Willow was waiting, waiting for Buffy, but she didn't blame her for not showing up.
Giles had already gone back to England by then. He'd stopped in to see her, but hadn't crossed the threshold into the room she had once shared with Tara. He'd stood at the door and she could feel his warm, concerned eyes trace the curved length of her grieving body. Please don't say anything to me, Giles. Please don't say a word to me. I couldn't bear it if you said anything to me right now.
Willow thought the words in her head and prayed that Giles would hear them. He seemed to hear them, too, because he stood for a long time without saying a word and then left. Willow wasn't sure how much more she could take of everyone forgiving her. She longed to have geek Willow, shy Willow, kind Willow, follower Willow, back again. She didn't understand this new person, this person who delighted in wreaking havoc, this person who'd flayed the skin of a human without even considering the consequences. This person who had sent out wave after wave of evil energy in order to prevent Giles from interfering in her plans. She could have killed him. She would have killed him. She almost had.
When Xander shifted his legs, cramped from hours of sitting beside her, she reached out a trembling hand to stop him.
"'S okay, Will," he whispered, his voice far away. "I'm not leaving you."
She had to be content with that. She had to believe that what he said was true and the fact that he hadn't left, not even to get a drink or use the bathroom, had to mean something. It did mean something, didn't it?
A long while later, Xander said: "Willow, you should have a bath. You'd feel better. I know I would."
Willow lifted sorrowful eyes to meet Xander's. She was shocked to see the dark circles under his, the black stubble across his jaw and cheek, his pale, listless skin.
"Xander?" she said.
"I'm okay. But it's been six days now, Willow. It's time to get up. Dawn's brought you some soup and you should eat it."
She nodded compliantly.
"Will you sit up? Can you?"
Willow wasn't sure. She stretched out her stiff limbs tentatively and pushed up on weak arms. She felt her stomach recoil at the movement and the thought of the soup sitting on a tray, a handful of daisies wilting in a jelly jar beside the bowl.
"Oh, God, Xander," she whispered, the words tasting sour in her mouth.
"You don't know. How could you know? I don't even know," she said. She leaned over the bed and retched into the bucket someone had thoughtfully provided. Her empty stomach clenched and pushed, but brought up nothing more than a sickly stream of mucus and bitterness.
She felt Xander's hands slide through her greasy, matted hair, moving it carefully from her face and his gentle fingers made her weep.
Buffy put the last of the glasses into the cupboard and surveyed the room with a weary smile. Days had passed since Willow had tried to end the world. Xander had, miraculously, been able to see past her grief, to reach into her heart and squeeze it tight, massage it back to life. But it had only been the last couple of days that Willow had begun to make her presence known in the house, rejoin the living.
"Are you okay?"
Buffy turned to Dawn's quiet voice and nodded.
Dawn jerked her head towards the ceiling. "Have you seen her today?"
Buffy touched the dishrag she'd left by the sink, folding its wet corners together.
"I saw her. When I brought the soup," Dawn said. "But she didn't, like, say anything to me or anything."
"It's not going to be easy for her, Dawnie," Buffy replied.
And Buffy knew she did. Somehow, Dawn had been changed by the events of the past few days more than anyone; the loss of Tara, Willow's dark descent into hell, Giles leaving again. All of it had almost toppled Buffy, but Dawn had blossomed, become calm and certain.
Dawn shrugged and scooped her book bag off the back of a chair. "Well, I suppose I should go to school, seeing as there is school to go to, you know, with the world still being here and all." She smiled happily at the thought and left the room.
Buffy stood for a long moment. She'd been reluctant to see Willow during those first few days, despite the gnawing feeling in her gut that she should, that she should offer her best and most cherished friend whatever comfort she could. Buffy couldn't remember when she had last felt this tired. No, wait, she could.
The last time she had wanted to lay her head down and not get up for a month, she'd just blown up her high school...and watched Angel walk away. The smoke from the burning building had parted before him and swallowed him up. It was almost romantic, like he was a dashing figure from a Victorian romance novel, walking out into the moors, through the mist, into the ether. Gone.
Buffy remembered two things explicitly from that day: Angel's eyes and his black coat. His eyes had found hers and Buffy remembered thinking, he's changed his mind. Then, that coat, a fluttering reminder of who he was and what he was and why he was choosing to walk away: a billowing exclamation point. She just wanted to lie down right where she was, and go to sleep.
But then, like now, Buffy had inescapable duties to fulfill. Willow needed her.
Pushing away from the counter Buffy padded down the hall to the stairs and climbed, silently, to the top.
She rested a hand on the door to Willow's room and hesitated once more. She hadn't rehearsed any speeches for the first time she had seen Willow after Xander had brought her back from the top of the world. She hadn't known what to say, she'd feared the worst: that all the angry, venomous words that had spilled from Willow's black mouth were true. Of course they weren't true.
Now, she pushed and the door swung open. The room smelled stale: a sour combination of vomit and dirty socks and, faintly, underneath it all, old sex.
"I made some tea," Buffy said to Willow, who was sitting on a perfectly made-up bed, combing her freshly washed hair.
Willow turned bleary eyes to her friend and said without preamble: "I was lucky. I had something you didn't get to and I spoiled it with magic. I couldn't just let what was between me and Tara, be; I had to mess with it and I lost her because of it. If I hadn't wasted all those weeks, maybe that would have changed everything," Willow said, her eyes filling with tears.
"It might not have changed the outcome, Will," Buffy said, gently, moving to sit beside her.
"No, maybe not, but I would have had the extra time. It doesn't matter. How did I deal with losing her? By calling on the dark forces. You didn't do that."
"Well, I guess that depends on whether or not you view me sleeping with Spike as calling on the dark forces or not," Buffy said dryly.
"No, I don't judge you harshly for that, Buffy. I wish you'd told me, but I understand why you didn't."
"I do, I think. There's been a serious lack of communication between all of us for quite a while now. It's like we've lost the ability to talk to one another all of a sudden."
Buffy shook her head. "I'm not sure if it's all of a sudden, actually, Willow."
Willow inclined her head. "Maybe not."
Silence spilled into the room.
"Do you regret me bringing you back?" Willow asked carefully.
"Life is too short for regrets," Buffy said.
"Maybe you could spare me the platitudes just this once," Willow said.
"No, I don't, Willow. I was in a wonderful place and I hope I'll be there again, but no, I have no regrets. I'm with the people I love."
"Not all of them," Willow said.
"No, not all of them."
Suddenly, as if the consequences of her actions had just occurred to her, Willow started to cry. Huge, messy, gulping sobs that crumpled her face as if it were made of tissue. Buffy reached for the box of Kleenex beside the bed and put it between them. Willow shook her head.
"I'm a mess and I'm never going to be okay," she managed through her tears.
Buffy placed her hand on Willow's and smiled, softly. "Yes, you're a mess, but you will be okay, Willow," she said.
"How do you know?"
"I just know."
Willow sighed and tried to believe that Buffy knew something important that she herself didn't know, but she felt lost.
