YearsContactFictionIWRY 2013



To Bind a Soul

To Bind a Soul

Author: Taaroko

Summary: In the summer after Buffy's freshman year in college and Angel's first year with Angel Investigations, the Scoobies and AI discover that there might be another line of fine print to the gypsy curse besides the happiness clause--one with implications that could be just as devastating. Post-S4/S1 AU.

Rating: PG

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The Recent Past

 

Taking the dogs for a walk down to the river gave Riley plenty of time to reflect on how much his summer wasn’t going the way he’d wanted it to. He’d hoped being back in Huxley for a couple of months and spending time with his family would help him get past the fiasco of the Initiative and his honorable discharge, but he’d been wrong. His younger twin brothers were in the midst of ROTC training in Texas, and his older sister was preparing to present her doctorate research in the National Security Seminar in Pennsylvania, so he was the only one home for the summer. To his chagrin, neither of his parents was satisfied with the reasons.

 

His dad wouldn’t stop hounding him about the discharge. As a highly decorated Vietnam veteran who was the son of an equally decorated World War II veteran, it was hardly surprising that the man would have strong opinions about one of his sons leaving the military for any reason other than extreme injury or death, no matter how honorable the discharge. His mother wasn’t much better, though her focus was on the fact that Riley’s grades had dropped so far due to how much study time the Initiative had consumed that he was on academic probation and his Master’s thesis was going nowhere (which was partly because his thesis advisor had been gutted by her own Frankencyborg).

 

When his mother wasn’t fretting over the state of his education, she also found a great deal to say on the subject of his love life. John and Emily were expecting their first child and one of the twins was engaged, so she wanted to know when he’d be moving things ahead with that nice blonde girl he’d raved about over Christmas break.

 

If Riley had had his way, Buffy would be in Iowa with him now—she’d have been the perfect buffer against both of his parents—, but she’d claimed a rain check in favor of keeping up with her Slayer duties in Sunnydale. He’d tried to compromise by suggesting she just fly over for one weekend of the month he’d be in Iowa, but then she’d switched tact and decided it was just too soon for that kind of step.

 

The more he thought about it, the more it rankled that even after over six months of dating, Buffy still claimed it was too soon for her to meet his parents. He’d already met both of hers (granted, meeting Hank had been more accidental than intentional, as he’d dropped in for a brief visit one Saturday when Buffy invited Riley to dinner with her and Joyce), so he didn’t see how it was “too soon” unless that was just code for “I’m not as invested in this relationship as you are.” But that was a mental can of worms he preferred to stay well clear of.

 

As if they knew he was in need of a distraction, Rex, Patton, and Aggie suddenly all started barking and tugging at their leashes. “Whoa!” he said, staggering forward a few steps before he was able to regain his balance. “What is it, guys?”

 

He looked in the direction they were straining towards and saw a column of smoke coming from the next farmhouse about a quarter of a mile up the country road. It belonged to the Andersons, the newest family in the congregation at church. They’d moved in a few months ago, and his mother had quickly made friends with Claire Anderson, despite her initial skittishness. She had just been telling them at dinner how Claire was so excited because her little boy would be released from the juvenile detention center in Des Moines for his outstanding behavior. She’d even baked the Andersons a casserole that afternoon to celebrate.

 

“Oh my God!” said Riley, and he took off at a sprint towards the smoking house, the dogs running and barking joyfully on either side of him. By the time he reached the Andersons’ front yard, he could see the actual flames in two of the windows. Both of their cars were parked in the driveway, but nobody was outside.

 

Riley dropped the dogs’ leashes and ran around to the back of the house. He turned the corner just as Seth was pulling a screaming Claire out through the window of the master bedroom. “No!” she shrieked. “We have to get Stephanie and Ryan! Let me go!”

 

“What’s going on?” said Riley.

 

Seth wheeled around to face him. “Our kids are still inside!” he said, still holding onto his frantic wife.

 

“Where?” said Riley urgently. “How can I help?”

 

“Around the other side of the house,” said Claire, looking close to fainting now, but at least calming down enough to have realized they weren’t actually abandoning the kids.

 

“We’ll get them out, Claire,” said Seth. “Wait here.”

 

Riley followed Seth around to the far side of the house. There were two windows there, and one of them had bars across it—a new addition since the previous owners of the house had hosted church barbecues in the backyard when Riley was in high school. Seth went for the other window, tore the screen away, and tried to pry the window open, but it wouldn’t budge.

 

“Let me,” said Riley, and Seth moved aside long enough for Riley to slam his elbow through the glass, shattering it. He reached inside and undid the latch, then shoved the window open. Seth clambered inside, calling his daughter’s name. He reemerged a minute later, cradling a coughing and gasping eight-year-old to his chest.

 

“What about your boy?” said Riley when Seth seemed prepared to head back around to where Claire was.

 

Seth looked around at Riley with an unreadable expression on his face, then carefully set Stephanie down. “Your mom’s over on that side of the house, sweetie. We’re all going to be okay.”

 

Stephanie nodded feebly, still coughing, and Seth went back to the window and climbed inside. Riley followed, setting both feet on the glass-coated carpet inside Stephanie’s room just as Seth reached for the doorknob and drew back with a yelp of pain. “The fire’s already spread,” he said.

 

“We’ll get to him,” Riley assured him. Seth stepped aside again, and Riley aimed a powerful kick at the door. It burst open, taking half of the frame with it. A wave of heat rolled into the room, almost powerful enough to knock them off their feet, and smoke billowed through the doorway. The hallway was aglow with fire, which was creeping forward at an alarming rate. Pulling his shirt up to cover his nose and mouth, Riley ran into the hall, careful to skirt the flames, and made for the next bedroom. He didn’t even spare a thought for the doorknob, but kicked this door in too.

 

Inside the room was a blond boy, maybe ten years old. He was sitting on the bed, looking utterly unaffected by what was happening in the house. But Riley barely allowed these unsettling observations to give him pause. “Come on, Ryan,” he said, holding out a hand to him. “I’m gonna get you out of here. It’s okay.”

 

“There’s bars on the window,” said Ryan. There was no emotion whatsoever in his voice. “Mom and Dad want me to stay.”

