying a very small, very delicate glass.  It contains a few drops of a thick, red fluid.

 

“You must drink all of this, every single drop.  Will you do that for me?”

 

He holds the glass to my lips and gently tips the contents over my tongue.  It flows like the ichor of the gods, burning away the pain and weakness.  I swallow the taste of unbelievable power, and it thrums through my veins, cutting through the tendrils of poison that hold me so weak and infirm, preventing any hope of healing, less even than a human.  My heart may not beat like yours, but this essence of life rides the rhythms of my own particular magic, mending and renewing my charred flesh.

 

He stands and watches, clearly pleased with himself, as my body twists and writhes on his bed in a completion as all-consuming as the act of procreation.

 

When I’m capable of something approaching thought, he pulls one of the bent cane chairs up to the bed.

 

“That’s better,” he approves, with a look of genuine pleasure.  “Do you know what happened to you?”

 

“Do you?”

 

“Wesley poisoned you with concentrated Trigon poison.  You only killed one in Sunnydale, didn’t you?”

 

“How do you know?”

 

He doesn’t answer, just presses on.  “The Trigon you killed was looking for its brothers.  Wesley killed the other two outside Sunnydale.  He has the knowledge to augment and concentrate their poison.  He really hates you.  He’s determined to kill you.”

 

“How do you know all this?”

 

“I know many things, Angelus.  You are saved, now.  You should sleep for a while.”

 

“I don’t want to sleep.  I want you to tell me...”

 

He holds up his finger, a schoolmaster imposing discipline on an unruly student.  “We have already agreed that you have put your faith in me.  So, you need to rest now, and you will sleep.” 

 

This new thing in my blood answers to him, and lies down, a lion to the lion master’s whip.

 

++

 

I keep checking my phone but there’s nothing.  They said they would call, but there’s no news.  I’m going after Wesley tonight.  He has to know what’s happened to Angelus, and I’m going to find out exactly what he knows.  I’d like some company with that, and that means telling my friends.

 

So, at lunch break, I ask them to come and eat outside with me. 

 

The air is filled with the scent of the empress trees in full flower, and the gentler fragrance of the cherry trees.  It reminds me how much I love spring.  She did, too, but a closer inspection of that memory tells me that, at my age, her springs were always followed by an apocalypse.  I thought there could only ever be one apocalypse, that it was a sort of singularity.  Will I, like her, have to learn the plural of apocalypse?  Should I ask the English teacher what the word is, before or after I ask about the word ‘salacious’? 

 

I realise that Xander’s been saying something, while I’ve been thinking of apocalypsi.

 

“I said, for those of us paying attention, are we all gate-crashing the Bronze tonight?  You’re playing, aren’t you, Oz?”

 

“No.”

 

Oz is nothing if not laconic.

 

“There’s something different I want to do tonight,” I tell them.  “I’d like some help with it.”

 

“Ooh, the Buffster’s got an interesting plan!”  Xander flails his arms around and catches the passing Cordelia on the thigh, making her drop her soda.  She looks at him as though he’s an ant at a picnic.  Nothing new there, then.

 

“An interesting plan?” she asks, her tone withering.  “To get under my feet?  You’re lucky that didn’t get on my shoes.  They’re Italian imports.”

 

She stalks off to join her hangers-on.

 

“Queen Cordelia, guaranteed to throw a damper on anything!  Come on, Buffster, the Xan man wants to know what fun and frolics you’ve got lined up for us.”

 

It’s harder to explain than I thought it would be.

 

“You know all those horror movies you like to watch, Xan?  Zombies and werewolves,” I glance at Oz, wondering whether he’ll be bitten this time round, “and vampires and scantily dressed women?”

 

Willow and Tara chuckle at Xander’s panting.

 

“Oh, yes!  Movie night at Xander’s?” he asks.

 

“I still have the scars of the last time,” I tell him acidly.  “No.  Um.  Well, it’s all true.  Except maybe for the scantily dressed women.”

 

Willow and Tara don’t say anything, just glance at each other.  It’s Oz who asks, “How do you know?”

 

“Um.  There are some of them living in Sunnydale.”

 

Everybody’s paying attention now, with Xander sitting up like an eager puppy.

 

“And our mission is..?” he asks.

 

“To save one of the vampires.”

 

“Yes!  Great new game!  Can I be IT?  Me for the vampire!”

 

Willow tugs at his sleeve.  “I think Buffy really means it.”

 

“I really do.”

 

I expect to be laughed at, but I’m not.  I wonder whether some residual memory remains among these friends, hidden away, but predisposing them to believe...

 

“Why does a vampire need saving instead of staking?” Willow asks.

 

“There are people called Watchers, who look out for Vampire Slayers.  There’s a Watcher in town, and he’s hunted this vampire, who’s disappeared.”

 

“What’s wrong with that?  Isn’t that what they should do?” Xander asks, puzzled.

 

“This vampire has been watching the backs of Slayers for a hundred years, when there weren’t any Watchers to do it.  He deserves a chance.”

 

“How do you know this, Buffy?”  Tara’s gentle voice is anxious.

 

“Because I’ve met them both.”

 

“How did you get involved?”  That’s more words than Oz has used all day.

 

“Um.  Because I’m the current Slayer.”

 

“What!”  Xander falls over backwards, lying mock-dead on the grass, and everyone stares at me really hard.

 

++

 

When I wake up, I know it’s early morning although the drapes are still tightly closed.  Someone, presumably Servas, has covered me over with a quilt.  I feel... good.  Muscles slide sensuously as I stretch, luxuriating in this very comfortable bed, unwilling to abandon it just yet.  I’m completely healed, whole, and I have all my strength back, I’m sure.  Just then, Servas comes in, with the same ancient silver rhyton, which he offers to me.  It’s full of blood again.  When I drink, I can taste an added extra, and I quirk an eyebrow at him.

 

“Just a drop or two of what you had yesterday,” he reassures me.  “To make sure that there’s nothing left of Wesley’s poison.”

 

“What is it?” I ask him.

 

“A recipe of my own.  Come on, it’s safe for you to get up, if you feel well enough.”

 

Nothing will make me say that I don’t feel well enough.  I toss back the quilt and swing my legs out.  I’ve never been shy.

 

Servas looks me over critically.  “Yes, perfectly healed.  That’s good.”

 

Then he turns and draws the drapes, allowing sunlight to stream in through the window.  In a blur of motion, I leap to one side, out of the path of the deadly rays.

 

“What the hell are you doing?  You save me one day and try to burn me the next?”

 

Are you burned?”

 

I’m not.  I can’t believe it, but I’m not.

 

He gestures to the window.  “Necro-tempered glass.  Perfectly safe for vampires.” 

 

He holds his hand out to me, inviting me to join him.  I step tentatively into the light.  He’s right.  I’m safe.  And we’re very high up, at the top of what must be the tallest building in town.  The town isn’t Sunnydale.  It’s unmistakeable.  It’s New York.  How in Hell did he get me here?  How long did it take?

 

“What day is it today?”

 

“It’s the day after Wesley torched you.  Now, don’t ask me to give up all my secrets just yet.  There’s time enough for that.”  He gestures to the cityscape outside.  “Glorious, isn’t it?  So many people, so much potential...”

 

I can’t but agree.

 

“Now,” he asks, “what shall we do today?”

 

“Getting me some clothes would be favourite, and then, grateful as I am, I ought to get back home.”

 

“Really?  Must you?  On both counts...”

 

He moves to stand behind me, his hands on my shoulders, his body pressed up to my back.  He’s very interested.  The question is, am I?  Oh, it’s not a gender issue.  Vampires tend to be pretty gender neutral, in that sense.  No, perhaps not gender neutral.  We do have our preferences.  But, they aren’t as fixed as yours tend to be, and sex for us is about pleasure, power and bonding.  He’s looking for pleasure, which is fine by me, and perhaps bonding.  Mutual bonds of friendship would seem to be a good thing to share with my saviour – and with a creature that has necro-tempered glass.  And I’ve got nowhere to go as long as it’s daylight.  But what if he’s interested in power?  Who gets the dominance?

 

But he’s very beautiful, and I’m definitely responding.  He’s running his hands down my arms, and sliding them onto my waist and down over my hips.  I grasp them in my own.

 

“Maybe later, Servas.”

 

“Of course.  Let’s get to know each other a bit.  I understand.”  He doesn’t take his hands off me.

 

“And I do need to get home.”

 

“Ah, yes.  To Buffy.  She’ll be safe, you know.  Wesley has no intentions of killing her.  That’s not what Watcher’s do.”

 

“How do you know so much?”

 

“I know a lot of things.  I’d like to help you.  There are many ways in which I could help you.”

 

“Well, the first way you can help me is in getting some clothes.  Please.”

 

“Of course.  Excuse me.”

 

Only then does he let go of me.  He leaves the room, closing the door behind him, leaving me to watch the people scurrying past, so very far below us in this high place.

 

When he comes back he tells me that someone will be along later today, with an outfit that should fit me.  He’s not my size, but he offers me a red silk dressing gown.

 

“You’re feeling guilty about Wesley, about the fact that you should have made him into something different than he is.  You shouldn’t take it as your responsibility, you know.  I can...”  He turns to look me full in the face.  “If you want, I can help you there.  I can make sure that he is more... accepting...  And I could make it that you don’t have Father Robert chastising you for another perceived failure.”

 

He stands up.  “I have to go out for a little while.  There’s a bathroom over there,” he points to a door on the far side of the room, “if you want to clean up.  I suggest you don’t go outside this room.  So far, it’s the only one with necro-tempered glass, and it’s a very sunny day.”

 

And he’s gone, leaving me speechless.  Who exactly is Servas, and how does he know so much about me?  I hear a door close in the distance.  He’s gone.  I open the door to the next room.  He’s quite right.  The room is flooded with light through huge picture windows.  I shower down, and wash my hair, and then stand at the necro-tempered glass, watching the world go by.  And thinking of how I can separate Buffy from Wesley, while at the same time saving the Watcher.

 

++

 

They haven’t all fallen over laughing, and they do agree to come with me to Wesley’s place this evening.  I think they expect some really big joke to come at the end of this, but at least they are coming.

 

The afternoon drags by, one of those long, warm spring afternoons, with cherry blossom petals drifting past the window.  Somehow, those petals are more interesting than what I’m supposed to be learning.  Do you think that she’s left me any memories of how to pass my SATs? 

 

After school, I can’t wait to get to the mansion.  It’s Ezrafel himself who answers the door.

 

“Any news,” I ask, breathlessly, telling myself that’s from the run here, not from fear.  Never that.  Angelus doesn’t mean that much to me.  Really.  He just deserves a chance, that’s all.  But my heart sinks at his next words.

 

“None, Mistress.  Come in, please.”

 

“I can’t stay.”

 

“Nor should you.  But you might wish to speak to Ixolon directly.”

 

He leads me through into the main hall.  I’m noisier than him on the marble floor.  He doesn’t offer to take me into the room we sat in before, but Ixolon appears almost straight away.  I think they might have expected me.  Ixolon looks grey with exhaustion.  He cuts straight to the chase.

 

“I’m sorry, Buffy.  We cannot find him.  But we are sure he still lives, because all trace of him after he left Sunnydale  is... shielded.  It isn’t that he is absent.  He is... negative.  I do not know how better to explain it.”

 

His expression is closed.

 

“There’s more, isn’t there?”

 

He sighs.  “Yes.  We are afraid that our efforts have been detected.  That whoever or whatever has him knows that we are searching.  If that is so, it might bring greater harm to him.”

 

“Or it might bring harm back to you.”  That seems obvious to me.  Some sort of mystical backlash.  Her memories tell me that these things have happened before.

 

“That is of no moment.  I am considering calling for Silene, another member of our clan.  She is better than any of us at this work, but it will take her some time to get here.”

 

“Hold off on that for a few hours.  I’m going to tackle Wesley tonight.  He was the last one we know about to see Angelus, so he’s the place to start.”

 

“Would you like some from here to accompany you?”

 

“No!  No...  I don’t want him to know you’re all here.  You understand I might not be able to keep you safe?”

 

They both accord that a small smile, perhaps thinking it sounds like bravado from a sixteen year old.  But these demons are no threat to anyone, and I will not let them be hurt.

 

I shoulder my school bag again.  “We’ll talk later.”  And then I’m off.

 

I have to go home for something to eat, or Mom will be calling the school or the police, but I meet up with my friends again in the early evening and pay a visit to Wesley’s.  I haven’t said anything to them about past lives, and the nature of the vampire we’re looking for – or even the nature of the Watcher we’re going to see.  There’s time enough for that later.  Still they’re as curious as a carload of monkeys, and on the way there, I have to show them some of my abilities as Slayer.  Unfortunately, it’s in a very practical way.  We’re cutting through the more remote areas of Tall Towers Park, round about the series of pillar-like crags that gives it its name, when a thing lunges out at us.  Luckily, I’m in front.  The bigger they come, the harder they fall.  One punch knocks it on its ass.

 

“Have you submitted to Angelus?” I demand.  I don’t know what form of words he uses, but this should be close enough.  “Do you respect his rules?”

 

All I get is a roar, and the thing is back on its feet.  I remember it from one of his drawings.  Maybe he was expecting it to come.  It’s a Thraxis demon.  His notes say that one of these killed a Slayer.  I’d better be careful, especially since all I have in the way of weapons is a stake.

 

As it turns out, I was wrong about that.  The fight is a bit of a blur, because this thing is big, and strong, and covered in shiny little scales that make it hard to get a grip.  I make a flying approach, ramming the stake into its midriff, where its heart is.  But, it knocks me to one side, and the stake slips between its ribs, painful but not deadly.  It lunges again, not the lightest thing on its feet, but I sidestep quickly, and then kick as hard as I can.  I’ve got high-heeled boots on, and my heel is buried deep into the front of its skull.  Angelus hadn’t thought of that as a method of slaying.  Glad I can still show him a trick or two.

 

Now that it’s quiet, Xander and Oz bring Willow and Tara out from behind one of the crags, where they’d been hiding.  Xander makes a big deal of telling me that they were guarding the girls, but he needn’t be embarrassed about it.  They were, and I’m glad of it.

 

“Yeah,” I smile.  “Next one’s yours.”

 

Oz just stands and looks down at the body.  “That’s... really weird,” he says.  “And big.”

 

It’s a first for us all.  Their first demon, and my first kill.  Somehow, I wish Angelus had been there to see it, except he’d probably have stepped in.

 

“Um, shouldn’t we get rid of it, somehow?”  Willow, ever practical.  Years ago, Willow and Tara together could have magicked this thing into its component molecules, or whatever, but not now, not yet.

 

“Xander, Oz, can you drag it unto the undergrowth.  Maybe Wesley knows somewhere to stash it.  We’ll ask him.”

 

“Maybe he knows the same place he’s stashed your missing vamp.  We’ll make him tell.”  Xander motions a hand round his throat and makes strangled noises.

 

But, it’s not to be.  Wesley isn’t home.  I play with the idea of breaking in, but I really don’t imagine that Angelus is in there.

 

“Come on, guys, I’ll take you to the factory.  He might be there.”

 

He isn’t there either, but we search around.  My friends are silent when they see the pit of stakes.  Oz finds a piece of cashmere coat snagged on the collapsed wall.  It’s charred, and there isn’t much of it, but it’s a miracle he found anything at all, in the dark.  And it’s away from the pit.

 

He finds another piece a few yards further on, and then where the scrubland is encroaching at the back of the factory, he finds the burned remnants of a different coat.  Even I can see that it’s different, because it’s a different colour.  Angelus’ coat was dark navy blue.  This other one is brown.

 

“I don’t know how you two can see anything in this mess, and at night,” Xander grumbles.  “Me and the girls are just stumbling around, and you two are making like creatures of the night.”

 

He’s right.  I know why I can see at night, but what about Oz?  Should I ask him about recent dog bites?  One of her memories pops up, of needing to keep Oz in a cage at full moon, until he learned to control it.  What about now?  What has carried over, or will he have to learn it all again?  Another memory pops up.  I wish Giles were here.  And I really do.

 

Still, I’m as sure as I can be that Angelus made it out of the factory, maybe with help.  But, if so, where is he, and who helped him?  And why don’t his household know about it?

 

As if on cue, my cellphone quivers in my pocket.  It’s a text, from Ezrafel.  It just says ‘Come.’

 

“Listen, guys, I’ve got to go.  Go straight home.  I’ll fix the demon in the park – don’t go back there, in case there’s another.  See you tomorrow.”

 

“Don’t forget that history test,” Willow warns me.  History?  I’m walking history.  Why do I need tests?

 

“Sure thing, Will.”

 

And I’m off, running as fast as I can, to the mansion.

 

++

 

Servas returns late in the day, as the sunset paints lines of purple and orange fire behind the darkening cityscape.  When he comes into the room, he has another horn of blood for me.  It’s absolutely fresh, and it’s human.  I ought to ask where it came from, but it’s too enjoyable to quibble.  I’ve slept for part of the time, but I’m used to rising in the early afternoon.  So, I’m tense after a day spent cooped up and this blood is good.  I feel as though I’m jumping out of my skin.

 

“Aren’t you eating, too?”

 

“Soon, Angelus, soon.”

 

I wonder what he does eat.  Whatever he is, he isn’t a vampire.

 

I pass the beautiful old horn back to him, but carelessly.  The longest silver tine on the deer’s antlers catches against my wrist.  It’s sharp, and it draws blood from a long cut.  It’s nothing, but he eyes it carefully.

 

“May I?”

 

I nod, unsure what he means to do, but he takes my hand, his long, elegant fingers curling over mine, and he lifts my wrist to his mouth.  The cut is already closing at the ends, but he presses his lips around the deepest part and sucks, gently.

 

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before what an effect being drunk from has on a vampire, and that effect isn’t lacking now, even for so small an amount.  He sucks harder, his tongue powerful against my skin, and he must hear the sharp intake of breath as he calls on something in my blood, and my erection hardens.

 

He lifts his head from the almost-healed wound, his dark eyes brilliant, dragging me into the depths of his gaze.

 

“Allow me to make you more comfortable,” he murmurs. 

 

I don’t resist as he unties the dressing gown, and pushes it off my shoulders, then he sinks to his knees at my feet.  He nuzzles against my belly, and then bends lower, taking me into his mouth.  He’s warm.  He is so warm, so fiery, that I could come on the spot from the sheer fever heat of him.

 

I grasp his shoulders to steady myself, my fingers digging into muscles that seem too hard for his graceful frame as he works me with diligent lips and gentle teeth.  And then his tongue, much more muscular than a human’s, wraps around me, stroking and tugging, and gripping me in an entirely inhuman way that has me sucking in air just like a living man.

 

And he has his reward as the rhythms of completion crash through me, and the pressure of my fingers must be painful even through the cloth of his jacket.  But he doesn’t stop, those lips, that tongue, caressing, pressing me into the back of his throat, swallowing me down, milking me of every single drop of fluid. 

 

And still he sucks and tugs and tongues, bringing waves of ice and fire that make me shout out as they shade into real pain. Only then does he let me go.  He looks up at me, his eyes shining in the shadows.  Gently, he takes my hands and lifts them off his shoulders as he stands up, with the ease and grace of a dancer.

 

“Come,” he says, “lie down a little while,” as he leads me back towards the bed.  I’m pleased to do as he suggests, because my legs have definitely lost their strength.  “Excuse me a moment,” he asks, with old-fashioned courtesy, and he walks to the door.  He opens it, but then he stops to look back, his head high, all his attention focussed on me.  Then he smiles and is gone.

 

Not for long.  When he returns, he’s still wearing the russet brown suit of finest worsted.  March in New York is not the time for anything lighter.  But I’m surprised he’s wearing anything at all.

 

I’m lounging back against a large tapestry bolster that serves as a headboard, watching as he steps carefully over the thick green carpet.  A trick of the dying light seems to make him fade into the background of rustling leaves and swaying trees on the wallpaper.

 

And then he’s seated on the bed next to me.  He has something in his hand.  It’s the tiny glass with a few drops of red liquid in.

 

“Do you still place your faith in me, Angelus?”

 

It’s an odd way to phrase the question, but I’ve no reason to think I shouldn’t.

 

“Yes, of course I do.  Twenty four hours ago I would have been ash if you hadn’t helped me.”

 

“And I am anxious to help you further.  So, I ask again, will you put your trust in me?”

 

“Yes... Yes, I will.  I’d like to hear how you think you can help.”

 

“Good.  Firstly, Wesley and his poison.  I gave you something to counteract what he had done to you, and then you had another dose, to make sure there were no lingering effects.  Now, I want you to take a third dose, to guard against anything that Wesley might manage to do when you return.  Will you take it?”

 

Mutely, I hold out my hand for the glass, and drink it down.

 

“Every drop,” he warns, and I clean out the glass with my finger, licking off the thick liquid.  It’s almost the same as last time, just a little different.  And then the fire hits me.  I feel him take the glass from my hand, and I feel him stretch out beside me, and then my thoughts are too scattered, circulating around the power carving its way through my veins, to be aware of more.

 

My body twists and writhes, following the course of that magical ichor as it fills every artery, every vein, every tiniest capillary, flooding every cell with a sparkling, scintillating heat.  He rolls over onto me, holding me down, the cloth of his suit titillating every nerve ending in my super-sensitized skin.  I feel as though my skin is sweating stars, my spirit weeping flame, and then he pushes himself down my body.  His hands slide over every plane and sweep of muscle, over the rise and fall of bone, over flesh that wants to grasp his hands and make them never stop.

 

Once more, he takes my cock in his mouth, and the heat of him makes me roar, as he uses those lips and teeth, and that curling, enveloping tongue.  I can’t help it, I rise up against him, my back arched upwards, pressing harder, deeper, further towards the overwhelming sensation.  He renews his efforts, suckling harder, longer, tonguing me backwards down his throat.  And then one hand moves to my balls, my anus, and he presses there and moves my cock so and suckles so, and I am lost.

 

He doesn’t stop. He counterpoints each contraction, prolonging and deepening every explosive expulsion, and still he won’t stop.  His fire is still thrumming through my blood, burning through my ejaculation, but he keeps drawing it from me until the ice and fire are too great to bear, too far into pain.  And still he pulls, on and on, until my body is strengthless and quiescent, my breathing harsh and laboured and useless, and my dick withers up in self-defence.

 

He lies quietly for a moment, and then stands up beside me.  He’s holding my hand.

 

“Stay.  Let your body recover.  Sleep a little.  I shall return shortly, and we will talk.”

 

The lion in my blood rolls over into the shade, tamed, and falls into sleep.  So do I.

 

When I wake up, he has one hand on my hip, and the other stroking my balls.  I’m not entirely sure I’ll be ready for anything just yet.  I reach up and run my fingers down the bulge in his trousers.

 

“Your turn, surely?”

 

“Later.”

 

He’s not human, although he looks it, but perhaps he’s very different under that suit.  Well, just as gender isn’t such a problem for us, neither is species, provided there are enough similarities.  He feels similar enough, but as he said, perhaps later.  His hands haven’t moved away, though.  Perhaps he’s testing out the recuperative powers of vampires.

 

No sooner thought than done, but he stands back and walks over to the window, gazing out at the skyline, where moonlight and stars have been subsumed by a rainbow of neon.

 

“There’s a storm coming,” he says, suddenly, still with his back towards me.

 

“Not unusual, in March.”

 

“Not that sort of storm.  Something bigger.  We must all be ready, when we find out what it is.”

 

I get up and walk over to his side.

 

“I’m ready for anything.  What do you know?”

 

“Not much.”  He turns to face me, his presence real and powerful.  “Shall we see what we can find out together?”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Will you give me ten minutes, to prepare?”

 

“Of course.”

 

While he’s gone, I shower and generally freshen up.  I put the silk dressing gown on, but don’t fasten it.  Let what happen will.

 

When he comes back, he’s still wearing the russet suit, even the waistcoat, but now he’s carrying a large silver bowl, full of water.  He sets the bowl down on a small table.

 

“You have enemies, Angelus, but you also have friends.  Shall we spy on some of them?  Shall we see how I can help you?”

 

“I’d like to know what Wesley is up to.  And when did you say those clothes were being delivered?”

 

His smile is disarming.  “Sometime very soon, I hope, or I shall want to know why.  Now, bring up those chairs, and let us see.”

 

We seat ourselves on opposite sides of the table, a thick piece of polished timber on what seems to be a small forest of interwoven branches.  The bowl itself is more a species of chalice, the cup carried on the backs of two rearing stags.  Their heads are thrown up, their spreading antlers enclosing the rim.

 

“Please?”  He holds his hand out towards mine, and I let him take it.  He swipes my thumb onto one of the razor sharp tines, and then lifts it to his lips, drinking from the deep cut.  He watches as the wound heals and then squeezes until one more drop of blood appears.  He keeps squeezing until that single red bead falls into the clear water.  Dropping my hand, he passes his own palm over the water, murmuring words in a language that is unfamiliar to me.

 

“See, Angelus.”

 

Wesley’s image is in the water.  He’s making love to Lilah.  I don’t really want to see him mixed up with someone who’s probably still under contract to Wolfram and Hart, but if he’s doing that, he isn’t with Buffy.

 

No sooner does Buffy’s image rise in my mind than it’s matched by the one in the chalice.  She’s fighting a Thraxis demon.  I half rise in horror, knowing that I must get to her, knowing that I could never reach her in time.  And then I get a rush of pride when she finds her own unique way of slaying it, even if it does take a minute to get her boot heel out of its forehead.

 

Xander is with her, and Willow and Tara.  The girls’ images sparkle in the water.

