The Alley

The Alley

By Ares
Author's Notes

His teeth were deep inside the neck of his victim. It was a cold winter’s night. His body warmed as hot ambrosial fluid pulsed down his throat, the flow weakening with each struggling pump of his victim’s heart. He was hard, thrilling with the pleasure of the kill. The trill of a phone reached his ears. Ignoring the sound, he didn’t retract his fangs until the last breath had left the body. At his feet, the corpse kept on ringing. For some reason it would not desist.

Blinking awake, Angel lay with the sound of the phone still ringing in his ears. Rolling over and snatching up the impossibly thin object, he stared at the unfamiliar number displayed there. His number was known by only one other, and this wasn’t hers. The only reason he kept the phone switched on was in case she called.

Sitting up, fine cotton sheets pooling in his lap, he answered the call.

“Yeah?”

“Angel?”

It was Giles. Angel swung his legs to the floor wanting to get a grip on something solid.

“It’s Buffy,” he breathed.

“I’m sorry, Angel…”

“How?”

The anguish in the man’s voice spoke volumes. “We don’t know…”

Angel’s mind was numb. “Don’t know,” he repeated.

“We don’t know what happened.”

“What?”

Angel heard him take a breath.

“There is no body.”

Angel waited, his chest tight and motionless.

“Buffy has disappeared. We can’t find her. We thought…”

“Of course. Where?” He was on his feet, a sculpture of flesh, marble-like in the gloom of his bedroom.

“London.”

He paused, thinking on the logistics of getting to London. His eyes went to the curtained window. Hours until sunset.

Giles asked, “Where are you?”

“New York. When did…”

“Two weeks ago.”

The phone creaked with the sudden pressure of his fingers. Voice dangerously soft, he said, “Two weeks.”

“We’ve been trying to piece together what happened, hoping to God that Buffy was alright, that she would turn up.”

Two weeks. Buffy had been missing, feared dead, for two weeks, and now they decided to call?

“What do you want me to do?” was what he said, instead, keeping his temper under control.

“You may be able to get a sense of something supernatural…”

“What about Willow?” He padded barefoot across the wooden floor.

“Willow’s locator spells have failed to find her.”

Angel opened the door to his wardrobe. He didn’t have many clothes. It wouldn’t take long to pack.

“Shaman?”

“No luck either.”

“Tell me where.”

It was early evening when the vampire landed in London. Angel had had to catch a plane in daylight hours, something he had thought he’d never do. He thanked the Powers That Be for the modern air bridge that allowed passengers to board aircraft from within the confines of the airport. With his wide-brimmed hat, long coat, sunglasses, and gloves, he had been prepared for the taxi ride from the subway to the airport, and the building itself, which was far too sunny for his comfort. Security hadn’t been a problem for him. He wasn’t carrying anything that resembled a weapon. And his allocated seat in the plane was a centre row one, as far away from the windows as he could manage. He tried to sleep the flight away under a couple of thin airline blankets, refusing to give in to the lure of the beating hearts that surrounded him. Sleep eluded him and he lay tense for the duration. Upon landing at Heathrow, the Tube carried him the rest of the way into the centre of London. Hailing a cab to convey him to the address Giles had given him, he sat, his gaze inward, his mind on Buffy and the last time he had seen her. Lithe, golden, mature beyond her years, and yet still young at heart and full of laughter. Was she really gone? Would he never see her again?

The taxi dropped him off at the entrance of an alley. It was a sad little place. At the end of the narrow lane, a dead end: buildings bordering three sides, with windows staring down at a narrow courtyard of oil-stained concrete. A shadow detached itself from the greater gloom. It was the Watcher.

“I thought you’d come straight here.”

Angel studied the man. Giles looked worn, tired, and at the end of his tether. He knew that for Giles to have called him he must be desperate. Angel banished the uncharitable thought. It didn’t matter. He was here now, although a lot of good that would do, he thought. Two weeks was a long time for any trace of Buffy to remain.

“Run me through it,” he said.

Giles led him to a spot that had been marked with paint. It was close to a wall.

“Her phone was found here. She must have dropped it when…” Giles cleared his throat. “We keep the place marked…”

Angel nodded. He understood.

“Do you know what happened before that?”

“Buffy was chasing a demon that had been snatching children, eating them, we fear. We haven’t found its lair, and it’s not for want of looking. Buffy rang to say she had spotted it in this locale. When she didn’t report back we started searching for her. Her phone was all we found. Your number was in it.” Giles turned haunted eyes to Angel. “Can you sense anything unusual? The mystics and Willow…”

Angel held his hand up to stop him. “Not yet.”

Giles closed his mouth and let Angel get to work.

Putting down his bag, Angel started from where he was standing. It was hours till dawn. He had time to conduct a thorough search of the area. And when the sun did push him indoors he was hoping that one of the buildings nearby had an opening for a vampire in need of sanctuary.

