Loud breathing. It was all that she could hear, and she thought at first that it was her own. Only when it came again did she realise that it could not be; that the sounds did not correspond to the heaving of her own chest; that the volume was too great for her lungs, even in her exhaustion. Deep, ragged, hoarse sounds tormented her now; proof that she had not lost her pursuer after all. He was still there, somewhere. She almost turned to look; almost turned to see if she could discern that huge shape, etched against the darkness behind her. Instead she ran on. On down the alley, suddenly much longer than it had ever seemed before. How often had she been warned never to use this shortcut after dark? How often had she heard the tales of people who strayed into such places at night? The advice always sounded reasonable when it came, but when you were late, and in a hurry, and hungry, a shortcut seemed infinitely more sensible; far more sensible than listening to all the warnings, and taking the longer, better lit way home. Next time, she thought to herself, though privately she didn't believe that there would be any such next time. Next time I'm taking the bus. Calling a taxi. Walking home with a crowd of friends down the middle of the main street. Anything but use the dark and desolate alleyway again. But there would be no next time. She knew that even before the sound of the heavy breathing became a coarse warmth on the back of her neck. Even before a heavy, hard hand clamped itself around her arm. Even before the massive fangs of a beast she never saw bit down on the back of her neck. She had a moment's clarity then, as her consciousness began to bleed away. A moment when her life crystallised into one final thought. She had dreamed as a child of the day when she would become a woman; the day when she would know that she had grown; that she had become complete, and mature, and independent. Now that day would never come. It wasn't regret that made up that final thought, though. Not sadness or resignation - or even, at the very end, fear. She merely thought about the plans she had made for her eighteenth birthday, and everything that she had hoped it would be. And the very last moment; that last crystal image before the end; wasn't blood or pain or heavy, hoarse breathing. It was pink ice cream. Three large scoops in a green striped bowl.
Life definitely changed after death. This was hardly a new discovery for Angel, who had some considerable experience with being dead, but it was interesting to see how his life was altered by dying a second time. When he had first expired, long ago, and been flung back to Earth as a soulless vampire, everything had been different; different and strange and new. Now that he had died all over again, in the free-for-all to end all free-for-alls, everything had once more conspired to change. Back on Earth, the sometime guardian angel of his sometime girlfriend Buffy Summers, it was fair to say that his most recent undeath was a whole new experience. He hadn't as yet decided whether that was a good or a bad thing, but for now it was all that he had - and since he was unlikely to be swapping his own undeath for anybody else's, he knew that he should try to make it work. It could certainly have been worse. He still had super-strength, after all; and indestructibility. He still had his heightened senses, his speed, and his beloved leather coat. In truth, the only thing he was really lacking was his former conviction that nothing but blood was a sensible dietary choice, which was hardly any great loss. Not that he didn't still drink it from time to time. Changes were all very well, but some habits were too hard to break.
He was starting to get used to it all now; to the invisibility, and the close proximity to Buffy that she knew nothing about. To the ability to travel instantaneously, which somehow could never quite replace the thrill of driving in a car with the roof down. To the strange new mission, or series of missions, that he and his friends had found themselves embarking upon, as they had each come to terms with their deaths, and with the fact that death held no final end for any of them. What he didn't think he would ever get used to was Cordelia, and the fact that she now seemed to have become their commander in chief.
She had come to visit him today. It didn't happen often; usually he had to go in search of her. Apparently it was a busy existence, being a higher being, or an angel, or whatever exactly it was that she had become, and he knew that she found it awkward visiting him anyway. They had almost been lovers, and now here he was returned to Earth to watch over his former girlfriend. It could have been very awkward, he supposed, although he didn't see it that way himself. Buffy was still alive, and didn't even know that he was near her. Cordelia, dead, companionable, and very definitely aware of his presence, didn't really have any competition at all. They sprawled together now, in a vineyard in Southern Italy, enjoying a warm evening breeze, and watching the sun set across the mountains. Cordelia was eating grapes, dropping juice every so often, just to watch the stains vanish instantly from her pristine white dress. It amused her, and consequently it amused him. Cordelia loved clothes, and anything to do with clothing, and each little smile that her dress brought to her lips found its echo upon his own face. She leaned against him, and rested her head on his arm.
"It's nice here. I used to come to places like this when I was a kid, and my parents were still rich, but I never appreciated it then. It was just another place to tick off the list, and boast about at the end of the summer."
"You're not the person you used to be," he observed. She gave a little laugh.
"Just as well. I used to think I was so incredibly cool. Now I look back at that and..." She shuddered, only half in jest. "I was revolting."
"No you weren't."
"You wouldn't look twice at me back then," she pointed out. He shrugged.
"I didn't look at anybody back then. Not really. I'd only just stopped living in alleys, eating rats and wishing I was dead. Really dead."
"You looked at Buffy." She smiled then, and handed him a little bunch of grapes. "It's alright, I'm not going to get jealous. We're dead, so I don't suppose we're ever likely to start dating. You could say we've left it a little bit late."
"Maybe." He looked down at the grapes in his hand, but didn't bother eating them. Strictly speaking, as an angel of sorts, he did have a physical presence. He could eat if he wanted. He just didn't want. He had spent too long with no interest in food, and had no particular desire to eat grapes, or any of the other things with which Cordelia tried to tempt him from time to time. It was almost embarrassing; if she had offered him a mug of blood he would probably have accepted. Stretching luxuriously in the late heat, he leaned back against a tree and closed his eyes. Sunsets were good to watch. He had spent so many years never seeing one save through shielded windows, and now he never tired of watching them in the open air. Like sunrises, they were something he had missed during his years as a vampire.
"I came here for a reason, originally." Cordelia yawned, and settled herself again, now that he had moved. She still used his shoulder as a pillow, he noticed, which pleased him. It was one of those odd little things that made him happy, without him quite knowing why.
"A mission?" he asked, eyes closed, stupid smile plastered across his face. It was nice to be given missions. Even now, helping people and fighting evil were the things that seemed to matter most. The guilt was still there; the desire to atone for his years as a soulless vampire. More than that; it had become so much a part of his character over recent years that he didn't think he could not fight evil. He knew what was out there; he knew what needed to be fought. You couldn't turn your back on that, when once you had seen it; not without awakening more guilt than he had any desire to be burdened with. He had no choice, anyway. He hadn't been sent back to Earth just for fun.
"Yes, a mission." She yawned. Even as a higher being, Cordelia Chase could never cease to be herself. Responsibility would never be her favourite word. It made him glad. So many things changed. Cordelia, bless every little inch of her that would forever be mildly vain and self-centred, was still the girl he loved. He nudged her, playing to her display of nonchalance.
"I'm getting there. There's a thing."
"Yeah. You know. A... thing. A bad thing, obviously."
"Obviously." He couldn't shake the smile. "Does it have a name?"
"Probably." She sighed, and sat up, managing to put on a display of something approximating efficiency. "Four girls have been killed recently, by a beast. Something big and ugly. It's being controlled by a man; a mortal, but a creepy one. Apparently Buffy is about to make this beast her business, and she doesn't stand much chance on her own. Not against the beast itself, necessarily. We all know how good Buffy is at fighting big scary things with teeth. But the man is a different story. You're supposed to help her."
"That's why I'm here," he said, enjoying the feeling of purpose that mingled with the contented laziness in his sun warmed body. Sun warmed. That never ceased to be novel. "I watch her, and I help her when she needs it. Hardly a mission."
"This is different. Bigger than usual. And you'll be needing help." She fell silent as three workers from the vineyards walked past them, heading home at the end of the day, although none of the three could see or hear either of them. "The man behind it all is some sort of sorcerer, with a history of being nasty. He deals in dark arts, and general creepiness. Not a nice person. It's not just about keeping an eye on Buffy, and nudging the odds in her favour every now and again. Not this time."
"Okay." A real fight. That might even be enjoyable. "But I don't need any help, Cordy."
"Oh, lose the desperate look, you big lug. I'm not sending you Spike." She laughed at the thought; Spike and Angel were an entertaining pair, at least to an onlooker. Neither or them seemed to enjoy their collaborations very much, but everybody else nearby did. "This guy you're up against is into all the magical mojo. You're going to need somebody who knows a little something about all of that himself."
"Wesley?" That wouldn't be too bad. Probably. Wesley had been one of the best friends that Angel had ever made during his time as a re-souled vampire. They had shared more than either of them had ever shared with anyone else before. Things had changed; events had come between them; but death put all manner of things in perspective. To a certain degree, at least.
"Wesley," confirmed Cordelia. "I did tell him that I'd see him back at the hotel earlier, but I wanted to be alone with you for a while. I should probably be getting back over there."
"You probably should," agreed Angel. Cordelia smiled.
"In a minute or two."
"He was talking with Spike when I left. I'd hate to interrupt them."
"I thought so." She laughed then, and leaned back against him again, staring up at the darkening sky. "We should probably both go back there. It's easier to talk at the office. Less distractions."
"Distractions are good." He let one of his hands enfold one of hers. "I especially like this one."
"Me too." She lifted the hand wrapped around hers, and kissed it briefly on the knuckles. "Which is probably why we ought to be cutting it short." She winced then. "Was it really me who just said that?"
"You can't be an angel without turning angelic," he told her. She scowled.
"Honey, I will never be angelic. A halo? With my hair? Please. Now come on." She stood, ineffectually pulling his arm to make him rise to his feet as well. "Wesley's waiting."
"Wesley is infinitely patient," he reminded her, although in all honesty the claim was only half true these days. Cordelia's only answer was to vanish. He sighed. Playtime, clearly, was over. Not that he really minded, for the fight would always be what mattered most; but sometimes it was nice to make the moments between battles last that little bit longer. Taking a last look around the cooling vineyard, he followed on in Cordelia's wake. Whatever the preceding fun, his mind was already back on the alert.
The Hyperion Hotel was where they all spent their off duty hours, so to speak. Angel went there when Buffy was sleeping, or when things were quiet in her life; Gunn went there when he was not watching the homeless and the helpless on LA's tough streets. Even Spike, who had no history with the place, went there when he had nothing better to do. It was as good a place as any to sprawl in a chair and look moody. Spike was still sulking about being a ghost again, and therefore being unable to smoke. He was rather of the opinion that if Angel wasn't planning to eat, smoke, or do any of the other things that made it worthwhile having a solid form, then he should give up his post as guardian angel to someone who would exploit its fringe benefits rather more fully. And why the bloody hell, he had argued with typical bluntness, did Angel get to be an angel anyway? Hadn't they all died heroically? Hadn't they all made sacrifices, fought hard, died bravely? In which case, why was it only the poncy git with the daft hair who got to be an angel? Angel had told him that it was all down to seniority, and that he should stop moaning and be glad that he wasn't dead; or properly dead, anyway. Spike had just glowered, and called him a stupid bloody cherub; and thus their relationship, in death, had continued just as it had always been before.
"Angel." When he materialised in the lobby of the hotel, the first person that Angel saw was Wesley, standing at the reception area. There was a book open in front of him, and Angel could see that one of the pages held a drawing of a large, bipedal beast that he strongly suspected was the one Cordelia had just mentioned. Angel nodded and returned the greeting.
"Yes." The ghost smiled a little bashfully. "I'm actually getting the hang of it again, too. Watch." He reached out with one hand, and with the barest trace of a frown on his forehead, turned a page of the book. Angel grinned. Since returning to Earth as a ghost, Wesley Wyndam-Pryce had been finding things extremely difficult, for he couldn't touch anything or anyone save his fellow dead. Reading had become impossible, since he had been unable to open any books or turn any pages - or even take the books off the shelves to begin with - and it had been equally impossible to take notes. Now, however, there was a pen writing all by itself on a pad beside him, and as Angel looked on a second book floated over to join the first on the desk.
"Nice going, Wes." Angel rewarded him with a grin that made the Englishman blush faintly, despite the fact that ghosts weren't supposed to be able to blush. "So can you throw ornaments about like a proper ghost yet?"
"No, not really." Wesley smiled at the joke. "My ghostly powers aren't all that great as yet, I'm afraid. Spike still has the edge there. No, this is all magic. Simple mind control spells, like the ones for levitating small items. Anybody who dabbles in magic learns them fairly early on."
"All the same, it's a start." Angel was pleased; he had felt guilty for being the only one of them, save Cordelia, who was able to touch things and influence the world directly. Wesley didn't seem to mind; he considered it only fair and just, since Angel had been fighting the good fight much harder, and for much longer, than had he. Gunn didn't seem to care much either; the idea of possibly becoming an angel seemed to horrify him. Ghosts, apparently, had greater street cred - or perhaps were a rather more masculine concept to his way of thinking. It was only Spike who objected, but then that was Spike. And speak of the devil, thought Angel. Not that he actually had been speaking about him. Generally he tried to speak of Spike as little as possible.
"Angel." Walking through the reception desk, the blond vampire put as much of a swagger into his stride as he could. He might be dead - deader than usual - he might be insubstantial, and he might be thoroughly pissed off about both, but he could still pull off the effortlessly cool stride of the terminally punk. "Been having a good time?"
"I've been working," insisted his grand-sire, incapable of not trying to assert his authority where Spike was concerned. The younger vampire sneered.
"Oh yeah?" He nodded at the bunch of grapes that Angel was still holding. "That's work now, is it?"
"You know Buffy is in Southern Italy at the moment, Spike." Wesley left his books to come and join them, and the pen dropped neatly down to lie beside the pad. "I'm sure Angel has been working as hard as the rest of us."
"Yeah, sure." Spike glared sourly. "Maybe they're evil grapes."
"They're perfectly ordinary grapes." Angel threw them at him just for the sheer entertainment value to be had in highlighting his old rival's non-corporeality. "Cordelia just happened to meet me in a vineyard, and we were talking there for a bit."
"She told you about our latest adversary?" Wesley, as usual, sounded enthusiastic. There were still shades of the quiet and withdrawn brood machine that he had become over the last two years of his life, but the worst of it seemed to have disappeared in death. Angel was glad. Wesley's darkness had been his own, and it had been yet another thing to feel guilty about; yet another thing for which he felt he had to atone. Now it had eased somewhat, and accordingly so had the tension between the two of them. They were friends again. It felt good.
