Author's Note: Pinch me. I can't believe I actually finished it. Okay, I don't want to get too Academy Awards about this, but I do have some gratitude to dispense. If I try to personally thank each one of my reviewers who deserves it, well, that would be all of you, but there are a few whose names stand out: Taaroko (of course), for being there since day one-- I looked forward to my Taaroko review every time I posted a chapter. Fluffernutter8 and faelyn leaf, for the insightful commentary and listening to my fangirl rambles. melodyghfan for being such an enthusiastic reader, a2zmom for the helpful crits and resources, and Foss-- you left me a ton of great reviews and no way to thank you for them! Okay, I'm not going to ask if I left anyone out because I know I did, but everyone who ever dropped me a comment, please know that without your encouragement this story would absolutely definitively have been abandoned out of frustration and died early. I hope that's reward enough. :)
As I may have mentioned, this was my first-ever attempt at fan fiction and I had no thoughts beyond finishing it. Now I'm pretty hooked and certain I'm going to write more in the genre, but I've been living and breathing this story since I started it and I need a break. Real life and personal fiction writing need some attention, but to be honest I probably just mean to say that fan fic production is going to be one-shots and drabbles for a while, since I'm too addicted to give it up entirely. I've started a livejournal for the purpose; the username there is kairosimperfect. Currently it's empty but not for long, and I do check its friends page regularly. C'mon, let's be buddies.
Oh, yeah, and here's the final chapter. You probably want that, huh? Lyrics in this one are, for the last time, by REM. And trust me on the yogurt.
Giles looked at his watch, didn't believe it, looked at the wall clock for confirmation, and said, "Oh my." It wasn't the first time he had lost track of the hour while reading in the store, but this time it had especially caught him by surprise, as he had subconsciously been expecting Willow to leave long before it got this late. She had been sitting at the table, playing idly with the Moisipi spirit, and when he looked over at her for the first time in at least an hour, she was doing exactly the same thing. The spirit was emitting a faint glow, currently the only source of light in the store aside from Giles's own desk lamp, and the red shine of the young witch's hair was just barely visible under it.
"Willow," he said to her, "don't you want to get home?"
"Hm?" She glanced up and shook her head to clear it, then looked at the clock. "Oh. It's late, huh? Sorry, I was just...thinking about prophecies."
That was an odd thing to be thinking about, he thought. They had all been through a lot lately, but prophecies had no part in it that he could remember. "Why is that?" he asked.
She straightened in her chair and rubbed her eyes, and when she spoke again, she was awake and forthright. "Have you heard about Angel's Sanshu-- uh, Shansu-- okay, call it, Shanshu? Buffy told me, but I don't think it's supposed to be a secret."
Giles nodded, remembering. "He's meant to become human. Wesley told me."
"But it doesn't mention him by name, so now...which vampire with a soul?"
"Very perplexing. There's no way to know until it happens, I suppose, but as far as I know, Wesley is still convinced that it refers to Angel, and he seems to have made himself the expert on the subject."
Willow propped her elbows up on the table and set her face in her hands. "That's not much."
"I know," said Giles gravely.
"And then, he's supposed to stop an apocalypse, right? I just can't stop thinking. Daemonis had an apocalypse brewing, and Buffy and Angel stopped him while he was casting the spell, so that seems like it should count. But Buffy was the one who killed him, they said. What if it was supposed to be Angel? What if that was his big chance?"
No wonder she had been so lost in thought. These were questions that could indeed keep one up all night. "A prophecy is a powerful force," Giles said carefully. "I think it would take more than that to thwart it, if it truly speaks of Angel's destiny. And if it doesn't, everyone is prepared for that, Angel most of all. The best we can do for him is give him hope that one day the world will no longer need him."
"Yeah. Well, we'll do that, then." Willow frowned, reaching out and absently stroking the Moisipi spirit, which let out an entirely unexpected purr. Later on he would have to ask her how she had managed to make it do that. She didn't even seem to notice. "Do you think Buffy still thinks he's going to turn human?"
He thought about the most positive spin he could put on it, some token words about Buffy's acceptance of her husband as he was, or the unpredictability of life and prophecies and what they could be hiding. In the end, though, he had to opt for honesty. "No."
"So who's this bird, then?" asked Spike as he stepped up to Jenny's headstone, unscrewing the cap of a silver hip flask he had just taken from a pocket inside his coat. "Friend of yours?"
