Scratch

SERIES: Scratch – http://always.basiamille.com/fanfic/scratch/

AUTHOR: Ducks, Born Again Angel Ho

EMAIL: ducksfanfic@yahoo.com

DISCLAIMER: *Hysterical Laughter*

RATING: The first story is PG-13, but NC-17 eventually

PAIRING: B/A (and others... but those are a surprise. *G*)

TIMELINE: Two years after "Chosen"/"Home" - May 2005

SPOILERS: Entire B/A saga is fair game.

DISTRIBUTION: Distribute freely, so long as you send me the address, and leave these tags intact.

FEEDBACK: Is Angel deprived of even a smidge of happiness? (That's a yes, for those who aren't clear on the concept.)

DEDICATION: To Joss, the great love/hate of my life -- enjoy the cookies. We know Angel will. *G* To Trammie, Margot Le Faye, and Dawny, whose work on the Babble Board is so imperative to keeping the hope alive. Thank you! Asusual, to my yummy betas and fans – especially my sparkly minion Dru, the always splendiferous Shirl, and the delightfully shiny Lily - you guys got mad skillz, yo. ;) And to B/A Shippers everywhere... don’t lose hope. Our time is still to come.

 

Chapter One

It had become his educated opinion that the ultimate goal of humanity was to find fulfillment. That elusive prize could come in any shape or size... as diverse as humans themselves. Rectangles of money, the amorphous, glittering
cloud of fame, the comforting foundation of home, the soft heart of family. From the simple joy of a child’s laughter to the complex pride that came from the knowledge that one had saved the world, satisfaction could look
like almost anything, depending on the individual.

Angel would bet his soul, however, that one of them wasn’t a manila file folder. And definitely not a veritable mountain of them.

"I really, really hate this job," he muttered to himself as he finished his notes on the latest stone in that utterly *un*fulfilling heap.

A soft cough interrupted his daily self-pity session. "Sir... I remind you again that you could have Files and Records summarize those files for you."

The consternated vampire glanced up at his assistant, the terminally neat, desperately organized, self-assured and outspoken Michael. Crisp suit, spit-shined shoes, light brown hair tamed with enough product that it even made Angel wince. The boy was nothing if not well polished. Also annoying and nosy.

And though he couldn’t function without him, Angel still never ceased to be surprised at how little the younger man had learned in their two years together. The endless stream of suggestions he gave to improve Angel's social life and general attitude made that clear.

"Yes, thank you, Michael. I’m aware of that. And I remind you again how I feel about the idea."

The assistant’s always vaguely disapproving expression darkened. "Yes, sir. You want to read every single file with your own two eyes."

This wasn’t a new discussion. Michael quoted the old saw as though Angel requested puppies for breakfast daily, instead of refusing to take Club Med cruises for vampires and dating demon call girls. With a sigh, the vampire turned his attention back to the latest Report ‘O Evil he had been examining.

"That’s right," he replied, "A little reading never hurt anyone." He returned to the endeavor, meaning the gesture to be dismissive, but Michael didn’t move.

"Sir, if I may also remind you, there are over eighteen billion, six hundred fifty two million, three hundred twenty three thousand..."

"One hundred thirty eight files in the archive. Yes, I’m aware of that too," Angel cited the statistic easily, as it had long been the foundation of his assistant’s moot argument.

"Actually, Sir, it’s closer to 18,652,324,437 now. You began two years ago."

"Fine," he snapped well aware of the fact that he was bailing out he proverbial boat with a shrimp fork, then muttered to himself, "I’m immortal. I’ve got time. It’s not like I do anything else around here."

Michael cocked a well-groomed eyebrow at his boss. The old vampire was always a little... off-putting. But lately, he’d become downright bizarre in his dour isolation. "Mr. Angel, if I may be so bold..."

Angel ticked a red mark on the upper left corner of the folder and tossed it onto the distressingly small "Completed – Return to Files & Records" pile before looking up once more.

"My opinion on the matter’s never stopped you before."

"True. Sir, I just think that maybe it’s time you considered... taking a vacation. Getting away from the city for a while. Tuscany is lovely this time of year."

Angel eased back in his chair and gave the young man a hard look, making it clear what he thought of that idea. "It is. Is there anything else?"

Realizing his defeat, Michael shook his head. "No, sir."

Angel turned back to his reading without another word, and the assistant moved back to the door.

"Oh, Michael, there is one thing."

Hopeful, he turned back. "Sir?"

"I don’t want to be disturbed for the rest of the afternoon, all right?"

With a nod, Michael stepped out, clicking the double doors shut behind him. Angel missed his presence almost immediately... at least his assistant was marginally more interesting than this gargantuan pile of paper.

Maybe his plan was a waste of time. But when he took over Wolfram & Hart, he had vowed to himself that he would understand every single project the firm had ever undertaken, and reverse as many of the evils perpetrated as he possibly could.

Even if it took eternity. It wasn’t like he had much else to look forward to.

He took a moment to survey the scene – the visual symbol of what his unlife had become. Mounds of files covering every surface. Oceans of reports. Nothing but words on paper for as far as his eyes could see. Was this what all he’d done in 250 years had led him to?

He had perpetrated unimaginable horror and pain. He had fought, bled and died time and time again in penance for his crimes against this dimension... and for his place in it. He had been a warrior. A Champion of humanity. He had faced the end of the world – several of them, in fact – and survived more or less intact. His influence now reached around the globe, across dimensions, touched millions of lives every day.

So why did he feel like little more than a glorified desk jockey? Once it had been epic battles, bloodthirsty monsters, souls in jeopardy, worlds in the balance and futures on the line. Now it was endless meetings with faceless corporate drones who had no investment in their jobs at all... pie charts and reports, running errands for the Senior Partners like some kind of Hellish lackey and, well... monsters. That much, at least, hadn’t changed. Some were enemies to be vanquished... but many were clients. The lines between good and evil were blurrier than they had ever been in his
existence.

Angel didn’t bother wasting unnecessary breath on a sigh as he snapped the next dossier shut and pressed his fingers to tired eyes. No use sitting here feeling sorry for himself. No reason to complain or regret. He had made his choices the day he accepted this job to save Connor. And every day since he had lived with the possible consequences of that decision... including a deep ennui that he just couldn’t kick.

He turned his high-backed mahogany and leather executive chair to face the warm glow of the LA afternoon outside the vast windows. Usually, at least this view boosted his spirits. The wall of necro-tempered glass allowed his vision to stretch for miles over the skyline. Day or night, he loved this city. Felt her pull in his soul... his deep kinship with her. He could remember so clearly how she looked in perpetual night... when she was drowning in a storm of fire. He remembered all he and his friends had sacrificed to save her.