"I think I should be helping out with this instead of Book Boy." Spike sat down in the nearest chair, looking as sulky as ever. He remained resolutely jealous that it was Angel who had been sent to watch over Buffy, since they had been rivals for her affection for some time. Wesley shot him a haughty look.
"No offence." Spike had taken to insulting Wesley within a few minutes of their first meeting, and didn't seem remotely inclined to stop. It had become a hobby, along with annoying Angel, and Wesley was more or less resigned to it now. He glared, but didn't object further. Angel tried not to smile. In his experience it was best not to laugh at Spike when he was in a mood, or he would only become more annoying.
"If you think you've got the magical skills, Spike, you're welcome to come along instead. Until you learn the things that Wesley knows, hard luck. Anyway, we're not going to hang out with Buffy. She can't even see me, remember?"
"Yeah. Thank heaven for small mercies, hey." The blond vampire folded his arms, and scowled. "Still think I'd be more use. At least I can pick things up."
"And we all know what you'd be wanting to pick up." Angel shot him a deeply disparaging glare. "Forget it, Spike. I'm taking Wesley. And besides, it was Cordelia's idea, not mine."
"Cordelia." Spike scowled at the mention of the name, although he didn't bother questioning her authority. He had done that before, and had learned that the consequences could be unfortunate. Cordelia, apparently, could send any of them off on missions wherever she chose, and Spike had no desire to be sent to observe paranormal activity on the top of Everest. He might not feel the cold, but he would certainly feel the boredom - and being a ghost was boring enough on its own, without snowy, empty exile to add to the situation. Consequently, where Cordelia was concerned, he was very nearly polite. Most of the time.
"Did somebody say my name?" She came down the stairs with a spring in her step, a bright smile on her face. Angel always loved to see that smile. It reminded him of one of the few little glimmers of happiness that he had had during the time of his re-souled undeath; one of the few lights in his dark world. Losing Cordelia, first to coma and then to death, had been the beginning of the end for him, even if he hadn't fully realised it at the time. Fred had called her the heart of Angel Investigations, and she had certainly proved to be just that. That and much more.
"Spike was just saying that he'd like something to do," offered the older vampire, suddenly unable to resist a bit of mischief. Spike glared icy blue daggers at him, then stood up, heading for the fridge.
"I just think I'd be more use than Percy, is all. I can touch things. I can make things happen." He proved this by opening the fridge. "All he can do is make balls of light, and get pens to float."
"If I was you I wouldn't insult a magician." Cordelia flashed him a cheery smile anyway, when he reappeared from the fridge with a can of diet soda and a chilled glass. "Wes could turn you into a frog, right Wes?"
"It might be worth a try." Wesley was watching the progress of the glass and the soda with a touch of envy, though the jealousy lasted only as long as Spike managed to keep hold of both items. He dropped the soda before he was halfway to Cordelia, and Wesley had to levitate the glass to keep it from breaking. Angel retrieved them both.
"Much though I'd love to see a little frog with a leather jacket and a scowl, we've got better things to do," he reminded them all. Cordelia shrugged, accepting the can and the glass, and decanting the one into the other.
"You could probably leave any time you think you're ready. Between you I think you know everything you need to, more or less."
"And if you think you need any help..." added Spike. Wesley grinned.
"If we need any glasses dropped?" he asked. Spike glowered.
"If you weren't already dead, Percy..." he threatened, without much in the way of true anger. Most of Spike's threats failed to be truly threatening these days. He had long since cashed in his membership of the evil club, although at times he seemed almost to regret it. Old habits died hard, even if he was one of the good guys now. Angel rolled his eyes.
"Shut up, Spike." It was one of his favourite phrases. Admittedly it made him sound as childish as his fellow vampire, but it gave him a moment of satisfaction anyway. "We'll call if we need a hand. Until then it's best if we don't go in there mob-handed. I don't want to tip our hand too soon."
"Yeah. Best not let this magician creep know how many reinforcements you've got to call on," Spike put in. Much though he hated to be left behind, he could see the sense in that. He might be hard-headed and confrontational, and he might give a good impression of a man with no brain in his head at all, but he had intelligence when he wanted to. Angel had even had cause to be glad of it once or twice. "Well what are you waiting for? Getting going, you big ninny. Buffy could be being eaten by some enchanted beast thing, and you're just stood there looking like a spare part in a machine shop."
"Yes." Angel didn't bother glaring. It would have required too much energy. "We'll be going then. Going to spend all that time near to Buffy. Close to her. Within easy reach, helping her out. Making her feel all... grateful."
"Oh for goodness sakes, the pair of you." Cordelia had been planning to relax with her feet up for a bit, and enjoy the chilled soda after the heat of the Italian hillside. Instead she found herself playing referee, again, to the verbal sparring of the endlessly squabbling vampires. "If I thought there was any point to it I'd try knocking your heads together."
"We're leaving." Angel would very much have liked the chance to say a proper goodbye; either in the form of a definitive put down aimed at Spike, or a more tender and fulfilling farewell for Cordelia, but this wasn't the time or the place. Besides - Spike did have a point, no matter how galling it might have been to have admitted it aloud. Whilst they were standing here, in their eccentric Los Angeles home, Buffy might be facing any number of dangers. Night had been falling when he had left; and night was when most Slayers died. Understandably so.
"Say hi to Buffy," asked Spike, rather out of the blue. The attitude had gone; the sulking and the insults had gone. There was real emotion there now, instead, and Angel felt it powerfully. Spike loved Buffy, and even though it was a love that had never, and would never, be properly returned, nothing ever seemed able to dampen it down. Angel let his irritation move aside for a moment; long enough to share a moment of understanding, and a kind of shared pain.
"She can't hear me, Spike. She doesn't even know that I'm there."
Spike shrugged, all hunched shoulders now, and beetling brows furrowed in frowns to hide his moment of weakness. "So? You'll still be closer to her than I am."
"True." Angel shot a look over at Wesley. "Ready?"
"Always." The ghost exchanged a brief nod with Cordelia, then vanished without further preamble. Foiled in his desire to say a private goodbye to her, Angel gave her a nod of his own, then with a similar gesture sent Spike's way, he followed Wesley. Left behind, Cordelia lowered her glass onto the reception desk, and wandered over to sit down on the circular sofa that dominated the lobby. She did a good job of hiding her regret at Angel's departure, but to Spike her sadness was as clear as though she had not tried to hide it at all. Reading people, and understanding their feelings, was Spike's particular forte;. He sat down beside her and put a hand over hers. Despite her greater solidity she was as dead as he was, and consequently his hand made contact, closing around her fingers for the briefest of moments.
"Don't worry love." He thought for a moment about putting an arm around her shoulders, to offer that little bit more comfort, although he suspected that if he did she would very likely hit him. "He'll be alright. They both will. Can't kill a dead bloke, can you."
"A powerful magician might be able to do almost anything." She gave him a half smile. "I always hated it when they used to go off on missions. The two of them, and then later Gunn as well. And I'd stay back here, or at the old offices, and never know what was happening until they got back. I hated it then, and I hate it now."
"And back then you didn't have Buffy to worry about." Spike matched her half smile with one of his own. It transformed his face, losing the last of the sulky rebel that he had seemed to be before. "Angel loves you, pet. I can see it in those bloody goofy smiles of his. Buffy couldn't steal him away even if she could see him."
"Are you trying to convince me, or yourself?" She smiled faintly. "We're dead. We shouldn't even be thinking about love lives."
"We're all dead, pet. Some of us have been that way for donkey's years. If being dead had cramped our style any, Angel and I would never have given Buffy a second thought. World's more complicated than life and death."
"Maybe." She reached out to touch his hand, and return the squeeze he had given hers before. "Thankyou Spike. I appreciate it. One little thing, though?"
"Call me 'pet' again, and I'll get you exorcised."
He had to laugh at that. "Fair enough. Listen, jokes aside, Cordy. Angel'll be alright. My luck's not that good. He'll be back, like a bad penny. A bad penny with stupid hair."
"I hope so." She rose to her feet, thinking of other things that she could do, or perhaps should be doing. "I'll see you later, Spike."
"Yeah." He watched her disappear, then stood up and headed for the books that Wesley had abandoned on the reception desk. Spike didn't do research - everybody knew that. Spike glowered and sulked and made smart ass comments. When he was alone, though, he liked to look through Wesley's collection. Through the beautiful library with its hand-finished books, some dating back centuries; through the papers and pads with their neat notes in Wesley's precise, no-nonsense handwriting. The love of knowledge, like the love of poetry, was one of Spike's little secrets. He had taken it to the grave with him, and he saw no reason not to take it further. Settling himself down, he began to read, struggling with the Latin but making short work of the archaic English. Angel might not want him along on this mission; he might lack the skills of the Watcher; but there might be something he could contribute, at some point. So he carried on turning the pages, and wishing that he could feel the heavy paper under his fingers, and smell the dust and the old leather. Wished that he could feel the roughness of it all in his hands. If wishes came true, though, he thought to himself; if wishes were real; he would be in Southern Italy right now, helping Buffy and being the one of her former lovers that she could see; could hear. Instead he was here, alone, and probably already forgotten. His throat cried out for beer, for blood, for hot smoke with the taste of nicotine, but he could offer it none of that. Not anymore. He could concentrate only on the books, and wait to see if Angel needed him after all. It wasn't how he had expected it all to turn out, when he had agreed to join his fellow vampire in a fight that they couldn't possibly win; but then death had a habit of surprising him. Just like fate had a habit of pissing him off. So he kept on turning the pages of the books, cursing the moments when his fingers passed straight through, and trying to keep from thoughts of Angel and Buffy. It was rather pointless being jealous after death. Rather pointless wishing for things he couldn't have, and circumstances he couldn't change, but he kept on wishing anyway. And why the hell not? It was better than doing nothing at all.
She walked because she saw no reason to run. It was a bright night, with a moon that chased the worst of the shadows away, and left only the ones that seemed most picturesque. Although the sun had gone, the world remained warm, the breeze gentle, and without a hint of the ice that could so often come with the darkness. Her feet clicked on the hard surface of the street, and she listened to the sound with a faint sense of approval. It was a nice noise. Relaxing. Comforting, in an odd way. It went with the silence and the stillness of everything. It also meant that with each step she came a little closer to home, and even as she was enjoying the walk, that made her enjoy it all the more. There would be a glass of wine at home; a simple meal to close the day, and help her to ease into sleep. She quickened her step slightly, though not by much, and in response the clicking of her shoes on the ground sped up as well; clicked just a little bit louder. Not loud enough, though, to mask another clicking sound; a second set of feet on the road.
She didn't often meet people when she was walking home. Somebody out for a last walk, perhaps, to clear away the after-effects of too much wine with their evening meal. A familiar face that she nodded at, and that was all. She almost turned, to see if it was one of her neighbours this time, but something kept her head facing forwards. Something made an alarm bell ring in her head. Perhaps it was the volume of the footsteps; perhaps it was their speed. Perhaps it was the realisation, suddenly, that they were not neat little clicking steps like her own. Not the hard soles of shoes making the noises. Instead they were scratching sounds, rasping sounds, sliding, crunching, scrabbling sounds, like claws and fur and hard, hard pads scraping and pounding as some beast ran along the road. It was too late, then, to run as well. Too late to speed up, to break into a run, to dash for whatever safety she might be able to find. She had time just for one more step before the teeth were closing around the back of her neck, and her feet were being dragged from the ground. After that there were no more clicks, no more rasps or scratches or scrapes. No more running. Just standing and snuffling and biting, and a broken, chewed up death.
Angel rematerialised on the outskirts of a small town, near the sort of building inclined to feature on rural scenes captured on postcards, and recognised it as the place where he had met Cordelia an hour or two before. They had walked together along a little track, heading up into the hills, and the vineyard where they had lain together to talk. The memory of that stolen little moment gave him a rush of feelings that he wasn't at all sure were fitting for an angel. The thought made him smile.
"I'd almost forgotten what that looks like," said a distinctive English voice from beside him. Angel turned the smile, a little fainter now, towards the owner of the voice.
"Pretty Italian countryside, or happy vampires?"
"You know what I mean. I'm not sure I've seen you happy since--" He broke off, and his eyes drifted away to look sightlessly at the scenery. "Since I took Connor away."
"Yeah." Angel wasn't going to deny the horror of that day; of that night. Of losing his son, and all that had come afterwards. It was all in the past now, though, and the sooner Wesley came to accept that, the better. It was all too rarely that they were alone long enough to talk it through. "But I have been happy since then, Wes. Now and again. You just couldn't see it because you weren't happy yourself. Now you are again."
"Who would have thought that death could be so enjoyable." A thin smile faded across Wesley's face, and Angel saw the worries and the guilt that still existed behind the newly light-hearted exterior. Death might have lightened the load upon Wesley's shoulders, but it hadn't removed it. Angel could sympathise, for the same was true of himself. He shrugged.
"Things change when you die. They're bound to. Problems disappear. I still have all that guilt, about everything I did as Angelus, but somebody thinks I have a shot at being an angel. That's got to mean The Powers That Be think there's something good inside me, right?"
"Somebody wants us to do their dirty work for them. It doesn't mean that the slate is clean."
"No. That's true. But we're worthy of doing that dirty work, and that means something. At least, I think it does."
"Maybe." Wesley smiled faintly, appreciating the exchange. Time alone with Angel, once, had been a time for comradeship, conversations and companionable silences, the occasional joke. They could share a cup of tea, talk of battles and monsters, and discuss the old books that were Wesley's life, and had once been Angel's contemporary literature. Angel was the same age as him, whilst at the same time was hundreds of years older, and could be a friend, confidant and advisor all at the same time; something Wesley had missed during the last year or so of their lives. They had still been together, but there had been none of the old closeness, the old easy relationship. Pressures, responsibilities, regrets, worries, secrets - all had come between them. All and much more. Now every time that the pair of them were alone, a little of the old relationship seemed to come back. A little more of the happiness, the relaxation, the easy conversations and silences. It would perhaps never be quite the same as before, but to Wesley is still felt bloody marvellous. To have been sent on a mission with Angel felt far more pleasurable than it should do, given what they were likely to be up against.
