Groundwork
By Ralkana

Disclaimer – I don’t own them; Joss and Mutant Enemy and all the various other Powers That Be do. If I owned them, I think they’d have been much, much happier. Also, the character Louise is borrowed from Mel Odom's Buffy novel Revenant.

Comments and feedback to Ralkana47@yahoo.com would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

Author's Note – Thanks, as always, to Maquis Leader, who is a huge help every time I try this writing thing. Thanks also to the Open on Sunday drabble community on LiveJournal for sparking my desire to finish this fic, which has been unfinished for quite a while.

For Kumiko. Because she's a sweetheart. And also because she threatened... er, promised... to follow me around until I finished it.

Timeline – Before Welcome to the Hellmouth.

 

š š š š š š

 

He stalked the streets, focusing on the scents in the air, ignoring those who hurried through the twilight around him. They glanced at him and anxiously noted the intensity in his glare, and they hurried just a little bit faster.

Angel hunted, gradually leaving the busy commercial streets behind, slipping down residential streets through the shadows like smoke. He drew closer to Restfield, one of Sunnydale's numerous cemeteries, and he lifted his head as he caught a warm scent, a scent that made his senses sharpen and his jaw twitch. Ignoring the suddenly gnawing hunger, he concentrated on locating the source of the scent. It was coming from the cemetery, and he sighed.

Why do they take shortcuts through a damn graveyard? he thought, irritably making his way through the cemetery. The residents of Sunnydale were the most oblivious bunch of humans he had ever seen, and that was saying a lot. They made him wonder why he was doing this.

For her, he reminded himself, and his lips twitched, forming the tiniest hint of a smile, which vanished immediately when he came upon the woman. She was being menaced by two hulking figures; there was dirt on her dress, and a small cut on her cheek was oozing blood. The vamps were advancing slowly, backing her toward a wall. Her eyes were locked on them, but she was fumbling through her bag, evidently looking for something. Angel sighed again and shook his head.

"Stupid fledglings," he muttered. "Too concerned with being the big bad vamps to go for the kill." He started forward, but before he got near them, the woman gave a small sound of triumph and dropped her bag, holding up a little bottle. She shook it toward the bigger of the two vampires and some of the fluid inside flew out and hit him on the cheek, sizzling where it landed. He yelped and touched his burnt skin. The other vampire stared at him in shock and then they both turned murderous amber gazes on the woman.

"Bitch," the burned one snarled. "You're gonna get it for that."

"No," Angel growled back, strolling casually into their line of view, making sure the woman couldn't see his face as he morphed. "I'm pretty sure she isn't."

"Who the hell are you? Back off, man, she's our kill," the other one said, but there was unease in his voice; he could tell Angel was older and stronger. Angel gave him a sly, leering smile, baring his fangs, before he slid his hand from his jacket pocket and calmly staked the fledgling before he could even blink. The vamp screamed as he exploded into dust, and the other fledgling stared in shock before turning and bolting. Angel didn't bother to follow, making sure to slide back into his human face before he turned to the woman.

"You alright?"

"You…" She took a deep breath. "You saved my life," she said, reaching for his hand or his arm, he wasn't sure which, and he only had a moment to register the moonlight glistening off her fingers. Before he could pull away she touched him, and the holy water on her fingers seared his skin. He bit his lip, battling the change, but his eyes glowed amber momentarily, and the woman gave a little scream and backed up until she hit the mausoleum behind her.

Her eyes narrowed, and he had no time to react before she flung the rest of the bottle at him. He howled in agony as the water hit his chest and splashed into his face, and he swiped frantically at his cheeks, burning his hands and fingers in the process. She shoved past him, driving him to his knees.

"Monster!" she hissed. "Stay away from me!" She took off running, leaving her scattered belongings behind.

Angel struggled out of his jacket and tore off his soaked shirt, using the dry side of it to wipe at his burned skin. The fabric pulled at the wounds, and he bit back a whimper. When he'd removed as much of the holy water as he could, he flung the shirt away from him and grabbed his jacket, shakily heading away from the cemetery and toward his apartment.

