As the grandfather clock finished its twelfth bonging chime, the doorbell rang.
"I got it!" said Dawn, way too happy to flee the kitchen.
"I'm not ready! Tell them to go away." What was I thinking inviting everybody – and I mean everybody – to Thanksgiving? I clutched the wooden spoon so hard it snapped.
"Careful with that," said Angel, using a slotted spoon to fish out the slivers from the gravy. "That's thickening nicely and not at all lumpy," he assured me. "Besides, you said people could come anytime after noon."
"Afternoon. As in the afternoon. Not right at noon. Who's that punctual?" I demanded.
Angel cocked his head. "Giles, from the sounds of it."
Then we both heard Dawn squeal in delight. I couldn't help but smile. "Willow and Xander must have been right behind him."
Contrary to my initial freak-out, dinner was eventually served and we made it through without Chumash warrior spirits, needing to tie up Spike, or burning anything past edible. It was a holiday first. Before I knew it, they were all claiming they couldn't eat another bite even if the fate of the world rested on it.
"I'm gonna check on the Pats," said Faith. "Back in five."
"I've got presents," called Xander, but she'd already dashed out of sight.
"Aren't those for Christmas?" I asked.
"Yeah, but what if I'm on Council business? I might be out of the country. Is it a risk you're willing to take?"
Sure, more often we were asking – literally – where in the world was Xander, but there was more to it than that. He looked ready to burst if we didn't open them. I had a hunch he couldn't wait to see Dawn's face when she opened her gift. It was a hand-crafted Scrabble board – with tiles to fit the obscure languages she studied. This led to oohs and aahs from several at the table and then onto a rousing game of Dead Language Scrabble between Dawn, Giles, Willow, and Connor. The rest of us begged off.
"Thanksgiving's not complete without dish-pan hands," Xander observed.
"You could watch football with Faith and Spike," I offered.
"I bet she's been tryptophaned right into unconsciousness and he's in ADD nirvana with your remote. Besides, when else am I going to get quality one-on-one Buffy time?"
"Ditto. Except I need an update on the guy who puts the X in X-Files."
"Duchovny's stopping by?"
Linking arms, I shook my head. "Something like that."
After the kitchen was spotless and both Xander and the dishwasher were humming their respective happy tunes, I excused myself, heading upstairs. Leaning against the nearest door frame, I soaked in the scene before me. I never imagined this would be my life. I definitely hadn't prepared for it. Right around the second time I came back from the dead I'd pretty much accepted I was destined (or doomed, depending on my mood of the day) to a warrior's existence. And I still was a slayer. The Slayer.
But moments like this, listening to Angel read to an audience long asleep, were surreal. When he finished, closing the board book silently, I moved from the doorway to wrap my arms around his neck, kissed his cheek, and then whispered in his ear, "I guess it's true."
"What is?" he whispered back, reaching his hand up for mine, brushing a kiss across my lips as he stood.
"Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans."
"They're beautiful boys," was his gruff, emotion-laden reply.
I couldn't reply with the lump in my own throat, so I settled for squeezing his hand as we moved down the hall. I'd like to say that we were on our way to bed, but time was running short and there were plans to put into motion.
Maybe I should start at the beginning.
I'd been minding my own business, which involved luring Dawn out of her finals-week study carrel and into Harvard Square with the promise of a quick dinner. It had been a burst of optimism brought on by blue skies and bright sun when I'd decided on a sundress and sandals, but as we walked the Square, the shadows lengthened and the temp dropped. We were on our way to Café Pamplona when I noticed them half way up the block.
A family. The first woman – mom? nanny? was pushing a double stroller as both babies screamed with frustration. A man and another woman were right behind them, his arm tightly around her shoulder, hugging her to him, her head resting on his chest. Weird. They should have aged out of the drunk before dark demographic way before now.
I nudged Dawn. "Did you see that?"
"See? No. But hear it?" Dawn said dryly, "Oh yeah. That's a pair of overtired children."
"You're right. Come on."
