|In the Silent Depth
Author: Gem4 PM
Buffy and Angel are caught between two battles, with The Scourge on one side and Buffy's parents on the other. 3rd in theRated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Romance - Buffy S. & Angel - Chapters: 5 - Words: 35,620 - Reviews: 7 - Favs: 17 - Follows: 4 - Updated: 08-27-02 - Published: 08-21-02 - id: 926092
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Disclaimer: Guess what? The characters are still not mine. They belong, lock, stock and crossbow, to Joss Whedon, the WB, Fox, and a whole bunch of other suits. The lyrics and title are from a song called "Veering From the Wave" (and CD of the same name), by Jennifer Kimball.
Spoilers: Up to "The Initiative," then projects forward a few months in my own universe (a much nicer place than Joss' these days). As a result, Doyle lives!
Author's Note: Third in "The Road Home" series. I hope I don't offend any of the ardent Kate-haters with this one. I don't like her, but it's not like she's Riley or anything.
In the Silent Depth
You and I, well we fell in deep
As a plumb line's true in the ocean of my sleep
* * * * *
Cordelia sang softly, and off-key, as she puttered around the offices of Angel Investigations. She shifted piles of mail from one desk to another, ran a haphazard dustcloth over the weaponry hanging on the wall and generally accomplished nothing. There was no need to pretend productivity on this quiet Friday morning. Barring any situations of the world-ending nature, her boss wouldn't be in work mode until at least Monday. Indeed, if it weren't for the occasional odd noise emanating from the apartment below, she wouldn't even know he was still alive. Well, technically he wasn't, but that didn't seem to slow him down any.
A particularly loud thump from downstairs made her grin and glance at the notation she made last weekend on her week-at-a-glance calendar: 'New bed frame? Sales?' It wasn't easy being a Girl Friday these days, she reflected.
The next item on the Girl Friday to-do list involved coffee, but Cordelia hadn't found any in the office during her ramble. Normally this wasn't a cause for concern. Angel didn't seem to care much for her coffee anyway, and Doyle always polluted it with Jameson's. There was, however, another party to be considered now, and Buffy liked her morning java.
Cordelia surveyed the offending empty coffeemaker with disdain.
"Well, when Buffy visits she is just going to have to deal with the way I run things, or fix it herself. It's not like she needs it or anything. It's just coffee, for pete's sake." Cordelia nodded her head to reaffirm her position and turned away, secure in the knowledge that Slayers do not need coffee to function. Caffeine-addicted night person-type Slayers with superhuman strength and boyfriends with fangs do not need...
"Okay, one cappuccino coming up." She grabbed her purse and jacket and slipped out the door, forgetting as usual to lock it behind her.
* * * * *
Kate Lockley tucked her hands in her coat pockets as she bent her head down to avoid the wind. She trudged along the sidewalk, silently arguing with herself over the wisdom of her decision. She hadn't seen Angel in weeks, for reasons she had yet to explain to him. Now she was seeking him out, unannounced and possibly unwelcome. If he turned her away, she didn't know how she would deal with it. But if he didn't turn her away, she'd still have to deal with him.
She was so preoccupied with her internal struggle she nearly walked past Angel's building. Kate paused in the doorway to take a deep breath and marshal her courage, before pushing the door open.
Down the street, Cordelia made her emergency caffeine run unnoticed.
* * * * *
Buffy stretched, yawned, then stretched again as she drifted to consciousness. The realization that she was alone in the big bed put a quick end to her lazy awakening, but a thump from the corner of the room reassured her she had not been abandoned.
"What are you doing?" She propped herself up on one elbow as she watched her lover easily moving a large mahogany dresser from one side of the bedroom door to the other.
"I saw a dresser the other night that almost matches this one, but it's a little smaller. I thought it would work for your stuff." Angel glanced down at the dresser for a moment before meeting her hazel eyes with a slightly embarrassed look on his face. "You know, for weekends, and your summer vacation and when, I mean if, you move...well, times like that."
"That is so sweet," she purred, drawing back the covers and patting the empty space next to her. He hastily abandoned the dresser and joined her in bed. As he pulled her into his arms, she continued to whisper in his ear. "But I get the bigger one."