 

“Come on, we can go out through Stephanie’s room,” said Riley. Not waiting for Ryan’s input this time, he grabbed the boy off the bed and ran back into the hallway. The fire had reached Stephanie’s door by now, and the heat was even more unbearable. Riley had to jump over the flames to get into the room. Seth was nowhere to be seen. Praying he’d already gone back to Stephanie and Claire, Riley climbed out of the window with Ryan. The second he was outside, he let out the breath he’d been holding and gratefully filled his lungs with smoke-free air before succumbing to a violent series of coughs.

 

Sure enough, they found the rest of the family all grouped together in front of the house. Claire was looking around anxiously as she clutched Stephanie tightly to her, and Seth had a cell phone to his ear.

 

“Ryan!” Claire shrieked, letting go of Stephanie and dashing over to Riley and the boy. Riley gladly handed him over to her, and she dropped to her knees with Ryan, sobbing into his hair and holding onto him tightly.

 

 Riley glanced over at Seth in time to see the expression on his face as he looked at his son. He was sure he was seeing things; the man couldn’t actually be disappointed to see Ryan safe and sound.

 

“You got him out,” Seth said to Riley, closing his phone and shoving it back in his pocket.

 

“Yeah,” said Riley a little hoarsely. “It was a close one, but he’s okay.”

 

“Thank you,” said Seth stiffly.

 

“Is there anything else I can do?” said Riley.

 

“The fire department is on its way,” said Seth. “They’ll probably want statements from everyone.”

 

Riley nodded. Suddenly remembering the dogs, he walked a few paces away from the Andersons. He put his fingers to his lips and let out a loud, high-pitched whistle. He heard a distant bark, so he called out the dogs’ names. Once he walked far enough away from the fire, they came running right back to him, tails wagging.

 

Fifteen minutes later, the two kids were sitting in the back of an ambulance, firmly wrapped in shock blankets, while a police officer interviewed Seth, then Claire, and finally Riley. Once the officer was finished with him, Riley headed back over to where Seth and Claire were watching the firemen blast water at the burning house, their backs to him.

 

“I thought we’d seen the end of this after L.A.,” Claire was saying in a broken voice. “I thought he was better.”

 

“I know, sweetheart,” said Seth, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and giving her a squeeze.

 

“I can’t send him back to that place,” said Claire. “I can’t stand it. He belongs with us.”

 

“We can’t afford to keep uprooting everything whenever this happens,” said Seth.

 

Riley was about to make his presence known when Claire burst out, “But the demon is gone! It was supposed to be over once the demon was gone!”

 

 

Ever since his apartment—and Angel Investigations headquarters along with it—was destroyed in the explosion, Angel had been crashing at Wesley’s flat. They hadn’t had many cases since their latest altercation with Wolfram & Hart, but that was probably for the best, at least until Wesley’s injuries finished healing.

 

One afternoon in June during a particularly long stretch between cases, Angel was just lying down on the lumpy living room sofa to try to grab a few hours of sleep before nightfall when someone hammered on Wesley’s front door. He got reluctantly to his feet to answer it, but the visitor let herself in before he could get there. It was Cordelia.

 

“What’s wrong?” he said, immediately alert.

 

“Did you have a vision?” said Wesley, who had just emerged from his office to see who had knocked.

 

“Hi, Cordelia, it’s so nice to see you on a Saturday when we don’t officially have work! I’m planning on paying you overtime just to show my appreciation!” said Cordelia, crossing her arms and raising her eyebrows.

 

Angel and Wesley exchanged brief, knowing glances. Wesley was the first to respond. “It’s absolutely smashing to see you, Cordelia,” he said, a little too brightly.

 

“Eight out of ten,” said Cordelia, unimpressed. “Aren’t you supposed to offer me tea?”

 

“Even if that particular cultural stereotype were true, it would only apply to expected company.”

 

“Chamomile, please. Extra honey, but only milk if it’s skim.”

 

“Coming right up,” said Wesley in defeat. “I put the kettle on a few minutes ago anyway.” He trudged over to the tiny kitchen and disappeared from view.

 

Thank you,” said Cordelia primly as she took a seat on the sofa. Once settled, she looked expectantly at Angel. “And my overtime?”

 

“I already gave you a raise,” he said, amused. She continued to stare at him, so he added, “It’s also good to see you.”

 

“So did you have a vision, then?” came Wesley’s voice.

 

“God! What is it with you two and your extreme aversion to small talk?” said Cordelia.

 

“Well you did just show up unannounced like it’s some kind of emergency,” Angel pointed out.

 

She shot him a dirty look. “Oh, fine. Yes, I did have a vision. I’m not sure what the Powers expect us to do about it, though, because it looked a whole lot more like the past than the future.”

 

“How could you tell?” said Angel.

 

“My first clue was the horses and buggies mixed in with Model Ts, and everyone was wearing vests, suspenders, dresses, and hats.”

 

“And this was in Los Angeles?” said Wesley.

 

“Not unless everyone in L.A. was all ‘Ciao!’, ‘Andale!’, and kissing each other on the cheeks back then,” said Cordelia. “And the war posters on some of the windows definitely weren’t in English.”

 

“Why would you have a vision of something that took place in World War I era Italy?” said Angel, just as Wesley reappeared with a steaming cup of tea, which Cordelia took.

 

“How should I know?” she said, raising the cup to her lips and taking a sip.

 

“What was happening?” said Angel. He leaned back against the nearest wall and folded his arms across his chest while Wesley sat down in the armchair.

 

“A lot,” said Cordelia. “It kept flashing around, but it was all centered around this one guy. He was executed for murdering his sister, her husband, and her husband’s parents.”

 

“Was he guilty?” said Wesley.

 

Cordelia nodded emphatically. “Oh yeah,” she said, taking another sip. “And that was only what he got caught for. He also burned down a few buildings—one of them a hospital—but they couldn’t prove he was guilty for any of those.”

 

“Wes and I can look into that,” said Angel. “There’s bound to be a record of it. Let us know if you remember any more details.”

 

 

The Present

 

The Summers’ living room was crowded. Joyce was away overseeing a gallery showing, but Buffy, Xander, Giles, Willow, Tara, and Riley were all there, plus Angel, Cordelia, and Wesley, who had all arrived from L.A. earlier a couple hours after sundown the previous day. Buffy had been sitting between Cordelia and Willow on the couch, but after Wesley’s last statement, she had leapt to her feet.

 

“You can’t do that!” she shouted, gesturing wildly at Angel, who was leaning silently against the wall to her right. “You can’t take his soul away!”

