Windows to the Soul

Author: Taaroko

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Summary: Set in the Wishverse. Thanks to more strategic timing with her crossbow than she demonstrated in the episode, Buffy takes out the Master in one shot. She and Angel survive to continue the battle for Sunnydale another day, but the town isn't the only thing that needs saving.

Rating: PG

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Because thou hast the power and own'st the grace

To look through and behind this mask of me

(Against which years have beat thus blanchingly

With their rains), and behold my soul's true face,

The dim and weary witness of life's race,—

Because thou hast the faith and love to see,

Through that same soul's distracting lethargy,

The patient angel waiting for a place

In the new Heavens,—because nor sin nor woe,

Nor God's infliction, nor death's neighborhood,

Nor all which others viewing, turn to go,

Nor all which makes me tired of all, self-viewed,—

Nothing repels thee, . . . Dearest, teach me so

To pour out gratitude, as thou dost, good!

 

–Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese

 

 

The Slayer crept silently into the factory with the torture wound-riddled, emaciated vampire at her heels. There was no part of this that she liked. Looking around, she saw a few dozen vampires crowded inside, wooden cages that held just as many terrified people, a very ominous-looking machine with several mechanical arms ending in needles that were currently draining the girl lying on the conveyor belt of her blood, and a vampire that could only be the Master standing on a raised platform, flanked by his lieutenants. What was with this town? To cap it off, her only ally was both a demon and seemed barely strong enough to stand. And he somehow knew who she was. Well, she’d deal with him if they made it out of this alive. Or undead, in his case.

 

“What’s the plan?” he asked her in a low voice as they both stared up at the Master, who was reaching out to accept a glass of the blood the machine had extracted from the girl.

 

“Don’t fall on this,” she said flatly, holding up a stake. He accepted it and she readied her crossbow. Casually, they made their way forward through the crowd. Buffy practically itched in anticipation of the battle. Never before had she been surrounded by so many of the things she was designed to destroy.

 

“Welcome to the future!” said the Master triumphantly as he raised his glass in a toast to the beginning of his new world. Or so he thought.

 

“To the future!” cheered the vampires around them. “To the future! To the future!”

 

Buffy waited until the Master had brought the glass to his lips and closed his eyes to savor the taste of stolen lifeblood. A cold smirk formed on her face. All too easy. She raised her crossbow and fired. The bolt hit its mark and the Master staggered backward with a cry of mingled agony and outraged surprise. His glass fell to the platform, where it shattered, and all of the vampires next to him let out horrified yells as their leader—and, likely for most of them, sire—disintegrated until nothing remained but a skeleton.

 

The whole factory seemed to freeze in shock. Buffy’s accomplice took advantage of this to stake the two vampires nearest him. And then pandemonium broke out. Most of the vampires in the place began to make a mad scramble for the exits; if their Master, who they had revered and thought invincible, was dead, what chance did any of them stand? Only the ones still on the platform and a brave few from the crowd seemed prepared to fight, but the confusion put them at a disadvantage. Buffy went through them so easily that it was almost annoying. Much to her bemusement, her companion not only continued to fight on her side, but freed the people in the cages, many of whom joined the fight too, keen to revenge themselves upon the creatures that had been using their town as their unholy playground.

 

While they swarmed the vampires at ground level, Buffy pushed her way forward, slaying anything in her way as she headed for the lieutenants. She found the black-haired one first. He had to have been close to her own age when he was turned, but that didn’t slow her. She used a crossbow bolt as a stake and, after a short exchange of blows, plunged it between his ribs. Yards away, her vampire companion had found the dominatrix-y redhead, whose eyes were wide with fear. With a snarl of pure hatred, he dove at her and they toppled out of Buffy’s line of vision. Glad she wasn’t in the redhead’s position, Buffy moved mechanically on to the next vampire. And the next. And the next.

 

 

It was over. A somewhat diminutive boy with blond spiky hair and another boy with the build of a star football player were shepherding the rest of the people out of the factory. Before he left, the first boy turned to look at Buffy, locked eyes with her, and opened his mouth to speak, but then shut it and gave a grateful nod instead, not smiling. She nodded back, her expression also grim despite the victory. Then they were all gone.

 

Buffy turned to face the vampire she knew was still standing there. His jaw was set and fists were clenched as he stared at the pile of dust at his feet, which she guessed had recently been the redhead.

 

“Thanks for the help,” said Buffy, twirling a crossbow bolt between her fingers. “Didn’t expect you to stick out the whole battle. Ready for the final round?”

 

Slowly, he looked up at her. Something about his gaze made her uncomfortable, and her grip tightened on the narrow strip of wood in her hand, even though his hands had uncurled and his posture had loosened.

 

“I’m not going to fight you,” he said quietly.

 

“Why not? You might win.”

 

He looked pained at the indifference in her voice. “Stop that,” she said abruptly. The way he was looking at her gave her the feeling that he cared more about her life than his own—more than she did herself, in fact, and she didn’t like it. He was a demon who couldn’t care about anything but himself and she was marked for death, so what was the point?

 

“Stop what?”

 

“Looking at me like that. I don’t want pity—or whatever the hell that expression means—from anyone, and you’re not supposed to be able to feel it anyway, so save us both the trouble and just fight me already.”

