Vampire Winter

Written by Glassdarkly, March 2006

The crowded bus came smoothly to a halt and Buffy squeezed her way down the step and onto the sidewalk. The wind was bitter and she shivered as it lifted her hair and splayed it across her face. She'd been thinking it all day and she still thought now that Rome just shouldn't be this cold. And it wasn't as if she was the only one who thought it if all that complaining on the bus was anything to go by.

Taking her usual deep, calming breath, she squared her shoulders and walked out boldly into the road. Crossing the Via Flaminia at rush hour was like the stop-start of a football game, only with car-horns blaring all the time, and sometimes a vespa wheel nudging your leg impatiently, but she kept going. It didn't phase her too much any more that drivers could - and routinely did - ignore pedestrian crossings. You just had to go for it – plunge out into the traffic and hope you weren't hit. She was used to it now - blasι, even, and that was a good word. She was Blasι Buffy.

She walked up the hill towards her apartment, pausing in spite of the cold to look in store windows because she just couldn't help herself. At the moment, there was still a lot of black around, but soon that would be gone. Cold wind or not, spring was coming and colour along with it. She was ready for the change. The leather-look had gotten boring– like a fashion show in a biker bar but without the drugs and violence.

She stopped off at the local supermercato to pick up coffee and biscotti for breakfast then carried on up the hill, past the trattoria and an ascending row of tall sub-divided houses. They'd be decked in greenery come spring but just now they looked bleak, like the weather.

She didn't feel bleak, though. In fact, she felt quite peppy – wired up and maybe a little on edge. If Fabrizio hadn't been out of town, maybe she'd have called him and asked him to take her dancing since she'd given herself the night off from slaying just for once. But she hadn't had much me-time in the last few weeks, what with Willow's visit, so a night in alone with Buffy was probably a better idea.

She closed the apartment door behind her, shutting out the bitter wind, and put her keys and purse on the side table. Once the lamps were on, the room with its glazed wooden screen and tiled floor looked quite cosy. Carpets would've been warmer of course but no one had them here.

With Dawn in Spain at the moment visiting their father, it was great to have her apartment to herself again. In fact, she was enjoying the alone time so much that she'd put off calling Fabrizio in Cortina d'Ampezzo and asking him to come home early now Willow was gone. She was still kind of mad at him anyway for not even asking her if she wanted to go with him, though she'd never skied in her life and never much wanted to. But no, he'd called to say he was going and truthfully, she didn't miss him that much – or not a whole lot more than she missed his car anyway. He was a very cool guy, of course, but kind of – well, opaque.

Not that opaque was anything new for her in the dating department. She'd started off with opaque – all that mysterious soulful creature of the night stuff with Angel – and now she was back to it, except that this time, she was older and hopefully wiser.

She boiled water for coffee and poured it into the cafetiere, already wishing she hadn't thought of Angel, because he and Spike – well, they'd been a major sore point with her for months – ever since Andrew's visit to L.A.. To say her feelings had been hurt was quite an understatement and since then, she'd just been really, really mad at both vampires. The big fat dossier about Wolfram & Hart that Giles had sent her hadn't helped with that either. Okay, she knew that Giles had an axe he'd never give up grinding but after seeing what Angel had gotten himself involved in, she'd felt pretty axe-grind-y herself.

It had helped her get all down with the slaying again, though, and these days she hardly thought about vampires any more except when she had to kill them, not even ones with souls. Besides, Angel hadn't been seen since his whole Evil Law Firm gig went bad in L.A. – gone to ground somewhere, Giles said, and Spike along with him, and she'd told Giles she didn't want to know any more. Out of sight, out of mind was the way she wanted them to stay.

In the meantime, she was having fun with Fabrizio and getting to know herself a little better –thinking about what she might be interested in doing with her life now that it was possible to take a break from the slaying. She'd always be a Slayer of course, but now maybe she could be a Slayer with a degree in History, because Rome was just so cool, or possibly the History of Fashion, or maybe just Fashion, she wasn't sure. Just as long as she wasn't the Slayer, it didn't really matter.

She took her mug through into the living room and switched on the TV, sound turned low, then flopped onto the couch with her feet tucked underneath her and opened a magazine. Her Italian reading was coming along well now, though it lagged behind her speaking. Maybe one day she'd attempt an actual book.

She was so deep into an article about some scandal involving glamorous people she'd never heard of that when there was a knock on the door, she almost jumped out of her skin in shock. A part of her scolded another part of her when her heart sank at the thought that it might be Willow unexpectedly returned. Please, not yet! Then, something clicked to life in her brain, like a sixth sense kicking in, and all the hairs on her arms stood up suddenly. Maybe that explained her jitters? Maybe one had followed her on the bus? After all, they could have been watching her for days – from when she went patrolling down in the Foro Romano. It wouldn't be the first time. It would be the first time, though, that a vampire had followed her to her door and knocked on it. Talk about death wishes

She rolled silently to her feet and opened the weapons chest she kept near the front door – the one she'd had to keep padlocked when Andrew had been sleeping on the couch. Her fingers paused over the polished handle of the Scythe but then moved on to something smaller and more intimate, the wooden stake fitting into her grip like an extension of her hand. Sometimes you needed flashy, and sometimes not, and really, all she was in the mood for was a quick slay before she just had to wash her hair. As she approached the door, in full-on stealth mode because that was what vampires did to her, the knock sounded again and she heard two voices arguing quietly out in the hallway.

Her heart seemed to miss a beat, because there was no mistaking those voices, even after all this time. Had she conjured them from nothing just by thinking of them, because if so, bad move, Buffy. The stake dropped from her nerveless fingers to clatter on the tiles and for a moment, she leant against the wall next to the door, wondering whether to pretend she wasn't here; but they'd know, being vampires. They always knew. Besides, she was a Slayer, she fought demons every day and she could fight her own as well.

She flung the door open to find herself looking straight at a black-clad – and yes, leather again – male chest. Her eyes tracked upwards and it was him.

"Angel." The word dropped into a sudden pool of silence that swallowed it as if it had never been. She felt stifled and took a great gasping breath of air, stepping back a pace. That was when she saw Spike, peering round Angel's shoulder, his blond shock of hair all mussed up. He looked annoyed.

"Buffy." Angel sounded formal, almost distant – not at all the way he'd been that final day on the Hellmouth but not like Demi-Evil Corporate Guy either. He was handsome still, the lines in his big face deeper than she remembered them, and he looked thin. In fact, they both did – Spike painfully so, like he had that horrible year in Sunnydale, when, if she ever thought about it now – which she didn't much - she knew he'd literally been starving for her, like a dog forced to live on scraps.

"What are you doing here?" she asked, which was the first lame thing that came into her head, at the same time as Spike said, in his familiar Rude British Guy voice: "That wanker's not here, is he? The Immortal?"

Maybe she should have said, Spike, I thought you were dead, but of course, she'd known for a long time that he wasn't, and he must know that she knew, so all she said was, "Fabrizio? No, he's gone skiing," to which Spike subsided with a quick glance either way down the hallway and a muttered, "Ponce."

In answer to her question, Angel said: "We're just passing through, Buffy – on our way south."

"Yeah," Spike cut in again. "Like ducks." At which Angel shoved him hard and Spike shoved Angel back and for a moment, she thought they were going to start fighting right in front of her but then they subsided, as if both had made the point they'd wanted to make and were cool with each other again. Weird, she thought. She wondered why her own inner voice had suddenly gone all calm and distant, as if she wasn't even here. Maybe she was in shock.

For a moment, she was tempted to slam the door in their faces and claim her life back before it was too late, but then Angel said: "Can we come in?" and she stood aside and let him enter. Spike hung back on the other side of the threshold, however, still glancing from side to side down the hallway.

"I'll see you later," he said, to Angel. "Saw a bar just down the hill – think I'll go and sample the local brew, mate."

Angel didn't argue with this, except to say, "Don't drink too much, Spike," in a weary tone of voice, as if this was something he said a lot. Spike, however, only rolled his eyes and fished in his duster pockets for the inevitable pack of cigarettes. "I'll keep my eyes peeled," he said, as he took a cigarette out and lit it. Then he gave her a cool look – pretty much inscrutable for Spike – nodded once, "Buffy," he said, and then he was gone back down the stairs in a swirl of white hair and black leather.

"Oh, God!" she said, because there was something about seeing him walk away, as if he had no right to be here, that didn't sit well with her at all. He hadn't believed her that day in the Hellmouth, and maybe he'd been right not to, but things were – well, they were complicated as usual, and no effort of hers was ever going to un-complicate them, which was partly why she'd given up trying. She went with the flow these days, or at least, she had until now.

"He'll be fine, Buffy." Angel spoke just behind her and she jumped, startled, though his presence was hard to forget – so much so that now that she was alone with him, she really, really didn't want to be. "We need to talk."

"We do?" She shut the door and bent to pick up the fallen stake – anything so as not to have to look at him – then fussed about the weapons chest, making sure the clasp was secure. When she finally turned round, he was just standing there, looming large, the way he used to in her bedroom in Sunnydale, with his hands thrust into his coat pockets and his dark eyes unreadable. Again, she felt stifled, the weight of her past – the pain –threatening to overwhelm her like an avalanche. Just for a moment, she was seventeen again and he was slowly peeling the wet t-shirt strap off her bare shoulder, his large cool hands stilling that awful internal shaking which she'd felt would never stop, soothing her, while she'd been thinking, Yes, he wants me. We are so going to do it.

"I'm sorry," he said, suddenly. "I know we're not really welcome, Buffy, but we had to see you this time. It didn't work out so well before."

"I heard." No need to tell him that she'd seen them in the club that night and been only too glad to leave – to get away from a repeat performance of their jealous vampire crap, which had the potential to be crappier than ever when there were two of them together, like being the reluctant peacemaker in someone else's quarrel.

If she hadn't had enough time now to put them behind her, she sure as hell hadn't then.

"May I sit down?"

He wasn't going to do anything unless she let him, she realised, so she waved him towards the couch and went to fetch more coffee. He liked coffee, she was sure. At least, she might have seen him pretend to drink it once, so he could again now.

When she came back, he was sitting hunched forward with his hands clasped between his knees. He did tend to hunch, she remembered, as if trying to make himself look smaller. She'd always thought it must date from all that time of brooding in alleys, not wanting to be noticed.

She sat down on the far end of the couch from him and sipped her coffee, while his sat untouched on the table. He didn't speak and beyond glancing up at her once, seemed far away.

"How've you been?" she asked, at last, because she couldn't bear the silence any longer. It sounded majorly lame, even to her, but she said it anyway.

He looked up now and his eyes were old, sunken and shadowed in a way she hadn't seen them before. There'd always been that touch of the boy about him that was so deceptive, making her forget just how much older than her he really was; even that last time in Sunnydale, with all the pouting about Spike – especially then, in fact.

"Been better," he said, but then he smiled and her insides turned upside down because she'd forgotten how glorious that could be. "Good to see you, though," he went on. "You look happy, Buffy. I'm so glad."

She felt a blush rising in her cheeks and fiddled with a strand of hair – and it so needed washing – to cover her discomfiture.

"I am happy," she managed, at last. It was mostly true, for sure. "I love it here – I love all the old stuff, Angel, even though I didn't think I would."

"It gets into your bones, doesn't it?" He sounded pleased. "All that history just lying around?"

"Something like that." She smiled back at him and the tension between them lessened palpably. In spite of that, she was careful with her next words.

"So – last Giles told me of you – big fight, lots of stuff going boom – how did that work out?"

His face sobered, the shadow sinking back over it like a mask.

"Not so well," he said. "We lost Wesley and Charles Gunn too, I think. At least, there was no sign of him when the smoke cleared so I don't know for sure."

"Huh?" She stared at him, astonished. "Giles didn't mention that – just said you gave up the law firm thing. Brought the place crashing down, he said."

"We did," he agreed. Was it paranoid of her or did he look sort of accusing, as if she should have known? Well, she should, shouldn't she? Instead, it sounded like he'd been in real trouble – like, End of the World trouble – and she'd been too busy partying to take any notice.

"I'm sorry," she said, quickly. "I didn't realise – and I'm sorry about Wesley too, Angel. He was a good man. If I'd known it was that bad, I – "

"It's okay." He interrupted her quickly. "It wasn't your fight."

There was a moment's silence. She hoped what she'd said about Wesley had come out convincingly because in truth she really couldn't care that much about the ex-Watcher, except that he'd been Angel's friend. She still thought of him as the annoying British guy with a stick up his ass who'd made her life that bit more annoying in Senior Year. Giles said he'd changed a lot, though, so she knew she wasn't being fair. God, she must seem like a heartless bitch and she could hardly blame Giles for her wilful ignorance. He didn't tell her stuff unless she asked these days.

"Yeah," Angel said, at last. "Wesley was one of the best. Anyway, we lost everything, Buffy. There was just the three of us – me, Spike and Illyria – don't know if you've been told about her - demon, former god-king of the universe – but Illyria's given us the slip, so I guess it's just Spike and me now, on the run."

"And you're going south?" she asked, then couldn't resist repeating: "Like ducks?"

He grimaced this time and then there was a strange look that she couldn't interpret on his face. She knew suddenly that he was thinking about Spike, not just because she'd repeated Spike's words, but just because. The hairs on the back of her neck rose and she picked up her coffee and took a healthy gulp to cover her confusion.

"We're going to Africa," he said. "It's a big place and there are bolt-holes there we know of."

"Won't you stick out like sore thumbs?" Keeping to practicalities seemed preferable suddenly. "I mean, two handsome white guys in leather who only go out at night? Seems to me you might attract an awful lot of attention."

"Not where we're going," he said, and now his tone was clipped, kind of final. She realised that their destination wasn't some nameless place they weren't really sure of but somewhere fixed. Somewhere he didn't want to talk about.

She set her mug down very carefully.

"Okay," she said. "Well, it was nice of you to drop by, Angel. I'm sorry about what happened in L.A. and about last time you came here and - and everything. I wasn't ready to see you. Either of you."

"I get that." He looked down at his hands which were once more clasped between his legs. "You couldn't trust me because of the whole Empire of Evil thing, I get that."

No, not just that, she wanted to say, there's a hell of a lot more than that and why hadn't she realised it before? But her courage failed her. Any minute now he'd get up and leave and she might never see him again, nor Spike, and everything that had remained locked up inside her - that she hadn't wanted to think about - would stay there forever, festering.

Abruptly, she got to her feet and Angel stood up too, gathering his coat around him. She was so angry she felt like throwing things at him or maybe at herself. Her hands were shaking.

"I'll be going then," he said, not looking at her – already somewhere else in his head, as if this was so easy for him, when it shouldn't be. How could it be? Maybe he thought she'd betrayed him? Maybe she had - but he'd betrayed her first when he changed sides.

The words came tumbling out before she could stop them; before she could remind herself that he wasn't in her life any more, and neither was Spike – that she'd left all her demons behind her in the smoking crater of Sunnydale.

But she knew that wasn't true and besides, getting in the first blow was just what she did these days when she was feeling all cornered.

"Oh, no you don't! You don't get off that easy, Angel. How can you walk in here like this – come back into my life and mess everything up and then walk away again? Just how many times can you walk away from me anyway?"

"What?" He looked completely bewildered and his eyes took on a sort of glazed hunted deer expression. "I thought it was what you wanted, Buffy. It was you that didn't want to see us."

She was hugging herself now, arms in a tight defensive knot around her torso, as if her body had suddenly fallen back into old familiar patterns learned through years of taking hard knocks from pretty much everyone – especially those she loved.

"This isn't about logic. No, I didn't want to see you last time, Angel-or Spike-for all sorts of reasons. That doesn't mean that you can just walk in here, say goodbye like you were off for the weekend in – in, oh, I don't know, Tijuana or something and then just disappear. You can't do that!"

He opened his mouth to speak.

"Sit down!" she almost shouted at him, and he did so, looking sort of stunned to find his legs obeying her in spite of themselves. He ducked his head slightly and picked up his coffee mug, took a sip, made a face and put it down again.

"Okay, Buffy," he said, at last, looking up at her with big brown puppy dog eyes that made her more angry still for a moment, before her heart melted to him as it always did. "Say what you want to say."

She wanted to pace. She wanted to throw things. Most of all, she wanted to go and slay – to hunt his kind and kill them. But she forced herself to relax, to let go of her anger and remember who she was - a grown woman, not a terrified, emotionally battered teenager watching the love of her life walk away from her. She was not that person.

Walking carefully, she went and sat down, straightening her skirt and smoothing her hair back behind her ears to compose herself. Angel's eyes tracked her movements but she couldn't interpret his expression. She took a deep breath. She knew what she had to say, even though it seemed like a betrayal of her new life and all the hard work she'd put into making it.

"I love you," she said, at last, though the words caught in her throat. She hadn't really felt it until she said it and now it was overwhelming. "You must know that. I can walk away – I can tell myself enough times that loving you is stupid, that it could never work. I even believe myself. I do, Angel. This isn't me saying 'Come back to me and never leave me again'. I don't want you to. In fact, it's the last thing I want."

"Buffy –" he began, and he reached out a hand towards her, but she shrank back.

"Don't. Let me finish."

"Sorry." The hand dropped back to his side. She'd always loved his hands. They were so big, so steady. They'd made her feel safe, until that day when suddenly they didn't any more – not that he'd used them to rip her apart, because he hadn't needed to.

"I kept your ring," she said. "I don't wear it any more, but I kept it."

He was looking at her with that anguished expression on his face she remembered so well.

"I'm sorry," he said again. "I never meant to hurt you, Buffy, but looking back it seems that's all I've ever done – hurt people. And not just you, everyone I meet."

"And your response is to run away again? You left me –"

"You were a child." He wasn't looking at her now. "I had no right."

"– you left me," she ploughed on, though his words made her furious all over again. Just how old did he think she was now? "And then you have this great mission given you– the champion of the Powers That Be, you told me – and when I finally have time to look your way again – to say, 'Look at me, Angel, I'm all grown-up' – you're working for the enemy. What the hell happened?"

"It's a long story," he said, and sighed, like someone who knows they're going to have to repeat something they've repeated too many times. "You might not even believe it. Spike didn't at first when I told him, which wasn't that long ago."

His own mention of Spike made him sit up suddenly and he looked at his watch.

"Damn, I shouldn't have left him alone so long. I should go, Buffy."

"But I'm not finished," she insisted. "Didn't you hear me say I love you?"

"I heard." He smiled at her, a little tentative, but then he was completely serious again. "What about Spike?"

"What about him?"

"Do you love him too?"

The question floored her for some reason – maybe because she'd been so focussed on what she felt for him, the man – vampire – in front of her. She knew their history together had affected her whole life in ways that she'd only recently begun to understand and she knew it had impacted on what she'd had with Spike, like a row of dominoes falling one after the other. Now she thought about Spike walking away down the hall, considering himself not welcome in her house, it seemed. She had bad memories of him, sure, just as she had of Angel, but there were good ones too, and also ones that made her feel really terrible. He'd laid his feelings bare to her and then he'd seen her kissing Angel. It must have felt like being punched in the gut and he deserved some answers from her, just as she deserved them from Angel.

"Yes," she said, looking Angel straight in the eye. "I do."

She'd had no idea how he would react to this, but even so, his answer sent her jaw plummeting.

"Damn," Angel said. "Now I owe him a drink."

"What? You what?"

"We had a bet."

How the hell could he be so casual? "A bet? You bet on whether I'd say I loved Spike?"

He had the grace to look embarrassed, ducking his head back between his shoulders a little. "Sorry, Buffy. It's just a guy thing, I guess. I've been needling him – telling him that what you two had between you was just sex. It gets him so riled up."

The look on her face must have been enough warning even for him, because he finished, lamely, "It's kind of fun."

She stood up and leaned forward for his coffee mug, which was barely touched, and though she was angry, she couldn't help smiling to herself to see the way he shrank back a little, as if afraid she was going to hit him.

"You know something, Angel," she said, "if I didn't love you, I think I'd hate you. That's – that's evil – what you said."

"Vampire." He still sounded lame, but somehow it broke the final shards of ice between them and she smiled back.

"Dork," she said.

He followed her into the kitchen and stood awkwardly while she rinsed the mugs and dried them, his hands once more thrust deep into the pockets of his coat. The tired, serious look was back on his face – the one he'd worn when he first arrived and that made him look so much older. Suddenly, she was afraid.

"If I let you go, you won't just leave, will you?" she asked. "I want to hear your long story and if you're not prepared to tell it now, you'll just have to come back and tell it next time, Angel, okay?"

"Okay." He assented without fuss. "We have a while before they catch up with us anyway – maybe a couple of weeks, if we're lucky. Besides, Spike'll want to talk to you as well."

"He will?" She was glad suddenly, because she'd doubted it. At the same time, she was thinking, They? Who are They? Angel didn't seem inclined to fill her in.

"Of course." He sounded surprised at her question. "He'll be around, Buffy – probably when you least expect him, like a bad penny. You know Spike."

