"It's as quiet as a tomb out here."
"Maybe, Xander, because we're in a cemetery?" suggested Willow.
"But it's a Sunnydale cemetery," said Xander, his eyes focused on the stake he was flipping and catching. "You know what I mean, right, Buff?"
She sighed. "Yeah. The dead are staying annoyingly dead."
"Annoying? It's good news. Good enough to give the all-clear, like, ten minutes ago. I can't believe we're not already in the Bronze drinking over-priced sodas," Xander said.
Buffy wasn't really in the mood for the Bronze, except she was. The thought that Angel might be there was equally thrilling and terrifying. But if she were honest with herself, she wasn't ready to see him. Problem was, she wasn't exactly feeling explainy.
"Sure," she said, trying to sound excited. "Who's playing?"
"It's not the Dingos. They're playing up by the college," Willow said with pride.
"That's great," Buffy replied. Her enthusiasm almost sounded real. She was glad Willow and Oz were working things out. At least one of them should be lucky in love.
Anywhere but here. That's where Angel needed to be. His one mantra for the last few days? Where would Buffy be? His one goal? Anywhere other than that place. Which made him a dull schoolboy with his first crush for standing in front of the Bronze.
Fighting his desire to stay and skulk, Angel moved past the club, past the pseudo-shabby portions of Sunnydale where it was nestled, past the graying whitewash of functioning warehouses, and on out to the abandoned, crumbling edges. It was hard to picture that there had ever been an industrial boom big enough in Sunnydale to demand so many buildings.
Maybe the industry was building the buildings, he imagined her saying, her sly quick wit masked by the girlish toss of her hair. No self-respecting Hellmouth would be complete without a tasteful backdrop of urban decay.
He shook his head, trying to clear it. He'd been foolish to think that putting a few miles between them would create distance. Short of leaving town, there was nowhere else to go.
It was seeing the vampire and the clutch of feathered kolainai docilely sharing alley space that pulled Angel from his self-indulgent reverie. Demons that lived on blood had no allowance for demons that prefer feasting on vampire blood. Why weren't they bent on killing each other? Short of peace on earth, goodwill toward all, there wasn't a good reason he could imagine.
Angel shadowed them from a good distance, wishing to hold the element of surprise. When he tripped on broken up concrete and banged against a metal access door with thump, he figured his attempt at stealth was lost. But the demons didn't even flinch, let alone glance back.
He drew closer, studying them. The kolainai bounced more than normal – and in a distinctive rhythm. He could see it as well in the vampire's movements – as if his swagger had turned to a sway.
There was a rustling behind him, and spinning round, he dropped into a crouch.
The thumping bass was loud enough to make the drink glasses shimmy and shake. Of course, the minute they stepped inside the Bronze, the set ended.
"You've been great!" shouted the vocalist. "We'll be back in ten!"
Buffy tried to look relaxed and not like a lovesick ex-girlfriend scanning the crowd for that certain guy. Given the way that Angel towered above the usual Bronze crowd, and that she wasn't seeing him anywhere, the butterflies in her stomach were just of the normal variety, not slayerish.
"She's here, isn't she?" asked Xander. "I don't even need to see her to know she's here. Holding court. Probably having her way with Touch 'em All Paul."
"Xander!" scolded Willow. "Cordelia's the harmed party, so if she's interested in another guy, that's her right."
"I doubt it's Paul." Buffy added. "He's not Cordelia's type – at least not for a couple more weeks. It's still the off season for baseball."
Looking closer, Buffy realized that Xander's green color wasn't the lights. Following his line of vision, she could just see the top of Cordy's head as three different guys – possibly college guys – were vying for her attention. Sometimes it still surprised her how hard Xander was taking it. For all the insults during and after their… relationship, he apparently cared for her deeply. Buffy caught Willow's eye.
"You know, I'm sorta tired," said Willow. "Maybe this was a bad idea."
Xander nodded in agreement and she pulled the door open and returning back outside.
"And that," said Xander, taking a deep breath, "was the record for shortest Bronze stay for non-monster reasons. Sorry, girls."
Buffy gave him a sideways hug as they moved away. Relieved, yet feeling guilty for feeling relieved that she wasn't the one seeing Angel in Cordelia's – or anyone else's – orbit. The whole thing with Faith was still too raw, even if Angel was only playing along.
"Hey," said Willow, pointing toward a figure toward the end of the block. "Is that Principal Snyder? What's he doing out here?"
Angel fixed his gaze on the location of the noise. The leaves rustled again, though further down the brick wall. Upon closer inspection the source made itself known. It was a cat; a feral one from the looks of its matted fur and torn ear. It was padding quickly in the opposite direction of Angel's quarry. No concern that it would tip off the demons he was shadowing.
Had been shadowing. They'd disappeared from view while he'd been distracted. Hearing a door bang, Angel pushed off the brick wall and moved with all the speed he possessed, hoping to catch a glimpse. What he saw was nothing but another collection of abandoned warehouses, some boarded up and others sporting a tic-tac-toe pattern of broken windows. Which building was it? Circling, he studied the look, the sound, the smells of each. One stood out – and it didn't even require his vampire senses - it wasn't chained shut.
The closer he got, the more his head ached. He pulled at his ears. Someone inside was playing pitches just on the edge of his hearing. That, he assumed, was what caused the building pressure to his head.
Crossing the street, he hid in the shadows of a torn and tumbled canvas awning. Here he could see without being seen. It also minimized the discomfort of the high pitched decibels. Granted, he couldn't see the back of the building, but he'd noted that the loading dock doors were chained, so no one should be able to exit from there without making a commotion.
His impromptu stakeout was rewarded. The door opened and a short, bald-headed man exited. He looked benignly human, but then again, so did Angel. Pressing himself further into the shadows, Angel waited for the man - if that's what he was - to pass by. Under the street light the details of his face were visible. Wasn't he the principal at Buffy's school? If so, what was he doing here? He could trail the little man, but he would be easy enough to find later.
Should he contact Buffy? He considered and then rejected the idea. What would he say? Demons that are sworn enemies were palling around? He'd seen her principal on the wrong side of town? They had enough on their plate with the Mayor and Faith. He'd investigate a bit further on his own. If there was something more to this, something worth violating Buffy's request for space, then he would go to her.
As eager as he now was to get to the bottom of the mystery, he rejected the idea of walking in the main door. Too much rust and too little hinge oil. Above was a window with the glass knocked out – mostly. He gauged distance to the ledge. He could make the jump… he just wished he knew what he'd find on the other side.
"Then what did you say?" Willow asked, wrapping her arms around her cotton jammie bottoms and pulling her legs close.
Buffy plucked at the imaginary lint on her bedspread before meeting Willow's eyes. "Always," she whispered. And just like when she'd said it to Angel, her throat closed up and she couldn't have said more if her life depended on it.
"Oh, Buffy. We should have stopped for Chunky Monkey."
"Mom's brownies aren't bad comfort food."
"If I didn't already hate Faith, I'd so hate her now. Ooh! We could take turns wishing really awful things to happen to her. Would that help? Whatever you need. I'm there for you. Just name it."
Buffy returned Willow's knitted brow intensity with a smile. Albeit a watery smile, but it was still a smile; Willow could work magic without even working magic.
"What?" Willow asked, touching her face. "Did I get chocolate frosting on me?"
Buffy scooted around until they were side by side, hugging her friend tight. "You're the best."
Now that he was inside, the noise sounded more like music, perhaps a flute. Angel crept along the catwalk, following the odd tune until he could see the tune-maker. It was a female playing a pipe, maybe a recorder. By her pinked flesh, dark curls, and general shape, she was likely human. She smelled human, but he'd need to get a lot closer before he could determine what she was and what she could do.
Where were the demons? He'd been sure this was the building. While there was the requisite abandoned machinery around the edges, there really weren't places to hide a clutch of kolainai.
At first glance, given the way the floor was undulating around the woman, Angel thought that a portal was opening between dimensions. Taking a closer look, he realized that the undulation was an illusion. It was dozens of rats. They couldn't be… As he studied their movements, he realized it was true. They were dancing to her melody.
Mid-tune, she stopped. The rats also stopped, and then scattered into the shadows. He hadn't anticipated her sharp gaze as she turned and looked directly at him.
"What are you doing up in the catwalks, vampire? You're not quite like the others, are you? Let's see how different you really are."
She brought the recorder back to her lips, playing the tune. Then shifting it slightly, she moved it into a minor key. The hairs of his neck stood on end. Time to get out of here. He moved quickly, no longer needing to keep quiet, but before he could escape, the tune changed again, becoming more mournful.
