Growin' Up by Joanna C
Summary: Sequel to Imitation Of Life (Karaoke Kids Series). Relationships reach a new level as the gang gears up for the impending battle: Giles plays nice with Dawn and Buffy, Cordelia learns to balance her mystical life with other activities, Kate finally finds a place for herself in Lorne's world, and all three women finally see into their lover's pasts...
Spoilers: None specified (AU).
Notes: The song Cordelia wakes up to is the titular "Growin' Up" by Bruce Springsteen, and you can all blame THAT one on my sister Rachel.
The radio blared into being at the first shadow of sunlight.
Cordelia groaned and hid her ears beneath the pillow. "Too early for Springsteen," she whined. "God, turn it off..."
The click of the alarm mechanism had triggered Angel's sensitive vampire hearing seconds before the music filled the speakers, and he was already well-alert and propped on his elbows, watching Cordelia with some amusement.
"Never too early for the boss," he teased.
She scrunched her face and buried it deeper in the pillows with a petulant whimper. "I am not a morning person. Turn it off!"
He held the blaring radio just out of her grasp. "You do it."
She batted an ineffectual hand at the radio. "Come here, you."
He held it further away. "But I like this part." He tapped his free hand against Cordelia's temple, in perfect time to the music. "I combed my hair 'til it was just right, and commanded the night brigade..."
"Stop singing!" she whined. "And you're so just trying to get me out of bed!"
"Which, ordinarily, would not be the ideal way to begin my morning, but Cor, if we want to get to Sunnydale and back in one day..."
"I know, I know, early to bed, early to rise makes a girl conscious in time for the spur-of-the-moment roadtrip..."
He frowned. "Don't yell at me."
"I'm doing this for you. This was your idea."
"I know! And I'm not, and I'm...god, it's too early, I just...just give me a few minutes," she said.
She kicked off the sheets and padded into the hallway. "Coffee, then shower, then...Buffy?"
She stopped cold. The slayer was gloomily pacing the lobby, muscles sprung like a jungle cat and eyes glowing all-business.
Lorne jolted awake at the sound of the doorbell.
"Lorne?" called Kate sleepily.
"Got it," he called upstairs. He stumbled off Kate's sofa and winked through the peephole, then opened the door with a sigh.
She beamed chirpily. "Hello there, little demon."
He heard Kate stumbled blearily to his side. "Lorne? What's...Anya? Is everything..."
She read the anxious looks on their faces. "On, no," she reassured them. "I bring GOOD tidings." She waved a manila envelope under Lorne's nose.
"I came right away so you could maximize the sex time," she explained. "Ran tests for all the standard medical and mystical markers..."
Kate frowned. "What on earth..." She eyes the manila envelope warily. "Anya, it's six o'clock in the morning."
"Yes," the former demon agreed. "Which gives you, oh, three hours or so until the workday begins. That's plenty of time for sex. Well, plenty of time for a human, anyway."
"Sex," repeated Kate blankly.
"My check-up," Lorne elaborated. "Remember? No exchange of bodily fluids until a watcher checks me out?"
Understanding blossomed in Kate's eyes, and she clasped a hand to her chest, clearly moved. "You really did that? For me?"
"Sure did, Kitten."
"And it's okay? Anya, it's..."
"Well, from a technical standpoint, yes," said Anya cheerfully. "There are certain logistical considerations, of course---there always are in cases like these. But as long as you're reasonably bendy..." She shrugged, then beamed expansively. "You may now copulate," she told them.
Lorne and Kate traded amused glances. "Um, thanks," offered Lorne. "That's...swell."
Anya clapped delightedly. "I'm so pleased. Helping others copulate. I did a good deed."
They stood there for a moment. "Um, you can go now," said Kate.
Anya snapped to attention. "Right. Well, then." She shut the door behind her, helpfully calling 'don't forget the lubricant!' as she departed.
"Buffy," repeated Cordelia clomping into the lobby. "Wow, We were just...I mean, we were..."
Buffy walked right past Cordelia and looked upward. "Angel!" she shouted. Then, to Cordelia, she said "I thought I heard coffee."
"Uh, sure," said Cordelia. "Um, Buffy, it's so...so weird that you came, we were just...I mean, we were planning to come see you, today. We kinda have some news, and..."
"Whatever," said Buffy impatiently. "Angel!" she called again.
He appeared from nowhere, two steaming mugs of coffee in his hand. He gave one to each girl.
"Buffy," he said. He glanced at the clock. "When did you start driving?"
"When I was still wet."
He took in this answer impassively, eyes noting the clump of still-damp hair and the trickles of water that filled out the lines of exhaustion in her face.
"Drove fast. Everything okay?"
"Scooby summit," she told him without preamble. "I'm the delegation. This is big, Angel. Those lawyers, that raising...it's Jenny Calendar," she told him bluntly. There was no other way to deliver news like this. "They brought back Miss Calendar..."
Cordelia sat down. "Oh god..."
"Spike came, he had some news...wrong news, as it turned out, but Lorne filled in the blanks...Miss Calendar."
Angel briefly closed his eyes, then opened them again, hands twitching. "How's Giles?"
"I don't know."
He nodded. "And you?"
"Kate has a friend on the force," said Buffy. "Gave her piles of boxes full of pilfered evil lawyer stuff. It's divvied up. I have your share in the car..."
"And you guys have Internet, right? Instant messenger?"
Buffy withdrew a floppy disk from her coat pocket. "Use this one. Willow's made some modifications, technical and otherwise, to keep out anyone else...6:30 sharp, before patrol. We ALL patrol," she told Angel. "Every night. You in your haunts, me in mine. But first, we compare notes and talk about whatever it is that's in those boxes. I don't care what you're doing or what's going on, you have a big enough crew to send SOMEONE on-line...no excuses, no lateness, no goofing off. I want to know why those lawyers brought Jenny back, I want to know what they plan to do with her, and I want to know how to stop them. Any questions?"
Cordelia and Angel shook their heads.
"All right, then. Boxes in the car. You coming?" Buffy stalked away, then suddenly paused, regarding Cordelia with momentary thoughtfulness. "Didn't you say you had some news too?"
"Uh right," stammered Cordelia, still stunned by the recent slew of information. "Um...Angel and I can have sex now. Side effect of the fusion thing."
Buffy shrugged. "Huh. Well, good luck with that." Still cold and all-business, she followed Angel outside.
It was noon before Buffy hit Sunnydale again.
"Dawn?" She pushed open the front door and peered into her living room. "Dawn? Giles? Where is everybody?"
She followed the sounds of barking puppy to the yard, where she found her sister deep in play with the ugliest little mutt she had ever seen. Knee-high. A mixed breed, so mixed that its pedigree was not readily apparent. Fur worn off in scraggly patches across its bony spine. And Dawn, face nuzzled deep within its probably diseased little tummy.
Buffy closed her eyes. She took a deep breath, counted to ten, and opened them. "Okay," she said, deciding to work this through methodically. "Where's Giles?"
"Magic shop," Dawn answered. "Researching the big-bad. You okay?"
"Just went for a drive. Dawnie, I admit I didn't pay the fullest attention to the whole 'Kate has a puppy' thing, but doesn't Bruiser have...well, fur?"
Dawn put the puppy down and faced her sister, chin jutting defiantly. "This isn't Bruiser."
Buffy nodded patiently. "I see that," she said in an even, modulated tone. "So...well, who is he?"
"This is Alamo."
"Alamo?" she chuckled wryly. "Figures. Kate's suggestion, or yours?"
Dawn shrugged. "It seemed to fit. The little underdog, odds, stacked against him, bravely fighting the stronger, more powerful overseers..."
Buffy frowned. "This is about me somehow?"
Dawn hesitated. "Buffy, don't be mad, please? Look, Kate had to go back to the pound this morning to tie up some paperwork on Bruiser and she let me tag along, and while we were there we saw THIS little guy, and Buffy, he was all starving and lonely and abandoned and nobody wanted him, if you can believe that..."
The puppy scratched himself obliviously as Buffy stared. "Huh. Who'd have thunk it?"
"...and I couldn't help it, Buffy, he just looked so sad and we talked about this and you said..."
"I said we would talk about it later."
"And now it's later and here we are and Buffy, they were gonna put him down or something! I couldn't just...they were gonna kill him!"
"Huh," said Buffy again. "Imagine that."
"So...can I keep him?"
"We still need to talk about that. We need to talk about it with Giles, too."
"They were gonna kill him!"
Buffy wandered back into the house, and Dawn nuzzled the puppy into her arms again. "Don't worry, Alamo," she reassured him. "I'll take care of you."
Cordelia barely glanced up from her book. "Hmmm?"
"You want lunch?"
She looked up briefly. "Hmmm. No."
"You want a backrub?"
"Do you want...well, a break?"
She stretched her neck thoughtfully. "Hmmm. Maybe I should go train for a bit."
"Okay, training, that's...good, okay, we'll go down into the basement and we'll spar together for awhile..."
She gave him an odd look. "Hmmm. Maybe not."
She lowered her eyes to the book again, and Angel slammed his own book shut with force enough to startle her.
"What?" she said.
"What? You're doing he 'what' thing on ME? Cordelia, you're upset. We need to talk about this."
Finally, she closed the book. "Oh sure. Sir Brood-and-Mood telling ME we need to talk. That'll help."
"Don't call me that! Especially in that condescendy voice, Angel, it's really irritating!"
"And you're no better than me, you know," she continued, wagging her finger in his face. "Did it ever occur to you that I don't WANT to talk?"
"Yes," he said. "On account of how you haven't been, ever since Buffy..."
"Don't interrupt! God, Angel, I hate it when you do that!" A thin sheen of sweat had broken out on her brow. "Do you even THINK before you open your mouth? Oh sure, talk, that's great, we'll talk cause THAT will solve all our problems, won't it? THAT will stop the evil lawyers from unleashing their nefarious scheme upon us! THAT will undo whatever spell they've worked and THAT will magically flip these books open to whatever it is we need to know for when we talk to Buffy later, and damn it, Angel, how did you get me back on talking again?"
She took a deep, heaving breath. "I need a snack."
"Demon temper," she gritted through clenched teeth. "Still not quite under control. Food. Now."
He blocked her. "Uh uh."
She clenched her fists. "What?"
"You need to practice," he told her. "Watchers said we need to build up your tolerance. Ten minutes."
