"I don't think you understand the gravity of the situation," Wesley said.
"Oh, I think I do. Problem is, you don't understand my situation. I have a house filled with potential slayers -- and more on the way, according to Giles -- something big, bad and nasty trying to kill us all, bills to pay and I need to be at work at eight o'clock tomorrow morning. There's no way I can just pick up and leave to help you solve your problem."
"Is dangerous and needs to be stopped. Believe me, I am painfully aware of that fact." Folding her arms across her chest, Buffy began to pace the living room floor. "You say you want me to come to Los Angeles. For how long? Who's going to watch after the girls while I'm gone? What if the First takes the opportunity to strike?"
"What if Angelus allies with the Beast to destroy the world?" Wesley countered.
Silence fell over the room. "God, what if he's right?" Xander asked.
Leave it to Xander to voice exactly what she was thinking. Trying to avoid Wesley, she looked to Spike, hoping he'd offer another opinion. Instead, his expression was almost as grim as Xander's. "He's just mad enough to do it, pet."
Fortunately for Buffy's sanity, Willow returned at that moment, arms filled with the supplies she needed for the locator spell. "I grabbed all the trivets in the kitchen so the floor won't get damaged if the map goes 'poof'...oh, and Anya saved some salad for you, even if she had to fight Kennedy off for the last of it."
Just as she was about to set her supplies down, Willow seemed to notice the tension in the air. "What's wrong?"
"Same as always. Touch decisions." Buffy didn't like how tight her voice sounded. "Let's see if we can find out where Angel is. If he's in Sunnydale, we can come up with a plan, go after him before he skips town."
"And if he's heading back to Los Angeles?" Wesley asked.
"Let's just see where he is first."
With uncharacteristic silence, Willow set up the elements for the spell. Seemed like they'd been doing a lot of these lately, trying to find one thing or another. A few words, some sprinkled powder and whatever it was that fueled Willow's abilities kicked in. Hesitantly at first, then with more strength, a small light began to glow on the map...and it was moving, heading away from Sunnydale with a steady speed. "I believe we can assume Angelus is returning to Los Angeles from this," Wesley said. "Not surprising; the restoration spelling having failed, he is free to pursue other plans."
"And if I was an evil, psychotic, soulless vampire, I'd naturally assume that the people who'd restored my soul before would give up after one attempt." Xander tried to grin. "But, hey, that's just me."
Buffy started to tell him she wasn't in the mood for bad humor, but stopped when Spike spoke. "As much as it pains me to admit Harris might ever be right, he has a point. Last time, when Angelus got wind someone was trying to do the ritual..."
"I know what happened," Buffy said quietly.
"You didn't see what led up to it. You didn't see Angelus going nuts, trying to get every scrap of detail he could out of Dru. That's how he heard, because she had a vision. Then he couldn't be bothered to go track down the information himself; sent Dru to do it. While she was gone, he was like a caged animal, his hands itching to hurt whoever was responsible."
"And you just sat back and let it happen."
If Xander's question was meant to provoke, Spike refused to rise to the bait. "One, evil then. Two, I was sitting in a wheelchair at that point, courtesy of our lovely slayer so I couldn't do much. Three, I hoped the spell would work. Believe it or not, I wasn't particularly eager to have Angelus about and I was hoping that if he got his soul back he'd either run in panic -- which is what he did the first time -- or he'd be disoriented long enough for me to set the minions on him."
"Either one would have worked for me," Xander said cheerfully.
"So you're saying that just because he's going away now, it doesn't mean he won't be back?" Willow sounded worried.
"Not as long as there's a possibility you could restore his soul. He's very patient when he needs to be."
"Which is all the more reason you need to come to Los Angeles," Wesley insisted. "We probably need you as well, Willow. We need to move as quickly as possible."
"We're not moving anywhere tonight," Buffy snapped. "Look, I'll think about it, Wesley. I know time is of the essence, but even if I agree, I've got to make some arrangements before I go. Right now, I need to get some dinner."