 

“I’m not going to fight you,” he repeated firmly. Then, after a moment’s pause, “Whistler said you’d come here. I waited almost two years. Now you’re here and the Master’s finally dead.”

 

“So, what, you want to take his place?”

 

“I want to help you. That’s all I’ve wanted since I saw—since before I came here.”

 

“Why would a vampire want to help the Slayer?”

 

“To become someone,” he said.

 

“What the hell are you talking about?”

 

He shrugged and cast his gaze to the dusty ground. “Idle dreams,” he muttered, and there was more bitterness in his voice than Buffy had ever heard.

 

For a full minute, she glared at him suspiciously while he remained statue-still. Finally, however, he blinked slowly and looked up at her again. “Others will come,” he said.

 

“What do you mean?” she asked.

 

“You killed the Master. The other vampires from Aurelius will come to claim his throne.”

 

“Friends of yours?” she said flippantly.

 

His dark, hollow eyes bored into hers. “Not anymore,” he growled.

 

Just like when he showed her his wound-ravaged chest, she had to repress a shiver, but she brushed it off by folding her arms and rolling her eyes dismissively. “So, let me guess,” she said.

 

“This is the part where you tell me that you’re the only one who knows about all of their weaknesses and fighting styles and habits and shoe sizes, so I have to join forces with you if I want to stop them.”

 

“You can’t do this alone.”

 

“Killed the Master alone, didn’t I?” she said, ignoring the small, fair voice in her mind that attempted to point out how even though her crossbow bolt had been what ended the Master’s long unlife, she wouldn’t have found the vampires’ leader in the first place without his vengeful prisoner’s help.

 

“They’re not like him. He got used to letting his minions do most of the dirty work, but killing is still fun for them. They’re old enough to be powerful, but not so old that they’ve forgotten how the world works. They won’t underestimate a threat like you as much as the Master did.”

 

She fixed him with a long, piercing look, which gave way to a smile that did not reach her eyes. “Okay, I’m in. Do I get to know the name of my new partner?” The question was a trap, and by the way his eyes narrowed slightly, it looked to her like he knew it.

 

He considered her for a moment with that unsettling dark gaze of his. “Angel,” he said finally.

 

Buffy raised an eyebrow at the irony. “Pretty name.”

 

He showed no reaction whatsoever to this, so, abandoning the conversational dead end, she moved on. “I’m not letting you out of my sight,” she said, a threatening note in her voice. “So you might as well clean out that machine thing while we’re here, because you aren’t gonna be hunting any time soon.

 

“Besides,” she added, her eyes on the lifeless girl draped on the conveyor belt, “it’s not like she needs it anymore.”

 

She expected him to object in some way—maybe even drop this weird charade and show his true colors at last, but he did not. In fact, he looked as stunned at her words as if he’d just been clubbed over the head. But, even more disconcertingly, this expression was followed by one of wondrous gratitude. “What?” she demanded, scowling. Why couldn’t he just give her a reason to stake him already?

 

Without answering her, and with every appearance of great restraint, Angel walked slowly over to the machine. Once he had filled one of the few delicate wine glasses that hadn’t gotten smashed during the chaos, he brought it to his lips with a shaking hand. She caught the briefest glimpse of vampiric features, but then he pulled back abruptly and turned away from her, hiding his face from view as though he were ashamed of what he was.

 

Not really sure why she was doing it, Buffy turned her back on him and gave him the privacy he apparently wanted. For the next few minutes, she pretended she couldn’t hear the sounds being made by the starving vampire as he drank his fill. By the time he was done and came hesitantly to stand next to her, but still with his face averted, she had formed a plan. She would let him think he had earned her trust, for now. “Know any good places to hole up?” she asked. She could just go back to the Watcher’s place, but doing so with Angel in tow would shatter that pretense of trust, since the old man wasn’t likely to want to play along with something like this.

 

“A few,” he said. “If they aren’t overrun by now.”

 

And indeed, the first two places he showed her had been claimed by demons at some point during the past couple of years. The third, a strange-looking, slightly eerie mansion on the outskirts of town, was empty, though the interior appeared to have been recently ransacked. Very few pieces of furniture were intact, and various bits of rubbish were strewn around the rooms. Taking little notice of this wreckage, Buffy curled up on the undamaged half of a couch in the vast main room and watched Angel beadily as he sank with a groan onto one of the other sofas. Her eyelids soon drooped, and her head nodded forward until her chin rested on her chest. Expecting an attack, she waited, pretending, keeping her breathing slow and even. Would Angel act alone, or did he bring her here because it was where some of his friends hung out? Nothing happened, however, and eventually, her sleep became genuine.

 

Hours later, she jerked awake, automatically swinging her crossbow up, but when she looked around, she saw that Angel was asleep on the cement floor in front of his sofa. She frowned. Maybe he was so used to cold, hard floors by now that it was difficult to sleep on anything soft. She’d read something like that in a book once, before her life went to hell. For a moment, she watched him. Most of the time, he remained disturbingly still, but more than once, she saw him flinch or shiver convulsively, and his face contorted in either fear or pain. She felt a small, involuntary stab of pity, but then she shook herself, annoyed, and got up as quietly as she could, leaving him to his troubled dreams.

 

It was time to see if the local Watcher had any light to shed on the night’s events.

