"Do you think so?" Anya said worriedly. "Really? It's not just me, is it?"
Xander looked up at her. She was thinking, he saw, of Hallie; he was thinking of Buffy. Buffy, his erstwhile best friend, who had just defended Spike to him. He remembered the night at the Bronze, the weird affinity in the way they always wound up together, and what had once been dismissible, suddenly seemed real. Something unpleasant tiptoed around the edges of his brain, something sinister, something he most definitely did not want to deal with or see... It was like having a word on the tip of his tongue. He knew if he pressed for it, it would disappear back into the mist at the back of his brain. Blinking at Anya, he wrenched himself back to her. "So, sweetie, what were you saying?"
"Hallie." She said, rather miffed. Her best friend was missing, without her pendant, and what was he thinking about? Buffy, no doubt. "But go right ahead, thinking about Buffy."
"I was not thinking about Buffy." Technically, this was true. What he was thinking about was Spike, how the bugger always showed up... Oh, more unpleasantness there. His brain literally flinched at linking Buffy and Spike in the same sentence. Maybe we haven't been there for her, he thought. But it's so hard; she's so different these days.
Dawn ambled up to the counter, looking at him. "Nervous yet?"
"You're behind the times." He said. "I've been nervous for a while. Weddings are a plot." Anya glanced up, and he launched the punch line. "Make you totally forget the marriage afterward. That's the part I want, but there's no way you can have 'marriage maid dresses' or things like that. Defeats the whole purpose of capitalism."
"Maybe you and Anya could start a new tradition."
"I like that." Xander said. "Hear that, Anya? Our own custom."
"What would that be?" Anya demanded. Did Xander just diss capitalism?
Uh-oh, Xander thought, hurrying into the breach. "Our own capitalist custom." He said. "Marriage... rituals, with all the appropriate -- and expensive -- thingies that could be trademarked and sold here. Like a sequel to the store?"
"Really?" Anya's voice was squeaky, high-pitched, and pleased. She bustled over to give him a peck, which Dawn smiled indulgently at, as if they were two cute senior citizens. "Just like Martha Stewart."
"Except without the demonic possession thing." Dawn said, trying to be helpful.
Anya glared at her."Hey! That's mostly a myth."
"About Martha Stewart?"
"No. About demons. Not all of us take hostages or anything."
"Okay." Dawn shrugged uncomfortably. Oh, goodie, something else she'd done wrong. She kept trying not to do the same stupid things again, but she kept running into new stupid things to do. How was she supposed to know they were stupid till she tried them? Sometimes you just couldn't tell. Anya looked at her a second longer, and Dawn could practically hear what she was thinking. Must keep Dawn away from small, portable items. True, but over, she thought. Why don't grownups ever move on? She was sorry, it was over, she'd never do it again, but Anya didn't trust her. It was like Spike; he totally hadn't done anything evil for ages, but evidently that concept hadn't gotten through the grownups' heads. She looked at Anya thoughtfully, an idea forming then, an idea so evil that her eyes popped out with it.
"Here." Anya said, thrusting a feather duster at her. "Go dust." She paused a moment. "But only the big things. The things that make large bulges if you try to steal them."
Dawn eyed the implement skeptically, but took it. "Can I ask you a question?"
"Are you asking me questions so you can delay paying off your debt by being forced to work?"
"No." Dawn glared at her for a moment. "No, I just thought of something."
"How long were you a vengeance demon?"
"Why is Angel here?" Buffy asked. The fact that she was in her bathrobe appeared to have been ignored by both Lorne and Wesley. Lorne she expected to ignore it.Wasn't he some kind of love demon, anyway? But Wesley? Wasn't it his job to be nosy? And disapproving? She kept turning around to glance at him suspiciously, awaiting the disapproval. She made extremely bad coffee in the hope that this would distract them from the not-so-stealthy sounds of Spike getting dressed upstairs, which at one point included a yelp and a very loud thud. This brought the painfully nervous conversation to a heart-thumping silence.