 

“That’s their nascent magic you can see,” Servas remarks.

 

I knew it would be so.  And Oz is there, wrapped around by a grey shade.  He’s already been bitten, then, and very recently.  I calculate when the next full moon will be.  He will probably need my help.

 

My attention goes back to Wesley and Lilah, and once again the scene in the chalice changes.  They are stretched out together, talking.  I wish there were sound as well as vision.  This is really bad.  He was halfway to putting his father’s teachings behind him before he met her in the last life.  He still fell in love with her, but it didn’t stop him from fighting for right.  What will happen now?

 

Servas stands up and moves behind me, his hands on my shoulders.

 

“See what I can do?  I can show you the secrets of everyone’s heart.”

 

Suddenly, Father Robert appears in the water.  He’s deep in thought in his study in the Alchemist’s School, his chin resting on his fist.  Showing faint around him is an image of Aurelius.  Servas bends close to my ear.

 

“The priest plans to set you and Aurelius against each other.  Believe me.”

 

I think I do.  He’s certainly got something weighty on his mind concerning my clan master.

 

The image changes.  It’s Giles.

 

“If ever he found out what you had done, killing his wife and child to free him to come to you, do you think he would forgive you a second time?  I can remove that.  I can make sure it no longer matters to him.”

 

I’m weak enough to think I’d like that.  Only much, much later do I think to ask how he knew that, because somehow I didn’t let that out to appear in the chalice.  By then, though, it’s far too late.  But that wasn’t now.

 

“What do you want in return?”

 

There’s always a price, after all.  His hands slide over my naked skin, promising more pleasures soon to come.

 

“Nothing that you haven’t already done or plan to do.  You can trust me.  Together, we can make the world as it should be.” 

 

Wouldn’t that be nice...

 

No!  It would not!

 

Something is struggling inside me, crying faintly to be heard.  It’s Angel.

 

You idiot!  Do you get more stupid as you get older?  Why do you believe him?  He’s seducing you!

 

Well, duh...  Not resisting here.

 

Angel’s voice strengthens, and he gives me a mental slug on the jaw.

 

Yes, and he’s poisoned you, just as surely as Wesley did.  Can’t you feel it?  Reach down into your blood.  What has he put into you?  It’s still there, you know...

 

Yes, it is.  I don’t know what it is, but it’s full of power.  But he’s told me...

 

He’s told you what? Angel rages.  Has he really told you who he is, or did you just hear what you wanted to hear?  He’s not about doing something for you!  He’s about doing things for himself.  He’s evil!   Look around you!  Just look!

 

Never, since I recovered him from the hell that had swallowed him, has he seemed so strong.  Not strong enough to supplant me, but definitely more alive.  Is it possible that he’s drawing on the power of whatever Servas gave me to drink?

 

Holding on to Angel’s anger, I look around me.  I mean, really look, just as he demanded.  We could be sitting in a forest... the stags supporting the chalice... the stag rhyton... the power of Servas... the scent of him... the look of him, his grace and elegance and strength... that muscular tongue...

 

Servas...

 

Damn.  If I’m not careful, I will be.  Damned, that is.  It’s as though scales have fallen from my eyes.  Angel was right.  I’ve been seduced and poisoned.

 

I lift his hands from my chest, and stand up to face him.

 

“You almost had me fooled,” I tell him.  “Servas.  I just assumed...  But it isn’t Servas, is it?  It’s Cervus.  Isn’t that so?”

 

Cervus is the name scientists have given to the different species of deer.

 

“Cervus.  A deer.  A hart.  Tell me you aren’t The Hart.”

 

Remember?  Wolfram and Hart.  A hart is simply a deer over five years old.

 

He doesn’t say anything, which tells me all I need to know.  I’ve been played.  I think.  Another possibility occurs to me.

 

“Or... You aren’t the White Hart are you?”  That creature has visited a few times, always, I think, at the behest of The Lady.

 

His face contorts into a sneer.  “My sainted brother?  Oh no, I’m not him.  He’s given himself over to Her, a messenger for where other messengers can’t go.  Loser.”

 

Brother?  That startles me.  There’s another important question that needs resolution.

 

“I’ve got a very clear memory that you agreed never to come to this dimension again.  That was part of the Treaty of Los Angeles.  What are you doing here now?  I’d like to know before I kick your ass back to your mother.”

 

That’s definitely bravado.  Without a weapon, I’d have a real problem.  But, I’m unharmed, and he’s tried to cozen me, not kill me.  I don’t think he wants me dead, or he would just have let me burn at Wesley’s factory.

 

He shrugs.  “I’m actually here on an entirely peaceful mission, if you can believe that.  I set up a base here, not in Los Angeles, in deference to that agreement.  This is only temporary.  My mother sent me.  She wants you to go back.”

 

What?

 

The Dark Lady is the Hart’s dam, and my owner and tormentor for a century.  I remember the forced couplings with shame and revulsion.  Never again.  I swear.  Never again.  But, I’ve also sworn to go back in the future and to bring her down, to rescue her people, especially the soldiers who served me in the army there.  That return will be on my terms, not hers.

 

“Why does she want me to go back?”

 

“I suggest you ask her.  I don’t know the reasons for everything she does.”

 

I can believe that.

 

“Tell her no.  I won’t be her slave again.”

 

“Maybe she doesn’t want that.”

 

I remember her Consorts, reduced to nothing but a pair of penises embedded in her, ready to serve her.  “She couldn’t imagine anything else.  So, I suggest you get the hell out of here, back to your own dimension.  There’s nothing to profit you here.”

 

He coughs delicately.  “I have to remind you that you have taken an oath to me.”

 

“You’re lying.”

 

“Well, no.  I’m not.  Three times, I asked you if you would put your faith in me, and three times you said yes.  You know the power of three in magic.  Third time’s the charm, isn’t that what you say?”

 

“That wasn’t an oath!”

 

“Wasn’t it?”

 

I’m trying to keep the fear out of my scent.  “What was that shit you gave me?”

 

“That ‘shit’ saved your life.”

 

“Yes, but you gave me three lots.  A recipe of your own, you said.”

 

Three times.  That’s the number to seal a thing in magic.

 

“Didn’t you recognise it?  Definitely my own recipe.  A drop or two of my blood, another few drops of blood from my antler velvet, oh, and a small incantation.”

 

I definitely may finish up damned from this.  His blood...  No wonder it was so powerful.  These demons have been feeding on the power of Illyria’s kin, the God-Kings, for millennia.  I don’t know what hold on me that’s given him.  I remember with a chill the blood he’s taken from me with my permission.  An exchange of blood... That might very well come back to haunt me.  There were... other fluids... given to him, too.  Surely that can’t hurt?  But I have to get out of here.

 

“Tell her definitely no.  And I’m leaving.”

 

He steps back to the door and locks it with a gesture.  “I don’t think so.  Besides, Angelus, we’ve had such good times, this last day or so.”

 

I push past him.  The door is shut solid.  Spelled, I guess.  I take off the dressing gown – I don’t want anything of his that I don’t have to carry with me, and that makes me think that perhaps Aurelius can drain me and remake me to get rid of what he’s put in me – and then I square up to him.

 

Before he can move, I take a dive for the necro-tempered glass.  It may be proof against the killing rays of the sun, but it isn’t proof against me.  It shatters, and I’m free, and falling.

 

++

 

Ezrafel is waiting for me at the turn-off to the mansion.

 

“I didn’t know whether your friends would come with you,” he apologises.

 

“I won’t bring them here until they’re ready,” I reassure him. 

 

For most people in Sunnydale, the mansion has been occupied for generations by the same reclusive family, with equally reclusive servants.  It was burnt down a decade ago, and the site sold to an even more reclusive billionaire who had it rebuilt exactly as was.  And it’s a building of outstanding historical interest, designed by some famous architect, so everyone was pleased to see it back again.  That’s what my friends think, if they think about it at all.  With Wesley in town, let’s leave it that way.

 

He tells me what I need to hear.  “Angelus has called.  He’s on his way home.”

 

He stops, but that isn’t all the story.  His honest face is written over with worry.

 

“Tell me the rest.”

 

“He said very little.  When he gets back from New York, perhaps he will tell us both together.”

 

I remember that Ezrafel is the archivist for Clan Aurelius.  Like Watchers, he writes everything down.  Then what he has said actually registers.

 

New York?

 

“Yes.”

 

“Is he flying back?”

 

“No.  He doesn’t have... anything with him.  No money, no credit cards.” 

 

No Gem of Amara, I think he was going to say.  Air flights are dangerous for vampires.

 

“Does he need fetching?”

 

Ezrafel smiles wryly.

 

“No.  He has... borrowed... a car.”

 

“Borrowed?”  Even I can hear the accusation in my question.

 

“Yes, Mistress.  But he said to tell you that the previous owner has no further use for it, and that he was a bad, bad man, who will commit his evil no more.”

 

I have to smile at his anxious face.  Her memories hurt for Angelus, if he’s killing again, but she squared her shoulders to face the fact that he couldn’t be changed completely.  And then the most important memory in the world opens up to me.  Her dying wish, that he try for redemption, and his surprising vow to her that he would.  I want to know what has happened.

 

“Ezrafel, have you chronicled the time since... her... death?  The things that Angelus has done?”

 

He fidgets, but he answers me.  “Yes, Mistress.  But it is a chronicle that I cannot show you.  Ask me anything but that.  If you wish to know, you must ask him to tell you.”

 

I’m surprised.  Seventeen years, most of it spent backing-up or training Slayers.  What could be so secret?  But he’s right.

 

“Thank you, Ezrafel.  That’s a very proper answer.  I will ask him.”  That doesn’t make him look any happier.

 

“Do you wish for some refreshment, Mistress?”

 

“No, thank you.  I have to get home.  And please stop calling me ‘mistress’.”

 

He doesn’t answer.

 

“Ezrafel, I am not your mistress.  I don’t know what the future holds.  If ever I do join the household, then perhaps you can call me ‘Mistress’ then.  But otherwise, can we agree that until then, you will call me Buffy?  Is that a deal?”

 

“Yes, Mi... Buffy.”

 

“Great!  Will you let me know when Angelus gets home?”

 

“Of course.  He asked me to tell you something else.  I am to prepare the cage in the basement...”

 

He falters at my sharp look, but then puts his hand on my arm reassuringly.

 

“For your friend, Oz.  Angelus says that he has been bitten now, even if he does not know it.  He wants the cage ready for the full moon.  He said that he will talk to you about Oz as soon as he gets back.”

 

I nod.  “Yes.  I thought so, too...  Please.  Make the cage as comfortable as you can.”  There’ll be no better place for Oz during his change.  As I turn for the road, he calls after me again.

 

“Buffy!  I am sorry.  I almost forgot.  You are to stay away from Wesley.  You are to give me your promise on that.  Please.  Don’t make me have to explain to him...”

 

“Just until he explains himself to me, then.  Fine.  Oh, and there’s a Thraxis corpse in Tall Towers Park.  Could someone, you know, dispose of them?  I haven’t got that sort of thing sorted yet.”

 

“My pleasure.  It was a Thraxis who took the first Slayer after you.  Aurelius killed it, but... not before she had taken Oz and Nina.”

 

She hadn’t known that, of course.  A Slayer.  A loose cannon, if she doesn’t have knowledge of what’s what and who’s who.  Oz and Nina had fought so many times to save people.  Unfair...  It’s a while before I think to ask myself why Aurelius killed it.  Where was Angelus at the time, that Aurelius was caretaking the Hellmouth?  But I have no answer to that.  Yet.

 

I set off for home, wondering how to tell Oz what I’ve just agreed for him.  And understanding that the Slayer in the park not so many nights ago was also a loose cannon.  So is Wesley.

 

I’ve been bombarded with questions from the gang since the night we hunted for Wesley.  I’ve avoided most of them, partly because I don’t have the answers, and partly because I don’t know how much to say, how much to introduce them to this new, dangerous world.  If we’re all back together, it can’t just be coincidence, there must be a purpose.  But I know so little myself.

 

They’ve been on patrol with me at night.  There should be very little danger, really, since Angelus has the place under control, and their presence might keep Wesley away for a day or two.  There’s only one demon to slay, a slimy thing full of tentacles that has one of those tentacles wrapped around Tara’s neck before I even saw it.  I should have brought a kitchen knife, or something, but I only have a stake.  Xander starts beating at its body with a fallen branch, while I’m trying to find an internal organ that will curl up and die when staked.  I’m not having much luck, and Tara is fainting from lack of breath and Xander is screaming like a banshee while he’s beating the crap out of it, and then Willow gets her house keys out, and starts sawing at the offending tentacle with the rough side of a Yale key.

 

I get there before she does, but not by much, as my stake finds a place that suddenly oozes purple blood, and the creature collapses.

 

We’re all flat out on the grass recuperating when a woman steps out of the shrubbery.  She’s carrying a sword.  She’s also a vampire.

 

I get to my feet, not really wanting to fight a sword-wielding vampire with only a stake in my hand, and covered in octopoid goo, but she doesn’t come any closer.

 

“I’m sorry I didn’t get here earlier.  Ezrafel sent me.  He’s been reluctant to send help because of Wesley, but so long as the Watcher isn’t here, one of us will shadow you until Angelus returns, and decides how we should proceed.”

 

She tosses me the sword.

 

“This is for you.  Ezrafel says that it does not matter if you break it.  It is a good, well-made sword, but not one of the most costly ones.  They are ready for you when you have learned how to use them.”

 

She starts to melt back into the shrubbery, but I stop her.

 

“Thank you...”  A name comes to me, not from my own memories.  “Thank you, Una.”

 

She grins with delight.  “Welcome back.”

 

And then she’s gone.  Of course, everyone wants to know what that was all about.  I pass it off as just an offer of help, but I know it isn’t going to go away, and I don’t like keeping them in the dark.  It would be so much easier, I think, without the danger of Wesley.  The next night brings me relief, though.

 

It’s a two day non-stop drive from New York, five days if you actually want to sleep on the way, and eat, and visit a rest room or two.  Angelus, of course, can’t drive during the day.  It still only takes him four nights, though.  On the fifth day, I get a text.

 

Eternal Rest Cemetery.  8.

 

When I get there, Angelus is perched on a tombstone.  He’s got two takeaway cups of coffee with him.  I hop up onto the tomb with the coffee cups between me and him.  You know how it is, when someone’s made you worry about them, and then suddenly reappears, all unconcerned?  You got it.  I scowl at him.

 

“What happened to you?  Everyone was worried.”

 

A shadow passes over his face, banished as soon as it came.

 

“I ran into a bit of trouble.  Nothing I couldn’t handle.”

 

“Is this bit of trouble going to turn up here, looking for you?  I’ve got people to protect, you know.”

 

He passes one of the cups to me.  “I don’t know,” he says, meekly, “but I don’t think it will be looking for anyone but me.”

 

“Is it anything to do with Wesley?” 

 

I don’t want a second Watcher-gone-wrong around here.  What I really want is Giles, and I don’t even know whether he’s alive again... or still.  No, probably not still.  Her memory gives me that answer.  Angelus ended Giles’ life, when that life became too burdensome.  Giles wanted that.

 

“No, it’s nothing to do with Wesley.”

 

“He tried to kill you though.  We found the factory burned out.”

 

“We?”

 

I explain what I’ve told the others, and what I haven’t told them.  Angelus simply nods.  Somehow I’d expected him to object.

 

“Look, I’m not going to sit here playing Twenty Questions.  What happened?”

 

He takes a long drink of his coffee, and then stares down into the depths of the cup.  I’m afraid he isn’t going to answer me, but he does.  I know it’s an expurgated version – I can just tell – about some demon godling wanting to seduce him to the dark side of the Force.  Somehow I don’t think I’m going to get a better version.  Not yet.

 

“Perhaps you’ll tell it all in more detail to me and Ezrafel?”

 

“Not yet.”

 

At least that wasn’t a no.  Then I push my luck, and when I see his reaction, I wish I hadn’t.

 

“I remembered about what she wanted you to do – to try for the redemption that Angel was promised.  You gave her your word.  How’s that been going?”

 

His expression contains more agony than when Wesley shoved a spongeful of holy water up against his chest.  And then it’s gone, but his expression is as closed and as cold as a stone.

 

“Please, Buffy.  Don’t make me talk about that.  Not yet.”

 

I don’t know whether he means her death, or what he’s been doing since.  But again, not with the no.  I think it’s her, the old Buffy, who prods me on.

 

“Angel, you’ll have to talk to me about it sometime.”

 

He doesn’t have time to answer.  Someone is walking up the path towards us.  It’s Wesley. 

 

++

 

Time has been given entirely too much credit.  It is not a great healer.  It is an indifferent and perfunctory one.  I have only to look back on any part of the seventeen years of her life to know that I have failed her utterly.  That hurts.  I thought that she deserved better than what I considered to be the damaged spineless Soul that is Angel.  But, he has proved more steadfast than me, more capable of controlling his nature.  And I have only to look a little deeper to find the five years of her time, and one hundred years of my time, in which I was the slave-general Angelus Abaddon, that slaughterer of nations.  I shall never heal from that wound, even if I had all the time in the world.

 

And now she wants me to tell her about my humiliation and failure.

 

It’s perhaps good fortune that Wesley chooses that moment to arrive.  Nevertheless, he’s still as welcome as a plague carrier.  He’s at his most arrogantly priggish.

 

“Buffy!  Get away from that creature!”

 

She stays where she is, sipping her coffee.  “Getting to know the local wildlife, Wes.”

 

I’m so taken with her defence of her position that I don’t even mind being called wildlife, but he’s not pleased at all.  His face flushes with anger and indignation.

 

“This is a dangerous beast, Buffy.  It looks like a man, but it isn’t a man.  It’s toying with you.  You must have no hesitation in killing the thing.”

 

“Too busy enjoying this coffee.”  She takes another deep drink.

 

I make my own contribution.  “Besides, Wes, you already tried to kill me.  Twice, even.  Got to give you credit, you almost made it last time.  Just this once, I won’t hold it against you, but we really need to talk.  How about something on neutral territory?”

 

“Never!”

 

“Tell you what, Wes, if we talk, properly and without preconceptions, I’ll fill in some of the blanks in your sources for the last hundred years.”

 

“It’s a good offer, Wes.  I’d like to sit in on that.”  Buffy gives me a sweet smile.

 

“Do I need to remind you that you are the Slayer, and you are under my authority as your Watcher?  Come here.  Immediately!”

 

“It was a good offer, Wes, and you really should consider it.”

 

I turn round, completely taken by surprise at the new voice.  It’s Father Robert.  He’s got two other people with him.

 

Buffy sees Giles first, and shock and pleasure war across her features.  She doesn’t know what to do or say, whether he recognises her or not.  But then she sees the other newcomer, and she cannot control herself.  She drops down from the tomb and runs to her, hugging the older woman to her.  It’s Dawn.

 

Gently, Dawn disengages herself, but only to hold her sister at arm’s length and look at her.

 

“Buffy?  Is it really you?”

 

Dawn strokes Buffy’s hair, pushing stray tendrils away from her face, and then pulls her back into her embrace.  Then it’s Buffy’s turn to want to examine her sister.

 

“I can’t believe it!  Dawn – you... you look... so young!”  She turns briefly to me.  “Does this mean that I’m the younger sister now?”

 

“You wish,” says Dawn tartly.

 

Oh, I can see fun and games ahead.  I’m looking forward to it.  But both Giles and Wes are at sea with developments.  I give Robert a questioning look, and he has the grace to look abashed.

 

“I was just going to bring Dawn, this time, but then I heard that Wesley was here...  So, we all travelled from Alchemy together.”

 

“Never mind, Robert...”

 

“No, I don’t,” he says.  “ ‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.’  Ecclesiastes.  It’s time for understanding now, because all too soon it will be time for choices.”

 

I try to see into the heart of him, testing his scent.  What did Cervus show me?  That Robert would try to set me and Aurelius against each other?  Is this the sort of choice he means?  And why?  Or did Cervus try to mislead me?

 

But now Wes takes a hand.  He stalks up, closing the distance between us and him, his finger pointing at Father Robert.

 

“You’re that damned parson, aren’t you?  The one who showed Morris the door at Alchemy.  A place that he set up!  He’s told me about you.  You’re housing dangerous creatures there, and perverting the minds of youngsters.”

 

“Is that how you see it, Wesley?  Well, here’s an offer from me.  Come back with me to Alchemy.  Come and see what it’s really like.  No preconditions.”

 

I watch the interplay of emotions on Wesley’s face.  He always wants to know everything, and this is an invitation that is calculated to appeal.  But he always has to know best.  If he’s spent the last years of his life not knowing best, if everything he’s worked for is proved wrong, then it will take more than this to reconcile him to that.

 

Heritage and upbringing and self-righteousness win out over even rampant curiosity.

 

“That abomination has nothing to offer the New Watchers’ Council!”

 

There’s a flaw in that argument, and I suggest it to him.  “I thought that the thing that brought you here was the recovery of what you see as your confiscated resources at Alchemy?  Best way to do that is to take up Father Robert’s offer.”

 

“I don’t need that apostate.”

 

Has Lilah got something to do with that change of heart?  I need to find out about her, because I remember source books, templates, books that could reproduce any text ever written.  Not only are such things far too dangerous for this version of Wesley, they might be too dangerous for anyone.

 

“Buffy, come away now.  We need to talk.”  Wes holds out a hand to her, supremely assured that she will obey him this time.  She’s still standing next to Dawn, and the two have an arm around each other.

 

“I don’t think so,” Father Robert says.  “I should introduce you to Rupert Giles.  He’s going to be Buffy’s Watcher, if that’s what you want to call him.  Oh, and I don’t think you’ve properly met Dawn yet.  Dawn Summers, Buffy’s sister.  Dawn, Giles, this is Wesley Wyndham-Price.”

 

He walks forward to stand in front of Wes.

 

“We all extend the hand of friendship to you, Wesley, never forget that.  Come to us any time you choose.  But if you don’t want to be part of our councils tonight, then I think we have too much work to do to stay chatting here.  I’m sure you have a home to go to.”

 

Wesley retires with a bad grace, because there’s really nothing more for him to say.  When he’s out of sight, Father Robert turns to me with a small sigh. 

 

“Could we get out of this cemetery, do you think?”

 

“By all means.  My place?” 

 

I cast a glance at Giles, standing a little outside the rest of the group.  There’s a large bag at his feet, much like Giles’ weapons bag of old.  Robert nods.

 

“He doesn’t know,” he says softly.  I understand that to mean that Giles doesn’t know about all our pasts.  Or perhaps it’s about my second unforgiveable sin against him.  I sincerely hope he never gets to know.

 

“You all go ahead,” I tell Robert.  I just need a few minutes with Buffy.  We’ll catch up with you.”

 

Robert looks at me sharply, almost as though deciding how to dissect me.  Perhaps that’s just the guilty conscience I get around him.  Then he nods, and shepherds Giles and Dawn off towards the mansion.  Buffy starts to follow, but I call out to her, softly.

 

“Buffy.  Can you give me a few minutes, please?”

 

She walks back to me.  “Sure.  What’s wrong?”

 

I shake my head, and make a brief phone call to warn my people at the mansion.  They know everyone, of course – at least the old retainers do – but not everyone knows them.  Ezrafel’s a quick study.

 

“I’m sorry about Wesley,” I tell her, as I put the phone away.

 

“It’s not your fault,” she says.  “And he might come around, even yet.”

 

It seems to me that Wesley is going to be an albatross around my neck, perhaps my punishment for taking away the wife that was wrong for Giles, so that he could come here to reconnect with Buffy, and with his gypsy lover.  I don’t tell her that though, I just nod, as if I might be agreeing with her.

 

“I need to tell you about Father Robert.”

 

“He seems... interesting.”

 

“That’s one word for him.”  I hear the dryness in my tone, and I try to find just what it is I really want to say to her.  She’s still standing a few feet away from my perch on the stone tomb for some Sunnydale entrepreneur who died two centuries ago.  “Come and sit down.”

 

She casts a lingering look down the path, clearly anxious to follow Dawn, but then she hops up onto the tomb.

 

“So tell.”

 

“You can trust Father Robert.  He’s as irritating as a Midge demon, but you can trust him.  If anything should happen to me...”  Well, with Wesley around, and in this mood, who knows what might happen to me.  I need to take precautions, for her sake.

 

“Yes, I know.  If anything happens to you, I should go to Aurelius.  Ixolon and Ezrafel told me that when you went on your secret vacation to New York.”

 

Really?  They told her?  Well, I suppose it was the right thing to do.

 

“They’re right.  But Father Robert can help you.  In fact, if anything happens to me, he’ll probably try to rule the roost.  He isn’t just an ordinary priest.”

 

“You want me to establish a pecking order with him?”

 

“Probably.  Yes.  No, not yet.”

 

What the hell is wrong with me?  Can’t I answer a simple question?  Still, she can’t take on someone like Robert at her age, even when they’re on the same side.

 

“She took on the Master, last time round.  Don’t underestimate her.”  There goes Angel, my own personal Jiminy Cricket.

 

She gives me an old-fashioned look, at my indecisiveness.  “Just what sort of priest is he, then?”

 

How much to tell her?

 

“Start as you mean to go on.  You’ve got a second chance.  Don’t foul it up.”

 

“Do you remember when he agreed to marry us, the priest then, Father Jerome, made me promise to do him a service?”

 

She looks thoughtful as she rummages through her new memories.  “Yes.  We fulfilled that during the war with Wolfram and Hart.”

 

I feel a chill at her reference to the Hart, but I keep that to myself, and even Angel makes no snarky comment.

