"Yo! Anybody home?"
Wesley hurried out of the office when he heard the shout from the lobby.
"Gunn," the former Watcher said with some asperity, "where have you been? I've been calling you for the last half-hour."
Gunn looked at him in surprise. "Matter of fact, I was on my way here. But nobody told me I had to check in before I left home; is that some new rule?"
"No, of course not." Wesley shook his head impatiently. "But a new case has arisen and I require some assistance." He glanced around the otherwise empty lobby, his eyes unwillingly following the railing up the stairs towards the bedrooms. "I seem to be in this one alone."
Gunn shook his head, moving purposefully towards the office and the weapons closet. "Sorry, Wes. I'm just making a quick stop to pick up my favorite axe. My boys found a nest on the other side of town, so we're off to hunt wabbits...or should I say 'wampires'?"
Wesley spared a small, pained smile at Gunn's jest as he followed the younger man into the office. "Most amusing, I'm sure. And I am equally sure your 'boys', as you call them, can manage to clean up one small nest without you and your faithful axe. I, on the other hand, am forced to contend not only with a rampant demon about whom there is no written documentation, but also the renewal of love's young dream. It has been," he said, removing his glasses to rub the bridge of his nose, "quite the afternoon."
Gunn turned form the weapons closet, axe in hand. "Love's young what? Speak English, English."
"He means Buffy," Cordelia offered as she strolled in from the lobby. "Angel's Buffy...as though any other sane person would have her. Not that Angel's always the portrait of sanity either, but..."
"Whoa, back up." Gunn held up his free hand. "Angel's got a girl; when did that happen? Wait, she's not evil or anything is she? Like that Darla chick?"
"No," Cordelia answered with a regretful sigh. "She's actually the one who kills things like Darla."
"She's the Vampire Slayer," Wesley explained. "The one girl in all the world with the strength and...oh forget it." He sighed as he sank down into the leather chair behind the desk. "Even I weary of the rhetoric these days; it seems so...unreal."
"Pop-up video version?" Cordelia began to tick off the high points on her fingers. "She was destined to kill vampires, except she fell in love with Angel's soul, not to mention the way he looks in a pair of leather pants. He loves her too, but they can't be together because he'll lose his soul if he gets too happy, which, eww, she makes him when they have sex. The word 'sex' comes from the Latin..."
"Cordelia," Wesley said repressively.
"What? Am I wrong? I thought every word originally came from Latin at some point or another."
"I believe Gunn gets the general idea, Cordelia." Wesley raised an eyebrow at her. "And if he doesn't know about sex, it is not your place to...that is to say it's not my place to say that it's not your place to say...but this isn't the place to say it."
"Says you," she retorted, making a face at him.
Gunn took pity on the blushing Watcher and decided to steer the conversation back to the original subject. It had, of course, nothing to do with any ideas he might have once had about Cordelia; ideas that proved too awkward to explore when they began working together on a daily basis.
Nope, nothing at all to do with that, he reassured himself.
"So Angel's ex is in town..."
"Along with a party of favorites," Cordelia interrupted.
"And you're not stoked about it," Gunn finished with a smile. He sat on the edge of the desk, bouncing the axe handle on the edge of his knee. "You two duke it out over the big guy at some point? That where the bad blood comes in?"
"Oh please," Cordelia scoffed. "You've seen the man's taste in women: short blondes who think he's God's gift. I, on the other hand, am the tall brunette..." she reached up to touch her highlighted locks, "well mostly brunette, sidekick. A.K.A. Vision Girl." She sat up suddenly, her voice dropping to a horrified whisper. "Oh god, I'm Drusilla, aren't I? I'm like Drusilla with marbles...and better taste in men."
Wesley sighed; this was hardly a new thought to him, but for all their sakes' it could not be encouraged.
"Cordelia, you are nothing like Drusilla," he said soothingly. "You're much...taller."
"And my fashion sense is way better," she mused, slowly settling back in her chair. "And did I mention the taste in men? Not even in the same zip code."
"So it wasn't Angel you girls got the fingernails out for; that's what I'm asking," Gunn interjected.
"Like Angel would be the reason not to like Buffy." She cocked her head to the side and paused to think her denial through. "Okay, well, in a way he is, but only because she has a bad effect on him. You've never seem in him full-blown Buffy-brood...which he will be in approximately five seconds after he solves whatever little problem brought her here and she decides to head back to her precious normal life."
Gunn looked at her strangely. "But I thought you said she hunted vampires for a living. How do you get to normal from that neighborhood?"
"Search me." Cordelia's sigh was drowned out by the sudden shrill of the telephone. As she leaned over to pick it up from the far edge of the desk, she continued to explain. "But she...and he...seem to think the slaying should only be this little bitty part of her life. The rest of the time she's supposed to be as normal as finding stale pretzels in your couch three months after football season is over." She held her free hand over the mouthpiece of the raised telephone as she cast a hard glance at the two men. "Which, by the way, better not happen again next year if you two know what's good for you."
