SEQ CHAPTER \h \r 1Dead End
By Gem TC \l1 "
"Maybe we shouldn't be in here." Buffy looked around Angel's bedroom... she couldn't just call it the bedroom any longer... with an uneasy anticipation. This all felt a little too familiar, and familiar in the good way that meant it was a bad way. "I mean we're the only ones here and no one's going to walk in on us all the way back here and..."
Angel rested his hand gently on the small of her back, not pushing her into the room but reminding her of the reason he had suggested leaving the Great Hall. It was just such gestures that they could not afford to be seen.
"And that's the point, isn't it? A chance to talk without having to look over our shoulders the whole time to see if anyone's going to walk in on us."
"Okay," she said slowly, "so the privacy thing is nice, and a nice change in my life, that's for sure. But we have a, well, a history with alone time, remember?" Buffy turned her head and glanced up at him, a wistful smile darting across her lips. "A really intense, really amazing, really leads us into things we are so not ready for right now kind of history."
"I know, I know." He quickly removed his hand from her back and took a step away; the last thing he wanted to do was push her. "I'm not suggesting that we do anything right now but talk – I swear I'm not. But we agreed that anyone could come back at any time, and if we want to keep on talking it has to be somewhere where no one can find us. The one place I can guarantee they won't walk in is here."
"Why? It sure doesn't seem like they give you much in the way of space wherever you are; you're like the Maytag Man, but with swords." She paused for a moment and then added, "And a way better uniform."
"I'm not really sure why they don't come in." Angel scratched his head, mulling over an inconsistency he had previously accepted with unquestioning relief. "When Connor was a baby they all wandered in and out at will. But when he was gone... when he was in the hell dimension... they just stopped."
"Right when you needed them most," Buffy whispered.
Logically she knew that she had nothing to reproach herself for in that department; she'd had no idea that Connor even existed, let alone that he had been kidnapped. And if she had known she would have been right by Angel's side storming the gates of hell to get his son back. But logic had nothing to do with confronting the remembered pain in her lover's eyes.
"I guess grief isolates you because it scares most other people away." He shook his head, trying to force the memories back into their appointed place and proportion. Wallowing wouldn't help either of them. "And you take the space because it gives you a place to hide."
Without conscious thought, Buffy wandered over to the large wooden chest that hid all of her most treasured possessions. Suddenly she wondered if the mementos, little bits and pieces of their shared past, mattered as much to Angel as they still did to her.
"I guess there's all kind of space," she mused, running her finger along the carved rim of the tall chest. "Sometimes people back off with their bodies and sometimes they just disappear with their heads. And sometimes," she released a tiny sigh, "they do both."
"I thought you were the one who tried to keep them out of your life?" he asked quietly.
She glanced over her shoulder at him and smiled briefly, acknowledging both the truth and the illusion in his words.
"I'm not trying to compare this to losing your son – I know it's not even close." She stared down at her hand as it rested flatly, protectively, over the past she could not abandon even if others might. "But... maybe some of them could have put up more of a fight, instead of say, moving to another continent."
Giles. In all the confusion created by the First and the SITs, Rona's death, not to mention the ever-present annoyance of Spike, Angel had forgotten about Giles. His absence, after all the other losses Buffy had suffered in her young life, and especially after her mother's death, must have devastated her.
Not that she'd ever tell Giles such a thing. Angel knew her too well to expect that.
"Maybe when all this is over you can explain it to him."
She shrugged, feigning a stoicism her battered heart could no longer command.
"And he'll what? Move back to hold my hand?"
"You don't have to live in the same town to be close." Angel ran a hand over the soft spikes of his dark hair, trying to find a gentle way of reminding Buffy how very lucky she was in some ways. "It isn't like when I grew up. Now you have telephones, e-mail, airplanes... photographs."
"Indoor plumbing," she added with a wry smile. "Yeah, I get it: the wonders of the modern age." Abruptly the jaded young woman morphed into a lonely little girl. "But it's not the same."
Angel couldn't stand to see the hurt in her eyes and not do anything about it. Before he even realized what he was going to do, she was in his arms. After that, thinking was the last thing on his mind.
* * * * *
Wesley rubbed his aching forehead and wished he were anywhere, even in Pylea, rather than trapped in this asylum. Every attempt he made to restore calm and order ultimately blew up in his face as those he was trying to protect went blithely off to their own destruction.
"Angel wanted you to stay here, Connor," he said, repeating the phrase for at least the fourth time in as many minutes. "You've already seen you can be of help – we wouldn't have been nearly so quick to realize that the being who appeared to be Anya was actually the First," he glanced warily at Cordelia, "that is to say the First Evil, were it not for you."
"I'm going to find my father." Connor had his own mantra to chant, and he had no intention of letting Wesley disrupt his rhythm. "Gunn is chasing Xander, who's chasing Spike, who's chasing my father. If I find Angel I can bring all of them back before anyone else gets hurt." He stood uncomfortably close to Wesley, attempting to intimidate him as much with his close proximity as the unyielding expression in his blue eyes. "I'm the only one who can track him. You know I'm right."
"I know Angel wanted you to stay here." Away from Spike, Wesley's mind added, even if his voice was smart enough not to share the thought.
A flash of bitterness twisted Connor's face. "You're the one who always does what he thinks is best for everyone else, no matter what they say. If you don't care what my father wants, why should I?"
He didn't give Wesley a chance to respond, assuming the stunned Watcher could think of a reply to the charge. Instead, Connor wheeled around, grabbed the crossbow Lorne had delicately been strumming like a harp, and stalked out the door.
"Connor!" Wesley called out just before the door slapped shut. "Try the mansion first!"
Connor didn't bother to answer, or even acknowledge, the Watcher.
"Splendid," Wesley sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "Anyone else care to storm off into the night, or have the theatrical opportunities for that gesture been quite exhausted?"
* * * * *
Faith had to hurry to keep up with Spike; despite the fact they were nearly the same height, the vampire's anger was fueling him in a way not even the mayor's taunting voice could inspire her.
"What's the rush, Blondie? Anya doesn't know you're on your way, so she's got no reason to beat it."
"Bugger off," he growled, not bothering to look at her.
"I thought you wanted an audience."
"I don't give a damn what you thought."
He strode across a side street, paying no attention to the car headed towards him, or the car behind it that became one with its rear bumper when the first car came screeching to a halt just inches from the flapping edge of his leather duster. Faith paused long enough to take a quick look at the cars; both drivers appeared to be alive and honking, which put them one up on most people Spike had encountered over the past century.
"Hey!" she called out as she hurried once more to catch up. "If you're going to kill people, can you do it without exploding gas tanks? Now that I can score a smoke without promising to be someone's Valentine, I'd also like to try it without catching on fire."
"Nobody asked you to come."
"Yeah, actually you did," she pointed out. "Not that I wouldn't have come anyway, just to make sure you didn't do anything Angel would regret."
Spike really wanted to kill her, if only to stop the constant jabbering in his ear. But killing Faith constituted a favor for Buffy, and right now he was just not in the mood to be so generous or forgiving.
"Always Angel," he snarled. "Every bloody thing in the universe revolves around what Angel wants, what Angel needs." He stopped abruptly and looked at her at last. "You're as bad as she is, you know, and it's not like he gives a damn about you except as the redemption of the week."
"And you're just the love of Buffy's life," she mocked. "Which is why you're paying Xander's ex a booty call while Angel's making time with his."
With relief, Spike noticed they were standing across the street from the Magick Box. Anya didn't spend much time at her apartment since her lover boy had walked, and she wasn't at Buffy's, so she must be here. She had no other life.
"Tell you what, pet." He walked past her and began to cross the street, still apparently talking to her though he couldn't be bothered to glance back at her over his shoulder. "You stand here and tell yourself all about what your precious Angel wants you to do and why you should do it. Meantime, I have a lady I'm keeping waiting."
She wanted to let him walk away; she'd done her good deed for the night, and so far all it had gotten her was a little night air and a lot of verbal abuse. For that she could as easily have stayed at Buffy's and opened a window.
Still, a promise was a promise, even a promise made to Wesley.
With a sigh, and a further promise to make Wesley pay for letting her volunteer for this guard dog duty, Faith took off after Spike once again.
* * * * *
"She's not here."
Willow took Xander's hand again as they stood side-by-side on the street, staring up at Anya's bedroom window.
"I know the apartment's dark, Xander, but we don't know when… we need to go up." She dropped his hand, stepped up onto the curb and started towards the door. She stopped when she realized that Xander hadn't moved. "Xander? Do you want me to go up first?"
"She's not here," he repeated flatly. "She was going to the Magick Box that night. She..." he swallowed hard, "I don't think she ever left."
Willow stood indecisively in the middle of the sidewalk. "You can't know when, Xander. I mean you didn't talk to her today, right?" Although the light from the street lamp was dim, she still saw the flash of hurt cross his face. "Not that you needed to talk to her every day or anything. I mean it's not like you were married or... or like I have a brain in my head. Xander, I am so sorry." Quickly she rejoined him on the street. "We can go to the Magick Box first and then come back if we... if we need to."
He looked at her blindly. "She's not here, is she, Will? She's not anywhere anymore."
* * * * *
Buffy wriggled slightly on the bed and sighed as her muscles accustomed themselves to sensations she'd thought lost and nearly forgotten.