"I thought I did," she said, and she was thinking, I also thought I knew you, because the way he was talking about Spike now – his tone – was setting those alarm bells off in her head again. Now didn't seem like a good time to ask more, though, and besides, it was always easier worming information out of Spike.

She followed him to the door, no longer angry but instead filled with a sense of anticipation, such as she hadn't felt in a long time and that dismayed her a little, because it seemed to contradict all her edicts to herself about her new life and how she was going to live it. He paused on the threshold to look back and smile again.

"See you soon," he said, and he reached out and brushed a cold, careful finger down her cheek, before turning and striding away, while she stood gasping and with a sudden warm patch down in the core of her that made her slam the door behind him and bang her head gently against the wood in frustration.

After that, there was no real choice. It was either stay in and have an early night alone with her trusty vibrator – an easier option but lacking real closure – or go out again to slay after all. She put her hair up in braids, changed into jeans and boots and went down the hill back to the bus stop, thrusting her hands deep into the pockets of her leather jacket as she went, because the wind had picked up even more.

The bus juddered its way back across the Ponte Flaminio and pulled into the exchange. An up-town tram was waiting and she pushed her way past the other passengers – no point holding back here, she'd learned that long ago – and ran across to it. As it clattered past tall, shabby apartment blocks towards the centro storico, she thought that she'd swept the Foro Romano area two nights ago, so maybe it was time to see how the vamps in the grounds of the Villa Borghese were doing. There were bound to be more, despite all her efforts to keep their numbers down. There always were.

She was walking up Viale del Muro, with the park on her left when she became aware of being followed. It wasn't that she heard anything, more just that familiar prickling sensation at the back of her neck that Xander had always called her spider-sense and that she liked to think of as her vamp-dar.

She took off across the dark expanse of open ground, baiting the trap, and sure enough, the vamp came along behind like a dog following a scent. They were so easy for the most part. She turned to make a stand on one of the less frequented paths, though the whole place was kind of run-down and deserted this time of year anyway. She could sense it circling, just out of sight, keeping among the trees, watching her. If she smoked, this would be the moment to light a cigarette and act casual, but she didn't, so she sat down on a bench, trying to look helpless and biteable. There was silence, except for the ever-present blare of car-horns in the distance and the wind in the trees.

This was getting annoying - and cold. Really, really cold. "Okay, okay," she muttered half-under her breath, "try and bite me, why don't you?" She could still feel it watching, could almost see the yellow eyes, like small, baleful lamps glowing in the gloom. This one was way cautious though, so maybe it wasn't such a newbie.

As she thought it, she realised she'd lost her sense of the creature's presence. It was gone as quietly as it had come. With a small huff of irritation, she stood up and thrust her hands back into her pockets against the cold, preparing to move on deeper into the park. Of course, that was the moment when it leapt on her, coming out of nowhere – a huge, muscular male, smelling of self-neglect and dried blood. She went down under the onslaught, then rolled, bringing her knees close against her body before it could pin her down and snapping her legs straight, feet connecting with its heavy belly, to send it sprawling backwards into the dirt.

She leapt to her feet, stake in hand, registering its look of confusion with a feeling of smugness she just couldn't help. Then she dove for the heart. It hunched before she could strike, however, and she got a shoulder, which must have been painful and brought a howl from the vamp, but was disappointingly non-fatal. She danced back out of reach of a kick and fumbled for another stake, while it lumbered upwards like an enraged bull, pulling the offending piece of wood from a wound that merely seeped.

"Slayer," it said, or rather "cacciatrice," which she'd always thought not nearly as snappy, but she didn't bother responding in Italian.

"That's me," she said. "Not your lucky night, huh?"

It lunged forward and she danced back again – dance like a butterfly, sting like a bee – tossing the stake from hand to hand provocatively. She almost did that beckoning gesture from The Matrix but it reminded her too much of Andrew – so not-cool -and if the vamp didn't get it she'd end up looking stupid. Instead, she dodged left as it charged her, giving it a glancing blow with her foot in passing to help it on its way into a nearby bush. It was an easy enough matter to take it from behind then – to leap on its broad back, seize its head and twist. There was the satisfying crunch of small bones snapping as its spinal column sheared sideways and broke. It toppled forward onto its knees like a tree falling, but she kept on twisting until un-dead flesh tore asunder and the thing exploded into clouds of choking dust as head parted from body.

She fell heavily, her own knees jarring with the impact, feeling the familiar rush of satisfaction deep inside that she didn't shrink from any more. It was like sex – better even – and what's more the world was safer as a result; a win-win situation for everyone, which thought made her smile.

Suddenly, there was a slow hand-clap behind her, repeated twice, and the sound of a cigarette lighter flicking to life in the chilly wind.

"Ni-ice work, love," Spike said, just as he had that day they'd first met all those years ago. "You haven't lost your touch at all, I see, in spite of living the dolce vita with old wossisname."

She got to her feet and turned to face him. "Fabrizio," she said, patiently. "His name's Fabrizio, Spike, okay?"

"Yeah, whatever." Spike stood on the edge of a deep patch of shadow, his white hair and pale face in stark contrast with the surrounding gloom. She saw the glow of his cigarette end between his cupped hands, watched him exhale smoke into the cold night air.

"It was you," she said. "Wasn't it – following me from the tram stop? I sensed you."

He tilted his head on one side in the approximation of a nod and breathed more smoke.

"You could have helped me." She gestured vaguely in the direction of the fast-dissipating dust cloud, and he shrugged.

"You didn't look like you needed any help to me."

"Where's Angel?"

At the name, he seemed to shrink into himself a little, turning away from her and staring off across the park.

"How should I sodding well know?" he muttered, crossly. "Off super-hero-ing somewhere, I expect, just like you."

"So he hasn't bought you a drink yet?" She bent to retrieve the fallen stakes then stuck them back in her pocket. She walked towards him, half-expecting him to turn and walk away like he had earlier. Instead, he regarded her, frowning in puzzlement.

"Bought me a drink? No, he fucking hasn't, the tight-arse. What are you on about, Slayer?"

"That's Buffy to you," she said, and now she was right next to him and had hold of his arm, preventing him from fleeing, which he looked inclined to do, he was so obviously spooked. "Shall we go find more vampires to slay?"

She'd forgotten what it was like, going hunting with Spike – the excitement, the way they worked so well together. A seamless tag-team, watching each other's backs, always alert for the unexpected. It was like slaying with Faith had been for a short while back in High School, before things went bad; except that even then, she hadn't quite trusted Faith, whereas no matter what else happened, once he'd changed sides, she'd never once doubted Spike in a fight – not even in that horrible year when she'd let him own her for a while.

He was a dirty fighter still - gouging and head-butting a specialty – and so adaptable. Anything she needed from him in combat, he was ready and willing to give, as if he could read her mind. Yet he was different too – more vicious, if anything, as if an anger she didn't know the source of fuelled his every action, driving him to extremes that made her blood run cold. Not that he wasted energy – not like Faith taking time out in the middle of a fight to pummel a vamp to pulp – but that he relished the violence she couldn't doubt.

They cleared out a burgeoning vamp nest hidden near the zoo, five males and two females all done and dusted in a frantic fifteen minutes. They had to chase the last two down as far as the race track, dispatching them, fittingly, right in the centre of the open space. Buffy half expected to hear applause ringing round from all sides afterwards, but there were only the distant noises of the indifferent Roman night. She stood, stake in hand, breathing heavily, watching as Spike dusted himself down. He rolled his shoulders as if to make sure all the kinks were out, and then patted his pockets for his cigarettes again.

"You haven't lost your touch either," she ventured at last, when the silence had dragged out a little too long.

He exhaled smoke. "Yeah, well– had plenty of chances to practice these last few months, Angel and me."

"You're on the run?" she asked. "Angel didn't really tell me much– just that things went bad in L.A. and you lost people."

His cigarette hand paused on the way to his mouth and he stared at her.

"You didn't know?"

"I didn't - and truthfully, Spike, I didn't want to. I heard the evil law firm thing was over but that's it." She looked him straight in the eye. "Beyond that, I had no clue."

His took a thoughtful drag on his cigarette, head tilted on one side, regarding her. Then he gestured with his free hand. "Shall we?"

They began to walk towards the Porta Pinciano, together but not within touching distance. In fact, if she moved nearer to him, he moved away slightly, keeping the space between them.

"Lost three of the best," he agreed at last. "And the old man – Angel, that is – he'd lost Cordelia before that. Guess you heard about that too, Slayer?"

"Buffy," she said, patiently. "We've been on first name terms for a long time, Spike, remember? Yes, I heard about Cordy. I guess I should have said something to Angel, but he never mentioned her name."

He was looking at her now - really staring. "Funny, that," he said, "since he loved her an' all. Bit of an omission there."

She realised she must have gasped – winced – something, because suddenly his expression changed. He looked thoroughly contrite and wouldn't meet her eyes.

"Sorry, love," he muttered. "Low blow. Besides, it's none of my sodding business. I should have left it for Angel."

She tried to smile at him, annoyed with herself for being so hurt. After all, it wasn't as if she wanted Angel back, was it? It was no business of hers who he dated after they'd parted all those years ago, just as it was none of Angel's who she did. And that had come out dirtier in her head than she'd meant.

Spike meanwhile, was engaged in damage limitation.

"I mean, when I say he loved her, he had feelings for her – that's what he said, feelings, so who knows what the fuck that means, yeah? He could have meant raging hatred for all I know. That's old Peaches for you, love, clear as mud and that's on a good day."

"Still bottling it all up, huh?" She managed to smile at him, though she knew it was a bit of a wobbly smile, thinking that anyone else she could have coped with - but Cordy? It had to have been serious. Only Faith would have been harder to bear.

"Too fucking right," Spike was saying, and she didn't remember him using quite so many cuss words before – it must be the fugitive thing getting to him – "if brooding in the dark was an Olympic Sport, guess who'd win a gold medal for the old country? Should take him back there and make him kiss the sodding Blarney Stone. Maybe that'd stop him being such an anal retentive old git. "

She laughed and they carried on walking, the awkward moment past. Spike couldn't keep quiet for long, however.

"So," he said, "you and Supermario, eh? How'd that happen, Slay – er, Buffy?"

"Fabrizio," she repeated, patient. "His name's Fabrizio, Spike. I met him not long after Dawn and I came here. We were walking down the Spanish Steps and someone grabbed my bag off my shoulder and took off. Fabrizio saw what happened and stuck out a foot."

Spike rolled his eyes. "A white knight helping the damsel in distress," he said. "Might have guessed it."

She bristled a little at his choice of words. "I'm hardly a damsel in distress, Spike – Slayer here. Still, Dawn and I didn't know much Italian then so he was a big help to us – dealing with the police and so on. Then he bought us ice cream from this great place by the Trevi Fountain – you should see the lines there in the summer, their wild strawberry is to die for – and that was that."

"Love him, do you?" Spike blurted the words out as if he couldn't help himself, then ducked his head and looked contrite again. "Sorry. None of my fucking business, I know."

"Less of the swearing please, I don't like it, and no Spike, it's none of your business."

He looked so hangdog then that she took pity on him.

"However, since you ask – no, I don't love him. I don't think he's the kind of guy you love, more the kind that shows you a really good time until he finds someone new to interest him more and moves on. He's great to be with, but I can see him looking for that new thrill all the time."

Now the words were out, she knew they were true. Probably, up in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Fabrizio was busy looking right this very moment.

"Shows you a good time, eh?" There was a sort of half-sneer in Spike's voice that she didn't like at all. "Bet he does, the jammy sod. Rolling in it, isn't he?"

"He's rich, yes," she agreed, hanging on to her temper by a thread. "Very rich – and more than that, he's influential. He's been here since forever, Spike, and that may literally be true. They call him the king of Rome – not to his face because he doesn't like it – says Rome doesn't do kings - but it happens. He has a private audience with the Pope every week."

She watched him digest this and start working himself up to an outburst, then cut in, calmly before he could speak, "But I'm not his kept woman, if that's what you're thinking. I have a salary now from the Watchers' Council and they own my apartment, not him, and besides, I have a seat on the Council now too. We Slayers take it in turns."

"That so?" He looked like he didn't believe her. She just stared, challenging him to say more and in the end, as always, he backed down, inclining his head and subsiding into sullen silence.

They were back at the road now, following side streets back towards the Spanish Steps. It was a short walk from there to her tram stop.

"Where are you staying?" she asked, to break the silence again.

"What?" He was looking in the window of a bar they were passing, hesitating on the threshold. He looked disappointed when she shook her head.

"I have to get up early – Italian language class."

"Oh, right." He continued to follow her down the street and she realised he wasn't going to answer her question at all, because when he spoke again, his voice sounded forced – sort of mock-casual, and he was trying to change the subject. "Rome, 'ey? What a place! You wouldn't think it, would you, but I've stayed here quite a bit. Been run out of town by Wonder Ponce a few times over the years, but I always seem to end up coming back."

"You must have thrown a lot of coins in the Trevi Fountain," she offered, but he hunched his shoulders and scowled at the idea. He still didn't answer her question.

"Is there some reason why you don't want to tell me?" she asked, at last. "Where you're staying? Afraid I'll come calling and be disgusted by the way you guys are living?"

"What? What do you mean?" He sounded so hostile again suddenly – so like someone with a guilty secret he wanted to protect- that she stared. The faint suspicion that had been in the back of her mind since talking to Angel returned – more like it opened its bags and began to unpack, set on moving in for good.

She forced a smile. "I meant maybe you don't clean up after yourselves that well, dummy. What did you think I meant?"

He hunched his shoulders.

"Nothing, Slayer, all right? Drop it, why don't you? S'none of your bloody business anyway."

That was too much. She stopped walking suddenly and before he could react, she had him by the throat and backed up against the wall. She felt his Adam's apple jerk under her fingers – took a moment to savour his shock, then pressed right up against him, pinning him in place with ease, though he still tried to pull away from the contact. She could feel his ribs poking through the worn material of his black t-shirt. Oh boy, was he skinny!

"You're being awfully shifty, Spike, considering you were the one following me. For that matter, you have a nerve asking me all those questions about Fabrizio. I mean, where was my phone call, mister, tell me that? You know - the one that was supposed to let me know you were alive again? Instead, I have to worm the info out of that little weasel Andrew. Did you really think I'd be happier believing you'd burned to a crisp in the Hellmouth for the rest of my life?"

She let him go abruptly and stood back, leaving him gasping and clutching his throat, where the marks of her fingers could be clearly seen. Damn, she hadn't meant to hurt him – not him, after all the violence there'd been between them.

"I'm sorry," she said, quickly. "I'm really sorry, Spike. You made me kind of mad and –well, as you keep saying, I am a Slayer."

"S'okay," he croaked. "I asked for it really. Was rude. Was rude not to call as well."

He met her eyes for a moment, but then his gaze wandered, fixing itself on a point just over her head.

"I was scared, Buffy," he said, simply. "I didn't know whether I'd be welcome. I mean, I get that you were grateful to me an' all – died, didn't I, so you wouldn't have to – but you have a new life now and vampires aren't part of that – except when you kill them. I get that, love. Seemed best to stay well away – leave you to think kindly of me, which is more than I deserve anyway."

He looked small suddenly – not that he'd ever been big, of course, except in his imagination, though that could work wonders – shrunken, beaten down and tired.

"Are you eating at all?" she asked, her voice coming out snappier than she'd intended.

"Depends." He shrugged. "Bit difficult to find a steady supply of pigs' blood when you're on the run. Think we last ate – maybe the day before yesterday."

"That's partly why you're drinking so much, isn't it?" She'd seen his eyes stray back in the direction of the lighted bar and his throat jerk again. "That's your coping mechanism, isn't it, Spike? I've seen it before."

Then she shook her head impatiently because things kept happening to side-track her.

"Okay, I understand what you're saying – about not wanting to fall in my estimation after the big heroic death scene, but it was cowardly of you, Spike – a word I thought I'd never say in connection with you. I'm sorry you didn't feel you could trust me – couldn't believe what I said before I left you there in the Hellmouth. Because I meant it. I did."

Now he laughed, a mere breath, full of bitterness.

"It's all right, Buffy. You don't have to pretend. I know you still love Angel – could tell the minute you opened the door back at your place and saw the old man standing there. You looked like God had arrived on your fucking doorstep. Why'd you think I took myself off out of it, eh? Could see I was in the way."

And here it was – the jealous vampire crap she'd been dreading. She supposed that, unlike Angel, he didn't have the memory of first romance to buoy him up, but something a lot more ambiguous and harsh, and then there was that kiss he'd witnessed the night before the end. No wonder he'd doubted.

"Angel really should have bought you that drink, Spike. Maybe then we wouldn't be having this stupid conversation. Yes, I still love him. I'm not going to deny that. He's part of me and always will be."

He was turning away already when her words stopped him.

"Thing is, I love you too, and so are you."

When he turned back to her, his mouth was hanging open in astonishment and she felt a strong urge to close it with a kiss, but she resisted. She didn't think he'd take it well, the mood he was in.

"Like a friend, you mean?" he said, at last, sounding puzzled as much as anything. "You love me like a friend. Like Xander, maybe?"

She'd have laughed again if it weren't so tragic.

"No, you dope. Not like Xander – like – like – oh, I can't say how because I don't know. It's complicated."

"Sunnydale town motto, that," he muttered, and then he met her eyes and they both laughed. After this, it seemed quite natural to set off walking again, back towards the main streets and out of their little haven of relative quiet.

"Dunno how you can say you love us both at once," he said after a moment, covering his obvious embarrassment by lighting another cigarette. "I mean, you must love one of us more than the other – stands to reason. And what about wossisface? How does he fit in again?"

"I need to think about that some more." They were approaching the vast circle of Piazza del Popolo now, with its obelisk in the centre, beyond which was the shabby market area by the tram stops. The wind caught them as they reached it, making her shiver and pull her jacket tight around her. She paused on the edge of the open space and took a deep breath because this was bugging her and she wasn't letting him go without asking. "As for that loving two people at once thing – it doesn't seem to be bothering you and Angel. How long have the two of you been screwing anyway?"

"What?" His lit cigarette dropped from his fingers and rolled on the sidewalk. He backed off a few steps, his expression hunted. His eyes actually flashed yellow for a moment and she tensed, Slayer senses tingling.

"Where'd you get that idea? What's the stupid fucker been saying to you?"

She sighed, exasperated, while the way his obvious guilt confirmed her suspicion was making her insides churn up in a way that she wasn't sure she liked. "I'm not stupid, Spike. I knew without anyone having to say anything. It's okay, you know – I mean, I'm glad you guys have managed to move on too."

"Fuck moving on and fuck this an' all!" He was retreating fast, gathering his duster around him as if he finally felt the cold, and heading away from her in the direction of the Corso, which was still bustling in spite of the hour. If she didn't follow him, she knew she'd lose him, but suddenly it seemed like a good idea to let him go before things got even worse.

Let him go back to Angel, she thought, and tell him she was on to them, or drink himself under a table in some bar somewhere. She was all talked out for this evening anyway and now the ball was back in their court.

She watched until he disappeared from sight, lost in the sea of leather-clad young people that swarmed the Corso and the Via Condotti. Then she turned and headed for the tram-stop. She was shaking inside and her hair still needed washing.

Later, she lay in bed, hair squeaky clean, listening to the distant traffic noises that went on all through the night. She realised that she was pretty upset - a lot more upset than she'd realised earlier. This morning things had been humming along, situation normal, and now everything was so screwed up it felt like it could all explode in her face – her shiny new life, her thing – whatever it was – with Fabrizio. All of it.

Just because those two dumb vampires had come bursting back into her life with all their hang-ups that dovetailed with hers and their guilt and their anger. Boy, had Spike been angry! Was it some kind of macho thing – that she'd think him less of a man because he screwed around with Angel? Did she, in fact? She wasn't even sure and just now didn't want to go there. All she kept coming back to was how stupid she'd been to let either of them know how she felt about them still - was even as much as pleased to see them, let alone had feelings for them. She should have slammed the door in their faces – dis-invited them – whatever. She'd have to get Willow to go through that spell with her again next time they spoke.

She was sitting bolt upright now, seething. After all, hadn't she been honest with them and what had they given her in return? Less than the truth where Angel was concerned, especially to do with Cordy, and as for Spike – well, it was a good thing he was so very transparent that's all, or else she might have nothing to go on other than vague suspicion where what they were up to with each other was concerned.

She took a sip of water from the glass on the bedside table and tried to will herself to calm down. Probably, she should try and do one of those meditation exercises Willow had taught her- distance herself from it all and gain some focus. After all, she had to get up again in a few hours and go to class. She almost felt like crying when she remembered how fun it'd been just yesterday – flirting with Ryan the diplomat's son who sat in the next seat, even though he was kind of young for her, immersing herself in another culture and language that wouldn't at some point involve slime and ritual sacrifice and way too many teeth.

She'd been just starting to think that maybe she wasn't so dumb after all and that if she one day accepted Giles's offer of a permanent post of Slayer-Instructor at this new school for Slayers he was setting up, she'd have more to bring to the table than her demon-killing skills. Not that she'd been planning to accept any time soon, because she still had living to do first.