* * * * *
"I can't believe you," Buffy growled. "All this time, all that's happened to both of us, and you still think I can go back to being Cherry Cheerleader." A soft pink glow quickly stained her cheeks. "I didn't, uh, exactly, mean the, umm, 'cher...well, it just sort of, umm, sounded good...at least in my head."
Angel shook his head to clear it; they had been going round in circles about this for so long he was actually beginning to feel dizzy.
"Buffy, we've been over this a thousand times, together and separately. I know you will always have some parts of your life that are...strange." He paused, searching for a word other than 'abnormal,' but none were springing to mind. "You're the Slayer," he continued, abandoning his quest and taking another tack. "That's part of the deal. But you have always wanted a life beyond that; don't try to pretend you haven't."
"Of course I have, but I want you to be that part for me," she said urgently. "And I'm supposed to be that part for you. That's the way it works."
He tenaciously held his ground, even though he wanted nothing more than to agree with her, and be with her, for the rest of his days.
"You have so much else going on in your life right now; things I can't even imagine. You're 20 years old; you need to focus on school and your friends and career plans and..."
Angel's words skidded to a halt as he remembered her first career, and the constraints it placed on any other. But Buffy had her mind set on another side of his argument, an area where she considered him to be gravely misinformed.
"Angel, my birth certificate may say I'm 20, but I'm ages older than the other kids I know. They think about all the things you think I'm supposed to, like parties and exams and how to mix the two without your parents freaking. But I am the parent now. While they're flipping a coin to choose between chem. test and kegger, I'm trying to decide between saving the world and going to Parent/Teacher Night. That's the stuff you can't imagine."
He reached out and stroked her cheek. "I'm sorry, Buffy. I know things have been hard for you since your mom died, even harder than before."
"And you could make them easier," she insisted, pressing more firmly against his side.
"How?" In one bewildered syllable he put all of his grief and frustration at failing her yet again.
"You just do," she said helplessly. "When we're together...it's like nothing else matters. Nothing can touch me. It's just you and me."
"And then the vampire strikes...or the demon ascends...or the sun rises...and we're back to reality." Angel took her hands in his; mourning the chill that now suffused her body. "I'm not one of Willow's magic charms, Buffy. You and I being together solves only one problem: us not being together."
She forced a watery smile, sensing she was losing this battle but unwilling to admit it. "I'll take it."
"I want more for you."
Buffy pulled her hands away from him and got to her feet. She had known Angel would be stubborn; she had told herself she was prepared for it. But deep in her heart, she had cherished the idea that once he saw her again, once they could really talk things through, he would be helpless in the face of her arguments. He would sweep her into his arms and admit that he couldn't survive another minute without her.
It seemed they still had a lot of work to do before she was going to get that whole sweeping idea into his head.
"You want more for me," she said, mustering all her confidence, "but you also want me. I know you do, Angel; I can still see it in your eyes when you look at me."
He swallowed, trying to ignore the rush of heat that surged through his body at her words.
"I never said I didn't," he told her quietly. "I still love you, Buffy. But I'm not sure I'm what you need anymore. Even though you are the best thing that ever happened to me...I don't think you can say the same about me."
"That's so not true!" she protested immediately. "You've taught me so much, about life as well as slaying. And you make me see what I'm fighting for." She sat down beside him again, winding her arms around his arm. "I fight so people can have another day to do this...to talk to the people they love...and hold them...and be with them." She rested her cheek against his shoulder. "You make me see that because you gave it to me every time we were together. You still do."
Angel's hand rose involuntarily, settling in the warm curve of her neck. Gently, his thumb caressed the line of her jaw as he let himself be submerged in the depths of her loving eyes.
"I knew it. I just knew it. She's not even here a day and you're already on the bed together."
* * * * *
Angel tore his eyes away from the sight of Buffy's blonde head lying warmly against his shoulder to behold a much frostier vision in the doorway. Buffy was slower to respond, making a great production of lifting her head to turn an icy glare of her own on Cordelia.
"We were having a private conversation, Cordelia," the Slayer said with biting clarity. "Private. As in no help from the studio audience."
"Then you shouldn't have brought one with you, and then left me to baby-sit," the former cheerleader snapped. "We do have work to do here, you know; I can't spend all my time finding another pillow for Anya and checking to see if Wesley has any of Giles' favorite tea in the kitchen."
Angel raised an eyebrow at her. "You've been playing hostess? You didn't have to do that, Cordelia; I would have taken care of everything."
"Yes you will," she replied, suddenly serene. "Like I said, I don't have time to be fetching and fluffing. Actually neither do you, but as you've made a point to mention, they're your guests."
"Was there an actual reason you interrupted us?" Buffy asked sharply. "Or are you planning on running in every few minutes just to check up on us?"
