Having finally decided that I'm doomed to verbosity, I'll pull all the authorish comments out into their own part. Delete at will! < g >
For those of you still reading: This is the response to a challenge on the SunS list: to write a first season episode from the point of view of a character other than Buffy. Being something of an overachiever, I did four episodes: Welcome to the Hellmouth, The Harvest, Teacher's Pet, and Never Kill a Boy on the First Date. And I chose the most close-mouthed character of all: Angel. However, as I soon learned (to my chagrin), Angel is quite capable of babbling a blue streak when he's so inclined. (You should have heard him in my head during the Bronze scene in NKAB. < sigh > )
What you see here is the result of (ye gods and little fishes) six months of on-again, off-again effort. Angel has two more stories (at least) to tell me, and he *will* if he doesn't want to fit into an ashtray. < glares at Angel > < realizes she glaring at a fictional character > < doesn't care and keeps glaring >
Credit, disclaimers, and blamage: The title and lyrics used in the story are from Sarah McLachlin's first album "Touch." Since Angel seems to like Sarah McLachlin, the other two stories I'm working on also come from this album. And since Sarah McL doesn't seem to do any songs but downers... well, you can guess. (No, neither of them are Building a Mystery.)
Some (OK, most) dialogue in this story was taken directly from the four episodes I used. "Welcome to the Hellmouth" and "The Harvest" were written by Joss Whedon (oh holy be his evil name), "Teacher's Pet" was written by David Greenwalt, and "Never Kill a Boy on the First Date" was written by Rob Des Hotel & Dean Batali. Any dialogue you recognize is theirs. Oh, and to answer a question often asked of me: No, there was no scene with Willow and Buffy alone in the Bronze at the end of Teacher's Pet. That one's mine. < VBG >
Angel, Buffy, et al are the brainchildren and property of Joss Whedon (oh holy, etc, etc), Mutant Enemy, Sandollar, 20th Century Fox and the WB. Any similarity between them and this story is... well, quite intended. I'm making no money, don't sue.
This one gets blamed on Chris and Perri (as usual) for dragging me into this fandom in the first place and then creating this challenge. DIEDIEDIE... um, I mean, I love you guys! < VBG > Thanks as always to the Sunnydale Slayers, Those-Who-Fight-The-.Sig-Jihad, the Best-BetaReaders-Money-Can-Buy-If-I-Had-Any-Money-To-Pay-Them. Especially my co-list Mom, Dianne, who *eventually* gets her betaing done. < g > Thanks to Marlys for coming out of the blue (Bruin Blue < g > ) to give me some *great* comments. And thanks to everyone who mournfully wrote asking if this was going to *ever* be posted. This vamp's for you.
Praise, comments, flames, chocolate and cute angsty vampires to email@example.com
Part One-Welcome to the Hellmouth & The Harvest / "I'm a friend."
***Crouching down inside a deep ravine
***Those angry cries pass quickly by can't be seen
***So many ways spent hiding in so many undone plans
***Forgetting what it's like to fight when no one understands
Getting knocked on your ass is, at the very least, a memorable introduction.
Of course, until that moment, I had no idea what I was getting into. Call it intuition, call it a sixth sense, call it the vampire survival instinct, but I *knew* when the Slayer arrived in town. The Chosen One, the one girl in all the world with the strength and skill to kill vampires. To kill me. Under normal circumstances, she -- and her predecessors -- were creatures that my kind avoided like the plague.
Except that I wasn't my kind. My situation was, to say the least, unusual. The Rromany had certainly chosen their punishment well. Killing me outright would have been merciful and much too easy.
Sometimes I wondered if the Catholic God of my childhood was possessed of an extremely eccentric sense of humor. The night I met the Slayer, I was convinced of it.
It went against every ingrained instinct to help her. Reclaiming my soul did not cast out the demon within me. The cartoons of a devil and an angel hovering over an indecisive head were pathetically true in my case. The devil urged me to kill her, to stop her from her bounden duty. My namesake plaintively reminded me that I had to help her.
It wasn't hard to figure out who she was, if you knew what to look for. She was young, fit, new in town. It almost was a cliche. I found her house easily, watched her bounce down the front steps of the porch with an anxious mother calling warnings and blessings into the night air. She headed towards the local hang-out for teenagers; I followed.
She turned down a dark alley. I hurried my steps -- and found nothing. An empty passageway. Cautiously, I moved forward, alert. There were boxes and bags littering the sides of the alley; if she was going to ambush me, then it would be from there.
My first clue into the mind of Buffy Summers was when the tips of her remarkably sharp boots landed between my shoulderblades.
Talk about head over heels. I executed a involuntary somersault in the grimy alley, head ringing and pride smarting. Before I could recover, her foot was planted on my chest. ~Not bad,~ was my grudging estimation. "Is there a problem, ma'am?" I said, trying to look innocent.
Too bad I couldn't see my reflection in the mirror; I obviously needed to practice that expression. "Yeah, there's a problem. Why are you following me?" she demanded.
The boots that gave her at least two inches of height were solid. She could do quite a bit of damage with those alone. Innocent obviously not working, I went for direct. Well, as direct as I intended to get. "I know what you're thinking, but don't worry. I don't bite."
