Title: Ribbons (sequel to Flowers on the Razor Wire)
Author: alee
Rating: NC-17

Disclaimer: I am not Joss Whedon, therefore the characters contained herein do not belong to me.

Feedback: will be adored at GothPhyle@aol.com

Spoilers: None. This is an alternate universe that assumes that Buffy and Riley were never an item, merely friends, and that he died while fighting with Buffy.

Summary: In the aftermath of the events of "Flowers", Buffy and Angel face unresolved issues, and potential dangers.

Author's Notes: This deals with the after effects of the events in "Flowers", in which Buffy was raped by members of the Initiative in retaliation for what they believed to be her role in Riley's death, or so we thought... These individuals were never punished, and that issue will be addressed in this plot. Further, Angel's curse is not a factor in this story-line, and my explanation is that after he was re-ensouled, there was no longer a "loop-hole", kind of like the idea of no double jeopardy. Nonetheless, he DID leave Sunnydale for a time, out of a misguided wish for Buffy to have a "normal" life. Also, I have decided not to have Buffy resume her classes at UC Sunnydale, or return home to live with her mother, as this makes my life of "plotting" much easier - let's just assume that Angel can support her in the life to which she has become accustomed. *w* Finally, I don't knowif excessive blood-loss is potentially fatal to vampires in the Buffy-verse, butin this story it is. So, on with the show...

Dedication: This is primarily dedicated to Kat, who has pressured me to write this every time we have chatted for the past 15 months;) It is also dedicated to Janice for her wonderful words of encouragement, Ducks and Dru for their amazingly inspiring erotica, Serena for being the best list mommy ever, Shirlz for the never ending supply of naughty vamps and whipped cream, and Amber for being a marvelous conversationalist.

Thanks: A great big hug goes to Tango, who flatteringly asked to give my adult fics a home -- it's an honor to be in such wonderful company!

It was a Monday afternoon, six months after the attack, and Buffy arose with a rare smile on her face. This time spent with Angel, reaffirming their love and rediscovering their joy in each other's company, had seemed a halcyon interlude in the endless cycle of darkness that seemed her lot in life. Butshe couldn't shake the nagging remnants of fear and doubt, and yes, even depression, that lingered in the dark corners of her mind. It was a daunting position for the Slayer to find herself in; while she might be able to defeat the fiercest demon, battle the greatest evil, save the world from the very mouth of Hell, she was just as vulnerable to the violence of the world as anyone else. Oh, sure, it had taken an entire patrol team to subdue her, but it had happened; and if life had taught her anything, it was that history had a nasty habit of repeating itself. So she went out each night, a defiant challenge on her face, a stake in her hand, and a soul-deep terror in her heart. She often caught Angel looking at her with concern, his troubled gaze swiftly hidden behind a smile. The joy of basking in his concern was tempered by sadness for his disquiet; he had enough burdens to bear without carrying hers as well. But each time she tried to comfort him, to set his mind at ease, to assure him that his concern was misplaced, the words died unspoken on her tongue, swallowed in the tide of her own uncertainty. This delicate balance between confidence and uncertainty even spilled over into their bedroom, where Angel still insisted on treating her like spun glass, despite her repeated protests. No matter how many times, how many ways, she told him that she was not afraid of him, that she no longer had even the most fleeting moments of fear when she was in his bed or in his embrace, he continued to hold back, to treat her with kid gloves, to temper his passion. It was always about her, all about her, and although she had no doubt that their lovemaking was as pleasurable for him as it was for her, she longed for more. She wanted the chance to truly explore his sensuality, to pleasure him, but each time she tried to press the issue he shied away. So it was a fragile, fleeting joy to awaken before him this day, and feast on the sight of her lover's untroubled countenance as he slumbered peacefully beside her. He lay on his back, his face turned towards her. One arm was curved above his face, while the other extended across the bed, marking the place where she had lain all night, held tightly. The curve of her lips lifted further as she slid the crisp cotton sheet further down his pale torso, provoking a slight frown and soft sigh, which quickly faded away. Reaching out with one hand, she trailed a slow path from his jaw to his sternum, detouring for a more thorough exploration of the arm flung in sensuous abandon to frame his head. Trailing her fingers gently along his palm, she marveled once again at the elegant lines of his hands and fingers. Strong, elegant hands that could wield a sword with deadly grace, and touch her flesh with tender eloquence. She often thought that he should have been a musician, and wondered if perhaps he had studied music along with poetry and art, but it was a question that she never asked, fearing that to open that door of inquiry might be to release a flood of sadness from his past. Her smile broadened further as even in sleep he responded to her touch, his fingers curling inwards to cage her own, the smooth play of tendon and sinew visible beneath the pale surface as he clasped her wrist, his thumb unconsciously massaging her pulse. Gently freeing her arm, she slid her hand back down to his elbow, stroking the silky flesh there. It never failed to thrill her, the contrasts held within in his body: firm musculature and a bulwark of tendons and bones, hidden beneath smooth skin that softened to velvet in places like the one she luxuriated in now, the tender cashmere that dwelled behind his ears, the sleek grotto at the hollow of his throat, and the decadent velvet nestled between his thighs. Abandoning her current playground, she shifted her focus to the planes of his torso, smoothly sculpted and crowned with small bronze nipples. Leaning over, she traced a trail of heated breath from side to side, painting his chest with misty desire. A soft groan, and the restless shifting of his legs beneath the sheet told her all she needed to know, and she bent further to lick a slow path down his neck, suckling softly beneath his jaw. Slipping her hand beneath the cover, she let her fingers play among the crisp sable curls guarding his manhood, each trailing pass bringing her closer and closer to her destination. Finally, she grasped his half-erect shaft in her had, nestling his glans against her palm. Beginning a languid rotation, she raised her head in time to meet his bleary gaze, softened by sleep and burgeoning arousal, as he blinked heavy lids.

"Good morning," she whispered, her hushed tones filled with wonder and love.

"Good morning to you too, beloved." He replied, his voice a reverent cadence that matched her own.

Raising his arm from the pillow, he cradled her head, drawing her down for a heated kiss, his slightly chilled lips soon warming beneath her hungry tongue. Growling softly, he tightened his grasp, pulling her mouth more fully against his as his other hand came to rest low against her back, gathering her body flush against his as his palm came to rest in the curve of her spine, rhythmically kneading the resilient flesh that sloped above her buttocks. Fusing their mouths together, he traced the silhouette of her lips with his tongue, leaving a trail of tingling pleasure that made her shudder. Thrusting his tongue deep within her mouth, he stroked the surface of her tongue and the roof of her mouth, indulging his gluttonous addiction to her taste. She cried out softly as a flood of moisture dampened her core, adding the pungent scent of feminine desire to the air. Angel froze for a moment, his eyes glowing faintly gold as the erotic aroma washed over his supernatural senses, then resumed his kiss with more ardor than before, his tongue lapping deep within her mouth, bumping against the edge of her throat. Buffy began to whimper, raising her leg to rest it atop his thigh, her hand momentarily losing its grasp on the now-solid mass of his masculinity as she began to undulate helplessly, rubbing her aching clit against him. Breaking their kiss, he shifted slightly, tensing his thigh and pressing it more firmly against her as he began to thrust within her hand. Panting, out of breath, but desperate for his taste, she dove for his mouth again, ravenously licking and nibbling on his lips. Sliding her way down his body, she paused to nip at his ribcage, delighting in the rippling waves of reaction that shuddered through his body. Reaching his navel, she gazed up at his wickedly as her tongue darted out to rim the small depression, then probed delicately within as he threw his head back, neck arched in a rictus of pleasure. Sliding further, she nuzzled her nose into the hollow crease where leg met groin, never ceasing the metric tensing and release of her hand as she slid up and down his penis. Reaching her final destination, she rested the flat of her tongue on the underside of his phallus, licking a scorching path from base to tip. Running the tip of her tongue around the ridge that bordered his plum-shaped head, she licked in concentric circles that narrowed until only the very tip was contained within her kiss, suckled like a favorite lollipop. She opened her mouth wider, taking his entire width inside as she began to bob her head up and down, hollowing her cheeks as she ended every pass with a series of licks to the heavy weight of his testicles, now drawing tight against his body.

"Buffy-oh god-Buffy, stop! I'm going to-if you don't-" Coherent thought failing, Angel reached down, gently grasping her head in his hands, and drawing her away from his aching flesh for another ravenous kiss.

Slightly out of breath from her earlier activities, and glowing with desire, she broke the kiss to stare intently into his eyes.

"But I want you to. I want to give you this. Can you let me? Will you?" She waited with bated breath, knowing that his reaction to her request hinged on his willingness to give control over to her, and to take rather than give. For long moments he stared into her eyes, confusion and indecision swirling in his gaze, until finally he shuddered in acquiescence, his eyes closing as he collapsed against the pillow, hands clenched at his sides.