"Oh, and like that would be a bad idea?" Cordelia eyed her sourly. "You already looked pretty cozy when I came in; who knows how far things would have gone if I'd waited a few more minutes?" She sniffed loudly, and continued before Buffy had a chance to respond, "Besides, there wasn't time to wait for you to come downstairs again."
Cordelia held up her hands as though to forcibly resist their questions. "The Host called," she said quietly. "There's been another sighting of his demon...a Drokken, I think he called it."
Angel nodded impatiently at the name.
"Apparently the little dickens, er Drokken, is way into hunt mode and the park looked like a smorgasbord. A running, screaming smorgasbord."
"Dammit!" Angel cursed below his breath. "I shouldn't have made you wait to go after it."
"Hey, you had every reason to be cautious," Buffy interrupted. "I know he's your friend and all, but that Host guy was out-tapping Shirley Temple on the whole 'is it dangerous' question."
He couldn't help a quick, and slightly bitter, laugh as he shook his head. "I think you're overestimating how well my brain works when you're around. The truth is, I just wanted to come along because..."
Buffy could feel his guilt and frustration, but she thought a small smile was worth the risk. "Just because," she suggested, lightly stroking his arm. "I get it. See me complaining."
"We kind of lucked out, actually," Cordelia offered. "There was so much confusion, what with all the aforementioned running and screaming, that he couldn't really focus on any one target. There were lots of injuries, but no fatalities."
"So far." Angel looked down at Buffy, knowing she would understand but still hating to be the one to say it. "Buffy, we need to..."
"Postpone our little talk," she finished for him. "I know. Duty calls."
"No, duty screams like a woman," Cordelia corrected her, "and he has an English accent. Wesley wants to see you."
* * * * *
"What do you mean he comes from another dimension?" Wesley took off his glasses and tossed them on the desk before he ran his hand through his already disheveled hair. "Don't you think it would have been helpful to mention that before I started trying to research him?"
"Wes, calm down," Angel said, gesturing for Wesley to resume his seat behind the desk. "I'm sorry your research didn't turn up anything, but it's not like I knew he wouldn't be in there. We do have a pretty good collection."
"Yes, it's most impressive," Giles murmured from the doorway. "I'm sorry; I don't mean to interrupt, but I thought perhaps I could borrow some reference materials that might make mention of Glory."
Angel waved to the overflowing bookcases. "Our library is yours, Giles. Help yourself."
"And maybe help us," Buffy suggested. "Listen, Glory isn't here and this Drokken is, so why don't we all change gears for a day or two? Focus on the local talent first and then start borrowing trouble from the 'burbs."
"A Drokken, you say?" Giles looked curious, and intrigued, as he made his way past Gunn and Cordelia into the center of the congested office. "I don't believe I've ever heard of the creature."
"None of us had before today," Angel explained. "They come from a dimension called Pylea...that was the name, right?" he asked Buffy. After she nodded, he continued, "All we know is what we've been told; they're hunters and they're very strong."
"And they're not really big on personal hygiene," Buffy added. "That Host guy said you don't want to be caught with one in a dark alley or an unventilated room."
"He came through a portal; that's how the Host got here and we're assuming the Drokken came the same way. Apparently these portals can be generated, but they also occur spontaneously. He thinks the Drokken just stumbled through one and he'll go through anyone or anything he thinks is in his way to getting to another one."
"So we could either kill him, or simply send him back the way he came. Interesting." Giles tapped his chin thoughtfully as tried to pace in the small square of space allotted to him in the overcrowded office.
Buffy glanced quickly at Angel for a silent conference before she answered Giles. "Umm, your friend seemed to think killing him was the way to go. And after the beastie's little temper tantrum in the park...well, in my experience, death usually is the quickest way to stop the bad guy."
"And the most permanent," Cordelia added. "I'm with Buffy. Crush, kill, destroy." She waved her fist in the air. "Go team."
Angel looked uncomfortable as he contradicted his beloved. "Buffy, normally I'd agree with you, but Giles might be on to something with this idea of sending the Drokken back where he came from."
"I wasn't precisely suggesting..." Giles began, before Buffy's voice overrode him.
"Are you serious?"
"We have no reason to believe he came here deliberately, or that he even wants to be here." The vampire frowned as he saw the storm clouds gathering in Buffy's eyes. "Buffy, you're the vampire slayer, and I know sometimes that also entails protecting our world from other types of demons. But I just think maybe we should send this demon back to face whoever is in charge of protecting his world."
"Oh man, now there's a prime directive in demon hunting too?" Gunn shook his head. "This game was a lot simpler before I hooked up with y'all."
"We could at least look into it," Wesley offered, heroically throwing himself into the fray. "We do have two talented witches with us, I believe. Perhaps they could investigate ways to create these portals, with the help of the Host, while the rest of us concentrate on containing the beast." He nodded at Buffy. "And, of course, killing it if it becomes necessary."