But his fellow Californians were a resourceful, resilient bunch, and there was no sign today of the Hell that had almost swallowed it back then. The City of Angels was a beautiful, cruel bitch once more, overflowing with life
and danger, bursting with the pain, hope and exhilaration of the humanity teeming in her concrete and neon veins.


And here he was, separated from her heart by a partition of glass and steel.

"Yup. It’s Hell," he mumbled to no one in particular, and spun away again from the view. Today, it just wasn’t working.

If there was a fitting place for him to rot through eternity, this was it. He was planted firmly in a damn fishbowl clogged with paper, staring out at the world from under the deluge of contracts, negotiations, and teleconferences... Still apart from the world he loved, still crushed under the weight of demons – both personal and of the more otherworldly sort. Still alone.

He leaned over and pulled a folder from his personal files. This one was of a sturdier material... dark blue, stuffed full, its stiff spine creased from repeated reading.


The bold black letters on the top were so small... and yet contained the only real joy – albeit a bittersweet one – left to his reality.

‘BENJAMIN BRANNEN. A1CLEARANCE ONLY.’

Now this... this single folder was the only thing that made the unending waste of all the others worthwhile. Angel opened it, and couldn’t help a smile at the latest pictures tucked in the pocket by his independent P.I. contractor. Nothing about Connor’s new life would ever make it into the files of Wolfram & Hart if he could help it.

His son. Handsome, smart, happy, popular... all of the things Angel had never gotten to be. All the things he’d feared his son would never have. He leafed through the photos for the millionth time: the one of him winning the
hundred his freshman year, his face shining with the joy of victory, his eyes – Darla’s eyes – lit with joy. A picture of him smiling, taken at the UCLA Mentor Program’s open house. College agreed with him – 3.89 grade point
average, a star in history and math, member of the honor society, the yearbook staff and student government.

Angel stopped at his favorite picture, taken last summer in Alderby Park. Con... Benjamin sat beneath a tree, gazing adoringly into the eyes of the same slim, cheerful blonde he’d dated since high school. Three years and the two were still clearly in love, still lost in one another. Connor had that look – the one of a man more than willing to go to the ends of the earth...to lay down his very life for the woman he loved. The one woman who owned his heart and soul.

In that respect, at least, he was very much his father’s son.

The intercom on his desk mercifully buzzed, saving him from that endlessly painful train of thought. How was it that thinking about his son almost inevitably led to thoughts of...

"Yes?" He cut himself off, this time.

"Mr. Angel, Sir... I’m sorry to interrupt. I realize you asked not to be disturbed, but... I think you’ll want to hear this."

Michael’s strange, uncertain tone grabbed his attention. "It’s fine, Michael. What’s the problem?"

The assistant’s voice dropped to a conspiratorial murmur. "Sir... one of the *Upstairs* people is here. He says he has an urgent message for you." There was more muttering in the background. "Dire, Sir. He says to tell you he’s seen something dire."

Angel immediately perked up. Excitement at last! Although... he supposed he shouldn’t really happy about something ‘dire’ happening in the city.

"Send him in."

The "Upstairs People" were Wolfram & Hart’s elite team of psychics. Visionaries who, at his order, now held an extrasensory eye on the world 24/7, and kept him apprised of any possible situations – the National Weather Service of supernatural phenomena. He rarely heard from them, and when he did, he would usually receive a memo by email, upon which he would dispatch a team of whatever specialists were required for the situation in a matter of moments. Later, he got a report on the results. End of mission.

But if one of them was asking to speak to him personally...

The door opened to admit a boy of no more than 19, whose nickname had to be String Bean, or possibly Bean Pole. Topping Angel’s height by several inches, but under-weighing him by at least 75 pounds, the seer looked like nothing less than some strange human/ praying mantis hybrid.

He was also one of the most powerful seers in the dimension.

Angel rose and gestured to the chair across from him. "Have a seat, Marvin. Tell me what you’ve got."

The scraggly psychic stopped in his tracks, goggle-eyed with awe. Which was no mean feat, considering his eyes were already huge, and magnified times ten by thick, horn-rimmed spectacles.

"Wow. Sir. Mr. Angel, I... It’s... Wow. You know my name?" he stammered. "This is an honor, Sir, truly, thank you. I’m a real admirer of your work." The boy rushed forward with his hand out-stretched, stumbled over his feet,
and would have flown headlong into this boss’ lap if it weren’t for the latter’s vampire reflexes. Angel leapt up, caught the boy, steadied him on his feet, and returned to his own chair caught somewhere between irritation and bursting into laughter.

"God! I’m sorry! I’m such a klutz. Sir, please excuse me. I don’t come down here much, and I’m so excited... uh... I mean disturbed, of course, but...glad! Yes! Glad to be able to give you this vision."

"Marvin," Angel interrupted gently, "It’s okay. Have a seat." Coming around the desk once more, he gestured to the wet bar.

"Can I get you something? Water, maybe."

Marvin’s mouth soon matched his eyes as it dropped into a shocked ‘O’. "You... want to make *me* a *drink*?" he squeaked.

Angel couldn’t help but smile. "Only if you want one."

The boy shook his head. "I better not. Unless... okay, water would be good. Please. Thanks."

Angel poured the seer a glass and retook his seat. He was still uncomfortable taking the ‘Power Position’, most of the time – the enormous desk was just another barrier between himself and situations he’d rather be directly involved in.

Maybe this time... maybe today was the day he would finally throw off his corporate shackles and step back into the fray, where he belonged.

"So you had a vision," he began.

The seer gulped down his water in a few swallows, his Ichabod Crane-sized Adam’s apple bobbing furiously as he did. He set the empty glass down on the coaster Angel had provided, and took a deep breath.

"Well, Sir... normally-I-wouldn’t-bother-you-with-visions-because-that’s-what-the-reporting-unit-is-for-but-I-had-the-feeling-this-was-related-directly-to-you-and-I-know-you-don’t-like-your-personal-business-on-file-so-I-thought-this-should-come-right-to-you..."

"Marvin," Angel interrupted, dizzy from trying to decipher all the boy had voiced in a single breath.

"Yes, Sir?"

"Take a deep breath. Slow down. Whatever it is, we’ll handle it."

He nodded, took another, more steadying breath, and began once more. "Sir...there’s something coming. I think we may be seeing the beginnings of another apocalypse. And... the sensation I got from this vision is that... you’re
the only one who can stop it."

Angel frowned, his earlier anticipation gone. He leaned back in his chair. "Go on."

~

Chapter Two

Angel tried to ignore Fred fairly vibrating with enthusiasm in the passenger seat beside him as he made his way through the crawling sea of LA’s Friday night traffic.

"I’m SO glad you asked us to come with you, Angel! It’s been forever since I got out of the lab and actually *did* something! All day long it’s bubbling and zapping and arming and testing and writing reports, rewriting, presenting, blah blah blah. I mean... not that I don’t love my job – I do! Just... I miss my crossbow!"

