How long he lay there, breathing dust, he couldn't say. His fingers; so often used to torture, so rarely to love, sifted through the dirt and pebbles as if they might, miraculously, uncover a key to the portal through which Holtz and his precious son had disappeared. There was nothing. He hadn't the strength to move from the spot where he lay. He had said his son's name over and over for hours and his throat felt raw with the effort. He pulled his knees up into his chest and willed himself small, smaller.
That's how she found him: curled tight, leather coat dusty, fingers scrabbling in the sand. The only sound was that of the earth being pushed away, pulled forward.
She knelt in front of him, smoothing a slender hand down the side of his blank face. "Angel."
He shook his head and murmured, "No."
"Honey, you've got to get up," she said.
She looked back at her companion and he took a step forward. "Angel. The sun'll be up. You can't stay here. It's not safe."
Eyes fixed resolutely on the ground, lashes lowered protectively, Angel said: "No. I have to stay here. I can't leave this spot."
His words were soft, barely above a whisper, but firm.
"What do we do?" her companion asked her.
"We get him in the car and get him home," she said, as if this would pose no problem.
"He doesn't seem like he wants to go," the man said.
"Groo," Cordelia said, her mouth a narrow line. "Come help me."
Groosalog shrugged and moved toward the prone vampire. He bent over and slid his hands under Angel's arms and tugged.
"NO!" Angel bellowed.
"Angel," Cordelia said, her face inches from the vampire's. "If you lie here, when the sun comes up, you'll die. Then, when Connor comes back to us, how will you have helped him? What will your sacrifice mean? Stand up."
Angel lifted his eyes to meet Cordelia's, but the contact was brief. He could see her grief and confusion and it made his own pain hitch up a notch.
He shrugged his shoulders forward, signaling Groo to let go and then he pushed himself to his feet.
"Good," Cordelia said with feigned cheer. "Let's go."
Angel looked at the sky behind him. The night had swallowed his son whole. For almost two hundred and fifty years the night had been his companion, but not this night.
Buffy stopped. The nerve endings along her back were chasing each other: leapfrogging up the staircase of her spine and then toppling down into the pit of her belly. She shivered. She was sitting on the swing on her very own front porch and yet Buffy couldn't remember the last time she'd felt so wigged out.
She narrowed her eyes against the moon, breathed in a mouthful of cool air, shivered again and waited. Something wasn't right. Worse: something was very wrong.
Lifting her hair off her neck, Buffy twisted the thin column left then right, trying to work out the tense knot. She ran her fingers along the faint, raised scar and smiled. It was then that she caught a glimpse of platinum hair.
"I see you, Spike."
A plume of smoke preceded Spike from around the corner of the Summers' house.
Buffy sighed and stood. "What do you want, Spike?"
Spike took a last drag off the cigarette and dropped it to the ground. He ground it out with the heel of his boot and moved along the edge of the porch without humour.
"What?" Buffy asked again. It wasn't like Spike to be so quiet, so solemn. Buffy took a tentative step forward. Her hand lingered for another moment over the scar and then dropped to the railing of the porch.
"It's…" Spike started and then stopped. "Damn it all."
Buffy reacted to Spike's hesitation with a furious punch to his face, which knocked the unsuspecting vampire onto his ass. "Bloody hell, Slayer. What did you do that for?"
"What is wrong?" Buffy asked between gritted teeth. "What aren't you telling me?"
Spike smeared the blood from his wounded nose away with the cuff of his shirt and grimaced. "I was getting to it. If you weren't so damn impatient."
Buffy took a menacing step down from the porch. "Spike, don't make me come all the way down these steps. If you have something for me, I suggest that you tell me."
Spike stood up and resisted the urge to tell Buffy just exactly what he had for her. But even he knew that this was not the time or the place. If she were ever to find out, after the fact, that he'd had information about Angel and his spawn and hadn't passed it on, Spike was sure she'd stake him, one splinter at a time.
"You need to go to LA, pet," Spike said, regretting the words even before they were out of his mouth.
Buffy's heart lurched into her stomach. "LA?" she repeated, dumbly.
"Yes, you know, it's that little town down the coast, a hundred or so miles from here."
Buffy cocked a fist and Spike took a step back, holding up his hands in defense.
"I don't have details so don't think you can get anything more from me than this: Connor's gone. Vanished into some hell dimension. Angel's all worked up. Wesley is somehow involved. All is not well with your ex," Spike said and then added, under his breath, "like all was ever well with that poncy bugger."
Buffy sat heavily on the step. Connor. Angel. Wesley. She couldn't make the names do any more than sit in an orderly list in her head. And the next question was not how to get to LA but what she might actually accomplish by going. When they had last seen each other, they had decided that the very best thing for both of them would be no contact at all. Nothing had changed. Not even death, it seemed, could change what was between them. Buffy wasn't sure that rushing to Angel's side would be at all helpful. But she wasn't sure she could sit on this step with the knowledge that he was hurting.
She stood and headed back to the house. She heard Spike pull a match across the matchbook and turned to watch as he lit another cigarette.
"Those things'll kill you," Buffy said.