 

 

 

When she entered the apartment, it was to find the Watcher slumped unconscious over his desk, a mostly empty bottle of scotch grasped loosely in his left hand. She approached him with her nose wrinkled, and saw the smashed fragments of what might have once been a pendant of some kind scattered across the part of the desk’s surface that wasn’t serving as his pillow.

 

Wondering vaguely whether the fragments had been part of that power center or whatever that he had been going on about the last time she was here, she walked past the desk and headed for the large, overflowing bookcase against the wall instead. What was it Angel had said?

 

“You killed the Master. The other vampires from Aurelius will come to claim his throne.”

 

“Aurelius,” she muttered under her breath, scanning the spines of the books on the shelves. The Watcher had to have at least one book on these guys if they were the ones running the town. Her dislike of researching this kind of thing herself almost caused her to go wake him up and make him do it for her, but she had decided on the way to his apartment that her alliance or whatever with Angel was something she’d rather keep to herself. Even though she wanted it to be over as soon as possible, she planned to do this her way, and she was pretty sure the Watchers’ Council would want to take matters into their own hands if word ever got back to them about it.

 

Buffy smirked in triumph. There, on the second shelf, was a particularly old and battered leather-bound book with The Order of Aurelius embossed in fading gold on the spine. She pulled it out and sat cross-legged on the floor, where she began to flip through it. The Master featured prominently, and though the kill hadn’t seemed much more than routine at the time, she quickly came to appreciate the enormity of the feat she had just pulled off as page after page listed the things he had done or orchestrated in the more than one thousand years he had walked the earth. By the time she’d reached the end of his section, she was determined to go back to that factory and smash his bones to powder, just for good measure. She kept going, looking for any name resembling Angel in the pages.

 

The next portion of the book seemed to be devoted to the oldest of the Master’s loyal servants. Considering what had been done to Angel on the Master’s orders and how eager he had been to see him and his followers dead, she doubted she’d find him in there, but she still had a look. The Three…Luke…Darla…. She wondered if these were some of the guys who’d be competing for the Master’s throne. The book mentioned several others who had already been dust for centuries, and Buffy was glad, considering what was written about them.

 

She turned another page and stopped, her heart suddenly racing.

 

 

Angel woke abruptly, the image of Willow dropping lit matches onto his chest still burned into his mind from his last nightmare, made all the more vivid by the lingering aches in the wounds she had made. For a few seconds, he was confused by his surroundings, but then he remembered. Buffy Summers had finally come to Sunnydale.  The Master was dead. Willow was dead. He was free.

 

He looked around. Buffy wasn’t asleep on the sofa anymore, and he couldn’t hear her anywhere in the mansion. He wasn’t surprised, but part of him had foolishly hoped she would stay. His insides ached with hunger. Twenty years of rats followed so quickly by starvation rations in that cell meant that even the contents of that machine hadn’t done much more than take the edge off. That it had been his first fresh human blood since the donut shop only made it worse, because the craving it left was stronger. Human blood never sated his appetite without increasing it.

 

If he was right about where Buffy had gone, it would probably be a few hours before she came back. Not wanting to waste any time, he quickly stole out of the mansion. Tonight was the first night he’d been outside since they captured him not long after the Harvest, and Sunnydale had definitely changed for the worse during his incarceration. Buildings, even some in the nicer part of town, were covered in graffiti, windows were boarded up, and no humans dared come out at night. The vampires that had survived the riot in the factory had evidently gone underground, though, because he didn’t see any of them either.

 

He turned off into a side alley and walked to the end of it, where several large crates were stacked. He moved them aside to reveal the door behind them, and went through it. The unlit stairwell beyond was thick with undisturbed dust. A good sign. He walked down the stairs, on alert for any signs of another presence, but it was completely silent. The sewer access door was still intact and closed, but he headed for the one on the adjacent wall instead.

 

The apartment he had only inhabited for a few weeks was almost exactly how he had left it, and he was immensely grateful that he’d had the presence of mind to conceal its existence once he began to suspect that the Master would target him. He tentatively flipped the switch on his desk lamp, but was unsurprised when it didn’t turn on. Oh well. Not like he needed it to see down here. Besides, he was more interested in running water at the moment, and, to his relief, that did work.

 

Wondering whether Whistler had actually paid out the utilities this long or if he had simply done something illegal to get them, but deciding that he didn’t really care, Angel tore off his filthy, ragged clothing and proceeded to indulge in what was probably the longest shower he’d ever taken. It felt wonderful to be free of all the layers of grime and dried blood that had coated his skin and hair for months, and the water was soothing against his numerous wounds. Clean clothing was another joy, even if it was a little musty from being in the wardrobe so long.

 

He could feel the hour or so that still remained until sunrise, so he quickly retrieved some of the money from his stash and left the apartment, taking care to move the crates back in front of the outer door. When he reached the butcher shop a few blocks away, he was relieved to find it still intact and in business. Clearly the other vampires in town had decided it was more valuable to them that way. He had planned on breaking in and leaving money in exchange for all the blood he could drink, but he could see a light on somewhere inside, so he decided that it might not be necessary. He went around the building to the back door and found it ajar.

 

When he walked through it, his sense of smell was overwhelmed by the intoxicating combination of blood and fear, so much stronger inside the building than out, and he felt his face change involuntarily. The back room was small. A drain was set into the center of the heavily stained floor, a single light bulb hung from the ceiling, and the bare cement walls were relieved only by a door opposite the one Angel had entered and a window that looked into the main part of the shop, as well as a large steel door on the right that led to the meat locker.