 

“There was another condition that I never told you.”  She spears me with a look.  “He made me promise that, when you...”  I can’t say the word.  “When I eventually lost you, I would go to confession.”  The look becomes even more intense.  “I did.  It was Father Robert who took my confession.  He seemed to be expecting me.  I think he works for more of the Powers than the obvious one.”

 

“I bet he didn’t just give you three Hail Marys as a penance.  Or...”  And here, she looks excited.  “Did he tell you that you had earned your forgiveness?  The redemption that was promised to you?”

 

I remember.  I remember her belief that the offer of redemption from the Powers was always aimed at me, and not Angel, because Angel’s innocent soul needed no redemption.  Should I tell her?

 

“Go for it.  You’ll have to tell her sometime.”

 

This year, next year, sometime, never.  I can tell her something, perhaps.

 

“No.  He gave me one year of service for every life that I’ve taken.  And every other mortal sin I’ve committed.”

 

Her eyes go wide and round.  “You’ve got to be kidding me!”  She squares her small shoulders.  “I am going to have words with that guy!”

 

I have to smile.  “Not yet.  I’ll try and negotiate a better deal with him.”

 

“You’d better.  He’s made you an Eternal Champion.  Very handy for the Powers, I’m sure, but that wasn’t what she... I... we had in mind.”

 

I’ve never thought of it like that.  I want to kiss her.  Even as uncertain as we are about our new relationship, she wants to champion my cause, and I badly want to kiss her for that.  But she is so young.

 

“No younger than she was when she met Angel.”  That’s some small inner voice from inside the lust-controlling part of my brain.  Angel wisely stays silent.  I lean towards her, but movement in the dark stops me.  It’s Wesley again.

 

“Wes.  Have you changed your mind?”

 

“Shut up, vampire.”

 

He’s still got the crossbow, but at least it’s pointed at the ground.

 

“Buffy, I cannot leave you with this creature.  You are the Slayer.  There is only one Slayer at any time, and you must learn where your duty lies.  You must choose the right side in this unending war against evil.”

 

She gives him one of those penetrating stares, and her reply is gently but firmly spoken.

 

“I do choose, Wes.  I choose him.  I always will.”

 

Hearts don’t swell, or leap from the chest to the throat, especially not hearts as shrivelled as mine, but that is what it feels like.  It’s a distraction, and my only excuse.  Wes doesn’t say a word.  Neither does he hesitate.  The crossbow sweeps upwards, and he fires two bolts in that same movement.  There is no time for anything other than animal instinct.  Even with vampire speed, I only manage a half turn, but it’s just enough.  Both arrows slam into my upper arm, skewering it to my ribs, but that half turn has put me in front of Buffy’s heart.  Oh yes.  He knew he wouldn’t get us both, so he decided to get a new Slayer, one who would answer to the New Watchers’ Council.  He came back to kill Buffy.

 

“Wesley, get the fuck out of my town.  The next time I see you, I’ll kill you.  You’re only alive now for old times’ sake.”

 

Wesley looks askance at me.  I know he doesn’t understand my reference to old times, and I’m not about to explain.  What I am about to do is to slide off this tomb and get up close and personal with Wesley, just to ram my particular point home.  I’m forestalled by Buffy.  She gently pushes me aside and strides over the carefully mown grass to take Wesley by the lapel of his jacket.  She tosses the crossbow away with a clatter.

 

“Get back to the New Watchers’ Council and tell them to stay off this continent.  We’ll protect humanity – and humanity’s friends – here.  Won’t we, Angelus?”

 

“We will,” I affirm.  See?  Servant of all.

 

She gives me a beaming smile before she finishes with the hapless rogue demon hunter, or whatever Wesley thinks of himself nowadays.

 

“Don’t worry, Wes.  We’ll be here when you need help.”  She turns to me and crooks her elbow.  “Come.”

 

Yes, ma’am.

 

I can’t keep the smirk off my face as I gently tuck her arm into my uninjured one, keeping hold of her hand once I’ve done that.

 

“Twenty-four hours, Wes.  Join us or get out of town.” 

 

I reckon that a cooling off period might help him.  I don’t want to give up on him, but I’m getting nowhere right now.  We wait a while until I’m sure he’s gone, and not hiding to follow us, and then I start down the path after the others.  Buffy tugs me back, and picks up the crossbow.  She frowns at it, and I know she’s calling on previous experience.

 

“Shouldn’t leave that lying around for any kid or demon to pick up.  Besides, it’s a good quality weapon... Isn’t it?”

 

I squeeze her hand.

 

“It is.  Bring it with us.”

 

“Shall I pull these out?”  She puts a gentle finger on one of the arrows impaling me.

 

“Let’s wait until we get back.  We’ll probably have to break the shafts.”  And I might need to scream.  She’s troubled, but she nods and starts to walk with me.

 

I’m trying to find the right words to say to her, but I feel as callow as a schoolboy.  I settle for simplicity.

 

“Did you mean it?”

 

“Hmmm?  What?”

 

“That you choose me.”

 

She stops dead, and the jolt makes me hiss in pain.  She’s facing me, the crossbow pressed between us like some dire warning.  She raises a hand to my face, and I cannot help but nestle my cheek against her heat, closing my eyes as I savour the pure pleasure of this much-missed touch.

 

“Yes,” she whispers.  “Yes, I did.  I do choose you.”  Her lips are parted, her eyes shining.

 

The world – all the worlds in the Cosmos – stop spinning as the Universe holds its breath.  So do I, in every meaningful way.  I pull her to me, and lean down to kiss that beautiful mouth that I have yearned for over so very many years, and in the midst of so much pain and sorrow.  Her taste hasn’t changed a bit.  Her possession of me is complete once more.

 

But then, she pushes me away.  “Don’t.  Please.  Just... don’t.”

 

“Buffy...  I don’t understand.  You said... You said you chose me.”

 

She hugs that crossbow to her as though her life depended on it.

 

“Yes.  I choose you as the Champion of everything that needs to be saved, rather than Wesley and his bigotry.  I know that’s right, even though I know that Wesley wasn’t always like that, and that you weren’t always like this.  What I don’t know is me.  I don’t know whether what I’m thinking or feeling is me or her, or some weird amalgam of the two of us!  I am so confused and I just don’t want to have to handle an us right now, because I don’t know whether there should be an us.”  Her anger, directed at herself, becomes a plea, directed at me.  “Can you understand?”

 

I am well acquainted with anger.  For a hundred years, I was even better acquainted with despair.  Now, those two emotions are warring for dominance over me.  I want to... What?  What do I want to do?  Kill her?  Kill everyone in this town?  Hole up somewhere that I don’t have to see her or hear her or smell her, because being denied her would be a cruelty worse than any that the Dark Lady inflicted on me?  All of the above?

 

“She needs time.  You can understand that.  We’ve been there.”

 

“I get it.  You need to work out who you are.  Be your own woman.  You need time to do that, and me not to invade your personal space too much.”

 

She nods gratefully.

 

So, instead of acting on any of the dark thoughts that are burning through my blood, I give her a smile, hoping that I don’t look as woebegone as she does. 

 

“I can do that.”  I think.

 

“Of course you can.”

 

Shut up.

 

Gently I prise the crossbow out of her grasp.  “Let me carry that,” I murmur, and sling the leather carrying strap over my shoulder.  Then I take her hand in my good one and lead her down the path and towards my home.  As we walk, I find the mental strength to wonder whether my passenger, Angel’s soul, has healed enough to cage me once more.  This sort of nobly suffering sacrifice is Angel, not me.  Isn’t it?  Who the hell knows, because I don’t.  I’m as confused as she is.

 

++

 

Once upon a time.  That is how all good fairy stories begin, isn’t it, ancient stories from a time of myth and legend?  This is not a fairy story, but it does concern a long time ago, and beings that most of us consider to be mythical.  Once upon a time, the Universe was occupied by different gods.  Old gods.  And those gods were quarrelsome, all of them vying for supremacy, to shape the Universe into their own image.  Gradually, their numbers reduced as a result of war and treachery, and abuse of power.  Gods rarely actually die, but they can be reduced, and almost all of the Old Gods are now lost voices whimpering in the outer darkness. 

 

As the attrition continued, it seemed that the Dark Lady and her two Consorts would hold sway, but then, as Homo became sapiens, a new Power arose to challenge her and the other remnants of the Old Ones.  This was the Lady that we know, with her two Consorts, the Duality.  Still, the outcome must have looked certain.  The new godlings were young, inexperienced, untested.  How could they ever succeed in ousting one of the greatest of the Old Powers?

 

The Universe holds its breath and waits.

 

The three young godlings have made a space for themselves, a tiny cul-de-sac of a dimension hidden away from the rest of the Universe.  It is a place of beauty, a meadow of swaying grasses studded with flowers, surrounded by trees heavy with fruit of all kinds.  It is a fecund Garden of Eden, a constellation of colour, and it is made out of stars.  It is a safehold for them, in a Cosmos ruled by chaos, turmoil and vicious intent.

 

They cannot stay here forever.  If they are to bring some measure of peace, they must deal once and for all with the other Powers, and especially the Dark Lady, and her two Consorts.  There is danger, of course.  They know that they have yet to come into their full strength, but they do not have the luxury of time.  The Dark Lady is hunting for them.

 

All three of them can map the shifting sands of the future, at least as well as most of the Powers.  Disturbingly, though, they cannot see the outcome of their rivalry with the Dark Lady and her Consorts.  So, there is something they must do before they pit themselves against her, something to provide for the future.  The Lady stands in a grove of white-blossomed cherries, in the heart of this tiny, jewelled domain.  The glade is carpeted with soft grass and mosses, spangled with primroses and daisies.  Purple violets mass around the base of each laden tree.  Nestled among the violets are shimmering crystals, glowing with the light of dark rainbows.  These are souls, salvaged from the rancour of the Old Ones, souls of those who have followed the Lady and the Duality, and who will cleave to them again in the next life and the next.  These souls are the strong ones.  They will have powers, and they will be leaders, fighters against the rising tide of chaos.  They must be kept safe until it is time for them to reincarnate again.  The Lady regards them with love, and they glow for her.

 

She feels him before he touches her, his arm snaking around her waist as he presses against her back.  He moves her heavy braid aside and presses a kiss against the nape of her neck.

 

“You called, my love?”

 

Before she can reply, a gentle movement in the space around her tells her that her other lover has arrived.

 

“Trying to steal a march?”

 

The voice is amused, but there’s still a challenge in it.  They’ve learned to live with each other, but not comfortably, yet.  He, too, slips an arm around her, and kisses her cheek.

 

“It is time,” she tells them.

 

Both her Consorts frown at her.  They are protective of her, just as she is protective of them, but if it truly is time, then this might be the greatest danger they have faced.  They might not be able to keep her safe.  She leans into both their embraces.

 

“It will be well,” she whispers, but none of them know whether that is truth or wishful thinking.

 

She steps away and turns to face them.  Tonight, they have chosen to appear in flesh, looking alike, indistinguishable to the casual observer but she can tell them apart without even a glance.  She always sees to the heart of them.  They are handsome, beautiful, even, with dark hair and blue eyes, tall, powerfully built, yet as lithe as cats.  They are dressed in black leather, ready for whatever battles might be to come.  Just so will they appear to Aurelius, in the far future, when he has descended into Hell to bring Angelus back to the world of the living, and when he asks whether they are Angelus’ brothers.

 

The Lady loves them both, although that is far too wishy-washy a word for the depths of her passion.

 

For their part, they see a beautiful woman with flawless creamy skin, thickly-curling mahogany hair and leaf-green eyes.  She is tall and lissom, with full hips, lush breasts, and a slender waist.  She wears a low-cut woollen gown the colours of moorland heather.  They like this manifestation, and she wears it often.  She is their obsession.  They love her with an all-consuming passion.  They are more ambiguous about each other, but they understand that She needs both of them, and so they are grudgingly protective of each other, too.  It will be a few more millennia before the two of them truly acknowledge the love that exists between them, but that is about to start tonight.

 

She leads them to the far end of the glade, where the grasses and mosses are deepest, and the petals of the cherry blossoms sift gently down to add to that soft palliasse.  The Lord of Darkness reaches her first, and begins to unfasten her gown.  The Lord of Light loosens her braid, running his fingers through her hair until it falls in shining waves over her back and breasts.  The gown is free now to slip from her shoulders, to pool at her feet, and she stands naked before them.  She steps out of the gown and turns to face them.

 

For a long heartbeat, neither of them moves, simply drinking in the sight of her.  Then Darkness stoops to pick up the gown, burying his face in it to inhale her scent.  Light joins him, sharing in the aphrodisiac of her perfume.  At a gesture from Darkness, the gown reduces to its constituent atoms, vanishing back into the starlight from which it was drawn.  The Consorts share a feral smile.

 

Darkness moves behind her, pressing up against her back, his hands skimming over her hips and thighs, and then he spreads his fingers over the softness of her belly.  The Lord of Light reaches around her, pulling her towards him.  She resists, placing her hands on his chest, but only so that she can start to strip away his clothing, pushing the dark leather jerkin off his shoulders, and unfastening the laces of his shirt.  He bends to kiss her, her hands still busy undressing him, as Darkness’s hands continue his caresses, cupping her breasts, his fingers teasing her nipples.

 

At last, Light, too, is naked, and the Lady’s head lays back against Darkness’s shoulder, her eyes closed and a smile gracing her mouth as she enjoys their caresses.  Then she reaches out to Light, grasping his hands and stilling them.  She opens her eyes, and they sparkle with mischief.  She turns within the embrace of Darkness, and together she and Light begin to strip him of his clothing.  They could wish away their garments with a thought, but this way is so much more pleasurable.

 

Now, all three of them are skin to skin, with soft caresses, gentle kisses and breathless sighs.  Darkness is still behind her, his erection pressed against her back as the flesh of her abdomen shivers from his feather-light touch.  Light stands at her front, his fingers playing over the soft swell of her breasts.  He leans forward so that they are belly to belly, his erection caught between them, and Darkness includes him in those sensuous caresses.

 

She takes a deep, shuddering sigh as they trail kisses down each side of her neck.

 

“Are you ready?” she whispers.  What they intend is a great magic and will have disastrous consequences if they fail.  Both of them rub suggestively against her, and although she smiles, they know that isn’t what she means.  Their powers need to be perfectly attuned to each other, and to hers.

 

The Lord of Light rests his cheek against hers.  “Yes,” he murmurs.  “Whatever happens.”  He bends to suckle at a nipple, bringing a moan from her.

 

The Lord of Darkness nips gently at the nape of her neck.  “Yes.  Are you?”

 

He shifts position a little, and dips his head to suckle at the other nipple.

 

“Yesss,” she moans, but it’s hard to say whether she’s answering his question or responding to their attentions.

 

Slowly, they lower her to her knees, following her down to the soft mossy grass, and their caresses become more intense.  Darkness at her back, his lips at her throat, continues his attentions to her left breast, teasing and tormenting, while his other hand reaches down, encouraging her to part her legs further, so that he can caress her sex.  Light, at her front, trails kisses along her collar bone as his fingers tug and twist her right nipple.  His other hand also finds her sex, and she moans again, longer and more breathlessly, as both her Consorts slide knowing fingers inside her, working together, stroking and circling that sweet, sensitive flesh.  She tosses her head back, her mouth open in unalloyed pleasure and she moves against them seeking greater contact with their questing fingers as her own hands find their erections, stroking and squeezing until they, too, are groaning with need.

 

Darkness nods to Light, who persuades the Lady to spread her thighs even further apart.  The men withdraw their fingers from her, and she whimpers at the loss.  They offer her a taste of herself, and she licks first one finger and then the other.  Light offers the same gift to Darkness, who accepts it and returns the favour.

 

“Delicious,” he murmurs.  The look he gives Light is carnal, and Light eases himself into her moist depths.  But he withdraws after that first thrust.  Darkness follows, sinking into her briefly, and all the time they stroke and caress her, and whisper words of love, need, and desire.

 

When they are both slick from her, Light captures her lips with a kiss.  Darkness thrusts partway into her, then holds still.  He cradles her cheek in the palm of his hand, and he turns her face towards him, away from Light.  His finger strokes her lips and she can still taste herself on him.  She takes Light’s hand, and nibbles at his fingers, then offers her mouth to Darkness for a kiss as she leads Light’s hand down to his erection.  Together they guide him to enter her, and she feels Darkness shiver at the friction of contact.

 

Together, oh so slowly and gently, they enter her.  She moans at the growing fullness but first one and then the other catches her lips with a kiss, one and the other caresses her skin, her breasts, her hips.  They begin to move within her, in perfect unison, making love to her and to each other.  Starlight from their innocent, exquisite paradise wraps them around, their sweat glistens with it, their flesh glows with it.

 

When fulfilment comes, a moment such as this might explode through the Universe, rippling through star systems, sending galaxies off course, but this one does not, not here, not now.  The power of the moment folds in on them, forging something new from their flesh, their magic, their love, and most of all, from their purpose.  This moment is a first for them.  Never have the three of them been in such accord, such perfect balance, and there is a power in being the first, above and beyond anything else, equalled only, perhaps, by being the last, which is something else entirely.  Never again can they recover exactly this harmony, this unique moment.

 

They hold hard to each other as the magic weaves around them, as star substance coalesces to the pattern they have woven.  It is around them, in them, made from them.  And then it is apart from them.  It cannot be called a crystal, although it bears some resemblance to that form.  It is starlight made solid, spun from the Universe itself, and from their own humanity.  The Duality are – or were – human, there is no doubting that.  The Lady is drawn from something different.  For her, humanity is a choice, and she has made it.  Most of the time. 

 

What they have created here is not a life, not as such.  It is a possibility, a hope for the future should they fall, which might be soon, because they must face the Dark Lady.  It is something that might replace them if push comes to shove comes to the bloody edge of a sword, or might bring about something else entirely.

 

At last it is done.  The Duality pull out of their lover with more kisses and caressing words, their skins still shimmering with star shine.  Between them, they make a low plinth of night-black stone and the Lady places this beautiful new possibility onto it, this unique singularity that can never be duplicated.  It is birth and death and all of life in between.

 

The three are exhausted, and they lie down together on the soft mosses, to recover their strength before they take the fight to their enemies, curled around each other in this sanctuary that they have created.

 

Perhaps they have been careless.  Perhaps it was always destined to happen.  Or perhaps the power to which they answer was simply looking the wrong way.  Whatever the truth of it, their awakening is not what they expected, but a silent scream of outrage that reverberates around the sanctuary.  The Dark Lady has found them.   And she has brought the battle to them.

 

They are naked, naked of clothes and naked of weapons, but this is their place, and they are not naked of power here.  In the throb of a heart, in the silken pulse of a collapsed star, in the time it takes for a dark goddess to cross the sanctuary, they are arrayed in battle armour, armed with weapons of forged power.  The Dark Lady is accompanied by her Consorts.  They are very different to the Duality.  Not so... human.  And they are older, more powerful, but that doesn’t stop the Duality from pressing the attack, from protecting their own Lady, even though she needs no protection.

 

The battle is hard and there are no human words to describe it.  Only one side can win, and it is entirely possible that neither side will.  To win, all three of them must survive, the one who represents the Balance, and two Consorts on opposing sides of that Balance.  Otherwise, there will no Ma’at and the Universe will become a dreadful shadow thing.

 

And then the unthinkable happens.  The Lady falls before the onslaught of her dark counterpart.  Her dark lover, Lord of Darkness and Storm and Death roars out his fury, his desperation to reach her, and draws on the last dregs of his power.  His aim is true and his sword slides into the gut of his opponent, the Dark Lady’s Lord of Light.  With an effort, he tugs it free and races across the bloodied moss to where the Dark Lady is poised to deliver a thrust to his own Lady’s heart.  Instead, the thrust is his.  His strength is all but spent, and the thrust slides between her ribs but doesn’t reach the heart.  She turns in rage and brings her sword down in a powerful two-handed blow.  He ducks away, and the sword finds its target in the possibility into which they have poured so much of themselves.  The sound it makes is that of a world breaking.

 

The Dark Lady stumbles forward onto the black stone and its burden, and he raises his sword to finish her.  Against all the odds, they are victorious.  The Dark Lady is at his mercy, his own opponent is crippled and dying, and his brother is about to deliver the killing blow for the Dark Lady’s Lord of Destruction.

 

And then the Lady calls out to them to stop, not to kill these bitterest of enemies.  Disgusted and confused, the Duality’s Lord of Light brings his sword down in one great blow, piercing through the shoulder of his fallen opponent, pinning him to the ground.  The Lord of Darkness drags the Dark Lady up and presses the length of his blade against her throat.

 

“Why should we leave them alive?” he growls.  “This is what we needed to do, and we have done it.  Let us finish it.”

 

But the Lady is on her knees again, her body bowed over the beautiful and unique possibility that they have created and she keens in loss.  It has been shattered into three, and the Dark Lady’s blood has stained it, one part more than the other two.  All its myriad possibilities have been scoured away.  Except for one.

 

The Lady caresses the shattered pieces, feeling the shape of their future.  There will be blood and knives and terror and pain.  It is no longer the hope that it once was.  But, beneath all the pain, there is still strength and power.  There is still a different hope, much more fragile.  She swallows down her anger.  She knows what she must do.

 

As she rises to her feet, she knows that her Consorts have seen, and so has the Dark Lady.  Many things can happen to godlings, and they still face other enemies, other challenges.  Other possible deaths and diminutions.  Now, they have nothing of themselves to leave in the Universe, to carry forward into the future.  Nothing certain, at least.  If something should happen to them, the Dark Lady and her Consorts will be better than the alternative, but only if all three of them live.

 

“You are banished from this dimension,” she tells the Dark Lady.  “We will kill you if you return.  Make somewhere for yourself, a shadow world, and we will leave you alone.”  She holds up her bloodied hand.  “I have your blood, and you know what I will do if you come back here.  Now, take them...” she points to the fallen Consorts, “and go.”

 

The Dark Lady laughs in her face.  “Yes, we’ll go, and we will wait.  That...” she gestures to the broken future, “is no future at all.  We will be the future.”

 

With that, she speaks a few words to her Consorts, in a harsh and terrible language.  They have displeased her by not being strong enough, and they will be punished.  Their figures shimmer and vanish from the grass, and then the Dark Lady is gone.   Now, her Consorts are no more than two penises embedded within her, enslaved to her for as long as she chooses to keep them.

 

The three godlings gather in sorrow in the blood-soaked bower where they so recently made love and made a possible future.  The bloody shards of that future glitter in the starlight.

 

“Can anything be saved?” she asks them. She knows what she has seen, but perhaps her Consorts will see things differently.

 

“There are three souls, three lives, three paths,” says the Lord of Life.  “We could release them to those paths, and they would walk them separately and never meet.  The future would... dissipate.  Or, if we were to guide them, they could work their way back to each other, two of them or three of them, it’s hard to say.”

 

“There would be much pain for them,” the Lord of Death added.  “The Dark Lady’s corruption runs deep.  Some can be purified by penance and service and pain, but they can never be free of it.  They would have to learn to control it.  It would take many lifetimes, and extraordinary strength.  They would have to be tested, time and again.”

 

“Then, if anything happens to us, they could be a future?”  The Lady’s voice is doubtful, but she trusts her Consorts.  They know what they are about. 

 

But they shake their heads.  It is impossible to say what sort of future these broken souls might bring.  “They may never have enough power for that,” says one.  “They may never learn to come together,” says the other.  They agree that things would need to be desperate indeed.  And so, the Dark Lady must live, even though they will give the future a chance.

 

The Duality reach out with their senses and their power to the three souls.

 

“They choose life,” says the Lord of Death.  “The future must bring what it will.”

 

They look around their ravaged sanctuary, corrupted and perverted by the blood that can never be cleansed.  Other souls kept here are wounded, damaged by the battle.  They cannot stay here.  After cleansing themselves in the oceans of Earth, the Duality search for new realms, a place of air and light for the Lord of Light, and a realm of black sand and black cliffs for the Lord of Darkness, and they bring the souls in their care to these new sanctuaries.

 

Then they fire the tiny dimension they have made, burning it into oblivion.  It will be some time before they make themselves a new one.

 

++

 

When we get to the mansion, our other visitors are in the great hall.  Ezrafel takes one look at the predicament of my latest injuries.  He tuts quietly to himself, and I can positively feel Ixolon sighing behind me.  They’re used to seeing me looking as though I’ve been through the wars, though.

 

“If you would like to come with me, Master...”  Ixolon bows briefly.  “I shall have refreshments brought to the dining room for your guests.”

 

I nod to him.  “Ezrafel will show you the way,” I tell the others.  “Stay out of mischief while I get cleaned up.”

 

It doesn’t take long, and it hurts like a bitch.  Ixolon follows me back to the dining room, as much, I think, to make sure I don’t keel over as to check whether more refreshments are needed.  When we get there, Ezrafel is bringing in coffee and tea, and my visitors are divided into three groups.  Buffy and Dawn are sitting together, Giles is further down the table, and Father Robert is standing in a corner looking amused.  No one is saying very much, and they all look at me as though I might have some important news to convey.

 

I’m feeling too tired and sore to be the centre of attention, but I might as well start with the sleeping arrangements.

 

“Dawn, Giles, do you have somewhere to stay in Sunnydale?”

 

Buffy tenses, and then subsides.  She was going to say that Dawn could stay with her, but of course she can’t, and she’s realised that.

 

“I can see that you have absolutely no room here,” Dawn remarks.  “Such a tiny little place...”  She giggles mischievously. 