She unplanted the boot from my chest -- if I had need of oxygen I would have been in serious danger of suffocating. Rising gingerly, waiting for any sign that her temper was going to send me back to my ignomous position at her feet, I surveyed her quickly. "The truth is, I thought you'd be taller, bigger muscles and all that." Regaining full height meant stretching the neck that had borne the brunt of her original attack, and I rubbed at the spot ruefully. "You're pretty spry, though."
She had backed off maybe two steps, eyes hard and anxious in the dim light, hands raised in an elementary fighting position. "What do you want?" she asked flatly.
"Same thing you do." It was more than a little humiliating to be taken down that easily, even by the Slayer. She was good. Then again, she *had* killed Lothos, and he hadn't been an easy target, if my memory served...
Exasperated, she dropped her hands. "Fine. What do I want?"
Now we were getting somewhere. Leaning closer, I whispered, "To kill 'em. To kill 'em all."
And immediately blinked, confused at her sarcasm a moment later. "Sorry, that's incorrect, but you do get this lovely watch and a year's supply of Turtle Wax. What I *want*," she continued when I was still trying to unravel her allusion to game shows, "is to be left alone!"
"You really think that's an option anymore?" I demanded, incredulous. What, a Slayer who didn't want to fight vampires? What was this? "You're standing at the Mouth of Hell. And it's about to open." I pulled out the case from my jacket and flipped it to her. "Don't turn your back on this. You're got to be ready."
She caught it easily. Obviously, her reflexes were just fine. My aching neck had already figured that out. "What for?" she asked suspiciously.
For disaster. For the Master's rising. For the end of the world.
However, it wasn't my job to give her *all* her information. I was going against deep-seated instincts to tell her anything, and between annoyance and humor, I decided to tell her as little as possible. "For the Harvest."
It did my wounded pride good to see her so obviously confused. "Who are you?" she asked, still clutching the unopened box.
Long story, and definitely a place we didn't want to go. "Let's just say... I'm a friend." I started walking away, turning my back to her. Maybe a bad move... but she obviously had no idea what I really was.
"Yeah? Well, maybe I don't want a friend," she said defiantly.
She walked right into it. I turned back and grinned at her. That expression I didn't have to practice. "I didn't say I was yours."
I didn't hang around to see if she opened the box. She would. Curiosity would make her. And the cross that rested within would protect her.
***Close call there in the shadows
***There's a fear in the dark
***There is no one out there...
The voice was like a hand brushed up my spine; I stopped cold in the dark, hearing it. It had roused me from my first death-sleep, had laughed with me in and out of too many European nights where the blood that flowed was wine to our greedy appetites...
Even as one part of my mind froze in shock, another part mocked me. ~What did you expect?~ the devil in my brain sneered. ~It's the time of the Harvest, and where else would Darla be but at her Master's side? ~
She was hunting in the Bronze, and had found her meal, a dark-haired boy who followed her to his doom. She was leading him to the mausoleum, to the Master. Not wanting her to see me, I faded back into the shadows.
It was blinding, that much emotion. The tangle of it, the sheer weight of anger piled on guilt piled on memories of rapture and abandon. Darla had made me what I was, and if it hadn't been for a chance encounter with a dark-eyed gypsy girl I would have likely been at her side, leading a snack down to the Master.
~You've interfered enough, haven't you? ~ The devil in my brain definitely had a problem keeping his mouth shut. ~You've warned the Slayer. That's more than even *your* overachieving conscience could expect. It's finished. ~
But if it was finished, why was I back in that mausoleum just before dawn?
She would go after her friend. I was, of course, basing this assumption on five minutes of conversation, where the opening gambit had been a boot to the head rather than, "What's your sign?" Yet as the daylight strengthened and I was forced to withdraw farther and farther into the shelter of the charnel house to save my undead bones, I didn't doubt my instincts.
But, damnit, did she have to take so long?
It was early afternoon before I heard the hinges on the door to the mausoleum moan slightly in opening. Sunlight glinted off of blond hair as she poked her head in, looked around. She crossed immediately to the ironwork doors that were the entrance to the underground passages that sheltered the undead in Sunnydale.
Around her neck was the cross.
It was quite gratifying to be proved right. While she stood examining the chain and lock on the gate, I moved from my sheltered spot. Indirect sunlight was uncomfortable, but not necessarily fatal, at least not for a few moments.
Without turning, flinching, or flickering an eyelash, she said, "I don't suppose you have a key on you."
"They really don't like me dropping in on them," I drawled. She'd taken her time, so could I.
Facing me, she put her hands on her hips, aggressive in every inch of her body language. "Why's that?"
I shrugged. "They really don't like me."
"How could that possibly be?" -- proving that her own sarcastic drawl was fully in place.
It was disorienting to have a picture in your mind of what something -- or someone -- was, only to have that picture completely contradicted. Before meeting her, if I had imagined the Slayer, it would have been almost a Joan of Arc figure, the Chosen One, dedicated to finding and fighting vampires. But this girl... wasn't so easily labeled.
To cover my confusion, I kept mouthing off. "I thought you'd figure out this entryway sooner or later... actually, I was kind of hoping it would be a *little* sooner."
"Sorry you had to wait," she said dryly. And then sighed. "OK, if you're going to like be popping up with this cryptic wise man act all the time, can I at least know your name?"
There were a lot of ancient societies that believed the name was the key to the soul. Know a person's name, their true name, and you controlled that person.