And instead of heading for the window, he found himself climbing down the ladder, in complete contradiction to what he wanted to do. Resisting only made him move like Frankenstein's monster, but he couldn't stop. He continued forward, step by halting step. Up close she still looked quite human, with the odd characteristic of one blue eye and one brown one.
"What's your name?"
"Angel." The word came free without his permission.
"Hello, Angel. You can call me Piper."
Regaining consciousness was a curious thing. Having been on the giving end of knocking people unconscious, he knew how difficult it was to realize you were waking up until it was too late to play possum. Even so, Angel held himself still, listening for that woman… Piper? Is that what she called herself before mystically dropping him cold? A smell made his nose to twitch. Since when did his nose 'twitch'? Easing his eyes open, Angel looked himself over. His leather coat had been exchanged for a fur one. How had that she done this?
Piper was crouched over him, a deep-set frown easing from her face. "Good. You're awake. Had me worried. My tunes don't normally knock demons out that long." Reaching out a hand, she stroked the top of his head. "Then again, I don't find them turning a demon into a cat either. I wonder—"
What? She couldn't be serious. Angel kipped to his feet - only to find himself on all fours. Looking down, he realized they weren't feet but black paws. No. Just no.
Whatever you did, undo it! At least that's what he meant to say. What emerged was a guttural yowl punctuated with a hiss. And pre-empting his question of whether it could get worse, she was smirking at him. There was no way he was giving her the time of day if that was her attitude. He turned his back to her, tail high and stalked off.
Or at least that was his intention until she scooped him up, one hand on the scruff of his neck and the other under his front legs. She studied his face. "Are you angry, puss? Now that's just weird. What were you?"
"Oh, look, yet another alley with nothing but couples macking out in a normal, non-vampire-y snack ways," muttered Buffy, resisting the urge to tell them to get a room.
Night two of the most mind-numbing patrol. Willow and Xander weren't even along to provide distraction. Not even a corner-of-her-eye sighting of Angel.
Buffy sighed. It was of the good, really, that every thing was this quiet. Was it due to the impending ascension of the Mayor or was it the demon grapevine in action? She could imagine Willie passing along the word. Psst. You didn't hear it from me, but the Slayer and Angel are 'on a break' and she's gunning for action, boys. Best to lay low for a while.
Heaven help Faith if she showed her face any time soon. Having someone to spend her hate on was handy – plus she totally deserved it. But seeing Angel's dark side in living Technicolor… She couldn't keep up the fiction that he and Angelus were totally separate. Angelus was in there all the time. She'd hated everything about him, all the terrible things he did. But she loved Angel. Did she love him enough to love all of him?
Buffy slipped her stake into her boot. Maybe it was time for that overdue French study session she'd been promising Willow. After she stopped by the mansion.
Snyder glanced at his watch. If they didn't come back for him soon, he wouldn't be at campus to catch the kids sneaking in late. Mondays were particularly good pickings.
He glanced at his watch again, then pulled out a handkerchief to wipe his palms. It was never a good sign when they began sweating. The Mayor would be delighted to hear about this opportunity. How could he not? So what was taking so long?
The door opened and a dark-haired girl entered with the two assistants in her wake. He might not be the most observant man, but their fear of her was evident.
"Principal Snyder," said the girl.
He stood up, extending his hand and hoping it was dry. She looked familiar. Young enough to be one of his high school students, but she wasn't. He might detest the majority of his charges, but he knew their faces and names. He hated the feeling of knowing he should know who she was. "Hello, Miss… Have we met before?"
She smiled in a way that made him feel stupid. "The Mayor isn't interested."
Snyder dropped his hand and his jaw. "What? But this would remove the much of the problematic element of Sunnydale. He's always had a desire to remove the… vermin."
He smiled, pleased at his discretion via pun. The girl did not appear to be amused. He wasn't sure what reaction would make her pleased.
Turning to the two assistants, she asked, "I did say the Mayor isn't interested, didn't I?"
"Yes, Miss Lehane."
Without turning back to him, she moved toward the door.
"But!" Given the way the assistants' eyes widened, Snyder wished he'd kept his mouth shut.
Turning back, she asked, "But what?"
"But she's already started. I assured her that the Mayor's office would support this."
She grinned and Snyder felt like a piece of raw meat in the lion cage.
"You did? I wonder if that would change the Mayor's mind on how to resolve this problem."
She nearly skipped out of the room and Snyder dropped back into the chair. Hell. He did know her. She was in the cafeteria with the Mayor. The one with the knife.
Glancing behind him, one of the assistants drew closer, whispering. "If I were you, I'd undo it. Before Miss Lehane undoes you." He scurried off after her.
TGIM. Being eager for the bell to ring, announcing first period was just wrong. Then again she couldn't remember a weekend dragging like this one had. Used to be they provided extra time with Angel. And now?
"Hey, Buffy," said Willow, joining her on the school yard bench. "You're here early. More training with Wesley?"
She nodded. "I talked him into some staff training – the Robin Hood kind. He's hopeless about the other."
"You talked him into it? On a Monday? Are you… I'd ask if you were feeling okay, but um… yeah." Willow leaned toward her, their shoulders touching. "How are you?"
Buffy studied the ants on the cement below the bench. Their anthill had been scuffed out, and they were scurrying in every direction. "I'm feeling full of ief."
Willow turned her face toward Buffy, her eyebrows raised in question.
"You know, the various iefs," Buffy replied. "Grief, relief, thief."
"You're feeling thiefy?"
She shrugged. "It seemed like there should be three things."
"How about belief? You and Angel, you'll work this out. I know it, Buffy."
"I wish I was so sure." She didn't include the fact that she'd stopped by his place last night. Or perhaps staked out his place might be more accurate. She'd congregated a whole page of verbs and he never showed. She hoped he was a Sunnydale. A safely alone somewhere.
It was reconnaissance, that's why he stayed. Not because he had to. Unless he included being in a cat harness, clipped to a wall hook. Not to mention he'd continue to be a cat if he got out of the warehouse. Add in that he and Buffy were on a break of an undefined length and purpose; there was no one to notice he was missing and come to break him out. Alright, he was a prisoner.
He'd seen any number of demons stumble in, entranced, only to be transformed into rats. Not to mention the rats that came in already in rat form, albeit smaller than their demon rat cousins. They were covering more and more of the floor. Soon the perch she'd placed him on would be surrounded by rats and demon rodents. In either form, there was no love lost between he and the rest of the demon community. He resisted the urge to flinch, but as if it had a mind of its own, his tail snapped back and forth. Patience. He just needed to be patient until he had a chance to pounce.
"If you are going to continue to engage in the unorthodox behavior of assisting the Slayer, you need to hone your senses."
Buffy walked into the library just in time to catch what was hopefully the tail end of a Wesley teaching moment.
"Have a heightened sense of awareness," said Oz.
She slipped over to stand with Giles, outside of Wesley's line of sight. She returned Giles' nod of acknowledgement with a smile. Apparently he was in a mood to let Wes do his Watcher impersonation for a while.
"Work smarter, not harder," added Willow.
Wesley beamed. "Yes. You've grasped the concept."
Xander raised his hand.
"Yes, Mr. Harris?"
He blanched. "Just Xander, thanks. After the last time my father crossed the threshold of the school, there's this whole post-traumatic thing kicks in whenever I think he's left the house."
"Well… I… Yes. Alright. You had a question?"
"I did? Oh yeah, I did. The whole specter of my father drove me right off track."
"And the question is…?" prompted Wesley.
"How, what?" Wesley parroted back. The possibility that they were about to fall into a 'Who's on first' routine loomed large.
"How are we to 'hone our senses'?"
"Werewolf bite did it for me," said Oz. "You might not like the side effects, though."
Yeah, it was definitely too soon for Xander and Oz to be in the same room for too long. Buffy sat down at the table, adding another body between them.
"I'm sure Wesley had something, ah, slightly less dramatic in mind." Giles gave Wesley an expectant look.
Wesley's mouth dropped open like a stuttering Elmer Fudd when facing Bugs Bunny. But instead of stuttering, he took a deep breath, clasped his hands behind his back and said, "You start by noticing your surroundings. And you learn to notice by sharing observations. Xander, name something that was out of the ordinary today."
Xander gave him a look. "You do know this is the Hellmouth, where the unusual is the usual, right?"
"I saw a rat chasing a cat, which is contrary to nature, unless you're talking Tom and Jerry. Does that count?"