 

 

A kid in his late teens stood behind a rickety desk on the left side of the room, clutching a shotgun and wearing one of the largest cross necklaces Angel had ever seen. He was trembling from head to foot, his eyes locked on Angel’s demonic features. Angel tried to make his face change back, but he couldn’t. His hunger was too intense.

 

“W-w-what can I g-get for you, sir?” asked the kid in a terrified squeak.

 

Angel walked up to the desk, trying to move slowly enough to seem less threatening. He dropped a twenty on the damaged surface. “As much pig’s blood as I can get for that.”

 

The kid’s jaw dropped. “Y-you mean you’re p-p-paying for it?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

He seemed too scared to argue, so he snatched up the money and edged over to the meat locker without lowering the shotgun, then disappeared through the door. He came back out a minute later, struggling to maintain his grip on two heavy-looking paper bags with one hand so he could keep holding the shotgun in the other.

 

Angel took the bags from him and turned to go, but stopped with his hand on the doorknob. With a supreme effort, he forced his face to change back, and he turned to look at the kid. “Why are you doing this? Why are you still in this town?”

 

“If I d-don’t do it, my mom would have to. T-they already killed my dad, and they said they’d kill us too if we t-tried to l-leave.”

 

“The Master’s dead,” said Angel. “Most of his followers, too. The rest are probably going to lay low for a few days. If you want to get out, now’s a good time.”

 

He left. No sooner had he reached the alley than his face changed again. Ravenously, he tore open the first paper bag and pulled out one of the plastic two-liter bottles inside. Five minutes later, he threw both bags, now containing empty bottles, into the nearest dumpster.

 

 

The first rays of sunlight were just breaking over the horizon when Buffy returned to the mansion, crossbow at the ready, expecting an attack any second. None came. She couldn’t sense him—but then again, she hadn’t been able to when she found him at the club, either. It made her feel like he had the edge on her, and she did not like it. She entered the large room in which they had slept earlier, but couldn’t see him anywhere.

 

“I’m really not in the mood for hide and seek,” she said loudly.

 

“And I’m really not in the mood to get shot,” he replied, his voice reverberating around the room too much for her to determine from which direction it had come.

 

“That was a cute nickname you told me, Angelus,” she said, moving to the center of the room and peering into the deep shadows in each corner. “But you might want to think about something less obvious to use as an alias next time.”

 

“Sounds like you’ve been doing your homework.”

 

“Maybe I have.”

 

“The Watcher’s books can’t tell you everything.”

 

“I think I got the picture. Were you going to carve a cross on my face before you killed me, the way you taught Penn? Because if you wanted to drive me insane by killing my family like you did with Drusilla, you’re a little late. They’re already dead. And don’t try the ‘if I was going to kill you, I would have done it when you were asleep’ line. I know that’s not your style.” She whipped around to find him standing ten feet away from her and immediately fired the crossbow. Her aim was perfect, but with a movement that was almost too fast to follow with her eyes, he snatched the bolt out of the air millimeters before it met its mark.

 

“Great,” she said, tossing the empty crossbow aside and shifting into a fighting stance. “Now this is gonna take longer.” She registered how dramatically different he looked from the battered, starved, and filthy wretch she had met hours ago. His face had lost much of its gauntness and grayish tinge, his clothing was in pristine condition, and if he were any cleaner, he’d be glowing.

 

“I don’t want to fight you,” he said, dropping the bolt and holding up his hands.

 

“We don’t always get what we want,” she said.

 

He blocked her opening punch but did not return with one of his own, and continued to parry and evade without retaliation while never allowing any of her attacks to connect.

 

“Fight back!” she snarled in frustration when yet another of her kicks was deflected. Even after everything she had read, pages and pages of horror, it would be much easier to kill him if he would just fight back. That was the way this was supposed to work. He had made it perfectly clear that he could win if he tried, so why did he keep up this infuriating evasive dance? And why was he looking at her like that?

 

She gasped in surprise when her back unexpectedly met the wall. She hadn’t realized she had been retreating towards it. Before she could react, his hands had firmly trapped her wrists against the cool surface at shoulder height and his body had moved too close to hers for her to make use of her legs. She struggled to free herself, but to no effect. His eyes were boring into hers with the same intensity and feeling as before, and her resistance gradually faded to nonexistence. Was this thrall, or something else? God, she could look into those eyes forever. They weren’t empty and cold and dead like the eyes of every other vampire she had met. She’d never felt so powerless in her life. Did he do this to everyone else he killed? Probably. He was the demon with the face of an angel, after all.

 

With the exception of her frantic breathing, neither of them was moving a muscle. She knew it was over, and she waited for those eyes to change from their warm, rich brown to demonic yellow, then the sharp pain of fangs in her throat, then nothing. She didn’t know whether she longed for it or feared it. But his eyes did not change color. They merely continued to search hers so intently that it was if he was trying to see into the deepest parts of her soul. This left him wide open for her to see as deeply into him. She could identify pain and remorse and aching weariness in the depths of his eyes, all of which were very familiar to her, but the most predominant emotion she found there was something she was afraid to name, even in her mind.

 

“What are you waiting for?” she whispered tremulously.