Now, she just didn't know. She felt thrust back into the turmoil of it all, back to when things to do with guys always seemed to hurt, no matter what. She couldn't think of Angel without longing and of Spike without guilt and it was all becoming impossibly tangled up together in her mind.

Why wouldn't they share with her?

She gave up trying to relax enough to sleep. There really was no point. Instead, she padded barefoot into the kitchen and put on water for tea. She'd have Earl Grey, which had always been Mom's favourite – soothing, she used to say.

The tea made, she curled up with it on the couch and leaned her head back. She was tired, that was for sure, and maybe she wasn't thinking straight. After all, Angel hadn't really stayed long. Maybe he would've told her about Cordy if there'd been more time, maybe even told her about Spike, though she had her doubts, because after she didn't help him, why should he trust her? It hadn't been her fight, he'd said, but maybe if he'd ever thought she'd come, it would have been different.

As for Spike, she'd have to give him some leeway because he obviously had such a massive chip on his shoulder and being around Angel when Angel was around her couldn't help with that. He must have spent so many years – more than three lifetimes – feeling pushed aside and ignored whenever Angel was in the room, it was no wonder that he kind of bristled up like a small, angry dog when in a situation like this.

She wondered if he was calmer when the two of them were alone together. Shutting her eyes, she tried to imagine it – to picture them hiding out in some run-down place - maybe somewhere in Trastevere that wasn't too yuppified – whiling away the hours of daylight with – with –

She'd watched a couple of gay porn movies at Fabrizio's place once. A friend of his was starring in them – some guy called Angelo – and he'd been there at dinner one time, all full of enthusiasm to show them his big moment. And it really had been big too – uncomfortably so, she would have thought, for the other guy involved, though he took it like a real trouper and made all the right noises - and besides, what did she know? She'd done it with Spike, of course – what hadn't they done? – but it'd been kind of painful, more exciting to anticipate than to experience.

But it was different for guys, anatomy-wise, and Angelo's partner in the movie sure looked like he got off on it. She'd kind of got off on it herself, watching them, which had surprised her, at least until they'd gotten to the money-shot which struck her as borderline icky. Fabrizio had apologised afterwards in case she'd been offended – explained that he'd lived so long that nothing could shock him now – but she hadn't been offended, and now she couldn't help playing scenes from the movie over in her head but with some subtle changes that her brain insisted on making.

Spike would bottom, of course. She couldn't imagine otherwise, when he was so much smaller than Angel, and at the moment skinny and almost fragile-looking too. She thought of his pale, slim body moving in the unmistakeable rhythm of sex, back arching, thigh muscles bunching as he rode Angel's cock. And Angel would lie there, relaxed as a big tawny cat, his skin gleaming gold in the dim light – because it was fire-lit and romantic where they were – his big hands grasping Spike's ass cheeks, holding them apart while that extravagant maleness that she remembered from their one night together ploughed upwards into the smaller man's body.

Woah! She sat up with a jerk, slopping hot tea all down herself, which made her yelp, to find that the heel of one hand was rubbing insistently at her crotch, scratching that terrible itch that was back and as bad as ever, and her pjs were already damp with more than just the tea. With a grimace of annoyance, she set her cup down and headed back to the bedroom.

It looked like she was doomed to spend some quality time with her little silver friend after all.

Buffy didn't catch as much as a glimpse of either vampire for the next few days, but she knew they were still around. Every time she went out after dark she was aware of one or the other – she was never sure which- somewhere close but out of sight. Several times she thought of calling them out, demanding they face her, but she always pulled back from doing so at the last minute. She was still angry with them both, even though time for reflection had made her see why they might not have felt share-y about their personal lives.

There was that business of Andrew telling Angel he was no longer trusted, for starters. She'd been more than a tad annoyed when irritating little mini-Giles had finally fessed up about what he'd said, but the trouble was, it had been true. She hadn't trusted Angel and the thought of Wolfram & Hart getting their claws on a Slayer – even a crazy one – especially a crazy one – still made her blood run cold. But she could see why that whole business could have made Angel feel non-share-ier than usual, which wasn't saying much. Then there was the time Giles had turned down some request of Angel's for help, which she only knew about because Willow let it slip, not to mention the whole lack of interest in the big L.A. destructo-rama. As for Spike, there was the aforementioned chip on the shoulder about Big Daddy Angel he had going, which she'd seen up close and personal too many times to find surprising.

But still, even though she knew it was stupid and unreasonable of her, she felt excluded and it hurt.

She tried to carry on as normal, went to classes, talked to either Willow, Dawn or Giles on the phone most days – even to Xander once, on a very crackly line from Timbuktu of all places - did some shopping, which was balm for the soul, if not for her Watchers' Council corporate credit card – new boots were so a slaying necessity – but all the time, she was getting more wound up at knowing they were out there, in full-on stealth mode, watching her. And it wasn't just that. There were undercurrents stirring, especially amongst the demon community, which she was on the periphery of, being a Slayer and the Immortal's girlfriend to boot. Most of the demon clans in the city owed Fabrizio in some way or other and if she needed information, it was usually easy to find someone who'd cough up.

However, on the hiding place of two foreign vampires, new in town, there was a deathly silence, and she very much had the impression of people – creatures – whatever – drawing into themselves in preparation for something bad. Whatever hornet's nest Angel had stirred up in L.A., the hornets were still mad at him, she reckoned, and they were on their way to collect.

What's more, the weather continued cold – miserably so. Sometimes it even sleeted.

Fabrizio called. He told her he missed her and invited her to join him. He'd met an old friend in Cortina d'Ampezzo – he had so many!- and was staying on a while longer to party with the guy. So he hadn't met anyone more interesting yet, she'd found herself thinking – Buffy the cynic – and then she'd told him she missed him too and turned the offer down. Learning to ski while she shopped would have to wait for a time when she didn't have vampire problems to deal with, if such a time ever came.

One night almost a week after Spike and Angel had come to town, she went slaying in the Foro Romano again. That place needed sweeping quite often because what with being all shut up at night and yet easy to access if you had super-strength, it was kind of a vamps' playground. They could drag their victims in there and have themselves a real good time all undisturbed. One night she'd chased one particularly sprightly vamp all the way down the Via Sacra as far as the Arch of Titus then over the Palatino and into the Circo Massimo. They'd run the whole way round the track once before she'd realised what she was doing and cut across at the half-way point and dusted him. Take that, Messala!

It all seemed pretty quiet except for the ever-present traffic when she came over the fence from the Via Foro Romano, but it didn't take her long to flush out first a courting couple, who should have known better than to be where they were, and then a pair of vamps creeping along behind them with seriously murderous intent. She practised a few quippy Italian phrases on the couple when she told them to get lost and on the vamps as she slew, because her tutor said practice was very important and once she'd gotten really good, she'd start thinking in Italian too. That hadn't happened yet, but the vamps seemed quite impressed. One of them even laughed, though maybe she'd made a grammatical error, she wasn't sure. No way he'd be telling, though.

That done, she walked on in the direction of the Curia, her steps slowing as she went. It was kind of creepy here but she loved it all the same. It had all the cemeteries in Sunnydale beat hands down for atmosphere. She was surrounded by history – stones so old they'd seen it all - and she let herself sink into the new-found thrill of it. She'd discovered a liking for history at college, of course – the picture books helped – but not like this. Now it seemed almost real – as if, if she scrunched her eyes up real tight and made a wish, she might open them and find herself listening to one of Cicero's speeches – Fabrizio said they'd been riveting – or maybe see a Triumph with the Emperor in his chariot and the crowd all cheering. And who knew, there could have been a Slayer there, watching.

Not that she was in favour of triumphing over your fallen foes when they were human, of course, but it gave the warrior in her a guilty thrill all the same. Maybe she wouldn't have imploded the way she had after Sunnydale if she could have had a victory parade.

Her new-found history fetish was doubtless something to do with Fabrizio who was living, breathing history in a way that no vampire ever could be, but she knew it was something that would stay with her long after Fabrizio moved on. She might have a butterfly brain – skipping from one thing to another and forgetting all the details – but she loved the rock-solid – literally - foundations of it all, anchoring her to the past, reminding her that it wasn't so much good or bad but merely indifferent.

She caught another vamp up by the Curia, not long risen by the look of him, and let him run a little way before she brought him down. The thrill of the hunt, too – that'd be with her always. She embraced it now as part of her as she'd never quite been able to do when she'd been the sole Chosen One. Somehow, seeing the sheer joy on those girls' faces in the Hellmouth when they came into their full power had made her see it all differently – not a curse but a gift.

She paused to rest for a few moments near the site of Julius Caesar's cremation, where people still came to leave flowers, and that was when Angel finally decided to join her, a piece of shadow detaching itself from a larger patch near the Curia. He crossed the open space towards her, glancing once back over his shoulder, then stopped a short distance away and gestured to the monument.

"Every year," he said, "on the night of the Ides of March, someone comes and leaves a single red rose on this site. No one has ever been able to catch them, no matter how they try. Weird, huh?"

"It's Fabrizio," she said, dead-pan. "He told me Julius Caesar was a personal friend."

The way his jaw dropped at this was a joy to behold. It wasn't that often she managed to surprise him by knowing more than he did.

"And you believed him?" he – well, almost spluttered, at last.

"Sure." She twirled her stake in her hand and gave him what she hoped was a cool smile. "Why shouldn't I? He's really old, Angel, you know that."

For a moment, from the way his heavy brow drew into a disapproving frown, she thought he might blurt out, way too old for you, which would be kind of ironic, but he checked himself and said: "Walk with me, Buffy?"

"Sure," she said, again, and they set out walking down the Via Sacra towards the Piazza del Colosseo, for all the world – she told herself – like two Ancient Romans off to see the Games. Except that she was sure Ancient Romans would never have been so completely silent, because it'd been even noisier here then than it was now if Fabrizio's stories were true. She looked at Angel out of the corner of her eye, looming big and black beside her. There was a bruise on his temple, she now saw, and what looked like a healing claw-scratch on his right cheek. He looked tired and his face was drawn.

"Things not so good, huh?" she ventured, after a while.

"Could be better," he agreed. "We'll have to get going soon, Buffy. We have maybe another week tops."

Although she'd been half-expecting it because of the furtive way he was behaving, not to mention the sense of foreboding that overlay the city and made her Slayer hackles rise, her stomach seemed to plummet into her boots at his words. She stopped dead and turned on him.

"And you've stayed away from me all this time beca-ause?"

His face went blank between one word and the next.

"Things have been – well, difficult," he ground out at last, as if speaking at all was suddenly very hard. "I don't really want to talk about it."

She realised at once that he didn't just mean because he and Spike were fugitives, on the run from who knows what. Suddenly, that bruise on his temple seemed to stand out more than ever.

"I'm sorry if you guys are fighting," she said. "I'd have thought you had enough on your plates."

He grimaced but didn't try to deny it. "Yeah, me too, but Spike can be a bit – unreasonable sometimes."

"I remember." Even as she said it, she wished she didn't remember, and at the same time, she was overcome with curiosity to know if Angel knew about that. She thought, probably not, though with vampires you never could be sure what they'd find – Was 'upsetting' the right word, she really couldn't say?

"He wanted us to leave straightaway," Angel said, suddenly. "He wouldn't say why but of course, I knew. He still loves you, Buffy, and I think being round you makes him kind of hate me – not that he didn't before, but still –"

She didn't answer because she couldn't, and the silence dragged on all the way to the locked gates of the Palatino. Finally, she couldn't stand it any more.

"And you?"

"What?" He'd obviously been thinking about something else, but at her words, he focussed on her again and she saw realisation dawn in his eyes. "Goes without saying," he said, quickly. "That'll never change, Buffy, you know that."

"Do I?" She couldn't help the creeping bitterness in her tone. "Spike told me you were in love with Cordy, Angel. Were you going to tell me about that or did you think it'd be too cruel?"

He flinched. "Cruel?"

"I'm not a little girl any more, Angel, in case you hadn't noticed. I don't need protecting from anything, least of all the truth. If you're over me, you should have said, not let me ramble on about how I still love you when all the time all you can think about is her."

Damn, that had come out way more jealous bitch than she'd meant. He looked stricken and for a moment she thought he was going to do what Spike had done and take to his heels. "I'm sorry," she said, quickly, to forestall him. "I had no right to say that."

He stared at her a moment longer, dark eyes unreadable in his weary, handsome face. Then he said: "No, you didn't, but I'm sorry too. It's hard for me, Buffy – saying stuff, even when I know I should. If it helps, Spike gives me a hard time about it most days too."

"Not really – help, I mean. It doesn't help." She bit her lip, then impulsively reached out and grabbed his big, cool hand in hers.

"Come home with me, Angel. You said we needed to talk last time, and I agree. We really, really do. I can't have you leaving with all this stuff unsaid, 'kay?"

He hesitated and she wondered if he would cry off because of Spike, but then he said: "Okay."

They found a taxi at the nearest rank and Buffy spent most of the journey north across the river talking nineteen to the dozen in Italian about how much she loved Rome to distract the driver from looking in his mirrors and spotting Angel's non-reflection. The guy didn’t seem to mind, though, and she was pretty sure that if it hadn't been for Angel sitting there, he'd have propositioned her – which would have been gross, since he had to be at least forty and with a sizeable gut, but never mind, since it did the trick.

She wasn't sure whether Angel would have euros but when she started fumbling in her purse for the fare, he produced a wad of cash from seemingly nowhere and beat her to it. There was nothing for it then but to lead the way up the stairs to her apartment, and now she was wondering why the hell she'd asked him back here. They should have gone for coffee instead. However, she let herself in and heard him close the door behind him, the snick of the lock terribly final somehow. No going back now.

He stood awkwardly, taking up too much space, as he often seemed to do, and she tried to smile at him to put him more at ease.

"Take your coat off, Angel – that is, unless you're cold or something."

He hesitated then with great reluctance, did as she said. Underneath the leather his clothes were shabby and didn't look too clean. There was even a rip in the knee of his pants that had been badly mended and then ripped again, it looked like. The filled-out appearance he'd had the last few times she'd seen him was completely gone, though he still looked big because he was so tall and broad-shouldered. But somehow the loss of bulk hadn't made him look younger and she thought that it wasn't true that vampires never aged. That the years lay heavy on him anyone could see.

"Oh, Angel," she said, before she could stop herself, "what have they done to you?"

He hunched his shoulders. "Sorry. I'm a mess, I know."

"Let me wash your clothes for you," she offered. "There's bound to be something of Fabrizio's here you can wear in the meantime."

His face went hard at the mention of that name. "No, thanks," he said. "I'm fine as I am."

It was on the tip of her tongue to say, don't be stupid, but she stopped herself. After all, when it came to the jealousy thing, who was she to talk?

"Okay, then," she said. "Have a seat while I make some coffee – or would you prefer tea?"

"Neither, it's all right." He was kind of hugging himself now and she heard his stomach growl. This was getting stupid.

"Excuse me a minute," she said.

In the bedroom, she called the butcher who supplied Fabrizio's household – which was large and always changing both in numbers and in species – and asked him to courier over as much fresh blood as could be fitted in a cool box. When she went back into the living room, she could see that Angel had overheard the conversation and wasn't happy.

"Don't argue," she said. "Besides, you can take what's left and give it to Spike. He's wasting away, Angel. I've never seen him so thin – well, maybe I have, but he wasn't healthy then either."

She put the TV on for him – some soccer game – and went to freshen up while they waited for the delivery, coming back out of the shower to find Angel at the open door, fumbling in his pockets again.

"Put it on the Palazzo account," she said, quickly, in Italian, and the delivery man waved Angel's proffered cash away with a quick, "Si,signorina," and a rather obsequious bow in her direction before leaving. Fabrizio had clout in this city, so much clout that it even rubbed off on his girlfriend, no matter how temporary. The delivery guy gave Angel a sharp look before he went, though, and she wondered how long it would be before word had gotten round that the Immortal's mantenuta was entertaining other men at her apartment. That Fabrizio himself would come to hear of it within days, she was only too certain.

It was a measure of how little she really knew him, she supposed, that she had no idea what he'd think.

She took the cool box into the kitchen and decanted one of the blood bags into a tall glass. She couldn't remember whether Angel liked it heated or not so she took it back as was and offered it to him. He took the glass hesitantly, but she saw when the smell hit him full on because before her eyes, his face transformed, becoming monstrous and golden-eyed, and he tipped the glass back and began to drink.

She watched, fascinated in spite of herself, as the muscles in his strong throat worked greedily while he swallowed – voracious, that was the word she was looking for, as vampires always were. She supposed they couldn't help themselves, it was just their nature. When he put the empty glass down on the table and looked at her with those eerie yellow eyes, tongue busy chasing the last drops from bloodied fangs, she flinched. She couldn't stop herself. It was a far cry from that tender moment on the skating rink when she was only sixteen and she'd kissed him without even noticing those fangs. Since then, she'd seen his face transformed into a mask of hatred and cruelty, all set on tearing her down and destroying her. She hated his vamp face now and always would.

He must have seen it in her expression, because he changed at once and looked away from her, with a muttered, "Sorry."

"Do you want more?" she asked, to cover her distress and he nodded silently, staring at the TV now and looking more beaten down than ever.

While she was in the kitchen, she made herself coffee, then took both coffee and blood back to him and sat down on the couch beside him. He sipped the blood this time, staying firmly in human face.

"I don't like to see you like that," she said, after another of those awkward silences. "It reminds me –"

"Yeah, I know," he said. "I'm sorry, Buffy. More sorry than I can ever really say."

She knew he meant for everything – for losing his soul like that – though it hadn't been his fault – for the things he'd said to her during that horrible time; things that seemed branded on her memory and that still hurt so bad when she thought of them her mind tried to blank them out. He meant for leaving her too, she knew, and for all the sins of omission since.

"If you're sorry," she said, in answer, "tell me the truth now – about you and Cordy – you and Spike too. And I want to know more about what happened in L.A. and where you're going, Angel, and if I'll ever see you again. Just tell me everything."

It took a long time, and she could tell that he was still holding stuff back – things he was particularly ashamed of, maybe – and he said very little about Spike. However, she did gather that he really had had deep feelings for Cordy that somehow got all twisted and spoilt and then she'd died anyway. There'd been someone else too since then - a girl called Nina - but he'd finished it before things went bad for him back home. She supposed that his dating history compared quite well to her own since they'd broken up with each other, except that he hadn't – unless he wasn’t telling – had a disastrous one night stand, like hers with Parker Abrams.

By the time he ground to a halt, he'd finished the second glass of blood and she'd drunk all her coffee. She felt wired up now, and he looked a little better. Maybe it had helped to get it off his chest?

"I'm really sorry about Cordy," she said. She wanted to reach out and pat his shoulder or something but she didn't quite dare. He flashed her a grateful look. "She was one of the best, Buffy – a true champion, like you – and when I think of what was done to her, it makes me so angry I can't stand it. She was my friend – much more than that - but she's gone and there's nothing I can do."

"And Nina?"

"It could have been something good, but there just wasn't time." He smiled that glorious smile, tinged with sadness. "There's never enough time, even when you're immortal."

"That's what Fabrizio says," she agreed, and steadfastly ignored the irritated look that passed over his face at mention of the name. "What about you and Spike, though? You hardly mentioned him."

He shrugged – looked embarrassed, though not horrified the way Spike had.

"What do you want me to say, Buffy? We're vampires, he's family – that's all you need to know."

"So you are screwing him?" She managed to stop herself asking about the top/bottom thing, but only just.

His face had gone unreadable again.

"He tell you that?"

"No, he flipped when I asked him - told me to eff off. He never used to be so foul-mouthed, Angel – not to me anyway."

"He's just reverting to type." He was looking at her now and she realised belatedly that, all unwitting, she'd changed the subject for him. "He's on edge, Buffy. We both are. It doesn't bring out the best in people."

She sighed to herself. There was no point trying to dig further if he wasn't willing to talk about it. Besides, her own prurient interest in the mechanics of it all was beginning to creep her out.

"Because of what happened in L.A.?" she asked instead.

He nodded. "We took on Wolfram & Hart – tore them down in L.A., at least temporarily, but they're far from beaten in this dimension. They've been after us ever since, hounding us from place to place, killing those who sheltered us. Spike's friend Clem –"

He stopped when he saw the look on her face.

"Oh God, I'm sorry, Buffy. I didn't know he was your friend too."

There were tears on her cheeks. She grabbed a tissue from the box on the table and dabbed at her eyes, stared down at the black mascara stains on it. "He was harmless," she said.

His hand was on her shoulder then, big enough to cover it completely, and before she knew what she was doing, she was in his arms, held close against him, sobbing quite openly. All she could think of was Clem's stupid, good-natured face with those snaggle-teeth and floppy ears, holding out the bag of Cheetos and offering her a tissue when that old Bogart movie had made her cry.

"I watched Casablanca with him," she said at last, into Angel's chest, which was reassuringly firm against her cheek.

