Disclaimer: See Part 1 Chapter 1
SHADOWED SOULS Part 4
Unsurprisingly, Angel and company found the Hyperion was a hive of activity, with Xander, Kennedy and, surprisingly, Andrew Wells directing traffic as the Slayers sorted bedrolls and holdalls and other necessary accoutrements; Faith and Robin apparently having gone with the food order to do a circuit of the local all night takeouts and the Korean market. Slayers, unsurprisingly, had very high metabolic rates.
Prudently keeping themselves out of the direct hurrying and scurrying, Giles' sort-of partner Olivia (Angel, always haunted by Jenny Calendar, hoped their relationship would work out) and The Initiative's Graham 'Grey' Miller had taken up discreet standing-guard positions, Miller at the basement door and Olivia at the French doors leading in from the rear courtyard garden/entrance to the main hotel lobby. Of course, only the insane, suicidal or stupid would launch a frontal attack on a place wall-to-wall with real-life superheroes, but you never could tell.
Angel noted that both were calm but alert, not complacent – Miller of course was military; according to Spike (how did his grandson get to know this stuff?) Olivia was from an ancient African Watcher family on one side, and on the other a direct descendent both of some legendary military-genius Queen Idia of Benin who was basically the Alexander the Great of her time and also one of England's most ancient titled families during the days of Empire. Sangfroid in the face of everything was apparently her standard operating procedure, so she and Giles should fit like hand and glove, hopefully…
Sensibly Andrew Wells was making sure Wesley's books and paraphernalia in the lobby on what used to be the check-in front desk hadn't been disturbed, so Angel got out of the way and went over to where Wesley was with Willow and Giles sorting them out.
"I should be ready in about ten minutes," Wesley assured him, which didn't really help – if there were any other way to do this...
"How long will the ritual take?" asked Xander, glancing at his watch.
"The ritual will only take moments," Wesley explained as he and Willow sorted through books and peculiar objects, "but walking the Ghost Roads…that's a different proposition."
"If I do have to leave I'll come straight back." Xander assured Buffy.
"Leave?" echoed Angel, astonished that Xander Harris would go anywhere when his family – Willow, Buffy and Giles – were about to embark upon something so perilous.
Xander flashed his trademark goofy grin, which combined with his eye-patch to actually make him look more unthreateningly wholesome. "True Confessions: – I'm a slave to the mighty dollar. Got a meeting with a guy about a new eco-homes construction project near UC Sunnydale campus; he wants to hire one of my crews. No big, but if I have to split I should be there and back within three to four hours maximum…just…can you all do the Xan-man a favour and try not to trigger the next Apocalypse while I'm gone?"
Buffy, however, wasn't having any of Xander's attempted self-deprecation. "Xander keeps us in chocolate…and sharp pointy things." She smiled at her dear friend, "Do what you need to Xander, it's okay. Nobody said that supporting us bunch of deadbeats had to be part your job description forever, like your own Slayer-curse clause."
"Hey, everyone needs a hobby." Xander shrugged, "Besides, hordes of hot girls gratefully snatching pairs of Manolo Blahniks and Jimmy Choos from my hands…there is no bad here."
"Except that you now seem to be an expert on ladies' shoe fashions." Spike, unnoticed behind them, put in derisorily.
"True, my over-bleached friend, but I repeat: 'hordes of hot girls'. " Xander waggled both his eyebrows, one bouncing up and down over his piratical black eye-patch comically.
"Erm…if you need help…" Angel made the offer tentatively, only too aware from the days of his dating Buffy in Sunnydale just how impossible it was for a Slayer to do regular everyday things; the whole senior prom fiasco on its own had been an object lesson in that.
"Nah, we've all actually got jobs – colour us stunned - it's just we don't get paid until we start them, which won't be until the school's built and running." Buffy explained.
"They're building the High School again?" Spike rolled his eyes. "Got to give them points for persistence, if not sense."