"I know," he said. "You've been getting better, but when you draw on your powers accidentally, you feel it worse...which is exactly why you need to practice. Deep breaths, Cordelia..."
Her fists shook. "God, Angel..."
"Deep breaths. Count backwards from ten."
"Come on, sweetheart, ten, nine, eight..."
"I'm so gonna pass out."
"You're not, you can control it. It's just an impulse, and you can control it. Come on, seven, six, five..."
Her eyes sprung with tears. "You're really gonna pull this NOW?"
"Focus, Cordelia," he told her sternly. "Four, three, two..."
"With everything else going on, you're really..."
"One," he concluded calmly. "Still feeling sick?"
"Like a godamned junkie. Angel, please..."
He shook his head. "You have to learn."
Giles crawled home at 5ish for supper with the girls.
"Off the couch," he said instantly, dropping his briefcase on the floor.
Dawn gave Alamo a guilty nod, and the puppy hopped lopsidedly to the floor. Giles removed his glasses and smiled at Dawn with frightening serenity.
"Well, then. Let's talk about this."
She fidgeted, looking away from him. "So, I was...well..." She broke off and finally blurted "Can I keep him?"
Alamo paced the floor energetically, looking for a resting spot.
"Well, we could train him to be in dog shows or something..."
The dog abruptly tripped on his front right paw, and landed his rear square on his tail. He leapt to his feet with a whimper.
"Or we could hitch him up to a sleigh and use him to lug stuff."
The eternally cheerful Alamo broke off his pouting when he seemed to smell something interesting on his own tail, which he began enthusiastically chasing after as Dawn looked on in dismay.
"Or...um...guard dog? Protect the house and home and all that?"
Alamo, at last exhausted, slumped to the floor with his tongue hanging out of his mouth, the very picture of non-viciousness.
"We live with a vampire slayer," said Giles. "I'd wager we're covered."
"Well, fine," huffed Dawn. "Figures YOU would need a reason. It's not just good enough to say I want to and I like him and he makes me a teeny bit happy?"
"Attitude is NOT going to win me over, Dawn."
Her lower lip trembled. "Giles..."
"Quiet," he said, smile abruptly softening. "I was ready to give in, you know."
"Give me SOME credit, Dawn. There may be a point I become too wrapped up in my own problems to see clearly to yours, but I daresay we haven't reached it just yet."
She looked away guiltily. "Giles, I never said..."
"You never had to. I was 15 once myself, you know. And I too shared my home with a Watcher who could let his business run away with him from time to time."
"Your dad?" She picked up Alamo and rubbed his tummy thoughtfully. "What was he like?"
"A great deal like me, except with a temper, and a remarkably self-involved lack of interest in anyone save himself and his slayer."
She stilled, eyes glowing curious. "He had a slayer? I never knew that. I mean, I knew he was a watcher, but you never told me he had a slayer."
"You never asked." His smile was warmer now. "I'd afraid I haven't any wonderful stories, we never saw her much. Never saw him much, either..."
Dawn nodded. "I've so been there. My dad's in Spain with his secretary."
"Which is in no way a reflection on you. Look, Dawn..."
She cut him off. "So can I keep him?"
He glanced at Alamo. "OFF the couch," he said again. Then to Dawn, he said "This hasn't come easy to me either, you know. But lord help me, I do try."
She nodded. "I know. I understand."
"Do you? I suppose we'll see about that soon enough, won't we? You WILL take care of him, won't you?"
She nodded eagerly. "I will. I really will."
"Very well, then." He flashed that grim, eerie smile very briefly, then briskly slid on his glasses. "I've conceded. And now you owe me one."
The basement door creaked open and Cordelia followed the scent of pizza into the office like a bloodhound. Angel was standing before the microwave, a befuddled look on his face.
He spun to face her. "Oh. Hi."
"Hi. You okay?"
"I was going for reheat," he explained sheepishly. "But it keeps doing defrost..."
"Don't bother, I'll eat it cold," she said, snatching the plate from his hands. She dove in voraciously, then between swallowed mouthfuls, she suddenly paused. "Angel?"
"When did we get pizza?"
"Picked it up while you were training," he said. "Figured you'd be hungry when you stopped."
"I was hungry before that. And you wouldn't let me eat, remember?"
He shrugged. "You had to learn. And from the sound of things, you did. You channeled it, Cordelia. You fought through it. I'm proud of you."
She smiled through sticky mouthfuls of sauce. "Awww, I love you too. But seriously, when did you go for pizza? And why? There's this thing they have now called delivery..."
He shrugged. "I felt like a walk."
"And the whole sunlight issue never came into play because..." She put down the plate carefully. "Oh. Angel, how long was I down there for?"
"Well, I don't think that's really the..."
"No, tell me. Cause I honestly don't have the slightest clue. I remember we were fighting, and I got mad, and then I got hungry, and then I started kicking stuff. And now, here we are. But the details---kinda lost in the feeding frenzy, you know? So...how long was it?"
He shrugged. "Oh, awhile..."
She shook her head, taking a pre-emptive bite of pizza as she felt the surge of magic-powered adrenaline rise within her like bile. "Don't give me that. You are evading, Angel. You are evader-boy, and you are evading, and you don't wanna tell me cause you think it'll freak me out!"
"You don't need to freak out. It's perfectly natural for a..."
"For a what? A demon? Yes, it IS perfectly natural, isn't it? Cause demons, they have tempers. And they can't control themselves. And the only way that they can handle things is blindly lashing out like wild animals, is that it?"
He paused, meeting her gaze with precise, deliberate severity. "So you think I'm an animal?"
Her eyes widened. "No! God, Angel, I didn't mean..."
"Your power comes from me," he said. "And like me, you can learn to control it. You ARE learning."
"And for what? Why? How am I doing that?" she said, eyes lowering sadly. "We're different, Angel. YOU'RE different, it's not the same at all. You're stronger, and you're better, and I'm...I don't even know what I am. I can learn to slow it down, I guess, or channel it, or even smother it if I have to, it's gotta be easier than how it when the visions were still...you know. But I was like a monster down there, Angel, all instinct and pain and power and strength, and how do I learn to live with myself, knowing that I have that kind of...of destruction...in me?"
"Same way I did," he said gently. "By realizing that you can use your power to help people. To do some good. To atone for whatever demons..."
She cracked a tiny smile. "That easy, is it?"
"God, no. But you play the hand you're dealt, and for every honest win, you get a payout."
"Right, of course. Lose five for the vampness, win five for the soul..."
"...or draw two from the dealer and get a full house," he said, gently touching her cheek. "Vampire attributes plus gypsy curse, plus direct connection to the Powers-That-Be..."
Her eyes darkened again. "Lot of good THAT'S done me. I get what you're trying to tell me, really , I do, but Angel, sometimes you win the hand without realizing that the house went bust four rounds ago. Sometimes you never GET the payout!"
"So you get an IOU, and claim it later. I've had my setbacks...WE'VE had our setbacks, and what happened this morning...what we found out...it's been on my mind too. While you were down there, while you were...it IS hard, and I AM confused...but Cor, the only thing I know for sure is that the game's not over yet. Whatever it is they've done, whatever it is they're planning---we still have a chance. We still can stop them."
She nodded slowly, then took another bite of pizza. "Is this your way of trying to bring me back on topic?"
"I need you," he said. "You're my partner, now more than ever. We can stop them, Cor. We can make this right again, but I need you."
She took a deep breath. "All right. Fill me in."
"That's my girl."
"I'm not living in any sewers."
"Demons. They live in sewers and they eat bugs and they smell bad and have poor fashion sense. I may be part-demon now, but if you think I'm getting into any of THAT..."
"Finish eating," he told her. "And get some rest. We have a long night ahead of us."
Spike fidgeted impatiently as Lilah paced her office---stopping by the bar to pour a glass of water, then fumbling for a coaster to rest the glass of water on, and finally hedging past an end table and pausing to adjust a florid paperweight before she slowly, laboriously wiggled her butt into her chair.
"Well," she said at last. "Are you ready to tell me what happened now?"
"Ready?" he squeaked. "I've been ready damn near an hour, Lilah! YOU'RE the one who wasn't ready..."
"Well, I do have other business," she huffed. "Can't expect me to drop everything just cause you've shown up..."
"Other business? I thought you were still waiting for the supplies you requisitioned!"
"True. But in the meantime, I had to deal with Harmony, and Nathan, and...and Jenny...and all by myself since YOU skipped out..."
"Skipped out? You bloody sent me away, you two-timing bint!
"Now, Spike, bad language flatters no one. Take a deep breath...I know, I know, you're a vampire, you don't HAVE to breathe, but some people find it soothing..."
"Oh, all right, fine," she said off-handedly, sensing he'd reached his limit. "So you went to Sunnydale. And?"
"Saw the slayer, just like you said. Gave her the cover story, just like you said."
"Saw right through it, she did. Had that green-like anagogic bloke handy and he told her I was fibbing."
"Anagogic, anagogic...oh, I know this one! Lorne, right? But...didn't the file say he can only read you if you sing?"
"File's wrong, pet."
"Was he bluffing? Cause you don't come off all that trustworthy, you know. So he could have been bluffing, trying to sniff you out..."
"I'm telling you, he pulled the mojo."
"But that...that's unacceptable! He's...what? What is it now, why are you smirking like that?"
"Just thinking," he said slowly. "That maybe I'M the one whose read it wrong. Maybe it wasn't mojo after all...something he said about not needing to read me for this one. About having a source on the inside..."
Lilah's eyes went wide and round, and she lunged for her phone, pounding every speed dial button simultaneously.
They had barely put down their forks before Buffy started in again.
"Right, great, that was nice. So, Giles, you're on dish duty, I'll get things set up for the scooby summit, and Dawn..." Buffy tapped her fingers thoughtfully against the table. "I think Alamo needs a walk."
"No way!" said Dawn. "Scooby summit. I'm in!"
"You are not a scooby," said Buffy. "You are fifteen."
"But I want to say hello to Cordelia!"
"Right," said Dawn, shuffling grumpily to her feet. "And walking alone in the dark with a little puppy dog is SO much safer than watching you instant message with Cordelia..."
Buffy exhaled slowly. "Fine. You can stay for five minutes and say hello to Cordelia. Then you take puppy and go play upstairs."
"Play? I'm fifteen!"
Buffy shook her head, already distracted. "Giles, dishes? Oh, and is Xander here yet?"