"I'm sorry," he said again. "I didn't know you knew him. Spike never said."

Her sobs had quietened now and she sat still for a while, listening to the non-beating-ness of Angel's heart. His body was slowly warming to her touch and she felt comfortable; safe almost, the way she'd used to feel with him long ago. At the same time, she remembered how Spike had always been so careful to warm his hands before he touched her, that year she'd let him in – except for when she'd wanted the cold, the icy alien-ness of him. He'd always done what she wanted except that once, even when what she'd wanted had been for him to hurt her.

And why she was thinking of that now, here in Angel's arms, she didn't know, except maybe it was because she felt that same desperation inside at the thought of Angel leaving, as Spike must have felt around her, and it scared her. Way to show Angel how grown up she was.

With an effort, she lifted her head from his chest and looked up at his face, which was peaceful – quiet, as if the inner turmoil had stilled for a moment. "I'm sorry too," she said. "I didn't mean to make your shirt all wet."

"It's okay." His voice was absent-sounding, as if he was somewhere far away in his head. "I have another."

"Only one?" She attempted a joke. "That's so not like you, Angel. You were always quite the clothes horse."

"Was not!" He looked affronted. "You sound like Spike," he said, and there was the missing third person back in the room again.

"Why can't I see you both together?" she asked. "We're okay now, aren't we? I told Spike how I feel. Why can't we just sit down and talk - the three of us?"

"No," he said, abrupt suddenly. "Not the way you mean, Buffy. It doesn't work like that."

"The way I mean? And what way is that exactly? Did you think I meant some kind of kinky threesome, Angel, because I didn't, okay?"

Had she? She didn't even know. In fact, she shouldn't be thinking about sex with either of them. That was long over, wasn't it? She listened to him apologising again but her mind wasn't really on it now. Instead, she tried to imagine what it would be like, and who would be the meat in that sandwich anyway? Spike, maybe, since he was the one who seemed to need the most reassurance, but maybe not, because she didn't currently feel too reassured herself. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to expel through closed lids the picture that insisted on painting itself there, of herself held fast in Angel's arms, that crisscrossed her torso, trapping her breasts between them. And there was Spike in front of her, blond head lowered to catch a nipple between his teeth and tease it to a peak, while both their hands worked her open, fore and back, readying her for a dual invasion.

She shivered and backed off from Angel, thinking that it must be his proximity that was doing this to her. He was looking at her oddly, she noticed and God, yes, she must smell like a cat in heat. She felt her skin flush and had a sudden urge to go take another shower.

"It's late," Angel said, suddenly. "I should be getting back. Spike'll be wondering where I am."

"No, stay." The words were out before she could stop them. At the look on his face, she hurried on. "You can have my bed if you like, or sleep on the couch. Andrew slept on it for weeks. He said it was comfy."

"I don't think that's –" he began, and now her temper frayed a little again. She was more wound up than she'd thought. Maybe she should have slain a few more vampires before coming home.

"I can keep my hands off you, you know – whatever the olfactory evidence," and the bemused look on his face at her use of that word made her crosser still. Did he think she was stupid as well as still sixteen? "Can't blame a girl for fantasising, can you?"

"About me and Spike?" He sounded scandalised, and she would have laughed if it hadn't been true.

"Kind of, but never mind." She got up from the couch. "I'll fetch you some blankets."

In the bedroom, she took a few minutes to compose herself, sitting on the bed and repeating one of the mantras Willow had taught her in her head. It was supposed to make her inner being all fulfilled and peaceful but it didn't usually work for her that well. She was probably too shallow and selfish or something, because she just wanted what she wanted. It didn't work very well now either but at least it gave her some breathing space. When she went back into the living room, Angel was putting away a cell phone with a terse, "See you tomorrow," that made it only too clear who he'd been speaking to.

"You guys have cells?" she couldn't help asking. It felt like discovering that the Ancient Romans had had them to think of Angel and Spike with cell phones, though why she didn't know. Spike at least had always tried to keep up with the times – aggressively so - and as for Angel, he'd been the C.E.O. of Wolfram & Hart. That had to mean conference-calling and expense accounts and all those things that business people had, right?

"We change the SIM cards every time we move on," Angel said. Then he gestured to the blankets in her arms. "This has to mean exactly what you said, Buffy. I sleep on the couch and tomorrow, I go. We can't – that is, I mean, you and I can't –"

His voice petered out. What he was seeing in her face, she didn't really know, but he almost looked scared for a moment.

"It's okay," she said, stiffly. "Your virtue is safe with me, Angel. Besides, even if it wasn't, there's always the curse." She felt cruel even mentioning it, but he'd started all this, being so manly and protective and getting her all hot. "Another visit from Angelus is the last thing we need, don't you think?"

"I'm not worried about that," he said, and then faltered again, as if realising how that might sound to her. "I mean, it's not that it wouldn't make me happy. Oh, God, Buffy, the thought of being able to make love to you again the way I always wanted – it'd be a dream come true. But that perfect happiness? It's just not gonna happen. Just knowing about the curse is enough to stop me feeling it, believe me."

She'd stopped listening right around the 'make love to you' part. It sounded so strange and old-fashioned in English and it was just so typically Angel, the way she remembered him, that she couldn't help smiling. She forced herself to listen again because he was still talking.

"But you have to understand that Spike and I can't stay. Bad things are coming Buffy, and we have to leave this city before they arrive, for everyone's sake, especially yours. They didn't spare Spike's friend, and they sure as hell won't spare you."

That made her sit up and take notice.

"How long?"

"Like I said, a day or two, maybe three. Luckily, they always telegraph it so we have plenty of warning. Spike thinks they're herding us – narrowing down our options - and I think he's right."

She was confused. "So you're saying they want you to go where you're going?"

"Maybe. At any rate, someone does. And, we probably won't be back, Buffy. Not in your life time anyway."

The pile of blankets fell unheeded to the floor. She stared at him, stricken. Of course, he'd said before, but she hadn't realised just how bad it was until now. He was looking at her ruefully, hands thrust in pockets. "Now do you see why Spike is so mad at me?" he said. "This is my fault. I did this, Buffy, and he's been caught in the backwash with no option but to go with me."

And me, she wanted to say. Am I collateral damage too? Instead, she busied herself picking up the blankets and then thrust them at him. "I don't believe that," she said. "Spike's a big boy, Angel, and he makes his own choices. If he's with you, it's because he wants to be, even –" and she couldn't help a bitter smile – "if it's just to make your life a misery."

She went to bed then, feeling self-righteous for all of five minutes, before the delayed shock kicked in. This was it. She'd never see them again, and in spite of telling herself over and over in the days after leaving Sunnydale that she was finished with the whole vampire thing, she knew now that it wasn't really so. She was having fun, it was true, learning stuff – but as far as her life went, she'd made no real decisions for far too long. She'd been in a kind of holding pattern, as if waiting for something, and now, it looked like that thing had arrived.

Abruptly, she got up out of bed again and marched back into the living room, to stand over Angel who'd only just lain down. She put her arms akimbo, hoping she looked scary as heck.

"You know what," she said. "I don't care what I just said about your vampire-ly virtue or what you say either. I need to know, Angel. I need to know what it could have been like, and until I do, you aren't leaving this room."

He stared at her for long moments, unreadable as always, but then slowly his face softened, and he reached out and drew her towards him. "Come here, Buffy," he said, and it was only then that she realised she was shaking all over, just like that first time in his Sunnydale apartment; an awful bone deep shaking that turned into something altogether softer – more profound – when his fingers undid her pj top and slid themselves inside. Big, careful hands found her breasts and squeezed them gently, playing with her nipples, while she leaned forward into his embrace to take his mouth with hers.

His hands slid down her flanks shaping themselves round the curve of her buttocks to draw her flush against his body and the whole time his tongue was in her mouth. She felt herself growing damp where she rubbed against his thigh and squeezed her legs together to let him feel it. He let go her mouth, with a moan, banging his head once, twice on the couch cushions

"Oh, God, Buffy," he said, as he had before. "You're so beautiful – so - There's no one like you."

He rolled their bodies so that she lay under him, staring down at her with a look on his face that she couldn't begin to describe. Words were pretty meaningless just now anyway, she decided, wrapping her Slayer-strong legs around his waist to bring him inexorably towards her.

Long before she felt the thick rod of flesh pushing its way into her body, that opened to it eagerly, drenching it in a flood of grateful moisture, she had him sobbing and gasping too – calling her name – and she knew without a shadow of a doubt she'd shown him that she wasn't a little girl any more.

Buffy woke with that disorienting suddenness that catches you when you aren't where you expect to be. She opened her eyes slowly, wondering why her arm was numb. When she looked down it was to discover that the reason was a heavy, dark-haired head trapping it against the couch cushions. She was naked too, and the big body of the man who lay on top of her wasn't so good in the heat-providing department.

"Angel, let me up."

He stirred and muttered in his sleep – something about cookie dough mint choc chip, which was very weird, even for him - then rolled over and off the couch onto the floor with a yelp. She giggled. Sitting up, she wrapped one of the fallen blankets round her one handed while she shook her arm to get rid of the numbness. The light in the room was odd this morning, extra-white somehow, and it was very quiet outside.

While Angel gathered himself together, she went to the window and peered out through the slats of the closed blinds, only to gasp in astonishment and draw them up completely.

"It's snowing. Come and look, Angel, it's amazing."

Inevitably, she was reminded of that Christmas night in Sunnydale when Angel had tried to kill himself and miraculous snow had kept the deadly sunrise away. The street outside was thickly carpeted, the road invisible under a cold white shroud, through which a few tyre tracks meandered, showing where people had tried to drive. As she watched, someone came down the hill on a vespa, only to slide sideways into a deep drift and then pick himself up with a great deal of fuss and arm-waving.

"This never happens here," she said, in wonder. Angel was beside her now, another blanket draped round his broad shoulders. "No," he said, and his voice was grim. "It doesn't."

Immediately, her sense of child-like wonder was gone and a shiver ran down her spine. "Is this it?" she asked. "Are they here – whoever is after you? Is this them?"

"Harbinger," he said, shortly. "There's always something – rain of toads, fiery crosses in the sky, maybe perpetual darkness – but always big with the melodrama. It was snow in Rio too."

"You were in Rio?" she asked stupidly, then shook her head, impatient with herself. "How long, Angel?"

His voice was dull. "Not long at all."

Suddenly, she thought of Spike, waking up alone to this, and her heart ached for him. Even so, she took Angel's hand in hers and said: "Stay. You'll be safer here, Angel. I can get them to bring more blood."

He pulled his hand gently away and walked back towards the couch, gathering his clothes together. Her eyes fixed themselves on his tattoo as he bent and straightened, the intricate black lines seeming to crawl over the smooth skin of his back as if it were animate.

"I need to get back to Spike," he said, as if he hadn't heard her. "At least with this weather, I don't need to wait till tonight."

He sounded like he'd forgotten her already and that stung.

"Are we finished then?" she asked, trying to keep the plaintive note out of her voice. "Are we?"

He was pulling on his pants and kept his back to her.

"I don't know, Buffy. You tell me. You must know that as far as I'm concerned, we'll never be really finished – not the way you mean – but you can see for yourself, I can't stay and neither can Spike."

She couldn't think naked she realised, so she hurried into the bedroom and threw on her clothes from yesterday. While she dressed she dreaded hearing the door slamming and him leaving without even saying goodbye. When she went back into the living room, however, he was standing, fully dressed and back in his coat, hesitating on the threshold.

"Don't tell me you're sorry," she said, at once. "It was me jumped your bones, remember?"

"I let myself be jumped," he said, mildly. "It was amazing, Buffy. You're amazing, and you've grown into quite a woman. Thank you."

And suddenly, she was engulfed in his arms, being hugged so hard that breathing became kind of difficult. She put both hands round his neck and hauled herself up him like a cat, squirming until she could meet his mouth and close it with hers. She thought he'd stay then, but he didn't, just hugged her one more time, and put her down. Then he did that vampire swirly coat thing and was gone.

She watched him emerge from the front door and disappear down the hill, sure-footed as a wolf in the snow, which was still falling heavily and soon hid him from sight. She realised that she was hugging herself again and let go with a sigh of frustration. Her head was whirling and she wasn't sure at all how she felt, except that the desperation was gone, or at least muted. Maybe it was the sight of the evil snow and what he'd said about it, but somehow she'd come full circle again; to feeling that yes, there'd been closure between her and Angel, and she could live with that even if it didn't exactly make her happy. Besides, the two of them surviving – her vampires - was suddenly far more important than her feelings for them and she almost wished them gone already if it meant they'd be safer.

The phone rang and she jumped like a scalded cat. It was Giles, who'd seen a news story on TV about the freak weather in Rome and wanted to know if she was all right. She assured him she was but said nothing more. After all, Giles was like her dad and he had to expect that the older she got, the less she'd want to share with him, especially when it had to do with former boyfriends who just so happened to be vampires. She knew from his tone that he guessed she was hiding something, but he also knew better than to ask these days. Anyway, he hid stuff from her all the time.

She wandered into the kitchen afterwards and saw with annoyance that Angel had forgotten the cool box, maybe on purpose. He really did seem to have issues with Fabrizio, as did Spike, and she suspected they weren't all to do with her. Besides, hadn't Spike said Fabrizio had run him out of town a few times? She wondered why. He must have caused a lot of trouble. After all, it wasn't as if Fabrizio objected to vampires on principle or anything; in fact, he claimed that some of his best friends were vampires. She wasn't sure she believed that but she did know that beyond his endless search for amusement, Fabrizio only cared about his city. Treat it well, and he didn't care who – or what – you were.

She made herself coffee and drank it with almond biscotti then called the school to learn, without surprise, that classes were cancelled for today. Probably, the city was impassable to all save the very intrepid and the very desperate. After that, she looked through the closet in Dawn's room until she found her sister's old hiking boots, which she could wear as long as she also wore two pairs of thick socks inside them. They might come in handy later, because there was no way she was letting Spike leave town without clearing the air between them too, even if she had to go look for him.

She was just thinking that maybe she'd take a quick shower and then venture out, though it was a long way back into the centro storico if no buses or trams were running, when there was a loud knock on the door and her vamp-dar went off the scale. Maybe Angel had changed his mind or come back for the cool box or maybe this time, it really was some local vamp looking to get famous by killing a Slayer? She grabbed a stake from her jacket pocket and flung open the door.

"Buffy." Spike nodded to her curtly. "Peaches still here, is he?"

She didn’t quite know why she was so surprised. Maybe it was just that he'd been so hostile at their last meeting, she hadn't expected him to seek her out again of his own accord. He was breathing heavily, leaning against the doorframe, his hair and coat wet with snow. A hand was pressed to his side where he was obviously hurt, and his gaunt face was haggard.

"No, he's gone," she said. "He left an hour ago. Come in Spike, why don't you," and before he could back off or say any more, she grabbed his arm and pulled him inside, slamming the door shut behind him.

"I'm not sodding well staying," he said, mutinously, but she took no notice, just steered him over to the couch and pushed him down onto it. It was a measure of his weakness that he let her, but he couldn't help a muttered protest all the same.

"Let go of me, Slayer, I'm not a sodding baby."

Yeah, you are, she felt like saying, or you're acting like one, but she didn't say it, just waved an admonitory finger in his face. "Don't move."

In the kitchen, she poured more blood into a mug and stuck it in the microwave, because she remembered how he liked it from all that time he was living in her basement. It was just one of the many ways that she knew him better than she knew Angel, which didn't mean he'd necessarily be easier to deal with. Already, he was all bristled up like a cat whose fur had been stroked the wrong way and looked ready to bolt if he hadn't been almost out on his feet.

She stood over him hands on hips while he drank the blood, then brought him some more when he held the mug out wordlessly to her, in human face all the time. Not that she minded his demon face as much as she minded Angel's. It hadn't been that looking at her in the worst moments that she'd spent with him, after all.

When he set the second mug down on the table and belched loudly, she rolled her eyes and began to tug at his coat sleeve. "Off," she said, and he let her take it, though he still held his hand against his side. "Dammit, Spike, let me see."

When he proved stubborn, she hauled him to his feet again, although they threatened to give way beneath him, and dragged him into the bathroom, pushing him down onto the closed toilet seat and peeling him out of his old black t-shirt. His body was all gone to skin and bone, the muscles of his torso sculpted tight under the fine skin with not a spare inch of flesh to be seen on him anywhere. The worn material stuck to him at the point where he'd been pressing, and she eased it away carefully revealing the crusted wound underneath. It was still seeping a little but she could see the edges of it knitting slowly together so she contented herself with cleaning it thoroughly and covering it with a sterile dressing.

"Can't stay," he said, again, when she levered him onto his feet and guided him into the bedroom, but she didn't even bother answering, just pushed him down onto the bed on his back, unlaced his boots and flung them aside, then covered him with the quilt. He looked half-asleep already.

"Can't stay," he managed, a third time. "Gotta find the old man before he runs into trouble."

She didn't answer, just watched as his eyes closed and he drifted off. She continued to watch until his chest ceased the rise and fall that showed he was breathing and he lay still and waxy, as if he were dead.

She let him sleep for a couple of hours, staying well away because the sight of him unnerved her, as if she had a corpse hidden in her bedroom – which she sort of did, if you looked at it one way – during which time she watched some TV – mostly footage of the snow in Rome and the frozen river Tiber. Some people were enjoying it. Children were sledging and people who had skis were out on them in the Piazza Venezia where usually the traffic was king. Not that many, though, because it was still snowing – blizzarding, in fact, as if it would never stop. The anchorman was talking about fears for the safety of roofs around the city and the President and more importantly, the Pope, were due to make televised addresses later in the day.

She tried to picture the same thing happening in Rio and could only imagine shantytowns hurtling down the mountainside with the weight of snow on top of them and poor people freezing to death in the streets. Whoever had it in for Angel and his friends was really mad at them it seemed, and way powerful to boot.

Well, in the meantime, she'd gotten her other vampire here in the house with her and no way was he escaping this time by running away. Thinking this, she warmed up some more blood before depositing the rest in the freezer in case it spoilt and took it to Spike in the bedroom. He'd turned onto his uninjured side, which was creepy since he looked just as dead and not as if he should have been able to move at all. She put the mug carefully down on the bedside table before leaning over to shake his shoulder and was glad she had because he sat bolt-upright at once, in full vamp-face, with his lips drawn back from his fangs in a ferocious snarl.

"Easy, tiger," she assured him. "It's me Buffy, remember?"

He blinked feral yellow eyes at her then shuddered all over and made himself look human again, the bones of his face shifting in a way that made her feel just a bit queasy. Faces shouldn't be able to do things like that.

"I brought you some more blood," she said, and glanced surreptitiously at the wound in his side as he reached for the mug. No sign of leaks through the dressing, which was good, and maybe it was her imagination but already he didn't look quite so thin in the face. This blood must be good stuff, which you'd expect of course if the butcher thought it was wanted by Fabrizio. Only the best for the Immortal.

Spike drank the blood in a couple of quick, convulsive gulps, then wiped his hand across his mouth and glanced up at her through his lashes, almost shy.

"Thanks, Buffy," he said, still saying the name as if it was difficult for him. "Now, I'd better get going."

"Not so fast, mister." She put a hand in the centre of his chest and held him in place without effort. "You and I still have some talking to do, remember, what with you being so chicken and running away like that last time."

"Chicken?" He scowled at her indignantly but she took no notice.

"Yes, chicken. Angel wasn't afraid to admit to me that you guys sleep together and I don't know why you should be either, Spike, okay?"

"He did, did he?" He looked thunderous but beyond raising his scarred eyebrow he didn't make any further move. "Not that it's any of your fu- I mean, sodding business, Slayer, anyway."

"I guess not." Suddenly, the words seemed hard to get out. She had that picture in her head of them screwing again, only this time, Spike was clinging to Angel's neck as he rode him, his hands caressing the bigger man's face with a frantic tenderness while he whispered in his ear things that previously he'd only ever said to her.

"What is it?" Spike's voice interrupted her reverie, sounding impatient but also a little freaked out. Suddenly, his fingers were snapping right under her nose. "You still in there, Slayer?"

She focused on him again with difficulty, looking into hostile blue eyes in which fear warred with longing so deep it almost scared her. Some things hadn't changed.

"I'm sorry, must have zoned out there. I'm tired," she said, only to see his eyes become more hostile yet. Again, he made to get out of bed and again, she prevented him.

"Angel and I had sex," she said, to get it out of the way. "Angel and I made love," she went on, because it was the truth, even though it sounded weird even to her. "Deal with it, Spike, okay?"

She'd thought he might lose his temper again but instead, his shoulders slumped and he looked away across the room.

"Knew it," he said, in a dull voice. "Can smell him on you, Buffy. Could the minute I walked in."

She remembered then that she'd never showered or changed her clothes. Of course he'd smell it. She picked up his lax, cold hand and turned it over in hers, fitting them palm to palm, just as she had that day in the Hellmouth when his was burning in his death throes. "I felt he owed me," she said. "He and I, Spike – we never had that – not when I was old enough to know what I was doing - and I wanted it so much."