Which doesn't explain why I didn't hesitate a moment. "Angel."
"Pretty name," she said, shrugging it off. In the next heartbeat, she was turning to consider the doors again.
~Stop her.~ Devil or angel? That time, I really couldn't say. "Don't... go down there." I reached out, almost touched her. And stopped myself. Physical contact, the casual intimacy... I couldn't remember the last time I had lain hand on human flesh. I felt my palm tingle briefly, as though yearning for the texture of skin over bone, and resisted. "You shouldn't be putting yourself at risk. Tonight is the Harvest. Unless you can prevent it, the Master walks."
"If this Harvest is such a suck-fest--" ~Lovely. She puns dreadfully. ~ "--why don't you stop it?"
The idea made me laugh, a laugh needed to dislodge the near-miss she had just landed. A vampire, fighting his own kind to stop the rising of the Master. I'd be dead in a minute, and despite everything, I did love my immortal life. "Because I'm afraid," I told her, honest -- although I doubt she believed me.
Her eyes were level, unafraid, even a moment before she turned and kicked the gates open, shattering the lock with one blow.
Shaking my head at her foolishness, I warned her once more, already guessing it was futile, "They'll be waiting for you."
Startlingly, she turned, stepped closer to me. "I've got a friend down there," she said simply, "or at least, a potential friend. You do know what it's like to have a friend," she added, sarcasm dripping.
***All those feelings pain and anger flood back one by one
***They must be just around the bend they always come
She was indeed the Slayer. That blow shattered me. For a moment all I could do was close my eyes, knowing my friends would be there with me in the brief darkness, laughing faces overlaid with the memory of their deaths at my hands. Oh yes, I knew what it was like to have a friend.
And I knew what it was like to kill one. More than one. Dozens.
I forced my eyes open and looked at her. Puzzlement, impatience... pity? All warred in her expression. "That wasn't supposed to be a stumper," she said softly.
My voice wouldn't work for a moment. When it did, it echoed oddly in my own ears, without the mockery that had lived in it for longer than even I could remember. "When you reach the tunnels, head east, towards the school." Tonight was the night of the Harvest, tonight the Slayer had to face the Vessel and stop the Master from rising. But today a girl had to save her friend. "That's where you're likely to find them."
"Aren't you going to wish me luck?" she asked, a little wistfully. But the raw space she had carved in my soul didn't allow me to release the words.
Not until I knew she was out of my hearing did I murmur, "Good luck."
***At night as I lay sleeping they come to me in herds
***Their lies remain, the dream's the same, it's only fading words
~Hunger. Thirst. A woman's laugh. A woman's scream. The desire to kill, to destroy, for no other reason than... I could.~
I awoke from my day's rest violently. The memories taunted me, reminded me of a time when all I knew were certainties. Two times. The young Irish boy had no idea what true evil was; the vampire Angelus had no idea what true goodness was. One lived in a world of white, and one lived in a world of black.
What, then, for myself, who lived in shades of grey?
I threw back the covers and stood up, annoyed with myself for my thoughts. What good did it do to remember the past? It was over, done. My mother and father had died by my hand. I remembered that. Nothing I could do would change the past.
All I could do was try to change the future. Outside my covered windows, the sun was sinking in a blaze of orange. In a few hours, the Vessel would drain the victims needed to bring the Master to the surface. Hell on Earth.
I pulled one of the bags of blood from my refrigerator -- salvaged from the blood bank that would have disposed of them because their due date was past. Stale blood was hardly the most appetizing of meals, but it had the nourishment I needed. And I made myself face a cold possibility: What if the Slayer failed? What if she had died in her reckless venture underground earlier today? What if she had survived, but couldn't stop the Vessel, couldn't keep the Master from rising?
If she failed... then I would be the only one who had a prayer of stopping the demons from destroying the world. Fighting my own kind violated a deep-seated instinct. To turn on your own kind... if you killed your own, where could you look for comfort, for companionship... for love? But then, it was no secret that I had broken from the Master decades before his imprisonment, that I refused to kill, that I lived above ground. Regardless, I would have to fight. I would have to fight them, to protect myself, to...
To save the mortal world, the world where my kind did not belong.
As it turns out, I was totally unnecessary.
She had, in fact, survived her descent into the bowels of Sunnydale. And she fought the Vessel, and won. I watched vampires fleeing into the night, terrified of one slim young girl. Humor rose up in me, and pride. "She did it," I told the warm California night. "I'll be damned."
I watched her leave the nightclub wearily, flanked by her friends. She had one arm comfortingly around a girl with long hair that looked dark in the shadows, and a teenaged boy hovered closely behind her. An older man, her Watcher no doubt, walked beside them, remote but still a part of the group.
As I was not a part of that group, I took it upon myself to fade back into the night.
***No one calls, there in the shadows
***There's no end to the dark
***There's no one out there
***No one but me....
There are more than a few disadvantages to being a celebrity. My name, my face, my history were well known to the vampires who clustered around the newly-awakened Master. Angelus, the one fated to sit at his right hand, who had once combed a town to find every blond-haired girl of a decent age to sate the Master's appetite for delicacies. Every single one. For some, they thought they could appease the Master, rouse him from his fury at the failure of the Harvest, by bringing him a prize.