Using all his senses, Angel sifted through the odours that permeated the courtyard. There were several different kinds of bodily fluids, some human, some not. Blood, too, which his vampire senses zeroed in on. He wandered around examining the ground and walls. The first spot of blood he found wasn’t Buffy’s. He let out a sigh of relief, and moved on. Another splash of red. Inhaling deeply, he recognized the scent of demon, as was the green smear on the other side of the courtyard.

Giles said from behind him, “We took samples. There wasn’t a match.”

“You may have missed something.”

“True.”

Angel hunkered down. He had found a trace of Buffy. There was a spot of blood, the tiniest drop. A human would have missed it. A vampire wouldn’t.

“Here,” he said.

Giles let out a sigh, and stepped over to where the vampire crouched. “She was here, then. We weren’t too sure. Buffy’s phone could have been picked up by anyone and left here.”

“It looks like she dropped it.”

Angel scrutinised the wall and the ground for more traces of Buffy. He was relieved to see there wasn’t more of her blood to be found. What had happened here?

“What did the mystics say?”

“There had been a disturbance in the ether the night that Buffy went missing.”

“A portal?”

“An opening, yes. We don’t know to where, and there lies the problem.”

“You’ve tried.”

Giles nodded. “Willow thought a locator spell would show her the way. It didn’t. The shamans we’d enlisted say it was more like a rip than a portal. Something might have come through.”

Angel felt a chill. He’d lived this before. He prayed it wasn’t so. “What?”

“We don’t know. Faith has been hunting demons in the area. The only demons she’s found are native.” Giles hesitated. “We’re running out of options.”

“You called me,” Angel said quietly.

“At least we know now,” said Giles, not quite looking him in the eye.

“I’ll go over every inch of this alley, and the buildings.”

“We’ve checked the flats for a possible sighting. No one saw or heard a thing. Just what one expects in a city this size.”

“No one wants to get involved. Don’t give up just yet, Giles.”

Giles bit back the ‘easy for you to say’ that came to his lips. It wasn’t easy for Angel, he knew, and he regretted not calling him sooner. The vampire looked tired in the predawn light, and worried. He wasn’t surprised that Angel hadn’t berated him for his tardiness. It was typical of the vampire to deny his anger.

As a peace offering he said, “The building on the right is derelict. Not safe to live in, they say. One or two rooms have squatters but the rest of the building is empty. Take your pick. Or if you prefer, I’ve taken a room at The Red Lion a couple of streets away. I’m sure…”

Angel stared at the Englishman. “I’d like to stay here and work till the light drives me indoors, thank you.”

“Right. I’ll leave you to it, then. Call me if you find anything?”

His voice soft, Angel said, “Of course.”

Giles wished him luck, feeling a little guilty for not thinking of providing a blanket for Angel’s rest. He left him there, a tall dark figure in the deserted alley.

Angel sifted through the scents and traces in the small lane and courtyard for hours. He didn’t want to miss anything. When he was satisfied he had covered every inch of the alley he did a quick sweep of the surrounding area. Returning to the lane and, using the battered door to gain entry to the building, he climbed the stairs that led to the floors above, before settling on an empty room with a window that faced the alley. It would offer a good vantage point. Setting down his bag, he continued to move through the building, scoping it out, getting a feel for it. Sleep would come later.

The vampire awoke with the remnants of his dream curling through his mind. The landscape of Hell drifted away, and he hoped that Buffy wasn’t trapped in such a place. In the Quor-toth where his son had been, time also moved at a different pace. If he was a praying man, it would be for Buffy, for her not being there and aging quickly by their standards.

When he exited the building he found another shadow waiting. An unwelcome one, he thought at first. The boy had changed into a man, he saw. Battle-scarred and wearing it well.

“Giles said you found something.”

Angel stared at Xander Harris. The man stared back, his false eye suited to the task.

“Buffy was wounded,” the man continued.

“A scratch,” the vampire said.

“How do you know? Can you smell the difference? Can you tell if she was dying?” Harris’ voice hitched on the last word.

“No.”

When the man’s shoulders slumped, Angel offered him hope.

“The drop of blood tells me she wasn’t bleeding profusely, it wasn’t a mortal wound.”

Xander Harris refused to be buoyed. “But it could be. She could have been bleeding quite heavily…and this was her last drop.”

“There would be a trail.”

A smile tugged at the corners of Xander’s mouth.

“I knew it was a good idea to call you.”

“Your idea?”

“No, but I’m glad you came.”

He held out his hand. Angel took it, clasping it with his cold fingers. The man’s hand was almost as big as his and almost as cold. He released it quickly, knowing that most found his flesh unnerving.

“How long have you been here?”

“Every day.”