"What is the connection between the reversed animosity of a feline and murine, and eggnog?" asked Wesley.
"Eggnog? I was talking about the cartoon cat and mouse."
Buffy doubted that he had any real idea of what Xander was referencing. Maybe watchers weren't allowed televisions. It would explain a lot. She should ask Giles about that sometime.
"Oz. What have you noticed?" asked Wesley, apparently determined to continue down this track.
"There was a substitute teacher in Mrs. Furness' class today."
"And that is unusual?"
"It's the second time I've taken Social Studies and the first time she's been gone."
"Interesting. And unexplained absence from a consistently present educator."
Oz considered the statement before adding, "There may be a flaw in the hypothesis. She's always there when I'm at class, but I'm not always in class."
"So what brought her to mind?" asked Wes in a strangled tone.
"Free association. There's always cat hair on her clothes."
"Oh," said Wesley, a bit dejected. "I thought we might be on to something; while it does not appear to have anything to do with the Mayor's goal of Ascension, there was a crime of some sort at the University museum last week and they hinted that there were missing artifacts. Bothersome they were so vague."
Willow opened her laptop. "If they haven't patched that hole in their program, I should be able to read the police report and find out what disappeared."
"Mr. Giles? Given that we're gathering a bit of a rat theme. Does the library hold a copy of Whitcomb's Animal Fetishes and Figures?"
Giles frowned. "Perhaps. Let me look."
Just when she thought she'd stayed under his radar, it happened. Wesley turned to her, asking, "And Ms. Summers is there anything you've—"
"Prof. Koppenberg had a grant for an exhibit titled Mysteries of History. It says that a she hasn't been seen since she received a shipment from Germany," said Willow. She frowned. "The missing item or items are on an inventory sheet that I can't access."
"More dead people and missing objects at the museum?" asked Oz. "You'd think they'd learn."
"There was a previous death?" asked Wesley, then amending, "Though we don't know that for certain. The curator's status."
"Working there is more dangerous that being principal," said Xander, "'Wanted: Museum Curator. Must be into musty stuff and wacky danger. Short life expectancy required.' I wonder where they keep getting these guys. You'd think the Watcher's Council had that market cornered on the Hellmouth short list."
"This is unfortunate," said Giles, returning from the stacks and flipping through an oversized book. "I have Whitcomb's Furies and Fairies, but Fetishes must be at my home."
Before that line of conversation could go somewhere Buffy did not want to think about, she interjected, saying, "Ooh! Maybe Indiana Jones will show up next."
"Ms. Summers, you are aware he is a fictional character."
"Yeah, well, that's what they said about vampires, witches, and Hansel and Gretel. Real, real, very much real."
Wesley sputtered. "Just because you were raised to believe that things which are real were not does not mean—"
Giles interrupted, trying a different tact. "If Indiana Jones were real, he'd be over 100 years old."
Buffy wrinkled her nose. "That's like two of you added together. Okay, maybe not Indiana Jones."
"I hardly—" said Giles.
Whatever age Wesley was going to admit to, he thought better of it. How old was he anyway?
"Buffy, did you have a chance to answer whether you've noticed anything out of the ordinary recently?"
So he'd caught that, huh? Buffy caught her lower lip in her teeth. This was starting to sound like something, which meant having to talk about Angel. Maybe she should wait to see what Giles' book said. What Angel had mentioned might be nothing. Of course every time she told herself she didn't need to share something, it turned out to be the one thing she should have shared.
"A while back Angel mentioned that the rats in town seemed unusually active," she blurted.
"How'd he work that gem into conversation?" asked Xander. "'By the way, honey, are you good and vaccinated? There might be an outbreak of bubonic plague. I've been noticing—"
"You know what," said Willow, trying to telegraph with a wide-eyed look the whole Angel thing.
Of course that had Giles ignoring the book before him and giving her a questioning look. Buffy pretending that his look was intended for whatever was on the page and not her. She knew she had to tell him something, but she just wasn't sure what was going on with Angel, even if she had initiated the break.
"When did he mention this?"
Thank heavens for task-oriented Wes. "It was before we went Redford and Newman on Faith."
"I believe she's referring to the actors from the movie, The Sting," said Giles, his eyes boring into her until she met them. "I do hope you're not equating yourselves with characters in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
So watchers did get to see movies, but then again, classic. Was he really worried she'd go kamikaze? She shook her head. "I would have picked Thelma and Louise if I were going for fiery, hopeless, star-crossed death imagery."
"How are you and Angel like the leads from The Sting?" inquired Wesley.
"Wait for it…" muttered Xander.
"Oh," said Wesley, the light bulb nearly bat-signal bright over his head, "as in the con we just played on her. So your conversation about the increase in the residential rodent activity was nearly a week ago, possibly longer?"
She did have to give Wesley credit for not losing the thread of the conversation amid all the extraneous.
Piper's raised voice woke Angel. Slitting his eyes and flicking his ears forward, he took in the scene.
Her arms were stretched out, taking in the whole of the warehouse. "It's a little late for that, don't you think?"
"Well, I, ah…" The principal looked around nervously and stepped back toward the door.
Since Angel had last been awake – the urge to sleep was even stronger as a cat than as a vampire – the number of rats in the warehouse had increased significantly.
"The Mayor's reaction was not what I expected, given our previous conversations about the… sanitation needs of Sunnydale. He's always been quite fastidious about issues of hygiene."
Piper's eyes narrowed. "How convenient. Now that I've gathered so many, the Mayor is unwilling to pay my very reasonable fee."
"I… I…" The principal was wiping his hands up and down his pant legs until the fabric was clinging in a way that would have made him look like a gangster if not for the polyester.
"What am I supposed to do with them now?" she demanded.
He gulped. "Perhaps there's a private agency that might be interested?"
"In demons turned into rats?" she asked, her voice rising. "I'm just sure there's a market for them. I'll just open the phone book and find a lab that wants them for a control group!"
"Sounds like a great idea!" He dashed for the door, kicking rats out of the way until he could squeeze through the opening.
"I will not be treated this way!" she screamed at the slammed door. Her face revealed her desire to throw something, but the only items not bolted down were her pipe, the rats, and his little furry self. He shrank back on his ledge, not putting cruelty to animals past a woman who would engage in transmogrification.
"Not a fan of the upper window drop?" Buffy asked, helping Xander to his feet.
"If we're going to make a regular habit of entering after hours, can't we get a key made? Maybe a master key? One that opens morgues, museums, and the Magic Box?"
"That would cover most of the bases, wouldn't it?" she replied as she and Xander helped Willow inside.
"There's probably a spell for that," mused Willow, then sighed. "Way too far above my skill level."
"Let's see if we can find Prof. Koppenberg's office," suggested Buffy. The name plate for on all the doors made that easy enough. Buffy studied the professor's door, frowning. "I wasn't expecting locked doors on the inside. I should have worn different shoes."
"How about we try the knob first?" suggested Xander, as he gave the knob a twist and the door opened.
"Ooh! Good call," Buffy said, stepping around him and into the room.
He shrugged. "I guess they figured there was nothing left to steal."
There were lots of diplomas on the wall and pictures of what was probably the professor at various digs, complete with sunglasses and a floppy hat. With her dark and heart-shaped face, she sorta kinda maybe looked a bit like Ms. Calendar.
Which lead to the guilty thought of wondering if Giles had a type, and assuming the professor wasn't dead, if she'd be it. And even guiltier thoughts that she wouldn't be worried about setting Giles up if Angelus hadn't killed Jenny.
"Ooh, packing list!" declared Willow. "It's from Germany and the delivery date is right."
"I'll go find the copier. The sooner we're out of here, the better," said Xander.
"No need. There's only one item on here, which really isn't much of an exhibit."
"What's the item, Willow?"
"It was the Pipe of Hameln."
"Hameln?" asked Buffy. "Why does that sound familiar?"
"Ditto on the sounding familiar – and I slept through most of history and geography."
"Speaking of sounds, did I just hear the door open?" asked Willow.
"And lights!" whispered Buffy. "Let's go!"
"Can't we just hide here?" asked Xander.
"Bathroom. Now!" hissed Buffy.
"Oh, that kind of go."
Buffy shot Xander a look of death, which seemed to work, as he was silent and moving. They made it to the bathroom, which, thankfully, had a window. A tiny window. She mentally measured it, hoping Xander was in for another six foot drop and not being stuck like Winnie-the-Pooh.
He rolled on his back, twisting and squirming, but to no avail. Panting, Angel flopped back, limbs akimbo. He'd anticipated needing to fight his way out, but he'd assumed that it would be against Piper. Or the Rat-King while the music from The Nutcracker Suite played in the background. But that wasn't the case.
