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Angel wasn’t sure this was a good idea. What could he possibly say to Buffy to convince her that he was on her side? Why did he have to lose control of the demon in the middle of that kiss? Why did he have to lose control of his hormones and kiss her in the first place? He was just supposed to help tip the odds in her favor, not get involved in her personal life.

He walked the rest of the way up the path leading to the front door, climbed the porch steps, and stood on the welcome mat for a few agonized seconds. He raised his hand to knock, then lowered it, his nerve failing him. But as he was turning to leave, he smelled it. Blood. Inside the house. All anxiety forgotten, he burst through the door and traced the scent of blood to the kitchen, where he stopped in his tracks.

Official-looking papers and envelopes were scattered all across the kitchen island, and a few had fallen to the floor. The back door hung open. Angel took a step towards it when he noticed something out of the corner of his eye. A sock-covered foot was sticking out from behind the island. He felt a surge of foreboding. Whoever was lying there had no heartbeat. He took two steps closer, and the body of Mrs. Summers came fully into view. Her eyes were wide and glassy, her skin ghostly pale, her lips parted, and a large area of her cross-striped cream blouse was stained crimson beneath the savage bite wound on her throat.

Angel stepped back hastily. He had seen (and caused) more death than almost anyone, but it had been a long time since the body had belonged to anyone he knew, and he was having difficulty processing it. He and Mrs. Summers had only spoken for about five seconds, but from what he had observed in the last few months, she seemed like a good person, a good mother. She should’ve had years—decades—ahead of her.

As Angel’s thoughts shifted to Buffy, his senses picked up on something he hadn’t noticed at first. There was another smell mixed in with the blood and lingering traces of fear. A scent Angel would recognize anywhere. A reflexive growl tore its way out of his throat. Darla.

“Mom?” came a panicked voice from the direction of the front door, making Angel jump and spin around. “Mom! Why is the door open? Is everything okay?”

For a fraction of a second, Angel considered fleeing. For all Buffy knew, he was the only vampire who’d been invited into the house. He would be her only suspect, and finding him standing here next to her mother’s dead body could very well seal the deal in her mind. She might even kill him on the spot. But he couldn’t just leave her to find that alone.

Her footsteps were growing louder. Hoping he’d be able to figure out some way of softening the blow and increasing his own credibility as not the killer, Angel moved quickly to head her off in the dining room.

“Angel!” she cried in surprise, coming to a halt so abruptly that she nearly tripped. “What are you doing here?”

“I came to talk to you,” he said, holding up his hands in a show of innocence and surrender. “But when I got to the door, I smelled blood.”

Her eyes became very round, and her dread made her look very small all of a sudden. But the next second, she had crossed the space between them, shoved him aside as if he weighed nothing, and dashed into the kitchen. A terrible cry rent the silence. Angel followed her and found her on her knees beside the island, her hands over her mouth. He couldn’t remember ever feeling sorrier for anyone. He wished there was something he could do. Should he stay?

Before he could make up his mind, Buffy had leapt to her feet again and rounded on him, her face now full of blind fury. “You monster,” she said. “I invited you into my home. How could you? HOW COULD YOU?!” She screamed this last, throwing herself at him and slamming her fists into every inch of him that she could reach, still screaming disconnected phrases, most of which promised him a prolonged, agonizing death.

Angel couldn’t have fought back even if he’d wanted to. The best he could do was block about half of the punches. Finally, one of them came at a bad angle, giving him the opening he needed to seize her upper arms and pin them to her sides.

“Buffy, it wasn’t me, I swear!” he shouted over her. “I only came here to talk to you, and I found her like this.” She didn’t seem remotely appeased until he continued with, “I know who did it!”

She stopped fighting and stared up into his eyes. Hers, usually so full of energy and life, looked hollow, and it pained him far more than any of her blows had. “Tell me,” she said, her voice oddly even for the number of tears on her face.

“It was Darla,” he said, cautiously releasing her. “I can smell her scent. She must’ve tricked Mrs. Summers into inviting her inside just after sunset.”

Buffy’s face contorted with confusion and anger. “Who the hell is Darla? Why would she target my mom?”

Angel watched her in anguish. “Darla’s the vampire who turned me. You’ve fought her before, and she helped Luke with the Harvest.” He closed his eyes. “I think she thought she could get me back on her side if she could turn you against me.”

“So she killed my mom to do that?”

Something horrible seemed to occur to Buffy; her brow furrowed and a fresh wave of tears made their appearance. She seized Angel’s hands so tightly that he would probably have additional bruises later. “Can you tell if—if she’ll…” She couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence, but with a rush of awful understanding, Angel realized what she was asking.

“Wait here,” he said quietly. “I can check.” He left Buffy standing there, arms wrapped around her trembling torso, facing away from the island and her mother’s body. Trying to disturb Mrs. Summers as little as possible, he checked her lips and mouth for any sign of blood. He shuddered. She was still warm. If one of them had gotten there even five minutes earlier, they might’ve stopped this from happening. He decided not to share that detail with Buffy. She would undoubtedly try to blame herself anyway; this would only make it worse.

When he finished his examination, he returned to Buffy’s side. “She won’t turn,” he said. “It doesn’t look like Darla fed her any blood.”

Buffy nodded, her mouth twisting painfully. “Thank you,” she whispered.

He opened his arms uncertainly, and she buried herself against his chest. The gut-wrenching sobs started about five seconds later.

 

 

Angel held Buffy like that for so long that he lost track of time, but eventually the sobs subsided into heaving gasps, and then to silence.

“We should notify the authorities,” he said.

Buffy pulled away and looked up at him. “Why?” she asked. “What can police do about a vampire attack?”

“I wasn’t talking about the police.” Angel grimaced. “I was talking about the coroner.”

“Oh,” said Buffy. “But what about the cause of death?”

“Leave that to him. Working in this town, he’s seen enough vampire attack victims to be able to rule out natural causes, accident, or a human killer, and that’s what matters. A big investigation would get in the way of you doing your job.”

“Can you make the call?” Buffy asked.

“Of course,” said Angel. She turned and pulled a phonebook out of the drawer beneath where the phone hung on the wall. He took it and flipped to the Cs, and within seconds, he was dialing the number.