 

“I’m sure we can find you a garret somewhere.  Have you got any luggage?”

 

“It’s at the station.”

 

“Giles?”

 

“Oh, ah... Jenny and I have rented an apartment.  She’ll come to town tomorrow.  My luggage is already there.” 

 

Thank the gods.  Something is going right.  He continues, though.

 

“Um...Next week, I’m replacing the Librarian at Sunnydale High School.  She’s retiring because of ill health.  Jenny already works at the school.  Computing, you know.”

 

Well, well... It’s the first real chance I’ve had to weigh him up.  He’s almost exactly as I first met him.  Have things snapped back into joint?  We can only hope. 

 

Buffy is looking at him appraisingly.  And then things get really interesting.  There’s a small commotion outside the room, and then the door swings open to admit a short, stout elderly woman wearing typical Hylekian dress, followed by a taller figure wrapped in a heavy hooded cloak.  I can tell from the way the cloak hangs that there are weapons beneath it, a sword at the very least, and I ready myself for some defensive action.  Warrior guard, or warrior assassin?  That’s when I notice that Ezrafel is positively gaping.

 

“Well, Ezrafel son of Mestahan, son of Delazor, you are quite a challenge.  Why have you not returned to see me as we arranged?”

 

“Um...” says Ezrafel, totally nonplussed.

 

“I would not have found you without the assistance of King Haraeth.  Do you never go back home?”

 

“Um...”

 

Time for me to step in and save poor Ezrafel.  Or possibly shaft him even more.  Call it whimsy.

 

“I didn’t know we were expecting more visitors, Ezrafel,” I say gently.

 

Something snaps inside him.  He’s amusing when that happens.  He’s usually far too serious.

 

“Neither did I, Master,” he says with that definite snap.  The woman’s eyes narrow speculatively.

 

“Perhaps you should introduce us, Ezrafel.”  I think I’m going to enjoy this.  I hope.

 

He gives a deep sigh.  “Master, may I present to you the Handfaster from my town of Silver Song.  Handfaster, may I present to you Angelus.  These others are Miss Buffy Summers, Miss Dawn Summers, Mr Rupert Giles and Father Robert.  And Ixolon of the Norag clan.”

 

Well now.  Handfaster?  My goodness.

 

She gives us all a short nod, and I decide to do the decent thing.

 

“Come with me guys, we’ll give Ezrafel some room with his visitor.”

 

As everyone makes for the door, a flash of panic crosses his face, but it’s the Handfaster who speaks.

 

“I believe it would be appropriate if you stay, please.”

 

That’s to me.  She turns to Buffy with a puzzled frown.  “And you, too, if you would be so kind.”

 

We do.

 

“How did you get here?” I ask her, more for something to say into the silence than anything else.

 

“The King sent the Senior Keeper to open the way.  He waits outside for us to conclude our business.”

 

“Senior Keeper?”  That’s Buffy, and she sounds a little shrill.  “From the Arena?  We are so not doing that again!”

 

I have some fond memories of that time, those early days when we learned that love was possible.  And I have some not so fond memories, of course.  No, we aren’t doing that again.  The days of Hylekians capturing fighters to use in their kingship wars are most definitely over.  Been there, done that.

 

“Oh, no,” the Handfaster says.  “There is little for them to do in these times, except get lazy and fat, and the King decided that they could be useful.”

 

That sounds like Haraeth. 

 

“The Senior Keeper might get into entirely too much mischief unsupervised.  He might as well come in.”

“Allow me, Master.”

 

So Ezrafel trots off to sort that out, leaving me and Buffy with the Handfaster and her cloaked guard.

 

“Have a seat,” I tell them, “and help yourself to refreshments.” 

 

The Handfaster eyes up a plate of small and delicate petit fours, but her guard stands watchfully in a corner.  Buffy is clearly lost in memories, and I’m sure I know what is occupying her.  Our time in that cage was such a long time ago, but I remember every moment.  I think she does, too.

 

When Ezrafel returns, he’s looking distinctly nervous.  Here is a demon who has been through fire and blood and heart-stopping terror with me, but he’s nervous of an elderly woman?

 

“You failed to keep our appointment,” she says, with all the stiff-backed censure of a put-upon school teacher.

 

“Many things have happened since then, Handfaster.”

 

“I see.  Are you saying that my services are no longer required?”

 

A wistful look crosses his face.  I’ve rarely given more than a passing thought to Ezrafel’s private life.  Even during our century of exile and servitude, we never discussed our lives before.  It was always too painful.  I know that he has a house in Hylek, which is tended by a housekeeper.  I know he has no close family.  I suppose we all want more, eventually. 

 

“It may be some considerable time before I am settled back in Hylek...”

“You intend to remain in this household?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Ezrafel is a very highly regarded member of my household,” I say quietly.

 

She regards me with the infinite patience of an entomologist displaying a new beetle on a board.

 

“So I gather,” she says eventually.  “That is why I have asked you both to stay.  Whoever chooses and is chosen, you will be part of this equation.”

 

Oh.

 

“I’m not part of this household,” Buffy says quickly.  “I’m definitely part of my Mom’s household.”

 

“That is as it should be, for now.”

 

The Handfaster turns her attention back to Ezrafel.  “So I ask again, are my services still required?”

 

“Yes.  Yes they are.”

 

“Good.  It has taken me a long time to find someone to introduce to you, and who might be willing to consider such an introduction.”  She turns to her guard.  “Alizara?”

 

Under our fascinated gazes, the guard steps forward and removes the enveloping cloak, revealing a black-haired honey-skinned beauty, dressed in armour and carrying an enviable range of weapons.  Even the hint of scales around her hairline simply adds to the exotic nature of her beauty.

 

“Alizara, daughter of Chenara, daughter of Helior, Priestess of the Temple of the Triple Goddess, Chief of the Maiden Warriors of Teth, allow me to introduce you to Ezrafel son of Mestahan, son of Delazor, senior member of the court of Angelus and the Slayer, Fellow of the Society of Merit, Learned of the King’s School, Keeper of the Hylekian Games, Archivist of the House of Aurelius.”

 

Oh.

 

++

 

Alizara has never before left Hylek, and this world is...interesting.  So are the people in this room.  So is the man she has come to meet, but will he be interested in her?

 

Her father is a baker in her home village, a plain and simple man, but one of the best she has ever known.  Her mother is a gold and silver smith, making the finest jewellery, and so was her mother before her.  Both those women were something different, once, though.  Like Alizara, they were priestesses and warriors first.

 

The Triple Goddess: Maiden, Mother, Crone.  Her priestesses follow in her footsteps.  As Maidens, they are scholars, filling their young minds with knowledge.  But when they are old enough, they are also warriors, and they are among the most formidable on Hylek.  She is the best of them, the leader of them, in the province of Teth, the heartland of the temples of the Triple Goddess.

 

And now, like all the priestesses before her, it is time for her to cease her status as a Maiden, and become a Mother.

 

Most men on Hylek are reluctant to consider a priestess and a Maiden as a wife, afraid, perhaps, of being speared in their beds if there is marital discord.  She has found a few who were willing, but none who she wished to share her life with, and certainly none whose children she wished to bear.

 

And then, the Handfaster from Silver Song sent an intriguing message to her mother.

 

 

++

 

There is one of those silences, bright and metallic and full of sharp edges.  Ezrafel’s face is a portrait of mixed emotions, chief of which are hope, doubt and stunned amazement.  The young lady looks at Ezrafel with amused curiosity.

 

Feeling distinctly de trop, I stand up and say to Buffy, “I think we should give Ezrafel and Alizara some time together, don’t you?”

 

Before she can answer, and before the Handfaster can stop us for her own inscrutable reasons, there is a small, soft sound, the sound made by a sheet of paper falling onto a hard surface.  On the table in front of me is now a folded piece of thick cream notepaper.  Buffy cocks an eyebrow at me as I unfold it.  It’s brief.

 

You promised a service to the Adraste.  Come now.  Bring the Slayer.  The Lady’s chain knows the way.

 

A lifetime ago, Buffy was shot on our wedding day, and the Adraste saved her life, claiming a future service in return.  Looks like time to settle that debt.

 

I push the note over to her.

 

“Do you still have the underworld chain?”

 

She nods, and tugs it out from underneath her shirt and pulls it over her head.

 

“Handfaster.  Alizara.  It has been a pleasure to meet you.  You are welcome to stay for as long as you wish.  Ezrafel, the Adraste are claiming the service I owe them.  I leave everything in your hands.  Hopefully we won’t be long.”

“I can’t go anywhere.  I need to get home to my Mom, or she’ll freak.”

 

“Ezrafel will deal with it, Buffy, even if he has to find a magic user to fix it.”

 

“Indeed, Master.  Have no fear.  And the Adraste have waited a very long time to claim their service.  It must be something that only you two can deal with.”

 

Buffy still looks uncertain, but I take hold of the other end of the very complicated silver chain, brought to us by the White Hart, messenger of the Lady, carrying the claddagh ring from the underworld on our wedding day.  I picture in my mind the tableau of Aurelius, Willow and Tara kneeling together, using the power of the Hellmouth to stop time, giving us a chance to save Buffy as her heart’s blood blossoms into deep red petals on her ivory wedding gown.  I never saw the Adraste magic user who removed the poison and saved her life, but I think of the pledge made on our behalf, and focus on the chain in my hand.

 

There’s a disturbance in the air, and a small blue portal opens, just an arm’s length away.  I hook my arm into Buffy’s, and we walk through.

 

++

 

Aurelius is sitting alone on the purple sands of Amitai, gazing out at the lilac ocean.  The scarlet sun doesn’t harm him, but he’s in pain, nevertheless.  A decade ago, his lost love, Palestrina, returned to him after two thousand years.  She had to leave again, promising to come back soon, but before she did, he brought her here, to this quiet paradise, for a few brief weeks.

 

He has had messages from her, saying that she is safe, and has almost completed her tasks, but even for a vampire as old as he is, the time since he last saw her seems like an eternity away.  He’s been drawn back here for what he has to admit to himself is a bout of moping, and he supposes that he ought to get back home.  He wonders whether to visit Angelus.  Wherever the boy is, there always seems to be a drama happening.  He could do with some moderately interesting times.  Not excessively so, just enough to drive away this flatness of feeling, this emptiness that has gnawed away at him since Palestrina left.

 

He sees movement from the corner of his eye as his companion returns from the hunt, and then the nudge of a huge head against his arm.  He drapes an arm over the neck of the sabre-toothed cat, his sire, Sekhmet.

 

“Time to go back,” he whispers to her, and she nudges him again.  There’s a tiny implosion of air, an almost silent sound.  A folded sheet of thick cream notepaper lies at his feet.  Sekhmet sniffs it gingerly.  It’s brief, and to the point.

 

You owe the Adraste a debt of service.  Come now.

 

He recognizes the handwriting.  He has a two thousand year old book full of spells written by the same hand.  It’s Palestrina’s.  He scratches Sekhmet behind her ear, and then the two of them are gone from that purple beach, leaving only a few scuffed footprints behind.

 

++

 

Buffy’s hand is still warm on my arm as the portal leads us out to a grove of soaring scarlet trees.  Even I get the feeling that there is something sacred about this place.  Adras is a long way from our dimension, the one that holds the Earth, but it is still recognizably Earth-like, unlike those that are even further away.  And like the land, the people are also recognizably Earth-like.  More or less. 

 

A woman waits for us, her hair a deep shade of blue-black. Her skin is the pearl-washed blue of a winter’s dawn.  Definitely not in Kansas any more.  She nods to us both.

 

“Vampire.”  She makes the word sound not like an unwelcome epithet, but a title.  There’s definitely a capital letter involved.

 

She turns to Buffy.  “Slayer.”  See?  Titles.  “Thank you both for coming.”

 

She pauses and raises her head, almost sniffing the air, and then Aurelius is walking through the grove, with Sekhmet by his side.  The sabre-tooth cat stops to shake purple sand from her coat, then stalks towards the Adraste.  Ah, he was in Amitai.

 

“I am pleased to see you again, Aurelius,” she greets him.  “Thank you for coming.”

 

“You helped us when all seemed lost.  Of course we would come when you asked.  Angelus.  Buffy.  So nice to see you.”

 

“You’re the one who saved Buffy?” I ask her.  That terrible day was more than a lifetime ago, even a very long human lifetime, and this woman looks to be about thirty.  She’s surely far too young.

 

“I did a little to help,” she says with a small smile.  “I know what you are thinking.  Time here passes much more slowly than on your Earth.  A single lifetime here might be the equivalent of ten human lifetimes.  Or more.”

 

“It is indeed,” says a voice behind us.   It’s a rich voice, full of humour and warmth and power.  It’s Palestrina.  She’s been missing for some time, so it’s a surprise to see her, but the Adraste gives us an even bigger surprise.

 

“Hello, Mother,” she says.

 

I have the satisfaction of seeing Aurelius gaping, even if only briefly.  It’s a very rare thing, and to be enjoyed.  I place my hand over Buffy’s as I see her sorting through her recently acquired memories to make sense of what’s happening.  She’s a quick study though.

 

Palestrina has matured.  She was a girl in her mid-teens when I last saw her, and now she’s probably mid-twenties, and the air around her thrums with power.  When she and Aurelius fell in love, two thousand years ago, she was a powerful sorceress.  I think she’s even more so now.  The look that Aurelius gives her is so full of love that I have to look away, but I know that Palestrina returns it in full measure.

 

“We must leave,” says the Adraste, who Palestrina introduces as Catalya.  “There may not be much time.”

 

She leads us out of the grove and to an open landscape of arable fields and orchards.  I use those words loosely, but they’re probably accurate.  A small temple or shrine stands by the side of a beaten earth road.  A group of elders are gathered in the doorway of the domed, half-circular building.  As we walk towards them, a small nagging feeling crystallizes into an actual thought.

 

“How long do you need us to stay here?” I ask.  “It occurs to me that if time passes much more slowly here, then it might be a bit like a fairy mound – spend one day inside, and a hundred years passes outside.”  There were plenty of tales about fairy mounds when I was young and human, back in Galway.

 

Catalya shakes her head.  “Do not worry, Angelus.  If all goes well with your task, we will make sure that your absence from your world is... brief.”

 

“Are you going to tell us why we are here?”

 

“I’m sure that will become apparent very soon.”

 

Buffy looks as though she will start to demand more information, so I squeeze her hand.  My gut tells me that getting argumentative won’t help, and I remember how argumentative Buffy could be at this age.  Aurelius seems absorbed by something that Palestrina is saying, and looks relaxed, but I can smell the tension in him.

 

We are about a hundred yards away from the temple now.  The sun, which is riding high in the sky, suddenly darkens, as though a cloud passed in front of it, although there are no clouds at all.  Then the air before us clots and thickens, shimmering into a translucent swirl, gathering into a sudden, violent glass-clear tornado that grounds itself hard by the temple with a noise like a distant rockslide.  The glassiness is lost almost immediately as dust and soil and powdered rock are carried up the vortex, creating an ever-deepening crater.  The silence is unearthly, as though the noise were being carried upwards with the rest, swallowed and gone.

 

The elders start to run towards us, but the funnel bulges, and a small tendril of it lashes out towards them.  And they are elders in all senses of the word.  They can’t hurry very fast.

 

“No!  They are the best of our seers,” Catalya gasps and sets off at a run to help them.  Is this why I’m here?  To rescue a bunch of elderly seers from a tornado?  Well, that’s soon done.

 

I’m faster than she is.  Another tendril is reaching out towards Catalya, so I pick her up and toss her back to Aurelius.  I don’t even wait to see whether he catches her.  That’s up to him.  I catch up the two slowest and carry them out of reach.  Aurelius already has another two, and now there are just three left in the road.  Buffy is hustling two of them, their feet barely touching the ground.  Just one left, an elderly woman.

 

“Hurry, Maresk,” Catalya screams at her.  In an instant I have the woman in my arms, but it’s too late for us both.  The tendril, spinning, questing, latches on to us.  She is torn away from me, her fate unknown, and I am sucked up into that vortex, the howling wind tearing at me, the powdered rock and soil lashing at my flesh.  And then I know no more.

 

++

 

I’ve dreamed about Angel for days now.  Weeks.  I’ve been dreaming about Angelus, too, but mainly about Angel.  About a lover I’ve never met.  They’re her dreams, I suppose, or at least they are fed by her life and memories, but they feel like mine.

 

I’m still a person of two halves.  There’s the sixteen year old schoolgirl who I know intimately because she’s me.  I’m about the same age as she was, when she first met Angel.  And then there’s her, a woman who knew and loved both versions of this vampire, a woman who lived a rich, full, long life.  She was me.  Or I was her.  It makes my head hurt to try and decide the difference.  Sometimes I feel as though I’m drowning, losing myself in the tide of her strength and experience.  And in the depth of her love.

 

When I dream, I dream of how I and she love them both, but I can see the difference between them.  And I can feel her yearning for the one I’ve never met.  For Angel.  I am enfolded within the warmth of his love.  I know the depths of his sorrow and repentance for all the things that his dark demon has done, and I see the power of his determination to make amends in any way he could.  He is the one I want, the one I would spend my life with, if I could.  Angel, with his beautiful soul.  Better still if he were human, of course, without the darkness of the demon, and we could have a normal life as a normal couple.

 

And yet... And yet....  There’s the other one.  Angelus.

 

I’d been thinking of Angel just before that meeting in the graveyard, and that’s why I said that I would always choose him.  I really meant Angel.

 

And yet...  There’s that yet again.  I remember the demon’s pride, his arrogance, his devotion, his protectiveness, his efforts to be what she expected of him.  His vulnerability.  But how could I love someone who is a murderer and worse?

 

She did, even though she knew exactly what he was.  But she still yearned for Angel.

 

What about me, the schoolgirl?  Where do I figure in all this?  Sometimes I just want to walk away from it all and find a nice ordinary life with a nice ordinary boy who has never had a day’s psychic baggage to lug around.

 

So, there was me, in the middle of this existential angst, and trying not to show any of it – and with a matchmaker in the room, for crying out loud –  when we’re faced with a summons to go to some other place.  There’s no existential pain killer better than a good bit of Slaying, so I didn’t argue too much, and we came here, to Adras.

 

And now things are so much worse.

 

Aurelius has his arms around me, holding me back, and even though I’m the Slayer, he’s too strong for me to break away.  I’ve just seen Angelus sucked up into some weird tornado, and far from worrying about whether I might have one or the other of the versions of him, it looks as though Angelus is gone altogether and I shall have neither.  I can’t bear that I did nothing to save him, especially since I know he put himself between me and Wesley’s crossbow only an hour or so ago.

 

I remember screaming something as the tornado took him, and I remember starting to run, to follow him, and then came these steel bands that are Aurelius’s arms, holding me back.

 

A woman is in front of me.  The old Buffy remembers her although I don’t.  Palestrina.

 

“Buffy,” she says urgently.  “Stop and think.  Charging in won’t work.  We have to be smarter than that if we want to save him.”

 

“I understand.”

 

She looks up at Aurelius and nods to him.  He lets me go.  I wrap myself in my Slayerness, to try and hold together all the bits that are falling apart.  “How am I going to do it?”

 

“You aren’t.  I am.”  Aurelius thinks that his tone is enough to stop me arguing.  He should know better.  Then a new voice joins in.

 

“Even you cannot survive there, Aurelius.”

 

The newcomer is a woman.  She looks young, but her eyes are old, older even than the eyes of the vampire in front of me.  I don’t know her, and I’m not sure I want to.  Palestrina does, though, and so does Catalya.

 

“Lady,” they greet her, with just that degree of reverence that makes me think we might be in real trouble, if the big guns have turned out.

 

“I cannot stay,” she says, “and I cannot help, but I have brought these.”  She lays two swords on the ground, lovely sharp strong swords.  “You will need to be shielded by a magic that seems to be nothingness.  More than invisibility, you must seem not be there, so that the energy of that place will not find you.  Can you do that?”

 

Aurelius has the answer, because he’s done something like it before.  “We must change time.  If we can cast a spell so that I am between seconds, out of phase with time, would that work?”

 

The Lady nods.  She holds out her hand to Palestrina.  “Take this, and weave it into your spell.  It will show the way back out.”  It looks like nothing.  A skein of starlight, maybe.  She smiles at us all, and I feel as though I’ve been blessed, which is remarkably different to how I usually feel, and then the Lady is gone.  Did I just meet a goddess?  That is just so weird.

 

Back inside my overcoat of Slayerness, there’s a brief argument, but in the end both Aurelius and I head towards the sucking vortex, wrapped in a spell of nothingness concocted by Palestrina and Catalya and maintained by Aurelius.  A skein of light stretches out behind us, and I can feel the magic being constantly renewed along that umbilicus.  And we have a sword each, a gift from the gods.

 

++

 

I don’t know where the vortex has dumped me, but I don’t like it.  I don’t think it likes me, either.  I’m crucified to a tree.  Again, loose words, which might be accurate.  The landscape is one of flat, ashy grey dust and bare rock as far as the eye can see, populated with huge but scraggly, contorted black things that might once have been trees.  I’m impaled on one of them, stiff, sharp thorns the length of a man’s leg curling round and through my flesh.  I have always known that I must die some day, and I’ve often expected to die immediately and possibly horribly, during one exploit or another.  But I have never expected to die somewhere like this, bound and helpless in a place where I think I shall simply fade away.

 

I’m the only blur of colour in this monochrome place, and for a pale-skinned dark-haired vampire who habitually dresses in black, that’s saying something.  I don’t know what has happened to the Adraste elder who was sucked into this place with me.  She is certainly nowhere in sight.  There is movement, though, on the horizon, some living things moving towards me at speed.  And there is movement much closer; an appendage of this tree thing has wrapped itself around my midriff.  It is full of small mouths that cling to my flesh, and are feeding.  Not on blood, or on flesh.  I think it’s feeding on my substance, and now small green leaves, like fish scales, have appeared on it.

 

The living things have arrived, and they are beasts, gathering around my feet, grey skulking things, vaguely man-shaped, but withered and old.  They look ancient beyond all understanding, ancient and starved.  They scrabble at my clothing, ripping and tearing away small shreds.  They don’t have strength enough for more.

 

Their long bony fingers clutch at the shreds, and the threads dissolve into a fine grey dust, sifting down to join the ancient dust beneath their clawed feet.  But where the scraps and tatters touched their hands, flesh is restored, a little here, a little there, tiny beads of redness.  As they feed, their strength grows, and soon my clothes are gone.

 

Now their hands are scrabbling at my flesh, their mouths gaping in some sort of glee.  It’s a feeding frenzy, and I am certain that it’s been a very long time since the last one.  Tiny puffs of grey dust sift down from me, but these are caught by slithering creatures, like carapaced snakelets, that are swimming in the old dust.  Apparently, the residue of my substance has more nourishment yet to be milked from it.  The snakelets open their mouths, grey funnels of scabrous skin, to catch the thin rain of my dust, which feeds and fattens them.

 

I let out a roar as the taller beasts start to lick and gnaw, but their frenzy just increases.  My body heals, and heals again, and the more it does, the more nourishing they find me, as though magic were a protein for them.

 

Now, to my absolute horror, if I haven’t reached that level already, I see the dust in which they are standing begin to move.  Where my own dust – and in one place, a couple of spots of blood – has escaped the other feeders, tiny rings of colour have developed, like infections in a Petri dish.  The dust has begun to roil and swirl, as each microscopic particle seeks to join the feast. 

 

There is more movement in the dust, and soft green tendrils uncurl themselves, questing around for the richest feeding ground.  It seems to have been a long time, but I’m sure I haven’t been here more than a couple of hours, and the vegetation is now growing thick and strong around me, with small, strange creatures slithering through it.  Saplings are reaching for height, spreading their root systems and their canopies in fierce competition with each other.  A circle of burgeoning jungle surrounds me.  Who would have thought that a vampire could have so much life in him?

 

I want to weep at such an ending.

 

And what of my passenger?  What of Angel?  He has felt stronger within me than he has ever seemed, since the day that I recovered him, but there is nothing I can do to protect him now.

 

 Don’t beat yourself up.

 

Not much else to do, is there?  Still, I might think of him as not having the same sort of smarts that I have – and I hear him snort in some sort of gallows humour at that thought – but he has spent an eternity in a place that can only be called Hell.  I wonder if he learned anything useful.  I don’t even have to phrase the question.

 

I don’t think anything I learned would be useful here.  This has nothing to do with our world, or even our series of dimensions.  This is a bad, bad place.

 

Tell me something I don’t know.

 

Have you noticed that everything here seems to be dying, but nothing is dead?  I think...  I think that death doesn’t exist here, at least not for anything that belongs here.

 

But death exists for us?

 

I think so.  It’s more a sort of... absorption.  They’ll gorge on us, and on Adras, too, until we simply cease to exist.  On the whole of this world.  What do you think will happen when they find the Earth?

 

Buffy’s out there with Aurelius.  She is NOT going to be sucked into non-existence.

 

Not much we can do about it from here.  Can you get yourself off this damned tree?

 

The more I struggle, the stronger the tree gets, as though it’s using my own strength against me.  The crowd of creatures around me is more numerous now, my strength, my substance thinning faster.  I shove Angel deeper down into my psyche as my own thought processes start to unravel, along with my flesh.  Before much longer, I’ll just be a piece of meat hung on a tree.  And then not even that.  One of us should hold out as long as possible, though, and he’s the most protected.

 

Still, what could we possibly be holding out for?  I suppose it’s the instinct not to die, and if there’s one thing this place seems to have, it’s that.  In spades.

