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With blind determined stubbornness Xander managed to get Giles to Willow's hospital room without any one finding out the true extent of the Librarian's injuries. Every member of medical staff they passed all assumed that the younger man was steering his father to the help a previous member directed them to.

His best friend had just finished the ritual and whatever had possessed her departed. Dully she looked up at the new arrivals. "Where's Buffy?"

Xander shook his head. "Still fighting Angel last time I looked."

"Angelus, not Angel. Jesus, have you learnt anything these two years?"

Shocked by both the words and intrusion, the five people in the room turned startled to gaze at their visitor. Of short height and questionable fashion sense, he was regarding everybody as if they were old acquaintances. "Well," he began, as they were all too dazed to form a voice with which to try and kick him out, "this is the Scooby gang. A finer set of Slayer friends I ever did see. And I've seen a few believe me. But I'm here to tell you that your timing really sucks."

At this Willow gained the power of speech. "The curse failed?"

"Oh no, the curse worked fine. You just produced at the right results at the wrong time. At this moment your friend is fighting the hardest battle of her life. And she's about to lose."

"Then you go and change things," Giles uttered angrily.

"Can't I'm afraid. Not my job. What's about happen must continue, I can only alter one little thing. That's why I'm here. Now I'll be going in a few minutes, there's a couple of omniscient beings that I have to visit. But first I'm to give you a warning. In a few moments the slayer will say goodbye to her soulmate perhaps forever. And she will be taking the next bus out of here. You will need to find her before she tries to forget. You all think you've seen the greatest evil. Let me tell you that you haven't, not by a long shot. The biggest is yet to come. And you'll need all the alliances you can get."

"I don't understand," Giles began, "If you know what is to come, why can you not........"

"Change other things? I don't know, Englishman, I honestly don't. I'm only the one whose sent to balance things out. But as for whom you're talking about, I'll see what I can do. Maybe she'll be needed." And with that he was gone.

With an energy that she hardly knew she had, Joyce Summers dashed up the flight of stairs and along the corridor until she had reached the room that was her daughter's. Foregoing the usual politeness she wrenched open the door, walked forward and found.....

Nothing. At least not at first. Then she noticed that the window, closed by her yesterday, was wide open. She saw the note, lying on top of some left behind clothes. Dazed, she went to pick it up.

Before Joyce had a chance to even glance at it, a figure walked into the room. "Yes, she's gone," he remarked.

"Who are you?" Joyce asked in anger and fear.

"Name's Whistler," he replied, walking further in.

"What are you? A vampire?"

"Heavens no," he cried in laughter. "She hasn't told you a lot has she? I'm a demon. Sent to keep the balance of good and evil." He stepped forward once more. "You want to know who she is, don't you? Well, she isn't here to tell you. But others can. Do you know Sunnydale well?"

"Yes," Joyce replied, still too shocked to form an attack.

"On Oakpark Street, there's a a block of Spanish suburban apartments. Go to number 523B, and you will find your answers. But I warn you now that you won't like them."

Four Months Later.

It was a moment which she would remember for the rest of her life. A scene imprinted on her mind as permanent as a scar or burn. For as long as she lived the moment would haunt every second of her waking hours, and every second of her now sleepless, nightmare filled nights. There was no resentment in this consequence, only acceptance. It was her dues. Her punishment. A just sentence for the crimes she inflicted upon the person she loved most in the known universe.

She would never forget his expression after he looked down and realised what she had done. His silent, haunting gaze spoke volumes to her, which, even if she were struck blind, deaf and dumb, she could not fail to comprehend. Astonishment, followed by horror, followed by outrage, followed by mortal dread of the fate which her sword thrust had consigned him to. Above all, blame. He blamed her, and he was right to do so. She had betrayed him, she had lied to him.

She had killed him.

No, what she did was far more worse than that. She had sent him to hell. Not the demon, the soul. She had dealt the love of her life the same punishment the demon gifted her when she lay with him. Her weakness, her insistence, her ignorance caused him to be released, when she should have listened to her love's caution. Instead she had offered herself to him, sacrificed her honour, and ultimately his. And now, they both were in hell, and it was all because of her.

Waves crashed against the sand below her feet, cooling the grains which burned under the hot sun. But she could not feel that same relief. For her body was burning, just as surely as his was in hell. If she let the sea cool her, she would betray him again, because it would mean that she could live without him.

Then two hands appeared upon her stomach as two arms surrounded her waist, and suddenly he was no longer in hell, but somehow here with her. She leaned against him, her hand reaching up to caress his dear face which rested beside her own.

"How did you find me here?" She asked, surprised at the calm tone of her voice. It was not what she wanted her first words to be. She wanted to turn round, to fall on her knees and beg his forgiveness. She expected him to wound her as she had wounded him, causing the physical counterpart to what she already suffered inside.

"If I was blind, I would see you," he answered, the caressing tone soothing her turmoil of emotions, her tortured mind. Words failed her. Instead she let the hand which had stroked his face to drift down to his at her waist. Closing her eyes, she clasped him against her, revelling in a moment she thought was lost forever.

"Stay with me," she felt herself plead, though she had no right to ask such a privilege. Nor did she feel it was earned, after all she had done to him.

"Forever," he answered. "That's the whole point. I'll never leave," his mouth turned to her ear, as he struck the next blow. "Not even if you kill me."

Her eyes opened as her body bent double from the wound he just dealt her. Astonished, horrified, she turned to him outraged, only to collapse on to the sand in mortal dread. The grains around her became soaked in blood, as she raised her eyes to his face.

"Forever," he murmured, as his body turned into ashes, his claddagh glinting in the sunlight as it slipped from his finger to the shore.

The sirens woke her up. Silencing the cry which threatened to wrench itself from her, Buffy gathered her legs to her, clasping the duvet about her knees. Tears soaked the material, but she had not the energy or the will to surrender herself to them. Listlessly she rose from the bed and walked to the window, where she gazed out to see the familiar vehicle carrying Los Angeles' finest to the scene of a crime.

When the vehicle had disappeared from her sight, the relatively empty streets below her studio apartment conveyed a black night back towards the glass, displaying her reflection. It was a pitiful sight, one which her friends and family- if she still had any left, that is -would be horrified by. Dark circles conquered the pale skin below her eyes which makeup barely hid. Her hair, dyed reddish blonde to disguise, lay unwashed and bedraggled below her shoulder line, ends split.

The only adornments, if one could notice them beyond this pitiful sight, were the sliver cross and claddagh ring, his gifts to her. He had given her few gifts, uncertain as to how much he should do, so every one was precious. She felt unworthy of them since she sent him to hell, but she could not bare to remove them. They were all she had left to comfort her, as her memories and her dreams could not. The one she experienced now was a typical example. It would start off blissfully, until it convinced her that her previous reality was but a dream. Then he would speak challenging words and regard her with questioning, tortured eyes, eyes that reminded her of what she had done, before truth and reality crashed in, making him die before her eyes once more.