Every day the man had stood here, waiting, and watching for Buffy. What he got was a vampire, and one that Mr Harris loathed.

Xander looked about. The pile of rubbish in the corner had been growing since he started his vigil, providing food for the rats. Light from various apartment windows lent the alley a murky glow. When he craned his head he could see the fire escapes zigzagging up brick walls. The building Angel had emerged from was no exception. Its main entrance could be found on the road that ran at ninety degrees to the lane. A large sign on the front door declared it unsafe to all. The apartments that ran down either side of the alley claimed a better future. Their tenants would be safe and warm for a long time yet.

“We’ve been taking turns,” he added. “Giles, Faith, Willow, and me. Faith usually has the night shift when she’s finished patrolling.”

“Dawn?”

“She went back to University. She…she stayed as long as she could. Exams…”

Angel heard Harris swallow.

The vampire had things to do, and he didn’t want company. The silence stretched.

“Can you find her, Angel? If anyone can, it would be you.”

He stared at Xander’s glum face. Tears welled in the man’s eyes. Even his implant was moist, Angel noticed.

Xander blinked away his fears. He didn’t want to show any weakness in front of the vampire.

He heard Angel say, “I’ll do my best,” before Angel disappeared in the way he had. The man was never good on goodbyes.

For the first time since he had met Angel, Harris wished him luck.

Angel found the shop in the same disrepair as when he had last visited. It had been decades, a century or more. The Watchers Council didn’t know everything about him and his movements, contrary to what they believed. A bell tinkled when he entered the shop that bore the name Scrolls above the door. The store harked back to the days when everyone had been God-fearing and superstitious. It wasn’t all that it seemed.

Closing the door gently behind him, Angel stepped soundlessly across the bare boards and to the counter. The musky scent of old leather and parchment filled his nose, as did the pungent scent of dried herbs, incense, sulphur, and powders. Eyes of newt, rat, and toad stared at him from plastic bags and jars. The magical supplies had come out from behind the back door. Times had changed. Witches were no longer burned at the stake, at least according to popular belief. Angel knew that somewhere in the world witches would still be persecuted.

The man behind the counter looked up from the package he was labelling.

“Can I help you?”

Angel stared at him. Surely it wasn’t the same person who had met him the last time he was here? The middle-aged man stared back, his grey eyes set in a narrow face, thin brown hair falling over his forehead, and lips just as thin set in a straight line.

“I’m looking for Madame Celeste.”

The man blinked.

“Madame Celeste is unavailable. Sorry.”

He didn’t sound at all sorry to Angel.

“It’s an emergency,” he stated.

The man sighed.

“That’s what they all say.”

“Mr…?”

“Kerrick.”

Kerrick? The name was the same.

“How long…?”

Kerrick smoothed back the hair from his forehead.

“Yes?”

“Never mind. I need to see Madame Celeste. Now.” Angel leaned forward, not averse to using his size to intimidate.

Kerrick leaned back instinctively, swallowing nervously.

“No need to be threatening. Madame Celeste has retired. You’ll have to find some one else.”

Angel didn’t move an inch.

“Do you know some one else?”

“I do. He’s very good.” The man nodded as if that would convince him.

“I want Celeste. She’s the best. She’ll come out of retirement for me.”

The man looked him up and down. “And you are?”

“Tell her it’s Angel.” He wondered if she even remembered who he was.

“What’s the emergency?”

Angel just looked at him.

Kerrick licked his lips, and said, “Can you come back tomorrow? It may take some time to locate her.”

Angel didn’t like the delay but he knew he had no choice. Celeste was the woman he needed.

“Be sure to give her the message.” He didn’t need to show his fangs to get his message across, but he practically growled when he added, “I’ll be here the same time tomorrow night.”

He left the shop without a backward glance, and walked briskly towards another part of town.

The Blade was open all hours, and rightly so. Its customers came from all walks of life, and not all were human. Most frequented the shop well into the night. The store sold weaponry of all kinds, ancient and new, but not guns though. This wasn’t America where you could pick up a handgun at the hardware store on the corner. The shop’s customers were usually after a blade of some description, hence the name. Back in the day, swords, knives and axes were its mainstay. It hadn’t changed much.

When Angel entered the shop the storekeeper was conducting a transaction over a well-worn wooden counter. There were numerous nicks and cuts along its surface, no doubt put there by clumsy buyers and disgruntled customers. The demon the proprietor was dealing with was dressed plainly. His dark pants and linen shirt could have come from any one of the clothing outlets in London. The demon turned to look at him, and he could see its hair was fur and its eyes were too yellow to pass for human. Ignoring the scrutiny, the vampire turned his gaze to the weapons on display. A broadsword caught his eye. It was similar to the one he favoured and had had to leave behind in New York. This one also had a plain guard and hilt.