The next couple of hours seemed to go by in a blur. The coroner and a team from the mortuary came to take Mrs. Summers’ body and fill out some paperwork. The coroner was a quiet, sympathetic man who was depressingly good at coming up with causes of death that would sound more acceptable to the general public than “vampire attack.” Officially, therefore, Mrs. Summers had suffered an aneurism and died instantly. There would be no mention of the neck wound or the blood loss in the final report.

Once Buffy and Angel were alone in the house again, she went up to her bedroom, curled up on her bed and tried to contact her dad. Angel sat next to her, not sure his presence was still welcome but not wanting to leave her unless she told him to. It took a while to reach Mr. Summers. There was no answer at his home number, and it was long past closing at his work number, so no one was there either. In the end, she called his pager, and he called her back fifteen minutes later.

“Hello?” said Buffy.

“Buffy?” said Mr. Summers, his voice clearly audible to Angel. He sounded hoarse and groggy. “What’s wrong? Why did you page me so late? It’s two in the morning here.”

“I—what? Where are you?” said Buffy, looking at her alarm clock, which read 11:02.

“Boston,” he said. “I’m at a conference for work. Is everything okay?”

“No,” said Buffy. She took a deep breath. “Mom…mom’s dead. They said it was an aneurism.” Fresh tears began welling up in her eyes. Angel put a hand on her shoulder. She covered it with one of her own and squeezed.

It was a long moment before Mr. Summers said anything in reply. Angel couldn’t even hear him breathing. When he did speak, his voice was very rough. “I’ll be there as soon as I can, sweetie.” Then there was a click and a dial tone. She set the phone back in its cradle. They sat in silence for a while.

“I don’t want to be here tonight,” said Buffy finally, looking at the furniture and walls surrounding her. Angel understood perfectly. He doubted she would ever be able to see this house as home again.

“I’m sure one of your friends would be happy to—” he began, but Buffy cut him off.

“I think I’d rather have one night to myself before I bring anyone else into it,” she said. She looked at him. “Can I stay with you?” She looked down again quickly, a hint of redness on her cheeks. “Just for tonight. Dad won’t be here until tomorrow anyway.”

Angel stared at her, stunned. She was serious. “Darla showed up there today. It might not be the safest place.”

“Even better,” said Buffy. “If she does it again, it’ll save me the trouble of hunting her down before I kill her.”

“Then is there anything you want to bring?” said Angel. He found her talk of killing Darla far less upsetting than he would’ve expected. He was glad. He didn’t want traces of his old loyalties interfering with Buffy getting closure.

“Yeah,” she said, sliding off the bed. “I’ll grab some things. And can we get food somewhere? I don’t want to go in the kitchen.”

“Whatever you need.”

“Thank you.”

Ten minutes later, they left the house, Buffy with her school bag over one shoulder and a duffel bag over the other. At least half of its contents were weapons. On the way to Angel’s apartment, they stopped in a convenience store, where Buffy grabbed an armload of assorted junk food items she claimed would last her up to two days. From there, it was only another block to the apartment. When they arrived, Angel unlocked the door and held it open for Buffy.

“I like your place,” she said, looking around at his antique items and dark wood furniture as he turned on all of the lamps.

“Thanks,” he said, walking over to deposit Buffy’s soda bottles and ice cream containers in his fridge next to all the containers of pig’s blood. “The bathroom’s there,” he added, pointing, “and you can take the bed.”

She went about her evening routine while Angel obsessive-compulsively straightened his already very orderly apartment. While she was in the bathroom, he changed into a white undershirt and black sweats. She emerged a few minutes later, dressed in a tank top and pajama shorts. She pulled a little stuffed pig from the duffel bag and curled up under the covers of his bed. He checked to make sure his door was locked and bolted, then switched the lamps off again, grabbed the throw pillow and blanket off his chair, and stretched out on the rug next to the bed.

“You’re not like other vampires, are you?” said Buffy into the silent darkness.

“No,” he said. With her on the bed and himself on the floor, he was reminded forcibly of two evenings previous. The atmosphere could not have been more different.

“Why?” she asked.

“They have no souls.”

“But you do?”

“For almost a century now.”

“How did it happen?”

“A curse. A clan of gypsies wanted me to suffer for what I did to them.”

“Have you?”

“More than you can imagine.”

The mattress creaked. He could see her face peeking out over the edge of the bed, even if it was too dark for her to see him. “Can I trust you?”

What a question. Angel wasn’t even sure he trusted himself. There had been brief moments in that kitchen when he’d been a little too distracted by the smell of Mrs. Summers’ blood, and a tiny part of him had been angry at Darla, not for killing her, but for getting there first. He shuddered and tried to clear his head of such thoughts.

Buffy didn’t need to hear the long, cynical answer, though. One of the few things he was sure of was that he would kill or die for Buffy Summers, and that was what mattered now. “You can trust me,” he said.

“Good,” she said, her face disappearing from view. “Because I want to take the fight to Darla, but I’ll need your help.”

“What’s your plan?”

She paused. “Do you know why I was expelled from Hemery?”

 

 

Buffy walked to Sunnydale High the following morning with no intention of going to any of her classes. Instead, she headed straight for the library, where Xander and Willow were playing with a fortune-teller the former had made out of a sheet of notebook paper, and Giles was shelving books.

Willow was the first one to spot her. “Buffy!” she said happily, but then her face fell when she got a better look at her friend’s expression. “Are you okay?” Xander and Giles turned to face her too, and both of their brows furrowed in concern.

“A vampire named Darla got into my house last night. Before I got home,” said Buffy, not looking any of them in the eyes. She was in revenge mode. She wasn’t going to fall apart. Not until Darla was dust, anyway.

“Good Lord,” said Giles, taking off his glasses and polishing them. “But if she got in, then that means she must’ve had an invitation…”

“Yeah,” said Buffy.

“Oh, Buffy, I’m so sorry,” said Giles. “I-is there anything I can do? Do you need a place to stay?”

Willow put the pieces together then, and her confused concern changed to shock. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she reached out a hand to touch Buffy’s arm. Buffy covered Willow’s hand with her own, swallowing hard. Xander was still frowning, glancing around at all of them, but the fear in his eyes suggested it wouldn’t be long now.

“My dad’s flying back from his business trip early. I can stay with him.”

“Your dad?” Xander repeated. “But what about—” He cut himself off, his eyes going wide. “Oh, God, Buffy.”