With a softly whispered "thank you", she slid back down his body, grasping his shaft in one hand while she began paint a canvas of pleasure with her tongue once more. When he was trembling, held on the brink of release, she took him deeply within her mouth, humming gently against his turgid flesh as one palm massaged his sacs while the other trailed a gentle finger just behind, stroking the sensitive skin of his perineum. With a hitch gasp, he tensed, then shuddered as orgasm flooded through his body, pulsing against the back of her throat as she swallowed, intensifying the sensations. When he collapsed, his spent member softening against her tongue, she slid him slowly from her mouth, lapping at the residue of his release. Raising herself to lay alongside him, she stroked her fingers through his hair, now dampened with perspiration, and lightly scratched her nails along his scalp. After a few moments he opened his eyes, his gaze molten with satiation, and smiled ruefully at her.

"So, I guess I've been a little... inattentive to what you've been trying to tell me, huh?"

Smiling, she nuzzled her nose against his, stopping to gaze seriously into his face. "You were just concerned about me, I know that, but you can't keep treating me like I'm going to break. I was r-raped, and it was horrible, but that's in the past, and I need-I need-" here her voiced trailed off, tears hitching in her throat as her vision started to cloud. "I need to feel n-normal again, and I need you to let me." She whispered, burying her face against his neck.

"Oh, love, I'm so sorry." He said softly, contrite kisses pressed against her forehead. "I just wanted to protect you, to wrap you up someplace safe where nothing could ever hurt you again, and instead I made things worse."

"No, Angel! I don't want - I didn't say that to make you feel guilty, I just wanted you to know how I feel, and instead - oh, God! I'm making such a mess of this, I don't-" She stopped, sighing quietly.

Tilting her face to meet his eyes, Angel smiled at her as tears of his own wound their way down his cheeks. "No, love, you're just saying what had to be said, and I love you for it, for having the courage to face what I've been afraid to. I was so scared that I would do something to frighten you, or disgust you, that I didn't think about what I was keeping from you. I know how wonderful it is to make love to the one you love, to see the pleasure on their face, but I denied that joy to you. Thank you, Buffy, for being strong enough for both of us." With those words, he kissed her lips softly, a gossamer light brush of souls. Drawing away, he met her gaze, trailing one finger down the bridge of her nose. "I'm going to shower. Care to join me?"

Not waiting for her answer, he rose, padding across the room and into the bathroom. Turning on the water, he sent a cloud of steam billowing into the bedroom as he gathered towels and shampoo from the cabinet beneath the sink, humming tunelessly all the while. With a wicked grin at the sight of the herbal wash, guaranteed to mix pleasure with the business of bathing, Buffy stretched luxuriously before rising from the tangle of cotton. Halfway to her destination, she was halted by the sound of the phone ringing. With a frown of frustration, she pivoted, heading back to the offending pile of plastic chirping so annoyingly from the bedside table.


"Buffy, so glad to have caught you." Giles voice rang from the other end of the line.

"Is something wrong?"

"No, not really, I just... is Angel there?"

"Well, yeah, seeing as the sun's up it's a little hard for him to be taking a field trip." She responded dryly.

"Of course, but I know that sometimes he does go about during the day, through the tunnels and such, and I just wanted -" Here his voice trailed off, before he cleared his throat. "I need to talk with you. With both of you."

"Giles, you're starting to scare me," she laughed nervously. "Is there something going on?"

"I think it would be better to discuss this in person. May I come over?"

"Yeah, sure," she responded softly, her brow creased with worry. "See you in a few."

Replacing the receiver in its cradle, she turned to find Angel standing beside her, a towel slung low over his hips, and identical expression of apprehension clouding his face.

"Is something wrong?" he asked, reaching out to run his palm gently up and down her arm.

"I don't know. Giles is on his way over; he said he needed to talk to us, but he wouldn't say why." Turning away, she walked over to the closet, retrieving a sweater and jeans and making her way silently to the bathroom, closing the door behind her as Angel watched with a troubled frown.

Giles entered the mansion, apprehension heavy in his heart as he crossed the threshold. Finding Buffy and Angel seated in the living room, the indirect lighting from the adjoining foyer augmented by a few artfully placed candles, he took a set in the chair facing them. The flickering candle-glow playing softly over Buffy's face could not completely disguise the trepidation in her expression, or the tension in her body, held stiffly against Angel by the solid weight of his arm draped across her shoulders. Angel met his gaze calmly, his smooth expression and relaxed posture belying his own worry. With a tight smile, Giles began to speak.

"Buffy, Angel, information has been brought to my attention that is... troubling, to say the least. Information concerning the Initiative, and more specifically, their plans regarding you, Buffy."

"What kind of 'plans' are we talking about here?" Buffy asked, her eyes narrowing.

"Well, it seems that the incident with the patrol group a few months ago was not entirely autonomous in nature."

"Um, Giles, this is me you're talking to, you're going to have to clear that up a little. 'Not entirely autonomous' as in there were demons involved, or magic, or -"

"They were under orders to kill the Slayer. Their intent was sanctioned by the Initiative, if not their methods."

"What are you talking about? Graeham and his pals just wanted a little old fashioned revenge, and they g-got it!" Lunging from the sofa, she paced agitatedly in front of the fireplace, clasping her arms across her stomach.

Pivoting in his seat to face her, Giles shook his head wearily, taking off his glasses and pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.

"No, Buffy, they were under orders to kill you. Orders that originated form very high in the Initiative chain of command. The...assault wasn't part of their mission, and I have been led to believe that is why we haven't seen any of them these past few months. Apparently, there was a court martial addressing their failure to successfully carry out their instructions. Now, however, I believe that all have been re-instated, and I am very much afraid that they may try again. That's why -"

"Try again? TRY AGAIN?! Try again to what? Kill me? Fuck me to death? Carve me up with more human graffiti? Where are you getting all this 'information' from?"

With each sentence, her voice grew more shrill, the air whistling in and out of her lungs in time with her rapid, jerky pacing and the frenzied rubbing of her palms up and down her arms. Rising slowly form the sofa Angel strolled over to join her, shoulders relaxed, arms hanging loosely at his sides, eyes tracking every movement she made.

"Come sit down, love." He said softly, voice pitched to a soothing cadence. "Sit down, and we'll talk about this and - " Reaching out a hand to stop her forward momentum, he was met with a shriek of rage as she slapped his hand away.

"Don't touch me! And don't tell me to 'sit down'! I'm leaving now, I don't want to talk about this!" Eyes darting frantically around the room, she searched for the best means of escape, her breath continuing to saw in and out as she grew light-headed, on the verge of hyperventilating. Wobbling slightly, she paused her furious pace, bracing her weight against the mantel with one trembling arm while the other clutched tightly around her waist. Taking a step closer, Angel tried once more.

"Buffy, you need to calm down. You're going to pass out if you don't. Come sit down, and we'll -"

"NO! I am not going to 'calm down'! I'm not going to talk about this! It's stupid, and irrelevant! They didn't want to kill me, just h-hurt me, or I'd be dead." Voice hitching on a sob, she raised the hand at her waist to press against her forehead, trying to push back the dizziness that was swiftly encroaching as her trembling rapidly changed to the drunken sway of vertigo.

With a weary sigh, Giles dropped his head to stare at the floor. "Buffy, you very nearly WERE dead. If you weren't the Slayer, or if that assassination squad had known a bit more about Slayer resiliency, I doubt we would be having this conversation right now. As it was, you lost a great deal of blood... I think they will try again, and I think any future attempts may involve more than just those particular individuals. It seems feasible that your death could become an organization-wide goal. I don't think this is a threat we can afford to treat lightly. "

Angel nodded, his expression somber. "I think Giles is right; we need to take this information seriously, and try to find out-"

"Find out what? Find out that someone wants me dead? Wow, that's new!" She said with a harsh laugh. "Imagine that, someone wants to kill the Slayer, and here I thought the forces of the universe just loved me! It's not bad enough that every demon from the Hell-dimension is out for my blood, now I've got to worry about those nice, government issue, commandos!" Laughing bitterly, Buffy resumed her pacing. Planting himself in her path, Angel caged her within the circle of his arms, easily defeating her half-hearted attempts to break free. Cupping her head beneath his chin, he rocked slowly back and forth, running his palms up and down the length of her spine until she stilled against him.

"I know you're upset, I'm upset too, but we have to deal with this." He whispered against her temple. "Let's sit down, and listen to what Giles has to say, and then we can figure out what to do."

Buffy shook her head, her nose brushing against his sternum in the process. "I don't think I can survive that again, Angel. What they did, what happened-I just can't!" She said starkly.

His arms tightened convulsively as he raised one palm to cradle the back of her head, cocooning her in love. "No one's going to hurt you like that again, love, not ever." Dropping his arm to her waist, he guided her back to the sofa where he sat with her draped across his lap, her cheek pillowed against his chest. She sat frozen for a moment, her muscles oddly stiff, then with a sigh she relaxed into him, going limp with the sudden release of tension. Eying them, Giles decided that a little privacy was in order, and rose to his feet.

"I need something to drink, do you mind if I -- ?" he nodded towards the kitchen.

"Help yourself." Angel replied. "I think there's some juice, and maybe a soda or two-- or, you could look in the cabinet if you need something stronger." He continued, with a wry lift of his lips.