 

++

 

The Lady and her Consorts cannot, must not interfere.  Their roles are already laid down for them – they have foreseen as much – and if they act outside those, then the whole universe will be lost.  Anxiously they watch, as centuries of freewill come to either fruition or nothing.  It isn’t only the events in Adras, and in the parasite universe, that they are watching.

 

In Sunnydale, threads of the future are weaving themselves into a new and complex tapestry as the threads of the present warp and snag and break.

 

In his sparsely-furnished rooms, Wesley answers the telephone.  It’s the New Watchers’ Council.  Someone at the other end speaks rapidly and incomprehensibly.  Whole galactic clusters are disappearing from the skies.  The rarest of the books of prophecy suggest that this heralds the end of the world.  The true end of the world.  The end of everything.  The New Watchers’ Council has nothing at all to suggest how this might be stopped.  Has Wesley managed to recover anything at all from the archives stolen from them by Alchemy?

 

No, he has not.

 

Then will he bloody well get on with it.

 

As soon as he ends the call, the phone shrills again.

 

“Wesley.  It’s Father Robert.”

 

Wesley can’t help the lip curl.  What is the despised head of Alchemy doing, calling him now?  And how did he get this very private number?

 

“I presume you have seen the television just now?  Or that the Council has called you?”

 

“What of it?”

 

“If you want to know why the Universe is disappearing, we should talk.  I’m at Angelus’ place.  Shall we expect you in about a quarter of an hour?”

 

“I don’t know where he lives.”

 

“Really?  What have you been doing all this time?  No, don’t answer that.  It’s the mansion on Crawford Street.  Fifteen minutes then.  Don’t delay.”

 

Father Robert paces impatiently across Angelus’ study.  He has learned to control himself much better than this.  But these are not normal times, and he wants to be taking action, not standing back like this.  But his part is important, and he must play it perfectly.

 

He wrenches open the door, to find Ixolon and Ezrafel deep in conversation.  “I shall send back the Handfaster and the Lady Alizara,” Ezrafel says, with a worried frown.

 

“The Handfaster, yes,” says Robert.  “But perhaps the Lady Alizara might have her own thoughts on the matter?”

 

Ezrafel looks even more worried.

 

“We’ll ask her,” Robert insists.  “But let’s deal with the Handfaster.  Does she require a fee?”

 

“Yes, but she will have to wait.  I cannot go to Hylek with Angelus and Buffy away, the Lady only knows where.”

 

The Lady, indeed, Robert thinks.  And perhaps even she isn’t too sure.

 

“Write to Captain Nayati, and get him to pay the Handfaster from Angelus’s estates,” Robert tells him.  Here, at least, he can find some certainty, even if everything else is as nebulous as a cloud of interstellar dust.

 

“I can’t do that!” Ezrafel exclaims.  “And besides, Nayati only has such seniority in times of war.”

 

“Exactly so.  And yes, of course you can do that.  Treat it as a loan if you must.  Now, let’s talk to Alizara.  We’re expecting a guest, Ixolon, any minute now, and you’d better let me answer the door.  Wesley’s less likely to shoot me than you, but only marginally so.”

 

“If I recall correctly,” Ixolon says, “Buffy took Wesley’s crossbow.  It’s in the armoury.”

 

“Right.  That’s one good thing, then.”

 

They find Alizara still with the Handfaster.

 

“Forgive me, my dear,” says Robert, “but events are moving in on us.  Are you and Ezrafel agreed upon anything?”

 

Alizara blushes slightly.  “We are,” she says, and the Handfaster looks smug.  “He has asked me to return to Hylek for the time being, but I think I should stay here.  We are not yet agreed on that.”

 

Robert smiles to himself.  Ezrafel is going to have an interesting time.  But then, so is Alizara.

 

“Ezrafel, take my advice.  Alizara will have far more fun here.  Madam,” this to the Handfaster, “it has been my greatest pleasure to meet you.”

 

He gives Ezrafel a pointed stare, and the Hylekian gives in with a good grace.  Robert ushers Ixolon and Alizara to the Great Hall, and sends one of the servants scurrying for Dawn, and for Rupert Giles.  No sooner has Ezrafel rejoined him than the front door crashes open, revealing Wesley on the threshold.  He’s holding a second, smaller crossbow, and a sword.

 

Robert sighs.  “Wesley, I’ve a mind to bill you for the damage.  That kind of thing is quite unnecessary, you know.  You’re an invited guest, after all.  Come in and leave your weapons at the door.”

 

Wesley ignores him so far as the weapons are concerned.

 

“Where is my Slayer?  And where is the Vampire?”

 

“Neither of them is here.  So, leave those damned weapons here in the hall, will you?  There are more important matters to deal with than your petty squabble.”

 

Wesley looks outraged, but arrogant as he is in this incarnation, he knows when he’s outfaced, especially on enemy territory.  And he needs to know what is going on.

 

In the Great Hall, Robert has asked Ixolon to prepare something for him.  The wall-mounted screen now displays a NASA computer-generated image of the cosmos, looking rather like an elongated egg, with clots of matter and areas of lesser density shown in different colours.  The picture morphs into a news item, declaring that galaxies are disappearing, and interviewing astronomers who are totally confounded, but who try to come up with some rational explanation. 

 

“This is what is happening now,” Robert tells the assembled group.

 

At a nod, Ixolon cuts back from there to the NASA image.

 

“Take my word for it, the Universe is rather smaller now.  Most of the left edge is gone, and there are some very empty spaces stretching towards the centre.  And it is not only our home dimension.  All of the most proximal dimensions are affected.”  Robert’s words fall into an astonished silence.  “I think you all know of Ma’at?”

 

Wesley’s face is limned with contempt.  “The Egyptians believed there must be a balance between opposing concepts such as Creation and Destruction, Light and Dark, and they personified that Balance as a woman, Ma’at, who also held the Feather of Truth.  We’re beyond any such superstition now.  Don’t tell me you’re going to preach to us about ancient mythology if what you say about the Universe is true.”

 

“Oh, Wesley, you are going to have such a rude awakening.”  Wesley cannot yet understand it yet, but Robert is speaking literal truth.  “The time for choices is almost upon us.  Some things will be revealed to you when that time arrives, but I need to tell you why these choices will be necessary.

 

“Ma’at is not just a superstition.  She is as real as any of us here, and a great deal more powerful than the lot of us put together.  And if she is the Balance, as you say, Wesley, then there has to be something at either end of those scales.  There is.  She has her Consorts, the Duality, Lords of Creation and Destruction, of Good and Evil, of Life and Death, and all those other things that weigh in the Universe’s balance.”

 

Wesley turns a disbelieving shoulder, but the others are attentive, and Robert soldiers on.

 

“The Universe is in real trouble right now.  You might be aware that various theories posit that this is not the only Universe?”

 

Giles nods.  “Brane theory,” he offers up.  “Universes carried on something akin to membranes, and Big Bangs when they collide.”

 

“Yes, Giles.  But it isn’t only Big Bangs when membranes collide.  Sometimes universes themselves collide, and not all are like ours.  What is happening now is just that; unseen by astronomers or physicists, a universe is touching our own.  This one is a parasite universe.  It has some sort of balance that is not functioning, and a principle of creation.  It has no principle of destruction.  Nothing dies.  And because nothing dies, nothing is recycled to feed the living.  All its nourishment it must steal from other universes, and it is stealing from ours.  It hasn’t fed for perhaps a million years, and it is hungry.  It is devouring star systems, galaxies, whole swathes of inhabited space.

 

“The Lady and her Consorts have done what they can.  They have created hidden cul-de-sac dimensions, and funnelled galactic clusters into them.  They have created new star systems far from where the parasite is operating.  They have created a second dimension of time, to hide vulnerable areas behind mirror images.  When all else has failed, they have given galaxies to the fire, so that the souls of even the meanest creatures could be salvaged, because this parasite devours not only stick and stone, and flesh and blood.  It feeds on souls, too.  Anything it latches on to is utterly destroyed.  Its first tendrils have now found Adras, one of the dimensions of Earth.”

 

Ezrafel and Alizara exchange appalled glances.

 

“That is where Angelus and Buffy have been summoned to,” Ezrafel says in a choked voice.

 

“Yes.  I know.  Aurelius and Palestrina are also there.  The End Times have begun, for good or ill.”

 

++

 

Aurelius holds me to him as we are sucked up into the vortex.  We are wrapped in the spell created by Palestrina and Catalya.  I know it’s there, because it feels like being wrapped in a sensation-deadening duvet.  Circling through it is the Lady’s faint ribbon of starlight.

 

We reach a place of such desolation that it’s almost beyond description.  She once visited a place in France called Verdun, one of the battlefields from the First World War where so many young men died so needlessly.  It’s kept the way it was then.  Leafless skeletons of trees claw at the sky, rooted in a moonscape of shell craters with no sign of any growing thing, no living thing.  This is way worse than that.

 

“Reach out and feel him, Buffy,” Aurelius whispers.

 

“Can’t you feel him?”

 

He shakes his head.  This is an ancient vampire, Angelus’ great-grandsire.  If he can’t, how can I?  But I must.  We could wander here forever, or at least until the spell starts to unravel.  Palestrina said we would have maybe an hour, at best.  And then we will be as dead as Angelus will be if we don’t find him.

 

I touch the side of my neck, where she carried his scar for the rest of her life.  I don’t have it, but perhaps my soul remembers it, do you think?  Something throbs, and it isn’t my pulse point.

 

“That way.”

 

And so we head off into the unknown.  Behind us, the faint ribbon of starlight winks and glimmers.

 

Everything is very flat, with objects hidden only by distance.  We’ve been walking through this almost petrified forest for about ten minutes when I see a flash of rainbow colour.  It’s very pale, like the shimmer of mother-of-pearl, but it’s the only colour in this whole landscape.

 

We are making such slow headway, I wish we could fly.  We can’t hurry any faster because the dust is so deep.  We’re on a path of sorts, classified as such simply because there are no major obstacles on it.  The going is hard.  It’s like battling through a sand dune, or deep snow, sometimes ankle deep, sometimes almost up to my knees.

 

Ahead of us, that flash of mother-of-pearl colour is spreading and deepening.  Something is growing up from the dust, in shades of green and purple and red.  I can’t quite make it out, but Aurelius can.

 

“There’s a new forest starting to grow,” he warns, and we try to hurry faster.

 

When we start to get close, I can see a familiar figure.  We’ve found him.  Angelus.

 

He’s at the centre of the pool of colour, like a statue in a fountain, and I know that the colour is him.  He’s...  I can’t describe it.  It’s as though he’s becoming part of the tree that he’s fastened to.  It’s the only one I’ve seen with any leaves, and it shimmers with leafy scales, like the skin of a snake.  Around him, a young forest is burgeoning, thick and lush, almost head high now, tendrils winding round neighbouring stems for support.  It’s starting to look like the Sleeping Beauty forest, but anything falling asleep here isn’t ever going to wake up again. The dust beneath it seethes and roils, like a miniature sea full of submerged monsters, and there’s a throng of creatures pawing at his naked body.  Every time one touches him, it is... enhanced.  And he is... diminished.  He is already so diminished, like a worn-out, moth-ravaged coat.  There’s no time to think about that now.  That time will come later, when we know whether we’ve saved him.

 

“I’ll take the critters, you get him down.  Okay?”

 

Aurelius nods, and we get to work.  The swords are very, very good, cutting through the hordes like a field of corn.  Best to think of it that way.  That’s when the real horror starts.  They might be cut down, sliced, gutted, limbs severed, but what they don’t do is die.  They fall, so that’s good, but they stay piteously alive.  Don’t look.  Don’t think about it.  Get the job done, and get out.

 

I keep the creatures off as Aurelius hacks at the tree, freeing Angelus’ body from its grasp.  He slings him over his shoulder as though he weighs nothing, and that’s when we do start to run, back down the path we’ve trodden.  I can feel the spell starting to waver.  A thin wailing howl sounds behind us.  The creatures have detected us, and are following.  I grip the hilt of my sword tighter, and only then do I see that the blade is pitted and worn.  Eaten.  The ribbon of starlight is fading fast.

 

“Hurry up, Buffy!”

 

We’re running at full speed, and I’m praying to the Lady that the breadcrumb trail will last long enough to get us out.  And then it disappears into a small, swirling eddy off to one side of the path.  We clasp arms and jump into it, into a fall that never seems to end.

 

++

 

Wesley is starting to show some interest, despite himself, but it’s Giles who starts the questioning.

 

“What are the Lady and her Consorts planning to do?”

 

“That is being decided now.”

 

“So they can protect the Universe? Drive away this other Universe?”

 

“No.  Even they have not that much power.”

 

“So, how long will... this period of contact last?”

 

“Until the branes move apart again, or until the parasite has consumed as much of the Universe as it can reach.”

 

Wesley leans forward.  “So, there are places it cannot reach?”

 

“We think so.  Some of the remoter dimensions are projected to survive.”

 

“The remoter dimensions?”

 

“The Hell Dimensions.  Possibly the Outer Darkness.  A few other terrible places that humans know nothing about.  The Lady and the Duality have filled up all the small sub-dimensions that we expect to survive.”

 

“Nothing more habitable than that?”

 

“Apparently not.”

 

Wesley tugs at his lip.  Father Robert waits patiently.  He’s sure that Wesley will make the leap of understanding.  If he does, perhaps that will engage him enough to make him part of the group.  Giles and Wesley together would be a formidable team.

 

“So, these three can manipulate dimensions, and time?” he asks.

 

Robert nods.

 

“Could they make a tesseract and tip the Universe into it?”

 

Hallelujah.

 

++

 

The Lady’s ribbon of starlight does not return to Adras.  It brings them to a dimension ruled by the Lord of Death and Darkness.  It is a place of black cliffs and black sand.  There is no sun, but the sky is illuminated with a monochrome pale grey that reflects off the shimmering sand.  There is nothing but the black cliffs and the black sand, except... Their arrival here is cushioned by thick turf and moss, an emerald oasis among the jet, as if it had been placed there for that particular purpose.  Which, of course, it has.

 

A tiny spring starts to flow, fresh sweet water trickling from one side of the oasis to the other, and then disappearing into the sand.  Buffy cradles Angelus’ head in her lap while Aurelius soaks a handful of moss to bring water for him.

 

This Buffy has never been skin to skin with Angelus, never luxuriated in having the solidity of his naked form in her arms, never run her hands over each swell and plane of muscle.  Yet, she knows the feel of all those things from a lifetime of experience.  Now, he feels wrong.

 

He feels like smoke made solid, yet still as tenuous as ever.  Touching him, she worries that her hand might simply sink into his flesh.  In neither life has she felt more real than he is, but that is how she feels now.

 

She turns her face towards Aurelius, unable to see how woebegone she looks.  “Can you give him your blood?  Will that help him?  It has before.”

 

Yes, it has before, in the most dire situations, when there really should have been no hope of survival.  She remembers that from her other memories.

 

Aurelius tears his wrist and presses the flow of blood into Angelus’ mouth.  There is no obvious reaction.

 

“I doubt it’s going to be as simple as that,” Aurelius tells her.  “Look.”

 

Three figures are approaching, the Lady and her Consorts.  The Lady kneels down and runs her hand over Angelus’ cheek.  Her expression is one of sadness.  The damage is greater than she had hoped.  Buffy reaches out to her, her fingers tight around the Lady’s wrist.

 

“Help him.  Please, help him.  I know you can.”

 

The Lady is silent, and Buffy looks up at the two men behind her.  She has never seen them before, but she can sense the power in them.

 

“Please,” she begs.  “Save him.” 

 

She isn’t thinking about any future she might have with Angelus, and whether she wants that.  She simply knows that she owes him this much.  And she realises that she cannot imagine a world without him in it.

 

Angelus rouses himself to say something, but Buffy has to bend close to hear what he says.

 

“Too late.  I’m done,” he whispers.  “Save him if you can.”  He has no strength for more.

 

Buffy holds him closer to her.  “What does he mean: him?” she asks of anyone who can answer.

 

The Lord of Destruction kneels beside her, and takes her hand in his.  Warmth and raw power scintillate across her skin.  “Open your heart,” he says gently.  “Calm yourself and let yourself feel.”

 

Buffy doesn’t know whether she wants to sob or scream, or perhaps do both.  The last thing she feels is calm, and it isn’t as though she’s had any actual training in Slayery things.  Like being calm when her heart is pounding, her throat is constricted, and she’s got to fist her hands to stop them trembling.

 

But she knows how.

 

Buffy opens her heart and her mind, and allows her older self to flow through her.  To be her.  Perhaps that is all it needed.  Or perhaps it’s the magic of this place, the magic of the creature holding her hand.  Whichever it is, the hidden is revealed to her.

 

“Angel.  You’ve got Angel.”  Something blossoms within her.  She looks up at the Lady.  “Can you save either of them?”  Angel.  The lover she has always yearned for, even when she didn’t know.

 

The Lady is still kneeling, but now she has something in her lap, something that wasn’t there before.  It might be a crystal, glittering with the starlight of unknown spectra from exotic dimensions, but only if that crystal was alive.  Aware.

 

“It is time for choices, Buffy,” she says.

 

“Choices?  What do you mean, choices?  He’s dying.  There’s no time!”

 

“Here, Buffy, time is as we will it to be.  There is time enough.  He has made choices for you in the past, both of him.  Now it is your time to choose.  But make your choice with your heart.”

 

She holds up the living crystal.  It is the one that was made when the Lady, guised in Buffy’s flesh, first visited Angel after he offered himself to Hell in return for Buffy’s life and gave her into Angelus’ safekeeping.  It is made from the love and pain of all three of them, Buffy, Angel, and Angelus, and powered by Angel’s willing sacrifice.  It is in perfect Ma’at, and it is the hope for the future.  Buffy knows nothing of that.

 

“This,” says the Lady, “is a seed of the future, a possibility.  If you truly wish to live a normal life as an ordinary human, with him made human, you can have that.” 

 

She doesn’t lie.  There will be just about a human lifespan before the Earth is found and consumed by the parasite.

 

Buffy’s heart skips a beat.  Human.  They could both be human.  The demon would be gone, and she would never have to face the responsibility of being the Slayer.  White picket fence, dog, and two point four children.

 

“Or, if you wish to choose one or the other of them as a Champion, still a vampire, you can do that.”

 

Angel.  Her first love, when she was that other Buffy.  But she’s learned a thing or two since that first love.

 

“What is the price?  There’s always a price.”

 

“There is no price, Buffy, or if there is, it has been paid long ago.  But there are consequences to every choice.”

 

“And what are those consequences?  Were you going to tell me, or let me find out after the fact?”

 

“There is no intention to deceive, Buffy.  But you must choose what your heart tells you, not what you think you ought to choose.  We will talk about consequences afterwards.”

 

“When it’s too late?”  Buffy is so young, so inexperienced, but she has the other Buffy’s lifetime to draw on, and she is not easily placated.

 

“Every choice generates consequences, but every choice also generates power, and the greatest power comes from that first moment of choice, when everything seems clear and free of doubt.  If you truly cannot live with the consequences, then you may change your mind, but the power of that clarity will be lost.”

 

Buffy doesn’t really understand, but she feels Aurelius’ hand rest on her shoulder, offering her his support.

 

She looks down again at Angelus, his body limp beside her, his head still in her lap.  Angel or Angelus?  Vampire or human?  Angelus, vaunting, arrogant, devoted,  protective, with whom she has lived a lifetime, and who has now told her to choose Angel?  Or Angel, so much loved, with his own devotion and selfless sacrifice, present in her life for such a short time, but never absent?

 

If she chooses humanity for them both, there will be no Angelus.  If she chooses to remain a Slayer with a Vampire, she could have either.

 

How can she choose between them?  How can she condemn either of them to non-existence?

 

“Is... is there power enough to choose both?”

 

She doesn’t see the look that crosses the Lady’s face, a look that might be relief.

 

“Yes, Buffy.  You could choose both.  But they could not be human.  Both would be...incomplete for that.”

 

There’s a feeling inside Buffy, one that might be her, or might be the woman she once was, or might be the power of the Slayer overflowing with exultation.  So what if they aren’t human? They will survive.  This is what she wants.  This is what she knows is right.  But there will be... complications, she knows, if both of them are in the world together.  Yet, her heart is unchanged.

 

“I choose both, then.  Tell me the price of that.”

 

“For any other choice, you would have a lifetime of happiness.  Then the world would die.  For this choice, you will have a lifetime of war, and the world might live.”

 

“I’m sorry?”

 

“This world needs guardians, Buffy, and the three of you to lead them.”

 

“Why didn’t you tell me that before?”

 

“Choices, freewill.  Without that, it doesn’t work.  And you have all earned peace rather than duty, if that was what you wanted.”

 

“Duty calls.  Same old same old, then.  Tell me about today’s Big Bad, but wait until after you’ve saved him.”

 

“It isn’t same old same old, Buffy, and never will be again.  Can you deal with that?”

 

“I wouldn’t be here if I couldn’t, would I?”

 

The Lady smiles.  “No.  You wouldn’t.  We will need a few more things.”  She nods to her Consorts who walk away and out of sight.  “Do you still have the underworld chain?”

 

Buffy pulls the beautiful, complicated chain from off her neck.  It was given to her by the man who rescued her from the Pit the day before her fifth birthday.  Angelus.  As she holds it, the other her remembers something, from one of the most important days of her life, her wedding day, when they swore three vows.  One before Aurelius, for vampire kind.  One before Father Jerome, for the faith of her people.  And one, requested by Willow, to the Lady.  And that other Buffy remembers how Angelus described that for Ezrafel’s archives.

 

‘A minion swiftly rolls back the rug, revealing a circle outlined by a continuous silver chain.  Other minions bring four engraved dishes of cobalt blue glass.  One contains earth, another water, the third has a candle representing fire, and the fourth holds nothing but air.  These are placed around the inside of the circle, and we step into it, hands linked.  As we do, the mansion doors are thrown open, and everyone turns to look.  A white stag stands outside and, in the face of everyone’s gaze, this shy and retiring creature steps daintily into the hall.  It is not a type of stag that is found anywhere in this hemisphere, and it is an old and noble creature, with at least twenty-four points on its antlers.  It is a king of its kind. 

 

‘Head held high, ears flickering nervously, it steps towards us and enters the circle.  Once there, it lowers its head.  It has something hanging around its neck - a silver chain, and threaded onto that chain are the two claddagh rings that did not return with us from the Underworld.  I unfasten the chain and remove the rings, returning them to what seems to be their rightful place, her finger and mine, although the right hand this time.  When I move to give the exquisitely wrought chain back to the stag, it snorts in disapproval, and so I place it around my own neck.  I’m not at all sure if that is significant, but it feels as if it will be.

 

‘I wait a moment for the stag to lift its head, but it doesn’t.  What I have to do, I must do on my knees, in front of this entire gathering.  What else would I have expected?  I kneel, and the stag turns its head a little, offering its throat.  My fangs slide home, and the blood starts to pump down my throat, rich and thick and full of a strange power.  There is a fleeting, familiar taste.  It is Angel: for a mouthful or two, I can taste the suffering, bleeding Angel from my dream, although I do not understand why this should be.  Then this liquid life runs sweet and clean.  There is something else, too, that I feel in my blood but cannot describe.  This is a pact, a binding agreement, although I’m not at all sure what I am agreeing to.  Perhaps it’s just to my mastery of Wolfram and Hart, and that seems right.  Perhaps it’s more, though.  Perhaps it’s my promise to love and care for this woman, and that thought, too, seems right to me.  There are promises here, in return.  Long life and happiness, maybe.

 

‘Too soon, the stag snorts again, and I withdraw from him.  As I rise, his horn swipes against my hand, opening a long cut.  He licks at the thin line of blood, taking a little of me into himself in exchange for what I have taken from him, until the wound ceases to bleed, then he watches as I pull my wife to me, and kiss her again, my mouth full of his blood, still laced with the bitter tang of Angel.  She takes it from me, licking my lips clean, a slight frown between her brows as if she were puzzled by something, and then she offers him her hand.  Once more his antler slices down, and he presses his muzzle into her palm, licking up the drops that seep from the wound.  I do believe that, whatever the pact is, it is sealed.  His bellow rings around the hall, and then he is seemingly gone, galloping off into the night.’

 

What she doesn’t know, although Angelus might, is that those vows bound three of them together.  She doesn’t have Angel’s memories, not yet recorded in Ezrafel’s archive.

 

‘Deep under the black cliffs, Angel has a brief respite from torment.  He’s now suffering not from blood games, but from mind games.  They are giving him visions of how many ways he can torture and kill the Slayer.  In how many ways his dark half can destroy her.  But he knows his name again, and they have left him in peace for a little while. 

 

‘The stag has come back, its neck bloody, and it is licking his hand, cleaning the claddagh ring that has so newly appeared.  He looks at the ring, and has no idea why it should be there, but when he saw it, he knew who he was and why he was in this place.  As he looks at it, it seems as if someone has clasped his hand.  Two other hands, perhaps, and he feels the chink of ring on ring.  The stag watches him gravely.  There are words, distant but clear, and he repeats them to himself, her face reflected to him in the shining eyes of the deer.

 

‘“My body to yours, we are united.  Blood of my blood, we are inseparable.  Spirit to spirit, I cleave to you.  Final death shall not separate us, bringing only our union beyond even the end of eternity.  Before my master and in sight of these witnesses, I swear this to you.”

 

‘Then it is her turn, and he hears the words of her oath.