“You’re all invited to the funeral,” said Buffy. Her throat was so tight it was painful, but her eyes were dry. “But right now I want to talk about Darla. I have a plan. I’m pretty sure Dad won’t want to move here to accommodate me, so we might not have a lot of time to get this done beyond the funeral. I want to take out Darla and any other vampires she’s running around with. Maybe even the Master, if we get lucky.”

As one, they all walked over to the study table and took seats around it.

“How do you know Darla was the one who…who came to your house?” asked Giles, replacing his now thoroughly cleaned glasses on his nose in a businesslike fashion.

“Angel recognized her scent,” said Buffy.

“Angel?” said Xander, suddenly angry. “He was at your house too? Then how do you know he’s not the one who did it?”

Buffy was in no mood to have this argument now, so she opted for bluntness bordering on morbidity. “He was wearing a white shirt. It wouldn’t have stayed clean if he’d been feeding on someone, but there was no blood on him at all.” At these words, Willow went very pale.

“So he’s one of the good guys?” she asked tremulously before Xander could offer Buffy a counterargument.

“He is,” said Buffy.

“How can you be sure?” said Giles.

“He has a soul,” said Buffy.

There was a pause while they all digested this. Xander looked like he was hoping Giles would come in on his side of the argument, but in the end, he didn’t choose a side at all. “That’s something I would very much like to know more about,” he said, “but for now I’m willing to defer to your judgment about Angel. Who is this Darla?”

“One of the Master’s top lieutenants,” said Buffy. “Four hundred years old, about my height, blonde, really awful bangs, looks like she’s in her early twenties, but has recently been wearing a lot of Catholic schoolgirl outfits—probably to try and blend in better with high schoolers.” She glanced at Xander and Willow. “She was in that crypt the night they took Jesse.”

“Oh, her?” said Willow, looking indignant. “That’s the girl I threw holy water on. She ran away like a coward, and she’s one of the Master’s lieutenants?”

“There’s a reason she’s survived this long,” said Buffy. “Which is why it won’t be enough for me to just hunt her down and stake her. We have to be smart about this.”

“What’s the plan?” said Xander.

“That depends on how quickly we can figure out how to make explosives,” said Buffy, the cold determination in her voice faltering a little.

“Isn’t that a little extreme?” said Giles.

Buffy leveled a flat stare at him. “Darla killed my mother. It’s war.”

For a few second, he merely met her stare while Xander and Willow’s heads swiveled back and forth between them. Then, to Buffy’s surprise, Giles nodded. “Explosives. I, er, might already have some experience in that area.”

Xander gave a cough that might have been hiding a snicker.

“And the materials are actually disturbingly easy to acquire,” Giles went on with dignity.

“It’s so true!” said Willow. When they all stared at her, she shrank down in her chair. “What? I went to science camp over the summer, and I figured out a few different explosive chemical combinations. We use a lot of those chemicals in the science labs here, and plenty of them are common household items.” Then, in an offhand voice, she added, “I also discovered that you can make a flamethrower with a PVC pipe, sawdust, and a lighter.”

“Holy MacGyver, Batman,” said Xander. “You’ve known about this since the summer and are only telling me about it now?”

“Guys?” said Buffy.

“Sorry,” said Willow.

“So,” said Xander, rubbing his hands together. “Why do we need explosives?”

“If Willow can get me a map of the city’s utility tunnels, I can show you.”

 

 

Not long after Buffy left the apartment, Angel took to the tunnels, following Darla’s scent. He had never actually been to the underground church where the Master was trapped, but he knew where it was. A vampire as old as the Master gave off a kind of homing beacon, drawing younger vampires to his power. The fact that he was trapped in the Hellmouth seemed to amplify the effect. Any vamp in the city would be able to find him if they followed that pull, and according to Angel’s sources, at least 90% of them were now on his payroll. The important question for the moment was how many of them were sleeping away the daylight in those tunnels.

As it turned out, the answer was in the dozens. The first one Angel encountered was evidently supposed to be a sentry, but he must’ve been fairly young, because all it took was a menacing glare from Angel, and he shrank into the shadows and let him pass. From that point on, Angel walked past numerous dark shapes stretched along the floor. Some snarled at the disturbance; others slept on. One deliberately tried to trip him, at which he growled and aimed a kick at the culprit’s gut. None of the others bothered him after that, but he knew there would be no escape if this meeting went poorly.

He had long since lost Darla’s scent among the general reek of the Master’s many other undead minions, but he doubted she would be anywhere else. At last, he reached the place where the modern utility tunnel merged awkwardly with the cavernous old chapel, which had taken on many characteristics of a cave in its sixty years underground. The Master was sitting in a throne-like chair at the center of this eerie tableau, and Darla was whispering in his ear. A little to the right of them, a young boy was playing with a pair of toy cars beneath a dripping candelabra. So far, nobody was looking at him, so he decided to speak first.

“I know why the Master is down here, being stuck and all, but why would anyone live in a damp sewer if they had another choice?” The boy stopped playing with his cars and looked around, and Darla straightened up and faced him, her head tilted to the side and her hips angled in a deliberately enticing way.

“Angelus,” said the Master. “I see two hundred and fifty years still hasn’t been long enough to teach you respect for your elders.” He got to his feet. “So, are you here to avenge the fair maiden’s mother? Foolish…”

“I would if I thought it would do me any good,” said Angel. Darla raised an eyebrow and the Master folded his arms over his leather-clad chest.

“Meaning?” he asked.

“Meaning that she thinks I’m the one who killed her mom,” said Angel, slipping his jacket off and spreading his arms so they could see some of the bruises left by Buffy’s fists. “I barely managed to get away.” His gaze moved from the Master to Darla. “You got what you wanted. Happy now?”

She sidled forward, smirking in a very lascivious way. “What I wanted was you,” she purred. “Is that what I got?”

“I’ve got nowhere else to go,” said Angel, deliberately not answering Darla’s question. “She’ll be hunting me.”

“So kill her,” said the Master.

“You could always just leave town,” said Darla, circling him and trailing one finger along the contours of his shoulders and back. “Why stay? I thought you weren’t one of us.”

“What’s the point of lying to myself anymore? They’ll never accept me as one of the good guys. I spent weeks helping Buffy, but it wasn’t enough to earn me any benefit of the doubt last night. But I won’t go back to living off rats.”

“Hmm,” said the Master. “Perhaps we can find someone who could take care of that pesky soul of yours. You might find it difficult to fit in with it intact.”