"I killed her." It was easier saying that then it would have been to admit that she had, in fact, been a friend of sorts. Angel finally raised his eyes to glance over at Spike. "You don't remember?"
The younger vampire took a swig from his flask before leaning forward to read the dates on the stone. "Ninety-eight? Oh. The Watcher's squeeze, i'n't it? Had your soul all lined up for you, and you offed her before she could finish the deed. Good times. Too bad she's not here to see what a trend she kicked off. Souls being all the rage now."
All the rage indeed. All the rage was bubbling just beneath the surface of Spike's indifference, manifesting in the slightly drunken cascade of his words only through the hard edge on a few scattered syllables. There could be no doubt that he knew what had happened to his girlfriend, and thus no doubt about why he was there now, but Angel didn't force the topic. "That they are," he said. "How's yours?"
"It's a putrid, senseless, worm-eaten, vitriolic ball and chain. Standard issue, I'll wager. And for some reason I'm feeling compelled to hang onto it anyway. Lucky stroke I've got you around to blame for everything, or I'd have to just wallow in guilt."
"Compelled?" Angel didn't want to say it explicitly, but that word worried him. Spike wasn't supposed to have a choice about whether or not he was going to hang onto his soul.
"I was in with the bad crowd, Peaches. Darla didn't fancy us being soulful, didn't you notice that? She had her latest sugar daddy's technique all ready to be tested on you and me, and trade secrets get passed around."
"Then you know how to get your soul removed."
Spike lifted his flask to his lips for another chug before answering. "Not yet. But I'm probably the only one on this bloody planet who knows where to start. So! Is that going to make this a cause for justifiable homicide, or, let me guess, you're 'not here to fight me'?"
"No," said Angel affably. "This time I'll fight you." He proved his words by spinning around as soon as they were out of his mouth and landing the first strike, a vicious backhand to Spike's face. His movements were too sudden for Spike to dodge or counter, and the flask went flying, dribbling whiskey out onto the ground, as Angel's fist connected with flesh.
Spike didn't fall, but he staggered backwards and let out a stream of curses before straightening and facing Angel. He had vamped out as soon as he was hit, and he had an angry growl to go with it. Angel kept his face the way it was. He was willing to provide as much violence as Spike wanted or needed from him, but his body knew that fury wasn't part of this and neither was survival. Unlike his opponent, he was sober in every sense of the word.
The fight escalated quickly, Spike making up for Angel's initial advantage with a nonstop flurry of punches and kicks. Angel blocked what he could and pressed the attack when he had the opening, but for the first few minutes his main goal was to move the conflict away from Jenny's grave. He had already snapped the woman's neck; he didn't need to add a botched attempt at respecting her to that. Spike didn't seem to notice the maneuver, or care. His intentions were much more pure, and when he started talking, it was to emphasize the blows, not distract from them.
"You think I'm going to ask you why you did it, don't you? And you've got your speech ready, all dressing yourself up as the bleeding-heart martyr with the golden hand of mercy. Well, save it, because I'm the original phantom from your past and I know the truth. You killed Dru for the same bloody reason you killed Gypsy Calendar. The same reason you had for every last one of your kills since the day you dug your way out of the ground." Spike broke off from his onslaught at that point, both physical and verbal, and he put a few paces of distance between himself and Angel, who allowed it, realizing against his will that he wanted to hear what Spike was going to say next.
The answer came out as an absolute condemnation. "You kill because you've never met a person living or dead who you didn't think belonged to you. It wasn't lives you were ending, it was your own property, isn't that right? And it didn't stop with the soul, oh no. Now you're just invested in keeping your property safe, no less than you did for us when we were wanted. The Slayer, your Team Angel, all those thousands of innocent lives you strive to safeguard...they're just toys on your shelf, and you don't want anyone else touching." He hissed through his fangs, his eyes flashing with the reflection of the almost-full moon. "And if one should happen to break, why then you've got to be the one to take off her head and leave your signature in her ashes, with all its ironic artistry."
Angel shook his head. "You're wrong. I don't own anyone."
"No, see, I'm aware of that. But you're about to be." With that, he lunged, and the fight began anew. Angel met the attack easily and returned it. He didn't know where this was going, but he knew from experience that the two of them could keep it up for hours. If he let it happen, anyway.