Returning the look with equal measure, Giles nodded sagely. "Quite so" he responded, "quite so." Pivoting on his heel he left the room, in search of the scotch.

Directing his attention back to Buffy, Angel was saddened by the stress and fear written so clearly in the lines of her face. Shifting fretfully, she pressed her face more firmly against his heart as her massaged a circular pattern at her temple. He stilled the movements of her fingers with his own, placing her hand back in her lap as he took over the gentle caress, trailing his fingers across her forehead and smoothing wisps of hair back into place. He worked his was across the landscape of her scalp, rubbing softly as he mapped every dip and curve, until he reached the nape of her neck. With loving persistence he eased the tense muscles, melting her tension as he sipped the slow fall of tears from her closed eyes. Finally, he simply held her, his arms rising and falling with the rhythm of her respiration, his head resting atop her crown.

"Thank you" she murmured without opening her eyes.

"For what?" he asked, his hushed tone matching her own.

"For taking such good care of me, even when I'm acting like an ass." She replied, a thread of humor in her voice.

Making a tsking sound, he kissed the tip of her nose before raising his head and opening his eyes, finding her watching him.

"Well, what's a life of atonement for, if I can't take care of one little donkey?" He joked, a smile playing about his lips. Laughing softly, she punched him in the arm with all the force of a falling dandelion puff. Curling that same arm around his neck, she raised herself until she could brush his lips with her own.

"You make me feel so safe," she breathed into his mouth, "like nothing could ever hurt me as long as I'm in your arms." Returning her embrace with quiet fervor, he pulled away to cup her chin in his palm, running the pad of his thumb over her lower lip, damp from his tongue.

"Nothing ever WILL hurt you if I can stop it."

A discrete cough alerted them to Giles' retuning presence, and Buffy slid off his lap to sit tucked against his side as Giles resumed his seat as well. Her hand clasped in Angel's, her lip worried nervously between her teeth, she settled back into the sofa as the planning and discussion began.

The next morning they returned from an uneventful foray into the night, and made their way into the master bathroom together. Angel turned the water on, quickly filling the bathroom with fragrant steam as he stoppered the tub and added handfuls of bath salts. Drawing each item of her clothing off with languorous sensuality, his kissed each bit of newly exposed flesh, trailing his fingertips in the wake of his lips. As Buffy returned the favor, his eyes turned molten with desire, a fitting counterpart to the arousal glistening in her own gaze. Stepping into the water, he drew her with him, guiding her over the rim of the tub with courtly old-world grace.

"Would you permit me to act as your maid this evening, my lady?" he asked, bending over her hand to press a kiss against her knuckles with an elaborate flourish.

"I don't know," she replied, her voice smoky with desire, "what I have in mind is definitely NOT something I'd want to do with my maid."

"Well, then," he continued, dropping to his knees before her and drawing her forward until her stomach was flush with his face, his hands braced against her lower back so that there was no possibility of falling on the slippery porcelain, "how about letting me act like the man who loves you more than anything else in the world?" This question was punctuated with dragging, open-mouthed kisses across her abdomen, interspersed with soft nips at her resilient flesh.

"I think-- I think that could be arranged. I - oh, Angel-" she moaned in reply, as his tongue darted out to lave the sensitive skin just over her hip. Tangling her fingers in his hair, she gave herself over to sensation as he lowered his head further, parting her folds with his tongue before curling it underneath the knot of her passion. Humming in satisfaction, Angel gently grasped the delicate flange between his lips, suckling gently until the tremors in her thighs gave way to convulsions of pleasure. Afterwards, he reclined against the back of the tub and lowered her to sit across his thighs, her humid warmth blending with the water's moist embrace. Working the soap between his palms, he lathered her body, treading gently on nerve endings still hyper-sensitized from her recent orgasm. As the last of the aftershocks faded from her limbs, he coaxed her to recline against him, her back pillowed against his chest. Buoyed by the water, she dozed until he roused her, lifting her from the cooling water and carrying her to the great hall, where he spread her on a nest of blankets and pillows before the fire. Curling up beside her, he went to sleep, his cheek pillowed against her breast, his arm draped across her waist. Lacing her fingers with his, she soon followed him into slumber.

In the end, it was decided that the best course of defense was a strong but prudent offense, and so Buffy and Angel began patrolling each night near locations where Initiative agents had been previously sighted. In reality, these patrols were carefully planned and executed trolling missions, designed to lure the operatives in the trap so enticingly baited with Slayer. Ten days of playing this game of hide and seek proved fruitless, and the eleventh such night found the two of them once more starting their rounds. Entering the densely wooded thicket at the north border of the property adjoining an abandoned church, they made their way deeper and deeper into the dimly lit pocket of wilderness. As the reached a small clearing some yards away the soft snap of a broken twig caught their attention, and Angel froze, his hand on Buffy's shoulder to stop her motion. Staring intently into the darkness, he was met with no sign of human life. There was no sound of breathing save that of the Slayer beside him, no rhythmic surge of human blood painting the air with its sanguine scent. Yet, prickling along his spine was the sense of presence, of something watching, waiting. Turning once again to face Buffy, he was met with a swell of air, the current created by her rapid course, her heading the large elm tree looming to the left. He reached a hand to stop her, but even his supernatural speed failed to match hers.

"Buffy, stop!" he urgently whispered, the fraction of a second it took to start his pursuit seeming to last an eternity. But his plea fell on deaf ears as she neared the ancient wooden sentinel, stake in hand. Time slowed to a crawl for him while his world unraveled before his eyes. As Buffy reached the tree, a dozen dark figures glided down from the limbs above, their flight eerily silent. With brutal synchronization they fired their weapons, enveloping her body in a sea of blue. With a snarl, he lunged towards themelee as her slight form fell bonelessly to the ground, but was intercepted by another squad of black clad figures, swarming in from every side. Snarling, he launched himself into the air, intent on hurdling the ring of soldiers encircling him and reaching her side. A force, like an unseen chain, tightened about his legs, yanking him brutally back to the ground. He landed with a jarring thud, and his vision danced for a moment as the back of his head impacted sharply with a rock partially submerged in the earth. Blinking, he surged to his feet, grabbing the nearest foe by the head and twisting brutally, rewarded by the wet popping sound that was the fragile spine's last gift. The sizzling impact from one of his companion's weapon spun Angel around, darkening his sight further as aftershocks reverberated through his body. A swift kick, backed by deadly precision and preternatural strength landed the gunman on the forest floor, his larynx crushed. The fluid gurgle emerging from his throat, coupled with the raging need to protect his mate, roused Angel's bloodlust, and his eyes glowed amber in the night. Turning to face another of his attackers, he took a step in his direction before two others grabbed him from either side, attempting to pin his arms. With a deft twist he freed his limbs, moving to clench the necks of his would-be subduers. The feeling of muscle and sinew ripping beneath his fingers was accompanied by a surge of savage joy, and he dropped their corpses carelessly as he strode toward his original target. Just then, another weapon blast sent Angel to his knees, fighting to retain consciousness. When he staggered to his feet once more, all the soldiers were gone, and Buffy with them. There was no sign that anyone other than he had even set foot in the clearing, except for the four bodies littering the ground at his feet. He whirled madly around, desperately trying to catch their trail, but it was as if they had vanished into thin air while the sense of unease, the something he had felt earlier, lingered. Staggering towards the elm tree, he was startled to feel the sensation growing stronger, at the same time that the compulsion to approach intensified. Reaching its trunk, he noticed faint tracings in its wood. Extending his hand, he touched the writing, hissing at the surge of magical energy that flowed across his skin with contact. As he tried to step away, he had to fight a wave of need, an almost physical yearning to maintain the connection between flesh and bark. Wrenching himself away, he walked back to one of the bodies, kneeling to grasp the hood covering his face. The material felt strange, almost alive; it seemed to shiver and undulate in response to his touch. Pulling firmly, he was able to tear the hood from the rest of the suit, which covered the body from head to toe, including the hands and feet, with no discernible seams or edges. With the removal of part of the garment, the scent of human death flooded his senses. The stench of fear and perspiration, melding with the odors of incontinence and blood, filled the air with a thick, cloying blanket of olfaction. Staring at the hood dangling limply in his grasp, fluttering with magic, Angel realized why he had been unable to detect their presence before they attacked. It had been magic that had lured them into the woods, magic that had enticed Buffy towards the tree, and magic that had blinded them to danger until it was too late. The hunters had become the prey, neatly trapped by their own machinations. Sick at heart, aching with concern for Buffy, he pondered his next course of action. Deciding that the first step was to determine whether or not these soldiers were in fact part of the Initiative, as seemed likely, he debated briefly as to the best means of finding their identities. Reaching a decision, he bent down to grab the left hand of the corpse at his feet, ripping the glove away in the same manner as the hood. Grasping the wrist firmly between his hands, he twisted sharply, tearing the flesh and sinew as he shattered the bone. Repeating the same procedure with the other three, he wrapped the bloody appendages in the loose hood, tucking them inside his coat as he made his way to Giles home racing the rising sun. Hopefully they could run their fingerprints and attach names and identities, identities that would lead them to some common denominator. If not, perhaps magical intervention would prove helpful in finding Buffy, and bringing her safely home once more. In either case, he knew he would find her, or die trying.

