Part VII

They were most of the way back to the apartment before Wesley spoke. "Are you dreadfully upset, my dear?"

Harmony sighed tragically. "No, just really disappointed. Not only I didn't get to kill her, I didn't even see her go." She shook her head. "That just sucks. And believe me, I know."

He patted her hand. "You can perhaps take consolation from the knowledge that you played a significant role in her demise. The struggle initiated by your assault thinned their ranks, so that when it came time to battle in earnest, she found herself overextended; and, of course, you engaged her a second time and effectively immobilized her at the end … oh, my word!"

"What?" Harmony looked to him. "What's the matter?"

"The gem," he told her. "We forgot to return the gem to Mr. Giles for safekeeping. I didn't wish to raise the subject while Mrs. Madison was present — alarming woman, really — and by the time that extraordinary conversation was ended, it had quite slipped my mind."

"Oh," Harmony said, and shrugged. "Well, it's no big deal. Who's going to look for your Gem of Armani on my toe, under these cheap ugly shoes?"

"Harm," he said patiently, "the entire point of reserving a mystical artifact for use in emergencies is to return it to protective storage once the emergency has passed." He checked the street signs, obviously looking for a place to turn around. "We must go back immediately."

"Wes." She touched his arm. "We just wasted the Civil Servant of Doom and a dozen of his top soldiers. Don't you think the forces of evil would really rather just take the rest of the night off? I know I would." She smiled at him. "Besides, what's the rush? You know what we've never done together?"

"Not offhand, no. You've been rather dismayingly adventuresome." He looked to her in sudden alarm. "I say, you're not suggesting … well, bondage, or some such?"

She giggled at the thought. "Ooh, kinky. No, I was thinking how nice it would be if we just went down to the beach and sat on the sand and watched the sun come up together."

"Mm. Yes. Yes, that would be pleasant, wouldn't it? And safe, so long as you wear the Gem." He glanced to her with something that was more sadness than fondness. "Shall we swing by the flat and pick up a thermos for you?"

"Sure." She leaned against him, nestling in as he put his arm around her. "And swimsuits. Sunrise won't be for awhile yet, and while we're waiting we can play lifeguard and grateful swimmer …"

"Ah," Wesley said. "Yes. Yes, quite." He pressed his foot down on the accelerator, and the Volvo surged forward.

~ – ~ – ~

They had been sitting in the van for close to ten minutes, neither of them saying a word. There was no awkwardness in the silence, but at the same time it lacked the easy companionship that had been second nature to them for so long. Finally Buffy said, "So."

Oz nodded. "Yeah."

"You were right," Buffy said. "The effect Xander had on us all, the pressure from Witchmom's push to get out of the trophy … you were right, we were being moved around by stuff we never saw."

"Looks like," Oz agreed.

"I just feel sick," she said. "All this time … was any of it true?"

"I pretty much go with Giles on that one," he told her quietly. "We may have had outside stuff nudging us toward each other, but the things we did when we were together, that was us. Clear down the line."

She sat, unspeaking, unmoving, digesting the thought. "Why did you come after me?" she asked at last. "Two years ago, I mean."

"Because I couldn't stand to be around Willow." The words were as dry and soft as ever, and no remnants of old pain showed in his face. "She really did try, after we were able to talk again, but I could see it wasn't gonna work between us. Even if it wasn't her fault, something had gotten broken and it wasn't ever gonna heal right. And you were alone, and hurting, and you needed somebody, and there was nothing left to keep me here."

"So I was a pity case."

An economical shake of his head. "You were someone I cared about."

Buffy looked to him with reluctant hope. "You weren't in love with me?"

"Not for the first year." The faint, ironic smile had crept back. "All that time I was propping you up? I was leaning on you, too. We got each other over the worst of it, and never tried to make it any more than that. More came later."

She was nodding. "Yeah. No fireworks, but it was real. Even if nothing else was real, that was." She took a deep, shaky breath that was very near to being a sob. "Oz, I don't know what to do. I'm afraid to try and hold you, afraid I don't have the right. But I can't stand the thought of letting you go."

"Then don't," he said, and reached for her. The kiss was light but not hesitant, their lips barely touching, and his arms went around her with an undemanding gentleness unlike anything she had ever felt from Angel or Xander.

No fireworks. No blistering flame of passion. Only an even, steady glow that would warm them for a lifetime.

~ – ~ – ~

He had parked down the block, and when he came up the sidewalk he could see her waiting on the porch. Lights spilled from the curtained windows, and happy music, and voices pitched with that giddiness that follows surviving a battle to the death. As he went up the front steps he could hear one voice raised for attention:

"… and then she walks up to him, calm as you please, and says, 'Mister Rayne, I don't believe I've had the pleasure.' And he's starting in on how actually they met back during the Band Candy thing in '98, when she fires a front kick straight into his crotch. Lifted him up on his toes, let me tell you. And then he's down on the grass curled into this little whimpering ball, and she says, 'I know we've met. I said I hadn't had the pleasure. Now I have.' "

Laughter rocked the windows, other voices clamoring for details or offering them. Xander looked to her, shaking his head. "Man. Sorry I missed that one."

