Smoke Damage

Smoke Damage

By Kairos
Author's Notes

She had left California half-dazed, believing it would take years to find herself again. Everyone who cared enough to inquire heard the same explanation: she was putting the past behind her. In reality, the clearest of her convictions was that she would need to change ruthlessly in order to forge a new life, and it would be harder than anything she had endured so far.

And it turned out she was exactly right. A revelation like the existence of a demonic underworld was a hard shake; taking part in battle against it was harder yet. The truth was that it would always be with her, even if she never saw a vampire again. But she had survived on her own and grown in ways she never would have predicted, and nothing about her past in Los Angeles could hurt her now. She was a new Kate.

The new Kate was better equipped to deal with certain breaking news than most of her neighbors in this remote Arizona town. There had been screams audible from nearby houses when the footage of live giants and monsters had appeared on the television, while Kate simply sat down to watch, feeling grateful that she lived alone. On the other hand, most of those neighbors had never even been to LA, and if the sight of its smoldering remains gave them a shock, it was because they had to struggle with the idea that vital pieces of America could be ripped away so easily.

Kate’s shock was of a different nature. It was brutally personal, and it was the first occurrence in three years that had even tempted her to look up plane fares.

Fares didn’t matter in the end, because the airport was too close to the dead zone and had shut down until further notice. She had to drive. On the road there she reflected that it was probably better that way, as she would rather have her car with her and avoid looking up old acquaintances to ask for rides. Why should she be in a hurry to get there, anyway? The damage had been done.

And had it ever. It wasn’t just that Los Angeles was in the past, Kate realized as soon as she was close enough to see the ruins. Los Angeles was past.

Dear Buffy,

You will never know that I called your house today. It wasn’t for the first time; I’d reached your answering machine twice before and hung up before the beep. Even that was probably a little overboard, but it was a new message, one with your voice instead of your mother’s, and I couldn’t resist listening.

But today your mother picked up the phone. I was thinking about the voicemail message and unprepared, so I asked for you, and then there was a silence.

“She’s not here,” she said. “Is this Angel?”

She didn’t even sound angry. She’s still the only thing left in Sunnydale that I’m afraid of. I confessed my identity and offered her the same flimsy excuse that I had given myself: that I just wanted to make sure you were doing okay.

She said, “Buffy is fine.”

She said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to talk to her.”

She said, “You did the right thing, moving away. I know it was hard for you, but I’m sure things will get better before you know it. What’s important now is for both of you to live your own lives.”

And what did I say? I can hardly recall. Short words of agreement. Stammered apologies. Darla used to tell me that I had a tongue of pure silver. You’d never know it from the way I sound now.

I know that you’ll never hear about this from her because she told me. “I’m not going to tell her you called, okay, Angel? And I hope you won’t keep trying to talk to her. If there’s some kind of demon emergency, I’m sure you can reach Mr. Giles.”

She meant it, of course. She wanted none of me in her life or yours. Yet her voice never lost its sympathetic tone, and she wished me luck before we hung up. It’s good that she’s your mother, Buffy. It’s good to have a brave and practical woman who loves you. I left you, but I didn’t leave you alone.

But I have no mother, and I’ve forgotten how to be alone. The only people I meet here are the ones I kill. I go for days without speaking a word. Nobody tells me about her day at school or asks me if there’s time for a stroll on the beach before the sun comes up.

I can’t call you anymore, but I can’t just quit the habit of talking to you. This book will be hidden. Nobody will know of its existence, and if need be, I can always destroy it. If you’re ever in danger, I’ll be there, but anything else I want to say to you can stay in these pages.

I love you. I miss you.

“Thank you. That looks wonderful.” Kate admired the tray openly as it was set before her, bearing an ornate ceramic teapot, a single cup, and a bowl of fresh blossoms. Each item was placed meticulously and appeared to be handcrafted, and the old man who had brought the arrangement was dressed in equally aesthetic and traditional robes. He smiled and bowed in response, and before he had straightened Kate took the opportunity to add, “How about my other request?”

The lapse in his tranquil expression only lasted for a second, and then he pressed his palms together and said, “I am a simple proprietor, and I am afraid I do not know of such things.”

Kate sighed, inhaling the hot tea’s aroma. “I’m Kate Lockley and I’m afraid you do.” She twitched when she said her own name; even now, even while seated cross-legged on a cushion amid glass lanterns and tinkling music, she still sometimes had to fight the impulse to flash her nonexistent badge.

“Kate Lockley, is it?” The man’s posture relaxed a little, but his eyes were grave as he stroked his silver beard. “Have the gods of the desert driven you out, then?”

“No. I came here myself, to see.” She gestured at the cushion across from her. “Will you sit?”

“I will not. Please tell me what service you require from me, and remember that this is a teahouse and I am its simple proprietor.”

It was a discouraging beginning. He had seemed so affable over the phone last year. Kate tried to sound unassuming, but his refusal to come down to her level made it hard to speak as equals. “I want to know what happened to the city. I want to hear it from someone who knew what was happening all along. Someone who doesn’t read newspapers.”

“What happened?” His eyes narrowed marginally. “Death. Flame. Awakenings. Greater evil than you could ever unearth in your desert.”

“Was it Angel?” Kate was almost surprised that her tongue didn’t trip on the word. The last time she had used it as a name was before she had left this state; since then, she hadn’t even spoken to anyone who might know who Angel was. Of course he had been on her mind for days now. One of her first thoughts after hearing the news had been the understanding that Angel had some part in it and was almost certainly dead, and that fact had settled its icy edges into her chest cavity and stayed there. It wasn’t unbearable, though, and she did want to hear the truth.

“Ho!” laughed the old man, with more surprise than amusement. “Perhaps it was, indeed. Shall I bring you the bill?”

Kate shook her head and tried to look serious enough to hold his attention. “You helped me last year, Master Song. Without the information you sent me, I never would have been able to stop that ritual and the cult would have raised their Sahkris demon. You may have saved a whole lot of lives, mine included, and nothing can take away my gratitude for that.” She paused, but briefly, seeing that he had some modest acknowledgment ready on his tongue. “But I helped you too. Remember that artifact? A little stone man with a ruby in his forehead? You never even told me what it was called. And I never even asked what you needed it for.”

It was all too clear that he remembered. He held his pose, standing straight and balanced in front of her, but instead of responding he simply listened, waiting.

“I used to be a detective,” she told him. “Do you know what kind of self-restraint it takes for me to send a talisman to a sorcerer and not ask him why he needs it?”

Slowly, Song opened his hands from where they had been clasped in front of him, and for a moment she thought he was finally going to sit down with her. Instead he remained standing and spoke in a solemn tone. “You did help me, Desert Lady. You were the answer to my prayer. And you are correct in your assumption that I do not read the newspapers.” He smiled sadly. “Yet even so, there is a great deal I do not understand. It has been midnight in the city for days. Why? Why did the vampire with a soul bring this upon us now? Who are the warriors still moving through that darkness? I do not know. The signs say there is no more of this to come, and I am not sure that I wish to know anything more.”

Kate studied the bright reflections in his quiescent eyes, noting that she didn’t even really know if he was fully human. “You’re saying it’s not your battle?” she asked quietly.

He nodded. “And yet I too have lost friends to its appetite. If this is its end, I am grateful, and I need not know how it is the end came about.”