"Put me down for the containing part," Gunn offered, getting to his feet. "Most of my boys already left to stamp out that vampire nest, but I might be able to round up a few..."
"That's probably not a good idea," Buffy broke in. She glanced quickly at Angel before adding, "If we're going to believe what your little green monster says, this Drokken is pretty strong, as in beyond human strong. I think you'd better wait and come with Angel and me when the sun sets." She checked her watch. "It shouldn't be that much longer."
Angel scratched his head as he began to pace back and forth in front of the doorway. "What bothers me is the Host's insistence on killing it. He's a pretty live-and-let-live kind of guy, but he wanted this thing dead and fast. There's something he's not telling us."
* * * * *
"Look, Landok, I told you I already have some people working on it. Friends of mine, actually. They're good, too; they'll find that Drokken and beat its little brain cell in. You don't have to worry; you can just," the Host made a pushing gesture towards the door, "skedaddle. Take the next portal to Pylea and get off my back." He froze for an instant, realizing he might have set off his cousin's volatile temper. "And, you know, give my regards to your folks."
He tried adding a bright smile, but its impact was lost upon his guest.
"I have tracked this beast a great distance, Krevlorneswath. Across universes I have followed him; through strange grey-walled passages filled with stampeding cattle and shrieking metal boxes have I trailed in his wake..."
"Yeah, you caught rush hour traffic on your first day in town; I'll admit that was bad luck." Lorne waved away his cousin's impassioned recital. "The important thing is that you don't need to be here. You can go back home. You know, before anybody else decides to follow you." He glanced uneasily at his apartment door, as though expecting hordes of uninvited relatives to storm the gates at any moment.
"Do you fear to face our family so much?" The disgust in Landok's voice was almost palpable.
"No, what I fear is that they'll never leave. I'm not asking for much, Ducky," he said with a sigh, pretending not to notice Landok's scowl at the childhood nickname. "I just want to run my club, and do my readings and sing a song or two. Now is it so horrible to want to do that without my family raiding the bar for free drinks and shrieking every time a patron gets up for a little Aretha-therapy?"
Landok regarded his younger cousin silently for a moment. Krevlorneswath was a disgrace to the Deathwok clan, and to the very planet of his birth. But perhaps there was something to be said for having him remain here, alone, rather than return to Pylea and shame the family still further with his strange ways.
There was also something to be said for keeping the rest of the family away from this world Krevlorneswath had chosen for his new home. A few days here and the entire clan could become contaminated. They could bring back poetry and painting and music to Pylea, returning it to the cultural wonderland of ancient legends. Soon the very cattle would be dancing in the streets.
The thought was enough to make Landok shiver.
"I will hunt the Drokken," he said, raising an autocratic hand to forestall objections. "I will hunt for the space of one cycle of the great moon goddess Kahatoofra, and if I have not killed the beast by that time, I will return to Pylea and leave it to these...friends...as you call them." His following sniff indicated both the unlikelihood that he would not accomplish his task, and the even greater unlikelihood that Krevlornswath had actual friends.
"Umm, Ducky...sorry, Landok...there is just one moon and one golden sun in this neighborhood, and Kahatoofra doesn't play planet Earth. The sky is going to get really dark, and then it's going to get really light again. Go out when it gets dark, and be back when it starts getting lighter."
"One moon?" Landok was horrified.
"I know, I know; it's pretty primitive, but what can you do?" The Host shrugged philosophically. "The most important thing is that if you see other people, umm, cows, hunting the Drokken, stay back. They're my friends and I'd really rather you didn't run into each other. Too many explanations."
"Hmmm," Landok grunted, but he made no promises.
Lorne sighed again. Family; it didn't matter what planet you came from, there was just no pleasing them.
* * * * *
Cordelia marched into the lobby, portable phone in hand. She was not happy to note that Angel and Buffy were sitting very close together again on one of the couches; in fact Buffy seemed to almost be sitting in Angel's lap. Well, she admitted to herself a moment later, the Slayer wasn't quite in her ex's lap; more like pressed up against his side without a centimeter of space between them and clinging to his arm like he was going to drift up into the chandelier if she didn't hold him down.
But not, Cordelia grudgingly supposed, sitting on his lap. Not technically anyway.
"Hey Cordy," Gunn called out, pulling his head out of the weapons closet. "We're just about to make tracks. Any luck getting the Jolly Green Demon on the phone?"
"I might have," she sniffed, "if I didn't have to play answering service for the new hotel guests." She scowled at Buffy, tapping her foot in irritation.
Buffy frowned, suddenly at a loss. "What are you talking about? Everybody's here." She released Angel's arm and quickly stood up as a sobering thought flashed into her head. "Did Dawn go somewhere? Isn't she with Willow?"
The genuine fear in Buffy's eyes softened Cordelia's irritation, if only briefly. Taking a few steps further into the lobby, she held out the portable phone to the anxious Slayer.