The proprietor finished with his customer and hurried over to where Angel was waiting. Angel left with the sword, an axe, and several knives secreted about his person. The stakes in his pockets were courtesy of a ruined table he had found at his resting place.

When Angel returned to the alley he found Xander Harris had been replaced by Faith. The slayer had settled herself onto a crate, and in her hand a cigarette dangled.

Angel noticed her eyes light up when she saw who it was. His chest tightened. How long had it been since anyone was pleased to see him? Getting to her feet, Faith threw the cancer stick down, stood on it, and called, “Hey, Big Guy.”

“Those will kill you,” Angel said, standing there with the axe in his hand. His sword was hidden inside the folds of his long coat. He had kept to the back streets, almost invisible in his travel. He hadn’t been noticed. A man carrying an axe would have had some explaining to do and he didn’t have time for that.

Grinning, she tossed her hair, and laughed. “That’s my hope. Death by cigarette.”

When he didn’t respond, Faith sobered up quickly. “I’m sorry, Angel…I shouldn’t…”

“It’s fine, Faith. Have you been patrolling?”

“I have. Who knew that London had so many vamps, let alone demons? Well, I guess you would, this being your old stomping grounds.”

“The city may have changed but the people haven’t.”

“Or the demons…Speaking of, you look like you’re set to do some damage yourself.”

The grin he gave her was feral. “Care to join me?”

Her smile mirrored his. “As long as I can have the axe.”

He threw it across to her, and produced his sword.

Faith’s smile widened. “Who’s the unlucky sap?”

“The demon Buffy was hunting.”

The smile left her face. “I’m sorry I couldn’t…”

“You never have to say sorry to me, Faith. Maybe we’ll get lucky this time. Did you find anything when you were hunting the demon?”

“No. I can show you where I lost its trail. It’s not far.”

“Show me.”

Angel and the dark-haired slayer stood in a crumbling and dank basement. It wasn’t really a basement, more like the foundations of the building above. Pools of water had collected in several places on the uneven floor and the air was fetid with rotting refuse.

The vampire took an unneeded breath. The decomposition was not human. For that he was grateful. Giles had said the demon had been abducting children. He really didn’t want to find child-sized bones or body parts to confirm the missing children’s fate.

He remembered to exhale and, turning, found Faith watching him.

“Well?”

“This is where the trail ended?”

She nodded. “Was Buffy here?”

“I don’t think so. I can’t sense that she was here.”

“She must have picked up his trail elsewhere.”

“We know where the demon was. Here and…”

“The alley. Are you sure? Buffy may not have caught up with the demon before she went missing.”

“Its blood was in the alley. And hers,” he added. One of the scents in the basement belonged to the demon that had left a splash of its blood on the wall.

“Hot damn, Angel! I knew they should have called you as soon as Buffy vanished.”

“It was you?”

Faith shook her head. “Yeah, but you know how it is. They don’t listen to me. Come on. Let’s get back to the alley.” She turned and led the way back through the sewers, her light picking out objects she’d rather not know were there, Angel behind her, looming large.

“How come it can do that?”

“What?”

“Disappear without leaving a trace?” Faith ducked beneath an obstruction in the roof of the sewer. Behind her, Angel crouched low to follow through.

“We’ll ask it when we find it.”

The slayer chuckled.

“What?” the vampire asked.

“It’s like having my own bloodhound.”

Angel refused to rise to the bait. Faith’s laughter bled away down the tunnel.

With Angel directing the hunt they were able to pick up the trail, and soon they had the alley behind them. Not a few times the trail ran cold. Working in circular patterns, it wasn’t long before Angel picked up the scent again. The demon appeared to be wandering haphazardly about the city. There was no pattern to his meanderings that either Faith or Angel could see other than to confuse any that might be tracking him. Both slayer and vampire were beginning to despair of the demon ever coming to rest, when, near a better part of London, where homes were laid out in pretty coloured rows and parks stood nearby for families to play in, they found the demon had gone to ground.

“Finally!” Faith said, a little out of breath. Angel had led a merry chase across rooftops, and underground, down dark empty streets, and across busy roads. She appreciated the fact that he hadn’t slowed down for her sake, nor had he asked if she was okay keeping up. He trusted that she was. Slayers were supposed to be stronger than vampires. Faith had first-hand experience that with Angel it was a different matter.

He looked over his shoulder at her. “Do you get the feeling that he’s running away from something?”

“Yeah, and he’d be right.” She jerked her thumb towards her chest, then pointed said digit at him.

“What’s he frightened of?” Angel said, giving voice to his thoughts.

“Whatever it is, it’s not as bad as what we can dish out. Come on!” Faith grabbed his arm and pulled him towards the corner shop that was closed for the night. They had tracked the demon to the shop. Somewhere inside were the answers they needed.