Piper was gone and the door wide open. Most of the rats were gone, but here he was, stymied by a damn cat harness. Thankfully no one was present to observe his humiliation. Contorting his body again, he tried to wriggle out, but still it didn't come off.
Think. He couldn't run solely on instinct. Ignoring the feel of the harness, he studied what held him to the wall: the leash. It had enough lead that he could sink his teeth into it. He purred with satisfaction and got to work.
Once freed, Angel jumped down, bulleting out the warehouse door, thankful it was dark. He wasn't sure whether being a cat cancelled out being vulnerable to sunlight. Moving as quickly as possible toward the inhabited portion of Sunnydale, Angel reviewed his options. Piper's current plan trumped Buffy's request for space and time. Not that she would recognize him anyway. One problem at a time.
"You two go first," Xander whispered. "In case…"
Buffy shook her head. No one was getting stuck, and she'd go last; that's how it worked. She was relieved that they didn't argue. As if they were of one mind, they boosted Willow up on the sink, and then out the window. Xander's exit was less elegant and noisier than she would have liked, but still successful.
Climbing up on the sink, Buffy poked her head out the window, judging the distance. She grasped the top of the frame and pulled herself up, her feet pushing through the opening. She dropped to the ground in a smooth crouch.
"How do you do that?" asked Xander. "Okay, I know how, but still. How do you do that?"
Buffy smiled. "Let's see if there's a car in the lot. I want to know who else is making an after hours visit."
They snuck around the side until they reached the parking lot.
"Jackpot!" said Xander. "Uh, now what?"
"Do you know what the make and model of that car is?" Buffy asked.
"Good. We'll need that. Let's go tell Giles."
Between the license plate number she'd written on her hand and the car's description, Buffy knew Willow could hack the answer to who owned the car.
Shifting the stack of books to one arm, Wesley fished his house keys out of his coat pocket, and with minimal fumbling he inserted the proper key into the lock. Just as he prepared to step over the threshold, something bumped against his legs and caused him to trip. The momentum sent the books tumbling to the ground. Berating himself for carrying these priceless volumes so casually, he dropped to his knees and inspected them for damage.
An unearthly screech sounded behind him. Scrambling back to his feet, he caught sight of a blur of brown and black rolling over and over until it hit the retaining wall. The blurs were a rat nearly as big as his forearm and there was an even bigger black cat with its teeth sunk into the rat's neck.
Dear lord, was that what he'd nearly tripped over? Perhaps the larger rats were more active because they were consuming the smaller ones.
Before he could retreat to the safety of his home, the cat's yowl stopped him short. Its harness and leash had gotten wound around the branch of a shrubbery, giving the rat a decided advantage. After a hairsbreadth of hesitation, Wes inched behind the cat, giving wide berth to the rodent, and unclipped the leash.
No sooner was the cat free, than it pounced the rat again, sinking its teeth into the rat's neck and shaking it until its neck snapped. Grasping the now dead rodent it its jaws, the cat dragged and deposited the carcass on Wes's welcome mat. It looked up at him expectantly. Wes had heard of cats bringing their kill to whomever they considered their alpha, but certainly not to a stranger. And this cat must have an owner, given the harness, though why one would try to walk a cat was beyond his reasoning. Adding to the peculiarity, the cat quickly lost its look of triumph, slinking back away from the door.
"Uh, thank you?" The cat lifted its head, its ears swiveling forward, and Wesley could have sworn its face held a look of relief. He wasn't sure what moved him to ask, but he did. "Would you like some milk or such? I just purchased it Friday. It should be fresh."
He took the meow as a yes.
"The Pipe of Hameln," Giles repeated as he wandered off toward of his book cases. "That does sound familiar."
"That's what we said!" exclaimed Willow, coming close to gesturing with the hand that was holding the tea cup.
"Ah, here," said Giles, leafing through a book. "Just as I thought. The Pipe of Hameln was used by the piper of Hameln. You might be more familiar with the tale by the name "The Pied Piper of Hamelin."
"Is that the one about the guy who played a song and all the rats followed him out of town?" asked Xander.
"And when the town didn't pay, he took away all the children," added Buffy with a shiver, wrapping her hands around her tea.
"Unfortunately, yes. There are some who believe he turned the children into rats before taking them away."
"That's horrible!" said Willow.
"Quite." Giles removed his glasses, polishing them before returning them to his face. "What is not widely reported in the tales is that the pipe was made of bone. There are those who believe that it's demon bone – and has the power to control demons."
"Do werewolves count? Can they be controlled?" asked Willow.
Or vampires, Buffy wondered.
"We're not close to a full moon, that should improve his chances, but I'm unsure how far the power of the pipe extends." Giles frowned. "Which in the wrong hands—"
"Like Mayor-shaped hands," said Buffy. "What if his people took it?"
"Regardless of who took it, we need to find it."
They all nodded their agreement.
"I'm calling Oz right now, if you don't mind, Giles," said Willow.
And Buffy had to find Angel.
Angel's stomach growled. Perhaps he should have waited for the milk, but the wind had picked up, delivering the unexpected surprise of Piper's scent. As much as he wanted to find Buffy and relay what he knew – somehow - what would it matter if he couldn't lead them to Piper?
When he found her, she was standing on her door step, wringing her hands as she answered the questions of a police officer. The flashing lights and the handful of neighbors watching from their own doorsteps held a delightful thrill of schadenfreude. Slinking under the shrubbery, Angel settled in to see where this might end.
"Angel?" called Buffy. "Are you home?"
She looked through each room, then the garden, then back to the rooms again - just in case they'd somehow passed each other. He wasn't there. It didn't even look like he'd been there since her last visit. Angel owned, like, six things and kept them so tidy it was hard to tell if he'd been home an hour ago or last week.
Digging in her bag, she found a pen and a notebook with lots of blank pages. What to even say? When in doubt, the K.I.S.S. rule.
Angel, there's a new big bad in town. We need to talk.
How to sign it? Love? Too much. Sincerely? Too formal. Maybe she could avoid that whole thing by not signing it. As if anyone else were leaving him messages on school paper with purple ink.
Her pen hovered over the paper before she finally scribbled Buffy.
Chewing on the end of her pen, she gave it an addendum.
P.S. Be careful.
Ripping it out, she folded it in half, wrote his name on it and tented it on the fireplace mantle.
He better come home soon.
"The creature was well over a foot in length!" declared Wes.
Giles frowned. "That's unusual, even for this area."
When Wesley had drawn them around a library table, saying he had an intriguing development to share, Buffy hadn't really believed him, not compared to the Pipe of Hamline thing, but this did sound strange.
"By 'this area', you mean 'Hellmouth'," said Buffy.
"Well, I was thinking California, but it sounds rather large for the Hellmouth as well," answered Giles.
"One might even say a rodent of unusual size," chimed Xander.
"Yes, Xander," said Wesley, nodding his head vigorously, "that quite accurately describes them. Mr. Giles, did you have any luck finding Whitcomb's Animal Fetishes and Figures?"
"Yes. Which I read last night, but had no reference to oversized rats."
"We need a name better than 'oversized rats'," said Xander. "Ohh! How about R.O.U.S.'s?"
"R.O.U.S.'s?" Wesley asked.
"For 'Rodent of Unusual Size'," Xander said solemnly.
"Quite creative, Mr. Har— Xander. It's perhaps unnecessary, though."
"Well, if it means that much—"
"Excellent! R.O.U.S. it is!"
"Yes, yes, Xander," Giles interrupted, "And 'mawidge is what bwings us togewer today'. Can we get back to matter at hand?"
Xander gapped at Giles. "You've seen The Princess Bride?"
"And in a theatre, even. You don't need to look that surprised."
"May I ask what you are talking about?" asked Wesley.
"Something that is not germane to the matter at hand," Giles offered. "Were you able to dispatch the rat with a ramekin or other appropriate rat skewer?"
"This is where the story gets even more peculiar!" said Wes, launching into a detailed description of a cat and the pursuant struggle.
"Maybe it was a very small puma," Willow offered.
"I… No, it was a house cat," said Wesley. "It wore a harness, of all things, and had a white mark on its chest. One might say it was cross-shaped. Quite distinctive."
"A white mark on its chest? Like the Cat Sídhe?" asked Giles.
"I hadn't considered that possibility, but yes, I suppose it could be. It would be rather out of place here," said Wesley.
"The tag line of the Hellmouth is 'We Make the Impossible Possible'," said Xander.