"Relax; as of five minutes ago she was fine and whooping it up with Tara and a deck of cards. I was talking about Spike." Her upper lip curled as she uttered the name; one vampire was about all she could handle on a daily basis.
Buffy took the phone after a quick glance at Angel that she regretted almost immediately. He looked so concerned, and she knew that Spike was only calling to harass her for leaving him behind; she was almost tempted to hang up without speaking to the vampire at all. But five years and then some in the slayer game had taught her that things were not always as they seemed, and even Spike occasionally had his uses.
"Okay, Spike," she sighed into the phone, "this better be good."
* * * * *
Good. She wanted good. Spike couldn't believe his ears.
The Summers house was a wreck; in Spike's mind this was both good and bad. Bad because Buffy would be angry, but good because it wouldn't be him she'd pummel for it. Not that he minded a bit of rough-and-tumble with the girl, but without the tumble part, what was the point?
Now she wanted to know what was wrong; why he'd interrupted her precious reunion with Soul Boy to bother her with his pesky problems. As though he wasn't doing her a favor, and sticking his own lily-white neck out to do it.
"Good?" he snapped into the portable phone, shifting the fingers that were holding the batteries in place in order to bark into the mouthpiece. "You want 'good' you can hire a bleedin' cheering section. I'm just trying to give you the head's up, Slayer."
He could hear another sigh whistling through the wires; making a great show of patience for her lover-boy, she was.
"About what?" she asked slowly, grinding out the words.
"Seems your little vanishing act hasn't gone unnoticed," he said smugly. "Someone was here looking for you...and she wasn't too happy to have missed you either. Made a god-awful fuss about it, if you know what I mean."
There was a hollow silence, followed by a flurry of whispers on the other end of the line. Even with his vampiric hearing, Spike couldn't make out the words, only the deeper tones of his sire's voice overlapping the Slayer's.
"Glory was there?" Buffy asked, at last returning her attention to Spike. "In my house?"
Spike thought of the living room; parts of which were now embedded in the wall next to the staircase. And then there was the kitchen, which had merged with the dining room thanks to some creative rearranging of major appliances. The upstairs only survived unscathed because the hellgod had gotten bored.
"She was all over it, pet," he said. "I barely stopped her from torching the place, as a matter of fact."
"And what were you doing there when you knew no one was going to be home?" Suspicion once again sharpened the Slayer's voice. "And by the way, just where did you get this number?"
He weighed his options quickly. He could tell her the full truth, Darla and all, and prepare her somewhat for the battle ahead. That plan, of course, also meant that Spike was going to take at least part of the blame for bringing Darla and Glory together in the first place, not to mention the little problem of how he got the phone number.
And it's not like Darla was planning on killing her anyway, he reasoned. She just wanted to rub the little twit's nose in her foolish choice of 'soulmate.' Hardly life-threatening for anybody...except Angel.
That brought him to option two, which involved a little editing, a little condensation, and a much greater chance of escaping the whole mess with all his favorite body parts intact. Not to mention a chance to pick up the pieces when the Slayer exploded and Angel imploded. Pick up Slayer pieces, that is, and a fine piece she was too. Tasty and ready and ripe for the plucking...and several other, equally active, verbs.
"Think I don't know you'd keep Peaches' number in your undie drawer?" he drawled, running his fingers through the same as he spoke. "Not the most original hiding place, pet."
"How many times have I told you to stay out of my underwear?" she snapped.
Spike could hear Angel's growl reverberate through the phone lines, a nerve-wracking baseline accompaniment to the Slayer's shrill tones. Time to move on to phase two of the plan, the blond vampire decided, hastily removing his hand and closing the drawer.
"She's on her way to LA now, just in case you're interested; left about five minutes ago." He raised his voice to be heard over the fading echo of Angel's displeasure. "Don't you want to know how she knew where to find you? It was your soldier boy that spilled the beans, not me. I just kept her from setting the house afire, and him along with it, I might add."
"What are you talking about?" Spike had her full attention now. "Riley was there, in the house, with Glory? He told...how could he tell? He doesn't know where Angel lives."
Spike gave himself a hearty pat on the back. She was successfully diverted from the searching through the panties issue and on to rage at someone else. He might not be the best at stalling for time, but when it came to shifting blame, he was the champ.
"And what makes you think he doesn't know? Because he didn't tell you that he did? He works for the government, luv, and not the part that files forms on everything it does and knows."
"But he wouldn't tell her," Buffy said stubbornly. "He wouldn't give Dawn away, even if he was mad at me."
Spike wanted to concoct an elaborate tale of revenge that would leave her despising young Master Finn for all her days. That, however, would not get him a free ticket to LA.
"She brain-sucked him," he said bluntly instead. "Pulled the address out like an oyster from its shell, I'll wager. He was just a heap of wrinkled camouflage by the time I got here."
