Boats Against the Current (Chapter One)
"Peaches, Red! You'd better both be decent because the cheerleader's gone sibyl again and I'm not going to be the one to try to make sense of it this time." Spike's something-other-than-dulcet tones broke through the previously erotic haze Angel had been lost in with his love. Not for the first time, he cursed the PTB and their timing. Did they have to send visions while he was in bed with Willow?
"Just a minute, Spike," Willow caroled, her voice belying the frustration easily read in both her face and her scent. Was it wrong that Angel was glad he wasn't alone in his annoyance?
He tried his best not to look at her while she hastily dressed and he did likewise. Filling his eyes with the view of her naked body was no way to get his mind into the right place to help decipher Cordelia's latest vision. With any luck, it was something they'd be able to put off 'til later.
Not two minutes later, they were in the office with a groggy seer and a very annoying, smirking Spike. He scratched his nose ostentatiously, letting Angel know he knew exactly what had been interrupted. Why on Earth hadn't he staked the insolent bastard a century ago?
Willow, naturally, was oblivious to the undercurrents, or at least she appeared that way. She was busy soothing Cordelia, just as she always did. The first time she'd done a healing spell and taken away the agony of Cordelia's post-vision headache, Angel was sure that, had Cordelia been even slightly bisexual, he'd have had a rival for Willow's affections. Even now, the grateful look on Cordelia's face was something to behold.
"So, Mayflower, what's the word from the voices on high then?"
The grateful look was gone in an instant, replaced by the irritated expression Spike brought to every face save Willow's.
"That's May Queen, you bleached-out loser."
"Sorry, those crow's-feet of yours made me think Early America."
"What crow's-feet?" Cordelia's fingers moved immediately to the corners of her eyes. "I don't have any crow's-feet. I'll have you know I use an excellent moisturizer and I have very good genes, mister."
Angel hated himself as he stifled a chuckle. Loath as he was to admit it, as long as he was not the object of Spike's deviltry, the boy's antics were actually entertaining. He had a genuine talent for getting under people's skin.
Of course, Willow soon put a stop to the festivities. "Spike," she chided, sounding so much like a stern schoolmarm that Angel's head was soon full of delicious schoolroom fantasies, "Be nice." She glared and Angel nearly moaned. He needed a ruler, a desk, and some serious alone time with his lover…and soon.
"What did you see?" Willow asked, her attention now focused on Cordelia.
It took his somewhat priority-challenged seer a moment to get her mind back on something more important than her disparaged appearance, but she did. "It looked like a doctor's office. A really creepy one. There were all these examining tables and it was all white. But it was weird, because there were demons there." She looked confused. "Are there doctors for demons?" she asked of no one in particular.
If Cordelia seemed unsure, Willow didn't, nor did Spike. They both looked terrified. Angel immediately went to Willow and took her in his arms. "What is it?" he asked as he stroked her hair.
"The Initiative," Spike answered in her stead. "It's got to be the bloody Initiative."
Angel held Willow tighter and his eyes locked with Spike's. All levity was gone. There was, after all, nothing funny about the organization that had chipped Spike and tried to capture him and Willow – the organization whose leading member was currently bedding Angel's ex-girlfriend.
"Did you see anything else, Cordelia?" Angel asked, his arms still around Willow.
"No. Not that I can remember. Except…" She looked as if she was trying to recall something. "There was something that reminded me of Darryl. But I don't know what it was." She was frustrated now and Angel was completely lost. Darryl?
"You mean creepy, dead Darryl? The one who wanted to turn you into Elsa Lanchester?" At least one of them knew who Cordelia was talking about.
"Wasn't she the girl from Casablanca?" Now Angel wasn't the only one confused.
"That was Ilsa Lund, Cordy. Elsa Lanchester played the Bride of Frankenstein."
"It was way after your time," Spike quipped.
That went right over Cordelia's head, thank heavens, because they really needed to stay focused on the vision and what it meant. Angel had a sinking feeling that this was going to necessitate a trip to Sunnydale. He let go of Willow and paced for a moment.
"For those of us who had better things to do with their days than spend them paying attention to the cheerleader's life, care to share just who this Darryl is and what, if anything, is important about him?"
Cordelia seemed about to answer Spike back and send this conversation careening off topic, but Willow stopped her with a look. The school teacher image came caroming back into his mind and he willed his body not to react. He was blissfully content to have Spike focus his sarcasm on Cordelia. What did he pay her for, after all? It's not as if she were a competent secretary and the visions weren't nearly as helpful as her salary would suggest.
"I'm back." Wesley's voice broke through Angel's reverie. He marched in carrying a Styrofoam tray of coffee cups and a bag that gave off the scent of warm doughnuts.