Anything that felt this good just had to be illegal.
"Now this," she murmured blissfully, "this I remember."
Angel slipped his hands beneath the hem of her blouse and slowly slid them upwards, relishing the little shivers he could feel chasing up and down her spine.
"Ooo," she groaned into the pillow. "That's it; right there." She tilted her head to the side and lazily opened one eye, the command clear in her voice if not in her relaxed pose. "Harder."
He didn't bother to smother his grin as his thumbs sank obligingly into the bands of taut muscle stretching across her back, paying particular attention to her shoulder blades as requested.
"Nobody gives massages like you," she sighed, burrowing happily into the pillow again. "Mmm, and you're right. Works much better without the shirt in between."
He was tempted to suggest she remove it altogether, but she had been right when she talked about their history with 'alone time.' And right now as she lay stretched out on his bed beneath him, almost purring with every touch of his hands, his libido was requiring more energy to keep in check than a dozen Angeluses.
"I'm an old hand at this," he quipped instead, struggling to keep the mood light.
"Ha, ha," she said half-heartedly. "Do you do comedy routines with your foot massages too?"
He seized the opportunity, though not without regret, and slid his hands one last time down her bare back as he shifted his body off of her legs and over to the other side of the bed.
"You're going to need to roll over for this," he advised as he ran his hand down her leg.
Buffy rolled over as requested, but as Angel leaned down to reach for one of her feet she sat up and placed her hand on his shoulder to restrain him.
"Angel, I don't need a foot massage." She smiled impishly at him. "In fact, if it felt as good as what you just did to my back I don't think I could stand one and still stand. Just," she patted the pillow next to her, "lie down next to me."
He hesitated, looking deep into her eyes. "Are you sure?"
She nodded and patted the bed again.
Slowly he lay down by Buffy's side, carefully slipping one arm beneath her shoulders as her arms wound around his chest. This time it was the hollow of his shoulder that received the caress of her warm cheek, and judging by her sigh Angel felt himself rated substantially higher than the finest down pillow.
"I remember this too." She closed her eyes and felt herself began to drift. "Sometimes at night I try to pretend we're here, together, like the good part of the good old days."
"I've played a few rounds of that game myself," he confessed. It had gotten him through many a long and bitter day.
"Can't believe I'm so tired," she mumbled against his shirt.
"You've been running on adrenaline for months." He reached out and gently traced the curve of her jaw with his fingertip. "Sleep."
It had been so long since she had felt this safe, secure in her heart and in her mind instead of just the paltry safety of her body. Even as little as an hour before, she had been so wired she felt like she might explode at any instant. Then Angel had put his arms around her, so gently, so tentatively, and she felt it: his fear that he might let her down. Someone else was giving her all the strength he had, and worrying it might not be enough. Someone who understood she might have nothing left to offer him in return. How then could she not trust him?
Now all she wanted to do was relax and luxuriate in the feeling for the few brief minutes Fate would give her to call her own.
"Few minutes," she promised with drowsy sincerity.
Angel threaded his fingers through the silken strands of her hair, resting his cool palm against the soft column of her throat. "I'll wake you when we need to go."
A tiny frown creased her brow at his words. The future; she didn't want to think of any future beyond this room, beyond this bed. The past had taught her how lonely the future could be, and it would take a lot of time to soften the edges of those memories.
"I missed you so much," she whispered. Without conscious thought, her arms tightened around his chest, holding fast to this hard-won reality. "I tried not... I tried so hard..."
"Shsh," he murmured, brushing his lips across her temple. "No more missing... not ever."
Angel sat bolt upright, inadvertently rolling Buffy off to the other side of the bed as her arms automatically sprang open to release him.
"Connor?" He whispered the name, more out of disbelief than shame. "What are you... why are here?"
Buffy collected herself more quickly than her once and future lover, although a small portion of her brain noted the fact that the shirt she clutched close to her chest was actually not yet unfastened.
"What happened? Is everyone okay?" she asked urgently.
Connor switched his scathing glance from his father to Buffy, but the expression in his blue eyes didn't warm by so much as a degree.
"We don't know," he answered tersely, and then turned on his heel and stalked down the hallway.
* * * * *
"So, my little spider plant, how are you and the sprout tonight?" Lorne patted Cordelia on her knee as he sat down next to her, but it was obvious from the way she reflexively pulled her leg away that she resented either the name or the gesture. "Darling girl, whatever is the matter?" he asked, his voice dropping low for privacy.
On the outside a bright, plastic smile instantly blossomed on her lips, a smile she hoped would mask the snarl that felt more natural. As though she didn't have enough to do keeping all her plates spinning overhead, she also had to take time out to soothe the finer feelings of a demon. Still, Cordelia would never leave things so awkwardly with one of the few friends she could call her own.
"I'm sorry, Lorne. I'm just all... unsettled," she said vaguely, hoping he wouldn't press for details.
"It's not the little vamplet-to-be, is it?"
She should have known better.
Lorne had switched from patting Cordelia's knee to resting a gentle hand on her stomach, but again he seemed to have hit the wrong switch in his friend. This time she gave in to the snarl.
"She is not a vampire. She will never be a vampire."
He swiftly pulled his hand away and tucked both firmly in the large pockets of his yellow lounging jacket. His clientele had early on taught him that just because someone didn't bite yesterday or the day before, that's no reason to stop being wary of the flashing pearly whites.
"Of course not, lamb ch... ia pet. I just love chia pets, don't you? They make me think of our Fred with a perm." He smiled weakly, hoping he'd successfully diverted her from all thoughts of chopping, slicing or dicing. "But don't you worry; we won't anything bad ever happen to your little... her, you said? Our own Sugar 'N Spice Girl? Are you sure?"
"I'm sure." Her tone was still grim but she forced herself to meet his smile with one of her own, or at least a rough approximation. "My baby is a girl. A very special girl."
"Well that goes without saying. But before we meet the new chickadee, is there anything I can do to make Mama Hen's life a little bit more comfortable? You seemed so stressed, sugarplum."
"I just want Connor to come back." She glanced at Lorne's red eyes and felt a tiny bit of her tension ease. Apparently her open admission of concern had done what evasion had not; for once he didn't seem to be measuring her to see what was missing. "I worry about him being out there alone, especially since he's not really alone. Not with Spike out there."
She almost spat out the vampire's name, once more raising Lorne's antennae as well as his eyebrows.
"Do you and the blond bombshell have some history? A little hanky-panky you're afraid he'll tell Connor about?"
"God, no!" she burst out. "I would never... he's a vampire! I would never."
Lorne pulled back slightly, his curiosity reaching levels that would be unendurable if he weren't also becoming so worried.
"Well," he said slowly, "our very favorite man in black is a vampire too, and you didn't seem inclined to mind the look on him just a few short moons ago."
She should have known better, she grimly reminded herself. Just because he was acting all friendly was no reason to let her guard down and pretend they could be anything approaching honest with each other. Too much was at stake to trade it all away for a little venting.
"That was... different," she mumbled. "I was different."
Lorne had no trouble believing that; in fact he was becoming convinced of it. He attempted a bright smile and reached out to pat her shoulder, yanking his hand back at the very last second.
"Uncle Lorne knows just what you need, my little mother ship. You need some bonding time with that crea... ture of delight you're carrying," he finished smoothly. "Read to her, or better yet, sing to her." He eyed her shrewdly, attentive for every nuance of her response. "I'll even help get you started, if you'd like."
She saw the trap forming in his red eyes, and this time she had her answer ready for delivery before he closed his mouth.
"Thanks but no thanks, Lorne. I'm really not up to a sing-a-long tonight."
"You could always go upstairs," he suggested. "Find a room all to yourself and let 'er rip."
She put her hand on the arm of the sofa and made a show of struggling to her feet. As expected, and to her everlasting amusement, Lorne, Wesley and Fred all rushed over to help her stand. When the goal was achieved, she rested one hand on her hip and the other on her burgeoning midriff as she smiled down at the demon.
"Not the best phrase to use around a mom-to-be, Lorne," she cheerfully corrected him. "You never know what I might be ripping when this baby decides to come out. Or who."
* * * * *
Buffy and Angel scrambled off the bed, hastily smoothing clothing and hair before slipping down the hallway in pursuit of Angel's angry son.
"What do you mean 'we don't know' if everyone is okay?" Angel asked as soon as they entered the Great Hall. Connor had put them at a disadvantage, walking in as he had done, but Connor's father was determined not to give way. "What happened? And why didn't you call if something did?"
Connor's lips twisted into a sour smile. "Wesley tried. She," he jerked his head at Buffy, "left her phone under a sofa cushion – we heard it ring. Wesley tried yours over and over, but you never answered."
Angel's hands flew to his coat pockets an instant before his brain processed the sight of that same coat laying in a dark pool of leather on the floor by one of the sofas.
"It... it's, umm, out here," he mumbled, carefully avoiding contact with his son's accusing eyes as he pointed out the offending garment. "But I still should have heard the ring... beep... whatever you want to call it."
Buffy quickly crossed the room and picked up the duster, searching the pockets for the missing cell phone. Once she retrieved it she took a quick look at the settings before she returned it to Angel.
"I think you had it set on vibrate." She felt a telltale warmth creep across her cheeks as she mumbled, "I thought I felt... but there were other things going on and... well, with all that leather wrapped around it we... you... wouldn't have heard it."