 

“I understand that this is upsetting, Buffy,” said Giles, “but Ryan is a human child and he was never meant to go through life without a soul.”

 

“We get that, but Angel isn’t the one who took Ryan’s soul,” said Willow, coming to Buffy’s aid. She looked over at Tara, who was standing near Giles and Wesley, but Tara wouldn’t make eye contact with her.

 

“Exactly!” said Buffy. “It was a side effect of something that was done to him! How is it fair that he’s the one who has to sacrifice everything when it isn’t even his fault that it happened?”

 

“There’s no other way to give Ryan’s soul back than to undo the magic that made him lose it,” said Riley.

 

“How do you know?” Buffy demanded, rounding on him. Angry tears were starting to form in her eyes. “Have you looked in every single book about souls and magic?” She turned to Giles and Wesley. “Have you? Has anyone here tried anything else, or are you all so eager to see him gone that you’re not even willing to consider the possibility?”

 

“Excuse me,” Cordelia interrupted crossly. “Just because almost everyone in Sunnydale hates Angel, don’t assume I do. Angel’s not just my boss; he’s my friend.”

 

“And don’t assume we prefer Angelus, because I think you’ll find a unanimous ‘nay’ vote there,” said Xander.

 

“You all know what’ll happen if we go through with this,” said Buffy. “He’ll be Angelus again, for good, and I’ll have to kill him, and I can’t. Not again.”

 

Before anyone could call her back, she stormed out of the living room, through the dining room and kitchen, and out the back door, stopping only when she reached the tree in the back yard.

 

“Buffy.”

 

“Already done standing up for yourself, I guess?” she bit out, not facing him. “You didn’t have anything to say when I was in there.”

 

“They’re right,” said Angel. “Maybe not about the how, but they’re right about what Ryan deserves. I might not have asked for my soul back, but he sure as hell didn’t ask to lose his in exchange.”

 

“So we’ll find a different way to fix it!” she said, turning around. “Cordelia got visions about this from the Powers? Well why would they want you to do something that would make it so you can’t work for them anymore?”

 

“I don’t know,” he said. He looked defeated, which was exactly the opposite of how she wanted him to look. “Maybe I’ve already done everything they want me to do.”

 

“That’s bull crap!” she said. “You’re immortal, but they only have enough missions to keep you busy for a year? I’m not buying it, and you shouldn’t be either.”

 

“So we’ll look for another way first,” he said. “If there’s something else we can do, we’ll find it.”

 

 

For the last two days, the combined forces of the Scoobies and Angel Investigations had done little but pore over books. Giles’s collection had quite a few regarding souls and the many theories surrounding them, but so far nothing had pointed them towards a way of restoring Ryan’s soul without removing Angel’s.

 

Buffy knew none of the others believed they’d find what she was looking for. She could feel it in the pitying glances they kept shooting her when they thought she wouldn’t notice. This wouldn’t be half so irritating if they’d been aiming their glances at Angel, but it seemed that everyone but Cordelia and Wesley was only concerned about Angel as an extension of being concerned about her—if they even cared at all. To her shame, it surprised her that Riley was more invested in seeing this research through than Xander. Despite his confrontation with Angel in May, Buffy knew Riley wasn’t petty enough to be spiteful about this.

 

When the fifth book in as many hours told her little more than that it was dangerous to interfere with the natural movement of souls in human life, she got up from the couch, set her book down, and stretched her aching muscles. She looked around and frowned when she didn’t see Angel among the researchers scattered throughout the room.

 

“Where’s Angel?” she asked.

 

“He went downstairs when the sunlight started coming in on this side of the house,” said Cordelia as she turned a page in her book.

 

“Thanks,” said Buffy, and she headed for the door to the basement. Angel was indeed down there. He’d removed his shoes and his shirt and was in the midst of practicing the same smooth movements she’d found him doing at the mansion on multiple occasions after his return from hell.

 

“Had enough of Giles’s books for today?” he said without stopping what he was doing.

 

“There wasn’t one from this batch that someone hadn’t already looked in,” she said. “You too?”

 

“Yeah. He’s had me and Wesley working with most of the ones not in English.”

 

“Mind if I join you?” she asked politely, struggling to keep her eyes anywhere but on the muscles of his chest, or on his back when he dropped into a partial crouch, stretched one leg to the side, and turned as part of the form.

 

“Not at all.”

 

 

The Recent Past

 

“Riley, hi!” said Buffy in surprise. She hadn’t expected to see her boyfriend until after the Fourth of July; it was only the last week of June. She beamed and stood on tiptoe to kiss him in greeting, but he broke away after only a second. “What’s up? How come you’re back already?”

 

“Something came up,” he said. His expression was very serious.

 

It was only then that Buffy noticed the dark-haired thirty-something man standing behind Riley. “Who’s this?” she asked, confused.

 

“Seth, meet Buffy Summers,” said Riley, gesturing to both of them. “Buffy, this is Seth Anderson. He’s here because of an incident that happened in Iowa. Normally I’d refer him and his family to the Initiative, but that’s not really an option anymore, so I figured you and Giles and the rest of your friends were their best shot for dealing with their problem.”

 

“What problem?” said Buffy anxiously. This summer had been just as quiet as the last three so far, and she’d come to greatly appreciate the regular breaks from apocalyptic mayhem.

 

“Are you sure she can help us?” said Seth, giving Buffy an appraising look.

 

Buffy tried not to let his tone annoy her. “I’m a Vampire Slayer, Mr. Anderson,” she said. “I’m sure I can handle whatever it is you’re dealing with.”

 

He still looked reluctant, but after a glance at Riley, he relented. “Fine,” he said. “It’s my son. The other day was the third time he’s tried to burn down our house with us inside it. The first time, a family friend died. We thought we’d put it all behind us; the child psychologists at his institution in Iowa all loved him, said he was their most improved patient.”

 

“What does that have to do with—” Buffy began, frowning.

 

“Wait, Buffy,” came Tara’s voice from behind her. Buffy turned around and saw that Tara and Willow had emerged from the dining room where her mom had been having dinner with all of them.

 

“What’s wrong with your son?” said Tara, stepping forward so that Seth could see her properly. Whereas he had been skeptical of Buffy, something about Tara’s manner seemed to put him at ease.

 

“He was possessed by a demon,” he said, closing his eyes wearily.