"Come on downstairs. You're having tea and toast. Cinnamon toast. That's what mom always made for me and Dawnie when we were sick," Buffy said and then paused a beat before adding in a voice so quiet that Willow could barely hear it, "Bad things happen, Willow. People die. People go away. People change."
"I know," Willow agreed. "None of those are excuses for acting the way that I did, though."
"Who's to say," Buffy said. "Grief is an uncontrollable beast, I think."
"You didn't let it get the best of you," Willow said tightly.
Buffy sighed. "I did. I so totally did."
"Spike?" Buffy said, her mouth compressing into a narrow line. "Spike was my way of coping with things I don't think I ever really dealt with all that well the first time around. Mom. Giles leaving. Riley. Even Angel. You wouldn't think that would still hurt, would you, but it does." Buffy shook her head.
"So, we're not all that different after all," Willow said.
Buffy nodded and smiled softly. "Not that different, no," she agreed.
"Do you still love him, Buffy?" Willow asked after a moment of silence.
Willow shook her head vehemently. "No. Spike. God, no."
"Oh," Buffy said. "Oh."
"Why," Willow ventured, "did you love Spike? Have I missed absolutely everything around here in my dark quest for vengeance and power?"
"No, I haven't missed everything?" Willow asked.
"No. I don't love Spike," Buffy clarified. She shook her head for added emphasis.
Willow eyed her warily. "Really because you know...."
"I know, Will, he claims to love me. But he's a vam..." Buffy stopped, suddenly aware of how lame an argument it was to discount Spike because of his demon. "Never mind."
"If things were different, maybe?" Willow suggested.
"But that's just it, Will. Things are never going to be any different. I'm always going to be a slayer. Spike's always going to be Spike. Giles is never coming back. Dawn isn't a real girl. Xander and Anya are over. Oz is gone. Tara is dead. Things are what they are."
Willow's already red and swollen eyes brimmed with fresh tears.
"It's harsh, I know," Buffy said, kindly. "But at least it's a starting point."
Downstairs, Buffy set a steaming mug of herbal tea on the table and depressed the toaster button.
She moved to the fridge to get the butter. "I even made the cinnamon sugar," she said.
"Your culinary skills know no bounds," Willow quipped half-heartedly.
"True," Buffy agreed, moving back to the toaster just as it popped. After spreading butter and sprinkling the fragrant sugar across the toast, Buffy delivered the plate to the table and set it in front of her friend with a flourish.
"I'm not sure I can eat," Willow said, swallowing dryly.
"I know. But you should at least try," Buffy said, resting a hand on Willow's shoulder.
"How will I face everyone again?" Willow asked, reaching out a quivering hand for the toast.
"Well, you've faced me, right? And Xander. Giles is gone. There's not really anyone left."
Willow nodded and bit into the toast delicately. The sugar made her stomach pitch forward but she swallowed, chasing the sweet flavour down with a sip of tea.
"All these years we've fought the good fight. I even stayed here in Sunnydale to continue to fight because I believed in it. It seemed right to be with you and Xander and..." Willow hesitated. "It never occurred to me to be the leader. I'm not a leader," she finished lamely.
"Leading isn't what you think it is, Will," Buffy explained gently. "I'm not a leader other than, well, by birth. You should have seen me back when I still lived in LA. The only thing I ever lead was an assault on the sale table at Bloomingdales."
"Not helping any, am I?" Buffy asked.
Willow shrugged. "At least you're speaking to me," she said. "That's more than I hoped for."
"You seriously underestimate how important you are in my life, Willow."
"Now eat up," Buffy urged, reaching for a second mug and the pot of tea. The ringing phone interrupted her.
"Hello," she said briskly, expecting a bill collector.
"Buffy Summers?" A serious masculine voice on the end of the line.
"Who's asking?" Buffy replied.
"We haven't met. I'm Charles Gunn. I work with Angel."
For a split second Buffy had the feeling that the floor had dropped from beneath her. She reached out a hand to steady her suddenly wobbly legs and took a deep breath.
"Hello?" Charles Gunn said.
"I'm here," Buffy whispered. "Is Angel okay?"
Buffy watched Willow's head spin around in slow motion, a look of curious concern on her face.
"That's why I'm calling, actually," Gunn said. "Fred and I were hoping that Angel was there with you. Cordy, too."
"I don't understand," Buffy said blankly.
"I know who Cordy is," Buffy said hotly. "I just don't understand why you think Angel might be here with her."
"I don't...we don't...we don't know where they are. They're both gone," Gunn explained.
"What do you mean they're both gone? Are they together?"
"We don't know," Gunn said.
"Well, you might not know, but Wesley knows, right?"
There was a pause.
"Right?" Buffy repeated.
"We haven't actually seen Wesley in a while," the man said.
"What the hell is going on in LA?" Buffy said in a voice that caused Willow to stand and move toward her. "Where is Wes? How could you lose Angel?"
"We didn't lose him exactly," Gunn said. "We came back and he was gone. Cordy was gone. Groo was gone. Everyone was just..."
"Gone?" Buffy interjected sarcastically.
"Yes," came the simple reply.
"Well, he's not here," Buffy said. "I haven't seen him or talked to him in..." Months. It had been months since she and Angel had met, touched, talked, wept and walked away. "In a long time," she finished quietly.
"Oh," Gunn said. "Well, I'm sorry for bothering you."
"No bother," Buffy said, hanging up the phone.
"Buffy?" Willow said.
Buffy shook her head. "I'd feel it, right?" She looked at Willow for confirmation and touched her hand to the hollow between her breasts. "I'd feel it here, wouldn't I, if he was gone?"
"I would," Willow said. "I do," she amended.
"Should I go there? To LA?"
Willow raised her hand and rubbed the throbbing spot between her eyes. Selfishly, she wanted Buffy to stay here, in this house, in this kitchen and never leave her side again. But it was too much to ask and she had no right to even think it.
"Do you want to go?" Willow asked.
"I don't know. I don't know what to do. I never seem to know anymore, not when it comes to..." She left his name unspoken.
"When it comes to Angel?"
"If he's in trouble. If he's hurt or something..."
"He's a big boy, Buffy," Willow said, hating her thinly veiled attempt to prevent Buffy from packing her Jeep and heading to the city.
Buffy nodded. "Come with me," she said.
Willow contemplated the suggestion. Maybe a change of scenery would do her good.
"What about the funeral?" she replied.
Buffy dropped her eyes.
"Her dad came, Willow. Right in the middle of all the...other stuff...and took her home."
"Home?" Willow said with incredulous disbelief. "That was never home to her. Never. I was home. This was home. God."
"We waited to have a memorial, Will. Waited for you to feel better."
"I'm never going to feel better," Willow said, quietly. "I don't want to have a memorial service. I want to go to LA."
Through the long night, Gunn and Fred sat in the Hyperion's lobby in uncomfortable silence. The phone didn't ring. Neither Angel nor Cordelia magically appeared through the hotel's front doors or came up from the basement. Fred and Gunn argued off and on about whether they should call Wes. Each debate ended in a stalemate.
