"Does Willow always shut herself up like this before she does a spell?" Kennedy asked as the shadows grew long.
Buffy glanced toward the house as she herded the girls inside. "For important ones. There's mental preparation that needs to be done as well as physical."
Kennedy looked skeptical and Buffy had to wonder how much belief the girl had in the mystic arts. She would have dismissed it as silly hocus-pocus herself once upon a time, before she'd learned just how powerful the rituals could be. Kennedy would either accept...or there'd be rocky times ahead in her pursuit of Willow.
The girls were milling about the kitchen, scrounging for snacks and Buffy warned them, "Dinner's going to be late, after Willow's done."
"And we have to wait in the basement until then?" Vi asked. "No television?"
"No television. They need quiet. Just think of it as another fun part of life as a slayer."
Buff turned to Amanda. "Your folks are okay with you sleeping over? I'd just like to keep everyone close tonight."
"They were absolutely thrilled at the idea Dawn and I were studying," Amanda told her. "We've still got some chemistry and then there's history. I brought all my books with me."
"In fact, we were going to head upstairs now," Dawn added. "I promise, we won't disturb them."
Getting Buffy's consent, Dawn and Amanda headed out as the others started to filter downstairs. "It won't take that long, will it?" Xander asked. "The ritual, I mean. They're going to get real restless real fast."
Connor entered the kitchen as that moment. He'd been hovering all day, watching as the girls worked. "When do we head out?" he asked.
"Soon," Buffy told him. "Sun's not down yet."
He shrugged. "I thought we could take up position, be waiting for him."
She sighed. "Willow's not set up and Spike can't go out yet."
Again, Connor shrugged as if those objections were of no import to him. His silences were starting to seriously annoy her. Funny, but she'd once thought Angel's silences had signaled deep, serious thoughts. So not like father, like son. "I'm going to see how Spike's getting on in the living room" she announced.
Xander followed her. "I don't trust him" he whispered as they reached the hall. "I know I have Angel issues, but there's something about that kid that unsettles me. It's like he knows some secret he's not sharing."
"They're both hiding something. Like, why was it so important Angelus be brought back? What could be that threatening that you'd even risk it?"
They stepped into the living room where Spike had been re-arranging furniture to the specifications Willow had given him. Coming to stand by his side, Buffy absently ran a hand along his shoulder. He interrupted his survey of his work to smile down at her. "Everything's ready for them, luv."
She nodded, glad to be here next to him. She was having strange flashes of memory from the first time he'd been in this room when they'd made the deal to stop Angelus and save Giles and the world. The night her mother had learned she was the slayer.
There were footsteps on the stairs and Anya, Willow, and Wesley entered the living room, each carrying supplies. "Everyone clear out?" Willow asked.
"They're in the basement," Xander said. "I'd better get down there, make certain they don't use Andrew for target practice."
"We should be heading out as well," Spike suggested. "Get out of their way."
Buffy nodded, but asked Willow, "If he does show up, how long do we need to hold him off?"
"Half an hour. That's what it took the last time." Willow carefully set the supplies in her arms on the coffee table that had been moved into position to serve as a work surface. "We'll need about ten minutes to set up.
Buffy glanced outside. The sun had just set, the last bit of light still lingering in the sky. "I think we can do that."
She and Spike headed for the kitchen where Connor still waited. "The point isn't to kill him," she warned as they stepped out the back door. "We just need to keep him at bay until the spell's done."
"And if it doesn't work?" Connor asked.
"It will work," Buffy insisted.
"But if it doesn't..."
She swallowed. "We cross that bridge when we come to it."
Fortunately, Connor chose to remain silent after that and made no objection when Buffy suggested they split up. Leaving him in the back yard, she and Spike headed for the front. "It'll work," Spike assured her. "Red knows what she's doing."
"It's more powerful than anything she's done since she came back." Buffy sighed. "And it's probably not the last time I'm going to have to ask her to do something like this."
He slipped his arm around her shoulders. "Do you trust her?"
"I want to, but there's the worry of too far too fast. That, and other worries."