 

Buffy’s frown deepened, and she glanced at Riley. “Was?” she repeated.

 

“Can I see him?” asked Tara.

 

“Of course,” said Seth. He led the way out of the house toward the car parked behind Joyce’s Jeep, Riley, Buffy, Tara, and Willow following.

 

“Claire?” said Seth. “These young ladies would like to meet Ryan.”

 

A blonde woman emerged from the car and opened the rear passenger side door so that a boy could climb out. Buffy thought he looked completely normal, and she made to exchange a puzzled look with Willow, but Willow was looking at Tara, her brow furrowed. Buffy followed Willow’s gaze and saw that Tara was staring at Ryan with an expression of shock and alarm.

 

“What is it?” said Claire, her tone rather defensive.

 

“There’s nothing there,” said Tara. She sounded shaken, and Willow reached out to put a hand on her shoulder. “No aura at all. He doesn’t have a soul.”

 

 

There was indeed a record of the man in Cordelia’s vision. Despite Angel and Wesley’s shared aversion to computer research, they quickly found the newspaper reports of the hospital burning in Padua, Italy, and the trial and execution of Massimo Marco Baroni. His many crimes had spanned more than a decade before he’d been caught and imprisoned, from a house fire in 1903 to a quadruple murder in 1912, and he’d been executed in May of 1913.

 

“I still don’t see what this has to do with us,” said Cordelia after Wesley finished explaining Baroni’s story to her. They were at her apartment this time, and Dennis the ghost had just floated over a mug of tea for Wesley and pig’s blood for Angel while she paced back and forth across the living room, looking agitated. “He’s been dead nearly ninety years. What are we supposed to do about it?”

 

“The Powers wouldn’t give you the vision for no reason,” said Angel. “I was around then; it could still have something to do with me.”

 

“I don’t suppose you could…try to get more of the vision,” said Wesley, shooting Angel an uncertain glance.

 

“You mean induce one of those mind-splitting headaches on purpose?” she snorted. “Sure, no problem.”

 

“Cordelia, I didn’t—” he said, but she waved him off.

 

“It’s fine,” she said, grimacing. “If that’s what it takes.” She stopped her pacing and sat between them on the couch, leaning forward to rest her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands, massaging her temples with her fingers. Wesley and Angel watched her with bated breath. To their knowledge, she’d never tried to reconnect to a vision before. They didn’t know if it was even possible.

 

Apparently it was, for after about ten seconds of silence, a shudder ran through Cordelia and she snapped back in her seat, obviously struggling to hold in her screams. Wesley fumbled anxiously, looking like his instinct was to touch Cordelia’s arm to help brace her, but that he was too proper to actually do it. Angel had no such hesitation, reaching over to grip both of her shoulders in a firm, steadying hold.

 

She came out of it nearly half a minute later, gasping for breath and with tears in her eyes.

 

“Are you alright?” said Wesley.

 

“Just give me a second,” said Cordelia. A glass of water, frosted from the chill of the ice cubes bobbing within it, came floating out of the kitchen towards her. She caught it and brought it to her lips, draining most of it in one go. “Thanks, Dennis,” she sighed after lowering it again.

 

“What did you see?” said Angel.

 

“It was more about Massimo,” she said. “I saw him when he was a teenager, at home with his family. He was fine. No sign at all that he’d do the things he did. I saw the day that changed. I don’t know why it was so specific, but one minute he was laughing with his family, and the next he was withdrawn and lashed out at the smallest thing. For a second, it focused really specifically on his father’s newspaper. It said…I don’t know if I’m saying it right, ‘12 Marzo 1898’.”

 

“The twelfth of March, 1898,” said Angel. He felt utterly thunderstruck.

 

“Something important about that day?” said Cordelia.

 

“Yes,” said Wesley, staring at Angel. “Wasn’t that the day—”

 

“The Kalderash people cursed me with my soul?” Angel finished. “Yeah.”

 

“Then what does that mean?” said Cordelia, alarmed. “That Massimo lost his soul at the same time Angel got his? Why would that happen?”

 

“Perhaps another consequence of the curse,” said Wesley. “Hopefully not one they intended.”

 

“They only cared about revenge,” said Angel. “If they knew that would happen, I’m sure they thought it was worth it after what I took from them.”

 

“Well this is all great, but what does it have to do with anything now?” said Cordelia.

 

“The twelfth of March, 1898 wasn’t the only time the curse was performed,” Wesley reminded her.

 

 

The Present

 

“Buffy, can I talk to you outside for a minute?” said Riley.

 

Buffy looked up from her book, which had such small calligraphic print that it was starting to make her vision blur. There was something about his posture and expression that made unease pool in her stomach. “Sure,” she said. She followed him out of the dining room to the front door, trying not to glance at Angel where he sat poring over books with Wesley and Cordelia in the living room.

 

“What’s this about?” she asked once Riley had led her almost all the way out to the road in front of her house.

 

“I don’t think I can do this anymore,” he said, not quite meeting her eyes.

 

“What, research?” said Buffy, confused. “We need all hands on deck for this, Riley.”

 

“Not the research,” he said. “For that little boy’s sake, I’ll read a hundred more of those books.” He shifted slightly where he stood, then finally looked her in the eyes. “This is about us.”

 

“I know I’ve been kinda one-track since this whole soul issue came up, but everything will go back to normal once it’s over,” said Buffy slowly.

 

“Yeah, it probably will,” said Riley. “But ‘normal’ is still the two of us in very different places about this relationship.”

 

“Is this because I didn’t want to go to Iowa with you?” she said. “Because I thought you understood that it’s too soon for me to take that step.”

 

“That’s the thing, though, Buffy—it’s not. I wasn’t asking you to move across the country away from your friends and your Slayer duties to be with me, I just wanted you to meet my family. I wanted them to meet the girl I couldn’t stop talking about every time I got on the phone with them last semester, and they wanted to meet you.”

 

“They did?” said Buffy. She couldn’t think of anything else to say. She felt awful.

 

“I didn’t want to accept it before, but this past week has cleared a few things up for me.”

 

“What things?”

 

“You’re settling,” he said. His voice was emotionless, but the pain in his blue eyes was heartbreaking to see. “I’m not who you really want to be with. You’re only with me because he’s off-limits.”

 

“Riley, that’s not—”

 

“It is! I’ve seen the way you look at him. You look at him the way I want you to look at me, and you’ve dropped everything since he got here to find a way to protect him. You’re still in love with him.”