Angel accepted the phone from Buffy, and resisted the urge to crush it like a beer can. Once again modern technology had defeated him, but he refused to let his failures embarrass him. If nothing else, admitting such failures only gave his loved ones more ammo for teasing.
"All right, Connor," he said with a sigh of resignation. "What happened?"
"Shouldn't that be my question... Father?" his son asked, something approaching a leer darkening his thin face.
Buffy winced at the anger in Connor's voice, and ached for the hurt she saw it create in Angel's eyes. "Connor, this really wasn't..." she began.
"Buffy, please," Angel interrupted. His voice was pleasant and calm on the surface, but she heard the undercurrent of steel that didn't bode well for his ill-mannered son. "Connor, you are in no position to dictate anything about my love life, and you're certainly in no position to judge. This is none of your business; leave it alone."
Connor stared at his father in shock. When he had first walked into the bedroom, alerted to their presence by the sound of breathing and certain other noises he preferred not to dwell on, he had been primed to level guilt at his errant father with both barrels. Although he couldn't admit it even to himself, experience had taught Connor it was the easiest of emotions to call upon in his dour parent, and the one most likely to produce the attention he needed.
Now, however, he had apparently struck the one area of Angel's life where guilt was finding it hard to gain purchase. This placed Connor somewhat at a disadvantage.
"This... this is all my business," he stammered. "I mean it's everyone's. You're here... kissing... your old girlfriend, while everyone else is chasing all over town thinking you're hurt."
Angel shared a puzzled glance with Buffy.
"Why would they think I'm hurt?" he asked slowly, not bothering to correct Connor's impression. Kissing or no kissing, what he did with Buffy was none of his son's business and he had no intention of letting Connor believe any differently.
"You went out for blood," Connor spit out. "You went out hours ago and..."
"Hours?" Buffy broke in. "It couldn't be." She raised her wrist to check her watch, and then blushed as she remembered Angel had slipped it off not long after they reached the bedroom, lest it provide a distraction.
"No one knew where you were," Connor continued, as though Buffy had never spoken. "But your old friend Spike had a pretty good idea, since the two of you were gone at the same time."
"Oh god," Buffy moaned. She pressed a hand to her mouth, continuing to revile herself through her outstretched fingers. "I'm such a moron. I knew this would happen."
"He went after you... to 'find' you... and Faith followed him to make sure he didn't do anything when and if he did find you."
"What, suddenly she's the big strong protective type?" Buffy snapped. The hand over her mouth swung down to her side in a fist. "Like if Angel and I were together I wouldn't bother to save him from Spike?"
"Buffy," Angel said, laying a gentle hand on her taut arm. "Let him finish."
"If I can get past the idea that I need someone... anyone... to defend me from Spike, you can get past the idea that Faith thinks it might need to be her," he said firmly.
She glared at him but remained silent, as he had requested.
"So Spike and Faith are looking for us," Angel prompted Connor, hoping to get things back on track sometime before his angry childe came storming through the door. When and if such a confrontation happened, he wanted Connor already on his way back to Buffy's.
"Not just them," Connor answered grudgingly. "That girl Anya came in after they left, except it wasn't really her." He tried to block the memory of Xander's face when he knew, really knew, the truth, but he wasn't as good at hiding his feelings from his father as he'd once been; the darkness came through loud and clear. "She had no smell, so I knew..."
"Anya?" Buffy whispered. All shreds of anger fled, and in their place was only a deep ache. "She's dead? Oh Xander must be..."
"Devastated," Angel agreed, his stoic expression giving away none of the memories suddenly battering at his mind and heart.
He remembered every excruciating hour and minute of the weeks following Buffy's death – he always would. And he knew for her it was the same; no matter what future they carved out for themselves she would never completely shake the memories of the time he'd been in hell.
"I had to tell him. He didn't want to believe me, but I had to tell him."
Connor's voice had changed; without realizing it he had gone from anger with his father to a deep need for his understanding. It was a change he was only too familiar with, and yet every time it surprised him.
"I know," Angel said soothingly. "You had no choice."
"He thinks Spike killed her," Connor continued after a minute to compose himself. "Last night, when she left Faith's group. He went out to look for Spike, and Willow went with him. Then Gunn went out after them and..."
"And you came here to get me." Angel looked somberly at his son. "Thank you."
Connor looked away; he didn't want his father to see the embarrassing gratitude in his eyes at this small shred of praise.
"Wesley said to try the mansion first," he mumbled.
"Angel, we have to find them," Buffy said urgently. "Xander first, and then the others."
Connor looked at her strangely; he hadn't gotten the feeling she and Xander were all that close.
She saw the unspoken doubt in Connor's eyes and cold reality struck her hard, leaving a sick, sour feeling where her heart used to be.
It was time for the curtain to go up again, and she had to be the one to raise it.
"I mean we need to find Xander before he tries to hurt Spike," she amended, hating every word almost as much as she hated herself in that moment. "I can't let him do that."
Angel met her eyes, and silently, if reluctantly, agreed to the plea he saw in them. Still, he tried to delay the inevitable.
"Have you tried to call Faith?" he asked his son. "If she knows that Xander..."
His voice trailed off at the sight of Connor's shaking head.
"Kennedy... I think that's her name... she said Willow hasn't given it back yet. She thinks it's probably still in her coat pocket."
"Strike two," Buffy sighed. "And we're outta here."
"Can you give Connor and I a minute?" Angel asked quietly. "I think he needs to understand something before any of us goes anywhere."
"I mean no, I don't think I should wait for you. I'm going to go find Xander, and you should track down Spike and Faith. Take Connor with you... or send him home. Whatever. But we can't do this as a team."
She was running across the Great Hall and out the door before Angel could find the words to frame an objection.
* * * * *
Spike pounded on the front door of the Magick Box, hearing the broken husk of the overhead bell slap against the wood from the force of his blow. He did not hear Anya's voice, however, or see any sign of her when he tried to peer through the slats over the broken windows.
"Come on, Spanky, let's just go."
She made the mistake of accompanying her words with a tug to his coat sleeve. In a flash his elbow snapped backwards and into her jaw, but he didn't bother to turn and enjoy the spectacle of a slayer taken by surprise, and taken flight. His attention was riveted to a scrap of red fabric he glimpsed on the floor the former checkout counter.
"Anya! I know you're in there, woman; let me in!"
He grabbed the doorknob again, rattling it impatiently when he realized it was no less locked than before. Not that breaking it was a problem for him; he was a vampire, after all. But Anya was so bleeding touchy about her damned shop, he grumbled to himself. Breaking things didn't get this girl in the mood; if anything she got even chattier, and the last thing he was in the mood to do was listen to a woman talk.
"Hey," Faith snapped as she rose to her feet and rubbed her jaw. "I've been really good with the party manners tonight, but there's only so far you can push me. That wall," she pointed to the building on the opposite side of the alley she had just narrowly avoided colliding with, "was it."
Spike didn't bother to look where she was pointing; he barely noticed she was still talking.
"There's something strange going on here," he murmured, more to himself than to Faith. "You don't need to be some Marlowe wannabe to figure that out."
"Strange because Anya doesn't want to invite the horny vampire currently breaking down her door into her store? Gosh, go figure."
"She doesn't know why I'm here," he growled.
"I'm guessing she's known you long enough to know it's not going to be in her own best interests," Faith pointed out, pushing her tact reserves to the limit. "If she wanted to see you she would have let you in by now."
Spike peered between the cracks again, and frowned when he realized the red cloth still hadn't moved. Anya should have been storming the door by now and shouting at him to go away, assuming she wasn't going to drag him in and shag him on the floor.
With Anya, he just never knew.
"Anya!" he called again. "I'm going to break this bloody door down in a minute if you don't open it." He waited for a few seconds, straining to hear even the slightest sound of protest from within, but there was nothing. "All right; have it your way. One one-thousand, two one-thousand..."
"That's it, Spike, show her you're more than just another dumb blond," Faith jeered. "Women love a man who can count to ten."
"... six one-thousand," he growled. "Seven... seconds of my eternity I will never get back. I've had enough of the fun and games." Without further ado, he reached down and snapped the lock on the door, pushing it back with the other hand so hard that the abused wood broke free of the hinges when door met wall.
* * * * *
There was an uncomfortable moment of silence in the wake of Buffy's departure. Father and son tried to look at each other, and both initially shied away from the effort. Finally Angel broke the silence, though he had to turn away from his son to do it.
"Connor, there's something you need to understand about what you just walked in on," he began.
Connor's response was characteristically sarcastic. "I understand, Father. You've seen Cordy; you know I understand."
Angel struggled against the urge to physically remove the smirk from his son's face, the effort giving him a renewed appreciation for the difficulties his father had endured during his teen years.
Of course his father would have struck first and appreciated later.
With that thought in mind, Angel took a stronger grip on his self-control and forced himself to respond quietly. "I'm not talking about what you saw us doing, or at least that's not all of it." He turned slightly, capturing Connor's undivided attention with intensity of his dark gaze. "There are undercurrents going on here... relationships and old vendettas... that you have no clue about. And because you don't understand all of what is going on around you, I need you not to add this little scene into the mix. I need you to not mention what you saw Buffy and I doing, or how we talked to each other. That has to remain between us."