A glance out of the corner of his eye caught her fondling the weapon in question (now modified with some electrical gadgets he couldn’t identify) with a longing that was... pretty disturbing, actually. He quickly looked away, but couldn’t help the mixture of pleasure at her excitement, and dread at what the seer had told him was coming.

"Yes, I have to second that sentiment," Wesley agreed from the back seat of the Belvedere. "As rewarding as our work can be, it’s simply not as satisfying as being directly involved in making the world a better place."

Angel smiled. "You’re welcome. I wouldn’t do it without you."

In truth, he had considered doing just that. When Marvin had finished his story about the dimensional rift and the resulting demon, Angel had nearly jumped out of his chair, grabbed his sword, and dashed to hack off the rising Heliosum’s head himself. But... knowing the others were feeling as impotent as he had been lately, locked up in their tower, fighting evil only in the abstract, he couldn’t find it in himself to deny his friends the same satisfaction he was seeking.

Not to mention the fact that, if this thing was coming for him directly, he might need backup that he could trust. No matter what happened.

"Now, you say Marvin mentioned the Tar Pits boiling *and* burning, yes? Was the fire green perchance?"

Angel smirked at the memory of the gawky young psychic stumbling all over himself in his eagerness to share what he saw as "big news" to his esteemed boss. "He didn’t mention it. Only the boiling, the Heliosum, and the girls."

"Hm," Wesley commented, and returned to reading the notes he’d downloaded onto his PDA.

"I still want to know what a class trip is doing at La Brea in the middle of the night," Fred mused. "I mean... you can’t exactly *see* the sights in the dark." An idea dawned on her, "Maybe it’s a class of *vampires*!"

"I don’t think so," Angel chuckled, then quickly sobered, "The impression was that they were human. Maybe the demon lured them there to feed. What’s important is that they are there, and they’ll be a midnight snack if we don’t help."

He didn’t mention the urgency Marvin had emphasized was central to his vision – the sense that this single demon was merely a portent of larger events about to unfold. Or the fact that some wrong from his past would have to be righted in order to save the world.

He’d worry about filling them in once the innocents were out of danger.

~

Faith’s comment about the situation was direct and to the point. "Shit."

"I probably would have gone with ‘crap’, considering the ten impressionable girls behind us," Buffy warned, "But, yeah... that about sums it up."

They, and the girls in question, stood around the lip of the steaming tar pit. The group represented the first graduating class of the Summers Memorial School for Gifted Girls – more popularly known amongst its members as the Slayer School – and tonight was their last field trip before "graduation".

It was convenient that one of Willow’s visionary witch friends had pointed her in the direction of a scroll that contained a prophecy that warned of a particular pair of Slayers – and some other, as of yet unidentified ‘Great Warriors’ being needed to stop an unfolding series of events.

Starting with the violently boiling pit of black ooze before them.

"This is not good," Kennedy observed. Being one of the girls with the most training and experience, she wasn’t actually a student, but had agreed to stay and help out with the day-to-day operations of the school. Ostensibly because she didn’t have anything else to do... but Buffy pretty much knew better.

She glanced to a nearby boulder where the real reason hid, and hoped Willow was prepared.

"No, this is definitely not good," she agreed. A rumbling growl emitting from the pit shook the earth around them. "And it’s about to get a whole lot worse!"

"Everybody get ready!" Faith shouted, "Fireboy’s gonna pop!"

"Will?" the blonde Slayer called across the park.

Her best friend sprang up from behind the rock, eyes shining silver. "Ready!" She raised her hands to the sky. "Phim! Calvalis! Venium! Ashala!"

"Okay," Buffy took firmer hold of her sword and nodded toward its twin in Faith’s hands. "We have to make that... connecting thingy through its head. With the swords."

"Conduit," Faith reminded her.

"Right. One entry on top of the head, down through the skull, the other up and through the throat."

"I’m Top," her sister Slayer said with a grin. "I’m gonna ride that sucker like Wood."

Buffy grimaced. "That’s... great. Just get it through the brain, okay? We have to pass the current through the spinal stem. I’ve got the underside." She gestured the students and Kennedy back away from the pit. "Don’t fire unless it gets out of the goop. This’ll be hard enough without enchanted arrows in our butt."

The younger women barely had enough time to take their positions before the pit exploded in a rain of fire and burning tar. The protection spell Willow cast on them deflected the searing, stinking slop, sending it spewing everywhere.

The Heliosum shot upward into the storm with a roar that shook the night. Faith and Buffy exchanged a look, then leapt at it with matching battle cries.

The fight had begun.

Faith landed squarely on the monstrosity’s thick, scaly neck just as Buffy’s grappling hook lodged in its jaw and the mechanism yanked her upward.

As she flew, she didn’t think. Didn’t worry about the danger to the girls – this was a training opportunity that didn't come along every day. A simple slash and bind. She didn’t worry about Faith, riding the thing like (no, no, no going there!) a bucking bronco from Hell as she positioned herself to pierce the armored skull with her enchanted sword. And she certainly didn’t think about the fact that she was dangling fifty feet above the ground and inches from a slimy, gaping maw packed with 13-inch teeth.

She never thought about much of anything, anymore. She just went with the flow, lived her life, and did what had to be done.

With a warrior shriek that would put Xena to shame – only less yodel-y – she thrust the sword upward into the Heliosum’s throat with all her strength. She felt the armor give, sending rocking vibrations down her arms. Heard the creature roar and Faith scream, "YES!" as the swords connected. Also heard Willow’s preternaturally loud chanting in the distance. The demon thrashed, flinging her upward toward its mouth as it fell. She felt her skull make contact with teeth, a searing wave of electricity as the spell broke free, then felt and heard no more.

~

A wave of dizziness slammed into Angel just as he was pulling into the parking lot. He jerked the wheel to the left, jamming on the brakes... just in time to black out.

When he came to, he found Wesley beside him, leaning in the driver’s side door, and Fred hovering from the passenger seat, both looking worried.

"Angel, are you all right?" Wesley asked.

"Fine." He tried to shake off the dizziness. "Something hit me. We have to hurry," he muttered, still confused and disoriented from the blow. The trio jumped from the car, weapons and Binding Orb in hand, and dashed toward the park entrance.

"Darn!" Fred complained as they skidded to a stop. "It’s dead already."

It certainly was. The scaly carcass was more than fifty feet long, probably weighed in at several tons. A horned cousin of Godzilla... that was already melting into a small lake of brown goo.

"Where are the girls?" Wesley queried.

Angel glanced around the park... and froze.

A few yards away from the decomposing demon, a clutch of young women knelt, hovering around something he couldn’t see at their center. But he was filled with dread, nonetheless, and remembered the blast of pain he had suffered upon their arrival. A suddenly very familiar sensation of connection he had long forgotten existed.