"So what's a Catchy?" asked Buffy.
"Phonically, it's pronounced 'caught shee'," explained Giles, writing it out phonically on a note pad and passing it her before continuing. "Irish and Scottish folklore talk of a fairy or a witch that has been transformed into a large, black cat with a white mark on its breast. Perhaps it was turned by the pipe. Once I see the cat, I might have a better idea of what we're dealing with."
"See the cat," repeated Wesley.
"You did detain it, didn't you?"
"I, ah… I took the torn harness off of it, and then went to get it milk. When I returned, it was gone."
"There goes that lead," muttered Buffy.
"Is this a good time to announce that things are getting curiouser and curiouser?" asked Willow. "I looked up the car that was at the museum last night. It belongs to Maggie Koppenberg – Dr. Maggie Koppenberg."
"The one who's missing?" asked Xander.
"Was missing," said Willow. "She showed up this morning. The report says, 'She claimed it was all a big mix up. That she'd gone out of town to have the pipe authenticated.' And if you believe it, the case is closed."
"Unlike Sunnydale's finest," said Xander. "I smell a rat."
Blanching, Buffy ran her knife across the rodent's throat, putting it out of its misery. The sound it made was gurglier than that of the R.O.U.S.s when they had their movie death.
"So why is it that the Watchers are going to the museum instead of us?" asked Xander.
Using the toe of her boot to push the rat out of the way, she said, "Apparently two men with British accents, dressed in tweed, fit in better at an exhibit opening than high school students."
"I still think I could have been quite convincing. At least as being an undergrad," said Willow. "It would probably be too much of a stretch to pull off being a grad student."
"You'd be more believable than the grad student," Oz assured her.
"As long as it means we get our hands on that pipe and get rid of the rats, then Giles and Wesley can be double-oh-five and six anytime," said Buffy.
"It's just as well, this way we get to be the Three Musketeers," said Willow."Complete with our own rapiers. Or at least Buffy has one."
If anyone could find the silver lining to this, it was Willow.
"But there are four of us." Xander pointed out.
"That's okay, d'Artagnan joined Athos, Porthos, and Aramis," she explained.
"So why not the Four Musketeers?"
"It's like the Hitchhiker's Guide books being called a trilogy," said Oz.
"Oh, okay. So if the musketeers had swords, did the swordeteers have muskets?" asked Xander.
"Another mystery of history we'll never know the answer to," said Buffy, wiping the gore from her blade.
As she stood, Xander gave her a nudge, pointing down the street and whispering. "Buffy. Do you see that cat? Do you think it's the one Wesley was talking about?"
"Where?" Buffy squinted, trying to see where he was pointing. "And why are we whispering?"
"Didn't want to scare it off?"
"Good point. But what are the odds of it being the same cat?"
"Ooh, I see it!" yelped Willow before dropping her voice. "It's up ahead, kitty-corner from the Magic Box. Does it have that white mark on its chest Wesley talked about?"
"Kitty-corner," Xander repeated, grinning.
"I don't know. The way it's all tucked up, I can't tell," said Buffy.
As if on cue, it sat up and looked directly at them.
"Guess we can stop whispering," said Buffy, squinting at it. "It does have some sort of mark on its chest."
"I think it is a cross," Oz said.
Buffy turned toward him. "You can see that far?"
He shrugged. "Werewolf thing, I guess. But Xander's the one with the good eyes, noticing it first."
"Thanks," replied Xander.
Buffy and Willow exchanged a look. That, what ever that just was, was major. It seemed weird to follow it up with cat talk. But then again, even weirder to talk about the normalizing of relations.
Hesitantly Willow asked, "Should we get the cat or check in at the Magic Box first?"
"I'm not sure that four teenagers asking questions about whether there's been any run in product lately is going to make Mr. Whosit – or whatever the current owner's name is – eager to answer."
"Talk about another high turnover job in good old Sunnydale," observed Xander. "If we graduate, I say we do whatever it takes to get out of this town. Or at least find safe work like… Is there safe work in this town?"
Oz's unexpected overture must have affected Xander more than he wanted to admit. That was some quality clown babble. Buffy decided the best plan was to keep going as if he weren't babbling like a brook. Possibly create a little breathing space as well.
"Willow, do you and Oz want to see what he'll tell you? Xander and I will keep an eye on the mystery cat."
"We're from the British Museum, here to see their current indigenous people's exhibit and determine if we'll agree to their request to loan them part of our traveling collection," repeated Wes as the reached the entryway to the museum. "Yes, I think this ruse will work."
"Right," said Rupert. "May I suggest not offering those credentials until asked? Perhaps it won't be necessary.
He understood Rupert's nervousness. It would be dishonest to say he didn't feel a bit of it himself. But as his father always said, all energy could be channeled for one's own propose. Let the adventure begin.
They stood in the doorway, taking in the dozen or so persons in the first room. The light buzz of voices suggested more people around the corners in the other display areas. Wesley pulled at his cuffs, smoothing the lay of his dinner jacket. This was his environ - s, unlike that free-for-all called a high school. Here, in this place, their mission would be a success.
"Perhaps if we split up?" suggested Rupert. "The sooner we find the—"
"— bone pipe, the better!" finished Wes.
Giles glanced around, his unease clear, and in a low voice said, "I was going to say Dr. Koppenberg, but yes. Now if you'll excuse me, I believe the professor's office is off this way."
"If she's not in the exhibit area, then I should go with you," Wes suggested.
Rupert took off his glasses and used his pocket square to clean the glass. How did one pair of spectacles warrant so many smudges?
"While I cannot claim I've been a mover or shaker in Sunnydale," Rupert began, "I have been here long enough to have raised my profile to the point that I am more likely to be recognized. That would make our cover less than convincing, compromising this plan. You, on the other hand, would only be recognized by Principal Snyder, who is not a patron of the arts and exceedingly unlikely to be here. Then there are the Mayor and Faith. We're agreed it is unlikely they are tied to this matter and given his more pressing matters, unlikely to show. Mingle, see what you can learn. Besides, it should be an enjoyable exhibit."
"Yes! The Lost Colony of Roanoke. Did you know—"
"I am familiar with the case. Keep in mind we are both more familiar with the matter than the people here."
Wes bristled. "I can manage this quite well, thank you."
"I'm sure you can," Rupert conceded. "I'll be back as soon as possible."
"Rupert!" he called after they'd each taken steps in their prospective directions. "Shall we synchronize our watches?"
Rupert's mouth was in a tight line as he turned to answer. Shaking his head no, Rupert continued back down the hallway.
"Right, then." Perhaps that was a little too James Bond. Wesley moved into the room, accepting an offered glass of punch, and then studying the first placard with its history of the settlement.
"It's just so spooky, isn't it?"
Turning, Wes found himself next to a woman in a sapphire blue dress that she filled out very nicely indeed. Finding his tongue, his said, "Spooky?"
"The way they all just disappeared," she said.
"Oh, yes, the disappearance. Not so much a disappearance as a—" He was going on exactly the manner Rupert had warned him about. "My apologies. I'm going on and we haven't even been properly introduced."
"I'm Amanda Smith," she said extending her hand. "And you have the most delightful accent."
He took her extended hand. "Why thank you. I'm Wesley W—" Perhaps not wise to use his own surname. "Wesley Smythe."
"Smythe? What would be the odds of a Smith and Smythe meeting?" She smiled and drew closer to him, still holding his hand. "So what brings you here, Mr. Smythe?"
"I'm from the British Museum, here to see their current indigenous people's exhibit and determine if we'll agree to their request to loan them part of our traveling collection."
Now that Buffy was in his sights, Angel found himself reluctant to approach her. She wouldn't recognize him and he had no decent way of communicating with her. Maybe it was better this way; maybe being turned into a cat would force him to do what he hadn't managed to resolve with Buffy. But before he could slink off, they had spotted him. And were talking about him. He had a white mark on his chest?
Buffy and Xander weren't just watching, they were crossing the street and slowly drawing closer. He crouched down, fighting the urge to run and reminding himself that they were friends, more or less. Buffy being the more and Xander the less, but regardless, they didn't mean him harm.
"Hey, cat," said Xander, crouching down and reaching out a hand.
Angel sat motionless, studying them, reluctant to return the greeting. What was wrong with him? It was as if he was taking on the cautious nature of a cat. He was the look Xander and Buffy exchanged, then she shrugged, kneeling down as well.
Buffy held out her hand to him. "Ah... thanks, cat for helping Wes. There would have been a lot of screaming and flailing around if you hadn't stepped into take care that rat." She sighed. "I wish I had some treats."
