Buffy doesn’t sleep a lot these days. There are good excuses - she’s got an army of girls to take care of now, and more showing up all the time, they’re just settling into their new Rome base and no one’s cleaned vampire house around here probably since all the tourist attractions were new construction, she doesn’t speak Italian at all and there’s only so long that smiling and twirling her hair is going to work, not to mention the continued deterioration of their money situation, which Giles constantly has in the “ing” state of progress - but the bald truth of it is that the nightmares are too much. She closes her eyes and sees Angel burning, his smile for her turning to gritted teeth refusing to scream, as her feet carry her away against her will.
So, no, she hasn’t been too fond of bedtime lately.
She learns the neighborhood. She volunteers for night patrols. She settles the whispered midnight fights that result from girls who don’t know each other and don’t always speak the same language crowding into too small rooms. The theory is that if she makes herself tired enough, her brain will turn off and just soak up the opportunity for sleep.
(Theories have never been her strong suit.)
One Tuesday morning, she drags herself up, nods along to Willow while spacing her way through three cups of coffee, and takes the girls for a run. When someone complains about doing that first thing, she reminds them that what they’re fighting isn’t going to care if they’re sleepy. (Really, though, she likes to start off with them at least a little tired because the day is long, and she really doesn’t get how Giles did this for years.)
(Although maybe he’s been avoiding coming back because handling one Buffy had been enough, one Buffy and one Faith too much, and this many girls is just overkill.)
When they get back, Willow hands Buffy the mail, which she tucks away for later, and the afternoon blurs by: lunch followed by hand-to-hand training, the group divided between her and Faith, then a weapons tutorial because they’ve all been good enough to earn it. Dinner, another run, Willow whispering a story about Kennedy that Buffy doesn’t want to hear, patrol, then a secondary patrol once everyone’s gone back because the girls are still just training.
Tuesday night, but kinda really Wednesday morning, she finally comes back to her room. The exhaustion filling her feels promising, beyond the satisfied tiredness of another day behind her and a job well done. She sits on her bed slackly for a while, not even wanting to force herself up to shower, but eventually she feels gross enough, and lately it’s been a real bonus not to have to wait for a bathroom (maybe it means she’s ready for the old Slayers home, but she longs for the good old days of only having to chase Dawn out of the bathroom).
Her bedtime routine of low light and warm skin, pajamas and lotion, is soothing, and she pulls back the covers with a bit of anticipation. How nice it would be to rest.
When she chokes her way out of her nightmare (her hands forcing the amulet onto Angel’s neck as he struggled and begged her) the clock informs her that she’s gotten around a half hour of sleep. She can’t try again just yet.
She picks up the plan Will printed out to explain possibilities for schooling starting in the fall. Sunnydale’s last apocalypse, like so many previous, had conveniently timed itself for summer, but as Buffy learned, “I saved the world” doesn’t earn you a diploma, and they’re getting down to the wire trying to decide on what to do.
The document is lengthy and detailed and wouldn’t hold her interest on a good day. Staring around the room, she tries to find something that will feel useful and serve as a distraction.
She’d shoved the mail from this afternoon in a drawer to be dealt with later, and this is a pretty decent later, even though she’s nearly certain there’s a bill-related meltdown in her future.
By this point, she’s skilled enough in recognizing urgent notices to pick them out at twenty paces, even in Italian. She sets aside the few that catch her eye (It’s a system. I’m sorting. No ignoring here! she tells herself) and moves on to the junk: a magazine subscription offer, a fake check that’s really an offer to refinance loans, and a plain envelope that’s strangely heavy.
It can’t be anything dangerous - Willow has wards up the wazoo; last week the powdered demoranth horn she ordered had to stay on the front walk because the box bounced off every time they tried to get it in - but something feels weird, and Buffy’s learned to trust her instincts.
She puts down a towel on the floor, and has a stake in hand before she tips out the envelope.
Even these precautions turn out not to matter.
Because when a familiar amulet glows and ignites on the floor, when Angel’s body rebuilds itself in front of her, when she hears the trail of his scream as he registers the lack of pain, it might be something she can see and hear, but that is all. As soon as she realizes what has happened, she reaches for Angel and he reaches for her, and that turns out not to matter.
It seems that Angel left more behind in Sunnydale than a car he thought he wouldn’t need.
The girl sent up to find Buffy is named Mariella or Gabriella or Citronella - it’s hard to remember everyone at this point. She always has her long hair in a high, tight, shiny ponytail, but looks as if she’d like to hide behind it now.
“Willow wanted to know if everything was okay,” she mumbles, eyes on the floor, not even trying to peer into the room through the space around Buffy. On the one hand, it’s a little nice to be an authority instead of an annoyance who can be voted off the island when they don’t like her. On the other, now Buffy’s going to have to start a Picking Up Really Obvious and Suspicious Clues course, and syllabusing isn’t really her thing.
“Actually,” she says calmly, “could you ask Willow to come up here? Nothing serious.”
Based on Willow’s shocked look when she arrives upstairs, she doesn’t exactly agree.
“Okay,” Will says, pacing, forty-five minutes later, once they’ve sent the girls out on their run, brought Faith upstairs, and gotten Giles on speakerphone. “So Angel’s not dead dead, he’s just a ghost.”
“Actually, the criteria for what counts as a ghost as opposed to a spirit, poltergeist, or apparition are quite specific,” Giles comments. Even with him in England (he’s been uncovering the traces of funding left behind by the Watcher’s Council) and even as he tries to muffle it over the phone, Buffy can hear him sipping his tea. If she closes her eyes, it’s like being back in high school: Giles making picky, geeky corrections half into his mug, Willow burning nervous energy, Faith acting like she was above it all even when she wasn’t, and Angel standing quiet and steady at her back. Except even with closed eyes, there’s a loud presence from those missing, Giles is commenting long-distance, and the scent of hand lotion and “should probably do laundry” is a far cry from old books.
Also, Angel has to be worried about being ‘busted, and not just in the Dust way.