"Come on, Wes." Suddenly flashing him that old, broad grin, Angel broke into a fast, long stride, taking him away along the track. Wesley had to hurry to keep up. "We have a job to worry about. If there's one thing we both did enough of when we were alive, it was wallow in self pity. We don't need it now as well."
"No." This time Wesley couldn't keep the smile away, instead of struggling to keep it up. "You've got better things to worry about."
"Oh?" Angel's eyebrows arched innocently. "Such as?"
"Oh come on, Angel. I may be miserable and self-obsessed, but that doesn't stop me noticing the way that you and Cordelia look at each other. I'm not sure that many people embark on meaningful relationships after death, but then none of us have ever been especially conventional."
"Cordelia and I aren't..." Angel thought about their time spent sprawled in the vineyard, and trailed off. It wouldn't be at all honest to claim that there was nothing going on. He just didn't know what was. As ever he was uncomfortable with the scrutiny, and scowled in mock irritation. "Anyway, you can talk. At least Cordelia isn't evil. Or subject to periodic reanimation by our enemies. Or fond of trying to sabotage our work. Or--"
"Yes, alright. So I won't be inviting Lilah to spend the evening at the hotel any time soon." Wesley shrugged, even more uncomfortable with having his relationships discussed than was Angel. The mere idea of such relations made him think of Fred, the one member of their little group who had not joined them in death; who couldn't, because of what had happened to her at the end of her life. That was one regret that would always hang in the air, no matter how many others he conquered. "Anyway, Lilah and I aren't..." He trailed off, infuriated at the way he had echoed Angel's own words, even down to ending the argument in confusion and uncertainty. Frustration showed on his face and he glared. "Anyway, we're not here to talk about girlfriends."
"No, we're here to kill monsters." Satisfaction showed on Angel's face. Killing monsters was something that they could both do; and be comfortable with. There was no necessity for emotions, or the exploration of feelings, when fighting big, toothy monsters - be they from other dimensions or from the darker corners of the Earth. "I like killing monsters."
"I'd never have guessed."
"We all have our purpose, Wes." Angel's smile became bigger; brighter; almost childlike in its enthusiasm. "Mine just happens to be more fun than most. Other people find fulfilment, I guess, but most of them never get to whirl big axes, and chop the heads off giant snakes and slimy things in sewers."
"Yeah." There was a certain nostalgia in Wesley's eyes, as he thought of some of their battles in the past. Of some of his own, solo journeys following his exile from the rest of the team. Big, four armed monstrosities that prowled in dark alleys; flying demons spitting venom from twin heads; rarely glimpsed shadows that slithered and bit. Not to mention the hordes of ever-hungry vampires. He scowled suddenly. "Not that there'll be much killing this time. Buffy will probably want to do that."
"The disadvantages of having to work with a Slayer, huh?" Angel's own smile became rueful. "It never was easy, letting her do it all."
"For you." Wesley's smile matched Angel's. "I didn't like getting Faith to do all the work when we had to fight Angelus and the Beast, but I was glad that she was there to do it. When you don't have super-strength and indestructibility, it's nice to know that somebody else does."
"You gave a pretty good account of yourself, Wes. If Faith hadn't been there..."
"If Faith hadn't been there, I'd have died a long time ago, and you'd still be Angelus."
"Well yeah." His friend laughed at him lightly, in a way that would have been impossible before death had brought them back together. "But you didn't do too badly."
"Better than now." Unconsciously illustrating his point, Wesley let his hand trail through a bush that grew alongside the track. "Ghosts don't make great fighters."
"We'll get you a nice ghostly sword." Angel was clearly in a less than serious mood. He had always had a slightly goofy side to his personality in the old days, but it had been a long time since it had had a chance to surface. Clapping his friend on the shoulder, he smiled merrily. "A long glowing one."
"That'll pass straight through all the monsters?"
"I didn't say it would be a practical sword." Angel shrugged. "Anyway, from what I hear you've done your fair share of fighting recently. Cordelia said you managed to do a lot more than you were expecting when she sent you to help out Giles, and that included using a sword. Besides, if Spike can work out how to hold solid objects, so can you."
"I know. It's just been a long time since I had to learn something from scratch." The Watcher grinned crookedly. "And even if I can't hold swords, it could be a whole lot worse. I could be an angel. However frustrating it might be to be a ghost, at least there's no danger of me winding up in a shiny white dress and a halo."
"I am not going to wear a shiny white dress and a halo." Angel winced. "That is just a myth, isn't it? I mean, I don't even know how to play a harp. And nobody mentioned shiny white dresses when Cordelia was telling us all why we weren't dead. Or, you know, why we weren't dead dead. I'm a hero. I don't think I should have to wear a shiny white dress."
"You're an angel. It goes with the territory," Wesley couldn't help doing a little stirring, now that he was feeling that bit more sure of himself in Angel's presence once again. "You're just earning your wings at the moment, I suppose, but once you've won them it'll be robes, haloes, harps and fluffy clouds." He straightened the collar of his black leather jacket, smirking faintly. "I think I'll stick to the leather and stubble. You know, I don't think I've ever seen you in white. Certainly not head to toe. There might even be sequins."
"Sequins?" Angel eyed him uncertainly, as though unsure whether or not he was being teased. "Angels wear sequins?"
"Well information is scarce, Angel, even amongst the Watchers, but they do tend to twinkle in pictures. Either it's something to do with inner radiance, or they wear some kind of sequins. It needn't be anything tasteless, though. Perhaps we could get Lorne to give you some tailoring hints. I'm sure he'd be delighted to give you a wardrobe fitting."
"Sequins." Angel, who had rarely diverted from the path of black cotton and leather, was practically squirming. "What do you suppose it takes to get demoted? I mean, nobody ever asked me if I wanted to be an angel. I don't think you can have white dresses and sequins forced on you against your will, right? I mean, if it's heaven, you should be wearing what you want. Right?"
"And am I really an angel anyway? An actual angel, angel? I know I'm a guardian angel, but does that make me a proper angel, or... just some sort of alternate entity? Like a substitute teacher. Or a second at a duel." He frowned. "And do I really have to get wings? 'Cause... I don't know if they'd suit me. And would they fit under my coat?" The frown deepened. "Would I have to cut a hole in my coat?"
"Angel..." Wesley rolled his eyes, faintly exasperated. It had been so long - so very, very long - since Angel had been this relaxed and chatty in his presence, that he had almost forgotten how annoying it could be. Fun, entertaining, wonderful - blissfully, gloriously reassuring - but annoying nonetheless. "Just... don't be such a wanker."
"Hey." Angel straightened the collar of his beloved coat. "There's got to be rules, you know, about calling angels wankers. I don't think you can do that. There could be punishments."
"Yes, sure to be." Wesley shook his head in amusement, marvelling at his companion's capacity for juvenile behaviour. "Angel, I'm dead. I escaped hell, or at the very least purgatory, by the skin of my teeth, and I live - or not - under constant threat of being resurrected by Wolfram & Hart for whatever nefarious purposes they might have in mind. Punishment for being rude to angels - proper or otherwise - isn't that great a threat."
"It wouldn't just be punishment," suggested Angel. "It could be divine retribution. Insulting a heavenly being might attract higher attention."
"You're not a heavenly being, you're just named after one. You're a vampire who just happened to have caught the eye of something powerful. And besides, it wouldn't be divine retribution, would it. It would be Cordelia's retribution, which is infinitely less scary. Last time Spike pissed her off she just sent him to baby-sit Andrew for a few weeks."
"Talk to Spike. He'd have preferred divine retribution, believe me." Angel scowled. "Look, I'm just saying, if somebody tries to make me wear sequins and a halo, I'm not going to be happy."
"Yes, I gathered that."
"Nobody made Michael Landon wear sequins and a halo. In Highway To Heaven, I mean. Okay, so he was just earning his wings still, but there was never any talk of sequins. Or glowing dresses. And he got to wear a leather jacket."
"You're expecting me to understand your popular culture references again, aren't you." Wesley rubbed his eyes, feigning exhaustion. "We're just about there now. Can we put off the discussion of angelic fashion for a bit? I don't know how visible we are."
"There's nobody around. The streets are empty." Angel looked about, at the old and new buildings, and the winding road. It was a rural town with an unsteady grip on both the modern and the traditional; the sort of place with one leg in the present and another in the past, probably in the process of losing its youth to bigger towns in faraway regions. The sort of place to which a tourist might go in search of sights off the beaten path, and where the odd things that sometimes happened were still believed by a dwindling number of people who had not yet closed their minds to the unexplained. It was easy to believe that things could happen here, with its echoes of such ancient architecture, and its little fountain carved with detailed images. "I wonder where Buffy is."
"Is she here to sight see, or did she come here because she knew something was going on?"
"A bit of both, I think. She has precognitive dreams sometimes, and they can lead her to places. She waited until Dawn was back in school before she came here, so I doubt she just here to look around."
"Then it's doubtful she's at home in bed." Wesley wandered out into the middle of the empty road, and turned in a rough circle in search of road signs. "Any ideas?"
"The best idea is usually to head for where there are the most people. Sights, smells, heat, hormones. You know the score." The vampire cocked his head on one side. "I don't hear anything like that, though. If this place has any popular night spots, they're the quiet kind."
"It doesn't look as if it's likely to have a very big population. There probably aren't any night clubs." Wesley headed over to the fountain, eyeing its carved walls. What had at first glance appeared to be simple gargoyles turned out to be the heads of recognisable breeds of demon, interspersed with occult symbols, and what looked like a picture of a girl staking a vampire. "This is fascinating."
"We'll come here another time to do a study of the sights." Angel cocked his head on one side, joining his companion by the fountain. "Did you hear that?"
"Hear what?" All that Wesley could hear was the water in the fountain, and the faint, warm breeze that blew across the street. Angel frowned.
"Feet. Running, or--" He broke off. "Blood."
"You can hear blood?"
"No." Angel shot the Watcher an exasperated look. "I can smell it. I may be an angel, but I'm still a vampire where it counts." A frown of concentration showed on his face. "This way."
"I didn't hear any sounds of a struggle." Breaking into a run to keep up with his companion, Wesley looked this way and that down side streets as they went. "No screams."
"You know as well as I do that there isn't always time." Angel's feet echoed on the hard surface of the road, a contrast to his supposed low profile. The rest of the world could neither see nor hear him, but to his fellow dead he sounded normal enough. He slowed suddenly. "I can hear something else."
"Me too. Footsteps." Wesley ran a few paces further on ahead. "Shoes. Somebody running."
"Somebody else heading this way." Angel broke into a run once again, and this time Wesley followed instantly, taking shortcuts through walls in full appreciation of his non-corporeal status as a ghost. It was tempting to try transporting himself instantly to the source of the noise, but he couldn't pinpoint it accurately enough to make the attempt. Pulling ahead of Angel, who had no choice but to go around the obstacles that Wesley could walk straight through, he reached their destination first, skidding to a halt at the sight of a massive grey beast with the body of a girl held fast in its mouth. Gleaming red eyes glared angrily at Wesley, and gargantuan feet scratched the ground in demonstration of the size of the monster's claws. Wesley held out his right hand, and a sword appeared in it, long and gleaming. It was a simple magic spell to someone of the Watcher's talents, but it was rather hit and miss as to whether the weapon would make contact or prove to be as intangible as the ghost who wielded it. He stepped forward, confident of his own safety, and drew the sword back for a blow. Angel came around the corner at the same moment, drawing his own trusted weapon from beneath his leather coat, dashing up to join his associate just as, with a sound like the cracking of ice, the huge creature disappeared with its prey. The street was empty. It was a striking anti-climax after the heat of the chase.
"Damn!" Angel was furious at being denied a fight. "It had a girl, Wes."
"She was dead." Wesley had not been able to see the animal itself very clearly, but he had been sure of that point at least. Her attacker had held her gripped in its jaws, its teeth sunk into her neck in such a way that death was certain. Her eyes had told the rest of the story, in their pale sightlessness. He scowled and made his ghostly sword disappear. "Cordelia says that this thing is harvesting girls for some magician."
"So I hear. She tell you why?"
"She didn't seem to know all that much. With what The Powers That Be seem prepared to tell us, it's almost like working from her visions again, only with a little more clarity in the details this time." The Watcher's head cocked on one side, as the sound of approaching footsteps filtered into his consciousness again. He had rather lost track of them during the running, and the shock of the beast's disappearance. "You think that's a fellow demon hunter?"
"It's Buffy. I'd know her anywhere." Angel knew the Slayer as well as he knew anybody; better; even though he had spent less time working and fighting alongside her than he had with most of his current colleagues. She was, after all, of particular importance to him. She ran in a certain way, moved in a certain way - all clear to him even through mere sound. He knew that it was her footsteps he could hear; her scent that was beginning to filter through that of the dead girl's blood. Wesley nodded, seeing no reason to distrust his companion's instincts.
"You want to keep this low key?" he asked. Angel hesitated, listening to the sounds of running feet. Finally he shook his head, terse and fast.
"No. We've got to make contact sooner or later. It might as well be now." He hesitated, listening to the feet clacking on the road, a part of him yearning for the girl who could not see him, and with whom he no longer had a relationship anyway. Something within him, he had long ago learned, was destined forever to be in love with Buffy Summers. He didn't understand it; but then that was love.