Spike nodded and met her eyes for the first time.
"Thank you, Spike," she said, before slipping into the house.
Spike shook his head, sucking in the acrid smoke and heading off down the street.
"Is he ever gonna come out of there?" Fred whispered to Cordelia.
Cordelia shook her head and shrugged delicately.
"I mean, he has to come outta there, right. I mean, at some point."
Fred's voice, the soft Texan twang lacing her inane words, was driving Cordelia crazy; the way a blue-bottle fly bumping dumbly against a window might drive someone to pick up a magazine, roll it and smash the guts out of the thing. But Cordelia just turned to Fred and smiled," I don't know what he's doing, Fred. And I don't know when he's coming out or even if he's coming out. He just lost his son."
Cordelia watched in dismay as Fred's hazel eyes filled with tears and she reached out a hand to pat the girl absently on the shoulder. "We have to be strong now," she told Fred, although she herself felt anything but strong.
The visions alone would have killed her, Cordelia was sure. They were like one of those books you flip through really quickly, little pictures which joined together to make a moving scene. She saw: Lorne on the floor, Wesley's blood spilling through his fingers onto the grass, Connor in the backseat of Wesley's car, a gaping hole in this reality, a man clutching a bundle tightly to his chest leaping to another dimension.
She had just snuggled into Groo's chest, weary and content, when the first picture swam into her head, followed in rapid succession by the rest. Groo had rolled over to gather her closer, looked into her face and said: "Princess?" an endearment Cordelia never tired of hearing.
They had dressed quickly and gone to the place in Cordelia's vision. That's where they'd found Angel, his chest heaving with pain, his fingers pushing furrows in the sandy ground.
They'd managed to get Angel to the car and back to the hotel without much trouble. He'd gone immediately to his room without so much as a word or a backward glance. The visions began to unravel then. First, a moaning Lorne, the jagged gash on his head bleeding crimson against his oddly pale skin. Then, the call from Gunn and Fred with the news that they had found Wesley, barely alive on the patch of burnt grass across from his apartment. They were at the hospital and it was touch and go for Wes. Cordelia could feel her legs begin to fold under the weight of so much bad news and was grateful for Groo's support. All she could do was wait.
Fred had arrived later that day with the news that Wesley seemed to be out of the woods. Gunn had gone home to shower and change his clothes and he would be by later to offer whatever help he could. Groo was asleep on the couch in Angel's office.
"Should we go up there?" Fred asked.
Cordelia started to say no, but then stopped. What choice did she have? She was nothing if not Angel's closest friend. She had to go up there.
"Wait here, Fred," she told the other girl and headed for the stairs.
It was dusk by the time Buffy reached Los Angeles. Hurtling along the highway, radio blasting one sorrowful tune after another, she'd almost turned the jeep around a half dozen times. She could go back to Sunnydale and pretend that she'd never received Spike's cryptic information. Besides, it wasn't like Spike actually ever told her the truth about anything anyway.
But even as the thoughts to go home were forming in her head, her foot was pressing just that little bit more on the accelerator: 65, 75, 85 miles per hour.
She wondered what she could say to Angel to make the pain of losing Connor seem less horrific. What words could possibly comfort him? Maybe all it would take was something as simple as a hand slipped into his. That's all it had taken for her. She'd waited at her mother's gravesite for hours, watching the sun's slow descent and knowing that he would not be far away once darkness had spread across the tombstones. She'd felt him behind her, opening her balled up fingers to receive the gift of his own cool hand, and had felt the hours prior to his touch slip away from her, painlessly.
Maybe that's all she could do; be there.
Cordelia knocked softly on Angel's door. Silence. She knocked again, louder this time. It was almost dark and Cordelia knew that under normal circumstances, Angel would be awake and ravenous. She put her hand on the knob and twisted. The door creaked open.
Sticking her head inside, Cordelia called, "Angel." Silence.
Cordelia stepped inside the room. With the curtains drawn against the glittering Los Angeles skyline, it was fairly dark and Cordelia didn't initially notice Angel sitting in the chair beside the empty bassinet. His lap was covered with one of Connor's flannel blankets and Cordelia was drawn to the movement of Angel's long fingers, worrying the satin edge.
"Angel," she said again, moving closer.
"Leave me," he said, without emotion.
"I can't do that," Cordelia said, dropping to her knees beside him. "God, Angel, don't you know that I can't do that?"
Angel shook his head. "I don't know anything, Cordy," he whispered, his voice hoarse.
"That's not true. You know everything. We'd be nothing without you."
Angel laughed bitterly. "It's all wrong. Everything is all screwed up. How could I not know…" he stopped abruptly and turned his devastated gaze to Cordelia. "How could I not know that Wesley would betray me?"
Cordelia froze. "We don't know that, Angel. Not for certain."
"I know that, Cordy. I know." Angel brought the blanket up to his face and breathed in the scent of his son: talcum, formula, Johnson's baby shampoo, the very human smell of him. "I can't talk about this with you, Cordy. Not with you," he said, heaving himself out of his seat and moving to the window. He parted the heavy drapes and looked out into the night.