Angel began to run. One of the girls spotted his approach.

"Crap! Fed, five o’clock!"

A second woman looked up, the firelight glinting off her red hair. "That’s not a Fed! It’s Angel!"

Faith glanced up just as the vampire slid to a stop beside them. "Shit," she cursed for the second time that night. The Slayer got to her feet. "Hey, Big A. Long time no see."

He stood there, staring in horror at Buffy’s still form. It was like something out of a nightmare – one he’d had so many times over the years, he could no longer count. He was stunned to silence with sudden regret... for all the things he’d never said, because he always thought there would be time for them later. When Buffy was cookies and he was sure of his own place in the world and able to let go of his resentment over Spike...

"Angel, she’s fine. Just a jolt from the spell," Faith promised.

"No," he muttered softly, more in response to his own dark and panicked thoughts than what the Slayer had said.

Fred touched his arm, making him startle. "Angel? Should we start the binding?"

He nodded absently, and managed to force himself to move through the small crowd to kneel beside Willow, who held Buffy’s still form in her arms.

He couldn’t, however, make himself look away.

"She’s fine, Angel," the redhead affirmed. "She hit her head, that’s all. Just give her a minute."

Despite the reassurance, and his trust that Willow knew what she was talking about, his heart squeezed tightly in fear.

A minute? He’d give her forever. He’d promised he would, the last time they spoke. Was it too late to discover if he'd ever get to keep that vow?

As if she’d heard his thoughts, her eyes fluttered open and locked onto his like they’d never looked away two years ago.

"Angel?" she whispered.

For the first time since the last time he saw her, he smiled. And meant it.

~

 

Chapter Three

Predictably, that initial moment of magick between them didn’t last. By the time they had bandaged Buffy and Faith’s wounds and settled into the kitchen at the Slayer School, the silence between Buffy and Angel had devolved quickly into "awkward" territory. Or at least, it would have been awkward, thick with unspoken questions and ghosts of the past... if it weren’t for the loud, enthusiastic chatter of young women glutting it instead.

"And it made this noise like...’WHOOOSHROWWWRRR!"

"Better than dusting vamps any day. I kept waiting for the director to yell, ‘CUT!’"

"Buffy, can we help with the magick part next time? We’re definitely ready."

"I’ve still got this...stuff under my fingernails. Lava didn’t get it out. What IS this crap?"

"Oh, we’re so ready for the magick part!"

"Did you see Buffy? The way she was swinging from that thing? Too cool."

Only the Elder Slayers, Willow and their guests were uncharacteristically tense and quiet. Buffy focused intently on her tea, Fred and Wesley perused the copies of the prophecy regarding the Heliosum Willow had given them, Faith alternated between chowing down on an enormous plate of spaghetti and de-gooping her boots; and Angel just sat, staring at Buffy with an intensity that could bore through steel.

Could be that last was why everyone else was so quiet.

"Right, Buffy?" one of the girls – April? Vi? Lisa? Angel couldn’t keep their names straight in spite of his near perfect memory – asked their clearly distracted leader.

The Slayer in question finally glanced up from her oh-so-interesting teacup. She could feel Angel’s stare like fingertips on her skin... felt nearly crushed under the barely reigned tension of his regard. But she was too tired to go there right now... the whys and wherefores and how-are-you’s. And equally determined not to do it just on principle.

‘Not cookies yet, Buffy...’ she kept reminding herself.

"Yeah, right," she forced herself to reply to whomever was talking, in spite of the fact that she had no idea what she was agreeing to. Were his eyes always that dark and penetrating? Had she always felt like he was looking right through her, to the deepest parts of her soul where her darkest secrets lay?

‘Oh, God. Penetrating? Don’t think about that word. Penetrating BAD. No, no, NO penetrating! Even if he looks amazing and delicious and... NO!’

"See? Even Buffy agrees some of the students should have helped bring down the Heliosum," Kennedy pointed out, "Being back up and clean up is boring, and if these guys are going to graduate, they need to, you know, *graduate*. Kick off the training wheels!"

"Wait... what?" Buffy questioned, snapping out of her fog as she realized yet another small mutiny was taking place under her nose when she wasn’t paying attention.

Another reason Angel’s presence was a mixed bag.

Faith cast a quick glance from Angel to Buffy as she gave up on her boots and turned her attention to cleaning her sword. "No way you bunch were fighting that thing. It’s not in the primary school Slayer textbook."

"There IS no Slayer textbook!" one of the girls cried in protest.

"Well, I heard there used to be a handbook, but they had to throw it out because of Buffy," another one offered.

Angel’s cell buzzed in his coat pocket. Dragging his gaze away from Buffy, he rose and moved toward the back of the institutional kitchen as the argument went on.

"Angel."

"Sir, we finished the binding on the tar pit," the leader of the containment team he’d dispatched to clean up reported, "The portal’s closed, but we’re having a problem getting the tar to stop boiling. The Point Caster says the energy balance of the site isn’t correct, so whatever opened the portal can’t be countered. We’ve posted a team in case anything else decides to come out of it."

The vampire scowled. After all these years, and for all their usefulness, Angel still couldn’t get over his irrational hatred of cell phones. When they bothered to work at all, they inevitably imparted bad news no matter where the bearer might be. No escape. "Keep working on it. Call in a High Magicks Squad if you have to."

"But, Sir..."

"JUST DO IT!" Angel barked, and snapped the phone shut.

He looked up to find all eyes in the room locked on him, drawn by his outburst.

"Is there a problem?" Wesley asked, concerned that Angel seemed more tense than usual, rather than less, after their adventure.

"No, no problem," he lied, glancing at Buffy once more. "We should go. Something’s come up we need to take care of."

Buffy’s own concern about his rare display of temper showed clearly on her bruised face. She rose. "I’ll walk you out."

As the Wolfram & Hart team exited with Buffy bringing up the rear, Faith shot Willow a look.

The Witch sighed. "Go head. You can say it."

"Shit," the secondary Slayer remarked one last time.

~

Fred and Wesley quickly said their good-byes and headed for the car, leaving Buffy and Angel to talk.

"So... which one should I be more worried about? Angel’s uber-grouchy thing or the way he was looking at Buffy like a starving man chained three feet away from the world’s biggest banquet table? And now they’re talking..." she glanced back at the pair on the front step. "Talking really, *really* close together."

Wesley took a look for himself, and frowned. "It’s difficult to say at this point. Although I can’t imagine they’ll just drop down and make love on the front stoop after barely speaking for two years."

Fred shot him a glare. "Were we in the same room, back there? Wes... I hate clichés, but the one about knives and tension definitely fits here.

"Yes, well... that’s often the way it is between them." The ex-Watcher held open the passenger side door for her, taking one last glance at the star-crossed lovers embracing before he walked around to the other side. "Let’s address one issue at a time, though, shall we? I don’t believe Angel is in any position for Perfect Happiness to be a possibility right now, and if tonight’s events are a portent of bigger things to come, that is where our focus needs to be."