 

Without answering, he let go of her wrists and stepped back. Her arms fell limply to her sides and she felt a powerful sense of loss that she couldn’t trace, but which left her feeling weak and confused. Her knees gave way and she slid to the floor.

 

 

Angel couldn’t believe how close he had come to kissing her. The impulse had been even harder to resist than the lure of her blood, and he struggled to understand what had happened. Ever since he first saw her, he had wanted to protect her and help her however he could, because he couldn’t bear the thought of her suffering—even if it was just over mundane things like her parents arguing. She had been his symbol of hope, something he had lived without for a very long time, and something Willow and the Master had almost managed to destroy again, but then she finally came and that hope blazed back into life like a fire inside him. But it had never occurred to him until moments ago that these feelings might not be platonic at all.

 

Still having no idea what to do with this discovery, he looked back at her and saw that she was getting to her feet, her emotionless mask securely in place once again. She avoided looking directly into his eyes when she spoke to him, however, so he knew she was not as unaffected as she was trying to pretend.

 

“You cleaned up fast,” she said, making it clear through her tone that he was not to mention what had just happened.

 

He looked down at his grime-free hands and spotless clothing. If he’d been alive, he would have blushed—he had suddenly realized that everything he’d done in the past few hours had been inspired largely by a (then subconscious) desire to look his best for her, and he now felt mortified at the possibility that he had tried too hard. He knew she was expecting a reply, and he cast around for one that wouldn’t rekindle her desire to slay him. “I’m not a prisoner anymore,” he said. “No reason to keep looking and smelling like one.”

 

“Where’d you get the clothes?”

 

“They’re mine.”

 

“And the blood?” she asked. “There’s no way a vamp goes from borderline Holocaust survivor to hunky male model in twelve hours without doing some serious bingeing.”

 

The corners of his mouth twitched in amusement and he raised an eyebrow slightly. Maybe he had tried just hard enough. It took a couple of seconds before the implications of her phrasing seemed to hit her. Her eyes widened and she blushed hotly, but did not back down, silently demanding an answer.

 

“Pigs’ blood,” he said finally. “Lots of it.”

 

“You expect me to believe that?”

 

“Well, I’d let you see my receipt,” he said, unable to keep a trace of derision from his voice, “but the kid at the butcher’s isn’t used to vampires actually paying for the blood they get there, so he forgot to give me one. You can still double check with him, though, if he hasn’t already left town now that the Master’s dead.”

 

Buffy scowled, but let it drop. She walked over to where she’d tossed her crossbow and picked it up. “I didn’t tell the Watcher I’m working with you,” she said, now walking over to where the bolt lay.

 

“I doubt he’s still on good terms with the Council, if that’s what you were worried about,” said Angel, watching her movements somewhat warily. “They never sent reinforcements to help him after the Master took over.”

 

“Yeah, well I’m not taking chances.” She slotted the bolt back into place on the crossbow, then tossed the weapon onto the couch, and Angel relaxed. “I call my own shots. Watchers tend to get twitchy about that.” She turned to face him, her arms crossed and her mouth opening to say something else. Their eyes met, and she quickly looked at his shoulder instead, her determined expression replaced with a slightly flustered one. He tried to focus on what she was saying instead of dwelling on how much her heart rate had just increased.

 

“So, you were going to tell me all about the Aurelius vamps who might be coming to take the Master’s place,” she reminded him after a long pause.

 

“Yeah,” he said.

 

“Okay. Who are we talking about? Luke? The Three?”

 

“Not Luke. He’s dead.”

 

“Lucky me,” she said. There was enough relief audible beneath her cool tone that he knew he wasn’t the only one she had read about. The things that might have been written about Luke would be enough to give anyone misgivings about fighting him, Slayer or not. “What happened to him?” she asked.

 

I did,” he growled. And if I’d done it sooner, I could have stopped the Harvest, he added bitterly to himself. Buffy seemed both impressed and uneasy at this revelation, as if she was starting to think he might be too formidable to risk working with. Angel was torn between wanting her to have no illusions about what he was and wanting her to trust him. He decided the former was more important. Her trust was one of many things he would never deserve to have.

 

“Well, that’s one less to worry about,” she said, businesslike again.

 

He pulled himself out of his unpleasant thoughts and forced himself to continue the conversation. “The Three are the ones who captured me. As far as I know, they’re still around. They won’t be interested in taking the Master’s place themselves, but they’ll be just as loyal to his successor as they were to him. They probably won’t act before they have a new master.”

 

“Not even to get revenge?”

 

He shook his head. “Revenge would be too independent for them. They don’t do anything unless they’re ordered to.”

 

“What if we find them first?”

 

“What?” he asked, distracted by her choice of pronoun.

 

She shrugged. “There’s no reason to wait around until they’re ordered to kill us. This way, they won’t see it coming, and then the new head vampire won’t get complimentary minions on arrival. I’m guessing they don’t need orders to go hunting.”

 

“No. But they weren’t at the factory last night, which means the Master probably sent them out of town for something.”

 

 

They continued to discuss vampires who could potentially come to Sunnydale to pick up the Master’s reins well into the morning. Angel told her everything he knew about the likely suspects, and she impressed him with her clever strategies for taking them on. Over the next few weeks, they had to put more than one of them into action. Angel had been right; the power vacuum created by the death of the Master attracted the Who’s Who of the vampire population like moths to a flame.

