Walking After Midnight
(the Music of Pain Remix)
Copyright April 2007
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
Basically, it was just that kind of night. That was what it came down to.
Angel had sensed it in the air almost from the moment he awoke. Something … hard to name, hard to define, but it was there. Like the restlessness certain animals feel before a storm. In the demon world, this kind of thing might mean the imminent fulfillment of a prophecy, or the opening of a rift into any of several different hell dimensions, or the arrival onto the scene of a new major player.
Or, it might just mean it was one of those nights.
He wandered without any clear purpose, not sure whether he was seeking the cause of this odd, edgy expectancy, or simply responding to it. The skies were clear, the moon low but bright, with just enough breeze to keep the air from hanging heavy. He had little sensitivity to shifts in temperature — the passing of a dozen generations had dimmed even the memory of such responses — but he had spent enough time watching prey (while still blithely soulless), or attempting to fit in, not draw attention to himself (once a semblance of humanity had been thrust upon him, unsought), that he was able to recognize this as a mild, pleasant evening. What Buffy and the others would describe as “a great time to be alive”, with only a fleeting awareness — if that — of the pang such words would cause him.
Great. So it wasn’t just that kind of night; he was in one of those moods, as well.
There had been more of that lately than usual, although ‘usual’ wasn’t really a useful term for describing his current existence. In fact, since the first words he had ever spoken to Buffy, his ‘life’ had been made up of one wrenching shift after another. Coming to care for her. Coming to love her. The months as Angelus, and then an unmeasured agony — centuries, perhaps — in the hell into which he had been catapulted by the repetrification of Acathla, and the weeks of recovery once Hell, too, had spat him out as unworthy. And then, just as he had finally begun to find some sense of equilibrium, the tormenting images presented to him by the manifestations of the First Evil …
This was the first time that he had consciously considered it, though he had been aware of the effects for quite awhile: he had been through more changes, in the brief time he had known Buffy Summers, than in the century before meeting her. And that included the horrendous, lunatic chain of circumstances that had taken him to and through Viet Nam.
No, this wasn’t the time — wasn’t the right kind of night — to be seeking Buffy’s company. The miraculous snowfall at Christmas, divine intervention or no, had dulled the sharpest edge of his despair, so that he was no longer actively suicidal; still, he was a long way from being at his best. Previous bouts of depression had been known to last upwards of a decade; he couldn’t afford to take any such lengthy, apathetic route to recovery this time, but even so it couldn’t be rushed past a certain speed. Pace it properly, do it right, get it settled and then move on.
Solitude. Night and solitude, and maybe some useful activity. He had often accompanied Buffy on patrol, but had never done a solo sweep of Sunnydale unless specifically seeking some necessary artifact or individual or piece of knowledge. Now was the right time for it. Use the restlessness to effect, continue the process of atonement, perhaps save a life or two to tally against the uncounted multitudes he had joyously snuffed out.
Oh, yes. That kind of positive attitude would definitely make all the difference.
Cemeteries, nothing. Various lightly-traveled sidewalks easily accessed from shadowed alleyways (prime hunting territory, his caged instincts slyly whispered), still nothing. City parks, lovers’ lanes, even playgrounds, all equally unfruitful. Clubs, bars (such as could be found in this white-bread community), all empty of possibility. He was almost desperate enough to check out the Bronze … but no, that was where he would be most likely to run into Buffy, and — since he hadn’t so much as crossed her trail tonight — she was probably there already, meaning it was more than adequately protected. He was nearly jumping out of his skin with the weird energy of the evening, but there just didn’t seem to be anything available for him to vent his tension into by killing it.
He finally found something … but a very unlikely something, and in an unlikely place.
Most demon bars were a no-man’s-land: the demons themselves might observe internal truces, but humans (other than the ones working there, and even they couldn’t always count on being excepted) were generally considered fair game. Somehow, the Alibi Room contrived to avoid this, and more amazingly did so without using protective wards or mystical enforcers to maintain the status quo. Willy, the barman and apparent owner, didn’t even have demon bouncers; he seemed to do it all by wheedling, glad-handing, mollifying the obstreperous with complimentary drinks, or prevailing on the other patrons to keep their more boisterous cohorts reined in. It was an achievement worthy of a papal nuncio or a UN Secretary-General, though the ends were considerably less respectable.