Sometimes she wondered what she would have done if she knew, if Xander had told her the truth instead of acting on his irrational jealousy. Would knowledge have changed things, she asked herself, would she have been able to prevent the demon opening Acathla before her love was returned to his body. Every instinct, every feeling within her struggled to convince her that she could have done so.

Which was why she blamed herself all the more. For she should have known. The demon had not killed her friends, only wounded them. She should have realised that it would not prevent them from trying to curse him again. She should have trusted them, trust her instincts. Trusted the slayer within her.

Instead she had betrayed them. She had betrayed him. She had betrayed herself, consigning the two of them to hell forever.

With that thought the tears came again, blinding her view of the glass panes infront. She made a conscious effort to find the security of the bed before letting go and collapsing completely.

Daylight found Buffy in another disguise in the last place anyone who knew her would expect to find her in. With what little money she had left from the bus ticket from the hellmouth to the city and the deposit plus one month's advance rent on the two room apartment now her home, she had brought makeup and hair colorant to convince the owner of Helen's Kitchen that she was a worthy waitress. The wages barely covered her scant outgoings, but somehow she survived.

Brushing the short braids of her hair out the way, she picked up the two burgers and conveyed them to the table in waiting. "Anything else?" She asked tonelessly.

The two men eyed her lecherously. "That'll do us, Peaches."

Buffy ignored the comment, placing the bill on the table cloth. "Pay at the counter."

"Sure you don't want me to work it off for you?" The man leered, causing his comrade in arms to laugh.

Buffy turned to walk away, but not quickly enough to escape his hand slapping her ass, causing laughter. She stopped, but only for a second, reminding herself that she no longer had the authority, let alone the confidence to turn round and fight.

Her next table was a complete contrast. A young couple sat there, obviously poor by the lack of quality to their clothing, but too happy to care. Their loving gaze was pure torture to her, reminding her once more of what she lost.

"You guys ready?" She asked.

The guy still gazed at the girl beside him as he answered. "Yeah. I think we're good. Um . . .," he broke off to finally look at her name-tag. "Anne."

Buffy forced herself not to flinch. She preferred her middle name, it was normal, something she had striven to be all her life. The irony was, now that she had that normality, she hated every moment of it. "What'll you have?"

The guy reached into his pocket and sent a pile of coins to crash on the table. "Well, okay . . . What can we get with this?"

Buffy silently did the math on the pennies, nickels, and dimes before them.

"Can we get cake?" The girl asked.

"Don't be stupid," the guy turned to her. "We gotta eat healthy. We can't have cake." He turned back to Buffy. "Can we get pie?"

"We've got a peach pie," Buffy replied, glancing at the price to make sure it was within their means. "I can't guarantee there's a peach in it."

"We shouldn't have blown all our money," the girl remarked.

"Come on, it was worth it," the guy argued, making her smile. "Hey, check this out." He looked at Buffy as the two of them held out their forearms, revealing tattoos. Like a friendship chain the two made up an image of a red heart blazoned by a ribbon bearing their names; Lily and Ricky.

"It's nice," Buffy replied, though. "It's nice and, uh, permanent."

"Yeah, forever," Ricky said, putting his arm around Lily. "I mean, that's the whole point."

The words echoed in her head, spoken by his voice, together with his finishing sentences, and it was all she could do not to break down in front of them.

"Hey, do I know you?" Lily asked.

"I don't think so," Buffy lied, for she knew who the girl was now.

"Really? Where're you from?" Lily asked.

"I'll get your pie," Buffy uttered before walking away. She felt the girl's eyes continue to stare at her, until Ricky said something, pulling her attention back to him. Relief coursed through her, but only for a moment.

She put the order down by the cash register, then turned to the other waitress while her hands reached behind her waist to undo her apron. "I'm not feeling great. Do you think you can cover for me?"

"Sure, okay," the other waitress replied.

Buffy turned and headed outside. In the glaring sunshine she blinked to adjust her teary eyes to the natural light and turned, heading for her apartment. Forever. That's the whole point. I'll never leave, not even if you kill me. Her dreams were turning prophetic once more reminding her that she could not escape the primitive inside her.

She was still the slayer, and the existence was killing her just as sure as a one of her stakes used to kill them.

Two hours away, and several hours later, at the hellmouth, a hand unearthed itself, followed by the rest of its body as it crawled out of the grave mourners and priest had consigned the once human to. Blinking the soil away from his eyes, the demon's first vision of the world about him, was the wide, attack ready stance of a redhead standing before him.

"That's right, Big Boy," Willow uttered. "Come and get it."

Outraged that a mere mortal dared to challenge his right to exist in this body, the vampire launched himself out of the grave, surprising her. Then his next move was restrained, as someone, another mere mortal grabbed him from behind, making him lose his balance.

"I got him!" Xander cried. "Go!" He shouted.

Another jumped out from behind a hedge and ran towards them, coming to a halt as he struggled to release the stake from his pocket.

"Any time now . . ." Xander remarked sarcastically, as the vampire regained his balance, kicking up both legs to hit his second assailant's face.

Oz stumbled backward and fell to the ground. The vampire leapt again, somersaulting over Xander's head, freeing himself.

Xander attempted to rush him, but the vampire turned his attack back at him, sending him into Willow, causing them to fall to the ground.

By the time they all recovered, the vampire was running away.

"He's getting away!" Willow cried. "And . . . ow," she added as the impact of her fall made itself known to her.

Oz scrambled to his feet and retrieved his stake. Swiftly he threw it as if the wooden implement were a javelin, aiming it at their escaping prey.

The stake hit a gravestone, bounced, then fell to the ground.

Oz shook his head. "That really never works," he mused before turning to the others. "Are you guys all right?"

"First of all, what was with the acrobatics?" Xander asked. "How did that happen?"

"Wasn't Andy Hoelich on the gymnastics team?" Oz queried.

"That's right, he was!" Xander realised. "Cheater!" He shouted after him. "Okay, and the, uh, second problem I'm having . . . 'Come and get it, Big Boy?'"

"W-well, the Slayer always says a pun or-or a witty play on words, and I think it throws the vampires off, and, and it makes them frightened because I'm wisecracking," Willow replied. "Okay, I didn't really have a chance to work on that one, but you try it every time."

"Uh, if I may suggest: 'This time it's personal,'" Oz said. "I mean, there's a reason why it's a classic."

"I've always been amazed with how Buffy fought," Xander remarked in a slightly graver tone. "But in a way, I feel like we took her punning for granted."

"Xander, past tense rule," Willow scolded.

"Oh, sorry. I just meant we in the past took it for granted and, uh . . . we won't when she gets back."