It was the pounding on the door that roused Giles. He had been sitting on the sofa, a shamble of scholarly debris spread about him as he stared sightlessly at the floor, lost in thought. There was something odd about this situation with the Initiative, something that didn't add up. Certainly, it was logical to think that the organization might want Buffy dead; she knew too many of their secrets, had seen too much of their inner methods. It was also not that much of a leap to accept the fact that the earlier attack had been an official mission that had gone out of hand. What didn't make sense was the time delay between that first assault and this most recent threat. If the chain of command truly wanted her dead, why had there been no further attempt in the intervening months? On the surface, the explanation was that the court martial of the individuals who had initially attacked Buffy required resolution before other actions were taken, but this explanation seemed weak, at best. After all, it wasn't as if the Initiative had a shortage of operatives; why not just send another team after the Slayer, especially in light of the first team's inefficiency? No, there was clearly more here than met the eye, and so he spent his evenings researching, hunting through musty texts and moldy manuscripts in hopes of finding some clue, some metaphysical connection that would tie all the loose ends together.

Rising to answer the door, he placed the book across his lap, the Bleeding Night Chronicles, on the space recently vacated. With a last glance at the open page, he walked to the door. Peering through the security window, he was startled to see Angel: alone, disheveled and spattered with blood. Hastily freeing the chain lock and sliding the deadbolt, he threw open the door, waving the other man inside.

"Angel! My God, what happened? Where's Buffy?"

"She's... she's gone."

"Where? How? What - what happened?"

"It was a trap. There were two squads. One... took her, the other stopped me from following. I tried to get to her, but--" Bowing his head in defeat, Angel slumped back against the now-closed door. "They shot me with some sort of stun-gun, and by the time my head cleared there was no sign of them."

Leading Angel over to the sofa, Giles carelessly cleared its surface of books and paper, making a space for the obviously weary vampire to sit. He took the strangely shaped parcel that Angel wordlessly extended to him, blanching slightly at the wet, giving feel of its contents, before setting it aside, unopened.

"But, Angel, there's something I don't understand. I know that you would have done everything in your power to protect her, and that you would not have been able to take so many by yourself, but--" Giles trailed off, unsure how to diplomatically state the question running through his mind.

"But, what, Giles?" Angel asked impatiently, his hard gaze meeting the faintly accusatory stare of the man beside him.

"Why didn't you follow them? Try to find out where they had taken her so that we could plan our attack?"

"Because I couldn't!" he snapped, rising to his feet and striding across the room before whirling to face Giles again. "Because when my head cleared, there was no sign of them. I couldn't hear them, I couldn't smell them, I couldn't even sense Buffy any more!" With a soft snarl, he turned once more, hurling his fist into the wall with enough force to shatter the plaster and leave a gaping six inch depression in its surface. Abruptly, his anger seemed to melt away, leaving a desperate grief in its wake.

"I lost her," he said softly, his forehead pressed against the wall, "I told her I would protect her, and I didn't. I. Didn't. Protect. Her." he said, each word punctuated by open-handed slaps of the wall beside his head. "There was something dark about the place where it happened, Giles, something magical. The soldiers were wearing some sort of enchanted clothing, and there was a symbol on a tree. I think it was part of a larger spell, one that compelled us to enter the forest and approach the tree. Or at least it compelled Buffy, I was just uneasy, it felt like some one was watching... which, as it turns out, they were," he finished bitterly.

Clearing his throat, Giles drew Angel back from his reverie of self-reproach. "Did you happen to identify any of the men: here them call one another by name, or notice any unique features that we could use to ascertain their identities?"

He nodded towards the parcel, lying forgotten on the floor at Giles' feet. "That's what I have; the cloth is part of one of their suits, and the hands inside are-" He stopped talking as Giles lifted the bungle from the floor, gingerly spreading the overlapped fabric to peer inside. After a moment, he closed the flap of fabric once more, meeting Angel's unflinching gaze with a steely stare of his own as the vampire waited for his reaction to the gruesome souvenirs.

"It's a pity there are only four," Giles stated, with an upraised brow, "but, then, I suppose their weapons made the fight a bit more fair."

After a moment of stunned silence, Angel laughed, though the sound had less to do with mirth than with the promise of retribution. "Well, I was sorry there weren't more bodies in need of having their hands removed for identification purposes, too."

"Quite so," his companion replied, his feral grin a match for the expression in Angel's eyes, "but I'm sure that can be rectified."

Rising once more, Giles carried the evidence into the kitchen, placing it in the sink before reaching for the phone and dialing Willow's number. After making sure that she had the equipment necessary to scan a set of human fingerprints into the computer, he set about gathering the supplies needed to print the hands before she arrived. Midway through the process, he glanced into the living room to see Angel sitting by the window, gazing aimlessly into the night. Pausing in his task, he walked over to the other man, laying his palm lightly atop his shoulder.

"We will find her, Angel. We will bring her home." Returning to his task, he didn't hear the softly whispered reply, directed to the inky blackness beyond the glass.

"Yes, but will we find her in time?"

Long hours later, the fingerprints having been checked against the national database and come up with no matches save for one, a sophomore student at UC Sunnydale reported dead in an automobile accident two years prior, Angel wearily retired to Giles' basement as dawn streaked the sky. Crouching into the corner, he sat with his head resting against the wall as his arms lay limply beside him. With his eyes closed, he imagined he could hear her voice calling for him, begging for help that didn't come. While above his head Willow and Giles worked busily in the sun-lit kitchen, searching through news archives, seeking any additional information on the identified soldier, oblivious to the silent tears wept below their feet.

She awoke in a cold, dark room. There was no light, no sound... it was as if she was in a sensory vacuum. Her clothing had been changed, and she was dressed in a loose, shapeless tunic that reached just below her knees. The neck was wide, and slipped off one shoulder. Her shoes and socks had been removed, and she was lying on a narrow pallet. Blinking slowly, she sat up, taking as much of an inventory of her surroundings as possible. The surface beneath her felt odd; not hard, not soft, it seemed to be covered by fabric, but it was a fabric unlike any she had ever encountered. Though it wasn't rough, or tactilely displeasing in any definable way, she shuddered with revulsion as it glided slowly beneath her fingers. It seemed almost... alive. Springing to her feet, she was dismayed to find the same substance covering the floor, infinitesimally undulating beneath her bare feet. Making her way blindly to the wall, she braced her hand against it only to recoil as she encountered even more of the foreign textile. A thorough exploration of the small room confirmed her suspicions; there was no door, and every inch was draped in the offensive material. Returning to the pallet, she huddled with her feet drawn beneath the hem of her gown, trying to minimize her contact with the cloth. It was then that she heard it. At first, it was an indistinct rustling, the whispering of fallen leaves. It rapidly grew louder, until it was almost deafening. Pressing her hands to her ears, she closed her eyes tightly as she tried to dampen the noise. I continued to build in intensity, a horrifying clattering that grated along her nerve endings and reverberated within in her chest. When her blood seemed to pulse in time with the sound, when her heart seemed buffeted within her chest by its frequency, when she felt as if her brain were about to explode from her skull, the din grew impossibly louder, swallowing her scream of protest. As abruptly as it had begun, the sound stopped, leaving her with ringing ears and a pounding pulse. She lowered her legs to the floor, intent on standing once more, but the cloth surged beneath her feet, forcing her to remain on the pallet. As she made another attempt to rise, the fabric surged around her, enclosing her in a narrow tube that writhed sinuously when she pushed against it. With a final surge, she tried to push her way through her prison, only to find that the tube had narrowed until it was a bubble, enclosing her in all directions and narrowing further with every press against its surface. Feeling as if she had been swallowed alive, she panted harshly, fighting the claustrophobic reaction triggered by her surroundings.

"Sssssssslayer," a voice hissed, it's sibilant tones seeming to originate within her skull.

"Who's there?" she asked sharply, futilely trying to peer through the darkness.

"I am your dreamssss, your nightmaressss. I am what you sssee, and what you do not sssee." IT replied, each syllable licking along her skin like tongues of fire. She trembled violently, feeling as if every nerve in her body were firing randomly, trailing anarchy through her nervous system and leaving chaos in the wake.

"N-nice introduction," she quipped, forcing each word through teeth chattering in response to the shocks echoing through her body, "now h-how about giving m-me a straight an-answer."

"But you know who I am, don't you?" the voice taunted, "ssso why asssk who I am?"

"Listen, I d-don't know who y-you are, but this is g-getting old, a-and -" She was interrupted by the sound of harsh laughter.

"Ssso you don't know who I am, hmm? Let me refresssh your memory... do thesse wordsss ssstir your memoriesss: 'Sssssshhh, jussst clossse your eyesss' ? "

Shaking her head back and forth, Buffy closed her eyes as a tear slipped down her cheek. "I d-don't know what you're tr-trying to do, b-but that was a l-long time ago, and you d-don't know..."