They were almost to the front and Spike stopped, pulling her close. "So we deal with them one at a time."
She couldn't help smiling. "When did you become wise?"
He smiled back. "I didn't. I just...what is it?"
The tingling was there at the base of her skull, stronger than last night. "He's nearby. Wait here."
Spike frowned, but she pressed forward moving toward the front of the house. At first glance there was nothing, but the tingling grew. Then she saw him, standing at the edge of the lawn. He looked normal enough and for a second she wondered if Willow had already done the spell. "Angel?"
He stepped forward. "Hello, Buffy. You're looking well."
It was the smile that gave him away. Perhaps it was because she was looking for a sign, but there was something cruel about it, as if he held some secret pleasure or anticipation. Playing it cool, hoping Spike would stay put for the moment, she stood her ground. "I'm a bit surprised to see you here."
"What can I say? It was a nice night and I decided to take a drive up the coast, see some old friends."
Angel drew closer, slowly but steadily. "I mean, it's been over a year and, let's face it, you weren't doing that great the last time we met. Is it surprising that I'd want to check in, make sure you were doing okay?"
Her hands itched for the stake concealed in her waistband, but Buffy resisted. "I'm doing fine...lots better. Want to hear something funny? I've got a job at the high school, counseling students. It's not full time, but hey, I'm giving back to the community."
"Didn't we blow up the high school?"
"They rebuilt...same place, but they rebuilt."
A low chuckle. "Leave it to Sunnydale to put all that lovely teenage angst on top of a Hellmouth. Ever wonder what affect that might have on the demons?"
He was almost upon her now and the fight or flight urge was going stronger. She did her best to breathe regularly, knowing he could tell if her heart was pounding faster. She wished Spike was with her, not standing in the shadows, but that would give the game away. "If the demons are sensible, they'll avoid the girls' locker room, especially at certain times of the month. Lots of deadly force there."
God, that was a bad joke. It didn't help when Angel's smile grew a little broader. "You really aren't very good at this, are you? Bluffing, lying...it all shows in your face. Your heart's beating faster and you really want to go for that stake."
This time when he stepped forward, Buffy stepped back, moving out of range. "Why did you come, Angelus?"
"Ooh. So formal. I thought we meant more to each other; all the angst, the drama, the whole star-crossed lovers routine...wait, maybe it's not so bad that part's over. I found it really limited me on the dating scene and I've been trying to move on. After all, you did."
They were circling one another, their steps deliberate. Keep him at bay, that's all she had to do. As long as he kept running his mouth...
"I could understand Riley," he continued, looking far too casual. "I mean, big, beefy guy. Probably made you feel all small and delicate. Whatever happened to Finn? Did you wear him out? Or could he just not deal with the slayer package? But, hey, it must have been a pretty nasty breakup if you had to sink to Spi..."
A sudden blur went slamming into Angel, the force knocking him to the ground. He was down for just a second, then back on his feet in a fighting stance. "You don't ever learn, do you?" Angel snarled, all trace of civility gone.
"You're the one who wanted me to stake you if Angelus got out of control." A stake was in Connor's hand, ready to strike.
Buffy started to move, trying to stop him. "Spike!" she yelled, but Spike was already there, grabbing Angel's arms even as Buffy tackled Connor. After that, it was a blur, just trying to hold on and hoping Willow finished the spell before the two killed each other.
Everything was in readiness. The orb rested on the coffee table and Anya was tracing patterns with the smudge of burning herbs she held. Wesley stood to Willow's left hand, printout in his hand. Once she'd cast the stones, she nodded for him to begin. Quod perditum est, invenietur.
His voice was steadier than Oz's had been, but Wesley actually understood the words he spoke. She took up the answering chant. "Not dead, or not of the living..."
Willow tried to focus on what she was doing, but there was a mousy little girl in the corner of her mind chattering that this was wrong, that what they were doing wasn't in the proper order. More worrisome was the woman who laughed at the girl, eager and ready to embrace the power she was invoking. "Gods, bind him. Cast his heart from the demon realm. Return his soul to the vessel which housed it. I call on you..."