On cue, Xander and Anya wandered in from the living room.
"Hey Xander," said Dawn.
"I bring you tidings," he said. "Willow has a night class, and said to tell you she'll join the scooby summit from the lab. Said it would probably get too crowded here anyway..."
"Oh, Dawn's not staying," said Buffy helpfully. Ignoring her sister's baleful glare, she began counting them off on her fingers. "Okay, team one, that's Giles and me. Team two, that's you, and Willow at the lab for team three, so that leaves...where's Lorne?"
"Probably copulating," volunteered Anya. "I told him he could."
Buffy frowned sharply, and Xander hastily reassured her. "Kate's hooked up. Tara's over there now doing the cross-checks. So, is d-day upon us, or do we have time for snacks?"
"It is 6:21," said Buffy. "Scooby summit is at 6:30 sharp, followed promptly by patrol. If you feel you have the time to get food before that, you are welcome to."
"Or I could make food," grumbled Dawn. "Since I'm not participating..."
"Stop it," snapped Buffy. "You don't need to help, and trust me, you don't want to. Dawnie, this isn't a game. This is dangerous. I can handle it. You should be glad I can handle it."
Dawn opened her mouth to protest, but was silenced by a withering glare from Giles, who pulled Buffy aside with an apologetic nod to the others.
"What the HELL do you think you're doing?" he hissed.
"Dealing," she said coldly. "In the only way I can. We're gonna know everything we can know about these lawyer people. We're going to know everything about their nefarious plan, and we are going to foil them. That is what we're going to do."
"And will we be taking a deep breath from time to time and allowing ourselves the occasional moment of human feeling along the way? This is hard for all of us, Buffy, Dawn too, believe it or not."
"She shouldn't worry. I'll take care of it."
"That isn't what she's worried ABOUT, love."
She let the awkward silence fall between them. "Is that so? Don't fight with me, Giles. This is so not the time."
"Why not? This is how you always cope with things, Buffy, and it isn't healthy. You can't just shove away the problems that aren't so fixable. The world does not stop turning just because some lawyers played with magic they shouldn't have. You still have a sister. She still loves you and worries about you. And you still need to find a way to deal with her without hurting her feelings."
"I don't mean to hurt her feelings, Giles, she knows that. I just have a lot on my mind right now..."
"...and when this over, you'll find other battles, because it never ends. But battles, you can handle those. You can kick and fight and kill the bad guy, then it's done. But not all problems can be solved that way, can they?"
"I know that!"
"So what do you do with them, then?"
"Giles, this so isn't the time..."
He smirked knowingly. "Exactly."
She rolled her eyes. "So I'm not perfect. You're right, very good, one point for you. So what are you suggesting I do about it NOW? Call up the evil lawyers and tell them to put their plan on hold while I have a good cry?"
"I am suggesting that the word will not come to imminent end---this time---if you start your scooby summit five minutes late, and take those minutes to lock yourself in the bathroom, take a few deep breaths, and centre yourself."
He smiled gently. "You really don't see it, do you? She DOES understand, you know. This time."
Lorne depressed the computer monitor's on button with his baby finger, then sprung his hand away involuntarily as the screen lit up.
"Did I do it? Do we have it?"
Tara traded amused glances with Kate. "All set," she told him. "Technical AND mystical protection checking out okay...there's no way anybody unauthorized can get in now. Just run the IM program off this disk instead of your usual one."
"We have a usual one?"
Kate rolled her eyes. "Honestly, Lorne, I can't believe you've never done this before. Caritas DOES have a website..."
"Cordelia was bored one afternoon. I let her play. Hey, I can do email, what more do you want from me?"
"This is kinda the same," said Tara. Just...you know that the other person's on the other end, and reading it in real time."
"Real time," said Kate, shaking her head. "I swear they make this more complicated than it has to be. Like there's any other kind of time?"
"Well, space-time," said Tara.
"Or hell-dimension time," added Lorne.
"Forget it, I don't want to hear it. I will be participating in something called a 'scooby summit' tonight. I think that taps out my weekly quota of 'strange and unusual.'"
Lorne regarded her seriously. "But you ARE okay with this? Katie, you said..."
"I said I would try to help you, Lorne. Didn't say I was promising anything..."
Tara looked uncomfortable. "Maybe I should..."
"No, it's okay," said Kate. "I don't mean to make you uncomfortable, Tara. Lorne and I have talked about this before. And he's just going to have to accept that this is a demon I'll have to keep fighting. I might not like it. In fact, I'm sure I don't...but what am I supposed to do, just sit there and watch the world come to an end?"
"We don't know that's happening," said Tara gently.
"And that makes it easier? People have already died, haven't they? And people have..." Kate blinked quickly and took a deep breath. "Sorry. Guess I should just focus on the task at hand, leave old baggage out of it..."
"If that's what works for you," said Tara. "We all have different thresholds...different baggage...and if you want to help, that's really...brave."
"I don't feel brave," said Kate with a bitter laugh. "I feel like throwing up every time I think about this. But if I didn't help, if I didn't try...I'd feel worse, wouldn't I?"
Tara met Kate's gaze impassively. "You're all set up," she said. Lorne put his arm around his lady and opened up the IM screen.
Cordelia's fingers flew over the keyboard. "Well, we're all set up," she chirped.
Angel smiled. "You seem better."
"Well, yeah. Pizza, nap, shower, why wouldn't I be?"
He shook his head. "I love you."
"Aww, I know. Okay, just open this window here, and..." She picked up the phone.
"Cordelia?" said Angel.
She paused mid-dial. "Hmmm?"
"Who are you calling?"
"But you're...I mean, he's gonna be on the..."
"Sure he is. And so is Buffy and Tara and Lorne, and how are we gonna talk about anything private THEN, hmmm?"
"Giles and I talk every night on the phone Angel, you know that. We talked about behaviour you need to get jealous over, didn't we? We made a list."
"And I specifically left this OFF the list as I recall. Giles is a friend. I love him. I'm gonna call. Giles?"
The screen lit up and the words "Hello, L.A." appeared in the window.
"Hi Giles," Cordelia said into the phone. Into the computer, she typed 'hi Hellmouth.'"
"Things are good," she was telling Giles. "Did Buffy tell you? Angel and I can..."
The words 'So what'd you find' floated on-screen with Buffy's screenname.
"...and we talked it out like REAL adults," Cordelia was saying. "Well, after the fighting, and the pouting..."
She typed: 'No news is good news?' then, back to the phone again, hastily clarified "No, ANGEL wasn't pouting. And I did get all mature, after..."
Buffy again: 'You didn't find anything?'
A hasty placation, from Tara: 'They weren't the only ones looking.'
"...and if I had a therapist?" Cordelia lectured the phone. "Serious bonus points. I mean, even Angel was proud of me, and he NEVER picks up on..."
Angel gently slid the keyboard out from under her fingers and typed 'Hi Lorne.'
"...well of COURSE he loves me anyway," Cordelia shrilled. "And okay, maybe there's a small bias going on, but that doesn't mean I didn't do really, REALLY well here..."
On-screen, coupled to Lorne's name: 'Deep breaths, kittens. Those lawyers can cover their tracks.'
"...awwww, I love you too," Cordelia gushed into the phone. "I knew you'd understand. So how goes things at Hellmouth central? You holding up okay?"
Buffy banged the keyboard with her fists. "Damn it! We need more to go on here!"
"We're doing our best," said Xander. "But Lorne's right, Buffy, this might take awhile."
"Like you would know. You spent the whole day working!"
Xander swallowed, hurt, but kept his face neutral. "That wasn't fair. You know that wasn't fair."
"Sure. Like building deadlines are really going to matter if the world ends."
On-screen, she typed 'Just report!'
Then she pushed the keyboard away again and scanned the room wolfishly.
"Well, if you aren't helping with THIS, go research NOW," she commanded. "And Giles, put down the damn phone and come help me!"
Giles shot her a glare and took a step out of earshot, covering the phone with his hand.
"Fine," she snitted. Into the keyboard, she typed 'Anyone else?'
Kate's screen-name popped up, the message fragmented and slow. 'Marlena's diary.'
"Who the crap is Marlena?" muttered Buffy. She grabbed her ice tea and chugged it, then typed 'Who?'
'Marlena,' typed Kate. 'Worked for Wolfram and Hart. The boxes...'
'Your point?' typed Buffy.
'I'm sorry,' typed Kate. 'I'm trying...'
'We don't have time!' typed Buffy.
She shoved the keyboard aside. "I'm going patrolling," she told the stunned assemblage. "This has been a total wash."
Dawn reappeared, Alamo in her arms, just in time to watch Buffy stalk out and Xander retreat to the kitchen with Anya for leftover pizza and debriefing. A twitchy Giles hung up the phone with a dead 'You too,' and she juggled the puppy in her arms and made a decision.
"Hey," she called. "You wanna see something?"
Buffy came back from patrol to find Lorne perched comfortably on her front step, waiting for her.
She regarded him warily. "Everything okay?"
In the moonlight, his red eyes glowed menacingly. "Don't think so, hon."
She blinked. "Uh, okay..."
"It's late, we're tired, long day and all that, so I'll just get straight to the point and tell you that if you EVER treat Kate that way again..."
"She put herself OUT for you, Buffy," he said. "This has been HARD for her."
Her face froze in brittle, blank emotion. "It's been hard for all of us."
"No excuse," he snapped. "It's time you learn that is no excuse. She can't handle this the way you can, Buffy---she doesn't have the superpowers, and she doesn't have the inclination. But she's put herself out on this one because it's haunting her. Do you understand that?"
She hesitated, briefly, confused, then sank to the porch, finally coming off the adrenaline. "I'm sorry," she said.
He softened. "I know. We all have ghosts on this one, don't we? I'm thinking this might be our chance---to deal with them..."
She blinked. "What?"
"You and your sweetheart, hon---I'm thinking you get HIM squared away, and it'll all work out. He's the only one who has his heart in every implication: Jenny's not the only girl he knows whose been brought back by magic, is she?"
Again, she stiffened. "I don't want to talk about that."
She closed her eyes, and when she spoke again, it was through gritted teeth. "What the hell are you doing? What right do you have..."
"Very little," he admitted. "But I'm taking a stand on this one---things have to change around here, my little chosen one. It's time you stopped taking out your poor emotional coping skills on other people."
"So it's all my fault, is it? Lorne, Giles isn't handling this any better than I..."