“Oh, he’s not entirely worthless like this,” said Darla. She was standing in front of him now, barely an inch away, and she snaked an arm around his neck and pulled him down into a kiss. He didn’t even have to pretend to kiss her back. Ninety-five years apart and it was still too much of a habit. She broke away first and looked up at him a mixture of lust and scorn not many could pull off. “But he’s nothing compared to my darling boy.”

 

 

Once the planning session was over and everyone knew what supplies they needed to get and what tasks to perform, Xander and Willow went to class while Giles took Buffy to the counseling office to find out how many days she could miss school, given the circumstances. The councilor, a black man named Mr. Platt, gave Buffy a long, sympathetic look after Giles told him about her mother.

“School policy is three excused absences for deaths in the immediate family,” he said, snuffing his cigarette out in the ashtray on his desk. “I hope we’ll see you back next Tuesday, Miss Summers.” He stood up and stretched out a hand. When Buffy shook it, he brought up his other hand and clasped hers in both of his. “I won’t require you to come and see me, but I’d like you to think about it. My door is always open, if you ever need to talk.”

“Thank you,” said Buffy, a hard lump forming in her throat. She and Giles went back to the library, where they reviewed the plan. Half an hour later, Hank Summers came through the doors. Buffy got up from the study table without a word and ran into his arms. For the first time that day, she let the tears fall.

“Could you excuse us for a minute, Mr…?” Hank said, still hugging Buffy tightly.

“Giles,” said Giles. “Of course. I’ll be in my office.” Buffy heard Giles gather up all the papers off the table and walk away. Once the office door closed behind him, she and her dad moved over to the table.

 

 

In his office, Giles picked up his phone and carefully dialed a long-distance number. It rang twice before there was a click. “Hello, may I ask who is calling?” said a polite British voice on the other end.

“Rupert Giles.”

“Do you have a code?”

“Wordsworth and Byron are taking tea in York. Tennyson will be unable to attend.”

“Very good, Mr. Giles. To whom would you like to speak?”

“Quentin Travers, please. I need to report on recent events surrounding the Slayer.”

 

 

“How are you doing, kiddo?” asked Hank.

“Didn’t get much sleep,” said Buffy.

“Me either. I called your aunt in Illinois and all of your mom’s friends in L.A. Is there anyone in Sunnydale you want at the funeral?”

“I don’t think Mom had really made any friends yet, but can Xander and Willow and Mr. Giles come?”

“Sure,” said Hank. “I’ve also called the funeral home in L.A. We could have the funeral on Saturday.”

“That’d be good,” said Buffy. “Am I gonna have to move back?”

Hank didn’t answer for a minute. He was watching her with his brow furrowed. “Would you want to if I could get you back into Hemery?”

“I’d rather stay here,” said Buffy, looking him in the eyes, trying to convey how important this was to her without words. “I know that wouldn’t be easy with your work, but…is there any chance?”

“We’ll see,” said Hank. “We don’t have to decide anything yet.”

Buffy was almost positive that was Dad-code for, “We’ll talk about this again when I’m sure it’s an argument I can win,” but she felt too emotionally drained already to try pressing the issue.

 

 

When Giles arrived at the library on Friday morning, mug full of fresh coffee from the faculty room, it was to find Quentin Travers sitting at the study table, a steaming cup of tea in front of him.

“How was your flight?” asked Giles.

“Long,” said Travers, heaving himself to his feet and leaning forward to shake Giles’s hand. “But necessary.”

“Then you agree that Miss Summers should remain in Sunnydale, if at all possible,” said Giles as they both sat down.

“Naturally. The demonic activity here is unmatched by that in any other location. Even the Cleveland Hellmouth. Admittedly, there is quite a lot of it in Los Angeles, but it would be too difficult for her to maneuver under the shadow of that accursed law firm. We consider it imperative that she stay.”

“We may have a problem there,” said Giles. “Her father is unlikely to want to saddle himself with a two hour commute just so that she can continue attending the same school. She mentioned that he was going to try to persuade her old school in Los Angeles to allow her to reenroll.”

“Do you think he’s likely to succeed, after the incident with Mr. Merrick?”

“I suppose it depends how much money changes hands,” said Giles.

“Well, if Mr. Summers won’t cooperate, then we can arrange to have custody of the girl transferred to you.”

Giles almost spat out the mouthful of coffee he’d just drunk. “You would remove her from her father’s care? Right after her mother’s death?”

“It may be the only way to ensure that the Hellmouth is kept in check,” said Travers evenly.

“Not the only way, surely,” said Giles. “I know the Council was behind Sunnydale High being the nearest school to Los Angeles that would allow Buffy to enroll. This time, can’t the Council simply direct its considerable resources towards Hank Summers’ employers? Perhaps persuade them to invest in a Sunnydale branch of whatever it is he does.”

“He’s in insurance,” said Travers. He looked thoughtful. “I read Merrick’s files about the family on the plane.” He emptied his cup of tea and cleared his throat. “I’ll see what we can do. Now, about Miss Summers. How has her training been going?”

 

 

Saturday was a surreal experience. Buffy had never really thought about how many other people cared about her mom. How many friends she’d left behind in L.A. How much her dad still cared about her even after the divorce. How hard it would be for Aunt Arlene to lose her sister. Grandma and Grandpa Gilbert had died a few years apart when Buffy was a little girl, and then her cousin Celia had died not long after. Buffy was the only living blood relative Arlene had now, but that realization didn’t make it any easier to be on the receiving end of her many tearful hugs. Arlene not only looked a great deal like her younger sister; she smelled almost the same too.

Willow, Xander, and Giles were there as well, having come together in Giles’s car. Buffy had never seen Xander dressed up before. His floppy hair clashed with the black jacket and tie. Giles was wearing something very similar. He looked wrong without all the tweed. Not British enough. Willow looked very nice in a red floral dress and a black cardigan, with her hair held back by a matching headband. Every few minutes, Buffy would make eye contact with her and feel a little better prepared to receive the sympathy of hoards of family friends whose names she couldn’t remember.

Buffy liked the funeral itself much better than the viewing. They held it right at the cemetery, and it was a beautiful day—the kind of day on which, if things were the way they should’ve been, her mom would’ve taken a book out to read on the porch swing. Buffy would’ve come home from hanging out with Willow and Xander and the two of them would’ve talked, laughed, and drunk home-made lemonade together.

