He’d arrived at 10 pm as arranged, but there had been some sort of hold up, and now it was well past 11. Far too much time to think and reflect. Much as he tried, his thoughts kept running straight back to the one thing he wanted to avoid dwelling on: Buffy and Spike.
Angel had done the noble thing - the right thing - and also the only thing where he’d still have some dignity left. He had no claim on her anymore. Had no right to ask questions or enquire what was going on. (Besides which, he had a girlfriend.) But it still hurt deeply and he was still wondering why. Why Spike? Why did she love him? Did she love him? And if she did why had Spike never mentioned it...
He found himself going over all their interaction in the past year. They had not spoken of Buffy often after Spike had turned up at W&H - early on there had mostly been angry words, intended to wound and cut, but Spike had never claimed that she loved him - only that she slept with him a great deal. And later... later it had been almost too painful. There had been the time aboard the boat when they were crossing the Atlantic, and Illyria had become particularly impossible. Fed up, and as full of pent-up frustration as she, Spike had remarked that he’d seen a God killed before now, and if she didn’t shut up, he would be happy to see if there was a way of repeating that success with her. She had been intrigued, rather than threatened, and from that remark had come the story of Glory and Buffy’s death. Spike could be a good storyteller and Angel found himself drawn into the tale as it unfolded, but once the end came nearer Spike found it hard to continue. The pauses grew longer, the telling more fragmented. Having seen Buffy dead at his feet himself, Angel understood the pain far too well.
But did she actually love the bleached wonder? He searched back through his memories, trying to find any sort of indication... Spike had set off to see her, but had then changed his mind. Angel had been sure that this was because she didn’t return his feelings. But if he went further back still... Oh! Spike, in his office, having just emerged from the amulet: “You don’t know what we had!” And Buffy’s quiet: “He’s in my heart,” a few weeks before. But still that might not be love - it might be affection or friendship or... or something. And he didn’t know. Didn’t have the means to find out. If only he could be a fly on the wall somewhere...
He sighed. Why couldn’t he just accept her word? Believe what he’d seen? It would be easy enough, except... except she had claimed to love the little soldier boy. What was his name? Oh, yes, Riley. Thrown her feelings for her new boyfriend at Angel like a well-aimed stake. Only the boy had vanished and she had never mentioned him the few times they’d met since. And there had been that rather enjoyable night in London, when he and Spike had bonded in mutual Riley-loathing - Spike confirming that Buffy had indeed never loved the gun-waving idiot.
But that was all he’d said about Buffy... Angel frowned as he again went over his and Spike’s conversations. Spike who could never shut up about anything, rarely mentioned Buffy. And never talked about the relationship he’d had with her. The more Angel considered this, the stranger it became. And it was not a lack of openness on his own part - he’d pretty much laid himself bare when he told Spike about the mind wipe and everything it entailed. He was still unsure why he’d related the whole sorry business to Spike, but a small voice - that sounded strangely like Cordelia’s - had insisted that Spike would understand. And he had. Angel had seen it when he told of his attempt to save Darla’s life - had known that Spike would probably have done the same for Dru if he had the chance. His friends had never understood the bond between them, but Spike more than understood - he had seen it, had been there, had lived it himself; back before the soul. And much as the younger vampire would jab at his elder, he never used Darla as ammunition anymore...
His train of thought was lost when his cellphone rang. And instead of telling Spike to get lost, Angel found himself agreeing to help. Calling Ilona would not have been at the top of his list of favourite things, but at least it was a distraction. As he spoke to her, he marvelled at how she could simultaneously try to seduce him and find out what he was doing, even as she was attempting to lure him back to W&H. Quite an astonishing woman... shame that she was evil.
As he said good-bye to Spike again, he felt secretly pleased that he and Buffy had somehow ended up in a Scooby meeting. For Buffy’s sake he wished that she wouldn’t have to deal with the hostility that her friends were no doubt displaying, but he couldn’t help enjoying the impatient, annoyed note in Spike’s voice. It was strangely reassuring that life didn’t work out for other people either...
Like a fledgling drawn to blood however, his brain swiftly jumped right back to the Buffy-Spike conundrum. Did she really love him? Maybe... and he knew he shouldn’t be thinking it, but it was a possibility - maybe Spike was only a substitute. Knowing that she couldn’t have Angel, Buffy might have transferred her feelings to the devoted vampire she could have. He knew he had been very worried that he would be doing the same with Nina - but Buffy was so very young, maybe she didn’t realise what she was doing?
A very servile guard interrupted his thoughts at this point and told him that His Lordship could see him now. Relieved Angel followed him, noting the medieval style of the demon’s armour. In fact the whole palace seemed stuck in the Middle Ages, which probably meant that Omishkar was ancient... whether this was good or bad remained to be seen.
