She’d left her husband for him. She had figured, in brief moments of fancy – because let’s face it, she was selfish and thought about that kind of thing, him returning all of a sudden to sweep her off her feet – that it would be some sort of grand gesture, like in the movies. Maybe she’d run out of the church, white lace trailing behind her, a chain she’d soon be free of, their friends gasping in horror . . . or maybe she’d sashay to a purring getaway car with chic luggage, Danny at her heels, begging her not to go. But reality delivered passively, as it tended to do. She’d gotten a phone call that was mostly static, and when she’d hung up, she’d gone upstairs and packed her – less chic than she felt she deserved; Danny swore they’d get a new set, but he didn’t really care about that kind of thing, so it just stayed promised and undone – suitcase and booked a flight to a city she hadn’t heard of twenty minutes ago. She’d put the one-way ticket on her MasterCard without flinching, even though it cost more than the trip to Aruba for their honeymoon and that had been first class and not on some crop-hopper that may or may not fail to get her there in one piece. She’d carried the suitcase downstairs and set it by the door and wondered how bad traffic was on the interstate and whether they had in-flight movies on crop-hoppers.
Danny had been roused enough by this sudden odd flurry of activity to leave his study and come to investigate.
“Um . . . what’s with the suitcase? You going somewhere?”
“Sudan. Which car do you want me to drive to the airport?”
He’d blinked a few times, sluggishly, unsure of how to react.
“What’s that?” he’d responded slowly.
“It’s a country in northern Africa,” she’d replied, deadpan. “On the Nile. Lots of sand and camels, but no Charlton Heston movies made there.”
“No, I know what Sudan is, I—you’re going there why?”
She’d let her eyes fall to the face of her watch. She didn’t want to be late for her flight.
“I got a call from a doctor at a hospital in Kassala . . . which is a city in Sudan, apparently. . . . She said Angel’s there, and he’s asking for me.”
She hadn’t bothered to raise her eyes from her watch to look Danny in the eye, so she didn’t catch his expression, but she’d had a pretty good idea what it looked like.
“Angel. Angel your first love Angel.”
It hadn’t been a question. She’d looked up then.
“That’s the one,” she said softly.
“How long are you going to be gone?”
“I don’t know. As long as he needs me.”
Danny’s mouth had hardened into a thin gray line. “If you think I’m letting my wife fly halfway around the world to play nurse to some old boyfriend, you have got another thing coming.”
He should have known better than that. To be fair, it was not in his usual character to go around making bold statements like that, and he normally didn’t throw his weight around with her; she really had just thrown all this on him.
Still, he should have known better.
“Fine,” she’d said quietly. “I’ll make it easy for you, then.”
There had been no malice nipping at her. All she’d been thinking was how difficult and expensive it would be if she missed her flight, and what would be the quickest, most painless way to slither away from the situation. She’d slid the rings from the third finger of her left hand and laid them on the table at her side, the one they always threw their keys on when they came in. The keys from the Range Rover, in fact, had still been sitting there from the last time she’d gone grocery shopping; she’d palmed them.
“I’ll take the SUV to the airport, if that’s okay.”
He’d gaped at her. “Buffy . . . what the fuck are you doing? You can’t be serious.”
She’d shrugged, looking at her watch again. “You drive the Lexus more, anyway. Besides, the keys are upstairs . . .”
He’d come forward, suddenly enough that she hadn’t had time to expect it, and taken her by the arms forcefully enough to make her drop the keys.
“I mean this. Throwing your life away to run off to Africa, I—you can’t be serious . . .”
She’d met his eyes. “You can mail me the papers in Sudan. Get your hands off of me.”
This time, he’d known better, and even though he’d never seen what a Slayer really was, he’d seen her pick up enough furniture one-handed while vacuuming to know not to press her. She’d bent to pick up the keys, checked her watch one last time, then taken her suitcase out to the car. He hadn’t followed her.
Now, sitting in her heinously expensive window seat looking out over the Atlantic Ocean on the way to Africa, she wondered if he’d been right. She hadn’t heard from Angel since the last time she’d seen him, almost four years ago; since then she’d gotten married and built up a halfway decent job that didn’t involve killing things, and she and Danny had a house and a yard and a big television, all the trappings that young, professional couples were supposed to have. Was she throwing it all away on some stupid, fruitless trek to the desert?
“I didn’t mention that we love each other,” she said dully to the wisps of clouds outside the thick Plexiglas shield between her and oblivion. The dark-skinned man beside her was asleep, snoring, and didn’t notice her crestfallen face. She thought that two years and three months wasn’t nearly long enough for the love to go out of a marriage.
Buffy looked down at her left hand, at the slight tan line where her rings usually sat. It was barely noticeable to anyone who wasn’t looking for it, but it looked obscene to her. She wished she had something to cover it up with: another ring, makeup, mittens, anything. She was ashamed.
Of what, she wasn’t sure. The little pale line seemed too small to produce such a huge feeling within her. Bristling beneath the unpleasantness, she leaned back in the not-quite-comfort of her chair and closed her eyes, tried to sleep.
She wondered why Angel was asking for her. What he was doing in a Sudanese hospital.
And if he was okay.
The only major airport in northern Sudan was in its capital, Khartoum, so she had no choice but to end her flight there, even though it was over two-hundred-and-fifty miles away from Kassala. She had asked the doctor, Sana, on the phone about taking a smaller commuter flight to Kassala, but Sana had warned her against it: the planes in Sudan were either owned by the government or they were privately owned. Either way, you couldn’t trust them. Even though it would take longer, it would be safer to take the train.
The airport at Khartoum was hot and crowded, a virtual bazaar; it was like a circus compared to LAX. She looked around for a sign pointing her toward baggage claim; a sick feeling condensed in her stomach when all she saw was the squashed treble clefs of Arabic script glaring out at her from every surface. Sana hadn’t said anything about her needing to know Arabic. Certainly Angel had told her that she didn’t speak it, that she’d hardly been able to wade through two years of French in high school . . . ?
As soon as her eyes found someone in a uniform, she caught their arm, desperate.
“Please,” she said catching the irritated Arab-dark eyes. “I need help, I’m lost . . . I need to find my bag.”
He pulled his arm away from her and said something sharp in a short, foreign tongue to another approaching uniform. The sick feeling in Buffy’s stomach rollicked.
“You’re lost?” the second uniform asked after a moment, his English slightly stilted but not too accented.
The sick feeling dissipated. He spoke English; he was going to help her . . .
“Yes,” she replied gratefully. “I need to find the baggage claim, but all the signs are in Arabic and I don’t speak—”
“Passport,” he said lazily, his heavily hooded eyes dropping over her carelessly.
She frowned but handed him her papers. He looked over them with the same lazy perusal.
“What business do you have in Khartoum?”
“None. I’m going to Kassala, I’m meeting a friend there; he’s been injured—”
His eyes flickered up from the blue wallet to her flushed face. “Your visa does not give you clearance to leave Khartoum.”
The blush darkened, pooling deep crimson at the apples of her cheeks and over her breasts. “That can’t be right.”
“This isn’t America. You can’t just traipse around wherever you please. We have regulations to be adhered to.”
She could feel her muscles tensing; her first instinct was to fight her way out of this situation. But she could see five security guards just from where she was standing, their weapons proudly displayed, and there were sure to be more: that would be stupid.
“Fine,” she said tersely. “What do I do to get clearance for Kassala? Is there someone I have to pay . . .?”
The guard she’d been conversing with relayed something in the mystery language to his silent partner; the two of them laughed, and the sick feeling crept stealthily up her throat.
“No, sister,” the guard said. “You have to go through customs.”
The catastrophe in Los Angeles had been spectacular enough to attract media attention overseas, although – thankfully – small enough that the coverage had been brief, a blurb on the “What’s Happening Around the Globe” that would have been missed had it been anywhere but LA or Manhattan. A law firm destroyed under freak circumstances, and a cave-in – they were blaming defunct subway tunnels – causing a city block to collapse. Buffy had been curled up on the couch, trying creative ways of dissuading the Immortal of his nightly I-need-to-watch-the-news habit – he was steadfast in his routines; she only succeeded in breaking his concentration about once a week, and the rest of the time she had to suffer through – when she saw it. A knot had condensed in her stomach; Angel had to be there, he had to be involved, she knew it. Why hadn’t he called her for help? An event like that surely had precipitating factors. Desperately, she’d untangled herself from her lover and scrambled from the couch and to the phone, punched in a number she’d memorized but never used . . . the operator’s ominously pleasant voice, telling her the number she’d dialed was no longer in service.
Another half-dozen frantic phone calls to various points around the globe had uncovered the truth – the frantic phone calls that Angel had made over the past year, the calls for help that had been rebutted with her name but without her knowledge and – worse – the trip to Los Angeles to take the rogue Slayer from his hands.
It was months before she spoke to some of her lifelong friends again, her rage slow-burning. The Immortal had barely put up a fight when she said she was flying to LA to find Angel, just said lethargically that if she left, she couldn’t count on him being there when she returned. She’d left stupidly angry, eyes burning with tears of undetermined parentage: sorrow or ire. Fine. She couldn’t depend on him, either; the only constant in her life was chasing Angel.
Her flight had gotten her there by daybreak the next morning, and she’d barely seen two more sunrises before she’d tracked him down. But she’d had help. Giles, realizing immediately the depth of her fury, had given her the names of some contacts in the area to aid her, in hopes of not completely destroying the bridge between them. She’d recognized the gesture; although she was still furious with him, the wound healed clean, and the act was enough that it would have even if his contacts hadn’t led her to Angel’s hospital room within forty-eight hours.
Hospital room. She had blanked at the words when the grizzled little bounty hunter had told her that Angel was holed up in Cedars-Sinai.
“You’re kidding me, right?”
“Nope. Apparently he’s pretty badly hurt.”
“But . . . he can’t be in a hospital. He’s a vampire.”
The little troll had shrugged. “That’s what I thought, too.”
Customs was different in Khartoum. Normally this was the kind of thing she would have beaten a man unconscious for, but she kept Angel’s image in her head and bit her tongue, steeled her body, and took it. The guards led her into a room off the main floor, away from the bazaar bustle, and sat her down at a long, bare table. They opened up her luggage – at least they’d found it – and went through it, piece by piece, taking everything that could be considered objectionable or dangerous. Then they stood her up and stripped her down, had her spread, and searched her slowly. She knew there was no need for this. She knew she wasn’t a suspect of terrorism.
She kept Angel’s image in her head and bit her tongue, steeled her body, and took it. The whole ordeal took under forty minutes, and afterwards they stamped her passport with a one-month visa for Kassala, let her take what was left of her luggage, and pointed her towards the train depot.
She had gone to see him immediately, although the strange circumstances of the situation had left her with the nagging suspicion that this could all be a trap, that Angel was really dust in the wind . . .
But no. She’d come to the room number Giles’s bounty hunter had given her, and there he’d been, looking pale and battered but alive. She had literally run to his bedside and had him under her hands in seconds, just to reaffirm the reality of his flesh.
Angel had gazed up at her oddly, one eye bruised half-shut, the other narrowed in distrust. “Buffy?”
She’d smiled and pulled a chair up to his bed, sat beside him, so that they were roughly at eye level. “Angel. Hi.”
“Are you real?”
She’d closed a hand around his, given it a soft squeeze. “I’m real. How are you feeling?”
He had looked horrible just from what she could see above the blankets, and she’d been a little afraid to hear his answer. To her horror, he had closed his eyes and shuddered visibly before answering. “They’re all dead,” he’d whispered. “Cordelia, Gunn, Fred, Wesley, Spike . . .”
“And you’re not,” she had answered slowly. There were other things she should have said, but she couldn’t, too distracted by seeing him and by the wires going into him, by the constant music of the heart monitor that was hooked into him, the heart monitor, Angel, how did this happen, how could you not tell me?
“No,” he had replied, tortured. “They’re dead because I wasn’t strong enough, and I’m alive, because . . . well, maybe because I should have to live with it.”
“But . . . how did this happen?”
And he had laughed, an ugly noise. “It’s a gift, Buffy.”
She’d had a thousand more questions, but the look on his face was finally enough that she’d had to stop. She had reached out with the hand not holding his, reached out to stroke his face and comfort him; he had shuddered away from her like a bird with a broken wing, flinching, crying. He’d taken his hand back, too, recoiling into a ball like an injured animal, even though it was obviously painful; he’d moaned with the effort, but he hadn’t stopped. He’d had to get away from her that badly, had to hide his weeping face from her.
His voice had been barely human. Buffy had hurried from the room before she was sick.
She wanted to take a taxi to the train station, but she couldn’t find a driver that spoke English, and after the ordeal with customs she was afraid to enlist the aid of any of the guards to help with translation. In any event, the English-speaking guard had told her that the train depot was less than a mile from the airport, and she could walk it.
Buffy had never been to Africa, although from all the Arabic that was washing over her ears, from the sand that had blown up to meet them as the plane descended, she was identifying Sudan more and more as a country of the Middle East; she’d never been there, either. She’d toured around Europe some, and a little of Asia, but mostly she didn’t have much taste for travel. She didn’t like living out of suitcases, and she didn’t like hotel shampoos and foreign cuisine, and she despised not knowing the language or the lay of the land. There were few things that she disliked more than not being in control of a situation, and trekking the globe brought about too many ways to be helpless. It would be different if she had a tongue for languages, like Dawn, or if she could instinctually know north, like Willow with one of her spells, but when she traveled she ended up getting frustrated and fighting her way out. Diplomacy was not really her thing. She’d always hoped that she’d get more mellow as she got older, because she certainly saw the beauty in things, even things she couldn’t understand – the architecture and, okay, the men of Rome, for instance, had held a particular draw – but it didn’t seem to happen. She wasn’t mellowing; she just kept being Buffy, all wound up and confused.
Khartoum, she had read in her in-flight magazine, was the capital of Sudan, and the second-largest city. It was certainly busy like a large capital city; there was traffic everywhere, although the concept of traffic in Khartoum was somewhat different than the concept of traffic that she was used to. The streets were paved, but they were still clouded by the sand that was flying around everywhere, and crazy with vehicles rushing every which way: buses, trucks, bicycles. Pedestrians and livestock ran manically in and out throughout the melee, and there didn’t seem to be any posted traffic laws; instead of stopping and signaling, people in cars and on the street shouted and honked at one another to signal their intentions.
“Definitely glad I didn’t take a cab,” Buffy muttered to herself, and hurried along in the direction of the train station.