"Good," Spike said, rushing over to grab the bag and get his pick of pastry first. Typical. "You're just in time to hear some dull story about Cordelia's life in prehistoric days."
This time, Willow took offense. "Hey! I was there, too, you know."
Spike looked chastened. He handed his doughnut to Willow along with a cup of coffee he filched from the tray. "Yes, but you hadn't been held back ten or so odd times. You were just a wee lass then."
"Getting back to Darryl," Angel interposed.
"Oh, yeah," Willow said. "He was Cordelia's boyfriend and then he died, but his brother brought him back to life as kind of a zombie, only conscious and thinking and stuff. They were trying to create a girlfriend for him out of the parts of recently dead girls but then they decided to use Cordelia's head."
"Which makes sense since she wasn't using it."
"Spike!" Willow headed Cordelia off at the pass. "Can you be serious, please? This could be really important."
Even Angel thought Spike's venom was a bit excessive, though at least he didn't have to worry that it signified some sort of romantic interest in Cordelia on Spike's part. His childe would never be foolish enough to target her appearance if that were the case.
"Think. Can you remember what specifically reminded you of Darryl?"
"No, I'm sorry. Maybe if the neutered Chihuahua over there hadn't distracted me…"
"Not another word," Willow said before Spike even had a chance to open his mouth. "You deserved that."
Angel didn't even chuckle this time. He was too caught up in what the confusion meant. Now it was certain - they were not going to be able to handle this from here.
"I suppose this means we will have to return to Sunnydale." Wesley's voice was subdued. Not that Angel blamed him; the town held no fond memories for the one-time Watcher.
It wasn't exactly the garden spot of the Western world to Angel, either. His desire to see Buffy and the others again was about as great as his desire to bathe in holy water in a sunlit room. But he couldn't conceive of any way to avoid the journey. Cordelia's visions always necessitated personal intervention. Still, he was at least going to spare the newest member of the team.
"You don't have to go, Wesley. In fact, it would probably be better if you stayed here and kept an eye on things while we're gone. Someone needs to be around in case anything happens." Wesley seemed torn between feeling relieved and insulted. Too bad about the latter, but Angel actually did think it wise to leave someone at the helm here in case things went south.
"I'm going." Spike said, uncharacteristically subdued and in a tone that Angel wasn't about to argue with, even if he had intended to leave him behind in the first place, which he hadn't.
"Of course you are." Willow walked over and put her hand on his arm. It had taken some time for Angel to become comfortable with their friendship, but he had, and now he was glad of it. And not just because it had helped keep him out of Spike's line of verbal fire most of the time
Wesley appeared utterly crestfallen, but Angel wasn't about to change his mind. He knew full well what Wesley's emotional baggage could do in a crisis like this and he wasn't about to allow the man's insecurities to cause their mission to come a cropper.
"We really do need you here, Wes. What if there's information in your books that we need or if Angel gets a client or something?" Willow to the rescue. There were reasons Angel loved her. Good ones.
Wesley gave her a half-smile. "Well, then. I will stay here and attend to the business. Do call me should the need for my help arise. After all, I can get to Sunnydale quite easily."
Well, now that the matter of just how many troops were headed to Sunnydale was settled… "I'll go call Giles and let him know we'll be paying a visit."
"I can do that." Willow looked puzzled.
He walked back and kissed her on the forehead. "It's okay. He and I really need to talk anyway. I've been putting it off for too long." With that, he headed downstairs to use the cell phone Willow had made him buy. This was definitely going to be a private conversation.
It wasn't lost on him that Willow had only been getting glowing reports of how things were going in her absence. While he understood that her friends were trying to keep her from feeling guilty about leaving, today's vision clarified suspicions he'd had for awhile: Willow was being fed a pack of lies. Which was why Angel had elected to make the phone call today. He knew he could get to the bottom of things.
He looked up the number in Willow's address book. She wouldn't see that as snooping. A few seconds later, the number was dialed and the phone at the other end was ringing.
"Hello?" A once familiar British accent echoed in Angel's ear and made him pause before speaking. Was he ever going to stop feeling guilty about Jenny? Did he even have that right?
"Rupert. It's Angel."
He could feel the man's discomfort crackling through the ether. No, Angel was never going to be able to let go of the burden of Jenny's death.
"Is something wrong? Is Willow all right?"
"She's fine." Angel was touched at his concern. "But I'm wondering if you are." The beginning of a stutter could be heard and Angel decided to cut to the chase. "I know what you've told Willow, and I understand why you'd want to whitewash things for her. But Cordelia had a vision just now and it seems like maybe the Initiative is giving you more trouble than you let on."
Silence. Which was really all the answer Angel needed. "We're on our way."
Giles, naturally, attempted to dissuade him. "There's really no need. I am quite sure we can handle this ourselves."
"Cordelia had a vision, which means we're supposed to be there."