Faith jiggled the lock, put pressure on it and was rewarded with the snick of the catch releasing.

They found a man sleeping in the storeroom out the back. His pallet was jammed in between boxes and shelving. They would have missed him amongst the stock if not for his snoring.

Faith’s eyes narrowed. The man was on the small side, and there was something odd about his face, other than the drool. She raised a brow at Angel. He nodded. Faith poked the man with her borrowed axe.

“Wake up, sleepyhead.”

The man jolted awake and was off his small bed in a bid for freedom before his eyes were fully open.

The vampire stepped forward and grabbed him by his collar as he tried to get by.

“What’s your hurry?”

Faith crowded him from behind. “We only want to ask you a few questions.”

“Who are you people?” their captive squeaked.

“We want to know what happened to the slayer,” Angel growled.

“What slayer?”

“Wrong answer!” Faith hauled him away from Angel. She punched him in the face.

“The blonde woman that was hunting you. What happened to her?”

“You’ve got the wrong man. I don’t know anything about slayers.”

Faith punched him again before Angel stepped in.

“Easy, Faith. There are better ways of making him talk.”

Angel’s brown eyes gilded to gold as he stared at his quarry.

“I say we start with the eyes. What do you say?” The man’s face rippled and his mouth seemed to unhinge. A set of needle-sharp teeth lined the inside of a mouth that was now too big for its face. His hands became claws, and he slashed at Faith and Angel.

“You don’t know what you’re up against!” he hissed.

Angel vamped, startling the demon. “I think we do!” he snarled back, sending the demon flying with a right hook.

When the demon recovered consciousness he discovered he had been moved to somewhere dark and damp. He realised he was underground where no one but the rats could hear him scream. He shuddered when he saw the two faces looming over him.

The loss of two fingers, an ear, and several teeth, had him divulging what he knew. The demon had resisted as long as he could, delaying the inevitable, knowing he was going to die. He had known the slayer had been tracking him and he had tried to fool her with his human disguise. She had caught up with him, regardless, in the alley. He had been running, Buffy fast on his heels - thinking to elude her by ducking into one of the buildings nearby – when the air suddenly became charged with electricity. Hearing a cry, he turned to look over his shoulder. He had caught a glimpse of slayer legs disappearing into a shimmer of light.

“Buffy was hurt,” Angel growled around his fangs.

The demon, they’d learned his name was Ollie, peered up at them, his mouth a bloody mess. “It was just a scratch, I swear. She got her arm caught on one of my claws. It was self-defence. I was trying to avoid her stake. It grazed my cheek.”

“I guess that’s alright, then. You won’t mind if I scratch you, will you?”

Angel’s sword came up and, in the blink of an eye, Ollie’s head parted company with the rest of his body.

Looking at the admiration in Faith’s eyes when he glanced over at her, Angel felt a little guilty. He wasn’t setting a good example to the girl, but if he was honest, deep down he didn’t care. The world was harsh and cruel. Faith of all people knew that. For now, he had his answers and a demon was dead.

“This is the scumbag that has been kidnapping children?” Faith kicked at the body parts with satisfaction. “There’s a park nearby,” she added, and gave the corpse another kick for good measure.

“Yeah!”

“We did a good thing, then.”

“Yeah.” Angel felt hollow. Buffy had disappeared into who knew where.

The following night Angel was back at Scrolls looking for Madame Celeste. Kerrick was behind the counter waiting for him. The man’s attempts at being friendly were overlaid with the tang of fear. Kerrick had been put in the picture about the nature of his customer.

“Well?” Angel demanded.

The man nodded energetically. “She’s waiting for you. I’ll go and let her know you are here.”

“That won’t be necessary, Tom.”

Madame Celeste appeared to materialize beside the man. He started. Angel blinked.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” Tom grumbled, managing a smile.

Madame Celeste ignored him, her gaze focussing on Angel.

“It’s been a while, young man.”

“You know that’s not true.”

She chuckled. He could see the merriment in her eyes. “The young man, I know.”

Angel nodded his head in Tom’s direction. “Is he…?”

“Great grand son. It’s a family business, but that isn’t why you’re here, Angel.”

“I need a favour.”

On their way to the alley Celeste had disappeared a couple of times, only to reappear again in Angel’s vicinity. Her special skills centred around inter-dimensional rifts and portals, and the majicks she used had a side effect. She had learned to live with it but it did hold some danger for her. Celeste had put herself in harm’s way once or twice in her long life.

Decades ago she had inadvertently materialised into a brawl, had been knocked flying and, landing on the road in a daze, she hadn’t seen the horse and cart bearing down on her. Nor had she seen the other passer-by come flying after her. All she knew was a man landed on top of her, rolled her out of the way of deadly hooves, and had helped her to her feet.