The morning sun was beating down upon her, shining impossibly bright. It was insanely hot, a dry heat that made her body beg for water. It was before noon and she was wearing light clothing and just walking easily along, and still a light sheen of sweat started to rise along her skin. She looked around her; everywhere she could see Muslim women in their hijabs. She didn’t know how they could stand to be out in this unbearable heat under all that cloth for even a second, let alone their whole lives. They didn’t seem bothered; she wondered if they knew something she didn’t.
She heard a familiar noise, and her heart gave a little surge of hope: a train whistle. She quickened her pace and soon she saw some resting engines, and not far beyond, a great fervent crowd. The station.
On her way to buy a ticket, Buffy passed the sleeping locomotives. They looked much older and smaller than any she had seen – not that she had seen many – but she packed her worry away; Sana had said something about the railway system in Sudan being somewhat behind that of the railway system in Europe, about the tracks being narrower . . . Buffy didn’t really understand what she was talking about, but it’s not like she was going to spend very much time on the thing, was she? Kassala was only two hundred and fifty miles from Khartoum.
Buffy prayed for two things as she approached the ticket window: a teller that spoke English, and better luck here than at the baggage claim. She seemed to have good fortune immediately; the teller was a woman, a dark-skinned Muslim with a modest white hijab.
Buffy stepped up nervously, setting her suitcase down so she could get her credit card out of her pocket.
“I need a ticket to Kassala.”
The woman didn’t say anything at first, and a feeling of dread began to rise in Buffy’s stomach; she didn’t speak any English, she was going to be trapped here in Khartoum, she was going to have to fly on the questionable airlines . . .
“Kassala?” the woman asked finally.
“Yes,” Buffy answered, exhaling.
“When?” It heavily accented, but it was English.
Buffy could have kissed her. “As soon as possible. Now.”
“Next one is . . . twenty minutes.”
“Yes, fine, perfect.”
Buffy didn’t understand. “Huh?”
“There are three classes: first class is nicest, costs the most. Then second class. Then third class, which is free. You ride on the roof.”
Buffy blinked. “What? You ride where?”
The woman didn’t look at all fazed. “The roof.”
“Like . . . the top part of the train?”
“Yes.” “Um, no. No roof sitting for me. First class is fine. Here.”
She handed the woman her MasterCard; she ran it through a machine that looked much too modern to be anywhere where people rode on the roofs of trains. Buffy signed for the transaction, put her card and her ticket in her pocket, and took her suitcase to be stowed at the woman’s request. That was relatively stress-free; she carried it around to the other side of the building and an Arab boy took it and threw it in his little cart with a bunch of other bags to be taken on the train. Buffy was worried about it for approximately thirteen seconds, until she remembered what had happened to her luggage at the airport and that nothing really important was in there and she could always just buy new stuff.
There was a payphone by the ticket window; Buffy called Sana and told her when her train was leaving. Sana said she’d meet her at the station in Kassala, and told her to have a good trip. Buffy was about to ask about what she should expect on the train, but the woman at the ticket window shouted to her; her train was boarding. She pointed, and Buffy excused herself from the conversation quickly and followed a great moving group of people to the only train in evidence at the moment. The woman had been telling the truth; people were climbing to the top of the train and settling down for the ride. There were, at this point, actually more people on the roof than inside the train, which seemed silly to Buffy, but she guessed that if you could save a buck while you traveled . . . she dismissed the thought and hurried to board, slipping in among the snaking line of passengers, hastily pulling her ticket out from her pocket. A uniformed man barely glanced at her ticket before hustling her inside the car and pointing to her seat. It was dark in the car, and a little musty, and the seat was a bit stiff and uncomfortable, but she was by the window and she’d have fresh air and could look out and watch the country pass by until she got to Kassala . . . and at least she wasn’t riding on the roof. You had to count your blessings.
She looked around her compartment curiously; there were only five other people there, and the uniformed man wasn’t leading anyone else in. The other compartments were being filled to teeming; they were bustling, chattering, and above, she could hear people on the roof. She frowned. Maybe there was something wrong with her compartment . . . then she remembered she’d supposedly paid for first class. That was just fine with her. The less fish-out-of-water she had to feel, the better.
Buffy leaned back in her seat and studied her ticket for boredom. Most of it she couldn’t read – it was in the lovely but unintelligible Arabic script – but numbers were the same as in America, and she could make those out. Wait a damn minute. Unless they had a completely different system of time over here – which could be the case, but seemed kind of unlikely – it was going to take almost three hours to get to Kassala. But it was only two hundred and fifty miles away! It would take almost less time to drive there in a car.
Buffy moaned and slunk down in her seat. Crap. Stupid Sudan.
A young doctor had seen her leaving Angel’s hospital room and stopped her, a curious expression on his face.
“I didn’t know he had anyone,” he’d said softly.
“I was just leaving,” she’d muttered. She hadn’t been quite sure whether or not she was going to be ill, and she hadn’t wanted to stay and find out there, with an audience.
“How is he?”
That had struck her as an odd question coming from a doctor.
“Um . . . I’m not sure. Aren’t you the doctor?”
The man had smiled a little, sadly. “I meant emotionally. Sorry. Physically, he’s healing all right, although he was pretty beat up; they found him under all that rubble, you know, the cave in?”
Buffy had nodded numbly. “I know.”
“But emotionally . . . ? Survivor’s guilt. He’s on suicide watch—” Buffy’s breath had caught in her chest. “—the first few days, he had a breathing tube, and he pulled that out; he’s pulled the IV’s several times . . . he asked for some basic toiletries, you know: toothbrush, comb, razor so he could shave: he slit his wrists. I used to work on the psych ward, but I’ve seen precious few people so determined to die.”
Buffy had smiled grimly. “That’s funny. Because I’ve never known anyone who wanted so desperately to be alive.”
The train ride was bumpy and shuddery and dusty and loud, and it was indeed three hours later that a grumpy Buffy was delivered to the train depot in Kassala. She hastily departed the shaky locomotive, and looked around desperately for Sana, hoping that the woman hadn’t already left; surely she couldn’t have anticipated that the stupid train would take three hours to get there from Khartoum?
A small, light-complexioned Arab woman with pretty features approached her. She was wearing street clothes; Buffy frowned. She thought the doctor was coming to meet her.
“Buffy?” the woman asked. Her voice was light, clear, and slightly lilted with accent, every word a musical question.
Buffy forced a smile and walked toward her. “Hi.”
“Hello. I am Sana. I hope your trip was not too unpleasant.”
“Sana? I thought . . . I thought you were the doctor.”
She smiled radiantly. “Yes. We spoke on the phone?”
Buffy nodded numbly. “Yeah. Sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude; I just thought you’d be wearing a stethoscope or something more doctory. Sorry. It’s been kind of a long day.”
Sana nodded. “I understand,” she said, leading Buffy through the crowds to the baggage terminal. “But I’m surprised it wasn’t a long three days. Usually, they like to make foreigners wait for their passports to clear.”
Buffy creased her brow. “What do you mean?”
“It’s a game they like to play. Usually the officials like to make Europeans sit around Khartoum for a few days waiting for their passport clearance—”
Buffy spied her bag but did nothing, stilled by a slow-burning anger.
“Wait. You knew something like that could happen?”
Sana shrugged. “Yes. But what could I do? I do not have the power to authorize passport clearance for you, and I thought if I told you over the phone, it would only frustrate you. Angel says you are quick-tempered. You are only lucky this does not happen to you.”
Buffy yanked her suitcase violently from the luggage bin.
“No, I paid the guards in customs,” she snapped.
Sana’s features stilled suddenly.
“I have heard about that,” she said quietly. “I am sorry. They knew you were American; they would not do that to a Muslim woman. But you . . . they could tell. You look American, so—what is the word for your complexion, your hair color?”
Buffy was so startled by the question that it threw some of her anger off-kilter. Sana spoke English so well that she’d forgotten until now that it must be her second language.
“Huh? Um, blonde,” she answered clumsily.
“Yes. So blonde, it’s easy to tell.”
Sana was flushed beneath her hijab, and Buffy suddenly felt a stab of guilt for telling her what had happened. It hadn’t been her fault; what could she have done to stop it?
To change the subject, she said, “You didn’t know ‘blonde?’ How did you know what I looked like, then; didn’t Angel describe me to you?”
Sana smiled, the blush fading. “He did. At length, and fondly . . . but in Arabic.”
“You talk in Arabic?” she asked, letting Sana lead her to the street, away from the greater bustle near the luggage terminal and the unloading platform. She didn’t doubt that Angel knew Arabic, but for some reason she didn’t imagine him speaking it unless he had to.
“Yes. English, it makes some people nervous.”
“Do you have a lot of people listening to your conversations?”
“It’s always best to be careful. It’s not like America.”
“What does that—”
Sana cut her off. “We’ll take a taxi to the hospital, yes?”
They were at the edge of the manic street – unpaved – bustling with buses and taxis and bicycles, spilling over with fruit vendors and runaway chickens and ambling, arguing pedestrians. Buffy was a little anxious about trusting a cab driver to get her through this mess in one piece, but she was exhausted after the train ride and didn’t want to walk through it, either, so she reluctantly agreed.
Sudanese taxicabs were not the big, yellow beetles scurrying about the cities of the US that she had become acclimated to over her years. Buffy had been to other countries, and she knew that even in other English-speaking countries taxis looked different, and she wasn’t quite sure why she was expecting a bright yellow straight-out-of-New-York version here, but when Sana led her up to their chariot-for-hire, she was confused.
“That’s just a car,” she said dully.
“It is a taxi,” Sana corrected her, and started chatting in Arabic with the driver, who was leaning lazily against the hood of his just-a-car, which really wasn’t: it looked like it had been outfitted for some sort of battle: it had super-sized wheels and a big wooden rack bolted – obviously by hand – to the back. Buffy studied it dubiously while Sana talked to the driver – what could be taking that long? – a nervous feeling blooming in her stomach.
“All right,” Sana said finally. “Get in, let’s go.”
“What took so long?” Buffy asked as she slid into the taxi beside Sana.
“I had to negotiate a price,” the doctor explained.
“Negotiate? Isn’t there just a fare?”
“Oh, no. It’s not like America; you bargain with the driver to decide on a fair price for the number of passengers and their baggage and livestock.”
Buffy looked around the car dubiously for signs of recent four-legged passengers.
“Livestock?” she repeated dully. “Is that what the thing on back’s for?”
“Yes, sometimes, although passengers will sometimes ride on there, too.”
“You guys are brave out here,” Buffy said. “People on the backs of cabs, people on top of trains . . . I can’t wait to see the hospital. Do you even use anesthetic?”
Sana was going to answer, but the taxi started moving. In this sense, “started moving” is used in the way you might say, “the rocket started moving” or “the earth started moving.” Buffy was thrown against the door of the taxi; there were no seatbelts in the vehicle; but Sana had ridden in one before and knew how to plant her legs and where to grab for purchase with her hands, so she was tossed about less.
“Jesus!” Buffy yelled.
The driver answered back in a volley of Arabic.
“Would you like me to translate?” Sana offered.
Buffy flinched. “Probably not. It’s all bad, isn’t it?”
Sana smiled indulgently. “Nothing I would say.”
The driver took a wild turn to avoid running over a chicken. On the unpaved sand streets of Kassala, this was a crazy thing to do, and the taxi wobbled out of control as the driver strove to correct. Buffy was tossed around, grabbing desperately at the seat in front of her – the driver’s – to still herself; he cursed at her in Arabic for jarring his seat, and she yelled at him in English for driving like a crazy person.
For a five-minute drive, it felt like hours, and Buffy almost kissed the ground when they arrived at the hospital in one piece.
She had appeared like clockwork every day until he was released. The first two days, he had asked her pointblank to leave, and the first day she’d just left again; the second day she’d stayed and he’d asked a nurse to have her removed, and she’d left as security was on their way to escort her from the premises. The third day, he had refused to make eye contact, and the two of them had sat until visitor’s hours were over in a stony silence, four hours of pretending the other didn’t exist.
On the fourth day, she’d arrived when he was having his bandages changed and he had colored in shame, but didn’t ask her to go, even though the nurse had prompted him on the matter. In truth, Buffy’d had to force herself to stay through it; even after hell, he hadn’t looked like that, and she had bitten the insides of her cheeks to ensure against tears. After the nurse had finished with his dressings, she’d helped him back into bed and said in a tone so bright that Buffy knew it was for her benefit rather than Angel’s how nice it was to see someone visiting him, and maybe your pretty girlfriend can convince you to eat something so you can get off this IV. Buffy had been confused; she’d thought the IV’s were medicine. She’d asked the nurse about it; yes, Angel was getting drugs intravenously, but since he had refused to eat since he’d been checked in, they were also giving him nutrients and a saline solution to keep him sated and hydrated. Buffy was so furious with him that she’d stormed out wordlessly as soon as the nurse toddled away.
She’d still been angry the fifth day, but it was Angel, so she’d gone in and didn’t say anything, just went in at the usual time and sat down silently, refusing to look at him. As soon as she sat down, though, he’d spoken:
“I’ll eat something if you’ll keep coming.”
She’d raised her red-rimmed eyes to him. “Do you know you’re on suicide watch?”
No emotional response had reflected in his face. “It doesn’t surprise me. But no one told me, no.”
She’d shaken her head. She’d been so angry with him. “I can’t believe you would throw away this beautiful gift.”
He’d looked at her for a long time without speaking. Finally, he’d said again, “I’ll eat something if you’ll keep coming.”
She’d sighed. “It’s a start.”
From the outside, the hospital was fairly small, and generally undistinguishable from other Sudanese buildings except it had a white flag with a red cross hanging from the front. Sana showed her inside with an obvious air of pride, and rattling off figures Buffy would soon forget concerning the building’s construction and how many doctors and nurses were staffed there, and so on.
“Right now, we have just under thirty patients; there are no infectious disease patients – cholera, typhoid – we send them to the big hospital in Khartoum if they’re foreigners or wealthy, or to hospices if they’re not. Angel, he was kind of surprising; we don’t usually see many Anglos in here—”
And then the realization struck her that Angel was just moments away . . . suddenly there were butterflies in her stomach, fluttering wildly. She brought a hand to her hair abruptly, girlishly; she probably looked awful, all day spent in transit, in heat and dust and humiliation.
She stopped walking.
“Sana . . . is there someplace I could shower and change my clothes first? I-I probably look terrible from the train and everything . . .”
She could feel her cheeks heating, and she wasn’t sure how ashamed she should be. Weren’t Muslim women all about modesty? But Sana looked amused, knowing even, as she nodded and showed her to a tiny bathroom on the ground floor.