"Whereas sex was all we had," he shot back, bitterly. "Know that, Buffy. You don't have to bloody spell it out."

God, he could be dense! "Have you forgotten?" she asked. "Those last nights in Sunnydale when you held me in your arms and gave me your strength? You said they were the best nights of your life and I don’t remember any sex at all."

"Couldn't be, could there," he said, "not after – after –" He stopped, took a deep breath and looked her square in the face. "Not after I tried to rape you, Buffy. It wouldn't be right."

She sighed. She'd guessed he was still pretty fixated on that and in fact, she'd have thought a lot less of him if he hadn't been. "You did nearly rape me, Spike. I don't know if that's what you were trying to do – maybe not, but it hardly matters since that's what you did do. But anyway, I haven't forgotten. I doubt I ever will."

He looked away across the room. "Good. You shouldn't."

"I also haven't forgotten what you did to try and make amends," she went on, "nor that you and I – Angel and I – we're not normal people Spike, and normal people standards – well, they just don't apply to us – not with each other."

"You don't know the half of it," he muttered, but then he looked back at her again. "Don't want you thinking better of me than you should. Yes, I hated myself because of what I'd done to you, but I sort of hated you too for making me so weak."

His eyes held hers, begging her to understand and, she thought, not judge.

"I shouldn't have cared what I'd done in the first place, Buffy, see, being what I was. Finding that I did care - it almost drove me insane. But I was evil, and I thought like someone evil - you need to know that. I wanted to get back at you as much as anything – wanted to prove to you that you were wrong about me – that I could be a man too, not just a monster."

He laughed - a short bitter sound.

"'Course, the minute I got the soul I knew how fucking stupid I'd been. You can't change what you are – what you've done. The soul just illuminates it all, like a searchlight or something, so you can see yourself clearly, that's all – see what low-life scum you are."

"But you did change what you are," she said, patiently. "You became a hero, Spike – a champion. You died to save the world, remember? I'll never forget that either. In fact, it kind of cancels out the other thing completely, seems to me."

He seemed to be softening a little because at this he almost smiled at her and squeezed her hand in his. "Not sure I believe in all that karmic balance crap," he said, "but even if I did, I doubt that one thing can cancel out one hundred years of rape and murder. I was naοve to ever think it Buffy, but I've learned my lesson now, so never mind. Bound for hell, I am – me and Angel both."

His words chilled her with their fatalism, which was so unlike him.

"You've been thinking way too much about this," she said, "and I don't think it's been good for you."

He shrugged and gave her a half-smile. "Yeah, well, when you're trapped aboard a container ship with no company except Peaches in a major brood and an old demon-god who's far more interested in making friends with the local rat population than she is in you, there's not much else to do but think, is there? Except the obvious."

The oblique mention of sex with Angel– the closest he'd come to it so far – started up the familiar turmoil in her loins, and God, she must be sick. She moved a little closer to him.

"Angel told me about Cordy and about some girl called Nina he was dating. What about you, Spike? You find anyone new in L.A.?"

He hesitated, then took a deep breath and said, "Well, I nearly shagged Harmony." He sounded sheepish. "But she went all vamp face and tried to bite me just at the crucial moment, so I never did get my end away, if that's what you mean."

"Er- not exactly." She dropped his hand and glared at him, affronted. "Harmony?"

He hung his head. "Yeah, well – not proud of myself, Buffy. I should've known better, I know, but I'd been a ghost, see, and before that I'd been dead, and before that I'd handed my knackers to you on a plate because of – because of what happened, and then I got my body back and – well, men have needs you know, even undead ones like me."

"So you used Harmony?"

"Tried." He sounded thoroughly ashamed now and so he should be, she thought indignantly. It seemed he could still be male and stupid and think with his dick, just like all the others.

"But no one that you cared about?" she pressed, because he hadn't really answered her question.

"There was someone," he said, and now his face had gone soft with reminiscence and he glanced up at her shyly under his brows before he went on. "I made a friend there, Buffy – maybe the first real friend I'd ever had, apart from poor old Clem – a girl name of Winifred Burkle. Fred, they called her. She believed in me like you did, trusted me in spite of me being a vampire, and I'll never forget that as long as I live."

"She's dead, isn't she?" She didn't know how she knew but somehow it seemed inevitable. And he'd mentioned Clem, which brought the tears unbidden to her eyes again. Irritably, she wiped them away with the back of her hand and he glanced up at her, startled.

"Yeah," he said, after a moment. "She died and the whole sodding world fell apart. I think it was like the last straw for Angel – the thing that made him decide to take down Wolfram & Hart and fuck the consequences, and here we are now, in the shit up to our eyeballs and with the final load that's gonna drown us hanging just over our heads."

"Thanks for that lovely mental picture, Spike." At the same time, she was thinking that there was still a hell of lot Angel hadn't told her, which was just so typical of him; and none of this endless telling herself it was none of her business was going to make her feel less annoyed about it - and yes, hurt.

"Angel mention Illyria to you at all?" Spike asked, suddenly.

She blinked at him, confused, but then remembered Angel's cryptic words.

"Demon, former god-king of the universe? That Illyria?" she asked. "The rat-lover?"

He nodded. "That's her – or it, as I should most likely say. Some stupid fucker at Wolfram & Hart brought her out of storage – don't ask – and used this ancient mojo to bring her back to life. Trouble is, in order for that to happen, she had to take over a handy vessel and destroy what was already in it completely."

"Fred?" she guessed, and he nodded again, his face sober. "Got it in one, Slayer. It did for poor old Percy too. He'd been in love with the poor little bint for years."


"Sorry, Wes, I mean. You know – Giles Junior? How is dear old Rupert, by the way?"

"Still doesn't care for vampires," she said, and wasn't that an understatement. "He wouldn't be happy about this, Spike, but –as you and Angel keep saying, it's none of his business, is it?"

"Never was," he agreed. "Not since you came of age anyway. So, me, Angel and Illyria – far as we know, because we don't know about Charlie-boy - we're the only ones left and we're running out of time."

"Angel said Illyria gave you the slip. What did he mean?"

"Oh, she disappeared one day in France – probably saw a really interesting-looking plant she just had to talk to, I dunno – but she'll be back. My guess is – we get where we're going, she'll be there waiting. She can't escape what's coming any more than we can."

This was going well, she thought. He was being way more expansive than she'd ever imagined he'd be, but then he always had been a motor mouth once he got going.

"So – Africa?" she asked tentatively. "Why there? Also, Angel said you believe you're being herded so why go where they want you to go, Spike? That doesn't make sense."

"No bloody choice." He took her hand in his again, his fingers tracing the pattern of lines on her palm, as if it was the most fascinating thing he'd ever seen. "We're going where I went, Buffy, when I went to get my soul. Big, scary cave demon there can give us what we want – what we can't get elsewhere no matter how we try."

"And what's that?" There was a cold fluttering in the pit of her stomach now. She tried to ignore it, keeping her eyes fixed on his face, the soft lower lip and the curve of cheekbone. His Adam's apple jerked in his pale throat and he didn't look at her.

"A safe haven outside this dimension," he said. "A bolthole where we can lay low until the storm blows over – at least, that's what we're hoping for. Could just be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, who knows?"

She felt a single tear slipping down her cheek.

"Angel said you might not be back in my life time."

He'd gone very still. "Can't say," he said, at last. "Time is funny when you cross dimensions. You know that, love, from what you told me. Best if you don't expect us, though."

"Spike –" She wasn't sure what she'd wanted to say, but the words wouldn't come. He smiled at her sadly and squeezed her hand. "S'okay, Buffy. This world doesn't need us any more now there're all you Slayers. Besides, the Powers That Kick Your Arse aren't finished with us yet, I know that for certain, so we've no choice but to go where they send us, what with having burnt all our bridges."

"Oh." It seemed she'd misunderstood. "I thought it was your enemies herding you? Didn't Angel use to work for these Powers?"

He shrugged again. "Depends what you mean by enemies. All seems much the same to me. I just know we've run out of options."

"You sound like Angel," she said, nastily. "All that pawn of destiny stuff. I didn't think you went for that kind of thing, Spike. I thought you were a free spirit – did what you liked?"

"Yeah, well." His hands were still now, gripping hers between them. "Someone's got to be there to give the old man a boot up the arse whenever he needs it, haven't they, and I reckon it's gonna have to be me."

She wanted to say, because you love him, but she didn't quite dare. She had a feeling he'd only deny it – might even get angry all over again. Besides, she was pretty certain that love was a word they'd never use between them, no matter what, Spike because of his pride and Angel – well, she didn't know why. As usual, he was a riddle wrapped up in a mystery inside an enigma, as Giles would say, and maybe Spike was the only person who could really understand him.

Spike was making yet another attempt to get out of bed, but again she stopped him.

"Where do you think you're going?"

Now it was his turn to blink in surprise. "Off to find the poor old git before anything nasty – nastier – does, of course. He must have told you we haven't much time." He gestured at his bandage. "The natives're getting restless, attacking us and whatnot – took a bloody great chunk out of me down in the sewers. Seems to me, what with this snow, we should make a move tonight. It could be chucking fireballs out there soon at this rate."

"That happened?" Even as she said it, she wished she wasn't so easily distracted. Shiny new toy, Buffy see, Buffy want.

"Somewhere in the arse end of nowhere in the middle of Wyoming, yeah," he was saying in answer to her question, while trying once again to get out of the bed. "Barbecued a few cows, but I don't think anyone else noticed really."

"Stop trying to get away!" She pushed him hard this time, flat on his back, and he yelped and clutched his healing side, leaving her contrite.

"Sorry, but you can't go, Spike. You said you have until tonight and I'm not finished with you yet."

"What d'you mean, Slayer?" he began but then his mouth fell open and he gaped at her in surprise. "You have to be sodding kidding me," he said.

Now he started struggling in earnest and in the end she wrestled him down and sat on his chest, holding his arms above his head, his wrists pinned to the bed. Things were at a bit of a stalemate then. She had him thoroughly trapped but, in the face of his resistance, she didn't know what to do with him at all.

"Please, Buffy," he said, suddenly, "just let me go. You don't owe me anything, okay, and I can never pay back what I owe you. Call it quits, love, please?"

"It's not like that. It's not some contest." She let go his wrists and lay down beside him, her head on his shoulder and her arm across his chest, holding him in place. In spite of her distress at the sudden communication breakdown, it felt comforting, even though he was so bony – like being somewhere loved and familiar that she'd forgotten how much she missed.

"Don't you want me any more, Spike, is that it?" she asked, and she hated that plaintive – almost begging – note in her voice. After what had happened between them – all of it – why should he believe a single word she said?

"Oh, God!" His arm was across his eyes, hiding his face. "I'll never not want you, Buffy. I'll never not love you. Wherever I go, no matter how long I live, that'll never change. But it's no good, love, can't you see? I never was any good for you – no vampire could be, and the best thing I ever did for you was die."

"What about Angel?" she countered at once. "He's a vampire too."

"What about him?" The arm was gone now and he looked quite hostile again. "Best thing he ever did was to walk out of your life and he should have stayed gone, the stupid pillock."

"You have been thinking way more than is good for you," she said. "You sound like Giles."

"Yeah, well – old Rupert isn't completely daft." He was trying to smile at her now, his emotions seemingly turning on a dime. "He tried to warn you enough times, I'd wager."

Looking back, the dire warnings from Giles seemed like the refrain of her whole adolescence. She burrowed her head into Spike's hard chest and kept quiet for a while, remembering. He seemed content to let her now, one hand resting lightly on her shoulder, the other thrown up above his head. Through the half-open blinds in the living room, she could see the snow still falling.

After a while, she felt him begin to relax and her free hand strayed down towards the fly of his worn old jeans, which she was sure she recognised from Sunnydale days, resting lightly on his crotch as if she hadn't realised what she was doing.

"Buffy," he said, warningly, but she felt the hidden flesh stirring even as he spoke. Oh, he wanted her all right. She pressed harder and suddenly his hand was round her wrist, snatching her own hand away. "Don't," he said.

"Why?" She really couldn't understand it. "I love you and I want you and I know you want me – you're leaving soon Spike, forever – what harm can it do?"

She lifted her head off his shoulder and stared at his face. He looked stricken, and yet the yearning – the desperation were still clear in his eyes. She took a deep breath.

"Is it Angel?" she asked. "Is it because of him that you can't, because I'd understand, Spike. I would."

"Fuck!" He looked as if he had a bad taste in his mouth. "Angel is nothing to do with this except – God, Buffy, I can smell him on you right now and part of me wants to go and rip him apart for ever laying a finger on you, and the other part is so turned on it wants to lick you all over. Explain that to me if you sodding well can, 'cos I've got nothing here."

A long shudder of desire went through her at his words. Suddenly, as when she'd been with Angel she'd been unable not to think about Spike, now with Spike, she couldn't not think about Angel. Again, she imagined the two of them, tawny and pale moving over each other like lions mating, and when they turned their faces towards her their yellow eyes gleamed. Her panties were wet again, and she saw his face as the smell hit him and that he didn't know whether to be outraged or pleased.

Before he could make up his mind which he was, she grabbed his head roughly between her hands and kissed him, forcing her tongue into his mouth, and a moment later he responded with a sound like a sob, from deep in his throat.

The first moments were wild, just as they'd been the time the house fell around them, but then he let go of her with a gasp, putting up a hand to fend her off. "You shouldn't," he said. "It's not – not right, Buffy."

"It is if I say so," she told him, "and I do, Spike, so just shut up, okay?"

"Heard that a few too many times," he muttered, but then she shut his mouth with another kiss and soon he was lost in it, the way he'd always gotten, not even noticing when she peeled his jeans off him, almost tearing them in her haste to get to him. She hung over him, her breast in his mouth while he worried at the nipple and teased it with his tongue – just as she'd imagined in her kinky little Buffy Sandwich fantasy. For a moment, she almost thought that Angel was in the room, approaching from the shadows to take her from behind. But there was only Spike, staring up at her as if she was his goddess, his eyes full of need and helpless worship.

She wanted him to take the lead, but he wouldn't, keeping her on top with a shake of his head when she tried to roll them. "Not like that," he said. "Don’t want you to feel you can't get away if you need to, love."

"Silly." She kissed him again then melded her body to his. It felt strange, yet very familiar, his silky skin and the thick, elegant cock with its curve at the end so well-known and yet new territory to her, just as Angel's longed for and dimly remembered body had been. She took him in and rode him, knowing that later he'd reciprocate with fingers and tongue, and outside the snow went on falling, muffling the world in white.

Buffy only realised that she'd fallen asleep when Spike shook her awake, much as she had him earlier. And as he had, she surfaced abruptly, surging up into his face, fists at the ready. He backed off fast.

"Bloody hell!" he said. "If that's the way you react when old wossisface wakes you up, I could almost feel sorry for the bloke." He smirked a little. "Almost."

"Sorry." She smoothed her hair then pulled the quilt up to cover her naked body. He was leering at her by now. "Don't do that, love," he said. "I was enjoying the view."

"Yeah, well, it's cold Spike, in case you haven't noticed. Why are you dressed? Come back to bed, why don't you?" She was thinking that neither vampire seemed to want to snuggle, which hadn't been true in the old days. She could remember snuggling with Angel a lot in his last year in Sunnydale, though in a frustrated, trying-to-tell-themselves- it-couldn't-go-any-further kind of way. As for Spike, when they'd been doing the sex thing, he'd wanted to snuggle but she hadn't. She'd been up and out of there pretty much as soon as the deed was done unless he'd found a way to make her stay, like those handcuffs he'd dangled in her face. That had been intense, especially when she'd used them on him, because he'd been so into it – the whole being at her mercy thing.

But she could remember snuggling with him too; good snuggling, down in the basement of Mom's house the night before the end. It didn't seem that he wanted more of it, though.

"Brought you some tea," he said, not answering her question, and held the steaming cup out to her. She took it, surprised, regarding him suspiciously. If he thanked her and told her she was 'quite a woman' too before taking off out the door, she thought she'd probably scream.

While she drank the tea, he sat down on the end of the bed, elbows on knees, watching her. The worshipful look was still on his face but overlaid with something else now – a sort of grim determination. When he opened his mouth to speak, she already knew what he was going to say.

"Don't tell me, Spike. You love me, you'll always love me but you still have to leave. Don't worry. I've already gotten the memo."

His face closed down at once at this oblique mention of Angel. "Good," he said. "That'll save a bit of sodding time. I'll be off then, Slayer, shall I?"

He stood up and she put her cup down hastily and reached out to grab his arm, the quilt falling down to expose her once again. Immediately, his eyes became fixed on her breasts and she saw him swallow hard. "That's not bloody fair," he said, and his voice wavered slightly. He'd be drooling in a minute.

Well, it was tempting to go again, though it hadn't been her intent. She even had some handcuffs in the drawer, courtesy of Fabrizio. Just for a moment, she became lost in the fantasy once more; Spike's slim, pale body spread-eagled on her bed, helpless, his four limbs cuffed to the brass frame, while she teased him and played with him until she made him beg. Then, just as before, Angel was there in the room too, big and golden, approaching to seize her from behind, his lips on her neck just over the faint scar of where he'd once drunk from her, one huge hand cupping her breast and bending her forward to take her to Spike's willing mouth.


Again with the finger-snapping under her nose. She jumped and brought Spike into focus. He was regarding her with eyebrow raised sardonically. At once, she felt guilty, as if he'd read her mind, and knowing him, maybe he had.

"Sorry," she managed. "It's just that you said you were going to try and make Angel leave tonight and there's still so much to say, Spike – to both of you. Oh, this is crazy! Why can't I just see you both together?"

Now he was getting that blind, angry look again, that he'd had the night he'd followed her in the park.

"No," he said, shortly. "Not a fucking chance."

"But why not?"

For a moment, he tensed for flight and she wondered whether to let him go or tackle him and hold him down until he gave her an answer. But then he sighed, all the fight leaving his body. He sat down on the bed again, regarding her with weary blue eyes. And suddenly, just as Angel had that first night she'd seen them, he looked old, the years weighing on him as they never had when he didn't have a soul.

"I can't share you with him, okay?" he said, at last. "I can hardly stand to be near you when he's around, Buffy. It's like all the time there's this voice in the back of my head saying –how can you compete with that, you stupid twat? Can't, can I? He's the big hero, the love of your life an' all that bollocks."

He smiled, bitterly. "I'm not stupid, Buffy – no matter what Angel says – and what's between you and me – whatever it is – I know it's only a pale copy of what you had with him. I just can't stand giving him the satisfaction of knowing I know that."

"You're not making sense." She took a moment to process his words, which seemed bizarre in light of what had just happened, then shook her head, exasperated. He was just hopeless.

"How can you say that about you and me, Spike? Of course it's not the same as me and Angel, but that doesn't make it any less. Why would it?"

He shrugged, gone sulky, and wouldn't look at her, and now she found herself having to rein back the urge to hit him, he was so annoying. If in doubt, always go for a good upper-cut - the Slayer thing again.

What was between them? She had to confess that she didn't know herself. With Angel it was so clear cut. He'd been her first and nothing could change that, no matter how, or who, they both moved on to. There'd always be a part of her that yearned towards him, remembering that long-ago night and the care he'd taken. He'd been so good, so gentle, thinking of her all the time and how best to handle her so she wouldn't be hurt. She shuddered as she remembered the contrast the next time she'd seen him.

"You're being awfully selfish," she said to Spike, at last.

"What?" This seemed to be the last thing he'd expected to hear.

"I mean, do you think it's been easy for Angel? Do you? So maybe he does try and put you down by saying all you and I had was sex and nothing else –" his mouth was open to ask her how she knew that, but she put a finger to his lips to shush him and steamrollered on – "but I bet you rub it in, don't you? How many times you've had me, and in how many different ways? Come on, Spike, don't you?"

He had the grace to look guilty now. "Have to fight my corner, don't I?" he muttered.

"Yeah well, it's time you got over your hang-ups, Spike. You're a big boy now, and so is Angel. See a therapist or something." This made him flinch a little and now it was her turn to feel guilty. She reached out and took his hand again, trying to smile.

"Anyway, just because we don't have that hearts and flowers romance thing Angel and I had doesn't mean that all we have is sex, does it? It's different, that's all."

He was looking at her, hanging on her every word as if she'd suddenly become all-knowing, which was a very weird feeling because she often felt so ignorant. It was hardly the first time he'd behaved as if she had all the answers, though. "How is it different?" he was asking, and then he scowled. "And don’t say it's complicated, or –"

Now it was her turn to shrug and give him an apologetic smile. "It's not the same, that's all."

He waited, obviously expecting more, but she couldn't give it. She didn't know what else to say to reassure him that wouldn't sound just as lame so she picked up her tea and drank it and in the end he gave up waiting and went to fetch his duster from where she'd hung it on the back of the bedroom door. He fished in the pockets for his cellphone and stood weighing it in his hands.