 

‘The stag closes the distance between them, and presents its bloody neck to him.  He wants to feel his gorge rise, to be disgusted at the thought of feeding here, but he isn’t.  He leans forward and sucks hungrily at the oozing wounds, closing the circle. 

 

‘He tastes himself and Buffy.  He tastes promises given and received.  And it comforts him a little.’

 

Now is the time of fulfilment of those promises and oaths.

 

The Lady says, “Put the chain on him, but keep hold of it when we work the spell.”

 

“Why?”

 

“It will become part of you all, so that you can access any dimension in this cosmos at need.”

 

“Like they just did?”

 

The Duality are back.

 

“Just like that, yes.”

 

They have been busy.  The Gem of Amara is first.  She slides the old-fashioned ring onto Angelus’ finger.  The sun will never be a killer to him again.  Buffy feels a pinch of remembered pain as she slips the claddagh rings onto her finger and onto his.  Aurelius helps her with the torcs, the thick, twisted gold heavy with Aurelius’ own magic, full of spells and glamours.  She looks questioningly at him as he lays a sword and a knife beside Angelus’ hip.

 

“They were smithed for him by Father Robert.  They are important, but I think you need to ask Angelus about them.”

 

The Lady knows these weapons.  They were made from the iron collar and chain, symbols of Angelus’ century of servitude to the Dark Lady.  Father Robert has removed from them every iota of magic that accrued to them in that time, everything the Dark Lady might have been able to call on to use against Angelus in the future.  They are free of magic, and so they will remain, no matter what they meet.  Buffy knows nothing of that yet.

 

They are ready. 

 

“It starts with blood,” the Lady tells them.  The Duality both give their blood to Angelus, who stirs restlessly for the first time since lapsing into unconsciousness, and the Lady gives, too.  Then she offers some of her blood to Buffy.

 

“Why?” the Slayer asks.

 

“If you are to lead the guardians, then you must all grow in power and authority.  You have come so far, the three of you, but your needs continue to grow, too.  We cannot offer you much more help, but this much we can do.”

 

Buffy gives her a sharp nod, and takes what is offered, the blood of a goddess powering through her like living fire.  Then the Lady bends over the possibility in her lap, and begins to caress it.

 

++

 

“A tessiewot?”

 

Dawn leans forward, intrigued.

 

“A tesseract,” Wesley repeats, forgetting his arrogant condescension for a moment.  “A four dimensional figure.  The fourth dimension is often thought of as time, but of course it doesn’t have to be.  It could be any of the other dimensions.  And theoretically, there could be a penteract, with five dimensions, or a hexeract, with six dimensions.  But if you include time, then I think the object would never be where you expected it to be.  It would be shifted away from the norm.”

 

Wesley turns to Father Robert.

 

“Does this Lady exist?”

 

“She does.”  He wants to say, “You knew her, once,” but it isn’t quite time for that yet.  Wesley still knows nothing of past lives.  Neither does Giles.  But Dawn, Dawn knows.

 

“If anything that you’ve said is true, do you think these...creatures... would have anything like that power?”  The arrogance is back.

 

Father Robert is truthful.  “They would need help.”

 

Dawn sits back in her chair, her face impassive.

 

++

 

It has been like a rebirth.  And like birth, nothing was easy about it.  Only the fact that Angelus is unconscious has made it bearable.  Even Buffy felt as though she had been disassembled atom by atom, and reassembled again, but with all the agony of a werewolf shift rather than any gentle Star Trek gadgetry.

 

And then there were two men lying in her lap, one on either side.  They woke to her tears, but this time it was tears of joy.  There were hugs and sobs, and no one worrying where the sobs were coming from.  They had held each other, and Aurelius, until a small and delicate cough indicated that the Lady was holding some clothes suitable for the two men.  The two vampires.

 

They have a lot of catching up to do.  The Lady has explained to them about the parasite universe.  Buffy knows that she will remember every word that is being said, but she cannot tear her gaze away from the men in front of her.  Dressed in their customary black, with a sword and a knife hanging at their hip, they are so beautiful to her.  Gone are the torcs, the chain and the claddagh rings, made part of their very beings by the magic, if the Lady is to be believed.  Yet she can still feel the invisible band of silver on her finger. 

 

Buffy, too, is different now.  Older.  As the Lady weaved her magic, Buffy imagined herself at the height of her power.  She’s a few years older than the schoolgirl she was at the start of this day, and power flares through her like a sunburst.  The two men in front of her are filled with that power, too.  She knows.  She can sense it.  They’ve all fed on the blood of gods.  What are the consequences of that?

 

They are alike as two peas in a pod, and yet they are so different.  Opposites.  If she were blind, she could tell them apart.  Angel.  Angelus.  There has been a schism, and they are each complete unto themselves.  She wants to reach out to them and hold them.  The simple touch when they awoke, fingers to cheek, wasn’t enough.

The embraces have left her hungry for more.  Her skin burns to touch them again.

 

“I’m sorry,” the Lady is saying.  “There is much to do.  There will be time for yourselves later, a little anyway.  Now we have to bring together all those who must choose sides.  The time for choosing is not yet done.”

 

They have their tasks to do, each of them separately.  Even Aurelius has work to do.  First, though, they must find their way to Earth, to the Mansion.  If they cannot do that, then they have no hope of finding anywhere else in this cosmos of dimensions and layered worlds.  Before even that, the Lady and the Duality have things to show them.

 

The Lord of Destruction leads them into the black cliffs, where a labyrinth of catacombs shimmers with every rainbow in the cosmos.  He explains that these are the souls of champions, too stained with death for the purer realms, and too pure of heart for the black sand.  Here they have all been gathered until needed, human and non-human, from all the worlds.  Angelus has been here before, to fetch Buffy out of the Underworld, but Buffy does not remember it.   Angel has never been inside the cliffs. 

 

They walk through the tunnels, marvelling at the sheer numbers of souls, shimmering crystalline energies in their own small niches, a myriad colours each surrounding a darker heart.  Buffy walks between her lovers, tension humming between them.  She wants to throw herself at them, to feel their arms around her, to hear their stories.  But, there seems to be no time.  Despite the Lady’s assurance that time holds no sway here, she senses an increased urgency.

 

“All your friends are gone from here, the people you will need immediately,” the Lady says.  Angelus reaches out to the nearest form.  It sings to him, a song of moons and steel.  The one next to it tells of sand and starlight and blood.  These souls wait here; they have been given time, time to come to terms with the shadows of their lives, the reasons they are here, the darkness within them.

 

They move away from the labyrinth to another low black cliff.  It’s like a single geode, a cavern shimmering with light from the living crystalline walls.  A large black slab occupies the centre, empty.

 

“These are possibilities,” the Lady tells them.  She points to the black slab.  “The possibility that you have chosen lay there, among these others, for millennia.  These others are not so powerful as that one, but they can bring about many things.  They can be new lives, new souls, new chances.  There are enough to last for a long time, until they can be replenished.”

 

She looks directly at Angel.  She, too, knows which of them is which.  “These were paid for with your pain and sacrifice.”  He looks abashed, and then she turns, without another word and leads them out to the black sand.

 

In the far distance, three figures bend over another that is huddled on the sand.  Angel and Angelus both know what is happening here.  The Furies are tormenting a sinner.  He will be exhausted beyond measure, but soon, he will have to stand up and run again.  They know who it is, too.  Spike.  But Angelus knows something else.  He knows that Spike’s time here is almost over. 

 

The Lord of Destruction moves close to Angelus.  “Yes,” he says.  “This will be a place for you to rule.  Nothing here is hidden from you.”

 

Before Angelus can reply, they are standing somewhere different, a place of light and air and great sweeping rainbows of colour.  It is filled with souls, great nimbuses of them.  They shy away from Angelus, but they cluster around Angel, as they do the Lord of Creation.

 

Angel is too filled with new strength, new purpose, new life, a life he has not yet been able to assimilate, emotions surging too powerfully though him, like molten gold.  He needs time, time to himself, time with Buffy, even time with his dark half, so that he can come to an understanding of what he is now.  He is alive.  He has power.  He has... no, he is a soul, as Angelus is a demonic spirit.  But what does any of that mean?  Is there a difference between a soul and a spirit?  Or have the two of them moved towards each other in purpose and intent, even in passion, over all the centuries they have been twined together?

 

He may be a soul, but he still feels as though he’s a vampire.  He knows he could drop his fangs at a thought, and yet there is no hunger, no need for pain or blood.  What is he now?  He doesn’t know, but these souls speak to him.  One speaks of wild winds and high mountain pastures; another tells of limpid blue pools and glittering white sand.  They know him, and he knows them.  Is this because of the blood that the Lord of Creation gave to the body that Angelus and he shared?  Was it the blood of the Lord of Destruction that made Angelus so at home in the other dark realm?

 

What do the Lady and her Consorts truly want of them?

 

The Lord of Light puts a hand on his shoulder.  “You will take care of these as they gain strength for their next incarnation.”  Angel nods.  Yes, he will.

 

And then they are somewhere else, somewhere that the Lady and her Consorts are all uncomfortable.  They are at the gateway to the Outermost Darkness. There is no light here but what they bring with them.  That is provided by the Lady and the Lord of Light, hers a soft white radiance, his the gleam of alien rainbows.

 

The Outermost Darkness is a terrible place.  Spirits – spirits, not souls – do not die when the flesh dies, but they can be…diminished.  They are kept strong by belief; belief in themselves and the belief of others; without this belief, they are lessened.  Here in the Outermost Darkness are some of the spirits to whom the Lady has offered a second chance, a reprieve powered by Angel’s pain.  These are outcast demons.  These have been cast out by their own kind, for sins of the gravest sort.  They fought on the wrong side.

 

There are other terrible ghosts here, ghosts of godlings much like the Lady and her Consorts; beings of power who made mistakes, who failed, who lost belief.  Even gods can be diminished, and there are many of those in this void.  Now, they are little more than mournful voices in the darkness. 

 

Buffy, Angel and Angelus turn to each other.  They can feel the horrors of this place, even if they do not yet know what it contains.  For the first time since the Schism, they hold each other, the three of them.  Here, in this embrace, is no animosity, no regret, no possessiveness except for each other.  You might say that they feel as though some doom-laden thing had walked over their graves.

 

“Be very careful here, and with who you might choose to release,” the Lord of Destruction says.  “You, Angelus, will have the most power here, but all of you will be diminished when you step through the Gateway, just as we are.  Here is somewhere to come only at utmost need.  There are spirits that might help you, but there are many more who yearn to regain their power and their vicious rule.  Generally godlings do not die.  They find themselves here, and are not happy.”

 

The Lady steps just inside the Gateway, and bends down to caress the spirits that fawn around her feet.  “Very soon,” she whispers to them, and steps back out to the company of the... living. 

 

“Can you remember how to find this place, and the others we have shown you?”

 

The Lady is reassured by their nods.  It’s Angelus who asks, “Why are you showing us these places?  Why do you say we will be responsible for them?”

 

She lays a hand on his arm.  “All in good time.  You need to know that these places are safe for now, but we believe they will eventually fall to the parasite, although the Outermost Darkness may hold.  New places of refuge must be found.  Must be made.  Now, we must collect Aurelius.  It wouldn’t do to leave him on the black sand for too long.”

 

Aurelius is where they left him.  The other figures they saw are gone.  And then they are standing outside the Mansion, in the secluded space that became Buffy’s rose garden.  It also became the resting place for the ashes of the ones they lost, so many of them in the war with Wolfram and Hart.

 

The Lord of Destruction scents the air.  He shares a secret glance with his twin and the Lady.  It will be well here, is what he silently says.

 

“Angelus, would you mind asking your guests to join us here?  They will all have roles to play in the future.”

 

Angelus is hardly surprised to find that there are more guests than there were when he left for Adras.  Palestrina is there and so is Sekhmet, curled up in front of the fire as though she were just an overlarge house cat.  Conversation seems to have been abandoned a while ago.

 

“We’re all required in the rose garden,” he tells them.  “There have been some... changes, so prepare yourselves.”  Sekhmet yawns hugely, and Palestrina looks delighted.  They both know what has happened, Angelus is sure.  Did they know beforehand, or did the knowledge come from the bonds the three of them share: Sekhmet is Aurelius sire, after all, and Palestrina his sorceress lover.  Angelus shrugs mentally.  He has a strong suspicion that he and Angel and Buffy are going to have some equally interesting things to learn about their own relationship with each other.

 

When Dawn sees Angel, she does a quick double take, then rushes to him and hugs him.  Sekhmet has carefully carried out the wolf pup, Max, and sits with him looking smug, as though she has personally arranged the current turn of events.  Ezrafel and Ixolon openly gawp.  Alizara stands aside, waiting for an explanation.  Giles and Wesley stand still, dumbstruck, not just at the sight of this new duality of Angel and Angelus, but because at this moment, memories are rushing over them, memories of their last lifetimes.  Buffy, Angel and Angelus have chosen, and now it is the turn of others to remember and to choose.

 

And then there is Father Robert and Aurelius.  Angel and Angelus watch as the two see each other.  Aurelius has never before met Robert, and Angelus now wonders about that.  Robert’s face is impassive, but to vampire senses, especially enhanced ones such as these two now have, there is tension, hope, anticipation, and a little... fear?

 

And Aurelius?  He walks to Robert, stopping an arm’s length away.  His movements are jerky, uncertain, so different to his usual supreme grace and assurance.

 

“Father?” he whispers.  “Father?”

 

He falls to his knees, his head bowed.  “Father,” he whispers again.

 

Father Robert bends down and gives his hand to Aurelius.  “No, my son.  You never need to kneel to me.”

 

The watching vampires do not know this part of Aurelius’ story – he has kept Angelus ignorant of it, for shame at the consequences, but they can see that ‘Father’ has nothing to do with titles spiritual, and everything to do with titles temporal.  With family.

 

The Lady and her Consorts know everything, of course.  After all, the making of Aurelius was their doing. 

 

Like all vampires, Aurelius had once been human, with a human father.  That was more than five and half thousand years ago, in the mountains of Europe.  His father was a smith, in a time when smiths were considered to be powerful magicians, not to be messed with lightly.  But he had loved the wrong woman and been exiled from their village.  Like father, like son.  They had travelled to Egypt, where Aurelius learned the art of smithing from his father, and where, like his father, he had fallen in love with the wrong woman.  In the end, Aurelius was badly beaten, and his father was murdered.

 

Aurelius, with a young man’s passion, a passion that had been passed to all the vampires of his line, wanted revenge.  A demon was conjured to help him, a young and handsome demon called Acathla.  Acathla had his own requirements from the bargain, a woman’s body to house the spirit of his beloved, Sekhmet, and to hide her from the Egyptian god, Seth, who claimed her as his plaything.  In the meantime, out of necessity, Acathla had reached back in time and space, and found one of the last of the sabre-toothed cats as a hiding place for Sekhmet’s spirit.

 

Disaster struck, though, because Seth found them that night as they discussed their bargain, and his punishments were cruel.  By dawn, Acathla was an ugly stone demon, the Gateway to Hell, capable of sucking entire planets into a Hell dimension, with Aurelius’ bloodline as the trigger.  The sabre-toothed cat that housed Sekhmet had become a vampire cat, with Aurelius as her first victim, and sire of the Aurelian clan.

 

But Seth still wanted a toy.  Aurelius was not the vampire then that he is now.  To placate Seth, he had sold an as yet unsired childe of the fourth generation to be the plaything of Seth.  That vampire would be Angelus.  It is shame for this act that Aurelius carries with him every day.

 

All this had come from his young man’s yearning for revenge, and from the cruelty of a dark god.  Now, here is the father he had loved with so much passion, so many millennia ago, a father who is now filled with his own measure of power, and who is so obviously within the close circle of the Lady and her Duality.

 

The Lady glances at her Lord of Destruction.  He did well, there, sowing a story that has held for five and a half millennia, and manoeuvring individuals and events into the only possible configuration to meet the challenge of the future.  And now Aurelius’ father is restored to him.

 

“Later, my son,” Robert says with a smile.  “Now, let me meet Palestrina, because you and she have work to do.”

 

Palestrina joins them, and under everyone’s fascinated gaze, she leads Aurelius towards the edge of the rose border.  Robert follows them, and Palestrina murmurs quietly to Aurelius as they walk.  Aurelius strips off his suit jacket, and pushes up his shirt sleeves to reveal the corded muscle of his arms.

 

“Angel?  Angelus?  Would you mind?”

 

Mystified, the two cross the lawn towards him.  He asks something, and both hesitate, then draw the long daggers that Father Robert smithed for them, and they open a cut down each of Aurelius’ forearms.  He kneels, and thrusts his hands into the soil, allowing the blood to run down, soaking into the earth where so many ashes have been scattered.  Palestrina places her hands on his shoulders, and he feels her magic flowing through him, amplifying his own.  Sekhmet strolls over to them and watches intently.

 

The air over the rose garden shimmers into a portal as clear as water, so sheer that it is barely visible.  There is a collective intake of breath as figures stumble out of it.  Spike is first.  Then come Estevan and Thomaso, recent losses from Angelus’ household, Japheth, Partha, Beatrice, and Françoise, senior members of the Aurelian Clan, lost in the wars with Wolfram and Hart.  And more, perhaps two dozen dead demons who now live again.  Faces of friends and loved ones not seen for decades and more, all of them bound to Angelus or to Aurelius.

 

“Got any beer?” Spike asks.

 

++

 

I’m pleased to have a little time to myself, strange as that might seem.  The miracle of waking up from almost being absorbed into the Forest from Hell was one thing.  But the miracle of waking up as part of a threesome, being held by Buffy, together with Angel?  Well, that was something else entirely.  If I live to be a million, I shall never feel like that again.  There is a power and a clarity to first times.  The swell of passion – of love – at Buffy’s touch... I can’t begin to describe it.  And it included Soul Boy.  No.  Angel.  It included Angel.   It might have been relief at my survival; it might have been just that excess of passion; but I’m afraid I shall have to admit that it was love.  That first time, there was nothing but love when I saw him, the love that might be felt for a brother newly discovered.  It couldn’t last, of course, that clarity of love for the soul that plagued me for so many, many years, and who loves Buffy as much as I do.  The spirit of competition has crept back in.  What did you expect?  I’m the demon here.  But I still need a little time to get my head straight – and all those other bits of my anatomy and psyche that aren’t the same as they were before.

 

For now, we all have our separate tasks.  Father Robert is going to find Illyria.  Aurelius is off to invite the heads of the other vampire clans to a meet.  Those two haven’t managed to spend much time together either, nor with Palestrina.  Not yet. 

 

Angel has gone to gather up the rest of the Scoobies – and won’t they be surprised.  But they will know who they are and who they used to be.  The Lady said that, since our choices have been made, and we all three hold to them, those who need to remember, those for whom death has erased a lifetime’s memories, they will all now know who they were before.  They will remember what they did with their lives, and they can choose whether to stand aside or to join with us.

 

Ezrafel has gone to Hylek to bring King Haraeth.  Let’s hope that he’s not embroiled in a war right now.  Hylek has been under attack from increasingly savage peoples for some time now.  We don’t know where they’re coming from, but now that we know about the parasite universe, and we’ve seen what it’s starting to do to Adras, I’m guessing that these peoples are fleeing from total planetary annihilation.

 

Me?  My task is something I’ve known I must face.  The Dark Lady.  I wasn’t strong enough to defeat her last time.  I need to see if this new improved version of me can stand up to her now.  How long do you think a good slug of blood from a goddess and two gods is going to keep me going?  Not to mention whatever ju-ju was in that possibility thing that remade us all...

 

I’d like to see Pias and Iason, but if I can’t hack it with her, I’m not getting them into trouble, too.  So, here I am, standing in front of the gateway to the Dark Lady’s castle, with its carved depictions of her three sons, the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart.  It feels much the same as when we were standing at the gateway to the Outer Darkness, except I know exactly what is inside here.  Best foot forward, then.

 

++

 

“Angel?  Angel??”  Willow propels herself across the room and into my arms.  “It’s you?  It really is you?  Does Buffy know?  How did you get re-ensouled?  Has the clause gone from the curse or will you...  you know....”

 

She stops babbling in sheer embarrassment at the thought of where that sentence is going. 

 

“It’s good to see you too, Willow.  I’ve just come from Buffy and Angelus.”

 

Her mouth is a round O of astonishment.  Not horror, though.  Remember, this is a girl who has just remembered quite how much of a kick-ass witch she used to be, and to reach that level of magic use, you have to be really inquisitive.  About everything.  And she did all that alongside Buffy and Angelus.

 

Tara comes forward for a hug.  Her shyness hides a core of steel, you know.  “There’s a big story for you to tell,” she says.

 

“Yeah.  But later.”

 

“Thanks to the Goddess that you’re here to tell it.”

 

“More than you know, Tara.  All part of the story.”

 

She gives me a speculative look.  She was a kick-ass inquisitive witch, too. 

 

Oz comes over to meet us, and is his usual laconic self.  “Angel,” is all he says, but Oz’s silences are filled with whole lexicons of words.

 

Xander bounds in like a puppy, but there is something old in his eyes.  I know that Angelus has interfered in Xander’s upbringing, putting such a depth of fear into the abusive father that the children must have been physically safe, and I approve.  Nevertheless, his childhood seems to have left its scars.  Or maybe he’s just thinking of the last lifetime.

 

Nina arrives shortly after.  She may not be a Scooby, but she, too, has her memories back.  I’m pretty sure all will be well between her and Oz again.

 

Faith and Gunn haven’t answered my calls to them.  I could sense everyone here before I contacted them, but not those two, and I’m worried.  I’m sure the Lady will have the answer to that.  I really thought they’d be back.

 

Cordelia is the last one to arrive, making an entrance as usual.  She’s still tart and sassy, but her smile is as warm and glorious as I remember.

 

Looking around this gathering, I feel a mix of emotions.  I cannot measure the time since I last saw them by any calendar, only by my pain.  When I last saw them, they were taking out my soul to deal with the Beast that was ravaging Los Angeles and putting out the sun.  After that, all that was left was Angelus, a psychopathic murderous thug.  I could never be returned to our shared body.  These people found out the hard way that, in magic, three times is the number of completion.  Three times in and three times out, and that’s the end of re-ensoulment.  I didn’t survive to see how Buffy tamed Angelus, civilized him, used him to create a peace for humanity.  Loved him.  They lived to see it, though.

 

For me, it has been millennia since that last sight of them, and yet my love for them is as strong as ever.  But, there’s a remnant of fear that this might all be an illusion, an hallucination, mind games while I am still being tortured on the black sand.  Logically, I know that cannot be true.  I was with Angelus for the whole of his century of enslavement to the Dark Lady.  That was far too real to be the black sand.

 

Some of these people murdered me, for all the right reasons, but I still love them.  They are my family, even Xander.  And now I must deliver them to Adras.  That will be our gathering point.

 

Nevertheless, I’m wary.  My experience has taught me to be suspicious of the Powers That Be, and that when I detect the hand of Fate, it’s usually best to hack it off at the wrist.  There can be no doubt that the Lady is a very serious Power, probably the Goddess of the Witches.  I’m guessing her Consorts aren’t slouches in the power game either.  Ergo, be suspicious.  What do they want from us, and will we survive it?

 

And yet...  And yet... They brought us back to life.  They gave us all a future.  How can I be anything but happy about that?

 

I have one more person to find.  Drusilla.  When I’ve delivered her to Adras, I’m to go back to the black sand.  And the thought of that black sand does make me afraid.  I’d rather be with Angelus instead, as back-up for him in his own task.

 

++

 

I’m inside the castle, no let or hindrance.  She must be expecting me.  I’m guessing that might not be so good.  The castle isn’t as I remember.  It was a place of dust and rags and shadows when I arrived, worn down by time like the whole of this dimension.  Now, there is a certain splendour, a renewed vitality.  The fields outside were more productive than I remember, too.  This all comes from her.  She is the source of the fertility of this land.  Something has happened to her.

 

The corridors and chambers are the same, though, and I can still find my way to the rooms where I have had to... service her, tied to her like a dog to a bitch.  Humiliated in every way she could devise.  I hate her, and I would kill her if I could.  But, she has to be delivered to Adras.  Alive.

 

She’s waiting for me.

 

“Angelus.  It’s been a while.  For you, anyway.”

 

That’s true.  Time runs differently here.

 

“You’re looking pretty well.”

 

She is.  She’s glowing with health and power, her honey-coloured skin flushed pale rose, and her copper-washed tresses falling in shining waves down her back.  She’s also pregnant.  She lays a hand on her belly.

 

“No,” she says, in response to my unasked question.  “These are not yours.”

 

A door in the corner of the room opens quietly, and my hand falls onto the hilt of my sword.  Three young women enter, perhaps aged on the cusp of adulthood, all of them beautiful, none of them entirely human.

 

“These, on the other hand...”

 

The young women stare speculatively at me.  The one in the centre, the one with hair like metallic silver and a smattering of pearlescent scales, says “Hello, Father.”

 

++

 

The Lady and the Duality are in the neighbouring dimensions of Diza, Luchell and Amitai.  All of them now have a mythology about Angel or Angelus and his golden-haired lady, champions against the darkness, a mythology spread to them from the Dark Lady’s world.  They hope that these wonderful, gentle places can survive the coming catastrophe.  Other dimensions are harder for them to foresee.  Except the Hell Dimensions, those terrible worlds buried deep inside the structure of the cosmos.  Those will survive and thrive.  There will be many dangers from them. 

 

They bring seers, magic users, priests and rulers to the gathering at Adras.  Some they hope will join them, some they know will not.  Choices.