“I’m going to go upstairs and tell him you’re here; he’s been worried about your travel. We’ll be on the second floor – just up one floor – when you’re finished.”
“It’s an open room. Don’t worry, you’ll find us.”
She glided quietly away; Angel was in good company here, Buffy thought, closing the door behind her and starting to strip. Nobody else made any noise when they walked, either . . . maybe it was the shoes. Everyone wore sandals or slippers. Big on stealth.
She let down her hair and stepped into the shower. It was a bit of an older model than she was used to, but the mechanics were basically the same, and in a moment she had it on; she’d worried, briefly, about the water, but it was clean, clear, and cool, and it felt like heaven. She let the torrents rinse away the sand and fatigue from her weary flesh and then shut it off. She located a towel, dried off quickly, and put on fresh clothing and light makeup from her suitcase, brushed her hair and pulled it up off her neck in a loose chignon. (It was so hot here!)
Buffy took a deep breath and walked upstairs to meet Angel.
Angel had been released on the ninth day. Buffy had double-checked his sizes and gone out and bought him some clothes for the occasion, since the ones he had arrived in were tattered and bloody and burnt. All showered and dressed up in brand new clothes, he had looked almost healthy, but he’d hurt. Additionally, the young doctor she had spoken to her first day in LA hadn’t wanted to release him, but there had been no physical reason to keep him anymore, really. All of his sutures had been holding, most of his wounds had stopped weeping, and the majority of his bruises had faded to yellow and gray. Buffy had gotten him to eat, so he had been weaned off the IV’s for sustenance, and he had never complained of pain, so he hadn’t needed them for narcotics. But the doctor had worried about the suicide watch, and had wanted to move Angel downstairs to psych to be watched for a little while, or maybe just have him come in for outpatient therapy. He had come by and mentioned this; Angel had stared at him stonily and told him to fuck off. He was a grown man and he would kill himself if he liked.
Buffy had been staying in a nearby hotel. When Angel was released, he’d moved in automatically, without question; there was never really a decision made, it was just the immediate actiont. They’d taken a cab from the hospital to the hotel and Buffy’d lain in the king size bed with Angel until he fell asleep. They needed an apartment, but first they needed to figure out where they wanted to go; Buffy had an apartment in Rome, an apartment she shared with Andrew and Dawn, but did they want to stay in Rome? And was she automatically taking Angel with her, was this permanent? She’d kind of adopted him like a hurt puppy, without even talking to him about it. She knew she didn’t want to stay in Los Angeles, and knew that he probably didn’t either, knew for sure that it couldn’t be good for him to stay in the city where all of his friends’ bodies were buried. He would heal best away from their ghosts.
She’d left him sleeping in the bed and went through the bag the people at the hospital had packed for him. Gauze and cotton batting and surgical tape for dressing his wounds, which the chatty nurse had shown her how to do; a pamphlet on outpatient therapy probably stuck in there by the young doctor, Angel would be thrilled; and several tall, slim orange bottles of prescriptions and little pamphlets of instructions for each of them. Buffy had taken them out of the bag, lined them up on the bedside table. She’d wanted to make sure that he was taken care of, and she hadn’t known much about doctoring. There were three bottles: two painkillers – a narcotic and an anti-inflammatory agent – and an antibiotic. The antibiotic he had to take on a schedule, but the painkillers he could take whenever he liked. She’d frowned. That would be more difficult; Angel didn’t talk about pain. He had to work through all the pain.
She’d sighed, made a mental note of the schedule for his antibiotics, and had carefully replaced everything in the bag. Then she’d crawled back in bed with him, careful not to bump any of his tender spots, but still getting as close as possible. No substitute for TLC.
They had been in the hotel three days when it came time to bathe Angel and change his bandages. She had thought it would be hard or sexual, but it turned out to be neither. The only part that was hard was when she was almost finished, the bandages at his wrists where he’d tried to kill himself.
“Angel, we have to talk,” she’d said, circling gauze around his forearms.
“Okay.” He was more laconic than ever.
“I love you. I love you so, so much, and I want to be with you . . . and I’ll do anything to be with you, but . . . but I won’t watch you destroy yourself. If you . . . I can’t do it, okay? If you do this kind of thing again, I’m gone, all right?”
He’d tensed. “You don’t want me to go therapy, do you?”
“What? No, it’s not about that. But I’m not strong enough to live through watching you die. No suicide attempts. That means you eat, and everything, okay?”
For a few weeks, everything had been good. Angel had healed under her tender patronage, and eventually his hard veneer had been sanded down enough that sleeping in the same bed and sharing the same living space had meant cuddling, then kissing, then making slow, sweet, passionate love for hours on every surface of the hotel room. As Angel’s body had gotten its flexibility and resiliency back, they had taken it for test drives doing things that made them both keen and moan. (Angel had had a game that had involved making Buffy scream, to her delight – obviously – and his, though not their neighbors’; Buffy had sworn she was waiting until he was up to his full strength to try a similar version on him, but he’d suspected she just didn’t have the moves).
But it couldn’t last.
She’d gone shopping one afternoon and was gone too long or Angel saw something on television that reminded him of Fred, or any number of things. She didn’t know; she’d never asked. In any event, when she’d gotten home, she had found the bathroom painted in blood: Angel had broken the mirror and used an angry knife of glass to slice open his throat.
She hadn’t even been angry. She had not been angry, or even that worried. She had been disappointed. Just once, Angel, couldn’t your love for me be more powerful than your grief?
She had thought ironically of all those prescription bottles . . . all those narcotics he’d never taken, because he didn’t really understand what they were for. . . . He had known, from a theoretical standpoint, that they were to cure pain, but he had not reconciled that with the actual use of the drugs. Angel didn’t understand that sometimes death could come on little cat feet and pull you under quietly; to him, it was always bloody and fast, a quick jerk at the throat.
She had helped him sit up, propping his back against the wall, and staunched the bleeding with a towel. She’d called 911 from the hotel’s phone and explained the situation with amazing calm – she really hadn’t been that worried. She’d felt like she should feel more concern for him. – and then went back into the bathroom and sat with Angel, kept him awake, comforted him until the ambulance came. He had not been upset. He had not been raving or crying or telling her his last rites, he had just been a little tense because of the pain and because it was hard for him to breath.
When the paramedics arrived, they had walked in on the calmest attempted suicide they’d ever seen: he with his throat cut, her watching to make sure he didn’t remove the towel keeping the wound shut, the two of them sitting on the bathroom floor and covered in blood, at a standoff but both still and quiet and calm in each other’s presence.
She had ridden with him to the hospital, and she had donated some of her blood to fill his veins. She’d waited until they’d stitched up his throat and pronounced him okay and strapped him to the bed and put him on suicide watch again, and then she’d gone into his room and kissed him goodbye.
“I love you,” she’d said.
He had smiled sadly.
“That used to be enough,” he’d rasped slowly, choosing his words carefully. The voice afforded by his slashed throat was so tiny that she had to be so, so close to him . . . his lips brushed her ear from necessity rather than intimacy. “Just thinking that you did . . . ? That used to be enough.”
“The whole world.”
She’d met Danny at LAX waiting on her flight back to Rome.
An “open room” meant a long corridor of white beds four feet apart, nothings but half-drawn curtains in between. There were perhaps a dozen on each wall, and nearly all of them were filled with dark, bandaged, sleeping bodies. There was no air-conditioning in the hospital – or anywhere else in Africa, as far as Buffy could gather – and the only relief from the crippling heat came from fans turning overhead and in the windows; they added a constant, rhythmic noise akin to crickets or cicadas. The room was not nearly as clean as hospitals in America or on television: the sheets had spots, the IV bags were somewhat limp, and the whole place had a kind of sickly, desperate pallor to it; even the white looked like it had been created by repeated bleachings by hard-working hands, and not by true sterilization. But she couldn’t care, because her eyes found Sana at the second-to-last bed on the opposing wall, talking to the only white face Buffy had seen in Sudan. Her heart gave flutter.
He smiled, his eyes immediately capturing her golden figure against the blinding white.
He held a hand out to her, and she all but ran to his bedside. She was blushing again, she thought. Blushing and dizzy, but she didn’t care. Before she knew it, she was collapsed against him, her skin on his, her hands cradling his face, her mouth crushed against his, kissing him desperately like he belonged to her. Nowhere did the words ‘this is wrong’ register, nowhere did the message ‘you left your husband less than twenty-four hours ago’ surface.
When she finally let him up for air she was panting, they were both panting, clinging to each other.
“You missed me?” Angel guessed breathlessly.
She laughed quietly against the joint of his jaw until she had regained enough personal stability to press kisses there, and then she did that.
“Yes,” she gasped between kisses. “Missed you.”
Behind them, Sana made a quiet noise and Buffy drew up suddenly, embarrassed. She’d forgotten that they had an audience. She’d forgotten . . . everything.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, her face flaming, unable to turn around and face the woman.
“It’s all right,” the doctor answered anyway. “I understand.”
“Um, how was your trip?” Angel asked in the absence of smooth, trying to rearrange himself and Buffy so that they were in a less compromising position. He couldn’t move far without flinching; Buffy instinctively placed a hand on his rib cage to steady him and met the unnatural plushness of bandages coiling around his middle. She winced and slid delicately from his lap, pressing a kiss to his temple. She hadn’t known, and more immediately, she hadn’t thought, her excitement upon first seeing him overweighing her good sense.
Sana helped Angel sit back more comfortably, relaxing against his pillows.
“She had a little trouble at the airport,” she reported.
Angel looked alarmed. “What do you mean?”
Buffy forced a plastic smile.
“Oh, you know,” she interjected quickly. “They lost my luggage, not enough salt on the peanuts, the usual.”
Sana eyed her questioningly, but Buffy kissed Angel quickly and he missed the exchange.
“And the train was so not my style, but I’ll survive,” she added. “How did you get here?”
She regarded him incredulously. “Of course you did. Why wouldn’t you?”
He ignored her. Instead of responding to her tease, he took her hand, looked at her fondly. “I’m so glad you’re here.” He paused. “I can’t believe your husband let you come alone . . .”
She lowered her eyes. “He didn’t.”
Angel’s jaw tightened. “Oh. So you . . . so you brought him?”
Surprised, she immediately met his gaze again. “What? No. So I left him.”
Angel let them suffer a long, pregnant beat before speaking.
“Oh,” he said finally. “Oh.”
Then he turned his attention to Sana, spoke to her quietly in what Buffy assumed was Arabic. It was a quick, rounded language; it was consonant-heavy and short, like you chopped the first half off of English words and just used what was left.
Sana nodded and left, and Angel turned back to Buffy.
“I—” he started, but she cut him off.
“What did you say to her?”
“I asked her if she’d please give us a minute alone.”
“Oh.” Buffy reflected on this for a moment. “Why is she helping us? I mean . . . I like to believe in the goodness of mankind and everything, but—”
Angel laughed. “Because I’m paying her.”
Buffy was confused. “Huh?”
He smiled good-naturedly. “Never travel to a foreign country without a good supply of cash. Wits and charm will get you so far, but it always, always helps to be able to bribe people. Did you bring any money with you?”
She squirmed. “I have a credit card . . .”
He shook his head. “Most people in Sudan won’t even believe that’s money.” He sobered. “You left your husband?”
She frowned. “Yes.”
She fidgeted. “Well, Sana called, and she said that you were asking for me, and . . . he said not to go. And I had to make a choice.”
“I didn’t mean for you to . . .”
“Does that mean that you’re sorry I did it?”
He didn’t answer her.
His cheeks hollowed. “I don’t think I should answer that.”
He flinched. “Buffy, please. I didn’t call you halfway across the world to fight with me. I don’t have the strength. Please. We can fight when I’m well, I promise.”
She smiled despite herself. “Okay.” Something caught at the edge of her mind. “Why did you call for me?”
He looked down at their joined hands, then back at her green eyes, searching him imploringly. He sighed.
“I thought I was dying. I mean . . . I was dying. And I was afraid . . . well, I was afraid. And all I could think of was you. I wanted you near me, and I wanted to say goodbye, and to tell you how sorry I was that I had wasted all of this time not being with you.”
Something thick welled in her throat.
“If you’re lying to me . . .” she said hoarsely.
“Now’s not really the time to lie,” he replied honestly.
“And now I’m getting better,” he answered slowly, weighing his response, “and I have to figure things out. But I still want you near me, and I’m still sorry that I wasted time not being with you. For what it’s worth.”
“It’s worth a whole lot,” she said quietly, and started to take him into her embrace . . . and then stopped.
He frowned. “What’s wrong? Why’d you stop?”
She studied him, concerned. “Where can I hold you without hurting you? I felt bandages . . .”
He chuckled. “It doesn’t matter. Hurt me. Just touch me.”
She slipped her arms around him, brought her body flush against the length of his. She could hear him moan a little, even though he tried to keep it contained within the vault of his chest, and she couldn’t block the sensation of the bandages from her sense memory. She let up, released him, and settled for lying beside him.
“What is all this?” she asked quietly, resting her hand on his bandaged midsection. “What happened?”
He smiled sadly. “The usual. Fairytale beasts with big teeth and sharp claws.”
She ran her fingers over the contours of his face, neck, collarbone, adoring the tiny shivers and the hitches in his breath as she traced over the sensitive flesh of his lips and throat.
“How about a little more information, Cryptic Guy? I find it hard to believe that you were in Kassala on accident, especially if you got this thrashed. What’s the what?”
He shifted slightly to be closer to her, wincing with every move.
“I was in Egypt doing some routine demon slaying – demons like to party there, you know, because of the pyramids; it’s touristy for them – when I heard about Kassala. It started that local seers in Egypt were getting all up in arms because there was some sort of psychic disturbance east of there; they did a little fine-tuning and pin-pointed Sudan. I really wasn’t too worried until the bodies started showing up. Lots of them, always in pairs. Massacred. That got my attention, the violence of it, and the volume. Twelve in a week. Since I wasn’t too far from Sudan, I trekked my way out here: like I said, I hitchhiked; I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going, so I just kind of felt my way out here, followed clues, that kind of thing. It took a week and a half or so, two weeks to lead me to Kassala, and by that time, the body count was high. Thirty, forty people, all just torn to pieces, and the psychic energy problem – if I can rely on the witches I’ve talked to here – is a mess. Big disturbances, holes everywhere. Everyone’s suffering.”
“You should have called me sooner,” Buffy murmured.
He frowned. “I didn’t count on calling on you as Battle Buffy. I thought I could handle it.”
She patted his arm reassuringly. “What happened?”