"But you promised me dinner," she half-whined. Under all those book smarts, she was still my sister.
"Just five minutes," I cajoled. Maybe it was the way all the adults ignored the cries of the babies when I, a stranger not known for my skill in child rearing, wanted to comfort them. Maybe it was the way the second woman moved like a marionette. Didn't matter what was tweaking my intuition; something was off.
I picked up our pace from a dawdling stroll to a brisk walk, as if we might be late to reservations. Anything more would arouse suspicion. We managed to close the space between us and them – helped by the fact they were occupied by loading the kids into a station wagon. Just as the doors slammed shut we reached them, and I discovered the reason for my unease. As the car pulled forward, now centered under a street light, the ill woman's head lulled to the side, exposing two puncture wounds in the pale skin.
I ran into the road, flagging down a cab. Dawn and the cab reached my side simultaneously. To Dawn I barked out, "Vampires. Call Giles. Get home." Slipping inside the cab, I found myself actually saying the old cliché. "Follow that car!"
The cabbie was more than happy to play along at being stealthy, though he started muttering unhappily as we left the city limits. But he was all smiles again with assurances that he'd be paid double the meter to cover the return trip. When the station wagon turned into what I hoped was the mouth of the dead end drive, I had him drop me off and I hiked the remainder in.
Turned out the property had a stone privacy wall that had to be eight feet tall if it was an inch. I'd already decided the front gate was a little too line-of-sight for sneaking in, which was how I ended up, hands on hips, eyeing the high stone wall and nearly cursing my footwear. Not that it was the fault of either me or my open-toed-more-straps-than-leather shoes, but I needed to get over it and then into the house and then to the children. There was always the running leap option, but who knew what was on the other side. It looked like a little rock climbing was in order.
I'd just undone the ties of my shoes when my cell phone vibrated in my pocket, causing me to nearly roll into a summersault. Instead I fell back on my butt, barely missing the wall behind me, and decided that I'd just stay there.
Fishing the phone out of her pocket, I whispered into it, "This better be good."
"Are you alright?" asked Giles.
"Just finished casing the perimeter. There's enough vehicles out back for a used car lot. Most don't look like they've moved in months. But it must be the country because the doors are unlocked and the keys are all the ignitions."
"That may fit with what we've gathered on this end. I think it best you wait for backup."
"For a couple of vamps in the woods? I'll just huff and puff and stake their hearts down."
"Would that it were that simple. Dawn got the plate number and from our cursory investigation, it's not an isolated incident. There are families – always with young children – inexplicably missing from here to Penobscot County." Even over the phone I could hear Giles' ragged exhale before he continued. "The completeness of the disappearances and the lack of 'foul play' suggest more than a pair of opportunistic vampires. We're using your GPS to identify your location. You'll have aid momentarily."
'Momentarily' meant that as soon as Giles reached Willow, she'd teleport in. It rarely took long and he was right, the logical thing was to wait. But visions of Sunday's minions clearing out college dorm rooms morphed to visions of pleasant vampires entering yards with white picket fences, standing on thresholds and sweet-talking children into inviting them inside. Parents were subdued with threats to their children, and those children, nearly tasting the fear permeating the air, were screaming uncomforted. That image had my stomach clenched and roiling in turn, making me glad I hadn't had dinner. Then the adrenaline poured in, leaving my limbs twitchy and demanding action.
"Tell Wills to be careful with the teleporting, but we can't waste the time." Giles sputtered in frustration, but I pressed on, ignoring him. "Tell her to listen for the sound of me kicking vampire ass; she'll know where to find me."
I moved to tap off the phone. The last thing I heard was, "It's not Willow. I'm sending—" But the connection was already lost.
Not Willow? But they avoided teleporting slayers. Not after that last discovery. So if not her, then who? I shrugged. I'd know soon enough. In the meantime, I had a wall to climb.
The softened and crumbling mortar between the stones of the wall made climbing over easier than I thought it would be, but the occasional loose rock also made it trickier. At least I made it up and over without the wall tumbling down and with only one scraped knee that while an angry hue of red, thankfully wasn't bleeding.
