"How did you come up with all this gear?"

"Angel likes to be prepared."

Xander blinked.

< And the understatement of the year goes to... >

"No kidding."

He lifted a customized M16 with a quizzical look.

Doyle shrugged. "Ye always end up wishin' ye had brought a bigger gun."

Xander was reminded of the Slayerettes various experiences in dealing with military equipment.

"I second that."

"People." They turned around to face Wesley, Giles and some commando guy they had never seen before - brushing snow off his black combat vest . "I'd like to introduce John Dunst. He's the leader of the Council's special unit Alpha. Unit Beta is commanded by Gregory Barker. They are already in place around the perimeter of Lisandra's lair," explained the youngest Watcher.

A few nods were exchanged. No handshakes though. They were all still wary of anything Council-related after Wesley's tale of the trium vira and their cold intention to let Morghane die.

Giles was the first to break the tension, gesturing to the rudimentary blueprints of the warehouse and surrounding district. "Let's discuss our points of entry. Mister Dunst, if you please?"

The medium-height, dark-haired man nodded sharply. If he felt uncomfortable amongst the Slayer's friends, he hid it well.

"From what Barker's team has been able to surmise, we're facing a battalion of thirty to forty vampires guarding the perimeter of the lair. There are three points of entry: the sewers, the main door, and the roof. Since we want to use daylight to our advantage, I propose we restrain our initial breach to the front door and the roof. Explosives should do the trick."

Oz cleared his throat. "What about Angel and Spike? We don't want them bursting into flames too."

Giles expected Dunst to bristle at the mention of the two vampires they were expected to rescue along with the Slayer and the Guardian, but the English commando didn't so much as blink.

"Indeed. As far as we can tell, all the prisoners are kept in the main room. We will limit our breach of the roof to the cells quarters." He traced an invisible circle on the map with the tip of his index finger. "A small squad equipped with flame throwers will cover the underground side of the sewer entrance to keep anyone from escaping through that route. We'll use a shielded military vehicle to bring down the front door. We expect some resistance at this point" - he pointed to the area immediately preceding the main room of the warehouse - "but surprise, some heavy artillery and a few crossbows should take care of that. Team Alpha will take the front. Team Beta will cover the back - through the roof. You'll be inside the humvee. Your primary objective is to take the prisoners to safety. We'll take care of the vampires."

"What about Lisandra?" asked Cordelia, tying a black scarf around her hair to keep it out of her face. "We don't want her dead. We need her for the counterspell."

Xander nodded emphatically. "And we have to do the spell on site. Because there's no way we can subdue a vampire mage long enough to bring her back here."

"Well," Willow piped up for the first time, "I thought about that. And this is what I came up with. Don't go anywhere." She disappeared inside Angel's study for a minute then came back to the living room. "There," she said, producing four darts. "Those are the same darts we use when Oz goes all Grrr." Dunst lifted an inquisitive eyebrow, but was promptly ignored. "I doubled the dosage and added a little... magical concoction to the mix."

The young witch braced herself. Waiting for the firing squad - namely Giles - to remind her once again of the danger of the black arts.

But the Watcher smiled proudly at her instead.

"Good thinking, Willow. We don't need Lisandra to be conscious for the spell, so that should work. Well done."

Willow tried not to, but she beamed nonetheless, bouncing slightly. Oz kissed her temple affectionately.

"So we load two guns with those darts. I'll take one," said Xander. "My aim is still pretty good from when I was military guy. Willow takes the other... She has practice."

He smiled an apology at Oz, who shrugged.

No offense taken. Glad to be of service.

"Very well," conceded Dunst, going back to business. "The humvee will cut a path all the way to the front room. You cover Lisandra, while we take down the Nehemia warriors. And you insure that the hostages are escorted to safety as swiftly as possible." The commando looked at his watch. "Two hours to go until sunrise. I'm going to check with team Beta. We'll come pick you up in a little over an hour. Be ready."

With a short salute, Dunst retreated towards the staircase and disappeared from view.

"Oookay," Xander drawled. "Anyone here thought Mister Freeze was creepy?"

Giles massaged a painful shoulder - too many hours spent hunched over a book, and not enough sleep. "He seems very competent and dedicated. It's not a personality contest. It's a war."

This was said without his usual chiding tone when it came to Xander's running commentaries.

"Have you been researching all night, Giles?" asked Willow with a frown, appraising the Watcher's bedraggled form. "I thought you said sleep would do us all good."

Giles sighed deeply. "I wanted to double check on the counterspell. Make sure we had all the elements - considering that we will have only one shot to do this right."

"But, hey, no pressure," Xander muttered softly.

"It seems we have all the required ingredients, thanks to Doyle." The half-demon tipped an imaginary hat. "And now, with Willow's darts, we actually stand a chance at casting it."

"So what's wrong?"