"Yes, you did say that, didn't you? Willow's told me about these visions, but…are you certain? This is Cordelia Chase, after all, and…"
He would have taken offense, but he could see Giles's point. Cordelia was not the most reliable person in the world and anyone unfamiliar with who had passed the gift on to her might well doubt it. "I'm certain. Cordelia might be…Cordelia, but the visions are from the Powers That Be."
"Of course. So we can expect you soon, I take it?" Giles paused. Angel knew what was coming. "There is something we ought to discuss."
"My relationship with Willow."
"Yes, exactly. I know that you two are very much in love." Those last words seemed to pain the man, but at least he said them. "However, I don't think that now would be the most opportune moment for you to share the news."
"Trouble in paradise?" Angel was pretty sure Giles got his meaning.
"No, not that, it's simply…"
"I'm not in love with her anymore, if that's what you're afraid of. Even if my soul were safe with her, it's over."
"I know. But it's reassuring to hear you say it." No surprise there, but the next words out of his mouth? Those were unexpected. "I would hate to see Willow hurt. After what happened with Oz…if someone were to break her heart again, I should feel compelled to do something about it." The tone in Giles's voice, harder and colder than usual, made Angel happy, if slightly nervous. He knew how much Giles meant to Willow. He was glad to see her affection was returned.
"I'd never hurt her. " He waited a moment, hoping that his own tone of voice carried weight as well. It did, or it seemed to, since Giles didn't reply. "But I agree that we ought to keep my relationship with Willow under wraps for now. The news would be a distraction and I have a feeling that would be bad."
"You'll fill us in when we get there?" He wasn't really asking a question.
"Good. We'll be leaving at sundown."
"I'll let everyone know you're coming."
"Where will you be staying?"
"Willow's house, I'm pretty sure. I think her parents are in Hong Kong for the next few weeks. Wherever they are, it isn't Sunnydale, so that's convenient." He didn't mention that Willow's parents hadn't actually given Willow their itinerary. She'd let curiosity and concern get the better of her and hacked into their email accounts and flight records. There had been more than a few tears that day. He still marveled at how two uncaring, useless husks had given birth to such a loving and wonderful girl.
"Yes, well, they've not been back to Sunnydale since Willow left, so I agree that it's safe to assume they won't be here anytime in the foreseeable future. "
"See you soon."
And with that, the call ended. Giles had, he realized, put up only a token protest. That was worrying.
His thoughts were broken into by a welcome arrival. "Hey. How'd the phone call go?" Her timing was perfect and Angel was almost suspicious.
She picked up on that. "I wasn't listening in. I just know how much you hate talking on the phone and I figured this was the longest you'd stay on."
"You figured right." He took her in his arms and kissed her. It started as a soft and affectionate gesture, but it quickly turned passionate.
When the kiss ended, she gazed up into his eyes. "What was that about?" Her gaze grew shrewd. "Something bad is going on, isn't it? I kinda knew everyone was lying."
"I don't have any details yet, but yeah, I got that feeling."
"Yeah. It was starting to sound a little too good to be true. Sunnydale's never that trouble-free. Not even during the summer." She grew quiet and she let go of him, walking over to a chair to sit down. He could tell that her thoughts were going in a different direction now.
"Willow," he said, walking to her chair and kneeling beside it. "You don't have anything to worry about." They both knew he wasn't referring to the potential battle with the Initiative.
"You were," he chided. "I understand. But that part of my life is over. I don't love her anymore. I love you."
Her eyes had traces of tears in them. She was still so insecure. He stood up and pulled her out of the chair and back into his arms. This time, there was nothing soft in their kiss. It was needy and hot and obviously a prelude to making love. His hands moved over her back as he began to untuck her blouse from her skirt. He mentally calculated the time they would need to pack for the trip to Sunnydale. Yes, there was enough time for a tryst with his lover.
Or there would have been if…
"Red, Poof, you'd better get back up here." From the top of the stairs came that grating voice he so despised. "Lady Wonder's had herself another vision."
This was something to worry about, and Angel and Willow both knew it. He got his hormones under control and they headed back up to the office.
Willow ran to Cordelia as soon as they got upstairs. "Are you okay?" She didn't wait for an answer. Angel saw that familiar look that came over her as she chanted under her breath. "Is that better?"
"Thanks, Willow," Cordelia said. "At least you understand what I go through, unlike some people." She glared at Spike. Oh great, here we go again.
"Look, you two, as much as I don't enjoy watching you bicker, can we please just stay on track so that we get everything we can out of Cordy's latest message from the PTB?" Willow glared at the both of them, her Resolve Face in all its glory being put to excellent use.
Oh for that ruler and an empty office.
"What did you see?" Willow asked.