That much, at least, was true. He felt it added a certain ring of truth to the story if he included just a bit of, well, the truth.
"Weren't you listening?" Spike's voice sharpened as he detected remorse in her voice. Why should she care if Rebound Guy was the late Rebound Guy? "I said she brain-sucked him; she didn't kill him. He's not five feet from me now, happy as a clam...and about as good at the times tables."
Riley smiled from the floor as a random word penetrated his foggy consciousness.
"Clams sing the body electric," he chirped, waiting for a sign of approval from his companion. "They celebrate good times, come what may."
"Enough!" the vampire snapped, slamming his hand down on the top of the dresser. "Enough with the bleeding retro medley. Show's over, so shut up."
Riley quickly subsided, his chin falling to rest on his upraised knees as he hugged his legs tight to his chest. A slight whimper took the place of his off-key warblings.
"Oh for cryin' out loud," Spike grumbled. "Slayer, I'm not spending another minute with him on my own. Tell me how to find you so I can drop this basket case off on your doorstep."
There was a long pause as Buffy consulted with Angel. Spike waited impatiently, drumming his fingers on the hard wood of the dresser. Everything the girl had seemed to be made of wood: dresser, chairs, bed frame, jewelry boxes. Made a fellow feel downright unwelcome, it did.
"Spike, I don't think it would be a good idea if Riley stays here if Glory is coming too," Buffy finally came back to say. "You know the people she's brain-sucked are the only ones who can see Dawn as the Key, and I don't want him saying something before we can...deal with her."
This was not the way the plan worked; this was not the answer Spike had been counting on. Still he did have one ace up his sleeve, or rather, up Riley's sleeve.
"Well then, pet, what do you expect him to do?" the vampire drawled. "Can't say as I've much respect for the brains of his superiors, but I doubt even they'd trust him with a gun right now."
"You take care of him," Buffy answered quickly. "Willow will work on a spell to cure him; there has to be some way. But until she can figure it out, or until we get back, you take care of him."
Spike snorted, genuinely amused by her suggestion, even though he'd been expecting it.
"Oh right, trust the vamp who hates his guts to keep those guts inside his body? You're a very funny girl, Slayer."
"I trust you to know what will happen to you if you don't," she answered, her voice as sweet and cold as frozen Popsicle on a hot summer day.
"I suppose I could look after him." He paused, pretending to be intimidated by her threat. "But then, if I'm looking after him full-time like...and it would be full-time, trust me; he's got the IQ of a dead potted plant right about now...if I was to do that, I wouldn't be able to go out and get anything to eat. Not a drop."
"You can't hurt him, Chip Boy. Don't even try to play that card."
She sounded smug, but he was about to take care of that.
"I don't know that it would be hurting him, since he sort of likes a little fang action. If I'm not looking to hurt him, only get a bit of a snack to keep us both healthy...and he's all but begging me to bite him...I'm not sure the chip would have much to say in the matter." Spike waited a beat before adding, "What say we test it and I let you know?"
She didn't bother to check with Angel this time, or if she did it was not with words. Scarcely a moment passed before she groaned, "All right. Bring Riley here. But if I find one mark on him," she continued more strongly, "you're going to become one with the pollen before you can say 'god bless you'."
"Oh right," he sneered. "Like I spend a lot of time dropping that one into conversations."
"Just take care of him, Spike. Now get a pen so I can give you directions."
He pulled open her dresser drawer again, letting his fingers linger in the cool silk of a colorfully patterned pair of panties.
"Not a problem, luv," he murmured. "You left a set of them right in your nightstand."
* * * * *
Buffy clicked off the portable phone with a trembling finger. Things were happening too fast; too many parts of her separate worlds were on a collision course; everything was coming apart.
Except Angel. He was the one stable thing she had to hold on to. Somehow he would get her through.
"So Spike and Riley are coming here," Angel murmured, running a hand over his hair and resisting the urge to pull it all out as long as his fingers were in the neighborhood. "And Glory; can't forget her. Why do I think I should have just driven to Sunnydale and saved everybody else the gas and tolls to come here?"
Buffy laid her hand on his arm, smiling up at him with complete trust.
"I'm really sorry about having to bring Riley here, but I can't trust Spike with him. I know it will be awkward, but...he needs help." She shrugged, her smile turning pleading. "I can't turn him away; he would never have been there for Glory to attack if I hadn't gotten him involved in my life in the first place."
"Buffy, it's not your fault," he said swiftly, reaching out to cup her cheek in his cool palm. "She may have attacked him today because he was in your house, but she could have gotten him any time, any place, before, for no other reason than she wanted to." He sighed, letting his hand fall back to his side. "As for Spike...well, he turns up where he wants to as well."
"Yeah, well, he'd better keep his red-hot pokers in his suitcase this time or he's not going to like where I put them away," Cordelia snapped.