 

Buffy stared helplessly at Riley. He was so good, and he loved her so much. The last year—when she hadn’t been dealing with Spike or Faith or Adam and the Initiative—had actually been fun, and a lot of that had been because of Riley.

 

He was watching her closely, and seemed to be holding his breath. She knew he was waiting for her to prove him wrong, to say the three words she’d never said back to him. She couldn’t do it. His shoulders slumped slightly when it became clear that she wasn’t going to speak.

 

“Maybe you’ll find someone you can love after Angel, but it isn’t me, and I need to find someone who can love me back.”

 

Buffy bit her lip. Her throat was constricting painfully, but she didn’t want to cry.

 

“Like I said, I’m going to see this through for the Andersons’ sake, but I think I’ll take off for the next few hours. Give us both a break.”

 

Buffy stood there for a long time after he walked away, only vaguely conscious of the sound of his car starting. Eventually, she turned and headed back to the house. When she entered, everyone was gathered in the living room, and Tara and Willow were standing front and center.

 

“What’s going on?” said Buffy.

 

“Willow and Tara have found some things in their research,” said Giles.

 

“Well that’s good, isn’t it?” said Buffy, but Willow was shaking her head. “Then we’ll keep looking until it is,” Buffy insisted.

 

“We’d only find more of the same,” said Willow.

 

“S-soul magic is dangerous and against na-ature,” said Tara, her trembling voice barely loud enough to be heard across the room. “That’s why it has c-c-consequences like this. Trying to…to reverse the damage without balancing it could make things e-even worse. The energy that binds a soul to its body is powerful and can’t—can’t be created from nothing or manufactured by unnatural means. Th-that’s why someone else has to lose their soul to bind Angel’s back to him.”

 

“Once a person dies, the energy binding their soul to their body dissipates,” said Willow. “Like heat lost in a chemical reaction. You can’t get it back; you have to take it from somewhere else. The only way to gather the energy we need is by reversing the spell that took it from him in the first place.”

 

“That can’t be the only way to do it!” said Buffy. “Can’t we get the energy from somewhere else?”

 

“Such as taking the energy from a different living soul to bind Ryan’s?” said Giles mildly.

 

Buffy’s mouth gaped in horrified protest. “No, I didn’t mean that,” she said.

 

“It’s okay, Buffy,” said Angel. Her eyes snapped to his, pleading silently with him not to say what she knew he was about to. “This started with me. It should end with me.”

 

There was a long silence in which Buffy felt like everything was crashing down around her. Riley had just broken up with her because of her love for Angel, and he’d been right about everything he said—but now she was going to lose Angel too.

 

“So does this mean Buffy has to sleep with Angel again?” said Xander into the silence. Nearly everyone shot him a withering glare. Cordelia kicked him in the shin.

 

 

The Recent Past

 

“Has your son always had these sorts of behavioral problems?” Giles asked as he handed Seth and Claire each a cup of tea. Riley, Buffy, and Tara were in the living room as well, and Xander and Willow were keeping an eye on Ryan and Stephanie in the courtyard outside Giles’s apartment.

 

“No!” said Claire, with an expression that suggested Giles had grievously wronged her child. Seth reached for her hand and intertwined his fingers with hers. She relaxed slightly and continued more calmly, “When h-he was little, he was the sweetest boy you could ever meet. It was only a couple of years ago that he stopped acting like himself.”

 

“We thought it was a phase at first, and that he’d get over it,” said Seth, “but then he started lighting fires.”

 

“Can you pinpoint a more exact timeline on that?” said Giles.

 

“Well, just before the school year ended when he was in second grade, all of a sudden we were getting calls from his teacher that he was starting fights,” said Claire. “He’d never done that before; everyone loved him.”

 

“When was this?” said Giles.

 

“May of ’98,” said Seth.

 

Buffy and Giles immediately exchanged alarmed glances at this.

 

“What?” said Riley, and Tara also shot them an inquiring look.

 

“Would you excuse us for a moment, Mr. and Mrs. Anderson?” said Giles.

 

“Of course,” said Seth, and Claire smiled feebly.

 

Tara and Riley followed Buffy and Giles out into the courtyard, where Xander had both kids laughing at a joke while Willow watched Ryan with a vaguely troubled expression.

 

When Xander noticed the four newcomers, he broke off what he was saying. “Uh, why don’t you two run inside and find your parents for a minute?” he said, and Ryan and Stephanie promptly turned and dodged between Giles and Riley to go through the front door, which Buffy pulled shut behind them.

 

“What did you find out?” Willow asked.

 

“Ryan wasn’t born soulless,” said Giles.

 

“Well that’s good, isn’t it?” said Xander. “I mean, I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t too psyched at the idea that the whole soul-having thing might not be automatic. Or about telling The Who to change their lyrics to ‘the kids are not all right’, because it would totally screw up the meter of the song.”

 

“In the sense that we don’t have a naturally occurring soulless human on our hands, it is perhaps less disturbing,” Giles allowed. “However…”

 

“He most likely lost his soul just over two years ago,” said Buffy, her gaze fixed on Willow. For a second, Willow just looked puzzled, but then her eyes widened in horror.

 

“Will someone please enlighten us new initiates to this group about the significance of soulless kids and May of ’98?” said Riley, gesturing at himself and Tara.

 

“That was when did the curse to give Angel his soul back,” said Xander.

 

For a long moment, nobody spoke as reality sank in. Eventually, the silence was broken by a cough from behind them. They all turned around and saw Seth standing in the doorway.

 

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I just, uh…did you just say something about Angel?”

 

 

“So what the Powers are trying to tell us with all this wonderful backstory about a psychopath in Italy forever ago is that there’s a regular human walking around soulless somewhere now because Willow used the same curse the gypsies did to give you your soul back?” said Cordelia.

 

“So it would appear,” said Wesley. Angel looked at the floor, his brow slightly more furrowed than usual, the fingers of his left hand idly fidgeting with the silver ring on his right.

 

“Great!” said Cordelia. “And of the six billion plus people on the planet, they couldn’t also give us a hint about finding this person?”

 

“Maybe they already have,” said Angel. He got to his feet and began pacing along the same path Cordelia had been earlier. “I’ve been here in L.A. solving these supernatural cases for a year now, and they’ve been using Doyle’s and your visions to help me find the right people—what if I missed them in all that?”