Buffy says, “I think what matters here is getting Angel back to his regular self, and the differences between all the different types of ghosts back to being a fun theoretical conversation for Giles’s next party.”
“I’ll be sure to include you,” Giles says dryly, then gets down to business. “Angel, where precisely did you get this amulet?”
“It was a bribe,” Angel says. Somehow Buffy expects his voice to echo or distort through the phone, but he sounds exactly the same. It’s only when she tries to touch him that things go awry, so just more of that same Buffy/Angel song, really. “Wolfram and Hart tried to convince me to take over their LA branch, and gave it to me as a preview of the benefits package. I turned down the job, but we knew that the amulet would be needed to finish things in Sunnydale.”
It’s not exactly the subject change Buffy would have wanted. She’d known when Angel came to Sunnydale that though Wes had checked it out, it wasn’t exactly jewelry designed by the pure of heart brigade. She doesn’t need a reminder that in the face of disaster, she’d sacrificed Angel, had let Angel sacrifice himself, again.
(Hovering around her that morning, unable to hold her, Angel had assured her over and over that even if he hadn’t come back, he wouldn’t have regretted what he’d done. She still can’t make herself believe it.)
“Yes, well, while the amulet did prove necessary in Sunnydale, it would seem that perhaps there was some reasoning or purpose to its introduction, especially through such unconventional means.”
“That was Giles for ‘I don’t have a clue in hell, but I can’t tell anyone so I’d better keep talking,’ right?” Faith asks, looking around with faux eagerness. But she can’t quite make Buffy forget how quiet and shocked she’s been since she walked upstairs and saw Angel. His death - or second death, or not death, whatever - had hit Faith hard, and if Buffy didn’t have a million issues with her, they’d have probably talked about it at some point.
Just because of the issues, though, it doesn’t mean she’s wrong about Giles.
“We’ll email you amulet pictures,” Buffy says. “You research there, we’ll research here, it’ll be the world’s biggest research party.”
“Someone should also call LA,” Angel says.
Faith says, “I don’t think they have a screener about this one, big guy,” and Angel lifts a fond eyebrow and reminds her that he wasn’t running Angel Investigations alone.
“Oh, don’t worry, we remember,” Willow says, purposely not making eye contact with Buffy or Faith. They’d all been on the receiving end of a Cordelia Chase Telling Off for not stopping Angel in the first place. Somehow it seems that she won’t be mollified by the amazing floating Angel that they do have.
“Okay,” says Buffy, ignoring that and moving on, “so, update everyone, research the amulet, figure out how it can help Angel get real boy’d again, and we’re set.”
“A well-rounded to do list,” Giles says, preparing to hang up. Buffy wishes the to do were a little bit straighter, but she’s accepted that sometimes curves were needed to get you where you needed to go.
When everyone leaves, Buffy stares at Angel for a long time. It’s clear he’s uncomfortable with it, but there’s nothing really for him to do. In the ancient days of four years ago, he might have started fiddling with her knicknacks (you’d think that after hitting that century mark, someone would grow out of the avoiding thing, but Angel seemed that have chosen to just get better at it with age). But there will be no fiddling today: he lacks the body, and she lacks the knicknacks.
Most of her belongings were buried in the crater formerly known as Sunnydale, and though she passed adorable shops and tourist destinations every day, the thought of filling her new home with those types of things had been rejected nearly as soon as it occurred.
Angel had sacrificed himself to buy her this new life. By her action, or her inaction, she had lost him again, and this was what she had instead. How could she symbolize that sacrifice with a model of the Coliseum, or a plate with the pope’s face?
“What would you usually be doing around now?” Angel asks. His hands are in his pockets, the little edge of guilt that she can only hear because it’s so familiar. As if his presence might bother her instead of bolstering her. As if he’s ruined her normal instead of making it extraordinary.
She unfolds her legs to lean over and check the clock. “Everyone should just be finishing up lunch, so assuming we’ve avoided a food fight, combat training is up next.”
“Should you go down?”
She almost waves a hand and says that they can do without her for now, but then thinks twice: she and Angel probably need an activity to distract them from suffocating in awkward up here, and since Angel’s a little mass challenged right now, their usual stress release isn’t available to them.
Doesn’t mean they can’t watch someone else fight, though.
She stands from the bed, pulling her hair into a ponytail without bothering to look in the mirror. The amulet is on her bedside table from when she’d taken the pictures for Giles, and she puts it into her pocket - it seems risky to wear, but also risky to keep too far from Angel considering the working theory that it Tupperwared him from Sunnydale. “Come on,” she says, heading for the stairs. “We can team teach today.”
The trip downstairs from Buffy’s tippy-top room gives Angel a bit of the tour of the literal castle they’re bankrupting themselves over. Even with this many bedrooms, some of the girls are tripled up, and their belongings spill into the hallways glimpsed from the staircase. By now, Buffy usually doesn’t even notice the sweatpants and stakes tossed around, the blanket sprawled out either to serve as a rug on the stone floor or because no one could be bothered to pick it up, but seeing it through Angel’s eyes, she’s almost embarrassed; she understands now why her mom always wanted her room tidy before guests came, just in case they wandered past.
Angel takes it all in, and says, “So have there really been food fights?”
She hadn’t realized she was so tense, but her own laugh startles her. “Creative approach to weapons. It’s probably a good thing.”
“Well,” he says, “if the teacher approves…”
Usually thinking about her role in all this just makes her feel overwhelmed. Somehow, though, when he says it, it makes her proud.
“Straighten your shoulder,” Angel tells Juliana. He demonstrates with his own insubstantial arm and verbally tweaks her punch until he’s satisfied, then moves on to talking to her partner, Lisette, about breath and focus and watching your opponent.
Buffy, making rounds between the pairs of sparring girls, gets some real exercise out of the corners of her eyes. Angel’s a good teacher. He would sometimes make suggestions when they sparred, but they’d both been pretty aware that she was the stronger of the two of them and had the more natural instinct. Also, fighting and even meditation had been, in many ways, just a replacement activity for them, a distraction; tutoring wasn’t exactly at the forefront and had led to somewhat the wrong kind of distraction for them.