Lorne glanced with interest from be-bathrobed Slayer to scruffy former Watcher. Buffy folded her hands in her lap, and looked into her coffee cup. Shoulda listened to Mom going on about manners, she thought. There was silence upstairs. "So, uh, what brings you and Angel to Sunnydale?"
"Oh, we had to pick up Lorne." Wes said.
There were light footsteps on the stairs, and Spike suddenly appeared in the kitchen doorway. "Oh, hi, Spike." She said, far too enthusiastically. "Did you get your clothes in the dryer?"
Spike, never the best of liars when his heart was involved, came to a full stop, and stared at her. Her statement, and what it meant, visibly worked its way through his head till it connected with his mouth, at which point, he started to babble. "Uh. Yeah. Thanks. Slayer. Uh. Uh. All.. done. Sorry it took so long. Uh." His eyes were the size of silver dollars. He scrubbed at his hair with both hands as if he were trying to either restrain brain cells or force them to work. "Good thing, uh, Angel didn't see me doing laundry. Yeah! He gets all sorts of... So! Got any beer?" He finished desperately.
Everyone exchanged a look. Wes smiled slightly, and with a certain familiar touch of prissiness, put his coffee cup, practically full, back on its saucer. "You two seem to be getting along fairly well these days." Spike gave a massive twitch, as if he'd just backed into a light socket, and Buffy froze in place.
"Uh?" Former Watcher, Buffy thought. Oh, God. "Well, you know, I was dead, and Spike.. is dead, so we have a lot to talk about, and uh..."
"I think it's good." Wesley said firmly. He looked her right in the eye. "I think after your experience, Buffy, you desperately need someone to talk to. It's good that you can change and grow. Some people can't." He took a sip of the God-awful coffee, ignoring the fact that now it was Buffy's eyes that had gotten huge. "Look at me, for example."
Buffy was, quite frankly, already looking, partly out of a desire to gauge how much he was swallowing her story, and partly because she still hadn't gotten over the idea of Wes in blue jeans. Plus the stubble.
"I used to think that vampires were all the same. Animals. And now Angel's my friend." I hope. "What would have I missed out on if I hadn't changed my mind about that?"
"Oh." Buffy gulped. "That's good." She closed her open mouth with a snap. "Who are you? And what have you done with Wesley?"
Wesley grinned, and again, Buffy frowned with concentration. Damn. There's got to be a mark where they cloned him and gave him a personality, she thought. Where would that be? Someplace where there's hair. Ugh. Aside from which, she'd never seen Wes grin before. He'd always had the tight smile of some prissy dowager, afraid of showing off those facelift scars. Now he grinned, and all sorts of character lines appeared; much-traveled smiles lines at eyes and mouth, obviously often-used. She shook her head at her own astonishment. You're shocked, little Miss I'm-Sleeping-With-My-Ex-Mortal-Enemy?
"So, um," Buffy said. "You guys planning on sticking around?"
More glances were exchanged, except in Spike's case; he twitched again, and looked around as if scanning the ceiling for leaks. "Well, obviously, we have to find Angel." Wes said.
"Why did he come with?" Buffy asked curiously, ignoring yet another massive flinch from Spike.
"Well, he's either really drunk or really hungover." Lorne said. "I thought the Irish were supposed to be able to hold their liquor."
"Well, it helps it they don't drink enough to..." Spike drawled, then had a coughing attack as Buffy turned to look at him.
Buffy looked from face to face, wondering what she was missing. Coming to get Lorne, she thought. So, here he is, come get him. And Angel? Not exactly his style, but she'd never once seen him drink, either. A sharp pang cut through her, at the thought of all the things she didn't know, all the things she hadn't known, thanks to the curse.