~

Angel held her until her ribs creaked, eliciting a yip of objection from Buffy.

"Sorry," he mumbled as he pulled away, "It’s just... seeing you like that..."

"How did you?" she interrupted, unable to force herself to let go of his hand, and just barely able to ignore the irrational urge to scoop him up, haul him bodily to her room and chain him to the bed for all eternity. "How did you know to come?"

He wanted to say something romantic... something epic like he had simply *known*, or *felt* that she needed him. But considering the circumstances, and what tonight’s incident might herald, he decided that honesty was the best way to go.

"One of my seers had a vision."

The Primary Slayer narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "Don’t you have lackeys or minions or something to take care of that kind of stuff?"

He gave her a half-hearted smirk. "I’m not a Master, Buffy. I run a corporation. They’re called ‘highly trained specialists’. And yes, I do. But the vision indicated I needed to go. So I went."

She held his gaze for a long moment, searching for something – she wasn’t quite sure what – in his eyes. He seemed so... empty, somehow. Not quite all there.

Something she could absolutely relate to... with the exception of this exact moment.

"Well, you’re the vampire everybody answers to, so... tomato-tomahto. That call you got in the kitchen. Something went wrong," she observed. Sticking to business was the best way to keep this accidentally lit match from exploding into a firestorm.

Angel hesitated for a moment, not quite certain how much he wanted her to know, then admitted,

"I think that demon was just the beginning. The team reported that they can’t fully bind the Tar Pits." He gave the love of his life a long, hard look. "Something’s coming, Buffy. We can’t just assume that the two of us being drawn there together tonight was a coincidence. We need to be ready."

Buffy smiled weakly. "Just like old times."

Pain slashed across his features, and he stepped away. "Yeah," he replied flatly, and headed down the steps. At the foot, he turned back to look at her once more, his bleak expression softening. "Take care of yourself, Buffy. Stay alert."

And with those characteristic words of love, he was gone. Just melted into the shadows the way he always did, leaving her heart aching the way it hadn’t in years. Something was coming, he said. Something was dragging her and Angel back together in spite of their completely and totally separate lives. That just couldn’t be good thing.

Could it?

"See you soon," she whispered, and went back into the school, back to her life, which in a single night, had become far more complicated than she had ever imagined it could... or wanted it to.

~

Wesley remained behind once they returned to Angel’s office and completed the containment team’s debriefing. Their further attempts to bind the tar pits had failed miserably, and Fred was eager to meet with Knox and see if there was some technological solution to the energy shift that had freed the Heliosum... and threatened to perhaps release things even more dangerous than that.

He realized there was research to be done... prophecies and portents to translate, interpret and consult, but for the moment, he was more concerned with his friend’s darkening mood.

He had made it his job over the past two years to keep a metaphorical finger on the pulse of his family as they navigated the hellish maze of their new "careers". Working inside the stronghold of the enemy, surrounded day in and day out by every imaginable temptation, were dicey propositions for any group of people. But the weariness and vulnerability of the members of Angel Investigations (what remained of them) after the near-apocalypse of 2003 made them especially vulnerable.

If there were any slippery slopes ahead, he wanted to be equipped with a net to catch his loved ones if they fell. Wesley never intended to lose another of their numbers.

Angel loosened his tie, poured himself a double scotch, neat and sagged onto the couch near one of the floor-to-ceiling windows in his office suite. He stared out at the fading night as though looking for some elusive answer there, seemingly oblivious that his friend was present.

That wasn’t unusual for him, really. Since Cordelia had fallen into a vision-induced coma, and Angel had given up his soul to stop the Beast – nearly killing them all in the process, his attention tended to wander away from the painful past and empty present more frequently and completely than even his darkest early days in Los Angeles.

"Angel," he beckoned softly, interrupting the vampire’s weary reverie.

He didn’t start, but slowly faced his friend. "I’m sorry, Wes. Would you like a drink?"

The Englishman shook his head. "No, thank you. I’m more interested in how you’re doing. Tonight has been rather... full of surprises."

"It really has," he answered dully.

The younger man took a seat on the divan across from his boss and dearest friend. "Perhaps you’d like to talk about it?"

Angel sighed deeply, and shrugged. "What’s there to talk about? Seeing Buffy always shakes me up. The world is constantly in danger. None of this is exactly new, Wesley." Turning back to the vista once more, he added, "In fact, it’s pretty par for the course, at this point."

"Yes. But it’s been some time since we’ve faced this degree of uncertainty. And the fact that you and Buffy were both called to that place..."

Angel held up a hand to stop him. "Coincidence. That’s all. Buffy and I are in the same business, operating in the same city. We were bound to end up in the same fight sooner or later."

Wesley looked at him skeptically. "Is that really how you feel?"

"Yes," he lied smoothly, "It’s not a big deal. We’ve moved on with our lives: she has the school. I have..." his facile demeanor deflated, "... this. Anything else is of the past. Besides, if there is something coming, having 200 Slayers on our side can only help, right? The personal side of it is irrelevant."

His friend watched him for a moment, then spoke cautiously, "Your relationship with Buffy has never been simple – either in the mundane or mystical sense. It may be a mistake to dismiss tonight as a coincidence. Angel..." he leaned his elbows on his knees. "It’s no secret that you’re unhappy, here. Felling isolated from the world... useless. Cut off. You don’t have to put up a front for me. Perhaps this... situation, both the cataclysmic aspects and your reunion with Buffy are... a higher power’s method of snapping you out of it."

"Maybe." Angel downed the rest of his tumbler and stared in at the melting ice. "Or maybe it’s a setup to distract us. Stir up feelings better left... Well... it wouldn’t be the first time." Swallowing stiffly, he glanced up at his colleague once more. The friend who had once been used as a tool to break his heart... which he no longer even remembered. How could Wesley really understand what Angel had become? What he had lost? What had broken inside him and never healed...

The Englishman’s gaze softened. "You may be right. But... dismissing any possibility at this juncture is a serious error." He got up. "I’ll look into the prophecies Willow provided. Perhaps we’ll find some guidance there."

Before the ex-Watcher stepped out into the hall, Angel called his name. He turned to find the CEO of Wolfram & Hart’s Los Angeles annex staring at him, a frighteningly flat look in his dark eyes.

"Don’t put all your faith in prophecies, Wesley," he said in warning, then moved his gaze back to the brightening pre-dawn skyline once more. "They’re not always the advantage we tend to think they are."

Perplexed, Wesley left without comment.

~

Buffy finally made it back to her room with a cup of cocoa, an ice pack, and a deep, desperate desire to crawl under the covers and forget this day ever happened.

Naturally, Faith was waiting to make sure she didn’t get to do that.