"Do you think Buffy knows school's starting tomorrow?" Willow asked.

"Tomorrow," Oz uttered in remembrance. "Right. Big day."

"Oh, I'm gonna be busy a lot," Willow explained to her boyfriend. "But, but only till three, and that's when you usually get up."

"I can't wait to see Cordelia," Xander said. "I can't believe I can't wait to see Cordelia," he added, surprised.

"I wonder what our first homework assignment's gonna be," Willow said eagerly, causing Xander to glance at her. "Hey, you're excited over Cordelia, okay? We've all got issues."

"I guess we should pack it in," Oz remarked.

"Yeah," Xander agreed.

"We need to go to Giles' first," Willow reminded them. "He asked us to check in with him after every patrol."

"Do you think he'll be back by now?" Xander asked as they began to walk in the direction of Oakpark Street.

"He should be," Oz said. "Oakland's only a flight away and I don't think he was certain that she was there anyway."

"I hate this," Xander cried, kicking a branch away from his path. "When Whistler said to us that we had to find her, I assumed he meant that it wouldn't take long. But's it's been almost four months of dead ends."

"You can't fault Giles for trying," Willow pointed out. "I don't think it's up to us anyway. I think Buffy will be found when she wants to be not before. And maybe we should wait for her to return of her own accord."

"What do you mean by that?" Xander asked her.

Descrying the resentment in his tone, Willow glanced at him, debating on whether to say what was in her thoughts.

Then the door opened in front of them, changing the conversation entirely.

"So, no joy at the cemetery?" Giles asked as he stepped back to let them inside his apartment.

"No, he got away," Willow replied. "We still have some glitches in the system, like vampires getting away. But I think we're improving."

"For God's sake be careful," Giles advised as he closed the door behind them. "I mean, uh, I appreciate your efforts to keep the vampire population down until Buffy returns, but, uh . . . Well, if anything should happen to you and . . . you should be killed, I should take it somewhat amiss."

"You'd be cranky?" Willow offered.

"Entirely," Giles answered.

"Well, we try not to get killed," Willow assured him. "That's part of our whole mission statement. Don't get killed."

"Good," Giles uttered, before ushering them into the living room.

"Hi!" Willow cried as she saw who was waiting for them.

"Hey, Willow," Cordelia replied. "Hi Xander," she added, as he came up to her.

"Hi," Xander returned nervously.

"How was your summer?" Willow asked.

"Oh, I can't believe you brought that up," Cordelia remarked, sounding slightly relieved as they sat down. "Las Palmas was the nightmare resort. They order you around and make you have organised," she raised her hands in silent quotation marks, "'fun,' and I used sarcastic quote marks. Plus the fact there are cockroaches in Mexico big enough to own property. It was all about dread. How was your summer?"

"Oh, it was okay," Willow replied. "Slaying vampires. Or not, as it happened tonight."

"Still not getting any easier?" Cordelia sought to confirm.

"I don't know," Oz replied. "I think we're kinda getting a rhythm down."

"We're losing half the vamps," Xander revealed.

"Yeah, but . . . rhythmically," Oz argued.

"We just need to work on our timing, I think," Willow replied. "So what happened in Oakland?" She asked Giles.

The watcher was about to answer, but a knock at the door prevented the motion, causing them to fall into an uneasy and hopeful silence as he walked up to answer it.

Instead of their best friend, it was one of the last people they expected to see.

"Hi," Joyce greeted nervously.

"Hi," Giles returned.

"I tried calling round earlier, but no one was in," Joyce added.

"Oh," Giles uttered. He stepped back, silently gesturing for her to enter. "I've, uh, just come back from Oakland. A friend of mine called with a lead."

"Stories about someone fighting vampires?" Joyce queried, causing him to glance at her with surprise.

No one said anything for a moment, digesting the information.

"Buffy told you?" Giles questioned at last.

"Yes and no. She told me she was a slayer, she didn't have time to say anything else." I didn't give her time to explain anything else, she silently added to herself.

"The Slayer. Buffy is the only Slayer," Xander clarified.

"It, uh, didn't pan out, I'm afraid," Giles continued.

Joyce sighed. "No Buffy."

"No vampires," Giles added. "Bunch of school kids in heavy mascara listening to extremely silly music."

"Well, thank you for going," Joyce found herself saying. "I can hardly, uh . . . I can hardly leave the house. I'm just afraid she'll call and she'll need my help."

"Buffy is the most capable young woman I've ever known," Giles said. "I mean, she may be confused, unhappy, but I honestly believe she's in no danger."

"I just wish I could talk to her," Joyce added. "The last thing we did was fight."

"Mrs Summers, you mustn't blame yourself for her leaving," Giles said.

"I don't," she answered, surprising him. "I blame you."

Everyone was too taken aback to summon a contradiction, letting her continue.

"You've been this huge influence on her, guiding her. You had this whole relationship with her behind my back. I feel like you've taken her away from me."

"I didn't make Buffy who she is," Giles argued.

"And who exactly is she?" Joyce asked.

Silence met her words, as everyone wondered what they could say.

"A demon named Whistler sent me here," Joyce replied. "He said I would find answers to my questions. If I knew which ones to ask, that is. Buffy told me very little."

Giles took off his glasses and began to clean them as he began. "In every generation," he began almost reverently, using the words as if they were a mantra, "there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer."

You won't like them, Joyce remembered Whistler warning her. How right he was. " long has she been this?"

"Since she was fifteen," Giles replied, knowing Mrs Summers deserved nothing less than honesty and wondering what had happened to make Buffy tell her mother the secret she had kept for three years.

She alone......... "She's done this by herself for three years? Or have you been in her life for as long as that?" Why could I not help her? Why didn't she trust me?

"No, I'm her second Watcher," Giles replied, causing everyone to look at him in confusion, as the question had never occurred to them before. "I took over when you and she moved here. I'm meant to guide her, prepare her for what demons or vampires she might have to face," he added.

"What happened to the first?" Willow asked.

"He was killed by a vampire," Giles replied. "His name was Merrick. I knew him well. I respected him."

"How did all of you find out?" Joyce asked.

"Me and Xander found out when she first arrived, Cordelia took awhile longer, and Oz found out on her birthday." Her last birthday. That thought scared Willow.

Joyce finally dared herself to ask the question that had troubled her from moment she had stumbled on to this discovery. "Why did she not tell me?"

"She's not supposed to," Giles replied too quickly. Seeing the flash of anger he hurriedly added, "the more people that know, the more lives that are in danger. Buffy's the first to have friends and family who know the truth." Giles paused and then asked the question he wanted, no needed, to be answered. "Why did she run?"

Joyce found it no surprise that he knew she had. "I came home to find her with someone and then these.... vampires rushed out at them. She....... killed both of them and then told me."