"I know," he conceded. "And the only reason he's not getting the smack from me right now is cause YOU'RE the one who yelled at Kate. Look, you and your watcher...you have some issues, no doubt about it. If I were writing one of those alphabet picture books, I could come up with a separate one for every letter."
She cracked a tiny smile.
"...and no denying that you're a special case either," continued Lorne. "But in the end, there is only one thing you two need to figure out, and until you do..."
"What?" said Buffy. "What is it?"
He sighed. "Look, sweetheart, there is no reason at all you should be taking out your pain on us---cause that's what HE is for. That's what love is, kitten---finding that one who'll let you be weak and small sometimes and love you just the same. And working through it with HIM so you can leave the rest of us to our own problems."
"He has other people watching out for him too---you get a free pass on this one. But talk to him just the same..."
She took a deep breath. "Okay. I will."
"And Buffy? Don't ever yell at Kate again."
Angel returned from his uneventful patrol to find Cordelia sprawled on his bed, a pile of books at her side.
"You okay?" he said.
Cordelia shrugged. "I'm gonna spend the night in your room, 'kay?"
"Third night in a row."
"So this is good," he said. "Me being here for you, you being here for me..."
He nodded at the books. "Whatcha reading?"
"School stuff. I am still going, aren't I?"
"Why wouldn't you?"
"Well, lawyer stuff. Scooby summit."
"So? Life goes on, Cordelia. And Wesley was right: you need to do this. You need to have a connection to the world."
"It's a better fight when you have a reason. You can't just live for your powers," he said gently. "I've had it both ways, and it only really was right when I had...with Buffy, with you..."
"But sometimes...I mean, right now, I'm...I'm confused, a little. And Dawn is angry, and Giles is depressed, and Buffy's on a rampage..."
"And it all turns into adrenaline sooner or later, and gets worked through. You did well today, Cordelia."
"And you'll do well tomorrow too. You'll start school again, you'll have your normal life, and I'll be waiting for you when you come home."
"Sometimes there are things you can't work through with power or magic," he said with a smile. "And I'm guessing cold feet is one of them. Well..." He folded his arms expansively. "Would it help you to think of this as field work, then? I mean, journalism, that's, like, teaching you how to be a better snoop..."
She nodded confidently. "I can do it," she told him. "I can use it."
"I know you can. So whatcha reading?"
She flipped over the cover with a suddenly peaceful smile. "Bird by bird," she told him. "I can do this, Angel. I can do it all."
He took the paperback from her hands and the book fell open to an already dog-eared page:
"...Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder and said 'bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'..."
He handed Cordelia back her book and snuggled into bed beside her, grabbing a discarded file folder off the floor. Bird by bird, he told himself, smiling. One file at a time, one missing piece at a time...bird by bird.
They read themselves to dreamless sleep.
Buffy hoisted herself through the branches and quietly settled herself down beside him, on the treehouse floor.
He did not respond.
"Nice night up here."
He gave a mild shrug. "I suppose. Dawn show you up here?"
"Lorne. Giles, are you..."
She swallowed, a little hurt. "Okay. I'm sorry. I didn't mean..."
"Look, you don't have to be so careful," he said gently. "I'm not broken. I'm not fragile. I'm just..."
"Tell me," she said.
"It's not that easy."
"Sure it is. You've got things going through your head right now. So you just say what they are."
"It's not that easy," he said again.
"I can draw it out of you," she told him.
He shrugged. "If you must. It's not that easy."
"Isn't it? You're thinking about her, aren't you? Jenny...it's hard to get used to, the idea that she's..."
"That's not it."
"Then what? Regrets over how things...over what...she's haunting you?"
"She's not the first."
"But you loved her."
"And in that too, she's not the first." He sighed. "They all run together sometimes. And you can't pick out the one from the other, you can't say this is who I loved then, this is who I love now, because they all get mixed up..."
"Just tell me what to do," she pleaded.
"There's nothing you CAN do. I didn't choose this life any more than you did, you know. And there were times I wasn't any happier...times I loved, times I lost...you remember Olivia, don't you?"
"That friend of yours from England?"
He nodded. "I loved her once. I loved her as a friend. I loved her as a woman. But in the end, I decided I loved her better...alive."
"So you pushed her away from you. So that your life...MY life...wouldn't hurt her."
"Why not? It has before." He laughed bitterly. "And there's Jenny again. You see how it all runs together?"
"My fault," she flashed bitterly. "Giles, I don't know what to do!"
"I have told you already. There's nothing you CAN do. You have your life. You have your destiny, as did I. And it made it's mark upon me long before you came along." He took a deep breath. "My father was a watcher," he told her. "You knew that, didn't you?"
"Did I mention that he had a slayer too?"
He nodded. "She was called the summer I turned nine. I didn't know everything yet---mostly overheard snippets from the dinner table, council, watchers, just words really...then one day Father came home, and I heard him strut to Mother that the new slayer had been remanded to his care..."
"Nine years old," Buffy mused. "And you had a slayer in the house?"
"Not entirely. Kept her away from us, he did---kept himself away too as a consequence, which probably left just as big a mark. Then one night...one random, ordinary night...Father comes home and he has this girl with him: a moody thing with a sour, pouty frown and coal-dark ringlets streaming down her back. I was nine years old. I had never seen such a creature. And when I overheard Mother use that word 'slayer' again..."
He smiled briefly. "My first schoolboy crush. I fell for her instantly and irretrievably. I spent the entire night mooning after her."
"And she never even spared me a glance. She ate a silent dinner, stiff and rigid and gloomy eyes never leaving the floor, then retreated to the study straight after. But Father...it was his one perceptive moment with me, and he picked up on it. He came to my room later that night..."
He looked away, and she reached out a hand with unabashed tenderness. "You don't have to tell me," she said.
"I do. You asked. You know who she is, he said, sitting down on my bed beside me. I nodded. Slayer. Mummy used that word. And he said yes, she is that. She is also stubborn and headstrong and petulant and strong enough to snap that little neck of yours with two of her dainty, pretty fingers. And Rupert, she is also going to die. Not now, not today, but someday, and soon. She'll die, Rupert. She'll DIE. And I shan't let her take your heart with her."
She felt it, then: that first flicker of completely unqualified love, where his own pain overshadowed hers. She could barely trust herself to speak. "Well...did she?"
"What, take my heart with her? Or die? Both, as it turned out. I dreamed of her for months after---romanticized little-boy dreams, on nights he would say too much at the dinner table, and I would listen. I wasn't in formal watcher training yet, but I had a keen ear and a mother's gossip, and I heard my share..."
"But the slayer, did she..."
"Eight months after---although I didn't learn that until much, much later. I dreamed of her for so long---that sad, dark girl who came to dinner...and when I turned 18 and finally had unrestricted access to the watcher's council library, I looked her up."
His face darkened, and he looked away again.
"Big mistake?" she guessed.
"You could say that. It was the impetus for my "Ripper" phase. I looked her up, and there she was...called at 14. Died 18 months later. She never even hit 16."
"And it went further back...and further forward...and suddenly, it wasn't academic anymore. One slayer dies, and another is called. One slayer DIES...and she was my great unanswered question, my great lost chance, my wound, and I hadn't even realized..."
His voice broke, and this time, he did not try to hold it back. "They started haunting me: dreams every night, of slayers fighting, slayers dying, old ones, new ones, and her most of all. The records of their lives and deaths were bloodlessly graphic and at the same time horribly vague, and somehow I dreamed in the missing pieces...and so I turned to magic to exorcise their spirits, to blot away the pain...and it got away from me..."
"Eyghon," she said.
"It got away from me," he finished softly. "And I vowed that I would never let my destiny take away another."
"So you shut your heart away again," she realized. "Business as usual, until Jenny came along. And you let her in. And she was taken away from you..."
"She never even hit 16. She never learned to drive, she never had a lover...and she never had a mother, either, do you know how sad that is? They took her when she was barely a child, and they raised her to be hard and tough and strong, and she never even hit 16..."
"And some years later there I was, MY slayer prophesied to die at the hands of the master, and SHE barely 16...and I let someone in. Someone who wanted me, who pursued me in a way I hadn't been pursued since I was young and magical and dangerous...and on that night, she asked to help me. And I let her in."
More tears, of guilt, this time. "Giles, I'm sorry---for what I was---for what I did---"
"Oh, I'm not angry," he told her. "I was, perhaps, once. But now...I'm only telling you this so you'll understand why I can't always face you when I get like this. You see how it all runs together like that---and when I look at you---well, I want it to be only you I'm seeing."
"But I...Giles, I've..."
"I know," he told her gently. "I'm not the only one with memories. And Angel is not generally a happy one for me. But he loved you, Buffy. He let you love---and you might have died at 15 like SHE did and never have had that."
"I have it now," she told him, voice breaking.
"That you do," he said. "And if that's to be his way into my life after everything he's done...well, I can live with that. In my better moments, anyway." He took a deep breath and opened his eyes. "There now, see how easy that was? You're you again..."
The catharsis had exhausted him. She supported his weight as they tumbled to the ground, and carried him up to bed when he stopped shaking,
Dawn lay in bed and stretched, then kicked off the sheets and padded into the kitchen in search of breakfast. Lorne was waiting for her.
"Lorne?" She rubbed the last of the sleep out of her eyes. "What are you doing here?"
"Uh huh. But weren't you...you didn't have a fight with Kate again, did you?"
"Just the opposite," he said, idly picking the crusts off a tall stack of toast. "I'm heading back to L.A. this morning---some of us have a business to run, you know---and Katie said she wanted me gone before she woke up because she hates long goodbyes."
"So you thought you'd stall by coming here and mooching food?"
"Well, I didn't want to get stuck in rush hour. And not only that, but Kate is not the only friend I have in Sunnydale, you know."
Dawn frowned. "Great. The odd couple needs more checking up on."
"Actually," he drawled, liberally pouring jelly onto the topmost toast slice. "I think that just this once, they're kind of squared away a little. You did good last night, kiddo."
Dawn shrugged. "He looked like he needed a place to hide. And hey, you already found it. Kate already found it. My secret hiding place kind of isn't secret anymore. So why not invite Giles too?"
"You did good," he repeated.
Dawn shrugged. "He's not so bad. I only complain so much to keep 'em on their toes a little, you know? They can be SO screwed up sometimes."