"You know, I think I liked the interventions better when Giles ran them," she complained, setting her cup down on the vanity and claiming her hairbrush. "They felt more... I don’t know, helpful? As opposed to feeling like I’m about to get interviewed for ‘Oui’."

"Hey, B. Save the snark," Faith replied, holding her hands up in mock defense. "I’m not here to grill you. I just wanted to make sure you were okay. You got a pretty slammin’ freaking whammy tonight."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "It’s not exactly the first time Angel showed up and made the sky fall."

Her sister Slayer smirked knowingly. "I wasn’t talking about Angel."

"Oh." Busted, Buffy set the brush down. "The demon. Right. Um... I’m fine. Just tired."

"Cool. We’ve taken worse beatings, right?" She ignored the unsubtle hint and leaned back against the mountain of pillows on Buffy’s bed, tucking her arms behind her head. "But, you know... now that you bring up the Big A... He’s looking pretty tasty these days. That suit was a gas! And he seemed – I hate to say ‘hit by lightning’, since you got the blast, but... He definitely looked like he got something he wasn’t expecting."

The blonde plopped down beside her. "Yeah. He did, didn’t he?"

"If you’re trying not to sound jazzed about it, you’re doing a suckass job, B. You were staring at your cup so hard, I thought it was gonna explode. I swear, you two spend more energy avoiding each other than you ever did actually trying to make it work."

Glaring at her, Buffy snapped, "Who asked you? And when did you become such an expert on me and Angel?"

Faith’s neutral expression turned serious. "Since I got the gold star guided tour through his head. Buffy... I know you don’t wanna hear this, but... he still loves you. You know that, right?"

Buffy stared down at the brush in her hands and shrugged.

Sitting up and swinging her legs over the bed, Faith went on. "Well, I do. Yeah, I know it’s none of my business. But I think I get the two of you better than you do. Especially him. And you’re written all over everything in his that thick melon of his. I mean *everything*. You’re either the cause, the inspiration, the reason, the definition, the foundation, or the cure, B. He’s pushed it back, shoved it down, done everything but had a total brain/heart/soul flush to get rid of it. But it’s still there. Just like with you." She punched her friend gently in the arm. "Frickin’ Denial Twins Activate, yo."

"I am NOT in denial. I just don’t feel that way..." Buffy sighed. "I don’t know what I feel anymore. Except exhausted."

Finally taking her cue, Faith got up and headed for the door. "Yeah, I get it. Solo brooding’s another thing you two got in common." She stopped at the door and glanced back. "But don’t forget what the prophecy said. I’m thinking it wasn’t just about Godzilla Jr."

Buffy flopped back on the bed with an exasperated sigh and closed her eyes. Eternal Flames... Great Warriors... bindings of blood & tears. Her life’s truly pathetic story. "That’s what I’m afraid of."

~

Chapter Four

Sometimes, Angel deeply regretted the nearly endless resources at his disposal as head of Wolfram & Hart’s LA branch. There was hardly a source of information available in any known dimension that he and his staff couldn’t get their hands on, from the mystical to the mundane.

Which meant no blissful ignorance. Ever. There was always an answer he didn’t want to hear right around the corner. It was easy to miss the double-edged sword of flying blind, some days.

"The prophecies our outside source provided point to a heretofore unknown mystical convergence – unique astrological positionings, time anomalies, magickal fluxes, geo-thermal shifts and such – that together, throw the balance of this dimension into a tailspin. The phenomena we’ve witnessed in the past two weeks demonstrate its initial effects. We’ve little doubt that there are more to come."

At the head of the conference table, Angel struggled to stay sharp, take it all in. Listen to the facts his people had gathered and formulate a plan of action, when all he really wanted to do was drift away. Daydream about how Buffy felt in his arms – so tiny and warm, her delicate frame belying the physical strength hidden within. The scent of her hair... the look in her eyes. The sudden, desperate, and nearly irresistible urge to ask her, "Are you done baking yet?"

Had he imagined she seemed as lonely as he felt? Probably. But still... he’d forgotten how wonderful it was just to be near her. Two weeks later, and it was still the only thing he could think about... end of the world be damned.

Angel clenched his teeth hard enough to make his jaw pop. Damn it. This was *exactly* why working with his life’s only love was a bad idea. Now was *not* the time for them -- if there was ever going to *be* one. Now he needed to focus on the matter at hand.

It was just that the old Buffy-ache was so much more pleasant than most other kinds of pain...

"I see," he commented vaguely as Wesley concluded, hoping that covered up his lack of attention to the situation they were discussing. All his department heads had been working around the clock since the incident at La Brea, tracking the sudden and severe upsurge in demon activity, and the strangely patterned confluence of mystical catastrophes threatening his city: simple magicks gone horribly awry, long-standing bindings suddenly disintegrating, random dimensional portals opening in odd and dangerous places from shopping malls to school yards.

They had to figure out what it all meant and how to put a stop to it before the pinnacle hit and made the Rain of Fire look like a gentle, if inconvenient, sun shower.

"Fred, any progress on what’s dissolving the magickal matrices?" he asked, glad he had at least managed the foresight to have Michael type up an agenda he could follow.

His colleague and incidentally, second closest friend was always on the ball. She clicked a button on the remote panel beside her, and the screen on the far wall was instantly filled with mathematical, chemical, and alchemical symbols that made no more sense to him now than they ever had.

Unfortunately, Fred’s ostensibly English translations weren’t much help.

"As you can see from this chart, the ratio of positively charged ion streams to negative are skewed toward the negative, which undermines the atomic time space continuum and destroys the flow of life force used to create magick. And that’s only on the physical plane. The underpinnings of linear time itself are unraveling beneath the physical, making any magick that can be cast unpredictable at best. We think this is happening because the boundaries between dimensions have been weakened at some imperative locus. We just haven’t figured out quite where yet. The hot spots are shifting too, which suggests that the weaknesses aren’t static, and wherever they come to rest, waves of – for lack of a better term – magickal anti-matter are leaking through all over the place. Then there’s the relative balance shifts..."

She went on for what felt like forever, about quarks and miniature black holes, dimensional warp phases and proto-matter energies until everyone at the table looked stunned or on the verge of losing consciousness. Except Wesley, of course, who was apparently riveted and fascinated by her work, and took copious notes.

Angel blinked a few times to clear the fog from his head before he responded. "Okay. Do you... have any recommendations on how to repair the... uh..."

"Inter-dimensional time-space warp energy rifts," Fred offered helpfully.

"Right. Any suggestions?"

"All departments are on highest alert," Wesley reported, "Every available resource is being utilized to determine what – or whom – initiated this event, and how we might end it. We’ll require some additional time, but I see no reason why we can’t accomplish that goal."