The woman's terrified, furious hiss followed him all the way back, stinging in sharp harmony with the throbbing fire of the burns. He barreled down the stairs and into his apartment, slamming the door behind him as he flung his jacket down. He trudged to his refrigerator and pulled out a bag of blood, biting sullenly into it. He grimaced at the taste and growled as his wounds began to slowly heal. When the bag was empty he tossed it away and stared down in dismay at his chest.

"What the hell where you expecting?" he asked himself. "Did you think you could be Batman? Stalking through the night and saving people while legions of adoring fans fall all over themselves to thank you?"

He drifted through his apartment over to his desk, staring down at the half-finished sketch that lay in the center of the surface. It had hurt – more than he had thought it would – to be called a monster, but he could, and would, endure that and more if it meant that he was helping her.

Angel closed his eyes and summoned up the memory, smiling unconsciously as he remembered her tiny, golden perfection in the blinding sunlight. He hadn't seen the world in sunlight in so long, but when he finally had, peering out into the dazzling day from the shadows of Whistler's beat-up car, the rest of the world had looked pale and washed out next to her.

His brow furrowed as the memory of her on the steps of her school faded, replaced by her wiping away tears as she listened to her parents argue. A low growl rumbled from him at the thought of anyone hurting her or causing her pain, and he shook his head and wondered where she was. How long would he have to stay here in this town full of blind, stupid, ungrateful people before he was graced with her presence again? Whistler had told him she would be coming soon, but that was all the little demon would say before he disappeared, leaving Angel unsure and alone in the world – the world to which he had long ago decided he would never again try and belong.

He turned away from the sketch and from his brooding, putting the tiny blond Slayer out of his mind. Another glance at his chest – and the knowledge that the burns on his face would attract almost as much attention as his true face – told him that more hunting was out of the question. He decided a shower was in order to get rid of the last remnants of the holy water, and then he'd grab a book and settle in for the night.

š š š š š š

Angel winced slightly as he pulled on his shirt. It had been two days since he'd been burned, and his chest was still tender, but his face had almost completely healed. He'd stayed in, resting and healing, and now he was feeling antsy. It amazed him that after so many years of barely surviving, he'd gotten back into shape in only a few months. Granted, he wasn't in top shape, but he was feeling pretty good.

He stepped out into the night air, inhaling deeply. Sunnydale was a small town, so different from Manhattan, and the air was so clear here. He turned right, prepared to make his usual round of the town's cemeteries and downtown district, and then he changed his mind and turned left instead. He was sick of staking fledglings, of going round and round through the same circuit of boneyards. He headed for the docks and the small wharf district instead, knowing that that area would draw vampires and other nocturnal predators.

Memories of the hunting he had done in various seaside locales rose up in his mind, and he ruthlessly shoved them down.

"That was then, this is now. That was the past," he muttered, aware that the words he was saying to reassure himself were echoing in his head in Whistler's voice. "Completely different life."

The wind was blowing fiercely as Angel got closer to the ocean, and he pulled his jacket more tightly around himself. It wouldn't keep him warmer – he generated no body heat to maintain – but it might keep the wind off of him, and it might take longer for him to lose the body heat he'd picked up by being in his warm apartment.

He was prowling through a maze of cargo containers, machinery, and crates when a cry drifted to him on the wind. He straightened up, straining to hear, and the sound came again, distant and low, but definitely frightened.

The wind seemed to be against him, ripping away scent trails and distorting the growls of the attackers and the cries of the victim. Angel swore under his breath as he tried his best to track, growing increasingly anxious that he would find a dead body and the attackers would be long gone.

He skidded around the corner of a warehouse, sighing in relief that he'd found them and the victim was still alive. Thirty yards away across the warehouse's empty parking lot, three vampires surrounded a victim. As he crept closer, Angel could see that the woman was older, in her late sixties if not her seventies, and that was probably why the vamps had picked her, thinking she would be easy prey. They'd been wrong. She was momentarily keeping them at bay with what looked like a billy club, but Angel knew that if he didn't get there soon, she wouldn't be able to hold them off.

Angel inched closer, and he shook his head with irritation. The fact that they were circling her warily instead of rushing her proved that they hadn't been taught the right way to hunt. They were either very young, or very badly trained. His chylder would never have acted like this.