 

++

 

Vampires do not have children, of course they don’t.  But this Dark Lady has her own Duality, her own Lords of Creation and Destruction, held captive and helpless within her, evident only as a pair of penises.  So, she has made my sterile seed fertile.  Pias told me I had children, last time I was here, but it is one thing to be told, and another thing to see.  These three are the daughters of a goddess.  They might be the Three Graces, so lovely are they.

 

“Do you wish to see your other children?” the Dark Lady asks.

 

I nod, dumbly.  What am I supposed to say?  This day has been nightmare and dream, with little apparent reality to it, all of it happening too fast, and my brain is struggling to make sense of anything.  Is this nightmare?  Or is it dream?  There are moments when I think I might still be hung on that tree.

 

The three girls lead me into the neighbouring room, and then into a labyrinth beyond that.  One room is clearly a schoolroom.  There are seven children, not quite teenagers, four girls and three boys.  I look a question at my guides.  The girl with the silver hair inclines her head gracefully.  “Yes,” she affirms.  “These are our brothers and sisters.”

 

They have similarities to the three girls, including perfect beauty.  I know my earthly mythology, some of the Classical stuff, anyway.  Remember that I was educated at a time when such knowledge was considered important to an aspiring gentleman, even one who was the son of a merchant.  I know how much havoc such half-bred demigods could wreak in those old stories.  I also know how much power they could have.  Whatever the Lady might have in mind to deal with this parasite universe, power might be useful, no matter what the source.

 

“I hope we can get to know each other,” I tell them.  Again, what am I supposed to say?  I haven’t got much experience with children, except as a snack.  They say nothing, and some of the glares are hostile.  Oh well.  I’m guessing their mother hasn’t had much good to say about me. 

 

A noise comes from the adjoining room.  The older girls look at each other, and at some unseen agreement, lead me into what is clearly the nursery.  There are five young children in there, and a hum of power.

 

“Our half-brother and sisters,” the girl with the silver hair says.  I can’t think I’d have any other children, but they must be the Dark Lady’s.  Why else would they be here?

 

“Who is the father?” I ask.  Did she have some other godforsaken captive here?

 

The girls’ smiles are small and sly.  “The other Lady’s Consorts,” the girl says.  “The Lady who sent you here.”  Now there’s a surprise.

 

“And those in your mother’s belly still?”  All the girls nod.

 

“She sent her Consorts back again.  We listened at the door.”

 

Well.  Is someone raising an army here?  But which of the goddesses?  Nothing in creation can persuade me that the Lady and the Dark Lady are working together.  They are mortal enemies.  I learned that much from my time here.  I’m filled with foreboding, but whatever is happening is not the fault of any of these children.  Although, I must remember that they listen.  And they lurk.  What else has been passed down to the children of a vampire?

 

“I want to talk to you some more,” I tell them, and I hope they can see that I am sincere, “but now I need to talk to your mother.”

 

The Dark Lady is still sitting where I left her, her hand on her belly.  “How many are in there?” I ask her.

 

“Enough for now,” she replies.  “But afterwards, you will be back, you and your... brother.  You may think that I am your enemy, but I have what you need – fertility and power.  More power than your own woman.  If you don’t know it now, you soon will.”

 

How does she know about Angel?  HOW???  The schism has only just happened, for crying out loud.  I barely know about it myself.  And what does she know about the power that Buffy now has?  That is surely still to be discovered.

 

But there’s no time to worry about that.  There’s movement by the wall, and I curse to myself.  How could I not notice that there was someone else in the room?  Then it becomes clear.  It’s her son, Cervus.  The Hart.  Deer are always good at camouflage.

 

“I told you my mother wanted to see you.”

 

“I’m here now.  What did you want?” I ask her, as churlishly as I feel.

 

“I want you to come back and lead my armies again.  We have been... troubled by invaders.”

 

“Your borders are holding.  I checked.”

 

“True.  But with all this... renewal comes a renewal of my power of foreseeing.  We will be overrun soon.  The armies must be ready for them.”

 

“Lead them yourself.  Or get one of yours to put their lives on the line.  The Wolf, perhaps?  Or the Hart, here.  He seems to be... enthusiastic... about running your errands.”

 

The Hart licks his lips lasciviously, with that muscular tongue.

 

“They have other things to do.”

 

What mischief are they up to now?

 

“So do I have other things to do.”

 

“You do indeed.  I wonder, do you know exactly what you will have to do?  Why the imposter has granted you so much favour?”

 

That feeds exactly into my own insecurities.  I’m not sure what the Lady has done to us, and I have no idea what we’re for.  I feel the anger of uncertainty rising in me.

 

“It seems she’s been granting you favours, too, allowing her own lovers to have a bit on the side.  Not so sure about their taste, though.”

 

She raises a lip at me, just as a dog might when it is about to bite.  I’m under her skin.  Good.  She got under mine often enough.  She gets herself under control with a visible effort.  That tells me something.  Whatever she wants is important.  Still, something tells me that I might not find out the whole story for quite some time.  She’s never been into sharing until she had to.

 

With a mask of perfect complaisance on her face she says, far too casually, “You could bring your... brother now.  That would save me having to come and fetch you when the time is right.”

 

What does she want with us?  “You already have two poor bastards at your beck and call.”

 

She shrugs.  “Things change.  Times change.”

 

Neither Angel nor I, not separately or together, have the power of even those two poor penises.  Do we?  Now, there’s something to think about.  Under the casual scrutiny of a truly dark goddess, I have some sort of revelation, and don’t ask me where it came from, because I’ve no idea.  She has seen something in the future and it’s scared the shit out of her.  It’s nothing to do with invaders – or probably not – and it’s all to do with us and Buffy.  She wants to separate us, to keep us from working together.

 

Together you are powerful.

 

I remember those words from the Mohra demon.  Are they still true?  I believe they were, once.

 

“Stay away from all of us, or I’ll hang your head from your own battlements.”

 

Cervus steps into the sharp animosity.

 

“You have something of mine, Angelus.”  Yes, I do.  His blood, three times given, three times accepted, even though I had no idea what it was, or what he was.  Doesn’t stop it working.  I couldn’t resist his commands in that apartment in New York.

 

I square my shoulders and wait for my fate, whatever it will be.  I was completely in his thrall in New York.  Surely all that has happened since has strengthened me?  I’ve had the blood of godlings, and I’ve been unmade and remade.  I’m not the same as I was then, am I?  I’ll go down fighting, I know that.  He murmurs something I can’t quite hear.  I feel the tug of magic.  He wants me on my knees, and he’s got it, as though my joints are no longer under my control.  No!  NO!  I will not!  I will not kneel to him, and I will most certainly not kneel to her ever again.

 

I call on all my strength, so much of it recent and unfamiliar to me, and manage to get one foot under me and, clinging to the heavy bedpost, I pull myself upright.  What I now am is at war with what he put into me, and it is as though my blood were on fire, one force trying to purge the other.  I am burning blood and nothing else, and I must harness that power.

 

I spring at him, and he’s surprised.  He didn’t think I could do that, with his compulsion on me.  Perhaps some of the power of his blood was scoured away while I hung on that tree, and has been left in that other universe to work its own malice.

 

My arm is thrust against his throat, my fangs bared.

 

“STOP.  IT.  NOW!”

 

He lowers his head, and invisible antlers rake my psyche, but I don’t let go.  My hand finds the knife at my hip, and I shove it into his abdomen.  Father Robert took all the magic from the iron that made it, and now it takes all the magic from Cervus’ compulsion, for an instant at least.

 

His mother doesn’t move from her stool, she simply waves a hand, and I’m thrown against a bedpost.  It’s still scarred from my shackles, and now I’ve cracked the damned thing.  I’m back on my feet in an instant, with my sword in my hand, and perhaps I’m more of a threat than I realised.  At least, neither of them comes back against me.  Cervus glances nervously at his mother, but she’s inscrutable.

 

“Never mind,” he says.  “I still have something of yours.”

 

He holds up two exquisite opalescent glass bottles, each cased in filigree silver in the shape of entwined antlers.  My blood and my seed, freely given.  Of course.  Deer can regurgitate from the first of their several stomachs.  Told you.  I can be so simple at times.  I make a crude gesture at her.  “By all means stick it up your cunt. You don’t need me for that.”

 

“When I say come, you will come,” she says, not at all offended.

 

I lean over her.  “I doubt it.  What are you doing here?  Creating an army of half-bred godlings to go up against the Lady?”

 

She shrugs, and smirks at me.  It’s the sort of smirk I’ve worn so often myself, but now it irritates the hell out of me.  I find my hand around her throat, squeezing.

 

“Leave me and mine alone.  Do you hear me?”

 

And then I’m flying across the room again and crashing into the wall, the sword skittering from my fist.  I wasn’t ready for her, that’s all, or so I tell myself.  I manage to reach the weapon, but she stalks over to me, unperturbed.

 

“You will all answer to me when I want you to.” 

 

She isn’t touching me, but my whole body seems to be in a crusher.  I force myself to get up and get face to face with her.  That’s when the door crashes open.  Standing in that newly-created space are Buffy and Alizara, with drawn swords.  Drawn bloody swords.  Buffy has a crossbow, too.  Behind them are Pias and Iason.

 

The Dark Lady raises a hand to Buffy, who looses the crossbow.  The bolt strikes her in the ribs, between her heart and her pregnancy.

 

“Try to touch him and the next one will be in your forehead.  Might not kill you, but might take you a while to get over it.”

 

I’ve seen pure naked hatred before, and I’m seeing it again.  It’s all round me, in fact.  No need to apportion it out, there’s enough to go round.

 

“Did you know that there are a whole load of soldiers out there?” Buffy asks me.  “Well, there aren’t as many now as there were when we arrived.  I think you weren’t intended to leave.  She’s really good you know?”  She points her sword at Alizara.  Definitely interesting times for Ezrafel.

 

“Oh, and I’m not being strictly accurate.  There are a lot less of her soldiers, and quite a few of yours.  Ours.  They seem to be anxious for some payback.  I think they should come with us when we leave.”

 

There’s movement behind me, and I turn, brandishing the sword.  There’s no need.  It’s getting crowded in here, but these aren’t enemies, or not by the normal definition.  It’s the Duality.  One of them glares at the Dark Lady, and then at Cervus.

 

“Stay,” he says, and they don’t argue.

 

The other one, who seems to me to be the Lord of Destruction, but what do I know, turns his attention to me.

 

“Still got unwanted foreign bodies?” he sighs.  “Do be careful what you put into yourself, won’t you?”

 

I think I’m about to bluster that it wasn’t my fault, and I’ll do what I like anyway, but he’s switched off from me.  He’s frowning in deep concentration, and that bonfire in my blood is stoked once more.  It takes a great deal to make a vampire sweat, but I’m sweating now.  There’s a ripping, tearing pain from head to toe, almost like the loss of the soul all those years ago.  When I open my eyes from the rending pain, the Lord of Destruction is holding something round and shiny.  It’s dark, blood red, swirling with blackness, the size of an ancient baroque pearl.  He passes it to me.

 

“Keep this as a possibility.  You might find a use for it in the future.”

 

He’s stripped out Cervus’ blood and magic from me.  That’s impressive.

 

His twin takes the two glass bottles from the Hart’s unresisting hand.  “We, on the other hand,” he says, “might find a use for these.”  He pockets them.  I’m not sure I’m happy about that, but not much I can do.

 

He turns to the Dark Lady.  “So, you and the Hart tried to get your claws into Angelus, make him into a puppet you could control?”

 

She shrugs.  “Can’t hurt to try.”

 

“Don’t try again.”

 

“I’ll do whatever I think needs doing.  You won’t be able to stop me.”

 

The Lord of Destruction’s grin is ferocious.  “Perhaps not, but they will.  And you need them more than they need you.  You’re just going to have to learn to live with it.”

 

Her expression could curdle milk, but he isn’t done with her.

 

“You want more children from Angel and Angelus, so you’re going to have to argue your case persuasively to them.”  He nods towards me and Buffy.  “Right, time to go.  It’s your decision, of course, but I suggest you leave your army here for the time being.  She’s right.  Invaders are on the way.  She’ll need them.  They’ll be safe until then.”

 

Sounds sensible, and I know he’s right.  I’m also wondering whether I’m the only one of us who’s needed to be rescued while carrying out their errands.  It’s not a good thought.  Okay.  Time to get it done.

 

“You,” I say to Cervus.  “Stay out of my business, and I’ll overlook what happened.”  Including trying to set Father Robert, Aurelius and myself against each other.

 

“But it was such fun.” 

 

I ignore him.

 

“You’re invited to the gathering on Adras,” I tell her, “to deal with the cosmic problems we’ve all got.  Bring them with you if you want.”  I wave a hand at the Hart.  “I’m taking Pias and Iason.  If any harm comes to them from you, or to anyone else who is with me, then retribution will follow.”  I’m remembering how the whole Northern Army was crucified and enslaved because of me, and then stolen away by Pias and Iason, waiting for me to return.   “Hurt a single one of those soldiers, and I will revisit that hurt a thousand fold, no matter how long it takes.  And I will take away your believers and bring your whole world to ruin.”

 

Something flickers in her eyes.  If she truly can foresee the future, I think she’s foreseen the truth of what I’m saying.  The Lord of Destruction is right.  My people will be safe here.  For now.

 

“I want my children there, too.”  Those are words I never expected to say, and I get a very old-fashioned look from Buffy.  I don’t want to talk about it here, and Buffy wisely stays silent.  That won’t hold for long, though, and I can imagine that conversation with some... amusement.  Okay.  Trepidation.

 

The silver-haired girl – only now does it occur to me that I don’t know any of their names; I’m just thinking of these three as the Three Graces, although they might well turn out to be the Furies – speaks up.  “The others are too young.  We will come with you, and then we will answer to all of the children for what we have seen and heard.  All of them.  We will answer truthfully.”

 

“Good enough.”

 

“Time to go,” Buffy states, flatly.  Oh, there is going to be so much trouble later.  I’ll look forward to it.

 

“Can you make your own way there?” I ask the Dark Lady.  She’s recovered her equilibrium.

 

“Better than you,” she says with a sneer.

 

In the end, she goes with her sons, the Wolf, the Ram, and the Hart, and I take Pias, Iason, and the girls.  Buffy and I don’t stay on Adras more than a second or two, not even long enough to be noticed.  We’ve been told to go back to the black sand.

 

++

 

The Lady and the Duality wait nervously by the black cliffs.  They have left intact the tiny green oasis, where they can see Aurelius, Sekhmet, Dawn and the glued-together stone statue that was Acathla.  Aurelius and Dawn are sitting together quietly, and Sekhmet is curled around her long-lost lover Acathla, making small sounds of distress.  She wants him turned back to flesh.

 

They need to get things moving more quickly.  It’s true that time has no real meaning here.  They can go from here and arrive at their destination at any time they choose.  That does not change their internal, personal time.  Their own destiny is moving forward, and they are afraid.  They need to get it over with.  They are afraid they might lose their nerve.  There are worse fates than the Outer Darkness.

 

They are relieved to feel the approach of Buffy, Angel and Angelus.  Buffy is not in a good mood.  “What’s Dawn doing here?” she snaps.

 

“There are thing to be done, and Dawn must help,” the Lady replies evenly.  “We have talked to Dawn, and she is in agreement.”

 

“What does that mean?”

 

“She is an adult, Buffy.  She makes her own decisions.  Come.”

 

Buffy has no time to argue, and her lovers each put an arm around her in a message of their own.  Then the black sand is gone, and they are in a jewel of a place, a tiny cul-de-sac of a dimension hidden away in the heart of the Universe.  It is a place of beauty, a meadow of swaying grasses studded with flowers, surrounded by trees heavy with fruit of all kinds.  It is a fecund Garden of Eden, a constellation of colour, and it is made out of stars.  As much as anything can be, this is the home of the Lady and her Consorts.

 

They are standing in a grove of ethereal yellow laburnums, the chains of blossom bending down to caress them, the sweet fragrance wrapping them around.

 

The Lady is hesitant, uncertain how to begin.  “We are sorry for all the pain you have suffered in your lives.”  She reaches up to caress a tree and it glows.  “Souls are all the children of the cosmos.  Spirits, too.  Just as you were.  But you were... born... in a place like this, part of something even greater.  You were broken by the sword, polluted by the blood of the Dark Lady, and the rest was lost, beyond all possibility of recovery.”

 

The Duality regard her gravely.  What should have been was... children.  Children of the Lady and of theirs, children to be loved and raised, children powerful enough to replace them.  That possibility was gone forever, but they still love these three, who have such exceptional souls.

 

“We have tried to help you as much as we could, but some of her blood will always remain.  That is one of the things that made you the Slayer, Buffy, and you, Angelus, into the vampire you were.  But what you had from...elsewhere... is what has made you, all three of you, into what you are now.

 

“There must be another schism this day.  We must separate the parasite universe from this one, or nothing of our cosmos will remain.”

 

The Lord of Creation steps closer.  “That is why we have brought you here.  We must move the Universe out of the way.”

 

“I’m sorry?  Is this some sort of joke?”

 

“No, Buffy.  You are angry now, because of what you heard about Angelus’ children.  You must understand that what was taken from Angelus was stolen against his will, while he was trying to keep his promise to you.  Before long, there will be no secrets between any of you.”  He looks at them all with great compassion.  “You have people of power to help you, but you will need more.  The Dark Lady is right.  She will give you powerful children.  We, too, have made that sacrifice, to leave something for you.  So will you.  And you, Buffy, will decide when it is time.  For now, though, try to put aside your anger.  You, too, Angelus.  And Angel, try to put aside your doubts about us.”

 

“Can we just talk about moving the Universe out of the way?”  Angel asks, trying to be rational, and to move away from such an explosive subject.

 

The Lady smiles.  “It isn’t quite like that.  We have a plan to... bend the dimensions a little.”

 

“That is why you need Dawn!”

 

“Yes, Buffy.  We need Dawn and Acathla.”

 

“It will kill her!”

 

“No.  It won’t.  She will return to what she once was.  But what we do will need to be undone in the future, after everything has been returned to its rightful place.  Then she can be made flesh and blood again.  She understands this, and trusts in the future.”

 

“Acathla?”

 

“Once the dimensions are opened, Acathla will provide a focus to move the galaxies through.  I’m afraid that Sekhmet must wait a little longer for her lover to be restored.  But it will be done.  Aurelius is with them now, and will know what to do when the time comes.  And in the future.  Palestrina, too.  They will be restored, I promise.”

 

“Are you God?”  Buffy’s question is brusque and embarrassed.  “All of you together?”

 

The Lady’s smile is as warm and comforting as a benison, but she shakes her head.  “No.  There is only one God.  We are guardians of the Balance, of Ma’at.  Like many others, we simply do what we have been equipped to do, and what is required of us by God, no matter which side of the balance our actions count towards.”  She gives Angelus a piercing look.  “People of power, or people of faith.  Or Champions, past, present and future.”

 

“So,” Buffy asks, “what do you need us for?”

 

 “We will provide the power to pull the dimensions apart, but you must work the... spell.”

 

“What?”

 

“How?  Why?”

 

“You’re insane!”

 

Buffy, Angel and Angelus draw closer together, appalled.  Angel tries to find some sense in the situation.  “Why would you need us to do that?”

 

“Because someone needs to know what was done, so that it can be undone, when the time of need is past.”

 

“Why can you not undo it?”

 

“We will not be here.”

 

“I’m sorry?”

 

“Our future lies on a different path.”

 

“You’re running away?”

 

The Lady looks to her two lovers, and the look is one of purest love.

 

“No,” Angelus says.  “You aren’t running away.  The parasite is out of balance. You’re going to try to bring it back into ma’at.”

 

The three do not answer.

 

“It’s suicide!  You’ll be destroyed before you can get a grip on it.”

 

“All creatures must grow, evolve and move on.  This is the next part of our journey, and even if we aren’t equipped for it, there is no one else to do what must be done.  Just as there is no one other than you three to do what needs doing here.  None of us is truly ready, but we must do the best we can.  We hope we will survive.  If we know the name of that universe, it will answer to us.”

 

Names have power.  They all know that.  “Do you have the name?” Angel asks.

 

“Not yet.  But we need to start now,” the Lady tells them.  “And to do that, you too must know the name of our own universe.  We cannot tell you.  You must know it for yourselves.  And you do.  You were born of the Universe.”

 

“Does the Dark Lady know it?”  That’s Angelus, and he thinks he knows the answer.

 

“Yes.”

 

“So with you gone, she could take over, just by calling its name?  Like a large and nebulous dog?”

 

“The Universe is too old and powerful to simply be obedient.  It has a choice, too.  If there is nothing better than the Dark Lady, this Cosmos will answer to her, of necessity.  But it has refused her before.”

 

“When it chose you?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Angel looks around this miniature Eden.  How could they possibly know its name?  But it’s made from the stuff of the Universe, and so are they.  He walks out of the laburnum grove to where the nearest fruit trees are.  When he gets close, he sees that the fruit isn’t really fruit.  It is glittering energy made solid.  He reaches out to it, and one falls into his hand.  It might be the cosmic equivalent of an apple.  The Tree of Knowledge, he thinks.  Perhaps it does exist in some form.

 

He strokes the apple, and tries to open his mind, here in the heart of the Universe.  Then he bites down on the fruit.  And he knows.  He has always known, without realising, but the Universe wants him to know.  He walks back to Buffy and Angelus, and then they, too, know.  No secrets.  They say the name, together.

 

“Come then,” the Lady coaxes, pleased.  “It’s time to begin.  The Dark Lady would try to coerce by force and power...”  Angelus’ expression hardens.  She would indeed.  She knows no other way.  “But we have always found that love is preferable.  Can you do that?” 

 

Buffy blushes.  She’s not at all sure.  Having two lovers will take some getting used to, but in company?

 

They kneel together in the grove.  Buffy is uncomfortable.  Angel and Angelus are comfortable in their nudity, but they are not yet comfortable with each other.  And the Lady and her Consorts make Buffy even more uncomfortable.  The three godlings understand.  They shimmer, and then there are three more laburnum trees in the grove, the long blossoms caressing the skin of their protégés.

 

“Love each other,” they whisper.  “First, Angelus must take the lead, and Buffy, you must let him.”

 

Angelus moves in front of Buffy, while Angel kneels behind her.  They feel what they are supposed to do through the touch of the blossoms on their skin, rather than hearing any words.  Angelus cups Buffy’s cheek, and leans forward to kiss her.

 

“I love you so much,” he whispers, and he knows that he means it.  So does she.  He sees Angel bend to kiss her neck, and he tries not to mind.  That isn’t good enough, he tells himself.  He must love his twin unconditionally, if this is to work.  He thinks of all the years he has waited to touch his lover like this again, and how very many more it has been for Angel.  Angelus allows his hand to follow the slope of her neck, the swell of her breast, the curve of her waist.  As Angel’s hand sweeps up her hip, it touches Angelus’, and their hands move back up her body together.  Angelus finds that this time, he doesn’t mind.

 

Together, they stroke and touch and caress until Buffy’s breath is harsh and needy.  At a shared glance, Angel pulls Buffy against him, lifting her by her waist, taking her weight, his arm across her belly, the soft flesh of her breast cupped against his palm.  Angelus slides silkily into her, knowing that this is home for him, this is his paradise.  He feels Buffy’s hands tracing every slope and curve of his body, reacquainting herself with his beloved flesh.

 

When the time feels right, he calls out to the Universe, calling it by name, gently, like another lover, asking it to answer to his need.  The others do the same.  Angelus represents the Destroyer, and it is his will that the normal order should cease to be, that the dimensions be allowed to slide into a new formation.  And then he buries his fangs in Buffy’s neck, pulling the power from the balance, feeling her cede to him everything that she is.  The heat of her, the softness of her skin, the strength of her flesh, the scent of her, and now the nectar of her blood, and he explodes into her, gasping from the power that surges through them like a solar wind.  He almost hears the snap of time and place breaking free, and then Buffy’s own climax milks him, making him roar his triumph.  He feels the embrace of his twin, Buffy languid between them.  And he is surrounded by love.

 

Now it is Angel’s turn, representing Creation.  He faces Buffy, the breath catching in his throat.  He has only ever made love to her once, and that was so long ago by any measure of time or pain.  He buries his hands to the wrists in her hair, and it’s as though he were holding sunlight.  Her skin beneath his palms, so smooth and so soft; her breasts, so inviting, her gentle sighs as his fingers tease her nipples; the way her eyelids flutter half closed as starfire fills her; his lips close in on hers as he drinks in the scent of her.   And then he sinks into her, the fulfilment of an eternity of yearning.  She gave him the strength to survive Hell, and now she gives him the key to every desire.  He has never loved her more than at this moment.  As she falls over the edge, he spills into her, helpless, strengthless, and he feels his twin hold him up, holding them all in a sure and certain embrace.  He sinks his fangs into the other side of her neck, asking her to follow him, and he calls on the broken dimensions to fall into a new configuration, to bend themselves into a new structure, hidden from the parasite that is devouring anything it can find to feed on.

 

As power surges through their veins like liquid diamond, they sink to the ground, exhausted, and then they feel the shift, like a ship tacking in the wind, or when the earth tilts underfoot.  The cosmos has heard them, and it has answered. 

 

They aren’t done yet.  They can’t be done.  The balance must be restored, or the dimensions will continue to shift until everything falls into a massive black hole.