"Red-hot pokers?" Buffy glanced at Cordelia in alarm before following the former cheerleader's eyes back to Angel. "What is she talking about, Angel?"
"Yeah, what are you talking about?" Gunn piped up from the corner.
"Nothing," Angel answered quickly, shooting a quelling glance at Cordelia.
Not quelling enough, however.
"Pokers," Cordelia said calmly, "fresh from the oven. Spike had them, Angel had that big ugly Gem of Amaryllis and Spike figured he'd trade." She mimed a jabbing motion towards Angel's stomach.
"Ouch," Gunn said, pressing a hand on his own stomach in sympathetic pain.
"Oh god," Buffy moaned, covering her mouth with her hand. "Why didn't you ever tell me?"
"There was nothing to tell." Angel reached out and pulled her hand away from her mouth, holding it captive in his own. "He tried to get the ring, I destroyed it, and he went back to Sunnydale. As far as I'm concerned, the only real problem was that last part."
She shook her head emphatically, visions of what must have happened whirling through her head. It was her fault, all her fault, no matter what Angel said.
"I never should have sent the ring," she insisted. "I should have brought it myself and made sure you got it safely. I was just...just too scared to see you." Her face fell as she looked back to those long ago days, days not so very different from this one. "I was scared that if I saw you...I wouldn't be able to let you go again."
"Buffy, it's over. It was over a long time ago."
She smiled painfully, knowing he was only referring to the ring incident. "It's just one more entry in the long list of things I wish I'd done differently."
He couldn't help himself; audience or not, danger or not, he had to hold her. He reached out his long arms and pulled her close, murmuring into her hair, "Want to trade lists? I bet mine's longer."
Cordelia caught enough of his soft-spoken comment to scent danger in the air; not that she'd been expecting any less since she learned about their upcoming guests.
"Hey," she snapped, "there will be no measuring of anything around here; are we clear on that?"
Buffy burrowed her face in the silk of his shirt, taking just a moment to enjoy the familiar coolness of it, and him, against her cheek. Too soon, though, she forced herself to ask the question that sprang into her mind the moment she heard about Spike's previous LA trip.
"Angel," she murmured into his shoulder, "what else haven't you told me?"
She felt him stiffen in her arms and start to pull away. Reluctantly she let him release his hold on her and dropped her own arms as well.
"What do you mean?" he asked nervously.
"That happened almost a year-and-a-half ago and you never said a word. You wouldn't have said anything now if Cordy hadn't forced you into it. It kind of makes me wonder what else you're holding onto because you think it might hurt me."
Hurt her, make her angry, send her memory and ego back to his old apartment the morning after her 17th birthday...the choices were many and the results all equally painful in Angel's silent estimation.
"A lot has happened to both of us, Buffy," he began with difficulty. "There are some...things...that maybe we should talk about. But not now."
"Well thanks for that at least," Cordy said sharply. "Do I have to remind you that a ticked-off hellgod is coming to call...as though having to put up with Spike and Buffy's rebound reject weren't bad enough?"
"How did you know about Glory?" Buffy asked, throwing an unhappy glance in Angel's direction.
The vampire shrugged, as much in the dark as she, and slightly hurt that she would be so quick to distrust him. "I didn't tell her, Buffy. You made it clear it wasn't supposed to be general knowledge."
"Dawn told me," Cordelia said flatly, "though Angel should have. She thought it was a big joke when I asked her how it felt to be back in her old hometown, so she told me where she really came from."
"You didn't need to know, Cordelia."
"Get serious, Angel. You invite Typhoid Buffy and her sister, the Key to Armageddon, to stay here with us and it's not my business? You're doing it again, just like before, and you promised that you..."
"Stop, just stop," Buffy snarled. "We have enough to deal with right now without you using my problems to beat Angel over the head with. He kept quiet because I asked him to, and I appreciate that." She glared at Cordelia. "Learn the word, Cordy. Ap-pre-ci-ate."
"So it's okay if he keeps things from us, but you're supposed to get the breakdown of his life one corpuscle at a time?"
Buffy turned back to Angel, gazing steadily into the depths of his quiet eyes. "I trust Angel to know what would hurt me more to know than not to know...and to respect me enough to tell me anyway."
"Oh that's not putting him too much on the spot, is it?" Cordelia scowled at Buffy, after one quick glance at Angel's stricken face. "And you're ready to sue me for emotional damage?"
"This is getting us nowhere," Angel said loudly, before any more verbal daggers could be thrown. "Obviously we have to put our discussion on hold for right now, Buffy, so we can take care of Glory."
"And the Drokken," Gunn added, waving a broadsword.
"And Riley," Buffy chimed in gloomily. "All we need now is a yawning hellmouth and some jelly doughnuts and the time warp is complete."
"Sorry, no hellmouth," Angel said, "but I might be able to swing the doughnuts if you say pretty please."