"Good. Keep me posted," Angel concluded, "I want containment teams at all reported anomaly locations. Make sure each one has a dimensional specialist and a ritual magickian on hand. If these rifts keep spilling demons out onto the streets, we could be looking at total chaos in a matter of days. For the time being, let’s keep the ops as low-key as possible. We want to avoid panic if we can. Thank you, everyone."

The team began to disperse, but Angel held Fred and Wesley back.

"Okay, now I need the two of you to tell me – succinctly and in plain English – what exactly are we looking at, here, and how dangerous is it? How bad could it get, and how do we stop it?"

Fred cast her gaze down at the polished tabletop. "Sorry."

"Don’t be sorry, Fred. Be clear," he replied gently.

It was strange the way her demeanor changed when it was just the three of them. She no longer acted the all-together, big-brained scientist, and instead again became their quirky and bright friend. A fellow veteran of the apocalypse. "’Kay. There are borders between dimensions, and those borders are made out of energy. Something – or someone – has screwed the balance of that energy all up. Like... the points in a flashlight where the batteries connect to the wiring. Whatever is happening makes the flashlight have two negative posts, so no power can get through. Or in this case... only dark energy can. That’s why we’ve been seeing all the new monsters. And since time-space is made of the same kind of energy, we’re seeing all the weird time thingies the others reported. Like people getting caught in loops where the same stuff happens over and over again."

"And some others are experiencing... well, in short, they’re being thrown back into events that have already happened in their linear lifetime. Some are even meeting their doppelgangers, past, present, and future. We’ve witnessed all of these phenomena before, of course... just not usually all at once like this," Wesley added.

"Well, that answers my first question," Angel sighed. How could he have gotten *this* out of touch with what was going on in the world outside? He’d known he’d been missing the day-to-day workings of Los Angeles, but *this*? Something this serious shouldn’t have escaped his notice. "How bad could it get?"

Their friend's weariness was so clear in his tone; Wes and Fred almost hesitated to tell him.

"Gunn and the Ra-Tet have gathered five times in the past two weeks," Wesley replied, his own voice tense. "And no one – not even Fred and I – have been able to get in to see him and ask why. He’s not accepting visitors."

"That’s bad," Angel understated. As a safety precaution, the Ra-Tet never came together in the same place at the same time – even when the Beast and its Master pulled their Armageddon stunt two years ago, and began slaughtering them one by one. Gunn had become a member of the new set, who was equally isolated. "Wesley, do Willow’s documents give any hint of the cause? Or how to reverse it?"

"Yes, actually, although we’re having some trouble with exact translations. The general idea is that some single catastrophic event in the past decade has undermined the balance of light/dark energies in the cosmos. Some higher power – whether dark or light, we can’t be certain – is struggling to bring that power back into balance. As far as what we can do, two things are clear thus far: the original event must be reversed, or some equal action taken to repair the imbalance. And as for the second, the prophecies suggest..." he trailed off.

"Suggest?" Angel urged.

Wesley squarely met his gaze. "The prophecies speak frequently of a particular mystical fire, or energy. That an "eternal flame" is the only way to halt the progress of Hell’s conflagration. A fire specifically borne by two "great warriors", who are "bound by tears and blood."

Angel found himself awash in a sensation of half fear, half dread at the growing suspicious on what that Eternal Flame might be, and who were the bound two to bear it. There were, after all, no coincidences in his and Buffy’s lives... or in their relationship with one another.

"I’m guessing they aren’t referring to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier," he murmured.

"No, I should say not," Wes agreed gently. "I think... Angel, it might be prudent for you to contact Buffy as soon as possible."

The vampire closed his eyes and nodded. "That’s what I thought you were going to say."

~

The girls were exhausted. Buffy was starting to worry that their greatest enemy right now wasn’t the monsters swarming the streets of LA, or time going all wonky, but rather all of them dropping dead from exhaustion. Even 187 Slayers didn’t seem to be enough to keep things under control, lately. As much as she hated to admit it, they desperately needed help.

Wolfram & Hart sized help.

She knew what had to be done, but somehow... seeing Angel a few weeks ago, his dark eyes filled with weary sadness that only lightened the smallest bit when he looked at her, made it harder, rather than easier, to call him.

He obviously had a lot on his plate, running EvilCo., trying to change its mission statement from the inside. Taking on her problems could only make the tension she’d felt radiating off him, seen bunching his broad shoulders and snapping his usually long temper like a twig, worse. He already had the weight of several worlds on his back – how could she ask him to take on hers too?

Willow and Faith kept reminding her – theirs was the *same* world, the same sacred duty, and it was just Buffy’s stubborn pride that kept her from admitting it and banding together with Angel, rather than spending all her really negligible energy devising excuses to avoid him and deny what those few hours spent together that night did to her heart.

And yeah, there was the pride thing, too. She’d made such a big show of needing to be independent... making it on her own... the last time they spoke. She pushed away the one love she knew would always be there for her, because she didn’t want to admit – to him, herself, or anyone – that even all these years after he left her, she still needed him. Still wanted him in her life. Still dreamed of having him by her side. And she never felt quite... right without him there.

With all that had been going on then, she also hadn’t been able to bear the thought of seeing him die... again. Plus not really having the time, energy, or desire to keep Angel and Spike from killing each other in the middle of Armageddon.

Spike... now there was a completely different complicated, painful topic she had totally sublimated. She did so now, too. It was after 11, and she just had too much work to do to waste time indulging in all her favorite maybes, should-I-haves and what-ifs.

A soft knock at her office door solved the problem for her. Willow didn’t wait for an answer before she stepped inside.

"Hey, Buffy."

"Hey, Will. Did the girls get settled in okay?"

The redhead nodded as she sprawled out on the leather couch, crossing her arms over her face. She too was worn out from the events of the past two weeks of working non-stop directing their magickal operations, from enchanting weapons and shields to binding and protection spells and healing minor wounds.

"Angel called earlier," she announced in her best understated dramatic nonchalance, not taking her folded arms away from her face.

Buffy scowled. This wasn’t exactly the distraction she’d been hoping for. "What’d he want?"

Willow opened one eye to focus on her best friend. "To talk to you. I told him you were sleeping. Which you’re supposed to be."

"So are you," she Slayer snapped in reply.

"True. But I’m too wired from that last portal binding to sleep. Don’t you want to know what he said?"

She carefully examined her nails. "Not particularly."

"Liar."

Buffy’s head shot up. "Excuse me?"

Willow rolled onto her side and repeated very slowly, "Lie. Er. Come on Buffy. How long have I known you?"

Her best friend pouted fiercely at having her denial so thoroughly smashed, but didn’t reply. The vice-headmistress of the Slayer School went on as though Buffy had said what her studied appearance was saying for her. "And I’ve known you and Angel as long as *you’ve* known you and Angel, haven’t I?"

"Fine! I’m lying! You caught me!" Buffy cut her off with a bark, "Just... give me the message and go away already so I can get back to repressing. It’s a delicate art form."