He stiffened, aghast at the last thought. "Different life," he muttered again, sprinting across the pavement, giving up the pretense of stealth. The nearest vampire turned as he got closer, and Angel tackled him, staked him, and rolled to his feet in one quick motion. He jumped at the second vampire as the third rushed the victim.

The vampire snarled and threw a punch that connected solidly with Angel's chin, and it occurred to Angel as his head snapped back that maybe he wasn't in as great a shape as he'd thought he was. He began fighting back, realizing that he'd been mainly killing fledglings and depending on the element of surprise to do them in. This vampire was a little bit older and a little bit stronger, and Angel roared and morphed as the vamp kicked him in his still-sensitive chest.

He grappled with the vampire and they went down, rolling on the asphalt and battling for dominance. The vamp snarled again and swiped his hand toward Angel's face, and Angel growled and ducked his head, avoiding the nails aimed for his eyes. He hissed as the claws raked open the newly healed skin on his cheek, and – growing desperate – he managed to get a knee up and into his attacker's stomach. The vamp grunted and drove an elbow down onto Angel's forearm, deadening his arm. The stake Angel held slipped from his suddenly numb fingers and clattered onto the ground.

Clubbing the other vampire in the head with his arm, Angel rolled once more so that he was on top, his knees pinning his opponent to the asphalt. Unfortunately, the maneuver put the dropped stake out of his reach. With a frustrated growl he grabbed the struggling vampire's hair in one hand and gripped his chin with the other. The snap of his neck sounded like a child's cap gun in the windy night. It wouldn't kill him, but he was definitely out of the fight.

Angel jumped to his feet just in time to see the third vampire tackle the woman and send her to the ground. To Angel's astonishment, she managed to turn slightly in her attacker's grip so that he took the brunt of the fall. She flailed wildly with her club, scoring a random hit on his face, and he roared and grabbed the arm holding the weapon.

Before he could snap her arm, Angel lunged forward and grabbed his leg, and he gave a snarl of surprise as he was flung away from his prey. Angel scrambled after him, scooping up his stake. After a brief scuffle, Angel stood up, brushing the dust from his body.

He stopped, shocked, his true face sliding away in his surprise. The woman had retrieved her weapon and was waling on the incapacitated vampire, the wild blows falling on his torso, shoulders, and face. As Angel approached them, he could hear her heart racing, and he was mildly alarmed, afraid she would drop dead of a heart attack. He moved in even closer, careful to stay out of her range.

"Hey," he said softly. With a sound somewhere between a gasp and a sob she jumped and whirled, her frightened eyes wide in her lined and wizened face. "Easy," he soothed, holding his hands up in a gesture of surrender. "Easy, I'm not here to hurt you. I just want to finish him off, all right?"

After a frozen moment of indecision she nodded wordlessly and backed up. He knelt next to the vamp, looking deep into the cruel amber eyes set in the battered and bloody face. He plunged his arm down, sending the stake deep into the creature's chest. The vampire died silently, unable to draw air into his lungs for a final scream.

He looked up to see the woman clutching her weapon and eyeing him speculatively. Suddenly wary, he stood up quickly and backed away from her.

"You're not human," she said, and when he didn't answer, she asked, "Are you one of them?"

Her voice was steady, but the scent of her fear permeated the air like the bouquet of a fine wine. "I am one of them," he said slowly, "but I'm not like them."

With that, he turned and prepared to melt back into the shadows, hoping she wouldn't run at him. He didn't want to hurt her.

"You just gonna leave, boy?" she called after him. "Gonna leave me here? What if there's more of you… more of those things out there?"

Angel froze. He hadn't saved many people; most of his actions since arriving in Sunnydale had been focused on doing rounds of the cemeteries and staking the numerous fledglings. But he had saved a few people, and he'd been so concerned with perfecting the cryptic, shadowy persona he knew he'd need to be around the Slayer that he hadn't really thought about the people he'd left behind when he disappeared back into the night. People who'd been left alone, in the dark, shaken from the attacks he'd stopped.

"Dammit, Whistler," he muttered. "I told you I'm not cut out for this." He turned around. "I'm sorry. You're absolutely right, and I'll make sure you get home safely." He glanced at her worn and threadbare clothes and her slightly grimy face, and memories of his own decades of comfortless existence flashed through his mind. "I mean… that is…"

She narrowed her eyes at him. "Yes, young man, I do have somewhere to sleep."