"Damn." Buffy's voice came to them before she did. She had apparently sensed that the creature was gone, but she came around the corner anyway, tense and alert. She held a stake in one hand and a stout stabbing dagger in the other, and her small, wiry body was half crouched in a fighting stance. Angel couldn't help but feel a flash of emotion, part pride, part love, at the sight of her. She had always moved so well. Always been such a natural in the ways of battle. She relaxed slightly now, when it became clear that the creature she had been hunting was gone, and moved forward to examine the marks of blood on the road. Only then did she catch a glimpse of Wesley, and whirled with both stake and dagger held ready once again. He didn't jump at the sudden threat of attack, and that lack of reaction surprised her almost as much as the sight of him. He understood why. The last time they had spent any time together he had been the sort of man who would have screamed or even fainted at such a threat of attack. He smiled faintly.
"Wesley." Her eyes flickered up and down the street, looking for other people and seeing none. "What the hell-?"
"Long story. Well, probably not all that long." His smile became rather more awkward. "We need to talk."
"You need to talk." She didn't have the slightest interest in him, and he couldn't blame her. To her he was instantly dismissable; a clown; a buffoon; worse. He was the hopeless wimp who had got in the way in Sunnydale, and driven Faith straight into the arms of the enemy. Her eyes had already drifted on past him, staring at the place where the monster had been standing. "I have work to do."
"So do I." He narrowed the distance between them. "Buffy..."
"Wesley, I have a monster to chase. Big grey thing. Large teeth. Kills girls. Four have gone missing over the last four nights, and I'd rather like to make sure that it's not five. So unless you're hiding it behind you, I'm not interested. Goodbye."
"The monster's gone. Except technically it wasn't a monster, it was a Kra'ash. They're intelligent, at least to a degree." He saw the spark of irritation in her eyes, and smiled slightly. He might have changed, but she hadn't. "Buffy, I'm sorry. He had another girl, but I'm here to help with--"
"You?" The scorn was clear in her face. "Giles phoned me last night with some weird story about you. About all of your gang. Willow tells me you're not the wet blanket you used to be, but it takes more than a new wardrobe to make me get all excited. So stay out of my way."
"Well this is a surprise, I must say. Common theory has always held that you're the good Slayer and Faith is the bad one, but quite frankly, Buffy, I'm inclined to think that common theory is cock-eyed as hell. If you'll excuse the expression. Faith, at least, is civil."
"I don't have time for civil, Wes." She sounded sharp, but he could see that he had struck home. Mentioning Faith was always a good way to get to Buffy; he had seen that much the last time they had been together, when Buffy had visited Angel in Los Angeles in an attempt to capture the rogue Slayer. Even now that Faith was one of the good guys again, the rivalry apparently still remained. "You say this monster's gone?"
"Yes. With another dead girl." He couldn't help but stiffen his shoulders, sliding back into the old ways of the Watchers. He might not be Buffy's Watcher, but the training was still there; the instinct to instruct and assist. "But it's not a monster."
"It was big and growly, and it had teeth that the Tasmanian Devil would kill for. That spells monster."
"You go after it expecting a monster, and you won't have a chance. I told you; it's intelligent."
"It is, huh?" She stuck the knife and the stake away in her belt, then folded her arms. "So how do I kill it?"
"A good sharp blade will do the job well enough." He frowned, watching her now with a degree of uncertainty. "You say you spoke to Giles?"
"He phoned, yes." Now her eyes were glittering with that same degree of watchfulness. "You know what he said?"
"I can imagine." He moved forward, passing his hand through a nearby road sign, as though in illustration. "Hopefully he told you that I'm a little more useful than I used to be. I prefer to be taken seriously these days."
"You always did prefer to be taken seriously." She frowned at him, ever cautious, clearly unable to see beyond her memories of him. He was inclined to think it his own fault. He really had been an idiot when she had known him in Sunnydale; a hopeless fool unable to defend himself, and incapable of living up to the example set by Rupert Giles. "Takes more than a makeover though, Wes."
"Yes, so you already said." His eyes flickered over to Angel, necessarily absent from the conversation, but clearly itching to be a part of it. Buffy's eyes narrowed.
"He's here, isn't he."
"Who?" Wesley was momentarily confused. "Giles?"
"Angel." Her voice was suddenly cold. "Giles told me that he's playing guardian angel these days, and watching over me when he thinks I need help." She raised her voice. "Are you listening, Angel? I mean, am I supposed to be grateful? You think it's nice to know that somebody's watching you all the time? We call it stalking nowadays."
"Angel's not stalking you." Seeing the indignation on his friend's face, Wesley attempted to soothe his feathers as well as Buffy's ire. "Look, perhaps we've got off on the wrong foot here. We were sent to help you stop this... well, this monster. As far as we know, it's in the employ of a powerful sorcerer, who's presumably using the dead girls as part of some spell. Now I don't need to tell you that he has to be stopped. We have to work together, Buffy, and that means putting aside whatever differences you think that we have." He paused, ignoring Angel who was trying to attract his attention. "Believe it or not, I can help. You won't be able to fight this sorcerer on your own."
"Oh I don't know, Wes. I seem to remember doing pretty well before you came into my life; and just as well after you left it again. I think I can handle one little magician. Can't be worse than the world's most powerful witch trying to destroy everybody."
"From what I hear, you didn't defeat Willow on your own." He sighed. "Buffy, I didn't come here by choice, you know. I was sent here, by... by a higher power. Dead people don't come offering their assistance every day, do they? Just why are you so opposed to the idea of my help? Giles must have given some indication of--"
"Yeah. Forget the long words, Wes." She sighed, apparently frustrated. Buffy Summers had matured a lot in the years since she had last encountered Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, and he was attempting to speak to her as he had when she was still in high school. She had been without the authority of the Watcher Council for a long time, and since the destruction of Sunnydale she had been very much her own person. She was a woman now, roaming the world, learning things with each new sight; each new town; each new country. She had come to value her independence, and was proud of the fact that she relied these days on nobody. Giles was always at the end of a telephone; sometimes he was by her side; Willow was always available. She didn't need them, though, the way she once had done. Not usually. She certainly didn't want to give up her independence now at the behest of a man she had always loathed. She was expecting him to get angry, as he had used to do when she had ignored his orders and gone her own way, but there was no anger on his face now. His eyes were sharp and bright, his face impassive. He masked his emotions, she realised, surprising herself with how much he reminded her of Angel. He really had changed. Once upon a time he would have been apoplectic with indignation by now, spewing out great torrents of words in an increasingly high pitched voice, and sounding like a petulant child. She turned away from him, scanning the ground in search of signs of the beast she had come to fight, and causing Angel to leap out of her way. Wesley could see the frustration on the vampire's face; could see how very much Angel wanted to be able to speak to his former love. Being invisible to her was far too painful for his position as her guardian ever to give him real pleasure. Wesley felt a flash of outrage for his friend, at the charge of stalking that had been laid against him. He was no stalker; if he could have been Buffy's companion rather than her guardian angel, he would have accepted the post with alacrity. The Watcher stepped forward now, eager to defend his companion's good name, but Buffy spun suddenly to face him, having discovered a new line of attack. Her eyes were hot, and he knew what was coming now before she spoke up; there were other barriers between them these days than mere memories of past inadequacies.
"Wolfram & Hart," she said, with force. He managed not to wince.
"What about them?"
"What do you mean, what about them? You went to work for them; all of you. Not just you - I mightn't have been so surprised if it was just you, whatever Willow says about you being okay these days. But Angel. Spike. I expect more from them, and they just went off and joined the enemy. I've made it clear enough in the past how I feel about that. We all did. You were told the score back during that Potential Slayer incident last year. I don't trust you anymore. Any of you. So you can take your 'higher powers', Wes, and you know what you can do with them."
"You don't understand, Buffy." There was so much that she couldn't understand - how he had entered the lair of the enemy looking to find salvation for his murdered lover; how Angel had all but done a deal with the devil in order to save his son, and the innocent people whose lives that son had so nearly ended. All Wesley could do was make the best argument that he could, given the circumstances, without giving any indication of the real tangle of emotions and motives that had led to Team Angel's apparent switching of sides. "We were trying to fight the system from the inside, and in the end it killed us. After that, your disapproval really doesn't sting all that much."
"I don't trust you." She lived by her wits - and her survival, as well as the survival of all life on the Earth, had depended too often upon her instincts for her to be willing to take chances now. Wesley nodded.
"Fine. You don't trust us. That doesn't matter. There's a Kra'ash killing girls as part of some magician's evil plan, and that has to take priority over grudges or mistrust. Angel and I plan to stop this thing, and we'd rather have your help. That doesn't mean we have to have it."
"You can put your hands through road signs, Wes. You're a ghost, not a warrior." She sighed. "Yes. Okay. If it'll save lives, I'll listen to what you have to say. But don't expect to make my Christmas card list."
He smiled at that, in the taut, brief way that was his. "I'd say 'I'll survive', but that might be something of a misnomer. So... friends?"
"Unlikely. Allies, possibly." Her eyes flickered around, searching for the invisible Angel. "Where is he?"
"Standing beside me right now, as it happens." Wesley didn't look at the vampire. He had no desire to see the other's renewed pain at his inability to communicate with Buffy. "It's the way these things work, you know. If you could see him, and talk to him, then he wouldn't just be a guardian angel. He'd be a companion. The Powers That Be wanted you to work alone. It's honed your skills the way that working as part of a team never did. He not watching you secretly out of choice."
"Yeah." For a second her expression softened, showing the fond history that she had shared with the vampire. Her eyes drifted to Wesley's left, unnervingly finding Angel's own, and holding them for several seconds. He smiled faintly, but of course it was a smile that she didn't return. She couldn't see it, and instead her expression hardened.
"If there are higher powers involved in this, why don't they just stop this sorcerer? Why send you to help?"
"It doesn't work that way." He didn't know why; only that somebody on some other plane had managed to snatch all of Team Angel from the jaws of death, in order to re-employ them as soldiers in the continuing fight against evil. That suggested at great power, and the ability to do a lot more. It seemed that none of the fabled Powers wanted do to anything more. Buffy's expression was mocking.
"It doesn't work that way?"
"Buffy..." He sighed. "Look, take it up with them some other time, alright? Just accept that there's a limit to the help you're going to get from The Powers That Be. They do what suits them."
"Sounds like the Watchers' Council to me." It was a cheap shot and she knew it; although as far as she was concerned the old Council had deserved any insults that came its way. Wesley merely offered her that small, tight smile again, and shrugged slightly.
"Sounds exactly like the Watchers' Council." His attention was caught once again by Angel, and he nodded curtly. They were wasting time, and there was little enough of it as there was. "Listen, Buffy, I have a spell in mind that might tell us where that beast disappeared itself to. That should let us pinpoint the location of our sorcerer's den, and let us take the next step in all of this. Alright?"
"A spell, huh." She was still remembering the useless buffoon, incapable of earning his worth as a Watcher. He could see it in her eyes, as he had been able to see it all along. "You think you can manage something like that?"
"Possibly." He wasn't offended by her suspicions, and knew that he had no right to be. He had earned her distrust a thousand times over, and now it was up to him to earn her respect - or at the very least her tolerance. "Those of us without super strength approach the fight against evil in many different ways. Mine..." He clicked his fingers, and her plain white blouse turned a pale sky blue... "is magic."
"Cool." She looked down at her shirt, rather taken aback, then spun around in a circle. "How does it look?"
"Beautiful," commented Angel. Wesley smiled.
"I'm rather inclined to agree."
"Huh?" She glanced up in surprise, then guessed that he had been speaking to the lurking vampire. "Yeah, alright Wesley. Do your hocus-pocus."
"Hocus-pocus?" He smiled faintly. "Sorry. I don't even say Abracadabra. Would you like your shirt changed back?"
"I don't know." She flashed him a wholly unexpected smile, and did another twirl as though at a fashion show. "I rather like it. Although I have a bag somewhere that used to match, so you might have to waggle your fingers at that sometime too."
"I'll put the reorganisation of your wardrobe at the top of my 'to do' list." Doing his best not to roll his eyes in exasperation, he turned to the place where the beast had disappeared. "Now if you wouldn't mind giving me a moment, I've got better things upon which to expend my energies just now."
"Takes a lot out of you does it?"
"It's hard to affect the real world with magic when you're dead, yes. But it's getting easier." He flexed his fingers and stretched his arms, then knelt to examine the area. "Entertain yourself for a while, Buffy. I don't know quite how long this will take."
"Entertain myself. Right. I'll just stand over here and talk to Angel." She looked around, as always failing to see her invisible guardian. "Where is he again?"
"Here." Angel answered, knowing that Wesley would not. The Watcher was too busy with his work now, and had probably not even heard Buffy's question. The Slayer shrugged, not offended by the lack of an audible answer, and instead turned around to look for some sign of the vampire's presence.
"It's, er... it's nice to see you again," she offered, feeling somewhat awkward. "Or... you know. To not see you. I've missed you. Sometimes."
"I've missed you too." He smiled fondly. They had such a history together, the pair of them. She had been his reason for coming back to the world, for stepping out of the shadows and making something of himself. His inspiration in battling the years of guilt and self-pity, and using his strengths and his talents for good. It was because of her that he had gone to Los Angeles, and become stronger and better; had met with Wesley and Cordelia and Gunn; had been rewarded with this new status after his death. In a way he owed her everything.
"I guess you can hear me. I mean, you'd have to be able to, wouldn't you. See me and hear me, or you'd be no good as a guardian angel. Seems rather unfair, that you can hear me, and I can't hear you."
"Not my choice, Buffy." He wandered over to her, but she didn't even hear his feet striking the ground. "Not that it matters. Probably. You have your own life to live. You have the Immortal - or had the Immortal. Maybe that's not still going on, I--" He broke off, for she had begun to speak again, and he wanted to listen to her properly.
"I suppose it doesn't matter," she was saying, although she didn't sound convinced. "Sometimes I wonder if we've got anything to talk about anymore. You went off to Los Angeles, and I met somebody else."
"Yeah. Riley." Angel almost spat the words out. He had never had a very high opinion of Buffy's second lover, although he still wasn't sure how much of that was due to jealousy. Buffy carried on regardless.
"Not exactly living our lives the same way anymore, are we. You were all independent and Mr Private Eye Guy, and I had college and everything, although that didn't exactly last."