So far the girls seem to be doing the normal staring at Angel, the “has she been keeping that locked upstairs? I don’t blame her” whispering that’s to be expected. The fact that he’s a souled vampire turned suddenly appearing ghost seems to have passed right by them, or maybe their weird-meters have been bashed to death so this doesn’t even register anymore.
Angel brushes by Buffy on his way to observe Adriana and Sylvie, polite enough not to just go through her, or maybe just set in two hundred years of obeying the laws of physics. She knows that if she touched him, her hand would go right through, but somehow her brian conjures just the faintest imagination of heat from his arm against hers. She wonders how different her life would be if her imagination could make a difference, what changes she would make and how she would be changed. But the fact is that she’s here, with limited time to teach safety to the lives she’s placed on her own shoulders, and she’s been taught herself that yearning doesn’t change a thing.
The use of having Angel here comes into even sharper focus as he works with the new pair: his Spanish and French is much, much better than Buffy’s none of either. And just as the thought is crossing her mind that she hasn’t seen Sylvie smile since she arrived from Nice, Angel disappears.
The girls startle, even the ones who aren’t truly looking in his direction. They shift around and their whispers bloom into a confused torrent. They turn to Buffy.
She steps forward but doesn’t take her eyes off the place where Angel vanished. When he returns to her, always, again, she is the first one to see.
He seems to be able to tell immediately that something has happened. Maybe it’s the way Sylvie’s eyes flinch from him, or that no one is precisely where they were. He faces Buffy and the truth is there in the fear of her face: that perhaps this return is truly only a reprieve for them both. That this might not be a case of things getting worse until they get better, but instead getting worse until the worst has happened.
“How can you not know anything?” Buffy asks, pacing the office that they’ve mostly set aside for Willow’s use. It’s a little bigger, and feels more official and less creepily intimate than everyone gathering in her bedroom, now that they know that Angel’s have amulet, will travel radius stretches.
Although maybe not. Who knows? Not them, because they’re apparently entirely lacking in clue.
Buffy ticks off, “We have the amulet, it has writing on it, we know it came from Wolfram and Hart, we know what it does… That seems totally researchable. How do we have nothing?”
Her voice has risen. Angel’s quiet, “Buffy, it’s only been a few hours,” from where he’s shadowed himself against the wall just makes her seem more shrill, but she doesn’t care. He already has his martyr’s mask on, accepting a terminal diagnosis. Someone has to find the second opinion. First opinion. Whatever.
“I’m sure Giles is doing his best,” Willow reminds her.
“I’m trying to. My research options are...somewhat depleted,” Giles says. Buffy can practically see him adjusting his glasses even over the phone. She might be angry with him, but she suddenly wants him here with a fierceness that she thought would have faded. “I’m attempting to contact Wesley to collaborate with him, especially to get his impressions from the original analysis. But until I hear back from him, the only thing I’ve been able to uncover so far with any certainty is that the amulet is tied strongly to Wolfram and Hart. I suspect that they wouldn’t have simply let Angel have it without ulterior motive.”
“So we’re just supposed to hang around while Angel plays accidental Now You See Me?” As much as she’d put up a good front for the girls, rapidly assigning the best fighters to take over the class when she left, she knows that she can’t hide her fear from these three.
“I was only gone for a few seconds,” Angel reminds her. “And I didn’t even know it was happening until—” And he’s gone again.
Despite the mini-meltdown, Buffy had been holding onto the hope that it was a fluke, a one time bug in the system that, while freaky, changed nothing.
But apparently not.
Into the held-breath silence, Giles says, “Has it happened again?”
Buffy’s eyes meet Willow’s and she sees a wispy, minor version of her own fear there.
“If we could get the research on the bullet train,” says Buffy, suddenly very calm, “that would be great.” The seconds stretch, but she stands still as a predator through them, waiting for Angel once more.
Somehow, they get through the rest of the day without incident. Faith does weapons with all of the girls, which is fine (she likes them more, and all their new slayers can sense that; they’re always more engaged when she’s teaching them) and Angel, back again, stays put. But Buffy can see in his eyes that the second time was unlike the first. He’d gone to somewhere instead of just away from her.
That she can’t sleep that night is unsurprising. She hasn’t spent her day burning and burying her guilt and worry so her mind can settle, and the problems have only gotten more knotted. The idea of Angel disappearing while her eyes are closed hums through her mind like electricity. How long would it take her to feel his absence in her sleep? When she woke, how long would it take to register that he was gone?
She knows she has to try to sleep anyway. She brushes her teeth and walks the thankfully quiet halls for a final time, coming upstairs to put on her pajamas. Angel, already in her room, turns automatically so she can change in privacy, and her first smile in hours is pinpricked with tears.
She pulls the blanket on top of herself. Angel is on the floor beside the bed. She knows that he’s not solid enough for it, but he appears to be leaning his back against the frame. His head is level with her body, and he looks so true that she almost reaches a hand out to see if something has changed again.
Instead she asks, “What does it feel like?” up toward the dark ceiling.
“The same,” Angel says, “and different.”
“My body feels like my body. I still want to feed. I avoid sunbeams and still wish I could feel their warmth.” His voice lowers. “I’ll still watch people who don’t deserve it be hurt or die. I’ll still fail to save them.” The paralytic futility of such an existence washes over her, how terrible it must be only being able to watch without even the physicality to try to help. She can’t even find the words for an apology. If he were solid, she would take his hand.
In the dense, still dark, he finally adds, “I still love you.”
She would take his hand for that, too, though she knew it already. Her feelings have not changed. They can see that in each other’s eyes.
Giles apparently did get in touch with Wesley, or someone in LA, because Buffy answers a midmorning knock to find a delegation from Angel Investigations on her doorstep.
Cordy hands over a suitcase like Buffy is some cross between a butler and a coat rack, and walks past her to find Angel. Wes at least stops to greet her, saying that Gunn and Fred had wanted to be there, but didn’t want to leave Los Angeles unguarded. Also they couldn’t afford a second pair of plane tickets.