The best thing about the funeral was that Buffy no longer had to stand between her dad and her aunt right next to the casket, and the casket was now closed. She had only looked at the body once in the funeral home, hoping to catch a final glimpse of the features so familiar and dear to her, but it hadn’t been the same at all. The skin was the wrong color, the cheeks the wrong shape. And, of course, whoever had prepared her for the viewing had tied a colorful scarf around her neck, to hide the wounds.

After the service ended, it took about half an hour for the low, murmuring conversations to fade and the guests to start heading back to their cars. Eventually, there were only six of them left. Willow, Xander, and Giles were hovering behind the back row of fold-up chairs, and Aunt Arlene was rummaging in her purse for the keys to her rental car.

“Ready to go home?” said Hank, sounding weary.

“Home here or home in Sunnydale?” said Buffy.

“Here, of course,” said Hank. “Arlene’s staying a couple of days, and I thought you and I could go talk to the principal at Hemery on Monday.”

“Dad, no,” said Buffy. “I don’t want to go back to Hemery. I want to stay in Sunnydale.”

“Buffy, we’ve talked about this,” said Hank gently.

“We started to, and then you said we’d talk about it later,” Buffy reminded him, trying not to show how incensed his words had made her. “My life is in Sunnydale now. I can’t just leave it behind.”

“But you’ve only lived there for two months,” said Hank. “It can’t possibly be more of a home to you than L.A. already.”

“It is,” said Buffy, folding her arms. “And I’m not moving back here.”

“That’s not your decision, young lady,” said Hank, his expression hardening.

“It was when Mom and I moved there!” said Buffy, her vision suddenly blurring with tears. “She showed me a list of places that had a market for her art gallery and good schools that I could still get into with my record, and we went to Sunnydale because it was the best place for both of us. She wouldn’t have dragged me somewhere just so she could keep her promotion!”

“Buffy!” said Hank sharply. “This promotion isn’t just about me; from now on, I’ll be making enough to pay for you to go to a good college after you graduate. You won’t need loans or a part-time job or anything.”

“College?” said Buffy with a hysterical laugh. She was the Slayer. As if she was going to live that long anyway. But that wasn’t an argument she could use on her dad.

“Buffy, Hank,” Arlene hissed. “This is not the place.”

“No,” Buffy agreed, glaring at Hank. “It isn’t. I’ll just get a ride home with Giles.” She turned on her heel and stalked over to her fellow Sunnydale residents, pretending not to notice how mortified they all looked. “Let’s go.”

 

 

It was Sunday morning. Angel could feel the creeping threat of daylight through the roof of the cavern in which he’d been spending most of his time for the past couple of days.

“What news on the Slayer?” said the Master.

“She hasn’t gone back to her house,” said Darla. “Julian saw her getting out of the Watcher’s car with the redheaded girl not long after sundown. Then she patrolled two of the cemeteries. Staked a couple of fledgling idiots.”

“If she’s staying with Willow, it means her father didn’t come to Sunnydale with her,” said Angel.

“She’s vulnerable,” said the little boy in his weirdly echoing voice. Angel had learned that his name was Collin, and he was the Anointed. He wasn’t a fan.

“Less vulnerable than if she was in the house we’ve both been invited into,” said Darla, glancing at Angel.

“Which is probably why she’s not staying there,” said Angel.

Darla narrowed her eyes. “You know, since you’re already dead, it wouldn’t kill you to stop with the clever commentary.”

 

 

Several yards above the vampires’ heads, Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles were getting set up. Xander and Willow were both wearing bulky backpacks, and Giles was carrying one large disco ball under each arm. Buffy had just carried the two large vanity mirrors they’d acquired from the antique shop to their positions.

The construction project going on across the street from the high school was proving to be very valuable to them, because the road was already closed to traffic. And since it was Sunday, no workers were around. They had a clear playing field for Phase One: Sealed for Freshness.

“Okay, so which way am I tossing the payload?” said Xander as he, Willow, and Giles approached one of the two manholes on the closed street.

“That way,” said Buffy, pointing. “The farther, the better. We want the blockage to fall just beyond the boundaries of the nest, so none of them can escape.”

“And how can I be sure it won’t blow up in my face?” he asked, slinging the backpack off, unzipping it, and pulling out an object that vaguely resembled an oversized brick with two ordinary soda cans and several wires sticking out of it. Between the soda cans was a little black panel with a blinking green light in it. The device was tied to an eight-foot length of rope, by which it could be lowered through the manhole deep enough to sling it down the tunnel without having to climb down the ladder first.

“Because it’s remote detonated,” said Willow, taking another brick-and-soda-cans device out of her own backpack, along with what looked like a normal TV remote. “Once we’ve planted the charges, I’ll put the batteries into this remote and use it to activate them.”

“But what if they see what I’m doing and try to grab me?”

“We’ve been through this,” said Buffy. “They can’t grab you, because you’re up here in the sunlight. Just make sure no part of you gets in the shadows, and if they grab the rope, let go.”

“Right,” said Willow. “And once we’ve planted the devices, it’ll be time for Phase Two: Disco Fever.”

“I did not agree to these codenames,” Giles grumbled.

“Three against one, Giles,” said Xander, while Buffy crouched down and pried up the manhole cover as easily as if she was picking up a quarter off the street.

 

 

The Master chuckled, glancing at Angel, then Darla, who looked thoroughly annoyed. “Trouble in paradise already?”

“I wouldn’t call it paradise just yet,” said Darla irritably. “But his gentleman routine won’t last long.” As relentlessly as she’d been coming onto Angel since Thursday, he still hadn’t done more than kiss her—and only that much when she initiated it. She wasn’t used to him exhibiting this much restraint, and she wasn’t handling it gracefully.

“Does spending so much time with old bat-face always turn you into a spoiled brat, Darla?” he asked in a bored voice. “I guess you’re lucky you hadn’t seen him in a while when we met. I probably would’ve passed you over for one of the tavern wenches without daddy issues.”

“Angelus,” said the Master, while Darla hissed. “Darla is not the only one whose patience with you is growing thin. Do not push your luck until you have contributed something valuable to my cause.”

“I don’t understand why you’re having such a hard time with the Slayer that my help is something you need,” said Angel.

“Well, she hasn’t exactly been working alone before now,” said Darla pointedly.