"So that's your plan? Kill me and you'll be free? I don't think so." Something occurred to him as he caught Spike's fist and turned it away. "You didn't even bring a stake, did you?"
"Oh, sod it." Spike put the scuffle on hold again as he blocked a hit and then raised his hands. "Called my bluff, eh? Well, if you came prepared, then the victory goes to you, the better man." He dropped to his knees and held his hands over his heart, a pose that seemed at first to be pure mockery but carried an unmistakable overtone of true spiritual defeat. His eyes closed, a second before his face turned back to its human guise. "Let's have it. Thus fell William the Bloody. I regret that I have but one life to give for my pathetic inferiority complex."
Angel rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand. He actually didn't have a stake, which felt like it was careless of him even though he was sure Buffy had one and he didn't want to use a stake right now anyway. Spike's misery was the last thing he wanted to deal with during these last few moments he had in Sunnydale, but not all of his problems could be solved by turning them to dust. He hovered over his grandchilde, almost offering him a hand up, and then thought better of it and sat down on the ground beside him instead. Spike opened his eyes, and his lips curled into a sneer before he changed his kneeling position to sitting like Angel was. He felt inside his coat for his flask, then apparently remembered that it was already out and spilled, and gave up.
"I killed her because she was hurting me," said Angel, "and I had to make it stop. That's all."
"Well, now she's hurting me, and you've left me no one to kill."
"There's me. But you didn't bring a stake."
As a taunt that went much farther than Angel would have gone with anyone else, but Spike just chuckled as if they were sharing a joke. "Wouldn't help anything to kill you. Never really wanted to, truth be told, unless it was the only way to move up and see the end of you. I always fooled myself that sooner or later you would stride off into the setting moon and let the younger lion take over the pride, and all I had to do was wait for it."
Maybe it was Spike's sense of humor catching on, but Angel had to laugh at that. "Some pride."
"No," Spike agreed, "there wasn't really much to be proud of, was there? Just an old bitch, a crazy bitch, a son of a bitch, and me." He sighed and met Angel's eyes for the first time since his own had gone back to their usual pale blue, and his voice dropped an octave, less intoxicated than it had been before and with an underlying current of fear. "The soul's making a difference. I've been trying to ignore it this whole time, but it's changing something. Eating away at me. Got this little chorus in the back of my head singing Oh, evil Spikey, what have you done, over and over, and they never get past that part or stop long enough to let me actually think about what it's supposed to mean."
"Yeah, that...that never really goes away."
Spike snorted disdainfully. "That's my chum, knew you'd have a word or two of encouragement for me. Look, here's the Cracker Jack prize: I'm keeping the soul and I'm keeping the secret. And we can skip the threats about what you'll do to me if I break my word on that. I don't fancy spending any more time in your basement, so you can slay me or you can believe I'm not off to do anything stupid with magic."
"Alright." It was an answer given too easily, Angel knew, but there wasn't anywhere else to go with it other than killing Spike, and he wanted that less and less. Darla and Drusilla were dead without a chance to make something of themselves. Penn was dead, along with a fair number of other failed disciples. Even the Master, Angel's own grandsire, was dead. Spike was the last gasp of the Order of Aurelius. "So what are you going to do?"
"I dunno. What's the rum thing to do for an undead bloke who's got nothing left to lose?"
Angel shrugged. "You mean, other than living on the streets and eating rats? My suggestion is to leave town."
Spike rolled his eyes. "Right, right, clear myself off your territory and keep my distance from your girl. What was I thinking, implying that you were possessive."
"You don't want to be around me or her anyway. Just go take a journey. You know, to find yourself, or whatever they call it."
Unrestrained laughter rang out into the stillness of the cemetery. "They call it soul-searching, nitwit."
Angel pondered the phrase for a few moments in silence. It wasn't long before he ran out of ways to find a deeper meaning in it, and he looked over at Spike, who was now opening a pack of cigarettes. "You want to fight some more?"
"No, I think I'm good."
"Then I better get back to Buffy." Angel got to his feet.
Spike was concentrating on lighting his cigarette-- with a flimsy disposable lighter, Angel noticed, for some reason-- and didn't bother to glance up at him, though he did have a remark to offer. "You're completely whipped."
"Oh? I thought I was possessive."
"You're both, granddad, and that's the key to just one of those special neuroses that make you so irresistible to the ladies." Spike got the cigarette lit after a few annoyed flicks of the lighter, and then stood up. After one long drag and exhalation, he looked at Angel and said, "Ah, hell. One for the road."