She felt the power begin to crackle. This time, she was prepared to accept it, letting it flow through her and cast a web outward. No mere vessel herself, she let it come. "I call on you Gods, do not ignore this supplication! Let the orb be the vessel to carry his soul to him. It is written, this power is my people's right to wield."
The energy was growing, circling, and filling her being. The dark-eyed woman within her head laughed at the glory of it. "Let it be so! Now!"
Willow was expecting the rush as the power flowed out of her and into the orb, but this was different. The power was there...and then it wasn't. She looked down and found the orb sitting where she had placed it, inert. "It...didn't glow?"
"It didn't do anything," Anya said, lowering her herbs. "You were chanting and going all black-eyed and it just sat there. I take it that was not what it was supposed to do."
"No." Willow racked her brain, trying to figure out what had happened. It didn't help that Wesley was watching her with a disappointed air. "Last time, the orb went all glowy and disappeared."
"Could Spike touching it earlier today have done something to upset the balance within the orb?" Wesley asked.
"I doubt it. I mean, the one I got from Giles, he'd used as a paperweight and it worked fine."
That was when they heard the crash outside.
Spike held on as long as he could, but he'd never been a match for Angelus' strength. After a considerable amount of struggling, the older vampire twisted free and threw Spike toward the tree that graced the front yard. The impact set newly healed ribs to complaining even as he staggered to his feet and headed back into the fray.
"You don't ever learn, do you boy?" Angelus had slid into game face. "I thought I'd beat the lesson into you years ago."
"It's a new day," Spike told him, looking for an opening.
"What's new? You're picking up my leavings once again and..." There was a slow dawn of recognition. "I don't believe it. Why the hell did they curse you with a soul?"
Now it was Spike's turn to smile. "Not a curse, mate. Welcomed and wanted."
Angelus' eyes slid toward Buffy and Spike seized the opening, swinging hard. The punch landed, staggering him backwards. There was little reprieve, though as Angelus struck back almost immediately. Then it became fists and fangs, lashing out at each other. Spike found it hard to resist the urge to go for the kill and it hampered him. Angelus had no such reluctance and the battle was fast becoming an exercise in staying out of a killing grip.
He knew Buffy was still struggling with Connor, but he didn't dare look, didn't dare take his attention away from the matter at hand. Angelus might have been momentarily thrown by the idea of Spike's soul but Spike couldn't count on such an opening again.
"Did you get it for her?" Angelus taunted. "Think that would make her love you?"
"You don't understand," Spike responded, ducking a punch.
"I don't understand? I'm the original Soul Boy, remember?" Another swing, another dodge. "Was it really worth it, Spike? I mean, Buffy's a tasty morsel, but is crawling between her legs really worth the effort of a soul?"
Spike tried to land another punch, but Angel caught his arm, spinning him around. Now one hand was against Spike's throat while the other held Spike's arm tight behind his back, pulling it against Angelus' chest. "I forgot. You like to crawl. You'll crawl and beg for any scrap of pity masquerading as affection."
Spike struggled against the hold, but it only served to make Angelus' grip tighter. "Maybe I won't kill you, William. I could make you scream again; the soul might make it even sweeter. We can let Buffy watch; she's into freak shows..."
Knowing no other way, Spike twisted, doing his best to ignore the sensation of breaking bones. As he moved, he kicked out as hard as he could and was rewarded with a howl of pain to match his own as Angelus let go.
"Angelus is out there," Wesley observed as the three peered out the window.
"And they think we're still doing the spell." Willow turned and headed for the hall at a run. "Xander!"
Casting an annoyed glance at the retreating Wicca's back, Anya headed for the weapon's chest. "Weapons first, then help."
Flinging the chest open, Anya found it empty. Of course; the weapons were probably in the basement with the potentials. "Damn."
Running for the kitchen, she had some vague intention of grabbing a wooden spoon to use as a stake, but realized that probably wouldn't make Buffy happy. Then she saw it, made a decision, grabbed and ran.