Assuming one was willing to tolerate the company — and the smells — a human could not only slide up to the bar and have a drink in reliable safety, he could usually go home afterward without being eaten, liquefied, mutilated or sacrificed along the way. However Willy managed to pull it off (and Angel honestly had no idea), a ten-block area surrounding his establishment was probably the safest territory within the Sunnydale city limits. You might go there if you were seeking information, but never if you were looking for trouble; Willy’s was the one place that trouble almost automatically wasn’t.
Tonight, however, it was where Xander Harris was.
At the sight of the lanky teenager, Angel automatically looked around for Buffy; he hadn’t even realized that Xander knew the whereabouts of this place, and it seemed unimaginable that the boy would have come here on his own. There was no sight of the Slayer, however … and, more telling, the body language of the other customers wasn’t what he would be seeing if she were here. Further, Xander wasn’t bracing Willy for supernatural gossip, or eyeballing the interior for any other likely source; he was sitting on a bar stool, his back to the rest of the room, five shot-glasses sitting empty on the counter in front of him and his hand clenched around a sixth.
This could not possibly be anything but bad.
Angel did not want to be here. Did not want to deal with Xander. Hated the thought, truth be known. He sighed, went to the bar, and took a seat on the next stool over. “This wasn’t really something I expected to see,” he observed matter-of-factly.
Xander glanced over, saw him, and that look came into his eyes. “Go to hell,” he said.
“Been there,” Angel said. “In fact, I understand you had something to do with that. I’ve never really thanked you properly.”
Xander tossed back the drink he held, and waved for a refill. “Thank me by parking your undead ass somewhere else. I hear the Sahara’s really sunny this time of year; you can kick back, soak up some rays —”
Willy scurried forward, looking (as always) guilty, anxious, furtive, and eager to please. “Angel, buddy, hey,” he said. “Happy to see you, so happy you wouldn’t believe. You the kid’s safe ride?” Angel and Xander both turned hard eyes on him, and he quailed backward half a step before recovering. “Seriously, your tab’s covered tonight if you’ll take care of him, I don’t need the Slayer decidin’ this joint’d look better burned flat. What’s your pleasure? Got the basic pig’s blood, farm fresh, just in this mornin’. Want me to spritz in a little O-neg, just to give it some zip?”
Angel’s voice was level, soft, and dead cold. “Funny thing. It sounded like you just said you carry actual human blood here.”
The weaselly barman held up both hands, palms out. “Hey, strictly as a flavor enhancer. And volunteer donors only, very well paid. Anybody understands the rules around here, it’s Willy.”
“Glad to hear that,” Xander said. He tapped the glass in front of him. “Another.”
Willy’s eyes darted back and forth between Angel and Xander. Angel gave him a raised eyebrow. “You’re serving a minor?”
“He serves fucking demons,” Xander spat. “You think he cares about the date on my driver’s license?” He swept the empty shot-glasses off the countertop in front of him. “Gimme another one, I said!”
“No,” Angel said to Willy. “He’s done for tonight.”
Willy sighed. “Sorry, kid,” he told Xander. “You can cause me problems I don’t need, but I’ll risk you over him any day. Breath mint?”
“Screw you,” Xander said. “Both of you.” He stood up and lurched for the door.
Angel caught up with him out on the sidewalk, and almost clenched his hands as the outside energy sang again through his senses. It was still that kind of night, a night for action, and this wasn’t action. Balked for the moment, he let some of his frustration spill into his voice. “You’re some piece of work, you know that? What brought on this sudden urge for suicide?”
Even his predator’s hearing couldn’t make sense of Xander’s snarl/ slur/ mumble, but the extended middle finger communicated the basic point. Angel shook his head, took hold of Xander’s arm, and said, “Let’s get you home. I really don’t need the aggravation right now.”
This time the words were intelligible. “Hate you.”
“You’ve made that pretty clear,” Angel said. “By word and deed. I know you hate me, and I know why. What I don’t know is why you picked tonight to get drunk, or a demon bar to drink in.”
“I hate you!” Xander shouted. “All of you!” He yanked his arm away and plunged down the sidewalk. After a dozen steps, however, he fetched up against a lamp post, and bent over to throw up into the street by the curb.