The climb had another plus to it. Some of the adrenaline burned off and I was thinking a bit more clearly. Giles was right. I had no way of knowing if I was or wasn't prepared to deal with what was in the house. A partner wouldn't just double the odds of success; depending who it was, fighting as a pair could more than triple the odds of success.
While I'd talked myself into a plan that included waiting, I wasn't going to sit still. I began to slowly walk the inner edge of the stone wall. At first I was thankful I was wearing a dark sundress and not something brightly colored, but then I looked at my less-than-tan limbs and realized I nearly glowed in the dark. Not much could be done about that. I kept lowish to the ground and crept toward the back of the property, trying to avoid the snap crackle pop of the various twigs that littered the earth.
That's how I found the huge beehive kiln in a clearing circled with trees, with two vampires lifting a ragdoll limp woman into it. From my position, I couldn't tell if she was unconscious or dead. My feet were not happy as I did my best Daniel Day Lewis stealth run impression over the rocks and twigs. All-natural is so overrated. Upping my speed and pain, I promised my feet a pedi with the works when this was finished.
As I closed the distance, the kiln fire roared and I could feel its heat as if I were stepping into Arizona. Add the lack of screaming as they pushed her in, and I knew the woman was dead, which only took the slightest edge off my fury. The pair, a man and woman who looked like they'd done all their shopping at L.L. Bean, slammed the kiln shut, and then turned around to discover there were worse things than the smell of burning flesh.
I had them dispatched before they could button up their matching barn jackets. Before the rush of satisfaction reached my fingertips, I heard a voice behind me drawl as only a Mainer can, "You're not from around here, are you?"
Spinning to face him, I took in what had to be the speaker, a vampire with a thick, grizzled beard, overalls, and boots that looked like he'd been checking lobster traps when he'd been turned. However the rest of the vampires with him were a motley crew, most of whom did not look like they belonged here any more than I did. Everything from pinstripes to JLO velour sweat suits to extras on CSI: Miami, with their all-white outfits and sunglasses even after sundown.
Who brought this motley crew together? Better question: how I was going to even the odds? Looking Lobster Guy in the eyes, I chirped back happily, "No, I'm not from around here. I'm from Boston and buying a cute little summer place on the coast. You don't care if I drive up your property taxes, do you?"
It had its desired effect as he rushed me without a good plan and I was able to sidestep and stake him. I dropped into a side crouch, ignoring the fine dust that fell over me as I tripped a bulky white-dress-shirt-and-tie guy who'd tried to sneak up from behind. He knocked over two of the others coming from the opposite direction, which helped, but there were way too many in a place that lacked a protected side. And for every vamp I took out, two more showed up. So much for a stealthy find, grab, and go.
After one of the vampires grazed my upper arm with a knife, anger at my own foolhardiness surged through me, resulting in a quick one, two, three dusting of vamps. "What?" I asked to the growling vamp before me, "No cheering for a hat trick?" He only sneered and edged closer. Great; I was going to have to carry all the witty banter.
Diving at me, Mr. Sneery knocked me to the ground, and I lost my stake. Before I could retrieve it, a female vampire pounced, and we rolled on the ground like some demon world version of a Girls Gone Wild spring break video. Small favor that it wasn't muddy. I winced as my shoulder dug into what was, with any luck, a dead branch. Expending precious energy and focus, I freed a hand and grabbed for it as the momentum flipped us again. The pokey thing was wood and my wrestling partner was dust.
I climbed to my feet, but before I could get my bearings an Ichabod-Crane-looking guy caught me across the throat, pinning me to a tree, feet dangling. Wiry, but strong. Just great. The edge of my vision shrank as his arm pressed against my windpipe.
I scrabbled at his arm, my only thought that I couldn't die. Not yet. My rushing in headlong had put children in danger, and if they died, I'd never forgive myself. And it would be a lot easier to keep mentally beating myself up if I stayed alive, so that was the plan B I embraced.