She glanced at Spike. Was it fair to compare the two? Spike felt her gaze and met her eyes, and the rest of the room spun away. It wasn't fair to compare the two, but she kept coming back to that last glimpse of Angel as he walked out of her life, the way her legs turned to water beneath her from the pain. Contrast that with Spike, beaten almost to death, and determined that she never know. Why was it that two such different memories made her feel exactly the same way? Much as she didn't allow herself to remember that moment with Angel, she also didn't allow herself to think about that moment in Spike's crypt, either.
"So," she said brightly. "I'm going to take a shower. Now. That. Spike. Is. Done. With. All. The. Water." Spike winced again, and compensated for it by overacting.
"Oh. Sorry about that, Slayer. Just let it built up. Had to do it all at once. Laundry. Not used to. Ah. Things. Laundry." He specified. Then they both looked around to see if anybody was buying it.
"I'm going to go take a shower." Buffy announced again, in case anyone had missed the previous bulletin.
"Oh, hell." Spike said.
"Well, it's just that it's been a while since I got to see Angel drunk, and I'd really like to enjoy it while it lasts. But, no, go right ahead, Slayer..."
"No, go ahead."
God, he would have to get all flirtatious now, she thought. She reasserted reality with a yank. "Well, maybe if somebody hadn't almost used up all the hot water..."
She went, dying to know what was going to be said when she left.
Spike waited till her footsteps were all the way up the stairs before he got up and dumped his coffee in the sink. Wes groaned, and handed his across, as did Lorne, with a sigh. "Lovely girl, and I'm sure she's wonderful as a Slayer, but really, some people should not be allowed near the coffee filter." An examination of the coffee machine produced a groan and an additional comment. "Actually, someone should just plain introduce her to a coffee filter. What the hell was that, fertilizer?"
Spike leaned against the counter, and glanced around, anywhere but at the other two. Wes looked down at his hands. Lorne swiveled from one to the other, back and forth, like he was watching a tennis match, then finally gave an explosive sigh and spread his hands with eloquent impatience. "So? How are things?"
Spike glared at him. "Well... Ah... Things.... Ah....."
Lorne studied him, then slowly, gently, smiled. "Young love." He said dryly.
Spike avoided his eyes. Something about discussing Buffy in her own kitchen made him cringe. "Did you two talk?"
"Yes, we did."
Spike fidgeted, unwilling to meet the other demon's eyes. "So... ah...?"
"Can't tell you that."
"You can't. You can't? Whaddaya mean, you can't?"
"No, I'm like a priest."
"A priest wearing lime-green linen?" Spike blurted out.
"Besides, my friend, I don't think there's any doubt now."
Something about Lorne's obvious assumption irritated Spike, even though it happened to be true. Like talking about Buffy in her own kitchen, it just didn't seem right. "I was doing laundry." He lied stiffly. Worse yet, he knew he was stiff, and it made him irritable. Not a fun lie, he thought. What happened to all the fun lies?
"Isn't that sweet?" Lorne demanded of Wes, who was once again eyeing his hands. Lorne nudged him for a response. "I said, and I quote, 'Isn't that sweet?"
"Yes," Wes said quietly. "It is."
"You're afraid I'm going to make you say 'sweet', aren't you?"
"You're afraid I'm going to make you say sweet, a word that most men are pathologically incapable of saying. If you keep being gloomy, I will, no doubt about it."
"No... I'm just concerned about Angel."
"Yeah, maybe he'll get a sunburn." Spike scrubbed at his hair again.
"Well, he's not in the best shape, admittedly, but..." Wes frowned and studied his own hands again, afraid they'd see his trepidation on his face. How to put into words his suspicion about Angel's drunkenness, the fear it aroused in him, the memory? Long forgotten, or suppressed, came the vision of his father, drunk, calculating, putting into action while intoxicated all the spiteful things he said while sober. It was always the alcohol that was to blame, never him. And now he couldn't help but wonder at Angel's behavior. His insistence on coming here, his unshakeable belief that he could get information out of Buffy, made Wes wonder if in fact he could just grab Angel and get him out of Sunnydale before real trouble started.