"Maybe," he conceded, at last. "Maybe we can all sit together just once – have a drink or something, if anywhere's open in this weather – sort it out once and for all. Angel can tell you anything else he needs to tell you about helping his kid and -"

"What?" She dropped her mug and jumped as lukewarm tea splashed over her and soaked the quilt, and he jumped too in reaction, losing his grip on the cell, which rolled under the bed. "His what?"

"Oh, fuck!" he said, and he was on his knees, eyes not meeting hers, scrabbling under the bed to find the phone.

"Spike, what are you talking about?" She was up now and throwing drawers open looking for clean panties and bra. There was a hard knot in her throat and she felt she might choke on it.

He was on his feet again, eyes averted – as if she were some stranger into whose bedroom he'd unwittingly stumbled and he didn't want to embarrass her. "Nothing," he muttered. "Forget it, Slayer, okay?"

She was already half-dressed and almost the moment she'd done up her bra strap, she had him pinned to the wall like an insect under glass. "It is not nothing," she informed him, proud of how even and calm her voice sounded. "You do not have a 'nothing' face there, Spike. You said Angel's 'kid' and I don't think you meant anything to do with baby goats." Suddenly, she doubted it herself. "You didn't mean baby goats, did you?"

He didn't struggle, but the expression he turned on her was totally cold. Just now he was doing a fair imitation of Angel at his most inscrutable.

"I'm not saying any more." He choked a little. "It's for the old man to say, not me." When she still didn't let go, his voice grew hard, unrecognisable. She couldn't even say he sounded like Evil Spike of old, because Evil Spike had always had that smug glee in his tone. This was someone completely different, a stranger to her. "You might as well let go, Slayer. This won't get you anywhere."

She could see at once that he was right. She let go and finished dressing, her back to him, seething inside at the implications of what he'd let slip. Why hadn't Angel told her?

Spike meanwhile was pressing buttons on the cellphone and standing impatiently with the thing at his ear. "Come on, come on, pick up," he muttered. After a moment, he cut off the call and tried again, but there was still no answer. Immediately, he was off in the direction of the front door.

"He's in trouble," he said. "Stupid old git – might've guessed he couldn't manage for five minutes without me." He could barely spare her a glance now, it seemed, but she hurried to stop him, putting herself between him and the door.

"No," she said, emphatically. "No way, Spike, are you leaving me behind this time."

"Don't be fucking stupid, Slayer." He was that bitter man again whom she'd met in the grounds of the Villa Borghese. "You don't know what you're dealing with here. Believe me, you don't want to get involved."

"You don't tell me what to do, Spike. You never did and you're not starting now – nor Angel neither. If I want to get involved, I will. Do you even know where he is?"

He just glared at her. "I'll find him."

"In this?" She gestured towards the window where the snow was still falling and she saw him hesitate. Of course, the snow would mask Angel's scent.

Spike stared at the blizzard outside for a moment and chewed the inside of his mouth thoughtfully. Then he said: "This is Rome, for fuck's sake. It's bloody obvious. I know where he'll be. It's where he'd look for me if he knew I was in the shit. I'm off, Slayer."

"And I'm coming with you." Already, she was pulling on the pairs of thick socks she needed to fit into Dawn's boots. "And don't say anything else, Spike. I don't know what you meant by Angel's kid, but if you meant what I think you meant, there is no way in hell I'm letting the two of you skip town before he tells me about it."

She gave him her best cold Slayer-on-a-Mission stare. "Argue with me and I'll call Fabrizio's informant in the police department and have you both arrested."

"Not again!" was his baffling response. However, he glanced out the window again at the falling snow. "Good luck to 'em in this, Slayer. For that matter, I dunno how we're gonna manage. Roads'll be impassable now, I reckon – no buses or taxis to be had – and we need to get back into town, fast as we can."

Smiling grimly to herself, she noted his use of the word 'we.' Oh, she still had it and he was so easy.

"Underground?" she ventured. "There're sewers, Spike – the Metro tunnels. You're a vampire, you must know that."

"'Course I do." He pressed his hand to his injured side. "Like I said, was in a sewer when I got a chunk bitten out of me, - nasty bugger, lots of teeth – and it wasn't just a chance encounter. I don't plan on going that way again, Slayer, unless there's no other option - too many of the local beasties know the old man and me have prices on our heads and too many of 'em by half are willing to collect."

He chewed the inside of his mouth in frustration while she contemplated the thought of a forced march overground in weather conditions more reminiscent of the Arctic. She didn't like the cold, she thought, except in certain circumstances, one of which suddenly looked like the only answer.

"Know how to skate?" she asked.

It turned out that he'd squired, as he put it, Drusilla round the ice quite a few times back in what he insisted, even now, on calling the good old days, and could stay on his feet at least. What was less satisfactory was firstly getting him to agree to her method of travelling back to the city and then – hardest of all – to agree to wear Fabrizio's old skates, which were still stashed away in her closet from when he'd last taken her skating at Marino.

At first, he absolutely refused but when a third attempt to contact Angel by cellphone also failed, coinciding with an increase in the wind outside that drove the falling snow into a deadly frenzy, he changed his mind. She even got him to wear a pair of Fabrizio's gloves, though like the skates, they were way too big.

Then they needed weapons of course, and something to carry them in. She fished Dawn's backpack out of the closet, to find her sister hadn't unpacked it since that camping trip last summer. She wrinkled up her nose when she found an unwashed t-shirt with a big stain all down the front and things only got worse when she up-ended the thing and tipped its contents out onto the floor.

"Bloody hell!" Spike shook his head in disgust as a suspiciously slimy plastic plate, several rotten apples and something unrecognisable and covered in mould rolled across the tiles. "Niblet not changed her habits, then?" he asked, raising his eyebrow again, and Buffy could only nod in agreement.

She took the Scythe. It had a handy carry strap to go across her back after all, and somehow she had a feeling that this might be a day to impress. Spike watched solemnly as she slung it over her shoulder then chose a couple of swords and a hand axe or two for himself. He stowed them in the backpack and she found herself thinking it was probably just as well he was right about the police, because backpack full of deadly weapons? Kind of hard to explain.

By the time they were ready to leave, she was muffled to the eyes in hat and coat and scarf, her feet so heavy in Dawn's boots that she wondered how she was going to manage in the snow drifts outside. Maybe she'd just sink?

Spike, however, eschewed any such protection, except for the gloves, just slung the backpack and offensive skates over his shoulder and followed her downstairs.

Outside, the wind hit her face with a raw malevolence that she had no trouble believing was infernally inspired. She staggered back against Spike. He steadied her with a nudge to her shoulder then joined hands with her in the long tramp down the hill back to the river.

"This place we're going – where is it?" she shouted in his ear. The wind seemed to tear the breath from her mouth, leaving her gasping. She clung on to his arm and for the first time in her life, wished she were heavier. "Is it near the river?"

He shook his head and dragged her onwards. "Colosseum!" was all he said.

Well, that made no kind of sense, she thought, but she followed in his footsteps, sometimes sinking up to the knees in snow and feeling the bone-chilling drag of the wind with every step she took. Her hands were already freezing and she muffled her face with her scarf, not caring what she looked like – and that was something she'd never thought would happen in Rome.

They reached the main road to find it almost deserted, Rome being a little short on snow-ploughs in the normal way of things. A couple on a vespa wobbled by, both driver and pillion-passenger trying to guide the vehicle along with their hanging feet. Spike watched them for a moment, a what-the-fuck expression on his face, then shook his head in disbelief and took off down the hill. She followed, noting the way his slim body had begun to shake in the cold and how the snow ledged on his black-leather shoulders and stuck in his hair.

"Whoever's after you is going to a whole lot of trouble for you guys!" she shouted to him over the noise of the wind, which was blowing opaque sheets of snow in twisting spirals across the road. He nodded but didn't try to answer, just dragged her on, his face set in worry lines that she now saw were permanently etched there, like age lines on a human. By this time, her thighs ached from forcing her way through the snow and her feet were completely numb. Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea after all? But she thought of Angel then – of both her vampires - running and hiding then running again, pushed onwards by a power that knew no such word as mercy, and she set her face to the wind and staggered on.

By the time they reached the Ponte Milvio, which was the nearest bridge on the river as the crow flew, she was almost ready to cry with tiredness, but even so, she followed Spike over the wall and down the embankment to the river's edge.

The Tiber was wide here, the current usually very fast flowing at this time of year, and the eerie-ness of it, where the choppy waves were frozen into immobility under the piers of the bridge gave her pause. This wasn't natural – no way was this natural – and a part of her acknowledged that until she'd seen it, she'd been living in hope that Angel was wrong; that this was just a freak weather event – the El Nino effect or something – and that it'd pass in a day or so and they'd be free to stay a while longer. She squatted down by Spike to put her skates on, glancing sidelong at his grim face and shaking hands. She was glad she'd made him drink so much of that blood.

They stepped out onto the ice, which was bumpy – as if the rough water had frozen between one moment and the next. He skidded over at once, sprawling on his back, but climbed to his feet with a muttered "Sod this," and set out gingerly again. She followed him, glad that at least, between the river embankments they were a little sheltered from the wind. Trails of snow whipped across the ice but didn't settle so that if you looked down, you could see disturbing green depths beneath you. She didn't know how deep the river was but staying near the bank seemed like a good idea.

She overtook him, skating along the northern shore with him following her clumsily, but after a while he got in the rhythm of it too and she could hear the constant swish-swish of his skates as he came along behind. She was warming up now and soon began to sweat a little – oh, charming! Stinky Buffy– keeping a wary eye on the ice in front of her, looking for weak spots and debris to avoid.

She began to count their journey in bridges passed – first the short stretch between Ponte Milvio, which was one of the old ones, and the square-built concrete piers of the Mussolini era Ponte Duca d'Aosta, which had a certain brutal grandeur –- like the old dictator himself, so Fabrizio said. Then there was a long wide curve around the Flaminio district on the eastern bank – hard going but at least with their backs to the wind now, until they finally came to Ponte del Risorgimento, which was the boundary of the city proper.

As she skated, ignoring her protesting thigh muscles, she marvelled at the way she could remember all the names. Somehow Fabrizio's love for this ancient city had impressed itself on her so deeply that she felt part of it too even when she wasn't with him. The names seemed to sing in her brain, music in themselves – Ponte Matteotti, Ponte Nenni, Ponte Margherita. From there it was a short walk to Piazza del Popolo and maybe the Metro might still be running. They could catch a train down to Colosseo and be there much faster. However, maybe not if the tunnels really were full of demon bounty hunters. It was better to just keep going, so she stayed on the ice, swinging her arms to keep momentum the way speed skaters did.

She glanced back a couple of times at Spike. He was dropping further behind, evidently struggling, but his face still had that grim expression and he gamely tried to copy her more practised moves. She slowed down a little to let him catch up and they skated together under the piers of Ponte Cavour. The river was narrower now, the embankments higher, and soon, as they passed Ponte Umberto, she saw the huge bulk of the Castel Sant' Angelo looming on their right.

Fabrizio and she met regularly for coffee on the terrace there, and this time of year, usually you could see for miles, up to the hills round Tivoli and Frascati where the Pope's summer villa – and Fabrizio's too – nestled near the shores of Lago Albano. She'd been to some great house parties up there last summer. Once, the Pope had been Fabrizio's guest of honour but she'd been too scared to meet him, even though he'd asked because he'd never met a Slayer. Maybe one day, though, she told herself, if she could only find the right hat to wear.

Today, you could hardly see the threatening outline of the ancient fortress through the snow that blanketed the city in a cold white shroud. It felt increasingly like a shroud too, and suddenly – with absolute certainty – she knew that Fabrizio would be on his way home. There was no way he'd stay in Cortina d'Ampezzo when his beloved city was in danger like this.

She took Spike's hand in hers as they rounded the S-bend at the nearest point to the Vatican – not that you could see it – hoping that the human warmth of her body would help him a little. He was grey-faced now, as if all his fire and energy were concentrated somewhere deep inside him, just so he could keep going.

"Where should we get off the river?" she asked him, and again, he bit out a short answer, three words this time. "Mouth of Truth."

"Oh, great!" From there, it was still a long tramp over the Palatino to the Colosseum. She regretted the sewers now and the short cuts they afforded. After all, it would hardly be the first time she'd gone chasing vamps into the smelly dark. Vamps – most of them anyway - and sewers just went together and where vamps went, the Slayer, of necessity, followed.

The Vatican was behind them now, Ponte Sisto looming in front so it wasn't that much further. She found herself wishing idly that more vamps could be like the ones who sometimes came to dinner at Fabrizio's; the ones he called his friends. Of course, those were always way awkward occasions, both for her and the vamps – like having two opposing armies on either side of the table forced to make nice with each other – but at least they wore good clothes and were polite – looked civilised, even if they were just monsters underneath like all the others. She couldn't imagine ever meeting any of them – the vamp aristocracy of the city – in a sewer, even one of the ancient ones.

Well, it seemed sewers were out of the question anyway and it wasn't really so far to go to the Colosseum now, though her legs were aching so much with the unaccustomed exercise she began to wonder if she'd make it. She wondered also at Spike's absolute faith that Angel would be there.

The single remaining span of Ponte Rotto was looming up fast, and after that the river curved round to the west again. Buffy touched Spike's arm and gestured towards the bank. He nodded and followed her. He looked relieved that this stage of their journey was over and she felt pretty much the same. She loved skating but it was better with music and silly spangly costumes. They came to a stop under the embankment where steps led up to the piazza above and, as so often, there were Gypsies there, a group of them encamped under the overhang. They had a fire going.

She thought that since the couple on the vespa, these were the first people they'd seen during their whole journey and found herself relieved to know that the city hadn't magically emptied as it froze. Spike, however, scowled when he saw them and then his face changed in the wake of that eerie ripple of muscle that left him yellow-eyed and snarling.

"Fucking Gypsies - might have guessed," he said. "Always around when there's trouble."

"Spike!" She turned a shocked face on him at his venom, but he just looked stubborn – stubborn and vampire-ugly.

"Sorry, Slayer," he said – not sounding sorry at all. "I can't sodding well stand 'em –Dracula's bloody pets, the lot of 'em!"

"Oh." That put his words in a slightly less offensive light – maybe. "Just be quiet," she said, "and let me deal with them if we have to."

For a moment, he looked like he was going to argue, but then he gave her a sullen nod, lost the vamp face and crouched down next to her to untie his skates. They both kept a wary eye on the Gypsies over their shoulders as they did so but the Gypsies simply watched them, both men and women staring solemn-faced as they huddled by their fire. One of the men said something in their own language and the others laughed, at which Spike grimaced but said nothing. Whether he'd understood, she had no clue.

They had to walk right past them up the steps and it took all her nerve to keep her back to them, they looked so alien and hostile. Spike didn't even try, he just tossed Fabrizio's skates disdainfully aside and took the steps backwards, every inch of him bristled up like a cat that doesn't know whether it's angry or afraid.

Away from the shelter of the river embankment, the wind hit them full on again and Buffy felt her strength flagging. She wished she'd thought to pack a warm drink – something sensible and mom-like the way she always meant to act round Dawn – anything to fight off the deadly chill.

"I need to rest." She knew that Spike did too, although he'd never say it. She gestured towards the relative shelter of the portico at Santa Maria in Cosmedin and after a moment's hesitation he nodded again and followed her. The tall tower of the church was lost in a whirl of snowflakes that blew round it in spirals in the pitiless wind. The fountain in the piazza was frozen solid, the leaping jet of water arrested in mid-air as if time itself had stopped suddenly or died of cold.

And maybe it had, she found herself thinking, as they struggled through drifts up to their knees to reach the arched frontage. Things did feel kind of weird – out of control, as if just about anything could happen, and maybe it could with Fabrizio not around to keep an eye on it all.

Snow was piled high at the southern end of the portico, but the Mouth of Truth on its pedestal was in the lee of the wind and clear. The great, round slab of stone with the face of an ancient god etched upon it, regarded her with indifference as she came to an exhausted halt beside it. It had been one of the first tourist attractions Fabrizio had taken her to see after they'd met and she'd found the thing a little scary simply because Fabrizio seemed to believe so whole heartedly in its power – that it really would bite off your hand if you put it through that stony gape and told a lie. It hadn't taken her long to realise that if Fabrizio believed in it, it must in some sense be true, if only because he said so.

She crouched down with her back to the inner wall, hugging her knees and resting her head on her arms. There was no sign of the caretaker priest or of anyone else. She and Spike might as well have been alone in the world and for a moment, she almost missed the Gypsies. She still felt warm from the skating but somewhere deep inside she was beginning to shiver, as if in anticipation of her body cooling down.

"You okay, Slayer?" Spike sounded concerned. He still looked very pale – even more so than usual – and his hair and clothes were soaked but otherwise he didn't look too bad. She supposed that all the being hunted stuff had inured him to this kind of hardship whereas she'd been living an easy life except for the occasional recreational slayage – the dolce vita, just like he'd said. Well, on the endurance front, there was no way she was letting him outdo her on this journey any more than he could in the bedroom.

"Just give me a minute, Spike, and I'll be fine."

He nodded but he looked impatient, squinting out through the storm towards the dark bulk of the Palatino with its crown of ancient palaces. Their destination lay beyond it and it still looked an awful long way to go. For a moment the very idea of going further made her feel like crying. She sighed and shut her eyes.

She'd almost dozed off, she realised, when she felt him shaking her urgently.

"Buffy! Don't fall asleep- that's the last thing you want to do, love, believe me."

He hauled her to her feet and drew her against him, holding her tight against his cold, lean body, and for a moment she rested her head on his shoulder, gathering her resources.

"How're you doing now, love?" he asked after a moment, his voice echoing hollowly off the brick arch above them.

"Been better," she admitted. Then, "How do you know Angel will be at the Colossuem? How do you even know he's still alive?" She was dismayed to hear her voice wobbling at the end there. The cold and tiredness must be really getting to her.

"He's alive." He sounded so certain that she stirred out of her lethargy enough to raise her head and stare at him. "I don't think they want us dead, Buffy. That'd be too easy."

"I guess."

She thought of Angel, trapped for a hundred years in a hell dimension – she'd had to do it – and her mind winced away from what he might have suffered there. But maybe it wouldn't be like that? Maybe their enemies would brainwash them to work for them rather than torture them, like the First had done to Spike, or even – and she shuddered at the very thought – remove their souls to get them back on the evil side of things. She reached out and clutched Spike's hand as she thought of this, remembering Angelus's handsome sneering face as he kissed her then turned his back on her and called her a whore. As for Spike – well, she'd kept him in check before when he didn't have a soul but she was pretty certain that if it came to it, the bad guys wouldn't give her that chance again. Besides, he'd had the chip.

"What'll they do to you if they catch you?" she asked, because talking about it was better than imagining it.

"They're not gonna catch us," he said, sounding way too sure of himself. She was certain he was just saying that for her benefit, to make her feel better. It irritated her to be treated like a scared child by him – it was bad enough when Angel did it and at least he'd known her as one – but at the moment, she kind of felt like one, so she let it pass and shut her eyes again, resting against him.

"S'okay, Buffy," he said, lips in her hair. "He'll be there and he'll be all right, you'll see."

"You trying to reassure me or yourself, Spike?" She raised her head and looked him in the eye. He wouldn't look back, however, his gaze going past her to the ancient slab of stone with its empty pits of eyes. Once again, she wanted to say, you love him, don't you, but again she held back. It didn't really need saying, even if he wouldn't see it, and what was the point of stating the obvious?

She wondered how hard he'd fought against it when he'd found himself drawn back unwillingly into Angel's orbit, held there just as she was by reasons that had as much to do with pain as they did with love. Even now, in spite of his need to get to Angel that rivalled her own in its urgency, he was trying with all his might not to let her see it for what it was. And probably, he didn't believe that Angel loved him either, just as she was sure he still didn't believe her for all her protestations. Suddenly, she felt like shaking him, he was so damn stubborn. What would it take to convince him?

Suddenly, their resting place seemed fortuitous – so much so she began to feel kind of herded herself but she went with it anyway because it was too good an opportunity to miss. Pulling away from Spike, she went on wobbly legs up to the great round slab of stone and stuck her hand through the gaping mouth up to the wrist.

"What're you up to, Slayer?" He sounded wary suddenly, as if he'd figured out what she was doing, so she decided to make it plain.

"You're a pain in the ass," she said. "You know that, right?"

"Might've been told it a time or two, yeah," he admitted. "What's your sodding point?"

"My point is that, be that as it may, I love you, Spike, and that's the truth." She looked him square in the face, and she could tell by the brief flicker in his eyes that part of him did believe the story and that same part expected her to leave here one-handed. She rolled her eyes and glared at him. She could be stubborn too and if he had any faith at all in the power of the Mouth, he'd have to know she meant it now.

After a moment during which nothing at all happened except that more snow fell – and boy, was that getting old – she took her hand out of the Mouth and returned to the shelter of his arms. "See," she said, defiantly, but then she felt his shoulder move beneath her cheek as he responded with a shrug. "It's only a manhole cover, Buffy – it doesn't mean a sodding thing."