Taverns had once been a major grazing ground, so Angel had a thorough and professional understanding of human intoxication. Xander had imbibed far too much, far too quickly, and the effect had hit him like a stone mallet … but then his untutored stomach had rebelled, and he had just now spewed out probably half of what he had taken in. Pale, unsteady and wretched though it left him, it would speed his recovery. “Nice,” Angel said with a satisfaction he didn’t try to hide. “Tasted a lot better going down, didn’t it?”
“Oh, you bastard.” Xander heaved and retched again, but produced nothing. At length he pulled himself back upright, and glared at his self-appointed rescuer. “You’ve always been a bastard. Never fooled me for a second.”
“Tonight, I’m not trying to.” Angel gestured toward the street behind him. “Like I said already, let’s get you home.”
Xander squinted at him, then shook his head. “My house is this way,” he said, and began to stagger in the opposite direction.
“Sure,” Angel called after him. “If you don’t mind circling the globe, and dealing with a couple of oceans while you’re at it.” Xander stopped and looked back, blinking, and Angel added coolly, “This way, though? Half a mile. And no oceans.”
Xander thought about it, peering alternately in Angel’s direction and back along the street down which he had started. Finally he said, “Oh. Right.”
He returned, and he and Angel started off together. After a minute, he muttered, “I still hate you.”
“And you always will,” Angel agreed. “I really do trust you to keep holding up your end on that.”
Xander’s reply was a reverberating belch.
Ten minutes, Angel thought. Maybe fifteen. Then he’s home safe, and I can move on.
* * *
Much as he wanted to just deliver the boy and be off again, one matter still hadn’t been settled yet. After they had been walking for a brief time, Angel broke the silence. “You never answered my question.”
Just in a few blocks, Xander had ceased to weave as he walked, and was now proceeding more or less steadily: the wonders of youth, a speedy metabolism, and the power of reverse peristalsis. He looked to Angel and said, “Huh?”
“Willy’s,” Angel prompted. “Alone. Drinking heavily. Several really stupid things at once.”
Xander’s lip curled in the contempt he regularly directed at his current companion, but his tone was defensive and sullen. “It’s none of your business.”
“If you get yourself killed, it’ll hurt Buffy,” Angel said bluntly. “So I want to know what tonight was about, and if this is going to be a regular thing.”
The use of Buffy’s name had jerked Xander into focus; he shook his head now and said, “Regular, no. Right at the moment I’m thinking, this whole alcohol thing, not really my scene. Oog.” He frowned, looking straight ahead as they walked. “And I wasn’t trying to get myself killed. I just … I didn’t care.”
In Sunnydale, basically the same thing, Angel thought. Aloud he said, “So why?”
Xander’s expression was bleak, unreadable. “Ran into an old friend tonight.”
“Okay,” Angel said. Meaning, I’m with you, go on.
“Hadn’t seen Carlie since ’97, her family moved to L.A. sophomore year. But there she was, and she saw me and smiled and waved … We’d always got on okay, but now she’s looking really good, and she’s glad to see me, and there’s like this connection running between us. And all the time we’re walking along chatting, I’m keeping half an eye out for what’s going on around us, ’cause that’s what you do in the ’Dale. And I notice where we are, and two things go through my head at the same time: ‘Whoops, don’t want to cut through the park this time of night, too easy to get picked off,’ along with ‘I wish Buffy or Willow were here, they’d see the whole Cordy thing wasn’t a freak event, I CAN attract non-demonic women …’”
“Ah,” Angel said.
“Right.” Xander’s face twisted into bitterness. “I had time to think Oh, crap and grab for a stake, and then she was yellow-eyed and toothy and coming at me. So my big night turned into me trying to brush my ‘friend’ out of my hair and clothes, and all of a sudden drinking seemed like a totally excellent idea.”
“I’m sorry,” Angel said, and meant it.
“Like I believe that,” Xander sneered. “For all I know, she was one of yours.”
“Maybe,” Angel answered evenly. “But probably not. Except when I was sending a ‘message’, I was always more interested in killing than turning.” But don’t forget Penn, the mocking inner voice prompted. Or Giselle, or Drusilla, or … He shoved away the memories, adding, “And I didn’t make any side-trips to Los Angeles around then.”