"You're not afraid of me," he said bluntly, but he didn't need to. Her fear was still strong in the air. He just wanted to know what she'd say.

"I'm terrified," she answered, just as bluntly. "But you did save my life, and if it's my time, it's my time. But…" she hefted her weapon, "I'll be damned if you'll take me without a few bruises, boy."

He smiled briefly. "I believe it. But I won't do you any harm."

She began walking, collecting an empty, battered shopping cart and pushing it before her as she went. He made sure to walk beside her, knowing that it would make her nervous if he was behind her.

"I suppose I can't keep calling you 'boy'," she said after a moment, and Angel hid his rueful grin. Especially since I'm about 180 years older than you, he thought. "You have a name?" she asked gruffly.

Angel blinked. He'd used his new name several times, but he still wasn't used to it. "Angel," he said, slightly embarrassed.

She peered up at him. "Suits you," she said with a grin, and if he could have blushed, he would have. "Louise. Louise Reynolds," she said, nodding by way of introduction. "And I suppose I should say thank you."

"You're welcome," he muttered, and he glanced at the club she still grasped tightly in one hand. "You weren't exactly defenseless."

"I've had to take care of myself for an awful long time, Angel," she said tiredly. "But this… this is the first time I've ever seen… something like that."

He looked at her out of the corner of his eye. "Do you normally get in before dark?"

She tilted her head, thinking. "Yeah, I guess I do. I try to get in and settled before it gets cold, but I got sidetracked – a transport from South America came in late, and I was watching them unload." She said the last part sheepishly, as if admitting to a weakness.

Angel nodded. "They… we… hunt at night."

"What are you?"

He was briefly stunned into silence by her brusqueness, and then he gave a mirthless laugh. "Uh… I'm not sure you'd believe me if I told you."

She glared at him. "Try me."

Angel wiped absently at his bloodied cheek, wondering how to tell this woman the truth. A small, rational part of his brain wondered why he was planning to tell her anything at all. His job was to help the Slayer by hunting the predators of the night; he didn't need to wander around Sunnydale informing its inhabitants of the true nature of their town. He could simply evade her questions until he got her home safely, and then he could disappear again.

Another part of him – the lonely, human part of him, he realized – longed to tell her everything, to do everything she wanted just so he could put off being alone again. She didn't know exactly what he was, but she knew he wasn't human, and she'd just had three creatures that were seemingly exactly like him attack her, and she was admittedly terrified of him, and yet, she was still talking to him. At least, she would have been taking to him were he not wandering along beside her lost in thought. He decided to go with his instincts – a strange sensation, as he was used to burying them as deeply as they could go – and trust her. For now.

"I'm a vampire."

She stopped, the rusty cart shrieking loudly at the cessation of movement, and turned to face him. "You're a what?"

"A vampire."

She started to shake her head in disbelief, and then she stopped, and he could see the horror of the night pass behind her eyes once again. Slowly, she nodded. "Then they… they were too."

"Yes, but – "

"You're a sight handsomer than the movies make you out to be."

Angel blinked, surprised. This face maybe, he thought with a familiar wave of self-loathing. "Uh… thank you."

Louise eyed him for a moment longer and then nodded once and began walking again. Angel gritted his teeth as the cart shrilled, grating on his sensitive hearing, but he said nothing as he kept pace with her. She glanced surreptitiously at him, as if trying to hide the movement, but Angel saw it. "So you drink blood."

"No! I mean… yes, but not from people. Not anymore."

"Why not?"

Angel opened and closed his mouth several times, wondering what to tell her, where to start, and then he sighed. "It's a long story."

She peered at him as they kept walking. "The short version, then."

He cleared his throat. Short version? "Well… a vampire… vampires are demons, and when they turn someone… when they make someone a vampire, a demon makes itself at home in the person's body. They hunt and attack and kill, and they enjoy it. They don't have souls; the soul leaves when the person dies. I… I do. Have one. A soul, I mean." His voice wavered slightly at the end, and he hoped that she didn't notice it. "I don't hunt anymore."