 

“Do you really think so?” said Wesley.

 

“Why not?” said Angel, reaching the end of the living room, turning, and walking back. “The Powers only send the pictures, not the explanations. Maybe there was a double meaning somewhere, and we only saw the obvious one.”

 

“It’s a place to start, I guess,” said Cordelia. “Should we start tracking down all our old cli—” A beeping noise suddenly came from Wesley’s pocket. Cordelia and Angel both looked at him as he pulled out his cell phone. “—ents?” she finished.

 

“Hello?” said Wesley. “Mr. Giles!” he said, surprised. Angel and Cordelia both straightened and watched him more intently. “Yes, of course.” He held out the phone for Angel, who gave the device only the briefest look of distaste before taking it and holding it to his ear.

 

“Giles?” he said.

 

“Hello, Angel,” said Giles’s voice. “Something has come up here in Sunnydale and—”

 

“Is it Buffy?” said Angel, clutching the phone a little tighter. “Is she okay?”

 

“Yes, she’s doing quite well—this is actually more about you.”

 

“Me?”

 

“Yes. You see, there’s a family here in my flat that Riley brought back from Iowa with him this morning. The Andersons. The father says he knows you from Los Angeles.”

 

“Yeah,” said Angel, looking at Cordelia and Wesley, “they were the ones with the little boy who was possessed by an Ethros dem—” He stopped mid-word as realization hit him. “Except that the demon was never the problem. Giles, the boy, Ryan—he doesn’t have a soul.”

 

“Yes, we’re aware of that,” said Giles.

 

“But it’s not just that,” said Angel. “It’s because of me. Because of the curse.”

 

“We’re aware of that too,” said Giles. “That’s why I’m calling. We need you to come back to Sunnydale.”

 

 

The Present

 

“So I’m not sure I understand what you’re doing here,” said Seth. “Is this really going to help my son?” With the help of Xander, Cordelia, and Wesley, Willow and Tara were getting everything set up for the spell, which they would be performing in Giles’s living room. Claire and Stephanie were waiting at the Summers home with Joyce and Riley until it was over.

 

“It’s similar to what Angel, Wesley, and Cordelia did in Los Angeles,” said Giles. “Except that this time, we know what the actual problem is, and how to fix it. It’s fortunate that they already ejected the Ethros demon from Ryan, because if we had returned his soul first, he would have then been vulnerable to the demon’s influence.”

 

“So these two young women will do some kind of hocus pocus and then he’ll be back to the way he used to be?”

 

“Yes,” said Giles.

 

“And it isn’t going to hurt him or anyone else?” said Seth. “Angel and Wesley were both injured in the exorcism, and Ryan was exhausted.”

 

“I can’t promise that it won’t be entirely painless,” said Giles, “but I can assure you that it will be worth it.” In light of the Andersons’ history with Angel, they were avoiding mentioning that this spell would affect him as well as Ryan. As far as any of them needed to know, the only downside to this spell was that the process might be painful.

 

Seth frowned, but nodded.

 

“We’ll be ready to start in about half an hour,” said Willow from near the coffee table, where she was arranging candles and herbs.

 

“I’ll call and let them know,” said Giles.

 

 

“Will these chains be enough to hold you?” said Buffy.

 

“For as long as they need to, yeah,” said Angel as he worked on bolting a set of very heavy manacles to the cement wall. They were in the mansion, which had accumulated some dead leaves and a few small animal nests since he’d vacated it, but was at least deserted, and therefore an excellent location for their purposes.

 

“But what if we can find a safe way to give you your soul back?” said Buffy.

 

Angel paused what he was doing. “Willow and Tara’s explanation of how this all works didn’t seem to leave much wiggle room. To bind one soul, you have to loose another.”

 

“Why are you so willing to let this happen to you?” she asked.

 

“Because my ability to do good in the world can’t be based on the destruction of an innocent boy and everyone in his life!” he burst out, abandoning the chains entirely and facing her. “I can’t let this kid become what Massimo Baroni became a hundred years ago. The Powers gave us that knowledge for a reason. I have to act on it.”

 

“By giving up everything?”

 

“I have no right to keep it! Why can’t you just let me do this?”

 

“Because I love you!” she shouted. He seemed to deflate at this, and his expression was pained. “I know I made you think I moved on with what I said in L.A., and I’m so sorry for everything I said to hurt you. It wasn’t true. I never moved on. I don’t know how. Even Riley could see it—he broke up with me because of how much I care. At this point, I think I even care more than you do!”

 

“You think I don’t care?”

 

“You sure as hell aren’t acting like—” But she broke off mid-sentence. He was suddenly holding up his right hand. There, on his middle finger, was his Claddagh ring, heart pointing in.

 

“Of course I care. A month ago, Wesley translated a prophecy that said I could become human again one day. After hell, I stopped wearing this because I thought there was no hope, but ever since the Shanshu prophecy, I’ve been wearing it again. And I have this.” He tugged at a fine silver chain around his neck, pulling it out from under his shirt until she could see what dangled from it. “I kept it, and for the last month, I’ve had the idea that if you still wanted me, I’d give it back to you the day the prophecy came true. But now that’s gone.”

 

“Angel,” said Buffy, moving automatically to him. She couldn’t deal with her own shock at his revelation; she was too affected by his own anguish. “Do you have any idea how often I fantasized about that happening?”

 

He smiled, but it looked bitter. “I do.”

 

There was a weight behind those two words that she didn’t understand, but that wasn’t important to her. “Can I have it back?” she said quietly. Even if a ring was the only thing she could have, she wanted it.

 

Carefully, without taking his eyes off hers, he unclasped the chain and pulled the ring free. She held out her left hand so that he could slip it on the ring finger. She knew that, like herself, he was reliving the moment on her seventeenth birthday when he’d given it to her for the first time. Afterward, he made no move to pull his hand away, but she wouldn’t have let him even if he’d tried. She brought her free hand up to caress his face.

 

Simultaneously, they leaned closer together until their foreheads were almost touching. Buffy stood on tiptoe, and their lips met. His arms went around her waist and hers around his neck, pulling each other as close as they could get. Buffy didn’t know how she’d lived without this for over a year, or how she was supposed to live without this from today on.  

 

Fueled by desperation, the kiss was more passionate than anything they’d shared since before the curse broke. If this was their last chance to show each other how strong their feelings were, they weren’t going to waste it.