He drew back slightly to look at her, but saw nothing in her expression to suggest she was teasing. As her hand slid down his back, he resigned himself to the first of many compromises. Further digital ramblings convinced him compromise could actually be a good thing, if properly recompensed. He gently guided her down onto the bed to claim his reward.
The ringing of the telephone put an end to any subsequent negotiations. Buffy tried to keep Angel's attention focused on her, but he insisted on grabbing the phone instead. She rolled away from him, her annoyance only partially feigned.
"You didn't have to get me that car for my birthday," she grumbled as she pulled the sheets up under her chin. "An extra answering machine for your apartment would have been a better present."
Angel motioned her to be quiet as he tried to focus on the caller on the other end. When he was finally allowed to say more than hello, Buffy understood his anxiety.
"Yes, Joyce, Buffy is…yes, she is here. Yes, I know you thought...I'm sorry you didn't...and I'm sorry you feel that way. If we could just...okay, let me put Buffy on."
Angel handed Buffy the phone, his eyes not quite meeting hers. She took the phone with one hand, but held fast to his arm with the other. "Mom," she said into the phone, "hang on a sec." She pressed the phone against the blanket draped over her leg and spoke softly to Angel.
"Why don't you go get the water warmed up and I'll meet you in the shower? I won't be long."
She wanted to apologize to him for the things she knew her mother must have said, and she wanted to shield him from the things Joyce Summers would say in the future, but neither one was truly possible. Joyce was responsible for her own behavior, and all Buffy could do was reassure Angel that she loved him no matter what her mother said or thought.
He smiled fleetingly at her and brought her hand from his arm to his lips for a lingering kiss, before he went into the bathroom and closed the door.
Buffy returned her attention to the phone. "Yeah, Mom, I'm here...Yes, there here. At Angel's place...Because we're back together, that's why...I did so tell you...No, I don't need to hear your opinion, I've heard it all before. He's too old, he's too experienced, he's a vampire, yadda yadda yadda. I don't care." Buffy shook her head in frustration and held the phone away from her ear for a few minutes as her mother droned on and on about the future and grandchildren and vitamin D deficiency.
"Can you say 'skin cancer,' Mom?" she finally hissed in annoyance. "Look, we have been over all this before, like a million times. You and I have talked about it, Angel and I have talked about it, Giles and I, Willow and I, hell, even Cordelia and I have talked about it. Bottom line: I want my future to be with Angel, and you're just going to have to deal." She thrust the phone away from her ear and clicked it off before she could get sucked in to any further discussion of her choices.
She was sliding out of the bed with the intention of joining Angel for a little romantic interlude in the shower when a sudden click at the top of the stairs diverted her attention. Buffy quickly glanced around the room for a handy weapon, settling at last for a battle-axe hanging on the wall. She slipped one of Angel's silk shirts on to cover herself before she crept out into the living room.
* * * * *
Kate heard the sound of the shower as she opened the door at the top of the stairs. She paused for a moment, unsure of her timing. Unfortunately, time was something she didn't have in great quantities, so she marched onward. Down the steps, one by one, and around the corner, to be confronted at the foot by a small blonde teenage girl. A teenage girl who was wearing nothing but a man's shirt, with a large axe for an accessory.
"Who the hell are you?" they said in unison. The resulting lack of response was also mutual.
Buffy recovered first. "Who are you and why did you barge in without knocking?" She rhythmically tapped the battle-axe against her palm in an unmistakable threat.
"I'm Kate. A friend of Angel's." Kate closed her eyes briefly to regain control of her emotions and her voice. "Who are you?"
"I'm Buffy. Angel's wife."
"His what?" Kate wasn't sure whether shock or outrage put the squeak in her voice; they were running about neck and neck through her veins right now.
"His wife." Buffy held up her left hand, displaying her claddagh ring to eliminate any misunderstanding. She was a little embarrassed to be misrepresenting herself, but this woman's casual attitude towards Angel's home annoyed her, and she was in no mood for further attacks this morning. Angel was hers and she was his, in fact if not in law.