 

This tiny dimension is made from starlight, the life blood of the Universe, and now it weaves around them in all its glittering beauty and power.  Renewed, they kneel together again.  Coaxing, caressing, whispering supplications of love, the two ease gently into her together, filling her utterly, but now they are hers, bent only on her pleasure.  They tear each other’s wrists and offer them to her, and she suckles a little from each.  As she feels the rhythms of completion rack her body with exquisite, agonising pleasure, she urges them on, glorying in their devotion to her, in their climactic ecstasy.  Rivers of gravity slide into new courses as dimensions reshape themselves and fold in on themselves, measuring themselves against new structures of time; galaxies slide into new shapes and new placements.  She feels the different shape of the world, and she knows that it is right.  And then it is done.  And so are they.

 

++

 

In that tiny green oasis amid the black sand, Aurelius holds out his hand to Dawn.  They have known each other for years, and she trusts him.

 

“It won’t hurt, I promise you that.  And when the time comes, we will bring you back.”

 

She smiles for him.  “I know.”

 

“Will you... will you be aware, when you become the Key to the Dimensions again?”

 

“Not like now, but yes, I’ll be aware of those people I love.  I won’t be alone.  Neither will they.  Once you’ve been human, you can’t turn the clock back completely.”

 

Aurelius cocks his head, listening to something only he can hear.  “It’s time,” he says.

 

Sekhmet is beside her, and Dawn kneels down in front of her.  The cat licks her neck, and then delicately sinks in the tips of her sabres.  She purrs for Dawn as she drinks her down, and Aurelius holds Buffy’s sister, repeating his promises to her as life leaves her.  He kisses her cheek, making her smile for the last time, and then she is gone, leaving a green mist that spreads across the sand.  Aurelius knows that, from this place, the Key will touch every dimension.  He walks over to Acathla and slashes his palm with the tip of a fang.  He allows his blood to drip onto the grey stone.  He knows that it will work.  It only worked for Angelus because of his Aurelian blood.  Acathla and Aurelius were cursed together by Seth.

 

The statue shudders and opens a raging vortex.  The Key wreathes around and into the vortex until nothing exists but that, consuming the whole world.  Aurelius and Sekhmet are in the eye of the storm, clinging to each other as the Universe consumes itself.  And then the statue snaps shut, and the vortex is gone.

 

++

 

Buffy and her lovers stand with the Lady and her lovers on the edge of the tiny Eden.  From here they can see everything.  Above, the absolute blackness is littered with alien, parasite stars.  Below, as far as the eye can see, a thick mist wreathes around the bases of thousands of plateaux.  Millions.  These are our galaxies, our star systems, our worlds, in their new configurations, within the new geometry that the Universe has been fitted into.

 

The mist has the faint green tinge of the Key, where it touches the different worlds, but in other places it glows lurid orange or red or livid purple; and there are other colours that have never been seen by eyes bred on the Earth.

 

“You have done very well,” the Lady says. 

 

“What is happening down there in the mist?”  Buffy’s senses are on overload, screaming of danger.

 

“Those are the Hell Dimensions.  The inhabited dimensions are very close to them now.  Too close.  There was no other place they might survive.”

 

Angelus remembers Father Robert telling him about the Akbash dogs, the great white hounds of antiquity that lived with the sheep, or with whatever livestock they were meant to protect, guarding the flocks for the shepherd.  And he remembers the pictures that Robert showed him; the dog and the bitch, happy and healthy; and the other wretched creature with its rusty collar spiked with nails, and ears cropped, its hindquarters backed protectively into a corner.  Father Robert had told him that, if the shepherd had to go away, then perhaps a guardian more fierce even than the Akbash might be necessary, to guard against worse things than wolves.

 

Down in that mist were the things that were worse than earthly predators, worse than vampires and demons in all their splendid variety.  Down there were the horrors from the Hell Dimensions.  The three of them were those fiercer guardians, here to protect all the nations in Creation while they waited for another shepherd to claim the flock.

 

“When we go,” says the Lady, “some will go with us.  We have worked with a number of... supporters.”  She wants to say ‘family’, but she would have to use that word in a loose sense.  “They have chosen to follow us.  More will remain with you, to help, and you already have your own friends and family.  Then we have those who are gathered in Adras.  It will be time for them to choose, between you and the Dark Lady.  You will know what strengths you have to call on.”

 

“Will Adras survive?”

 

“Perhaps.  It will be very badly damaged.  It is the only place now where the parasite is in contact with us.  We will try to remove that tendril straight away.  But it might not be easy.”  That was an understatement.

 

“How long do you think before you get the parasite under control?”

 

“It is a universe that is utterly broken.  It has never known the peace and fulfilment of Ma’at, of true Balance.  If it were human, it would be judged to be mad.  Not only do we have to supplant the existing powers, however many there are who can go up against us, but we then have to find how to heal it enough to listen to us.  We cannot even tell how time moves there.  If we are successful, it might be decades, or even centuries before schism.  If we are not, if we die, it might be millions of years before the universes move apart naturally.  I cannot say more than that.”

 

Angelus has nothing to say.  For him and Buffy and Angel, it would be a life of unending war, then, no matter what.

 

“You will remember how you changed the dimensions, so that it can be undone?”  The Lady is anxious.

 

“Yes.  We won’t have enough power, though, will we?”  Angel knows that the power that flowed through them far exceeded their own meagre supply.  “What happens when someone else tries to take power?  To fill the gap that you’re leaving?”

 

The Lady chooses her words carefully.  “The only person with enough power to challenge you is the Dark Lady.  Others may grow, but you will have more power than those, and you will be in a position to stop them, if you judge them unsuitable.  Listen to the Universe.  She will guide you.  Already she loves you.  She will want to teach you.”

 

“It is all too much to take in,” Buffy says, to no one in particular.  “So, for right now, I’m going to focus on what to hit.”

 

The Lady smiles.  “When you need it, this retreat will always be here for you, for as long as you want it.  You can change it, or burn it and make a new one.”

 

Buffy glances at Angel and Angelus, and they nod back at her.  “We like it as it is,” she declares.  “It... it’s beautiful, and it will remind us of you.”

 

The Duality watch.  They were human once.  Buffy, Angel and Angelus will remember that in the future, and then they will know that they, too, can grow and change.  And that is their hope for the future.  They have done everything they can.  Now it is time to see if they can survive the parasite, and bring Ma’at to it.

 

++

 

A disparate crowd of people stand amid the fallen leaves, a scarlet carpet on the pale grey grass, on a hillside in Adras.  There is no one else left on the endangered planet.  The Duality have been busy, finding refuges for them.  Most of these have just arrived, and they are appalled to see the vortex carving away the face of the planet.  Now the Lady and her Consorts are here, and the Lady has explained that they have, to all intents and purposes, turned the Universe through the dimensions, hiding it from the parasite.  She has also given them the news that they will try to bring about a schism with this other universe.  The Dark Lady laughed in her face.

 

“You’re leaving these three to mind things?  Really?”

 

“Yes, unless you want to argue, and settle matters now?”

 

The Dark Lady laughs again, a rich, throaty sound.  “Spend my whole life at war with the Hell Dimensions.  No, thank you.  I’ll let them do the hard work.  You can promise me that they will protect my holdings?”

 

Buffy steps forward, backed by her lovers.  “Whatever we can do, we will do for everyone.  Even you, so long as you stay where you’re put.”

 

The Dark Lady stares boldly at the Duality.  “You made me a promise,” she reminds them.  “You promised me that I could have whatever I asked for, provided it did not damage you or these three and their family.”

 

“What do you want of us?”  Destruction moves forward to stand before his twin and the Lady.

 

“Nothing yet.  But the promise should still stand.  I want these three to take on the responsibility of that oath.”

 

Oh, this is so bad, Destruction knows.  This dark and spiteful goddess will make such mischief.  But he cannot think of a way out.  The promise was given.  He looks to Buffy, Angel and Angelus, willing them to say no.  The three exchange silent glances, and a decision is reached, albeit unwelcome.

 

“We will take on that responsibility,” Buffy pronounces.  There’s nothing Destruction can do.  It was not a good decision, but it was the right one.

 

“Thank you,” the Dark Lady says solemnly, at her most malicious.  “But there is something else.  It would be sensible to divide our resources, don’t you think?  In case anything should... happen to you?”

 

Buffy can hear Angelus grinding his teeth.  The Dark Lady raises her voice.

 

“If anything should happen to our new Champions, it would be prudent to have a...second front.  Mine.  Who is with me?”

 

There is movement in the throng.  Seers, priests, demons, those who have more affinity with the Dark Lady, go to join her.  Her sons, the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart are with her, naturally, and so is Lilah Morgan.  There is a stir of surprise as Wesley goes to stand with her.  Giles stands between the two camps, unsure what is happening, because he remembers Wesley, and he remembers how well they worked together, once they had ironed out their differences.

 

The Dark Lady gestures to him.  “Rupert Giles,” she says softly.  “You aren’t thinking of joining with the one who killed your wife, are you?”

 

Angelus stiffens, his face stony.  Giles looks across at Jenny.  “That’s in the past,” he says.  “And I have Jenny back now.”

 

“Oh, I didn’t mean Jenny.  I meant Penelope.  Before you left England to come here.  You were married, with a child on the way, and a vampire killed her.”  She gestures to Angelus.  “I expect he meant well, even though he got a good dinner out of her.”

 

Giles is white with fury.  He stalks over to the Dark Lady.  Buffy is still, as white as milk, clearly in shock.  Could it be true?  And, more immediately, if they lose both Wes and Giles, it would be a disaster.

 

“Is this true?” Giles demands.

 

“Ask him.”

 

Giles turns to Angelus, who remains silent.  What, indeed, can he say?  That he had to free Giles because he was trapped in the wrong life, and he could not think of another way?  Better to say nothing.  The balance tilts, and then, shockingly, Giles stalks back.

 

“There will be a reckoning for this,” he hisses at Angelus.  “I intend to kill you this time.”

 

“Yes.  I know.”  There’s something for the future, then.

 

Buffy shoves this new revelation down deep, to be examined and interrogated when there is time.  For now, they need to know who is with them, and be grateful for that.  Father Robert; the leaders of half the vampire clans – the rest are with her; Haraeth; a whole gaggle of seers and magic users.  Palestrina.  Aurelius.  Spike and Drusilla.  Illyria.  The Scoobies.  Lindsey, who almost walked over to join Lilah, but thought better of it and stayed with Angel and Angelus.

 

Pias and Iason are there for the whole Northern Army.  Angelus has plans to move them all out of the Dark Lady’s realm as soon as the coming need is dealt with.  They will be the heart of the army to protect the worlds.  Angel nods in agreement.  Oddly, a leader of the Jun has come, with his golden tattoo of the winged lion, but he is welcome.  They can use all those who want to join with them.

 

Anyanka is there, too.  She shrugs apologetically and walks to stand with the Dark Lady.  D’Hoffryn has given her his instructions, and she has decided it is in her best interests to obey, although she looks fleetingly at Xander.  He might be no more than the one who left her at the altar, but Vengeance Demons never forget.

 

And, shockingly, Faith and Gunn stand arm-in-arm at the Dark Lady’s left hand.  It is a blow, and, like Wesley’s defection and Giles’ torment, it is a personal sorrow for Buffy, and Angel and a cause of fang-dropping fury for Angelus.

 

Buffy is surprised at how many people have gathered to swear themselves to their cause.  Anything seems possible when surrounded by so many friends and family.  She doesn’t care that they have enemies.  They always have enemies.  And looking at them, just maybe they can turn some of those enemies back to friends.  They’ll give it the old college try for sure.  Angel and Angelus take her hands. 

 

“We can make it work.”  Angelus murmurs.

 

Yes.  She’s sure they can.

 

The Dark Lady has her own plans.  She will make full use of those who have pledged to her, but most important in her plans are those bound to her by blood.  The Duality’s... attentions... have renewed her and her realm, and reminded her how much better it is to have two such potent lovers.  Her own are almost as worn out as her realm was.  She knows she could never really hope to separate the Duality from her, but she has plenty of time to make changes.  She meant what she said about allowing Buffy, Angel and Angelus to exhaust themselves in constant war, protecting even her, while she grows stronger with each pregnancy.  And each child increases the strength of her support, because they are all hers, regardless of who their fathers are.  Like the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart, they must be hers, in both flesh and spirit.  She will send them out to find more of the old God-Kings, from whom she drew so much power millennia ago, although not enough to defeat her, and she will take more of that power, and the future will be hers.

 

The Lady, our Lady, reviews the small group that will risk their lives and their immortal souls to go with them and bring order to that pathetically unbalanced cosmos.  These are all powerful beings, known to them in incarnation after incarnation.  She could not have asked for better, but there are some that she will miss, Father Robert, Palestrina and Aurelius among them.  She smiles to think of the powerful mage that is Robert; and Aurelius, the vampire that is probably the most powerful being on the planet.  Father and son.  They will learn to live together again, but she would like to have been able to watch.  She and her lovers will miss Angel and Angelus and Buffy, very much, these three souls that belong together.  Leaving them with so much to do and such formidable enemies is their biggest regret.  But they have formidable friends, too.  She feels the touch of her lovers as they slip their hands into hers.  It’s time to move on.

 

A movement catches her eye.  The Three Graces have crossed the drifts of blood-red leaves and are making their obeisance to the new Champions, the nascent bringers of Ma’at.  They have chosen.  They are their father’s children, after all.  Her heart lifts a little.

 

“Come,” the Lord of Creation says, gently.  “There’s nothing more for us to do here.”

 

She takes his hand in assent, but Angel is there beside them, his eyes filled with concern.  “Do you have the name yet?” he asks.

 

She shakes her head.  “No.  We must try to manage without.”

 

“You said knowing the name was a necessity.”

 

“It is, but we must try.”

 

“You cannot command that Universe to obedience without its name.  You will fail, and all will be in vain.  You cannot be ignorant of this.”

 

Angel turns to find Illyria.  She can be irritating, but she’s right.

 

“I used to bestride worlds,” she says, bitterness etching her voice.  “I knew all their names. Perhaps I still can...”  She turns to Angelus with that birdlike tilt of her head.  “You prolonged my existence, and I am grateful.  Still, I prefer not to be so cheek-by-jowl with those who fed on so much of my power.”  She glowers at the sons of the Dark Lady.  “I would prefer to kill them, but I accept why you will not.  Wait here,” she says, and she strides off towards the ever-deepening crater and the feeding vortex.

 

Angelus is by Angel’s side, watching the God-King.  They share a fear that Illyria might be able to command the obedience of the parasite more easily than the Lady, even diminished as she is.  They don’t think that would be good news.

 

“Don’t worry, Daddy.  Daddy and Daddy, oh we could have had such fun before Miss Edith put the toys away.”

 

Drusilla has a sly smile that shows exactly what manner of toys she had in mind.

 

“Goodbye Daddy and Daddy.  I’ll be better there, you know.  She will make me better.”

 

Drusilla kisses them both quickly and then runs after Illyria.  Angel takes a step after her, bent on stopping her, but Spike prevents him.

 

“I’ll get her.”

 

He runs after Drusilla and Illyria, but already they are inside the vortex.  Spike doesn’t hesitate.  He follows straight after.

 

Creation takes Angelus’ arm, and Destruction puts his hand on Angel’s shoulder.  The Lady frowns, and then her face clears.  “That’s it!” she says, and her lovers nod.  They have it too.  Blood has spoken.  Illyria, the God-King, has the name, and Drusilla has told the Lady.

 

Angelus has his suspicions.  Does that make Illyria an enemy now, capable of renewing her power?  What about Drusilla and Spike?  They almost destroyed the Earth once.  Do they have a different plan now?  One thing that Angelus is certain of is that the Lady and her Consorts will be tempted to allow the two vampires and the God-King to be...reduced...until they can no longer be a threat.  It’s what he would do.

 

“They will live somewhere within that cosmos,” the Lady says hurriedly, “and what exists can be recovered.  They will be our responsibility.”  She doesn’t say that Angelus is wrong.  Then he remembers that she is Truth as well as the Balance.  She means what she says.

 

There is a silence as the two trinities regard each other, and then Buffy and her lovers feel a flush of warmth and reassurance.  There are regretful goodbyes on both sides, and then the three have crossed the space to the vortex as though that space didn’t exist, and, like Illyria, Drusilla and Spike, they are gone.

 

“We should get everyone else back to where they need to be,” Father Robert says into the ensuing murmur of uncertainty.

 

“But Dru... And Spike...”

 

“Believe that the heart of them will be recovered.  There’s a part for them to play there.”

 

Now it’s Angel who looks askance.  “I am not lying,” Robert insists.  “Spike and Drusilla carry much of you in them.  They will be found in time to save what they are, and even if they are not, do you truly think that the skeins of their being cannot be respun from wherever they are?  Now the God-King, that might be a different matter.”

 

“When will we know whether all of them are safe?  Whether the Lady has succeeded?”

 

“Never, Buffy.  Once that vortex closes, there must never be another path for that universe to follow back to us.  It must remain blind and deaf to us for all time and, once balance is restored and it is a parasite no longer, it will draw back from our space.  It isn’t like another dimension – it’s a whole new cosmos with different rules.  It’s a miracle that you and Aurelius managed to get Angelus out at all.  Come, let’s get everyone home.”

 

Buffy embraces both her lovers.  They will share their heartache later.  But then, as if they did not have enough sorrow, more is added.

 

“No!”  Angelus cries out, seeing another loss, and one loss too many. 

 

The Dark Lady has exercised her latest spite.  Three of her children have shown themselves not to be truly hers.  With a flick of her hand, the Three Graces are propelled into the vortex, and gone from sight.

 

++

 

In the tiny Eden, Buffy stretches out between her lovers.  They have held each other, and they have cried with each other, and comforted each other.  Dawn, Drusilla, Spike and three unexpected children that were still strangers, seem a heavy price to pay, even without the friends who now count themselves as enemies.  It seems so wrong that this new stage of their lives should begin with such losses, such sorrow.  And, already they can feel the lack of the Lady and the Duality, the shift away from such solidity of balance.  They have no idea how to deal with that.

 

They have been here for two days, allowing themselves a brief space of grief before they get to work.  The vortex is gone now, having taken about a quarter of Adras.  That world will never be the same, but it will live.  They hope that the same can be said of Spike and Dru and even Illyria.  And the Three Graces.

 

Everything else is peaceful for the moment.  That will change soon, if only because Angelus is determined to take back the rest of his children.  They will stay another few days, though, simply learning to live with and to love each other.

 

++

 

And so we come to the end of everything that we know, and move into the unknown.  Well, you didn’t expect me not to have the last word, did you?  Wesley once said that humans live, grow and change, but that Angel couldn’t do any of those things.  Just showed how much Wesley understood about vampires.  Sure, there are some who get stuck in the past, just as there are humans who can’t accept modern ways.  On the whole, though, if you’re going to live forever, you’d better be prepared to adapt and change.

 

Do you think I’m a different Angelus than the one you first met at the beginning of these journals?  I suppose in some ways I am.  I certainly started out as the half-insane demon that had been caged and defanged for a century.  Buffy’s death, of course, led to a century of slavery in my own personal Hell, and Angelus Abaddon, Destroyer of Worlds, so I suppose that what goes around comes around.  I’m still me.  I’m still the creature of passion and excess that I always was, but I’ve found different ways to express those passions, to enjoy those excesses.

 

I once told Spike, ‘A real kill. A good kill. It takes pure artistry. Without that, we're just animals.’  I can be a savage bastard, and that is never going to change.  But I’ve always needed more.  Buffy has always, in one way or another, provided that more.  So has Angel, in his own way.  It’s possible we’ve all just been handed a great deal more than we can handle, but excess always brings out the best in me.

 

Would I do it all again?  I’d prefer to do without the staking and gutting, flaying and poisoning, and the various Hells I’ve been consigned to, but it seems I couldn’t fulfil my desires on easier terms.  And since most of those desires involve Buffy, I’d say yes, I’d do it all again.

 

What about the future?  It’s going to be interesting, that much I do know.  Angel and I will bitch and whine at each other, and Buffy will probably end up... chastising... both of us.  But we will learn to live with it.  And to work together.  It went pretty well this time, don’t you think?

 

Battling the Hell dimensions won’t be easy, but we have resources.  We have my Northern Army.  We have Haraeth and his armies; we put him on the throne, and now it’s time for payback.  We have all the people who stood with us on Adras.  And we have all those champions, those warriors whose souls are in the black cliffs.  They’ll have a lot of territory to cover, but it’s a good start.

 

As for the rest, I don’t know yet.  How do you think we will react when some new Power comes along to take over?  I’m obsessive and possessive, and I’m not at all good at submitting to others.  You’ll remember I’ve been in a pissing match with Aurelius for as long as I can remember.  Despite his self-effacing ways, Angel isn’t much different, take it from me.  After all, he laid claim to the whole of Los Angeles in his time.  All those years in Hell never managed to break him.  And think about Buffy. Have you ever known her to give up a single square inch of what she considers is hers to protect? 

 

In any situation, whenever there’s a... change of management... the new regime tends to want to bury the old one.  To defenestrate, decapitate, depose...  Whatever the preferred methodology, de- seems to be the appropriate prefix.  Will any of us allow that to happen?  Or will we try to keep a Universe with fewer monsters and no gods at all?

 

I don’t know.  But I know there are sources of power within the Universe, including the Universe itself.  I’d rather they were in our hands than in the hands of someone who will become the Opposition.  I expect we’ll be having discussions about that.  And I swear that the Dark Lady will never succeed us.  That would be unacceptable after what she’s done to the Three Graces.

 

Will this archive continue?  I’d like to think that we will manage to live in a world that still contains pens and paper and people like Ezrafel to do the writing.  Certainly we’ll base ourselves at the Mansion for the foreseeable future.  I just hope that there will be some people left to read it, in some distant future, although I cannot say for certain.  But I think, for the most part, we will continue only in your memory.

 

Don’t forget the power of memory.  And of belief.

 

Farewell.

 

++

 

On the black sand, the tiny green oasis is almost faded away.  Almost, but not quite.  Seated around the spring of sweet water are the Three Graces, or the three Furies, or possibly the Three Fates – who can tell in such a nascent pantheon?  They were thrown back out of the parasite and delivered here, by will of the Lady and her Consorts, no sooner had their own mother banished them to the vortex.  They wish they’d had time to thank them, and to watch as they began their battle.

 

They look towards the black cliffs.  The whole place reeks of power and of the new Duality, of Angelus and Angel, and the cliffs most of all.  They are tempted to explore, but they don’t.  Not yet.

 

The girl of heart-stopping beauty, with fire-red plumage instead of hair, snuffs the scent of the future.  “Father still thinks that we are dead, but he will be here soon.”

 

The girl of goddess-like grace and silver hair nods.  “We will help him.  And our other father.  And the Slayer.  We will find more of the God-Kings before Mother does.  She must not have them.”

 

The third girl, with a beauty to tame the wildest beast, and hair as green as grass, adds fiercely, “And our brothers and sisters will join us.  We make that oath.”

 

There is a shimmer in the grey light, and the White Hart, the messenger of the Lady, steps onto the grass.  She has chosen that he should stay, to help the new guardians.  There are many things he can do, and one of them is to seal oaths.  The girl with the fire-red plumage holds out her hand to him, and he swipes a tine across her palm.  The other two do the same.  He licks up the blood and then, satisfied with that oath, he lowers himself to the grass.

 

“You’re waiting for our fathers, too?” asks the girl with silver hair.

 

“No,” says the girl with the grass green hair.  “He’s waiting for the Slayer.  He’s more her messenger than theirs.”

 

The girl with silver hair puts her arm around the White Hart’s neck.  “I want to know what your brother is up to,” she whispers to him.  Cervus is his brother, because the White Hart, too, is a son of the Dark Lady.  “I think he’s planning revenge on our fathers, and we need to protect them.  Will you tell us, when you know?”

 

The deer regards her from dark, limpid eyes, then he lays his head in her lap.  “Yes, sister,” he whispers.

 

The girl’s elation is fierce.  “She won’t get away with trying to kill us,” she says into the receptive air of this dimension of the dead.  “If Father doesn’t punish her, we will.”

 

Yes.  They are more their father’s children than they know.

 

 

The End

October 2013

 

 

Author’s Notes

 

1          Thank you to everyone who has followed the story of The Nature of the Beast, all of you who have waited patiently or impatiently for the next story.

 

This is the final one in the series.  I would love to write more, and I feel that I’ve truncated some of the storylines beyond what I would have wished.  But, none of us is getting any younger, and there are many other things I want to write.

 

So, I do hope that you have enjoyed these stories.  Thank you again for reading, and for all the very nice things you have said about them.

 

The whole series has been reposted here:  The whole series has been reposted The Nature of the Beast

 

2          The silver stag rhyton used by the Hart is real.  It’s Parthian, dating from about 50 BC, and you can see it here:

 

http://www.iranchamber.com/art/articles/art_of_parthians.php

 

 

3          There is a site called Wolfram, and it’s a serious maths site.  It has explanations of all sorts of things, including tesseracts.  I’m not joking.  Go here and explore:

 

http://mathworld.wolfram.com/Hypercube.html

 

 

 



IWRY HOMEPAGE :: 2013 FICTION LIST



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I’d like to say a special thanks to all who have made this site possible.
Mike, for his design, graphics, and technical know-how. To my girls for their help and support in organising this event (Thank you Ares, Jo, Kairos, LJ and Taaroko)
To all of the writers who graciously donated the fruits of their imagination, and to the readers who return every year for another wonderful month. Thank you everyone, for just being there.

All works are posted with complete consent of the authors and the Buffyverse characters, scenarios and other related paraphernalia were created by Joss Whedon so that we could play with them.
Thank you, sir. I hope we did you proud. This archive is unofficial and no money is made from it.