“You have at least fifty loyal soldiers at your command,” said Angel. “Did it never occur to you to send them all at once?”

“It occurred to me to use bullets,” said Darla.

The Master looked displeased at Darla’s remark but intrigued at Angel’s. However, before they could discuss the matter further, a deafening boom sounded from somewhere down one of the tunnels. Many of the vampires down there let out yells of surprise. Within seconds, some of them were running past the cavern mouth towards the other tunnel, but they hadn’t gotten far when there was another boom from the very tunnel they were trying to escape through.

“What the hell is going on out there?” said Darla.

“I don’t think Buffy is limiting her revenge to me,” said Angel.

The vampires from the second tunnel collided with those fleeing the first as they all sought an escape route. Apart from the two tunnels, the only exits from the cavern were two manholes that opened on the street around the school and a maintenance door that went directly into the school’s boiler room. From the sound of things, both tunnels were now blocked. In daylight, the manholes would be no use.

Suddenly, the panicked murmurs coming from all the vampires turned into screams of pain and fear as light flooded both tunnels. Instead of trying to escape, they now stampeded down into the cavern.

“We’re under siege,” said Darla in disbelief.

“We’re under attack,” said the Master, rising from his throne.

While everyone else was panicking and trying to get as far into the cavern as possible to escape the twirling diamond flecks of sunlight searing across the tunnels, Angel held his jacket in front of him like a shield and slipped towards the left-hand tunnel, where there was a smaller tunnel that led to the maintenance door under the school. Just as he was about to slip down this tunnel, someone seized him from behind.

“Where are you going?” It was Darla.

“I’m not staying down here to get fried with everyone else,” said Angel. When she wouldn’t let go of him, he jerked her along with him instead. “There’s a way out through the school. She won’t burn that down just to get to me. I should be able to hole up there until nightfall.”

“I’m coming with you,” said Darla.

Behind them, the Master was calling after her. She ignored him.

 

 

Willow watched anxiously as Xander climbed down one manhole and Giles climbed down the other. The two of them had very active roles to play. They were now on Phase Three: Cocktail Party. In this phase of the plan, Willow had two jobs: make sure the mirrors on the surface remained at the best angle to reflect the morning sunlight onto the disco balls spinning at the bottom of each hole, and yell if any police showed up. This was a major concern, because the explosions they’d just set off in the tunnels had not been remotely quiet, and two large craters had appeared above them: one in the middle of the street, the other on the school’s front lawn.

The anxious redhead glanced over her shoulder at the school just in time to see Buffy disappearing inside it. Even though this put everything right on schedule for Phase Four: Double-Cross Rendezvous, Willow somehow felt more worried about Buffy than she was about Xander or Giles. Willow and Xander had lost Jesse to these vampires and Giles had been working against creatures like them since long before Buffy had been called to do the job, but Buffy had lost her mother. For her, this was deeply personal.

 

 

Angel and Darla practically had to rip the heavy metal door off its hinges to get it open. Angel glanced over his shoulder on the way through it into the boiler room, and saw Giles step into view in the main tunnel, flecks of sunlight dancing across his back and past him on the walls and floor. His eyes were on the sunken church cavern ahead and he held a lighter in his right hand and a glass bottle full of liquid with a rag sticking out the top in his left.

Not drawing Darla’s attention to this, Angel shut the door behind them as firmly as possible considering how bent and twisted it now was. He glanced around the boiler room. A row of 55-gallon kerosene drums sat along the wall to his right. He seized the nearest one and rolled it along the circumference of its base until it was pressed against the door.

“What are you doing?” said Darla, who was already at the bottom of the stairs.

“If Buffy’s attacking the cavern, she might notice what we did to the door. I’m trying to make it a little harder for her to get through it,” Angel grunted, now rolling a second drum beside the first.

“Fine,” said Darla impatiently. “But if she knows about that door, she might come down this way. I think there’s more utility tunnel access behind the school. If it’s in the shade, we can get out of here.”

“You sound real cut up about the Master’s lair getting attacked,” said Angel, walking over to join her now, “considering that it probably wouldn’t be happening if you hadn’t killed the Slayer’s mother.”

“It also wouldn’t be happening if you’d gone to confront her about it. Either you’d be dead or she would. Instead, you spent the last three days cowering in our protection, doing nothing.”

They were at the top of the stairs now. All the lights in the building were off, but darkness of the corridor was punctuated dimly by diluted grayish daylight coming through the small windows in the classroom doors. Angel looked right, then left. “This way,” he said, and started walking left. When Darla’s footsteps didn’t follow, he paused and turned. She was staring at him hard. “What?” he asked.

“How would she have known where the Master was trapped?” she said, her eyes still riveted to his face. “She knew exactly where to collapse both tunnels to seal everyone in.”

Angel tossed up his hands. “How should I know? Maybe she grabbed one of the fledglings and beat it out of him. It’s not exactly hard to do.”

“Maybe,” said Darla. Her eyes were still slightly narrowed, but she didn’t argue. Angel kept walking down the hall, passing a row of lockers, some of which hung open and empty. Suddenly, there was a wrenching noise of metal behind him. He spun back around, but not in time to deflect the sheet of metal swinging towards his head. It struck him directly on the ear and sent him crashing into the lockers hard enough to dent them in. He slid down them to the ground, his ears ringing and head pounding. Darla loomed over him, still brandishing the locker door, baring her fangs at him. “Or maybe she’s been working with you this whole time.”

“Good guess,” came another voice from the end of the hallway. Darla whirled to face her. There was a twang and a soft hiss, and then Darla jerked back, clutching her left shoulder. A crossbow bolt was protruding from it. Not even bothering to rip it out, Darla threw the locker door like a Frisbee. Angel dragged himself into a sitting position in time to see Buffy duck and the door embed itself in the drywall behind her. The next second, Buffy was running towards Darla at a full sprint, a stake in her hand, the crossbow bouncing off her hip. Instead of engaging, Darla dodged sideways into a westward-facing classroom and slammed the door behind her.

Buffy skidded to a halt on the polished tile floor when she reached Angel. “Are you okay?” she asked, holding out a hand to help him up. He let her heave him to his feet and tried to remain steady. He was still seeing double from that blow, but it was starting to clear.

“I’ll be fine,” he said.

“You got her here,” said Buffy. “Good work.”

