Andrew's plan for the following Saturday consisted of American barbecue and a game of one-sided soccer. Kennedy suggested they use her recipe for Thai barbecue, which Andrew insisted was right out since Thai was not American. Kennedy then called him a narrow-minded hypocritical racist man-swine. Thus, Andrew caved, and Dawn called him a spineless weenie-head.
The compromise for Kennedy's Thai barbecue ribs was Buffy and Dawn's contribution of the famous Joyce Summers' summer potato salad. Xander constructed a national park style picnic table for the flagstone patio. Willow was in charge of party favors, ambient lighting and lemonade.
Giles bowed out of the preparations. He assented to attend the event, mainly because he was still trying to smooth things over with Buffy after trying to have her boyfriend bodily removed from this plane of existence. Again.
And so, on the evening of the big shindig, Giles wandered down from his suite just before twilight to prepare a cup of tea. He had been sequestered for most of the day, preparing for the next day's research trip to Amesbury with Andrew and Dawn. As he loitered in the kitchen feeling dreadful, unfamiliar sounds met his ears. He dropped a teabag into his cup and followed the noise into the garden. What he saw when he arrived was enough to humble his Watcher's heart.
They were laughing. And having fun. Giles stood there, quite flummoxed, teacup held aloft as he observed them. Andrew had crafted a makeshift soccer net out of clothesline and bed sheets. He played the part of impartial goalie for both teams, which consisted of Buffy and Spike versus Kennedy and Dawn. Giles had no idea what team was winning, but they were without doubt the source of the calamitous commotion. Kennedy barked commands at Dawn. Andrew, clad in padding more suitable for a hockey match, whined an almost constant, "Hey batter-batter-batter. Swing!"
While Giles watched, Dawn zipped past Buffy, setting up to score. Spike grabbed her by the waist, spinning her off course.
"Spike!" she shouted, laughing. "Stop that. There's no tackling in soccer!"
"Soccer, is it?" he said, tongue in cheek. "Here I thought you said football."
"Cheater pants!" Andrew cried out, "Cheater pants! Cheater pants!"
Spike released Dawn. He gave her a pat on the head. She shoved him, but in a good-natured you're-like-an-older-brother-and-one-day-I'll-have-my-revenge kind of way. Buffy came up beside him and they high-fived. Kennedy stuck out her tongue, then left the playing field for quick rendezvous with Willow over a glass of lemonade. Xander reclined in a lounge chair with a copy of the Guardian and pretended not to watch.
Giles returned his attention to the game, only to witness more snogging. He grimaced at first to see William bend to kiss Buffy right there, in front of everyone. But Giles noticed two things worth noticing. The first was the way Buffy's eyes closed. He saw a distinct lack of tension in her face. And the second was that no one else seemed to take note of their kissing. Not even Xander, who had previously made an art of flinging zingers in the face of Spike any time they occupied the same living space.
A thought occurred to Giles as he took in the scene. It seemed, in that scant sun-splashed space of time, that his plans had been successful. The Flat, the School, rebuilding the Watcher's Council on his own – all of it had been a good strategy. Perhaps his most capital plan ever. From where he stood, this group of people whom he had been fortunate enough to gather (plus others who simply would not go away), could overcome anything. And, perhaps, despite the mounting evidence to the contrary, they could once more save the world and survive the next apocalypse.
Kennedy returned to the playing field and the game resumed. Giles felt himself venturing a small yet hopeful smile. Nothing was impossible, so long as they held fast to each other. Yes. He was sure of it. Everything would be all right...
Just then, the soccer ball collided with his head. His glasses flew askew. Scalding tea splashed his shirtfront.
Giles cursed and spluttered. He could hear Willow's sharp intake of breath. Giles suspected Andrew first, Spike second.
But no, once he had adjusted his glasses he saw that Dawn had Andrew pinned in a headlock. He was trying to pry himself free like a cat attempting to wriggle from its collar. Dawn clamped her hand over her mouth.
"Sorry!" she said, through her fingers.
"The world is definitely doomed," he muttered and went back inside to change.
Morna, dressed in white linen starched stiff, ran through the loft, dragging her toy along behind her like a reluctant dog on a long leash. Thellian and Lalaine could hear her, tromping from room to room in her mute yet earnest style of exploration.