 

Just when his hands started to move lower and hers were slipping beneath his shirt to explore his torso, they were interrupted by a beeping sound. They broke apart with groans of frustration, and Angel reached for his cell phone. “As if I didn’t already have enough reasons to hate this thing,” he muttered, which made Buffy giggle even though she was just as annoyed as he was.

 

“Hello?” he said. He looked at Buffy. “Okay. We’ll be ready.” Buffy bit her lip and looked away. “Thanks, Giles.” He paused. “Tell Wes and Cordy I said goodbye.”

 

Buffy couldn’t stop an agonized whimper from escaping her at this. Angel hung up the phone and wrapped his arms around her again. She held onto him for dear life.

 

 

“They’re ready,” said Giles as he hung up the phone.

 

“Buffy’s sure she doesn’t need backup?” said Xander.

 

“I don’t imagine she’ll appreciate company just now,” said Giles.

 

“Can we begin?” said Tara.

 

Giles nodded.

 

“Come here, please, Ryan,” said Willow, gesturing to a spot in front of Giles’s coffee table.

 

“Why?” said Ryan. “Is this going to be like what they did before?” He pointed at Wesley and Cordelia standing over by the window/counter area through which the kitchen was visible.

 

“This will make it so you never have to go back to a place like that juvenile detention center again,” said Tara.

 

“Everyone will leave me alone?” he said.

 

“Yes,” said Willow. “You won’t get in trouble anymore, and you can do whatever you want. But only if you come here and sit nicely until it’s finished.”

 

His brow furrowed, and for a moment he looked at them suspiciously. Seth looked like he wanted to intervene, but in the end, Ryan seemed to decide he could trust them. “Okay,” he said, and he came forward and sat down in the indicated spot. Tara and Willow smiled encouragingly at him and sat across from him. Tara placed her right hand in Willow’s left, and they laid their free hands across the coffee table, on either side of the candles and the Orb of Thesulah.

 

“Put your hands in ours, please, Ryan,” said Tara. “And we’ll get started.”

 

 

Buffy and Angel sat together against the wall, the manacles now locked around Angel’s wrists and ankles. Buffy wished time would stop, and she could stay here with him forever. She snuggled even closer to his side, resting her head on his shoulder and lacing her fingers between his.

 

“You’ll have to do it as soon as they break the curse,” he said.

 

Buffy flinched. He must’ve felt it, because he pressed a kiss to the top of her head.

 

“I can’t risk that I might get free and hurt someone. You know I’ll try.”

 

“Can you not talk about Angelus in first person if you expect me to be able to stake him today?” said Buffy.

 

“Sorry.”

 

A convulsive shudder ran through Angel’s body, causing Buffy to jump and look at him in alarm. “What is it?” she said.

 

“I think it’s starting,” said Angel, grimacing.

 

Tears sprang at once to Buffy’s eyes. “Are you sure?”

 

He doubled over, clutching his chest. “It felt like this last time too. I have a minute or two left, tops.”

 

“What? It’s not enough time!” she cried, reaching for him and steadying him with her hands on his shoulders. He lifted his head to look her in the eyes.

 

“Goodb—”

 

“No!” She clapped a hand over his mouth. “You’ve never said goodbye to me before, so don’t you dare start now, you understand me?”

 

He nodded, grimacing again. She moved her hand away and kissed him hard. He kissed her back in spite of the growing pain and discomfort, the chains at his wrists clinking as he pulled her close to him. But too soon, far too soon, he was pushing her away again. “I love you,” he rasped out. Tears streaked his face too now. He had broken down and confessed his regret earlier, but this was the first time she could see his fear. He looked terrified. The sight of it made Buffy feel like she was dying. “Please don’t let me—let him hurt anyone else.”

 

“I won’t, Angel,” she said. “I promise.”

 

He let out a yell of pain, his body twisting and contorting against the wall. Buffy watched numbly, not taking her eyes off him, scooting backward on the dirty floor until she found the bag she’d brought with her. She felt around inside it for a stake, and a few seconds after her fingers closed around it, Angel slumped limply where he sat.

 

Buffy’s breathing was ragged. She was desperate to get a grip on herself. But she barely had enough time to dry her eyes with the hand not holding the stake before his opened again. They fixed on hers immediately, and the cold, cruel emptiness of them sent a creeping chill through her body.

 

 

After what felt like a long time, Angel realized that he was no longer in the gloomy, dingy mansion, his body wracked with pain. Instead, he was somewhere incredibly bright. The sun was shining harmlessly down on him, and he basked in the feeling of it. It took him a little while longer to notice that he was sitting on a slightly uneven, sloping surface. He looked down at it and saw that it was straw—a thatched roof. He looked around at the rest of his surroundings, and a bittersweet smile spread across his face. Even though it had been more than two centuries since he’d last seen it, he recognized it instantly. The whitewashed walls, the other thatched roofs, the glittering bay in the distance….

 

He was in Galway.

 

He was home.

 

“God, I forgot how green this place is,” he mused aloud. “Beautiful.” He wished he could’ve brought Buffy here. It was one of the things he’d fantasized about doing after he became human.

 

“Been a while since your last visit, hasn’t it?” said a voice to his left.

 

Angel jumped and turned to look at the newcomer seated next to him on the roof. “Doyle?” he said, amazed.

 

“Why so surprised? Did you really think I’d have something better to do at a time like this? Not to mention somewhere better to be?”

 

“No, I just—I guess I’m surprised to see anyone. I don’t have any memories from the other times I wasn’t in my body.”

 

“Those times were different.”

 

“Here to see me off, are you?” said Angel, one corner of his mouth curling in a smile.

 

“Well, that’s up to you, now, isn’t it?”

 

“What are you talking about? I’m dead. In every sense of the word, any minute now.”

 

“That’s where you’re wrong,” said Doyle. “It turns out the Powers don’t have a steady supply of supernatural warriors on hand. They’re not as willing to let go of you as you think.”

 

“But what about Ryan?” said Angel.

 

“Oh, he’ll be fine. They did intend for you to put that right, just like you thought.”

 

“Then how am I supposed to go back if someone else has to lose their soul for me to keep mine?”

 

“You know why Massimo and Ryan were the ones who lost their souls because of the curse?” said Doyle.

 

“No,” said Angel, a little annoyed that Doyle wasn’t giving him any straight answers.