Speaking of bracing, with the panic properly chided, I found the only purchase available to my dangling feet – the trunk of the tree behind me. Something cold and metallic met the arch of my foot, the pain shooting up my leg. Just my luck - a maple syrup tap.
Gingerly I tried again, this time only finding bark and then walking my feet up as far as I could. Coiling myself tight, I readied myself to press off, praying it was enough to knock him off balance. As I pushed with my all, he disappeared in a puff of vamp dust, sending me sailing right at a hulking figure with a stake in his hands.
He lunged enough to the left that I didn't get impaled, but I did knock us into a tumbling heap on the ground. I pressed my hands against his chest, leveraging myself so I could look into his face (as if I didn't recognize the chest). "Angel."
"Giles sent you? Shock, surprise, anger, and – with the sound of my name from his lips – pleasure drove another wave of adrenaline through me and I catapulted back and on my feet. So not ready for this.
"Color me surprised too." Fluidly, he was off the ground, back on his feet, and moving toward the house. Over his shoulder, he asked, "Mind if we sort that out later?"
"Not at all." Foolishly, I hoped he meant it. Not his allusion about there being a later. No matter how angry I was with him, no matter how over me he was, or how long we'd been apart, when he had my back and vice versa, 'later' was a given. What I hoped he meant was the part about sorting out the why-him-now element. That would be a refreshing change instead of our default setting of stoically going our separate ways. Even after all this time, I still hungered for answers.
A childish desire to throw something made my fingers twitch. For now I'd settle with taking my anger out on all the other vampires in this Robert Frosty compound. I drew back my arm and threw the stake with enough force to piece the heart of vampire exiting the back door of the stone house, turning him to dust on the threshold.
Angel and I then flanked either side of the door, alternating taking out the vamps as they exited. Felt a lot like the pattern of a fancy mechanical cuckoo clock, yet still oddly satisfying. How many vampires were in here and when would they catch a clue? Had to be newly turned or really stupid.
I said as much to Angel when they finally stopped coming out and we entered, finding ourselves in a tiny mud room that opened into the kitchen. He gave me that look. The one that told me there was something he'd figured out but didn't have the heart to tell me. My teeth clenched and I grabbed his arm, stopping him.
"What?" he asked, body tensing for the unseen danger.
"What are you not telling me?" I hissed, and then added, "Just the right-this-moment stuff. We don't have time for everything."
Without any visible movement, he suddenly looked sizzling hot, which meant I'd definitely pushed enough buttons to pique his anger. And neither of us needed the distraction. You'd think after all these years I'd be mature enough to leave well enough alone, but no.
"I could be wrong," he said with deliberate slowness, "but they seemed paired."
I nodded my agreement, wondering where he was going with this.
I groaned as if punched in the gut. The mom jeans and sweater sets I'd seen on several of the female vamps were making a lot more sense. "If they're turning the parents, what if they've…" I couldn't even say it.
His eyes were hooded and when he answered, "They'll pay." I shivered. No argument here.
It was then that I heard something clatter behind a tall door. Angel kept talking as if he'd heard nothing, saying something about if I had ever returned his calls, then I'd know the everything else. Hadn't he heard the noise? But then I realized as he'd been talking, he'd been moving silently toward the noise. So, yeah, a little slow on the uptake, but fast enough to play along.
"What calls?" I asked, keeping silent pace with him, stake at the ready.
He gave me an incredulous look, as if he couldn't figure out if I meant it or if I was just trying to keep the conversation going. As his hand was on the pantry handle, I held up my fist, and then lifted my fingers to count out three, repeating, "Seriously, what calls?"
Whipping open the door, all that was there was a girl, maybe five or six, arms clasped around her legs, head buried in her knees, trying hard not to shake. I didn't think she was a vamp, but with Angel only a foot away, my already hit-or-miss slayer sense was out on a walkabout. I traded a glance with Angel.