Angel reeled as Spike's fist shot out and caught him on the jaw. Immediately following the punch, Spike turned and set off at an easy gait, and Angel glared at his back without attempting to retaliate. He didn't have a chance to follow anyway, as the sound of Buffy's exasperated voice behind him swiftly brought his attention off of the departing vampire.
"I leave you alone for five minutes and you get in a fight!"
The prospect of seeing the Hyperion for the first time was an effective tool for making herself ignore the prospect of leaving it on her own, Buffy found. There were still quite a few things that she and Angel had never done together, and checking one off, even something as insignificant as driving from Sunnydale to LA, was a good feeling. As they got closer to the city she began seeing the familiar sights in a different light, picturing Angel living among them, and she pointed out her old haunts to him and chattered about her youth there, making him chuckle and offer a few of his more recent stories in exchange.
She hadn't known exactly what to expect from the hotel, but it had her speechless anyway. It was big, cavernous in the lobby alone, and old-fashioned in all the right ways. Even if Angel and his team had had nothing to do with the decor, it still would have reminded her of him. He smiled as he ushered her in, and then stood back and let her revolve slowly in the center of the lobby, craning her head upwards to take in every last detail.
Cordelia was seated at the front desk, paging through a magazine. "'Bout time," she said cheerfully when they entered. "I was about to call it a night. Well, actually I called it a night hours ago, but I was about to go home without giving you the latest skinny in person."
"And what's that?" said Angel.
"We're meeting with the host of Caritas tomorrow. Didn't find anything about the apple-necklace girl. And Wesley turned up some info on portals. Look at how much he narrowed it down to fit our case." She thumped her hand on the top of a huge pile of books and papers sitting on the counter. "Have fun with these. And, well..." She cast Buffy a sympathetic smile. "Sleep tight."
Buffy bid her goodnight, but in the meantime, she had discovered the weapons cabinet. As the door clicked shut behind Cordelia, she selected a rapier and went through a few practice forms with it, then noticed that there was a glaive in the case and tried that out instead. It had a nice balance to it, and she considered asking Giles for one. It had been a long time since she had gotten any new weapons, although in all fairness, her fragile relationship with the Watcher's Council and their formidable finances probably had something to do with that. Also, exotic weapons tended to be more fun than they were practical for her line of work, so maybe she should just make a point of playing with Angel's collection every time she was up here.
She slashed at the air with the glaive and then spun into a mock battle pose, facing Angel, who she had sensed standing just behind and to the side of her. He didn't flinch, despite having the point of the blade a few inches from his throat, and she wondered exactly what it would take to startle him. "Aren't you going to tell me to watch where I'm pointing that thing?" she inquired with a pout.
"That's my warrior woman," he murmured in satisfaction, and then in a normal tone, "You can point it wherever you want."
It was nice, she thought, having a man who didn't only expect her to kick ass, but counted on it. She wasn't blind; she knew he was afraid for her, having experienced firsthand the kind of dangers she faced daily and was likely to face for the rest of her life. But he had learned somewhere along the way that his protection over her could only go so far, and in his absence he was passing the duty on to the person he trusted the most, and that was Buffy herself. Keeping that in mind was going to be a help when he was gone, since the only thing she feared about losing his protection was loneliness.
"I've been thinking," she said, swinging out of the pose and placing the glaive back into the cabinet. "Lydia ought to stay with me at the mansion."
His dark eyes were momentarily unreadable as they studied her face. "You want her there?" he asked.
She shrugged. "Could be fun. I'd have some company. She'd have somewhere to come home to. The house would have its traditional resident vampire. And you can't tell me we don't have the room."
"You'd be good for her," he said, albeit reluctantly.
"Yeah, she'd be like my little sis, of the eternally little persuasion. I could train her in slaying, and yell at her for leaving the windows open, and stuff." Buffy wandered away from the weapons and sat down on the weird-looking round couch that they had in the lobby. "But, Angel," she continued, making it clear with her voice that she was serious. "I'm not going to do it unless it's okay with you. It's our house. Our decision."
She was pleased that he didn't deny that, or claim that any decision she made was okay with him. He followed her to the couch and sat down beside her, considering it. Then he nodded and said, "One condition."