The front door was open and Anya scrambled through it, down the porch steps. Wesley was outside, helping Buffy subdue Connor. Spike was caught in Angelus' grip, only to twist and break free, planning a kick solidly in Angel's groin. Both men howled and staggered apart, Spike cradling his left arm.
Anya saw Buffy loose her grip on Conner and started for Spike even as Angelus tried to regain his breath and made certain Spike hadn't kicked his, well, brain up beyond retrieval. Without hesitating, Anya closed the distance between herself and the vampire. "Angelus!"
His head turned and Anya swung the heavy skillet with all her might, connecting directly with his nose. There was a satisfying "crunch" and he staggered back even further, but not quickly enough to evade another blow.
The pounding of feet announced the arrival of Xander and the potentials. Without looking back, Anya yelled, "Did anyone bring the chains? They would be really useful right now."
Angelus was backing quickly away, a dark mottled pattern already appearing across his nose and lumpies. "Guess the spell didn't work," he managed, though the words came out in gasps. "Hate to fight and run..."
With that, he took off, heading down the street at a speed no human could match.
Buffy's first instinct was to check on Spike, but then she Connor move, start to go after Angel. Fighting a rising tide of anger, she tackled him. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"You're letting Angelus get away," he complained, twisting against where she held him on the ground.
She pushed down harder. "Because we're not equipped to deal with him at the moment. We figure out what went wrong and re-group."
"You didn't let me stake him; that's what went wrong."
Did the kid want to be smacked around? Because he sure was asking for it. "No, you went off half-cocked. I'm going to let you up. If you do one more stupid thing, I swear I'll hurt you."
Buffy released him slowly, watching for any sign of trouble. Satisfied he was going to behave for the moment, she turned away to deal with more pressing concerns.
Spike was on his feet, gingerly cradling his arm as Dawn examined it. "What's the verdict?" Buffy asked.
"I think it's broken," Dawn said. "Maybe in more than one place."
"We just splint it up and it'll be better tomorrow evening," Spike assured her. "Vampire healing and all that." Despite the lightness of his voice, the eyes he turned on Buffy were filled with pain. "Maybe we'd better get everyone inside."
She nodded and slipped her arm around his waist, giving what support she could as they headed into the house. As the reached the porch, Xander was looking wonderingly at Anya. "Remind me never to get you mad."
Anya fixed him with a steady glare. "Too late."
She stalked past him and Buffy sighed as Xander looked helplessly after her. A quiet, angst-free evening at home; gee, she'd heard they existed.
The house was in chaos for the next hour. Buffy did her best to ignore it, focusing on seeing that Spike's arm was bound up properly and he took the painkiller she delivered with his warm mug of blood. "A fella could get used to this," he told her as she fluffed a small accent pillow and slipped it behind his head.
"I'd prefer I didn't get used to doing this because you got injured," she told him. Buffy had to admit he looked quite comfy in the armchair, his mug in the hand that wasn't supported by the sling. It was amusing to watch him slip so naturally into place in her home.
He smiled up at her. "Feel free to do this then I'm not injured."
The idea of an evening spent snuggled in his lap was tempting, but Buffy knew it wasn't going to happen tonight as Wesley and Willow entered the room, followed by Xander. "Everyone's eating," Xander told her. "Are you going to have something?"
"Soon," she assured him, settling herself on the arm of the chair. "So what happened, Willow? "Why didn't the spell work?"
Willow shrugged. "I don't know. It felt right; the power came at the right time, got all the right reactions. Just...nothing happened. The power was there and then it wasn't."
"This may indicate that Angel's soul is still held within the confines of the Muo-ping," Wesley said. "After the ritual does call for the return of the soul from the ether...and if the soul is entrapped within the Muo-ping, the Ritual of Restoration would not call it forth."
"You couldn't have mentioned that before you started?" Xander asked.
"The Muo-ping is missing," Wesley replied, his voice slightly irritated, as if speaking to a rather slow child. "We had no way of know for certain whether or not it had been destroyed, thus releasing Angel's soul. At least this gives us a reason to hope that it is intact."
