Author's Note: If you've been reading, you know the routine. If not, let me explain: every blue moon I update this story and swear I'm going to get better about doing it more often, but nothing ever changes. Bright side, it's still not dead, and I really do think I'll finish it someday. This one is something of a landmark chapter; it brings us to the end of "Innocence". Oooooh, intriguing.
The rocket launcher fired, steady and sure in Kendra's hands, and the Judge disappeared in a cloud of flame and smoke. Buffy watched his entourage of vampires scrambling to get away from the explosion, her face a dispassionate mask even while her heart was screaming, No, no, not there, Angel's up there, he'll get hurt!
Whether or not he had been hurt, she couldn't tell at first, and she came back to her senses swiftly as the shopping mall went berserk around her. Kendra was laying down the rocket launcher and trading it for a sharp, twisted stake she had concealed in her clothes. Shoppers were running, screaming, tripping each other up in their haste to get to the exits. As debris scattered and disconnected pieces of the Judge appeared on the floor, Buffy saw Drusilla regain her feet and flee, seemingly unharmed. Immediately she turned to look for Angel and saw his back just as he vanished around a corner.
There was a choice to be made and she had to make it fast. Her friends were protected by Kendra and held together by Xander, who was even now directing everyone to collect the Judge's parts. Nobody was looking at her. Quiet as a breeze, Buffy slipped behind the refreshment stand and followed the man she had loved.
The smoke had reached the sprinkler system by the time she got to the next room, a corridor for the movie theater. The water made it harder to hear, harder to see, and with the Cruciamentum drugs still weakening her, she felt like a kitten stuck outside in the rain. She was alone in the room. Angel must have already left the building.
A sudden clout from behind her proved her wrong and knocked her to the floor. She stumbled to her feet with none of a Slayer's grace, pushing wet hair from her face and searching for her attacker. She didn't have to look far - he was right in front of her, close enough to help her up if he had wanted to. His hands stayed in his pockets, though, and he smirked down at her through the water streaming over his features. "Came to give me a final farewell?" he said. "Gosh, that's really touching. Especially since you're willing to die for it."
Buffy didn't move or look away from the eyes she knew so well, turned cruel overnight. She felt strangely calm. This was not Angel. "You're not going to kill me," she said confidently.
He laughed. "Oh? You sound pretty sure about that. Of course, yesterday you were pretty sure I loved you, and can I just say what a relief it is that I don't have to put on that show anymore? I wish I'd known how easily you'd give it up. I wouldn't have even bothered."
"That's not going to work." She imagined herself fighting him, using the power she had once had and would soon have again. It would be real, and dirty, and too evenly matched to predict an outcome. Yes, she could fight him. "I know what happened."
"You know what happened," he echoed in a tone too dry to be anything but a mockery. With frightening deliberation he took one slow step forward, closing the gap between them, and put one hand on her arm. The other moved up to her face, lightly tracing a line from her neck to her cheek, as he leaned in close to whisper in her ear as the water rained down on them. "You did this to me, Buff. Are you proud of yourself?"
She thought about running. He could hear the wild pounding of her heart, she knew, and sense her understanding of how vulnerable she was to him at this moment. But that was why she needed to stay, to find out why he was playing it this way instead of going straight for the kill, and anyhow she couldn't have escaped at this point no matter what she tried. She concentrated on keeping her voice steady and her body still; she couldn't flinch for this, even if they both knew he could snap her like a twig. "You could have killed me back at the apartment," she said. "Before I knew you'd changed. You could have done it while I was asleep."
He lifted his head so that they were standing forehead to forehead and she could see his widening grin, ghastly as it was. "Smart girl," he praised. "You're right. I'm not done with you yet."
His hand traveled back to her cheek, tenderly brushing a few strands of hair behind her ear, and Buffy experienced a jolt of terror as she realized that her defenseless position meant that he could do more than kill her. His other hand was at the small of her back, creeping under her shirt and caressing her spine. She stood rigidly, arms flat against her sides, but he was holding her like a lover. Even his breath felt sweet on her lips.
"You're going to wish you took this chance," she managed. "You're going to look back and realize this was the last time you could have killed me and you should have killed me. And then, incidentally, you're not going to have any more thoughts left to think."
"And what are you going to remember?" he replied. His fingers at her back moved up under her bra strap, now soaked through by the sprinklers. The pad of his thumb pressed against her jaw as he cupped her head in his hand and kissed each of her eyelids with a feather-light touch. She had to fight hard to hold back tears, now - he had done exactly the same thing last night, just before he took off her shirt and...
Her whole body trembled. Angel drew back, smiling coldly. "I thought so," he said with satisfaction. "Don't fool yourself, Buffy. You can't kill me."
He turned and left at that, striding through the water pouring down without looking back at her. She stood rooted to the spot for a long moment after he was gone, letting everything he had said rattle around in her mind. "Give me time," she whispered at the empty place where he had been. "Give me time."
Before returning to the center of the mall, she took a deep, shuddering breath, and the sprinkler system turned off as if on cue. Wiping the water out of her eyes, Buffy went back the way she had come and looked around for her friends. Most of the shoppers seemed to have safely fled, and there was no sign of the other vampires. Gathered near the refreshment stand, she saw Willow, Xander, Oz, Cordelia, and...Giles.
She had been very deliberate in her command that he stay behind back in the library, and she didn't like to think that it hadn't been taken seriously, but she was too tired for real anger and too numb to feel anything else. At least it seemed he hadn't brought the Watchers or Miss Calendar along.
He saw her before the others did and came running. "Thank God you're alright," he said in a husky voice as Willow noticed and dashed over, and the others looked up from where they were kneeling or crouching on the floor. Giles continued, gesturing awkwardly. "I saw you follow Angel, but..."