It was only after Fred had dozed off that Gunn made the call to Sunnydale. In the end, he felt he might have done more harm than good. Something told him that he could expect to see Buffy Summers arrive at any moment, not that he would know her if he saw her. It wasn't as though there were pictures of the Slayer on the mantle or Angel's desk or even in his wallet, not that Gunn was in the habit of rifling through Angel's wallet; not that he even knew for sure whether Angel had a wallet.
Sleep deprived, Gunn moved listlessly toward the coffee, which he knew would scald his tongue and leave a stinging trail of bitterness in his throat. The lobby echoed endlessly and yet Gunn had the strange feeling that he was not alone. He looked back over his shoulder at Fred, her lovely face cradled in the crook of her elbow, her brow creased with worry, even in sleep.
Gunn didn't want to believe the worst: that Cordelia was dead, and Angel, dust. But he had to believe that something pretty horrible had happened since neither of them had been in touch in going on a week and his own calls to their respective cells had yielded nothing more than computerized voices telling him: "the customer you are trying to reach is unavailable," whatever the hell that meant. You'd think in this day and age, a cell would be able to offer more information than that: The customer you are trying to reach has been dismembered. Dead. Dust.
"Damn," Gunn muttered around his mouthful of burnt coffee.
Turning back toward Fred, he was surprised to see two strange women standing in the middle of the room. Well, one strange woman. The red-head he recognized as the one who had delivered the news of the Slayer's death. She had a tree name, poplar or oak.
"Are you Charles Gunn?" the blonde asked.
"I am. You're Buffy." A statement, not a question.
She nodded curtly. "This is..."
Willow. The name came to him.
"Willow," he said.
The red-head gave him a small smile.
Gunn was about to say that it was nice to see her again, but it didn't seem appropriate under the circumstances.
"Why isn't Wes here?" Buffy asked.
Fred suddenly appeared behind the two visitors, wafer-thin and tired. "We had a falling out with Wesley," she said.
"A falling out?" Buffy asked.
"It's complicated," Gunn rushed to explain.
"I'm listening," Buffy said, crossing her arms.
"We don't have time," Fred said. "There's too much you probably don't know."
"Who the hell are you, anyway?" Buffy asked.
"Fred. She's Fred. Look, she's right, there's a lot. We can't go to Wes, but maybe you could."
Buffy looked from one to the other and then to Willow. "Fine. Where is he?"
Lilah Morgan stretched, arching her back off the bed and freeing her feet from the tangle of gritty sheets. Wesley never failed to surprise her and this night's interlude was no different. She could already feel the bruises rising, a deadly blush under her pale skin.
"Aren't you gone yet?" Wes said from the bathroom door, a towel slung low on his lean hips. He wasn't all bulging muscles, but he was wiry and strong and he fucked like a jackhammer and that was better than Lilah had been getting for a long time.
She shot him a look, moistened her swollen lips with a pointed tongue and sat up, letting the sheet fall away to reveal perfect breasts, nipples as red as cherries.
Wesley shook his head. He moved to the closet and peered inside, extracting a pair of worn jeans from a hook and sliding them on, under the cover of the towel.
"I wouldn't have taken you for a shy man, Wes," Lilah said.
Turning to face her, Wesley smiled. "Not shy, Lilah. Just tired."
"Oh," Lilah said.
"Of you. Go home," he continued pointedly.
Leaning down, Lilah retrieved her crumpled blouse and skirt. She glanced at the alarm clock on the bedside table, relieved to note that it was only 4:17am. Plenty of time to go home, shower off the smell of Wesley Wyndam-Pryce and maybe close her eyes for twenty minutes before heading to the office.
When she sat back up, she felt the bed shift and then Wes was behind her, hands snaking over her shoulders, down to cover her tender breasts, squeezing and pinching and making her insides turn to liquid.
"I thought you were tired of me," she said quietly.
"I had a change of heart," he whispered into her neck, sliding his fingers through her slick center.
His fingers paused, stroked and Lilah bit her lip, startled at the abruptness of her impending climax.
"Jesus," she mumbled around her orgasm.
"Hardly," Wesley said, before getting off the bed and walking away.
In the kitchen he poured himself a finger of scotch and raised the blinds on the small kitchen window.
His days were this: drink, sleep, sex with Lilah, drink, sleep. Monotony made all the more monotonous by the knowledge that there was no end in sight; no purpose beyond getting blinding drunk and lost in Lilah, who, as it turned out, was even more of an outcast than he was.
He kept his face to the window when he heard her come from the bedroom. He knew that she stood for a moment waiting for him to say something and he knew she knew not to expect even the smallest comfort, not from him. He had nothing to give her.
He waited to hear the click of the door and when it didn't come and didn't come, he turned and saw Lilah standing there, holding the doorknob and regarding Willow and Buffy with careful curiosity.
Wesley moved to the front door.
"Wesley," Buffy said.
"Hello, Buffy," he replied and immediately regretted it.
"Oh my God," Lilah said. "You're the Slayer."
Buffy regarded the darker woman with immediate dislike and slid her eyes back to Wes.
"We need to talk," she said.
Lilah turned her keen eyes to Buffy's companion. "Which means you must be Willow."
"Lilah was just leaving," Wes said, placing his hand on the small of Lilah's back and propelling her past the two girls from Sunnydale and out into the hall. Before she had the chance to turn around and utter a single word, Wesley shut the door and slid the deadbolt into place.
Turning back to his visitors, Wesley was struck by how pale and weak Willow looked and by how the connection between the two friends was almost palpable.
"Come in. Sit," Wesley said gesturing to the couch.
"I know there's something going on, Wes, and I don't have time to hear the whole sordid story. I need the Reader's Digest version because Angel is missing," Buffy said.
"And Cordy. She's missing, too," Willow added.
"Yeah, Cordy, too."
"Oh," Wesley said.
"Is there any chance they could be together?" Buffy asked.
Wesley contemplated the question for a moment.
"It's possible, I suppose."
Buffy stood up and then sat back down.
"I don't know, Buffy. I'm very much..."
"Out of the loop, I know. Everyone keeps telling me that, but I don't care, Wesley," Buffy said with exasperation. "All I care about is Angel. Finding Angel."
Wesley tipped his head toward Willow. "Couldn't she help in that regard?" he asked.
Willow blanched and Buffy reached over to grab her hand. "No," she said, firmly.
Wes pressed his lips together. "I'm afraid I'm not inclined to help, either," he said.
"Fine. Great. Whatever," Buffy said.
"Nothing is what it used to be, Buffy," Wesley said moving toward his scotch bottle, and twisting the cap off. There was barely a capful left and Wes didn't bother with a glass. Probably wouldn't have been able to find a clean one anyway.
"Nothing is ever what it used to be. I would have thought you would have figured that out well before now," Buffy said, sadly.