She sighed, exasperated. "You're impossible, you know that? Besides, you're wrong, Spike, this is Rome and everything here means something." She took his face between her hands, palming his blades of cheekbones, then kissed him, sticking her tongue into his cold mouth and taking it with hers. After a moment, whatever it was inside him that still resisted relaxed a little and he kissed her back, held her tight, whispered in her ear how much he loved her and needed her, while all around them the wind howled and the snow continued to fall.

She didn't know which of them first made a move but after that, it was all a matter of endurance; of putting their heads down and ploughing on. They skirted the end of the Circo Massimo, which stretched away into the distance, a sea of virgin snow, then vaulted the wall onto the Palatino. Snow was packed against the barrier in deep drifts and Buffy dropped into it up to her thighs. Spike jumped down behind her but he spread his weight a little and managed a graceless sprawl that left him spread-eagled like a swimmer floating on the surface. She couldn't help laughing, it looked so funny, but she was glad of it all the same when he was able to get to his feet and haul her out. He looked affronted by her amusement, on his vampire-ly dignity, but then set off uphill, keeping close to the remains of buildings where there was shelter.

She was beginning to get her second wind now, it felt like, and she kept up with him easily, her sense of anticipation growing all the time. When they reached the brow of the hill, they would see their goal, and about time too.

"You still haven't said why you think he'll be there," she shouted in Spike's ear. "Is it a meeting place you guys had worked out before?"

"Sort of," he said. "In a manner of speaking – just the perfect place for a showdown, that's all." And now she became aware of a change in the light. It was brightening in front of them, so much so that she almost thought for a moment the sun was going to break through and Spike would have to look for shelter until nightfall. However, the light didn't have the quality of sunlight. It was all coming from one direction and it seemed to pulse, sending the snow streaming away from it, as if trying to escape.

Then they were standing at the summit of the hill, staring down across the expanse of the Foro Romano, from which broken columns, caked in snow, poked like a snaggle of ancient teeth. "Fuck me," Spike said, softly, his voice full of wonder. She followed his gaze and saw where the light was coming from.

Well, it would be.

As they struggled through the drifts down the hill, past the Arch of Constantine, and the walls of the Colosseum hove into sight, Spike laughed shortly and said: "Told you he'd be there."

This got weirder and weirder, she thought. Not only did the ancient building not look like a ruin suddenly but more like the set of some Hollywood sword-and-sandals movie - Gladiator, maybe - but the eerie light was pouring up from it into the sky, reflecting off the grey snow-filled clouds and back down to the earth so that the huge drifts piled all round had taken on a reddish tinge, like blood.

"Magic?" It was hardly worth even saying it but Spike simply grinned at her.

"Got it in one, Slayer," he said. He was beginning to look as if he was enjoying himself, which was the Spike she knew and loved, and she couldn't help grinning back.

They crossed the deserted road towards the huge structure that towered above them in all its former glory and as they went, the snow fell back and the air grew much warmer. In a moment, she was sweating again and undoing her coat and scarf, even though the warmth felt strange – prickly, setting her teeth on edge; no more natural than anything else today.

"You act as if you were expecting this," she accused, as she followed Spike under one of the entrance archways and into the building.

"Yeah, well," he said. "Angel and me – we haven't managed to leave a place yet without there being some kind of big smackdown first. In Wyoming, it was demon cowboys or some such bollocks, then in Rio there was a massive fire fight in a snowstorm in the middle of town – bit like this really, except with more guns. Then in Marseille –"

"Look!" They'd come out into the central arena and though she'd been half expecting it, it still astonished her to see that the place looked like new, with a vast sanded circle bounded on all sides by walls to protect a watching crowd and no sign of the maze of corridors and cells that lay beneath and were usually exposed to the sky.

Even as she spoke, Spike was gone from her side with a muttered, "Bloody hell!" jumping over the nearest railing and down into the pit. She saw why at once, as with a flash of gold and ivory, some huge horned beast charged from way off to the right towards a dark figure standing lonely on the sand. Angel was in vamp face, she could see from where she stood, and his leather coat was wrapped round one arm in an attempt at protection. Apart from that, he was weapon less.

There was blood staining the sand around his feet, she realised, and streaming down his face too, but otherwise he looked in good shape and when Spike tore one of the swords from his back pack and threw it, Angel caught it hilt first and assumed a fighting stance.

She took just a moment to admire him – God, he was beautiful still, vamp-face or not! – but her feet were already carrying her in Spike's wake, knees flexed to take the impact as she jumped. She landed on her feet and ran across the sand, which flew up from her footfalls in dry little puffs. She shed garments as she ran – coat, scarf, hat – and the Scythe was off her shoulder and into her hands. Its grip felt familiar, just as it always had; as if all the Slayers who'd gone before – her sisters in the hunt – had left their mark on it too. Adrenalin – the sheer excitement of it all – overwhelmed her and lent wings to her feet.

Spike had reached Angel by this time. She heard him say something but couldn't catch the words, just the look that passed between them, which was pretty hard to miss. For the briefest moment, she thought they'd either kiss or hit each other, but then Spike had kind of danced into position at Angel's side, in a way cool display of swirling black leather and they were both striking out at the charging thing.

Whatever it was, it was big, with hooves and horns like a bull but with a butt-ugly demon face half-covered in gold rings that pierced the skin wherever there was spare flesh. It didn't appear to be armed but with fists like rocks maybe it didn't need to be. At any rate, both Spike and Angel leapt out of its way, both landing blows that seemed to glance off it in passing. It turned with surprising speed and made for them again, arms out to gather them up and crush them in its grip. That brought it close to her and, without thinking – she didn't need to think when she fought these days – she swung the Scythe and sliced it across the back of what she hoped were its knees and was rewarded with a bellow of pain and a spray of bright green blood.

Well, maybe it was blood. It was kind of thick. At any rate, it gave the creature pause – long enough for her to reach the two vampires and put the three of them in a tight defensive knot, backs together and weapons out. And now she really did feel like she was on the set of Gladiator and it wouldn't have surprised her to be facing Russell Crowe next, or maybe -

"I'm not killing any defenceless kitty cats," she said, just in case there was any chance of that.

"Good to see you too, Buffy," Angel said. He sounded tired but not really hurt, in spite of the bloodstains on his torn clothes. At the sound of his voice, part of her melted as it always did but another part that was over its relief at finding him alive, suddenly remembered how mad she was at him.

"You didn't think you were gonna get away with it, did you?" she asked, tartly. "Walk out of here without telling me you have a kid?"

"What?" He turned on Spike at once. "You told her?"

She felt rather than saw Spike shrug, because after all someone had to keep an eye on the demon gladiator, or whatever it was, so it might as well be her. "It might've slipped out, yeah," Spike was saying, not sounding in the least bit sorry, "but it's your fault you big ponce, for not telling her like you said you were gonna. I can't help it if you wimp out at all the big stuff."

"Wimp out?" Angel was almost sneering. "I'm not the one who ran away like a sissy boy when - when – oh, just shut up, Spike. I'll deal with you later."

"That a promise, old man, 'cos if it's anything like the last time, I'm not exactly trembling in my boots here."

She risked taking her eyes off the Thing for just a moment to snatch a glance over her shoulder, and caught Spike giving Angel the familiar head-tilt and tongue-flick he'd so often given her. He saw her looking and the expression slid off his face at once, leaving him all embarrassed at being caught. She rolled her eyes and tightened her grip on the Scythe. The last thing she needed now was to disappear off into her fantasy again, this time involving Spike head down over Angel's knee while a big, hard hand came down again and again and turned his lilywhite ass a nice shade of pink. It did make an attractive picture. Spike's ass had looked awfully cute – and way painful! – that time she'd spanked him herself. He'd begged her to stop in the end, she remembered, but she hadn't been in a merciful mood that day and he'd bitched about how sore he was for a whole week afterwards.

And now they were both looking at her strangely. This really, really wasn't the time.

The bull-demon was circling them, out of range of their weapons. It snarled, showing an impressive array of very sharp teeth. It was limping however, and the viscous green liquid continued to drip from its wound.

"I think you hurt it bad," Angel said, which made her feel proud. At the same time, she became aware of a slow hand-clapping coming from a tier of seats high up in the deserted arena. Someone whistled and there was shouting in a language she didn't recognise.

"Bollocks to that!" Spike said, but at the same moment, as if spurred on by the catcalls, the beast lowered its head and charged again, hurtling towards them at speed in spite of its wounds.

"Take turns!" she shouted and broke formation, to bring the Scythe down in a crashing blow on the creature's broad back. She jumped out of the way to see Spike take her place, leaping astride the thing and setting the point of his sword to the nape of the bull-like neck. At the same time, Angel took a step forward and cut its feet out from under it and it crashed to the ground just inches away from him with Spike's sword skewering it to the sand.

Spike rolled with the impact and was back on his feet, dancing out of reach of the bull-creature's death-throes. He was in vamp face too now, she saw, feral eyes blazing, and for a moment she expected him to throw himself on the thing again and tear it to bloody pieces. Angel forestalled him, however, with one blow that severed the creature's head from its body.

"Spoil sport," was Spike's response to this.

Go, team us, she thought. One down, but she wasn't dumb enough to think that meant it was all over. With a grimace of distaste, she stooped and used the arena sand to wipe the green demon goo from the Scythe blade until it was shiny again. Her thigh muscles ached like a bitch too, which she'd hardly noticed in the thick of the fight. Now that they had a moment's breather, she cast her eyes around the empty seating, which stretched upwards and upwards, right to the sky, it seemed. That strange glowing light was coming from somewhere up there but she couldn't see the source of it, just the pulsing that still prickled along her nerves and raised the hair on the back of her neck.

"Will you sodding well look at that!" Spike said, suddenly. "Cheeky cow!"

She followed the direction of his glance and saw a group of people sitting in the seats that Fabrizio had once told her were reserved for the Vestal Virgins in ancient times – the best seats in the house. They were very smartly suited - Armani, she thought – and corporate looking, except for one woman who was obviously a Versace chick - flamboyant and low-cut anyway – who sat in the middle of them, calmly smoking and displaying a great deal of chest. Mind you, Buffy thought, if she had chestage like that she'd probably display it too.

"You know her?" she asked Spike. He gave a snort of disgust and fumbled in his pockets for his cigarettes. She turned to Angel instead, who was looking exhausted and leaning on his sword. For a moment, she almost ran to him to support him but then she remembered she was mad at him again. Let him stand on his own. "Angel, who are they? The demon Mafia or something?"

"Worse than that," Angel said, and Spike cut in with, "Lawyers," at which interruption, Angel pushed him in annoyance. "Her name's Ilona Costabianchi," he said. "She's C.E.O. of the Rome branch of Wolfram & Hart. We met that time we came to Rome before."

"Helpful bint in some ways." Spike exhaled smoke and gave the woman a leer. "Nice tits too."

"So I see – along with the whole rest of the world." That came out way bitchy, but she didn't care when the woman suddenly kissed her hand and waved it at Spike and Angel like an old familiar friend.

"There's not something you need to tell me about her too, is there?" she asked, seized by a horrible doubt suddenly, but their looks of outrage reassured her. "Just 'cos I told you I tried to shag Harmony," Spike said, indignantly, "doesn't mean even I'd sink that low, love."

Angel rolled his eyes. Then he pointed to one of the higher tiers. "Look there," he said.

She followed the direction of his finger to the source of the catcalls and saw another group of people sitting clustered near one of the stairways. Even from here, she could tell they were a ragged bunch, the women in long bright-patterned skirts and head-scarves, some of them nursing babies. Their dark-skinned faces stared down solemnly at the arena floor, betraying no sign of emotion, but she could almost feel their hatred from where she stood.

"More sodding Gypsies!" Spike spat noisily in the sand, his face gone hard.

"They have the right," Angel said, in a reproving tone, but Spike just gave the watching Gypsies his two-fingered version of the bird. "They should just get over it," was all he said.

The lawyers were talking among themselves and drinking champagne and even the Gypsies seemed to be passing round snacks, so it seemed they'd gone to the commercials. Not that she wasn't glad of a break, Buffy thought, because her limbs were still trembling after all that skating and the tramping through the snow, and the guys looked done in too. Angel was leaning on his sword again and Spike was eyeing him with an irritable expression on his face. She had a feeling she knew what was coming and sure enough, when Spike opened his mouth, it did.

"Why didn't you answer your sodding phone, you tosser? Don't tell me you forgot to switch it on again."

It sounded as if this was something that happened pretty often. She thought Angel would respond with sarcasm, because that seemed to be how they were around each other, but instead, he just glanced sideways at her and then said, mildly, "No, it was on. It's just they took it off me when I was in the sewers looking for you, Spike, hit over the head and brought here unconscious."

"Oh." Spike looked a bit crestfallen, but he rallied quickly. "well, good thing I knew where to find you, then," he said, "and next time, don't be so fucking stupid - and what's more don't even think about getting yourself killed without me." He spat into the sand again and wiped his hand across his mouth. " I swear, Angel, if you do, I will hunt you down through every hell dimension there is until I find you, and when I do, I'll stick a pitchfork up your big fat Irish arse myself."

Angel laughed. "Oh, it won't be you doing the sticking," he said, but then they both seemed to remember her again and looked away from each other, embarrassed, though they wouldn't look at her either.

Oh, it's love all right, she thought, but didn't say it, because it wouldn't go down well. Besides, it seemed that whatever they were waiting for was about to happen. There was a sudden tearing grinding sound of ancient mechanisms moving and through the archways onto the arena floor, in three different directions, came yet more demons, great big tall things covered in scaly armour, like lizards only walking upright.

"One each this time," she said. "Whoever takes theirs out first, help the others."

Her voice clashed with Angel's, saying pretty much the same words, but there was no time for more than a disgusted, "I knew that," from Spike before the battle was on.

Within moments, Buffy had no idea how her vampires were doing. Everything was narrowed down to the fight she was in. The lizard demon wasn't as strong as the bull-like thing, but it was fast and it had a long, whippy tail that it wasn't afraid to use. Before long, she had a stinging cut on one cheek and way too many bruises from all the falls she'd taken, because there was no way she was going to get up close and personal with this thing. It was all dancing back out of reach and slicing at it with the Scythe whenever it got too near. At least she was making it mad, though. It roared at her and its long, flexible tongue flicked in and out of its mouth as if she were a fly it wanted to eat. Finally, it got all frustrated and charged her and she was able leap aside one last time and use her full strength to behead it as it passed.

Easy, she thought, though it hadn't been really. She jumped back from the rolling head, which made her feel squeamish – something about that lolling tongue – and turned round to see how the guys were doing. At once, she set off at a dead run across the arena, but before she could reach them, a throwing axe went spinning through the air and buried itself in the skull of the lizard that had Spike in a head-lock and its huge mouth gaping wide. The thing went crashing down with Spike trapped beneath it and by the time she got there, Angel was already wresting the axe from the creature's body and rolling it aside.

"Did you sodding well see that?" Spike sounded indignant. "I swear it was trying to swallow me whole."

"It's a giant lizard, dumbass," Angel said. "That's what lizards do. Didn't you know?"

He hauled Spike to his feet and rolled his eyes contemptuously when Spike just muttered, "Never met one of these buggers before, have I?"

Angel's own opponent lay neatly decapitated on the arena sand, with its tail severed from its body and lying several feet away. He saw her looking and said, rather smugly, "I've fought this type of demon a few times - cut off the tail and they're easy."

"You couldn't have told us that beforehand?" she asked annoyed, rubbing at the cut on her face, but before he could answer, that ominous creaking sounded again.

"Round three," Spike said, his voice grim, and they got back in their defensive huddle.

It all got a little hazy after that. She thought afterwards that she must have gone into a kind of Slayer-trance, like that time in the Hellmouth with all her sisters around her. Her body seemed to take control of her head and the Scythe was an extension of her body, the whole acting as one lethal killing machine. The power of the Slayers of old was channelled through her, through the mystic weapon she carried, and it mowed down all before it. She was peripherally aware of her breath coming in short, gasping pants that got louder and more ragged as time passed; aware too of Spike and Angel behind her or to the side of her, both of them deadly as she, though their weapons were claws and fangs and the vampire's love of violence.

It was a strange feeling, because somewhere deep inside her the thing that was only Slayer was revolted by them, urging her to turn on them and kill them too. But in spite of that – in spite of the endless parade of increasingly deadly demon opponents and the rising body count and the cuts and bruises all over her, enough of her remained in control – remained Buffy – and remembered she loved them and was here to help them – even to die with them if it came to it. After all, they'd both died for her in their time, and if she had to return the favour, she couldn't think of a better place, or better company in which to do it.

It didn't come to that, though. She'd just despatched a large, ugly-looking vamp and was vaguely thinking that the quality of the opposition had gone way down and that she was famished when she realised that the stream of opponents had slowed to a trickle and stopped. She wiped an arm across her forehead, gathering up the sweat on her dirty sleeve and turned to check on the guys. Spike had taken a cut to the thigh and was limping, but he was still upright, and Angel looked pretty well untouched, just on the edge of total exhaustion.

"Have we won?" she asked, but he wasn't looking at her. Instead, his eyes tracked to their right, to where one of the entrances to the substructure loomed darkly. She felt the ground shake once, twice and then again. Something with feet a whole lot bigger than she cared to think about was coming their way. The evil lawyers were standing up in their seats now, craning their necks to see, and up on the higher tiers, the Gypsies too, were standing and pointing excitedly.

"This is gonna be fun," Spike said, and he shook off Angel's supporting hand with a grimace of annoyance as the three of them went back to back again.

When whatever-it-was finally appeared in the light, Buffy could only stare, her heart doing that plummeting into her boots thing that told you things were bad. It was a huge creature – looked like it was made of rock – covered all over in spikes where it wasn't armoured, tusked and toothed and slavering.

"Fuck." Spike spoke succinctly, but Angel turned to her. "Get out of here, Buffy. It's us they want, not you. You can still get away."

She turned indignantly on Spike. "I thought you said they didn't want to kill you?"

He shrugged. "Maybe the plan's changed? I don't sodding know, do I?" His voice softened then. "Angel's right, love. Scarper while you still can. You've got your life in front of you – the Niblet to think of."

"No." She thought of Dawn with anguish, but her feet wouldn't move and even if they would, she knew she wouldn't leave them now. "I'm staying so we'll just have to not die, won't we?"

"S'gonna be tricky," Spike said, but he grinned at her. Angel looked unhappy but when she glared at him, he sighed and said nothing. They turned and braced themselves, in time to see the huge rock-like demon look up at Ilona Costabianchi and her give it a thumbs down. Then she looked at the three of them, smiled apologetically and shrugged her shoulders.

The thing turned and lumbered towards them, each footstep making the arena shake. Buffy realised her legs were trembling and braced them hard, leaning a little into Angel's comforting bulk. His cool fingers brushed against hers, and on her other side, she groped for Spike's hand.

She didn't know quite what happened then. There was a huge, concussive sound that hurt her eardrums. The whole structure shook, the upper tiers swaying and sending the group of Gypsies running for the stairway in panic. The golden light pulsed, once, twice, and the monster stopped dead in its tracks. The lawyers were pointing across the arena floor towards the place in the first tier where the Emperor's box had been, and there was a man standing there, alone, a tall man with long dark hair.

"Fabrizio," she breathed and something inside her gave way gratefully at the knees and laid its burden down. He was back and there was no way he'd allow this to continue in his city. Spike and Angel, however, bristled up more than ever. If she knew what hackles were, she was sure she'd see them rise.

Fabrizio came to the front of the box. His gaze swept out across the arena, taking in the rock-monster stalled in its tracks, the lawyers frozen in their seats and then the three of them, bloodied and battered but unbowed – oh, yes, she thought, definitely unbowed. He stared at the two vampires and shook his head contemptuously, dismissing them as unimportant. Then, for a moment, his eyes met hers, obsidian-dark in his handsome face, and she knew at once that he'd guessed everything. She shrugged and saluted him with the Scythe like a real gladiator, and after a moment, he inclined his head in acknowledgment. Then he turned towards the lawyers again and lifted his arm, the hand out and the thumb pointing incontrovertibly skyward.

Everything went weird then. The rock-monster disappeared and so did the demon corpses scattered round the arena. The magical light faded from the sky and with it, the snow was back, falling into the empty oval space of the ancient killing ground with its broken walls and ruined stairways. They were standing now not on arena sand but on the narrow walkway that crossed it, under which the ruined substructure lay exposed to view. Buffy shivered. She looked around for her coat and saw it lying not far away along with Dawn's backpack.

"It's over," she said. "Fabrizio saved us."

"Looks like." Spike was lighting a cigarette, shoulders hunched against the falling snow. "Tosser," he muttered, half under his breath. Angel didn't look any happier about their unlikely saviour but he didn't say anything, just put his coat back on and stuck his hands in the pockets.