"Third time's the charm, I guess." Buffy shrugged. "Plus, the new school is actually on top of a nice, boring hill, not directly over the Hellmouth, which should seriously reduce the mortality and general weirdness rate. Anyway, once the government gave Sunnydale the compensation cash, the local councillors – amazingly – offered Robin Wood back he Principal's job and me – I'm still pinching myself - part-time Guidance Counsellor as long as I get qualified at night school before the school re-opens in the fall. Giles is going to be a School Librarian again and it turns out Olivia is qualified to teach Mathematics and Physics, so she got hired too – apparently she taught at Roedean or one of those really elite British girls' schools. Willow got so many email enquiries about The Magic Box when news got out they were going to rebuild the town that she's nearly ready to re-open Anya's Magic Box. Emphasis on nearly."
Tactfully, nobody commented on the new name for the business. "But you don't get paychecks until Sunnydale opens for business again – which won't be until the Fall." Angel realised.
"Yep; so double-shifts at the Doublemeat Palace all summer." Buffy rolled her eyes. "If it weren't for Xander's burgeoning construction empire keeping us in chocolaty goodness…"
Angel looked at the rather pink-faced young man, recalling when he had discovered what Xander had done for him in the Hyperion. Once Team Angel and the Scooby Gang had reached an Entente Cordiale after they'd come to fetch Dawn and saved her from Staavuz, they had camped out here for a few days. After the Scoobies' return to Sunnydale, Angel had presciently decided to try and get at least one wing of the Hyperion ship-shape for the next inevitable descent of the horde, concentrating on the right-hand wing as you entered through the main doors – that wing contained the hotel's industrial-size kitchen, in-house restaurant, swimming pool and gymnasium area, more useful than the other wing which had the ballroom, casino, bar, games room, library and what originally had been writing, reading and television rooms, the hotel having been built in 1928, before Television was a household staple.
Trying to renovate and repair that wing as fast as possible in the scant spare time he had, Angel discovered that Xander Harris had apparently spent the duration of his stay wandering the halls with insomnia and a hammer, as a myriad of 'niggling' jobs involving doorjambs, window frames, pipes and wiring had been repaired, replaced, fixed and fitted. Thanks in no small part to this, that wing of the hotel was functional though not yet fully refurbished or redecorated. Most of the rooms were still packed with clutter, but all had plastered walls, floorboards and fully operational plumbing, heating and lighting.
"I…" he began to thank Xander sincerely; during Angel's tenure in the Scooby Gang, they had had at best a 'non-relationship'.
Angel had viewed Xander as a foolish child not worth getting to know, as he would soon get himself killed because of his silly crush on the Slayer; he had finally twigged that in turn Xander had viewed him as a pretentious show-off in need of a good staking. In the half-decade since he'd left Sunnydale, Angel had seen Xander Harris maybe twice, but not only had the other man put in a lot of work to help Angel's renovation of the Hyperion and simply left without saying a word, he had clearly made enough of a successful career for himself to be the financial safety net for the entire Scooby Gang and, it looked like, the new Slayers as well.
"Es nada." Xander smiled. "Not for a few weeks at least, but I might be able to spare one of my crews when you start on the other wing?"
"It's okay, like you said, everyone needs a hobby." Angel explained to take any insult out of his refusal. "But thank-you, this isn't the easiest place to work on, especially as the resident restless dead have no compunction about hiding your tools or hurling a two-by-four at you if they don't like the colour scheme…"
Xander rolled his eyes theatrically. "Tell me about it. Rebuilding an entire town that's only technically not on a Hellmouth is bad enough when you've got some annoying old gimp trying to make out I don't know a T-Square from a Four-Eighths Gripley, but when the old gimp's annoying and dead, and constantly bitching about how his son-in-law offed him two years before the Great Depression for his stock portfolio – " his watch suddenly beeped. "Oops, sorry; can I use a landline phone, reception's better?"
"Sure, go into my office." Angel nodded towards the room automatically before realising with a pang just how much he missed that small cramped room looking out across the lobby; his penthouse was opulent – and as soulless as Angelus.