 

Even on nights without any “special guest stars,” as Buffy had dubbed them, there were still plenty of less ambitious vampires to be found in Sunnydale. Angel was grateful. He didn’t know how he could have borne spending so much time at her side, forcing himself to keep his feelings for her hidden even as they grew steadily with each passing day, if there hadn’t been so much work to do. 

 

Occasionally, he would wake up to find Buffy gone, but she always returned before too long, bearing either information from the Watcher or supplies she needed. He had initially worried that she would decide to find somewhere else to stay, but those fears were quelled the first time she turned up with groceries. He would never forget the look of simple joy on her face the next day when he told her he’d managed to get the hot water going thanks to a couple of contacts in town. She was normally so serious and withdrawn, but her smile then had been like the sun emerging from behind heavy clouds, and he was surprised he hadn’t been burned by it.

 

There were other signs that he deliberately ignored, but which were increasing in number and frequency. He had lost count of the number of times he caught her glancing his way. Her expression was always the same blank mask she spent so much time hiding behind, but her eyes betrayed something else that he refused to name, something for which he hadn’t even allowed himself to hope. He told himself her increased heart rate and was due to the exertion of fighting, or because sharing living quarters with a vampire made her nervous.

 

Less easy to rationalize away were the times she had cleaned and bandaged his wounds after he was badly injured on patrol, particularly on the occasion when it had involved removing several bullets from his back and left shoulder. She had done it all without being asked, and he had felt her fingers trembling against his skin the whole time, her heart beating harder and faster than ever. He barely remembered the conversation they had been having between his hisses and winces of pain, except that it might have had something to do with his tattoo, which had been visible to her at the time. No, nothing about that could be rationalized, so he chose instead to push it out of his mind.

 

 

Buffy felt overcome with despair. Angel had won, and she couldn’t keep pretending otherwise any longer. Maybe it would have been easier to resist if she’d had any warning, but this was the first anything she had felt in a long time. As hard as she had fought against it, she had fallen completely in love with him, and in only a matter of weeks. These feelings that were blasphemy against her sacred calling had penetrated her to the core. How could she have let this happen? The man she loved was nothing more than a façade the demon had created to lure her in.

 

His acting had been flawless and he had never faltered, not even for a second—not even around other people or vampires. The vulnerability, the steady gazes, the gentlemanly behavior, the respect bordering on awe with which he treated her, the people he had saved, the times he had saved her. The way he looked at her with those eyes never failed to take her breath away, and she couldn’t remember seeing a more beautiful face in her life. It would have been so easy for him to turn on her any of the times they fought outnumbered against his own kind, but he hadn’t. In fact, he was even more ferocious against them whenever the odds put her in greater danger.

 

One time, she had been so badly wounded that she couldn’t fight for the next three nights. He had carried her in his arms all the way back to the mansion, where he tended to her injuries with the utmost care. And he had already taken multiple stab wounds for her, and once even half a clip of bullets. He always seemed so surprised and grateful when she returned the favor and treated his injuries just as he had treated hers.

 

With him, she did not merely exist; she was alive, as she hadn’t been since her parents were killed and the Watchers shipped her off to Cleveland. Why couldn’t he have just killed her the night they met? Why did he have to make her love living again first, and love him? Because that’s what Angelus does, she reminded herself, thinking of everything she had read about him. Not satisfied with taking only blood and life from his victims, he often took their innocence and sometimes even their sanity—in her own case, her heart. He did whatever it took to squeeze the greatest possible amount of pain from them, and psychological pain was his favorite kind. He was building her up to improve the enjoyment he would take from shattering her.

 

Before she met him, she had been numb, but now she felt so powerfully that she couldn’t bear to think how much it would hurt when he finally let his mask drop. But still more unbearable was the prospect of waiting for it to happen. The love and fear warring in her would soon drive her insane. No, she wasn’t going to let him have her mind as well. She had to end it.

 

 

That night, they finally caught the Three on a hunt. Angel knew they had returned to Sunnydale at least a week earlier, but they had proven difficult to track. He and Buffy found them attacking two late night deliverymen whose truck had an out-of-state license plate, which explained their unfortunate ignorance of the curfew. One of the men was already dead, but his partner’s heartbeat still hammered frantically for Angel to hear, the scent of his fear so strong it seemed almost tangible.

 

Buffy pulled one of the vampires away from the man and threw him against the side of the truck so hard that it dented the paneling. She yelled at the man to run, which he promptly did, though not with a great deal of coordination. Angel, meanwhile, was pleased to see that the damage he had done to the leader’s right eye when they came to capture him had been permanent, and that one of the others still walked with a heavy limp.

 

The Three fought as a seamless team, but so did Angel and Buffy, who thwarted each of the trio’s attempts to separate them. After nearly five minutes of very evenly matched combat, Buffy disarmed the curly-haired one and quickly beheaded him with his own sword. It became clear immediately after his dust-filled armor clanked down onto the pavement that that all of the Three’s fighting strategies had depended heavily on there being three of them. Without the critical third member, they were completely crippled and became less threatening even than most vampires their age.

 

“Well,” said Buffy, dusting off her hands and clothes after taking out the last of them, Angel having defeated the second just moments before, “those guys didn’t really live up to their hype.”

 

“Yeah, now I’m kind of embarrassed that I let myself get captured by them,” said Angel, running a hand through his hair and looking ruefully from one harmless pile of dust and armor to the next.