"I know it, babe, and good on you for looking out for YOU in all of this. If you EVER need an extra ear..."
She smirked. "Are you going sentimental on me?"
"Hey, I'm giving up a granola bar in my car during rush hour traffic to check up on you..." he teased.
It finally sunk in: he hadn't come over because of Kate. He hadn't come over for Buffy, for Giles, for Alamo, even...
She crushed him in spontaneous bear hug. "I love every single thing about my life!" she squealed.
Lorne gently disentangled himself, then reached for the jelly and buttered the rest of his toast.
Cordelia scanned the lecture hall, looking for an empty seat.
"Cordelia!" called a familiar voice.
She frowned. "Scott? What are you doing here?"
Scott Hope, book bag in hand, graced her with an impish smile. "T.A.-ing," he said. At her horrified look, his grin widened. "Just teasing. Had a free period and knew it was your first day, so I thought I'd come help you get settled."
Her smile was genuine. "Thanks. That's really...nice."
He ushered her to the front of the class. "This is fundamentals, right?"
She glanced at her timetable grid. "Yup. Fundamentals of news reporting."
He nodded. "You'll have Ivany for that. "Sit up front. She does a lot of in-class critiquing, and you'll get better feedback if she tags you first."
The door clanged open and a well-dressed older woman strolled in.
"Well, that's it," said Scott. "You okay?"
She nodded. "Thanks." She took out a pen and paper, relaxing a little. Maybe not all ghosts of Sunnydale past were so bad...
It was mid-day before Rupert Giles finally looked up from his books to find Anya staring at him.
"Everything okay?" he asked.
She idly fiddled with the orb of Ramjarin that he had been using as a paperweight. "Oh, fine," she told him happily. "You look MUCH better today. I mean, sure, still burying your nose in those musty old books, which can't be healthy, what with the teeny tiny print and needlessly graphic engravings, but even so..."
"You look better," she concluded. "Did you have sex?"
He nearly choked on his tea. "What?"
"Sex. Did you? Cause in my experience, there are only two things that can relax somewhat as tensed up as you've been: sex, and illicit pharmaceuticals. And jogging, in some cases." She shrugged off-handedly. "You just seemed more like the sex type to me."
"This is really none of your business," he said awkwardly, deciding that further comment would be futile.
It was then they heard the clang of the little bell above the door. "Oh, customers," squealed Anya with a tiny clap. A moment later, her smile deflated. "Drat. It's only Kate."
Giles raised an eye curiously and set his book aside.
"Detective Lockley," he greeted formally, noting that she was in uniform.
She nodded, and scanned the magic shop with curious caution. "Nice place you got here. I think."
He smiled. "What can I do for you?"
She thrust a piece of paper at him. "There was a diary in with the lawyer stuff---Marlena, an old friend of mine..."
He nodded. "Lorne filled us in."
"Broad strokes," he reassured her. "She was a...a secretary?"
Kate nodded. "And one of her first jobs out of school was Wolfram and Hart. They killed her. I'll never prove it, not even with the diary, but I know it's true."
"It is entirely possible, I'm afraid," Giles agreed.
"Anyway," continued Kate with a tired sigh. "I've been going through it and came across some words I didn't know. And Tara told me you were the person to see about that kind of thing, so..."
"Indeed. Well, let's have a look, shall we?" He gave the list a cursory scan. "Most of these terms are used in magic," he realized. "See, this one here refers to the ritual for..."
"Whatever," interrupted Kate hastily. "Look, I'm on lunch break, so..."
He was already intent on the work before him. "Hmmm? Oh, yes. Quite. Well, top of the morning to you, then. Lovely day."
Anya watched Kate go with a dismayed sigh. "Talk about wound up too tight..."
"This is a bit out of her league," Giles said.
"Within a day or two, I predict unflattering dark circles under her eyes," pronounced Anya. She shook her head. "Looks like you aren't the only one who isn't copulating..."
Professor Lynne Ivany paced the room, locking gazes with each of her students in turn.
"There are three factors that make a story newsworthy," she intoned. "Who can tell me what they are?"
The class stared back at her blankly.
"All right," she sighed. "Why don't we try working through this as a group, then? Somebody want to throw out a topic?"
"Lawyers," said Cordelia instantly.
The professor gave an agreeable nod. "All right. And you are..."
"Of course. Now, Cordelia---you have any particular lawyers in mind?"
"Sure," she said. "There's this local firm my boss runs up against from time to time..."
"Local!" pounced Ivany. "Factor number one, news is local. Sad fact is most people would rather here about a car crash three blocks from work than an earthquake in faraway nowhere. All right, Cordelia, let's stay with your local firm for a moment. What makes them newsworthy?"
"Well, they are up to something," said Cordelia. "And if we found out what, we could stop them before they hurt someone."
"Wonderful," the professor said. "Timeliness is vital to a story. You want to answer the questions why do I care, and why do I care NOW? You said they might hurt someone?"
"And would these people they might hurt be willing to talk to you on the record?"
If they are still alive, thought Cordelia. Out loud, she said "Oh, sure."
"Human interest," said Professor Ivany loudly. "Human interest. Stories are about PEOPLE, always remember that. Find me a local person in imminent danger from some nefarious something, and I will guarantee you you'll have a sell-able story unless you are very stupid. Now, how would we go about ascertaining exactly what Cordelia's lawyer friends are up to?"
Blank stares from the class.
"Public records," said Professor Ivany patiently. "Are a treasure trove of information. Have they hired anyone new recently? Newspapers can tell us that. Have they bought any land? Local land registries can tell us all of that. Who are their investors? Annual reports can...yes?" She nodded to Cordelia's waving hand.
"That's great," said Cordelia, madly scribbling notes. "Now, where can I find all of those?"
It was nightfall before Spike got bored enough to go looking for Lilah again. They had been in virtual lockdown at the Wolfram and Hart compound since his return---and since his discovery that the scoobies were a teeny bit smarter than he thought. The extra guards they had on the still-semi-comatose witch had been fired (well, killed) and Lilah had been limiting her contact to himself, Harmony, and the little witch---both of whom he had tried to engage in some Rummy and s'mores earlier that evening to no avail. So he went looking for Lilah out of sheer boredom and found her in her office, staring dumb-founded at her computer screen.
She flicked off her monitor and glared. "Don't call me that."
He smirked and licked his lips. "You have that twinkle of excitement in your eye," he told her. "And that frowny-glare thing? Makes it SO much sexier."
She sighed. "Don't you have anything better to do?"
"Honestly? No. So how's about you share the news, hmmm? What was the hot new inter-office email gossip that had you so entranced when I came in just now?"
She frowned again. "There are still arrangements to be made."
"And there are still a few details to work out, so don't get TOO excited..."
"But they approved my requisition," she told him. "I wasn't sure they would, after your little Sunnydale visit..."
"...which was YOUR idea," he reminded her.
"But somehow, they approved it. We're on."
"Uh huh. On for what, pet?"
"Don't call me that."
He shrugged. "So you gonna tell me what the grand plan is, now? Why the clueless little witch was a strict no-snacker?"
She opened her drawer and withdrew a rumpled scroll. "All right. I'll show you."
He unraveled the scroll and squinted carefully at the diagram. "But that's..."
"But can we..."
"Not a factor. She won't find us."
"But won't that be...well, the first place she looks?"
She shook her head and directed his attention to the maps again. "No, not that one. THAT one."
"Oh." His eyes widened. "Ohhhhh...."
Spike gave Lilah an optimistic smile. "And if the witch does survive this little party---we can eat her THEN, can't we?"
Lilah shrugged. "We'll see."
"I've got LOTS to tell you," said Buffy.
She hadn't even taken off her coat; she started talking as soon as she had cleared the front door.
"As do I," said Giles. "You had a nice day, then?"
"Yeah, yeah. Listen, I was on the phone with Cordy earlier, and she's been playing nosy reporter all day..."
"Oh yes, I imagine," he said. "But Buffy, I saw Kate this morning, and although she doesn't know it yet, she's struck a veritable goldmine."
Buffy sighed. "All right. You first."
He smiled. "Well, then. There's a diary she's found---that friend of hers, do you remember?"
"Well, it seems the diary---which predates our present tribulations by a good ten years, by the way---is just full of references to raising spells."
Buffy's eyes widened. "You mean they planned to bring back Jenny all this time?"
"Well, possibly not Jenny, per se, but certainly someone. Or something. Why, within the brief snippets I saw today alone were spells that could summon at least half a dozen beings from at least that many planes of existence. Clearly, they saw potential in this sort of thing, even if they weren't QUITE sure just when they would find it useful."
"But why, Giles? What are they gonna use her for?"
"In a specific sense? I'm not sure yet. But in a general sense..."
"Well, Jenny was a witch, Buffy. A fairly powerful one. That...well, I'm afraid that widens the net significantly."
She frowned. "But they can't MAKE her do magic, can they? I mean, Lorne said she hasn't been in any condition to..."
"They don't have to make her," said Giles grimly. "The power is still there, regardless of whether she invokes it or not. As long as she is alive, they can use her---like a magic battery, if you will. To power any number of unfortunate spells or rituals."
"That doesn't sound good."
"I'm afraid nothing about this is good. Well, then. You spoke with Cordelia?"
Buffy nodded. "Turns out there's plenty interesting in the public domain," she said. "And a fair bit more if you know a hacker with no moral qualms about invading people's privacy..."
Willow flounced into the living room just in time to overhear, and she greeted Buffy with a large, broad smile. "Finally, something I can do."
Cordelia shoved the keyboard out of the way and stretched her arms behind her.
Angel, arms fully around her by now, pulled her to her feet and away from the desk, then rested his chin on her shoulder. "I thought I was sneaking up on you."
"Demon-enhanced senses, remember? I can smell you now."
"Little bit. Plus, you forgot to clean under your fingernails after you went into my secret stash of marshmallows again. THAT I can smell for sure."
"Didn't say you had to be."
He smirked playfully, then abruptly, his face fell. "We can't. Scooby summit in ten minutes."
It was her turn to smile. "Nope."
"I've already talked to Buffy. And she's already talked to Giles. We already GOT caught up. No point in having a scooby summit if we're already...well, summited..."
"So she gave us the night off?"
"Not quite. There IS homework. But..."
"Well, that's why we have Wesley, isn't it?"
"What? I already DID the junior reporter bit and FOUND the information. Now we just have to go through it. And Wesley can do that as well as I can. Plus, unlike me, he doesn't have any vampires to have sex with right now."