“I understand.” Kate lifted her teacup with both hands, turning it so that the symbol it bore faced away from her, as she had once learned to do. “Thank you, Master Song. I won’t bother you again.”

“Ah, you do not bother me,” said the old man with a good-natured smile. “You seek knowledge; that is good and natural. But this is not where you will find it.” He bowed to her again, and then turned to go, adding one last remark that she found slightly cryptic: “I have never been a detective, you see.”

Sweet Buffy, my one great love, my beautiful doom,

It’s easier to say I lost control, but if I did, why do I remember it so clearly? The shape of your body under mine as I pressed you into the floor. Your lungs trying so hard to take in enough air. Your blood. Very clear. There’s very little point in trying to think of anything but you, no matter how I try to remove all traces of you from my life here, such as it is.

I wish I could show you my car. I’m sure you’d like it.

Tonight I laughed for the first time since I got here. It was your fault, of course. The vampire I was fighting tried to taunt me, so I taunted him back, and before I knew it we were trading quips. You never guessed I would turn into your protégée, did you? Of course I laughed.

Thirty seconds later I was standing over a pile of ashes, and suddenly it didn’t seem funny anymore.

Do you ever think of me when you make a kill, or is it too easy to forget that I’m one of them, made of the same dead material, destined for the same austere end? It’s not something I can forget. Every vampire is my mirror. It’s me at the end of every stake.

And I see already how it’s better you don’t see what I write to you. I love you. I miss you.

One day later there was a knock at the door of her hotel room, and she opened it to find some more of the past, standing there with a smile on his face.

“Heath,” said Kate, thereby using up the full extent of words she had at her disposal. How had he found her? Why had he found her? Was this a social call, or was he here to arrest her for something? She hadn’t committed any crime that she was aware of, but on the other hand, her involvement with the occult meant that she had, out of necessity, been operating beneath the law for some time now. On the other hand, all of that had taken place in Arizona, unless buying tea from a shaman was getting too close to the LA underworld. On the other hand, the rules might have changed altogether from those she had known.

“Lockley,” said Heath. “Can I come in?”

It all came together soon enough. He had been sent here by Song, of course, who had noticed the connection of their careers and acted on it to get both of them out of his hair. She shouldn’t have been so quick to assume that the entire LAPD had remained blind; here was one more life that had changed before the world did.

Kate realized quickly that she had missed the man. He had been one of very few of her fellow officers who had made the effort to maintain a friendship with her following her dismissal, and had never shown her any less respect for it. Granted, it helped that he himself had first-hand experience with some of the events leading up to that disaster, but his reaction to it set him apart as well. Every officer in the division had seen reality twist during their ‘sensitivity training’; only Heath had chosen not to pretend that it never happened.

He also hadn’t directly approached her for answers about the incident, though, which in a way she appreciated even more. Apparently their internal struggles over the past few years had been much the same, although Kate had been dealt significantly more of them. She wished she had taken the initiative at the time and filled him in on what she knew. Now it seemed too late to matter.

Regardless of his feelings about her disgrace in the field and subsequent disappearance, Heath showed no regrets over their reunion. He took it in stride when she admitted that she knew almost nothing about the fate of LA, and after some general conversation he soon revealed that he had a surprise of his own. “You remember that bombed apartment building back in two-thousand? Case went cold real fast?”

The reference to the events of that time was more direct than either of them had made so far, and therefore more chilling , but she kept her composure as she replied. “I remember a hell of a lot of cases going cold that year, but I’m relieved to say that an enormous mysterious explosion still makes an impression, yes.”

“Well, it stayed cold, so don’t get excited. But I know you had a friend who lived there. Mr. Angel, right?”

Kate nodded slowly and didn’t bother to correct his use of the name. Obviously, Heath didn’t know the truth about Angel, and she didn’t want to divulge it or say anything that would lead to questions about it. Now that he was dead, keeping his secrets probably made no difference, but somehow it was more important to her than it had been during his life. Accepting his nature and keeping quiet about it had been the only way she could show him her respect, and now she respected him more than ever.

“Well,” said Heath, “a lot of stuff was pulled from the site and never claimed. I always wanted to see if you could make anything of it, so I did what I could to keep it wrapped up in red tape so nobody would want to bother with it.” He laughed—the arbitrary rules about officially useless evidence had been an old joke in the division. “So now, with all these new priorities coming in, they finally decided it’s not evidence anymore and they don’t want it taking up storage space. Care to rescue any of it before it gets trashed?”

“Yes.” Kate could only guess at how wide her eyes were right then. “I…yes. What’s in there? Yes.”

Heath grinned, clearly pleased by her enthusiasm. “Well, a lot of it really is trash, but there’s some interesting swag—guy must have been a weapons collector, and there’s some art without too much smoke damage. Lots of books. You can take the whole shebang, if you want. Only catch is that you have to tell me what it is and what you want it for.”

Master Song’s little talisman immediately came to mind, and Kate smiled ruefully. “I’ll do my best,” she said. “But I’ll tell you right now, anything that man laid his hands on is probably a complete mystery.”

My dearest Buffy,

You’ve probably heard by now that your friend Cordelia is working for me, and I’d have liked to see how you reacted to that news. You’ll understand why I allowed it, I’m sure, and I even think you would have done the same. Even so, if we were actually speaking I’m sure you’d be calling me crazy. Maybe I am. She’s a handful. Things around here are going to change, and I don’t think I’m really ready for it.

She fills up silences, though. She is impossible to ignore. She isn’t afraid of me.

My other new employee is a half-demon carrying instructions from on high. When I met him I only thought that the last thing I wanted in my life was another Whistler, but now I wonder if he isn’t a lot more like me. Doyle is reluctant, as Whistler never was, and he wears a ring like the one that was burned from my finger and I cannot replace. He won’t be driving my car anymore if I have anything to say about it, though.

I love you. I miss you.

Kate’s desire to avoid the LAPD and anything connected made her reluctant to accompany Heath to the storage room, so he kindly agreed to haul it all out of there himself, and she met him at his apartment so they could go through it together.

She had expected an onslaught of memories and maybe some deep emotions to arise, but the first thing she felt was overwhelmed. Right away she began sorting it into piles and giving Heath instructions on what to do with them, and didn’t realize that she had fallen back into former habits of seizing control until she heard him chuckling softly each time he obeyed.

Kate was soon chuckling too, but for her it was because of the strong sense of déjà vu the process was giving her—it was not at all unlike cleaning out her closet as a child, right down to the constant urge to fiddle with every object and read every book rather than properly putting it away. She indulged some of her curiosity, rationalizing it with the need to know if the books were legible, but opening some of them led to questions she couldn’t begin to satisfy until she was back at home with the time and resources to delve.

One in particular blew the rest out of the water when she opened it to a page near the middle and saw that it was not only written by hand, but in a script that had to be Angel’s own. Disjointed patches of writing fought for space among gesture sketches, all of them portraying a nude young woman in repose. Kate’s throat constricted and her eyes stung with sudden tears, a reaction that not even the televised Apocalypse had given her, and she slammed the book shut, too late to avoid seeing the words “I’ll never forget.”

Heath was on the other side of the room, fishing through a box of weapons. It was easy to conceal her wave of grief.

When they had successfully categorized every piece of Angel’s belongings that wasn’t trash, ethics became the primary issue. “Some of this is valuable,” she said uncertainly. “I don’t feel right about keeping it.”