For others, they wanted the challenge of fighting a vampire legendary among his own kind for his cruelty. Unfortunately, what they got was me.
I hadn't been expecting the latest visitor. Frankly, given Karl's unstable nature, I didn't think he could keep himself out of the sunlight this long. The guy did have a tendency to go to extremes...
The first indication I had of his arrival was a blow to the back of the head. ~This is happening entirely too much lately,~ I groused as I picked myself up from the grass of the park, ready to turn and fight the latest arrival in Sunnydale who wanted to take on the legend.
I didn't know who it was until the blades he had replaced his hand with dug into my arm, gouging away skin and blood. I stumbled back, holding my arm, staring into his maddened eyes. "Angelus..." he growled in evident satisfaction, moonlight gleaming on the claw wet with my own blood. "The Master will forgive me if I bring you to him. He will forgive..."
"You have to learn to find forgiveness in yourself," I gasped. Karl swung again; apparently he wasn't a fan of pop psychology. Damn, why didn't the fact I knew I couldn't die of injuries lessen the pain any? I couldn't fight him, the agony blunted my thinking and the blood loss weakened me. But I'd be damned -- not that I wasn't already, but as the cliche goes -- if I would turn and run.
"Angelus," he slavered again. Talking had never been his strong point. Neither had agility.
"Come on," I urged him. "Come and get me." He ran, I dodged, he brained himself on the tree behind where I had just been, and I got the hell out of there.
When I reached my lair, I bandaged the cuts and drank some blood, to replace what I had lost. By the following sunset, the wounds would still be ugly, angry, but no longer as agonizing. Which was good, because I couldn't hole up and indulge myself. I had to find the Slayer, and warn her.
***The hours pass so slowly the life's slipping out of me ***No way's the right way is there a way out for me ***My life's slipping out...
It wasn't hard to find her. Sunset came and went, and by early evening I was at the Bronze. She was there with the boy and girl who had followed her into Hell the night of the Harvest. The boy had his arms around both of them possessively, a predatory male claiming territory. She looked like a teenage girl, nothing more, laughing with her friends. With her... boyfriend?
Then she saw me. I knew the moment it happened; it was like a switch had been thrown. She pulled away from the boy, not only physically, but mentally. She was the Slayer. The laughing girl had no place there.
She crossed the small space that separated us, from her friends' world to mine, to ours. Sarcasm being as much her weapon as sharp, pointy stakes, she greeted me with, "Well, look who's here."
I wasn't going to get drawn into her banter. I was going to tell her what she needed to know, and get out. Short, simple, uncomplicated. "Hi."
Somehow, I don't think 'simple' was a word Buffy Summers knew. "I'd say it's nice to see you, but then we both know that's a big fib."
"I won't be long." ~I won't. Tell her, and leave. Just tell her.~
"No," she said consideringly, wrapping her bare arms around herself, "you'll just give me a cryptic warning about some exciting new catastrophe and then disappear into the night, right?"
"You're cold." Well, she was shivering, what was I supposed to say?
"You can take it," she shot back, obviously thinking I was complaining about her manner. I wasn't. Let her be sarcastic and withdrawn. I could deal with her better like that then I could with the girl who had looked at me with pity in her eyes and asked me about friends.
But I didn't like seeing her shivering, even if she couldn't manage to wear enough clothes to cover herself. "I mean, you look cold." Without thinking, I took off my jacket. I hardly needed it. She didn't protest as I swung it around her shoulders, putting her arms in the sleeves. It dwarfed her, made her look fragile and child-like.
"It's a little big on me," she pointed out, shifting it over her body. Then she looked up and caught sight of the cuts on my arm, and concern shadowed her eyes. Damn. "What happened?"
~Well, you see, it was like this: I was worrying too much about too many things, and thinking about the women in my life, the one who made me and the one who is most likely going to kill me as soon as she finds out what I really am and...~ "I didn't pay attention."
An eyebrow quirked. "To somebody with a big fork?"
~Get to the point.~ "He's coming."
"The fork guy?" she asked, obvious enjoying the appellation she had given him.
"Don't let him corner you," I kept going, refusing to be distracted. "Don't give him a moment's mercy. He'll rip your throat out."
Her eyes blinked, and opened wide. "OK, I'll give you improved marks for that one. Ripping the throat out, it's a strong visual, it's not cryptic."
Ridiculously, I wanted to laugh. I wanted to use the wit that had lain dormant since I had cut myself off from contact of any kind, mortal or vampire. I wanted... too much. "I have to go." Without waiting for her to respond, I turned and left her.
Behind me, I heard her sigh. "Sweet dreams to you, too."
I kept an eye on Karl for the next few days -- from a safe distance, of course. Vampires heal quickly, but I had no desire to be target practice for Karl's knives any time soon... well, never again, actually. So I was tracking Karl, the Slayer was tracking Karl, the police were tracking the madman who tore up the body of a homeless person in the park -- Karl. It was getting crowded out there at night.
I was across the street from the park that Karl had made his hunting ground, but was close enough to hear the commotion when the police stumbled on a fight between a vampire and the Slayer. From my vantage point, I could see Karl haul himself over the chain link fence and zero in on his next meal -- a woman walking home alone.