"But you have no idea where it is."
Wesley didn't reply, merely looked pained. Turning to Willow, Buffy asked, "Could you do a locator on this mohawk thing?" watching Wesley wince out of the corner of her eye.
"I don't think so...at least, not right away. I'd have to do some research, figure it out."
"Do that. In the mean time, let's do a locator spell on Angel, see if we can find out where he's heading."
"Give me a few minutes to set it up. Er, I'd better get something to protect the floor."
As she left to do her preparations, Buffy focused her attention back on Wesley. "There's one thing you haven't explained yet -- what the hell could be so important you had to call forth Angelus?"
"It's a long story..."
Buffy kept her eyes fixed on him. "I've got time."
"It's not simple, either. We've been coming across a number of signs that a great evil is coming. And, yes, I am talking apocalyptic evil, perhaps so old it doesn't have a name."
His words sent a chill through her body. Beyond him, she saw Xander sit up straight from where he'd flopped on the couch. "Go on."
"We've been doing our best to uncover the purpose behind the Beast, but we've had no luck. There are signs and portents...the sky over Los Angeles has rained fire and currently, we are experiencing eternal night as the Beast performed a ritual which, essentially, swallowed the sun."
"That means full-time playtime for vampires." Xander did not look happy.
"As well as the fact that if this is not remedied soon, plant life will begin to die...and the darkness will spread."
"We haven't heard anything about this. How can they keep this quiet?"
"I don't know what methods Mayor Hahn is using, but he has managed to keep a news blackout on the event. I would suggest Wolfram and Hart was assisting in order to protect the investments of their clients, but the Beast...eliminated them before he swallowed the sun."
"Angelus always did have a passion for destruction," Spike said quietly.
"The problem is that while the Beast approached Angelus at some point in the late eighteenth century, Angelus was not particularly interested in such an alliance."
"But you didn't learn this until Angel lost his soul." Buffy felt the impending-apocalypse-induced headache she'd had last night returning.
"No. We did learn that something or someone has been removing all references to the Beast, both in books and within Angel's mind. At first we thought that it might be done by some minions in the Beast's employ, but Angelus informed us the Beast is himself a servant of a higher, more powerful master."
"Was this before or after you discovered you couldn't restore his soul?" Xander's tone was a bit sarcastic.
"After," Wesley admitted. He looked around then stepped closer to Buffy, lowering his voice. "I'm beginning to fear we might have someone within our midst who is in league with the Beast, helping him with his plans. Such a person would help arrange the removal of the Muo-ping and other such activities."
"Do you have a suspect?"
"I would have preferred not to bring Connor with me because of his ambivalent feelings for Angel; Holtz completely poisoned his mind against Angel during his upbringing and the boy hates his father."
"Can't say that I blame him." At Buffy's look, Spike asked, "What? I put up with him for twenty years. Angelus is a cruel, vicious bastard who delights in inflicting pain on whoever gets in his way."
"Yes, but Angel is not Angelus," Wesley insisted.
"You and I could have a serious debate about that one, mate."
Before the argument could take off, Buffy wrenched the discussion back on topic. "You think Connor is your mole?"
"I think I have reason to suspect him. For one thing, Angel spent his summer at the bottom of Santa Monica Bay. Connor put him there."
This was getting worse by the minute. "So you brought him up here to keep an eye on him. Did you ever stop to think that I might not be particularly thrilled by that idea? I've got a house full of potential slayers that have their own Big Bad after them."
"I realize that now. I didn't then and I didn't have much time to make the decision. Besides, there were...other reasons to remove Connor from Los Angeles, at least temporarily. His absence will make it easier for the other to work."
"So what about when you go back? Doesn't sound like Connor's going to be much help neutralizing Angelus -- unless you substitute 'stake' for 'neutralize.'"
"I realize that...and I realize that you have your own difficulties here in Sunnydale. However, I need you to consider carefully what I'm about to ask you. I want you to come back to Los Angeles with me."
Continued in Chapter Seven