“Part of the city is bordered by a range of hills called the ‘jebels,’ and very close to that is a tiny village called Khatmiya, where there’s a village well that’s a traditional place for newly-wed couples to drink; the well water is supposed to bring good luck and fertility to the couple—”
Buffy stared at him blankly. “Why are you telling me this?”
He sighed. “I’m getting to it, babe. Be patient.”
“Sorry. I’m not good at history. Go on.”
“The problem here is this: traditionally, the jebels are inhabited only by a tribe of baboons that occasionally come down off the hill and drink from the well, and the rest of the time the jebels are pretty much free for the honeymooning couples that drink from the well. Kind of a rent-free motel, if you will, under the stars. However, in the last few weeks, people have noticed that the baboons have stopped coming to drink from the well . . . and that that the honeymooners who have gone up to the jebels have gone missing.”
“You’re thinking that’s where your demon lives.”
“I know that’s where my demon lives, because I went to investigate. That’s how I ended up in here.”
Buffy frowned. “How many were there?”
Angel made a sour face. “That did this to me? Just the one.”
Buffy winced. “That bad, huh?”
“Oh, it gets worse.”
She blinked. “How does it get worse?”
“The demon, as far as I can figure, feeds off of sexual energy, which accounts for the big disturbances in psychic energy that everyone’s feeling. That’s why he’s parked by the honeymoon spot, and from what I can make out, as long as people are getting hot and heavy around there, he just gets stronger and stronger. Additionally, I’ve heard rumors from the local witches that the well water is actually magic; that it has sincere aphrodisiac properties, which just makes things worse for us.”
She sighed. “Perfect.”
Later that night, she watched Sana change Angel’s bandages. She would have turned her face away, except he was watching her, and she didn’t want him to know how bad she thought it was. And he’d been in the hospital almost a week . . . He was injured enough that it almost didn’t feel intimate to sit there and watch him twist and arch half-naked. Almost. She still had a little flutter between her legs, and the same nervous feeling in her stomach from when she was sixteen and writing about him in her diary. But there were the shadows of bruises speckled over his shoulders and ribs, his hips, and deep, oozing wounds in his belly and back . . . Buffy wanted to cry.
Instead, she set her voice like cooling caramel and asked questions like whether there was much pain and how was he healing. Sana said that he was healing remarkably well and Angel lied about how much it hurt, dropping his eyes when she asked. He could lie to her, but not to her face. Fine. She’d let him keep that secret in order to keep his pride, and because she wasn’t going to injure him more when Sana was sponging fluids out of wounds that weren’t healing properly. The demon might have poisoned him and he couldn’t tell now that he was human, but she couldn’t say anything about that, not in front of the doctor. What would she think? In lieu of that, she leaned in and kissed Angel’s cheek, and he reacted like he understood perfectly, just stilled and told her it was all right. Buffy held her tongue and Angel’s hand until Sana was finished rolling fresh wrappings around his middle, until she’d left the room; then she let loose of both, her eyes flashing, demanding to know if he’d done any research, what kind of demon was it, why hadn’t he called her sooner?
“I was dying,” he reminded her, voice low. One of them remembered that they were in a hospital.
She tried to calm down because she knew he was right, but she was still angry so it was hard.
“Well . . . no idea what kind of demon it is?”
He shrugged, then flinched from the effort. “I don’t know. You know as much as I do; feeds off lust.”
“What does it look like?”
He frowned; he didn’t appreciate being interrogated.
“Demony,” he replied impudently.
She crossed her arms over her chest. “I thought you didn’t want to fight.”
“You’re not going a long way toward not fighting!”
He sighed. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
Most of the anger leaked from her immediately. “Really? It’s over, just like that?”
He chuckled. “Really. I don’t want to fight; I’m sorry. I’ll sketch the demon for you, okay? Just get me some paper and a pencil.”
She looked around for the items he’d requested.
“It doesn’t have to be right this minute,” he added. “Whenever you want it. It won’t take very long.”
“Oh,” she said. “Right. Then what?”
“Well, the usual. We get books, talk to sources, find the demon.”
“I could call Giles,” she offered.
He frowned. “Are you going to spend your whole life leaning on your Watcher, Buffy?”
“I don’t think I’m being unreasonable here, Angel; we’re kind of resourceless, here, and he’s big with the resources.”
He sighed. “I think it’s a little premature to go running to Giles.”
“Fine. I won’t call him.”
Buffy made a phone call anyway, but not to Giles. She called her sister. Dawn had been working as a Watcher for several years now – not Buffy’s first choice of careers for the girl – and was smart as a tack, and nearly as good a resource as Giles . . . without the disapproval she’d get from him on the issues of Danny and Angel. She wasn’t quite prepared to deal with that, and she’d rather do it face-to-face. She was a grown-up now; she owed him that much.
“Hi, Dawnie!” she said brightly upon hearing the younger woman’s voice only slightly separated by distance and static. The reception was actually worse here than it was calling from America, even though they were closer – Dawn, the world traveler, was presently in Rome again – how strange.
“You sound guilty,” Dawn said suspiciously. “You’re not fooling me with that bright and cheery tone. I hear you left your husband.”
Buffy wilted. “Where’d you hear that?”
“From your husband,” Dawn said cheerfully, happy to be in the know. “He called me last night, wanting me to talk some sense into you.”
“What did you say?”
“I said it sounded like the first time in years you had any sense in you.”
Dawn had never liked Danny.
Buffy let the edge of a smile creep onto her face. “Nuh-uh.”
“Yeah huh! He hung up on me.”
Buffy giggled, felt a stab of guilt, and then immediately swallowed it.
“So, you’re calling from Sudan, huh?” Dawn asked slowly. There was a slight leading edge to her question that Buffy interpreted as being dangerous.
“Yes . . .”
“How’s Angel?” she asked, the glee bursting forth; she wasn’t able to contain it anymore.
Buffy sighed, readjusting the receiver. “How did you know?”
“I have ways of finding these things out,” Dawn answered cryptically.
Buffy rolled her eyes. That could mean any number of things, but it probably meant that somebody had told her. The trick was finding out who it was, so she could figure out who to pummel.
“Have you two rocked the sheets yet?” Dawn asked, giggling. It was hard to believe sometimes that she was an adult who spoke seven languages and taught Slayers how to fight. She was Giles, the Next Generation.
“Well, why not? He’s human, isn’t he? You’re both there, aren’t you? You want to, don’t you? What are you waiting for?”
“We can’t! He’s hurt!” Buffy blurted.
There was a moment of silence from the other line.
Buffy filled her in quickly. “He drew a picture of the demon,” she concluded, “but it’s not like there’s a fax down here or anything.”
Back when Dawn’s tone had gone serious, she’d heard the rustling of papers: her sister taking notes.
“Describe it to me,” Dawn said.
Buffy did; there was more note-taking from Dawn. Buffy wondered if she was doing a sketch of her own; she’d always been fairly decent in art class.
“All right,” Dawn said after a long moment of mm-hmms, ookays, and big pauses from her end of the line, “I’ll do some heavy research, and get back to you as soon as I can.” There was a beat, almost a falter, before she added, “How bad is he hurt, really?”
“He’s healing, and he’ll be okay, but . . . he was really scared, or he wouldn’t have called me.”
Dawn made a little frustration noise. “I didn’t know about that.”
“How are you, with all this?”
She was caught a little off guard by the question, and it took her a moment to answer.
“I don’t know,” she said honestly. “It’s weird. I want it to work. I want him.”
“Don’t screw it up,” Dawn advised baldly. “Don’t let him screw it up, either.”
Buffy rolled her eyes. “Thanks, Dawn.”
“How’s Dawn?” Angel asked when Buffy returned to his bedside. He didn’t look cranky, just omniscient and calm, maybe a little tired.
She stilled like a deer in the headlights, absolutely petrified halfway between standing and sitting in the chair beside his bed.
“How did you know?” she asked finally.
“Sit down,” he said wearily.
She sat heavily, not knowing what else to do, the corners of her mouth falling into a frown as a similar effect of gravity.
“I asked Sana where you were and she said you were making a phone call to Italy. I’m not stupid.”
She hung her head. “Oh. I . . . look, Angel, it’ll help us find the demon, and—wait.” She looked back up at him, confused. “Why do you know where Dawn is?”
He smiled a little half-smile. “I have a life outside you, sweetheart.”
“Meaning Dawn and I have kept in touch since I left Sunnydale.”
Her jaw dropped. “Since you left Sunnydale when?”
He sighed. “Buffy . . .”
She stood up, towering over him. “You mean, all this time . . .”
“That’s right,” he said passively. “All this time.”
She frowned, half-disappointed that he refused to be cowed, half-confused.
“How come I never notice?” she asked, sinking back to her chair.
“Well, when she lived at home, we mostly used that . . . what is that Internet thing, with the blinky boxes?”
She stared at him blankly, like he had a mongoose on his head.
“Let me get this straight,” she said with infuriating calm, “you and my little sister used to chat on instant messenger?”
“She made me. Cordelia set it up for me – I’m not good with computers – so I could talk to Dawn. Sometimes we’d talk on the phone, but I figured if we wrote letters, you’d get cranky . . .”
She just stared at him. This was a dream, or they had slipped into some bizarro world . . .
“. . . when she started university, we started writing proper letters and phoning more often, but when she lived with you? We used that blinky box thing.”
Buffy leaned back in her chair, shaking her head in disbelief.
“I think I’m having a stroke,” she murmured absently.
Angel looked concerned. “What? Why, what’s wrong?”
She started laughing all at once, like breathing after drowning.
“Buffy?” he asked, worried. “What’s wrong?”
“I can—I can just imagine it,” she whimpered when she could catch a breath. “Dear Angel, I just found out today that I exist . . . Dear Dawn, that’s very interesting, today I killed some monsters with big—big weapons and—and thought about your sister . . .” She doubled over, clutching at her stomach. “What was your screen name, DeadGuy243?”
She’d crossed a line, and the laughing died. For the most part. She crossed a hand over her mouth, in disbelief of what she’d said, and to cover up the few remaining hiccups of laughter that gurgled up from her belly. When she finally felt her flesh was sound enough that she wouldn’t erupt in torrents of giggles again if she uncapped her mouth, she slowly removed her hand long enough to whisper, “I’m sorry,” and then quickly slapped it back over her lips.
Angel was looking a bit chagrined, but not really angry or hurt.
“Stop that,” he said finally, and sat up – wincing only slightly; everything was getting easier for him – and took her hand away from her mouth.
Buffy looked up at him sheepishly.
“I’m sorry,” she said again. “It’s just . . . it’s hard for me to imagine you doing—”
Realization dawned on her.
“Yes,” she answered, surprised. She hadn’t known that that’s what it was, but it fit.
“Well, get used to it. That is, unless you don’t want to get used to me—”
She shook her head. “Oh, no, I would very much like to get used to you. And all your human things.”
He smiled. “Good. Glad to hear it. Now. Tell me what Dawn said about our non-human thing.”
Dawn called back two days later. Buffy spent the time in between waiting in the tautness of not-quite-anxiety, filling up the meanwhile with conversations that were disappointingly shallow and helping Angel out of bed to shuffle like Frankenstein up and down the halls. He was hurting, and frustrated that he wasn’t healing faster, and she was concerned about his wounds, and they were both worried about the demon and the not knowing and their inaction and the four new bodies that turned up while waiting to hear from Dawn; tension crackled in the air like electricity. Everyone felt it: the other patients avoided them even more than they deserved for being white devils polluting the air with English, and even Sana shied away from them at times. Buffy was insanely relieved when Dawn finally called; it had been too close to before, the wreck in Los Angeles after Angel had shanshued, and she didn’t think she could take that again. Don’t screw it up, Dawn had said. Don’t let him screw it up, either. Buffy didn’t know why she had to be the grownup if he had two centuries on her, but she would be, if she had to. It would be different, this time. It would work. She honestly hadn’t planned on jumping into another try at life with Angel when she’d left Danny, but if she could have it, by God, she was going to go for it with every fiber of her being. This time, it would work if it killed them both.
“I need more information,” Dawn said as soon as Buffy picked up the receiver, skipping pleasantries.
Buffy’s enthusiasm flagged. “What?”
“I’ve got your demon narrowed down to, like, twelve suspects. But I need more information before I can give you a definite answer.”
“Dammit. How do I get more information?”
Dawn made a noise of frustration. “Has the Saharan sun shut your brain off, Buffy? How do you always get more information?”
“Well . . . recon, pummeling of local sources, but—”
“And there’s no chance of any of that in Sudan? Please.”
“I don’t speak Arabic. I can pummel, but that won’t get me any information—”
“Angel speaks Arabic.”
“He’s not bedridden, is he?” Silence. “He’s not, is he?” she asked again, her tone worried this time.
“No. He’s getting better; we’ve been going on walks around the hospital and stuff.”
“Take him with you. You punch, he’ll translate. Also, that mug shot Angel drew would be helpful for the narrowing.”
“I told you, there’s no fax—”
“In all of Sudan? Doubtful. There’ll be one at the US Embassy, at the very least.”
Dawn snorted. “What am I, a tour guide? Ask Angel, he probably knows. He has a photographic memory, or have you failed to notice that in all your years of lusting after him?”
Buffy searched for a snide retort and came up blank. Instead, she said, “Is that something you two discussed in your little online communiqués behind my back?”
Dawn giggled. “Did you two have a little soul-baring session?”
“I cannot believe you—”
“That’s how I knew he was in Sudan, by the way, although Danny mentioned something about it, too, when he called me. Angel called me before he left Egypt, said he was following some tips to Sudan.”
Buffy felt a little wash of envy run over her. “Do you, like, talk every night? Before bed? Brush my teeth, pull down the covers, call Angel? Or—”
“Don’t be jealous,” Dawn said gently. “It wasn’t like that at all.”
Buffy sighed and brushed tears out of her eyes with the same irritated movement of shooing away flies. “I know. I know it wasn’t. I’m sorry. We’ll find the embassy, we’ll do some recon, we’ll get more clues so you can narrow down the demon so we can kill it and get out of this godforsaken country and start over.”
“You’ve already started over,” Dawn soothed. “And it really wasn’t like that. He only has eyes for you. He’s only ever had eyes for you; you’re the only one who’s ever had a problem seeing that.”
“Yeah,” Buffy grumbled. “Me . . . and him, on occasion.”
“No, that’s never been his problem. He always sees it, he just gets confused sometimes about what to do about it. Make sure he doesn’t screw it up this time, Buffy, please? Both of you, just do something selfish for once. You deserve to be together.”