Valuable was an understatement, she thought as she examined the blade in her hands: a flexible steel bastard sword, made for combat and kept sharp, worth thousands on the basis of its craftsmanship alone. She wasn’t about to draw attention to the possibility that it was also enchanted. It was bothersome that she had immediately known where it could fetch the highest price.

“So you want to give it all back?” replied Heath.

The irony in his voice was obvious, but she shook her head anyway. “No. They’ll just auction it off, and I’d rather we know where the money is going.” Not to mention that the city’s handling would make it all too easy for these items to end up in the wrong hands. “I’ll sell them myself,” she decided out loud, “and the profits can go towards the disaster relief fundraising. I think he would have appreciated that.” Then she remembered who had made this possible at all, and added, “Unless you want to split it and keep your half.”

He didn’t, which she had expected. He was a good man, and she regretted how little she had noticed that when they worked together.

In fact, he was good enough to help her load the weapons and books and potentially magical trinkets into her car, good enough to see her off with a few hearty jokes about how lucky she was to not be trying to get her new luggage onto a plane, and good enough to accept without confirmation her promise to write from Arizona and tell him what she had learned.

Dear Buffy,

I had my day in the sunlight, and it had its cost. I’m sorry to say that Spike got away and will no doubt be back to bother you again, but there is no longer any Gem of Amarra for him to steal, so at least you won’t have to see him in the sunlight.

Honestly, my misgivings about destroying the ring have been very few. It’s nice to know that others want my life to be easier, but in the end, I’m the only one who knows what I’m like when life is easy, and it isn’t pretty.

But the ring was a gift from you, and so I’m sorry that I had to discard it. I hope you won’t take it the wrong way. I don’t look that great in direct light.

Not much else to say about the whole thing. I’d better go try to fix the shambles Spike made of my apartment.

…The little bastard stole a picture of you I drew. I can’t believe this. It had to be him, I know I left it in the drawer in my bedroom. What was he thinking? Son of a bitch. I should have staked him the moment Dru brought him home.

And he’s probably just going to throw it away, unless he’s building creepy shrines to you in his creepy little crypt or wherever he’s living. I really hope you’re going to kill him soon. I could almost justify calling you over this just to tell you he’s got something of yours and you should get it back.

Son of a bitch.

Kate read the diary from cover to cover, while the rest of Angel’s former possessions waited in unopened boxes for her attention. She wasn’t ashamed.

…She was a little ashamed. It was clear from the first glimpse that this book was meant to be wholly private, and if he had ever wanted anyone to see it, she knew she wasn’t the one. But on the practical side, she still knew very little of what had happened to him, and one never knew what kind of information might be the key to finding a way to help someone. These days she had plenty of connections, and her expertise at piecing together evidence to find where action was needed had only grown.

On the personal side, he was dead. There was no remaining chance at further reconciliation, so remembering him was the best she could do, and she was willing to use any tool at her disposal to do it.

On the realistic side, after seeing those desperate sketches he had made in here, she didn’t think her curiosity was going to give her a choice.

During that first day after she came back from her journey, she hardly moved from the couch except to answer the door for the Chinese delivery man. He wrinkled his nose when she paid him and she was embarrassed to realize that she had left all of the boxes of salvage by the door, and that they stank. Most of the books had been soaked by fire hoses and carelessly left to dry in storage, and none had escaped smoke damage. For that matter, the diary she was reading smelled, too—or it would have if she hadn’t so soon become accustomed to it.

She had yet to get accustomed to anything else about the journal. Angel had been in love. Angel had built his agency on a half-demon’s visions and a loud-mouthed schoolgirl’s ambitions. Angel had come to Los Angeles—from Sunnydale, of all places—only after losing and regaining his life. She had never guessed. What a fool she had been, talking to Heath as if she had known who Angel was or what he would have wanted.

By the time she reached the third page she had already found the first of several detailed accounts of the vampire losing himself in bloodlust and tearing into the neck of his beloved. When she saw a teardrop fall onto the anguished apology that followed it, she hastily set the book aside until she had gathered herself together. The pages were already brittle and grey; it wouldn’t do to damage them further. It was hardly a minute, though, before she lost her patience and started reading again. Only then did she realize that she had been rubbing hard at a certain spot on her own neck.

Dear Buffy,

A girl came to the office yesterday selling cookies, so I bought three boxes. Cordelia spent the morning complaining that she would ‘have to’ eat them, and the rest of the day fuming at Doyle for taking them all home with him. I hope that kid met her quota. There really isn’t a simple way to do a good deed, is there?

Angel Investigations—the name wasn’t my idea, I swear—seems to be on its feet. We’re even making some money. More importantly, Cordy found an apartment of her own. More importantly, we got the ghost out. The hostile one, anyway.

It turns out Doyle was married. I met his wife—now ex—through a strange series of events that I’m not going to relate here, but for some reason the idea of a failed romance in his past makes my heart ache. Does nobody get a chance at lasting happiness with another person? Or do we all have the same chance, and destroy it in our own ways?

May you make the most of the next chance given to you, Buffy. I love you, I miss you, and I hope to live to see you get all that you deserve.

The journal was bound in a brown leather cover, and it looked even older than it smelled. It had many pages, unlined, but Kate could tell without looking that the last quarter or so hadn’t been filled in. Of those that were, many were adorned with sketches, but Angel’s handwriting was neat and compact enough to take advantage of what space it had available.

Kate was fascinated by the artwork, almost more than the autobiography. The illustrations, when they appeared, usually took up no more than a corner of the page, but they were either rendered with loving detail or completed with no more than a few quick strokes, the work of a master. He should have been in galleries. The LAPD would have killed for a sketch artist like him. Faces were the most common theme, especially the face belonging to the female nude of the “I’ll never forget” pages, and it wasn’t hard to figure out that this was the Buffy to whom the letters were addressed.

After that, Kate’s revelations came in a rush, merged with shameful memories of the part she herself had played in Angel’s life that year. Why it took three close-up sketches of Buffy’s face to finally make the connection, she didn’t know, but when she paired that face with an angry young voice calling her a murderer, there could be no further doubt. From that point on, her mind supplied visuals whenever the diary did not.

The first time she saw her own name in an entry, she flinched, irrationally unprepared for a personal twist to enter the story. The mention was brief, though, and so were the few that followed it. Nothing she wouldn’t have expected. His feelings toward her had been more generous than she deserved, in fact.

Long before she had reached the end of the diary or even thought about appraising the equipment in her smelly boxes, she knew what her next step had to be.

Buffy I don’t know if I can take it. Buffy I’ve lost you forever.

You felt my heart beat. It happened. It didn’t happen.

It’s two o’clock in the afternoon and this is when I step outside and find you in the sunlight. It’s two o’clock in the afternoon and you’ve gone back to Sunnydale and I can’t go outside because I’m a vampire.

I’ll never forget.

There was nothing for you to forget.

The sun has gone down. We watched it together. You’re sitting at my table drinking tea, and we won’t make it to the bedroom the first time. You’ll be full of laughter when the table breaks beneath you and when I ask if you’re okay you’ll only laugh harder.

We didn’t make it to the bedroom because we didn’t even make it downstairs. You said your piece and left my office. Forever.

It’s midnight and your legs are wrapped around me. You scream when you climax, and roll me over to lie on top of me after I do, and I’m panting harder than you are. Your skin tastes different than it ever has before. It’s midnight and I’m in this bed alone.