She sighed. "If you want to know the truth, it didn't feel nearly as good as I thought it would."

"Maybe. But it sounds like it was fun to watch." He paused. "So, how'd it go?"

"You were right," she told him. "The Mayor had another dozen or so waiting outside, I suppose for some kind of signal. We tried to move in quietly, so we could hit them when they started to join the others, but they spotted us and we had to open fire."

"No harm," he said. "Thanks for backing us up."

"Thanks for keeping me in the loop. I was pretty sure something was happening when Buffy left so suddenly, but she still thinks she can protect me from the truth."

"Like you're protecting her," he pointed out.

"I suppose that's true." She sat on the porch railing, and after a moment he did the same, a few feet away. "Tell me," she said, "was this just some personal grudge match, or was it one of those things where the earth was about to open up and swallow the whole city?"

"Little of both. But it's all taken care of." He nodded toward the window. "They're all in a good mood, so I take it nobody got hurt too bad?"

"No, that paintgun idea of yours worked like a charm. We'll be getting some more of those. And you'll have to show us how you fill the paintballs with holy water, so we can make our own ammunition."

He grinned at her, pleased. "That good, huh? I've been wanting to try it out, but the nights have been quiet lately. Not that that's a bad thing," he added hastily. "As for the paintballs, I got the idea from those inkjet-cartridge refill kits. I just use a hypodermic with a heavy-gauge needle to suck out the paint, and another one to put in holy water. Little dab of epoxy to seal the puncture, and it's, 'Go ahead, Lestat, make my day.' "

She nodded understanding. "It made a big difference. None of the vampires could get close to us … and luckily, there was only one conventional demon in the bunch. A Kosch'tscho, I think."

"Whoa!" He leaned forward. "Didn't think of that. What happened?"

"It was scary for a minute there." She shook her head. "When we realized the holy water wasn't affecting it, Larry and Roger tried to wrestle it down. Roger almost got his shoulder dislocated, and Larry will need a few stitches for claw marks, though his jacket stopped most of it. Then Loryn came roaring back in that big Suburban of hers, blaring the horn, and when they dived out of the way she hit the thing head-on."

"Cool," Xander said. "Didn't hear that, we musta been pretty busy about then. Demon pizza?"

"No, but after that he didn't want to fight us anymore. He took off, we let him go. The important thing was to keep them out of the library, and we accomplished that."

"In serious kick-ass style, sounds like." Xander gave her a lopsided smile, and added very casually, "You know, our new principal may have been trying to make an impression. I think he kinda has a thing for you."

"You may be right," she said, and sighed again. "Roger is a good man, and he's very earnest about the work we're doing here. I'll do my best to go easy on his feelings."

"Okay," he said. The silence stretched out, and after a minute he stood up. "Well, I'll let you …"

"Xander," she said. "Were we looking at the end of the world?"

"Uh …" He sat down again. "Why do you ask?"

"I could see there was something Buffy wanted to tell me, but she couldn't think of how to start. The last time she acted that way … I just want to know."

"Well …" He shrugged uneasily. "For awhile it looked like we might be. Turned out it was a false alarm."

"Would you have told me about it?"

He shook his head. "Buffy would have. Once she was back, it wasn't my place."

"I see." She folded her hands on her lap. "You've been straight with me on everything else, so I suppose I can believe you on that."

"Straight," he said, his voice going bleak. "Yeah."

"Xander." She spoke with that no-nonsense firmness that meant, Pay attention, boy, this one isn't up for debate. "You had sex with my daughter, and then you cheated on her with her best friend. I'm not about to excuse that, and if I'd known all the details at the time I probably would have strangled you. But I only know them now because you told me yourself —"

"Right," he interrupted. "After she'd already been gone nine months. I let you blame yourself when it was my fault all along —"

"Xander, shut up." She fixed him with a practiced glare. "You didn't have to tell me at all. And you've never tried to make excuses; just the opposite, you've made sure nobody forgets anything you did. Well, that's been going on long enough." Her eyes softened, and she went on more quietly. "You brought me into the world Buffy always shut me out of, and you showed me a way I could actually make a difference. You've made sure your people don't know anything about this, and neither do mine. You've had this whole 'silent penance' thing going, wallowing in guilt for all you did wrong and hiding the good you've done since. And I kept letting you do it, because I blamed you, too."

His mouth twisted. "No more than I deserved."

"Maybe. I won't argue the point, because I'm telling you: it stops now." She stood suddenly. "The world almost ended. Do you know what that means? It means that anything we might have wanted to do, but didn't, there wouldn't be another chance. It means that anything we felt, but didn't say, would never be said. Dying is one thing, but knowing you never lived the way you wanted, never told people how important they were to you …"

"Yeah." He looked at his hands. "Yeah, I was kinda feeling some of the same stuff. But I didn't think that …"

"You're good at not-thinking." She smiled at him. "You practically have a patent on it. You're young enough to learn better, eventually, but until you do, I'll think for both of us."