"Don't even start with the kinky innuendos," Cordelia warned. "Look, what do you need me to do, Angel? Am I on the Glory team, catching a demon by the tail, or babysitting the brain-drained?"
Buffy looked at her former classmate in silent wonder. Cordelia had switched from bitch-mode to willing helper without batting an eye, and Angel's eyelashes didn't seem to be kicking up any breeze over the transformation either. It was almost as though he expected it.
"We need to get Dawn out of here," Buffy said slowly, forcing herself from her silent contemplation. "She can't be here when Glory is here, especially if Riley might be here too."
"Fine," Cordelia answered crisply. "She was going to go shopping with Willow and Tara; I'll take her instead. It makes more sense anyway." She shrugged and smiled. "I mean Tara and Willow are from out of town, and Dawn was built by a bunch of monks; how would any of them know where to find a decent pair of shoes?"
"Take Tara too," Buffy suggested. "Dawn doesn't know you, and it will seem suspicious to her if you're the only one going with her." She glanced anxiously at Angel. "I don't want her to know Glory is coming."
He laid his hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. "Cordelia will take good care of her," he promised, "and Dawn won't have time to get a question in edgewise about why Willow isn't with them."
"Don't underestimate her," Buffy warned. "She's the queen of awkward questions."
Cordelia tossed her hair and smiled in comfortable superiority. "And I am the queen of...pretty much everything else."
This time Buffy could laugh at Cordelia's change of gears. "And they say you can't go home again."
* * * * *
"Can't this thing go any faster?" Darla complained. "Because if it can't, I'm going to need to stop for a snack soon."
Glory pointed to Merk riding quietly in the back seat of the limo. "He's all yours...as long as you don't drain him. He does come in handy sometimes."
Darla made a face. "I need human blood, not...whatever he is." She rubbed her belly. "I am eating for two, you know, and you scared away my last snack with your little rampage through the Slayer's house."
"I told you to check the closets," Glory said mildly, changing lanes without bothering to signal to the cars behind her. Over the ensuing screech of tires and crash of colliding metal, she continued, "I'm sure he was in one of them with that funny little blond vampire you came in with."
"Spike wasn't in a closet," Darla sighed, "or if he was it was only to sniff the clothes. "If I know him, and sadly, I do...he was taking the opportunity to play with his new dolly's unmentionables."
Glory looked the vampire curiously. "He has a thing for the Slayer? Really?"
"Really," Darla confirmed with a nod. "Terrible embarrassment, of course; I mean it's not even like he has a soul to excuse him. He just...thrives on rejection."
The hellgod nodded sagely. "An attitude like that can take someone like him a very long way."
"Mmm," Darla agreed absently, rubbing her abdomen again as she looked out of the window. "Are we there yet?"
* * * * *
Cordelia slipped away to corral Dawn and Tara for a shopping trip, and to send Willow and the others down to the office for a war council. Buffy took advantage of the sudden migrations to do some slipping of her own, firmly taking Angel by the hand and pulling him upstairs before he had time to think of a protest. Before any more demons came a calling, before the onslaught of irate hellgods and horny vampires, there were things that needed to be said.
She gently pushed Angel in the bedroom ahead of her and made sure the door was completely closed behind her before she turned back to him. The Scoobies had enough trouble understanding the purpose of locking doors; even a partially open room meant an open invitation to them.
"I just want to be clear about something before we go out Drokken trawling," she warned, slowly walking across the room towards her beloved. "The stuff we were talking about before...not only the me/you stuff, but also the you by yourself/me by myself stuff...we're nowhere near done with it. In fact, I think we've got more to talk about than I even knew."
Angel's jaw worked as he thought of the past two-and-a-half years, of the day that existed only in his memory, of the night a magickal elixir temporarily set Angelus free, of Penn's reappearance in his life and of the long descent into mortal hell that Darla's rebirth and death caused. So many things had happened to change him from the man that she knew, even as she had gone through a million different moments in time out of the sight of his loving eyes. He tried to picture a way that mere words could bridge the gap in understanding, and his mind reeled at the task.
But then he looked down into her hazel eyes, swiftly plummeting to the depths of the soul so nakedly offered to him, and he knew that words were only the patches; the real sharing came from their hearts, and those were never far out of sync.
"We do," he agreed gravely, "and we will." He brushed her cheek with the tips of his fingers. "When this is done."
She eyed him warily, hearing a familiar reluctance in his tone. "When we have the time," she countered, "which may be in the middle of done. I'm tired of waiting for the 'perfect' time or the 'right' time, because it seems to me the only perfect times we have are when we're past all the stuff we need to get through to get to them."
Angel sighed as he took her arm and pointed her towards the door. "We're also going to need to talk about your sentence structure," he pretended to scold her. "Until I'm back up to speed, you're going to need to give me a road map."
"I like the 'until' part," she answered with a grin.
* * * * *To Be Continued