"He never said he had...he never told me...how old are you?" Kate unthinkingly closed the gap between them to peer into Buffy's unlined eyes and far too youthful face.
"Nineteen." She smiled sweetly. "And you?"
There was no response; not that Buffy expected one. She contemplated her big toe for a moment before looking at Kate again. "So, he never mentioned me? At all?"
"That he had a wife? No, I'd remember that." Kate walked past Buffy into the living room, trying to go back over every conversation she'd ever had with Angel, trying to remember any mention of a woman, or rather a girl, from his past.
"We've been separated. You're sure he never said my name?" Buffy beat down the little voice that reminded her she hadn't told Riley about Angel until the day she dumped him, and concentrated on what Angel's silence could mean. If he hadn't told Kate about he and Buffy, was it only because of his natural reticence, or something more significant?
"No, he never...he doesn't talk about his past a lot." Kate reflected on this comment for a moment, and then rephrased it. "Make that at all, unless I drag it out of him. There's a lot he doesn't even know I..." A sudden horrifying thought struck Kate. "Oh God, do you know...about him? I mean really know about him?"
Buffy was instantly suspicious. Angel told her he never revealed his demon to Kate, so she would have no way of knowing Angel's biggest secret. There were, however, a lot of other secrets left to choose from.
"Know what about him?" Buffy carefully replied. She carried the axe over to the coffee table and laid it down, then curled up on the futon. She waved Kate to take a seat on the chair on the other side of the table.
Kate sat down and tried to arrange her words properly. "When did you meet him? I mean, how long have you known him?"
"We met about three years ago." Buffy winced when she realized she'd already disclosed her age. Way to make Angel sound like a perv, she reflected bitterly. All I have to do is mention the car with the blacked-out windows and the lollipop and she'll have him hauled in as a child molester before his hair dries. Mom will probably be the star witness for the prosecution.
"Do you know how much older he is?" Kate asked discreetly. "I know he looks around 27 or 28, but do you know his, well, his actual age?"
Buffy reached a swift decision. Kate's tap dancing notwithstanding, she obviously knew more than Angel believed she did. It was now up to Buffy to discover how far that knowledge went.
"I do, and I think you have a pretty good idea too," Buffy said evenly. "You know what he is, don't you? He didn't tell you, I know that, but somehow you found out on your own."
Buffy silently watched as Kate stood up and began to prowl around the room. The way she moved, the way she looked, even the way she spoke all seemed vaguely familiar to Buffy, but she couldn't fathom the reason. She shook off the feeling to examine at a later time and concentrated on Kate's words.
"Funny thing about bars," Kate mused as she looked over scattered pieces of Angel's art collection. "Of course, you're not old enough to know yet," she glanced pointedly at Buffy, "but an awful lot of them have a mirror behind the bar itself. Gives lonely people the illusion they're not really alone. Gives cops a way to check out their back at all times." She paused in her restless wandering and gazed somberly at Buffy. "After a while though, some cops notice that the good looking guy sitting next to them, the one they thought of as a friend, doesn't seem to be in the picture. Some cops might brush this off as too much booze and too little sleep, but others investigate. They find out that certain creatures they always thought were bad news bedtime stories are real. Creatures like vampires."
"Don't call him a creature," Buffy snapped. "He may not be breathing, but he was human once, and he still has a human soul. Don't ever call him a creature." The traitorous little voice in her head was now whispering that she had used the same word on more than one occasion, but there really was no comparison. In her heart, she had never seen him as anything but a man.
"So you do know." Kate sat down on the chair again, unsure of whether she should be relieved or not. She dreaded telling the child the truth, but to find out she knew and didn't care was almost worse.
Buffy could feel her nerves begin to settle. This woman wasn't much of a threat after all. Her interest in Angel was obviously contingent upon his ability to breathe, and at least she hadn't tried to stake him or stuff his mouth with garlic when she discovered he was lacking in lung functionality.
"I've known for years; since not long after we met, actually. It doesn't matter to me."
Kate was stunned. This kid was worse off than she thought. She actually seemed proud of hiding her head in the sand.