Lalaine's lips peeled from her teeth in an expansive grin.
"She will know every centimeter of this place by morning," she said.
"That's our girl," Thellian answered. He studied the spread of city lights beyond the broad picture window. The traffic streaked through the streets, all of it frenzied. All so pointless. Running about like blood in veins, oblivious to everything beyond their own heart and clutch of arteries.
Lalaine lifted her long form from the lounge chaise. Her thinness of limb often produced a dizzying effect on people. To exploit this fact, she dressed herself in skirts that fluttered past ankle's length and tailored blouses with odd asymmetrical closures. After all these years, she had never cut her rich auburn hair, which flowed like rivulets of ringlets to her waist. Most could not resist the desire to touch it. Most lost fingers if they did.
She drifted to stand beside Thellian.
"You are thinking of Angel," she said. She traced her fingernail down the back of his arm. It rasped over the ash-colored silk of his Italian suit.
"No," Thellian said. His focus lingered on the streets below.
"Not Angel?" Lalaine purred. She moved behind him, dragging a smooth bare arm across his shoulders. She nipped at his ear. "What then?" she whispered.
Thellian grinned. He said, "Ah, look at all the lonely people."
Lalaine pressed her temple to his. "We have plans for them," she said.
Thellian turned to Lalaine. She craned her neck, exposing to him the blue veins that lay beneath her bloodless skin. He pushed the mass of her hair from her shoulders. It whispered like wind in aspen trees. Thellian took a moment to appreciate the exquisite cut of her shoulder blade jutting from black satin. No man knew perfection such as this. No work of God or man compared in its grace.
Thellian dipped fangs into flesh. He drank from her, tasted her. She grasped his hand, bit into the fat of his thumb and drew him in. Thellian closed his eyes, but parted from her. He preferred to watch her feed. She remained ever his fervent girl, one of insatiable appetites. He pulled his hand through her hair, knotting his fist at the nape. When Lalaine released him, she licked his blood from her lips.
"Here," Thellian said, turning again to face the window. "Italy is behind us. All of this awaits," he said, sweeping his arm in a grand gesture. "Luxe will find Angel. When he does, Angel will find us. Until then, let us make this city ours again. Shall we?"
Morna pounded down the stairs, slapping her bare feet on each wooden step. Arm in arm, Lalaine and Thellian greeted her. The bony girl dived at them, one arm flailing wildly, the other still clinging to her latest, most cherished possession – her toy.
Lalaine caught her sister before the gangly girl could tumble face first into the window. Between them, they heaved Morna to her feet.
"Look out there," Lalaine said, in the whisper-tone of a nurse speaking to a near-despondent patient. "See them all, scurry scurry. What do you think? Huh? Think we can have some fun here?"
Morna raised her filthy fingers to scratch her nose. The toy's hair raveled around her hand and wrist in a foul tangle. Lalaine lifted Morna's arm by the elbow. She clucked her tongue.
"This one's got all dirty," Lalaine said. The toy dangled, bobbing slowly to reveal its staring, milky eyes, but Morna pulled it back. She cradled the head, twisting its face to hers.
"It is old," Thellian told Morna, trying to soothe her. "We can get you a new one."
Morna slumped. Lalaine waited a few moments, then began the prudent process of removing Morna's beloved toy.
"She's attached to this one," Lalaine explained to Thellian.
"Of course she is," Thellian said.
"She brought it all the way from Rome..."
Thellian dismissed it with a wave. "Now, now. We will get another one," he said, indulgently. "Tonight if she wishes it."
Lalaine bent to Morna's eye level. "Would you like that?" she asked.
Morna remained still. Lalaine continued to work the grubby strands free from her sister's hand, tearing at them roughly when necessary. When she wrung the last lock free, the head fell with a dull clunk to the thin sea grass mat that covered the loft's expensive green marble tile. Morna jostled her stiff skirts with her fists. She pressed her hands to the glass, then pointed outside, showing Lalaine. Out. She wanted to go out.
"Yes," Lalaine said. "It is that time. Is it not?"
Thellian's face parted in a satisfied smile. "It is," he said.
"Come," Lalaine said, taking Morna by the hand. She led the younger girl back upstairs to find her shoes.