"We do!" said Willow, joining them.
"From the Magic Box?"
"Yeah, but they aren't magic treats. Oz killed a rat for Mr. Whitter, and he wanted to thank us, and I knew he had a cat – who was smaller than the rat, poor thing – and so when he asked what he could do, I asked for a cup of cat food."
Willow handed it to Buffy, who set it on the ground, and then they all turned and looked at him again. Not the most comfortable situation. He wondered if all cats felt this way.
"Here, kitty?" Buffy offered.
"Maybe we should give him a little space," suggested Oz.
"Good idea." Buffy and Xander both stood, moving back with the others.
Dried kibble was not Angel's idea of a good time, but he'd been reluctant to eat the demon rats he'd been killing. He moved forward, sniffing it. It smelled like chicken. Maybe he could pretend it tasted like chicken. Compared to what he usually ate, he couldn't complain. It didn't take long before it was gone and he found himself licking his paws and running them across his face. It worked well for getting the crumbs out of his whiskers.
"So what did she say about magic supplies?" asked Buffy.
"Nothing out of the ordinary. I guess that's good," said Willow. "She must have been hungry, poor thing."
Willow was doing a nice job of scratching just so between his ears, so he'd overlook that she'd mistaken his gender.
"I think he's a he," said Oz.
"How can you tell?" asked Xander.
"Smells male." Oz scrunched his nose. "And familiar. But I don't know why."
Angel studied him. It made sense that a werewolf might recognize his scent.
"We should take him with us," suggested Willow. "Maybe to your house, Buffy? It's closest."
Buffy looked at Angel dubiously. "I don't know. Usually, me and cats? Unmixy things."
"You're not a cat person?" asked Willow.
"It's not that. I'm all about the cats, but cats are not Buffy persons."
"That's because you're a dog," said Oz.
"A dog." She was smiling, and Angel had a feeling it was due to Willow's look of horror at the comment. "I haven't been called that lately."
"It's your vibe. You've got a dog vibe. The way I have a wolf vibe. You should see the reaction if I'm within twenty feet of the pet store."
Buffy crouched down. "So how come you're not giving us the whole hair-on-end hissing cat routine?"
Angel placed his front paws on her knee. He couldn't resist kneading them slightly as he bumped his cheek against her hand. If anyone ever asked, he was blaming it all on cat instinct. Buffy ran her hand across the top of his head, along his back, and then was scratching right at the base of his tail. Oh… that was just…
"Normally I hate being pawed," she told him.
"Ah, but then maybe you've never been pawed properly," said Xander.
"If I didn't know better, Xander," said Buffy as she looked closely at Angel, "I'd swear this cat just rolled his eyes at you – and what big brown eyes you have."
"Everybody's a critic."
"Or has good taste," she teased. Then brushing a finger across the tops of his paws she added, "And I can't believe Wesley didn't mention the cute little tufts of fur between your toes."
Gently Buffy lifted his paws and set him to the ground before straightening up. "We should get home. The rats are getting more aggressive."
"But what about the cat?" Willow asked.
"If he follows us, I guess we'll have to take him in."
"And if he doesn't? Don't we need to keep him to show Giles?"
"We can't make him come with. He's way bigger than any normal house cat I've ever seen. Add in those teeth and claws? Short of going back and getting Giles' tranq gun, it's gonna have to be voluntary." Buffy leaned down, rubbing his head between his ears. "The good news is I think he wants to come with us. Won't you?"
Angel purred in agreement. As long as they let him stay nearby, somehow he'd figure out a way to communicate with them.
It had only been a hunch, but even so, Rupert was surprised to find the professor at her desk, a small lamp creating a pool of light in the darkness. Her black dress was appropriate for the event, yet she seemed oblivious to the fact it had started, her hair falling in a curtain as she studied some sort of book lying on her desk.
He knocked on her open door. "Professor Koppenberg?"
As she looked up, he noticed two things: the way her grip tightened around an object in her lap and the unusualness of her eyes – one was blue and one was brown.
"May I help you?" she asked.
He stepped into the room, wanting to get a better view of the book and the item she held. "I… I saw your light. Will you be coming down to the opening? I've heard that the ongoing theme of Mysteries of History was your idea."
"I'll be down in a bit. Once I finish this. You know how it is, a scholar is always too fascinated by the next thing to appreciate what's going on around her."
Her laugh was less than convincing, particularly given the tightness of her mouth and eyes. And in her attempt to better hide the object in her lap, he was privy to seeing a flash of white against the dark fabric, its shape right for the pipe.
"I do understand how… things can get away from one in the name of scholarship," he suggested.
"Do you?" she asked. Her tone suggested he had no idea. "Who are you?"
They'd been certain that the perpetrator's intentions were evil. What if they were something less malevolent? "Perhaps I am someone who can help."
"What should we call him?" asked Willow.
How about Angel, he thought, padding alongside their motley group.
Buffy looked down at him. "I'm sure he already has a name. We just don't know what it is. Can't we just stick with Cat?"
Angel felt his tail curl, amused at her practicality.
"That's not very friendly; he needs a name, even if it's not his original name."
"He does?" asked Xander.
"You named the rats, didn't you? If the rats get a name, then the cat should."
He'd named the rats? Figured.
"So?" prompted Willow.
Buffy raised her hands, shrugging. "I dunno, but I'm doing a pre-emptive veto of Tom."
"So what do you think, Willow?" asked Xander.
"What do you mean?"
"You've had a name in mind for the last two blocks."
"How'd you know?"
"I just know. Maybe something to do with being friends since, oh, ever."
Friendship. Spanning over a decade for two people who hadn't finished their second one. What a novel idea. He'd known Darla, Dru, and even Spike longer than Sunnydale had existed, but that wasn't really friendship. Maybe if he'd known it when alive, he'd know how to nurture it now. Did Willow and Xander have any idea they were envied for their shared lives? How lucky they were? He bumped up against Buffy, thankful to have her in his life – as much or as little as she allowed.
She gave him a smile, and then asked, "So what's the name, Willow?"
"I was thinking Lucky."
"Lucky?" they questioned.
"Just listen," she implored. "It was lucky for Wesley that he showed up when he did. Lucky for us that he found us again."
"Lucky that the Mr. Whitter had food," said Oz.
"And lucky that he was agreeable to coming with us," added Xander.
"So what do you think, cat? Should we call you Lucky?" asked Buffy. "I know it's not your name, but it's the best we've got."
Lucky was the last thing Angel felt, but Buffy had a point. It wasn't going to get better. He did his best to give a meow of affirmation.
"So, was that a yes?" asked Oz.
"Lucky it is," said Buffy, stopping in front of her house.
"Are you going to bring Lucky to school tomorrow?" Willow was clearly pleased with her name being chosen.
"I should really walk you guys home. And then one of you could keep him," said Buffy.
Angel yelped in protest.
"We'll be fine," Xander assured her. "You said it yourself that you haven't seen a demon since last week. I'd offer to keep the ca-- Lucky, but you've met my family. I'm reserving that invitation for my worst enemy."
"We can handle the rats," said Willow, touching the hilt of her knife. "And my mom's allergic to cats."
He shrugged. "I suppose I could, but let's ask him. Lucky? Do you want to flop at my pad or stay at Chez Summers?"
Angel bumped his head against Buffy's calf, purring.
"Alright, alright! I'm outvoted four to one. I get it."
She didn't really sound unhappy about it, which made his purr deepen to a rumble.
"It turns out that while I can change them, I don't know how to manage them. They're running rampant. That wasn't the plan, I swear it."
They'd traded places and he was now at her desk reading the book – a previously unknown soft-sided Transmogrifying Demons for Dummies. Or at least that's what the scribe from the middle ages would have named it if he'd been able to see into the future.
"So you used the pipe, not knowing what would happen?" asked Rupert.
"I didn't really believe what the book claimed about the pipe being magic. I tried it as a lark," Maggie said in her defense, pacing the short length of her office. "Besides it claimed only a rare few could tap into its fuller power."
"And once you knew the magic was real, did it not seem prudent to stop?" How she had been able to start in the first place was mystifying. Where was that information in this folio?
"It seemed like a better idea than a city full of demons. Besides I thought the Mayor—"
That got his attention. "You thought the Mayor would what?"
"It sounds so stupid now," she said, looking away.
"I may not have heard it all, trust me, it can't be worse than other matters I've addressed."
"Do you have any idea of how expensive it is to run a museum of this nature? The constant fundraising?"