"How can you say that? He's a vampire. He drinks blood, human blood. He's killed people. Maybe you don't know what that means, but..."
"I'm a vampire slayer." Buffy's voice cut like sharpened steel through Kate's words. "I don't want to go through the whole long, boring story, but it's my job to hunt vampires and kill them, along with any other fun-loving demons out there trying to end civilization. I know evil and I know Angel, better than you ever could, so don't you dare judge him. Or me."
"This is insane," Kate murmured as she rose to her feet again. "I cannot believe I am having this conversation." She walked out to the kitchen and pulled a glass down from the rack to pour a glass of water.
"Why are you here?" Buffy had lost all patience with this bottle blonde interloper who made herself so at home in Angel's home. Her home.
"Buffy! The water is getting cold! Are you ever..." Angel's voice died away as he padded damply into the living room, clad in only a towel, to discover they had company. "Umm, Kate, hi. I see you've met Buffy."
"Yeah, sweetie, we've met. The hard way." Buffy sighed as she sank back on the futon. Good-bye peaceful morning, you were nice while you lasted, she thought wistfully.
"The hard way?" Angel winced when he saw the battle-axe on the coffee table.
Buffy caught the direction his eyes, and thoughts, were heading. "No, not that hard." She pointed to Kate. "See, no blood, no bruises. I just meant in kind of an awkward situation." She waved at her shirt, which was actually his shirt, to clarify matters.
Angel took a firmer hold of the towel resting on his hips and choked out a quick laugh. "This really is pretty awkward, isn't it? I wanted you two to meet, but not quite like this." He glanced down at his bare legs. "And I kind of thought I'd be wearing pants at the time."
Buffy's keen eyes couldn't help but see the way the water droplets jealously clung to Angel's pale skin, and she could tell Kate was enjoying an eyeful too. She pointed to the bathroom.
"Go. Change. Kate and I still have some girl-talk to do before we make with the tea party." She smiled angelically at Kate, sending a chill down the detective's spine.
Angel wasn't fooled by her saccharine-sweet smile either. "Are you sure? Maybe we should take turns entertaining our guest." Willow had once accused him of jealousy, but he had nothing on Buffy in that department. Buffy, Kate and an axe were just not a good combination.
"We will take turns, but you're dripping on the carpet," she pointed out.
Her logic could not be denied. Angel vanished to make the quickest change of clothes of his life, or afterlife for that matter.
When she was certain Angel was safely in the bathroom with the door closed, Buffy swiftly returned her attention to her guest. "Angel doesn't know you know about him, and he's going to be very embarrassed when he finds out you do. I want to tell him. Alone. So whatever you need to talk to him about better not have anything to do with his dental plan."
"I'm afraid it does." Kate sighed as she walked back from the kitchen. "I need his help on a case of mine, and I think it's...well, it involves..." She couldn't bring herself to utter the word.
"Demons?" Buffy suggested gently. She felt a sudden wave of pity for Kate, who was so obviously out of her element. Then she remembered Kate was trying to bring Angel in on this, and her sympathy vanished like smoke.
"I think so. I've tried all the rational explanations, and none of them fit. Knowing what I do now about Angel, I thought he might be able to fill in some of the gaps." It wasn't the whole truth, but it was as much as Kate was willing to share with Buffy, or herself.
"Then I guess it's your lucky day, since I'm visiting for the week and I can lend a hand." Unspoken was the corollary; she could also ensure Kate's hands stayed off of Angel.
"Oh, I don't want to involve...you're just a kid," Kate protested. She shook her head firmly. "No way. I shouldn't even be involving Angel, but..."
"But you will, so that means you're involving me too. We're a package deal."
"And what happens to the team come Monday morning?" Kate tried to tell herself this was a professional question, but she didn't buy it any more than Buffy appeared to be.
"It's spring break, if that's what you're really asking, which I don't think it is." The chin came up with the attitude.
Kate waited silently for the remainder of the explanation she knew was coming.
"I told you, we were separated but we're not anymore. It's just that I've started college in the meantime, so we're doing the commuter-marriage routine till summer." Buffy met Kate's blue eyes squarely. "Not that it's actually any of your business."