It wasn’t enough time.

I’ll never forget.

It was easy to find occult information on the internet, but nearly impossible to discern which websites were legitimate. Kate’s business required certainty, as well as a name with a reputation, so she refused to buy or sell from anyone who couldn’t offer her a phone number.

She found circumstances much the same when she searched for “Buffy.” It was a start, though—now she knew she was looking for Buffy Summers, Senior Slayer. If that wasn’t an official title, well, it was close enough for her purposes. Now she just needed a number where she could reasonably expect to reach Senior Slayer.

The bookstore had what she wanted, though she was a little embarrassed when she brought her selection of magazines to the checkout: Teen Vogue, Cosmo Girl, Seventeen, and three other titles geared toward a younger age group than they pretended to be. The employee at the counter didn’t give her a second glance, though, and she rushed her purchases home, trying not to get too hung up on what kind of message these publications were giving America’s youth.

She had cringed her way through two of them before finally finding an inconspicuous ad near the back of Cosmo Girl. The first words to catch her eye were ‘DON’T PANIC!’ The rest of it was similarly casual and succinct: “Do you suddenly feel stronger and tougher than you ever thought you could? Are you having dreams about other girls like you? Don’t know who to talk to? You may have been called as a Slayer. We can help you find your destiny—just pick up your phone and dial the toll-free number below.”

The image beneath the number held Kate’s attention even as she punched the number into her phone. It looked at first like nothing but a stylized design, but once she noticed the shape of an axe blade, she was sure it was a rendition of a weapon, and the incongruence of this advertisement in the middle of a magazine about makeup and boys made her stomach turn. When her call was picked up, she was startled by a perky young male voice.

“Center for Vampyr Slayage, Neo-Watcher Training, Paranormal Research and Defense, Doomsday Aversion, Pursuit of Truth and Justice, Dungeon-Crawling, and Chilling with Frosty Beverages, this is Andrew, how may I direct your call?”

Kate took a full three seconds to try to make sense of that before slipping into character and letting intuition guide her. “Hi,” she squeaked in her best approximation of a girl fifteen years her junior. “I, um, something happened to me, and I’m kind of scared. Like, I had this dream? And I think I might be, um, a Slayer?”

Instantly the boy was full of compassion. “Fear not, my newly awakened heroic friend! Tell me all about yourself and your alarming but intriguing dream, and I’ll tell you if there’s a place for you at our School for Gifted Youngsters.”

This wasn’t going quite in the direction that Kate had planned. “Um, I kind of just wanted to talk to Buffy Summers about it. Is she there?”

“Oh, I’m afraid Miss Summers is a very busy lady who likes it when the phone work stays with the guy who volunteered for it, but don’t worry, if we verify your Slayerhood and you decide to join us, you’ll totally get to meet her.”

“Oh.” It wasn’t just Kate’s projected youthful voice that was dejected. Was she going to have to trace this number to find where the office was located? “How do I get verified?” she asked.

“We’ll send someone out to you—“

Kate winced and quickly interrupted. “No. I wanna go see Buffy myself.”

“That is such a great sentiment!” Andrew’s voice was full of such sincerity that she didn’t know if she should trust him more or less because of it. “Only, wormholes are apparently not a viable mode of transportation—yet— and it’ll be hard to get yourself to New York without one, so—“

“Where in New York?”

There was a very brief pause, and then the chipper tone came back with a skeptical edge. “Queens. Three-fifty-five 138th Street. Our office is on the top floor.”

Kate scribbled down the address swiftly. “Thanks,” she said in her real voice, and hung up.

Beloved Slayer,

I have been sitting here for far too long, trying to find the words to honor a fallen hero. This isn’t the place to put them. His eulogy should be public, and there should be scores of friends and strangers focusing all their concentration lest they miss a word of it. His tale should provoke awe. His remains should be placed reverently into the ground, wrapped in silk and promises: We understand what you did, and you are loved.

Instead he’ll be missed very deeply by very few. His sacrifice will live on for generations in a grateful family of demons, and in my memory, which may last even longer. Is that what immortality asks of me, Buffy? To let some remnant of my friends continue along through the years, locked in my heart when everyone else who knew them is dead?

This shouldn’t have happened. There should have been a way to prevent it. Saying this means nothing, but it’s true.

Here’s a secret for you, Buffy, one part of this ululu that must never be public: Cordy and Doyle could have loved each other for a lifetime. She has no idea of what she’s lost. Just like the world that never knew him.

And I am still without the words I need. Allen Francis Doyle is dead. God rest him.

The top floor of 355 138th St. was merely the sixth story, but it had no elevator, so six stories up was plenty. Each floor seemed to hold only one office, and from what Kate could see from the stairwell, they weren’t very big ones. She was having doubts about whether Andrew had sent her to the wrong address—it could be the wrong country, for all she knew—until she reached the door and found there a small brass sign that said simply, “Slayers’ Council”.

She entered without knocking and walked through the first room, a nondescript and unoccupied lobby, following the sounds coming from the next one: talk radio, some constructive banging, and someone singing disjointedly to himself.

He was facing away from her, hunched over and surrounded by tools, tearing away at a board that seemed to be the remains of something that was once nailed to the floor. As Kate approached she could hear that what she had mistaken for singing was actually a phrase that he had been jovially repeating in a fake Spanish accent: “’Allo. My name eez Ahlexanderr ‘Arris. You treeped my Slayer. Prrepare to die.”

Kate smiled, suddenly feeling more at ease than she had since boarding her plane, and discreetly cleared her throat.

The man jumped, immediately dropping his hammer and slipping awkwardly out of his crouch to land on the floor before scrambling to his feet. He was young, Kate saw, though not as young as she would have placed Andrew’s voice, but what surprised her more was that he was sporting an eye patch, pirate-style, with his otherwise normal attire. “Hi,” he said, sidestepping around her to switch off the radio on the desk in the middle of the room. “Hello. Uh. My name’s—“

“Alexander Harris?” Kate suggested.

“Xander, please.” He held out his hand, and Kate shook it readily. “Can I help you? We weren’t really expecting anyone today, so I was just…” He waved descriptively at the repairs he had just been completing.

She shrugged. “My fault; I didn’t make an appointment. Sorry to interrupt you.”

“No prob,” said Xander. “As soon as I finish, something else will break anyway. It would probably be a lot more efficient to spend my time finding us the dream office we couldn’t afford until now, and moving us the hell out of shack-o-rama. So! Visualize me in a suit and let’s start pretending I’m an official office-y guy.”

Kate nodded, wondering whether he was especially talkative or she had just grown unaccustomed to people being open with her. “I guess I’m here to see your Slayer, as you put it.”

“Aha, well, she’s not my Slayer in the romantic sense or the Watcher sense or the you-should-ever-mention-I-said-that sense, but it is Buffy we’re talking about, nay?”

“That’s right.” Kate looked around. There were three other rooms adjoining this one, but they were behind closed doors, unlike the entrance that connected it to the lobby. “Is she here?”

Xander’s one eye controlled a gaze that was piercing without seeming suspicious. “At the moment she’s at an undisclosed not here. Care to pass the time by telling me how you found this place?”

It was actually nice to be asked that outright—obviously the action that happened in this office was disproportionate to the attention that the Slayers had generated from the masses, and Kate wasn’t interested in pussyfooting around the issue. “I talked with a kid named Andrew. He gave me the address.”