Louise frowned. "So… where do you get your blood? Do they have vampire takeout?"

Angel was surprised into a smile. "No. Well, not really. I buy it. Animal blood."

"But you used to hunt. And kill."

The smile vanished. "Yes," he replied, his voice hoarse, almost a whisper.

"And now you hunt and kill those who still do."

Angel's face hardened, all traces of regret and guilt banished behind a stony façade. "Yes."

She looked as if she wanted to ask more, but the blankness in his expression must have made her realize it wouldn't be welcome. They walked along in silence.

"Well, here we are." Louise parked the cart next to a sprawling confusion of blankets and paper and cardboard. She glanced from it to him, her face filled with a quiet, solemn dignity. "I'm sure you don't want to come – "

"Don't!" he said harshly. She was startled, her mouth snapping closed. Angel sighed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you. It's just… Don't offer any sort of invitation into your home to anyone you don't know."

She glanced from the battered cardboard boxes to him, a faint and weary amusement in her eyes. "My home?"

"It is your home," he said softly. "And we – those like me – we can't come into your home unless we're invited." He hesitated, and then forged onward. "I – there's space in my building – "

Louise sharply drew herself up as straight as possible. "Thank you, Angel, for seeing me home. I think you should leave now," she bit out. He was surprised into silence, and she said, "I don't take charity."

"It's not charity – "

"Thank you for your help. I'll be more careful."

He gazed at her, but he knew saying anything else would be useless. "Very careful," he said quietly, turning and melting back into the shadows.

š š š š š š

Angel skulked in the shadow of a large building, remaining as far as possible from the dim sunlight. He shifted position slightly, glancing down at the paper bag he held as it crinkled with the movement.

He had spent several days learning how to navigate around Sunnydale and its wharf district during the daytime. He'd already memorized the sprawling sewer system, but it took a bit longer and a few minor burns before he felt even remotely comfortable moving around aboveground.

Glancing at the bag again, he sighed. If this went well, maybe they could both benefit from the situation – he hoped, but it could very well backfire.

"It's a peace offering, not charity," he muttered, wondering if he was stating a fact or trying to convince himself. He thought again of the empty apartment in his building, the building he owned – the building he'd bought with money he had sworn he'd never touch. It made his skin crawl to think of how he'd amassed his considerable wealth; it was blood money, taken from the victims whose pleas and screams he heard every time he let his mental guard down.

Using that money was one of the last things he wanted to do, but helping the Slayer was more important than his own comfort. Anything he could do, he would.

The corner of his mouth lifted in a tiny grin, as it often did when he thought of the Slayer, and his smile widened a bit more when he heard the far off shriek of a rusty wheel. He tensed as it came closer, and he stepped as close to the edge of the shadow as he could without pain.

"Louise."

She gasped and whirled, her weapon clutched tightly in her hand. "Angel! You scared the hell out of me!"

"Sorry," he said, chagrined.

She eyed him. "It's daytime. What are you doing out of your coffin?"

"I don't sleep in a coffin," he said tightly, trying not to be irritated.

"So you can walk around just like anyone? Those movies are way off."

"No. Sunlight is – I can't – I have to stay in the shadows." He gestured to himself, remembering what he was holding as he did so. He held the bag out to her, and she stared at it suspiciously. "I was looking for you. I could use your help."

Louise took the bag slowly, her gaze never leaving his face. "What kind of help?" She opened the bag, and then her face hardened and she moved to hand it back to him. "I told you – "

Angel lifted his hands, refusing to take it. "Think of it as a trade. I need information."

"Information?"

"I'm new here. I need to find out about strange things happening, weird deaths, things like that. I'm trying to find patterns, figure out lairs and hunting grounds."

"And you think I'd know that?"

"Nobody you know has disappeared in strange circumstances, died suddenly?"

She sighed and pulled out a wrapped bagel, and he watched as she unwrapped it carefully, smoothing out the paper and folding it before tucking it into one of the multitude of plastic bags in her cart.

"It's not as if the people I know are living the life of Riley. People disappear. They die all the time. And not well."

"I know, but… what happened the other night… you must have noticed something strange before that."

Louise peered at him as she wolfed down the bagel. "You read, Angel?"

Angel smiled wryly. "Gotta do something during the day."