Angel came back in the room before Kate could probe any further. He sat down beside Buffy and squeezed her hand, before nodding slightly towards the bathroom. She glanced anxiously at Kate before disappearing into the other room, but Kate soon realized Buffy was taking no chances. She left the bathroom door ajar and kept up a loud running commentary on the state of Angel's apartment, office, and LA in general throughout her shower. Kate couldn't have confided in Angel if she'd tried, which she didn't bother to do.
When Buffy emerged from the bathroom, still somewhat damp around the edges, she joined Angel on the futon. Her store of bright chatter was exhausted for the moment, leading to an unusual moment of silence. Her companions, who had been hammered into speechlessness by her unrelenting monologue, were slow to recover. It was almost a relief when the awkward quiet was broken by the arrival of Cordelia and Doyle.
Cordelia clattered noisily down the stairs in her clogs, yelling out a warning as she descended.
"Okay, you better be decent down here for a change! I actually went out to buy you cappuccino, Buffy, and Doyle...and Kate," she added in confusion as she rounded the foot of the staircase. "Kate's here. Look, Doyle, Kate's here. With Angel. And Buffy." She skidded to a halt on the slick wooden floor, nearly losing her balance when an equally surprised Doyle walked into her without noticing. They both made a grab for the cardboard crate that cradled the steaming paper cups, narrowly avoiding disaster.
Angel leapt to his feet and relieved them of both the coffee and the bag of doughnuts Doyle was carrying. "Okay, now that we all know who we are, why don't we find out why we're here? Kate, you go first."
Buffy grabbed her cappuccino and a jelly doughnut and settled back down beside Angel. She glanced narrowly at Kate, silently warning her to watch her words. "Yes, Kate, tell us all about why you came here without calling so early in the morning."
Cordelia darted over to the coffee table before Kate could frame her first word. "Umm, why don't I just move this," Cordelia said as she lifted the battle-axe off of the table. "You know, before somebody pokes an eye out or something." She smiled innocently at Buffy. "Strictly by accident, of course."
"That's our Cordy, always the safety expert," Doyle chimed in nervously. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, trying to gauge the amount of trouble Kate's unexpected appearance was going to cause for his friend. Judging by the stormy expression on Buffy's face, Angel might well be spending more than a little time on the futon this weekend.
"I've been working on a case," Kate began.
"Kate's a cop, Buffy." Cordelia smiled brightly at Kate as she brushed past her on the way back from the weapons cabinet. "Well, I told you that already. She's kind of like our very own Commissioner Gordon, or do I mean Barbara Gordon? No, that can't be right because she was Bat Woman or Cat Girl or something superpowers-ish." She would have continued, but a sharp glance from Angel surprisingly penetrated her usual tact shields and she subsided into temporary silence.
Kate looked down at her nervously twisting hands, at the coffee table, anywhere but at Angel. "Yes, well, that's why I know you handle…unusual problems. I seem to have stumbled into one myself this time, and it's serious." She looked up at Angel at last, unwillingly warmed by the concern in his dark eyes. "I need help, and I need it fast."
"What's wrong?" he asked softly, leaning forward to invite her confidences. The portion of his mind always attuned to his beloved, noticed Buffy stiffen when he moved, but he trusted her to understand. Eventually.
"One of my informants was killed the other night, and he wasn't the first one. I always knew there was something a little odd about him, and about the others, but you just don't immediately think of...it's not rational. I'm a cop, and a cop's daughter. I deal in fact, and logic, and this is just not logical." She seemed to have argued herself out of her dilemma and started to rise from her chair.
Buffy desperately wanted Kate to go with those thoughts, to go period. She wanted to get back to her perfect morning, spoiled first by her mother's call, and then by this interloper. But she had a sacred duty to fight evil, even if it was brought to her attention by her lover's wannabe-girlfriend.
"Demons make as much sense as humans, and more than leprechauns," Buffy offered grudgingly. She didn't dare look at Angel, but she could feel his start of surprise and the shock of the others.