Angel had been taking a nap when Dawn called. Buffy thought about rousing him, but he needed his sleep to heal, so she waited for him to wake up, sitting pensively at his bedside, wrestling with her thoughts. Don’t screw it up this time.
As soon as his eyes opened, the words jumped out of her throat: “We need to go to the US Embassy.”
He blinked druggedly. “What? Why?”
She faltered at first; she hadn’t meant to jump all over him, but she was wound a bit tight from sitting so long with just her anxieties to keep her company.
“Sorry. Um, Dawn called. She says there’s not enough information to pin down the demon . . . she’s got it narrowed down to a dozen or so, but that she needs more intel before she can figure out exactly which one is ours, and one of the things she wants us to do is fax that picture you drew. She said the embassy would have a fax machine, and that you’d know where the embassy is. So, where is it?”
He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. “Khartoum.”
He cleared his throat and sat up delicately, waving away her assistance.
“The American embassy is in Khartoum,” he elucidated. “And what’s more, it’s not always what you would call open for business. It has a nasty habit of shutting down whenever the wind blows too hard.”
Her face fell. “I really don’t want to go back to Khartoum.”
“I don’t think we need to; I can’t imagine there not being a fax machine in the entire city. Or, failing that, I know there are witches in Kassala; we can have one of them send her the image magically.”
She relaxed. “Oh. Okay.”
“Now . . . what else? Recon?”
Buffy squirmed. She didn’t really think Angel was well enough to be doing reconnaissance; she had planned on sliding by this point and doing it on the sly while he healed. Alone.
“Well . . .”
He frowned. “Well what? What did you have in mind?”
“Going out after clues by myself while you stayed here and healed,” she mumbled in one short breath.
“Oh,” he said curtly.
“Angel, look, I’m just worried—”
“No, I get it—”
“You said you didn’t want to fight—”
“I meant with you,” he snapped.
Her mouth twisted into a pout. “Then why are we bickering almost constantly?”
“Because we’re shut up in an enclosed space and you don’t trust me.”
“And you don’t realize that you can’t do the same things that you could when you were a vampire,” she countered. “We all have shortcomings.”
He glared at her. She glared back.
“Fine!” she exclaimed finally, throwing up her arms. “We’ll go. We’ll go and do very light, non-dangerous recon, and if you get hurt it’s all on you, because I was against this from the start and I warned you and you were stubborn and stupid about it, you ass!”
Angel looked slightly amused. “Do you feel better now?”
She huffed and leaned back in her chair. “I kind of do. Where’s this demon live again?”
Kassala’s jebels and the village of Khatmiya were just shy of half an hour from the hospital. Buffy was not really looking forward to another trip in a Sudanese cab, especially not one that would last thirty minutes, but then Angel told her they were going to take the bus, and she was looking forward to that even less, thinking it would be reminiscent of the train. Of course, it would be better this time with Angel there with her, but still . . .
They walked from the hospital to Souq Ash-Sha’abi, which confused Buffy until Angel explained that it was the name of the bus station, and that she’d probably passed right by it during her maniacal cab ride. Angel was healing very well, but he still wasn’t up to his full strength, and Buffy took the several block walk to watch him for signs of weakness; he didn’t limp, and he wasn’t particularly ginger, but he was careful, and she worried a bit. But quietly, to herself. This was just reconnaissance, she reminded herself. No chance of peril, nothing to worry about. Besides, it wasn’t really like she could go alone: the jebels were a tourist spot, but they were an Arab tourist spot, and her Arabic was non-existent. And she didn’t know where Angel’d been attacked, and apparently there were four separate hills that made up the jebels, and they were all . . . well, hilly and complicated, and she couldn’t just guess where he’d been. She wouldn’t know where to start.
He’d be fine.
Souq Ash-Sha’abi was a madhouse, people running about everywhere, shouting at each other and waving tickets and zooming by on bicycles. There didn’t seem to be any traffic laws in Sudan. Angel snaked through the crowd like a ghost and managed to buy tickets quietly and without fuss; Buffy didn’t know how he did it, but he always managed to look like he fit in everywhere. Or, more than that, he just blended away, which seemed impossible, as beautiful as he was. She guessed it was one of his gifts, and she was jealous of it: he wouldn’t have had any trouble in the airport at Khartoum. She hugged to his arm, silently thankful for his presence. Angel, surprised at her uncharacteristic dependence, wrapped his other arm around her waist and pressed a kiss to her forehead. He liked being allowed to be protective of her, and if he was given an inch, he’d take two.
The bus driver spoke English. Sort of. He’d learned some from magazines and the infrequent American or European tourist he’d get, and he loved the occasion to use it. He was not Arab but Dinka, over six-and-a-half feet tall and darker than midnight, with a smile made for show business. He caught sight of Buffy and Angel’s pale faces and the golden gleam of Buffy’s hair and grinned: he’d get to use his English today.
“Hello!” he boomed as they stepped aboard. Buffy jumped; Angel swallowed his chuckle and caught her before she bumped into him, jarring his bandaged middle.
“Hi,” she replied weakly. She hadn’t been expecting his enthusiasm or to hear English from anyone but Angel on this trip.
“You are going to the jebels?” he asked happily.
She exchanged an uneasy glance with Angel. “Yes . . .”
Angel smiled. “He guesses where everyone’s going. It’s a matter of professional pride.”
Professional pride had apparently been accomplished; the bus driver was grinning triumphantly. Angel slipped him a folded banknote before he could alarm Buffy anymore, and sidled by him and to a seat. It was either such a large tip or he was so pleased to have the opportunity to practice his English – or some combination of the two – that he translated his tour notes – which he wasn’t required to give, anyway – from Arabic to English for the duration of the ride solely for their benefit.
Buffy almost would have rather taken a cab. After the initial shock, the bus driver was nice, even if the alternation of Arabic to English was starting to lull her into a stupor. But there was almost no legroom, and she was certain there were no shock absorbers, and the seats were rock hard, so she was stuck in one position, bouncing up and down and landing over and over on this hard metal seat. Her bottom was going to be so sore tomorrow. . . . She glanced over at Angel, and winced. He was being stoic, but it was probably too soon to take him on a machine like this for a ride this long: his cheeks were drawn, and one hand was subconsciously cradling his side. Poor baby.
She glanced over his broad frame and through the window – which was kind of a loose word for it, because there was no glass in the metal frame – to the landscape beyond the bus. It almost didn’t look like desert anymore; tall bushes and lush clutches of exotic desert flowers bloomed everywhere.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. “How does it all grow with no water?”
Angel looked over at her, his mouth quirked a little, the semblance of a smile.
“There’s water. Wait.”
Her brow creased. “Wait? Angel, wait for what?”
He shook his head. “Wait.”
She lay her head on his shoulder – slowly; she waited to make sure he didn’t flinch – and watched the beautiful landscape go by. She heard it before she saw it and straightened, met his eyes. He was smiling, amused by the wonder written all over her face.
“Is that . . . is that a river?”
Angel laughed. “Yes. The Gash.”
At the front of the bus, the bus driver was saying, “. . . if rains are heavy, the Gash may flood Kassala and leave thousands of people homeless; although beautiful, the Gash can be a killer . . .”
Buffy’s eyes flickered back to the window. Now she could see the thick white rope of the Gash fighting against the arid land. “I didn’t know there were rivers in the desert.”
“Didn’t think something so strong and wild and beautiful could live out here with something so dead and old?” Angel asked softly.
She looked back at him quickly. He looked so sad . . .
“That’s not what I meant,” she said earnestly.
He didn’t answer.
“Look,” she said gently, not looking herself, not really expecting him to look . . . instead, capturing his gaze, cradling his face in her hands. “The two of them . . . they made flowers.”
He didn’t answer again, but this time it was because his mouth was enveloped in kissing her.
Buffy almost ran off the bus as soon as it crashed to a stop. It probably meant something obscene in Muslim etiquette, and she knew it didn’t look pretty, but as soon as her feet touched terra firma, she began rubbing her abused posterior like a child after a sound spanking. Angel, after covertly handing the chatty bus driver another folded bill, hopped down gingerly beside her and grinned openly at her display. She blushed and stopped.
“Shut up,” she mumbled. “Like you don’t want to.”
He irritated her further by looking perfectly innocent. “Just enjoying the view, sweetheart.”
It was a spectacular view. Though they’d left behind the raw power of the Gash and the unexpected exotic beauty of the desert gardens as they’d climbed higher and higher, the jebels were beautiful in a different way. They, too, had a busy sort of air to them – this was by far the most touristy place she’d been in Sudan, which surprised her; Angel said that Khatmiya used a well for water; didn’t that mean the village didn’t have proper utilities? – but the whole country was apparently a bazaar, so she was getting used to that. There was the ever-present mix of Arabs and blacks of every shade of brown, and there were even other white faces, and some Asians, too. The bus driver had said that business was down, and it wasn’t as busy as the bus station, even; it must be something to see in full season when it wasn’t being attacked by a lust demon. It wasn’t quite the desert, though, although the colors were right, golds and browns and reds. But the ground wasn’t made of sand: instead, it was made of long, smooth slabs of stone, the same stone as the huge, sugar loaf hills that rose up around them. There were four, rising around them like hulking gods: Taka, Totil, Aweitila, and Mukram. The bus driver had named them on the way there, and Angel had repeated them patiently, managing a straight face, when she butchered them.
And then she realized that he hadn’t taken his eyes off of her. Her blush blazed; she seemed to be flushing constantly around him. That couldn’t be good for her circulatory system.
“Shut up,” she repeated, lowering her eyes.
Still smiling, he scooped her into his embrace, then let a hand snake stealthily down her back to cup her sore bottom.
“Or maybe I do want to,” he purred against her ear when she gasped.
“Angel . . .” she said weakly. “We’re in public.”
“Does that mean stop?”
He gave her backside a little squeeze. She mewled. She wasn’t sure.
Fortunately for her, she didn’t have to make a decision. There was a sharp whistling noise behind her; she turned abruptly to see what it was. Three Arab teenagers were leering at them, and one of them was whistling crudely.
Angel growled something in Arabic, his hand sliding subtly up to her waist. Her eyes flickered up to his face; his eyes were hard, his jaw set. She wished she could understand what he was saying, and she realized with a sudden and complete flush of warmth all over her body – he was absolutely murdering her circulatory system – that she was aroused at his protective stance; she was pressed so close to him that she wondered if he knew, if he could feel her rushed breath against his throat, her palpitating heart and alert nipples against his chest.
“Khawaja!” the boys shouted, but they ran off. Angel was human now, but he could still be scary. Her arousal was testament to that.
She looked up at him breathlessly. She suddenly wished that they weren’t in public, that they didn’t have demons to hunt . . . bad Buffy, she needed to focus . . .
“What does that mean?” she asked, stepping away from him a little. She figured it would be better if her sensitive, raised nipples weren’t brushing his chest; there was still the chance that he could see them, but at least she wouldn’t be rubbing up against him, which would increase the likelihood that she’d be able to concentrate on the task at hand. “That cat water thing?”
“Khawaja,” he corrected. “It’s a derogatory term for foreigners.”
She frowned. “That’s stupid. You speak Arabic as well as they do. Probably better; they’re punk kids and they probably use contractions and stuff.”
He smiled wanly. “Part of being as old as I am and of traveling as much as I have . . . you fit in everywhere, but you’re foreign everywhere, too.”
“Well, just be at home wherever I am,” she offered, taking his hands in hers, forgetting that she was being self-conscious.
The poor smile faded. “Don’t say things like that unless you mean them.”
She responded slowly, measuring her response: “And what if I mean them?”
“Then say them often,” he said chivalrously, spinning her around and then pulling her back against him, holding her little body against the solid form of his. She laughed at the unexpected joy of the movement even as Angel was bending down to kiss her; Angel rarely did things out of spontaneity and delight. He needed to do things like that more often.
She would make sure that he did.
They spent several hours talking to people around the jebels; a few tourists, but mostly the people who were there all the time: the bus drivers and the people who worked at the little cafes and the souq. Buffy asked questions and Angel translated quickly. She tried to focus on the job at hand and not get distracted by how attractive he looked under the glow of the Sudanese sun, and how strangely alluring his velvety voice was purring out Arabic, but it was difficult, and on more than one occasion she got lost and fumbled. She finally blamed the heat, and after they’d made a good sweep, Angel led her down to the base of Totil, into the shadow of the hill and the village of Khatmiya proper. There was a great domed building, the same sand color as the jebels; Angel took her hand and led her inside.
It was cool inside! Good God, she felt like she hadn’t been cool since she’d arrived in Sudan . . . She arched appreciatively under the precious climate and then looked around; it was impressive architecture, ancient and distinctly non-European. There was no roof, and she squinted as her eyes caught a great glance of the heavens. She looked to Angel.
“What is this place?”
“It’s the Khatmiyan mosque,” he said quietly. He was using church voice – mosque meant church, right? – and she made a note to modulate hers accordingly. “It’s one of the only mosques in Sudan that allows non-Muslims inside, and it’s also one of the oldest in the country.”
“It’s beautiful,” she said softly, looking around some more. She meant it. “Not like European churches . . . it’s simple, but beautiful. They all have a lot of paintings and steeples and marble and stuff. But this is . . . I don’t know. Impressive without all that.” She huddled closer to him; suddenly, she felt small. “It’s so big.”
He smiled a little. “It’s really not; there are plenty larger mosques, and Khatmiya’s a small village. It’s just that you’re used to Christian churches; they’re full of pews and pulpits, things that take up space. Mosques are open.”
“Can we look around?”
She led, still holding his hand, like a child walking her father around a museum. She walked him to the end of the hall to inspect closer the inscrutable dome; her brow wrinkled.
“It’s not supposed to look like this, is it?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean . . . I thought at first, that it was supposed to be like that, open to heaven, but . . . it wasn’t made like that on purpose, was it?”
She turned to look at him. “What happened?”
“It was destroyed by the British during their occupation of Sudan, if I understand correctly.”
“Was that kind of thing common?”
He shrugged. “It wasn’t uncommon.”
She frowned. “I don’t like that. There are so many evil things living in the world without people doing bad things to each other.”
She spent a moment brooding over this thought and the uneven, sand-smoothed edge of the mouth of the dome before Angel roused her from it.
There was a long stone tablet behind her. Buffy moved to touch it, but Angel stayed her hand.
“What is it?”
“It’s a shrine to a local holy man. They say that though the British took the roof, they couldn’t take the mosque’s power; when it rains, it never gets wet.”