She turned before anyone could argue, intending to take the back route to the kitchen and avoid the crowd in the dining room. That included Connor, but there he was, standing in the doorway, looking suspiciously like he'd been listening. "Did you get something to eat?" she asked, figuring it was a good alternative to "what the hell are you doing?"
"Yes." He paused. "Thank you."
At least courtesy wasn't a completely foreign concept. Buffy did her best to smile and move past him. When he said, "You don't have to come," however, she stopped.
"Okay, so clearly you were listening. Why not? Wesley thinks it's important."
We don't need you. I can handle Angelus."
It was a warning; she could hear it in his tone, see it in the lines of his body. "I'm not certain I can just walk away."
"You don't know what it's like down in Los Angeles. You don't know who we are or what we're up against."
"It's bad. I know that much and I know Angel needs my help."
"Why? Because you're the Slayer?"
It was at that moment Buffy realized Connor had no conception of what that might mean or of the history between herself and Angel. "Something like that," she said and headed on into the kitchen."
She was grateful for the plate Anya had made up for her and pulled to stool up to the counter to eat. A thousand thoughts were rushing through her head, all demanding her attention. It wasn't that she was looking for an easy solution -- although being able to find one would be nice -- but there were almost too many considerations to balance.
One of those considerations rushed to the fore and Buffy hopped off her stool to grab the phone. Hopefully, Giles had his cell on.
Luck was with her and Giles answered after the second ring. "Hello?" he said, his voice holding the annoyed note that always crept in when he was forced to use the device.
"Giles, Buffy. How's the potential hunt going?"
"Shall we say that Minneapolis in February is far from the garden spot of the world." There was a sigh on the other end of the line. "I've got the potential and we should be home by the end of the week."
"How many this time?" Buffy's mind was already calculating what they'd need.
"Six...and there may be another group coming soon. The coven is trying to track them down. One piece of good news, though. The lawyers for the Council have been busy and we have gotten some of the funds freed up, so there is money to take care of the girls. They've agreed that your basic household expenses should be paid since you are providing the housing. That includes the property taxes, by the way."
One consideration dealt with...and if the property taxes were covered, that meant taking off from work to solve the Angel problem wouldn't negatively impact them. "You don't know how happy that makes me, Giles. The end of the week, you said?"
"Possibly Thursday, although it could be as late as Saturday."
She hesitated, knowing Giles wasn't delaying unnecessarily. This work was important...but not letting Angelus loose on an unsuspecting populace was important as well. "Can you get back sooner?"
"What's wrong, Buffy? Is it the First?"
Buffy began to recount recent events from Wesley's phone call the night before. Wanting a little privacy, she left her dinner behind and headed out onto the back porch. Giles was quiet while she spoke, save for occasional worried noises. "Wesley's a damn fool," Giles said when she was done. "Always had been. I can't believe he would..."
Buffy heard a sigh. "You do realize his father was killed in the explosion that destroyed the Council."
"No, I didn't know that." Buffy frowned. "He didn't say anything."
"Not surprising. Things weren't particularly good between father and son and I fear his tenure in America made them worse. However, I would not be at all surprised to learn grief may have well impaired his thinking in this matter. Are you considering going to Los Angeles?"
"Yes. I hate leaving at a time like this, but I don't see any other option. I mean, we all know how bad Angelus is...and I'd swear he was almost nastier than I remembered when I saw him. And if I don't go, I don't know what Wesley's going to do, but this Connor is eager to stake him with no thought to even trying to save him."
"I won't tell you it might come to that because I know you know. I will tell you to think carefully. Look, I'll see what I can arrange and call you back. I think I should come back to Sunnydale as soon as possible."
"That's what I was hoping you'd say. Talk to you soon."
She ended the call and leaned against the porch railing, staring off into the darkness. If Giles came back early, there'd be someone here who could act as guardian and teacher while she was gone...not that she could be gone for long. The days when she could go racing off because Angel might be in trouble were over.
When had they ended? With her mother's death, she supposed. Or before that, with that last fight she and Angel had had over the way he'd handled Faith.