"Demons?" Angel choked out. He glanced quickly at Kate, but she seemed relieved rather than surprised.
"I think so," Kate agreed softly. "At least part demon. I don't actually meet all of them face-to-face, and even if I did, I don't know how to...to tell if they're full-blooded or not, but Kai said...he said that's why they were after him. Because he wasn't pure demon."
Angel wasn't ready to deal with Kate's acceptance of demons, or Buffy's knowledge of her problem, so he pushed those concerns to the side for the moment. "Someone killed him because he was only part-demon?"
"Demons killed him," Kate corrected him. "He said they were after him because they were pure and he wasn't." She was becoming more at ease the more she talked. Once her words were airborne, and the world continued to spin on its axis anyway, she started to believe she would come out of this with almost all of her marbles intact.
"I don't get it," Cordelia said. "Nazi demons? Who would have thought the multi-layer forehead crowd would be so snobby?" She glanced quickly at Angel and realized her words might be considered un-PC by some of her audience. "I'm sorry, Angel, I didn't mean...oww!" Her apology was cut short by Doyle's hand sharply gripping her shoulder.
"If I'm thinking of the right demons, and I know I am, they're called the Scourge," Doyle said grimly. "And they're nothing to joke about."
Angel glanced sharply at him. "You've run into them before?"
"Not me. Some...friends of mine," Doyle replied evasively, with a quick nod of his head in Cordelia's direction. "They're right mean bastards, and there's always more to replace the ones that fall in battle. It would take an army to stop them once they get going."
"And they prey on half-breeds?" Buffy shot a quick look at Angel sitting beside her. "What exactly do they consider..."
"Aye, them too." Doyle knew where her priorities lay and answered her before she could finish the question. "And them that loves 'em as well, so beware." He suddenly remembered Kate's presence at the council of war. "I mean, we all should be careful."
"Sounds like we should just lay low on this one," Cordelia said reasonably. "I mean, we're talking demons killing demons. With one or two notable exceptions, I'm not seeing this as a bad." She flipped her dark hair over her shoulder and waited for the rest of the group to acknowledge the logic of her argument.
"If they're preying on half-breeds, that means families. Children." Angel stood up and began to pace. "We have to get involved." He turned to Kate. "Do you know what kind of demon your informant was? What any of them were?"
She shook her head regretfully. "Sorry, I didn't even know Kai wasn't human until he stumbled into the police station dripping blood." She closed her eyes for a moment at the memory. "I thought the expression 'blue blooded' sounded pretty classy until now."
"Oh, blue blood is nothing." Cordelia dismissed Kate's trauma with a flick of her wrist. "You should see the ones made of worms. Now that takes some getting used to. And once there was this one who had a gigantic..."
"Cordelia, please." Angel looked over at Buffy, who was being unusually quiet. "Buffy, what are you thinking?"
She started at the sound of his voice, but rejoined the conversation amicably enough. Only Angel could hear the tightness in her tone that signaled her carefully restrained anger.
"I'm thinking Giles should have warned me about these guys. If they go after hybrids and half-breeds, it involves me." More importantly to her, it was a potential threat to Angel. Her Watcher had some slacking off to explain.
"He may not have known. These fellows don't exactly look for publicity." Doyle looked anxiously around the room, searching for the portable phone. "I really should call Harrie. If the Scourge is scouting around for new targets she could be in danger. I mean, because she spends so much time studying demons," he hastily backpedaled in deference to Cordelia.
"His ex is a demon anthropologist. She almost married a demon, but she broke it off when he tried to eat Doyle's brain." Cordelia offhandedly dropped these latest tidbits on Kate, gleefully anticipating the reaction of self-assured Detective Lockley.
"Do you people secretly headhunt for the circus or something? Don't you know anyone normal?" Kate scrambled to her feet, intent on escaping this loony bin before she too began to speak casually of brain buffets. She was stopped in her flight by Angel's hand on her arm.
"Kate, please wait. I know this must all come as a shock to you, but we can help if you just give us a chance." Angel glanced around the room, mentally divvying up tasks before he spoke. "Okay, Cordelia, why don't you take Kate upstairs and get the details about her informants. Show her the etchings we have and try to figure out if The Scourge is after a particular group right now or just hunting at random."