 

“Because the energy that binds souls to bodies is stronger the more pure and good the person is. Neither boy would’ve hurt a fly with his soul intact, always helped others, only ever had kind words for his little sister—practically angelic, both of them.”

 

“So I guess the world is better off with Ryan in it instead of me.”

 

“That’s the thing, though,” said Doyle. “You sacrificed yourself to give that boy his life back. You didn’t hesitate for a second. An act like that has a power of its own.”

 

“What kind of power?” said Angel.

 

“Before, your soul was a curse forced on you. Now it’s something you’ve earned. So if you want to go back, keep fighting, you can. Nothing will be able to part your soul from your body again except true death. Or…”

 

“Or what?”

 

“Or you can move on. If you’ve had enough already, I know there’s a certain fourteen-year-old somewhere around here who’d love to have her big brother back.”

 

Angel’s smile returned. “Kathy.” He stared out at the bay beyond the impossibly verdant landscape. “I don’t suppose I’m allowed to see her now if I don’t plan on staying.”

 

“You catch on quick.”

 

“I’ll tell Cordy you said hi.”

 

 

“Even I wouldn’t have pegged Soul Boy as such a defeatist,” said Angelus. With a jangle of chains, he leapt nimbly to his feet. “Gotta say I prefer the other method of curse-breaking.”

 

Buffy stood too, watching him tug experimentally at his restraints. He glanced at the stake in her hand and raised a sardonic eyebrow. “You really think you’re going to use that?” he taunted. “You still haven’t even killed Spike, but you think you’re going to kill me?”

 

She shrugged. “Maybe I’ll use it on Spike after, just for good measure. No telling how long that chip will keep him from attacking people. Better safe than sorry.”

 

“How tempted were you to offer up some other soul as payment for mine?”

 

“I wasn’t,” said Buffy.

 

“No? I bet there was at least one second when you did the math and admitted to yourself that a vampire with a soul can do more good than any one ordinary human. Shouldn’t it be about the big picture? I know that occurred to him.” He raised a hand and tapped a finger against the side of his head.

 

“I have one job to do here,” said Buffy, walking towards him at a calm, steady pace, “and it isn’t to listen to your attempts to mess with my head. You talking just makes it easier, because every word out of your mouth makes you less like Angel.”

 

“Not even going to unchain me first?” he said, matching her movement until he was out of slack. “Afraid I’d win in a fair fight? As I recall, last time, you had me on the ropes—though I wasn’t exactly at the top of my game after all those hits from that crowbar.”

 

“There was never anything fair about this,” said Buffy.

 

He snarled at her, his vampiric features emerging as he wrenched at the chains with all his strength. The cement around one of the bolts cracked. Buffy raised the stake. She had no intention of giving him enough time to break free. She was about to strike when he stopped struggling and fell to his knees. His human face returned and his eyes were suddenly full of golden light.

 

The light faded, leaving him shaking and gasping for breath he didn’t need.

 

“Angel?” said Buffy, still frozen, poised to stake him. Had something gone wrong? She had half-expected Angelus to try to pretend to be Angel to save himself, but he couldn’t have faked the special effects. It was exactly like two years ago, except that she wielded a stake instead of a sword, he was in chains, and there was no Acathla.

 

He looked up at her, and she knew instantly that it was him. The stake clattered to the floor. “Did the spell backfire?” she asked. All she wanted was to throw her arms around him, but she couldn’t bear it if this was only a mistake.

 

He stood up, still trembling a little in the aftermath of what had just happened. “The spell worked,” he said, looking down at his hands. He clenched them into fists, then opened them again. “Ryan’s fine.”

 

“Then how are you back?” she said, seizing his outstretched hands and gripping them tight.

 

“I wasn’t done,” he said simply. He looked at her and flashed the most lighthearted smile she’d ever seen on him. “My soul isn’t a curse anymore, Buffy, it’s just me.”

 

Her eyes widened and her heart started to pound. “Does that mean—”

 

“Yes,” he said, and he pulled her to him for another kiss. She let out a noise somewhere between a laugh and a sob and kissed him back.

 

 

The air of warm celebration (only slightly tainted by somberness, most of which was from Wesley and Cordelia) surrounding the Anderson family fizzled out the moment Buffy and Angel entered the house, hand in hand. It seemed Riley had already left, but everyone else who’d been at Giles’s flat was there. Ryan was the first one of all the people gathered to spot the couple at the door. “Hi, Mr. Angel!” he yelled, grinning broadly. Angel smiled back at him, but everyone else was staring at Angel in alarm—except for Seth, Claire, and Stephanie, who all looked confused, but still happy.

 

“Hey, Ryan. It’s good to see you,” said Angel. Xander opened his mouth to speak, but Buffy shook her head warningly at him.

 

“You’re here!” said Claire, extricating herself from her family’s many-armed hug and walking over to Angel. “Mr. Giles said we wouldn’t see you again, that you had to head back to L.A. I’m so glad we didn’t miss you; I wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done for our family. I mean, I know everyone else here helped, but you’re the one who found us.”

 

“I appreciate that, Claire. I hope we can stay in touch.”

 

“I’m sure we will,” said Seth, coming up to join his wife. He stuck out his hand, and Angel shook it. “Come on kids, we’ve got to hit the road.”

 

“Thanks for letting us stay here, Mrs. Summers,” said Ryan, running over to Joyce and hugging her around the middle.

 

“Of course, sweetheart,” she said.

 

“Yeah, thanks, Mrs. Summers,” said Stephanie. Ryan grabbed her by the hand and they dashed out of the house after their parents. Buffy shut the door behind them.

 

“Okay, now that they’re gone, am I allowed to ask what the hell he’s doing here?” said Xander, gesturing at Angel.

 

“He still has his soul,” said Tara, looking thoroughly confused.

 

Buffy rolled her eyes and looked up at Angel. “You want to tell them, or should I?”

 

 

 

 

 

Author's note: This fic was inspired by some headcanon I've had about the episode "I've Got You Under My Skin." In the episode, the Ethros demon says that Ryan has no soul, and while I suppose one could take that figuratively and brush it off, the idea that a kid could just be soulless for no apparent reason really bugged me, so I started thinking why that might happen. There are several other pieces of headcanon scattered throughout the fic, such as what Angel's done with the Claddagh rings. I really enjoyed incorporating that.



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