She nodded. "Ever read Stephen King?"

He pursed his lips, trying to remember what he'd read recently. He'd read several King novels. Salem's Lot had made him smile for the first time in months. Not nearly as much as Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat had, but still. "Some."

"Insomnia?"

Angel thought at first she was asking him if he suffered from it, and then he realized she meant the book. He'd read the cover blurb for that one and decided he wouldn't waste his time. He was sure that whatever was keeping Ralph Roberts awake at night was nothing compared to the trips down memory lane his subconscious took day after day. "Can't say I have."

"I spend a lot of time in the library. Warm during the winter and cool in the summer, you know? Read that one a few months back. The main character kept saying that Derry's not like other towns, that strange things keep happening there. Made me think that Sunnydale's a lot like Derry. Everyone knows something's up, but no one likes to talk about it. Or even think about it."

"I'm asking you to think about it. Please, it could help other people, Louise. And it'd be a big help to me."

She unwrapped the second bagel in the bag, following the same ritual with the wrapper that she had the first time. She took a bite, clearly thinking as she chewed. A shadow crossed her face, and she swallowed, nodding slowly.

"There's some abandoned warehouses south of the wharf district. Next to All Souls. They're empty, but nobody's moved into them. People do sometimes… and they disappear. Or they die, and there's no explanation."

Angel listened carefully, committing everything she said to memory. "Anything else?"

Louise must have noticed him squinting at where she stood, just beyond the border of shadow in the sunshine. She moved past him, into the shade of the building, pulling her cart behind her. Sitting on the ground, she made herself comfortable and gestured for him to sit beside her.

Glancing one last time out at the sunlit world, he moved back into the shadows with her, listening as she began to fill him in on the danger zones.

š š š š š š

Weeks passed, and he met with her often, learning as much as he could about the town, using the information she gave him to begin building a reputation among Sunnydale's nightlife. The monsters were amused, mocking at first, but he was quick to correct their assumptions regarding his strength and abilities.

They came to be afraid of him, and he was mildly pleased to know that he was starting to make a difference. Angel tried hard to resist the growing sense of home, knowing that he had felt it too often in his long life, and it had never lasted long. Despite his reluctance, he began to think of the town and its people as his, but the little bit of pride that thought brought him was tempered by the memories of the things he and his "family" had done to make towns and cities and a continent theirs.

And he knew the town would no longer be his once the Slayer arrived. It would be hers. He fleetingly compared it to the way he was already hers, but he shied away from that idea before it could fully form; it scared him. He waited in vain for any word of the Slayer's arrival; she stayed stubbornly absent, and in his darkest moments, he wondered if he had been a fool to take Whistler seriously.

Louise slowly and carefully introduced him to the small group of people with whom she interacted regularly, and he built a rapport with them. They all soon knew that he was someone they could trust, someone they could go to when they needed the help and protection that mainstream society could not or would not provide for them.

Only Louise knew his true nature, and even she knew very little of it. He did his best to teach her of his kind and the horrors that surrounded her without giving her much personal information about himself. It was too difficult to discuss, and she was very good at realizing when she'd asked something painful, and changing the subject. She was equally as evasive about her past, and he hadn't pushed either.

Walking through Weatherly Park one night on his way back to his apartment, Angel chuckled. She was a quick learner. When they'd met earlier that evening, he'd felt something different about her, and it had only been as she shifted position on the bench that he'd seen the cross.

It was a child's bauble, bright and plastic and held around her neck with a thin length of twine, but it was no less effective than those of gilt and precious stone. Unconsciously, he'd moved away slightly, and she'd noticed, stopping mid-sentence to see him staring at her throat.

Her eyes had widened, and her hand had flown to her neck; she'd sighed in relief when her fingertips lit upon the necklace. "It's not much, but – "

"It works, don't worry," he'd said uncertainly.

Her eyes had widened again. "Oh! Angel, I'm sorry… I didn't think! It's not for you. You… you told me about crosses, and I thought that it was a good idea to have one. Everyone in Sunnydale should have one. I'll take it off."

He'd stopped her, his fingers coming perilously close to the cross. "No. Leave it on. It just surprised me. But it's a good idea. A very good idea. You're right – " He'd stopped suddenly, his eyes lighting up. "Everyone should have one."