Thellian, alone now, continued to survey the sparkling London skyline – Big Ben, London Bridge, the Eye – all of it spread out for him like jewels on an azure drop cloth. Much had changed in London since their last visit. But the important things always remained the same.
He glanced down at the severed head staring blankly at him from the floor. Thellian toed it with the tip of his Bruno Maglis. It wobbled, its gray lips frozen in a grimace of slack horror. In days it would soften and putrefy, the way humans did when they died.
Thellian kicked the head under the coffee table. He would have Felix dispose of it before Morna saw it and latched on again. In the meantime, he wanted to take in the town with his girls. What wondrous plans they had, he thought.
It was good to be home.
When Angel last stood on the Tower Bridge, the city relied on gaslights for illumination. The air in that time felt gritty with soot from coal smoke spewed from ten thousand chimneys. A mass murderer prowled the streets of Whitechapel in search of bonny lasses gone astray. Tuberculosis killed people in droves, and the poor huddled cold and derelict in putrid alleys, ripe for the picking. Angel had yet to receive his cursed soul, so the afflicted city of London lay like a bruised whore at his feet. And how Angel loved his darkly nurturing mistress then...
Angel watched the swirling turgid water far below. No telling what filthed the Thames these days. Humans added a plentitude of poisons to the list of things dumped daily into their rivers. Pesticides. Petrol. Sewerage. Industrial waste. From his perch on the bridge, though, the water looked much as it had a century earlier. The difference now was the dalliance of multicolored lights that danced on the river's surface. Like birthday candles on a train wreck, he thought. Festive.
All right, so he was bad moody. His ego had taken some fairly startling knocks. Losing Buffy to Spike... well, that painful barb nettled its way deep into his parched and useless husk of a heart. To compound things, he was still in hiding after his suicide maneuver to take down the Circle of the Black Thorn. Angel had nowhere to go (while Spike enjoyed a nice warm bed in the nice warm arms of Buffy).
Oh, and the best part: the injuries he sustained in the battle plus a few subsequent wounds, yeah, these had resisted Willow's treatment. By subsequent wounds, he meant those caused by the dagger that lay like a weight against his chest. Angel drew the D'Ganti Blade from the breast pocket of his coat. By appearances, the blade was a tarnished hunk of pocked and rusted rubble from an excavation site. Its snub-nosed blade bore an irregularly serrated edge. Scraggly, almost amateur-looking symbols scrolled its length. It looked crude and ugly, but Angel knew first-hand its effectiveness. A crew of Scottish vampires bent on taking out the Slayer had turned the blade on him. That one small knife-wound in the back – seemingly inconsequential – was draining the life from him drop by drop.
"If you throw it in, who knows what horrendous fiends might conjure it back," Connor said, from several yards away.
Angel turned to look at his son, dressed in jeans and I Heart New York T-shirt, with an oversized tweed coat pulled over it. Connor gave Angel a forced smile. He came a few feet closer.
"Maybe some demonic crocodile with a clock lodged in his gullet will swallow it," Connor continued. "Or a demonic great blue whale with an Italian toy maker trapped in--"
"I'm not going to throw it in," Angel interrupted.
Connor came to stand by Angel. He rested his elbows on the guardrail, then leaned over to take a look at the river. They stood silent for a moment, drinking in the busy sounds of the street. Tourists and students ambled across the bridge, enjoying the autumnal nip to the evening air. Angel, historically unmoved by the change of the seasons, turned the dagger thoughtfully between his hands.
"It was forged to kill the Slayer," Connor said.
Irritated, Angel murmured, "I know that."
"So maybe you should give it to her."
"Certain elements in her house I just don't trust."
"Dad..." Connor said.
Angel turned on him. "Look, Connor. My thanks to you for finding it, but I'm of the mind that the safest place for a cursed blade is right here. With me."
His tone had been sharper than he had intended. Connor had almost winced, but kept his cool. However, for Angel, the bitterness in his own words unsettled him. He had not intended to be so forceful. Connor, after all, was his one remaining ally.
"I'm... I apologize, Connor," Angel said.
"Don't do that, Dad," Connor said, shrugging. "You don't need to say sorry. I have been right here with you. I've seen."
Angel felt no better, but patted his son on the shoulder anyway.