In the office, Angel is allowing himself to be reprimanded by Cordelia.
“—should put a return address stamp on you,” she’s saying, arms crossed grimly. “We’ll tattoo it on there. Maybe it won’t help with your brooding mystique, but it will get you back to where you belong if this ever happens again.” She glances around the room like he’s been pulled into some dingy hostel instead of a (mostly) clean, bright Mediterranean castle. Buffy’s never seen their hotel headquarters in LA, but based on her knowledge of Angel, she’ll bet it’s not exactly an interior decorator’s dream. “God, you’d think the Powers would have better GPS than this. And would also remember why it’s world-ending bad news to put you in the same time zone as Slayer Senior.”
Buffy rolls her eyes at the emphasis. She might be tired and older than she once was, but maybe Cordy’s forgotten that they graduated in the same class. And she’s never been entirely clear on what aging is like when you’re dead, so she might actually be younger at this point.
The thought cheers her a bit. She walks in casually and says, “I’m sure we can find you a map, Cordy, but LA and the town formerly known as Sunnydale were actually in the same time zone.”
“And look what happened there,” Cordelia answers promptly. Her hair’s too short to toss these days (also weirdly blondish?), but Buffy picks up on the intention. “I guess we’re lucky that it was him who turned into a ghost and Sunnydale that exploded instead of the other way around.”
“I’m not certain that Angel’s a ghost at all, and I’m not sure what a ghost city would entail and don’t particularly care to find out,” says Wesley. “But yes, I suppose we are fortunate on that front.” He and Angel trade a glance with a seven-layer dip of thanks and fondness and worry. “As Cordelia mentioned, we aren’t entirely certain at this point how the amulet was unearthed, or who did it, but—”
“I’m certain,” Cordelia interrupts. “This is a Powers That Be classic. Angel’s their champion, and they didn’t want him buried under a hundred feet of California suburb.”
“And I,” Wes says, glaring at her, “am equally certain that we don’t have anything approaching evidence of that, and that any number of parties could have taken part, many with less than positive intentions.”
Buffy says, “Now that we have that settled, maybe we can focus on getting Angel back to vampire status quo?”
Wes turns to her, glare thankfully toned down, but before he can say anything, Angel blinks gone again.
The full, baffled circle Wesley turns would have amused a younger Buffy. Now she wraps her arms around herself and watches the hidden franticness in Cordy’s eyes and tries to break the news to them gently.
It takes nearly five minutes for Angel to come back this time, and he tells them quietly that this time he felt himself being gone. Buffy can see him pulling away, and she pushes him to tell them more. She can tell that he wasn’t just taking a quick trip to the undead amusement park.
When she leaves the room, she tells herself it’s because she has a responsibility to show her slayers that she’s still around and in control, because she needs to get Willow to come join the nerd conference (they’ve got Fred on the phone and she’s already talked herself six miles past where Buffy can understand), because if this is going to be a longer term thing she needs to talk to Faith about how they’re going to divide up the training and supervising responsibilities.
She pretends fear and grief and the fear of future grief have nothing to do with it.
Incorporeal as he is, she can feel Angel’s undeceived eyes follow her from the room.
She can ignore her distraction as Wesley talks about the inscription that he translated from some ancient and/or demon language, and can brush off the way she pays no attention to Fred’s lightspeed explanation of some physics concept or other (she wouldn’t have had much interest even under good circumstances) but when she falls asleep on top of the book she’s entirely not reading, she figures that bedtime is the right decision.
Sleep comes quickly once she’s in her room, which is both a surprise and a relief. The dreams, quick to arrive too, are neither.
She dreams that she’s stabbing Angel through the amulet and sending him spinning away into Acathla. She dreams that Angel came back invisible instead of only insubstantial, shouting unheard behind her. She dreams of all the things she’s thought about herself, accusations of selfishness and cowardice, spat twisted from his hating mouth. She dreams of Angel telling her gently, urgently, to go, telling her that it was the right way, the only way, holding out his hand to her once more before she left him there.
When she wakes searching for air, it’s the last dream that stays in her mind, all the more haunting for having been real. She gets out of bed without turning on the light, listens to the quiet of the night as she walks downstairs.
The desk lamp illuminates the office warmly and throws enough light into the hallway to navigate by. Through the partially opened door she can see Wesley asleep in the chair with his head tipped back, his jacket draped over him. A book is still open in front of him, an ornamental silver dagger laid across the center acting as a bookmark. She hadn’t even thought of where he might find a bed, much less thought to bring it up with him. It’s hard to tell if she’s a bad hostess or if they’re just really presumptuous guests.
She wonders for a moment if maybe Cordelia pushed her way into one of the beds meant for the girls, but then she hears her voice, a nighttime version of its usual self. The unfamiliarity of it, the hesitance, the courtesy for Wesley, winds its way into Buffy’s mind.
“Was it just another way to punish yourself? Did you think you’d max out on forgiveness if you killed yourself for the cause?” Buffy moves a bit to see them: Cordelia leaning against the wall as Angel faces her, his shoulders shrugged up. “Newsflash, Angel, you’re a champion for the Powers! You were already doing good. We’ve been doing good for a while now, way more than you can do as a pile of dust or a ghost.”
“And spent twenty times as long killing people,” Angel points out calmly. “But that’s not the point. It’s not about balancing the scales or trying to earn some sort of redemption. I didn’t decide that my life was equal to all the lives I took. Someone had to wear the amulet. I was someone.”
“They couldn’t dig up one willing—”
“Who should it have been, Cordy?”
It’s something Buffy’s thought about often in her own guilt. The amulet had changed the fight; using it was the only scenario that worked. But if Angel hadn’t been there, hadn’t offered, if she had sent him away like she wanted to, who would have worn it? The guilt had seemed pointless before because she couldn’t bring him back. It’s pointless now because even in hindsight she doesn’t see an alternative.
Cordelia says defiantly, “Not to make her take one for the team, but there is someone who used to head up the Sunnydale weirdness committee. I haven’t read the handbook, but I think this falls under the Chosen One job description.”