"Yeah, about that--"
"Although I got a pretty good job in the end, you know, with the high school counsellor thing, even if it was pretty tough keeping the job going with the First Evil trying to send everybody mad, and popping up all over the place as every dead person I'd ever run into. And what with Spike and all, things didn't exactly go brilliantly for my career."
"Spike." He practically roared that one word. She, of course, didn't hear.
"And then with the entire town disappearing into the Hellmouth that pretty much ended that career anyway." She frowned. "Where was I? Oh. Right. Our lives didn't exactly go in the same direction, did they."
"Not really." He smiled faintly. There had been a time when he had honestly believed that he would end up with Buffy regardless. That the Shanshu prophecy would come through for him, and make him human, and that he would be able to go back to the girl he had forced himself to leave behind for the complexities of life as a vampire. In many ways he had long ago given up the thought of life with Buffy, but he knew that she was still extremely special to him. Extremely special. Enough so that the thought of their divergent lives caused him an unexpected flicker of pain.
"I miss you." She said it quietly, and took him by surprise. "Oh, not all the time. Not like I used to. You practically broke my heart leaving Sunnydale like you did. I thought I'd never understand why you'd gone. Now I love my life. You've no idea how wonderful it is, Angel. Having all the strengths and powers of a Slayer, but none of the pressures anymore. I'm not alone. There's hundreds of us. The fight is being carried on in every continent, just about. We're like this world-wide network, and there's people everywhere who understand me and my calling. Used to be it was just me and Giles. Me and Giles and you, maybe. But I'm seeing the world, now. I'm learning stuff." She grinned, and for a second she looked like a teenager again. "Me. I mean, I hated school. If it hadn't been for Willow I doubt I'd even have passed the easy subjects. And now I go to museums by choice. Dawn dragged me to them at first, but now I go because I want to. Giles is totally gobsmacked. He's starting to wonder if Will didn't spin some kind of a spell when his back was turned. I have a fantastic life, Angel, and I wouldn't want to go back to how it used to be. But I do still miss you, sometimes."
"I miss you, too." It was true enough, even if it was Cordelia who held his heart now. Buffy was in many ways his first love, and first loves, he knew, were always special. There were times when he thought of things that he knew Buffy would find funny; things that even Cordy wouldn't understand. Jokes that he could only have shared with the Slayer; memories that would only mean something to her. Cordelia probably knew him better than anybody, but there were some things that she couldn't appreciate. Not fully.
"I miss Sunnydale sometimes too." She had half turned away, and he followed her as she began to wander off. Wesley was busy, surrounded by a pale blue glow now, his blood red shirt turned a dark, almost Imperial purple by the force of his own magicks. Angel left him to it, and followed Buffy a short way along the road. "Not the deaths, obviously. I mean, going to a school where half of your class wind up dead or undead before graduation isn't much fun. And graduation itself was hardly a world of fun and frolics. But I miss the Bronze. I miss the high school library. I miss my room at the old house, and I miss... I miss my mother's grave." She smiled faintly, and Angel reached out a hand for her shoulder. He couldn't touch her; he might in general be more solid than a ghost, and he might be able to touch things that Wesley just passed through, but to Buffy he was as non-corporeal as the dead Watcher ever was. He watched his hand hovering uselessly in her shoulder-blade, and wished that he was merely a vampire again. He had wanted for so long to leave his undeath behind, and become something better - but now that he had, he knew that he would cast it aside in a moment if it let him comfort Buffy, even for just a second. Her smile became more gentle, though, and she lifted one hand, putting it to her shoulder just as though he could feel his, and was covering it with her own. With her heightened senses, perhaps she was aware of something. He wouldn't have been entirely surprised.
"I miss Sunnydale too," he told her. He missed creeping up to her bedroom window at night; going on patrols with her in the graveyard; visits to the library, and the long discussions there with Rupert Giles. Giles had been almost childishly delighted to meet somebody with such a long memory; who had lived through so much. Angel had lost all of that when he had turned back into Angelus, and had never really won back the Watcher's trust; but the memories remained. Meetings in the library with Buffy, Willow and Xander; illicit encounters in dark alleys, and in the basement apartment where he had lived for so long. Battles - so many battles - on so many atmospheric nights, or in the deserted corridors of the unfortunate, cursed high school. It had been a lot of fun - when the fate of the world hadn't been resting on all of their shoulders. He let his hand fall to his side. "Sometimes I find it hard to believe how much we've seen and done. And I look at you now..."
"I never thought I'd leave Sunnydale." Her own thoughts followed so naturally from his that it was almost as if she had heard him. "I thought I'd end up buried in the graveyard. Remember my first Prom night, and the prophecy that the Master would kill the Slayer? And so many times after that." She smiled suddenly. "Actually I did end up buried in the graveyard, didn't I. So much happened. I never thought I'd get to grow up."
"I never imagined you'd grow so much." He smiled at her the way he had smiled at her so many times before; when she had been able to see him, and to respond in kind.
"I was such a kid when we first met."
"And now you're anything but." It had terrified him once; the idea of her growing older, when he couldn't age at all. Now nothing seemed more natural; more right; than seeing her growing, and changing, and maturing, and becoming the person she deserved to be. He was proud to be here to see it happen. Proud to watch her maturing, and facing up to her new life. So different to the would-be cheerleader, with the wildfire teenage slang, and the obsession with fashion, boyfriends and fun. He remembered the way she had twirled around to show off her newly blue shirt, and smiled faintly. Well, alright. Maybe not everything was different. Like Cordelia, Buffy would probably always have a part of herself that was focused on the shallower things in life. It was what made both of them who they were.
"And now I'm anything but." She frowned slightly, and he could almost believe that she had realised her words had echoed his own. "I wish I could see you, Angel. Just once. I'd say that I'd like to see your smile again, but your glower tends to happen rather more often." She grinned, anticipating his scowl of partial umbrage. "Are you still wearing all that gel in your hair? Can you wear gel in your hair when you're dead? Although you were dead anyway, I suppose. Sort of. So maybe it doesn't make any difference."
"Never mind the gel." One hand went instinctively to his hair, shaped as it had been throughout his involvement with her. Spike always mocked him for it, but the hairstyle remained.
"I always liked your hair." She looked up, although she wasn't looking in quite the right direction. One of her hands reached up, tentatively, passing through his left arm and shoulder, then falling back down to her side.
"Thankyou." He spoke dryly, or as dry as he ever got. For a second a happy silence hung between them, neither of them quite certain whether there was any point in speaking, when no conversation could be two-way. Finally he smiled faintly, and reached out to make a pointless attempt to brush a stray strand of hair from her face. "It's good to be working with you again Buffy. I've watched you fight recently, but it's not the same as actually working with you. Like in the old days." A frown showed on her forehead, as once again it seemed that she was listening to him. She moved closer to him, unconsciously perhaps, or possibly with intent. Again there was that comfortable silence, with both of them unsure what to say, or what, really, they should say. They were acting almost like a couple again, as they so often did when they were together, even though it had been five years now since they had gone their separate ways. Buffy opened her mouth to say something then; a warm half-smile lighting the depths of her eyes, but Wesley's voice stopped her before she could begin.
"Got it!" He had no idea what was happening between them. He wasn't even looking in their direction. The words ended the uncertain moment, though, as neatly as if he had been watching the former lovers with a mind to stopping them when they got too close. Buffy sighed.
"He's still irritating."
"Not really." Angel had to smile, both at Wesley's timing and Buffy's frustration. "I wouldn't be without him. Most of the time."
"Angel!" Running over, eyes bright, Wesley nodded politely at Buffy, then all but shut her out as he turned back to the vampire. "I've got it, or near enough. An abandoned airfield about twenty miles north of here. The picture wasn't all that clear, but I saw enough. Three corrugated iron hangars, and a rusted old cargo plane with only one wing. It shouldn't be that hard to find."
"Nice going, Wes." Angel glanced back at Buffy. They could transport themselves instantly, but she, of course, could do no such thing. "Get up there. Have a look around. I'll stay with Buffy, and then I can home in on you or something."
"I'm not sure it works that way, Angel." Wesley frowned, his eyes flickering over to Buffy for a moment. "And anyway, you can't really give her directions, can you."
"I could drive. Then I don't need to be able to speak to her. She's the only one who can't see me, Wes. I can make myself visible to other people, so it wouldn't look weird to anybody who saw the car - just to her. Ask her. It's the best way, short of getting Cordelia to transport us all up there together, and you know she won't do that. She's not allowed to."
"Not being allowed to never stopped Cordy before." The Watcher sighed. "Yes, alright Angel. It does make a certain sense, I suppose. Buffy is more likely to listen to you than she is to me."
"I can't hear a word he's saying," put in Buffy at that point, beginning to feel left out. "I may want to listen to him more than I want to listen to you, but I can't actually listen to him at all."
"Yes, I know that Buffy. I was being sarcastic." The Watcher looked from her to Angel for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision. "Angel wants me to go ahead to this airfield. I can get there instantly. He'll take you up in a car. It might take you a while to find the place on your own, but he can get Cordelia to point him at me, or something. Probably. Or so he seems to think, anyway."
"And that won't be at all weird." Buffy shook her head. "Whatever. I just want this monster, or Crash, or whatever, stopped."
"Kra'ash," corrected Wesley, unable to resist. "They originate in Tarradon, a hell dimension very similar to Earth. Practitioners in the dark arts have been using them for centuries now, which is playing havoc with their development as a race. Evolutionary speaking they're about on a level with the apes that first began to develop into Homo erectus. An intelligence of a--"
"Okay Wes." Speaking in unison, Angel and Buffy pressed him into silence. Buffy rolled her eyes.
"Watchers. You're all the same, aren't you. Giles, Quentin Travers, whoever. No matter how different you seem, it all comes back to the lectures."
"We're bred for it." He was far too used to the teasing of the rest of Team Angel to be bothered by her comments now. Time apart from the others had thinned his skin to such things, perhaps, but death had healed many wounds. Buffy was still pushing him, gently, in an attempt to see just how much he had changed, and he recognised that. The days when he would have behaved like a child were long gone, though, in the past he had so willingly buried. He looked over to Angel, emphasising his lack of concern at Buffy's jibes by ignoring her completely. "You'll be alright?"
"No problem, Wes." Angel clapped him on the shoulder. "Get going. Look around, but keep your head down."
"Angel..." Wesley had once commanded Angel Investigations, and nowadays the pair of them were forever knocking heads over the issue of seniority. The Watcher might be willing to take orders from the vampire, but he drew the line at commands that stated the obvious. "I'll see you in a bit. Buffy." And with a polite nod her way, he disappeared into thin air. Buffy blinked in faint surprise.
"It cuts down on fuel costs." Angel turned back to her. "Do you have a car?"
"I suppose you'll be wanting a car," she said in reply. He nodded.
"Might be handy."
"It might be handy, after all."
"I have a rented one back at the boarding house where I'm staying. It's not far from here."
"Good." He fell into step beside her as she began to lead the way back to the place where she had been staying. Secretly he was hoping for a convertible. Something powerful, and preferably black, ideally with leather seats and a perhaps fair sprinkling of chrome. Since Buffy had chosen it, he had a nasty suspicion that he was destined for something pink and quirky, with a more efficient in-car sound system than engine. The dark green convertible that awaited them was something of a pleasant surprise.
"The keys are here." She took them from her pocket, and put them down on the car's roof, watching as an unseen hand picked them up. The passenger door opened a second later, and she slid into the seat, nodding her cautious thanks. Moments later the driver's door was opening and closing, but she saw no difference to the seat. The engine started up almost instantly, and she settled back to watch the car appear to operate itself.
"It's been ages since I drove a car." Happy to hear the engine purr, Angel grinned like a child. Buffy smiled over at him.
"I suppose it's been a while since you drove a car?" she asked. He sighed. Suddenly conversation had become somewhat limited.
"Being dead tends to limit the opportunities for such things," he told her, not that there was much point.
"I guess being dead means you don't bother. Instant travel and all."
"Instant travel is no substitute for this." He had always loved to drive. From the very first time he had sat behind the wheel of a car, it had been one of his most favourite things. Even Angelus appreciated it, and he had always seemed immune to most of the things that gave Angel pleasure.
"Seems weird to think of you being dead." For a moment she sounded so very subdued, that Angel felt a flash of concern. He looked over at her, worried, but she smiled suddenly. "But then I guess you always were dead, weren't you. In a manner of speaking."
"Dead in every way." He frowned. "Well. Most ways."
"I just don't like to think of you dying. Facing the end, and not knowing what was coming. I mean, did it hurt? For you, for Spike, for Cordelia? It didn't hurt me, but my death was a little unusual."
"It didn't hurt." He thought about that battle, in the alley near the Wolfram & Hart building. Gunn bleeding to death, Illyria half crazy, Spike fired up with bull-headed determination. He hadn't been remotely afraid, and he had gone out with a sword in his hand and a smile on his face, and the knowledge that he was doing what he had been put upon the Earth to do. One glorious battle to balance out the century of guilt and self-loathing, and the memories of the wastrel he had been before his Becoming. One last fight to prove to himself, to The Powers That Be, and to Wolfram & Hart, that it was always possible to take a stand, and score a victory, however impossible the odds. He would have been proud of that fight even if the result had been his oblivion. Always supposing it was possible to be proud of something then. He glanced over at her. "Don't feel sorry for me Buffy. Don't mourn."
"It's a nice night." Her mind was on other things already; or perhaps she had turned it that way on purpose, to avoid those things that she would rather not imagine. "And I suppose we don't have to worry about it ending, either. Do angels burst into flame when the sun comes up?"
"Not usually, no." They both laughed then, briefly, before she turned her head to stare out of the window, and watch the darkened scenery go by.
"What?" It was an automatic reply, and he had almost forgotten that it was a redundant one. She glanced back at him, or rather at the empty seat that was all that she could see.
"I'm glad you're here. I really have missed you."