Before he could get close enough to take a bite, she turned around and fixed him with a glare that had him backing off rapidly. I could almost hear the whimpers as he made for every vampire's favorite hiding place -- the sewers. I didn't blame him. *Something* about the woman was sending mental alarms ringing the likes of which I'd never felt before -- not even when a Slayer kicked me in the head and said hi.
Retreat being the better part of valor, I headed home. But not before I caught sight of the Slayer staring after the woman who had frightened Karl. In the dim light her face was perplexed, thoughtful -- and determined. I sighed. If the girl made it to the next full moon I was going to be surprised.
I found her at the Bronze two nights later, curled up at the coffee bar with the doe-like girl who had been with her the night of the Harvest. With her hair curling loosely around her shoulders, a monster-sized cup cradled in her hands, jacket engulfing her slender body, she looked fragile and delicate.
Of course, I knew first-hand just how false that impression was.
"Where's Xander?" the other girl asked.
The Slayer shrugged. "Don't know. I think he's kinda...."
"Embarrassed, humiliated, suffering the torments of the terminally stupid... stop me when you hear something you don't like."
"Nope. You can keep going. But it wasn't really his fault, right? She -- the bug lady -- she fooled him with the pheromones."
Grinning, the Slayer patted her friend's hand. "Of course, Will, it was all pheromones."
Relieved, the dark-haired girl smiled. "It was cool how you used the Fork Guy to track Xander down. And who knew white picket fences would come in handy?"
"A Slayer uses whatever comes to hand," said Slayer said in sonorous, faintly British tones, ruined by a giggle.
"It's just... Buffy, is Xander ever going to pay attention to me? I mean, I'm never going to be as beautiful as Miss French--"
"Willow, given that the real Miss French is ninety and the fake Miss French was a bug, I'd say you'd win that beauty contest."
Willow sighed and picked up Buffy's coffee cup. Buffy immediately took it out of her hands with a firm, "No. Will, you know what coffee does to you."
Willow plopped her chin onto her folded arms. "It's just... I've never felt like this about any other boy. Ever. And he still sees me as the kid he palled around with when we were seven."
"It could be worse."
For such a tiny creature, Willow had a surprisingly deep and melancholy sigh. "I suppose. Buffy... um, have you ever been in love?"
Thus appealed to, Buffy thought for a moment. "I guess. I mean, there was this guy in LA. I really thought that we would... but it went poof."
"Poof as in...," Willow pantomimed a staking action.
"Nah. Poof as in, 'This is too weird, I'm leaving.' Have to give him credit, he really tried. But..." Buffy shrugged again.
"No one else?" Willow tried.
Buffy wrinkled her nose and tilted her pond-sized mug, staring into the depths. "Nope."
"Not even Angel?"
The mug slapped onto the counter with a sharp click that echoed the crack of my spine snapping into place. "What?" Buffy and I said together.
"Angel. You know, you said that this guy warned you about the Harvest and Fork Guy, and gave you that cross--"
"I know who Cryptic Guy is, Will. I just don't know why you're lumping him into the dating pool."
"I don't know. I just thought... well, the way you looked when you talked about him...."
"No. No, no, no. N-O. Nada. Zilch interest in him that way. He's cute, but annoying. I don't think about him that way. Actually, I try really hard not to think about him at all."
Had the girl ever heard the term, "protesteth too much"? Her face was flushed and she wasn't meeting Willow's eyes. Considering that too damn many of my waking thoughts had centered on her since I'd met her, there was a certain amount of satisfaction that she'd been thinking of me too. Immature, perhaps, but then I never claimed to be mature.
Willow turned, cranning her neck as though looking for someone -- Xander, probably. Her eyes widened when she caught sight of me. Drat. Then, unexpectedly, she gave me a bright, blinding grin and turned back to Buffy. "I'll, uh, be right back. I wanna see if Xander, um, couldn't find us in the crowd. You know."
"Will, it's not *that* crowded--" But Willow was already gone, giving me a conspiratorial look as she passed. Buffy picked up her mug again, staring off into space.
Far be it for me to not take advantage of the situation Willow had set up for me. Without really thinking about it, I approached Buffy. When she sensed someone beside her she turned -- and her eyes nearly popped out of her head. Somehow, seeing her as a girl, just a girl, made dealing with her easier. "I heard a rumor that there was one less vampire around, making a nuisance of himself." ~Why am I talking to her? Why am I doing this? She doesn't need to see me, and the more she does the more likely that she will realize exactly what I am. *Leave her alone.*~
"There is," she confirmed. "I guess I should thank you for the tip."
I couldn't help it. Helplessly, I smiled, fighting not to laugh. Her grudging gratitude was too funny. "The pleasure's mine."
"Of course," she said casually and with all the delicacy of swatting flies with a sledgehammer, "it would make things easier if I knew how to get in touch with you."
Since that came under the heading of "cold day in hell," I shrugged it off. "I'll be around," I offered.
"Or who you were...," she half-whispered.
I couldn't answer her. For both our sakes. I needed to keep my secret from her. And... I didn't want her to look at me and see an enemy. Easier to turn and walk away.
Except that the farthest I walked was to her other side. Oh, well. I never claimed to have much self-control, either.
Buffy sighed, evidently giving up on me answering. "Anyway, you can have your jacket back."
Reaching forward, I touched the collar lightly, careful to not touch her. "It looks better on you."