"Gotcha." Cordelia got to her feet, all business now. "Come on, Kate. I'll give you a guided tour of the boogedy books."
"Doyle, can you hit the street and see if anyone knows where their base camp is? I want to find them before they find us."
"I'm on it. After I call Harrie."
"Oh, and get a couple of pounds of coffee while you're out," Cordelia called out as Doyle headed to the lift. "There must be a grocery store somewhere near the Death Star. Even demons need munchies."
"Buffy." Angel turned to face his other half, unsure of how she would react to him taking charge of the hunt. "Do you want weapons check or research? I'm more familiar with the arsenal but I'm easy either way."
"You better not be, mister." Buffy grinned at him. "I'll take weapons. I need to get to know what we have so I'll know what to put on the shopping list for future adventures." She planted a swift kiss on his lips before vanishing into the bedroom where she knew Angel kept his best weapons.
Kate lingered near the lift, gesturing for Cordelia to precede her to the office upstairs. Cordelia sighed, but acquiesced after a slight reassuring nod from Angel. When the lift door could be heard opening on the upper level, Kate turned back to Angel, who had settled down on the futon with his new laptop.
She didn't know how to begin to ask him what she needed to know, but he didn't give her much time to formulate a plan. Without looking up from the computer screen, he said quietly, "I'm glad you felt you could come to me with this, Kate. I was starting to think I'd done something to offend you."
"I know I haven't been around much lately," she replied. She took a few steps away from the lift, but still kept her distance from Angel.
"Or at all," he corrected her. He looked up at last, trying to catch her evasive eyes. "You didn't answer me. Did I offend you in some way?"
"That girl. Is she really your wife?" Kate regretted the question the moment it popped out of her mouth, but it was too late to withdraw it. She could only stand miserably alone in the center of the room and wait for an answer.
"She is in every way that matters." He regarded her silently for a moment, confused by the smile that came and went like lightning across her face. "Does she have something to do with why you've been avoiding me?"
"That sounds like a no. Is she even old enough to be here, or should I be hauling you in for corrupting the morals of a minor?" Kate had no wish to examine the feeling of relief that swept over her when she realized Angel wasn't actually married. That could wait for later, when she was alone and away from the confusion wrought by his presence.
It was his turn to smile as he answered. "She's over 18, and I told you she is my wife, according to the traditions I was raised in." He raised his hand to display the claddagh ring that was a mate to Buffy's. "The state of California may disagree for the moment, but we'll take care of that when the time is right."
"And exactly how old are those traditions, Angel? Are we talking centuries, or do you have some good stories to tell about the big Y1K crisis too?"
She couldn't believe she asked him his age. She didn't want to know, didn't want to admit she knew what he was because then he would confirm it and all would be lost. She would never be able to look at him the same way again. Or if she could, she would never see herself in the same light.
After hearing Kate acknowledge the existence of demons, Angel realized he shouldn't have been shocked that she knew his secret. Still, it took away his metaphorical breath to see the suspicion in her usually friendly blue eyes.
"You know, don't you?"
She forced herself to break contact with that pained dark gaze. Staring intently at a scuffmark on the floor, she nodded her head.
"And that's why you've been avoiding me."
It wasn't a question, just a statement of fact.
"Does that surprise you?" she flared, raising her head to glare at him. "You think you know someone and then you find out he's not even a someone but a something. That would be hard for most people to deal with."
He flinched at the anger and disgust in her voice. Over the past few months he had come to think of Kate as a friend, but he'd always known much of that relationship depended on his "passing" as human. He just hadn't realized it was the entire foundation.
"It's not an easy subject to bring up casually," he replied quietly. He laid the laptop on the futon and stood up, but made no move to approach Kate. "What was I supposed to say? 'Hey Kate, how was your New Year's? Mine? Oh, well, you've seen one turn-of-the-century you've seen them all.' Would that have been the best way?"