"Don't know... what? That you killed your lover? That you sssent him to Hell? That you damned him to sssuffer an eternity?"

"NO!" she yelled, her voice breaking with emotion, "That's not what-I didn't-I didn't have a choice! Angel understood, he-"

"Did he? Doesss he?" the voice jeered, sarcasm dripping from every hateful syllable. "If he wasss ssso underssstanding, then why did he leave you? Why move away? Why end the relationssship?"

"Angel left me because he thought it was best for me, he wanted to give me a chance at a normal life!"

"Did he?" the voice mused. "You're sssure about that? Sssure that he didn't leave becaussse he couldn't trussst you, couldn't be sssure that you wouldn't turn on him again?"

"Angel knows that I would never hurt him! HE knows how much I love him. We've been through so much together, and nothing you say is going to make me doubt his feelings for me. So, you can just stop whatever you're trying to do, because it's not going to work!"

"Hmmmm, that doesss possse a problem, doesssn't it?" the voice mused sarcastically, "You're sssure there'sss nothing I can sssay...?"

"NO!" she spat back, defiantly.

"I sssee, well how about... THISSS!" The voice shouted, evil echoing through every tone.

Suddenly, she was assailed by violent images, scenes of pain and degradation. Fire lapped along her flesh, and the pungent scent of cooking skin and boiling blood assailed her nostrils. Her vision was clouded by sulfurous heat as the tender membranes of her eyelids evaporated under the siege. Her bones turned to powder beneath the incredible pressure bearing down on her body as the air was forced from her lungs. Her screams of agony went unvoiced as her larynx collapsed atop the charred remnants of her vocal folds. Lost within the nightmare created in her mind, Buffy screamed endlessly, oblivious to the rancid chuckles that filled the room around her.

In the corridor outside her cell, two uniformed men and one cloaked figure smiled with pleasure at the sight visible on the monitor. The soldier on the right turned to his comrade, a cold grin on his face.

"Seems you were right, General. Even the Slayer can't resist the power of Cairn's 'suggestion' !"

"Yes, it does seem so," the general replied, his eyes drifting back to the scene before him, "Imagine the possibilities... with enough of this fabric, and with Cairn here to use it... well, let's just say that the Initiative will no longer be one of the most powerful organizations in the world. We'll be THE most powerful." With a last lingering glance at the monitor screen, the general turned and walked away, closely followed by the soldier. Only the hooded figure remained, his molten eyes locked to the screen before him, hisses of pleasure emerging in rhythm with the screams of the woman within.

He dreamed that night, surreal images of agony and turmoil, of searing flesh and mental anguish. The visions were nightmares, snapshots of his sojourn in Hell, but the viewpoint was far different than the usual flashbacks. This time, he felt the pain, the utter helplessness, but the torment was somehow not... his. Rather, he found himself playing the role of observer, locked within the vision, sharing its torment, yet held apart from the experience, buffered by a presence, by someone else, by... Buffy! The border zone of comfort abruptly evaporated, replaced by horror as the full knowledge of the situation flooded his soul. This was no mere nightmare, this WAS Hell - watching the woman he loved suffer his past torments as he stood idly by, ineffectual in his attempts to reach her, to rescue her. Calling her name with desperate urgency he tried to make contact, but in this ethereal realm her pain was too great, forming a wall too dense for his concern to breach. Struggling to wake, Angel wrenched his eyes open abruptly, the sound of Buffy's screams ringing in his ears, the sick certainty that this was more than a dream filtering through his thoughts. Wiping the perspiration from his brow with a trembling hand he stood, remnants of Buffy's anguish sending shards of nausea through his stomach. Running up the stairs from the basement, he stalked into the kitchen where Giles and Willow were working.

"Any progress?" he asked, his voice terse with worry.

Glancing up from her computer screen, Willow offered a slight smile before resuming her search. "No," she replied while she worked, "nothing yet, but I think we're getting close."

"How close?" he asked, making no effort to disguise the tension in his voice.

"Well, I think I've managed to pinpoint the entrance to the compound, now it's just a matter of determining what kind of numbers we're up against."

"Willow, we don't have time for that, just tell me where to go, and I'll-"

"Now hold on just a moment!" Giles interrupted, "This is no time to go charging off, unprepared. We need to evaluate the situation, and -"

"The 'situation' is that Buffy is being held hostage by the people who raped and almost killed her! We don't have time to wait around!" Angel snarled, bringing his fist down on the table with enough force to crack the wood. "I'm going to get her back, and I'm going NOW, so either help me, or get out of my way."

"Don't be asinine!" Giles snapped, his temper equally frayed, "Of course I'm going to help you! But we won't accomplish anything if we get ourselves killed. Who's going to save Buffy if we're dead? Did you stop to think about that?!"

"Of course I thought of that," Angel yelled in reply, "but we can't wait any longer! Buffy-she's-" Whirling away from the table, Angel strode to the window, staring blankly at the misty fog rolling in. "We can't leave her there any longer, Giles, or it may be too late. If it's not already."

"I know that the situation is dangerous, and I do understand your need to rescue Buffy, your frustration at not knowing what's happening, but I think that the fact that they kidnapped her rather than killing her outright gives us some room for-"

"I know exactly what's happening." Angel interrupted softly. "She's in hell, and I'm not leaving her there one second longer."

"Hell, you say? What makes you think Buffy's in a demon dimension?" Giles queried, eyes narrowed in speculation. Willow's hands stilled on the keyboard, and silence reigned as she directed her gaze towards Angel, silhouetted in the moonlight filtering through the foggy window panes.

"I... felt her, in a dream. She was in Hell, MY hell, and I couldn't... I couldn't reach her. She's so alone, and so frightened... I can't leave her there Giles, I won't! I won't..." Angel replied, in a voice thick with emotion.

Crossing to stand beside Angel, Giles hummed in thought, absently rubbing the side of his nose with a forefinger.

"YOUR hell, you say? That's odd, to say the least, wouldn't you say?" Giles asked mildly.

"I guess so, but what..." a speculative gleam entered Angel's eyes, "you think this isn't real? That it's some kind of trick?"

"Well, it occurs to me that, powerful though the Initiative may be, it's hardly likely that they're able to open portals to demon dimensions, else why work so hard to capture demon species for study? Why not just open a portal and collect what you need? No, it seems far more likely that what you experienced was merely a dream, or..." Giles trailed off thoughtfully.

"Or what?" Willow asked.

"Nothing, really, it's just... Angel, have you ever experienced anything similar before? A dream in which you and Buffy were together? A dream that in some shape or form came true?"

Angel stared at Giles for a moment before answering, a glimmer of mirth creeping into his dark eyes in counterpoint to the faintly sensual smile that barely curved his lips. "Quite often," he replied, "though not, I think, the sort of dreams you're talking about."

"What are you talking about, Angel?" Willow questioned. "Giles asked if you'd had any prophetic dreams about you and Buffy, and you're saying you've had dreams about Buffy that HAVE come true, but not-oh. Oh! OK, I'm going to shut up now." She finished, a scarlet flush staining her cheeks.

With a quick smile in Willow's direction and a hastily cleared throat Giles returned his attention to Angel. "Yes, quite, but I'm really trying to discern whether this dream is anything like the prophetic dreams common to Slayers. Or, perhaps your bond with Buffy has enabled you to see into her mind, to share her dreams, much like happened when the First was, er, haunting you."

With a frown, Angel pondered Giles suggestions for a moment before answering. "I suppose that could be possible, " he said slowly, "but regardless of whether or not Buffy's actually in Hell, or just trapped within some twisted delusion fostered by the Initiative, we have to get her out, and soon, or..."

"What?" Giles questioned sharply.

"Or, the only thing left to rescue may be a body." Angel concluded softly. "If what I saw, what I experienced, in the dream is a reflection of what she's going through right now, I don't think her mind can take much more. We have to move tonight."

"So what's the plan?" Willow interjected. "I'll call Xander and Oz, and we'll go from there and-"

"No!" Angel interrupted harshly. "It's far too dangerous for the rest of you! The Initiative obviously has few qualms about taking human life, and neither I, nor Buffy, are willing to risk yours. This is a far different task than hunting fledglings or demons - we're talking about invading a military compound that, from what I've seen, is likely protected by magic and heavy artillery. Just tell me where the entrance is, and I'll take it from there."

Frowning indignantly, Willow swung her gaze back and forth from Angel to Giles. "Now just a minute! How do you expect to do this all by yourself? I think you need our help, mister, and you're going to get it whether you want it or not. And if you try to keep us from going, I'll-I'll... well, I don't know what I'll do, but you won't like it!" she finished with a flourish.

Catching Giles' gaze, Angel shook his head almost imperceptibly and a look of complete understanding passed between the two men.

"We'll settle this in a moment, but in the meantime... Willow, would you fetch that copy of the Izamantian Scroll from the cellar, please?" Giles asked, never breaking eye contact with Angel. "It should be on the shelf next to the Parthenon Chronicles. I think it will be of some assistance." Waiting with bated breath, Giles heard her chair scrape across the floor followed by soft footfalls that led her to the top of the stairwell. When he heard the faint creak that signaled her descent, he closed his eyes wearily, giving a faint nod in Angel's direction. The soft sign of air that whispered past his face, displaced by the vampire's rapid movement, was swiftly followed by the sound of the cellar closing and the lock falling into place. The muffled sound of racing footsteps and pounding against the door were accompanied by garbled shouts and threats as they gathered weapons from the hall closet and set out into the night.