I backed away, fading into the crowd. Glancing back, her expression was dazed. Score one for the vampires. If you can't beat them, confuse them.
But the worst thing was, it really did look better on her.
***Rising up, the night is done and now the bright lights come
***Held back in my pitied world where everything's undone
Luckily for both of us, the next couple of weeks remained quiet. I kept an eye out, both for her and on her. She was in the Bronze more nights than not, with the two that were her closest companions. Eavesdropping, I learned that the auburn-haired girl was Willow and the boy was Xander. Willow was quietly pining for Xander, and the boy was actively pining for Buffy. The tangles of wants and needs and desires didn't seem to damage the honest bond of friendship between the three of them, born of secrets kept and danger faced.
Ironic, that a secret bound them, while a secret isolated me. I was restless, in a way that I hadn't been in years. The first few years after the Rrom had restored my soul had been the worst, torn with the task of reconciling the past and the present, and trying desperately to comprehend what the future could be.
This wasn't the same. This was more a sense of change; the proverbial calm before the storm. Something was going to happen -- I just didn't know what.
Then I found out what. The Order of Aurelius. Which could mean only one thing: that the prophesied coming of the Anointed One was at hand.
The Master's followers were waiting for the Anointed One the way Christians wait for the Second Coming. Buffy had to prevent the Master and the Anointed One from coming together, whatever it took. So I went looking for Buffy. And found her -- in the Bronze.
When all of this was over, I really was going to have to have a talk with her about being so predictable.
Buffy was standing alone by the stairs, shimmering gold from head to foot. For a moment I paused, just looking at her. I don't know why she confused me so completely. Every time I thought I understood her, she surprised me.
Before, I'd approached her to help the Slayer. This time, I wanted to help...
She straightened from her relaxed stance, going alert. "Angel."
"I was hoping I'd find you here." ~Too much. For both our sakes. ~
The first trace of a tentative smile touched her face. "You were?"
"There's serious stuff happening tonight. You need to be out there..."
She flinched back, very slightly. The warmth in her eyes faded to ash, blighted by anger and... pain? "No, not you, too."
I caught her arm as she tried to move past me. "What do you know?"
She glared at me, the sarcasm that had underlain each one of our exchanges sharpened by an unreasonable fury. "Prophesy, Anointed One, yadda, yadda, yadda." That easily, she dismissed something that could destroy her -- and her world.
Her anger sparked mine. Anger that my help was useless, anger that she was ignoring what I was telling her, anger that she was putting herself in danger by ignoring me, anger that... who knew? "So you know. Fine. I just thought I'd warn you."
"Warn me?" she asked incredulously. "You see that guy over there at the bar?" Blinking at the non sequiter, I watched as she circled around me to face the counter. "He came here to be with me."
There was a wealth of emotion in her voice in the simple statement. Pride, joy, even a strange sort of wonder. "You're here on a date?"
She turned back to me, turning on me, actually. "Yes! Why is that such a shock to everyone?"
Hell if I knew. All I knew was that I'd never really thought of her in that light. The Slayer, the Chosen One... who was a sixteen-year-old girl who danced with her friends and went out on dates.
The blond kid she had pointed out returned, handed her a plate. "Here you go."
Buffy accepted the plate, smiling, dreamy-eyed in his presence. Then she looked up, realized I was still there, and that her *date* was staring at me. "Oh. Um, Owen, this is Angel. Angel, this is Owen." Anyone with one ounce of sensitivity could pick up on her extreme reluctance to introduce us. Owen seemed oblivious. Buffy put her chin up and her arm around the kid's waist. "Owen's my date."
I forced out one normal syllable. "Hey."
Hey!" he returned cheerfully -- or at least as cheerful as he seemed to get. My mother would have called him a cold fish. She would have washed out my mouth with lye soap if she had heard the name I wanted to call him. "So. Um. Where do you know Buffy from?"
Gritting my teeth so as to not tell him the truth -- or worse, show him -- I answered, "Work."
Massive confusion showed on his face. Turning to Buffy, he asked blankly, "You work?"
Luckily for Owen's depleting brain cells, Willow and Xander appeared at that moment, out of breath and anxious. Obviously, they knew what was up tonight. Buffy didn't keep secrets from those she trusted. Willow called out her name, fear and agitation and hope shading the one word.
Owen just blinked. "Look at this. You show up everywhere." He frowned, puzzled. "Interesting."
Beside Willow, Xander glared at Owen. "You don't know the half of it." Then his eyes whipped to me, glaring equally. "What's he doing here?"
As the teenagers of the modern world might say, 'duh!' "My guess it's the same thing you're doing here."
"Uh, excuse me, what are any of you doing here?" Buffy demanded, clearly wanting any and all interruptions *gone*.
Deciding to disregard jealous displays to get to the point, Xander turned back to Buffy. "Look, we gotta get to, uh..." His breath whooshed out from the elbow in the ribs Willow gave him. "Uhh, we thought it'd be fun if, uh... we made this a double date!" Playing their impromptu excuse to the hilt, the two teenagers put their arms around each other.
Buffy, was, apparently, refusing to see the point. "I didn't know you guys were seeing each other."
Willow grinned nervously, intent on trying to get Buffy away from Owen, while obviously enjoying her beloved's arms around her. "Oh, yeah, well, we knew it would happen eventually, so we figured, hey! Why fight it?" ~ Good point. Why fight it, Xander? Having jealous fits over Buffy isn't getting you anywhere... and look who's talking, ~ I thought in disgust.