"Please get to the point. If this involves the Mayor… you have no idea who – or what – you're dealing with."
"I figured that out a little too late. I thought the city would gladly pay for the wholesale removal of the demons."
"You tried to extort the mayor?"
"No! I thought we had a deal!" She was waving her arms, clearly irate. "But that little weasel, Snyder, clearly is not the mover and shaker he claimed to be."
Oh, this was just getting better and better. He resisted the urge to tell her she was stupid, to point out the absolute folly. It was clear she realized that. Besides, until he grasped how she had managed to do the transformation, they might still need her help.
Rupert pinched the bridge of his nose. "Please tell me that they don't know your name."
"I've put myself in that kind of danger?"
He nodded in the affirmative.
"I used the name Piper."
"But of course. That's a small fact in our favor. But why did the pipe work for you? Everything I keep reading is about the Order of the Pied. And assuming you are telling me the truth, you've had no experience with a magic based organization."
She stopped pacing and smiled. "That, I can explain. I know why I'm part of this Order of the Pied – and you are too."
"If I leave you outside you might not be here in the morning. What if I set you up in the garage?"
If he had to, he had to, but he'd rather not. Besides, Joyce might find him there. He chattered at her and shook his head no.
"Okay, okay. Point taken. Here's the deal. I need to see if my mom is home before you come in. So wait here."
Might as well make himself presentable while he was waiting. Twisting his head around in a way only cats and Beetlejuice could manage, he licked the fur on his back. He had just finished when Buffy open the door and popped her head out, thankfully interrupting him before he'd switched to cleaning his stomach. He shook his head, trying to clear it. The instincts that went with this form were becoming far too normalized, and increasingly harder to resist.
"You're in luck, Lucky. The coast is clear and Mom has lots of Chicken of the Sea." She held a couple cans in one hand and a can opener in the other. "Come on in."
Invitation proffered, Angel trotted inside, amazed at how different everything looked from this angle. All cupboard doors and air vents. Reaching the stairs, he couldn't resist taking two at a time, racing up them and down the hall to Buffy's room.
"Wait up!" called Buffy, fast on his heals.
He bumped the door with his forehead and it swung open far enough to allow him to squeeze inside.
"How'd you know which one was my room?"
He stopped, abruptly reminded of how recently he'd been here, pretending to be Angelus. Or more accurately, pretending to be without his soul. Angelus was always a part of him. And that's why Buffy didn't want him around. Yet here he was in her bedroom. Great boundaries.
"What's with the nearly tripping me? Huh?" asked Buffy, side-stepping him with grace. "Breaking my leg would not qualify as lucky. I'm gonna grab some more supplies. If you hear my mom come home, please don't start making kitty noises."
She shut him in and he had an overpowering urge to be on the other side of the closed door. He fished a paw under the door, before realizing how pointless that activity was. As if that would make the door open. Sitting back on his haunches, he considered the possibility of using his paws to turn the knob before recognizing that was self-defeating. This was where he wanted to be. Needing to distract himself, he first rubbed his cheeks against the corners of her dresser, then he walked the perimeter of her room, sniffing it, measuring it, and assuring himself there was nothing amiss.
What was taking her so long? Tired of waiting, he jumped up onto her bed and curled himself into a ball.
"I can't believe how Lucky took to Buffy. Do you think Mrs. Summers will let her keep him?"
"Hard telling. First Buffy would have to let her mom in the loop," said Xander.
"You don't think she will?" asked Willow
"Buffy's my friend, but she's all about the secrets," Xander replied, shrugging.
Oz listened to the conversation with one ear, mulling over what was so familiar about the cat, and how taken it was with Buffy. When they got to his place he said, "How about we take my van and go to Angel's mansion."
"Say what?" asked Xander.
"I think there's a connection between the cat and Angel."
"We should go back and get Buffy," suggested Willow.
Oz shook his head. "It's just a hunch. I don't want to worry her if I'm wrong."
"Oh. I was going to do the extra credit for physics class, but if Angel's in trouble, we better find out."
"He might be in a lot of trouble," said Oz.
Xander sighed. "Part of me wants to ask why we care if a vampire is in trouble, but the other part of me knows the answer: Buffy."
"Rupert, I can't thank you enough for your help," said Maggie, her arm hooked in his.
"Assuming we can pull this off, you're welcome. And either way, I'd recommend you take a vacation, if not a sabbatical, as soon as possible."
"I'll get through the Mayor's speech and then I'm going home to back my bags," she promised.
"The mayor's coming?"
"Didn't I mention he was attending? This is the kick-off gala for the year long Mysteries of History exhibits."
Rupert was about to ask himself if this situation could get any worse when the reached Wesley, who was in deep conversation with a brunette.
"If you think what happened in Roanoke is frightening, wait until I tell you what was discovered under the American Stonehenge. Everyone knows about the magnetism—"
"Ah, Wes, there you are. Terrible news. This isn't the Fowler Museum."
"It's not? "
He sounded nearly believable in his disbelief. "We're UC-Sunnydale. The Fowler's at UCLA."
"Oh, my. Is that far from here?"
"Quite. We must leave." Over Wes' shoulder he saw the Mayor emerging from another area of the gallery. "Immediately."
"Good bye, doctor," he called as he grabbed Wesley's elbow and propelled him out of the museum."
Angel heard the tread of Buffy's feet on the steps, and the clatter of objects as she balanced them while opening door. Even so, he found it hard to do much more than open one eye to watch.
"Glad to see you've made yourself at home."
He knew what the dishes were for, and, strangely, found himself wide awake as he heard the distinctive cranking noise of the can opener. Hopping down, he rubbed against her legs in a figure eight form.
"You must really like tuna," she said, emptying it onto a plate, and then rising. "Or be really hungry."
He waited until she'd moved away and started fiddling with the plastic tub she'd brought before he approached the dish, trying a bite. Why was he suddenly shy about eating in front her? He'd been okay earlier with the kibble. Granted, he'd never been comfortable drinking blood in front of her, but this was tuna.
"I hope you appreciate this, Lucky. I was going to check on my boyfriend, but I probably can't leave you alone, can I?"
"Meow?" Angel abandoned the dish, trotting over to her.
"Probably sounds silly that I was going to check on him, as if he can't take care of himself. But what if someone was using that Pipe of Hamelin on him? What if they hurt him?"
He'd known she worried about him. That had been particularly evident when he'd first come back from hell. Worried about him. Worried by him. But to hear her voice it, to hear that catch in her voice? It both quenched an uncertainty that haunted him and made the need to tell her who he was all the more urgent. At least she knew about Piper and her recorder. That had to be what she meant. In the meantime, he settled for what he could give her, bumping against her hand and purring.
"Angel?" called Willow. "Are you here?"
"It's okay if you're not," muttered Xander.
Oz moved from the main room to the bedroom and back again, verifying what his nose was telling him.
"So what does it mean that he'd not here?" asked Willow.
"It means he's Lucky," said Oz.
"In what way is he lucky?" asked Xander.
"Not that kind of lucky. He's the cat.
"Are you sure?"
"Smell isn't an exact science, but the scent of that cat and Angel's scent are strangely similar."
"How's that possible?" asked Willow "There wasn't mention of that in the research. Other than the children being turned to rats. Does that mean the rats aren't rats?"
"That is likely," said Oz.
"What if they're children?" asked Willow, her hand at her mouth.
"We should go back and tell Buffy," said Xander.
"We would have heard if that many children were missing, even in Sunnydale," Oz assured her.
"But they're something," pointed out Xander. "Time for the bat signal? I know which convenience stores have donuts at this hour."
"Or we could wait until tomorrow," suggested Oz.
"But why?" asked Willow.
"After we tell her, what next?"
"We find a way to turn him back," answered Willow.
"If there is a way," said Xander.
"There has to be!"
"I'm sure there is," Oz assured her. "But we won't have that answer tonight. Particularly with Giles and Wes off doing their thing. Right now Buffy thinks Angel is fine."
"Maybe not fine," said Xander, waving the note that had been on the mantel and passing it to Willow.
She frowned. "Yeah, she's worried. But Oz is right. There's nothing good that can come from telling her tonight. I can't think of any trouble that can come from waiting, can you?"
Angel had thought Buffy's explanation of the point of the plastic bucket with shredded newspaper was the epitome of embarrassment. And then without warning, she crossed her arms, grabbing the hem of shirt and pulling it over her head, lacking any self-consciousness as she began to shimmy out of her jeans, her breasts jiggling in their lace cups.