A few opulent corridors later, Angel was finally shown into what was obviously an official reception chamber. It looked like a badly put-together movie-set, but he had no doubt that all the artifacts were genuine. The lights were low, and the demon lord was sitting on a large ornate throne at the end of the room. His bulky, shapeless form was concealed beneath a robe covered in intricate embroidered designs. Angel was sure that each strange little squiggle was a magic charm or spell, the whole thing designed to protect its wearer.
The demon was an odd greenish murky colour, and looked like he’d faded in the wash... probably a sign of age, as demons were often brightly coloured when young. The face was almost human-like, but with many creases and folds - most of them decorated with what might be tattoos or possibly just natural markings. It was hard to tell in the half-light. The robe was dark purple, almost indigo, and bestowed upon its possessor an aura of authority.
When Omishkar saw him, he smiled condescendingly: “Well, well young man - what can I do for you?”
Oh, great! Angel thought - one of those. And again he was thankful he hadn’t brought Illyria. Although he vehemently disliked the playing up to another’s ego, he’d learnt to do it well enough as CEO. Illyria however was as unbending as an iron rod and would have insulted the demon lord within minutes.
Before he had a chance to answer, however, Omishkar laughed a rather unpleasant laugh and said: “You do not need to tell me - I know what you want.”
He pursed his baby fat lips in a shrewd smile, and Angel smiled back stiffly: “So you will help me?”
“Help you? I am not certain that what I can tell you will help you. I can give you certain information that you will probably find... ah... useful.” He waved his hand noncommittally. “But whether it is helpful only time will tell. It might lead you to a very painful death.” And he chuckled.
“I doubt that very much,” Angel answered, knowing that he ought to ask for the information, but unable to let the insult pass by. “I took down The Circle of the Black Thorn and I’m still standing.”
“Oh, yes - very true, very true.” Omishkar replied, still smiling. “A most daring endeavour! Wolfram & Hart certainly got more than they bargained for with you. Ah, youthful folly.” And he shook his head, causing all the flabby bits on his face and neck to wobble for almost a whole minute. “Very daring indeed. Oh, they were not pleased - not pleased at all. It will be... ah... amusing to see what they have in store for you.”
“I think I’ve proven I can take it," Angel retorted, hands itching to hit something, but keeping his smile firmly in place.
His comment only made Omishkar laugh again, a big, deep noise that seemed to come straight from his not inconsiderable belly. After a while he calmed down and looked a Angel with something bordering affection: “Oh, my young vampire, I have not laughed like this for a very long time. You are a most... ah... humorous young fellow. You think you have escaped, do you not? You think that you wounded them, and they are afraid of what you can do.” Another little chuckle. “Oh, but how it will amuse me to follow your tale. They have plans for you my boy - big plans - they are but waiting for the opportune moment.”
Suddenly interested, Angel was unable to stop himself from enquiring further: “How do you know this? I thought you were an enemy of Wolfram & Hart - otherwise why help me?”
Omishkar shrugged, causing his robe ripple and making the enchantments glimmer in the dull light. “Enemy? I am not their enemy... that is such a... vulgar term. I merely conduct my own affairs. They do not bother me, I do not bother them. I was once invited to have a place in the Circle of the Black Thorn, many centuries ago, but... ah... I do not enjoy working for anyone but myself. I am Lord Omishkar, I live in the Shadows and my Power is Great.”
Bloody hell, Angel thought, not even realising that he’d adopted one of Spike’s turns of phrase, he certainly thinks the world of himself. I really hope his information is worth all the yammering.
As though reading his thoughts (and Angel sincerely hoped that wasn’t the case) Omishkar suddenly returned to the matter at hand.
“I suppose you must be growing impatient... and much as I am enjoying this... ah... chat, I have affairs to attend to. I believe that you wish to know more about the Senior Partners, am I correct?”
“That would be correct, yes,” Angel said.
“I do not know much myself, but I have an... ah... acquaintance who can help you. He was once... close to the Senior Partners and - I believe - one of the founders of The Circle of the Black Thorn. But for reasons now lost in the mist of time, he... ah... decided to leave that partnership and has kept to himself ever since. No one knows what his purpose is, but he is a most powerful sorcerer... once a living legend. But even legends pass out of knowledge with time, and now he is near forgotten. I met him once - a few hundred years ago - and he is very... ah... happy to have been forgotten.”
“That is all extremely fascinating - but if he’s forgotten, how can I find him?” Angel asked, beginning to worry that it had all been for nothing.