"Who was with her?" Giles asked.

"I never found out his name. He was blond, white blond. English accent."

"Spike?" Giles queried, as things began to make sense to him.

"What on earth was Spike doing with Buffy?" Xander wondered.

"He wanted to strike a deal. Dru's life for Angel's," Joyce continued, unsure if this would make any sense to them. It certainly did not to her. She looked up at Giles. "She said if you died, Druscilla would die."

Giles understood now why he had been able to escape. The rest of that scene, the part he did not get to see, was someone else's story. Someone who was not here. "Did she go back to you?" He asked, fearing the answer.

Joyce hesitated. How would they react to this? "I told her not to come back. That if she walked out the door she wouldn't be let back in."

The room seemed to acquire a new depth of deadly silence. Joyce looked at the ground, fearing to see what they thought of her now. No more excuses. She had been wrong to contradict him before. This was all her fault. Slowly she reached into her pocket and pulled out the note she had carried around with her for almost four months. She handed it to Giles. She no longer had the right to know its contents.

Rupert's hands shook as he held the single piece of paper. It took time for his eyes to distinguish the words, form sentences, determine meanings. This proved she was alive. That Angel had died. Had she really nothing left? What had he done to destroy her trust in him? He had no right to be her Watcher. Reluctantly he gave it to Willow's outstretched hand and closed his own over his eyes, suddenly feeling ten years older.

Willow's reaction to the note was much the same. Annoyed with herself for not giving her best friend a chance to confide in her. Angry that she had judged her too quickly, judged Angel too quickly. She saw the difference now. "Whistler was right," she began, tears in her eyes and her voice. "The demon is completely different from Angel. It may exist in the same body, have the same memories, but its not Angel. Buffy saw that, while we were all too blind and too selfish to realise it."

"Will, look at what he did!?! How can that justify what he did?" Xander asked angrily.

The redhead looked him in frustration. "You're still jealous, aren't you? You always hated him, even when he had his soul. After all he did for us, the minute he was lost you were quite happy for Buffy to kill him. Even before."

"Now hang on a minute, I never meant........."

"Yes you did," Willow cried, "'you're the slayer, he's a vampire.' That's what you said to her. 'Its obvious what you have to do.' I bet you didn't even tell her we were trying to curse him again!"

"I...." Xander trailed off, realising his friend was right. He hadn't. Instead he told her to kick Angel's ass. "That doesn't change a thing!"

"Yes it does, you know it does! She could have delayed things, so she didn't have to kill him. So Acathla never broke from his shell. You told us yourself that he had yet to awaken!"

Xander glanced around in desperation. "Will no one back me up here?"

"No way," his girlfriend said. "I'm with Willow on this one."

"I completely agree," Giles replied. "Regardless of my misgivings about Willow attempting the spell again, you had no right, Xander, to do what you did."

"Giles, have you forgotten Jenny!?!" He regretted those words the minute after they had left his mouth, for the Watcher seemed to grow even angrier.

"Don't you dare bring her into this! You have not the right!" He bellowed, startling the entire room, Joyce included. "Her death has always been your first line of defence. You welcomed the chance to finally have a reason to attack him! Have you forgotten what she gave us? The power to restore his soul! And she had more reason to wish him dead than any of us! You never gave him a chance to prove himself, all because of your petty jealousy!"

"Stop this, stop!" Willow suddenly cried. "This does us no good! We have to concentrate on getting her back, not why she left!"

"Willow's right," Oz remarked. "She needs to come back. The sooner the better."

Giles nodded and leant back in his chair. Glancing at Joyce, he noted the mystified expression on her face and realised there was one thing he needed to explain. "Did you ever meet Angel?" He asked her.

"Yes," Joyce replied. "She told me he was her history tutor," she added. "You're saying he was a vampire?" She sought to confirm.

Giles nodded. "His situation was more complicated than that. When a person becomes a vampire, the part of the self that is them, the soul, dies. In its place a demon rules. And it may share its past, have its memories, but its not the person. Angel's case was unique. His soul was restored to him, taking over the demon, restraining him from doing further harm." He suddenly halted and when he began again, the words were thoughts spoken aloud. Revelations. "Imagine the torture he must have endured. All those memories of what the demon had done, using his body. Endless nightmares about the past, about what those the demon sired had done, what the demon had taught them. Knowing that he was powerless to change it. Wanting to atone for it, when it was not him who needed to atone. We're to blame for this. All of us."

This time, no one objected to his final words. All knew that he was right.

"She's not gonna come back, is she?" Willow remarked tearfully.

"We can't think like that," Giles returned, rising from his chair to walk into the kitchen where he set about making some tea. "Whistler told us, remember, that she has to. So we just have to keep searching until we find her, and keep a eye on things here in her absence."

"You mean keep letting the vampires run away?" Cordelia remarked.

"Well, obviously we need to fix that," Giles said. "Perhaps I should start helping."

"No, I know what we need," Xander remarked, looking at his girlfriend.

"A Vampire Slayer?" Oz returned.

"Next best thing," Xander replied. "Bait."

Two hours away and an hour or two earlier, Buffy wandered the streets, trying to wear herself out in the probably vain hope that such a plan would result in no nightmares.

"Hey, how are you?" She heard a voice ask, and turned to see a man talking to one of the homeless guys who was huddled in a blanket by the wall. "Can I talk to you for a moment? I have something you might be interested in."

Relieved he wasn't talking to her, Buffy walked on.

"I'm no one," another voice, this time female uttered, causing her to stop and stare.

An old woman emerged nervously from the shadow of a recessed doorway. "I'm no one," she repeated.

Buffy walked on, quickening her pace. She turned a corner, completing the long circuitous route back to her apartment.

"Anne?" A voice called out behind.

Buffy ignored the voice and walked on.

"Anne?" The voice shouted. "Buffy?" She added, causing her to stop. She turned round, and waited for the girl to catch her up.

"Don't be mad," the girl began. "I won't turn you in or nothing. I guess you don't recognise me."

"Lily?" Buffy queried.

"I mean from before," Lily replied. "I was calling myself Chantarelle then. I used to, Well, I was in this cult that worshipped vampires. So lame, I know."

"Yeah . . . I, uh, I remember," Buffy said.

"But . . . you kinda saved us. I never thanked you or anything."

"Did you tell anyone who I was?" Buffy asked her.

"Oh, no! Not-not even Ricky. I mean, I was so surprised to see you here, waiting tables . . . But I wouldn't tell. I know how it is when you gotta get lost."

Buffy nodded and walked on, letting Lily fall into step with her. "Do you, uh, do you live nearby?" She asked.

"Well, there's a couple of places. Uh, they're abandoned, and a lot of people stay there. So how come you came up with Anne?"

"It's my middle name," Buffy replied.