Giles sent a quick, pleading glance at Wesley. He was getting tired of being the bearer of bad news.

The younger Watcher took over.

"We have been investigating further the ontological implications of a vampiric Guardian."

"Onto... what?," echoed Xander, perplexed.

"The idea of Guardian magicks being channeled by a creature without a soul... well, we had to know. In case we failed. We had to cover all the bases..."

"Wesley. Please," murmured Cordelia.

The Englishman bowed his head a little.

"We fear that if Lisandra goes though the Rapture, the strain on the ethereal community will simply be too much to handle, and the fabrics of our two dimensions might just be torn apart. Like matter and anti-matter colliding in a void... On a quantum level alone..." The Scooby Gang looked at him like he was speaking Cantonese with a bad accent. He tried again. "In simple terms, Guardian magicks originate on the ethereal plane, and are generated by human souls. It's an equilibrium. All magick expended by the Guardian in our plane is used to strengthen the ethereal community in some way and therefore ends up being fed back to it. It's like a loop. Lisandra has no soul. There will be no feedback. She will just keep on draining the ethereal community until there's nothing left of it. The universe might just collapse from the strain."

"Giving a new meaning to the word Apocalypse," Giles concluded softly.

Wesley nodded. "We're not talking the Hellmouth opening and Earth being overrun by demons anymore. We're talking destruction on a molecular and spiritual level."

Xander sat down heavily. "Me thinks that's when we say, 'Oh, God'. Or something to that effect."

Giles uttered the words they all dreaded to hear. "If it looks like Morghane cannot be saved, like Lisandra cannot be subdued, we will have to kill her."

"Any more good news?" muttered Doyle, sarcastic.

Where did Angel hide that bottle of whiskey again?

Giles leaned against the wall at his back, leaving Wesley to occupy the center stage once again.

"Aspiring Guardians are not chosen lightly - let alone the successor. We believe it more than likely that Lisandra's soul is trying to regain control of her body. It certainly did not depart meekly to rest on the ethereal plane. If this internal war is indeed raging inside Lisandra... chances are good she's going insane as we speak."

"Anyone who's flashing back to Dru, raise your hand," mumbled Xander, fingers folded over his eyes.

Giles deposited the newly stocked first-aid kit on the coffee table.

Questioning eyebrows rose all around.

"We don't... we don't know in what... state... we will find Buffy, Angel, Spike and Morghane when we get there. Better to be prepared."




There was something strangely erotic - but also disturbingly poignant - in watching Spike bend over Angel, holding the injured vampire so tenderly, stroking the wide, trembling shoulders in comfort.

Light and dark, lean and strong.

Buffy felt tears spring to her eyes.

Was this how she and Angel appeared to others? This gentle, passionate mingling of day and night, this heart-breaking ballet of hands and lips, eager to worship and soothe?

On some level, Buffy found deeply troubling that she was not more perturbed by the sight of a man - her once sworn enemy - making love to her mate.

And on another level, it made perfect sense.

She did not want Angel to be in any more pain. The circumstances were such that she could not be the one offering the relief he deserved. Someone else had to be entrusted with that mission.

There were only two people in that room - in this universe - whose love for Angel ran as deep as her own.

One was unconscious.

The other was Spike.

And the thought just did not bother Buffy that much.

Yet, although she was grateful for the blonde vampire's restraint, she never missed making love to Angel more than in that moment. She wanted to beg. Beg to be the one allowed to bring Angel to ecstasy in the midst of his torment. Beg to be the one tracing the elegant, noble lines of his eyebrows with her fingertips, the one brushing her lips over his chiseled cheekbones and fine, damning mouth. The one nipping her way down the pale, strong column of his throat, licking his chest clean of his own blood.

His blood.

The taste of Angel's blood was in her mouth.

And it was, by far, the strangest thing which had happened to her that day.

How did she know the blood was Angel's?

The knowledge was just there. As if she had tasted it a hundred times before.

And then, it wasn't only his blood. It was his beloved scent in her nostrils, the coolness of his skin on her tongue, the shape of his defined muscles under her fingers.

She swallowed a tight gasp.

Slowly, trying not to attract Lisandra's attention, Buffy gathered Morghane closer to herself, keeping the Guardian's face away from the vampires. The Slayer lowered her gaze.

Morghane's expression was vacant, but her eyes glowed more intensely than ever before, under the semi-lowered lids.

Buffy let a tear roll down her cheek. She caught a glimpse of Lisandra's jubilant grin at the sight of the Slayer's pain, but Buffy ignored it.

The vampiress had it all wrong.

The tears were not a manifestation of Buffy's distress at having to watch Spike love Angel.

They were tears of gratitude.

She had received Morghane's true parting gift, and the mordant irony of the situation didn't escape the Slayer at all. The Guardian was resorting to the First's own tricks, turning its little mind games to their advantage.

Buffy would make love to Angel after all.