"You could have trusted me." She was struggling to conceal her sense of betrayal, but she wasn't sure why she bothered. She used to think she had good instincts about people, and she had trusted Angel from the start, even when she knew she shouldn't. It had become apparent to her that the feeling was not mutual.
"You mean I should have known you'd react so well?" he shot back. "Sorry about that; I was actually afraid you might wig out on me. What was I thinking?"
Kate was saved the necessity of a reply by Buffy's emergence from the bedroom.
"Angel, I think we need more of these little ninja star thingies, if you know of a good..." Buffy paused, realizing when she looked up from the weapon in her hand that she and Angel were not alone. "Kate, aren't you supposed to be looking through America's least wanted or something?"
"I was just going." Kate turned on her heel and fled after a last anguished glance at Angel.
"She knows," Angel said quietly as he watched the door at the top of the stairs close after Kate. He only had a moment to regret the loss of his friend, however, before his mind was recalled to more important matters. "What did your mom say about you being here?"
"Buffy!" Angel was shocked. He and Buffy had discussed her mother's role in his departure from Sunnydale last summer, but he thought she had dealt with her outrage over Joyce's interference. Obviously he was mistaken.
"Look, I know you're angry about her interfering, but that's no reason to..."
Buffy shifted her furious gaze from the staircase to Angel. She couldn't believe he would actually take Kate's side after the way she wounded him.
"You bet your overdeveloped canine teeth I'm angry. I told her not to tell you. I told her to let me, and then as soon as my back is turned...and you defend her?"
"Okay, now I'm confused." Angel ran a hand through his dark hair as he tried to trace his way back to the missing thread in the conversation. "Are we still discussing what your mother said last summer, or this morning? Because I admit I was wrong not to tell her to back off then, but this morning..."
"Angel, no, I'm not talking about Mom." Buffy's wrath faded as she realized Angel's concern was for her rough morning instead of his own. She laid her hands gently on his chest and looked deep into his eyes. "Kate promised me she would let me tell you she knew about you. I didn't want you to hear it from her; you've been hammered on enough for one day. And then she went and told you anyway!"
He traced the lines of worry down from her forehead along her cheek to her lips. He was touched, as always, by the ferocity with which she protected him. Body and soul were as one to her, their fates weighing equally in her tender and capable hands.
"Sweetheart, it's okay. I admit it was kind of a shock, but you really don't have to protect me like that. I'm a big boy, remember?" He smiled softly at her before he leaned down to steal a kiss.
"And I'm a big girl," she reminded him when, all too soon, the kiss ended. "My mom may have a right to her own opinions, but they are completely wrong and I don't have to listen to them."
"That bad?" he asked sympathetically, sliding his arms around her waist to pull her closer.
Buffy debated for a moment about the relief in sharing the whole long ugly conversation with her mate, but in the end she decided it would just be selfish. It wasn't like he didn't already know Joyce's opinion of him.
"Can we just go back to bed and start the day over?" she pleaded as she pressed her cheek against his chest. "No mothers, no ex-girlfriends, no demons. Just you and me and those silk sheets." She held him fast within her arms, determined to salvage the morning through sheer force if necessary.
He smiled against her hair as he rested his head on hers. "She's not my ex-girlfriend, Buffy. She was just a friend, and I'm not sure she's even that now."
He dropped a light kiss on the part of her blonde hair and breathed in her scent, abandoning his regrets in favor of the simple joy of this embrace. Somehow his problems with Kate could not compete with the wonders of the life he now saw before him, embodied in this woman he held in his arms.
Buffy titled back her head to gaze up at him. "I wish we could write off Mom as easily, but since we can't…it doesn't matter, Angel. I can't make her go away, but whatever she says or does can't touch us now. We're free."
* * * * *
As the lovers whiled away the day discussing battle plans and bedroom sets, Joyce Summers laid out her own campaign strategy. After a lengthy internal struggle, she sought aid and comfort from the least reliable of allies.
She dialed the number quickly, before she talked herself out of it, and she wasn't sure if she was glad or disappointed when she got a human rather than the machine. So much depended on this conversation; it might have been better if it was one-sided.
"Hank, it's Joyce. We need to have a long talk about your daughter."
-To Be Continued-