"Yeah." He smiled out through the windscreen, staring out into a night that could have belonged to Sunnydale, five years ago. The intervening years seemed to fall away, and it was almost - almost - as though they had never split up. As though they had never moved apart, and found new loves, and learned to live without each other. Almost. But not quite. "I've missed you too, Buffy. Really." And wishing that she could have heard that one sentence, even if she couldn't hear anything else that he said, he turned the car towards the north and followed his instincts. They would lead him to Wesley, at the sorcerer's lair, whilst his head dreamed of other things. Long ago things, in Sunnydale. Long ago things that he had once thought lost to the past.
Wesley materialised in the dark shadow beneath the rusted hulk of an aeroplane. He looked up at it, slumped as it was in its crumbling rest, and offered it a conciliatory pat. He even managed to make contact.
"Apparently it's less interesting being dead if you're an aeroplane," he told it. It didn't bother to reply. Walking through its set of broken wheels, he looked about at the place to which he had come. It was a disused airfield, just as he had told Angel; corrugated iron hangars, cracked tarmac with grass growing up from beneath, windows cracked and dirty. It looked run down and abandoned, which was likely how it was supposed to look, and he was not fool enough to believe just the evidence of his eyes. Snapping his fingers to create a flame to light his way, he left the cover of the aeroplane and headed for the nearest of the hangars. It was empty, its concrete floor bare, and dusty, huge cobwebs hanging from the ceiling like curtains. Wandering through the wall he made a quick circuit of the room, then left for the second hangar. This one was anything but empty.
There was a cauldron in the middle of the floor, set upon a fire that was blazing merrily. Five large black plastic bags stood around it, a congealing puddle of blood splayed out around the opening of one. It didn't take much imagination to work out what was in the bags, and the chalk symbols drawn on the floor beside each one merely served to underline the truth. Cobwebs still hung from the ceiling, and the place still had an air of desolation and decay, but there were footprints in the dust on the floor, and it was clear that the door had been used frequently. Wesley walked in through the wall, bending down to examine the bags as best he could. He didn't want to disturb them and give away the fact of his presence, but he wanted to be sure that they really were what he suspected. Red-brown hair showed at the top of one bag, and a white shoe spotted with blood stuck out of another. Wesley muttered something extremely rude, that was supposed to make one feel better in such situations, but very rarely did.
"You'll get a decent burial," he told the girls, but none of them gave him any answer. Most dead people, of course, were rather more dead than he was. Turning his attention to the cauldron, he tried to calm his anger by working out the details of the spell involved. The contents of the metal pot bubbled in shades of purple, spitting viciously every time the fire sparked and crackled. Purple. He tried to remember if that was likely to be important. Was he dealing with necromancy, or some kind of sacrifice? It was difficult to be entirely sure, and for a moment he considered going back to the hotel to look through his books, but he decided against it. He had enough information stored in his brain to figure this out, he was sure of it; and the hotel wasn't the peaceful place it had once been. Not with Spike hanging around, reading over his shoulder, making lewd comments about some of the illustrations, and happily pointing out the various demons he had encountered over the years. Sometimes the vampire was entertaining. He could even be good company, oddly enough, and his genuine concern for Fred had created a bond between him and Wesley that the Watcher would never have thought likely. When it came to research, though, he was a pain in the neck - all the more so, presumably, when eager for information about Buffy. No. Best to stay here, and try to work it all out himself.
Purple. Why did purple ring such a bell? It wasn't a rare colour in the world of magic and sorcery, but connected with dead bodies it was making unexpected memories connect. The number seven came to mind, along with a book in his father's library that he hadn't been supposed to read. One of the ones that was deemed for fully-fledged Watchers only, back in the days when he was an inquisitive child with an insatiable appetite for books. He had read it anyway of course, on one of his school holidays, when the library was a vast empty place of shadows whilst his father was away. The chalk markings seemed to ring a bell then too, bringing to mind a picture in the same book of an ancient engraving. Symbols carved on a chunk of oak in the middle of an old village green, and a tale of murdered village girls in the fourteenth century. He screwed up his eyes, trying to make everything snap into focus. Seven girls killed at night, and their bodies burned in a cauldron. A half-jumbled story of bright sunlight in the middle of the night, and a man who couldn't be killed. Perhaps it was worth going to his father's library now to check up on the story? He almost gave it serious consideration, but he doubted that it would work. Even if his father didn't have spells set up to prevent the supernatural from gaining access, there was too much of a chance that he would be inside his library when Wesley arrived. That was all that he needed; a confrontation with his least favourite person, and letting his father know that he was dead into the bargain. He could well imagine the insults that would come with that revelation.
"Having a look around?" The voice was calm; unconcerned. Wesley spun around, but there was nobody in sight. The door was still shut, and nothing had disturbed the dust. No recent movements had bothered the motionless cobwebs, and no new shadows marked the floor. He didn't answer the voice. Somehow it made more sense to stay silent, and wait to find out if there was anything else to be said.
"How did you get in?" The voice was still gentle; still unconcerned. "Not that it matters. You won't be leaving." There was a wrinkle in the air, and a head appeared, floating in the middle of the room. A clever spell - Wesley was impressed. There were few enough magicians in the world who practised such illusions. Few who bothered, in the technical age. He didn't recognise the face. Middle-aged; broad and lined; bright, intense eyes. Receding grey hair matched greying skin, giving an over-all impression of a man of strength but failing health. Somebody who was fighting well against disease, but was beginning to lose a battle that had been long and hard.
"Who are you?" Stepping forward, Wesley looked the face dead in the eyes, but met only contempt.
"I rather think that that's my question, don't you? This is my building, and you're the one who's trespassing."
"Yes... but you're the one with five murdered girls in bags, and the beginnings of a very powerful spell that you really shouldn't be spinning." Wesley had once done his best to look strong and powerful when confronting the enemy, but in recent years he had learned not to bother. More had changed than the strength of his sight and the closeness of his shave. He smiled wryly, not losing the glimmer of darkness in his eyes. "There are rules, you know. People whose job it is to stop magic like this from ever being performed."
"Ah." The disembodied head nodded up and down. "So that's why you're here, is it? The Watchers found out what I've been doing?" A dry laugh led into a drier cough. "Last time they took it upon themselves to stop me, they sent twelve of their best men. They must have a lot of faith in you."
"It would be rather nice if they did." He sauntered closer to the head, examining it from all sides. "The Watchers and I shared a mutually low opinion of each other. But then they all died." He hesitated, for technically speaking, since he was now dead himself, he no longer had any particular reason to feel smug about that. "Shame."
"Dead?" The head frowned, then shifted position slightly as though the unseen shoulders had just shrugged. "Oh well. Can't be helped. No doubt I'll eventually get around to sending you to join them. In the meantime..." There was another wrinkle in the air, and metal bars blinked into existence, forming a cage around Wesley. "Just stay there. I have better things to do with my time than worry about intruders." The head flashed him a humourless smile. "Stay out of the way. You can watch later, when I go ahead with the rest of this. Nobody is known to have performed this spell for six hundred years, so you'll be in something of an honoured position; for a few minutes, anyway. Until I kill you."
"Until you kill me." Wesley nodded. "I'm not especially looking forward to being dead."
"Nobody looks forward to death." The head smiled at him, grimly and with a plentiful measure of ice. "Not once they're looking it in the eye. But that's your problem." The smile vanished. "Goodbye."
"Goodbye." Wesley offered the word to empty space, for the face disappeared in the same instant as the smile. Waiting for a second to make sure that it really had gone, the Watcher walked through the metal bars, escaping the conjured cage with predictably little effort. He went back to the cauldron automatically, glancing over it in the hope that he might get some inspiration, but nothing came immediately to mind. He could cool the fire beneath the potion, but that could be undone soon enough. He could remove the bodies, but they could be easily replaced. He could wipe out or alter the chalk symbols, but he doubted that that would really be of any use. There seemed little that he could do, at least for now. Angel would arrive soon enough, and with him Buffy. Then was the time for decisive action; for dealing with the Kra'ash, and preventing any more deaths; and for tackling the owner of the disembodied head. Only then could he really hope to dismantle the magical equipment. For now it made more sense that he should merely look around, and see what else he could discover. With that in mind he left the hangar quickly, and headed for the third one - the one he had not yet investigated.
It was different from the other two; he saw that at once. Here a ramp led up to the door, rather than the cracked and uneven tarmac, and concrete block steps of the first two hangars. The big double doors, once providing access for planes, had been bricked up on the inside; a crack between the doors showed the solidity of the barrier beyond. Wesley looked in through one of the windows, and saw several items of furniture, and symbols painted on the inside of the walls. There was no dust here; no cobwebs. None of the glass in the windows was broken, and unlike the first two hangars, the padlocks and chains that kept the place locked were on the inside, not the outside. This was not the unkempt storage facility that was the second hangar. This was more like home. Wesley walked through the wall into a shadowed area, and took a better look around. There was a desk, a chair, a kitchen area with a microwave and a kettle. There were scratches on the floor, too; claw marks, where the Kra'ash had moved about, and spots of dried blood where drops of the stuff must have dripped from its teeth or its victims. It was not a warm or a welcoming place, but it was unmistakably lived in. A little radio stood in one corner, playing a tinny succession of sixties pop songs. Manfred Mann, Wesley's brain told him. One of his mother's secret pleasures when he was a boy; something that she had listened to quietly, when her husband was out of the way, in place of the relentless, bombastic classical music that he had always preferred. It seemed incongruous. Incongruous and somehow rather grim.
"Well isn't that an annoyance." It was the same voice as before, although this time there was no disembodied head. Wesley couldn't see anybody at all. He turned to face the sound of the voice, but there was nothing but darkness where he thought that it had come from. Shadows that seemed deeper than they had any right to be.
"An annoyance?" He knew exactly what the voice meant, but he wanted to encourage it into greater speech. There might be something to be learnt, or its owner might be coaxed out of the shadows. A low laugh answered him.
"A great annoyance. I left you caged up. You shouldn't have been able to get out."
"Oh. That." Wesley allowed himself a small, faintly self-satisfied smile. "I'm quite the Houdini as it happens."
"So I see." From nearby came the unmistakable sound of an energy crackle, and the scratching of claws on the concrete floor. "But happily even Houdini found that there was something he couldn't escape from."
"A frozen river?"
"Oh." Slowly Wesley turned around. He already knew what he was going to see; the Kra'ash, looming above him with its teeth bared. It sniffed the air and growled in puzzlement, and for the second time in as many minutes, Wesley allowed himself a faintly smug smile. The creature was watching him; able to see him, but not to smell him. Either it didn't understand what he was, or it knew all too well. It took a lumbering step forward, and one large hand groped tentatively at the air. Wesley watched the claws with a certain degree of nervousness. The way that the universe seemed inclined to treat him, he wouldn't have been at all surprised if he had one of his moments of unexpected solidity just before the Kra'ash lashed out with all its force. He took a step back, eyes never leaving the lumbering creature, and as it came for the attack, ducked its first violent blow. It growled at him, angered, and lashed out again, its second hand striking low and with a speed that did not seem at all in keeping with its size. Wesley had no chance to dodge this time, and the huge, clawed hand came straight towards his midriff, passing painlessly and easily through his torso. The Kra'ash roared in fury and confusion, then made another slash at its insubstantial target. The hand sailed through the top of Wesley's head, rushing through his neck and emerging from his chest in a downward sweep that blew papers from the surface of the nearby desk. The Kra'ash screamed allowed in renewed rage, but back-pedalled. There was no fear in its eyes, but by the look of it, it had no wish to continue its assault on this unpredictable opponent. Wesley heard the dry cough that he had heard before, mingled with a laugh that did not seem even slightly touched by humour.
"I confess that was one option I hadn't considered. I've never had a ghost sent against me before. You are a ghost?"
"Seems so." Turning his back on the Kra'ash with a nonchalance that was really rather enjoyable, Wesley switched his attention to the invisible speaker in the dark. "How about introducing yourself?"
"You don't know who I am? And there was I thinking that you'd been sent to stop me. I'm almost insulted."
"Don't be. I'm never given much information to work with. Seems to be some sort of company policy." Wesley took a few steps towards the deep and shifting shadows. "So who are you? You said that you'd encountered the Watchers before. Any particular occasion? Something that I might have heard about?"
"Then you are involved with the Watchers. Or were, I suppose I should say." There was a silence. "Okay then. Suppose we were to have an exchange of identities? You're the trespasser, my very dead friend. Why don't you introduce yourself first?"
"Alright." It seemed fair enough, and at least the owner of the voice was speaking freely now. "My name is Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, and yes, I was involved with the Watchers. I went freelance several years ago."
"You were thrown out, you mean." The voice hinted at mockery, but not in any great amount. "I never heard of a worthwhile Watcher who wasn't. My name is Walsh. Henry Walsh. So does the name ring any bells in that carefully schooled Watcher brain of yours?"
"Henry Walsh?" It did sound familiar, in the way that long-ago-heard names sometimes did. In the same, old, half-known way that the purple liquid in the cauldron had seemed familiar, and had linked itself to a barely-remembered story of dead girls in the fourteenth century. "You were a magician that the Council tried to stop. Thirty or forty years ago I think. They don't talk about it much. I think the files were sealed. Something to do with you having access to spells that the Council wanted buried? My father always had files like that in the house when I was a child. He felt that his library was a better safehouse than anything the Council had."
"Spells that the Council wanted buried." There was bitter humour in the voice now. "Yes, I suppose that is about right. They didn't appreciate my ambition. You've realised what I'm up to by now? Five dead girls waiting to be seven; the contents of the cauldron? A certain spell last performed in an English village in the fourteenth century by a very clever sorcerer wiped out of the history books by your erstwhile colleagues. Not that he didn't take a fair few of them with him, when they finally managed to kill him."
"It was a terrible spell, by all accounts. He wanted power that no human should ever have."
