Most of the afternoon was spent playing bodyguard to Lorne, watching him watch the Mou-ping and the Furies. It had its moments, especially when he indulged in what was clearly a favorite hobby: gossip. There was gossip about the demon community, gossip about the Hollywood community and plenty of gossip about how the two overlapped far more than Buffy realized. "Honey, how else can you explain why Good Morning, Miami even got on the air, much less stays there?"
Around them, life at the hotel appeared to be returning to some kind of normal. Wesley drifted in at one point to pull books from the reference library and do research, looking grim and worn and not saying much. Fred and Gunn appeared to be actually talking to one another and even though the conversation seemed difficult at times, it was an improvement over the armed camp Buffy had noticed upon her arrival. Maybe it was because they had Angel's soul in hand or the sun was back in the sky and they knew who was behind some of the troubles they'd been visited with. Whatever the reason, Buffy was beginning to believe they might actually be able to get through tonight's ritual with a minimum of fuss.
That was when she remembered the orb sailing through the air to crash against the wall of Cordelia's room. Where the hell does one go to get a replacement orb?
Her first thought was to zip up to Willow's room and ask if she'd thought about how they were going to get around that problem, but there was Lorne, chatting happily away, the Mou-ping never far from his side. Despite the newly-installed protection spell, she wasn't eager to leave him alone with it. For one thing, even as crushed as Connor had looked at the revelation of Cordelia's betrayal, she still wasn't quite certain where he stood.
The sight of Spike making his way carefully down the stairs was a welcome answer. Telling Lorne she'd be right back, Buffy crossed the lobby to greet him as he reached the main floor. "Feeling better?"
"Much. How's it going down here?"
"Wesley's researching, Gunn and Fred are talking and Lorne's been sharing some great gossip. I suppose Connor's skulking around here somewhere." They were standing close to one another, her hand resting on his chest. "Do me a favor? Sit with Lorne while I go talk to Willow."
He agreed, but she didn't miss the frown that flitted over his face. "What is it?"
Spike shrugged. "She just might be asleep, that's all. That's what Kennedy said when she answered the door."
Something in his tone interpreted those words as "shut the door in my face." Given the expression on Kennedy's face when she answered Buffy's knock, she had a feeling the girl might try to do the same to her. "I need to talk to Willow."
"She's resting," Kennedy said, the door beginning to close even she spoke the words. Buffy was ready, though, her arm shooting out to prevent it from moving.
"This can't wait," she informed Kennedy, exerting just enough pressure to force the door open enough so she could enter.
Willow sat up as Buffy approached the bed, so clearly she hadn't been too deep asleep. "What's up?" she asked, rubbing at her eyes.
"The ritual for tonight. What are you going to do about the orb Cordelia smashed?"
"Oh." Willow looked a little sheepish. "I guess I didn't tell you. It's no biggy that she smashed it."
She slid off the bed and headed for the bags that were piled in one corner. Dropping to her knees, she dug through one, shifting clothes around. "Anya took me to see one of her wholesalers. Problem was, he wouldn't sell us just one."
Willow lifted a box out of her luggage, pulling off the cover to reveal the interior divided into four compartments. One was empty; orbs nestled in the other three. "A four-pack?" Buffy asked skeptically.
"Anya said it was a good price and she pointed out that whatever I managed to bring back, she could probably find a buyer for. Apparently, they really are hot at the moment."
Buffy stared at the box for a long moment. Then she began to laugh. She tried to stop it as Willow gave her a worried look, but the laughter kept coming. "I don't believe it," she managed at last. "No, wait. I do believe it. I was worried we might have to go on some quest across the city."
"I might need to do that for the protection spell," Willow said thoughtfully. "They don't really have any magic supplies on hand."
"S'okay. Lorne called in the people who designed the sanctuary spell. Apparently Cordelia annoyed them at some point, so they were happy to help keep her out."
"So if the big bad can't get in, maybe the ritual can wait until tomorrow," Kennedy suggested. "It's not like Willow's actually had time to prepare and whatever you convinced her to do this afternoon took a lot out of her."
Buffy was about to point out to Kennedy the error of her ways, but Willow interjected. "No, the ritual needs to be done tonight," she insisted. "We'll start around seven. Wesley can handle the part he did before and I think Lorne would be good for stinky herb duty since he understand spells and stuff."
"You need to rest." Kennedy was starting to sound a bit agitated. "You've been doing all this magic and it's draining the life out of you. It needs to stop."
"No, you don't understand. Angel's my friend, at least when he has a soul. Right now he doesn't, so he's evil, which is all the more reason for us to put the soul back in as soon as possible."
"This is what I do." Willow was on her feet, grabbing hold of Kennedy's hands. "It's a part of me. If you want me, you have to deal with the nosebleeds, the headaches and everything that comes with it. But it's real and it helps us defeat the bad guys, so I've got to do it."
Buffy started to edge toward the door, sensing that this might be about to turn into a more private moment. She could see the uncertainty on Kennedy's face and wondered if she was ready to deal with the reality of who Willow was. She had to be if they were going to have a chance.
Only time would tell.
Whatever Willow said to Kennedy, she raised no objections when they gathered for the ritual that evening. In fact, she helped Willow carry her supplies down to the basement. For her part, Willow looked happy, so Buffy supposed some type of accommodation had been reached.