"I certainly hope not. But Cordelia..."
"Look, I'm finally getting comfortable with the sex thing. You're telling me you really want to kill the mood?"
"I want to be careful," he said. "I don't want to hurt you."
"I know you don't. And believe me, I don't want you to either. I've thought it all through, Angel, and it's been hard, I won't deny it. Sex...love...is complicated enough without the extra layers WE'VE got going on, and believe me, even now, there are times I'm fighting the urge to just run away to Gunn's for the night, and..."
"Gunn," he mused thoughtfully. "That's...that's where you went the night you..."
"Damn right. He's...god, that was so long ago that we decided that, and I guess we just never changed the decide, even though you had the..."
"Well, after you fi...well, before your epiphany...god, this is so weird, Angel, please don't be mad..."
"I won't be," he said. "Whatever it is, I promise you, I won't be."
She took a deep breath. "He's our safe house," she told him. "He's the only one who has never invited you in, and he's never GOING to invite you in, because he's our safe house. I had nearly forgotten, it seems so long ago...you had just...well, you know. And we were still stunned and drunk on tequila and karaoke and visions and blood and demons and our first fight without you, and we sat down, right there in that alley, and Wesley said that maybe it was time to look at that idea of his again...I mean, he had brought it up before, and told me he had one, but it was never really something I was comfortable talking about. I mean, who wants to think about that? But there we were, and we were out there on our own and we didn't know WHAT was going through your head, and if you already HAD gone evil or were just. warming up...so we made him our safe house, and decided then and there that if things EVER got to that stage...he was our out. And I had almost forgotten all about it until that night we found out about the loophole, when I was mad, and I was scared, and I guess it subconsciously came back to me. The one place in L.A. that you could never find me...you do understand, don't you? Why it's been so hard? Because I do love you. I do trust you. But in the back of my head, there always has to be a back-up plan, and that's..."
"Good," he said. "That's good. There should be."
"I can't lie to you, Cordelia. I could never imagine hurting you. I don't want to hurt you. But my life is soaked with magic, and I can't promise you that there aren't people out there who might try to use it to hurt me. To hurt YOU. If anything does go wrong..."
"It won't. It can't."
"It has. It might."
She nodded. "I know it. I've thought it too, and in my weaker moments---when I've had a bad day---it does freak me out sometimes. But you know what? Life if short. We all could die tomorrow. So I say look on the bright side. Sure, my boyfriend used to be an evil vampire killer, and that's bad and scary and gross. But if it does give me nightmares, he'll be there to hold me when I wake up. And that's a good thing, isn't it?"
She shuddered in his arms, as if throwing off a chill, then beamed him a radiant smile. "There, see? It's all good. So, you still feel like having sex with me, or did we totally kill the mood?"
It was a little too dark out there. Buffy had left for patrol an hour ago, and it was very dark. And very cold. And very lonely. Her homework was done now, pens closed up, pencils dull and text books discarded off-handedly when she moved to the bed to finish up The Hound of the Baskervilles for English lit. And when THAT had suddenly inspired her to pick up the puppy, who nuzzled happily on her lap, oblivious to the creaks and shadows around him...
Dawn put aside her mug of hot chocolate, cuddled Alamo in her arms and crooned to him bravely.
"It's okay," she told him. "We are 15 now, and we aren't scared of the dark anymore."
Alamo gently licked her hand.
"I mean, we know what's out there, and that's...well, bad, I guess. But they can't come in unless you invite them---well, except for the demons, and frankly, if it's them who are after you, you're kind of screwed anyway..."
Alamo angled his nose and nuzzled her palm with a brief, forceful yelp, as if to reassure his mistress that he would protect her. She stroked his fur with gentle, rhythmic caresses.
"And we're okay, you know," she said softly. "We live and we breathe and we grow, and...look, even you, your fur is growing in a little, see? It's not so bad..."
Her discarded paperback toppled suddenly in an ominous, crinkly crescendo of crashes and shadows. Dawn clenched Alamo tightly to her chest.
"We should check on Giles," she decided. "See if he's okay..."
Alamo happily lapped his furry little mouth against her.
"We should check on Giles," Dawn said again, nodding confidently. Alamo yelped his approval.
Cordelia switched off the computer.
"All set?" asked Angel.
"Uh huh. Hi from Giles, hi from Lorne---he misses Kate already, isn't that cute? He's only been back in L.A. for about three hours and the first thing he did was compose a long, whining email to me about how much he misses Kate."
"And he's telling you because..."
"There was some sort of seize the day undertone in there, I think. You know, his beloved is afar and mine is...a...near. And I should take advantage of that...well, advantage..."
"Honestly, Angel, I think that if Dawn could read that email, she'd find his swami mojo act a lot less compelling. He's not a guru, he's a sap."
"I mean, more of a sap than you, even, and don't tell me you aren't a sap cause I know you and you are."
"I mean, I only skimmed after paragraph three of how sweet Kate is, and how brave she is for putting up with all the magic stuff, which she hates, and how hard it's been for her, but how she's really making progress, and how love conquers all, and how it's been three hours since he left L.A. and he hasn't heard from her yet and if only he could hear her sweet voice and know she's okay, but you get my drift. Sap central."
"Uh huh," said Angel.
"Anyway," said Cordelia, briskly clapping her hands. "We can go patrol. Or we can go downstairs and pound things. I'm good either way."
He smiled, but the smile was bittersweet. "You really are adjusting."
"And that's good," he said thoughtfully. "Because in the long run, it'll be easier if you do. But...it's a little sad, isn't it? If both those options strike you as a fun way to spend an evening..."
Cordelia sighed. "Okay, I admit, this new vampire attributes thing HAS given me a little more energy to burn than I am used to, and there are only so many ways to...release it..."
His grim smile tightened. "I know. I figured."
"No, I don't think you did. Cause I was going to continue and say that there's more to us than that, Angel. It's not just a question of magic and curses and demons anymore. We're in a relationship. And unlike most relationships, it's not one that we can leave---this is kind of our only chance, isn't it?. So...well, let's just say that I am a little more motivated than usual to make this relationship work."
He felt goosebumps: actual, ominous goosebumps. "Oh?"
She nodded earnestly. "I've been reading the self-help books, and they all say that the best way to keep a relationship healthy is quality time---you know, taking in an interest in your partner's hobbies and activities."
"So I figure..." She shrugged. "You patrol, I patrol. You kicky-fighty, I kicky-fighty. At least now, I can keep up properly. And when Christmas season hits and the malls stay open late, I'll drag you with me, and you'll come."
"Because it's very important to take an interest in your partner's hobbies and activities," guessed Angel.
"Right. See? You're making progress too. I can loan you the book when I'm done with it."
He gulped. "Oh."
She nodded enthusiastically. "In fact, I think there might even be a set of audio tapes that go with it."
Dawn traced the faint footprints out to the yard, where she finally found Giles sprawled supine on the grass, a dreamy smile lighting up his tired, craggy features.
"Hey," she said.
"Didn't think I'd find you here."
He angled his face toward her. "It's beautiful out here. I'd never looked at them, you know---the stars? You get so caught up in...well, problems, that sometimes you forget to enjoy the little things. And the other night, in your treehouse---well, I didn't have to look up at them. They were just...there."
"Never thanked you for that, did I? For letting me in, for letting me see..."
He nodded heavenward. "For that...we're even," he said softly. "You owed me one, and now you've paid it out."
She shifted over slightly and let Alamo scoot between them. "Okay."
When Buffy came back from patrol half an hour later, that was how she found them: Dawn, half-asleep, head nuzzled into the crook of Giles arm...and her man so spellbound by the stars and the peace and the hard-earned human contact that he was completely oblivious to Alamo's slobbery kisses.
Angel gingerly helped Cordelia slide her jacket off.
"Still a little jumpy?" he asked.
"And a little bruised. Ow. Owwww! Angel, careful!"
"And stop smirking."
"You are. All smirky about how your wussly little girlfriend shouldn't have been out in the dark with you and gotten herself all...OWWW! Angel!!!!"
He carefully pried open her clenched fist and pulled the last of her arm out of the sleeve. "Okay," he said. "You're okay now."
"And it's not like I wasn't holding my own out there. Okay, so my fighting skills are maybe a teeny bit less polished than yours and I don't QUITE have your vampire strength, but that wasn't..."
"I know," he soothed.
"I mean, I did okay, just...still mostly human, you know? And still have mostly human blindspots. He snuck up behind me and there was a shadow and OWWW! How is that still hurting if you aren't even touching me?"
"Shhhhhh," he murmured, stroking her cheek. "It's okay, Cordelia."
She fidgeted away from him. "And I'm STILL way too jumpy. I have all this energy, and I can't sit still..."
"It's okay," he said again.
"It's not. I feel awful."
"You're tired, and you're hurt. That's understandable."
"Aggh! Will you quit with the Zenmaster condescendo-man already? You're not so perfect either, you know."
"Well, you are really irritating me, for one thing."
"Angel, I don't FEEL good!" she moaned, swatting his arm unhappily. The movement made her wince. "And owwwww......"
He took her face in his hands with one hand, and with the other, gently traced the emerging bruises on her arm. "Okay," he said. "You may still have energy to burn, but you are feeling that fight, and you are feeling those bruises, and you're letting your demon hormones run away with you again. What do we do when we start feeling this way?"
She took a deep breath.
"That's my girl. And?"
She closed her eyes and slowly inhaled and exhaled, deeply and smoothly to a count of ten. "Okay."
"Now, I could make you wait it out," he said. "And you could do it, if I asked you to. You could wait it out, and you could beat it, and you could function even while part of you was working that hard. But you were good, even with the blind spot. And you were brave. And you are a little more tired than you think you are. So I'm letting you off the hook this once. Pizza or ice cream?"
She sank to the sofa. "Do we have the cookie dough kind?"
She fidgeted. "Still a little jumpy though."
"I know. We can take care of that too. Those bruises are all above the waist, as I recall."
She nodded, eyes huge.
The answering machine clicked on for the fourth time that evening.
"Kate? It's Lorne, pick up..."
"Go away," she told it glumly.
"Sweetheart? I know you're there...you always come home when you work the night shift, and with me out of town, I figured you'd work late..."
In her darkened bedroom, she nodded. "I did."
"So I figured that if you weren't passed out in bed by now with a good book, that you might be up for a little phone se..."