She looked up again, to the huge hole in the ceiling. “But . . .”
She glanced over at Angel. His eyes were twinkling.
“That’s a good trick,” she said finally.
“It is,” he agreed.
They left the shrine and walked the cool corridors to the other end of the mosque. The roof was destroyed here, too; Buffy looked up. It was starting to get dark out.
Angel’s big hand curling around her upper arm arrested her movement; she’d been looking up and not paying attention, and it surprised her, even as gentle as he’d taken care to be.
“If you want to go any further, you’ll need to take your shoes off.”
She creased her brow. “How come?”
“You’re about to enter the prayer hall; it’s custom. Even though this isn’t a working mosque, even though you’re not Muslim, it’s only respectful.”
Buffy debated with herself for a moment. The floor looked very sandy, and she’d probably be walking around with sand in her boots for the rest of the night if she did, but when was she ever going to be in a mosque again? Using Angel for support, she slipped off her boots one at a time and then walked in stocking feet into the prayer hall. Angel stayed by the entrance with her boots, leaning slightly against the doorframe. He was getting tired, she suspected; today had been too much for him.
The prayer hall was twice as wide as the rest of the mosque, and roofless, too; great, yawning space. Angel said there were plenty of bigger mosques, and she didn’t doubt him, but she was having difficulty getting over just how much space seemed to be in this one. Of course, she hadn’t really spent much time looking at the churches of Europe; those were supposed to make you feel all tiny and insignificant before God. But she wasn’t much for history-related sightseeing; maybe it would be different with Angel as a guide . . .
She made a full circle of the space and then arrived back in Angel’s arms feeling strangely calm. She kissed him soundly enough to suggest that she’d forgotten that they were in a house of worship on a respite from chasing demons, and then brushed the sand from her feet and put her boots back on.
“Okay, ready to go? I think we’ve got one more stop left.”
Angel looked confused. “I think we’re done for the day.”
“Nuh-uh. I wanna see where you got jumped by this demon.”
Angel didn’t want to go. She didn’t want to use the word “afraid,” but he was bordering on it, tense and bothered, trying overly hard to convince her to leave. It was getting dark, they had already talked to all sorts of people, what if they missed the bus back and got stuck out here to be snacked on? And him, still injured. Buffy knew he must be very nervous to play the but-I’m-still-hurt card, but she pressed on.
“Oh, Angel, relax. It’s not even dark out yet—” This point she was fudging a bit on; the sky was getting inkier by the second. “—and he’s probably just sleeping, and even if he’s not, what’s the worst that can happen?”
Angel started to answer that the worst that could happen was that they could get mauled and end up in a Sudanese hospital thinking they were going to die and calling old girlfriends, but Buffy cut him off.
“We’ll just run away if we see any big bad lust demons. It’s not like we’ll be all stupid on magic water or anything, right?”
“Right,” he agreed reluctantly. “But Buffy—”
“Just a quick look around,” she reassured him. “You show me where he attacked you, and then we’ll go.”
Angel frowned but recognized that there was no way he was going to win the argument, and led the way.
Angel had been attacked on Aweitila, rather near the village of Khatmiya, on the side facing the mosque. They trekked in silence; Angel was upset, unhappy with being forced into this position, and Buffy was looking for clues along the way. A whole lot of nothing but the strange rounded sugar loaf rocks and curious shadows provided by the ever-darkening sky.
After a long time, Angel’s voice cut through the night.
“I’m not sure exactly where,” he said. “I wasn’t really tracking it, just looking for clues, kind of like we are now.”
Most of the other tourists had gone, and the café vendors were packing up. In any event, most of the activity was on Totil; all the noise seemed far away, and Buffy’s whole universe, suddenly, was focused on Angel. In the strange glow of the descending twilight, he was oddly framed by the reds and purples of the Saharan sun cutting over the jebels, ethereal. She felt strangely febrile all of a sudden, even though the coming night brought a reprieve from the damning heat of the midday sun. Her head was swimming. Maybe she’d been out too long . . . absently, she wiped her brow with the back of her hand, fought to keep focused on what he was saying.
“Uh huh,” she replied. Good. That was an intelligent answer.
He started to ask if she was feeling all right – she looked so feverish, and she was so, so small; even if she was the Slayer, she was still so tiny – but all of a sudden he was struck by how beautiful she looked with the setting sun highlighting her gold hair and dancing off the sheen of her lips and brighting her eyes. The words caught in his throat and he was so taken that he felt dizzy, literally weak in the knees.
“Buffy,” he whispered instead. No matter what was happening, his lips could always find her name.
“Uh huh,” she said again, coming closer to him.
“I . . . um . . .”
He took a step toward her, as well, and soon they were tangled in each other’s arms, and they were kissing desperately, with the same kind of frantic intent as mouth-to-mouth but instead of live, dammit! it was I want you, I own this, and the need wasn’t for the restoration of life but the reclaiming of territory. Buffy’s skin was on fire, and her heart was pounding in her chest, and when she grabbed Angel’s jaw to steady the kiss she felt his pressure point and felt his heart racing and felt his skin desperate with fever and she was so buoyed with the proof of his humanity that she laughed joyously, her mouth twisting against his, her ribcage arching against his chest, pressing her pert, alert-nippled breasts against him.
“I want you so badly,” she moaned, suffering to break off their kiss. She had to, she had to say it, and she was rewarded: he responded ferally, using his freed mouth to nip at her neck and earlobe. She gasped, shivers running through her; funny, but she remembered his teeth as well as his kisses. The strange things you come away with when your first love is a vampire.
She brought her hands down from cradling his jaw and started unbuttoning his shirt; Angel made a soft, silly noise of assent and kissed her mouth once with gentle intimacy.
“Buffy, I—there’s something I need to tell you,” he murmured.
She had half his shirt buttons undone, enough to allow a peak of bandages, and she’d gotten so aroused just seeing his bare chest that she hadn’t been able to work the rest of them and just abandoned the task, slipping her hand inside his shirt to caress the naked flesh that way; Angel was talking to her, but he was still touching her, one hand circling her waist, holding her close to him, the other massaging her breast, his mouth pressing tender kisses to her face and throat in between words. She didn’t know why she was so aroused but she was on fire, just his simple caress was maddening, she was melting, she was burning up, crazy, dizzy, oh God, oh Angel . . .
“I . . . I’m glad you left your husband,” he finished, his lips brushing her cheek.
She gasped, her dark lashes fluttering. She wasn’t sure if it was from what he’d said, or how he was making her feel, or both, but . . .
“It’s okay, you don’t . . . I just wanted you to know . . .”
She ran her hand through his hair and then curved her hand around the back of his head, bringing his face crashing into hers, bringing their mouths violently together again. With the other hand, she started clumsily to unbuckle his belt. Angel started to question her but then the fire that had been kindling in him sparked up properly and he couldn’t see reason for the flames, and just folded his arms around her and lost himself in kissing her. Buffy finally managed to get his belt buckle undone, and unbuttoned his jeans. He was panting, his mind swollen with the constant mantra: I love you, I want you, I love you, I want you . . .
Then, somewhere, in his periphery, he heard an unfamiliar noise, something harsh: a scraping. Rocks moving. He couldn’t tell.
But it didn’t matter, because Buffy had unzipped his jeans and snaked a hand between the denim and his flesh.
“You don’t wear underwear,” Buffy said throatily. “I remember that. That’s kept me up nights.”
Angel lost his breath. He wasn’t sure the last time that had happened, or if it had happened ever that it didn’t involve Buffy. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move; all his senses narrowed in on her with a predator’s practiced grace. He knew this, he knew it; years of vampire/Slayer had prepared him for this one single moment of being with her.
She was kissing him again, now that her numbing words were done with, and she’d slid her hand down past the angled peaks of his hipbones and the dark forest of hair and was cradling his member in her hand, rubbing the heel of her palm slowly down the length . . . he couldn’t move, couldn’t move even against her mouth. This was ridiculous, he was two hundred and fifty years old and he was absolutely burning for her but he couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything, couldn’t even respond to her kisses.
Because . . . there was something . . . not right, there was something . . . he’d heard something . . .
“Baby,” she whispered, in that sweet little girl voice that women learned to do very early in life, the one that turned men malleable. “Where are you, baby?”
He forgot all about the wrong feeling and kissed her with renewed fervor, pulling her close against him again; they both moaned at the shift in position, pleasure and surprise. Buffy curled her hand around Angel’s cock and began pumping at a slow and tantalizing rhythm. Angel groaned against her mouth and brought one of his hands under her shirt, cupping one of her luscious breasts, mocking the motion. Buffy keened quietly, arching so eagerly into his touch as to abandon their wanton kisses, her supple neck stretching vulnerable and bare in the moonlight. There was a part of him, still, that stirred to see her like that, and he made a low guttural noise of wanting, panting, pressing insistently against her teasing palm. Not enough, not enough, he wanted to be inside of her, wanted to claim her again. His.
Oh, God, she was so hot . . . and dizzy, she felt overcome with fever, overcome with him, and she didn’t want to hurt him but it was getting so difficult to contain herself, she was inches from tearing him apart . . . Angel was half rutting her hand, he wanted her so badly, and that look in his eyes . . . ? He was hers, if there was ever any doubt, it was gone now, he was crazy for her, and she was so eager for him that she could feel the need for him to fill her pulsing through every inch of her being; not just there, but in my blood, baby, my marrow, can you get that deep? How far can you go?
Buffy stopped her tormenting rhythm and withdrew her hand from Angel’s jeans. He groaned and stopped grinding against her, took his hand from her agitated breast and used it to draw her hips flush against his.
“Be patient,” she whispered against the harsh cut of his cheekbone.
He growled quietly in response. Mating growl. She remembered that; she didn’t know he could still do that. Her nethers flooded with moisture and her head swam. She saw stars, bright lights, nothing but heaven and Angel.
Nimbly, unable to contain herself anymore, she hopped up into his arms, wrapped her legs around his waist. She wanted to position herself so that she was open for him, so that she’d have the best pressure against the aching flower between her legs, regardless of how much clothing she still had on. There would be plenty of time for stripping later; right now she just had to silence this insane buzzing in her flesh, or she would go mad, she knew it.
But there was a problem. Angel’s face contorted in pain, and he cried out, harsh. And then something else happened, unexpected: he looked away, his eyes narrowed, then widened.
“Shit,” he whispered.
Angel pushed Buffy undelicately from his hips and then grabbed her by the wrist and began pulling her at a flat run in the opposite direction, down the hill, down towards the village of Khatmiya. She’d jarred something greatly painful when she’d jumped up, and it was a damn good thing, because she’d shaken him loose of whatever spell he’d been locked in and let him see the eyes glowing in the dark not three yards from them.
“Angel,” she said vaguely, “what are you doing?”
She wasn’t all there; he looked briefly back at her and saw that her eyes weren’t quite focused; she was still gone. He felt fever burning at his flesh and knew that he’d be pulled back under, too; they needed to be far enough away before that happened.
They all but tumbled down the last part of the hill. Smaller rocks followed them down, and Angel’s palms were abraded as he used them to break their fall more than once. He wasn’t even sure if the demon was following them anymore; his only thought was to get away, and the memory of the last time he’d been on Aweitila, the claws slicing open his belly, the teeth tearing his flesh . . .
Suddenly, they were on the ground, looking up at a great stone shadow. Angel squinted; the mosque. They were at the base of Totil; they’d come further than he’d thought. Angel forced himself to his feet, pulled Buffy to her feet; forced them to keep moving; they passed the mosque, ran as far into the black as their muscles would take them before collapsing.
They lay for a long while in silence, watching the black night for the sheen of eyes, before realizing nothing was following them. Slowly, the fever burned over them again, and they became a single creature, a tangle of wandering fingers and syncopated rhythm.
Hours later, the fever finally extinguished itself, and they lay still on top of one another, almost afraid to move, as if that might compromise the soundess of flesh and clarity of mind that was slowly coming back to them. They let their breathing come to normal, their heartbeats, and mentally tried to claw back onto reality.
It was harder for Buffy, who’d had no break from the spell. One hand, curled around her lover’s side, was strangely sticky and moist; she’d pulled it up to investigate as her senses began to sharpen and had realized with an instant heavy nausea that it was covered with blood. It couldn’t be hers; she’d hurt him. She could hardly remember: she had a vague memory of Angel crying out, but . . . she barely remembered, and now it hurt her so badly that she was near tears, but she couldn’t even find the words to address the situation. Instead, she wiped the dried blood off on the sandy stone ground as best she could, and then searched for her clothing. She felt bare and cold, suddenly, even though the desert night was far from frigid. She got dressed hastily, helped Angel into his clothes. He twisted painfully and she could see a dark stain coloring his dressings. She flinched, and they dressed in silence. When they’d finished, they found a familiar position of comfort against the stones: Angel half-reclined, leaning back against them, and she in his arms, lying against his chest.
“Where are we?” she asked after a long silence. She’d thought at first that they were just going to drift off to sleep like that, with no complications, but she couldn’t stand not knowing anything.
He didn’t seem upset that she was complicating things. He never did.
“We almost got eaten by the demon.”
“Yeah, I kind of worked that out. How? We were . . . we were under some sort of thrall, weren’t we?”
“I think so, yes.”
“But how? We didn’t drink that magic water.”
He was a moment in answering, lost in thought and the calmative motion of stroking her hair. She relaxed against his shoulder, closed her eyes.
“I think we may have been misinformed,” he said finally. “Maybe it’s not the water that’s the aphrodisiac; maybe it’s the jebels.”
She opened her eyes, looked up at him. He was looking down at her fondly.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, we didn’t drink the water, did we?”
“And – as much as I love you, as attracted as I am to you – that wasn’t natural lust, was it?”
“And we didn’t feel like that until we were on Aweitila, did we?”
“No . . .”
“So maybe it’s the mountain. Or maybe it’s that mountain after sunset. Or . . .” He sighed. “I don’t know. We’ll call Dawnie in the morning, see what she thinks. Right now, we need to get some rest.”
He kissed her forehead. Buffy closed her eyes and relaxed against his shoulder, settled down to sleep.
Buffy woke to a tongue roughing her face. She squirmed against the hot, coarse pressure – just five more minutes – until it struck her that a tongue was an odd thing to be worrying about, and opened her eyes, squinting against the African-bright sun. Once her pupils had adjusted to the light, they focused on . . . another pair of eyes. She shrieked.
“What is that?” she squealed, toppling uncoordinatedly to her hands and knees and scrambling backwards until she jolted against Angel. He made a muffled hurt noise, but she was too alarmed to let the worry of what did I hit surface into the main realm of her conscious.