They entered the compound under cover of fog, the two guards having been hastily dispatched by a tranquilizer gun using the last remaining darts. Creeping silently down the corridor, Angel took position as Giles slithered over to the lock panel. A series of small pops and fizzes marked the detonation of the carefully placed plastique explosive charges, and Giles and Angel rushed through the small cloud of smoke as the door swung open. Tunneling deeper into the structure, the two made their way towards the near-silent electrical hum that surrounded the control center. Just as they neared the entrance to the cell block, two soldiers rounded the corner. Angel didn't need to hear their conversation -- a malicious, gloating commentary on the girl at the end of the hallway -- to identify them; their scents were gratingly familiar, imprinted upon his memory that day months ago when he had entered the mansion to find Buffy huddled insensate upon his bed, reeking of other men's brutality. In that moment, civilization melted away, replaced by the overwhelming need to kill, to destroy the threat to his woman, his mate. Trembling with barely suppressed rage, he shrank back around the corner, unwilling to jeopardize his chances of rescuing Buffy in order to deal out the painful death they so richly deserved. But, despite his caution, there was no chance for escape for either Forrest or Graham; moments later they lay dead in a hastily opened closet, their necks neatly snapped, their bodies resting in pools of urine and feces, death's last indignity. He peered around the corner again, a quick hand motion urging Giles forward, and followed cautiously. He stood guard while the other man crouched in front of an electrical access panel and carefully prized the cover away to reveal the tangle of circuitry concealed beneath. With a few deft snips and twists, the light flickered and dimmed as the slow hiss of malfunctioning climate control systems filled the air. In the precious seconds before the emergency alarm summoned a swarm of soldiers and evacuation proceedings, Angel raised a speculative brow at the quickness with which the system had been circumvented. Returning the glance with a slight smile of his own, Giles rose to his feet and quickly picked up his crossbow from its temporary resting place on the floor at his feet. Turning to continue down the hallway, he tossed a wry comment quickly over his shoulder in passing.

"Never underestimate the skills of a misspent youth."

With a quiet huff of laughter, Angel followed, silently agreeing with the sage remark as he took a tighter grip on his axe. As the alarms continued to blare around them, drawing support personnel and well armed muscle to the control center like moths to a flame, the two made their way deeper into the cell block. Soon the stench of evil surrounded Angel, mingling with the hopeless terror and yearning for revenge that emanated from the occupants of the still energized cages lining the walkway. Shuddering with discomfort, his heightened senses flooded by the scent of blood and pain, he focused on the job at hand, keeping close enough to the force-field protected cages to feel the heat pouring from their captors so as to avoid the brighter emergency lighting illuminating the central corridor. They had almost reached their destination, Buffy's near silent cries ricocheting through his skull and spurring him onward, when the unthinkable happened. Whether it was the result of tripping some fail-safe device, or simply bad luck conspiring against them, the hall exploded in flame as they reached the door to her cell. Dropping to the ground to avoid the sizzling balls of fire bouncing over their heads, they rolled to the side only to watch the entire prison wing begin to blaze, tiny explosions skipping down the ceiling like some hellish version of hopscotch while teardrops of conflagration dripped to floor, igniting an inferno along the walls. Lunging to his feet, Angel launched himself at the door, kicking wildly at its surface before being pulled back by Giles who batted frenziedly at the orange tongues licking their way across his arms and shoulders. Wrenching himself free, he attacked the door once more, deaf to Giles' protests. This time, he was successful, and barreled through the entranceway into the suffocating darkness within, leaving Giles to stand sentry. Following the sound of Buffy's hoarse cries, he walked over to the far corner, finding her huddled in a ball, draped in yards of some sort of fabric. Drawing the cloaking material aside, he ran his hands carefully over her frame searching for wounds or broken bones. Finding none, he knelt beside her and gathered her onto his lap. All the while, her cries never ceased, the wordless screams softened only by the ruined quality of her voice.

"Buffy!" he said softly, urgently, "It's all right now, love, I'm here." His words had no effect, and he tipped her head back, looking into her eyes as he gently shook her. "Buffy, it's not real! Whatever you're seeing, it's just a vision, it can't hurt you - Buffy, please!, you've got to wake up. We have to get out of here-Buffy!" Punctuating the last words with a sharper shake, he was gratified to see her eyes blink slowly, seeming to focus as they shifted to his face.

"A-Angel?" she rasped, coughing as she forced the word past her swollen throat. "Are you real? Really here?"

"I'm here." He confirmed, his fervent words followed by a tender kiss. Licking softly at her chapped lips, he claimed her mouth for one more brief kiss that made up for in intensity what it lacked in time, before drawing back. Smoothing her hair from her forehead, he smiled into her eyes as he rose with her, setting her on momentarily shaky legs.

"Ready to go home?" he asked, a supporting hand beneath her elbow.

"Oh, yes!" she replied, the sound of her ruined voice stabbing at his heart, as she turned towards the door. Darting quickly through the ring of fire, she barreled into Giles, who caught her in a fierce embrace before releasing her and resuming his vigil. Angel joined them a moment later, and they began a hasty retreat, dodging dripping flame. They had taken no more than ten steps when a figure in swirling black materialized before them. The red glow of the creature's eyes flickered from one to the other from the dark recesses
of its hood before settling on Buffy.

"Ssso, Ssslayer, it appearsss that your vampire hasss come to sssave you after all. To bad he will not sssucceed, but the pleasssure of killing you all will be mossst sssatisssfying for me!" At these words, the fire around them blazed higher, seeming almost alive as it danced and flickered about them. A ring formed, encircling Angel and Buffy within its confines. Lunging towards them, Giles found himself trapped beneath the creature's gaze.

"You mussst be the Watcher," it mused, its voice ripe with lazy malevolence, "I think I will sssave you for lassst; you can watch what happensss to your preciousss Ssslayer, and then you can die!" Chuckling maniacally, it forced Giles to his knees, holding him in the penitent's posture with his eyes focused unblinkingly at the tableau spread before him. Unable to free himself from the compulsion, Giles could only watch helplessly as the demon's attention was refocused on the lovers. "Oh, thisss will be ssso much FUN, Ssslayer!" it taunted, stepping closer to the pair trapped within the blazing cage.

"Leave her alone!" Angel snarled, stepping in front of Buffy as his face shifted into its own demonic mask at the creature's approach.

"How chivalrousss!" the being mocked, clapping his hands with fiendish glee, "how ssself sssacrificing! I guesss it really isss true that 'Angel russshesss in where foolsss fear to tread', hmmm? Well, I think itsss only fair that your courage be appropriately... rewarded!" With those words, he waved his hand, and an arrow formed from the fire surrounding Buffy and Angel. With another careless flourish, he sent the missile careening through the air, piercing Angel's shoulder and emerging from his back before he had time to react. His collapse occurring in synchrony with Buffy's scream of protest, Angel fell to his knees, blood pouring from the gaping hole left by the magic arrow. Before Buffy could do more than drop to the ground at his side, another burning weapon had been launched, this one piercing Angel's abdomen just below and beside his navel, leaving an even larger wound than the first. As he swayed drunkenly, Buffy caught his shoulders, easing him down until his head was cradled in her lap as she tried futilely to staunch
the crimson flow from the wounds. She turned desperate eyes to meet the soul-less gaze of her tormentor, tears running down her face.

"P-please!" she sobbed, "please don't hurt him anymore! Kill me, but just-just l-let him GO!" she begged, ignoring the faint sounds of protest Angel made as he struggled to remain conscious.

Laughing in pleasure, the demon Cairn shook his head slowly from side to side. "Ssso, the Ssslayer can beg after all! Thisss isss truly a pleasssure beyond compare! Ssso sssorry to end it, but-" with a sarcastic sigh, he raised his hand once more, summoning two lethal bolts from the flame. In that moment, time seemed to freeze, as the words of a cryptic prophecy from the Bleeding Night Chronicles flooded through Giles' thoughts, suddenly becoming crystal clear in their meaning.

Night lays bleeding in her arms,
Moon weeps golden tears.
Held thrall beneath the whispers dark,
We bend unwilling ears.
But rending the fabric, evil woven,
We vanquish now our fears.