"It's complicated," Angel hedged. "As I said, there's a lot going on you don't see, and wouldn't understand if you did. You don't know most of these people yet, and you have no idea what kind of lives they've led for the last few years. Situations... and relationships... have been created for very specific reasons you can't understand."
"I'm not a child," Connor flared.
"I know, I know," his father hastily assured him. "That's why I'm asking you to trust me without asking for an explanation. If you were a child I'd try to break it down to give you some very simple reason not to say anything. But you're an adult, so I need you to just do as I ask and trust that I wouldn't ask if it weren't literally a matter of life and death."
Connor felt the sway of his father's personality; he felt it washing over him in waves of immediacy and intensity. But everything Holtz had ever taught him urged him to resist.
"And I'm supposed to trust you why? Because of our long history together… Father?"
Connor could pack more irony and fury into one simple word than anyone Angel had ever met. Hearing the way the boy's angry voice distorted the name 'father,' Angel felt a sadly familiar tug between the desire to wrap his arms around his son's shoulders, and wrap his hands around his neck.
No matter how hard he tried to break through the walls Connor had erected, nothing would ever be able to bridge the gap created by his kidnapping. Nothing would ever replace all that lost time, or the trust that should have been built during it. And nothing would ever completely erase Angel's guilt over his failure to conquer that impossibility.
But that was his problem, not Buffy's, Angel reminded himself grimly, and he was going to make sure it stayed that way.
"You're supposed to trust me because I lied to you once, and then told you the truth the next time I saw you. You lied to me over and over, tried to kill me, and then lied to everyone else about it." His dark eyes were flat now, showing no sign of the pain that lurked beneath every memory he was conjuring up. "In the sad but true category, when it comes to being trustworthy my track record's actually better than yours... son."
Connor fumed in silence as his father slid past him and headed towards the door. He had one poison arrow left in his arsenal, and for some strange reason he hesitated to use it. It seemed too... mean. But the sight of his father walking away from him, once again turning his back on his only child and just walking away, goaded Connor into speech.
"What about her? She sent you to hell but you trust her?"
Angel stopped in his tracks, as Connor had intended. Slowly the vampire forced himself to turn and face the boy, steeling himself for the anger he would see when their eyes met. Strangely enough, though there was undoubtedly anger showing on Connor's thin face, for a change Angel sensed it was not directed solely at him. Mixed in somewhere with all his abandonment issues and hellfire upbringing was a desire to defend his father, a desire that Connor seemed to find it as hard to believe as Angel. And if that defensiveness had been directed at anyone other than Buffy, Angel would have rejoiced in it.
But it wasn't.
"I trust Buffy," Angel answered in the voice Connor had quickly learned meant the discussion was over. "I trust her because she sent me to hell, not in spite of it."
"That doesn't make sense," Connor snapped.
"Yeah, it does." Angel close his eyes for a second, remembering that night, remembering that night in this very room. When he could look at Connor again, his brown eyes were bleak. "But I hope to god you never understand why."
* * * * *
"She's been dead at least a day." Spike stood up and took a step back from Anya's crumpled body. "Has anyone seen her since the ruckus last night?"
"Ruckus?" Faith's voice echoed his, rising in her disbelief. "One of those girl died, Spike."
He shrugged it off. Rona was of the past, the distant past as far as he was concerned. It wasn't like her death actually helped the way it should have. Now that would have made it, and her, memorable.
"The chit was your responsibility, not mine. Come to think of it, so was Anya." He looked down at the dead girl again, a flash of pity briefly overtaking his vulpine features. "Poor old girl, it was bound to catch up with her one day. Always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong people."
"With the right weapons." Faith glanced down at the body, and then looked again, harder this time. "Or maybe not."
Her eyes narrowed as they focused on several dark marks on the bluish-white skin of Anya's throat. She knelt down next to the girl, gently seizing her chin between her thumb and forefinger to turn Anya's head from one side to the other.
"There's no bite marks, just fingerprints." She looked up at Spike and warily got to her feet. "Someone snapped her neck. Just like Rona."
It took a moment for her words, and the way she was watching his hands, to register.
"What, you think I did it? Along with offing the other girl too, I suppose? A regular Jack the Ripper I am."
Spike was genuinely surprised, and more than a little insulted. To be held responsible for things you did was bad enough, but he was beginning to see that was the natural inclination of the souled. But to be held accountable for someone else's crimes? Unthinkable, that's what it was. Not to mention bloody unfair.
"Adds up for me." Faith shrugged, trying to look casual despite her battle-ready stance. "You got Rona first, and then when we all broke up to look for her, you picked off Anya."
"Knocking off a few shop girls along the way just to keep the muscles warmed up," he suggested with a sneer. "Mind telling me why I was supposed to kill her? I mean I obviously didn't get so much as a snack out of it, so why would I kill the only one of that ruddy bunch who still gave me the time of day?"
Faith tapped her chin in a show of deep thought. "Hmm, could it be because you're a... vampire?"
"So's your precious Dark Knight. Don't see you calling out the posse on him."
The idea hadn't even occurred to her, and Spike's comment made her realize how far she had come from the defensive loner who trusted no one, not even herself. Actually she still wasn't always sure about herself, but she trusted Angel.
"Angel's had his soul a long time – as long as nobody tries to take it out for a walk without his body, he's got a pretty good grip on Angelus. You, on the other hand, can barely keep your pants on, let alone your temper under control..."
"Isn't that the pot calling the kettle a slut?" he broke in.
"Actually, I was calling you a psychopath, but hey, whatever label works for you." She shrugged and flashed him a bitter smile. "Anyway, 120 years of successful murder and mayhem stacked up against a couple of months of unappreciated soulfulness... you do the math."
"I didn't kill her," he growled, feeling his aforementioned temper getting harder to manage with each succeeding word. "I liked the girl, as much as I like any of that crew. You always knew exactly where you stood with her."
"Don't you talk about her like that," growled a voice from the doorway. "You didn't know her, so you don't get to talk like you did."
Faith felt the tension in the room shoot up another few degrees even as the temperature seemed to drop. Slowly she turned on one heel, trying to keep track of Spike with one eye as she faced the new arrivals standing framed in the broken doorway.
"Xander, I don't think you want to come in here right now," she said slowly.
"Oh, you're so wrong, Faith." He took one step across the threshold, and then another, pretending every second that his knees weren't about to fold underneath him. "This is exactly where I'm supposed to be."
* * * * *
Buffy was halfway to Anya's apartment before she realized that she had no idea why she should go there. Xander was after Spike, not looking for Anya, and Spike had no reason to go to Anya's apartment if he was supposed to be trying to find Angel. In fact she had no idea where Xander would look for Spike; every place she could think of to look for the vampire, Xander wouldn't have known about.
With one notable exception.
1630 Revello Drive.
Her steps slowed to a trudge, and then came to a standstill. She didn't want to go home. It didn't even feel like home anymore; it hadn't since the day she'd walked in the living room and found Joyce stretched out on the sofa, cold and alone and forever beyond her reach.
Buffy had tried to feel a connection to the place for Dawn's sake. She made sure the lawn was mowed and the flower boxes were weeded just like Joyce had done; she put a jack-o-lantern in the front window for Halloween and draped the garland over the banister at Christmas. She even remembered to put out a flag for the Fourth of July, just like Joyce. And when she got her first experience with paying property taxes she thought that, if anything, would give her a 'Scarlett-O'Hara-this-land-is-mine' kind of glow.
But to this day, and more so with each passing day, the house felt like nothing more than a large clapboard albatross. She wasn't even sure why anymore; it wasn't like there weren't some good memories there. Life in Sunnydale hadn't been totally bad the past 7 years, even with all of the death and pain and death.
It just hadn't been enough.
She was tired of fighting memories at every turn, searching in vain for the good ones while she sucked in the bad. The last few hours had given her glimpses of a way to face them all, lay them to rest, and finally move on with her life.
Instead, she had to go 'home,' and pretend it actually still felt like one.
* * * * *
Spike held his body perfectly still; only his eyes were alive in his set face. He didn't need a superior sense of smell to sniff out the despair roiling off of Xander; the boy reeked of it. And for the first time since he'd known Xander, Spike actually felt a small worm of fear when he faced the boy. Buffy wouldn't easily forgive him killing this one, but he wasn't ready to shuffle off the immortal coil yet himself.
"I didn't kill her," he said roughly. "I wouldn't."
"Like hell," Xander cut in sharply. "You would, you did and now I'm going to return the favor. With interest."
"Xander, no." Willow grabbed Xander's arm and shook it hard. "We're not here to fight."
"In fact we shouldn't be here at all," Faith added quickly. "We need to get out before the cops decide to check the place out."
Willow tore her eyes away from Xander to shoot her a bitter look. "It's good to know some things never change. You're still always looking out for number one."
"Hey," Faith snapped, "we're not in Cabot Cove anymore, Jessica. You keep tripping over dead bodies and sooner or later the cops are gonna decide you're building your own obstacle course."
The words were out of her mouth before she had a chance to think them through, but she felt an unaccustomed flare of guilt when she saw Xander flinch. He was nowhere near ready to think of Anya as dead or as just a body.
"Xander, I'm sorry. I mean I'm really sorry." Faith took a step towards him, and would have taken more if Spike hadn't grabbed her arm.
"Leave him be," he warned her in a low voice. "One touch and he'll go off like a rocket."
"Only at you," Xander promised.