"He wanted to test his abilities, and see if they could bring him just rewards. I worked hard to gain such abilities myself, and thirty-five years ago I set out to test them. The Watchers found out about it, somehow, and they came to stop me. There was a battle. Their magicians were no match for me. Always scared of real magic, the Watchers. But they had a trick up their sleeve. They called in a favour. A little assistance from another dimension. When I tried to spin my spell, there was a clashing of power fields, and a burst of pure magical energy that had no place in this world." A bitter laugh showed a lurking anger. "The Watchers. Defenders of mankind, as they claim to be, risked wiping out half the French countryside in their eagerness to defeat me. Pure chance saved all those civilians, just as it saved me. Not that it left much. Not of me." There was a hiss, as of hydraulics, perhaps, then a figure loomed into view out of the darkness. A twisted, bent figure, who seemed little more than a misshapen torso in a chair. His face was familiar as the face that had appeared in the second hangar, but beyond that there was little enough of him left. One arm gripped a joystick to control his chair, but the other arm was missing. Both legs were gone. Wesley gave an involuntary hiss, that might have been pity, or might have been mere shock.
"Enjoy the sight of your associates' handiwork, Mr Pryce? I can't say that I'm too fond of it. They destroyed my body, and they destroyed what was inside of it. All these years, slowly dying of the injuries they gave me. My lungs will collapse eventually, if something else doesn't give in first. I've been able to keep myself going with my magic, but every year the damage grows greater, and there's less and less for the magic to work on. Every year my ability to patch myself up grows less. So I decided that there was only one thing for it." He smiled. "Try again. Spin the spell again. Make it work this time. I couldn't kill the girls myself this time, so I got a friend to do the job for me. There's so much that I can do though. I thought, if I can stay one step ahead of the Watchers, I might have a chance. But it seems that I wasn't quite careful enough. Still. You won't be giving me any more trouble."
"I can hold my own." Wesley flexed his fingers, well aware that he wouldn't be any match for a magician of so many years experience, but knowing that he could give a good account of himself. He might be a ghost, but he had learned that he could breach the gap between corporeality and non-corporeality when he had to. It was hard, but it was by no means impossible.
"You think so?" Walsh seemed amused. "I'm a magician, my boy. And not a dead one - yet - which gives me certain advantages. Never, ever, tell a powerful magician your name, Mr Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. Names have power. Such power."
"What do you mean?" Suddenly nervous, Wesley felt some very uncomfortable suspicions beginning to lurk within his mind. Walsh smiled.
"Try to dematerialise. Try to transport yourself away. Go on. I insist."
"You can't stop me from being a ghost." Wesley tried to transport himself out of the hangar; to a different part of the room; to anywhere but this little patch of floor in front of Henry Walsh. It was useless. He lifted his hands, ready to send a bold of energy at the other magician, but nothing happened. It was as though he had no power anymore. "What have you done?"
"Nothing much. Nothing permanent. The only way to do that, after all, would be to restore you to life, and I confess that my powers don't extend that far. At least, not without a body to work with." Walsh's chair came closer, bringing the ailing magician to gloat. "All that I've done is trap you here. You still have all your powers, my boy, but you can't use them. A simple trick. Your identity gave me something to home in on, if you want to put it that way. A personally tailored spell. A genetically engineered virus for the supernatural, perhaps. Oh I've no doubt that you'll find a way out of it eventually. I can feel the magic in you, boy. You'll find a way to use it. But until then? Stand there and stew, and stay the hell out of my way. I'm getting what I'm due, and nobody is going to stop me. Certainly not some envoy of the bastards who began all this." He smiled, coldly and thinly, then moved his chair past Wesley and off towards the door. "Enjoy the rest, Mr Pryce. I'll be next door. Just call, if you want anything, but don't expect a quick answer. I'll be busy." He laughed his dry laugh again, broken once more by the coughing that he didn't seem able to control. "I think it's time I sped things up. No more surreptitious kills for my lumbering friend. I should thank you, Mr Pryce. I was going to wait. Be circumspect. Now I won't bother. Thanks to you I'll be performing this spell tonight, for better or for worse. And there'll be two more dead girls by the end of the night." His wheels scratched the floor in tandem with the claws of the Kra'ash. "Do have a nice rest. I hope it won't be too uncomfortable." The door swung open. Wesley heard it, but found that he couldn't turn to watch the magician leave. He merely heard the wheels rolling down the ramp, and the contented grunting of a Kra'ash given leave to go hunting again. Damn it. The creature had to be stopped. He had to get out of here, and find Angel and Buffy. Something had to be done before two more girls were killed. But he couldn't move. Before he had had some movement, even after Walsh's spell had trapped him. Now nothing moved at all. He felt peculiar; weak; uncoordinated. There was a blue glow surrounding him, he realised. A blue glow that made his head spin and his strength fade. He was losing substance. The colour fading from his limbs; the resolution crumbling as he faded from view. Soon all that was left was a faint transparency, and then he couldn't help collapsing to his knees. The room seemed to spin around him. You'll find a way out, Walsh had told him; so there was a way back from this. There was a way to fight it, and regain his form. There had to be. But he couldn't think of one. Couldn't think of anything. Couldn't think at all. As the last of his strength faded, and his vision left him completely, his mind set itself adrift and floated away. There was nothing but blue light then. Soon enough there was nothing at all.
Buffy and Angel arrived at the airfield shortly after Wesley collapsed, their car coming to a jolting halt just out of sight of the buildings. Angel turned off the engine and climbed out of the car, sticking to the trees even though it was well within his powers to be invisible to all onlookers. Buffy hung close by without being remotely aware of it.
"Angel?" she asked eventually. He answered her automatically, then scowled to himself when he remembered that she wouldn't hear. There were times when being a guardian angel really sucked.
"I can't see Wesley," she whispered to him. "Do you suppose he's inside?" She was edging closer to the hangars, and Angel fell into step behind her.
"Yes, probably." Once upon a time the Watcher would have hid outside, lurking, afraid of his own shadow, let alone what he might find inside the buildings. Since his alienation from the rest of the team, after what Angel preferred to think of merely as 'The Connor Incident', he seemed to have lost all fear. Death certainly had brought him no reason to rediscover it. He was a lone wolf, and waiting around outside, longing for Angel to arrive, was definitely not his style.
"I suppose he must have gone in." Oblivious to the answer that her question had just received, Buffy frowned in thought. "One question. If I send you in there to have a look around and see what's going on, how do you report back to me if Wesley isn't around?"
"Good point." Angel glanced skyward. "Any suggestions, Cordelia?" She didn't answer, and he scowled. Either she was choosing to ignore him, or she had wandered off to play Scrabble with Spike. It had become quite a passion between the two of them, and made her annoyingly unavailable from time to time.
"You're invisible. It's stupid not to take advantage of that." Buffy scowled, thinking hard. "Okay. Get over there, and make sure you can't be seen. If the coast is clear, call me over by waving something. That'll work, right? I should still be able to see something that you're holding?"
"I suppose." Plans floated into his mind at this suggestion. Might Buffy understand semaphore? Morse code? Couldn't he communicate with her by writing on a piece of paper? But there was no time to try it out now. Buffy dug around in her pockets and came up empty, then checked the car and found one of Dawn's old hair ribbons and a battered sun hat. Angel took the ribbon.
"I'll wave it high in the air," he told her, uselessly, then stuffed it into his pocket and took off for the hangars. He took his time, hiding for a moment in the rusted hulk of the one-winged aeroplane, just as Wesley had done before. It was unnecessary, for nobody would be able to see him, but to walk brazenly into the lion's den seemed foolhardy nonetheless. Keeping low, running as fast and as quietly as he could, he headed for the first of the hangars. It was empty, just as it had been when Wesley had first peered inside. In the second he saw the bags, and the symbols, and the cauldron on its crackling fire, but he didn't enter the room. This was proof that they had indeed come to the right place, but since he could see no sign of Wesley he didn't stop. Instead he went on to the third hangar, and peered through its windows with the same caution he had used in the days when he was still as visible as any regular inhabitant of planet Earth. He saw the desk, the claw marks; the general signs of habitation - and he saw the blue light that glowed around a slumped, indistinct, form. Almost forgetting to wave to Buffy with the hair ribbon, he broke open the padlock that kept the place closed, then heaved open the door. Wesley didn't move.
"Angel?" Buffy was beside him already; he had almost forgotten her remarkable speed. She didn't stay at his side for long, though. Not knowing where he was; not seeing his position from the ribbon crumpled in his hand; she ran straight through him, heading for Wesley. Angel followed her, an uneasy feeling in his stomach.
"Wes?" He crouched down beside his friend, next to Buffy who was doing the same thing. The ghost was all but transparent; a faint outline without colour, highlighted in the unnatural blue that surrounded him. He was lying on his back, so indistinct that it was hard to see whether his eyes were open or closed, and he didn't seem to be moving at all. "Wes?"
"Hey, Wesley. Come on, wake up." Buffy spoke far less gently, which Angel was inclined to think was probably a good thing. Wesley was not known for responding to kindness. Less of a good idea, though, was her attempt to shake the slumped form. "Wesley!"
"Come on, Wes." Angel leaned over the seemingly comatose ghost, but found that even he could not make contact. His hands passed straight through the transparent form, encountering only hard concrete beneath. "Damn it!"
"Angel?" The voice was weak, painfully so, but it seemed that some colour returned to Wesley's lips as he spoke. Faintly the pale head moved. "Buffy?"
"I guess there are drawbacks to being a ghost, huh." Buffy eyed the indistinct figure somewhat critically. "No offence, Wes, but you look awful."
"Walsh." Faint eyelashes fluttered, and beneath them a pair of surprisingly blue eyes gleamed suddenly into focus. "Henry Walsh. Angel, he's performing terrible magic."
"Yeah, we guessed that much. I saw his cauldron. I'll break in there, and empty it. Might help."
"It won't." Wesley's already vague form fluttered in an and out of focus, and he tried to sit up. "Can't fight it with brute force. Magic... fights magic."
"You know some kind of counter-spell?"
"I don't... Maybe." He drew in a deep, shuddering, and large unnecessary breath. "Angel... the Kra'ash. It's gone to kill another couple of girls. Walsh... I scared him. He wants to finish this quickly."
"That monster - don't dare correct me - has gone to kill another couple of girls?" Buffy was on her feet in an instant. "You know where it's gone?"
"No. I can..." He struggled again to sit up, fighting desperately against the blue light that seemed to be draining his strength. "I can find him. I did before."
"Don't get me wrong, Wes, but you don't look up to doing any of that." Buffy brushed the hair out of her eyes. "What happened?"
"Walsh got a little pissed off. I think." Finally making it to a sitting position, the weakened ghost stared up into the pillar of blue light holding him in place. "It's just magic, Buffy. I can do it."
"Yeah, sure Wes. Tonight? Tomorrow? Because there's another couple of girls who don't have that long. I have to find that creature, and I have to do it now."
"You'll never find it alone, Buffy." Angel looked back to Wesley. "She needs you."
"I know that!" Sounding angry for a second, Wesley glared at his friend. "I have to get out of here. He said there was a way, but I couldn't hold out."
"You think there's anything we can do?" Angel had never been much of one for magic, but he wanted to do what he could do help. Wesley shook his head.
"Not really. Just keep talking, the pair of you. When you came, it gave me something to focus on. Before, it was like everything was fading away."
"You know how much time we have? What's to stop this Walsh guy coming in here right now?" Buffy stood up to look out of the nearest window. "The place looks deserted. Did he go with his pet?"
"I don't know. I think he must have another place... another place around here somewhere. There are supplies he'll need for the spell that I haven't seen. Maybe a... a cellar?"
"Always possible." Angel made another attempt to touch Wesley, but failed. "Wes, this doesn't look good. Are you sure you can break out of here? If not, maybe Buffy should get back to town and see if she can find the Kra'ash with her own powers."
"It might not have gone back to town. There are other places where it can get what it needs. We can't risk wasting time losing her to some wild goose chase."
"Cordelia then. Maybe she can find the Kra'ash, and send Buffy to it."
"Cordelia can't transport people all over the countryside. She only has powers over us. Or... or I don't know. It's complicated, and The Powers change the rules, but... Angel, you know this." With a supreme effort, Wesley managed to get to his feet. Some colour faded back into his body, but he still looked considerably less substantial than he should have done. "Buffy..."
"What?" Rejoining them, she looked him up and down. "Boy, see-through is so not the colour for this season."
"I'll remember to take that up with my tailor." He wobbled dangerously, but instead of falling over, he vanished completely for several seconds. "Okay. Remind me not to do that again."
"What the hell was that?" Buffy circled him, apparently looking for further signs of vanishing. Wesley shook his head.
"Not entirely sure. But not good. All black, forever. Angel?"
"I'm here." Angel clapped him on the shoulder, or would have done had he been able to. Wesley seemed to appreciate the gesture anyway.
"If I disappear permanently, you and Buffy split up and go after the Kra'ash. Walsh can't kill the girls on his own, or at least not without a whole lot of effort. Deal with the Kra'ash first. Then, to end this... the cauldron..."
"Wes, you're not going to disappear." Not caring that she was interrupting a private conversation, Buffy came back around in front of the flickering ghost. "You do and we're screwed, from what I can see. You said only magic could stop Walsh. Well I'm not magician. Only witch I know - only witch I trust, anyway, is in Rio right now, busy fighting an outbreak of... I want to say... Kebab demons?"
"Kabobs? Nasty." For a second a pale shade of real colour flashed through Wesley's frame, the suggestion of indispensability dragging him back to himself. "Three feet tall, but they travel in packs. They can be lethal."
"Lectures. You see what I mean?" Buffy shook her head, her exasperation half joking and half real. "Wes, time's ticking by. Just get yourself out of there. You figured out how?"
"Back door." He closed his eyes. "I saw it just then."
"When you disappeared?" Angel didn't like the sound of that. "What was that?"
"Standing up exhausted me. I lost the fight. Got dragged out of myself. Oblivion or freedom, Angel."
"It's the only way, at least for now. We don't have time to approach this... more logically. I'm weak. There's just nothing left to hold onto. I have to try this, or stay here forever, fading in and out."
"You're dead. Staying here can't hurt you."
"It might do. Angel, I have to find that Kra'ash, and the only way I can do that is to get out of here."