"Lily's from a song. Ricky picked it. I'm always changing anyway. Chantarelle was part of my exotic phase."

"It's nice. It's a . . .it's a mushroom," Buffy recalled.

"It is? That's really embarrassing."

"Um, well, it's an exotic mushroom, if that's any comfort," Buffy added.

"Well, before that, I was following this loser preacher and calling myself 'Sister Sunshine.'"

"What do they call you at home?" Buffy asked, causing Lily to look away. Seeing that she had caused her pain, Buffy hurriedly said, "I like Lily."

"It's cool for now," Lily replied. "Hey, do you have any money?" She asked suddenly, causing Buffy to look at her. "I didn't mean it like that. Well, I just mean . . . I know this guy, he's gonna have this kinda rave thing in his basement. We could go. I mean, I could show you if you had money, 'Cause I'm broke."

"I don't think so," Buffy replied. "I just kind of . . . I want to be alone."

"I didn't mean to bug you," Lily uttered.

"No! I-I didn't, I didn't mean that, it's just . . . Well, a-a lot of people like that, it's, it's too much." Buffy paused for breath. "I do have the money, though, so, why don't you and Ricky go, and then maybe I could meet you some other time?"

"No. It's okay, it's okay. Forget about it."

A homeless man suddenly pushed his way through them.

"That's not very polite," Lily scolded.

He stared at her blankly.

"Are you okay?" Buffy asked him.

"I'm no one," he uttered, repeating the phrase she had heard the woman say. He turned from them and left the pavement, walking into the busy road, causing drivers to slam on their brakes.

One truck was not going to be able to stop. Buffy dropped her bag and rushed out into the road, pushing the guy aside in time to save him, but not to avoid being hit herself. Her body fell on to the hood of the vehicle as she slid into the windshield. The force of the impact bounced her back, sending her to the asphalt. She hit the road with a roll, stunned.

Slayer instincts kicked in, causing her to recover, albeit slowly. As she struggled to her feet, Lily and the driver ran to her.

"Are you okay?" Lily asked.

"Jeez, I didn't see you," the driver apologised.

"Oh . . . Maybe, maybe you shouldn't move," Lily remarked.

"Maybe you should lie down," the driver advised.

"No, I'm fine," Buffy replied.

"Somebody call an ambulance!" the driver cried.

That was the last thing she needed. She held up her hands. "No! I'm okay, I just . . . I need to go."

Her running away seemed to convince them, at least not to follow her. Hurriedly she turned a corner, and suddenly collided with someone.

"Whoa!" The bloke cried, then crouch down to help her retrieve his leaflets. "Where are you running to?"

"Sorry," Buffy apologised.

"Maybe I should ask, where are you running from?" He asked her. "You're pretty new around here. Uh, you've got the look, though."

"The look?" Buffy echoed.

"Like you had to grow up way too fast. What's your name?"

"Anne," Buffy replied, and brushed past him to get away.

"Hey, um, I'm Ken. Here, go ahead, take one of these," he proffered one of the leaflets to her. "Don't be shy about stopping by. I mean, I guess you're not starving, but . . . we're not just interested in feeding the body. You might find something you're missing."

Buffy put as much conviction into her tone as she was currently capable of. "I'm alright."

"Then why are you here?" Ken countered. "This is not a good place for a kid to be. You get old fast here. The thing that drains the life out of them is despair. I mean, kids come here, and they got nothing to go home to, and . . . this ends up being the last stop for a lot of them. Shouldn't have to be that way."

"It shouldn't," Buffy agreed. "But I'm not one of them. Now, I have go."

Ken watched her walk away. "Oh, but I think you will be," he murmured to himself.

"Buff--um, Anne? Can I talk to you?" Lily asked.

It was the next day. Buffy had returned to her apartment, suffered another nightmare, then woke up and forced herself to return to work.

"Look, this really isn't a good time. Can it wait?" She asked the girl.

"Ricky's gone," Lily revealed. "I haven't seen him for more than a day. I he's never left for that long. I think something's . . . happened."

"Well, did you call the police?" Buffy asked.

"Ricky skipped out on his parole," Lily explained. "Uh, they would just cause more trouble."

Buffy saw the look on her face, and knew what was coming. Nevertheless, she tried to stall it's arrival. "I don't know, did you, did you ask around?"

"Can you help me?" Lily asked.

"Uh, I-I can't," Buffy replied, trying to walk away.

Lily followed. "But . . . but that's who you are and stuff, right? I mean, you help people, and, you know...."

"I can't get into this," Buffy replied, knowing it might cause her whereabouts to become known. "I'm sorry, Lily."

"You, you know how to do stuff," Lily insisted.

"I don't," Buffy argued. "Not anymore."

"But I don't know what to do," Lily finished, tears falling from her face.

It was too much. Buffy could not ignore the grief facing her, even if she doubted she could begin to cure it. "Where do you go?" She asked.

Lily brightened immediately. "Come on," she said. "I'll show you."

"We gave blood lots of times 'cause you get a few bucks," Lily explained as they walked into the blood bank some minutes later. "And they have cookies!"

"You're a fan of the sugar rush?" Buffy asked.

"It's nice," Lily replied.

"Hi," a nurse greeted. "You here to donate blood?"

"Uh, we're looking for a friend," Buffy began.

"Ricky T.?" Lily added. "We come in sometimes."

"Ricky, sure," the nurse remarked. "Uh, he's not here."

"Well, do you know if he's been in the last day or so?" Buffy asked.

"Let me check the sheet," the nurse replied and walked away to fetch it.

Buffy turned to Lily while they waited for her to return. "This'll probably go faster if we split up."

"Can I come with you?" Lily asked.

"Okay, where did I lose you on the whole 'splitting up' thing?" Buffy joked.

"Oh. Sorry," Lily replied.

"I was thinking we could check out some of your hangouts and, um, I guess, meet later at my place," Buffy explained.

"Okay," Lily replied.

"Sorry, guys," the nurse said as she returned. "He hasn't been here."

"Thanks," Buffy acknowledged before walking away.

"I'll tell him you were looking," the nurse offered.

"Great," Buffy remarked as she and Lily headed out.

The nurse watched them leave, wondering how long it would be before they caught on to her, and what she had done.

It was night by the time Buffy discovered the first clue to his disappearance. She was exploring one of the abandoned buildings Lily had suggested as a possible place to find her boyfriend, when she stumbled past a homeless man, who seemed to have sought the means to end his life with a empty bottle of drain cleaner.

Buffy crouched down and checked the pulse at his wrist. As she put his arm down, death confirmed, she noticed the tattoo of half a heart, with a ribbon across it, inscribed Lily.

"Ricky?" Buffy murmured in disbelief, for the body before her was not a young man but an old one. Yet she could not doubt the evidence before her.
Rising to her feet, she turned and ran to her apartment.