Cordelia moved to stand beside him. "He's not dead, Angel. In my vision I saw everything, even Holtz and the portal, but I didn't see him dead. So, there's a chance…"
Angel turned suddenly, grabbing Cordelia's upper arms with brute strength and squeezing hard enough to make her gasp. "A chance for what, Cordy? What, you're all knowing now, is that it? Your visions can take you to other worlds? Are you really that powerful that you can see across dimensions? If that's true, if you're so goddamn…." Angel stopped and shoved Cordelia hard. Taking a menacing step forward, he breathed into her ear, "if you're so goddamn all seeing, why didn't you see this coming? Why couldn't you prevent this?"
Cordelia felt the first tear spill over the edge of her lashes and trickle down her face. Angel took a step back and said, "Leave me alone."
Angel moved back to the window and began his vigil. Cordelia slipped out of his room and came face to face with Buffy in the hall. She brushed her hand across her eyes, streaking mascara. She wasn't sure whether to hug Buffy or resent her arrival.
"Can I go in?" Buffy asked, quietly.
"Be my guest," Cordelia replied, hoping that she'd kept the tremor out of her voice.
Buffy nodded and opened the door to Angel's room.
"I thought I told you to leave me alone," Angel said, without turning to face his visitor.
"Not me," Buffy said, so softly Angel was certain that his mind was playing tricks on him. There was no way that Buffy could be in LA. No way she could be standing here in this room, at this moment. No way that the person he needed most would have materialized at this, his darkest hour.
He turned slowly, afraid that a fresh disappointment would topple him. And there she was. A glimmering, shining, hopeful, beautiful, vision and Angel felt the lump, which had lodged in his throat the very minute Holtz had barged into the Hyperion, dissolve.
"Buffy?" he said.
"I'm here," she answered, moving toward him, slowly at first and then quicker as she saw him begin to slide down the windowpane. It was an odd sensation; watching his reflectionless descent, seeing only her own startled eyes staring back at her. She caught his boneless body, just as it hit the floor, and she cradled his head against her chest, pulling the silken threads of his hair through her fingers.
"I'm so glad you came," he said, against her breast. She pulled him closer, his cool breath whispering against her exposed throat. The words were familiar.
"I know we said we wouldn't do this, Angel. But I couldn't stay away."
Angel lifted his head and drank in the sight of her. "I need something from you, Buffy."
"You don't even have to ask," she said, solemnly.
He moved out of the awkward position and got to his feet, pulling Buffy up beside him. "He's gone, Buffy. Just like that. Here and then gone. I need…" Angel faltered.
"What, Angel? What do you need?"
Angel looked at her, moved a hand up to curve against her cheek, took a step closer and pulled her into his gaze. "I need to cry, Buffy."
Buffy felt her own tears then. Sudden and hot, they spilled over and ran down her cheeks, trapping themselves in Angel's hand, which remained on her face. She reached a hand up and touched Angel's mouth with a fingertip, then snaked her hand around his neck and drew his mouth to hers. When his mouth was but a breath away, she said, "Cry, Angel, it's okay."
His mouth moved and their lips touched and the intention was not to comfort, Buffy was aware of that almost immediately. She felt Angel's tongue slide over her lips seeking entrance to her mouth and she allowed it. She felt his hands slip into her hair, loosing it from the hastily gathered ponytail and she sighed when she felt his fingers wind through it. She felt his fingers trail down her neck, tracing the scar as she had done hours earlier and she was glad. She felt her heart thumping too loudly, felt his quiet lack of breath, felt her stomach lurch with want and felt his own need against her hip. She felt him move and she went with him. She felt the bed beneath her and the cool air rush up her skin as he tugged off her sweater. She felt her nipples pebble in reaction to the chill and his tongue. She felt the blunt edge of her desire for him cut through her and she arched against him, heard him moan against her breast. She felt the denim of her pants scratch down her legs and his wet mouth kissing a path back up; his mouth hovering over her demure cotton panties. She felt his eyes on her and she opened her own to meet them, to answer the question there. Never in her whole life had she been so afraid. Never had she been so sure.
Angel's body vibrated with desire and, consequently, guilt. But he didn't hesitate. He hooked his fingers in her panties and pulled them down. There she lay: a creature so heartbreakingly beautiful that Angel was sure that if he lived to be a thousand he would never again see such a sight. It was this: her willingness to trust him, her unshakable belief in his goodness, her love for him, which outshone even what his own feeble heart imagined.
"Look at me," she said, when he would have closed his eyes. "I love you. No matter what happens, no matter where the road takes us, I love you, Angel."
"And I, you," he said.
She held on as long as she could, but the assault on her senses was overwhelming. The smell of him, the feel of his skin rolling through her fingers, the sinew and bone and muscle trapped under it; the curious way he devoted his tongue and fingers to the task, fulfilling both her need for him and his own need for release. Solemn words: "It's alright, Buffy… Oh God… Not yet… Yes…"
And then, she bucked against him, screaming into his mouth, and shuddering to stillness. When she opened her eyes she felt that her world had tilted and the way home seemed less blurry, and less distant. And beside her, pressed against her, sated, Angel wept.
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