How much did Angel remember of that incident with that actress? Wes thought, and shuddered. He realized that Lorne and Spike were both staring at him curiously. "What?"
"You're off in Never-Never Land, Watcher." Spike said. "Thinking of her?"
"No, Angel." Wes said without thinking.
"Ah." Spike stiffened at that. "First and foremost in our hearts, isn't he?" He scrounged around in the fridge, and did, in fact, find a beer. "Gotta make sure he fulfills his destiny."
"Well, at this point," Wes said dryly, "I'd just be happy if he'd sober up. If he had to retain some human characteristics, it would have been nice if they'd been useful ones."
"Oh, now that was evil." Spike smirked at him approvingly. "Which ones are those?"
"He was sick all the way up here."
"Awful. Now, stop it, Spike, this is beneath you." Spike was clearing his throat repeatedly in an effort not to laugh. "It was terrible."
"For you, yes, I'm certain it was....How bad was he sick?"
"Really, no, he's my employee, it would be terrible if I talked about my employees behind their backs."
"Even after they committed grand theft auto?" Lorne pointed out.
"There are still standards..." Wes protested.
"Was he in pain?"
"Stop it, Spike."
"Oh, indulge me a bit, would you? I never get to have any bloody fun at all. Well, except for the occasional demon hunt, that sort of thing..."
"Demon?" Lorne said suspiciously.
"Bad demons." Spike amended. "Never pick on things their own size, if you ask me. Then they always whine when I take exception to it..." He took another swig of the beer, staring at his boots with ill-concealed disgust. "Once there was this time, Buffy and I, we're patrolling and...What?" Both Lorne and Wesley were giving him puzzled looks.
Spike, Wes thought, not even aware of it. A vampire patrolling with the Slayer. How come love turned some... creatures... noble and reduced others to pettiness? And which group was he himself in?
"Yeah, what?" Buffy said from the doorway, all pink and flushed from the shower.
"Spike was just discussing your patrols with us."
"Well, huh." Buffy said, scrubbing at her hair with the towel. "You know, I was thinking too....."
Just the tone of her voice made Spike nervous. I was thinking was a female code phrase, and he'd known that even as a clueless Victorian virgin. The only more-feared phrase in the English language was, "We have to talk."
Buffy tossed the towel over the back of the chair, and crossed her arms over her chest. "Well, you know, Spike had this big errand he had to run to LA. And he wouldn't tell me what it was. The next thing I know, you guys show up. With Angel. So what's going on?"
Three males, if not exactly men, froze at the tone of her voice, each face startled into the immobility of fear. One of them was a green demon from another dimension, one of them was human, and one of them was a vampire, but all of them looked like they'd just been caught at the cookie jar with full hands.
Buffy eyed each face expectantly, looking for the first one to crack. She tapped her foot for an added extra dollap of suspense, and watched all three of them cringe and gulp at once. "What's the big....?"
The phone rang.
Buffy swore under her breath, Spike suddenly breaking into a grin behind her. That's my girl, he thought. I never even knew she knew that word. She made a disgusted sound and stomped into the dining room, while the guilty trio huddled their heads together and tried to come up with an alibi.
"What are you doing here?" Spike hissed.
"Angel noticed petty cash was missing..."
"Why didn't you just tell him to..?"
"Because he was all hungover, I thought he was going to have an episode!"
"An episode of what?" Lorne interjected. Vampire and Watcher both glared at him.
"One of those... episodes."
"Oh, like where he set Dru on fire? One of those little episodes?"
"Well, not exactly..."
"Well, what bloody exactly, then?"
The phone slammed down and Buffy stomped back into the kitchen. "We have to go."
"What's going on?" Wes tried to look as innocent as possible, but now Buffy looked rather suspicious.
"Somebody's been watching way too much Charleton Heston." Buffy sighed. "Frogs, toads all over the place, they're hitting every Radioshack in town. "
Continued in Chapter 36