The sight which met her inside almost made her turn and run once more. Lily was stroking the stuffed pig otherwise known as Mr Gordo, reminding her instantly of the moment when she had returned to Revello drive to find Angel holding him. Breathing deeply, she reminded herself where he was, and where she was, then closed the door.

"Did you find Ricky?" Lily asked her, putting the stuffed animal down. "I thought of, well, he likes to go to this movie house, you can get in around the back. . ."

Buffy interrupted her. "Lily . . . I think he's dead."

Lily stepped back, retreating further into herself, if that was possible. "But . . . he takes care of me."

"I'm sorry," Buffy added.

"We're gonna get a place," Lily added, as though the reality had not quite hit her yet. "His cousin can get him a job at the car wash."

"Lily, there's something else," Buffy added. "The, the person that I found . . . was old. He looked about eighty."

"Well, that's not Ricky!" Lily cried.

"I saw the tattoo," Buffy replied. "I, I don't know how, but . . . it was like something drained the life out of him."

"Do you mean like a vampire?" Lily asked.

Buffy shook her head. "No. A vampire couldn't accelerate the ageing process. Maybe it was something in his blood. When was the last time you guys gave blood together?"

"I don't understand," Lily replied. "Maybe it's not Ricky, okay?"

"Lily, this is something you're just gonna have to deal with," Buffy remarked.

"But he didn't do anything wrong!" Lily cried. "Why would this happen to him?"

"That's not the point. These things happen all the time. You can't just," her voice cracked slightly, ". . . close your eyes and hope that they're gonna go away."

"Is it 'cause of you?" Lily asked.

"What?" Buffy queried.

"You know about . . . monsters and stuff. You could have brought this with you."

"I didn't bring anything with me," Buffy returned, annoyed. "And I didn't ask for you to come to me with your problems. I just wanted to be left alone. If you can't deal, then don't lay it off on me!"

Lily gasped a cry, and hurried out of the apartment.

As the door slammed shut, Buffy fell to the bed, regretting her words. She hadn't meant to be so harsh. The whole thing just reminded her too much of her own situation. True, there were certain differences, but the comparison was there to be drawn.

She turned and grabbed Mr Gordo, remembering once more the night she had found Angel holding him while he waited her return. Like many of their moments together, it had been a mixture of happiness and sadness. He brooded on being unable to be an ordinary boyfriend, while she tried to tell him how much he meant to her. She had loved him then, even if she couldn't say the words. And she knew now that he had loved her too, despite his belief that he wasn't enough for her. She hoped he realised that he was all she could ever want, ever wish for.

A wet patch appeared on the pink fur, dragging her back to the present. Reverently she placed the pig on her bed and rose to her feet. She had to finish what she had started with Lily. She had to find the truth of Ricky's disappearance.

And she knew of a place to start.

"Are you okay?" A voice asked. "Hey, it's okay," he added when he received no reply from the crying blond girl, "maybe I can help."

"You can't," the girl despaired.

"Look, I know you all think I'm a big square handing out leaflets about hope. But hope is a real thing, just like despair. And hope can fill up a part of you that's missing."

"But Ricky . . ." the girl uttered.

"Ricky?" the man echoed. "Say, are you Lily? Right! Right, he was talking about you."

"You've seen Ricky?" Lily asked him hopefully.

"Oh, sure! Ricky's with us now," the man assured her.

"She said he was dead," Lily uttered.

"Well, someone's sure handed you a tall tale. Ricky's no more dead than I am. Why don't you come to Family Home? We'll get you taken care of."

Lily nodded, causing Ken to smile as he led her away.

She chose to wrench the doorknob from the door, rather than a more discreet lock pick to gain entry to the blood bank. Heading for the filing cabinet, she searched the files within until she found Ricky's form. It appeared normal, save for one word in the additional comments section. Candidate.

"Candidate for what?" Buffy wondered aloud. She turned to take another file out at random, and noticed the same word on that aswell.

"What are you doing?" A voice asked her.

"Breaking into your office and going through your private files," Buffy replied. "Candidate for what?" She asked her.

"I'm calling the police," the Nurse replied, going to the phone.

Calmly Buffy reached over and yanked the device off the wall. "Now, you've got a whole bunch of candidates here. I wonder if any of them are missing like Ricky." She looked at the Nurse. "Gosh, I bet they are."

"You're getting yourself in a lot of trouble," the Nurse remarked, but her tone no longer sounded convincing.

"I don't want any trouble," Buffy replied. "I just want to be alone and quiet in a room with a chair and a fireplace and a tea cosy. I don't even know what a tea coy is, but I want one. Instead, I keep getting trouble, which I am more than willing to share. What are you doing with these kids?"

"Nothing. I just . . . I give him the names of the healthy ones," the Nurse revealed.

"Give them to who?" Buffy asked.

"Well, don't you look nice?" Ken remarked to Lily as she entered.

"I guess," Lily said uncertainly, fiddling with the plain smock he directed her to change into after they arrived.

"Well, you don't want to wear your own outfit to the cleansing," Ken explained. "It'll get soaked."

"A cleansing is like a baptism, right?" Lily asked.

"Not quite the same," Ken replied, gesturing ahead.

"Will I see Ricky after?" Lily asked.

"Oh, of course. He's waiting for you. He's very excited," Ken lied.

"Why do I have to be bait?" Cordelia asked as they stalked the graveyard. "I'm always bait. Why can't Willow be bait?"

"He's already seen Willow," Xander returned. "And could you complain louder so that all the vampires leave?" He added sarcastically.

"I think this is a good spot," Oz said, causing them all to halt. "Is everybody packing?"

Willow and Xander pulled out stakes and crosses.

"Let's do it," Oz decided.

The three of them separated, choosing suitable objects to hide behind to wait in ambush, leaving Cordelia alone. Spooked, she followed her boyfriend.

"I'm doing this for Buffy's sake," She said to him. "This has nothing to do with you."

"Yeah, like I needed that cleared up," Xander muttered, before concealing himself. "Go away," he added when Cordelia stayed put. "This is my hiding spot."

"Where do I hide?" Cordelia asked.

"You don't hide. You're bait. Go act baity."

"What's the plan?" Cordelia asked.

"The vampire attacks you," Xander replied.

"And then what?"

"The vampire kills you," Xander added. "We watch, we rejoice."

"Everything's a joke with you," Cordelia returned.

"No, just our relationship," Xander countered, causing Willow to sigh as she overheard the beginnings of another fight.

"What relationship?" Cordelia returned.

"Oh, that's right, I forgot. We want to bury that piece of the past, don't we?" Xander remarked, causing Cordelia to look outraged.

Willow sighed again, contemplating using the stake she held on them.

The vampire creeping up behind her had no idea of her thoughts.