"She's human," he said quietly. Then with a nod toward me and the girl, he angled his body to watch for trouble. A muffled hiccup of a cry shook her frame.
"Hey," I said, crouching down, ever so gently touching her shoulder. "Uh… sorry we scared you." Not my best attempt at comfort, but not my worst either. She turned her head and snuck a look at me over her arm. Holding out my hands, palms up, I added, "Would you believe me if I told you we're the good guys?"
With silent, big brown eyes she stared at me, chin now resting on her arm, as if trying to decide if I were for real. The urge to sweep her up in my arms, hug her tight, and tell her it would all be okay hit me hard. But I resisted, knowing it would likely create a response the exact opposite from the one I wanted. So I did the reverse of my instincts. Sitting back, I crossed my legs in front of myself. As if I had all the time in the world, I wiggled my toes; they appreciated not being on the cold floor.
"My name's Buffy. What's yours?"
She stared at me a while more, then in a clear voice said, "Ellie."
I glanced around the kitchen, complete with hearth. "Ellie as in Cinder-ellie?"
"Noooo," she said, amused at my foolishness. "My real name's Elizabeth. But my moms call me Ellie." Tears welled in her eyes. "I think they killed them." And with that, Ellie nearly tumbled out of the cupboard and into my arms. Her body shook, but she didn't cry, the primal urge to survive overriding even grief.
Petting her hair, I swallowed hard, knowing that I couldn't comfort her as she deserved, needing to push on into rescue mode and hating myself for it. But before I could ask, she untangled herself from me and she offered the answer. "The other children. They're in the cellar."
"Where's the cellar?"
She pointed back toward the mud room. "Under the rug."
"The other mother and father don't like our parents."
And before I could stop myself, I ask, "They don't have button eyes, do they?"
She nearly smiled at the joke. "No. But sometimes they're yellow and they get all lumpy."
I glanced back to Angel. A flex of his shoulders told me more than a dozen sentences would have. Good thing I could still read shrug, given that Angel's not the dozen sentences in a row kind of guy. Not to mention that we hadn't shared a dozen sentences in forever, but that was beside the point. Point was we hadn't seen a minion in a good five minutes, which is a lifetime in a fight. Not to mention that somewhere Mommy and Daddy Dearest were lurking. And we really couldn't take Ellie with us.
"Ellie, Angel – that's my friend Angel – we need to take care of the monsters." I unclasped the cross from around my neck, wrapping the chain around Ellie's wrist so the cross ended in her palm. "I hate to ask you to do this, but can you hide in the pantry again? And if anybody but Angel or I open that door, you push your hand into them. Hard. Eyes are best." Loved my life, telling five year olds how to defend themselves against vampires.
After we tucked Ellie back in, we found the cellar door under the rug. And this time through the mud room I noticed a few pairs of boots by the door. Trying hard not to put too much thought into who their owners were or had been, I laced a pair up before we started down into the dark, Angel taking the lead. The good news in this mess was there were only two forms over four feet tall in that cellar. The bad – and wasn't that the understatement of forever - was everything else about that place. My brain couldn't process which was worse, the silent slumped forms with their bloodied necks, the inconsolable screams, or seeing feral vampire eyes on kids who still didn't know how to tie their own shoes.
People tend to think I'm the cool, calm, and collected slayer; toss whatever you want at me and I'll handle it like I've got ice in my veins. When they don't hate me for it, it gives those I'm responsible for comfort, so why correct the impression? Thing is, I'm not calm, I'm not cool, and I've got fire in my veins. In that dank, musty cellar with mason canning jars on the shelves, I was just the slayer, silent and deadly. Most of it was a red haze until I felt hands pinning my wrists against the rough wall and a voice shouting my name.
It took a bit of effort to unlock my sanity, but Angel held my wrists and my eyes until I managed it. Finally I mustered, "I take it we got them all?"
He blinked in relief. "Yes."
I looked around; the screams of the living children had dropped to saucer-eyed stares with the barest whimpers. I cringed, knowing we must seem as fearsome as the vampires had been. "Let's get them out of here."