“Did he now.” Xander still didn’t sound confrontational, but he put his chin in his hand and let the pause drag on.

The impasse lasted until a voice—female, young but a few years older now, practiced in giving orders—drifted out from behind one of the closed doors. “Xander, if that’s a Potential, just send her in.”

Buffy, my love,

Is there anyone else leaving Sunnydale that I should know about? I can’t just keep hiring all of them.

On the other hand, Cordy has been surprisingly deserving of her paycheck, and maybe Wesley will be too. They say that half of what Watchers learn in their training can’t be learned anywhere else, and obscure knowledge is exactly the kind of knowledge I might need.

I wonder if you’re still angry at him. You never had much patience for cowardice. After we defeated Balthazar you spent an hour or more pacing around the mansion complaining about how your new Watcher was going to get us all killed, remember that? You jumped down my throat when I asked you to be patient with him. For the rest of the year I got that “I told you so” look from you whenever Wesley said or did anything you didn’t like.

He’s changed—or he’s changing. Both, I think. I hope it will be enough. He’s clumsy in the field, and his arrogance has been partially replaced with obsequious attempts at proving himself. I don’t know why I like him anyway, except that he is the loneliest person I have ever met.

…I didn’t mean to say you weren’t fair about him. You had a right to be angry. I miss that look. I miss seeing you pace around the mansion. I miss your warm body and the taste of your lips and that breathy moan you make…

Sorry. We dealt with an erotically charged female demon the other day, and my hormones are still skewed. I may need to rip this page out and burn it later.

Unlike the impersonal lobby and neglected office before it, the room that Kate entered now was well-used and homey. Books cluttered the walls, weapons were hung on pegs and stands, and most of the furniture looked both comfortable and functional—mostly wooden desks and tables surrounded by chairs. The only occupant, sitting behind the largest desk and thumbing through a stack of folders, was the girl from Angel’s diary, the one he would never forget. Kate tried to imagine the life of power and excitement that must surround her now, and still couldn’t feel anything but sympathy and heartache.

Buffy looked up with a smile when Kate walked in (followed by Xander, who had given her a look that was half “don’t mind me” and half “I go where I want”), but her cheerful greeting trailed off as they made eye contact.

Kate’s first thought was that she had been recognized, but Buffy’s sudden dismay quickly turned into a look of weary reproach cast at Xander, and then she addressed Kate again in a friendly, slightly patronizing tone. “I’m sorry. I know the information out there hasn’t been that clear, but the spell only affected women who were already Potentials, and Potentials are never older than—well, basically the oldest a Slayer can be is me-aged. And you look really good for your age, which is not to say it’s an old age, of course, but it looks like probably you’re not—“

“I’m not a Slayer,” said Kate, putting an end to the ramble and the awkward territory for which it was headed. “I’m just here to talk. I was a friend of Angel.”

“Oh,” said Xander from behind her, distracting Kate from the girl whose reaction was the one she really wanted to see. “Well, in that case make yourself at home. In your home. Not here.”

Taken aback by his sudden glower and crossed arms, Kate started to ask what he meant and had her attention diverted again when Buffy spoke: “No you weren’t.”

All friendliness in her manner was gone, replaced by something that Kate quickly identified as recognition. The girl who hadn’t let an annoyance like the police get in the way of her argument with Angel was back. “You weren’t his friend. You wanted him dead. Is that what you’re here for? Still hoping to get him into a nice eastern-exposure cell?” She stood up, her hands on the desk between them. “You’re not going to find him. Ever. Get out of here and do it quick, because if I decide to throw you out I won’t need to wait for security.”

“You don’t understand—“ started Kate at the same moment that Xander gave her a lopsided smile and asked “A jail cell? Seriously?”

“Get out,” Buffy repeated, and Kate began to wonder if the threat to throw her out was real—and literal, which could be almost as painful as it would be humiliating. As quickly as possible, she reached into her handbag and pulled out Angel’s diary.

“I came to give you this,” she said, capitalizing on the few seconds she had while Buffy and Xander stared at the book in confusion. “I thought he would have wanted you to have it.”

Buffy’s hesitation betrayed some inner doubt. “What is that?”

“Take it. It’s not going to explode.”

Kate bid a silent goodbye to the journal, and the spirit of Angel that she had begun to imagine it holding, as Buffy tentatively took it out of her hand and examined the cover. Without waiting to see if she would open it, Kate turned around and left the office, feeling almost as defeated as if she actually had been physically thrown out.

She had just begun to descend the stairs when the Slayers’ Council door opened again. “Wait,” said Xander, closing the door again behind himself. “Don’t take it personally. She’s had a rough week. Year. Decade, give or take.”

“I don’t doubt that. But I did what I came here to do and I’m leaving now, so I hope you weren’t hoping to stand here having a chat about it.”

He walked over and sat down on the top stair, putting himself at about her eye level. “Mostly I was hoping to hear more about Angel going to jail. Did you slap him in cuffs, too?”

Kate had planned nothing for this trip beyond what had just transpired, but just then she wanted nothing more than to get away from this place. Buffy had been a disappointment, and Xander’s youth struck her as an insurmountable obstacle. The memories of Angel which had flared so vividly in her mind for the last few days seemed to have stayed behind with his journal, making his demise all that much more real. “He was my friend,” she said. “Whatever your boss thinks of me, I cared about Angel. And if you’ve never lost anyone you cared about, I’ll leave you with a word of advice: don’t speak ill of the dead.”

The look on his face was enough to show that he had indeed lost someone, but Kate didn’t want to empathize. Maybe she could salvage this fool’s errand by searching the New York occult dealers’ network for useful tools. Maybe she had enough savings for one more trip to LA. She could find someone there who didn’t judge her entirely on five minutes of interaction that took place four years ago.

“Thanks for the tip,” Xander replied dryly. “Not sure it’s fair, though. The dead speak ill of me all the time.”

Kate turned her back on him and continued down the stairs. He didn’t stop her until her foot had touched the first landing, and then it was at an increased volume in a voice of pure exasperation. “Are you even going to try to put two and two together here? Angel’s alive.”

Dear Buffy,

Penn is dead. I wasn’t sure how I would feel. It’s alright.

…It’s really alright. The initial impact was more physical than anything, and even that only lasted a few minutes. When Darla died it took days for the pain to fade out. The Master’s death was only an echo of that, but the disorientation following it was hard to shake—I wonder if you noticed it in me at all.

But it seems the sire’s connection is in some ways limited, for here I am just hours from Penn’s death, and left with nothing but memories and relief. Even if I had never regained my soul I think I may have eventually grown bored with that boy and had him destroyed.

I’ve lost Kate’s trust. I understood on some level that it would happen eventually, but the end of a friendship is never easy. And of course now I can’t stop thinking about what happened when you found out about me. Not our first kiss, but our second: you under the lights of the Bronze, fiery cross around your neck, kissing me. Kissing a vampire.

You watched me kill my sire to protect you, and it was enough. I let Kate kill my child to protect her, and it wasn’t. But what was I expecting? That I could go out and make another human friend, and she would prove to be another you? There is no other you. There are only those who fear the darkness, and those who don’t know that it’s there.

And even you don’t know the whole of it. Penn would have come for you if he had known about you. He wouldn’t have stood a chance, but there are things he could have told you before he met the end of your stake. I’m grateful that it won’t happen now.