"We come to this station to wash away the past," Ken explained. "Go ahead, kneel."

Lily hesitantly kneeled before a seemingly oil filled reflecting pool, wondering what kind of cult she had entered now.

"We let the water run over the sin and the pain and the uncertainty," Ken continued.

"It looks kinda," Lily searched for the polite word. ". . dirty,"

"Yeah," Ken uttered, trying to ignore the sounds coming from the front of the house.

At the door Buffy stood trying to come up with a suitable lie to get her inside the Family Home.

"You know, I just . . . I woke up, and I looked in the mirror, and I thought, hey, what's with all the sin? I need to change. I'm," she searched for the right word, ". . . I'm dirty. I'm, I'm bad with the . . . sex and the envy and that loud music us kids listen to nowadays." She paused, but the guy before her clearly wasn't fooled. "Oh, I just suck at undercover. Where's Ken?"

The guy shoved the door in front of her, but she kicked it down and punched his face. "Wrong answer," she uttered before walking further into the house.

She kicked open the first closed door she found, and saw Ken standing before her.

"This is a private moment," he began. "If you could just...."

Buffy interrupted him. "How do you make them old, Ken? Do you feed on youth? What's the deal?"

"Do you really wanna know?" Ken asked her.

"What's going on?" a voice asked, and Buffy moved a little forward to see Lily kneeling before a oily reflective pool.

Suddenly the oil grabbed her, drawing her into it's depths. Lily screamed as she was consumed by the blackness.

Buffy ran to help, but Ken grabbed her by the neck. She struggled against his choking grip, causing him to lose his balance and they both fell in.

They hit the ground hard, Buffy instinctively rolling to lessen the impact. She rose to her feet to gaze at the stone flame lit surroundings.

"Lily," she uttered as she saw her friend, clutching her head by the wall. Slowly she crouched beside her.

"Oh, my face!" Ken cried. "Ow! My face!" He pulled his skin and hair away, revealing the demon within. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to glue that thing on?!" He shouted at them. "Guards!" He yelled, turning.

Buffy grabbed Lily's hand and attempted to run away. Two guards joined Ken in pursuit of them, as she led her friend through a maze of halls, until they reached what looked like iron railings. Coming to a halt she peered cautiously over the barrier, seeing young women and men, chained and clothed in smocks like Lily, shuffling along the ground, protected by guards with whips. They were forcing them to pound metals on anvils, push wheelbarrows from place to place and swing sledgehammers.

"Welcome to my world," Ken said, "I hope you like it." He punched Buffy twice, hard in the face, sending her to the floor. "You're never leaving."

"Let me just ask you one thing: how long did it take you to forget me?" Xander taunted his girlfriend. "Were you still taxiing down the runway, or was it actually in the cab?"

"Oh, yeah, Mr. Faithful?" Cordelia mocked. "You probably met up with some hot little Inca Mummy Girl. Yeah! I heard about her."

Xander would have responded with something about her past boyfriends, when his best friend suddenly screamed as the vampire they were here for tackled her to the ground.

Oz rushed to pull the demon away, throwing him aside. Willow rushed to her feet, as he held up his stake, ready to attack. Oz lunged at the vampire, but he dodged the strike, sending him aside, tumbling to the ground.

Fight forgotten, Xander came at him, only for the arm with which he held his stake to be grabbed by the demon, followed by the other, wrestling for control.

Cordelia joined the fight, attacking the vampire from behind, pushing him and Xander to the ground. Due to the resulting position, the undead demon was unable to avoid the wooden weapon plunging into his chest, turning him into ashes.

Xander fell on top of her, and they gazed into each others eyes, relieved and amazed. Quarrels and worries concerning their absence from each other were immediately forgotten, and they kissed passionately.

Buffy came to in a cell. Struggling to a seated position on the cold hard stone floor, she turned to find Lily in a similar position. "Oh. Lily?"

"I always knew I would come here, sooner or later," Lily murmured. "I knew I belonged here."

"Where?" Buffy asked.

"Hell," Lily replied.

"This isn't Hell," Buffy argued. For if it was, she would be held before Angel, forced to watch as oppose to imagining as he suffered the torture her sword thrust had consigned him to endure for eternity.

"Isn't it?" Ken asked as he came to stand before their cell. "What is Hell but the total absence of hope? The substance, the tactile proof of despair. You're right, Lily. This is where you've been heading all your life. Just like Ricky."

"Ricky?" Lily echoed.

"He forgot you. Well, it took him a long time. He remembered your name years after he'd forgotten his own. But, in the end...."

"Years?" Lily queried, confused.

"Oh. Uh, interesting thing: time moves more quickly here than in your reality. A hundred long years will pass here. On Earth, it's just a day."

"So you just work us till we're too old and spit us back out," Buffy guessed.

"That's the plan," Ken replied. "See, Lily, you'll die of old age before anyone wonders where you went. Not that anyone will, that's why we chose you."

"You didn't choose me," Buffy pointed out.

"No. But I know you Anne. So afraid. So pathetically determined to run away from whatever it is you used to be. To disappear. Congratulations. You got your wish."

He slid the bars back, ushering the guards behind him inside. They grabbed the girls, forcing them to their feet, herding them out of the cell and into a mining elevator nearby.

When it finished descending, they were herded out into a line.

"You work, and you live," the guard explained. "That is all. You do not complain or laugh or do anything besides work. Whatever you thought, whatever you were, does not matter. You are no one now. You mean nothing." He turned to the first guy in the line. "Who are you?"

"Aaron," the boy answered.

The guard hit him with the club he carried, causing the boy to fall to the floor. He turned to Lily. "Who are you?"

"No one," Lily replied.

"Who are you?" The guard asked the next in line.

"No one," the boy replied.

"Who are you?" The guard asked the next one.

The slayer looked at him, a plan forming in her mind. She smiled. "I'm Buffy. The Vampire Slayer. And you are?"

Incensed at her insubordination, the guard roared and swung his club backwards then forwards to strike at her with all his might. Buffy side-stepped him, grabbing his arm as he bend forward to follow through with his strike. slamming her forearm down on his. The bone snapped, causing him to fall to the floor in pain. Picking up his club, she swung it at another guard's head, also sending him to the floor. She struck a third in the gut, then turned to the slaves. "Anyone who's not having fun here, follow me."

She turned and ran, and with Lily leading the group followed her to a metal staircase, where she crouched under it to assess the situation. "There's no way we can get back up there without meeting new people," she uttered, turning to Lily. "Okay. Lily, when those guards leave- and they will leave -I want you to take these people and get them up there, okay? Fast and quiet."

"You're leaving me?" Lily asked her.

Buffy clasped her hand. "Lily, you can handle this. 'Cause I say so."

A siren broke through the sounds of metal hitting stone.

"We've gone public," Buffy murmured. "Okay, quick, get them up. Go! Quiet!"