He sat with his eyes down, afraid to speak. Finally he looked up, and said slowly, "I kinda have a history of taking things the wrong way, so I've gotta ask: does this mean —?"

"It means," she said, "that I don't want us to meet secretly anymore. The rest of it, we'll work out as we go."

"That's …" He stopped, swallowed. "That's good. That's great." He stood from the railing. "Tomorrow?"

She nodded. "Tomorrow's fine."

"Okay." He gestured toward the door. "I guess you can get back to partyin' down with the Secret Slayer Auxiliary."

"Not right away," she said. "I used it as an excuse to come out, once you called me back, but I really do need to wait until my head stops pounding."

"Another one of those pull-the-hatchet-out-of-my-skull migraines?" He studied her with a frown. "You ought to see a doctor about that."

"It's a fact of life, Xander: middle-aged women get migraines." She smiled. "And young women. And young men. It's an equal opportunity beast. Don't worry, once it goes down a little, a stiff drink or two will take care of the rest."

"Well …" He shuffled from one foot to the other. "Okay. Tomorrow."

"Yes," she said. "Tomorrow. Good night, Xander."

"Good night …" He stopped, looking to her uncertainly. She nodded, her eyes on his, and he drew a steadying breath. "Good night, Joyce." And he turned and went down the front steps, his chest suddenly tight.

Tomorrow.

~ – ~ – ~

Getting onto the Interstate fast was good when you were trying to make a quick departure, but only if you didn't flip the sodding car, which he almost did when the woman said, "You're a slick one, I'll give you that. Almost made it out of range before I caught your track."

"Bugger me!" Ethan wrenched the wheel back into line, shot an incredulous glance at the new presence in the passenger seat. He hadn't seen her appear, it was as if she'd been there all along and he just hadn't noticed, which was simply bloody impossible. "What the bleeding hell —?"

"We haven't been introduced," she continued coolly. "I'm Catherine Madison, and you're my ride and my bankroll until I say otherwise."

He bit back the pungent retort that had leapt to his lips, took an extra second to steady himself, and said, "I see. To what do I owe the honor?"

She smiled in a way he found not at all reassuring. "Two things. You were available, and you were headed in a direction I didn't mind going." She considered, and added, "Three things, actually: you're the kind of worthless weasel I could burn down to charcoal briquettes without a second thought."

"Ah. Yes, I do have that effect on some people." He took another look at her. "Might I inquire what it is in Los Angeles that interests you?"

She shrugged. "Anything. Everything. You name it, I want it. I've been in solitary for close to four years, and I'm ready to just roll in fun and frolic." Another of those disquieting smiles. "Hope you have deep pockets."

Ethan had spent decades sizing up people, automatically assessing their potential for exploitation or threat. Every ounce of his experience told him this Madison woman wasn't running any kind of bluff: she had both the power and the willingness to do as she had said. Why he had let Ripper talk him into coming back to this miserable hamlet was a mystery; you'd think he'd bloody learn …

"I've got enough boodle to carry us a bit," he said, "but not if you're bent on painting the town. Been in a bit of a dry spell, you see, plus there was a costly attempt to reconcile chaos theory and the laws of chance at the gaming tables …" He stopped suddenly, his pulse quickening. "I say, if you're looking for sensual diversion, we're headed in the wrong direction. For sheer spectacle and variety, one can hardly do better than Las Vegas, over in your state of Nevada." And if the woman's abilities should happen to include a facility at reading cards or influencing dice …

Her eyes were cold. "I'm hearing something I don't much like: it's the sound of someone who just struck an angle. I know your rep, Rayne. Do you have any idea what I'll do to you if you try to screw me over?"

Ethan kept his smile, though it might have stiffened somewhat. "You have the advantage of me, dear lady; I've not been at all informed of your reputation. Would I be far afield, however, in postulating something in the range between instant death and protracted torment?"

Again the smile. "Not bad. If you've got as much sense as you have insight, you might even keep on living."

He was recovering both from the first shock of her appearance and from the first bristling reaction to her cavalier commandeering of his person. His history of calculated self-preservation was well-known and well-founded, but the fact was that a truly dedicated coward wouldn't be in this business at all. There was power here, and opportunity, and this Catherine Madison showed a casual unconcern for traditional proprieties that might fit in well with various scenarios he'd been contemplating.

Besides which, dangerous or no, she was a rather handsome woman. Actually, the danger added a certain delicious frisson to the situation …

With all his considerable charm and a genuine measure of good humor, he said, "I am your servant, madame. In fact, I believe this association might prove to be of benefit to us both."

She shook her head and turned in the seat to look at the highway ahead. He paid it no mind, he was feeling the excitement that always came with the start of a new game, the appearance of a wealth of new possibilities.

"Tell me," he said, "have you ever given any thought to the pursuit of chaos …?"

end

Note: The poem Oz quotes in Part I is "The Definition of Love", by Andrew Marvell