Fabrizio was gone and the lawyers too, but Buffy saw the Gypsies appear in one of the lower archways, staring across at them with dark accusing eyes. One man lifted up his arm and shouted something in their own language, his fingers curled like claws. Angel bowed his head – she knew he understood them – but Spike just tossed his cigarette on the ground and made off towards them at an easy wolf-like lope, favouring his injured leg.

"Piss off, the lot of you," he shouted, "and while you're about it, you can tell old Vlad I want my eleven quid back!" They broke and ran, all except for one girl, who was maybe a little taller and less fragile-looking than the other women. She faced him down, and when he got nearer, actually laid hands on him and threw him bodily to the ground. He stared up at her in astonishment, as if he'd been mugged by a kitten, Buffy thought, but the girl's eyes were on her and the Scythe that she held in her hands.

Slayer, she realised, just at the moment that the girl looked her straight in the eye, shouted something that was maybe rude, she didn't know, and then turned and ran after the others.

Spike was picking himself up. He looked embarrassed, as well he might, but he had only himself to blame, she thought, and suddenly finding that girl again and helping her seemed very important.

"Gypsy Slayer, eh?" Spike said when they reached him. "Now we're in trouble, mate."

"Not really," Angel said, mildly. "Not where we're going. She's mad at you, though, Buffy. Didn't like seeing you fighting alongside us at all."

"Tough." She shrugged. "Everyone has their issues." The snow was still falling, which meant that even if the big fight was over, other things weren't, and there was still so much she had to ask. The gypsy girl would have to wait for another day.

"About this kid of yours," she said. "It's not a baby goat, is it?"

In the end, it was the baby picture that undid her. They'd followed the retreating Gypsies down into the Metro station – the only nearby shelter - to find it as deserted as the rest of the city. No trains seemed to be running, but still the Gypsies were gone; vanished into the tunnels, their Slayer along with them. Spike took up a sentinel's position on one end of the empty platform, sword in hand, while Angel took Buffy by the elbow and walked her to a bench a little distance away.

He sat down head hanging, gathering himself while she waited, the Scythe across her knees. She wanted to reach out and touch his bent head, run her hand down that broad back with all the weight of the world on it, but still she remembered she was mad at him and didn't. In the end, he looked up and met her eyes. "Darla and I have a son," he said.

Afterwards, she wondered what she'd looked like, sitting there listening to his crazy tale of his vampire sire – who she only remembered as a bitch with a gun in a tartan skirt – resurrected from the dead as human, revamped by Drusilla and then somehow mystically pregnant. She guessed her mouth had probably been hanging stupidly open and she knew she didn't want to think of how that pregnancy must have come about. It seemed she'd been wrong in thinking Angel hadn't had his Parker Abrams moment – except that he didn't seem to see it that way at all. He spoke of Darla – his murderess – with a kind of reverence, and when he revealed the manner of her death, she could see why. It didn't stop the knowledge hurting, though.

"I always meant to tell you," he was saying, "before we left here, Buffy – years ago, even. It's just there was never the right moment, that's all."

"Sometimes," she said, and she couldn't help the bitterness in her voice, "there is no right moment, Angel. You just have to knuckle down and do it. I thought you'd know that by now."

"You sound like Spike," he answered, not as if this was entirely a bad thing, and at the words, her gaze flew to Spike standing guard nearby. His eyes were on them – or rather, they were on Angel, the lines of worry and strain on his thin face deeply etched, but somehow or other, his expression seemed soft – almost pitying – and that gave her a clue as to just how broken up Angel was over this.

"You lost him?" she asked. "The baby, I mean? What happened?"

That was when he got out the baby picture from inside his coat, a little dog-eared but enough to show her that the baby – Connor – had been quite the little cutie, snuggled in his bassinet. Cordy'd been like a mom to the little tyke, Angel said, which made her feel even worse. Cordy might be dead but she'd had so many things with Angel she herself had never had.

"He's beautiful," she managed, aware that the tears were forming in the corners of her eyes and then beginning their inexorable slide down her cheeks. She felt exhausted suddenly too, her whole body shaking inwardly in a way that made her afraid she might collapse.

"Yeah, I lost him." Angel took the picture back and stowed it away carefully. "I wasn't meant to be happy, Buffy, you know that."

"Bollocks," Spike said, loudly, vampire-sharp ears hearing every word, and Angel flashed him an irritated look before he went on.

The rest of the story was just as incredible, with stolen babies, hell dimensions and Connor returned teenager-ified and crazy as a loon. At least, though, when it was finished, she understood just how badly things had turned out between Angel and Cordy in the end – no reason for jealousy there after all - and also how he'd ended up running the Empire of Evil and dragging his friends down with him. She shook her head at him.

"You haven't changed, have you? Why can't you just tell people, Angel? Why can't you just trust them?"

"Tell me about it," Spike muttered, rudely, and at this, Angel finally lost it, rounded on Spike and yelled, "Just shut the fuck up!" which made her jump.

Spike simply rolled his eyes as if he'd heard it a million times before and subsided back against the wall, digging into his duster pockets for his cigarettes again.

"I had my reasons," Angel said, in answer to her question. "At the time, it seemed to me people would be less likely to get hurt this way."

"Think again." She could hardly believe her ears. "What was I to you when you came looking for me in Sunnydale just before the end? A consolation prize?" But at the stricken look on his face, she felt way bitchy. "Sorry, that wasn't fair. Did you want to die, Angel, was that it?"

"I don't know," he admitted. "I guess – I just wanted to see you, Buffy. Seeing you always makes me feel better, you know? I don't know if I really wanted more from you than that but then your whole thing with Spike – it threw me, I don't mind admitting."

"Yeah, well – I didn't plan it. It just kind of happened." She glanced at Spike again. He was looking at her this time and the waves of unhappiness and jealousy were almost pouring off him. She shrugged inwardly and sighed. She felt for him but he really was just going to have to live with it; in fact, they all three were.

"He's still pretty antsy being round us both together," Angel said, seeing the direction of her gaze, and there was a hint of smugness in his voice.

"And don't you just love it? Come on, Angel, you have to buy him that drink and fess up about what I said. Maybe he'll believe it if he hears it from you."

He looked sulky a moment, then heaved a deep sigh. "Maybe," he conceded, "when we get where we're going. About Connor, Buffy – I haven't finished."

He fished another photograph out, this time of a good-looking teenage boy – nothing remarkable, brown hair, blue eyes. She wondered where the blue eyes had come from. Hadn't Darla been green-eyed, like her? However, she didn't say anything, just stared at the photo with him.

"He has some of his memory back," Angel was saying. "He knows I'm his father but he has all these other – better – memories overlaying his real past so it doesn't drive him crazy any more. Will you make sure he's safe for me, Buffy?"

She blinked in surprise. "Why? Is he in danger too?"

"He's my son," Angel said, patiently, and that weight was back on his shoulders and his eyes were old again and full of pain. "He'll always be in danger because of me even when I'm no longer – around."

"We can protect him," she said, quickly. "Me and the other Slayers. Maybe we could bring him to the Council in England? He could go to school there where Giles can keep an eye on him."

"He's already at Stanford." Angel sounded proud and she guessed he should. Stanford was a big deal. "Also, his parents – his other parents – they live in California. I don't think he'll agree to leave them."

He took her hand in his suddenly, holding it carefully between his wide palms like something precious and fragile and she guessed he was thinking of that lost baby again. "He's strong, Buffy – strong as a Slayer – but he's lost that edge he had from being raised in a hell dimension. He'll need help – a friend who understands him. Will you be that friend for me or find some other Slayer who can be?"

"I will." She didn't hesitate. "I won't let anything happen to him, Angel, I give you my word."

The look of relief on his face was so intense, so heartfelt, that there was no way to avoid now the knowledge that was creeping up on her. His heart really was given elsewhere – not to Cordy, not to Nina, but to this one vulnerable teenage boy who he might never see again.

The tears started up in her eyes once more. She turned her head away from him and wiped her face furiously. "I'm so sorry, Angel, for everything you've lost."

He hadn't let go of her hand. His face was sombre. "I know I deserve it," he said, "but explain to me, Buffy, if you can, why my son deserves it too."

The suppressed anger in his tone chilled her, but she put her other hand to his cheek and ran the pad of her thumb across the cool skin.

"I'm a Slayer," she said, "but even so, I don't believe in all that destiny crap, Angel, or karma either – and don't say I sound like Spike again, I know I do. Your son doesn't deserve anything bad to happen to him – but that doesn't change the fact there are bad people in the world who'll hurt him if they can. It's not your fault, though -someone had to be his father and it happened to be you."

"It's not the life I wanted for him," he protested, and this time she learned forward and kissed him gently on the mouth.

"Mom used to say that to me. It's just life, Angel. We go with what we've got, and hey, if your boy has super-strength that's not too bad for starters."

"I guess not." He rested his forehead against hers for a moment. "Oh, God, Buffy. Of all the things I've seen – things I've done – you're the only one I wouldn't change." He pulled back suddenly, the stricken look on his face again. "Except for that part where I lost my soul and spent the next three months tormenting you and making your life a misery that is."

"Understood." She thought of those days herself; of how she'd felt – so small and lost, like a little trapped animal being repeatedly kicked. Somehow or other, she'd kept that feeling inside her for years, poisoning what she'd had with Riley and making her choose – out of all people she could have chosen – a soulless vampire as her lover.

She looked across at Spike again. He was pacing up and down now, still smoking, trying not to look at them, and compassion for what he'd been flooded through her like water from a broken dam. He'd tried so hard to be what she wanted – to keep her - but because of his nature, everything he tried turned to wrongness and pain, the very opposite of what she needed, and as for her, she'd facilitated it – allowed it to happen. They'd been so broken.

And somehow, none of it would have happened at all if not for that one night when she gave everything of herself and made Angel happy.

Of course, she already understood this – had done for a while - but come to terms with it and really leave her demons behind? That was something else.

She pictured Angelus's handsome sneering face in her head, heard again his words, dripping with contempt, and it hit her suddenly how she'd let him win after all. He'd wanted to hurt her before he killed her and all these years later she was still letting him do it, because she'd let him matter. God, she'd been stupid – stupid and young and scared.

No, what really mattered was that Angel had loved her, and their time together – brief as it had been – was worth far more than anything Angelus could ever have done. He just wasn't that important.

It was like something had clicked into place in her head, a piece of the Buffy puzzle finally fitting. She contemplated it a moment and where she was now and wondered why it had taken her so long to see it.

"The Angelus-y stuff wasn't fun," she agreed, "but I wouldn't change anything either." It was true, she realised as she said it. It really was true. "I'm glad to have known you, Angel – to have loved you. I'm glad to have known all of you, even the bad parts, because, hey, sexy leather pants, so whose gonna complain about that?"

His mouth dropped open in astonishment and then, to her surprise because it was something she'd heard so seldom, he laughed out loud. "You are just amazing," he said.

He kissed her and she opened her mouth, ignoring Spike's muttered, "Oh, for fuck's sake!" and savouring the moment. Then Angel let her go and stood up. He reached out his hand and hauled her to her feet, where she wobbled dangerously.

"Will you be all right?" he asked, concerned. "How will you get home?"

She didn't know but right now it didn't bother her. Something would come up because it always did. They walked back towards Spike, who threw down his cigarette and crushed it under his boot heel. His eyes slid from her to Angel and back and he heaved a deep sigh of resignation mixed with impatience.

"We should get going," he said, to Angel. "Can make it through the tunnels as far as Ostia by dark – nick a car, maybe?"

"Agreed." Angel nodded, then reached out and took one of the swords from him. "Goodbye, Buffy," he said, and made to walk off.

"What? Wait!" She couldn't believe how easily they turned their backs on her after all that had happened, and she could feel Spike's resentment still rolling off him, which wasn't surprising. It couldn't have been easy for him, watching that display.

"Come here," she said, and grabbed him by one leather clad arm, Slayer-handling him backwards and pinning him roughly against the wall, the way he liked it. She pulled his head down and kissed him hard. His arms were round her waist then, lifting her the short distance he had to lift her, kissing her back desperately as if he were dying.

And maybe he was, she thought, with a sudden pang. After all, if she never saw him again, it would be as if he'd died. Again. That started the tears afresh, and he kissed them off her cheeks. Just for a moment, she considered asking him to stay – to be her lover again and never leave her, but she didn't. Not that she doubted his love, but he wasn't the same man now who'd died in the Hellmouth. Like Angel, he had other people to care for. Asking him to choose would tear him apart, and she was done hurting him.

"Thank you, Buffy," he was saying "for everything, and I don't just mean now – great fight by the way, Slayer – I mean for believing in me, for forgiving me. There's no one like you."

"You neither." She held his narrow face between her hands and looked deep into his eyes. "I love you Spike, just believe it – no, don't look at me that way – Mouth of Truth, remember? – I do, and I'll never forget you."

He hugged her tight. "I should bloody well hope not."

She put her lips close to his ear. "Take care of yourself," she said, "and of Angel too."

He smiled at last, the skin around his eyes crinkling a little. "Yeah, well, someone has to look after the old man, he's that bloody hopeless."

He clung on to her for a long moment more then let go abruptly and set her aside. When he walked back to Angel he was all business, taking the sword back from him and shouldering it familiarly.

"Be careful, Buffy," Angel said. "Wolfram & Hart make bad enemies."

She shrugged, unconcerned. "I'm not worried about them. Fabrizio can protect me as long as I'm in Rome and besides, I'm a Slayer, not the Slayer. They'd have to be crazy to take on all of us."

Neither of them looked too pleased to hear Fabrizio's name mentioned. Spike actually muttered, "Can't believe that tosser ran us out of town again," but she could see their attention was already focused on the journey ahead. Spike was looking up at Angel, that grim expression on his face, and Angel was staring off into the darkness of the tunnel.

"Take care of each other," she said, suddenly. "Think of me sometimes."

Once again, the picture came into her head of the two of them, entwined like lions mating, rocking fiercely into each other while they kissed and bit and snapped. She shivered a little and resisted hugging herself. She didn't need defences against them any more.

They both stared back at her solemnly but they didn't speak and then one after the other they jumped down onto the track and started walking. After a moment, Angel's hand came down on Spike's shoulder and Spike shrugged it off with a muttered, "Piss off, you ponce!" but then, as if accidentally, his fingers brushed against Angel's – the lightest of touches. Angel glanced back at her once, but Spike kept his face stubbornly forward and she watched them until they were lost to sight in the dark.

After they were gone, her legs seemed to give out from under her and she slumped to the ground. She thought she'd cry again but no tears came. She felt empty – ripped open and reassembled and now she didn't quite know what was inside her. The wind whistled through the tunnels and she shivered. She really ought to get up – to try and get home, though the thought of trudging all that way back through the snow made her want to just lie down and sleep.

After a while, the wind-sound changed, became a roaring that grew louder and louder and at last she realised a train was coming. It came in on the city-bound platform and stood there. It was completely empty except for the driver and for a while, she just stared, not connecting the sight with herself at all. When she didn't move, the driver got out of the cab, walked along the opposite platform and disappeared. A moment later, she saw him approaching her along the Ostia platform and she scrambled to her feet, Scythe at the ready. He held up his hands in a placatory fashion when he saw it, however, as if he'd been expecting that reaction.

"Prego, signorina," he said. "The Immortal has sent me to escort you home. Please board the train."

He didn't wait for her answer, just went back the way he'd come and after a moment, she trailed after him, the Scythe hanging limply from her hand. She boarded the empty train, sat down and let it carry her back to the city.

The journey home passed in a blur. She was dimly aware of the train stopping at Flaminio where the driver manhandled her carefully onto the platform and handed her over to another of Fabrizio's men. This one escorted her above ground and into a waiting SUV that set off on a slow, careful journey through the run-down district following the tram lines, and back across the river. She stared listlessly out of the window. It had stopped snowing, she noted, and the sky to the north was becoming lighter. Any minute now, the sun would break through. In the meantime, everything looked very pretty wrapped in its white cocoon, and so empty. She'd never imagined that Rome could be this quiet.

The driver didn't speak to her. When they finally crawled their way up the hill and stopped outside her apartment block, he got out and escorted her right to her front door, answering her, "Grazie," with a curt nod. She suspected that he wouldn't go far. Fabrizio was taking no chances where her safety was concerned, but she wasn't worried. After all, who'd been the one in the Emperor's box at the Colosseum? She was pretty sure that Wolfram & Hart were only allowed to operate in this city because Fabrizio tolerated them.

He tolerated pretty much everything of course, except when it put the city in danger, and if it hadn't been for her involvement, Spike and Angel might well be dust by now, scattered in the icy wind. It would've made no difference to Fabrizio either way. He'd just wanted them gone.

She needed to sleep desperately but she made herself pick up the mess from Dawn's backpack first and deal with it – though there was no saving the t-shirt – and shower and make herself a hot drink. She sat down on the couch, nursing the mug in her cold hands and wishing that Romans had heard of carpets, because her feet were cold too. Putting on the TV, she was just in time to catch a repeat of the Holy Father's speech. He was sitting in the Papal audience chamber with people milling around in the background looking busy and important. For the most part, they were priests but there were a couple of men in suits – politicians, probably – and, inevitably, Fabrizio, standing well back and wearing his best inscrutable face and what looked like his most expensive Armani three-piece.

It didn't surprise her to see him there at all – after all, there was that weekly audience with the Pope he always had - nor when the program switched back to the studio for an update on the freak snow, to see further pictures of him standing with the President on the steps of the Quirinale, both men gesturing towards the huge drifts around the piazza. Other news footage showed people gathered round the frozen Trevi Fountain and frantic efforts to clear the snow from the roof of an apartment block that threatened collapse somewhere in the suburbs. Wherever the camera went, there was Fabrizio somewhere in the background guiding events.

The King of Rome, she thought, sleepily, and he looked pretty regal too though she guessed he wouldn't like it if she said so.

Crawling into bed seemed like the best option now so she did just that and then lay disappointingly awake for far too long. In the end, she started fantasising again while her hand pressed hard against her pubic bone over and over. She couldn't fit herself into the fantasy this time, though; it was all Spike and Angel mixed up with that gay porno movie. Spike was on all fours like an animal, his white ass all exposed and vulnerable, while Angel knelt behind him, one hand at his neck, pressing his face into – yes, it was a black silk pillow, of course it was, how tacky! - while the other worked his body slowly open. The movement of Angel's hand was hypnotic – the slick, scissoring fingers – and she could almost hear Spike's little gasps of pleasure/pain as he writhed and struggled. Her hand pressed harder, her own fingers trying to assuage the ache that permeated her whole being, and now in her mind's eye Angel was pressing something much larger than fingers into Spike's pliant body while Spike's fists punched the bedding and he swore like a trooper.

She came, she thought the same time as they did, though her mind's eye thoughtfully didn't show her the messy part. She subsided back into the pillows, her eyelids fluttering closed as Angel collapsed onto Spike's prone form and covered it with his. She wanted to see them kiss, knew they were about to, but she fell asleep instead.

The sunlight through the blinds woke her. She wondered for a moment why her legs ached so much, but then the events of the day before came flooding back and she sat bolt upright. It was late – after 11 – and if there were any classes today, she'd missed them. She got out of bed slowly, wincing at her sore muscles, and did a few minutes' stretching to ease them. When she opened the blinds it was to discover that the snow was disappearing fast, melt-water pouring down the gutters by the side of the road in quite a torrent. She might not see Fabrizio today either, she thought, if there was now a danger of flooding. At some point, though, they would need to talk.

There was a new Slayer to find for one thing– and if she'd learned anything about Gypsies since coming to live here, she'd learned that prising the girl away from her people was going to be hard; next to impossible without Fabrizio's help. But not only that, she had to tell him soon that she'd be leaving – that her calling was more important than the fate of just one city and she wouldn't wait for him to tire of her. Because her mind seemed to have been busy making decisions without her while she slept - which was kind of freaky - and now she felt all motivated and Slayer-y.

There was a hell of a lot to do, like calling Giles and telling him what had happened – the edited version because who she had sex with was none of his damn business – and then accepting that post at his Slayer School. And most important of all, there was finding Angel's son because who knew, Angel and Spike might still return and if they did, she wanted to be able to look them in the eye.

She missed them, but not as she'd expected to. Not in that awful way she'd missed Angel after she sent him to hell when her whole life had seemed empty and pointless. Not in the half-relieved, half-guilt-stricken way she'd missed Spike after he'd died for them all in the Hellmouth. All that baggage was gone suddenly. Catharsis – wasn't that what it was called? She'd have to look it up.

The sun was shining brightly, making her screw up her eyes and hey, that was why they were watering for sure. She should call Giles, she thought, or maybe it could wait a little longer - or at least the job-acceptance part. Her vampire winter was over but she was owed just one more Roman spring and there was that new Slayer to train here first.

She leaned her cheek against the cool window-pane and now her mind's eye showed her a different picture. Her vampires were running, swift as wolves, across a desert under a bright moon, black coats, black hair and white. Somewhere out there they'd find their sanctuary and wait out the time with this female demon god of theirs until it was safe to return.

She might never see them again but they'd be all right - she knew they would. And what's more, one day soon, so would she be too.