The rest of the crew were quiet as the final preparations were made, the air tense with anticipation. Angelus was surprisingly quiet as well, standing sullenly in a corner. No attempts to make Willow drop anything this time, no snarky comments. Just a never-ending stare as Willow arranged her items and Lorne and Wesley took their places.
Connor was present, but he chose to sit on the stairs, away from the others. Gunn and Fred stood closer, the axe once again present in Gunn's hand. "Just in case," he'd explained in answer to Buffy's question. She didn't need to ask in case of what."
"I've made a few changes," Willow was explaining. "Instead of summoning the soul from the ether, I need to transfer it from the Mou-ping, so don't be surprised if the ritual sounds a little different from what you've heard before."
"And if the transfer doesn't work?" Buffy asked.
"All else fails, we smash the Mou-ping, release the soul and start from scratch." Willow did her best to sound casual, but there was nervousness there.
After that, there were no more questions. It had all come down to this.
Willow cast her stones and indicated Wesley should begin. Quod perditum est, invenietur.
This part was the same, invoking the attention of the powers who controlled such things. "Not dead, or not of the living..."
Here was where things began to get tricky, where she had made changes to the ritual. "Gods, bind him. Free his soul from where it has been trapped. Let this orb receive the soul and become the vessel we seek. Give us that which separates him from the animals."
The Mou-ping began to glow more fiercely, as if it were burning from within. Hoping what she'd read that morning was right, that she'd made the correct guess, she picked up the orb, balancing it between her hands. "Let us break the walls. Let him be bound no longer. Protect his soul from harm so that it may safely return to the vessel which housed it."
With those words, she slammed the Orb of Thessulah down upon the Mou-ping.
Spike was doing his best to stay calm, but he felt like beetles were dancing beneath his skin. When Angelus had first been cursed, he'd been surprised at the sheer audacity of the gesture. It was unheard of; returning a vampire his soul? Giving him back that which bound him to society's rules? Only now did Spike truly begin to understand what deep and dangerous magic such an act involved -- and how foolish the gypsies had been to leave an escape hatch for the demon.
The orb crashed into the Mou-ping, causing the vessel to shatter. The orb itself was consumed in the glow, so bright no one could look directly at it...but he couldn't look away. For one brief moment he could see something he knew he wasn't meant to see and felt an answering tug within himself, felt the magic that bound his soul to him.
The bonds were strong and held with no difficulty, but he was filled with fear that he would fall, caught in the spell Willow was weaving. Blindly, he reached out and felt his hands come to rest on Buffy's shoulders. Here was his anchor and he felt his panic recede as the glow of Angel's soul sank and was contained within the orb.
Willow could feel the throb of the power all the way up her arms, the soul firmly held within the orb. Oh, yeah, this was the good stuff. She was going to try the super-glue, see if she could get it to stick for good this time. "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."
All he could do was stand and watched like a chained beast. That's what he was, tied and led to the market for the slaughter.
At that moment, Angelus was certain he had never hated anyone the way he hated the small redhead. If he ever got the chance, if he ever was free again, there'd be no artistry in the kill. He'd find the bitch and snap her neck, make certain there was no way she could do this to him again. Sometimes practical considerations had to take precedent over finesse.
The orb was growing, the air crackling with power. Dark eyes glowing with more than reflected light, she uttered the words that would exile him once more. "Let it be so! Now!"
The orb glowed bright then vanished...and then the pain began, threatening to rip him apart.
Pain. Searing, burning pain. It threatened to consume him, rip him limb from limb.
Why was this happening? He remembered lying on the table in the basement, the shaman working his spell, a series of jumbled, unconnected images...and then nothing.
Now he was here again in the basement, though no longer on the table. He was crouching on the floor, gasping for breathe he didn't need as memories sorted and shifted, trying to bring him some connection to what had happened.
With difficulty, Angel raised his head and looked out from his cage to see Willow sitting cross-legged on the basement floor. They'd done the Ritual of Restoration, brought him back from the abyss. Wesley and Lorne flanked her, concern clear on Lorne's face while Wesley's was harder than he remembered. There was a reason for that, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it at the moment.
Gunn and Fred were a welcome sight, as was Connor, sitting on the basement stairs just above them. Family and friends all here...except for Cordelia and there was something wrong there, but he couldn't tell what. Was it connected to whatever grief Wesley was carrying?
But there were others in the basement as well. A dark-haired girl he vaguely recognized but couldn't place...and Buffy, looking far better than she had the last time they'd met. She'd put a little desperately needed weight on, giving a hint of curves that flattered her. Something was wrong there, too, though. Something he needed to remember, something terrible.
Standing behind her, hands resting on her shoulders, was someone he wasn't happy to see. Spike. Irritant. Enemy.
It was the first piece of knowledge Angelus had gathered that clicked into place. Spike had a soul. Angel didn't understand how or why, but he did and it wasn't a curse but something fought and won for. That was why Spike was here, why he was standing so close to someone who should have plunged a stake into his chest.
Then the second piece of knowledge slammed home, the reason why Spike's hands rested on Buffy's shoulders.
Somewhere deep inside, he was convinced he could hear Angelus laughing.
Continued in Chapter Twenty-One