Angel can barely utter a greeting before arms wrap around his neck and a high pitched squeal fills his ears. “Nice to see you, too, Cordy,” he says when the squealing stops.
Wesley and Gunn join them in the foyer. “You’re back. How was your trip?” Wesley says in greeting. He looks worn.
“Yeah!” Cordelia practically screams, “Any residual ‘grr’?” She raises her hands up near her face like claws and bares her teeth as she makes a growling sound.
Angel resists the urge to roll his eyes. “I’m not a mental health case,” he says. He drops his bag and sits on the couch.
“Not anymore than normal, anyway,” Gunn jokes. He punches Angel playfully on the shoulder. “We’ve missed you, man. Good to have you back,” he adds kindly.
Angel knows he was gone much longer than anticipated. After Willow’s message, he didn’t know what to do. He could not imagine a world in which Buffy did not exist. In his mind, their story was far from over. Her story was far from over.
Angel changes the subject. “How’s Fred?” he inquires. After he rescued Fred from Pylea, he left almost immediately for the monastery.
“She doesn’t come out very much. We’ve tried to talk to her, but she just babbles on like she’s a talking textbook,” Cordelia says with a shrug. She grabs his shirt sleeve and pulls him into the office, away from the boys.
“Are you sure you’re really okay? You know, after the B-word,” she speaks like she is telling a secret.
“I really don’t want to talk about it,” Angel groans. “I felt ready to come home, really,” he tries to give her a reassuring look, but is pretty sure it fails when she frowns.
“But,” she speaks slowly, “are you okay?” She pauses too long after each word.
“I think I am,” he answers. At first, he had felt guilty that Buffy had died and he was not there to protect her. Rather than that feeling subsiding, it was just replaced with a new, more haunting realization. He could go on without her. In another 200 years, maybe he would even forget the way she made him feel. That is why he truly felt guilty. He could be okay when she was not.
In an effort to avoid Cordelia’s prying gaze, Angel looks away. His eyes find Fred at the top of the stairs, peeking around the corner. She quickly ducks behind the wall. Cordelia’s knees buckle suddenly, demanding his attention. He hurries to catch her falling body. Angel lowers her gently to the floor of the office. He crouches beside her, pulls her head into his lap, and yells for the others. Cordelia presses her hands tightly against the sides of her head, and Angel can hear her grinding her teeth. The visions have gotten worse in his absence, more painful.
“There’s a demon attacking a woman,” Codelia grinds out, blatantly ignoring his concern. Gunn and Wesley have entered the office. She brings her palm to her forehead, pressing hard. “No, two demons. Maybe three. They’re coming through a portal in Griffith Park,” she adds. The vision subsides, and Cordelia relaxes.
“Another portal?” Angel questions, his brain trudging up many unpleasant memories of Pylea. He places his hands under Codelia’s shoulders, propping her against the desk in a sitting position.
“Fingers crossed it goes to Pylea,” Cordelia says. “I could totally reprise my role as a princess.” She grips the sides of her head firmly, then resumes rubbing her fingertips into her temples, chasing away the pain of the vision.
“What kind of demons?” Wesley asks.
“Tall green ones. Urgent need of a manicure,” Cordelia describes.
“Must be a vahrall demon,” Wesley answers. “Razor-like fingernails. Stay out of reach,” he says to Angel.
Angel walks to the weapons cabinet. He tosses Gunn a battle axe. Gunn catches it easily, twirling it in his hand for effect. They stride to the door quickly, eager to get going. Cordelia calls out right before the door closes.
“Get some tacos on the way home!” she yells. Angel sticks his head back in the doorway, raising an eyebrow in confusion. “Remember, for Fred?”
“Right,” Angel answers, finally shutting the door.
Angel yanks his sword out of the abdomen of the demon, cringing at the foul smell. The blood of demons assaults his senses, as if he needs a reminder that this choice of prey is not true to his kind. When the demon crumples to its knees, Angel brings his sword down again, separating the head from the body with a sickening crack. Talons scrape the air in front of his face, barely missing the skin of his cheek. Angel steps back hastily. The demon follows, lashing out with talons extended. He ducks quickly, then arcs his blade above him. The severed arms hit the ground with a muffled thud. As the demon screeches, Angel sends his sword into its chest, effectively cutting off the noise.