Wesley shrugged and pitched the empty bottle across the room, where it clattered into a tin garbage can filled with the reminders of his previous drinking. "If I hear anything...." he said, but when he turned back to the room, Buffy and Willow were gone.
On the street below Wesley's building, Buffy sucked in a smog-heavy breath of LA night and glanced down the street, her fingers itching to kill something.
"We're never going to find him," Willow said hopelessly.
"He's alive, Willow, and I will find him."
The sky was beginning to lighten, pink light behind white light, layers and layers of light hidden behind the curtain of smog that hung over the sky.
"I could try to..."Willow started.
"No, Will, that's not why I brought you. I don't need you to work any mojo here, I just need you. And I think, right now, you need me. It's better if we're together," Buffy interjected.
"But what if he's really in trouble?" Willow asked.
Suddenly, the woman from Wesley's apartment materialized in front of them. She had the rumpled look of someone who had just rolled out of bed, albeit a very expensive bed.
"We weren't formally introduced," she said directly to Buffy. "Poor form on Wesley's part, but not all that surprising given who you are." Lilah held out a long slender hand, unpolished nails perfectly manicured.
Ignoring Lilah's gesture, Buffy stepped forward into the taller woman's space. "Look. It's late. I'm tired and I've had a really bad day. What do you want?"
Lilah laughed mirthlessly. She reached into the pocket of her suit jacket and retrieved a business card and handed it to Buffy.
"I don't need a lawyer, thanks," Buffy said, handing the card back.
"You don't understand," Lilah said. "I work for Wolfram and Hart. Perhaps you've heard of us?"
"Let me think about that for a minute," Buffy said with fake interest. "Nope, can't say as I have."
Lilah clucked her tongue. "Well, that was Angel's bad, then, wasn't it?"
Buffy tried not to let the casual mention of Angel's name reflect in her eyes.
"You and Angel were...a couple weren't you?" Lilah said, conspiratorially.
Buffy remained silent.
"He's quite a guy," Lilah continued, watching Buffy carefully, knowing intuitively that she had the upper hand. "Missing, I understand. Poof. Just vanished like a cloud of..."
Before Lilah could blink, Buffy had swept her feet from under her and was sitting on her chest, small, strong hands around her neck exerting just the right amount of uncomfortable pressure. From behind her, Buffy's red-haired companion was stoic.
"Buffy," Lilah panted out. "I can help."
Buffy released her hold on Lilah's neck, but didn't crawl off her. Lilah shifted under Buffy's slight weight and coughed.
"What?" Buffy said.
"Nothing," Lilah said. "You're strong."
Buffy smirked. "You're a moron," she said.
"Perhaps," Lilah said, carefully, "I could be of more use to you if you weren't sitting on me."
Buffy considered the woman lying beneath her, then she stood gracefully. She did not offer her hand to help Lilah up.
Lilah pushed herself up awkwardly, as only a woman in a tight designer skirt and stiletto fashion pumps could and brushed herself off, humour clearly apparent on her face. "I can see the attraction, actually," she said.
"Are you going to Dr. Phil me to death or do you actually have something worthwhile to say?" Buffy asked.
"I have Angel," Lilah said. "Is that worth something to you?"
It took Lilah a full minute to get up off the ground after Buffy slammed her in the face with a balled up fist. Tiny hands, maybe, but they sure could pack a punch. She would have a shiner, she knew it. And Gavin would have something snide to say about it. She knew that, too.
"Play nice," Lilah cautioned, regaining her footing.
"Mmm," Buffy replied.
Willow moved to stand beside her friend. "Look, Lilah, I don't know who you are, but you might want to reconsider the cryptic here. Buffy doesn't appreciate it," she said.
Lilah chuckled humorlessly. "I can see that," she said. "Right. Angel's son and the slut who was in cahoots with Holtz ambushed your precious boyfriend and dropped him to the bottom of the sea," Lilah said.
Buffy kept very still. Lilah's words washed over her, floated by her, distant and meaningful and sharp as daggers. Son? Holtz?
"Ex," Willow said.
"Ex. Angel is Buffy's ex-boyfriend," Willow reminded the lawyer.
Lilah shrugged. "I don't care what you are to each other," she said directly to Buffy. "I only care that I have him and you want him."
"Does Wes know?" Buffy asked.
Lilah snorted. "Shit, no," she said. "Do you think I'd actually tell him anything?"
"But aren't you...well, you know?" Willow asked.
"Screwing each others brains out?" Lilah said, caustically. "Yeah. But that doesn't mean we talk. God. How old are you?"
"Old enough to kick your sorry ass," Buffy interjected.
Lilah nodded curtly. "Do you want him or not?"
"I want him," Buffy said.
"That's what I thought. Get in your car and follow me," she said, moving toward her own sleek, black BMW. "It's not far," she tossed back over her shoulder before pressing a button on her keychain and disengaging the car's alarm.
Willow and Buffy exchanged a look and then moved quickly to Buffy's Jeep. Moments later they were speeding down the freeway.
Lilah could already see the faint bloom of Buffy's handiwork painting the hard line of her tilted cheekbone and she grimaced. Peering into the rearview mirror she could see the Jeep behind her, keeping pace with her much faster sports car.
Could this day possibly get any better? she wondered. She had Angel. She had Buffy wanting Angel. More importantly, she had Willow. Until the moment she saw the witch she hadn't even contemplated a use for her, but as she drove along the coast it suddenly occurred to her that Willow Rosenberg might actually be very useful indeed.
Although he hadn't seen anybody since he'd been pulled from the ocean, Angel knew for certain that his rescue and subsequent imprisonment were the work of Wolfram and Hart. He could smell their stench all over the warm bags of blood that were inserted through the little sliding door of the cell they kept him locked in. They'd rescued him, sure; but all they'd done was replace one prison for another.
Angel couldn't be sure how long he'd been under water before divers with flashlights had attached chains to his underwater coffin and he'd been hauled to the surface. The coffin had clunked down onto the surface of a boat and Angel wasn't surprised that his rescuers had thoughtfully undertaken their mission under cover of night. Who would be that thoughtful, he wondered?
When he wasn't immediately released, he knew that it wasn't Gunn or Lorne or Cordy who had come to his rescue. They would have pried off the huge padlock that kept him in place. They would have wrapped him in warmth and fed him.
But that was not the case. The boat's engine chugged to life and soon after he was hoisted off the boat into the back of a transport truck and soon after that he was here: dry and deliriously hungry. He'd floated in and out of consciousness and he couldn't be certain when the first bag of blood had arrived.
Ravenously, he'd sunk his teeth into the plastic and sucked until the bag had collapsed in his hand. It hadn't been enough, hadn't even begun to make him feel half-way fed, but it was all they gave him. One bag a day: just enough to keep him bitterly hungry all the time.
In the hall outside his cell, Angel heard noises and he stood and moved toward the door. The sounds were muffled and he couldn't hear actual words, but the hairs on the back of his neck stood up anyway. From out of nowhere, his crotch tightened, and when the door opened and a blur of blonde flew into the room, Angel knew it was her before she even came to a full stop.