"Lock your door when you're asleep. At least until you know she's in control of herself."
The thought of exuberant, naive Lydia managing to take the Slayer in a surprise attack, even in her sleep, was almost humorous. But it was clear that Angel meant what he was saying, and it wasn't a condition worth disputing. "Deal."
He kissed her temple. "Want to see the suite?"
Angel's suite! She had forgotten that she had yet to see the best part of the Hyperion. "Yeah! Show me!"
He brought her up the stairs and opened up the door to room 217, and she stepped in eagerly. "Ooh, I like the purple! Look, you've got another whole kitchen you have no use for! And a balcony! It's--" She broke off as she turned to look at him and found that he hadn't followed her in.
He was leaning in the doorway, smiling broadly but making no move to come closer. "Here we go again."
"Oh," she said, realizing what it was that held him there. "Do I live here too now?"
"Of course you do." If the barrier at the entrance hadn't proved it, the affection in his voice did, and she looked around again at her new home until he prompted her to return her focus to him. "So are you going to invite me in?"
Instead of answering, she kicked off her shoes and slipped her blouse over her head. Instantly, Angel's hands flew up in front of him and pressed against the invisible barrier, his eyes wide with incredulity. Buffy noted that the question of how to startle him had just been answered, and she couldn't contain a giggle. Teasing was still relatively new territory for them-- it would have been downright cruel to tease him during the curse days, and since then she hadn't had much patience for it herself. This was an opportunity too good to pass up, though. She shimmied out of her skirt and performed a twirl, casting him a coy smile.
Angel looked frantically from side to side, as if he really thought there could be anyone out there to see her. "Buffy," he said, his voice wavering somewhere between command and plea. "Let me in."
She hooked a finger under her bra strap and slowly lowered it off her shoulder. "Why?" she inquired. "What are you going to do in here?"
Just as she was feeling smug about her position of power, he started taking out the weapons in his own arsenal, beginning with the growl she liked so much. It came from deep in his chest, a drawn-out, dangerous rumble, and she suddenly remembered that she was dealing with this era's crowned master of manipulation. "I'm going to make you beg," he vowed, his eyes boring into her, and before she knew it he was shedding his own clothes right there in the corridor.
For one ridiculous moment she hoped that one of them remembered to pick them up before they were discovered the next morning by someone else, and then she made her best attempt to regain the upper hand. "Intriguing. You really want me?" she said, trying to make it sound sultry, but her breath hitched and only her own desire came through.
"Yes," growled the shirtless vampire in the doorway. "Yes, I want you."
"Then come and get me."
Willow came downstairs and opened the refrigerator, looking for breakfast. She was the first one awake, and the house had a kind of deathly stillness to it which didn't make any sense at all. The other three current residents were all at home, and if none of them happened to be up as early as she was, well, that was nothing new. But Father Tom had said his final goodbyes, and Angel had taken Buffy away to LA, and hadn't Willow decided at the beginning that moving into her friend's room at Revello Drive was only supposed to be temporary? She closed the refrigerator door without having paid any attention to its contents, and went back upstairs to the bedroom.
"Oz," she said, leaning over the bed and shaking her boyfriend's shoulder. "Wake up. We have to invite Giles over for pancakes."
Obediently he opened his bleary eyes, but the waking process didn't seem to be complete yet. "Okay, but, can't. 'Cause, sleeping."
"No, you have to get up. It's vitally important that all of us have breakfast together today. I'll do all the work, you just have to wake up and come to the table washed and hungry. Come on, you're not in a band anymore so you have no excuse for sleeping in all the time. I'm going to go call Giles."
"Busy head," he accused in a sleepy mumble, but he sat up and scrubbed a hand through his hair. "Why Giles?"
"Because he's been stuck in his house with a gothed-out teenage girl and he's never going to admit he's lonely. Plus, I'm not sure if they have pancakes in England."
Willow's resolve was eventually enough to get all of her roommates to cooperate, and it wasn't long before they were all at the table making generally positive comments about breakfast. The invitation she had extended to Giles was also successful, and once he arrived, he didn't even bother hiding his relief at being away from Lydia for a while. "A rebellious sixteen-year-old Slayer has nothing on a rebellious sixteen-year-old vampire," he groused. "Every Watcher should be required to contend with one in his training. She's still giggling every time she looks in a mirror."