This would be the point that Angel would start pacing if he was talking with Buffy. He would look away, speaking toward his hands or the floor. Instead he faces Cordelia and says, “And, like you said, I’m a champion. And more than that, I’ve lived a longer life than I ever should have been given. Buffy’s still early in hers. She deserves to have all the time in the world.” His voice lowers, very gently. “If it had been about fighting enough, I would have done that. But the amulet had to be used. Putting it on wasn’t even a choice for me, it was something I did because it needed to be done, and I don’t regret it, even knowing what happened.”
From her angle, Buffy can only see part of Cordelia’s face, not enough to determine her reaction. But then she says to Angel, “You probably just didn’t want to have to be the one in charge of all the mini slayers,” with a hint of a waver in her voice, and Buffy realizes that what she’s considered normal Cordy this entire time, that familiar sharpness, covers something far more scared, more vulnerable.
Angel comes closer to Cordelia. He looks like he wants to lay an arm across her shoulders, and every piece of magazine relationship advice that Buffy’s ever read floats back to whisper paranoia in her ear. But she pushes all of that away and instead thinks of this: how long it’s been since Angel had a family of his own, people who would defend him and care for him. How glad she is for him, knowing what he’s been through, knowing for herself how frightening it is to dangle unsupported and exhaust yourself hoping for a loving hand.
Whatever small progress they make doesn’t feel helpful. Sure, they’ve agreed that Angel’s not a ghost (the whole amulet thing doesn’t really come with that package, plus the heat? Apparently not imaginary). Yes, they’ve seen Wolfram and Hart picking up their evil To Do again (seems there’s a Rome office - Cordy points it out during a lunch run one afternoon, and Willow mentions hinky energy from there on patrol that night - and calls from Gunn and Fred confirm that it’s an international thing). But they still have no proof of anything. The amulet seems to be the only one of its kind. They don’t know why Angel is disappearing, only that it’s getting worse.
He continues to help with training the girls, continues to spend time with everyone and answer questions about where he goes when he’s significantly less here. It should be a blessing and an advantage, but what it reminds Buffy of most is the time when her mom was at her sickest, all the pasted on smiles and eyes politely averted from the proof of illness, the need to make every moment special in case it was the last good one.
Angel spends most nights in Buffy’s room. Strangely, it doesn’t make it harder for her to sleep. Having him there is more familiar than it should be - they didn’t do this many times, and it’s been years since then - and she tries to remember how long she’d wanted just this, to talk and unwind with him at the end of a day. In the softest part of the dark, she can forget the slow-motion feeling of disaster, the sliding sense of running out of time that is too familiar as well.
Somehow, Angel unsubstantial is exactly what she needs to ask him all of the things that she usually stutters over or is silent about when faced with him. She asks him about his time in LA and the team he formed there, about whether he’s changed his mind about what it means to fight. He offers glimpses the life he once lived, two centuries before her birth, and probes gently to learn her fears about the new, young fighting force she’s supposed to be responsible for. She finds herself dumping a pile of worries onto him. Angel was always a good listener, but the advice he gives now isn’t only the sweet affirmations about her own character that she has difficulty internalizing or believing fully. He gives specific advice that comes from his own experience and makes her feel like she has a partner in all of this.
One night she asks him if he regrets leaving Sunnydale.
(“There are things I regret since I made that decision,” comes his slow response. “You shouldn’t have had to kill Dru - that was my responsibility. I should have been there for you more when your mom was sick and when you came back...after Glory.” He still can’t entirely say it. “I know you asked me to break Faith out to help with the First and the Potentials, but I should have made the trip with her, at least for a little while. I knew that things between the two of you are still a little rough.” A lot in the positive column these days, but he’s not wrong. “I know that my leaving hurt you, and I’m sorry for that. But you survived everything Sunnydale threw at you, even with me gone, and I...I found a city of my own to protect. I found people who trust me, and we try our best together. So even though it was a hard choice, I’m not sure it was the wrong one.”)
The next night she asks him about his favorite pop culture moments throughout his extended lifetime.
(“Barry Manilow and the ballet? We’re definitely doing a movie night tomorrow. You’re in desperate need of a good rom-com.”)
In many ways, it’s the kind of life with Angel that she always wanted. Sure, it’s plus an overcrowded slayer school getting more packed by the day with Cordy and Wes still hanging around and Xander sending them new recruits every so often, and minus a corporeal Angel. But at least she gets Angel’s answers and questions as she goes to sleep, and his smile when she opens her eyes again.
Until she wakes up and finds him gone once again, gone through the day and as she tries to fall asleep alone, without sign of him coming back.
“We could try to destroy the amulet,” Willow suggests. “Maybe that would snap him out whatever is happening.” She’s slightly blurry eyed and still wearing PJ pants with cat faces on them because Buffy had given up on sleep and decided everyone else should too, but her tone is practical. Buffy misses the way her best friend would have once suggested it only carefully, darting glances from the corners of her eyes and keeping her voice down. It’s not that she wants Willow to lose her surety; she just misses the sensitivity that she once counted on.
“No,” Cordelia retorts sharply before Buffy can say anything. “We still don’t know how Angel’s connected to it. That could kill him.”
It’s easier to pretend authority when you can pretend that you aren’t emotionally compromised. Buffy should be glad that someone else said it and move on. She gives Cordelia a little smile, and gets a lifted eyebrow in response.
Faith swings her boots off the desk, twirling a stake in her fingers. Buffy thinks that perhaps she’s the only one who notices the tremble along her knuckles. “I don’t think the clue crew is holding up their end of the deal,” she says. “I’ll put the hurt on whoever, point me to ‘em, but if the brainy bunch can’t find me someone to beat the truth out of, I don’t really know what to do to find the big guy.”
“Well, at least you’ve grown up enough not to just go around beating up random people,” Cordelia tells her, but it’s cut off by the smack of Wesley’s book on the table.