"Buffy?" he said at the exact same moment she said, "Angel."
And then they fell silent, just stood across the room from each other, watching for some sign that this was a practical joke being played on them both.
Outside in the hall, Lilah crooked a finger at Willow and said, "Come on." She led Willow down the hall and into a little room fitted with monitors and other technical looking equipment. "We can watch it all from here," Lilah said, settling into a leather chair in front of one of the TVs.
"I'm not watching anything," Willow said. "It's private."
"Suit yourself," Lilah smirked.
He didn't look good, Buffy thought, running her eyes up and down the long, lean length of him. His cheeks were carved out of his alabaster skin and his eyes were dark and dangerous, hungry. His wrinkled, black shirt hung open to reveal his smooth, hard chest and countable ribs. It wouldn't take long for him to fill out if they would just feed him.
Or I could feed him, Buffy thought.
He rubbed his eyes thoughtfully, blinked twice and looked back at her.
"Nice friends you've made here in LA," she said.
"No friends of mine," he replied.
"They saved you from what I gather was not a nice predicament," Buffy replied.
"They didn't do that out of the goodness of their hearts, I assure you," he answered, looking away.
She nodded. "Are you okay?"
"She told me that your son did this to you," Buffy said, careful to keep her voice devoid of emotion.
But she couldn't hide her feelings from Angel. She'd never been able to. He'd always been the one person with whom she didn't have to pretend, with whom she could just be and he saw the hurt and confusion when she said "son."
"Lilah seems to know quite a lot more than I gave her credit for," Angel muttered.
"Yeah, well, she wasn't all that forthcoming with the information, but she still did better than anyone else."
"Well, no one else knows, I guess," Angel replied.
"No, I guess not since Gunn called me in Sunnydale last night asking where you were. And where Cordy was. I thought that when I found you I might find you together," Buffy said.
"Why?" Angel asked, a little too quickly.
"I dunno. It just seemed that everyone assumed that you'd be together," Buffy said.
"Well. We were supposed to be together, meet, I mean," Angel said. "She didn't show up and then I got, well, taken, and here I am,"
"What does she want from you?" Buffy asked.
"Lilah?" Angel replied. He looked around the room, looking for the miniscule camera he knew watched his every move. "It's a long list," he said.
"I don't think I'm going anywhere," Buffy replied, settling on the cot nestled against the blank white wall.
"It's complicated," Angel said dismissively.
Buffy's eyes hardened. "What the hell isn't, Angel?"
Angel smiled. "Well, that's true enough," he said.
Settling on the floor, across the room from Buffy, he let out a long sigh and began his story.
"Well," Lilah said, "that was quite a performance."
"What do you want?" Willow asked.
Lilah smiled sweetly. It had been a long time since anyone had asked her that question.
"What do you want?" she said, flinging the question back at Willow.
"I don't want anything," Willow lied.
Lilah twisted around in the chair and leaned forward. "Everyone wants something," she said.
"Well, I don't," Willow said, sliding her gaze past Lilah's too interested eyes.
Lilah shrugged. "But they do," she said, jutting her chin toward the TV screen. "Don't they?"
Willow's eyes narrowed.
Lilah turned back to the row of monitors and smiled.
Over Lilah's shoulder, Willow could see the grainy image of Buffy, head bowed and Angel kneeling before her. "What do you want?" she repeated to Lilah's head.
"Personally or professionally?" Lilah said.
Willow could feel a little bubble of black anger rising up through her chest. "With them," she clarified.
"Oh," Lilah said. "Them. Nothing really."
"Then let them go," Willow said.
"Is it true that Buffy brings out the very best in Angel?" Lilah asked with feigned innocence.
Willow stood up.
"Don't get your panties in a twist," Lilah said. "I need him and he needs her, so we're good here."
"They. Aren't. Together. Anymore," Willow said, slowly, enunciating each word as if Lilah were too stupid to understand them.
"Not what it looks like to me," she replied.
The minute she started to cry, Angel felt his resolve give way. He could have stood her anger, her recrimination, her hatred; but he could not stand her tears. And they were the worst kind of tears: silent, hopeless, beautiful. He was lost in them.
"Buffy," he said. "I should have told you."
"How could you tell me? I wasn't anywhere for you to tell," she whispered. "I don't blame you."
"I should have come to Sunnydale and I should have told you," he repeated.
"No. You don't owe me explanations," she said, swiping at her tears ineffectually.
Angel leaned forward and used the tail of his shirt to wipe her cheeks dry. The gesture, simple and intimate, caused a fresh flow. "It's no use, Angel," Buffy said. "This isn't ever going to get any easier."
Angel sat beside Buffy on the cot and took her hands in his. He had no answers for her, could barely believe he was touching her.
"Do you feel it?" he finally said, close to her ear, away, he hoped, from the attentive ears of hidden microphones.
"Me, too," he said and squeezed her fingers. "So, no matter what happens we always know that it will be there."
She shifted slightly so she could look into his face and see what she always saw whenever she looked at him: everything she was, everything she wanted, everything that was always just out of reach. She reached up a hand and lay it against his slanted cheek, sharp and beautiful, like a jewel.
Before he could stop himself, he leaned forward and smoothed his lips across hers. The taste of her, the smell, the feel of her mouth against his was almost more than he could bear. But he would bear it. He would. This and more.
Her lips trembled beneath his and he felt his heart stretch wide. "It's all right, love," he murmured against her mouth without even really knowing that what he said was true. Things had gone to hell in the proverbial hand-basket.
Buffy pulled back slightly and whispered, "What does she want with you?"
"She doesn't want me, exactly," he whispered back.
Buffy's eyes widened. "But she couldn't have known...I mean, I wouldn't have come if it weren't for Charles calling me. I didn't know," Buffy said so quietly that had it not been for Angel's acute hearing he wouldn't have been able to make out the words. Soft breath across his face, that's all the words were.
"She may have known or maybe not. Keeping me here is just part of the fun for Lilah," Angel said. Then, looking up at what he presumed was the camera he said, clearly, "Right, Lilah?"
In the room down the hall, Lilah nodded.
"I'm bored now," Willow said.
"Really? I find this endlessly fascinating," Lilah said, turning to face the younger woman.
"You really don't get it, do you?" Willow said.
"Get what? Theirs is the doomed love of all time. They can't be together because of the curse," Lilah said, sniffing. "I read the Cliff's notes, actually."
"Ha. Ha," Willow said, leaning forward in her chair. "They won't do anything, if that's what you're hoping for," she said authoritatively.
"I don't care about that," Lilah said. "In my line of work, Willow," Lilah explained, "you have to be able to roll with the punches. You have to be able to change direction quickly and without hesitation." She tapped her fingernail against the monitor and smiled. "Don't get me wrong, he's infinitely interesting to me. Her, too. But it suddenly occurs to me that you might be better suited to another of my little projects."
"Really?" Willow said. "I can't help you."