Shocked and dazed, she had allowed him to help her across the road. She had insisted on a cup of tea in return. The look of confusion at her suggestion, the loneliness she could see in his eyes, was enough to tug at her heartstrings. Besides, he was extraordinarily handsome, when one caught a glimpse of a face not lowered.

They had spent an hour in the flat above the bookshop she called home. She had served up biscuits and tea, although the man had refused to eat a bite. She had learned his name - he had been very possessive of it - and little more. She liked this shy man with his lack of social skills. They had parted company and she hadn’t seen him again, but she was by nature a very observant woman. She had noticed his pale flawless skin, and when his hands had helped her to her feet, they had been cold. It was a warm summer’s evening and they shouldn’t have been. She should have been frightened by one such as he but she didn’t scare easily. And it was too late to take back her invitation, anyway.

Angel leaned against the wall watching Madame Celeste work her mojo. The woman was tiny. Her dark hair was liberally sprinkled with grey and the weathered map of her face spoke of years lived long, longer than any human, anyway. He didn’t know what she was; it was enough that she was a friend.

A familiar voice behind him asked, “How did you manage to get Celeste? We had no luck at all. We got fobbed off with another.”

Angel did not turn to look at the Watcher. He had known he was there long before he spoke.

“We go back a long way.”

“How long?”

“A century or so.”

“When you were Angelus?”

“I didn’t know who I was. It was a difficult time…I…” Angel sighed. He could hear the unasked question. “I saved her life. It was an accident. I wasn’t…I didn’t…”

“A life saved, even by accident, is still a worthy deed.”

Angel mulled Giles’ words over as he watched Celeste go about her business. Her blue silk top rustled when she moved her arms to draw invisible sigils in the air. Angel could hear her murmured chants even through the tinkling of the charms she wore on her wrist. She threw into the air a sprinkling of herbs, and fine, sand-like grains that sparkled.

“Faith dropped by.”

“She okay?”

“She’s fine, Angel. Her rendition of the events left a lot to be desired…”

Angel straightened up and stepped away from Giles. Celeste had finished, and there was no sign of a portal.

In the blink of an eye Celeste was beside him.

The look on her face said it all.

“I’m sorry, Angel. I can sense there has been a disturbance between this world and another, but I cannot open it like you do a portal. There is a lock preventing such a thing.”

Giles cleared his throat. “Can you tell us which dimension the disturbance leads to?”

“I’m sorry. I can’t.”

“There’s a lock. That means there is a key on the other side,” Angel said. It was something…not much, and if Buffy could find such a key…if she hadn’t run out of time, that is. He tried not to think about that.

Celeste’s blue eyes stared up into brown. “It does. I’m sorry that I couldn’t help, Angel. I hope that your friend can find a way home.”

The vampire attempted the shadow of a smile. “Thank you, Celeste, for coming out of retirement.”

She patted his hand. “I initiated that rumour. I’m not ready for the grave just yet. I like to pick and choose my clients.”

Giles opened his mouth to protest. The newly formed Watchers Council wasn’t deemed worthy? Her sharp blue eyes met his.

“I’m sorry for turning you down. If I’d known you were a friend of Angel’s…”

“The Watchers Council does good work…”

“And are poor payers.”

Giles blushed, embarrassed. Damn Travers and his ilk. “Well, that was the old council. I assure you we honour our debts.”

Giles was rewarded with her smile. “I’ll tell my boy to expect you in the future.”

“I’ll walk you back,” Angel offered.

“No need, Angel.” She patted his arm again, her eyes conveying her concern. “The kettle’s on when you drop by. I’ll be expecting you,” and with that she was gone.

Giles looked at Angel. The vampire stared back. There was nothing more they could do.

Angel woke each evening to find one or another of Buffy’s friends standing vigil in the alley. Even on the days he happened to wake early, they were there beneath his window. Willow greeted him like an old friend. She wrapped her arms around him and held on as if she was afraid of drowning. The vampire felt that way himself and returned the hug. He knew he could never repay the debt he owed to the red-haired witch. Twice she had restored his soul to him. The first time it was for Buffy’s sake. The second was because she wanted to help him. There weren’t that many people who would do that for him, he found.

The days crept by on stealthy feet, and still no sign of Buffy. The days became weeks, and, before he knew it, months. Gradually, Buffy’s friends drifted away, only coming by now and then. Rupert Giles called him on a regular basis, and Faith came by to hang out with him from time to time. He suspected she was trying to keep him company, to cheer him up. He didn’t need cheering. He wasn’t allowed to be happy. He appreciated her efforts and did not dissuade her. She kept him informed on the new council’s machinations – it was a word that Faith used. To her, it sounded dire, and she wasn’t fond of councils, old or new. She didn’t take orders well, and, with her history, who could blame her? It came about that she was being sent back to the States with her watcher. She wasn’t happy to be leaving Angel in the lurch, her words, but Angel insisted that she go. Besides, she had a thing for Robin, her watcher. Who knew, she might even be in love? The slayer punched him in the arm and insisted that love was for saps. Angel could see the stars in her eyes as she said so. He said no more on the subject; his only response was a lopsided smirk. Faith left with his phone number and promises to keep in touch.