A half dozen of his favorite fantasies started like this, except she knew he was there. Under these conditions it was a mocking twist of those fantasies. He could make a good guess of Buffy's reaction when she learned his true identity and thought back to this. Mortification came to mind. In that moment, the makeshift litter box became immensely fascinating.
Now in her a camisole top and cotton pant bottoms, Buffy padded to the door to turn off the light. "Good night, Lucky," she said and she slipped into bed.
Angel stared at Buffy's form, jealous of the blanket she wrapped around herself. Would it be so wrong join her on the bed? Nothing untoward, just to share her warmth once again.
He rubbed a paw across his face. How sick was he? Turning away, he sought out the cushioned chair. The one on the other side of her room, though how meaningful that gesture was in a room this small was questionable. Kneading the cushion, he settled down, curling up so that his tail touched his nose.
It was then that he heard her. Turning his ears, he listened intently. She was crying quietly enough he'd barely picked up on it. There was no way her mother would know; behavior honed by experience. His ears drooped as he connected the dots that he was the reason for her unhappiness.
Jumping down, he padded over to her bed. He stretched up on his back legs so that his front paws were able to rest on the covers, seeking a better look at her. She was lying on her back, her eyes squeezed tightly shut, with tears sliding down her cheeks, catching on her ears.
She must have sensed him staring, as she opened her eyes and turned toward him, whispering, "Uh, hey Lucky. Do you need something?"
He gave her a meow, which came out far too plaintively to give comfort.
"Shh. My mom's hearing got an upgrade after last spring."
He tried to let out a much quieter meow, but he was unwilling to pretend nothing was amiss.
"Do you want up?"
Close enough to be an invitation. He jumped up on the bed, brushing his cheek against the tear stains on her cheek. Her fingers rose to the spot he'd touched.
"It's nothing," she said. "I'm okay. Really."
It was rather hard to contradict her when he lacked words, but not impossible. He curled up next to her, tucking his chin on her shoulder. She took a shuddering breath, and then laid her chin on top of his head.
"Her motive was making a profit?" asked Wesley incredulously, pulling his tie loose as they entered Rupert's home. "Not ridding the world of demonic forces or world domination?"
"Welcome to America," said Rupert, shedding his jacket.
"Quite." Wes wasn't quite sure what the protocol was at this point. Scotch in the living room or research at the table."Shall I make tea?"
"It will be a long night, won't it? Thank you."
"I haven't slept that soundly in forever," said Buffy, snuggling closer. "Mmm, you're so warm. Like my own personal water bottle. I wonder if that's what I feel like to Angel?"
He hadn't thought of it that way, but it was a good parallel.
"As much as I'd like to stay here forever and snuggle with you, if I don't get up, we'll be late for school." With an unexpected kiss to his forehead, she was a whirlwind of action, throwing back the covers, opening a new can of tuna, then wrapping herself in a pink, terrycloth robe and slipping out of her room. The door closed with a soft click.
With a herculean push of effort he stood and stretched deeply and yawned. He'd slept unusually well himself.
With a flick of his tail, he hopped down. While there were far worse things than his current situation, he was getting far too complacent. He needed to get serious about communicating with Buffy and finding a solution to this matter.
But until Buffy returned, he was going to lay in the sunbeam coming through her window.
Ah, the irony. School was closed on account of the rats, but here they all were, gathering in the library.
"Where's Lucky?" asked Willow as she came through the swinging door.
"Good morning to you, too," she replied, walking to the large table and unhooking her backpack.
"Good morning, Buffy," said Giles. "We don't mean to be impolite, but I must ask where the cat is."
They were clustered around her as she unzipped the backpack. Lucky's head popped up in the opening, and he gracefully jumped onto the table, sitting on his back haunches as if he was partaking in the gathering.
"Oops," she quipped, "cat's out of the bag!"
She expected a quality groan for that, at least from Xander. But they all just looked at her. It was the same look Giles had given her when he'd finally told her the prophecy regarding the Anointed One.
"What's going on?" she demanded.
They continued to look at her and then at each other. No one spoke.
"Now you're starting to scare me. What's going on?"
"Oz made a discovery last night," said Giles.
"But we were together."
"It was after that, Buffy," said Willow. "Oz had a hunch, and he was right, but it's okay because Giles has a solution."
"You were right about what?" she asked Oz, then turned toward Giles, "And what is the solution to the problem that's way too vague."
"Perhaps you've noticed that the cat is rather sentient," said Wesley.
Buffy was ready to grab him by the lapels and shake him until someone gave her an answer, but Giles, thankfully, took over.
"Buffy, keep in mind we think we have a solution and I could do a long lead up, but the bottom line is that we believe the cat is Angel."
They were all staring at her, waiting for her reaction. Lucky was staring at her, waiting for her reaction. Looking into his deep brown eyes, it didn't sound impossible.
His eyes squeezed shut in that all-knowing, but not all-telling way cats – and, well, to be honest, Angel - had.
"Angel? Meow or something."
She didn't expect the something to be him reaching a paw up and touching the cross around her neck, the one he'd given her, the one that burned when they first kissed. Buffy covered her mouth with her hand, trying to avoid saying something she'd regret while wrapping her mind around the reality.
"But, Buffy! Listen," implored Willow. "Giles can fix it."
"I should be able to fix it."
"How?" she whispered. "Can we sit down for this?"
Buffy pulled out a chair for Luck— Angel. Five minutes ago she would have encouraged him to sit in her lap. But that was so five minutes ago.
In a daze she watched and listened as Giles showed her the recorder-like instrument, about the book that Prof. Koppenberg had found in a collection of odds and ends left by the previous curator, how only the Order of Pied could work the pipe, that the R.O.U.S.s were demons of various kinds – other than Angel, who was a cat. Koppenberg had made them all, but didn't know how to unmake them or drive them into the sea like the original Pied Piper.
Cutting through the multiple layers of explanation and theory, she asked what mattered, "How are you able to work the pipe? Somewhere in that overload of explanation didn't you say that only select people can work the magic."
"That is correct," said Wesley. "By lucky happenstance, Mr. Giles is part of The Order of Pied."
Giles looked embarrassed by the attention. "It's simply a fancy way of saying that both Prof. Koppenberg and I have heterochromia."
"And heterochromia is a fancy way of saying…"
"Our eyes have more than one color. Prof. Koppenberg's was much more distinctive, having one blue eye and one brown, but I have a patch of brown in my left eye. Some might consider them pied."
"But you can change him back?"
"It has worked on more than one rat, so yes, I believe so."
"So what are we waiting for? Play Mary had a Little Lamb. Play something by Cat Stevens. Just play it!" Yeah, she knew how to deal with all things Angel with a cool eye and a steady hand.
"Due to Oz's foresight, we've set up his cage for Angel."
"Why does he need a cage?" she asked, afraid of the answer.
"Privacy," said Oz. "My clothes are always tattered at best when I change."
The mention of clothes had her thinking of last evening. And this morning. And the changing in front of him. "Oh."
"There haven't been any known complications with the others and their transformations, but this is all rather new."
So maybe he'd die. But then, that was a maybe they both lived with every day.
If a cat could look guilty, Angel did. He stretched from his chair to hers, his padded feet on the arm of her chair, raising his head close to hers. She really wasn't ready for this, and did Angel have a whole new list of things to explain to her. But when they were alone. For now he needed her support. She leaned toward him, her eyes closed as he brushed his cheek against hers.
She held her eyes closed a little longer, letting all of them rearrange themselves. Then the music started. It was sad, then mournful. Brushing a tear from her eyes, she stood with them, waiting for Angel to return.
Giles lowered the pipe. "He's back. It may take a while for him to regain consciousness."
Oz took a second blanket into the book cage and then slipped back out. "He's covered now."
"And there's a change of clothes," offered Willow. "We got them from his place last night."
Giles set his hand on her shoulder. "Why don't you wait with him? We should be able to conduct the rest of the transformations, Buffy. The daylight will give us all a distinct advantage."
"Thanks. I don't want him to walk up like this alone." A smile tugged at her lips. "And I don't think he want to wake up with an audience."
After they filed out of the library, she crept into the cage, gently setting his head on her lap, and waited for him to wake. Running her fingers through his hair, she hoped this time they'd both have the words they needed.
Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer's gone, and all the flowers are dying
'Tis you, 'tis you must go and I must bide.
But come ye back when summer's in the meadow
Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow
'Tis I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.
And if you come, when all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
You'll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an "Ave" there for me.
And I shall hear, tho' soft you tread above me
And all my dreams will warm and sweeter be
If you'll not fail to tell me that you love me
I'll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.