 

“I think you pretty much redeemed yourself in the rematch,” said Buffy dryly.

 

Angel leaned down and picked up the sword one of them had dropped when he dusted. He examined it carefully, then retrieved its scabbard, sheathed it, and slung it over his shoulder. “Ready to call it a night?” he asked.

 

A sudden loud noise made them both jump and look around. It was coming from a nearby street out of sight. They exchanged glances full of trepidation, and then Angel led the way up to the roof of the nearest building via a short series of leaps onto various objects along the wall. Without thinking about the action, he turned and held his hand out to help her the rest of the way up. She took it without hesitation, and the physical contact sent a jolt through his entire body. He wished he hadn’t done it, but he was soon distracted from that when her face suddenly contorted in pain and her free hand went to her side.

 

“What’s wrong?” he asked in concern tinged with fear. Hoping she wouldn’t notice, he drew in a long, slow breath, but couldn’t smell any blood on her—at least, none that was actually hers.

 

“It’s nothing,” she said through clenched teeth. “I’ll be fine.”

 

Little though he wanted to let the matter drop when she was clearly in a significant amount of pain, he knew it would be pointless to try doing anything for her until they got back if she didn’t want him to. A breeze caught her hair and sent it rippling around her shoulders and arms, and, not for the first time that night, he had to bite back the impulse to tell her how beautiful she was with her hair unbraided and loose.

 

The commotion grew louder as they moved from rooftop to rooftop, until finally they reached one overlooking the street that was the source of it. At least a dozen vampires were grouped there. Angel recognized a few of them as ones that had gotten away in fights against himself and Buffy. Fortunately, there didn’t seem to be any humans present, but several cars parked along the street had been badly vandalized. The vampires were making a great deal of noise. They seemed to be drunk, for which Angel was grateful, because it meant their senses wouldn’t be as sharp as usual.

 

Unexpectedly, one of them jumped up on top of a battered car and shouted, “Come out, come out, little Slayer! You think you can take this town from us?”

 

Angel’s eyes widened in horror. He looked at Buffy, who seemed to be resigning herself to fight them. “Not now,” he said very quietly. “There are too many of them, and you’re injured. We should lie low and come up with a plan.”

 

“Where?” she asked, looking up at him. “They probably already know about the mansion.”

 

The yelling grew louder, and Angel closed his eyes briefly, trying to block it out. “I know a place,” he said. Once they had retreated far enough onto the roof that the street was blocked from view, he whipped off his long black overcoat and put it around her shoulders. At her mystified expression, he quickly explained, “It’ll mask your scent, hopefully enough that they won’t be able to track us.”

 

“Okay,” she said, slipping her arms into the sleeves (which she quickly rolled back a couple of times so she could still use her hands) and pulling it more tightly around her.

 

The sound of breaking glass reached them as another vehicle met a violent end. “Come on,” Angel said, grabbing her hand again. Running as quickly and quietly as they could, he led her on a rather roundabout route to the apartment, which he hadn’t returned to since that first night except to retrieve more money and clothes. He made sure to disturb the crates as little as possible to gain access to the door.

 

It was pitch black inside. He warned Buffy about the stairs and didn’t let go of her hand until they were in the apartment, at which point he left her side to deposit the sword on the desk and locate the candles he knew he had stashed somewhere.

 

“No electricity here either, huh?” she asked when he lit the first one and dim, flickering golden light illuminated a small area around him, casting long black shadows everywhere else.

 

He chuckled. “That bill hasn’t been paid in two years, so, no.” He lit the rest of the candles and placed them on various surfaces around the place, then turned to find that she had draped his coat over the top of the armchair and was looking curiously at the antique items and furniture. He was a little surprised that she didn’t have more questions about the apartment. Why he hadn’t brought her here instead of the ransacked mansion in the first place, for instance, when this was clearly much nicer, or why a vampire would own an apartment to begin with.

 

She sat down on the couch and gritted her teeth. In an instant, he was across the room and kneeling in front of her. She obligingly lifted the bottom of her shirt high enough to reveal the nasty bruise blossoming across the lower right side of her ribcage. He reached out and gently probed the area with his fingers to determine the extent of the damage while carefully gauging her reaction, but she only winced briefly.

 

“None of the ribs are broken,” he said, not entirely sure why he had lowered his voice almost to a whisper. “A couple of them might be cracked, but not too badly.”

 

“Good to know,” she said, her voice as low as his.

 

Reluctantly, he made to draw back his hand, but before he could do so, she caught it in hers and held it. He looked up at her face, intending to ask what she was doing, but the question died in his throat. She was looking at him with a combination of sadness and—there was no possibility of fooling himself into believing otherwise this time—deep, aching tenderness. The hand not holding his own captive came up to caress the side of his face. Somewhere deep in the back of his mind, he knew he should be stopping this, but he couldn’t. All of his powers of resistance had gone into keeping himself from acting on his feelings. He’d never prepared for the eventuality that she would act on her own—or that she would even have feelings on which to act. He closed his eyes and leaned into her touch.

 

“Buffy,” he said hoarsely, opening his eyes again to find her staring into them as though asking for permission. Her gaze flickered to his lips, and then she was kissing him and it was beyond anything he could have imagined—not because it was passionate or demanding (he could imagine that quite well), but because it was sweet and tentative and pure, none of which could describe any of the kisses of his experience.