"So she's happy she's a vampire? What's wrong with that?" asked Anya. She looked at Xander for help. "I thought we liked when people were happy."
"Not like this, we don't," said Oz.
Giles lifted an eyebrow in his direction, as if surprised that someone like Oz could identify the problem. Willow wasn't surprised. She had identified it too. "She hasn't really come to grips with it, has she?" she said.
Giles shook his head. "I suspect she feels her conscience is clean, and if she doesn't consider herself evil, it shouldn't be." He stopped and looked at the piece of pancake he had on his fork. "Did you put yogurt in these? That's very innovative."
"Yeah, they're better this way," said Xander. "So what's your plan for Miss Babyvamp? Send her to Angel for brooding lessons?"
"Actually," said Willow, "I heard a rumor that Buffy's going to take her in. Which is kind of, you know, can you think of a spiffier sidekick for the Vampire Slayer?"
Anya let out a huge sigh of relief. "Thank God! I thought you were going to insist she move in here, and with everyone already taking up so much space! I vehemently dislike living with roommates." She looked around the table in the following silence and added, "I don't intentionally give offense."
"We've all pretty much built up an immunity to it at this point," Oz assured her. He poked around in his food and then said nonchalantly, "But I've been thinking maybe the free ride has gone on long enough."
"You have?" asked Willow, taken aback by the echo of the thought she'd had earlier. Then she realized what his words could mean for the future. "You want to move out? With me? Or without me? It's okay if you don't want-- I mean, as long as you stay in town-- but I'm not holding you here or--"
He cut her off with a quick kiss to the lips that tasted faintly of syrup. "Living like grown-ups doesn't mean not living with you. But I kind of like it here. It has good cupboards."
"Some of the hinges are improperly secured," said Xander, possibly in an automatic reaction.
"We should get our own place!" said Anya excitedly. "You can work harder and afford one with high rent!"
Giles cleared his throat before anyone could react to that. "If I may. Buffy owns this house and has no need for it. I'm certain she would be willing to sell it to any one of you, or any combination of you, on a payment plan that would work with your income. It may be the easiest way for her to keep her mother's house in her life without living in it."
Willow's heart fluttered a little, and she met Oz's eyes in silence. Yes, he was smiling. He reached under the table and squeezed her knee, and she dared to hope.
They put the topic away for the rest of the morning; it would need to be discussed with Buffy before anything was decided, and calling her in LA was strictly off-limits except for emergencies. Willow was content just knowing that they were starting to work something out. She and Oz in their own place, maybe Xander and Anya in another, separate but comfortably accessible place, and Buffy nearby in the mansion with Angel's heart and Lydia. And, of course, the usual omnipresent assortment of horrifying monsters that made Sunnydale their home.
"So what's your pipeline been telling you?" she asked Giles as they cleared the dishes from the table. "How is the world outside of our little one-dead-horse town reacting to the new state of vampirehood?"
"Well," he replied, "news has been, ah, scattered. Not everyone has seen the evidence yet, or made any comment on it. But Father Tom informs us that Church officials are shaking their heads and stroking their chins, probably right now as we speak." He smiled ruefully. "Mystical energies surrounding the Hellmouth are reportedly unchanged. And as a matter of fact, this very morning I received some correspondence from one Agent Finn, though he tells me it's off the record and he hopes it will remain that way."
Xander joined them in the kitchen after hearing that last part. "You heard from Riley? What did he say?"
"He said that the US military, or at least the special operations branch to which he belongs, is aware of the spell and its, ah, effects. However, their policy states that there is no quantifiable difference between a, a 'hostile subterranean' with a soul and one without, and their course of action regarding them will remain the same."
Willow scoffed. "Typical! They don't have any gadgets that can detect a soul, so they decide it doesn't matter."
Xander made an impatient gesture. "Yeah, yeah, but tell us the important stuff. Does he know about Buffy and Dead Spouse?"
"I'm not running a tabloid, Xander," said Giles, sending him a disapproving look over the top of his glasses. "Willow, it seems to me that your own channels may actually be a better source of information than my own in this regard. What seems to be the overall reaction on the, ah, the internet?"
Even mentioning computer stuff seemed to make him uncomfortable, Willow noted with amusement. "Mostly everyone's just asking each other if it's true," she said. "And, well, asking me if I'm really the one who authored it. I've already had to change my email address twice. I'm not into the online fame game."