"I think you can help me," Lilah said, focusing her predatory attention back on Willow. "And, by doing so you help them."
Willow turned her eyes back to the monitor, to Buffy and Angel. They were whispering, heads close together, hands entwined.
It only took Willow a second to dismiss the potential consequences for aligning herself with Lilah Morgan and her evil law firm. Willow could feel, even from this distance, the warmth that radiated between Buffy and Angel: the longing, the desire. She knew she would never again bask in that kind of warmth, but there was no reason not to reward someone else with it. What did she have left to lose?
"What do you want me to do?"
"Smart girl," Lilah said, clapping her hands together once for emphasis.
When the door slid open, Buffy and Angel looked at each other in stupified amazement.
"Come on," Angel said, pulling Buffy up off the cot.
"I need to find Willow," Buffy said, following Angel out the door and into an empty corridor.
"Willow's with you?" Angel said. "You didn't say."
"Sorry," Buffy said. "It's a whole big thing. Story for another day."
He nodded and started off down the hall. The building seemed empty and they couldn't find Willow anywhere.
"If anything's happened to Willow," Buffy started and then stopped, pausing before a door from which sounds emanated.
"Let me go first," Angel said, placing a large hand on the door and nudging it open. Inside they found the room Lilah and Willow had only recently left.
"I knew they were watching," Angel said, stating the obvious.
"Look," Buffy said, reaching for an envelope that had been taped to one of the TV screens.
Willow and I have made a little bargain, the letter began. In exchange for your freedom, she's offered to do a little work for me. I think I've made a very good trade here. You should, too.
"What was she thinking?" Buffy said. "What could she do for that bitch?"
Angel sat heavily on the edge of a chair. "Magic," he said, simply.
"No, she can't do magic anymore. She has a problem with magic."
"Yeah. It's just the kind of problem Lilah would take advantage of, too," Angel said.
"This is just a mess," Buffy said.
"What time is it?" Angel asked.
Buffy glanced at her wrist-watch. "Three fifteen," she said. "Hours to go before we can get you out of here safely."
"Did you drive? Can you pull up to the door?"
"Yes, of course," Buffy said, crumpling the letter into a ball and letting it drop to the floor. Why did one sacrifice always require another?
The hotel was silent when Buffy and Angel came up from the basement.
"Cordy?" Angel called, forgetting that she was still missing. "Gunn? Fred?"
Lorne's green head peeked out from around the corner. "No sweetcakes, just little ol' me."
"Lorne. I thought you went to Las Vegas," Angel said, reaching out to shake the demon's hand.
Lorne reached for the proffered hand absently. His attention was keenly focused on Buffy who was eyeing him with a great deal of interest of her own.
"The Slayer, I take it?" Lorne said, smiling.
"Buffy Summers. This is Lorne," Angel said by way of introduction.
"Hi," she said, before turning back to Angel. "Look, I'm bone tired. I wouldn't say no to a shower and a place to close my eyes for a few minutes before we do whatever it is we have to do."
"Sure. Use my room. Down the hall to the left," Angel said, pointing to one of the regal staircases.
Buffy shifted her knapsack, smiled at the two men and headed up the stairs.
"Oh, cupcake," Lorne said after Buffy was gone from sight.
Angel grimaced. "What?"
"You're humming like an electrical tower," Lorne said, shaking his head in distress.
"Well, let's see. I've been trapped in a coffin under water, rescued by Lilah Morgan, imprisoned in some warehouse and then Buffy shows up. It's been a busy few..." Angel stopped. He didn't have a clue how long he'd been gone from the Hyperion. "What's the date?"
"The 18th of June," Lorne said.
"A busy few days, then," Angel continued.
"That's not what I'm talking about," Lorne said.
Angel sighed. "I know."
Lorne sat down on the circular sofa and crossed his legs demurely. "I had no idea," he said.
"I know," Angel repeated.
"I thought, well, you know, you and Cordy," Lorne said.
Lorne shook his head. "I'm not usually wrong about these things," he said. "Must have been residual stuff from Cordy and Groo. That explains part of it. But you, I was getting vibes off you, too."
"I can't talk about it, Lorne. There's no time anyway. Buffy came with Willow and Willow is currently with Lilah."
"Where are Gunn and Fred? And where the hell is Cordelia?"
Lorne stood up. "Don't you know? I mean, I thought you knew. The whole town's abuzz."
"Kinda been outta the picture here, Lorne," Angel said impatiently.
"Oh, right, sorry sweetcheeks. She was called by the Powers," Lorne explained quickly.
"Called to do what?" Angel asked.
"Well, to serve them, as we all do," Lorne said, as if this should be the most obvious thing in the world.
"But she was already serving them. She was helping me," Angel said.
"Well, I guess she got a promotion. According to Skip, it was a dazzling ascension."
Angel rubbed his jaw. Well, that was one mystery solved. Cordy wasn't missing, she'd just blown him off. Just as well, too, considering what had become of him. Who knew what Connor and Justine might have done to her if they'd actually been at the same place at the same time.
"I need to go check on Buffy," Angel said.
"Okay, well, I'll get hold of Gunn and Fred. They're gonna be thrilled you're back, Angel. We were all worried."
Angel climbed the stairs slowly. He was bone tired and hungry. Opening the door to his room, he was not surprised to see Buffy curled under his velvet covers, hair spread damply across his pillow. She was sound asleep.
Angel stepped inside and closed the door softly behind him. He padded silently across the room and checked his fridge. Six bags of relatively fresh blood hung neatly from the refrigerator's metal shelves. Angel reached in and took one, biting off a corner of the bag and reaching for a clean mug. Habit now, to drink from a cup. He warmed the blood in the microwave, removing it before the timer went off, and then finished off two more bags in the same fashion before he headed to the shower.
The water wheezed through the hotel's old pipes and Angel stood under a steady, hot stream for a long time before reaching for the soap. He tried not to picture Buffy standing here, naked, only a few moments before; tried not to imagine this same bar of soap traveling over her firm, perfect body: stomach, elbows, calves, secret places and public places and all the places he couldn't touch. But it was useless. Too long denied, Angel felt his body growing tense, his muscles bunching around the memory of touching her. He lingered over his manhood with the soap, an act he very rarely indulged in, and stroked himself with a firm hand until he came, moaning silently under the cooling water.
"What are you doing?" Buffy asked sleepily. Her barely opened eyes could just make him out, slouched in an armchair that looked none too comfortable.
"I was thinking," Angel said, "about the last time someone had Willow. Remember?"
"Faith," Buffy said. "The Mayor."
"Willow held her own," Buffy said, sitting up. The blanket pooled around her waist, revealing the T-shirt she'd pilfered from Angel's drawer.
"She did," Angel agreed. "I'm not so sure she will in this case."
"Me neither," Buffy said. "After everything she's been through, she's pretty fragile."
"She really loved Tara?" Angel asked.
Buffy looked Angel straight in the eye and replied: "She really did."
Angel looked down at his hands. They were aching to touch her, to slide through the tousled hair, to burrow under the too-large T-shirt, which he already knew he wouldn't wash for as long as her scent remained.