“Yeah, ’cause I’m all about caring when you did what. Riddle me this, Dorkula —”
“Quiet,” Angel interrupted.
Xander waved it off. “You can’t take the heat, get outta the microwave. What I wanna know is —”
“I said quiet.” Angel put a warning hand on Xander’s shoulder. “Something’s out there, and I can’t track it while you’re talking.”
Xander looked around. They were in a long stretch without street lights, a dark sea between islands of brightness, but he would know that Angel could see deeper into the night. “How far out there?”
“Next block over,” Angel told him. “But headed this way, it sounds like.” He glanced at Xander. “Quite a few of them.”
“Hmm.” Xander thought about that. “Run now?”
“I think a fast walk would do it.” Angel pointed. “That way. Just enough to get us out of their path.”
They moved, quickly and quietly — though, to Angel’s preternatural hearing, Xander might as well have been a snorting buffalo — and took a place of concealment behind one of the shade trees spaced periodically along a street that had phased from commercial to residential while they walked. Angel kept Xander pushed back out of sight, but stuck his own head out far enough to watch for the as-yet-unseen others. This was what he had been looking for tonight … but not now, not while he was still saddled with the boy’s safety …
Ahead of them, he saw a series of low, quick-moving forms flit across the street. They were traveling against the grid, passing through hedges and back yards, over fences and around lesser barriers. That was how they had caught Angel’s attention, this pack movement going at angles to normal lines of access. The breeze carried their scent to him as they passed, and he grunted in recognition and surprise.
“What?” Xander asked.
“Ptarmiiki,” Angel said. “Foraging party, I think.” He stepped clear of the tree. “There are hives here and there in Central America, but I’ve never heard of any this far north.”
“Hives, huh?” Xander peered in the direction Angel was looking, but by now there was nothing to be seen. “Demon killer bees, working their way across the border? Or are there, like, demon coyotes to show ’em the way into the Land of Opportunity?”
“Not bees,” Angel corrected. “More like three-foot rats, with Stone Age weapons.” He frowned. “They settle in, build these big underground complexes —”
“And Sunnydale’s got enough sewer tunnels and cave systems to let them go all Empire of the Ants, big-time.” Xander rubbed his hands together. “Buffy and Faith’ll be all over this one. Let’s put out a call, head to the Library —”
“You really want them seeing you like this?” Angel asked him.
Xander considered it. “You’re right. So it’s just you and me. That way, you said?”
“The two of us.” Angel allowed himself a thin smile. “You’re dreaming. It’s not about to happen.”
“Fine, suit yourself.” Xander turned away. “I’ll handle it on my own.”
Angel sighed in exasperation. “Are you crazy? This is out of your league.” He took hold of the boy’s arm. “Like I said, I’m getting you home. Come on.”
“Yeah?” Xander favored him with that infuriating adolescent grin. “You sure you can pick up their trail again after you drop me off? No? Or would you rather run off and leave me alone, all drunk and defenseless, while you go sniffing out demons? ’Cause it’s gotta be one or the other, unless we tackle it together.”
Angel had once overheard Buffy grumbling, Xander is so dumb when he’s right. That was God’s honest truth; the boy was a clown, a gadfly, a goof, a constant and almost intolerable irritant … and he was right. If the Ptarmiiki were just getting started, Angel needed to locate their nest before their population escalated; if they were already established, it was even more important to find and stamp them out; and, in either case, he couldn’t afford to lose track of them now.
Or to leave this soused idiot unprotected against the various supernatural dangers he seemed to attract with near-Slayer allure.
“This way,” Angel growled, starting off abruptly. “We just want to find out where their home base is, so this will be tracking only. Try and keep up, there’s no point in bringing you along if you slow me down so much that we lose them.”
Xander kept up, though Angel was moving with such swift, long strides that the boy had to fall into an odd bobbling jog to stay even with him. “Know what I’m looking at?” Xander inquired after twenty seconds’ travel. Angel stared stonily ahead, refusing to respond, and Xander happily answered himself: “Dead man walking.”
Willy’s, Angel reminded himself with stern resolve. The customers saw us exit Willy’s together. So if I just left him for dead here, Buffy would eventually hear about it.
Fortunately he had long experience in denying temptation, though this one was more than a little severe. Aloud he repeated, “Just keep up.”