"It's weird," Cordelia replied, her face screwed up in confusion. "I mean, it looked like Buffy, which is scary enough, only…I'm not sure it was Buffy. Does that make sense?"
Angel cut Spike off. "Does this have anything to do with what you saw earlier?"
"I…I don't know." Cordelia looked confused…and a bit scared. She knew that two visions like this in quick succession did not bode well. The trip to Sunnydale was something akin to driving fully aware to one's own doom.
"Well, that was useful," Spike said with as much sarcasm as it was possible to pack into four short words. "And now that we're so well prepared, we've got nothing at all to worry about. Except the sure death the dim bulb of a seer is leading us towards."
"That was entirely uncalled for." This time it was Wesley to the rescue. "Visions can be enormously difficult to interpret or understand and after all, this is all very new to her and…"
"Yeah, yeah. In the meantime, we'd be better off with Xander Harris as a seer."
Cordelia was on her feet and it was obvious it was taking all of Willow's strength to restrain the angry girl. "Let me go," she shrieked, grabbing the very ruler Angel had been thinking of finding from a drawer. "I am so going to stake him right now!"
Spike smirked and then put his hands before his face in a gesture of mock fright. "Oh. I'm so scared."
Angel decided it was time to put an end to this. It might have been entertaining at another time, but now it was getting in the way. More importantly, it was upsetting Willow. "That's it! Both of you! The bickering stops right now. We have important things to worry about and the two of you just need to grow up." He slammed his fist down on the table next to the coffeemaker for emphasis and everyone seemed to get it. Good.
"We'd better pack," Willow said softly.
"Good idea." Cordelia then flounced out of the office, turning her nose up at Spike as she did.
"Spike, you really need to be nicer to her," Willow said after she'd gone.
"What do you want? You can't expect me to be nice to both Peaches and the airhead."
Willow threw up her hands, gauging correctly that Angel wanted to get to their packing. "I give up. Go pack. But you'd better be on your best behavior when we're driving to Sunnydale. I am not putting up with you two fighting the whole trip." She stopped for a moment before adding, "Or even part of it."
With that, Angel took her arm and led her back downstairs.
It was funny, but unlike Willow, Angel was fine with things as they were. He was more than content to allow Spike to keep ribbing Cordelia, at least as long as it didn't interfere with their mission. He knew himself well enough now to accept that he could care about humanity without developing a great many personal attachments. Sure, he cared about Cordelia and Wesley, but it was the same way he had once cared about Xander and Giles. Would he risk his life to save theirs? Certainly. But was he unduly concerned about the smaller matter of their comfort and contentment? No, he had to admit, he wasn't.
Willow was different; she cared about everyone. Within minutes of seeing him again, her attitude towards Wesley had changed to one of warmth and compassion and friendship. She went out of her way to try to make him feel better about himself and to help him get past his abject failure as a Watcher. She and Cordelia had put aside years of acrimony and were now as close as could be. What did she think, Angel wondered, about his entirely dissimilar orientation to the people around him?
He loved Willow more passionately than he'd ever loved anyone as human or demon. Doyle was dead, but he thought about his friend every single day. He cared about Spike because he was family and he couldn't help it. Other than that…
He pulled Willow into an embrace as soon as they were alone. There would be time to worry about this another day, a day when they weren't on their way back to a town full of bad memories, the booby traps of a past he nearly regretted, and dangers still nebulous and uncertain…dangers whose reality finally hit him.
"I love you," he said. There were so many other things he wanted to say, but he couldn't find the words for his thoughts.
"I love you, too," she said, her brow crinkling slightly, knowing there was something behind his words. "You better not be thinking of suggesting I stay behind with Wesley."
Oddly, he hadn't thought of that at all. The old-fashioned chauvinist within him wouldn't concede her ability to protect herself, at least not without a struggle, but deep down he knew she wasn't helpless, and between himself and Spike, he was certain she'd be safe.
"No. I was just thinking about how lucky I am to have you and…"
"You're thinking about Buffy."
He was saddened, but not surprised that the reassurance he'd offered a short time ago hadn't been enough. "I don't want you to worry about her."
He let her go and she walked a few steps, looking down at the ground as she did. "It's hard, Angel. You loved her and…"
"It was nothing compared to what I feel for you." He reached out and grabbed her arm, pulling her back towards him, then forcing her to meet his eyes. "I love you. You need to hear that and believe it. I've never loved anyone, not even Buffy, the way I love you. It's as simple as that."
He kissed her. This time, nothing was going to interrupt them. Hell, Spike could come in and watch for all he cared. They could pack later. Or they could skip the packing and buy everything they needed at the local mall once they got to Sunnydale. It didn't matter. Right now, Angel needed to make sure Willow knew how intensely he felt about her and to feel that passion returned. He picked her up and carried her to the bed. Nothing was more important to him more right now than making love to Willow.