I love you. I miss you more than ever.

He was telling the truth; she had spent enough time in the interrogation room to know the face of a liar when she saw it. She asked anyway: “Are you serious?”

Xander nodded, still sitting at his ease on the top step. “Dead serious, is an apt way to put it. Saw him with my own eye.”

“You’re not going to tell me where he is, are you?” Kate tried to focus on gaining whatever information she could. It was better than trying to cope with the implications of Angel being alive.

“I might, if I knew.” Xander shrugged. “Probably with his new girlfriend.”

Kate gripped the rail and shook her head in disbelief. She didn’t think he was kidding about this, either, but it didn’t make any sense. Had Angel really changed so much? Why was Buffy so protective over him, if so?

“Look,” said Xander, “I can’t talk right now. She’ll probably just sit there staring at that book all day if someone doesn’t make the timely suggestion that she should either read it or give it back to him or exceed all my hopes and toss it in the trash. It is a diary, isn’t it?”

Kate nodded, still in the process of deciding whether she wanted this conversation to continue.

“Did you read it?”

She fixed him with a stony glare, but of course in this case there could be no clearer affirmative answer.

“Hey,” said Xander, “who wouldn’t? Anyway, there’s this demon bar a couple blocks over. If you meet me there tonight we can fill each other in.”

The offer wasn’t unexpected. Over the past few years, Kate had noticed a tendency for the supernaturally-informed to want to extend their conversations, even when there was no business deal in the works. She supposed it was natural—keeping secrets from the general populace could get tiring, and it was nice to find another human in the same position. There was also always the chance that something extremely interesting would come up, and Xander, who seemed quite acclimated to this life, was likely prone to working that angle.

Still, learning something extremely interesting wasn’t always worth it. Her ego didn’t have the girth to insist that Angel wanted her to find him, if he didn’t even want to see the legendary Buffy, so really she was done here. New York wasn’t her territory. “Is Buffy invited?” she asked.

“Sweet tap-dancing hellspawn, no! First law of Slayerland citizenship is that you do not invite Buffy to conversations about Angel. I don’t even take up topics that could lead to Angel.” He pointed a finger at Kate, his accusatory voice at odds with the mischievous grin on his face. “You are in big trouble for bringing her a whole book about him. What else have you got in that bag? A rabid raccoon and a live grenade?”

Suddenly, staying angry at him seemed like too much work. Kate shook her head, chuckling. “How does nine o’clock sound?”

My dear one,

Your suffering has always hurt me more than my own, but somehow, today when you asked the question, I thought first of myself. Yes, I know what Faith did to you—near enough, anyway. I know where your anger comes from, and I even understand it. Jealousy I can always understand.

But what I wondered then and I wonder now is if you remember what she did to me. Necator mortuorum is a painful poison; it’s meant to be. I spent that night concentrating on keeping enough of my sanity to bid you goodbye, and I never even imagined that things could descend from there. I now live hounded perpetually by the memory of the deed that you brought us to commit, which you may not realize is the absolute worst in my collection of bad memories. And I blame myself for that. And I blame Faith. And I blame you.

You destroyed me that night. You took down this temple and rebuilt it in three minutes. You changed everything.

When you and I have such sins between us, how can it matter to me that Faith is a killer? If I can forgive you for giving your body to another man, why should you seek vengeance on her for giving the same body to the same man?

It’s harder to see this time but I think I’ve been destroyed again tonight. I’ve spent the past year imagining that some part of you would always be mine. I’ve spent the past few hours imagining you in bed with your new boyfriend. This is the true necator mortuorum, these pictures of a faceless young male with his arms around you and his cock inside you. I want you to be happy, but there’s only so much I can take.

I love you, Buffy. I never want to see you again. I’m coming to Sunnydale tomorrow.

The demon bar had an inconspicuous entrance and a bouncer who appeared fully human, but inside, there was no disguise on anyone’s true nature. “Don’t worry,” said Xander as he saw her eyeing a pair of demons with glowing red eyes and claws like velociraptors. “There’s a ward against all violence set up here. We’re safe, and it’s the best place to talk about wacky stuff.”

He took his turn to talk about ‘wacky stuff’ first, seeming utterly at ease with his surroundings and more than adept at keeping her attention. Instead of describing his own history with Buffy and how they both knew Angel, he skipped right to the battle in Los Angeles: it seemed that Kate’s visit there had actually overlapped that of the army of Slayers who had showed up for damage control, led by Buffy and accompanied by Xander.

“We missed the prime action,” he griped. “The mastermind didn’t even send us a memo. Would that have been so hard? ‘Hey, former friends, I’m about to attack the root of all evil, could use some help’?”

Kate took a sip of her beer, contemplating the story and how it might be skewed by Xander’s perspective. He had made no secret of his dislike for Angel, but it didn’t seem to have the same roots as Kate’s former feelings. She wondered if there was an unrequited love between Xander and Buffy; that would explain a lot. “But the job got done?” she asked. “He managed it without the Slayers?”

“Sure,” said Xander, tapping his fingers restively on the bar. “If a gutted metropolis is what you call getting the job done.” He saw the look she was giving him and threw a hand up. “What? Aren’t you a little bit ticked off? Where does it say that this is the best possible outcome?”

“The world didn’t end,” Kate said calmly. She had put more thought into this already than Xander probably guessed.

He studied her silently before answering. “Every moment that the world doesn’t end is the only sure sign we ever have that we’re doing something right. Excuse me if I need a little more than that.”

Kate hadn’t expected the conversation to turn this way, especially so soon after it had begun, and she wasn’t happy with it. Despite Xander’s bitterness, she found she liked him. She wanted to trust him and his friends, and after all, wasn’t that why she was here? She switched into a milder tone. “I take it saving the world is starting to get to you?”

“Yeah.” He made a sound between a sigh and a scoff. “You see why Buffy’s wound up so tight? You flew here from Phoenix to drop off that book, and hey, that’s big of you, but she flew halfway around the world, fought her way into the city of ugly doom, and saved the ingrate’s life by feeding him on her own damned blood.” He looked disgusted, and this time Kate couldn’t blame him. Even after surviving Angel’s bite once, she wasn’t sure she would have the nerve to go through it again voluntarily. “Buffy needs a break, and there’s not a one of us who can convince her to take one.”

“Who’s ‘us’?” Kate asked. “I assume you’re not all Slayers, unless you’re one hell of an exception to the rules.”

His mouth quirked in a grin. “Exceptional is exactly the thing that I’m not. Buffy’s had people for a lot longer than she’s had fellow Slayers.” The grin dropped again. “But the rest of us aren’t in terrific shape right now either. Our Master Splinter guy got called back to England, Buffy’s sister got fed up with all the relocating and won’t budge from Cleveland, and our other friend, she’s all over the place…”

Kate’s memory was suddenly drawn back to Angel’s diary, and especially one entry that he’d made at the end, in which he spoke of his friends Wesley and Cordelia and compared them to Buffy’s friends, whom he left unnamed. Clearly, she was speaking to one of them now, and the thought made her feel strangely wistful. There had been no such loyalty in her own life—not from her friends, her father, or any of the lovers that had already seemed temporary as soon as they entered the scene. Buffy and Angel, for all their tragedies, were luckier than they knew.

On the other hand, she knew how to handle solitude, and that might be one thing she had over the heroes.