Angel, a creature of the night, lay bleeding in Buffy's arms while she, the Slayer who brought light into a world of evil just as the moon illuminates the night sky, wept tears that gleamed gold in the fire's reflection. Giles himself was held powerless, fixed in place by the "thrall" of Cairn's suggestion, which meant that... With one superhuman surge, Giles broke free and lunged towards Cairn, grasping the hem if his robe in both hands and wrenching with all his might. With a screech, the fabric rent from hem to hood, as the creature inside screamed in protest. Emitting one final shriek, Cairn disappeared, as a great ball of fire exploded backward down the corridor, flattening everything and everyone in its path. In the eerie silence that followed, Giles rushed over to Buffy and Angel, helping her raise the barely conscious vampire to his feet. Supporting his frame with one arm slung over each of their shoulders, they started down the hallway once more. Giles tensed as they rounded the corner, expecting to be confronted by Initiative guards, but found only the charred remains of dozens of corpses, burnt in the final fiery blast. Looking at the scene of the Initiative's destruction with grim satisfaction, he helped Buffy maneuver Angel through the carnage and back into the night air. When they reached the tunnel entrance, they lowered Angel to the ground. Buffy quickly knelt beside him, once more resting his head on her lap. Turning frightened eyes to Giles, she tightened her arms about Angel's shoulders.

"Giles, we have to hurry! He's losing too much blood." She said, as she pressed frantically against his wounds, her hands sliding slickly against the ruined flesh as his blood coated her palms and gushed onto the ground below.

"I know, but we can't carry him all the way back to the mansion, and he certainly can't walk..."

With a sob, Buffy turned her gaze back to Angel, bending to rest her cheek against his forehead. "What do we do? He needs blood, and the sun will be coming up soon."

"Well..." suddenly, inspiration struck. "We're near the main campus, I'm sure there are some vehicles nearby." With those words, Giles darted off into the night, leaving Buffy to stand vigil over her wounded mate. Crooning softly to him, she pressed tender kisses over his clammy brow, growing increasingly concerned as his always pale complexion whitened to an ashen shade. Trying to rouse him, she was met with utter unresponsiveness, as his large frame slackened even more within her embrace. With a gasp of horror, she noticed that his wounds had ceased to bleed, the sluggish ooze now visible a silent testament to the seriousness of his blood loss. Without a second thought, she brought her wrist to her mouth, slashing deeply through skin and sinew with her teeth. Spitting flesh and blood from her mouth, she brought her arm to Angel's lips, clenching and unclenching her fist to send bursts of her powerful blood into his mouth. The blood passed over his tongue, and reached his throat, but he was too weak to swallow, and the life-giving fluid trickled uselessly out the corner of his parted lips. Bringing her other hand up to cradle his throat, she massaged gently, forcing the blood down his throat. After a few such swallows, his lips closed about he bleeding gash and he began to suckle weakly at the free-flowing wound. A few minutes more found him drinking with greater strength, and Buffy dizzily drew her arm away, bandaging it hastily in a strip of her gown, just as his eyes blinked open. Licking his lips, he frowned at the taste he found there, trying to capture her hand with a leaden arm.

"Buffy," he whispered, his voice barely audibly, "what-what did you-do?" he asked, pausing to regain his strength every few words.

With a gentle finger, she stopped his words. "Shhhh, love, we'll talk about it later. Just relax, save your strength."

Before he could question her any further, Giles returned with a 'borrowed' car, and the two of them lifted the vampire into its backseat, Buffy quickly following. As they sped through the night towards the mansion, she clasped Angel tightly, silent tears of relief flowing down her cheeks.

They arrived just as dawn was lightening the horizon, a mirror image of Angel's arrival months ago. Only this time, it was he who was lowered, battered and bleeding, onto the massive bed, and Buffy who stared with horror as the full extent of his wounds was revealed. After carefully settling his large frame limply against the counterpane, she and Giles lifted his shoulders long enough to bolster his back with pillows, then set about removing his ruined clothing. Unwilling to jostle him any more than necessary, Buffy darted into the bathroom long enough to retrieve a pair of scissors, then began severing the seams holding the blood-soaked cloth together.

First to go was his shirt, the sleeves cut away and pulled down flaccid arms, the shoulder and side seams similarly dispatched until the two sheaths could be pulled free from beneath and above. Next, his boots were unlaced, pulled from his feet along with the dark woolen socks also stained with blood about the top, marking the place where the sanguine trail begun at shoulder and abdomen ended. The pants proved slightly more challenging, the heavy fabric resistant to the small blades. Finally, Buffy grabbed the bottom edge of the pants' legs, pulling sharply and ripping the side seam from hem to waist. As with the shirt, the two halves of the garment were removed from above and below, leaving only the boxer shorts, which were disposed of in short order. As Angel lay atop the spread, his pale nakedness a stark contrast to the crimson bed covering, the gaping holes in his smooth skin seemed even more obscene. The charred edges revealed a mass of bloody, torn tissue, blistered from the arrows' fire, and oozing a mixture of blood and clear viscous fluid. Sending Giles to the kitchen to retrieve several large bowls, she turned the water on in the bathroom, allowing it time to heat as she assembled soap, rags, bandages, and tape. When Giles returned with the requested items, she sent him in search of fresh blood, the meager store in the kitchen no match for the quantities they would be needing, grateful that he had yet to offer comment on the trails of dried crimson that marked Angel's face and lips or the bandage encircling her wrist stained rusty brown with the dried blood that had soaked through before the gash closed.

Filling the three basins with warm water, she returned to Angel's side and sat carefully on the bed. Dampening the first cloth, she stroked it over his face, removing traces of smoke and sweat, as well as the stain of her blood that lingered still upon his lips. After rinsing the cloth, she passed it over his neck and shoulders, easing away the last traces of clammy moisture from the hollows and curves that bordered his collarbone. Warming the cloth in the water once more, she followed the contours of his arms, cleansing thoroughly between each finger. Shifting his arms to lie above his head, she lavished attention on the concavities beneath his arms, stroking down his ribs to remove the rivulets of blood there. Returning his arms to lie in repose at his sides, she wet the rag again, rubbing gently around the wounds on his torso, cleansing the tattered edges thoroughly. Exchanging the blood-soaked fabric and water for another cloth and basin, she set to wok on his lower body, parting his legs slightly to bathe between his thighs as she carefully rinsed the dried blood from his penis and testicles. Following the curve of his knees, she wiped firmly behind them, eyes welling with tears as she recalled all the times he had squirmed beneath a feather-light caress there, claiming that he was wildly ticklish there and needed a much stronger touch.

Blinking to clear her misty vision, she caught her breath on a soft sob at the thought of how close she'd come to never teasing him that way again, never hearing his laugh, or seeing his smile, or... Pushing those thoughts angrily away, she finished her task, meticulously washing his feet and ankles before once more moving up his form. Dipping the cloth in the water, she moistened the area surrounding his wounds before lathering the soap between her palms. Rubbing her hands gently over the holes marring his skin, she cleansed them thoroughly, rinsing the soap and bloody residue away with more fresh water. After drying him with another cloth, she placed pads of gauze over the injuries, taping them in place before gently rolling him to his side. There, she repeated her ministrations, first rinsing his back and buttocks, then cleansing and drying the wounds before bandaging them.

Finally, she eased long strips of gauze around his body, binding the bandages in place with thick belts of cloth at his shoulder and abdomen. Fluffing the pillows into place, she rolled him onto his back once more, propping him into a semi-reclining position before covering him with the soft blanket retrieved from the closet, pulled up to his chest with one arm left atop the cover, the arm connected to the hand she clasped tightly in her own as she brushed her other hand tenderly through his hair, waiting for Giles' return. Bowing her head, she closed her eyes, allowing the shudders of relief and released tension to flow through her body. The slight movement of the fingers within her grasp caught her attention, and she raised her head to see Angel stirring against the pillows, his eyelids fluttering as a frown creased his brow.

"Buffy..." he whispered fretfully, struggling to open his eyes.

Leaning forward to kiss his brow, she cradled his cheek in her palm. "I'm here, love, "she crooned, "right here."

Forcing his heavy lids apart, he met her gaze blearily, his vision clouded with fatigue and pain. "Wh-what... how...?" he asked groggily, trying to shift his position and abruptly stiffening in pain, a low moan escaping his lips as he clenched his eyes shut in agony.

"Shhh, don't try to move," she cautioned, restraining him gently with one hand on his shoulder, "just lie still. Giles will be here soon with blood, and then you can rest." she continued, bending forward once more to press a series of kisses along his cheek, stroking the back of the hand held within her own all the while.

Turning his head to nuzzle against the arm next to his face, he stiffened abruptly as he encountered the bandage around her wrist, smelling her blood through the cloth. Clenching his hand around hers, he returned his gaze to hers, the depths of his eyes piercing hers with sudden lucidity.

"What happened to your arm?" he asked with deliberate calmness, the weakness of his voice doing little to disguise the fear and anger simmering in his question.

Returning his look unflinchingly, Buffy resumed stroking the planes of his face while she answered. "I think you know."

"Why?" he bit out, anxiety clouding his face. "You know what happened the last time, it's too dangerous..." he trailed off, remembering the last time she had offered her blood to save his life, nearly losing her own in the process.

"Because," she responded simply, smiling into his eyes, "there was no choice to make."

"Of course there was!" he gasped hoarsely, "You should have waited until you got me back here, given me some blood..."

"There wasn't time for that, Angel. You had lost too much, the mansion was too far away, you would have been d-dead before we got you here." She said, her voice breaking slightly on the last words as a tear traced down her cheek."You don't know that, and even if you were right... it was still too much of a risk, what you did."