"Yeah," said Buffy dully. "He got away. But everyone's okay?"
Silence descended. Buffy looked past her friends and finally saw what she had been missing: Kendra's still form, eyes wide open, her own stake planted in her heart.
"I don't suppose you'll be interested in hearing that you passed the test."
Quentin Travers was standing at the head of the library's table. Slowly, Buffy raised her eyes from the wood surface to fix him with a dead stare. He had been visibly shaken by Kendra's death, but shaken wasn't enough. If he had fallen to his knees before her body and renounced the Council and all its ways, it still might not have been enough. Buffy had nothing to say to him, but she didn't think he would leave town until he had said his piece about the Cruciamentum, so she had consented to spending a few minutes in the library listening to him extol her bravery and quick thinking.
She didn't answer, so Giles, standing at the door of his office, said, "Then it's over. Let her be."
The only other person present was Miss Calendar, pressing herself against the counter between Giles and Travers. She hadn't yet spoken, and Buffy didn't know which Watcher had asked her to be there or why she had agreed. She made eye contact with the other woman once, for just a second, but Miss Calendar couldn't seem to bear her gaze, and blinked away from it immediately.
"Indeed we'll be departing tomorrow," said Travers to Giles. "But your opinion on the matter, I must inform you, is no longer warranted. The Council has ruled that you be relieved of your duties as Watcher, effective immediately. You're fired."
This came as news to Buffy, and Giles was clearly taken aback. "On what grounds?" he asked.
"The test may have run foul of our intentions, but the events of the last two days have still provided ample opportunity for observing the Slayer's capabilities, and yours. Buffy showed great skill in her approach to each obstacle. You, however, disobeyed direct orders and left yourself open to the enemy, and we have sufficient reason to believe that this is symptomatic of your improper affection for your charge." His voice softened, which did nothing for how much Buffy was hating him at the moment. "Your loyalty to your Slayer is admirable in its own right. If Zabuto had been here tonight, I can only hope that he would have done his best to save Kendra as well. But we must think first of our cause, and how a father's love can impair a Watcher's logic. We are fighting a war, Mr. Giles."
The following silence was broken by a brief, incredulous laugh, which Buffy then realized was her own. "Why stop there?" she asked. "Kendra dead and Giles fired; the rest of us could just put up a white flag and talk to the vampires about their skilled approach to each obstacle."
Travers gave her a stern look. "We are allgrieving for Kendra, Buffy, but this doesn't mean the sun won't rise tomorrow - and we must remain vigilant when it sets. Given the circumstances, you've been excused for all of your untoward actions of late, but new dangers have been set loose, as I'm sure you're aware."
Angel's parting smirk slashed through Buffy's mind like a knife. There was still reason to endure the interference of the Council, she reminded herself. It might not be enough to call it hope, but it was the only path she could see that didn't end in Angel's death at her hands, or her own at his. "You said you could find a way to get his soul back," she said.
"Me personally? No. For that we'll need to turn to a new ally." At this he looked pointedly at Miss Calendar.
Buffy raised an eyebrow in her direction, but she seemed unprepared to be addressed, and shook her head violently before answering. "Is thatwhat - no! You don't understand. I can't work that kind of magic."
"That seems to me an insufficient argument, before you've even tried," said Quentin, smooth and collected now that he was on top again.
"I'm not part of your organization or your little personal war on vampires," Miss Calendar said furiously. "You have no authority over me and no right to be giving me orders."
"This is not an order," he assured her. "It's a suggestion. If you attempt to recreate the spell of your ancestors, you'll be supported by all the resources of the Watchers' Council - which I might remind you, are formidable - and if you succeed, you'll remove a frightful monster from this town with no bloodshed needed. I should think that you'll have the appreciation of a few of your own friends, as well."
A fresh retort died on Miss Calendar's lips. She didn't look any more optimistic, but all three of them were scrutinizing her now, Buffy with a sense of challenge rather than encouragement. This woman had been teaching her classes and dating her Watcher and knowing her secrets, and now the truth was out, that all of it had begun with no objective but to make sure Angel was suffering. If Jenny Calendar had reservations about the task being assigned to her, she could suck them up and do her part.
"I'll...do some research," she said. "I can't guarantee anything."
Travers nodded, as if that settled the matter. He looked back to Buffy. "It's in everyone's best interest to restore the soul of Angelus, and we'll do everything in our power to see that it happens. If we succeed, however, he'll need to appear before the Council in England. Under no circumstances can we allow you to continue any kind of romantic liaison with him, is that understood?"
Buffy raised her eyes dispassionately up to his horrible face. "Bite me."
He didn't flinch. "We'll discuss it once again when the time comes. Congratulations again on passing the test." He left the room. Buffy imagined him going straight to the airport, leaving the country never to return, and it made her feel a little better to imagine that in doing so, he was forever leaving her consciousness as well.
"I'll get to work," said Miss Calendar wearily. Neither Buffy nor Giles replied, and she walked out through the double doors just as Travers had.
"I need a ride home," Buffy stated when she and Giles were alone.
He stirred from the still pose he had been holding in his office doorway. "You're hurt," he objected gently. "Let me-"
"No." Buffy didn't know when she'd been injured, but she couldn't deny that half of her face ached and there was blood on her shirt and her frozen heart did nothing to dull the physical pain. She wouldn't let him help her, though. Not now. "I want to go home to my mother and eat a damn cupcake and sleep in my bed. All I'm asking you for is a ride, Giles. Can you handle it?"
He looked as devastated as she had ever seen him, but he said nothing, simply led her out to his car and drove her home.
Eighteen, she thought as she stood outside her home with her hand on the doorknob. I got older.