She'd given him an idea, and now he mulled it over, wracking his brain to remember what he'd seen in the display window of the jewelry store. It would normally have been a simple task for him to recall the contents of the window, but a windowful of holy objects wasn't something he would normally go out of his way to remember.

He wondered if the jewelry stores in other small towns had as impressive a display of crosses as Sunnydale's. The inhabitants might like to pretend they were oblivious to their town's strangeness, but something was registering, possibly on a subconscious level; there were many more churches and crosses around than there would normally be in a town of Sunnydale's size.

Angel closed his eyes, conjuring up an image of the Slayer. He shook his head a little at the memory of her bright, fashionable clothes. At least, he assumed they were fashionable; he wasn't as up on the fashions and fads as he'd once been. So, nothing elaborate then. Something… simple, modern. He smiled. There'd been a plain silver one. Chunky but simple. It was perfect. He'd –

He was jarred out of his musing by loud, drunken laughter. A half-dozen college students were moving leisurely through the park, talking loudly and laughing hysterically between slurred words. Angel sighed, but his annoyance vanished as he caught movement in the trees.

Stilling, Angel shifted focus from the prey to the predators. He saw nearly imperceptible movement in the flora all around them, signs of at least four attackers. His heart sank. This wasn't going to be a clumsy attack by an untrained fledgling. This was planned, strategized. And he didn't think he would be able to save them all.

He strolled up to the group, taking a deep breath. He wondered if he still had it in him to lure people to where he wanted them.

"Hey, guys. What's going on?"

The girls were leering appreciatively at him, a fact that did not escape their male companions. He began to wonder if he'd made a mistake and would have to fight three drunk, surly humans as well as a handful of vamps.

"Who're you?" one of them asked.

"Name's Angel."

The guys snickered, and the girls glared at them. "Angel, huh?" the biggest guy snarled. "What do you want?"

They were still ambling along, and he sped up slightly, trying to get them out of the park before whatever was out there attacked. "Well, you guys look like you know how to have a good time. I heard there's a party down at one of the houses – you know, the one they're threatening to throw off campus? I hate to go alone…"

His time was up. The movement was increasing now, and five vampires burst out of the trees around him and the kids. "Damn! Almost. Run!" he growled, and they all yelled, but none of them moved. "Run! Go somewhere crowded, somewhere bright! Someone's house – " Angel's words were choked off as one of the vamps tackled him, stripping the stake from his hand and flinging it aside as it wrapped its hands around Angel's throat. He rolled, slamming his attacker's head into the hard packed ground. "Don't let anyone in!" he croaked, but the prey had fled, screaming. Two of the vampires took off after them, leaving the other two to come to the aid of the one that had tackled Angel.

Angel swore as he leapt to his feet, barely ahead of the other vampire. There'd been five; he'd missed one in his initial assessment. One kicked him in the back of the knee and he went down, roaring and morphing as he did so. He kicked out, bringing one of them crashing down beside him, and the battle was joined.

"Angel?" one of them growled as Angel jumped back up. "The great Angelus. So the rumors are true."

"There's rumors about me?" Angel shot back, punching the growler in the jaw hard enough to make his head snap back. "I'm so proud."

They circled around him momentarily, regrouping. One of them laughed, wiping the blood from his cheek. "We're not the only ones who've heard the rumors, traitor. You should have seen her face when she heard her most favored chylde might be in town. Helton! Get the hell out of here and tell her he's here."

Angel froze for an instant, and it was just long enough for one of the remaining vamps to kick him in the gut. He went down, clutching his stomach, and by the time he struggled back up, fighting off the other two and lunging after the one who'd been ordered away, it was too late. Helton had gone, and one of the others grabbed him by the leg and hauled him back.

"Oh, no you don't. Get your ass back here, we're not done with you yet."

Angel went on the offensive, doling out punches and kicks with a vengeance. The other vampires were surprised, and he managed to break one's nose and throw the other into the trunk of a tree.

"Where's Darla?" he growled.

The one he'd thrown laughed as he slowly got to his feet. He remained bent over, favoring his midsection. "What, you think this is a Bond movie? We're gonna tell you where Darla and the Master are, tell you our evil plan before we kill you?"