 

It remained as unhurried and gentle as it had started for some time, but urgency slowly began to build. Her lips parted in a breathless sigh against his, and her right hand joined her left on his face, holding it to hers more firmly. Now that both his hands were free, he reached for her. One hand tangled her long, silky hair, and the other came to rest above her hip. The kiss deepened. She wrapped her arms around his neck and his went around her waist, requiring him to join her on the couch. They pulled each other as close as they could get, the momentum still building steadily.

 

Warmth was spreading from her body to his wherever they touched, making him feel like he might burst into flames, but instead of drawing away from the heat, he sought it out. Her rapid heartbeat pulsed in his ears, he could feel the rush of blood through her scarred lips as they moved against his, and her scent banished coherent thought. It suddenly became very difficult to stop his features from transforming, but he managed it somehow. With a noise somewhere between a groan and a growl, he began trailing his kisses away from her mouth, following the line of her jaw until he reached her throat.

 

Immediately, her whole body went rigid and fear cut through her scent like a knife. Alarmed, he pulled back far enough to look at her. “What’s wrong?” he asked, reaching up with one hand to brush the backs of his knuckles against her cheek. To his dismay and bewilderment, her eyes filled with tears and she turned her face away. “Buffy?” he tried again, his insides twisting with anxiety.

 

“Why are you still doing this?” she asked in a cracked voice that was full of anguish.

 

He blinked. “Doing what?”

 

She looked back at him, her eyes blazing with anger. “Why are you still playing this game when you know you’ve won?” she demanded, tears now streaking her face. “What, is there something else? Do you want me to say it? I love you! No matter how much I fought against it and told myself it was wrong or that no self-respecting Slayer would ever let herself feel this way for a vampire or reminded myself about everything I read, I couldn’t stop.”

 

Angel’s chest constricted. His previously writhing insides seemed to have been turned to marble. He was completely dumbstruck, but it hardly mattered, as she wasn’t giving him an opening to reply anyway.

 

“So are you happy now?” she went on, throwing out her hands in agitated gesticulations. “Am I worth killing now? Or is it not enough to have my heart? Is there something else that would make an even better trophy? Do you still need my help taking out your competition so you can get a clear shot at the Master’s throne?”

 

Stricken, and starting to have an inkling of what this was about, he reached out to take one of her flailing hands in his, but she snatched it out of reach and leapt up from the couch. “Don’t touch me!” she shouted. “Stop looking at me like you care! We both know you’re not capable of it, Angelus. I’m just another ‘project’ for you.”

 

He stood up too, and this time, he succeeded in catching her hand, which he used to pull her into his arms. She didn’t fight his embrace, but collapsed, sobbing, against his chest.

 

 

Buffy wished she had the strength to keep fighting, but her energy seemed to have evaporated along with her anger, leaving her distraught and exhausted and powerless in his arms. She felt him pressing kisses to the top of her head, and her tears fell thicker and faster.

 

“I do care, Buffy,” he said, his voice as constricted with emotion as hers had been. “I care so much that it nearly kills me every time I see you get hurt when I didn’t stop it. This isn’t an act. I have a soul. A clan of Gypsies restored it a hundred years ago in revenge for what I did to them. That’s why the Master hated me enough to have me tortured and starved. It’s why I don’t attack people, and only drink pigs’ blood.” He drew back a little, but she didn’t look up until he hooked a finger gently under her chin and turned her face towards his. “It’s what gives me the ability to love you,” he said, “more than I’ve ever loved anything in my life.”

 

He was staring directly into her eyes the same way he had that first morning in the mansion, and now she finally allowed herself to acknowledge what she had seen in them then. A few more tears fell—tears of hope, this time—and he brushed them tenderly away.

 

“I thought I was in love with a lie,” she said.

 

“No,” he said. His tone was apologetic, but his eyes twinkled and soon his face broke into a rueful smile. “Even with every trick I knew, I couldn’t have lied that well. Before my soul was restored, I didn’t understand love well enough to fake it.” His expression became pained. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I thought that if—if I told you about my soul, you might forget what I am, or that I’d forget when I was around you. I’m still a vampire, Buffy. I did everything in those books and more.”

 

She shook her head, smiling. The fact that this was real, that he was real and loved her back, was filling her with the most wonderful feeling of peace. “Maybe that’s what you are, Angel, but who you are is someone kind and selfless and who fights demons and saves lives and saved me.” He gave her a look of incomprehension, and she struggled to find words for what she meant. “After I was called as the Slayer, I turned into this…this empty shell of a person—a living weapon for the Watcher’s Council. I didn’t really care if I lived or died—until I met you. From the first moment you called out to me from that cell, I mattered to someone as more than just the Slayer, but as me, Buffy, for the first time in years. Even when I thought it wasn’t real, it still made me feel…whole, and you don’t know much it would have broken me to lose that.”

 

He dropped a brief, but nevertheless reassuring kiss on her lips, then smiled softly. “You’ll never lose that,” he promised, before pulling her into his arms again. She snuggled close and laid her head against his chest, content to bask in the glow of everything they had shared.

 

 

Buffy and Angel didn’t go back to the mansion. They had been vagabonds there, and the vast, imposing structure full of broken things seemed desolate and unwelcoming compared to the small, candlelit basement in which they had both found home.