"I couldn't just let you die! You can't expect that of me, you can't!" she replied passionately.

"Buffy... I'm not worth risking your life for, and-"

"Don't you EVER say that again!" she interrupted, her eyes flashing angrily. "You're worth everything I have to give, and then some! You're the reason I get up, most days, and the one thing that keeps me going when everything is closing in on me. NEVER AGAIN tell me that y-your life isn't as im-important as m-mine." She finished, disentangling her hand from his to hide her face as she sobbed harshly into her palms, the stress of the past few days finally overwhelming her.

Too weak to do more than lift a hand to grasp her wrist and gently pull one hand from her face, Angel looked her with mute apology. "I'm sorry, beloved, don't cry." he whispered, tugging insistently until she lay down beside him, her face nestled in the hollow of his good shoulder, one arm curved above his head, the other draped carefully across his chest. Continuing his mantra of contrition, Angel murmured soft reassurances until he was exhausted, the limp lassitude of her form pressed next to his signaling her own weariness, the occasional shuddering sob revealing her emotional fatigue.

That was how Giles found them moments later when he entered the room, a gallon of fresh, warm pig's blood in one hand and a mug in the other. Clearing his throat, he waited for Buffy to sit up shakily before wordlessly offering her the containers. With a watery smile, she wiped the tears from her eyes, setting the items on the bedside table before situating herself behind Angel, cradling his head against her shoulder as she supported his shoulders against her upper body. With a last glance to make sure he was not needed, Giles turned and left the room once more, granting the lovers within some much-needed privacy. Pouring a quantity of the blood into the cup, Buffy brought it to Angel's lips, carefully tipping it so that only a small trickle poured into his mouth, pausing often to give him time to swallow before resuming her tender feeding. After one aborted attempt to grasp the mug in his own hand, he collapsed into her embrace, too spent to do more than swallow, his eyes closing with weariness before the gallon was more than a fourth gone. Replacing the mug, she retrieved the last clean rag from the table, wiping away the faint traces of crimson staining his lips before shifting to lie cross-wise on the bed, his head nestled against her breasts. Humming softly, she stroked his face and neck, lulling him to sleep once more. Pulling the edge of the blanket up to cover her legs, she soon joined him in slumber. That day, strangely, it was not Buffy who dreamed of disturbing things. Instead, Angel relived his worst nightmare over and over, each time watching Buffy die at his hands, drained of blood. Always he awoke gasping, trembling in horror, only to find the reassuring reality of his love's warm flesh pressed against his, the steady beat of her heart beneath his ear as she kissed him gently, feeding him more blood before luring him back into dreamland once more.

The cycle continued for days, light blurring into night and back again, until he roused four nights after the rescue, noticing two things at once: Buffy was not in bed, and for the first time his tentative stretching did not send shards of agony through his body. Reaching cautiously with his hand, he probed the bandages padding his wounds, the small squares of gauze having replacing the more extensive wrapping the day before. Feeling only the slightest twinge, he carefully pulled the first away, finding only a shiny, pink expanse of skin to mark the once gaping hole in his shoulder. Repeating the process for his other wound, he found that it, too, was almost completely healed. Rising to his feet, he swayed for a moment before regaining his balance. Grabbing a robe from the chair beside the bed, he shrugged it on, intent on finding Buffy, when the sound of off-key humming from the bathroom brought a smile to his face. Making his way slowly towards the sound, he opened the bathroom door to find Buffy in the shower, the steamy, semi-opaque curtain doing little to shield the beauty of her body from his gaze. Closing the door softly, he crossed to sit on the closed toilet lid, closing his eyes to luxuriate in the sound and scent of his lover. The delicate fragrance of magnolias wafted from her freshly shampooed hair as the hot water carried the perfume on wings of steam. Her skin, cleansed with almonds and honey, manufactured its own enticing aroma, bathing him in sensual pleasure. The sound of her humming, interspersed with the dearly cherished sounds of her breath, sent a shiver of contentment through him as he sat, lulled by the moment. The sound of silence as the water was turned off was soon replaced by the gentle rustling of the shower curtain and her soft shriek as she saw him there.

"Angel! What are you doing out of bed?!? You should be-"

"I'm fine," he interrupted, smiling lazily at her from under half-opened lids, "the wounds are almost completely healed."

"Let me see!" she demanded breathlessly, kneeling at his feet, uncaring of her nudity, or the rivulets of water winding sinuously down her body. Giving him no time to respond, she reached for the lapels of the robe, parting the fabric to reveal the skin beneath. With a wondering smile, she traced the healing flesh with her fingertips, bending to press fervent kisses against the scars. Rising to her feet, she settled herself in his lap, straddling his legs and twining her fingers in his thick hair.

"Thank God!" she murmured, pressing ardent kisses against his mouth. "I've. Been. So. Worried." She continued, each word punctuated with another kiss, deeper and slower that the last. Fusing their lips, she traced lightly along the roof of his mouth with her tongue, pausing to flick against the surface of his, reaffirming her love and her passion with every liquid caress. Breaking the kiss, she sighed, resting her forehead against his shoulder, one arm curled beneath his own, her palm cupping the ball of his shoulder, the other nestled tightly between their bodies, gently covering his silent heart. Shivering with delight at the feel of his arms once more clasping her close, returned health lending strength to their embrace, she smiled against the smooth skin beneath her mouth. His voice vibrated against her forehead as he spoke.

"So, what do you plan to do with me now that I'm back in fighting form?"

Giggling, she raised her head, shifting to loop her arms about his neck. "Well, I wouldn't exactly say you're in FIGHTING form, but..." she leered, waggling here eyebrows comically and shifting so that the flesh between her thighs pressed tightly against the rapidly swelling evidence of his renewed vigor.

Gasping softly, he thrust his hips shallowly against hers, drawing her closer until her breasts were flush against the firm walls of his pectoral muscles, sliding her back and forth with hands curved around her waist until the abrasion caused her nipples to peak. The sensation of the pebbled skin trailing across his chest caused his eyes to dilate, the soft moan that accompanied the flood of moisture at the juncture of her thighs turned them from dark brown to blazing gold. Growling, he leaned forward to nuzzle her neck, lapping at the arteries there as her blood throbbed beneath his tongue, increasing its pace in tandem with her rising arousal. He continued his sensual assault, never changing the pace of his short thrusts, or the tempo of the slow shifts of breast against chest. Soon Buffy was writhing, mewling with frustrated desire as she was held captive, powerless to resist the growing tide of pleasure. Her cries escalating, she sought to deepen the contact, increase the friction, the walls of her womb fluttering and liquid heat painting the insides of her thighs, trailing down her limbs to anoint the turgid shaft between them. Clamping his teeth on the juncture of neck and shoulder, Angel nibbled erotically on the tender flesh as his hands tightened their grip on her waist, pressing her more firmly against his arousal as his teasing thrusts gained urgency, sliding the length of his shaft through her lush folds. Suddenly, she twisted in his arms, freeing herself from his grasp long enough to raise herself. Reaching down with one hand, she grasped his erection, holding it steady as she sank down slowly, impaling herself inch by inch. Sucking in an un-needed breath, he closed his eyes in ecstasy, reveling in the sensation. Clasping their arms about each another, they rested their foreheads against one another, staring into each other's eyes as they began to move together, each gentle sway matched by a measured thrust. Punctuating their rhythm with soft, open-mouthed kisses, they slowly climbed towards orgasm. When the explosion came, it was quiet, a gentle pulsing of pleasure that lasted an eternity, leaving them both limp and trembling with aftershocks of pleasure. Smiling, Angel leaned forward to kiss Buffy, licking at the beads of perspiration making their way from her hairline to her jaw.

"I'd say that was worth nearly getting killed for." He joked, grabbing her quickly to prevent her falling off of his lap as she jerked back abruptly.

"That's not funny!" she scolded, hitting him lightly on the arm with a scowl.

"I thought it was." He rejoined mildly. "Maybe you just don't have a sense of humor."

"Don't joke about this, please..." she said seriously, her eyes clouding with memories of the past few days.

"Hey," he said, at once contrite, "I'm sorry. Don't look like that. I'm OK now, really." He reinforced his words with a hug, tightening his arms about her in comfort.

"Are you sure you're healed?" she whispered softly in the near silent voice of someone who fears the answer to their question, but can't stop themselves from asking.

"I'm sure," he murmured against her ear, "and if that last demonstration wasn't enough proof for you..." he trailed off suggestively until she met his gaze once more, the sparkle in her eyes and slight smile convincing him that his attempts to lighten her mood had been successful.

"Welllll," she mused, her face lighting with mischief, "I might need another demonstration."

"I think that can be arranged." he retorted, swinging her to the floor before rising and taking her hand, leading her back to the bedroom, and back to bed.

Long hours later, as she lay sleeping in his arms, he said a silent prayer of thanks to the God he had thought long abandoned, counting his blessings. He was alive, the Initiative was destroyed, and Buffy was safe in his arms. For a man who had for so long thought redemption was beyond his grasp, these were benedictions without price.

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