"I didn't kill her," Spike said again, his frustration increasing with every repetition. "We found her like this; ask Susie Slayer here."
"You lying son of a bitch," Xander growled, just before he launched himself at Spike.
* * * * *
"Yo, Buffy!" Gunn thrust one arm into the air and vigorously waved his hand. "Over here!"
Buffy turned in the direction of his voice, and quickly crossed the street to meet him underneath a street lamp outside her favorite espresso bar.
"Gunn," she greeted him breathlessly, "I need to find Xander; have you seen him?"
"Wish I had," he answered glumly. "Some bad stuff started raining down after you left and..."
"I know," she broke in. "Connor told us... me. About Anya; he told me about Anya."
Three years working at a detective agency had served Gunn well; his keen eyes picked up details that would have completely gone over his head in the old days. The flushed face, the eyes that wouldn't meet his, and a few well-placed wrinkles in her clothes that could have come from fighting vampires but also could have come from wrestling one particular vampire – it all added up to big-time trouble.
Might as well take a shot and see what part struck bone.
"So where did Angel go?" he asked, watching her carefully.
"Angel?" she echoed, in what she hoped sounded like the voice of innocence. "Did he go out tonight too? I asked him not to... I really ordered him, when you get right down to it, but he's never been exactly good at following orders. Giving them, sure, but taking them? That's so not Angel; I guess I should have remembered..." her voice trailed off as she looked into his brown eyes. "And you're not buying a word of this, are you?"
Gunn swiped his hand over his shaved skull as he looked away; he hated to accuse her of lying but it seemed like there might be more trouble on the horizon if he let her try to bluff it out. It's not like she was very good at the lying thing, he reflected.
"Look, Buffy," he began slowly. "I don't want to get into your business, and I for sure don't want to get into Angel's, but it doesn't wash. He's gone for hours, you're gone for hours, and if his clothes look anything like yours... ain't no way anybody's gonna believe you guys didn't run into each other." He raised his eyebrows, trying to convey with his face and voice things he felt really uncomfortable talking about with Angel's not-so-ex ex. "And we're talking some serious running into each other, if you know what I mean."
Buffy's brain went into overdrive, creating and discarding a series of explanations each more ridiculous than the last. Obviously complete denial wasn't going to work, but the truth was equally unthinkable. Somewhere in the middle there had to be a safe hiding place.
"We, well we were together," she hedged. "He followed me and I, umm, I guess I felt guilty for trying to avoid him so much. I mean he came to help me save the world and all, and I never even said thank you." She shrugged and tried a weak smile on for size. "So we talked and we..."
"Yeah, I got it," he said quickly. There were some things about the big guy he really did not want to know.
"No, you don't." She held up her hand and shook her head as she realized she had gone a little too far in painting her lie with shades of truth. "Nothing happened. I mean he tried but he couldn't... I mean we couldn't," she quickly corrected herself. There was no need to give Angel a reputation as Viagra Vamp just to save her own skin. "I was trying too, but there's just nothing left. Nothing but a lot of memories."
Gunn frowned, trying to reconcile the vibes he'd been getting from Angel and even from Buffy with the story she was trying to spin. Something didn't add up, but he couldn't figure out why she'd bother to lie to him, of all people, about her love life. But if she was lying to him, there had to be a reason.
"You said you were looking for Xander; is Angel on the prowl too?" Time to change the subject before he choked on his shoelaces.
Buffy had a feeling Gunn didn't believe her, but she was grateful at least that he was letting the argument go.
"He's, umm, looking for Spike. Connor said Xander thought he was responsible for Anya's death, and with the whole super-powered nose thing he had a better chance of finding Spike than I do."
"So he's looking for Spike? After you and he were..." he shook his head, "Oh man, the fangs are gonna fly."
"Yeah," she agreed glumly. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
"Way I remember it, most of my bad ideas seemed like good ones once upon a time."
"You too?" she sighed.
* * * * *
Faith caught Xander in mid-leap and hauled him back to earth before he managed to land his first punch. He staggered as he landed and she reached out to steady him.
"Easy tiger. I know he doesn't look like much next to a big guy like you, but he's wiry."
Xander snarled and threw his arm up to block her hand, although the gesture almost cost him his balance again.
"Just stay out of my way, Faith," he growled.
"I did you a favor, Harris," she protested. "I'm not saying I couldn't take him, but you sure as hell can't."
He lunged for Spike again, and this time Faith's fist on his chin sent him sprawling on the floor.
"Watch what?" Spike sniffed. "You acting all big and he-man as you get Frick and Frack handed to you in a marble bag? The girl may be kicking your ass, but she's still saving it. Admit that and say 'thank you' like a good little boy."
"Just don't think I'm holding him back cause I've gone soft for you like B," Faith told the vampire with a sneer. "I may have spent the last couple of years in prison... but I'm still not that desperate."
"Desperate comes when I turn you down, pet."
"And I'm for sure not doing the world any kind of favor by letting you live to bite another day." She glanced over at Xander, who was slowly rising to his feet with Willow's help. "I'm trying to keep the peace, that's all."
"Xander, don't do this," Willow said urgently. "Killing Spike won't bring Anya back."
"Not exactly original," Spike allowed, "but true, very true."
He wasn't sure why he was egging the boy on so; maybe it was still the unaccustomed feeling of being blamed for something he actually hadn't done. Or maybe it was that none of them thought he was capable of even being sorry Anya was gone.
Or maybe it was just that Xander has always annoyed the hell out of him and Anya being dead wasn't reason enough to start liking him.
* * * * *
Angel and Connor found it only too easy to track Spike and Faith; the trail began almost at the mansion's front door. They moved swiftly and silently through the dark streets of Sunnydale, an uneasily united front.
Connor periodically glanced over at his father when he was sure Angel wasn't looking, but he saw only the usual work-related intensity he had grown accustomed to. No visible signs remained of the man he had seen a scant twenty minutes ago, the one tenderly comforting his former lover; it was as though that other Angel had only been a mirage or perhaps playing a scene from a film.
Except that Connor had seen the look in his father's eyes in the moment he first became aware of his audience, and he knew that for Angel it had been no game, no pretense. The game came after, and it still continued, but in that moment life, and his father, had been all too real.
"Where are we going?" Connor asked abruptly. "Do you even know?"
He wasn't really all that curious about their destination, but the silence was giving him too much time to think, and the tenor of his thoughts was unsettling.
"I'm not sure," his father answered with equal terseness. "Business district, I think."
Connor took another quick sniff and glanced off to his left. "Over there; they went down that way."
They turned down the alley Connor indicated and found themselves standing outside a boarded-up store. Angel would have dismissed it as deserted if he hadn't heard the faint sounds of hearts beating and blood pulsing through human veins.
The raised voices were also a good clue.
"Wait," Angel said sharply, but softly, when Connor started to step in front of him. "Give me a minute here to work this through."
Connor stared at him as though he were crazy. "We ran all this way so we could just stand out here and listen to them kill each other?"
"That's the point – they're all in there and I'm not hearing any ripping or grinding sounds." Angel frowned, his ears primed for the slightest sound of combat. "But we followed Spike here from the mansion, which means he knows... he saw... things."
"He saw you with Buffy," Connor said flatly.
Angel met his eyes squarely.
"Probably. But he can't know everything that happened." He stressed each syllable of his next words, willing Connor to understand the trust he was placing in him with the utterance. "It's not safe for him to know."
"Safe for who?"
He wasn't actually expecting an answer, and his father did not disappoint.
"You go in and help Faith get them back to Buffy's. I'll meet you there."
Angel fought back the sudden flare of panic at the thought of willingly sending his boy into Spike's orbit. Faith would protect him if necessary, as would Willow and even Xander; he had to believe they would or he wouldn't be able to let Connor out of his sight again.
"I got it," Connor answered.
"And Connor," Angel added slowly, "when you see Buffy and I there..."
"It will be the first time I've seen you in hours," Connor finished for him. "I got that too."
Angel waited a moment longer, making sure Connor could see the expression in his eyes. "Thank you, Connor."
"I... I'm not doing... you're welcome."
His father smiled slightly as he turned away. "I guess you inherited my gift with words. Sorry about that."
* * * * *
Willow was still hanging on his arm, and Faith was standing defensively in front of him, but Xander only had eyes for Spike. He had to focus on the vampire because if he ever took his eyes off of Spike he would have to look at Anya and he couldn't look at Anya because she was... oh god, she was dead and it was all his fault and even if Spike was the one who killed her it was still all his fault...
Xander dropped to his knees and swayed, a low moan building in his throat as he stared at Anya's body sprawled on the floor before him. Willow was on her knees next to him, her arms wrapped tightly around him, but no matter how close she got to him she could never take away the coldness that washed from Anya's lifeless body to his.
"Xander, I'm here," she was whispering over and over again in his ear. "I'm here and I'll always be here for you just like you were there for me when I needed you. We'll get through this honey; I swear we will."
Faith looked helplessly at Spike. He was the last person, or demon, on earth she wanted to depend on, but at the moment she was pretty much down to that last. Xander was lost in his grief, not even conscious of the rest of the world. Willow was only concerned with Xander, which was sweet and kind and hearts and flowery but it wasn't a help to anyone else but him, if it was even a help to him right now.
That left Spike.