Angel checks the forest for other threats. Gunn has already killed the final demon. The girl that Codelia had seen in the vision is unharmed. He watches as Gunn approaches her, speaking quietly to soothe her. Over to his right, he can see the last feature of Cordelia’s vision.
The portal looks different than the ones that they used to travel to Pylea. Rather than swirling colors of purples and pinks, the air shimmers. It looks like the surface of a lake, rippling with the wind, casting a distorted reflection of everything around him. He can see the trees hanging on to the last of their fall leaves. Gunn and the brunette woman are visible. Where his reflection should be, there is nothing but forest.
Turning away from the portal, he walks to the others. “Everything good?” Angel asks.
“We’re alright. You?” Gunn responds. He receives a nod from Angel in answer. “Marlo, this is Angel. Can you tell us what happened here?” He gives her an encouraging look and keeps his voice low, as if he is talking to a child.
“I was just, just coming for a jog,” she says, stumbling on her words. Marlo speaks directly to Gunn. “Those things, what were they?”
“There’s no need to be worried,” Angel says. The woman glances at him when he speaks, but returns her gaze to Gunn.
“They won’t be coming back. Let’s get you back home,” Gunn says, helping the woman to her feet. They walk the opposite direction, towards the parking lot. Angel stays back, watching the portal. He explores, walking around the portal in slowly expanding circles, looking for visible markings on the ground or charms present. If one was used to open the portal, simply disturbing the ritual would close it right back up. Angel stops when he finds what he is looking for.
Gunn reappears, alone. “Any weird mojo?” he asks.
Angel points at the ground in front of him. There are four crude stoneware bowls. One bowl is filled with salt, and a second looks to be full of water. Blue flowers fill the third. The last only holds charred remains of something unidentifiable. Angel uses the toe of his boot to knock over the bowl of salt. When nothing changes, he knocks over the bowl of water as well.
“‘Cause that wouldda been too easy,” Gunn groans loudly.
“I haven't seen a portal like this before. Maybe Wesley will know-,” Angel starts, cutting his sentence short when the portal ripples wildly. Gunn brings up his battle axe. They watch the portal, ready for round two.
The portal continues rippling, like a flag in a heavy wind. Suddenly, it stills. Tiny objects come flying, sailing through the air for a few feet before falling to the ground. Angel and Gunn exchange confused glances. After a few uneventful moments, Gunn lowers his axe and walks to the intruders. “Now, you have got to be kidding me!” Gunn says emphatically moments later.
Angel looks at the small pink crustaceans. “Shrimp,” he says, unnecessarily. “At least we don't have to fight it.” He shrugs.
“I’ve got a plan. You stay here and guard the world from these freaky things,” Gunn gestured to the shrimp on the ground, “And I will go see what Wesley has to say.” He is already walking away by the time Angel can reply.
“Hey! Take these with you,” Angel calls out. He gives Gunn the two remaining bowls. “You’ll be back before dawn, right?” Gunn waves a hand as his only answer.
When Angel walks into the Hyperion, Wesley and Cordelia have their noses in books. Wesley is reading his, while Cordelia is taking the saying quite literally, snoring softly onto the pages. The door shuts behind him, waking Cordelia with a start.
“Angel,” Wesley addresses, turning the book he was reading to face Angel, “I have found some rather interesting information about the portal. The flowers were blue lotus, symbolizing rebirth. I haven’t figured out what was burned, but to open it, it’s fascinating really, the witch would have to-”
“Great, how do we close it?” Angel asks, cutting him off. Wesley often went on forever about the details before reaching the point. After standing guard at the portal all night, he has no desire to hear a long winded explanation.
“Yeah, fast forward,” Cordelia adds sleepily.
Wesley huffs, but answers. “The portal is very difficult to open because it goes to more than one dimension. Rather than the portal sending someone to a destination, it is for the witch to bring someone to this side. In the meantime, other things can stumble through it. It can be very dangerous,” he says.
“When shrimp came through, I was starting to think it wasn’t picky,” Angel mumbles.
“Woah,” Cordelia holds up both hands, “So it’s just like an open door into several sketchy worlds that anything can walk through?”
“Basically,” Wesley answers. “That was the easy part to find out. None of these books have anything pertaining to closing it. All they say is how to try and pull the being you desire towards your portal.”