Thoughtfully he watched Xander as the younger man walked briskly into the office, shut the door and picked up the phone. He didn't dress in sharp suits like Gunn, but that watch was discreetly top-range and all-singing-all-dancing, and as he spoke to whomever was on the other end of the line he moved and spoke with an unconscious self-confidence, yet no over-compensating belligerence; a confidence that the boy Xander, growing up with alcoholic abusive parents, had critically lacked. He even carried off the eye-patch with panache and understated style, but what demonstrated his genuine maturity and secure sense of self was the fact that neither of those things were why Xander still wore it.
Familiarity didn't breed contempt as much as forgetfulness, and after a while, people forgot about vampires' superior sensory abilities, including smell, sight and hearing. Angel had gleaned from various overheard fragments of conversation that Xander had elected to have a medical prosthetic eyeball fitted and still retain the eye-patch despite the excellent false eye, firmly declining Willow's offer of attempting to mystically restore the lost eye. Angel had heard Xander explain to Graham Miller that he had turned down the offer and that he retained the eye-patch 'to remind myself, and all these super-powered Slayers that what kills us is not our enemy, but our own complacency. This eye-patch is a daily lesson in the most important lesson all these girls need to learn and us old-timers need to remember, that nobody is invulnerable.'
An acutely perceptive statement, and doubtless a big factor in why none other than The Initiative's Graham Miller was currently standing guard on behalf of possibly the world's most famous living (no pun intended) vampire – Miller wasn't here because of Angel, he was here because of Xander. And right now, Angel found himself completely unsurprised by that – the Quiet Man of the Scooby Gang had long since come into his own.
Working as a site manager for the construction company that had rebuilt Sunnydale gave Xander a lot of flexibility and an excuse to travel incognito on behalf of the Scoobies, true, but didn't fully 'stretch' his intellect or skills. Angel would guess that subliminally, whilst a bit flabby, Xander had never entirely lost the sharper reflexes and senses from being turned into a mystically-enhanced human hyena, or from whatever biochemical Frankenstein's recipe Sunnydale High's swim coach had been slipping to his fish-boys. Nor had he apparently entirely lost the 'soldierly' qualities and psychology he'd acquired courtesy of Ethan Rayne's Halloween spell, although surely anyone should have figured that out from observing the Sunnydale High Class of '99's epic battle against Mayor Richard Wilkins I-III/Giant Demon Snake. Sure he and Buffy had been the King and Queen, but the General in the field was Xander Harris.
In less than 24 hours of nightmare logistics, Xander had somehow organised, equipped and wielded the entire senior year into a reasonably cohesive field unit. Above and beyond that, like Nelson striding the deck of HMS Victory in full uniform, Xander Harris had made himself a target for the hungry demon snake standing unarmed on a chair in one of those 'interesting' floral shirts he used to wear, calmly directing traffic like he was coaching a Little League baseball game instead of fighting a 50-foot-high ravenous evil serpent.
Frightened but not panicked, the seniors had taken their cue from Xander, and the total number of kids killed had been less than half-a-dozen, even counting undead dead like Harmony. It was probably not a coincidence that according to Andrew Wells, in their adult lives Sunnydale's Class of 1999 had turned out to have very 'together' lifestyles and well-adjusted personalities, not falling prey to the usual drink/drugs/adultery/crime/ sabotaging-my-own-life-to-end-up-on-skid-row stresses often seen amongst medics, lawyers, politicians, military personnel, sports stars, famous actors/musicians/celebrities and "perfect" suburban families. There was an entire laundry list of former Sunnydale High 'peers' of the Scooby Gang who were achieving fame and fortune in a non-skanky, non-self destructive and generally well-adjusted way.
Angel had also overheard Andrew telling Spike how, a couple of months back, just before Dawn's precipitous arrival pursued by Staavuz, a group of demons had decided to 'go human-style' and take out as many Slayers as possible with a bomb, disconcerting everyone including Buffy who were focused on fangs, claws, acid-for-blood and general slime, not wires, timers and a very badly concocted explosive 'sludge' that was liable to detonate at any second because of aforesaid dubious concocting.