"What do you think Lilah wants with her?" Buffy asked, breaking the pregnant silence.
"Her power, I guess."
"Not good," Buffy said.
"I figured as much," Angel said.
"But she's a big, powerful lawyer with lots of resources, right? Why would she need Willow?"
"Maybe she has a job that she doesn't want to go through corporate channels to do," Angel suggested.
"She's a bit of a snake."
"How can we find out...wait a minute, she's," Buffy took a second to blush, "you know, with Wesley."
"Figures," Angel said crossly.
"But he could help us maybe."
"He won't," Angel said tersely.
"He might," Buffy said softly. "If you asked him."
Angel crossed his arms firmly across his chest.
"Angel," she said. "I almost lost Willow a while ago. I can't afford to lose her."
Angel knit his eyebrows together and sighed. There was no way he was going to be able to deny what, to Buffy, was a simple request. She had no way of knowing, or understanding, how betrayed he felt by Wesley's actions. Still, in some small way he understood why she would ask. She'd already lost so much. If he could help, he would.
"Alright. We'll ask," he said. "But there's no guarantee that he'll know anything, or help us if he does."
"Thank you," she replied simply.
"Bollocks," Wesley muttered, moving through the remains of another afternoon of drinking and heading toward the persistent sound of knocking on his apartment door. "I'm coming."
He pulled open the door to reveal Buffy, and just behind her, Angel, scowling.
"Bloody wonderful," he said, rubbing his aching eyes.
"Wesley," Buffy said. "Can we come in?"
Wesley considered Buffy for a long moment. "No, I don't think you can," he said.
For a moment, he thought he heard a menacing rumble from deep in Angel's throat.
"It's important, Wes," Buffy said. The plaintive tone of her vice surprised Wesley.
"I see you found him," Wes said, nodding towards Angel.
Buffy smiled tightly. "Found Angel, lost Willow," she said.
Wes remained silent.
Angel stepped forward. Wes stepped back. Despite the fact that they were of similar height, Wes was reminded of how much heavier and more imposing Angel was. It had been a long time since he had seen the vampire.
"Invite us in, Wes," he said, his words a command, not a request.
"Keep him on a short leash, then," Wesley said to Buffy. "Come in."
Buffy moved past Wesley into the dim apartment. Angel moved closer to Wes and whispered, "If I wanted to get to you, Wesley, I could. Buffy couldn't stop me."
Wesley shut the door behind his guests and joined them in the living room.
"Lilah has her," Buffy said, without preamble.
"Pardon me?" Wesley said.
"It's a big, long thing, Wes. Lilah had Angel, now she has Willow," Buffy explained somewhat inadequately.
Wes leaned forward, resting his forearms on the straight line of his thighs. "I'm not sure I understand what you think I can do," he said.
"Well, you and Lilah seemed to have a relationship," Buffy said.
Wesley snorted, a short, sharp sound. "Hardly."
"You sleeping with the enemy now, Wes?" Angel asked, his voice low and hard.
"Bugger off, Angel," Wes said.
"Please, you guys, this isn't the time or the place," Buffy pleaded.
Wes sat back, frowning. He was liking this less and less. He hadn't seen Angel in weeks, hadn't wanted to see him. Buffy's arrival in LA had been a painful reminder of all that he had lost. He wasn't a part of anyone's world anymore and it hurt, more than he cared to admit.
Lilah had offered him the opportunity to switch sides, exchange his white hat for a black one. To say he hadn't been tempted by her offer would be a lie. Still, underneath the scar and the grizzled jaw, and the hollow eyes, Wesley was still the same man: a man always seeking approval, a man who wanted to do the right thing, even when he wasn't sure what that was.
"She hasn't said anything to me," Wesley said, looking straight at Buffy. "I doubt if she would. She comes to me for one reason only. We don't talk. It's not that sort of..." Wesley hesitated, loathe to use the word 'relationship.' "It's not that sort of thing," he finished.
Wesley caught Angel's smirk from the corner of his eye. "I hardly think that you're in a position to judge me, Angel," Wesley said.
"Maybe not," the vampire agreed. "Doesn't mean I'm not going to."
"Well, people in glass houses..." Wesley said.
"Have we really been reduced to slinging clichés at each other?" Angel replied, tartly.
"So it would seem," Wesley replied.
"Boys!" Buffy interjected. "Can we call a truce for the time being and try to figure out what Lilah might be up to?"
Wesley relaxed into his chair. Angel glowered. The room filled with uneasy silence.
"Well, there was that ritual," Wesley said suddenly.
"What ritual?' Buffy asked.
"No, never mind. She didn't need a wicca for that," Wesley said, shaking his head.
"Maybe you could call her up?" Buffy said, hopefully.
"I could, but I doubt it would get me anywhere," Wesley said.
"But you could try," Angel said.
Wesley met his former friend's serious gaze and nodded. "I could try."
Wesley reached into his shirt pocket and extracted his sleek cell phone. Flipping it open he pressed a single digit and waited. He didn't bother to turn away or speak quietly; when the phone was answered on the other end he simply said: "It's me."
"Well, it seems your friends are worried about you, Willow," Lilah said to Willow. The younger woman was seated on a loveseat next to the window, which overlooked the twinkling lights of downtown Los Angeles.
"Are they?" Willow said absently.
"Human relationships never fail to amuse me," Lilah said.
"Maybe that's because you don't have any," Willowed offered dryly.
"I have those that count," Lilah said.
"I sincerely doubt that somehow," Willow said, with a small smile.
"And yet, here you are, Willow. That strikes me as odd, that you would offer yourself up for the sake of Buffy and Angel whom you claim aren't even together anymore."
"They're not," Willow said, firmly.
"Well, you're not a prisoner. Do me this little favor and you're free to go," Lilah said sincerely.
Willow shrugged. She felt strangely removed from her surroundings, from Lilah's strange request, from her life. Was this all that was left, she wondered? Am I always going to feel so disconnected?
Lilah's request hardly seemed worth the trouble. All she wanted was a simple love-spell. A dime-store witch plucked off the corner of Hollywood and Vine could have accomplished the same thing and Lilah wouldn't have had to give up Angel in payment. None of it made any sense to Willow.
Lilah had only requested that Willow keep the details of the spell to herself and Willow had had no trouble making this particular promise. No matter how benign the spell seemed, Willow did not trust the flashy lawyer, her motives or the fact that she seemed to have just made another bargain with her friends.
She couldn't prevent herself from thinking about Warren, lashed to a tree, lips sewn together with thread she'd manufactured with her mind. All that evil power coursing through her: hate, revenge, bloodlust, anger, grief. So many emotions and no place for them to go and so she had poured every ounce into him. Did he deserve his death? Willow couldn't be sure that the answer wasn't the same now as it had been that night.