The witch grinned. "I didn’t say he left a message."

Buffy rewarded her teasing with a withering glare.

"Okay, okay," Willow relented, "They’ve got more information about what’s happening around here. Angel wants to meet with all of us as soon as possible. But he says he has to talk to you first."

The Slayer’s eyes went wide in sudden fear. "Me? Alone? Why?"

"Buffy... you heard what the prophecy said: Great Warriors, Eternal Flame, Blood and Tears. That’s sort of personal."

"Yeah, but... we both have lots of great warriors, and... the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has an eternal flame, right? And there’s blood... or... probably was... and tears. Definitely tears. That’s not personal!"

Willow made her opinion of Buffy’s desperate defiance tap-dance clear with a disapproving look.

The blonde jumped out of her chair. "I can’t do this, Willow! I can’t just forget the past six years and go, ‘Oh, Hey, Angel. Long time no see. Say, can you help me out with this apocalypse? But let’s keep it strictly business. No personal stuff.’"

"Why can’t it be personal? Impending disaster and possibly horrible death is always personal, in my experience," her colleague reminded, knowing she was treading on dangerous ground. She had been reading the scroll, consulting with Wes and his assistants, and everyone concurred with regard to what the tacit meaning of the passages most likely was.

Definitely personal.

"Because! It’s... it’s too late, and it’s too much!" Buffy cried, pacing the way she always did when she was upset. "Still! I see him, and all of a sudden I’m 16 again. I can’t *be* 16 anymore, Willow. I have responsibilities! People who count on me. I can’t afford to fall apart while I drool or cry or freak over my ex! I’ve been through too much for that to be okay. We’ve both been through so much apart..."

Watching her best friend rant and pace made Willow smile. It had been longer than she could remember since she’d seen Buffy so animated... so alive. Even if she was currently having a mini-psychotic break.

"Buffy, I hear what you’re saying. I do. But... don’t you think saving the world has to take priority over your Angel issues?"

Buffy slowly turned to look at her best friend, her fearful expression defeated. "I guess I don’t really have a choice."

"Maybe it won’t be so bad. I mean... you’re both grown-ups. Oz and I have perfectly reasonable phone conversations all the time. And it's not like you’ll be wandering around in cemeteries resisting the urge to grope instead of hunting vampires, right?"

"With us? Don’t be so sure," Buffy sighed, and sank back into her chair.

"Do you want his number?’

"I already have it tattooed conveniently on my brain," she glared at the phone. "If this doesn’t end up being the end of the world, it’ll at least be the end of what little mental health I have left."

~

Angel had just finished venting some angst dusting a small nest of vampires not far from the office when his cell rang.

Glancing down at his watch, he found that it was barely midnight. Miles to go...

"Angel."

"Hey."

The soft, hesitant tone of Buffy’s voice sent an unexpected shock vibrating through ever fiber of his being, to the point where he froze in the middle of dusting off his slacks, and said nothing in response.

"Hello?" Buffy called out after a silent moment. "Are you on a cell phone? Can you hear me? Angel! HELLO! Damn it."

He finally got it together and forced himself to stand up. "Sorry. I’m here."

"Where is here, a sewer or something? I thought with all that Wolfram & Hart technology, you’d at least have a decent cell phone," she teased. Then the silence quickly dominated once more. "So. Um... hi. Willow said you called?"

Angel made his way back to the main sewer junction, following it east to the subbasement of the W&H building.

"I did," he answered succinctly, still not quite positive where to go next with the conversation. Some small, childlike voice in the bottom of his long-dead heart cried, ‘Meet me at the airport! I have a private jet! We can get the Hell out of here! There’s so much to say and we’ve had so little time and *screw* the end of the world. Let it all get sucked into Hell, as long as we’re together. I don’t care any more!’

Naturally, he voiced none of that aloud.

"Ah. Okay. Good," she stammered. "So. Um... how are you?"

"Currently covered in several inches of vamp dust with an extra coating of sewer muck for accent," he forced himself to reply lightly, which was somewhere several counties away from what he was feeling.

"I’ll take that as ‘good’."

The silence returned, hanging heavy over the line for a moment. He reached the ladder to his building, and paused.

"How are you? I know you’ve been... busy," he finished lamely.

‘Oh, good, dumbass. ‘Busy’. That’s like saying getting tortured by a Ryvar demon ‘isn’t fun’.

She laughed. The sound, though unquestionably tired, was like warm water flowing over his bruised soul. He leaned back against the ladder and let that magickal sound wash away what tension slaughtering eight vampires single-handed hadn’t.

"Yup, busy, that’s me, Mr. Understatement. But... we’re all okay. Just in desperate need of a week in Maui or something. Since we’ve already done Disneyland."

"Glad to hear it. But I wasn’t asking about your students," he clarified somewhat in opposition to his better judgment. He felt utterly unprepared to deal with this level of intimacy with her. But... as nerve-wracking and heart-wrenching as the process may be, if Wesley was right about the events they were to face, at least building a working relationship with Buffy was a necessary effort. Like therapy... involving the consumption of copious amounts of ground glass.

She sighed. "Right. Me? Oh, you know..."

At least she didn’t seem to be having any easier a time of it. He turned and sprinted up the ladder, popping the cover off and springing into the hallway, then headed for the parking garage.

"I *don’t* know. That’s why I’m asking," he reminded her.

Buffy paused for a moment before she replied, "I don’t know if I’m ready to do this, Angel. You or another apocalypse. Not that I equate the two."

"Of course not," he commented wryly, nodding to the security guards at the entrance to the garage as he entered. "I’m not entirely comfortable with it myself. But all the signs say..."

"We have to work together. I know." She took a deep breath, as though she was about to dive into some deep water. Which, he supposed, they both were. "I just don’t have the first clue where to start."

Angel reached his small fleet of cars – the vast majority of which remained unused – and was shocked by the sight all over again. Who ever needed this many vehicles? Two Audis, two Maseratis, a Ferrari, three Mercedes, a BMW, an MG Spider, a modified Hum-V, a Land Rover, and two limousines. Ridiculous.

He hopped into the Belvedere, his old, reliable friend. Settling into the comfy leather seat, he forced himself to relax and focus on finding them some easier middle ground to meet on... somewhere far away from the millions of painful subjects their conversations tended to wander to.

"Well... why don’t we start with the simple stuff? Like... what you’ve been dealing with since the Confluence began," he suggested. There. Shoptalk was simple.

She grabbed hold of the thought like a drowning woman thrown a life jacket. "Ooh! Good idea! Okay, um... Thursday there was this portal that opened in Iminy Square, and spilled out all these tiny rat demons..."

He started up the car as she began her report, listening to the now-lighter and easier tone of her voice as he made his way toward the Hyperion.

Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.

~

PART 2



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