According to Andrew, Xander had even smiled – 'with a peculiar enigmatic wryness, y'know…he's so deep sometimes…' and disarmed the thing in about two seconds flat, muttering something mostly inaudible about 'hanging with Jack O'Toole came in useful after all – who knew?'
According to Andrew, Giles, Buffy and Willow believed that 'either his soldier-survival instincts kicked in or that post-senior year road trip – which he neeeever talks about, y'know – was a lot more interesting than Xander's ever let on.'
As Spike would probably have put it, truth be told, Angel wouldn't have really registered the fact if Xander had made CNN Live battling Godzilla. He'd noted Xander seemed subtly different somehow following the night they'd managed to stop the Sisterhood of Jhe opening the Hellmouth, but his main reaction had been deep irritation at the boy's blundering in on his break-up speech to Buffy, especially as Xander had been the only one of them who spent the night comfy at home sleeping in his own bed with old movies on TV!
But that hadn't just been Xander – in Sunnydale he and Buffy had been so focused on each other that nothing else had really impinged. Wesley had been his – and Cordelia's – rock for nearly five years, yet Wesley had made so little impact on Angel in Sunnydale that even his usually reliable photographic memory produced nothing more of Sunnydale Wesley that a vague blurry impression of a pair of spectacles floating above an over-starched suit out of fashion half-a-century or more…and a solid sensation of unrelenting prissiness.
But most usefully, from whatever cause, Xander could relate to the military personnel of The Initiative in a way nobody else in the Scooby Gang or Team Angel could or more pertinently would. Like Graham Miller and Riley Finn, Xander possessed a wry, dry humour that had seen him gel well with such as Oz, who was also apparently helping out the Scooby Gang in between touring with his band, Dingoes Ate My Baby. He had also been completely unfazed by the task of providing in practical ways for the needs of young, beautiful Slayers: lots of Slayers. With that résumé, it was no surprise The Initiative, or at least Finn, had embarked on a subtle campaign aimed at Xander: 'are you interested in a little sideline freelancing to keep those mystical muscles honed and toned'?
To himself, Angel admitted he had always been predisposed to like Graham Miller because the man had persuaded Riley Finn to leave Sunnydale and rejoin The Initiative, so when Buffy had called and asked if he minded 'Grey' tagging along because Finn had sent him to New Sunnydale to work with Xander and Oz on some 'project' she carefully didn't name – and which Angel carefully didn't ask about – then he had been sanguine about the whole idea.
Besides, now he had the advantage of being able to take the moral high ground with The Initiative. It was only after Lawson had come after him that Angel had put together what Spike had revealed of the whole set-up at UC Sunnydale plus his own short and sharp interaction with Riley Finn and realized just how long The Initiative had been going, and how long it had been corrupted beyond redemption.
Angel had been able to get Buffy to give Finn, Miller and the other Maggie Walsh Initiative survivors the lowdown on his wartime coercion into The Initiative's service; Finn and Miller et al were now suitably grateful that Maggie Walsh hadn't been some evil sociopath (or mostly not); relieved of the burden of guilt in the knowledge that The Initiative had been too far gone decades before they were even born, never mind got anywhere near it.
Above all, the adventure might result in Xander meeting a new lady, which Buffy had bluntly admitted to Angel over the phone was the main hope of the Scooby Gang – she'd even indicated as much to Finn and Miller. Xander's job made him buff, the eye patch lent a raffish charm, he was wry, dry, witty, funny and rock solid to the Earth's core in a crisis. Yet despite being surrounded by bevies of young, beautiful, exceptionally limber and high-libido slayers; Xander remained single since Anya's death.
Angel could relate: Darla, Buffy, Cordy…sometimes you were blessed and cursed to experience a love that, whether it ended in joy or despair, was so profound as to be beyond words. He had no doubt that the Scooby Gang were acting with the best of intentions, but he found himself more than once swallowing back an impulse to lecture them on the merits of backing off and not meddling. That had certainly been Spike's opinion when Angel gave him the heads up on Miller's imminent arrival and the reasons behind it, so his grandson wouldn't react too aggressively when confronted by a member of The Initiative. But then he'd known Spike would understand – Drusilla, Buffy – Spike had always been capable of love without a soul.