“It’s a goat,” he mumbled, not sounding as though that were anything out of the ordinary, let alone anything to be alarmed about. “Calm down.”
She glanced manically back at him; he’d closed his eyes. He couldn’t possibly be going back to sleep.
Something tugged at her pants. She jerked her attention back to her tormentor: he’d multiplied! There was another one now, pulling at her jeans with its goat mouth. She jerked away with a little whimper and backed into Angel.
“Calm down,” he said again. “They’re just goats. We were almost eaten alive last night; this really pales in comparison.”
She really agreed. She didn’t know why she was being so touchy; she felt raw all over, and not just physically, although she couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt so open and weak after sex, like she’d been scoured, kneaded. There was a blood taste in her mouth, and her muscles were all tight and fireshot. And he was only a man now . . .
She shook her head, trying to clear it, and let her eyes focus on the goats again. They were actually kind of pretty, despite their pants-eating and creepy eyes. They had fine short coats in black and tan; the texture of their pelts glistened against the contrasting smoothness of the rocks; their little horns and hooves were like polished bone.
She reached out a hand to pet one of them, but it jerked away from her as the heel of a weathered tamarind staff and a dusty dark foot stamped into view.
Buffy barreled into Angel again.
“What is that?” she demanded, panicked, praying he hadn’t gone back to sleep.
He couldn’t be sleeping: he was laughing.
“Goat herder,” he replied, chuckling, his hands suddenly cradling her back, drawing her to her feet as he came to his.
The goat herder’s craggy features were a kind of sand-coverered that would suggest he’d been sitting in dunes for twenty years or so, and he was scowling like it was a second occupation. He said something menacing in Arabic, and Buffy – reminded of Khartoum Airport – huddled back against Angel’s broad form. He slid his big hands around her waist and responded to the goat herder, his tongue quick around the foreign syllables, his tone pleasant.
Impossibly, the man laughed as he replied, a sound that would fill canyons. Buffy looked back anxiously at Angel; he was smiling, his eyes sparkling.
“What did you say?” she asked nervously.
“He asked what did we think we were doing here, and I explained—”
“Well, I lied.”
“I said we were on our honeymoon. He said he could have guessed that.”
“Where is . . . where is the here that we think we . . . where are we?”
“Khatmiya. I told you that.”
The goat herder let his laugh trail off and sang some more Arabic at Angel. Angel babbled back, and then said to Buffy, “Apparently, though, we’re further west than I’d thought, closer to the souq. Which is why he was upset: we’re in the way of his goat traffic.”
“I did.” A few more words; the hint of a smile began to bloom on Angel’s face. “He’s congratulating me on my beautiful wife.”
Buffy’s cheeks lit. “He did not say that.”
“He certainly did.” The smile grew. “And he’d like to know if you want to buy a goat.”
So did Buffy’s blush. “What would I do with a goat?”
Angel grinned full out. “Cook it for your new husband.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’ll pass.”
“He’ll give you a discount,” Angel said sincerely.
“I’ll pass,” she repeated, and stifled the dual urges to hit him and kiss him.
“Your loss,” Angel said pleasantly, enjoying himself a little too much. He pressed a kiss to her hair – a peace offering? – and returned to his conversation with the goat herder. Buffy felt precocious here, having to always stand idly by while Angel spoke. She wondered if that’s how women always felt in Muslim countries, although Angel had told her that Sudan was arguably the most liberal Muslim nation in the world, the best place in on Earth to be a Muslim woman. Sana was a doctor . . . but it still wasn’t fair. The world was confusing. Buffy had thought that, by now, she’d have something figured out, but she didn’t really know how anything worked: people, religion, men. Herself. Her stupid heart. She was in the same place she’d been since high school, the same place she’d been almost half of her life, stupid in love with a man she wasn’t sure she could have, but who she couldn’t get out of her blood . . . a man who made her feel childish, sometimes, like this, standing clueless waiting for him to finish speaking his mystery tongue, but who also made her feel more grounded and whole and home and dizzy and alive and perfect and right than she ever had ever.
She’d thought too much, and now she was hungry for him. She turned from the foreign discourse and buried her face in the hollow of his shoulder, breathing in his sweet scent, her hands winding around his bandaged middle. She wished he’d hurry up and heal: she hated knowing that there was weak flesh under that rope of gauze, and she was tired of not being able to touch him without the mute. She wanted just his body, just Angel. It was selfish, but she didn’t care.
She remembered his cry of pain last night in the jebels and flinched; she’d probably set his healing back a few days. Torn stitches at the least.
Angel automatically wound a hand tighter around her waist, brought one up and ran it through her hair. She thought about what he’d said last night: I’m glad you left your husband. She closed her eyes and just concentrated on the precious rhythm of his heartbeat, on the memory of those words. She knew they’d been rent from him in a moment of weakness, his heart and head sullied by magic. And she didn’t care. In matters of love she was selfish, but she had to be, and she held greedily to the gem Angel had let slip: He was glad. He was glad because he loved her, and he wanted her for his own.
It might take him some time to say it, but he felt it.
That was enough.
The goat herder left after a bit and Angel walked Buffy down to the souq – not too far off; he was right – to buy some breakfast. Angel apologized for talking so long with the man; he’d wanted to ask some questions about disturbances in the jebels and the murdered couples. Buffy forgave him easily, letting herself be bought for a few kisses and a mango from the souq.
“What’d you find out from the goat man?” she asked, running her tongue over the facets of her mouth, trying to catch all the sweet juice. It was so ripe, and all the fruit from the souqs was amazingly better than fruit from American supermarkets: Technicolor for the palette.
Angel seemed slightly distracted in his response, his dark eyes following the movements of her tongue. He was usually more subtle than that, and Buffy usually would have blushed, but she reasoned that they were both still wrecked from their lovemaking enough that it suspended the usual rules.
“Actually, not much we don’t already know. He tries to avoid the tourists except to see if they want to buy goats . . . he’s noticed, though, that there’s fewer and fewer of them going up to the jebels, and of the ones going up there, hardly any of them come down. He did say, though, that he’d wondered what had happened to the baboons; they’ve stopped coming down into the village and causing a ruckus. Oh, and we should make sure to stop by the well on our way out of town and drink. It’ll bring us good luck, and make sure that . . . make sure that—” He blushed, and a fluttering feeling bloomed suddenly in Buffy’s loins; it was an insanely attractive expression on him. “—that you’ll bear me sons.”
Buffy knew that the kind thing would be to let him out of her gaze to recover, but she didn’t do that. Instead, she arrested him in it, smiling sweetly. He squirmed, the flush deepening to crimson, his eyes lowering.
“That’s very interesting,” she said finally, but only so that he’d be forced to look back up and find her still looking at him.
“Stop it,” he whispered harshly.
Slowly, unblinking, she tore a sopping piece of mango from the bulb of the fruit and brought it to her mouth. His nostrils flared, but this time he didn’t drop his gaze; he locked eyes with her stubbornly even as his blush began to blaze again. She’d finished slowly running her tongue over the sumptuously curved edges of her mouth and had brought up one sticky finger to lave when he faltered.
“You’re being cruel,” he said softly. “I don’t understand it. There’s nothing to test me for.”
She stopped torturing him, relaxing her hands, the juice running down her arms in rivulets that would dry in sticky runs in seconds under the desert sun, easing her punishing glare.
“I left my husband for you.”
He shook his head. The flush was fading from his tanned cheeks. Tanned. Angel had a tan. “Not just for me.”
She hung her head. That was true. How did he always know everything, even before she knew it?
“You’re right. I’m sorry. You don’t deserve that, those . . . tests. Tell me what I can do to make things better. Tell me what I can do to prove that I would have done it just for you.”
She looked up, abruptly. He looked so, so beautiful standing there, framed by the golden glow of the Sahara sunlight. She’d thought for years that he was the most beautiful man that she would ever see, but that was before she’d seen him in the sun. He more than took her breath away; he took away every breath she’d ever think of having.
“No. It’s too soon. I don’t want to be foolish with my love for you.”
He considered her, almost smiling, for a long moment before speaking.
“Good answer,” he said finally. “Okay. Just . . . promise that you’ll stay with me long enough for me to change your mind?”
A radiant smile bloomed over her features. “That I can do.”
They bought what amounted to, after the exchange rate, an eight-dollar bottled water from one of the cafes at the base of Totil. They drank the water hiking to Khatmiya’s famed village well under the rising sun; by the time they reached the landmark, Helios was fully overhead in all his sweltering glory.
The well was much more like what Buffy expected to see in a tiny Sudanese village than the now empty eight-dollar bottled water clutched in her hand. It was short and squat and hand-hewn, made of wood and stones and looking like something you’d see on the Discovery Channel. She expected more goats nearby.
“Bear you sons, huh?” she asked Angel with a sly glance.
“Nice. Make fun of me all you want, just get some water.”
They’d decided that, even though they believed now that it was the either the jebels themselves that were responsible for the heightened arousal and not the Khatmiyan well, they didn’t want to take any chances, and they’d decided not to test the water until they were back at the hospital in a safe and private location. Buffy quickly filled the water bottle with well water and then hopped quickly back to Angel and pecked him on the cheek.
“Possibly sexy water, check. Let’s go.”
They had a quiet, scowling, non-English-speaking bus driver for the trip back to Souq Ash-Sha’abi, and neither one of them much cared. The ride back was much more painful than the ride out, and they rode mostly in silence, flinching as the hard seats and lack of mobility and shocks made their various injuries and tender parts sing. At one point, taking a hard shoulder near the desert gardens, Buffy actually saw Angel grab his side, heard him stifle a noise of pain, and she tried to replay the moment last night with more clarity, when she’d hurt him, tried to slow it down and figure the details: how hard, how bad had she injured him . . . ? But it wasn’t any use. Her memory was fuzzy, like she’d been drunk, and she couldn’t recall the force of her blow or even much beyond how badly she had wanted him, how good he’d felt, the sensation of flesh on flesh . . .
She had to stop thinking like that. She took a deep breath to try and clear the unsoundness of sex from her flesh and mind, and slid her hand over Angel’s. She kissed his cheek, and he slid his eyes over to her. They were slightly spooked, like a horses: a big, high-strung animal, a creature that’s been injured and isn’t quite sure who to trust, isn’t quite sure which loud noises are thunder and which are gunshots.
“I think you’re a day from needing your bandages changed,” she said gently. “But we’ll have Sana do them a day early, okay; I think we may have torn some stitches.”
He nodded. “Okay.”
She was a little worried by his reticence. “I’m sorry about that, by the way . . . I didn’t mean to . . .”
He looked surprised. “No! No, it’s good you did, or we . . . we could be dead now . . .”
She barely remembered that. “Oh. Oh, right, but . . . I’m still sorry I hurt you.”
He nodded absently and went back to looking out the window. She frowned. How did there go back to being distance between them? Nothing was simple.
He’d torn six stitches. Sana was annoyed; she had a pretty good idea of what they’d been doing when the stitches had been torn. She patched Angel up and warned them both against strenuous activity.
“We better hope this magic water’s a dud, then,” Buffy said morosely.
Angel laughed. “Don’t worry, sweetheart, I’ll be up for strenuous activity in no time.”
She brightened. “Promise?”
She eyed him suspiciously. “Just with me, right?”
He looked perfectly innocent. “Of course.”
She produced the bottle of well water and skipped over to where he was sitting on his hospital bed. “Maybe I should do this alone?”
He frowned. “Well . . . to risk sounding like a rogue . . . I’m not sure it’ll even work with one person. I mean, what if it’s like the hills and only works when you’re with the one you love?”
She grinned. “You’re sure this isn’t an excuse to get in my pants?”
He smiled. “You can never be sure of a thing like that.”
She glanced around quickly; there were almost a dozen other people in the room. True, almost all of them were sleeping or in some state of fevered delusion, and none of them spoke English, but she still didn’t want them to see her getting frisky with Angel.
“How about we find someplace a little more private to do this?”
“Good idea. Did you have someplace in mind?”
They sat side by side on the cool tile floor of the small shower in the tiny little bathroom on the ground floor.
“This is terribly romantic,” Angel said.
Buffy sighed. “Shut up. I’m not very good at this; I don’t have any practice. You’re the guy, you’re supposed to take me places.”
He rolled his eyes. “Fine. At least there’s no audience. If this even works. You go first.”
“Because you’re a lady, and it’s polite.”
She uncapped the bottle and, with a final nervous look at Angel, took a long swig. Then she handed the bottle off to him, and he drank, too.
They sat in silence for a moment.
“Anything?” she asked finally.
“No,” he breathed.
She sighed. “Damn. Maybe . . . maybe we should try and get it started. Kiss me.”
He looked at her strangely. “What?”
“You heard me. Maybe . . . maybe it just needs a little warming up. Kiss me.”
He sighed but indulged her, cupping her face in his hands and kissing her long and hard.
“Anything?” she asked breathlessly when he broke it off.
“Nothing more than the usual Buffy-lust.”
“You’re upset by this?”
She frowned. “I wanted to have sex.”
He chuckled. “We can have sex when I get my stitches out. Be patient.”
She whined. “I’m not good at being patient. I’m starving for you. You be patient.”
Buffy called Dawn back with the information from their trip to the jebels. She was selective with details, playing heavily on anything demon or atmosphere related – including the disappointment of the well water – but skipping over the mystery aphrodisiac part, except to say that they were a little confused as to what was causing the surges in psychic energy and what was feeding off it. Dawn pressed her on this point, and she reiterated lamely about drinking the water and it not working.
“But that doesn’t really explain—”
Buffy cleared her throat awkwardly.
“We just . . . Angel and I . . . we felt a little psychically weird is all,” she fumbled.
There was a brief agonizing pause from Dawn. “What do you mean?”
Buffy closed her eyes in duress.
“We got a little, um . . .”
“You had sex,” Dawn accused suddenly.
Buffy’s eyes flew open.
“We did not,” she lied weakly.
Dawn made a little groan of irritation. “You did too! I cannot believe you! You idiots!”
“But I thought you wanted us to have sex!”
“I did! I do! You should! But not magically induced, demon-feeding sex! I can’t believe you could be so—”
“What are you, Giles? It’s not like it was some plan we had, we were all . . . hypnotized or hexed or whatever. Not our fault.”
“You guys could be in really big trouble, Buffy. I’m serious.”
“Why? What’s the harm?”
“The harm is . . . if it’s the demon I think it is . . . ?”
“I thought you didn’t know what demon it was.”