The season turned and the wind became bitter. Angel stayed when others did not. He nested. The derelict building became his home. He had money – something he had never let Cordelia know, she would have found some way to spend it. Later, Wolfram and Hart had helped swell the coffers of his bank account somewhat obscenely, and he wasn’t averse to spending it. He figured he had earned it. Eventually, he leased the building and had workmen carry out the repairs necessary to deem it safe.

He stood looking out of his second-storey window with its view of the alley. He could see the sign he had screwed into the wall. Angel Investigations, with an arrow pointing to the back door and the sign above it. His offices were on the ground floor. He did not want Buffy to miss him, if and when she managed a way through the dimensional walls. He knew his hopes were unlikely to be met. There was no guarantee that Buffy would emerge from the place she had been snatched. She could re-enter the dimension anywhere on earth, but he kept up the pretence that it would be here. When he went out he would stop for a moment in the alley and taste the air. It had become a habit for him, searching for a scent that told him Buffy had been there.

Sighing, he turned to go. Once more he thought about the way time worked in other dimensions. Was it already too late for Buffy?

Angel had a team working for him again. No matter how hard he tried to persuade people he did not need help, or friends, he accumulated them. Try as he might to keep them at a distance, they eventually wormed their way into his heart. He tried to keep them safe by going out alone. Sometimes they listened to his orders. He was kept busy looking after the helpless in London, and that included the people that worked with him.

The seasons changed, leaving Angel as he always was. Eternal and static. Faith flew to England to be married in a castle. She thought it was cool. Because Faith wasn’t religious by nature, and for Angel’s sake, the wedding was a civil ceremony and he had the honour of giving her away. It was a moment he would never forget, and he would cherish it forever. Robin’s handshake was a warm one and his smile genuine. The old gang was there, and although the memories were bittersweet, Angel was reminded of Sunnydale.

Angel was again in the alley, scenting the air, hoping against all hope he would catch a whiff of her scent. It was ludicrous, really, to expect to find any trace of his love. Everyone else had given up, and moved on. He knew he should, too. But he couldn’t help himself. Memories were all he had of her now. He came here to brood, as his son constantly reminded him. His soul would have been in danger from the moment Connor came back into his life, but thanks to Willow it was no longer an issue. He was so proud of his boy…

Angel came out of his musings, puzzled. Inhaling, there was the faintest hint of ozone in the air. A chemical smell mixed with a metallic one, if the metal was charged with electricity. The taste coated his teeth, and it wasn’t the familiar tang of copper. Eyes now focussing on the alley, he studied the area with care. There! A faint shimmer stirred in the air. If his heart could leap it would have. Instead, he stepped away from the disturbance, and the shimmer exploded into a flash of bright light. Bringing a hand up to his eyes in an effort to protect them, he could barely make out the form materializing within the light. The shape was that of a woman. She staggered through, and the light was gone. Blinking, he stared at the miracle standing before him.

“Angel?”

It was Buffy. It was Buffy as he knew her. She wasn’t a dried husk of a woman, fragile and bent, aged, as he had presumed, and that had been best outcome he could think of. She should have been dead.

He made his mouth work. “Buffy?”

Buffy looked about the alley. “What are you doing here, Angel? Did Giles tell you I was missing?”

“He did. Buffy…”

She tossed her hair.

“Where have I been?” She paced over to where he stood. She hadn’t noticed the sign on the wall, yet. “I suppose you’ve been trying to rescue me.” Her hazel eyes peered up at him, and he wanted to hold her, kiss her, keep her close and never let her go. He dared to reach out and caress her cheek. He hoped she wouldn’t notice the trembling of his fingers.

“We tried…”

“I know. The gateway can only be opened on the other side. I tell you, Angel, it was like paradise…heaven…where I…” She took a big breath before continuing.

“It only looked like heaven. Everything you could want. Your dreams come true…” She lowered her eyes, remembering something she had dreamed. He could feel her body warm. She was blushing.

“Anyway…it was all a scam. Keep the people, and by people I mean demons and humans of every type you could find, happy and compliant. The real threat was feeding off our dreams, and when those dreams were done, they fed off the bodies. It was all nicely sanitized. An apparently bloodless blood-letting. And you know what the kicker was? The fiends that were doing the snacking were disguised as ordinary folk. It was hard to tell who they were. I found a way. It took me three weeks to find out who, or what, had the knowledge to open the gate.”

“Buffy…”

She looked about the alley, finally noticing the sign.