Scooping up two little ones crawling on the ground, Angel took the steps two at a time. Given the matching outfits, they were probably the ones I'd seen kidnapped earlier. It was hard to believe it was still the same day. Small hands slipped into mine and gripped tight. Looking down, I gave the boy and girl my most reassuring smile and hoping I didn't have blood smeared anywhere, as that tended to lessen the reassurance factor.
"Hold onto the railing," I told them as if the biggest worry in their lives was slipping on cellar steps and losing baby teeth too early. As they began their slow climb, I gathered up the last three children and for once wished I was a bit curvier so the little ones would have something to perch on. But we managed.
"Are there more?" asked Angel from the top of the stairs.
"That's it." Eight survivors, counting Ellie, whom we found still in the pantry resolutely clutching my cross. Given the pall of death on this place, eight was nothing. Except the baby I held still managed to smell like innocence and that was enough for now.
Doing a passable impression of Make Way for Ducklings, we toddled out back to where the vehicles were and found an SUV type thing with a combination of car seats and built in boosters. We gave up on being completely in compliance once we realized that the twins screamed until they were nearly purple unless they were held. With the boys in my lap and leaving Angel to get the others, I called Giles. I didn't envy the task ahead of him. Waving one's hand and claiming gangs on PCP wasn't going to cut it. I couldn't imagine any explanation would be enough.
After slipping behind the wheel, Angel sat there, staring straight ahead in the darkness. "The bodies need to be burned." There was a long pause before he added, "To be sure."
I knew about his parents, his sister. I couldn't imagine what this might be churning up for him. Carefully shifting one of the boys, I reached out to him. "A clean-up crew's on the way. I told Giles about the kiln." I gave his hand a squeeze. "He said our sole focus was to get these kids out of here."
"So where to now?"
Since there were missing persons reports on so many of the families, we couldn't completely ignore the legal system. With the Council's connections, Giles was working an end run around the standard foster system, and had given me directions to a point even further north, to one of the huge safe houses that the Council had bought in the wake of the First's destruction.
Our boots thumped and our weight creaked on the wooden stairs as we'd carried exhausted children up and in, working out sleeping arrangements. The guest rooms with their high princess-and-the-pea beds weren't designed for children, so we dragged mattresses to the floor, creating nests of feather down quilts. I hoped exhaustion would drop them into a sleep beyond the reach of even nightmares. Before turning off the lights, I took pictures of each of them, red-cheeked and peaceful in sleep, and then forwarded them to Giles.
With the last ones in bed, we returned to the front room. Angel stacked wood in the fireplace like a long-practiced Boy Scout while I stood by the large picture window where the moon was bright, its light reflecting off the water of some channel type thing. Maybe what I'd sniped to the longshoreman vamp hadn't been off the mark.
I can point to half a dozen days in my life after which nothing was ever the same. The day the previous slayer died and I was called. The day I sent Angel to hell. The day my mom died. The days I died and the days I came back to life. No matter how prepared I thought I was for those moments, I wasn't. Something told me this was no different and I hugged myself.
I could hear the snick of the match as he lit the fire; then his hands were on my shoulders and his voice in my ear. "You need to get some sleep yourself."
"I'm not tired," I told him. After that nightmare, I wasn't sure I'd ever sleep again. I pulled the curtain closed. "Besides, we're out of beds."
"Then we'll improvise." He led me over to one of the oversized couches, and together we carried it and a couple of ottomans to the fire. He settled himself into the corner of the couch, arm extended along its back and his now stockinged feet up on the ottoman. "Come here?"
Tucking my feet under me, I settled down next to him, my head on his chest. His arm closed around me and I couldn't resist wrapping my own arm across his chest. We watched the fire, and my eyes grew heavy. When I felt his lips brush my forehead, I knew I was dreaming.
The doorbell rang at what seemed like an unearthly hour, and that triggered a cascade of cries from upstairs. Angel responded to the cries while I answered the door, ready to kill with a look if needed. But it was a delivery service with groceries and diapers, which put the young man at the door in the questing hero category for me.