"We have got to get out of here," she said in a low, urgent voice. "You broke the door, and we're not too far from where Rona was killed; the cops must be all over this neighborhood at night."
"I'm all for getting out, but what do we do with him?" He nodded at Xander. "I could pick him up and carry him, but that might be just the teensiest bit obvious, don't you think?"
"Not to mention the part where he'd try to stake you in the back," she agreed. "Then I'd get stuck carrying him."
Faith had thought their voices were low enough to go unheard by the super power-deprived, but Xander quickly proved her wrong. Her words had barely touched air before he was shaking off Willow's sheltering arm and springing to his feet.
"The only one getting carried out of here is him," he glared at Spike, "in a baggie."
"I don't want to hurt you," the vampire responded calmly, "but I will."
"What more can you do to me?"
"And how many pieces can I break you into as you try?" Connor asked from the doorway.
* * * * *
"I'm home," Buffy called as she and Gunn walked in the door. "Has anyone heard from... oof," she finished with a grunt as Dawn threw herself at her big sister.
"Anya's dead," Dawn whimpered into Buffy's shoulder. "We don't know how, but..."
"Shh, I know, I know." Buffy gently stroked Dawn's long brown hair as she led her sister back into the living room from whence she had come. "Gunn told me."
"What about Angel?" Andrew asked with bright-eyed curiosity. "Did he find you too?"
Buffy met his gaze steadily, hoping that her attempt at evasion would be better disguised in the usual chaos and confusion of her living room. "Was he looking for me?"
"We thought..." Fred began, "that is Spike thought... or maybe it was Cordelia." She frowned at the memory; it seemed like Cordelia's name had come up a little too often in connection with trouble these days. "Anyway we, umm, thought that maybe you two needed to talk, or, well, something."
Andrew nodded vigorously and leaned forward, resting an elbow on each knee and his chin upon his folded hands. "My bet was on 'or something.' So was Spike's."
"I know; Gunn told me that too." She glanced over at Wesley, momentarily putting aside her covert ops in favor of more immediate concerns. "Has anyone heard from Xander?"
"Not yet. We were rather hoping you were he."
She smiled crookedly and stroked Dawn's down-turned head. "I've been 'he' before, Wes. I wouldn't go back there for the world."
* * * * *
"Okay, that's it," Willow snapped. "I have had it with all the Y-chromosomes on parade here, and I'm not just saying that because I'm an X-woman myself. We have to focus on what's important here, and that's Anya." She glanced at the young man standing next to her, seeing instead the little boy he had been, the boy she'd known almost all her life. "And Xander."
"Now we've hit scary time, folks; Willow and I are on the same side." Faith impatiently pushed her hair off of her face and considered their options. "Look, we have to call the police... assuming they aren't already on their way here thanks to all the noise and all the people coming in here. Unfortunately that someone has got to be Xander, but it should be from Buffy's house."
"Wait, why Xander?" Willow knew Xander was almost at the end of his rope; she wasn't sure if he could take any more.
"You want the list? I'm on the lam, you've already played witness for the prosecution once this week, and Spike and Connor don't exist on paper."
"I exist," Spike protested. "I just have a date of death after my name, that's all."
"Well, then I guess there's no worries there," she scoffed.
"The police aren't going to suspect me," Willow protested. "Why would they think that I could kill any..." Warren's face flashed through her mind, the way it did in her nightmares. "I mean I had no reason to hurt Anya," she mumbled uncomfortably.
"Will, never mind." Xander stopped to clear his throat; his first words had barely made it past the aching ball in his esophagus. "I can do it."
His voice was hoarse, and his face had grown haggard in just a few short hours, but the eyes that met Willow's were steady and sane once again. He still wasn't completely Xander yet... he might never be the Xander she knew again... but he had regained control of what was left.
"Let's go," Connor said quickly. "I can hear sirens."
* * * * *
Buffy tried to take Xander in her arms as soon as he came in the door, but he shook off her embrace without a word. She took an awkward step backwards as the others filed into the hallway and spilled over into the living room.
"Xander, I'm..." she struggled with the inadequacy of words against grief, "I'm so sorry," she whispered.
He regarded her in silence for a moment, as though not quite sure who she was or why she thought she had some claim on him. Once upon a time he had thought she was the most beautiful and exotic girl he'd ever met; he would have done anything to help her, or just to be with her. And then he met Anya, and he learned the difference between a schoolboy romance and the kind that lasted forever.
The kind that was supposed to last forever.
"A little late for apologies, don't you think?" he finally said. "Where were you when Anya needed a hand? Where was the last best hope for humanity when my girl needed someone to save her?"
Buffy knew there was no real answer to his question, even if she'd known when Anya died. She remembered the first hours, the days and weeks that followed Angel's descent to hell; she had castigated herself a million times for not getting to the mansion sooner, for not finding Jenny's spell sooner, for not learning about the curse sooner... for being at all times two steps behind the future she'd had no way to predict. Grief was the one emotion she could truly say she knew and understood.
She really hated that about her life.
"I know you're looking for someone to blame right now," she said carefully. "As many someone's as possible, probably." She bit her lip to hide the faint tremble. "I understand."
"You don't understand jack," he said bitterly. "You haven't for years. She's dead; Anya's dead. And you want to know why? You really want to know?"
"Xander," Angel broke in, "why don't you come sit down and..."
Xander heard only a dull buzzing in his ear instead of Angel's words; he couldn't hear anything, see anything, acknowledge any reality but that of Anya's cold body stretched out in the ruins of the store she loved.
"She died because we were all too busy to realize she was missing. Because we were chasing some stupid end-of-the-world demons instead of trying to keep the people in that world from ending. Because we were chasing vampires and not catching them in time."
"How many times do I have to tell you I didn't kill her?" Spike growled.
"Her neck's broken," Faith interjected. "Just like Rona."
"Do we have to do this now?" Dawn begged.
She nodded at Xander, too worried to make an attempt at any adult form of subtlety. Unfortunately with this crowd, even pointing and waving wasn't going to draw any attention her way tonight.
"There's fingerprints on Anya's neck," Spike objected. "You saw them yourself."
Connor ranged himself next to Angel in an unplanned show of unity. He wasn't sure why he felt like his father needed an ally at this moment, and there was no way he was going to examine why he thought he should be it. He just moved as he felt directed, and hoped it wasn't another gigantic setup.
"What do the fingerprints mean?" Connor asked his father.
Spike answered instead. "Snapping a neck is a breeze for a vampire – we don't leave marks because we don't have to grip that hard. I wouldn't leave prints; neither would Angel. Neither would she," he added, jerking his head at Faith, "more than likely. Takes a human to need to get hold that tight."
"Good point," Gunn allowed, more than a little unwillingly. He had really liked Spike for this murder; not only did it make sense, but it would have straightened out a lot of badness for a lot of people too.
Faith crossed her arms over her chest; she didn't look pleased either. "Rona didn't have any prints on her neck."
"Better point," Angel said grimly.
Buffy's eyes widened as she realized the direction the conversation was turning. No matter what logic told her, no matter what anyone else had said, she hadn't allowed herself to believe that Spike had killed Rona. She couldn't. No matter what she thought, or knew, him to be capable of, she couldn't let herself believe he killed Rona because that would mean she had really, in effect, killed the girl. Rona would have died in the name of Buffy's silent war, a pawn sacrificed for the so-called 'greater good,' without even being aware she was in play.
"This isn't the time for this," she said quickly. "We're all in shock... especially Xander... and we're not thinking clearly."
"Color me unleaded crystal," Xander said in a low voice. "He killed Rona and then he killed Anya, and the only reason there's any differences is because he wanted to throw us off track."
"He's not that bright," Angel growled. He had underestimated the amount of control he was going to have to exercise to keep from adding Spike to the body count the minute he saw him again; he was already one aching long aching nerve and having to defend Spike wasn't helping the situation. "I'm sorry about Anya, Xander; I really know how hard this must be for you. But I've known Spike a long time and he hasn't got that kind of planning in him."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, Dad," Spike grumbled.
"Don't call me 'Dad'," his sire snapped back. "And don't think I'm letting you off the hook for Rona."
Willow had had enough of all of them, with their expressions of sympathy only brief preludes to a symphony of blame.
"You can fight this out later; Xander needs to rest."
Xander started to follow her lead, and then stopped as a memory tugged at his foggy brain. "I need to call," he said hoarsely. "Faith said I have to call the police so they can find her," his face twisted as he struggled with the word, "body."
"We'll call them in a few minutes," Willow promised.
She motioned to Dawn to hold his other arm, and between the two of them they guided Xander into the dark dining room he'd lately been calling home.
As soon as Dawn had pulled the louvered doors closed behind them, Angel turned on Spike.
"Do you think you could stop thinking about your own neck for the two seconds it would take to show the man some sympathy?" he snarled at his childe. "You're supposed to be so soulful these days; why not at least try to pass for human?"
Spike had been maintaining what he felt was admirable control of his emotions, doing the others the favor of not letting on when they scored a direct hit. But enough was enough; he would never be beaten down by any man in the name of love again, least of all his worthless bleeding heart of a sire.
"Always Angel to the bloody rescue," Spike sneered. "Surprised you could tear yourself away from the slayer... my slayer," he emphasized, "long enough to bother this time, though."