When Wesley finishes, Cordelia perks up, fixing her eyes on Angel determinedly. Remembering her relentless desire to discuss his personal life, he holds up the box of food as an excuse. Angel asks Wesley to keep him updated as he leaves the room.
Tacos in hand, he walks up the stairs to Fred’s room. The girl is hiding herself in the small space. He knocks on the door, but only raps it once with his knuckles before it flies open.
“Angel,” Fred gushes in a quick breath, pulling off her glasses and running a hand through her brown hair. “And you brought tacos!” She says the word tacos with the same breathless tone as she used for his name.
“Good morning, Fred,” Angel says quietly, his tone hushed by wonder. The walls of the hotel suite are covered in words and symbols. Different colors and several markers had been used, and there is no pattern to the writings. Some spaces are covered in equations while others have a single word repeated over and over. “What is all this?”
“Oh,” she looks around the room slowly, as if she is noticing the writings for the first time as well. “Just, ya know, thoughts,” she answers.
Angel points at a patch of paint that has the word listen written dozens of times questionably. “Listening to the hotel, to the world,” Fred explains, shrugging. She turns around to the wall that is not completely covered.
“What happens if you run out of wall space before you hear what it’s saying?” Angel asks.
“I don’t know,” she answers honestly. Producing a permanent marker from her pocket, she finishes an equation she was in the middle of.
“What about this one?” Angel points to where she just wrote. That must have been what she was working on when he interrupted her. The wall reads ‘S = k log W’ many times.
Fred pushes a lock of long hair behind her ear before answering. “That’s entropy. It’s the measure of disorder in a system,” she explains.
Angel raises an eyebrow. “You can measure disorder? I thought that the point of disorder was that it isn’t… ordered,” he finishes lamely.
“Oh, silly,” Fred answers, touching his arm but pulling her hand back quickly. “It’s thermodynamics, see,” she points at another wall. “Systems all lean towards chaos. Entropy is how the world always favors death and disorder.”
Angel shifts uncomfortably. “I don’t know if it makes it better or worse that science actually has a formula for that.”
“This version of it is actually for a noble gas, but,” she smiles at the wall, “it makes it better. Definitely better.”
Angel arrives at the park shortly after sunset. Gunn is there waiting, sitting in a foldable bag chair with his battle axe across his knees. Angel makes a conscious effort to disturb the fallen leaves as he walks as to not spook Gunn. When he sees him approaching, Gunn gets up from his chair, excited for shift change.
“Any activity?” Angel asks. He can smell blood and something else, like rotten eggs.
“A Codger demon came through and turned right back around. More seafood,” Gunn answers, gesturing to the growing pile of shrimp in front of the portal. “Oh, and a few Fyarl demons. You ran into some of those overnight, too, right?”
“Yeah, the portal must be open somewhere that there are a lot of them. Wesley said this type of portal is open to many places at once,” Angel explains.
“That whole projectile mucus thing they have going on is totally rank,” Gunn complains. He folds up his chair, slingling it across his back. “Have fun, buddy,” he says.
Angel bids him goodnight and does several circles around the area. The last thing to come through was a Brachen demon, which was not necessary to kill, as they are harmless. Angel let him know what dimension he was in, and the demon went about his business.
He stands guard as the night drags on. His mind drifts, his thoughts circling back to Buffy. Healing the ache in his soul was out of his reach. He has not expected a few weeks at a monastery to truly soothe him. Vampire healing does nothing for the worst of wounds.
For the third time that night, the portal begins to ripple. Angel stands in front of it with his broadsword ready. Angel waits for the rippling to still, the tell tale sign that the intruder is about to emerge. It rests, and out walks something that is definitely not a demon. After a couple steps, it falls to its knees as if in exhaustion. Angel approaches slowly, not trusting his eyes.
Before him is a human. Long blonde hair flows down her back and hangs in her face. A simple white cotton dress covers her body, but leaves her arms exposed to the chill in the air. Angel takes a knee beside her, dropping his sword to the ground carelessly. As he does so, she raises her face to him.
Angel may not breathe, but that does not stop his reaction to inhale sharply. Green eyes meet his. He reaches forward to brush the hair out of her face and behind her ears. “Buffy?” he says quietly, disbelieving.
She raises a hand to caress his face in response, tracing his lips with the pad of her thumb. “Angel,” she says his name in an exhalation. She feels his smile, but does not break eye contact until her eyelids flutter closed in response to his lips landing softly on her own.