“Sounds like you need your own jet,” she said, to distract herself from her own thoughts.

“We need a fleet,” Xander complained. Then he brightened. “Hey, maybe soon we can get one.”

It was the second reference he had made to some great sum of money coming to his team in the near future, and she wondered if she wanted to inquire further. Before she could, though, she took a look at him and saw that his eye had turned unfocused, almost glazed over, and he flapped a hand at her to silence what she had been about to say.

She waited. Finally he turned to her and said, “Sorry. Willow has this telepathy thing that she likes to spring on us every once in a while. I was just telling her where I was, and, well, do you mind if she joins us here?”

“No…” Kate’s brow furrowed. “Why, where is she?”

“Doesn’t matter,” he said with a flippant smile. “Another benefit to demon bars: you can get away with astral projection.”

Astral projection was a new one for Kate, but the appearance of a smiling red-headed woman on the empty stool next to Xander was only momentarily disconcerting. Xander greeted her with a high five that passed right through her upraised hand, and she giggled and swatted at his face, which had the same effect. Their easy manner with each other was a clear sign that Willow was more to Buffy’s team than just another Slayer, even if her use of magic hadn’t already revealed that.

“Kate, this is Willow, one bitchin’ apparition. Willow, this is Kate, Dead Boy’s old frenemy. I guess I don’t need to tell you to not bother with a handshake.”

“Nice to meet you!” said Willow, then leaned over the bar—partially falling through it—to signal the bartender. “Glass of white, please.”

Kate couldn’t help it; she had to ask. “How are you going to drink that?”

“Oh, I’m not. It’s just impolite to take up space without buying anything. Xander’s gonna pay for it.”

“Charmed, I’m sure.” Xander ordered himself another beer, then turned back to Kate as the bartender nodded and departed. “So, now that Will’s here, it’s your turn to spin us a story.”

Dearest Buffy,

Today I talked to Faith in prison for the first time. It’s amazing how much she’s already changed, though I hope to someday hear her sounding less defeated. It may never happen, I know, but I think that accepting incarceration as her punishment will bring her some peace.

What surprised me most was that she wanted to talk about what happened with you in Sunnydale. One of the first things she said to me was, “You know, that Riley that B’s got isn’t such a bad guy.”

I told her I didn’t want to hear about it.

She persisted. “You should know this, Angel. I know you don’t wanna see her with anyone but you, but if she’s gonna date, better he’s not some loser, right?”

I told her I didn’t want to hear about it.

“Look, I don’t really know what decent law-abiding girls look for in their men, but I figure that sticking around when the shit hits the fan is a pretty big part of it, yo? He stuck around.”

I didn’t have to tell her a third time; by then she could certainly see it in my eyes. Usually I can tell when someone is being deliberately cruel. This time I’m still not sure.

The subject was dropped, and I never told her the rest of the story. It might have helped her understand if she knew that I had already met Riley Finn and thus have a personal basis for forming an opinion about him, but what happened that night isn’t for Faith. It’s yours, even the part you didn’t see. Even the bruises on your boyfriend’s body.

I won’t apologize for that, by the way, even here. If he can’t take a beating or handle a visit from a jealous ex, he’s not worthy of you. I know you’d say it’s not my place to test him. You’d be right. Well, I did it anyway.

I don’t like him. But Faith knows more than she thinks she does about what decent girls want in a man, and Riley did stick around.

Kate started at what she thought was the beginning: getting to know Angel under the belief that he was a private investigator, and then her fear and denial when she discovered his true nature. She kept it general, but there was very little she deliberately left out, even when it became personal. It was all so far behind her that even her father’s death and her own attempted suicide no longer felt like they needed to stay hidden.

Willow and Xander listened in attentive sympathy, which Kate found oddly touching. There was even a bit of a lull when she reached the end of her tale, and she had to think hard about how to bring it up to the present. “I tried to tell him I was leaving the state,” she said at last. “The hotel was completely empty when I went to see him, and after that, Wesley kept telling me he was unavailable. Finally I just left without saying goodbye.”

“That was in 2001?” asked Willow after exchanging a glance and nod with Xander. “Around the summertime?”

“Yes…”

“Buffy died.” The witch stated it as an unfortunate fact. “Angel had to take off for a while, spend some time dealing with it.”

Kate couldn’t find an answer. Every time she thought she knew what was and wasn’t impossible…

“It’s true,” confirmed Xander. “You’d be surprised how often that happens to the champion-types.”

“Angel had a summer of dead-being, too, you know,” added Willow.

She did know. His diary had contained more than one mention of Hell—or Acathla. He seemed to use the two words interchangeably, though Kate didn’t know of any meaning behind that. She shuddered. “And now they’re both alive,” she said. “What’s going on? Why doesn’t he just go back to her?”

Xander shrugged. “He got tired of ruining her life?”

For such a sweet, pretty girl, Kate thought, Willow had one killer of a dirty look. She was casting it on Xander now as she rebuked him with, “It’s the curse. He knows he could still lose his soul with her.”

“That’s what I said.”

“If I had a little more corporeality right now I’d be stuffing your mouth with a sock or two, mister.”

Kate cleared her throat. “What curse?”

Three eyes locked onto her, full of surprise. “His book of dirty deeds didn’t tell you?” asked Xander. “Hoo boy. So, there was this one time…”

This story was a lot more cut and dry than any of the others they had shared so far, and it went by more quickly, though not quickly enough to prevent it from being interrupted by a demon with dark fur and sabre teeth, who inquired in a Scottish accent if any of them had seen another of his kind in the bar that evening. Kate said no, impatient to dismiss him so she could hear the rest of the story, and wondered as he walked away where her sense of awe had gone. Demons had never seemed so mundane before.

“So, ever since then, they’re not much with the touching,” finished Willow. “Or seeing or talking, for that matter. The plan was for Buffy to find someone else and do the normal life thing, and you can’t really figure a hopeless eternal forbidden love into that.”

Kate nodded. A lot of what she hadn’t understood in the diary was much clearer now. She had thought that Angel had left Buffy due to his guilt at having drained her blood, but it seemed that incident barely scratched the surface of the issues between them. She sighed. “I shouldn’t have given her that diary.”

“I think it was nice,” said Willow. “You didn’t know.”

All that she had learned that day began to close in on Kate, refusing to let her ignore the enormity of it any longer. When she had woken up that morning, she had believed that she was here to bring closure to her dead friend’s lover. How things had changed since then. “Is he alright?” she asked, making sure to direct the question specifically at Willow. “He really made it out of LA after that battle?”

“Buffy saved him,” Xander interjected sharply, but Willow nodded at Kate and talked right over her friend.

“He’s not in New York, but…well, if you wanted to see him, we could probably arrange something.”

Of course he wasn’t in New York, thought Kate. That would have been too easy. She grimaced. “I’m not sure he would want to see me.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Willow encouragingly. “If you promise you’re done playing the Javert to his Valjean, it might give him a much-needed pick-me-up.”

“Hey, Wills,” said Xander. “I get that you want everyone to get along and play nice and be pals, but Kate’s done all she can. And if you try setting something up, you’re gonna have to go behind Buffy’s back. There was some ‘Get out’ and ‘You won’t find him’ earlier that you missed.”

Willow looked annoyed again. “Kate can decide who she wants to talk to,” she insisted, ironically cutting Kate off as she was about to speak for herself.