“I’m trying my absolute best, Faith, as you know. But the amulet was unique, with no trace of another instance of it being used. There haven’t been any detectable changes to its architecture, nor any shifts in the levels of magic around the city that Willow has been able to find. So I apologize that I haven’t been able to complete my role to your satisfaction, but I’m not entirely certain what precisely I’m expected to—”
“Stop,” Buffy says suddenly. The information that she’s had for the months since Angel first came to Sunnydale blooms different now in her mind. “Wolfram and Hart had a special, powerful amulet, and they just gave it away to Angel?” She looks around at everyone: Wes in his rumpled shirt, Cordelia’s hair looking shiny and unfairly styled despite the hour and the dye, the phones on the desk with Giles and Gunn and Fred quiet on speaker from around the world. “They’re a bunch of big, powerful, ancient evil guys who had this one-of-a-kind accessory that could save the world and looked good with any outfit, and they gave it to Angel why?”
Wes tells her slowly, “It was meant to convince him to join them as the head of the Los Angeles branch. It was a bribe,” but even he now sounds dubious. With all his research into the amulet, Buffy thinks that its source might have gotten blurred the way it had for her, just background noise.
“And how long did Angel stick around post amulet handoff?” Buffy spreads her hands. “How weird was it that they invited him at all? Why did they wake up one morning and want to hand over to the keys to the one vampire they wouldn’t represent?”
“We were kicking ass,” Gunn says, the dawning in his voice now. “But not that much ass. Angel and I talked about it, how it seemed impossible to take care of the regular vamps and demons and whatever dire apocalypse stuff popped up every year and still fit a demon law firm takedown in too.” Buffy thinks of the Hellmouth and understands exactly what he means. “We’d won more than we probably should have when we went up against them and it was obvious that they thought they should have swatted us down years ago, but no real reason to roll over when they did.”
“They said that it was time to stop fighting each other, and offering the LA offices was just a gesture because we’d done a good job of keeping the city quiet,” Cordelia puts in. “They pretty clearly meant it was easier to do their business when their clients didn’t have to worry about being attacked by vampires on the way to a midnight meeting, but none of us really believed that. The only reason we even went was because Angel wanted to know why they were asking.”
“I’m guessing that you forgot all that in the Sunnydale emergency, Angel’s dead shuffle,” Faith says.
“Things did go pretty quick,” Fred agrees. “He kinda zoomed over to Sunnydale as soon as he knew the amulet would be handy.”
“Just enough time to realize that it was real and powerful, but not enough thinking about the why behind it in the first place,” Buffy concludes.
Giles says, “Is your working theory that the offer was never legitimate at all, but merely a ploy to put the amulet in Angel’s hands?”
“They would have known that Angel would immediately move to help Buffy, and that he would likely refuse to allow anyone else to wear it,” Wesley adds quickly, absently fingering the pages of the book abandoned in front of him.
“So the last week of trying to dig something up on the amulet is time Wes’ll never get back,” Faith says, “because we should have been thinking about why a bunch of lawyers would want Angel all snuggled up inside their jewelry in the first place.”
And Willow looks up and speaks for the first time in a while. “There are spells that you can do with the soul of a champion,” she says, “and none of them are great.”
When the girls wake up, they tell them to make sandwiches and go explore Rome. The eager smiles that cross each face at the opportunity makes Buffy realize that she should have given them time like this sooner. They’re teenagers stuck suddenly in a dangerous fate they didn’t ask for, living with strangers far from home. The least she could have done was give them a little time to be tourists, or maybe schedule mandatory relaxation - movies, mani-pedis, journaling. For all her talk of doing things differently, all her intentions and memories of her own early days as a Slayer, her fear for their safety had overcome everything. In trying to calm her own worried sense of responsibility, she had forgotten the lessons of her own life.
The rest of them split into teams for research: Giles and Wes on the history of Wolfram and Hart in general, its deep tentacle grasp stretching everywhere, Cordy and Gunn on the Rome branch in particular, Faith and Buffy looking at the options for what exactly they might mean to do to Angel, and Fred and Willow on the science and magic of getting him back.
Somehow, even knowing that it’s more urgent than ever, Buffy finds herself unable to focus on the research. Her fingers run over the amulet, still useless in her pocket. Her mind contemplates the little scraps of information that have managed to sink in.
Around sunset, Buffy stands and leaves quietly. No one really looks up; they’ve all been stepping out of the office periodically for food or bathroom breaks.
She already has a stake with her. The training rooms are on the ground floor, and she stops by for a sword on the way out. Angel’s cross is around her neck. She left Sunnydale with it in her pocket. The first time she was able to wear it was the night after he first appeared again in her room.
Halfway down the street she finds Faith beside her. They barely look at each other, and Buffy doesn’t ask if it was loyalty to Angel or the increasingly graphic descriptions of what might be happening to him that drove her to bypass the research phase for action. They fall into step easily.
There’s a receptionist sitting at the desk, although it’s past dark by the time they arrive at the Wolfram and Hart office. She wears a silky, semi-sheer black blouse and a black leather skirt, her dark hair pulled back into a long, sleek ponytail. Although the headset perched on her head manages not to disrupt her look, she does seem somehow casually disdainful of having to wear it.
“Posso aiutarla?” she asks, then scans the two Slayers and switches to haughty, unaccented English. “May I help you?”
Faith’s ax swings out and down, smashing the desktop within a blink. “Basement, please,” Buffy says with a bright smile. Seeing the receptionist’s slightly widened eyes as she slowly points toward the elevator, the smile grows only brighter. Must be a new hire.
The basement seems like a logical choice, based on the fact that in Buffy’s experience the absolute best thing to find in such places is spiders, and that Angel had mentioned being in a chill, dark room with stone walls when he disappeared. Unfortunately, the basement that they find is brightly lit and nicely painted, with labeled doors on either side all the way down.
“Any idea what we’re looking for?” Faith asks, examining a little plaque that says “Records” on their left.