“Well, I didn’t before. But now you’ve given me all sorts of new information, remember, that’s the reason you were actually there, not to get your swerve on? This sounds like an aesma daeva demon, and it sounds like you and Angel have gotten yourselves in a whole lot of trouble.”
“What do you mean?”
“Okay, you know how you were thinking the water was an aphrodisiac—”
“But that’s a dud, we tried it—”
“Shut up and listen to me. You know how you were thinking the water was an aphrodisiac, and couples were drinking it and getting aroused and the demon was feeding off of their sexual energy, and then you tried the water and found that wasn’t true, and then you decided well maybe the hills themselves were the aphrodisiac, since the water didn’t work and since you and Angel got all hot there, you idiots?”
“Yeah . . .”
“Well, you’re wrong there, too. It’s not the water, it’s not the hills. It’s the damn demon.”
“But it doesn’t make any sense for him to feed off sexual energy if he creates it—”
“I know. He doesn’t feed off sexual energy. He feeds off life force; he uses sexual energy to get dumbasses like you and Angel distracted long enough for him to slaughter them by sucking out their life force in – ew, you so don’t want to see the pictures. That’s why all the victims are couples, that’s why Angel was all right when he was by himself; he didn’t have you there to get him all worked up, so he was able to get away.”
“But he didn’t have me there to protect him, either—”
“You’re not listening to me. Do you have a damn death wish, Buffy?”
“What? No! I have a kill-this-demon-and-get-out-of-Sudan wish!”
“Then listen carefully: not only does this demon have a super thrall – as you’ve already experienced – but once you’ve been under it, the deeper he can pull you. And if he thralled you and Angel into getting all horizontal, then he’s already got a foot in the door re: sucking out your life force.”
“I know. Dumbass.”
“It was really good sex,” Buffy offered after a long moment of tense silence.
“I hope it was worth getting the life force sucked out of you and your partner in stupid.”
“I know,” she said tersely. “You didn’t mean to, it’s really not your fault. I’m just worried and this is messy and we really could have done without this complication.”
“You sound like Giles,” Buffy complained. “It’s gotta be the Watcher thing; this whole unfun attitude comes from dealing with dusty old books all day.”
“It comes from dealing with you,” Dawn countered. “Not one of my dusty books – or any of my Slayers, either – is half as difficult as you.”
“Yeah, I’m the difficult sibling, Miss Made-of-Energy-Has-a-Hell-God-After-Me—”
“Oh my God, that was almost ten years ago! You have to stop milking it.”
“I died, it’s not a small thing—”
“Angel died, and he’s stopped whining about it.”
Buffy rolled her eyes by habit, regardless of the fact that her sister couldn’t pick up on that gesture of annoyance over the phone. “Fine. Whatever. So. How do we kill this asthma diva thing?”
“Aesma daeva,” Dawn corrected her slowly. “And any number of your normal pointy things in vital organs should do it; the trick is to not get killed first.”
“It is not easy. I’ve just told you how it’s not easy.”
“I’ll just go without Angel. Easy.”
“And how are you going to arrange that?”
“I’ll explain to him that he’s too weak to help fight the demon—” Dawn made a little noise of disbelief, so Buffy changed tactics. “—or I’ll hit him over the head with a frying pan like in Roger Rabbit.”
“Yeah,” Dawn said. “That’s a good, honest basis for a relationship.”
“I don’t want him to die,” Buffy replied grumpily. “And, if I can at all help it, I’d prefer that I not die, either.”
“Well, there may be a way to counteract the thrall,” Dawn said in a kind of slow, drawn-out way that Buffy recognized from Giles as ready-to-research voice. “I’ll get some aesma daeva-specific books and look into it in more detail; maybe there’s a spell or something you can do to at least weaken its hold . . .”
“Or I could go alone.”
“It’ll still have that foot-in-the-door thing, Buffy. You guys blew it. I know it’s not your fault, but the demon has the upper hand now. I’ll call you back when I have something.”
“Great,” Buffy said glumly to the dial tone. “Just great.”
Angel was disappointed, but not all that surprised, by Buffy’s report of Dawn’s news. He was glad that they’d narrowed down the demon; no, he’d never come across one before, although he was familiar enough with the species to decipher what Buffy meant when she mangled the unfamiliar Persian words in her retelling. She told him the part about the thrall carefully, with the hope that he’d offer to let her take it on by herself, thus eliminating the possibility of a recurrence of the previous night’s events. No go.
“We’ll just wait for Dawn to find us a spell to counteract the thrall,” he said instead.
She huffed. “But you’re still hurt!”
He frowned. “And you’re vulnerable to it, and you’re insane if you think I’m going to let you go back out there by yourself.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “Let me?”
He sighed. “I meant I’d follow you, Buffy, not that you require my permission. Don’t make a fight where there isn’t one. You’re going to need your strength for the real battle ahead.”
She relaxed. “Oh, right.”
He was right. Of course he was right. And he would follow her; he was as stubborn as she was. She closed the distance between them, kissed him softly.
“Angel,” she murmured, letting her hands rest comfortably on his pectorals, feeling what was becoming the familiar rhythm of his heartbeat. “Can I ask you something?”
“Where in Sudan can I buy a frying pan?”
He blinked and drew arm’s length away from her so that he could study her face.
She sighed and cuddled back against him. “Nothing, sweetheart.”
It took Dawn another two days to get back to them, but the waiting part was much better this time. They still had the worry of their impotence, and they had the pain and frustration of healing, but this time they had the promise that Dawn’s answer would lead them somewhere, and the awkwardness between them had been lifted, so in the meantime they were able to find comfort in one another. The hospital was oppressive, so they spent a great deal of time exploring Kassala. They took in the sights of the gorgeous desert and the manic city, and Angel took Buffy down to the souq, where he offered to buy her a frying pan; she told him hastily that she’d been joking, but she did allow him to buy her a piece of exquisite silver jewelry from a Rashaida woman who had the bottom half of her face veiled but not her hair.
At night, or when their trips to the city left them too hot or too sore, they spent their time lying together in Angel’s bed, talking quietly. Real things, no more shallow conversation. Buffy’s heart swelled; she couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt this fulfilled, the last time she’d been so honestly and recklessly happy.
It was late evening when Dawn called and so they were in, lying drowsily in each other’s embrace. Buffy jumped up at hearing the startling noise; such was her celerity that she had the receiver off the cradle and to her ear after only two rings, and the phone was in the next room.
“Hello?” she said breathlessly.
“Got your spell,” Dawn announced happily.
The ingredients were easy to come by; they purchased almost all of them at the main souq the next morning. There were two they were lacking, and Angel picked one of them up from a local witch while Buffy waited impatiently back at the hospital. (He’d insisted on taking a taxi, and she had refused to get in one ever again). When he returned, they prepared the spell with mortar, pestle, and cauldron borrowed from the same witch. They worked quickly, adding the final ingredient – their blood – in taut silence.
“Ready to rock and roll?” Buffy asked when the spell had come to a simmer and let off the red plume of smoke that Dawn had told her meant it was viable.
Angel carefully poured the potion from the cauldron into the same bottle they’d brought back from Khatmiya.
“Yes. Let’s do this.”
It was late afternoon when they caught a bus out to the jebels. They got a non-chatty driver, and sat near the back, feeling non-chatty themselves. They’d brought a duffle bag full of weapons purchased at the souq – Buffy was ecstatic when she saw the arsenal available to her at the outdoor market – and they felt uncomfortable and conspicuous traveling with it among all the normal tourists with their cameras and honeymoon ideations. Buffy had healed completely from their sexual escapades, but her bottom was again punished by the horrible seats, and Angel and his newly stitched side suffered only slightly less than last time. Thus, they both failed to appreciate the beauty of the passing scenery, and they were both cranky and keyed up for the fight when they arrived at their destination.
It was getting dark when they arrived at the jebels. They started their trek to Aweitila, slipping unceremoniously by the vendors jumping at them like puppies in a pet store. Buffy was for once glad she didn’t speak Arabic; she couldn’t understand their sales pitches. Angel was hurting already; he bowed without a fight when Buffy offered to carry the duffle bag. It didn’t matter. Soon this would be over, and they could leave Sudan and go somewhere beautiful and private where he could convalesce.
They were passing the mosque; Buffy stopped.
“Think we should put on our chastity belts now?” she asked.
Angel regarded her without comprehension. “What?”
“The potion thing. You wanna do it now? Since we’re by a church and all.”
He was looking grim. She should have fought harder to get him to let her do this alone . . . but then, he never would have backed down. He was stubborn to the point of mulishness. She tried to pretend that she wasn’t, and that she didn’t find that attractive . . . she needed, definitely, to not be thinking about things about Angel she found attractive.
“I guess so,” he said finally.
Buffy unzipped the duffle bag and fished out the bottle containing the potion. It was dark and unappetizing-looking; she wrinkled her nose.
“Yuck.” She glanced over at Angel. “Ladies first again?”
“Whatever you’d like.”
She grimaced. “I can’t believe we have to drink blood to keep from getting our life forces sucked out . . . although I guess you’re used to it . . .”
Angel smiled indulgently.
The apples of her cheeks colored. “Sorry.”
“It’s all right. I’ll go first, if you want.”
“No, I’m just whining . . . here goes.”
She uncapped the bottle and took a deep swig. She almost gagged; truth be told, there was very little blood in it – the potion was mostly other ingredients, herbs and a pomegranate and some other things – but it was thick and viscous and it tasted awful. Buffy forced herself to swallow, wiped her mouth on the back of her hand, and handed the bottle to Angel.
He barely flinched. Stupid stoic Angel.
“Ready?” he asked breathlessly – ha, he was affected – handing the empty bottle back to her.
She stuffed it in her duffle, rezipped the bag, and nodded in assent. They continued the climb up Aweitila in silence, too tense to speak.
They’d been wandering around Aweitila for a quarter of an hour when they begin to get anxious.
“I think we look suspicious,” Buffy said finally. “Just wandering around looking like demon hunters. We should be more natural, and we should . . . you know, set out some bait.”
“How? What bait?”
Buffy set down the bag full of weapons. “Kiss me. Then we’ll look like a normal honeymooning couple, plus it’ll get me all aroused, which is demon bait. Hurry, time’s a’wastin’.”
Angel regarded her curiously for a second before responding.
“You know, that’s actually not as horrible an idea as it sounds.”
She beamed. “Thanks, honey.”
He took her in his arms, brought his lips to hers gently. She pulled away, looked at him askance. “No, no, that’ll never do. You have to act like you’re all demon-spell-love-crazed for me. Come on. Ravage me.”
He narrowed his eyes. “You are just aching to be spanked.”
She grinned. “There’s plenty of time for that later. Right now you’re ravaging me.”
He rolled his eyes and pulled her to him roughly. She gasped in pleasure and raised her face eagerly as he descended upon her with much more insistent kisses.
“That’s more like it,” she breathed when he let her up for air.
He started to make a quick comment back, but all of a sudden, something changed: the folly went out of her eyes; they’d hardened to Slayer eyes, all business. Simultaneously, her muscles under his hands steeled to battle-ready.
“It’s party time,” she whispered against his ear. “What did I tell you . . . we get cuddly, and our friend would just crawl out of the woodwork.”
“I call the broadsword,” he responded dully. “Anything to add before we begin?”
She hesitated; she was somewhat unwilling to let go of him. She was wishing, suddenly, that she’d bought that frying pan after all.
“I love you,” she decided on finally. “Please be careful.”
He kissed her firmly. “You too.”
They broke apart and tore quickly into the duffle. Buffy came up with a stake and a small axe, abandoning the broadsword to Angel. The demon was still several yards away; Buffy had just felt the prickle of its presence, and now the two of them were operating on the rough outline of its figure, the glint of its eyes under the Saharan moonlight. It was very dark in color and very reptilian in appearance: sharp angles, tight body, all scales and claws, glistening yellow lizard eyes.
Buffy wrinkled her nose. “Why are the demons with thrall always the ugliest?”
“It’s even uglier up close,” Angel replied softly.
She winced sympathetically. “Sorry, honey.”
They waited for a moment in battle positions; it didn’t advance. Buffy glanced anxiously at Angel.
“I’m thinking we need to take the offensive here.”
“Glad it’s not just me.”
“Any particular thoughts?”
He smiled and gestured gallantly with his sword. “Ladies first.”
She was so hoping he would say that. She threw her stake at where she assumed the demon’s heart was; it made contact, but bounced off and rolled away into the night.
Buffy and Angel exchanged glances.
She swore. “Dammit.”
Her take on the offensive did, however, have the effect of pissing the demon off; he started slithering in their direction. Angel started to say something about her choice of attack, but she cut him off.
“I’d like to take another crack at it, if you don’t mind.”
“Be my guest.”
Without further ado, Buffy took a running start and then landed a flying kick into the demon’s chest. He flew back into the rocks with a crash and the scrape of scales on stone and stones sliding by each other. Buffy and Angel trotted after him, weapons raised. Buffy planted her foot on his chest and in a flash of silver, Angel’s sword was raised and then down.
It was over quickly.
Their bus driver on the way back to the hospital was the smiling, English-speaking Dinka. He was ecstatic to see them, either delighted to be able to break out his English or remembering how generous Angel was with tips.
It was the last bus of the evening so it was quite full, and they sat near the back, completely ignoring the translated tour notes and the gorgeousness of the moonlight on the Gash and the desert gardens, instead just sitting holding hands and kissing like teenagers under the bleachers on prom night. They were so distracted by the time they’d arrived back at Souq Ash-Sha’abi that they accidentally left the duffle bag onboard; they wondered, giggling, the next morning what the bus driver thought when he found it. By the time they’d reached the hospital it was almost midnight and by the time they got upstairs they were kissing desperately; they were half-undressed by the time they reached Angel’s bed.
The next morning, it was determined that they had torn out four of Angel’s stitches. Sana was furious, but it didn’t matter, because Angel checked out of the hospital as soon as she finished repairing the damage and bandaging him up again. They thanked her profusely – and Angel paid her more on top of whatever he’d already given her for all the frustration they had caused her with their Angloness and their sexcapades – and left for the railway station.
“So,” he asked slowly. “Where do you want to go?”
She cuddled against him, even in the heat of the morning.
“I don’t care. As long as it’s with you.”
Feed Lamia Visit Lamia
Summary: Buffy travels halfway around the world to find Angel, and finds that's only half the journey.
Spoilers: Through “Not Fade Away”
Notes: Thank you so, so much to my wonderful beta readers Michelle, Lee, Connie, and Sara. You guys are unbelievably awesome and I am grateful beyond the capacity to express myself.