“I know,” Xander replied earnestly, not paying any more attention to her than Willow was. “I just don’t want this to turn into the Parent Trap. Buffy and Angel can’t be an item. Grudge-free assessment.”

Willow stood up, or rather, changed position so she appeared to be standing on the floor rather than sitting on the barstool. In fact, part of her skirt was going through the stool’s legs. “I have to use the ladies’ room,” she said. “Kate, do you want to come with?”

Kate and Xander both stared at her for a few seconds before Xander answered, “That is the worst excuse for leaving me out of the conversation that I have ever heard from someone insubstantial.”

“Deal! I don’t need physical substance to be a girl.”

Thankfully, Xander didn’t try to keep them at the bar by turning that remark into a debate about gender. Kate followed Willow down a flight of stairs that she hadn’t know was in the next room, and they stopped at the bottom in front of a pair of doors upon which the familiar “Men” and “Women” symbols were surrounded with bizarre words and shapes that must have been for the sake of non-English speaking demons. Kate was glad that she didn’t actually have to use the bathroom.

Nobody else was downstairs, though, and the relative stillness was a relief, which must have been part of Willow’s intentions. “I don’t want to make a thing out of this,” said the redhead. “Xander’s kinda right. We can’t play Parent Trap.”

“Wasn’t planning on it,” said Kate. It was the bare truth. She was no romantic—love was what you made of it, nothing more, nothing less—and she had already meddled too far into something that hadn’t been any of her business in the first place. With the threat of Angel’s undoubtedly terrifying alter-ego thrown into the mix, she had as much reason as anyone to want to keep the star-crossed lovers star-crossed.

Willow nodded sadly. “Here’s the thing, though. Buffy hasn’t been the same since LA. She’ll never say so, but Angel really hurt her. Running off so soon like that—and telling her he’s involved with someone? Huh!” she snorted indignantly before returning to her normal tone. “I talked to him a little, too. Says he’s fine and he just doesn’t want to complicate anything, but honestly, I think he’s even worse than she is. He’s like a zombie. A vampire zombie. Does that not freak you out?”

It might have, actually, if Kate had thought too hard about the concept. She exhaled. “What do you want me to do about it?”

“Just say hi to him. Maybe tell him what you did. Tell him Buffy has his diary. Actually, that would be awesome! He could come and try to get it back, and she’d be sitting there holding it when he saw her, and their eyes would lock and he would have to wonder if she had read everything in it and how they were going to go on living as if—okay this is not as awesome as I thought it was going to be before I said it.”

“Exactly. No matter what we do, we can’t fix things for them.”

Willow’s whole form shimmered for a few seconds, and Kate was taken aback. It was the first time that the astral projection had broken from its crystal-clear image. “I can’t stay,” she said. “If I don’t check on my body soon my girlfriend will get bored and decide to…um, anyway. You’re right. We can’t fix things for Buffy and Angel. But we don’t need to. They’ve known for a long time that this is the way they have to live, and it’s enough. Believe me, it’s enough.”

“What is?” asked Kate, wishing she could figure it out on her own, but at the same time feeling in a rush to finish talking before Willow vanished into thin air.

“Just loving each other,” said the apparition. “Just knowing.”

It was useless to ask her to wait, Kate could see that from the second shimmer that enveloped the shape of her body. “Why should I be the one to tell him that?” she snapped in frustration. “Why would he listen to me if he didn’t listen to you?”

“Because you have absolutely no reason to care if Buffy loves him or not,” said Willow. “Just a hunch. It was really nice meeting you, Kate.”

Kate was suddenly alone. She stood there stupidly for a moment, and the sabre-toothed demon from earlier came down the stairs and gave her a confused look before entering the men’s room. She sighed and shook her head, trying to clear it of the weariness it had been accumulating for the last few hours.

If Angel found out that his lost journal had been placed in Buffy’s hands, he would be righteously livid, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. There would also be old shame between them, and she would have to return to the part of her life she had worked so hard to leave behind, and for that matter, she really didn’t think she wanted to know what a vampire zombie acted like.

And for what? Willow was right—she had no reason to care if Buffy still loved Angel. Xander was right—she had done all she could. Master Song was right—the battle was over, and it was time to shut down.

Stay down or they’ll kill you.

…Where had that come from? She hadn’t even been thinking of that night, yet suddenly, there it was, as clearly as if the words were being whispered into her ear again instead of simply remembered. Her hand flew up to her neck, as it had when she read the diary. There was no scar there, no sign that the skin had ever been broken by a pair of inhumanly sharp canines, but she couldn’t forget that Angel had once tasted her blood. It was by far the most intimate moment she had ever shared with him…possibly with anyone. Did he remember it too? Had he started a new journal after losing his old one, and filled it with new declarations of guilt and hunger?

Slowly Kate made her way back up the stairs and through the bar, finding Xander sitting right where she had left him. She took her place on her stool and peered into Willow’s untouched glass of wine as he watched her with a half-smile on her face, waiting for her to speak.

“So,” she said at last. “If I were to ask you for Angel’s contact information…”

He chuckled wryly, as if they were sharing an inside joke. “You’d find yourself in possession of a non-refundable can of worms. Ask away.”

Dear Buffy,

There has been so little time to write, and so much I want to say to you. Though I know you’ll never hear it, whether or not it reaches these pages, that doesn’t matter like it once did. Cutting myself away from you has been excruciating, but I’ve done it and found myself still in existence. I’ve been reflecting on everything that’s happened this year—Doyle’s death, Faith’s epiphany, the day that you were my horizon instead of my sun. As the pain piled up I asked myself, over and over, if I were meant for anything else, if I deserved anything else.

Some questions never get answered. And Buffy, I live each day knowing I may never see you again. And that’s okay. You live on, you live right, and you find your happiness where you can, and I’ve finally learned to take joy in that without letting my own woes taint its purity. I will not think of you as what could have been, but what was, what is, and what will be.

Nor are you the only joy that this world has to offer. There are many people in this city that I’ve saved, now, and many that I couldn’t, but the truly extraordinary thing is that there are so many worth saving. Cordelia and Wesley have astonished me and shaped me. It is no small thing that a man raised to hate vampires should call me friend, or that a reluctant visionary should trust me to help her change the world. I see now that I never fully understood the friendships that you held so dear, and which are undoubtedly supporting you even now.

I miss you, Buffy, every day, and I’ll always love you. If you can someday realize that you are the one who made me into what I am, and feel proud of it, there is nothing better that I could ask of you.

She knocked once, waited, held up her fist to knock again, decided against it, and waited longer. The door opened.

He hadn’t changed in any discernable way. He was dressed in the same style she had always seen him in before: dark and classy. It wasn’t enough to see if he was still in his zombie state. “Kate,” he said.

The surprise on his face didn’t change into a smile, but it was still the first time she had truly realized that she was completely and honestly happy that he was alive, and she smiled for both of them. “Hello, Angel.”

“What…?”

She didn’t need the question to be completed. She’d known far in advance what she wanted to say to him. “I had an epiphany.”

The End

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Author's Notes:
Rating: PG-13
Summary: Something very personal got left behind in the wreckage of Angel's LA apartment. Now it's resurfaced, and it may be all that's left of him.
Thank you to Taaroko for the speed-beta, Fluffernutter for the inspiration-fueling enthusiasm, and of course the hard-working Chrislee for keeping this event rolling.

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