“Patience, patience, young man, all will be revealed.” Omishkar sighed theatrically, then continued. “He likes this dimension - the humans are so busy with their own affairs that no one pays much attention to anything else. He set up home in the desert by the Dead Sea about half a millennia ago. I have never been there, but I am told that it is easy to find, despite his many cloaking spells. The magic is potent enough for even a vampire to sense - you should get there just in time for him to disembowel you. He has a distinct dislike of... ah... lower beings and half breeds such as yourself.” Another chuckle. “If I ever meet him again, I will look forward to hear the tale of your death.”
“If you wish for my death, why not kill me yourself?” Angel asked, all senses suddenly alert and scanning the surroundings for danger.
“Me? Kill you? How... ah... uncouth!” the demon lord said, distastefully. “Also... there would be questions... why did this fine young vampire, once the most feared in the world, suddenly disappear when he was at my house? It would all be rather... inconvenient. I hold no grudge against you, and Wolfram & Hart would surely take offence if I took away one of their projects. No - no - I will but leave you with the knowledge I have imparted... if you wander off into the desert and are never seen again, what has that to do with me?” He chuckled, and Angel had to restrain himself severely, so as not to jump up and punch him very hard. Instead he took a deep breath and smiled his best ‘I’m the Boss so don’t mess with me’-smile:
“In that case I thank you, Lord Omishkar, for the information you have given me. And... I might be more resilient than you think.” He bowed very lightly, knowing that politeness was essential, but resenting it wholeheartedly.
Omishkar laughed again. “Oh, youthful folly. But at least you have good manners - your Sire taught you well.”
Then with a dismissive hand wave he indicated that Angel could go.
Walking back to where he had left the rented car, Angel was yet again deep in thought. But this time it had nothing to do with Buffy. He was wondering what exactly Omishkar had meant, when he said that Wolfram & Hart had ‘plans’ for him... did they? Had they quite simply been stalling all this time? Keeping them occupied with random hired soldiers while they were putting some scheme together? It was very much a possibility, he had to admit. All he had to do now though was to kill yet another lot on Sunday and then they could set off into the desert... he smiled as he thought of Omishkar’s description of the mysterious sorcerer. He might be powerful, but Angel was travelling with an ancient God - a demon purer than anything the world had seen for many, many millennia. He doubted there’d be any problems of the disembowelling kind. Maybe they should just stay here until Saturday night - Rome had too many bad memories, past and present. And if he could just stop brooding on the painful subject of Buffy, he might be OK. He might even call Nina, hear how she was doing.
Happy with his decision he reached the car, finding Illyria perched on top of it, a fancy necklace of bones around her neck. She was obviously in a good mood, something approximating a smile on her face as she saw him: “I wish to return to Rome.”
Lunch had gone far better than anyone could have hoped. Giles had obviously filled Willow and Xander in on what Spike had been doing and both were distinctly more friendly than the night before. Spike was happy for Buffy’s sake, and he could see how she perked up considerably once she realised that she wouldn’t be dealing with constant hostility. The only drawback was that Spike also had to be on his best behaviour, which became rather wearing after a while.
It was a long, leisurely lunch, since Giles had received a report that morning that the demon clans had been reconciled. The conversation flowed freely, although Willow and Xander did most of the talking. Willow especially had been very keen on some sight-seeing, but Giles had persuaded her to come back to the Council building and inspect some magical artifacts. Buffy and Spike had gratefully said good-bye and gone back to the flat. They had gone straight back to bed, the previous night not having brought them much sleep...
It was late evening now, almost night. They had just finished a belated dinner when Buffy disappeared into the bedroom again, a look of mischief in her eyes. Spike was sitting on the sofa - all in black again, thankfully - the last few days playing in his head. He couldn’t believe it... continually had to reassure himself that he wasn’t dreaming. Although no dream could ever have been as incredible as this. Last night... oh, last night had been more than his poor poetic skills could ever transform into words. He had once thought that nothing would ever be sweeter than the nights they had shared before the big battle. But this had been different... she had grown and matured in the time they had been apart. And she was happy - she was enjoying life, as he had hoped she would, and there was a twinkle in her eyes that he had not seen for years. Although the most amazing thing was the fact that he made her happy. She would look at him, and her eyes would light up, as though she’d been connected to a power station (more than a hundred years and his analogies still sucked, but never mind...). He found it hard to get over. Once she had said that being with him was killing her - now it made her more alive. As he marvelled at this yet again, and cursed the Powers and the Senior Partners for involving him in their stupid wars, she came out of the bedroom, a secretive smile on her face and a present in her hand.
“I got you something,” she said, rather superfluously, and handed it over. It felt soft and he shot her a glance. More clothes?
“Go on - open it!” she urged, her excitement palpable.
Slowly he tore the paper and pulled out a red shirt. Not just an ordinary red shirt, but a near identical replica to the one he once wore back in Sunnydale. He looked up, eyes widening in surprise.