After getting the perishables in the fridge and the half dozen boxes of cereal on the kitchen table, I left the rest on the counter, deciding Angel might be in over his head. Who knew what he might improvise?
The scene was less chaotic than I'd imagined. This was in part because Ellie and a boy about her age, Colin, were trying to teach Ring Around the Rosie to a pair of slightly younger ones, though with a slurry of words I didn't recall being a part of the rhyme. But Angel was holding his own, juggling half the gaggle of children, one on each knee being bounced and the two youngest ones in each arm. That was coordination.
"Tell me that bag has diapers," he pleaded.
I was laughing too hard to do more than nod my head and scoop up the babies on his knees as we made for the marvelously huge bathroom and managed assembly line changing tables. That was followed with breakfast on the kitchen floor, since the house lacked anything resembling a highchair or booster seat.
"My mom says only pets eat on the floor," Colin insisted.
"That's usually true," Angel said thoughtfully. "But we're having a picnic. For a picnic you sit on the ground."
Colin thought about that for a moment before plopping down on the ground. "Okay."
It was then my phone rang. "Hey, Giles."
And then a second glass of orange juice was knocked over and the wailing started.
"I'd ask how things are going, but I can hear the answer from here."
I snagged a paper towel, blotting up the mess. "It's not that bad," I told both the crying child and Giles. "And thank you for the supplies. You're a miracle worker."
I could almost hear the blush as he stammered, "You're quite welcome," then pushed on, adding, "I hadn't expected much aid from photos taken with something other than a camera with a proper flash, but they were surprisingly helpful; we've been able to identify several of the children. In fact, we've already located two families. As soon as the transition team arrives on site, they will begin making calls. With luck those families will be there before nightfall."
"Again I say, miracle worker." And he was. After what they'd been through, they needed family more than ever and as soon as possible.
"Oh, and I'm looking to identify appropriate persons to oversee the care of the other children while we locate family, so that you and Angel can extract yourselves."
"Extract ourselves?" I parroted, surprised at the disappointment in my voice. I realized I didn't want to leave. At my words, Angel's head came up, watching me intently.
"Yes. I'd assumed that's what you'd like, all considered," said Giles.
I realized Angel's eyes weren't the only ones on me, so I chose my words carefully. "Giles, I want to see this through. I think it would be best if I stayed."
"That's taking off a rather large bite, Buffy. Is that wise?"
"Probably not. But even if you sent Mary Poppins, they don't know her. She'd just be another stranger. I might be strange, but at least I'm familiar."
Angel waved for my attention, pointing to himself and then the ground, eyebrows arched. I nodded with a grateful smile. His smile in return nearly melting my heart. Surprise, relief, and pleasure swirled wildly. "And Giles? Angel's staying too."
It only took a couple of days to find extended family for most of the children. Quickly it was whittled down to Ellie and the twins, Wyatt and Ryker. No extended family for the boys, and Ellie's distant family were really distant. As in uninterested.
By the end of the second week, Giles was calling every day. "Buffy, this was a temporary solution. They need a more permanent placement. With a few inquiries, I know we'd connect them with families that would be happy to have them."
"A few more days," I pleaded. "I gotta go, Giles; the boys need their bath."
Once in the tub, the boys had discovered that if they slapped their hands against the water, they could splash it everywhere - as in all over me. That's when I realized they weren't the only ones being amused as I heard a chuckle. I glanced back; he was leaning in the door frame, arms crossed, and a smile on his face. Angel had smiled – and laughed – a lot in these two weeks. But then he took on a sobering look and I studiously kept my eyes on the boys.
"Giles is right," he said softly.
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Buffy, I've given it a lot of thought and—"
"Don't. Not until the kids are in bed." I pulled Ryker out, wrapped him in a towel and handed him to Angel. "If you still want to have this conversation, we'll have it then." He looked at me as if I'd grown a second head.