The words hit Angel like a blow. The fury he felt at seeing Spike smug and secure, knowing what the vampire had done to make Buffy so much less than secure in her own right, shattered when he realized that Spike must be on to Buffy's ruse. Her safety, and her successful reclamation of her life, depended on Spike believing she had feelings for him and not Angel.
For one instant, it all hung in the balance.
"I'm here because of Buffy," Angel said slowly, taking special care not to look at her as he answered. "No matter what passed between us, I won't let you hurt the people she cares about."
"Yeah, I know what passed between you mate, but you can skip any pet names she might have for it, if you don't mind."
"Spike, you don't know what you're talking about," Buffy broke in. "I don't know where you got this idea that Angel and I..."
Spike jerked his head at Angel. "I'll wager he knows where I got it."
Angel slowly nodded; the mind behind his calm dark eyes feverishly weighing each word before it was allowed breath. "Spike was at the mansion tonight," he said, his gaze fixed on his angry childe much like a snake charmer focused on a python. "He saw some things, but obviously he didn't see everything or he wouldn't be so ticked off."
Spike snorted; he wasn't about to fall for some line this time, least of all when it was delivered for Buffy by her ever-loving Angel. "So you're going to try having a whelp with some slayer blood in him this time, Angelus? Sorry I missed that part, but at least I caught the opening act."
"Spike, nothing happened," Buffy insisted.
"Save the report card for him, Buffy." Spike sneered at his sire. "I already know who the high scorer is."
Angel's hands clenched into fists; Buffy saw them an instant before his arms started to rise, headed for Spike's head. She had known this ruse was going to push Angel to the breaking point; she just hadn't expected meltdown to occur quite so fast. She had to cool things off, and she had to do it now, in the only surefire way she knew.
Get the hell out.
Buffy raised her hand as she darted between the two snarling vampires. "Can I say something here?"
"What?" they demanded in unison.
She started towards the door, intent on putting distance between herself and everyone she was currently feeling the urge to pound on before impulse control became the dream that once was. Wesley, however, had endured one melodramatic exit too many.
"Buffy, wait!" he called after her.
She ignored him, just as she had ignored him so many times in the days when he was her Watcher. But even though she appeared to be stuck in the past, Wesley had grown up since then.
"I said stop!"
Slowly she turned on her heel.
"Actually you said 'wait'," she corrected him in a dangerously pleasant tone of voice.
"Fine," he agreed crisply. "But since you chose to ignore me, I'm allowed a change of phrase."
"Change anything you like." Buffy turned again and headed towards the door. "Your mind, your socks, your sexual preference... it's your call."
It was too late; the door closed with a faint, but definite, slam.
"That's it," Wesley growled. "I refuse to allow one more person to walk out before I finish a sentence. I have something to say and I will say it if I have to..."
"English," Gunn interrupted, "shouldn't you be savin' all that righteous indignation for the one who made it over the wall?"
"I don't think that's such a good idea," Angel said tentatively. "She's not really herself right now and..."
"She's exactly herself, Angel." Cordelia smiled brightly, challenging him to contradict her. "First the heartfelt moment, then up come the walls and out goes the slayer. She's the same Buffy she's always been; that's what so right about her."
"I told you I had something to tell her, and now I'm going to do it," Wesley said firmly. "And if I have to tie her down to get her to listen to me, so be it."
"Won't do you much good," Spike drawled. "Ropes won't hold her, trust me." He could see the rage still simmering just beneath the surface of Angel's otherwise calm face; it fed his own anger and spurred him on. "No, what you need is a nice pair of handcuffs and some chains. I've got some I know she..."
"Enough!" Angel's voice cracked through the air like a whip, startling even the one who'd been provoking him. "You," he nodded jerkily at Wesley, "go after her. And you," he glared at Spike, "go somewhere I can't see you."
Spike drew back sharply. "I live here," he protested. "You're the one piddling on my doorstep."
Angel turned away sharply, putting his back to Spike as he stared blindly at the curtain-covered front window. He'd thought from the beginning that at least part of Spike's obsession with Buffy had been one more of his endless attempts to one-up his sire. Now he knew for sure.
"Nice, very nice," he muttered under his breath. "Good to know you can still count on some things in this world."
* * * * *
Buffy had paused on the porch to take a deep breath; it was a tactical error she had cause to regret when she heard the door opening behind her.
"See ya, Wes!" she called, not checking over her shoulder to make sure she'd guessed correctly. Time was of the essence if she wanted to make good her escape.
Once again he'd managed to push her buttons; she paused on the bottom step. "You know you really need to stop doing that, Wes."
"Please," he added gently.
She sighed as she turned around, but she still didn't move back up onto the porch.
"I have places to go, Wesley," she explained. "I'm not just bailing."
"Places that can't wait ten minutes?"
She placed a hand lightly on the porch railing. "I have to go tell Robin I won't be in to work tomorrow. I want to be here for Xander."
And to keep Xander from attacking Spike and Spike from attacking Angel and Angel from attacking Spike, but that part was none of Wesley's business. At least that's what she'd tell herself to keep from nodding off on her watch tonight.
"You can't call him?"
"I have some other... workish things to remind him about," she said evasively, "and I want to do it in person."
Odds were Robin understood by now that Angel was off limits along with Spike, but he seemed to be making a second career out of testing her limits. She needed to be sure they were 100% clear this time.
"I wouldn't ask if it weren't important," he said gently.
"Sounded more like you were telling than asking."
"I was your Watcher," he reminded her. "Telling was part of the package."
"It was," she agreed. "But I'm not that little girl anymore." She smiled wryly. "I graduated, remember?"
"I'm the one responsible for training slayers now."
"That's actually what I wanted to talk to you about." He gestured to the chairs on the porch. "Please."
She wavered for a moment, and then decided she probably owed this one, for all the times she'd tuned him out without a second thought. Slowly she climbed the steps and sat down, although she made a point of choosing the chair next to the one he had indicated.
"Okay, Wes, what's the dire on the horizon? Besides the fact that my people are being murdered, there's an escaped convict in the same house as my little sister and the first be-all end-all evil is wearing every dead person I've ever known as a Mardi Gras mask?"
Wesley chose his words carefully. He knew enough about Buffy to realize that he had just this one chance to get through to her before the world went to hell.
"You feel responsible for all of that, don't you? You're the one who has to hold it all together, show the others the way. Am I right?"
She cocked her head and stared at him. "Well there's a 'duh' waiting to be born."
He tried again. "Buffy, you are the Slayer."
"Boy, you're on fire tonight, aren't you?" She stood up. "And now that we've settled who I am and what I do..."
"To be precise," he interrupted her loudly, "we've settled that you are not doing what you're supposed to be doing."
She was giving him a look that said he was still breathing only because she was feeling generous, and even though Faith's reaction had been considerably milder, Wesley could hardly blame Buffy for her anger. Given all that she had endured along this wrong pathway, he was actually a little surprised she'd let him remain standing.
"You are the Slayer," he repeated patiently. "I realize that Giles allowed you a great deal of latitude in your training and I'm not," he held up a hand to forestall the protest he knew was coming, "taking issue with that. It took me a long time to realize there was more to training a slayer than what the Council had to offer, but eventually the message got through."
"Well hallelujah for that," she said, sarcasm dripping from every syllable. "Can I go now?"
"A slayer works alone," he continued as though she'd never spoken. "And before you protest this comment as well, let me clarify it for you. A slayer is not a bandleader. Your friends, by this point in time, would continue to fight even if you were not there; they've proven that. But those girls... those children you call your army..."
"I never called them an army," she protested. "Okay, maybe once or... well, twice tops. No more than that."
"A slayer is not meant to lead an army." His voice grew more strident as she continued to miss his point. "She works alone, she fights alone..."
"She dies alone. Got it." She dropped back down into her chair. "Really, really got that one."
"For all the special skills and innate abilities your heritage has gifted you with..."
"Gift!" she snorted.
"... leadership is not one of them." Wesley drew a deep breath; this was going worse than he'd thought it would. He was amazed that it had actually been easier to get through to Faith. "There is nothing in the centuries of slayers before you, whose memories you carry deep within you, to prepare you for leading anyone anywhere at any time am I making myself clear?"
"Well, yeah," she stammered, taken aback as much by the frustration in his voice as much as by the staccato blow of his words. "Except for the part where I've been doing it for almost seven years now. That you've kind of skipped over."
"I skipped over it because it has nothing to do with you being a slayer; that was actually the point."
"Now you've lost me," she admitted.
Wesley sank down into the chair next to her, gripping the arms tightly as he searched for the right words.
"Buffy, you are an extraordinarily charismatic person. It is a trait you share with Angel, actually, and what has enabled the two of you to inspire such loyalty from your friends."
She bit her tongue, holding back a sharp comment on Wesley's definition of loyalty when it came to Angel. However angry she was on Angel's behalf, and however sharp an eye she was going to keep on Wesley from here on out... assuming there was a 'here on out,' of course... Angel had apparently forgiven him. She had to respect that, even if she thought he was setting himself up for a bigger fall.
"But that charisma comes from your human soul," Wesley continued, oblivious to her inner dialogue. "It has nothing to do with your slayer heritage; in fact the two have been in direct conflict since you were called. If Giles hadn't allowed you so much time to indulge in your 'normal life' endeavors, I doubt you would have been able to command the following you have enjoyed all these years."