Owen, meanwhile, was still caught in the starting gate of this conversation. "And you guys are thinking double?"
"'Cause of," Xander tittered out a high, nervous laugh, "the fun!"
Exerting himself massively in an attempt to understand, Owen turned back to me. "And you're here because of work?"
Watching Owen try to force his brain to full capacity was amusing, but we really didn't have the time right now. Luckily, Xander and Willow were making an attempt to get through the thick stone Buffy called a skull.
"Hey," Xander said in the tone of making a great revelation, "maybe we should all go somewhere together."
Buffy wasn't buying it. "Gee, that's so nice of you to ask, but Owen and I were, well, sort of --" she put her hand on his chest in a teenage version of Tag: Tag, you're my date. "Owen and I."
Gotta give Xander points for persistence. "Y'know what'd be cool? The Sunnydale Funeral Home!"
"I've always wanted to go there!" Willow said forcefully, making any normal person think she was demented, while pinning Buffy with a laser glance.
Buffy frowned, confused... but beginning to understand. "The... funeral home?" she asked weakly.
It made a certain kind of lunatic sense. The Anointed One would rise from the ashes of the Five -- whoever those five were. But in this modern world, the recent dead were neatly tucked away, awaiting burial.
"Actually, that sounds kinda cool!" Owen said with the most enthusiasm he had shown yet. He hadn't even reacted to Buffy's arm around him with as much eagerness. "Do you think we could all sneak in?"
~Buffy, what *are* you doing with this guy? If you wanted to avoid your fate, why date someone who is so bloody *macabre*!~
Xander didn't seem to find anything strange about Owen's desire to go to the mortuary, but then, he was understandably distracted. Besides, he'd been hanging around a Slayer. "We saw some guys in there before. They seemed to be," he directed his words to Buffy, "having fun!"
"Bite me!" Buffy hissed in disgust under her breath, finally comprehending what was going on. Then, almost guiltily, she looked up at me.
And all I could think was, ~Don't *even* tempt me...~
Buffy sighed and gave in to the inevitable. "Um, Owen, I gotta go."
Owen frowned, confused. ~I bet his teachers get sick of that look...~ "I thought we were going to the funeral home."
"No, you can't," Buffy said instantly, the Slayer defending the people around her. Then the girl had to try to get away, to act natural so no one would question what was going on. "I'll tell you what. I'll be back in a little while."
"Buffy...." Finally seeming to comprehend that there were simply too many people in this conversation, Owen led Buffy a few feet away. Not far enough, however, that I couldn't eavesdrop if I tried. And, to be honest, I couldn't *not* try. "What's the deal? Do you wanna bail on me?"
"No!" Buffy denied instantly. "No, no, uh... Do you remember when you said I was like two different people? Well, one of them has to go." She clutched his hands, desperate to make him understand. "But the other one is having a really, really good time, and will come back, I promise."
It was like the first time I met her, a blow to the head that rearranged all my perceptions of the girl who was the Slayer. What had it done to a girl to suddenly have her life, her choice, her freedom taken away, against her will?
Possibly the same thing it had done to a vampire who had had his soul forcibly returned to him: fury, anguish -- and the knowledge that not only was going back to the innocence of ignorance impossible, you couldn't even really want to. No way to go back, agony to go forward -- but time moves inexorably ahead, days and nights following in their accustomed paths.
Safe in his blessed obliviousness, Owen just nodded his head and watched her go. Before she had gone three steps, Buffy whirled around and went back to him. Standing on her toes, she took his face in her hands and kissed him.
The rush of hot fury that flooded me was startling. It wasn't the bloodlust that I fought every night. It was... jealousy?
No. Ridiculous. I was only a couple of months away from my two hundred and forty-first birthday, and I was jealous of a sixteen year old boy?
She hurried out of the Bronze, her friends right behind her. Owen shook his head, dazed. "She's the strangest girl!" Then he blinked. "Hey, who says I can't go to the funeral home, too? I mean, it's not like she's got special permission..."
The synapses in his brain having completed that particular circuit, Owen turned to leave. I didn't move to stop him, although I probably should have.
Instead, I followed too.
***A cold wind blows right through me, I'm made a hollow shell
From the shadows of the trees, I watched Owen follow the others into the funeral home. The idiot was going to get himself killed, playing with things he didn't understand. But the others... they knew what Buffy was, what she did, and followed fearlessly where she led.
I moved to follow them into the mortuary, planning to -- what? Tell them to get out? Ridicule them for their foolish belief that they were any match for the creatures who wanted nothing more than to take over the world that they considered their own? Help? But I ducked back when I saw that two vampires were already there. In the last hundred years, I had avoided direct confrontation with other vampires as much as possible. I had avoided any kind of contact with others, mortal and immortal, human and demon. And now... it hurt to have something -- some*one* to worry about again.
Willow's high-pitched scream echoed from inside the building -- the vampires had just found their prey. Moving fast, she and Xander slammed the ironwork doors on the two members of the order of Aurelius, locking them outside. But the metal doors were too flimsy -- they wouldn't hold the vampires out for long.
I couldn't tell where Buffy was. Was she fighting the Anointed One? Was she hurt? Was she dead?