Angel grinned evilly. "The Master too, huh? Know more than I did a minute ago." He grabbed the one whose nose he'd broken. "Where are they?"

He was trying very hard not to show how tired he was. This fight had taken a lot longer than the ones he'd been in lately, and the vampires were stronger than all of his recent opponents. And the knowledge that his sire was in town had rattled him. A lot. He shook the vamp. "Where are they?"

The vamp grinned and spat blood in Angel's face. Using Angel's flinch to his advantage, he brought his knee up into Angel's groin. The air rushed from Angel's lungs, and his grip lessened as he doubled over. The vamp pulled out of Angel's grasp and jumped on him, driving him to the ground.

Angel cried out in agony as he felt something pierce his left shoulder, and he rolled onto his back, kicking up at the same time. The vamp he'd thrown into the tree went flying backward, Angel's fallen stake in his hand.

Brilliant, Angel thought, fighting off waves of pain as he wrestled the vamp for the stake. Carry the stake so they can stake your ass. That's effective. But he was worried now. He was tired, and injured, and they had his weapon. This was no longer about getting them to tell him where Darla was. This was about survival.

He snarled as the vamp with the broken nose kicked him in the kidney, and he slammed his closed fists into the vampire's nose again. The younger vampire howled and backed off momentarily, and Angel turned his attention to the other one, staggering to his feet. A few moments of battling – he ducked as the vamp went for his eyes – and he held the stake.

"Where is Darla?" he asked, breathing raggedly as he tried to keep his eye on both of them. They both rushed him, and he staked one as the other bore him down, fangs snarling and snapping in his face. Before he could stop himself, Angel staked the second one as well.

He lay on the ground, covered in the dust of his opponents. His various wounds were throbbing, and his mind was racing. "Shit," he groaned. His sire was around. And his grandsire. And now they'd know he was here as well. And he had no idea where they might be. And there was still no sign of the Slayer.

Coughing up blood, he slowly picked himself up and began the long trek back to his apartment.

"Things are just getting better and better."

š š š š š š

Angel realized with a start that he'd been staring at the same page for at least a half hour. Shutting the book with a snap, he placed it on the table beside his chair. He stilled, allowing his enhanced and finely honed senses to focus. It was after sunset.

He glanced across the room at the clock. Sunset had taken place quite some time ago, in fact. He frowned; his concentration had been sadly lacking since he'd discovered several nights earlier that his sire and grandsire were in Sunnydale, and now there was something else… something familiar, something tugging faintly at his psyche.

Sighing, he stood, pacing a bit as he tried to focus his thoughts. He had people to contact, more preparations to make. And he knew he'd have to go out and hunt soon, and he wasn't looking forward to it. He was still wounded from the last fight he'd been in, and the days of doing nothing but staking fledglings in the cemeteries were definitely over.

The fledglings were few and far between. The vamps he'd fought lately had been smarter, tougher, and definitely trained better. He had the advantage of age, but he could no longer expect for them to be clumsy or badly taught. These were the Master's vamps. Darla's vamps. Just like him.

"Used to be," he growled. "Not anymore."

As much as he liked to separate himself from his… line, he knew that they'd all been taught like him. The same blood, the same strengths ran in their veins, and the same strategies through their minds. And soon he'd have to confront his sire. He was not looking forward to that.

His pacing slowed and all of his consternation faded away as the new sensation grew stronger within him. It was a tingle deep inside, one that brought with it all sorts of conflicting emotions. His muscles bunched and flexed, preparing for fight, or flight, or both. He felt the hair on the back of his neck rise, and he smiled as he gathered his coat and left his apartment, telling himself he was just going for a walk.

It was a familiar sensation, one he'd had too many times to count since he'd been turned, and he knew that all of the vampires in Sunnydale were feeling it too. For them it was a mixed sensation, an urge to bolt coupled with an urge to battle, to prove oneself. For Angel, these feelings were mixed in with a fierce protectiveness, and a deep and ingrained longing that he didn't understand. He thought he'd felt everything one being could possibly feel in the years that he'd existed, but this was new to him. He didn't understand it all, but he knew what it meant.

The Slayer was in town.

 

*************

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