Dawn could stay with Amanda, or Xander could be persuaded to stay at the house until Giles got back...not that he spent much time at his place these days. The biggest worry was whether or not Principal Wood would let her disappear for a week. He was up to something, she was convinced of it. The problem was to figure out what it was and heading to Los Angeles would delay her efforts in those directions. Actually, if he didn't offer any objections to her going, that might be an indication he was up to something evil and wanted her out of the way.
That wasn't the biggest problem, though, as reluctant as she was to admit it. The biggest worry she had about traipsing off to Los Angeles was...
Spike's voice was soft and she sensed rather than heard him step onto the back porch. Shifting so her back was against the railing, she smiled at him as he drew closer. "Hey."
His uninjured hand reached out to caress her cheek before he leaned in to kiss her. "I've been wanting to do that all day," he told her once the kiss was over, offering his own smile.
"Wish you'd done it earlier." She slipped her arms around him, letting her head rest on his chest. "I just want this to all go away."
"Wish I could make that happen for you. You don't need more trouble."
They stood there quietly for a while, a brief moment of peace in the chaos that surrounded them. "You're thinking of going," he said at last.
"Yes.." She sighed. "I wish I didn't have to, but I know what he's capable of and..."
"Ssh. I understand."
Buffy didn't argue, just closed her eyes. It felt good to have this, one person for whom she didn't always have to put on the "yes, we're going to beat this" mask. "God, I'm going to miss you while I'm gone."
"Um, what do you mean 'miss'?"
Reluctantly, she lifted her head to find him looking down at her. She knew that look. It was the one he always got before he pointed out the flaw in her plans. "If you're going to Los Angeles, I want to come with you," he said.
"I don't think that's a good idea," she said, pulling away.
"And sending you down there by yourself into a situation you don't have the full details on -- and I know you think Wesley is still hiding things -- is a good idea?"
She didn't have an answer and he pressed on. "One of the reasons Wesley wants you to come down there is because you know Angelus better than the lot of them...but I know him better than you do. I spent nearly twenty years in his company, Buffy. He's the one who taught me to hunt and kill; in that sense, he's as much my Sire as Dru is."
His eyes were earnest and his words made sense, but opened avenues she didn't want to consider...and something that had been niggling at the back of her head since earlier that evening. "Spike, what he said...about making you scream..."
Buffy regretted the words the instant they were out of her mouth, as she saw the flash of something very unpleasant wash across Spike's face. "Let's just say that for Angelus, every action, every word, every pleasure is about power. I had that lesson brought home rather forcefully several times. I wasn't the most obedient of fledglings. Almost drove him to stake me more than once."
She shivered and turned away, her mind painting mental images despite her best efforts. It didn't help that she knew they were probably far milder than actual fact. Behind her, she heard Spike grumbling, and then both his arms slipped around her. "Your arm..."
"The damn sling was getting in the way. Can't hold onto you with it." He tugged her back against him. "I'm not saying you can't take care of yourself, but I'd feel better if I was there to watch your back. You'd have someone you could trust."
"Willow's going to be with me."
"And Willow is good in a fight how? Besides, she's going to be busy getting Peaches back his soul so he isn't a danger to the rest of us...and you don't have to worry about what he's doing."
She didn't miss the defensive note in his voice. There was a quagmire she really didn't want to go near...her Angel issues, Spike's Angel issues, their Angel issues."
"Besides, if I don't go, you know I'll just spend the time chained to the wall in the basement."
"I'm not going to let you..."
"You won't be here," he reminded her. "I'll ask Harris to lock me up; you know he won't say no."
Buffy could just imagine Xander's glee at such as request. "So that's it? I take you with me or you have yourself locked up?"
He gave an exasperated sigh. "I'm just saying I would feel better if you didn't go in alone. Too many unknowns."
"I haven't even decided I'm going." She shifted in his arms to face him. "There's still everything here and Giles doesn't know when he can get back and..."
She didn't object when he stopped the flow of her words. This still seemed the way they communicated best; not words, but a look, a glance, a touch...a kiss. She could feel herself calming, the panic and stress receding momentarily. They parted, foreheads resting against each other. God, wouldn't it be nice to be able to stand here like this and not be worrying about an impending apocalypse for once?