“She might try to use the building’s shadow to get away.”

“She’s not getting away from me,” said Buffy in as close to a growl as a human teenage girl could get.

“Be careful,” said Angel. She didn’t answer, but went straight for the door Darla had disappeared through. Shaking his head in an effort to clear it more, Angel started off down the hallway. He wanted to be able to help Buffy if she needed it, but he couldn’t do much without a weapon. From what he had learned so far of the Watcher, he was pretty sure he’d be able to find something he could use in the library.

 

 

Darla hadn’t done anything to bar the door, so Buffy was able to enter the classroom with ease. It was her history classroom. There weren’t many places where an adult could hide in it, but she didn’t waste her time checking any of them. One of the windows was wide open, and there was a shiny red smudge on the sill. She tore towards it and dove outside, landing on the grass in a roll and springing to her feet in one smooth motion. The building’s shadow only stretched a few yards beyond the west wall, and there were no other structures close enough for a vampire to reach safely. Buffy scanned the wall for signs of Darla just in time to see the window all the way at the south end close. Instead of following, she ducked back in through the first window and ran back out into the hall.

Angel was nowhere in sight, but Buffy didn’t waste any time thinking about that. Darla had just gone into the chemistry lab, and Buffy wanted to catch up to her before she left it. When she reached the lab’s door, she didn’t even check the handle; she kicked it in with all her strength. The inner frame shattered and the door itself flew clean off its hinges and went crashing into the granite-topped teacher’s desk on the other side of the room. She made it one step inside when she had to duck. Darla had been standing right next to the door, armed with a fire extinguisher. It crashed into the splintered doorframe instead of Buffy’s head, creating a large dent in it. Buffy swept her leg out and knocked both of Darla’s out from under her. She whipped out her stake, but Darla seized the crossbow hanging from the strap across her torso and yanked so hard that Buffy flipped over and landed flat on her back on the nearest lab table, while the splintered crossbow skidded across the floor beneath it. She hit the table so hard that it knocked the wind knocked out of her, and the back of her head missed the metal gas nozzles by an inch.

Darla was back on her feet, armed with the stake Buffy had dropped when she hit the table. Buffy rolled to the side just in time to avoid the sharp wood heading directly for her left eye. Keeping a firm grip on the table’s edge as she went over it, she used it to swing herself underneath it, kicking Darla in the knee. Darla moved in time to reduce what would have broken bones into a glancing blow, but it still knocked her off-balance enough to go stumbling into the table behind her.

“You know, I should have realized you’d believe Angel,” said Darla, moving quickly to put more space between herself and Buffy by the time Buffy was standing upright again. “Stupid little girls in love never pay attention to obvious evidence. Maybe if I’d made my move weeks ago, you’d have fallen for it.”

Buffy had never been more angry in her life. A shrill buzzing noise had started in her ears. She knew Darla was doing this on purpose—trying to goad her into a rash mistake. But just because she knew that didn’t mean it wasn’t working. She gripped the handle of one of the supply drawers beneath the table, wrenched it out, and chucked it at Darla’s head. Darla avoided it easily, and it crashed into the far wall just beneath the windows. “If you’d done this weeks ago, your ashes would have already been scattered by the wind.”

“But just think,” said Darla, her eyes dancing with malicious laughter. “You let me get away the first time we fought. If you’d killed me then, your dear mother would be at home right now, cooking Sunday dinner.”

Buffy let out a scream of rage and dove clean over the table between herself and Darla, tackling her to the ground and knocking a bucket full of glass beakers off the table on her way, the contents shattering on impact. Buffy used her legs and one hand to keep Darla pinned, reaching with her free hand for the spare crossbow bolt in her back pocket, but before she could reach it, Darla seized one of the larger shards of glass and slashed her across the forearm with it.

Buffy yelled and recoiled, and Darla got her legs curled between them enough to kick Buffy off. She tumbled backwards until her progress was abruptly halted by the cabinets beneath the windows.

“I’m actually glad you know I did it,” said Darla. “It gives me the opportunity to tell you how delicious your mother’s blood was. She died screaming, and she didn’t even know her daughter had the power to save her.”

Buffy spotted one of those flint strikers that looked like an oversized safety pin lying on the floor in front of her among the contents of the drawer she had thrown. An idea struck her. She grabbed the striker and struggled to her feet. Her arm was bleeding badly, and she felt like she might’ve broken a rib where she’d struck the handle of the cabinet.

Darla was closing the distance between them rapidly, vaulting tables instead of going around them. Buffy quickly assessed her surroundings. Her plan might work, but she would have to move fast. She spotted what she was looking for two tables to her right, and she started running. She was almost within reach of her goal when Darla caught up with her. Cold fingers closed around the back of her neck and slammed her down against the surface of the table.

“Now it’s time to find out if you taste the same as your mother,” she hissed. Buffy tried to blink the stars out of her vision, groping blindly for the reason she’d come to this particular table, but she was no longer confident in her plan. She braced herself for the feeling of fangs tearing into her flesh, but it never came. A furious roar sounded from the direction of the doorway, and then Darla let out a shriek of pain.

The pressure on Buffy’s neck vanished. She didn’t waste a second. Still holding onto the striker with her left hand, she turned the valve above the gas nozzle as far as it would go with her right, then whirled around, aiming the plastic hose directly at Darla. With a single scrape of steel against flint, the gas ignited, and Darla with it.

Buffy had just enough time to see the axe from Giles’s weapons cabinet buried in Darla’s chest before she was completely consumed by the flames. A second later, nothing was left but ashes, which drifted gently to the floor. Buffy turned around, panting, and saw Angel standing by the doorway.

“Thanks for the save,” she rasped.

“Any time,” he said grimly. “You still up for Phase Five?”

“You bet,” said Buffy. She was still high on adrenaline from the fight with Darla, even if most of her ached. “Willow didn’t make me that flamethrower for nothing.”

 

 

Buffy and Willow, both dressed in pajamas and socks, sat close together at the head of the latter’s bed. They weren’t talking. Willow had her arm around Buffy, who was staring blankly at the opposite wall. The battle was over. Her mom had been avenged. Darla was nothing more than sooty grime on the floor of the wrecked chemistry lab. Phase Five: Dust to Ashes, had worked just as well as the first four. The few vampires remaining after Giles and Xander’s Molotov cocktail onslaught had fallen to Buffy’s PVC-and-sawdust flamethrower, the Master included. The Hellmouth was in no danger of opening in the near future, and the streets of Sunnydale would be a good deal safer at night for at least a few months.