"Kinda defeats the whole purpose of anonymity," agreed Oz, coming up behind her and slipping an arm around her waist. He looked at Giles. "So, I'm comprehending there's a lot of wringing hands and brandishing weapons among the big players, but I think you missed one. What's the Watcher's Council got to say on this?"
"Good point," said Xander. "After everything that went down with Daemonis, are they still convinced they did the right thing? Come to think of it, were they really convinced of that in the first place?"
Giles coughed, covering a resigned sigh. "I've written them a strongly worded letter."
Willow had to hold back a smile, but when Xander started laughing, she let it go. Eventually Giles was chuckling along with them. There wasn't much more to say about the Watcher's Council. If they only knew.
Buffy moved slower with each step, but she couldn't prevent her feet from reaching the place where Angel stopped them, in a dark alley between brick walls. "This is it," he said reluctantly. "Caritas is right around the corner. Do you want to see it?"
She shook her head. She did want to see it, but another day. His team would already be in there waiting for him, and if she heard the case unfolding she would want to join them instead of catching her bus, and if she didn't get used to making herself go home on schedule, the whole system was going to fall apart. "I can hear it," she said. "They must be pretty serious about their karaoke in there." They both stopped speaking and strained to hear. The words being sung weren't clear, but Buffy recognized the tune and supplied the lyrics mentally:
I had a mind to try and stop you. Let me in. Let me in.
But I've got tar on my feet, and I can't see.
All the birds look down and laugh at me,
Clumsy, crawling out of my skin.
Buffy turned away from the sound and pressed her face into Angel's chest. "So this is where I get off," she murmured. "It's always dark alleys, isn't it?"
"Better than sewers," he replied, enveloping her in his arms and cradling her head in his hand, as he now did so naturally whenever they were close.
She laughed. "I guess."
It was one thing to resist the urge to stall by entering Caritas with Angel, another entirely to separate herself from his embrace. Just a little longer, she thought. We deserve it. We've been good. But with the contours of his body lined up against hers, and the pang of her imminent departure, all she could think about was that night at the prom. It had been so hard, at the time, to keep herself from asking him to stay. It had been hard to say anything at all, for fear that it would lead her into tears and she would ruin what she had thought would be her last dance with Angel, so she had mostly kept silent and so had he. But silence hadn't staved off the inevitable then, and it wouldn't now. It would be too easy to ask him to come back with her to their home in Sunnydale, or tell him she was staying with him at their home in Los Angeles. She could erase the choices she had already made, mirror them all back to him and see what happened, stand there in the alley and refuse to be the first one to budge.
It would be too easy-- for her. For Angel it was already harder than he was ever going to tell her. She lifted her cheek from his motionless chest and looked him in the eye. "No goodbyes, right?" she said softly. Her voice barely faltered.
"No." Sadness was etched into his face more deeply than the remaining mark of the holy water, and she wished she could reach out her hand and smooth it all away. "I'm still too weak for that," he admitted.
"Weak," she agreed. "But I can make you stronger." Without further discussion she moved her hand up to the back of his head and pressed it forward, gently but firmly, until he gave in and let her guide his face to where her neck met her shoulder. He lingered there, frozen in indecision, but she held him in place and finally there was a subtle shift of skin against skin as his features changed. Seconds later, she felt his lips parting, and then the unique sensation of fangs puncturing her old scar.
She let out a long breath and threaded her fingers through his hair, relying on his support now just to keep her feet. Fortunately, this time he was steady as a rock and held her mindfully, and for the too-brief moment that they were connected, everything fell into synch and she had no need to exercise any of the power that made her what she was. The rush of her blood being pulled seemed to affect every part of her body at once, and there was no way to lessen the wave of dizziness it brought, but it was Angel, just Angel, just her one love giving her a goodbye kiss. She felt rather than heard him swallow, once, twice, and then he released her neck and swabbed the holes with his cool tongue.
By the time he had raised his face to look into hers again, he was back in his human features and she inspected him closely for changes. The last trace of the holy water's damage was gone. His expression had gone from sad to disbelieving, almost fearful, and she lay her hand on his cheek to reassure him. "I love you. I'm always with you."
There was no taste of her own blood in his mouth when they kissed, long and thoroughly. "And I'm here," he said, placing his hand on her heart, "at home with you."
She caught her bus back to Sunnydale. It was a long, dark ride, but at least she wasn't on it alone.