"Following?" she echoed in disbelief. "Check your manifesto at the door, Ted; they're my friends. We don't sell flowers at the airport; in spite of what you saw at breakfast the other day, I'm usually 'Go protein! Girl'; and any Doomsday prophecies that are hanging over our heads are so not my fault. We're not a cult; they're my friends." She repeated firmly.
"And slayers do not have friends. They also do not have armies, or groupies or whatever you would like to call those young ladies currently inhabiting your second floor."
"Isn't it a little late for the slayer solo?" she sighed. "My friends are here, the SITs are here, my sister is here. No one is going anywhere... in fact I'm pretty sure no one will ever move out of this house. Ever," she repeated grimly. "Deal with it, Wes. Put aside all that Council brainwashing and deal."
"You are the one who needs to 'deal', Buffy. You need to make a choice, once and for all, about whom you want to be. I don't know if a slayer working alone can defeat the First, but I do know that the Slayer leading an army into battle is doomed to failure."
"That's crazy," she said flatly, ignoring the icy shiver his words had given her. Slayers had prophetic dreams, she told herself, not Watchers, and especially not ex-Watchers.
"You may survive the battle," he allowed. "Some of your companions may survive. But you won't defeat the First, not as the Slayer leading an army."
"So I'm supposed to go in there by myself? Did you flunk Battle Plans 101, Wes? I discarded that one months ago."
"Lead them as Buffy Summers, not the Slayer. Talk to them, get to know them, let them into your life before you ask them to risk theirs for you."
"We've bonded over punching bags, okay? We're fine." Resolutely she turned off the memory his words called to mind, of Amanda's tirade the night before, and the way no one, not one of them, had denied her claims. "And anyway, when did you jump off the Council bandwagon? You were a walking Slayer manual when you got here."
"That was over 4 years ago," he answered with some difficulty. "And I was wrong."
She stared at him, nonplussed. "Boy, that had to hurt, but you didn't even stutter. I'm impressed."
"I don't want you to be impressed, Buffy; I just want you to listen. Your human gifts are so much stronger than your slayer ones, and Giles is to be credited for realizing that so soon and allowing you to develop them. But somewhere along the way you seem to have lost touch with that side of yourself, and it is putting everyone in danger. Everyone."
"I can't win with you, can I? First I'm not serious enough about being the slayer, and now I'm too serious. I should keep my friends at arm's length... but wait, no; we're supposed to go marching into battle hand-in-hand." She threw up her hands in defeat. "Would you please find an opinion and commit to it? Own that emotion."
Wesley rubbed one tired, slightly trembling hand over his eyes. He wasn't getting through to her; no matter how hard he tried she couldn't get past the mistakes he had made when they first met. More likely, she still hadn't forgiven him for the night before her graduation when the Council, and he as a representative of it, had almost let Angel die in the name of the greater good. He could still see the shock and disillusionment in her eyes when he told her that the Council had refused to help; why should he believe four short years would erase it from her memory when it was seared into his own?
"Buffy, I realize I didn't give you much reason to trust my judgment in the past." His hand fell away from his face, leaving him exposed to her wary gaze. "And perhaps you've heard enough of... more recent events... to once again have cause to doubt me."
"You could say that." With some difficulty, Buffy wrenched her thoughts away from all that Fred had told her of Connor's kidnapping, and tried to focus on the relationship she had seen for herself between Wesley and Angel. "Wesley, I'm sure you meant well with this little self-help session, but really, I've got it covered. I've been doing the slayer thing for quite a while now, and most nights I make it out alive."
"But what about the others?" he asked flatly. "You can be the Slayer you were born to be, or be the human being you were born to be, but please, you must stop trying to be both. Following that path will lead you... all of you... to disaster, not away from it."
* * * * *
"Psst, Fredelicious, I need to talk to you."
Fred's hand stopped just shy of the water glass on the third shelf that she'd been aiming for. The tension in the living room showed no signs of abating, and she'd thought no one would notice her slipping out to get an aspirin. In fact, she'd been fairly sure she could have slipped out to hire a marching band, and brought it back to rehearse in the driveway, without anyone paying attention to her.
Apparently, she'd underestimated her effect on a room.
"Lorne," she asked with a frown, "why are you whispering?"
Lorne glanced over his shoulder before he slipped into the kitchen and pushed the door closed behind him. "The real question is, why aren't you?"
"Umm, because I wasn't talking to anyone before you came in?" she guessed. "I mean people look at me kind of funny when I talk in a normal voice as it is. But if I was in here whispering to myself..." she cocked her head and gave the matter serious consideration. "Well I suppose they might think I was talking to someone invisible, or maybe someone who just slipped through a portal to another dimension." That way led to bad thoughts though, so she hastily veered to greener pastures. "Or maybe I was talking, I mean whispering, to a time traveler who just..."
"I give." Lorne held up his hands in surrender. "Uncle."
As usual, Fred's ramblings had carried her far afield from where she'd begun, and the return trip always seemed to take longer. "You give which uncle?"
"I'll give them all to you if you'll let me whisper my piece," he promised. "I'm worried about Cordy."
Fred immediately sat down at the table and patted the chair next to her. "Something's wrong with Cordy?"
"You must have noticed; she hasn't been herself in, let's see... days, weeks, no, months."
Fred had noticed changes, but when she was suddenly confronted with the idea coming from someone else she was reluctant to admit anything that might seem disloyal.
"She's having a baby, Lorne; that's got to change, well, everything. Her body, her plans for the future, her..."
"Soul? Because that's what I'm thinking has changed."
"What do you mean her soul has changed? She's gotten a little... umm, snappy sometimes... but I think that's just the hormones talking."
Lorne patted her hand as he shook his head. "It's not hormones, kittenkins; it's the whole kit and kaboodle. She feels... different; I can't explain it any better than that without getting her to sing. And believe me, I've tried to get her to sing but she refuses."
Fred stared at the green hand resting over her own; it was easier to focus on Lorne's ruby red nails than the knowing eyes of the same hue.
"She won't sing?" she asked in a small voice. "But Cordy loves to sing. She's not, well, she's not really good at it, but she loves to do anything that feels like performing."
"I know," he agreed, waggling his eyebrows to emphasize the significance of his revelation.
"But that's just one little thing." Desperately she raised her head to confront him, and refute his arguments, face to face. "Maybe her throat hurts, or maybe she's really emotional right now because of the baby or..."
"And what about that baby?" Lorne broke in. "The one she's having with Angel's son... and don't tell me it's not just the tiniest bit weird to go from changing a baby to making babies with him?"
"Lorne!" Fred's admonishment was little more than a strangled whisper as she threw a panicked look at the door leading to the living room. "She might hear you."
Lorne ignored her concern for Cordy's finer feelings, though he did lower his voice to a tone just barely audible to Fred's human ears.
"A few months ago I would have bet good money it was Angel-cakes she was all aglow over. In fact I did... but that's neither here nor there," he hastily added. "The point is, even if she was feeling a little fickle that week, she picked a pretty strange also-ran to ride off on."
Fred winced and rubbed her forehead. "Can we not do the horse metaphors, please?" she begged.
Lorne squeezed the hand he still held. "Sugar pop, I just think something's not right with our girl. And I don't know who else to talk to about it. Even if Angel wasn't all tied up with this end of the world thing, not to mention his ex and her why, he can't see clearly when it comes to Cordelia. She's his oldest friend; they've shared things no one else has shared with him. And after Angel-face's little Darla-induced tantrum a few years back, Gunn and Wesley have their own bond with the lady. We won't even touch on Connor," he finished with a shake of his head.
"No, Connor would definitely be my last choice too." Fred heaved a huge sigh, feeling it drag upward through her body with nothing but gloom in its wake. "But what good can I do?"
Lorne leaned forward, his red eyes alight with all the fervor of a demon with a plan.
"Get her to sing."
Fred stared at him in confusion. "But you just said she won't."
"Not for me, not in front of me. But if you could get Cordy to sing, or even hum, and you caught it on tape... why then we'd have something to take to the bank. Or in this case, Angel."
"You want me to wear a wire? But she's our friend," Fred protested. She pulled her hand free of Lorne's and stuffed both of them in her lap, trying to hide the way they automatically clenched into fists from the tension. "Even if she's acting a little strange, and, umm, maybe a little mean sometimes, it still seems like we're carrying things too far if we dragnet her."
"Most innocent of all Fred's, have you forgotten that we're already standing on the edge of an apocalypse? How much further can we carry anything?"
"Something just doesn't feel right about this," she sighed. "I hate being sneaky; it never brings me anything but trouble."
"That's because you're a good, honest person, and that's why we love you." Lorne smiled reassuringly at her. "And that's also why Cordy would never suspect you were trying to set her up, don't you see?"
Fred tried to think of another way to test Lorne's theory without being dishonest, but nothing was springing to her award-winning brain. As much as she hated the idea, the only way to prove Lorne wrong, and prove that Cordy was all right, was to take the demon's path.
"All right," she gave in with a grimace. "I'll do it. But don't expect me to be any good at the spy stuff," she warned. "When we used to play 'Scarecrow and Mrs. King,' I always had to be Amanda's mother. I couldn't even make third graders who ate mud pies believe I was a spy."
"Oh sweetie, I'd let you heat up my cold war any day," Lorne consoled her. "Now how soon can you get to work on Operation Sing Sting?"
* * * * *
To Be Continued TC \l2 "