She grinned. “Tonight we’re going patrolling,” she announced, “And I thought it’d be fun to... go out with the Big Bad!”
“Huh?” He knew he was staring at her, mouth open, but it still seemed incredible.
“Go on - put it on!” she commanded, and he obeyed, feeling the soft silk caress his skin. She was looking at him, eyes bright, and then smiled an odd little smile. “You were wearing a shirt like that the night when... when that dancing demon was there and I kissed you?”
The pieces suddenly fell into place, and he smiled back. “That I was... and you were wearing-”
“Shh!” she said, that irrepressible smile on her face again. Then she put her hand in the pocket of the pretty summer dress she was wearing and pulled out black nail polish and eyeliner. “Get yourself ready... I’m going to go and change now.”
Handing the items to him, she vanished into the bedroom. He stared at what she had given him. He had not worn it since... oh, he couldn’t remember. But if she wanted the Big Bad, who was he to disagree?
He was carefully blowing on the second coat of nail polish, when she finally emerged. He looked up and found himself speechless yet again. Her hair, which had earlier been pulled back into a ponytail, now fell down in soft waves around her face and he hadn’t until then realised just how much blonder it was. It shone like white gold against the blood-red of her top - the latter being cut in a deep V, accentuating her neck and breasts. Slowly drinking her in, his eyes moved further down and found that her legs were encased in black leather trousers, so tight that his own jeans all of a sudden felt uncomfortable. On her feet were black leather boots, with heels that he was sure she could use as stakes.
The look of astounded awe on his face must have been what she was hoping for, because suddenly she was giggling. “It’s that good?” she asked and he could only nod. He knew with absolute certainty that her underwear was small, black and lacy. And that she wouldn’t mind at all if he tore it off with his teeth, ruining it forever. Swallowing, he stood up shakily. “Patrolling, did you say?”
“Yeah - duty first, then... then fun!” There was a look in her eyes... a wicked, naughty look, that made him want to throw her up against the wall and have her there and then. A small growl escaped him, and she shot him a glance. “Hey... patrolling first, remember. But after... after anything goes.”
She handed him his duster and then pulled on her own, and yet again he found thinking difficult. She had matched their clothes perfectly and although he didn’t pay much attention to his appearance anymore, he knew that they must be stunning together. Blonde hair, coupled with black leather and blood-red shirts...
She was obviously thinking along the same lines, scowling at the mirror that only showed herself. Then she picked up the Polaroid camera that had never been far from her side the last couple of days, and obligingly he took a picture of the two of them together. As the picture slowly blossomed onto the paper she sighed deeply. “Never thought I’d be able to do this - I used to fantasise about it you know - you and me, all dressed up.”
He nodded slowly and she caught his eyes, suddenly serious: “What I said - that anything goes - I meant it. Don’t hold back!”
“Don’t hold...” realising what she was trying to say, he frowned: “Buffy are you sure?”
“I’m very sure,” she said, mouth a determined line. “I know it’s probably too soon - and that we should talk and work through all the issues blah, blah, blah, but you’re leaving...” she faltered for a moment, swallowing hard and briefly closing her eyes. But when she opened them again they were clear, showing only determination. “You’re leaving and I want to get my money’s worth. Also Dawn will be back tomorrow, and although she’s very mature for her age, there are some things that... well, I don’t want her to know.”
He nodded in understanding and she smiled. “Now... I think I’ll have an axe tonight,” she said and opened her weapons' chest. Spike picked up his sword, attaching it to his belt, and seconds later they were out the door.
As Angel and Illyria walked back towards the hotel in the midnight darkness, Angel was happy that he had persuaded Illyria to stay in Napoli for at least one night. He had not been able to discover why she wanted to get back to Rome, but knew her well enough not to argue. So here they were in Rome, yet again. And it was only Wednesday. He sighed.
Now if only he could avoid... the sudden smell of blood filled his nose and he turned aside, automatically following the scent. Soon enough he came to a pile of dead demons, neatly tucked away in a corner. Only when there he realised why he had instinctively followed the smell. Mixed in with the blood, he could make out the distinctive scents of Buffy and Spike. As he stood there, absentmindedly calculating how long it had been since they were here, a traitorous thought snuck into his head. He had wished to be a fly on the wall... if he followed the two of them - just for a while - he might be able to overhear something that could cast a light on their relationship. They were obviously patrolling and might talk as they did so. Just a hint - an indication to show why she had chosen Spike... and even as his head told him that it was a BAD idea and that it couldn’t possibly work, he had begun to follow the scent, calling out to Illyria that he’d come to the hotel later. She only shrugged and went her own mysterious way.