Lily led them, turning to apologise. "I'm sorry I said this was your fault before."

Buffy sighed. "Lily, this can wait."

"Well, in case we die," Lily added.

The slayer smiled at that, but this was not the time. "Go! Go!"

Her order was just in time. Two guards came towards them, and she rose, leading them away from the group, further into the ironworks. She saw a pole before her and she grabbed it, using it to swing herself round, knocking down one of the guards. Letting go of the pole she began to run again, until she reached a platform more suited to fighting.

The guard tried to aim a sledge hammer at her, but she ducked his first and blocked his second. He followed it up with a kick to her stomach, winding her. He punched her, sending her to the floor. He took another swing, but Buffy rose back up in time to block it.

More guards joined the fight.

Above, Lily led the escape party. "C'mon, c'mon, everybody go! Go!"

Buffy continued to fight the guards, dodging first two swings from different ones, then a third entered the fray, and then a fourth.

Ken watched outraged from railed walkway. "Humans don't fight back," he murmured.

"Humans don't fight back!" He cried. "That's how this works!" He turned to his escort. "Get down there!"

Buffy continued to fight. One girl against hundreds of guards, evenly matched, and refusing to surrender, even though the odds seemed irrevocably against her. Again and again she dodged and blocked and struck at the guards, sending them to the floor one by one.

Suddenly the odds looked to be in her favour.

Disgusted Ken turned to the door, and caught sight of the escape party. He recognised the blond in the rear, and decided to use this opportunity. Grabbing her, he manhandled her towards the nearest railing, thrusting a knife to her throat.

Buffy caught the sight out the corner of her eye, and froze.

"One of you fights . . . and you all die!" Ken yelled. He turned as the rebel leapt up and grasped the edge of the raised platform, rose to her feet and then came towards him. "That . . . was not . . . permitted."

The slayer smiled. "Yeah, but it was fun."

Ken returned the expression. "You've got guts. I think I'd like to slice you open and play with them." He held up his knife and addressed the crowd. "Let everyone know! This is the price of rebellion!"

Lily, who had been released from his grasp when he moved the knife, crept up behind him and pushed, sending him to the ground.

Buffy glanced at her in surprise, then took advantage of the guards similar disbelief to strike them down.

"They'll be coming," Lily warned her.

Buffy nodded and led them to the last iron barred barrier. "I'm gonna feel this for a week!" She groaned as she used all her strength to lift them out of the way.

Suddenly Ken tackled her to the floor, before screaming in pain. Buffy rolled out of his way, and watched him roll about the floor in agony whilst behind her Lily helped the others to escape through the black oil entrance.

"You've ruined everything," Ken struggled to utter.

"Hey, Ken, wanna see my impression of Gandhi?" Buffy asked, before bringing the club down hard on his head, crushing his skull.

"Gandhi?" Lily queried, confused.

"Well, you know, if he was really pissed off," Buffy explained.

They turned and climbed out into the house above.

"What do we do about the pool?" Lily asked her after she had helped her to her feet.

A flash of light speared its oily darkness, and the pool abruptly disappeared, transforming itself into an empty tiled shallow bath.

"I love portals that clean up after themselves," Buffy remarked.

"I thought the way you grabbed him from behind was particularly ingenious," Xander was heard to say to his girlfriend as Giles opened the door of this apartment and stood back to admit them inside.

"Yeah, I thought; hey, this guy will fall and be staked if I do this!" Cordelia mocked back, but with none of the sting she had used before the fight.

"I take it that the vampire is slain?" Giles sought to confirm as he closed the door behind them.

"Yep, one vampire all dust," Willow replied. "Or is it ashes?" She asked.

"Both words will do," Giles replied.

"How did your evening go?" Oz asked as they caught sight of Joyce rising from one of the sofas in the living room.

"Oh, well, I think," Giles answered.

"I still don't understand some of it," Joyce explained as they took seats once more. "But I'm no longer angry at her or at you," she looked at Giles. "I just want her back."

"We all do," Giles agreed, before getting up to make another pot of tea.

"Let me give you the tour," Buffy began. She crossed the small space from the kitchen to the living area to the bedroom. "This concludes our tour," she finished sheepishly to her companion.

"It's really nice," Lily assured her.

Buffy leaned against the dresser. "All the rent's paid up for the next three weeks," she informed her, before turning, opening a drawer, and retrieving a piece of clothing. "I spoke to Mitch at the diner. He said you can start on Thursday." She moved to bed, laying the uniform out before Lily. "He's, kind of . . . repulsive, but, he won't give you a hard time. I'll call and check up on you."

"I'm not great at taking care of myself," Lily confessed.

"Gets easier," Buffy lied comfortingly. "Takes practice."

"It's the all consuming loneliness which kills your soul," Lily utter wryly.

Buffy smiled. "Gets you every time," she agreed.

"Hey, can I be Anne?" Lily asked her, indicating the name tag.

"Sure," Buffy replied. "Normal was never my style anyway."

Joyce could not believe it. All these years and she had seen nothing. Her daughter was the Slayer. The Slayer. Those two words resounded in her head, repeating themselves over and over as she sat in Giles' home, listening to Willow, Xander and Cordelia as they told stories about the events she had missed. With every conclusion her grief grew. But along with it so did her admiration. Her daughter had done this! She killed vampires every night, went to school on a Hellmouth every day and saved the world on a regular basis. Her daughter; the Vampire Slayer.

She glanced round the room, taking in the people she had never really known until tonight. Giles, Librarian but also her daughter's Watcher. The man was almost like a father to her, in a way that her real father had never been. Willow, the best friend and a budding Witch on the side, supporting her no matter what. Oz, new friend and a werewolf three nights of the month, but accepted for simply who he was, not the primal that could take him over. Xander, who despite his jealousy cared deeply for his friend. Even Cordelia cared for her daughter, if one ignored the mask of popularity.

Lastly, she considered the man who she had yet to properly meet. Angel. A two hundred and forty-two year old vampire with a soul. Who worshipped her daughter with a devotion that surprised even her. Who had lost his soul because she had made him for one moment truly happy, at peace with the world. Even to her protective, mothering instincts, it was a powerful, awe inspiring love, something she had never known herself, something only found once in a lifetime.

She almost envied her daughter.

Out of the blue the door to the apartment vibrated with the sound of a knock. Stunned, the Scooby gang hesitated in rushing to open it. All glanced at one another until finally everyone's eyes rested on their host, silently asking him to gather the courage that they could not. Giles put down his mug and walked forward. He opened the door slowly and froze, dazed by the sight which accosted him. Then he opened his arms, pulling her into his embrace, tears of relief combining with hers.

The rest stayed still, silently watching the Slayer clinging to the man she loved as a father. She had returned to them.

To Be Continued In