The pair watched the water again, but soon Connor turned his gaze to the horizon.
"I could take it with me," Connor said, carefully feeling his way with his words. "Back to LA."
Angel smiled for the first time all night. "You're going back?"
"Yes, sir," Connor said. He laughed. "Sure. I mean, I figure I can ease back in just in time to fail my midterms."
"Nah. You won't. You'll be fine," Angel said.
"See to that, all right?" Connor said. He leaned against the damp stone column of the bridge and folded his arms. "You could come back, too."
"What? No. Hunted, remember?" Angel said. "And the last few weeks notwithstanding, I'm not in the whole 'saving the world' business to place you in danger. Kinda runs counter to my mission statement."
"Got it," Connor said, inclining his head. "Thought it might be worth a shot."
Angel shrugged. He palmed the hilt of the dagger. Feeling its icy weight in his hand sent waves of dread through his body. Angel could feel its curse. Could almost taste its hunger. A demon blade forged to kill the Slayer... They were lucky to happen upon it when they did. And Angel could not chance it falling into an enemy's hands.
"I'll just hang onto this," Angel said. He tucked the blade back into his pocket. "Safekeeping."
Connor nodded. "Where will you go?" he asked.
Angel turned to lean on the rail, his posture mirroring his son's. He watched the red lorry busses trundling their double decker loads of passengers across the bridge's thoroughfare. Beyond the bridge, he saw Westminster Abbey and the Parliament buildings lighted up like golden display cases. This had been his home once, long ago. It wasn't so bad a place, as places go. So what if Spike was here. Angel was not the type to surrender lightly...
The image of them in the garden came unbidden to his mind. He saw again how she laced her fingers with his, how her head fit against his shoulder, like pieces of a puzzle finally put into proper place. Angel ground his teeth. The mark of the Circle on his chest seemed to writhe. When he clutched at it, Connor caught him.
"Dad," he said, keeping an even tone. "You should leave here. You don't have to go back to Los Angeles, but, you know, go find Nina and lie on that nice sandy beach with her. You qualify for down time."
Angel laughed, bitterly. "Nah. Beaches aren't really my thing. All that sun," he said. He titled his head back to take in the muted gray sky. He pasted on a stiff smile. To Connor, it too closely resembled his demonic side.
"Besides," Angel went on. "I like it here. London is my kind of town."
The village of Santa Esperanza was in flames. Above it, on the ridge overlooking the canopy, the blackened husks of the mission's outbuildings stood out in stark contrast to its whitewashed chapel, which remained unscathed.
The Priestess left the huddle of burning huts ablaze, knowing that the rain would wash them out, just like the Itsy Bitsy Spider. Her work here was done. She looped her arm around the shoulder of a brown-skinned adolescent boy who walked beside her. She called him Pepito, just because. She had to call him something, didn't she? He was such a sweetie-bear, after all.
Blood ran down from his neck in twin trickles from the wound she had made. She wiped it away with her fingertip, then painted it onto her lips. The boy bowed his head, reverently. She tilted it back up, clicking her tongue softly.
"No need for that, Pepito. You're mine, now. Part of us," she sang. "Village, too. All mine."
He didn't speak English, so words were meaningless. He knew he was not alone. He was part of something, just as she was. Part of something grand and beautiful. Like an amusement park with a carousel and cotton candy and unicorns. And she was so loving her job these days.
She pointed to the church with its steeple jutting skyward through the trees.
"The others are waiting there," she whispered. "You can go join them now."
He gazed up at her with an expression of naked adoration. That was yet another perk, this complete gaga attitude from the ones she turned. Men and women. What a freakin' rush. So what if her hair had gone black in the transformation. She had always been a summer coloring, and the raven mane had taken some getting used to. Really, though. None of that mattered now. What mattered was blood. His blood. Her blood. It was all the same – now.
The boy understood. He nodded to her.
"Hurry along now," she told him, patting his head. "Be a good little minion. Gather souls for the master."
He gave her one more soulless smile before scampering off toward the last remaining outpost of Santa Esperanza.
She swirled her black cloak theatrically, like a silver screen Nosferatu. She just adored the wicked noir thing. It definitely clicked.
Yeah, she had done well for a girl from Sunnydale.