Although…Angel strolled over to the counter where Andrew was flustering over Wesley's books like a constipated chicken, and discreetly cast any eye over the gathered Slayers, most of whom were awaiting Faith and Robin's return with takeout by sharpening, honing, whittling and polishing enough implements of pointy-ended painful death to outfit any sword-n-sorcery B-movie requiring a cast of thousands.
Even Xander's love life changed colour when you looked at it through a different light. Demonic Mrs Robinson and life-sucking Inca mummy girl aside, Xander's track record was impeccable in his 'type': Buffy, Slayer; Cordelia, Champion; Willow, Sorceress; Faith, Slayer; Anya, Demon. At the time, Cordelia hadn't been a champion of course; Willow had been adolescent hormones in overdrive and Faith had only been a one-night…well…ten minute knee trembler…but the symmetry was ironic – in Sunnydale, Xander had been in love with Buffy but she had picked Angel whilst Cordelia had been with Xander – in LA, Angel had fallen in love with Cordelia, whom he'd never even got to kiss –whilst she was alive. There was a cosmic joke in there somewhere, for sure.
Then there was Dawn, eons old 'mystical key' who had first crushed on – Xander. Of all the Sunnydale masculinity to choose from, that girl who turned out to be a demon intending to sacrifice a male to open the Hellmouth had chosen…Xander. Then there was that other girl whose cheating ex-boyfriend had been transformed into a giant worm by Anya – back as Anyanka – Ninny…no, Nancy…Nancy Doyle, that was it. Whom had she dated for all of three hours before they were attacked by said giant worm? Step forward, Harris: Alexander Lavelle.
According to Giles' recollections of that alternate reality Cordy had created by wishing Buffy had never come to Sunnydale, in that place, the Vampire Slayers had been Oz, Gay Larry, and Nancy Doyle. Giles speculated that since a new Slayer was still called to replace one that died, there was every chance that Nancy Doyle was a Potential; indeed, she had moved back to New Sunnydale and now ran the coffee bar just down the street from where Willow would be opening Anya's Magic Box and was being discreetly monitored by the Scoobies. Angel had no doubt that Giles, Buffy – and for some reason, he suspected Andrew Wells also - was smart enough to pay close attention to any woman that Xander looked more than once at or who had an interest in him, because the likelihood of them being either a super-heroine or a super-villainess bad-ass was in the high 'ninety-eight to ninety-nine' percentile.
"I think we're ready." Unaware of breaking Angel's speculations, Giles came over and informed them quietly, just as the doors opened and with impeccable timing, Robin Wood staggered in bearing a huge plastic bread tray loaded with take-out Chinese and Thai boxes.
Sunnydale High's former- and soon-to-be-again Principal braced himself against the surging horde, as Angel and his team prudently got out of the line of sight. Within a few minutes the tray was empty so Robin leaned it up against the wall.
"We'll do the Ritual of the Ghost Roads after everyone's eaten." Wesley announced to a general murmur of consensus.
From the courtyard-garden entrance came two Slayers Angel didn't know bearing another couple of batches of food between them, followed a couple of seconds later by a distinctly dyspeptic looking Faith, who watched the two distribute the latest round of dinner with a disgruntled expression.
Wesley took a step forward, feeling a ridiculous pang of guilt over the meeting he'd had last night with Justine Cooper, even though he'd only been Faith's Watcher for less than a month before -
Twin roars echoed and re-echoed due to the lobby's perfect acoustics, like a dozen hungry lions sounding the kill, erupting from the throats of both male vampires. Andrew was not the only person to drop his food in shock and fear, but nobody noticed as Angel and Spike, both in full-vampire face, dropped into fighting crouches and began the signature pre-attack stalk towards Faith.Continued in Chapter 2…
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