I tried not to think about it, focusing first on Wyatt and then on the entire bedtime ritual. I indulged Ellie's wheedling for a second story. Angel didn't stay, simply kissing Ellie on the forehead and wishing her a good night, then leaving, his footfalls sounding heavy on the steps.
When I finally made it downstairs, there was a fire in the fireplace and the couch near it, like it had been that first night. Maybe it would ease the harsh edges of this conversation. I'd planned to bury myself in the far corner of the sofa, but Angel wouldn't let me, gently pulling me into his arms instead. Maybe that was better. With my back to him, it wouldn't be so obvious when I started crying, and I knew I would.
"They need a real home," he whispered in my ear.
"They have one," I countered fiercely.
"I agree," he said, his arms tightening around me. "I'm willing. If you are."
It took a moment for that to sink in, particularly since I'd been gearing up for the world's quietest knockdown drag out fight. I squirmed loose, facing him, my knees on his thighs, my hands on his chest, searching his face. "You'd stay here? For their sake?"
"Yes… and no," he said, brushing a lock of hair from my face and tucking it behind my ear, his hand not leaving the curve of my jaw. "I'm tired of fighting the inevitable."
"And what's that?" I whispered, afraid to even blink for fear I'd discover I was dreaming.
Even then I didn't dare close my eyes. Not until our lips met and we sank into the kiss. Then I sighed like a weary traveler arriving home, finally easing down into her own bed.
Fast forward six months. The turkey was nothing but a carcass in the fridge from which Dawn had plans to make soup stock, the games had wound down, the children (and most adults) were snuggled up in their various beds, and I was dressed for the next adventure. Of course I couldn't stop myself from checking on my three one more time.
Angel was waiting in the family room with Dawn and Xander. True to form, he was dressed in all black – black pants, black henley with a black tee underneath, and of course, a billowing black coat. As I took mental inventory, I realized that I was similarly dressed in the darks, complete with a black stocking cap. Add a bit of weaponry and we'd be ready for a night of demon hunting.
"They're all asleep and the doors are warded," I told them. "You two don't have to stay up on their account."
"We know," said Dawn. She snagged a handful of cases from the towering stack of DVDs and began sorting through the movies. "I still can't believe you're going out tonight of all nights."
I gave her a quizzical look. "I've always loved the hunt for a good bargain."
She laughed. "Not you; Angel."
"Tell me about it. This Midnight Madness thing was his idea. I keep wondering if he's Angel or a very good replica with nefarious plans."
"With Door Busters starting at midnight," he recited in a mechanical deadpan, "it's a perfect time to shop."
"Yup, definite Stepford possibilities," said Dawn with a sage nod.
Angel went on, ignoring us. "Besides, I have it on good authority that Toys R Us has a final shipment of Tickle Me Elmo TMXs."
"That, and you really want a Wii," I added, arching an eyebrow.
"And he knows a Wii is not just the French way of saying yes?" Xander asked, incredulous. "That it's a video game system?"
"It's not just for games," Angel countered. "It helps with learning spatial relations."
"Uh huh," I said, crossing my arms, which elicited a tiny hint of chagrin from him.
That didn't last longer than the snap of a wishbone, though, as Xander piped in with, "If you get a Wii, I'm definitely making it back for Christmas."
"Get two!" added Dawn.
"See?" asked Angel. "It appeals to the whole family."
At what point in my life did Xander and Angel line up on the same side of an argument? If this was Bizarro World, I was staying.
"Oh, and think I know what Ellie wants," added Dawn.
She pulled a slip of paper out of her back pocket, handed it to Xander, who handed it to me. It was an oft-folded picture of the Pirates of the Caribbean 3 Singapore set.
Xander chuckled. "She's definitely not a Barbie girl."
"She totally hates pink." I added with a smile, thinking of my own childhood bedroom, "and it's killing me."
"If that's settled, we need to go," said Angel. "Ready?" he asked, extending his hand, the corners of his mouth quirking up with the promise of adventure.
I returned his smile as I slipped my hand within his. "As I'll ever be."