The tape cut off, and she swallowed gratefully, snuggling deeper under the sheets and away from the soul-ripping scrawls of the dead, the terror of magic, the panic of fear, the slow, haunting realization that there are monsters, and there are demons, and there are kinds of evil that can't be locked away...
Marlena's diary slid out of her hands and tumbled to the floor. She uttered a silent prayer that it would not follow her into her dreams again.
Buffy shivered awake and reached blindly for Giles.
"Ummm," he murmured sleepily.
"Morning, sunshine," she teased. "You must have slept well---what with having ALL the blankets and everything..."
He jolted awake. "Hmmmm? What?"
She bit back a chuckle. "Easy, tiger, it's okay. In fact, it's kind of cute--- you all wrapped up and snuggly like that..."
He kicked off the blanket with an irritable grunt. "Stop teasing me."
Buffy beamed him an indulgent smile. "That's my guy. So grumpy when you first wake up. Like a little kid. It's...well, it's adorable."
He glowered darkly.
"Plus," she continued brightly. "I'd almost forgotten that you were naked under there." She swept her eye deliciously over the discarded blankets, and the bare flesh they now exposed. "You've got Goosebumps all over, and in very cute places."
He clutched his hand protectively between his legs. "Do not!"
She nuzzled gently at the nearest earlobe. "Oh, come on. Grey skies are gonna clear up, put on a happy face. You aren't really in a bad mood, are you? It's just the just-woken-up-itis?"
He shrugged, and stretched languidly with an off-hand yawn. "I suppose it is," he admitted. "Morning, love."
"Well, that's better. Morning." She traced a ring around his belly button with her pinkie finger. "Well, then, brain of my loins, what's on the table for today?"
He playfully wrapped a stray lock of her hair around his fingers. "Well, I'm meeting Willow at the magic shop at ten. Still some translation to work on..."
She glanced over his head to the clock by her bedside. "So that gives us, what, two hours?"
"Why? Did you have plans?"
She untwirled his finger from her hair and nuzzled her now-free head gently onto his bare chest, letting her curls lap gently across his side. "I don't know. Do YOU have plans?"
She waited for the tell-tale glow of lust in his eye before she began to gently work the wave of hair across him, under his side, over his chest, contorting her body atop his own as she twisted and writhed and brushed his skin methodically with her golden curls.
He stiffened beneath her. "Ummmmmm."
She rolled her head, like swimming, and trolled her locks across his thighs, letting the ends lap gently between his legs. He tensed beneath her.
She paused. "What?"
"Just..." He fidgeted, uncomfortably this time, and tried to squirm from under her. "Just...give me a minute..."
Buffy frowned. "The Rapunzel thing's not superhero enough for you?"
"Not that, just..." Beneath her, he was stiff and erect. "Not sure I can wait until you're..." He kicked reflexively. "Well, you don't want me to...well, right INTO your hair, do you?"
"Oh." She rolled to the side, then brushed her hair out of the way before she mounted him again. "All ready?"
The phone began shrieking urgently, and she felt him go instantly soft and flaccid beneath her. "Let the machine get it?" she offered, stroking him hastily in a last-ditch effort to restore the mood.
The machine clicked on. "Buffy?" yelled Lorne into the tape. "Giles? Anyone? You're there, aren't you? Look, it's Lorne, and believe it or not, this is business. On the off-chance that you two are not answering the phone because you're having sex right now, I'll give you five minutes to finish up before I..."
Buffy sighed and picked up the phone. "Lorne?"
"Oh. Hi, Buffy."
"Am I interrupting?"
"Sorta. Almost. I mean, yes..."
"Oh. Well, anyway, seen Kate lately?"
"I need you to check on her," the demon said. "She hasn't called."
"And you're calling me first thing in the morning for this?"
"No, I called HER first thing in the morning, and she wasn't at home. So I tried her at the station, and guess what? She called in sick. She wasn't there either."
"So where is she, then?"
"The million dollar question. Look, hon, she's been playing brave little soldier for me and being a sweetheart about the whole evil lawyer mess that I've been helping your gang out with. But with me in L.A. again..."
Buffy frowned. "You're thinking she's cracking?"
"Nobody to keep the mask on for. This is way out of her league."
"She's a cop, Lorne. I'm sure she's seen her share of..."
"That she has. But underneath it all, she's just like the rest of us, cupcake: a wounded little child who needs a little stroking. She may be brave and she may be tough, but most people aren't like you. They need a few illusions."
"I think even I underestimated just how hard this hit," he admitted. "But Kate...in the last few years, she's fought demons and vampires and monsters, and she's held up somehow, because she still had one illusion left---that there once WAS a simpler time. That there once WAS a happier time she could look back on..."
And now Kate was realizing that wasn't true. That her innocent friend had not been innocent, that she had died alone and afraid and looking evil in the eye...it was just like Giles had told her: it wasn't academic anymore. Buffy swallowed her pride, her guilt, her lingering resentment of how Kate had treated her, and felt the first faint twinges of sympathy for her neighbour.
"Lorne? Where would she go?"
Cordelia opened her eyes to the smell of coffee.
He pushed a tray beside her. "Breakfast in bed. Sleep well?"
"Once we finally started sleeping. Ummm, this is nice."
He peeled back the blankets and carefully checked her for bruises. "Already healing," he told her with a grin. "That's my girl."
She hoisted herself onto her elbows and grimaced. "Sure, kill the mood with talk of Cordelia the demon-hybrid freak with the super-powers."
Angel sighed. "Super-powers are nothing to be ashamed of, Cordelia. I have super-powers."
"Yeah, but you have the temperament, experience and appropriate leather clothing to go with them, Angel. Not to mention the body mass to handle a little kick without going hormonal. God, look at me. Just TALKING about it makes me starved. You didn't bring me peanut butter. Why didn't you bring me peanut butter?"
"Now, let's not get ourselves worked up," he soothed.
Cordelia glowered. "Sure. Mister Condescendo who doesn't NEED protein to regulate his psycho demon anatomy. Easy for YOU to talk..."
Angel, still not entirely sure how he had gotten himself into this, kept his face impassive. "Cordelia, I feel annoyed when you use that tone of voice with me."
She blinked. "Huh? What the hell are you talking about?"
"I feel uncomfortable when you use that language around me."
"I feel threatened when you shout at me," he said calmly.
She sat fully upright and gave him a funny look. "No, Angel, seriously. Why ARE you talking like that?"
He blinked innocently. "I-statements are the hallmark of healthy interpersonal communication."
"Uh, right, sure, of course they are. But...wait, where'd you get THAT from?"
"Well, I was still a little wired, after our...last night. And I couldn't fall asleep right away. So I was looking for some books to read..."
She dug beneath his pillow and pulled out two volumes. "Okay, so this is the one I'VE been reading, and this..." She froze again, the glint of tension returning to her eyes. "Angel? Where did you get THIS one?"
"Well, I zipped through that first one pretty quick, but you had SO many, so I asked Phantom Dennis for some suggestions..."
Cordelia waved the offending volume at him angrily. "And he gave you '101 Nights of Great Sex?'"
Angel preemptively plugged his ears.
"DENNIS!!!!" Cordelia shrieked. "You weren't watching last night. TELL me you weren't watching."
A lump bubbled up beneath the sheets, as if their ghostly roommate was hiding.
"And we've TALKED about privacy, Dennis, you know we have. No bedroom, no bathroom, unless someone's injured." Her voice rose again. "TELL me you weren't watching!"
Angel cleared his throat. "Um, Cordelia?"
She turned on him, nearly knocking over her coffee.
"I feel anxious when you shout like that."
She closed her eyes, breathing deeply to a count of ten. "I have school. I'm showering." She hopped off the bed. "Alone," she added pointedly, to the two lumps of men on her bed. But on her way past Angel, she paused for just a moment to gently kiss her fingers and touch them to his cheek.
In the plane's cabin, the air was pleasant and cool.
"This is the stuff," drawled Spike, reclining his chair and stretching luxuriously. "Peanuts, tiny bottles of vodka, tinted windows so we all don't collapse into heaps of dust..."
They crested on a sudden patch of turbulence, and Lilah clutched the armrest and gulped sickly.
"Put your chair up," she ordered.
"Why? The sky police gonna write me a ticket? This is a private plane, love. I can do as I like."
"Yes. A private plane belonging to Wolfram and Hart, of which I am a duly authorized..."
"Oh, stuff it." He smiled playfully at Harmony. "Gatekeeper gets a little grumpy when she's feeling sickly," he said. "You up for some fun?"
Lilah's eyes widened anxiously, but Harmony folded her arms and turned away from him. "With you? I don't think so."
"Oh, still on THAT kick, are we? Really, Harm, you going to let a teensy little quarrel get in the way of some action? Some vampire YOU are."
"Like you'd get away with it! And anyway, it wasn't a quarrel, Spike. You dumped me!"
"What, for her?" He nodded at Lilah, who was clutching a thus far unused paper bag with sweaty fingers. "You think I dumped you for HER? Oh, no, Harm, Lilah and I are just...look, I haven't even shagged her yet!"
"Sure you have---in your dreams! You want to, Spike. Admit it."
"So? I want lots of things. A puppy. A set of drums. One of them Palm Pilot things. Just WANTING them doesn't make me a preppie. though."
Harmony stubbornly hook her head. "I'm not talking to you."
Spike shrugged. "Fine, have it your way. And one of these days, when I am sitting down to my fresh and hot fillet-o-witch---we'll see if I save YOU a helping!"
He clicked on his discman and nearly whimpered at the hiss of static that greeted him. Here he was stuck on a sodding charter plane that didn't even have an in-flight magazine, and Lilah had filched his Great Big Sea CD again...
A bloke could go insane.
Cordelia barreled into the Hyperion and dropped her knapsack on the floor.
He emerged from the office, clothes still askew from hasty dressing, and still toweling dry his damp hair. Cordelia frowned. "You were training," she accused.
He cast his eyes about distractedly, looking for a place to stash his wet towel. "Hmmm?"
"Training," she said. "You only shower in the middle of the day if you've been training. WITHOUT me!"
"You were gone all day, Cordelia. I had to keep busy." He beamed her a placating smile. "Speaking of, how was school?"