Wesley's voice was an unwanted intrusion and she merely shifted just enough so she could see him standing in the doorway to the house, unwilling to move from Spike's embrace. "Sorry if I intruded," he says, sounding much more like the jittery watcher she'd known in high school than he had at any point since his arrival. "I wanted to let you know that I've called Los Angeles, warned them Angelus is heading back down there. Lorne's going to do a protection spell on the hotel, see if he can't keep them from being attacked."
Realizing duty called, even if only to give Wesley her attention, Buffy straightened, though she let herself lean back against Spike's chest. "So you're heading back?"
"Have you made your decision?"
"What if I decide not to come?" Spike was right. She needed to know as much as possible before committing herself here.
Wesley frowned. "We need someone with a Slayer's abilities to handle Angelus; I don't think there's any argument about that. Unfortunately, I'm very much afraid we're now on a hunt rather than a retrieval mission unless Willow can come up with a solution or we find the Muo-ping. If you choose not to come...well, there's always Faith."
"Faith's in prison." He couldn't possibly be suggesting...
"For the moment."
Oh, god, he was. Worse, Buffy suddenly had the horrid certainty that Wesley -- weasely, wobbly, wishy-washy Wesley -- might actual try to break Faith out. "I'll decide tomorrow," she told him, suddenly feeling very trapped.
Wesley smiled, which didn't make her feel any better. "Thank you. And thank you for your hospitality. I think I'll coral Connor and suggest we catch some sleep. It's been a rather tiring day."
When Wesley was out of hearing range, Spike commented, "There are reasons vampires hate watchers...and it's not just because they set Slayers on them."
"He's only doing what he feels is necessary...and why am I making excuses? He's maneuvering, trying to force me to agree to go down there."
"Tell you a secret." Spike's voice was close to her ear. "The 'must make excuses for wankers' imperative was added to the Slayer package about three and a half centuries ago." When she twisted her neck to look up at him, she found he was smirking. "Seriously. Whole big ceremony, calling upon stodgy and boring spirits who didn't like girls to have any spunk. I met a vampire, who met a vampire, who knew a demon who'd heard it from his fifth cousin twice removed whose neighbor had been there."
Buffy had to laugh despite herself. "What am I going to do with you?"
"Make me happy by finishing your supper, then we can retire upstairs to give you a chance to talk to Willow and Anya about what they think went wrong. After that..."
He nuzzled her neck, enough to make her giggle and hurry back inside to finish her meal.
"So, just...nothing?" Buffy and Willow sat on one side of the bed, with Anya seated in the chair at Buffy's desk. Spike took up the other half of the bed, his eyes closed as he lay back against the pillows, though several comments throughout the discussion proved he was still awake.
Willow shook her head. "No connection, no indication that the soul was even there. Even if it was trapped inside this Muo-ping, I should have felt something."
"Then there's the information we managed to get out of Wesley about the spell they tried previously," Anya said. "There's no way it should have worked. The incantation's really nothing; just begs the soul to return but doesn't summon up any serious power of the kind one would need to return a soul to a vampire's body -- especially one that's being forcibly held in a mystic container."
"The whole ritual set up reeks of dark magics," Willow continued, picking up the tale, "the type one would most definitely not use if one was trying to accomplish a good act."
"And returning a vampire's soul is considered a good act?" Buffy asked.
"Depends on whose point of view," Spike interjected. "My demon doesn't object...save for a bit of whining and complaining here and there. Angelus takes a rather different perspective."
"Besides, it's not like a vampire is supposed to have his soul. It's vengeance magic; the cursed vampire is supposed to feel pain and remorse for his actions." Anya seemed rather calm and businesslike about the matter.
"Happens even when it's not a curse." Spike's voice was starting to sound a little sleepy. Once they'd gotten upstairs, Buffy had convinced him to take another painkiller. She'd seen the way he'd winced when his arm moved the wrong way or too quickly.
Willow must have noticed it too because she silently gestured toward him with her head, her eyes questioning Buffy if they should leave. Buffy shook her head, knowing she needed some more information. "So this spell wasn't powerful enough or of the right type, yet it apparently fooled...Lorne, wasn't it?...into believing Angelus had a soul."