Buffy doesn’t bother to answer. She readjusts her grip on her sword and starts down the hallway, looking for some clue for a next step, or even that they’re in the right place. And then as her fingers run over the little sign reading, innocuously, “Restroom” she feels a deep, certain tug inside herself. It’s not a slayer sense, nor some kind of honed instinct from years of demon hunting.
“He’s in here,” she tells Faith, and kicks open the door.
A robed circle - fifteen or twenty people all in red - turns toward the two of them and then, as one, turns back again and resumes their chanting.
“Slayers,” says a woman in a black business suit standing to the side against the stone wall. She glances up from her Blackberry to stare at Buffy and Faith. She doesn’t even glance at the bodyguard types in front of her, and the casual lack of concern rankles Buffy. “And it’s the famous ones, too. Carlo, did you forget to tell me that the Slayers had set up shop in your city before I let you have the sacrifice for the Corruption of the Champion?”
The man beside her, middle-aged but slender and wearing a fashionable suit, says, his Italian accent prominent, “Perhaps, Lilah, you should have done your due diligence before you exported to us your problem. I was quite clear in my memorandum exactly to whom you would be sending the champion’s amulet.”
“You can have a sit-down with HR later, hash this all out,” says Faith, moving past Buffy toward them, ax comfortably raised. Buffy barely pays attention to her. Angel is immobile in the center of the circle, his face frozen into slackness, and if Buffy’s learned anything, it’s how to break up a good circle.
It seems that no one thought to go to the gym before the evil spell portion of the day. Robed figures fall easily to the floor under Buffy’s sword, but the rest keep chanting, and the humming energy of the room continues to grow stronger. It makes Buffy desperate, makes her think of just how little she understands of what’s happening and how to even try to reverse it.
Faith fights beside her, the lawyers and their guards dispatched, and Buffy feels in her the same lunging energy. The circle dwindles, salt and blood and herbs scuffed away and ground into the stone floor, sorcerers dead or dying, but Angel still lies unmoving and unresponsive in a glimmering cloud.
Finally, they reach the last of the casters. She looks up at the Slayers with a curious remove, as if her eyes are being looked through by something else rather than being used by the woman herself.
“I hold the threads,” she tells them, so peaceful that it takes a moment to recognize the threat. “The energy is in me, the spell is open, and it will finish one way or another.”
“Yes,” Willow’s voice says. “It will.”
Buffy had forgotten the open door, through which Willow now steps, followed by Cordelia and Wesley. When Willow is like this, firm steps and a commanding voice, closed eyes as she puts a hand on the last sorcerer's shoulder, it’s hard for Buffy to hold in her mind Willow shy and sweet at sixteen. But then Will nods to Buffy, and without a thought, Buffy fells the robed woman. They’ve both changed. Neither of them will ever be sixteen again.
“The spell can’t stay open for too much longer,” Willow says, just the slightest crimp of weariness in her voice. She sits calmly cross-legged and open-palmed on the floor beside Angel, but Buffy knows that she’s probably underplaying how much time they have.
“What are our options?” Buffy asks, sword limp by her side.
“We should have guessed that they were using the Corruption of the Champion based on the location,” Wes starts.
“And maybe we would have been able to tell you if you’d waited another five minutes to go into full Slayer mode,” Cordelia interjects.
Wesley ignores her. “Rome has significant and ancient holy religious activity. For Wolfram and Hart to continue to function here, they must repeatedly desecrate the energy of their offices. Periodically, they sacrifice a being of great power, one whose complicated nature will allow a balance for them to continue their work. Angel’s death would fulfil that for them, but if we simply end the spell, the energy will be unstable. It might make things more difficult for Wolfram and Hart, but it will also draw demons and spirits to the city. The citizens and your slayers would be unsafe.”
“So what are our options, Wesley?” Buffy asks again, granite. No one has to teach her about sacrifice, and yet it seems that the lesson is presented with teasing, too frequent repetition.
“Currently the power is building, moving between immense good and terrible evil. I believe Willow can predict where it is in each moment, but we will need to select either something purely good or something entirely evil to feed into the spell at the precise time to successfully neutralize it.” He looks down. “We could use the power of the slayers. Willow could draw it out of them and insert the good of that energy into the spell to counteract the evil.”
Buffy’s breath catches. In some ways it would solve everything: a reversal of the choice she made months ago, burdening so many girls with the life she has struggled with for so long, burdening herself with their care and safety. Surely some back at the school, some of those Xander has yet to find, will be glad to be freed from that destiny. But then she thinks of the laughter in her weapons classes, the fearsome young grins and easy, loving way her girls spar. She remembers her eighteenth birthday, the frightful loss of her own strength. She remembers the lonely futility of being the One, a planet, a dimension, billions of lives strapped to her back. Some of the slayers would resent her for taking away their power. There are those who would hate her for making a second choice for them without asking. And, though she resents the decision, hates having to be the one to make it a second time over, she knows the world is safer with more slayers in it, safer with sisters to have each others back.
Wesley gestures around them. “It will be more dangerous,” he says seriously, “but we could give the spell Wolfram and Hart. At least this branch of it.”
Willow tilts her head, and Buffy wishes she could climb into bed, covers over her head, and leave someone else to make the calls. Her hand clenches around the hilt of the sword at the thought of so much terrible energy moving through her best friend.
“Will?” she asks.
“I can do it,” Willow says, sure despite the growing pressure in her voice. Buffy can feel it in the room, too, like rain moving closer. Will takes a deep breath. “Tell me something good about Angel.”
Buffy finds that she can’t look at anyone, not even Willow with her closed, concentrating eyes. She stares instead at Angel, his familiar, lovely, unseeing face. “I sent him to hell,” she says gently, “and he never blamed me for it.” A breeze licks her cheek, and she knows it can’t be natural down here below the ground. She opens her mouth to say more, but then Cordelia speaks.
“He gave me a family. He thinks that I gave it to him, but he built it with all the people who he wouldn’t give up on.”
“For someone who thinks his own soul is only important because it stands in the way of the world’s most twisted vamp,” says Faith, “he sure put a lot of effort into saving mine.”