She knew only one thing for certain and that was that she would never, ever replace Tara in her heart. That bright, afternoon in her room, Tara's sweet light pouring golden off her skin and Willow, so close to reaching out and making all the bad things disappear. Then: pop. Like a pin pushed through the prettiest balloon at a child's birthday, the splash of warm blood across her face and Tara's startled eyes.
Lilah's request didn't seem so bad, not after everything that she'd done. Horrible words to Buffy. Hurting Giles. Killing Warren. Well, it couldn't get any worse could it?
"Are you ready?" Lilah asked and Willow realized that the woman was standing right beside her.
"I'm ready," Willow said.
"She says it's nothing," Wesley said, closing his phone.
"Do you believe her?" Buffy asked anxiously.
Wesley and Angel exchanged a brief, conspiratorial look.
"No," they said together.
"Well, great," Buffy moaned.
"We don't have a lot of options, here," Angel said, quietly.
"We have one," Wesley said.
It was a typical cloak and dagger exchange. Lilah and Willow emerged from Lilah's BMW; Angel and Wes stood waiting at the end of the alley. For effect, Angel was in game face, his long, black coat whipping around his thighs. Wesley hadn't shaved and his scowl was bordering on comical, or would have been if it didn't make Lilah so hot.
"All this for a little dime store magic, Lilah?" Wesley said, his voice tinged with disbelief. "I thought you were above all this. I'm very disappointed, actually."
Lilah fluttered her eyelashes demurely and walked closer to the two men, Willow trailing behind. Pointedly ignoring Wesley, she regarded Angel with open hostility. "Glad to see that you two boys have kissed and made up."
Angel shrugged. "Are you okay, Willow?" he asked.
She nodded, her eyes vacant and unfocused.
Wesley looked at Angel and the vampire nodded. He handed Lilah an ornate book and said: "This concludes our business, I believe."
"Believe what you want," Lilah said, pushing Willow toward the men.
"Get in the car, Willow," Angel said.
For a moment Willow hesitated and then she drifted, as if asleep, toward Angel's car, where Buffy was watching the proceedings from the back seat. With a sad glance back at the threesome that stood in the street, Willow crawled in beside Buffy and started to cry.
"Willow?" Buffy asked, taking her friend's hand. "Are you okay? Did she hurt you?"
Willow shook her head somberly. "You rescued me."
Buffy squeezed Willow's hand reassuringly. "Of course."
"I didn't need rescuing. She wasn't going to hurt me. She wasn't going to do anything. She just needed me to do a little spell," Willow said, wiping stray tears from her face.
"But magic, Will? I mean, you're not..." Buffy was at a loss.
Willow turned to look at Buffy. Her eyes were opaque and difficult to read. "It doesn't matter," she whispered. "Not anymore."
"You're starting to get on my nerves, Lilah," Angel said.
"Oh, good. And here I was thinking that I didn't have any affect on you at all."
Wesley shot Lilah a warning look. "Are we done here?" he said to the both of them.
"We're done," Lilah said.
Angel merely nodded and turning, headed back to the car. Almost as an afterthought, he wheeled around and said, "Are you coming, Wesley?"
Wes hesitated. It was the moment of truth. Did he go with Angel, take the proffered olive branch, if that was indeed what this was, and try to sort things out? Or did he stay, rooted to the spot, caught between a rock and Lilah's hot body?
He tried to keep his expression blank, but his hesitation was all that Angel needed. "Suit yourself," the other man said and got into the car.
"You're really going to let him drive away?" Lilah asked.
Wesley watched the taillights on Angel's car wink in the distance.
"Piss off, Lilah," Wesley said, turning towards her and grabbing a slender wrist in his hand, he yanked her forward and kissed her, hard.
"What happens now?" Buffy asked Angel.
They were seated in Angel's upstairs room, in two armchairs on either side of a small table. The rooms weren't as homey as his place in Sunnydale had been. Buffy thought it was almost as though Angel hadn't really settled in yet, as if, at any moment, he might pack up his meager possessions and leave.
He wouldn't meet her eyes.
"I don't know?" he finally said.
"Did Willow tell you what Lilah wanted with her?"
"Some spell or something, I..." Buffy paused. "I don't want to be here anymore, Angel."
"Sorry. That came out wrong," Buffy said. "Look. Let's face it, we haven't spoken in a very long time."
"I know," Angel agreed softly.
"Maybe that's for the best," she went on.
Buffy shook her head, slid her fingers into the hair at her temples and pushed, massaging the ache there.
"When you look at me, what do you see?" she asked.
Angel closed his eyes. Images of his imprisonment slid through his brain, picture after picture. When he opened his eyes again, Buffy was watching him carefully.
"You saved me," he said. "Even when I don't deserve it, you rescue me." His words held the aching weight of their history and their meaning was not lost on Buffy.
"You would have done the same for me," Buffy said with conviction.
"Yes," he acknowledged simply.
"That's enough for me, Angel."
"Is it?" he mused, almost to himself.
"For now," she assured him.
Lilah lay curled against Wesley's back. She was exhausted, but so keyed up she knew she would never sleep.
"Feeling pretty proud of yourself, aren't you?" Wesley said, turning to face his lover.
She smiled broadly.
Wesley shook his head.
"It's all about karma, right, Wes? Isn't that what you've been harping on for the last few weeks. What goes around comes around?" She lifted her eyes to his. "I'm already going to hell for all the things I've done."
"I doubt that anything you could do now will change that fact, Lilah," Wesley said.
She traced a lazy fingertip around Wesley's nipple and watched with amusement as his eyes darkened. She leaned in, drawing his lower lip between her teeth, biting lightly and then withdrawing.
"You are a puzzle," Wesley sighed, pulling her leg over his hip and sliding into her with a small groan.
Lilah laughed. "Well, I know at least two pieces that fit together quite nicely."
"We shall see."
In the dream, Tara was standing in their room, a look of calm repose on her face. She was speaking, but Willow couldn't hear her words. She stepped closer. Tara's eyes beckoned her closer still. Willow moved forward.
"I can't hear you," Willow said sadly.
Tara's eyes smiled, but her lips kept moving.
Willow shook her head. Behind her someone said: "You're not listening properly."
She turned to see Lilah standing there, arms crossed in front of her immaculate Armani suit.
"What do you know about it?" Willow asked scornfully.
"I know that you have to really listen to hear what people want," Lilah said, sincerely.
Willow nodded and turned back to Tara. She watched her lover's mouth move, slowed her lips down and tried to read the words without actually hearing them.
I love you.
Just before sleep claimed her, Lilah was sure she heard Wesley say: I love you.
She curled around the knowledge, comforted by his words and their potential. Magic had its own particular charms. She'd have to remember to send Willow a fruit basket.
"We should get some sleep," Buffy said.
"You stay here," Angel said. "There's plenty of other rooms."
"Okay," Buffy agreed. "Maybe that would be..."
"Don't say better, Buffy," Angel said. "It's never better."
She reached out to stroke the hollow of his cheek.
"I know," she said.
Angel placed his hand over hers, trapping her warmth against his face, and for a moment, it was like standing in the sun.
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