"Someone could have done a glamour, made it look like Angel had his soul back long enough for him to escape." Willow was starting to look a bit eager. "I wonder what type of spell you'd use."
"Or Lorne could have lied, said he saw a soul when he didn't. Much easier than casting a glamour," Anya insisted.
"But Lorne didn't cast the spell," Willow countered. "Wesley did."
"With the incantation and instructions provided by Cordelia. I think we have three suspects...Wesley, Cordelia and Lorne."
Willow rolled her eyes. "Cordelia's not competent enough to..."
The rest of her words were cut off by a cross between a snort and a snore. All three women froze, and then turned their heads to look at the source. Spike was laying quite still, the very picture of a vampire at repose. Then, ever so slightly, his chest moved up then down and Buffy was certain she must have imagined the slight exhalation of breath. No more movement for another minute and then his chest moved again, though not so smoothly this time, producing yet another of those strange noises.
"Did you know Spike snored?" Willow asked.
"No." Buffy broke out in a grin. "Oh, I can use this."
Willow started to giggle but quickly smothered it behind her hand. This time, Buffy did shoo her off the bed. "I'd better get Prince Charming settled for the night," she told the others. "So I need to watch for Wesley, Cordelia and Lorne. Just great. This is going to be such a fun trip."
"So what time are we taking off tomorrow?" At Buffy's questioning look, Willow added, "Well, you just practically said you were going."
"Late afternoon, evening. I've got to clear the time off with Principal Wood. Either that, or trust Dawn to invent another bout of stomach flu." She was about to mention that Spike wanted to come with them, but opted not to, instead saying good night to Anya as she headed down the hall.
Willow lingered a little, looking past Buffy toward the sleeping form on the bed. "So...are you happy? Is it all of the good?"
Instinctive defensives started to go up, but Buffy relaxed when she didn't see condemnation in Willow's eyes. "It's good. There were times I didn't think it would be, but...it's good to have him here. Real good. How about you and Kennedy?"
Here there was a stammer and a bit of a blush. "We're good, too. I didn't think I could...but, yeah, it's good."
With that, Willow headed down the hall to her room where Kennedy was undoubtedly waiting. Closing the door, Buffy wondered how the potential would take to the idea of Willow departing for Los Angeles for several days. Based on previous experience, probably not well.
Spike was still stretched out, his eyes closed. Buffy had insisted the boots be removed before he laid down, but he was otherwise dressed. Circling around to his side, she sat down on the edge of the mattress and gently laid a hand on his chest. "Spike?"
For a moment, nothing happened, and then one blue eye begrudgingly opened. "Are they gone?"
"They're gone. Why don't we get you undressed and under the covers?"
He let her help him sit up and slip his t-shirt over his head, trying to do the same to her but his reaction time was slightly off. "Sorry about that, luv. Should have more enthusiasm for our second night, but..."
With his pants off, Buffy pulled back the covers so he could slide under them. "What you should do is sleep, let that arm heal. I know it's your normal up and about hours, but you need your rest. Can't take you to LA if that arm's going to give you trouble."
Settling himself, Spike sighed, sounding suspiciously content. "So we're going?"
"Yes, we're going. With the Muo-ping missing and the only people who could have interfered with the spell or lied about Angel having his soul being Wesley, Cordelia and Lorne..."
Spike opened his eyes again. "You said Muo-ping."
Buffy tucked the covers about him. "So?"
"Every time you use the word around Wesley, you mangle it horribly."
She shrugged. "I wondered if that trick would drive him as crazy as it did in high school."
He caught her hand with his and brought it to his mouth. "My slayer, still showing the watchers their place."
The compliment made her warm a little. "You sleep," she scolded gently. "I'll be back in a few minutes."
It didn't take long to make certain all was well downstairs and to complete her evening ritual. Lights out, she was grateful to curl up next to Spike. Snuggling was difficult as she was afraid of hurting his arm, but it was nice to have him there and she let his presence provide comfort as she drifted off, doing her best not to dream of disappearing suns, mystic rituals and old friends who might not be what they appeared.
Continued in Chapter Eight