“Angel Investigations? You set up business, already?”

The cleanliness of the alley caught her eye, as did the refurbished building behind him. Buffy’s eyes snapped to the vampire’s beside her.

“What’s going on?”

Angel wanted to kiss away the worry he could see forming behind Buffy’s eyes. He didn’t want to say the words that would send her tumbling towards anguish and despair.

“Buffy…I…things aren’t what they seem.”

She held up a hand. “I know what you’re going to say. I’ve been away three weeks and time moves more quickly in a demon dimension. I shouldn’t have been gone more than an hour or two, right? And, yet, somehow, that wasn’t the case.”

He nodded, and waited for her to work it out.

“So…with you setting up shop here means that time moved a little more slowly for me.”

A lump was forming in his throat. He could only nod.

“How long? A few months? A year?”

The look on his face told her it was more serious than that.

Scared now, her voice lowered to a whisper. “How long?”

“Thirty three years,” he croaked.

Buffy would have fallen had Angel not caught her. Face pale and limbs trembling, she cried, “Dawn? Willow? Xander?”

“All well. They have families now.”

She sobbed, “Giles?”

“Still alive.”

“He would be in his eighties…”

“Medicine has vastly improved life expectancy these days. He could live to be a hundred.”

Tears spilled from Buffy’s eyes, and ran down ashen cheeks.

Buffy brought her hands to her ears as if she couldn’t bear to hear any more. She squeezed her eyes closed. Angel held her, letting her tears soak into his coat. Finally, her legs gave out. Angel lifted her up and, marvelling at how little she weighed, carried her inside to his apartment. She clutched at him when he tried to lay her on his bed, so he sat holding her close while she tried to come to terms with what had happened. It wouldn’t be easy for her, he knew. To see her sister and friends aged, and with families - a huge chunk of their lives she had missed - was going to be the hardest of all to bear. Angel knew first hand how devastating that could be. Otherwise, Buffy would adapt to the world. She was a survivor. It was what she did. It was what they all had to do.

Eventually, her tears dried up but she did not move out of his arms. Angel would not budge until Buffy wanted him to. They sat unmoving, two statues frozen in time, in the darkness of his room. The minutes ticked by.

“You haven’t changed. I’m glad…I don’t want to be the only freak…” she whispered, her throat tight and hurting and thick with tears.

He shook his head. He kissed her hair. “You’re not a freak.”

“I’m sorry, Angel…you know what I mean. Everyone I know has gotten older. I never knew how that must make you feel. I’ve missed so much,” she managed to say. She could feel her throat closing up again.

Knowing that platitudes would not help, he said, “I’m a grandfather now.” That brought her head up. “Connor?” she asked, amazed, her own troubles pushed aside for a moment. He had told her about his son on the day Buffy had found him, still hurting and grieving over the loss of his friends, months after his battle with the demon forces sent by the Senior Partners. They had stayed in contact ever since, wanting never to be so far out of touch that they couldn’t help one another in their times of need.

“A boy and a girl. They’re adults now.”

“Do you see them at all?”

“They live in the States now, but they visit. Before Connor was married he lived here with me for a while. He runs the American branch of the business.”

“I am so happy for you, Angel. You never got to have that when…” Tears threatened again and she blinked them away. Buffy felt like she had fallen down the rabbit hole when she had inadvertently run through the dimensional gateway. It did not compare to how she was feeling now. She wanted to hold onto Angel and never let go. He was her constant, unchanging, and she needed that. Only he could understand what she was going through. She felt hollow, a shell, a ghost returned to life to find that life had moved on, leaving her a pale imitation. The world was no longer the one she knew. She wanted it all to stop and go back to the way it was.

She…remembered him saying something about Dawn.

“You say that Dawn has a family?”

“Two girls and a boy. Willow and Oz have a daughter, and Xander has two sons.”

“I guess I’m an aunt…wait!” Buffy’s eyes were huge. “Willow and Oz are married?”

Angel chuckled. Buffy was going to be alright, he realised. It was not going to be easy for her. She would need his support and his love to get through this. If she wanted him to stay, and he prayed with all his being that she would, he would be there for her, forever.

The End

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Author's Notes:
Rating: PG
Summary: Angel’s life has been defined by many moments spent in alleys. Things haven’t changed.
Notes: I based Madame Celeste on the expert, Mistress Meema, Lorne procured for the team to seal the rift that Connor used to escape from Quor-toth. I thought there had to be more than one inter-dimensional expert in the world.
Ollie, the children-snatching demon, is similar to the drooling demon that was singing for Lorne in Slouching Toward Bethlehem. We never learned his name. He had two mouths. The demon mouth was hidden inside his human-looking one.
A special thanks to my friend Jo. Her advice and beta has been invaluable to me. Thanks, sweetie.

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