Just for a moment, I closed my eyes. I'd killed my own kind before -- more than a hundred years ago. More recently, but only when I'd been attacked. To turn on my own kind to protect the Slayer and her mortal friends...
***There's nothing left
The groan of rending metal was almost human in the still night. The doors were giving like a child's gingerbread house, splintered in hunger.
I had no choice. I really never had.
The pines around me had shed branches all over the grassy lawn. As quickly as I could, I gathered a few sticks. The two greedily tearing their way into the home sensed my approach and turned on me, snarling. Their faces were distended into the mask of an enraged vampire, eyes gleaming with the hunger to destroy. So was mine.
"Angelus," one of them said with great satisfaction. "So you emerge."
"This one won't help us," his companion said, contempt dripping. "He's gone soft. He won't kill."
"Oh, I'll kill," I assured them. Spinning on one foot, I kicked the first of the members of the Order in the face, sending him flying back into the shattered door. His body finished the job of destruction he and his compatriot has started, and he fetched up against a wall filled with remains of mortals past.
His friend was not to be taken by surprise so easily. It was a messy fight, made more so by the silence in which we both conducted ourselves. No taunts, no insults, just the basic rule of live and die.
***Just ash remains
The first vampire collected himself just as I was rising from the pile of dust that was his adjunct's body. The expression on his face was a feral pleasure, for the fight, for the chance to kill and avenge. "What do you hope to gain, Angelus, by destroying us? By helping *her*? You are not one of them, not from the moment that your maker fed you and brought you the demon that we all share. *You are one of us.*"
I couldn't answer him. So I threw a punch. And kept fighting with blind rage, unable to say what I was fighting for.
***Enrich the soil
I don't know how long I sat one the ground, staring at the twin piles of dust. What was I?
***No soul no soul...
I didn't know anymore. All I knew was what I wasn't.
I heard Willow's voice before the others, high and chattering brightly, strung so tense it nearly broke like crystal. Rising slowly, I returned to the shelter of the trees. Xander and Willow were supporting Owen, who drunkenly wended his way along the path. Rather abruptly, he sat down beneath a tree.
"Buffy." The quiet British voice of Buffy's Watcher had me turning my head back to the entrance of the funeral home. "Are you... going to be all right?"
Buffy stood just below him on the steps, her gaze on the moon. "Yeah. I'll be okay. I guess." Her hair was slipping from the clip that had kept it from her face, and most of her makeup had been worn away.
Briefly, her Watcher put his hand on her shoulder. When she neither shrugged it off nor acknowledged his support, the man sighed and walked to his car. Buffy leaned her arms on the railing of the steps and kept looking up, at the moon and stars.
"Yes, Will?" Her voice was low. Not flat. Just weary. "I thought you guys were taking Owen home."
"Yeah. Well, he, um, sorta lost the ability to walk." Willow gestured a bit helplessly to where Owen was communing with the ground, Xander hovering unwillingly over him. "Buffy?"
Buffy turned to look into her friend's face, and found a smile. I could see from my vantage point just how much effort it took. "Hey. There've been worse first dates in the history of the world, right? You know what they say: never kiss a boy on the first date. Oh, wait, or was that 'kill'? I never can remember." Her voice suddenly sharpening with pain, Buffy pushed away from the rail and began walking away -- towards me.
Willow chased after her. "I'm sorry," the other girl apologized.
Buffy stopped and turned back. "It's not your fault. It's just... I only wanted to go on a date. I never asked for any of this. I just wanted a normal life." Her breath hitched slightly. "I'm never going to be able to have it, am I? Never."
There wasn't grief in her voice, not really, and resignation is too absolute a term. She just knew that what she said was true. There wasn't ever going to be a chance to settle, to just be. Never a chance to not be constantly torn by conflicting forces.
And she faced it by giving a weary smile to her friend and heading for home. Alone.
***Close call there in the shadows
***There's an end to the dark
***Cause there's someone out there
***Someone like me...
And, God help me, I loved her for it.
***The hours pass so slowly the life's slipping out of me
***No way's the right way.
In the Bronze. Again. It was the best place for me to be able to see her without her seeing me. In the crowd, I was just another figure, blending into the mob of teenagers without anyone giving me a second glance.
There was a party going on, celebrating the irradiation of cockroaches from one small stretch of space. The little bugs skittered over the floor, dashing for dark corners. Those who weren't fast enough were caught and exchanged for drinks.
No matter how many of them they killed, there would always be more. The lowly cockroach had been on Earth since my kind had come -- and we would likely be sharing it for millennia to come. Not exactly the companions that I would chose for eternity, myself.
She looked distant, dreaming, still in the middle of chaos. Her thoughts were obviously not peaceful. She was the Slayer, how could they be? But daydreams carried her far away from where I stood, watching her. Even Willow's obvious attempts at distraction didn't work.
I had to stay away from her. I knew that. It didn't stop me from wanting to be near her, to touch her... God, to just hold her. I hungered for it -- which was the best reason for why I couldn't have what I wanted.
I couldn't be with her. But I could watch.
I saw her rise from the table, offer a weary smile to her friends, and gather her coat to leave. Silently, I slipped out behind her. Just to watch.
Just to watch over her.
***Is there a way out for me?
***There must be a way out for me...
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