She fluttered to the newly installed mini-fridge behind the counter and began foraging for snacks. "Lynne Ivany remains the coolest prof ever," she gushed. "During class, there was a fire alarm, and when we came back, she started grilling us on what happened. It was hilarious. Here we were all glad for the break and going for coffee, and she's interrogating the fire chief and trying to get the scoop. Open?" She stopped mid-rant to toss Angel a jar of salsa. He twisted off the lid and passed it back to her, settling on the round sofa to listen.
"Anyway, we did this mock news story thing that was WAY cool. She gave us this fake crime report, and we had to write it up like a...well, okay, it WAS kind of lame, but she LOVED mine and read it to the class and THAT was cool..."
She crunched a chip. "So THAT'S all working out," she continued. "But after lunch? Fundamentals of television news reporting? God!" She reached behind her and withdrew a jar of sour cream, which she liberally poured onto the chip and salsa concoction. "Professor Tsuji is SO lame. I mean, he takes his job WAY too seriously, for one thing, all 'news reporting is a SERIOUS professional, and you WILL work hard for me.' And he says some of us may have come into his class thinking that it's all about looking pretty and that we'll get a free ride, or perhaps---and here, he stares straight at ME, Angel---some of us came to L.A for other reasons entirely and that we are seeing his class as our last chance to get our pretty faces on T.V.---I mean, god, nerve much? And that's SO not true. I'm taking his class because it's a compulsory. And I may have wanted the actress thing at one point in time, but honestly, Angel, I think I have enough going on in my life right now that the last thing I need is a second career where on top of anything else, I have to actually look PRETTY all the time..."
He smirked. "I think you look pretty."
"Geez, I know you do. Horny much? Anyway, THAT was kind of a buzz killer after my morning of intellectual specialness, but the LACU student centre is, like, half a block from this GREAT shoe store..."
Angel frowned. "You went shopping."
"Well, duh. What else would I do? You know, they say money can't buy happiness, but really, that isn't true, is it?"
He shook his head. "Cordelia..."
She abruptly burst into a grin. "I was teasing, you big goof. Well, okay, maybe not entirely. I did get as far as the shoe store, but I did not buy a single thing. I was standing in there looking at all of those shows and thinking you know what? I don't need shoes right now. I need a hug."
She hopped to her feet and flung her arms around him. "We've had it bad, a little," she said, snuggling into his arms. "I know we have. But you know what? I'm happy. I'm finally, actually happy. In the general sense, I mean."
He hugged her back, deciding that now was not the time to mention the ominous karmic twitch of foreboding that had been niggling in his gut all day. Time enough for that later, he supposed, nibbling her ear with tiny kisses. Time enough for that later.
It was almost nightfall, and the stars were barely visible from Kate's small porch.
"Hey," said Buffy. She brushed the dusty step with her palm, then sat down beside her shivering neighbour.
"Thought I'd find you in the treehouse," she said.
Kate shrugged. "Dawn was up there."
"Ah. Quite the little hot spot, isn't it?"
Kate rocked gently on her heels. "Guess so. Look, no offense, but I sorta wanted to be..."
"Alone? Don't think so. If you wanted to be alone, you'd be in a bar. Or on the street, pounding some guy's face in the ground."
"Right," sniveled Kate. "Cause you just have me all figured out?"
"It isn't hard. I mean, you didn't really think that you could just...that we wouldn't worry? That we wouldn't find you?"
"So? You found me. One point for you."
"Uh huh. Look, can we talk?"
"And let me start with the fact my sympathy for what you're going through does NOT make that pissy attitude of yours any less annoying..."
Kate snorted. "Great. Pity."
"Didn't say pity. Said sympathy."
Embarassed silence. Buffy smiled. "That's better. Look, Kate..."
Kate shook her head. "Just don't, okay? I'm just really not in the mood for a...look, the last thing I need right now is a pep talk from you."
"Who said I was going to give you a pep talk? You want to bail?" Buffy shrugged. "Fine. Bail."
Kate stopped cold. "Really."
"Why not? It's a battle," said Buffy. "And you either enlist, or you stay safely at home and let the soldiers do their jobs. No shame in that."
Kate jutted her chin with defiant anger. "I am not a quitter! I'm not just going to sit back and WATCH while YOU go off and..."
"Again, I say, why not? A soldier who isn't fit for battle is going to get the whole platoon killed off. This isn't cop stuff, Kate, this is magic. And evil. And...and destiny. You think I like it any better than you? You think I haven't wished---a hundred times, a thousand times---that I even had the option, like you have, to run away?"
"That isn't fair!"
"I know it's not. And I do understand that. Knowing what's really out there is hard enough. Knowing, and not being built to fight it---that would be worse. What you must be going through..."
Kate pounded her fist into her palms. "But I shouldn't NEED super-powers! I fought before. I've hurt before. Why is this different?"
Buffy regarded her somberly. "You know why."
Kate shook her head. "It shouldn't matter. I'm braver than that. I'm tougher than that."
"Brave is not a contest, Kate. We all have our place in things. You know," she said thoughtfully. "I have this aunt in Pasadena...and her thing is flower arranging. Flower arranging! Can you believe that? She gets up every morning, takes her kids to school, then comes home and does flower arranging. And that might not seem like much next to saving the world, but you know...people buy the flowers."
Kate didn't answer. Buffy gave her neighbour's hand a final encouraging squeeze, then rose from the step and hopped the brushes to her own house without another word.
Cordelia strolled into the office, still licking cheeseburger off of her fingers, to find Angel seated at the desk---computer on and hand on the mouse, at ready.
"What's this?" she said, squinting at the blinking computer screen in confusion.
"Scooby summit," he said. "In..." he glanced at his watch. "Eight minutes."
"I know that. But you...you hate computers. In fact, I didn't even think you knew how to turn it on."
He grinned proudly. "You aren't the only one who's learning."
She plopped down on his lap. "Uh huh. So, any activity yet?"
He hesitated. "You aren't mad?"
"Why would I be?"
"Well...you, spending time away from me. Me, spending time away from you. Naturally, there would be some...well, on both sides, there would be..."
"What, jealousy? Oh, please. Number one, you really aren't the only person who's learning. Number two, unlike some people, I am not some sicko lovelorn stalker who must keep tabs on my beloved's every move. And number three...well, if you really WERE doing anything I needed to be worrying about, Dennis would tell me, so..."
Angel's smug grin dimmed. "Oh. Right."
"See, there is that jealous-boy thing I was only just talking about. Seriously, Angel, that is REALLY irritating. Just remember that the only person you really need to love you best is me...and I do."
He strengthened. "Yes. Of course."
"I mean, who really cares if Dennis likes me better than you? Or Wesley? Or Giles? Or..."
"I get it," he said archly. "Really, Cor."
She sighed and wiped her fingers on the corner of his shirt. "Well, okay. Ready if you are..."
He nodded, maximized the souped-up AOL instant messenger window and typed
Dawn hopped to her feet. "Wow, look at the time. I'd better go walk Alamo..."
Buffy and Giles traded glances. "You can stay, Dawn," said Buffy gently. "We talked about this."
"Yeah, I know we did, and really, it's great that you've dropped the whole 'Dawn is a useless baby' thing, but you know what? Cordelia is right. There DO need to be boundaries in our lives, don't there? You guys need to have your thing, and that's cool."
"Buffy, it's okay. You promise to tell me things when I need to know them, right?"
"Dawn, of course..."
"Well than, have fun. Say hi to Cordelia for me. And when I get back from walking Alamo, we can sit down to tea and cookies and you can give me the condensed version, okay? We cool?"
Buffy grinned. "Very. And since when did you drink tea?"
Dawn shrugged. "Giles has been showing me stuff. I've been showing him stuff. It's a thing."
She grabbed Alamo's leash off the table and flounced out the door. Buffy traded smirks with Giles, then responded to the insistent beeping of her AOL screen with a cheerful
Angel was halfway through an amusing anecdote about Wesley and a Fyarl demon, when he felt the shadow behind them. He tensed, and could feel Cordelia's heartbeat quicken; she had noticed it too. She casually wrapped his arm around her, then, as one, they turned away from the computer screen.
"Oh, no..." moaned Cordelia. She eased out of Angel's arms and typed 'brb' into the messenger window. "What are YOU doing here?"
Sam Zabuto smiled. "Filling in the missing pieces, I'd wager. Let's talk, shall we?"
Buffy spun in her seat and only barely had time to stop her fist from connecting with the now-identifiable face.
"Great," she sighed, standing down from her fighting stance. "How'd YOU get in?"
"Door was open," he said. "Rather careless, really..."
"Dawn's out with Alamo," said Buffy dazedly, eyes locked on Giles. "We left it open for Dawn and Alamo..."
"Yes, yes," the visitor said. "Fascinating, I'm sure, but Buffy, we must talk immediately..."
She spun away from him again, and her eyes flashed briefly to the computer screen, and Cordelia's most recent message: BRB. Be right back. Stunned, she turned her attention back to the visitor.
"So, what, they've got one too? Did you guys tag team or something?"
Quentin Travers allowed himself a tiny smile. "Actually, yes. Which should give you some indication as to just how dire the situation is."
"I'm not certain how much you've already figured out," began Sam.
"Enough," said Angel stiffly.
"Some," corrected Cordelia. "They're planning a spell. They're going to use her, use Miss Calendar to...to power it somehow."
Sam nodded. "Tap into her power like a mystical jumper cable," he affirmed. "And a witch of her caliber..."
"The only thing we haven't figured out," said Angel slowly. "Is what spell...exactly...they're going to use her for."
Sam nodded. "They're going to open the Hellmouth," he said simply. "They are going to use her...to open the Hellmouth."
"The Hellmouth," repeated Buffy. "You're sure?"
"Quite sure. We keep an eye on several markers of mystical activity, as you know. We aren't so out of the loop as you think we are."
"Maybe not," said Buffy. "But those lawyers are. Haven't they heard that I'm on the Hellmouth? And that is hasn't been successfully opened since I came?"
"We can handle the Hellmouth," affirmed Xander from the corner. "And hey, home turf advantage..."
Quentin shook his head. "I'm afraid you're misunderstanding me. They aren't coming HERE, exactly. They're..."
"But you said Hellmouth," said Buffy. "And this is the Hellmouth, right?"
Quentin's eyes flash brief incredulity before he burst into stunned laughter.
"You mean to tell me," he clarified between chuckles. "That you thought there was just one?"
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Previous parts of the Karaoke Kids series located at: http://www.geocities.com/masked_spangler/