For now, all that was left for Buffy was figuring out how to move forward in her life without her mom. She’d rather have a thousand rematches with all those vampires. This was by far the harder task. She wasn’t sure how she’d be handling it right now without Willow. Xander had wanted to have a victory party at the newly fumigated Bronze, and even Giles thought some kind of celebration was in order after taking down the Master so handily, but Willow had held them at bay. Somehow, she had instinctively understood that Buffy just needed time to mourn now.

A soft knock sounded at Willow’s bedroom door. “Come in,” she said.

Sheila Rosenberg poked her head into the room. “Buffy? You have a visitor.”

“Oh,” said Buffy. She wiped her eyes and slid off the bed. Willow came too, walking quietly behind. Sheila led the way to the sitting room next to the front door, where Buffy found her father waiting for her. She stopped as soon as he came into view. “Dad,” she said.

“Hey, sweetie,” said Hank.

“I’m not going back to L.A. with you, if that’s why you’re here.”

A shadow passed over his expression, but then he gave a weak smile. “My destination is actually a little closer than that.” He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket, unfolded it, and passed it to her. She looked down at it. Most of the sheet was taken up by a photo of a red brick two-story house with a Tudor-style roof and windows. Above the photo was an address: 322 Hamilton Court, Sunnydale, CA.

Buffy looked up at her dad, shocked. “What does this mean?” she asked.

“I got the promotion,” said Hank. “It’s here. The company is opening up a new branch, and my boss wants me to run it. He gave me a list of potential sites for the branch, and Sunnydale was on the list.”

Before he could finish explaining, Buffy launched herself at him and hugged him. “Thanks, Dad.”

 

 

It took two weeks (during which the town was threatened by a demon robot and an organ-harvesting demon being hunted by a living dummy) to get everything moved into the new house. Buffy liked it. The school and the Bronze were both within easy walking distance, as were several cemeteries. It wasn’t as big as the other house, but it was very comfortable. Her bedroom faced the backyard, and there was a convenient ivy-covered trellis leading from the flowerbed up to her window. The house on Revello Drive already had a couple of offers, as did the one in L.A.

Living with her dad was different from living with her mom in several ways. She wouldn’t have expected it; if living with just her mom had been a lot like living with both her parents before the divorce, then why should living with just her dad be much different? But different it was. Hank’s cooking skills were limited to breakfast foods, so any nights when Buffy didn’t feel like attempting a simple recipe were takeout nights. Hank watched a lot of sports in the evenings. He did his own laundry, but let Buffy do her own. He didn’t make his bed or insist that Buffy make hers. He let mail and takeout containers pile up on the kitchen counters for a while before they bothered him enough to do something about them. It was a more laid back atmosphere, but also not as warm.

There had been an investigation about the two collapsed tunnels and the property damage in and under the school, but Buffy got the impression that the police weren’t trying very hard to get to the bottom of it. According to Giles, they hadn’t found any witnesses and were pursuing no leads. Construction to repair the collapsed tunnels was already underway. Perhaps they were so used to bizarre things happening in Sunnydale that they’d given up trying to get to the bottom of any of it.

To Buffy’s slight disappointment, she didn’t see Angel again through any of this. He’d been so good the night her mom died, and with his part in the plan to kill Darla. Had he left now that the Master was dead?

She wondered about this for another week (during which she, Willow, Xander, and Giles had to combat a sudden infestation of nightmares) before he finally made an appearance. There was a tapping noise on her window just as she was finishing the final math problem on tonight’s homework. She looked around. Angel was leaning into view from his position on the trellis, which seemed precarious. Fighting both to keep a straight face and to remain calm, she hopped off the bed and went to open the window, then stepped back. When he didn’t move, she frowned. Then she remembered. “Oh yeah! You can come in.”

Angel slipped from the trellis through the window and stood up straight, all with a surprising amount of grace for how tall and broad-shouldered he was compared to the size of the window.

“Haven’t seen you in a while,” said Buffy. “Are you here for business or pleasure?” She blushed. That had sounded much less innuendo-y in her head.

“I wanted to see how you were doing,” said Angel, graciously pretending not to notice her verbal blunder.

“I’m okay,” said Buffy. “You?”

“Fine,” he said. “I’ve been keeping my ear to the ground. One of the Master’s minions must’ve escaped, because everyone’s talking about what you did to the rest of them. Nobody’s eager to be the next one to draw your attention.”

“Too bad it’s only vampires thinking that way,” said Buffy, sitting down on her window seat and tucking her legs under her.

“Been busy?” said Angel, sitting down next to her.

Buffy shrugged. “Demon robot, nightmares becoming reality, evil little rodent of a new principal. Nothing I can’t handle.” She looked up at him. “I would’ve liked to have seen you a few times.”

His expression became apologetic. “I thought you might want a little space.”

“Some days I did,” she admitted. “But not always.” She snorted. “Especially on my patrols. They’ve been so boring lately.”

He chuckled. “Then maybe we’ll run into each other sometime.”

Buffy smiled at him, but it didn’t last long. She thought of everything she’d been through since her mom’s death. “I think I understand why those Gypsies wanted to curse you instead of kill you.”

He looked at her questioningly. Not offended or surprised, just curious.

“When I was fighting Darla, she just kept taunting me about Mom. When I looked in her eyes, there was no remorse at all. To see the thing responsible for causing so much pain in your life staring back at you, not only not sorry, but happy to see you suffering—it’s almost as bad as the loss itself. If I could have done something to make Darla feel just a part of what I felt, I think I would’ve done it.”

“I can’t blame you,” said Angel.

“I mean,” Buffy continued, “I know it’s wrong. You didn’t deserve what the Gypsies did to you. They weren’t really punishing the demon in the end. Just the soul. It would’ve been the same thing with Darla. But I get why they wanted to see pain and remorse on your face.”

Silence fell between them. It wasn’t broken until Hank yelled up the stairs. “Buffy! Pizza’s here!”

“I’ll be down in a minute!” she yelled back, then turned to Angel again. On a sudden impulse, she leaned forward and kissed him briefly on the lips. “Thank you. For everything.”

He smiled sadly. “Go eat. I’ll see you soon.”