Wesley clears his throat. “He let me in and gave me far more chances than I deserved considering the number I had given him. And I don’t know many people who would bear what he has for so long and still look to fight.”
Willow smiles and breathes deeply. The walls begin to shed pebbles above them, and Buffy thinks that if they were aboveground, they would hear the screaming start to begin. Instead, down here, the glimmer around him lessens and Angel opens his eyes.
Buffy and Faith pulls him up, an arm over each shoulder, as soon as Will nods. “What happened?” he asks. “Where are we? How long was I gone?”
“Just enough time to miss all the good dusty book stuff,” Buffy says, affection for him squeezing thickly in her chest. “We’ll get you caught up later. For now, keep an eye out for an emergency exit.”
Maybe the best part of Angel getting to be a real boy again is that Buffy gets to take care of him. She forces a blanket around his shoulders even though she knows he doesn’t get cold, and microwaves his blood, watching him closely to make sure he’s drinking it all and glaring when he looks embarrassed.
“I’ll have to consult with Giles and with some of my contacts,” says Wesley, “but I suspect that we’ve dealt a great blow to Wolfram and Hart, and consequently alleviated quite a lot of suffering.” He stirs his tea with satisfaction.
Faith snorts into her cocoa. She has it gripped in one hand, fingers wrapped around the belly so the Italian flag reveals itself in strips. “What tipped you off? The big pile of rocks where a law office used to be?”
“I’m sure the welcome at the airport is going to be one for the ages,” Cordelia says, picking the last pieces of cement and stone from her hair. “Limo from Wolfram and Hart, maybe a parade.” Scratching her fingers through to make sure that she’s gotten it all, she picks up her own mug and gives a little toast toward Faith. “Well, they might actually go for that now that they don’t have to see Lilah at work on Monday.”
“Or we might find ourselves being sued for employee damages in night court,” Angel says, and everyone stares at him, disconcerted. “It’s a real thing,” he protests, then adds, “and I did pass a TV once or twice in the entirety of the eighties.”
Cordelia gives him an extra minute of weird look, then drains her drink, kisses his cheek, and stands. “I’m going to call Fred and Gunn. Let them hear about all the fun they missed, and warn them to beware of process servers.”
“I’ll join you,” Wes says. “Perhaps fill in some of the more technical magical aspects of the experience.”
“That’s code for talk nerdy with Fred, right?” Cordy asks as they go toward the office.
“Well, I’m raring,” Faith says. “I’m going to patrol, see if the word is out that the demons need to watch themselves.” She pats Angel’s shoulder and says, “Glad to have you back,” then leaves as well, energy sliding along each jogging limb.
Buffy squeezes Angel’s hand before she gets up to put the mugs in the sink, filling them with water without bothering to actually wash them. She can feel the adrenaline trying to race within her too, but it’s being smothered by overwhelming exhaustion.
“I have to tell you,” Willow says to Angel, so quietly that Buffy almost misses it beneath the rush of water and the cloud of her own yawn. “When I was in the spell, as I was releasing your soul from its connection to the amulet and returning you to your body, I made another change too.”
Buffy drops a mug - Cordelia’s, white with a black map of Italy - into the sink. The handle cracks off, chips chinking from the rim. She spins to face Willow, who looks sleepy and drained in an utterly normal way as she says, “That soul loophole was always a mistake.”
Angel looks entirely shocked, expressions moving across his face too quickly and incompletely to parse. He wraps the blanket around him more tightly without seeming to realize it. Buffy comes back to the table, gripping the edge with brittle fingertips.
“Will,” is all she can manage.
And Willow, despite her closing eyes and drooping limbs, smiles the brilliant smile Buffy knows so well. “Not too good to be,” she says. “Just true.” She yawns broadly and walks her mug over to the sink, stretches, then says casually, “Night.”
It’s odd, Buffy thinks, that for so long this was only and exactly what she wanted, and yet now she doesn’t know what to do with it. Her fingers twitch out toward Angel’s then retract. Hands and shoulders and cheeks, the things that were theirs for so long, suddenly seem too much and not enough.
“I don’t feel different,” Angel says finally. He stares into the bloody remains in his mug. “I thought if it ever happened somehow, I’d be able to tell.”
“No learning curve might be a good thing, I guess,” she points out. “Soul all pressed and ready to go.”
“I’ll have to thank Willow,” he says, sounding as if he is putting too much focus and deliberation into such simple words. “I forgot before. But first…”
When he looks up and takes her hand, it doesn’t feel like the time before her seventeenth birthday, all sweet innocence with no danger, no penalties. It doesn’t feel like all the time since, either, careful boundaries, longing always lurking in everything simple. It feels entirely new, and it takes her breath away.
“I know you might want to stay here,” he says. “The city is safer now, probably apocalypse free. It might be better for training that way. But if you wanted...” He swallows, his thumb running distracting light along her hand. “If you wanted, there’s room for all of you in LA.”
A sob runs through her like a shock, and she grasps his hand even more tightly. “Well, you know what they say.”
“Home is in your heart. Where the heart is. Whatever.”
When he holds her, she wonders at the delayed excitement that she knows will come. Perhaps she’s too wary for joy to stretch itself through her like sunshine. For now she leans on his solidity, relishes the unchanged feel and smell of him against her.
“Dawn’s going to be so pissed that I made her go to boarding school during all of this,” she mutters against his chest, and Angel laughs.
Maybe she’ll justify another move to the others as a fiscally responsible decision, free housing, better training grounds and trusted instructors. Maybe she’ll remind them that sometimes she just gets to make herself happy. She knows that she is going to have to do things differently, open herself to the slayers to remind them of her own experience and make them trust her leadership, while still acknowledging that her choices changed things for all of them. She’s going to have to adhere more closely to the lessons learned from her own years wading through the pressures of a teenager tasked with saving the world, and still make sure they remember their responsibilities.
But for now, she has Angel’s arms and Angel’s presence, his voice beside her, trusting and trusted, and she does not want to leave. It’s the thing she fought for and never dared wish for, journeyed toward and beautiful beyond imagining, and now, finally, achingly hers.