"You're talking about walking straight into oblivion, and hoping that you can find the way out!"
"Which is nothing you woudln't tried yourself."
"Wesley..." Angel looked over at Buffy, listening to one side of the argument with a frown on her face. "Tell him!"
"I can find my way back, Angel. Magic leaves trails, and if you know what you're doing you can follow them. I can be my own beacon." He smiled faintly. "It has to be better than staying here. I feel... it's like having Asian flu. With interest."
"Am I following this right?" Buffy often feigned an inability to understand what was going on, but in this instance, when she had only half the information, she really did feel out of her depth. "You overtaxed yourself, and it made you... what? Cease to exist? And now you're saying that the best way to break out of this... force-field thingy... is to cease to exist on purpose and hope that it won't be permanent?"
"Um..." Rather nonplussed by her summing up of the situation, Wesley nodded slowly. "I think so."
"It is," Angel told her. Wesley looked from one to the other of them, then shrugged.
"We don't have any choice. Just stay here. Be here. It might help."
"Wes..." Angel wasn't sure what to say. He had tried to kill the Englishman himself - had truly wanted him dead. Had fought with him, argued with him, been infuriated by him, and had mourned him, briefly, before death had claimed him too. Goodness knew their relationship had been complicated, and difficult, and highly unconventional. It was one of the strangest relationships of his long and strange life - but it was also one of the best. Wesley would never understand that, though. Angel didn't think that the Watcher would ever fully appreciate that he was worth something to his colleagues. It simply wasn't in his psychological make up to think that way.
"It'll be alright, Angel." The ghost's smile didn't reach his eyes. He had that strange, distant look about him that he had always seemed to possess. He was thinking in terms of the job, Angel knew; as though that was what was the issue here, rather than his own safety. They both smiled rather flatly then. A second later Wesley was gone.
"You think this'll work?" asked Buffy. The column of blue light vanished, and Angel shook his head.
"Who knows?" He stared at the space before him, where Wesley had been just a second before. "Who knows."
Wesley Wyndam-Pryce knew darkness. He had been in darker places, and seen darker things, that most people knew even in their deepest nightmares. Darkness was his life. In the last few years he had been to places inside himself that had never known the light. Places of despair, misery, loneliness and pain, that marked the lowest points to which most men could fall. When Fred had died he had not believed that the world could ever grow darker than it had been for him then; that nothing could be more empty, more terrible, than his own mind and heart. Now, alone in the void to which he had voluntarily consigned himself, he had discovered that this was not true. This was true darkness. True, eternal, night.
Was this true death? It made a certain sense. He had heard the tale of Buffy's fluffy white place, and Angel's story of hell, but was this some other place? Some other destination for the dead? The inner circle of hell, or a purgatory to which those were sent who deserved neither heaven nor hell? Some place where the forgotten went - those that The Powers, or even God Himself, cared nothing for? He could see nothing in any direction; could hear nothing. It was a place of utter impenetrability, utter silence, utter loneliness. Just blackness. Blackness forever.
"Cordelia?" She might still be with him, somewhere. There was no answer though. She might leave him to make his own way on Earth; to fight his own battles and make his own mistakes; but if she knew that he was here, and if she could help him, he knew that she would not leave him alone. She was not here. He wandered forward, wondering how it might feel to spend an eternity in this place; to have to stay here, as he would undoubtedly have had to stay had The Powers, and Cordelia, not chosen to drag him back to the world to continue his old work. The idea of staying here forever made his head spin, but there was no sense in dwelling upon it. If this was where his soul had come to escape Walsh's trap, it made sense, in a way, that this was where it had naturally been drawn; that this was, therefore, where it naturally belonged. He must have been judged at some point, and been found to deserve such a fate. This was his world then; this was his ultimate destination. All the years on the Earth had led him to this. To darkness, such as no other had ever seen.
He tried walking. Tried walking one way and then another; tried running. He tried shouting, tried feeling for walls and a floor or a roof above his head. There was nothing. Nothing solid anywhere. Nothing real. It was like standing on the brink of insanity. An insanity that was all too familiar.
Fred's death; hours shut up in his office trying to understand the enigma that was Illyria; struggling to come to terms with the way that his world had changed; fighting to uncover the secrets of Illyria's nature, and world, and powers. Gradual, creeping madness that everybody had seen save himself; the world seen through the bottom of a bottle of whisky; nights seeking fights in dark alleys with monsters, vampires and even humans, all because he no longer knew if he wanted to carry on living. Darkness, in everything. A terrible ice that had chilled everything. No longer believing that there was any good in his own life; only in others. He hadn't thought twice about giving up his own life to make that last strike against evil; that last blow for all that was good and right in the world - but it had been a blow for the good of others, not for himself. It wasn't his world that he had been trying to save. He saw all of that now in a tumult of misery and pain such as he hadn't felt since his last days of life. So this was hell. This was his hell. This was where he belonged.
Except that it wasn't. Cordelia had shown him that, when she had dragged him back from the brink, and deposited him in the foyer of the hotel, with a sarcastic jibe about his clumsiness in getting killed. She had told him that there were things he could be doing; that he should be doing. Things that he must do, not only because the world needed him, but also because he needed him. He needed to claw his way back, and he needed to learn that all was not darkness. Even in this place; even in this world of emptiness and dismay, all could not be darkness. There was a door here. He remembered now. A door that led back to Angel and Buffy, waiting for him. Needing him. Two girls who were going to die, who were also waiting for him. Also needing him. A spell that only he could stop. Purpose. Focus. Reason. Light. And there it was, glowing faintly above him, just where it should always have been. The light that always lived even in the darkest places, if one only knew where to look. The light that had been given back to him now, in the shape of friendships regained, and comradeship restored. The light that was Angel, Cordy, Spike and Gunn. The reason why he had left that creeping insanity behind, in this place, when Cordelia had brought him back to the world.
He was moving. He didn't notice it at first, but he was moving towards the light. Upwards, forwards, left, right, there was no way of knowing. There was no direction here, only darkness and light, and a despair that was gradually giving way to hope. New hopes. A love for life that had come, ironically, only after death. All manner of new things. He lifted his head, looking now straight into the light, and seeing the world beyond it. Angel and Buffy in the hangar, waiting for him to come back to them. He didn't even notice when he crashed to earth beside them striking with unexpected force against the concrete floor. He didn't notice the pair of them, crouching over him, trying to make themselves heard above the volume of his own muttering. Only realised later that he was muttering in Latin, alternately shouting and whispering spells to create doors, whilst shouting his defiance at the world that had tried to suck him in. He gasped.
"And yay for the return of English." Buffy sat back on her heels. "How are you?"
"Still dead." He sat up rather groggily. "Which really should be helping to prevent this headache."
"I don't remember headaches when I was dead." Buffy shrugged. "But then I went to heaven. I was a good girl."
"I wasn't." He smiled, turning his eyes at last to look at Angel. Was that relief he saw in the vampire's eyes? Was that a smile that was so faintly colouring the usually so impassive face? He chose to decide that it was, and smiled back. Angel grinned.
"You really had me worried for a moment there." He reached out with one large hand, and hauled Wesley to his feet. "Where did you go?"
"Back where I came from." He straightened his clothing automatically. "And now I suppose I'd better find that Kra'ash."
"You really have changed." Buffy offered him a smile that was very much more pleasant than any she had bothered to send his way in the past. "No wonder Faith speaks so highly of you these days. I thought she was just being sarcastic."
"She is known for it." Wesley drew in a deep breath. "Alright, I've done this once, so maybe it won't be so difficult this time. Take a look around would you Angel? See if Walsh is anywhere nearby."
"Good idea." With a bittersweet little smile in Buffy's direction, the vampire disappeared. Wesley looked over at Buffy.
"I hope your car is good at high speeds."
"It's Italian. I don't think it functions under sixty miles an hour." She smiled again, rather more awkwardly this time. "Should I be apologising? Or something?"
"No." He smiled very faintly, and very ruefully. "I made a career out of being a jerk, Buffy. Fortunately there's something about Angel that rather tends to rub off. Anyway. I have to get to work." He turned away, already beginning the chanting that she had heard him use before, back in the town. It was fascinating to watch, just as it was fascinating to watch Willow at work; to see the lights and feel the power. With her own supernatural abilities, Buffy was much more sensitive to such things than ordinary people, and she could feel the frisson in the air that meant magic. Magic flowing, magic growing, magic being shaped by somebody who knew what they were doing. She watched him turn blue; watched lightning appear to crackle across his body. For a second he was transparent, and she could see right through him to the door and the dark airfield beyond; then slowly the lights faded, and the chanting stopped.
"Did it work?" she asked, with predictable lack of patience. He nodded, somewhat breathlessly.
"Quicker than last time, too. I must be making progress."
"Still not easy making magic when you're dead?"
"That's an understatement." He breathed out a long sigh. "You know, it's remarkable how exhausting all of this is. You'd think that death would leave one tireless, but it doesn't. Or not in my case, anyway. Needless to say Angel is still as resilient as ever."
"Um... possibly." He rubbed his eyes. "Alright. The Kra'ash is at a farm, to the east of the town we just left. There are no women there, and he needs women. Young women. He must be there for a reason though. This thing can home in on prey like a shark homing in on a source of blood."
"The ladies of the house coming home from a night out?" Buffy shrugged. "Can you be any more specific about direction?"
"Main road. Then a track. Big red tractor, three elm trees." He rubbed his eyes again. "Be careful Buffy. It's probably no stronger than the creatures you've fought in the past, but don't forget that it does have intelligence. Treat it like one of the more cunning vampires, otherwise it might get the best of you."
"Will do." She nodded her thanks. "I'll be seeing you."
"Sooner rather than later, I hope. A Slayer might be a handy thing to have around if Walsh gets frisky."
"You'll do alright. You and Angel." She flashed him a brief smile. "So long."
"Good luck, Buffy." He watched her race off, admiring her easy speed. Seconds later her car engine roared into life, and he saw a flash of the headlights as the car sped away. Angel rematerialised shortly after, looking curious.
"Buffy gone?" he asked. Wesley nodded.
"I don't think she needs your help to deal with the Kra'ash. I need you here."
"Fine by me. I guess." Angel's eyes strayed to the disappearing gleam of the headlights, visible for a brief moment through one of the windows. "Though you're really nowhere near as pretty as Buffy. Sorry."
"Yes. Well I shall try to make up for my deficiencies in other ways." With a dry smile, Wesley headed for the door. "Did you find Walsh?"
"Bloke in a wheelchair? Looks like he was on the wrong end of a nuclear explosion? Yes. He's in a basement underneath the first hangar. Looks like it might have been an air raid shelter once. He's got a lot of equipment down there."
"I'm not surprised. The sort of magic he's into calls for a lot of preparation. A lot of equipment, books, ingredients. It's by no means your average 'bit of chanting and a wave of the hand' stuff."
"You know what he's after?"
"Not entirely. Just that the spell he plans to cast is a powerful one. I only know of it being performed once before, in a little English village in the fourteenth century. The man behind it all was rumoured to have been made immortal, or to have gained some impressive degree of invincibility. There are stories of the night being turned as bright as day, and of fire in the skies that could be seen many miles away. The man fell foul of the Watcher Council, who tried to have him killed. All of the agents that they sent against him failed. Most died, several vanished without trace. I forget how they dealt with him in the end."
"Yes. Sorry. If we can stop Walsh before he gets as far as casting the spell, though, it shouldn't matter." He stifled a yawn, exhausted by the various trials of the day. "If the worst comes to the worst, I'd hope to be able to find the details somewhere. I know my father has certain books about the incident. Old forbidden stuff copied from the Council library. I'd bet that Rupert Giles or one of his dubious contacts knows how to get hold of information in that line, too."
"Copies of forbidden texts? Because that's not at all reckless. Did the Council make a habit of keeping lots of copies of that kind of thing?"
"Not officially, no. It would never have been allowed. Unofficially, though, yes they did. My father took the originals of a lot of books and papers because he didn't trust the Council vaults. With good reason, given that he was far from the only person taking things from it. Others things that he wanted he had to make copies of, as the originals were too well protected. I remember once, shortly before I took up my post in Sunnydale, there was an incident in Spain. The team sent to deal with it requested one of the old forbidden books - a diary of a Watcher in the seventeenth century who was corrupted. Only problem was, nobody could find the damn thing. Turned out it had been destroyed in 1963, as its contents was considered too dangerous ever to be read. The records department made an unofficial plea to various senior staff, and found eight copies in private hands. A couple were copies that had been made back in the seventeenth century not long after the diary was actually written. The newest was made in 1963, probably by the man who had been detailed to destroy the book. If any Watcher ever tells you that he owns the only copy of something, don't believe him. Even if he thinks he's telling the truth, he probably won't be."
"I'm not sure whether that's reassuring or just plain frightening." Angel smiled. "Come on. If you're up to it, we have a plan to sabotage and a magician to fight."
"All in a day's work." Wesley nodded. "I'm ready. I just have to tell myself that I'm dead so I can't really be tired."
"Doesn't work, does it. I got back to the hotel a couple of days ago and found Gunn fast asleep in one of the chairs. He wouldn't believe that ghosts aren't supposed to need sleep."
"I think I sleep better now than I did when I was alive." Wesley led the way to the door, although he walked through the wall beside it, rather than using the door itself, so that he could continue to walk beside Angel. The vampire shot him a speculative stare.
"Did you sleep at all those last few days?"
"Few days, few weeks. I don't know. The only time I seemed to close my eyes was when I'd drunk so much I couldn't keep them open anymore." He looked towards the second hangar as they neared it. "How do you want to do this? Walsh first?"
"First? If we deal with him we won't need to do anything with that cauldron, will we?"
"It'll have to be neutralised. It has a power of a sort, so it can't just be left here."
"Then we can deal with it later. Walsh comes first. He looks like one good punch would finish him off, but it's not going to be that simple, is it."
"No. He's a very powerful man, and he has remarkable abilities. He must have been practising the arts for most of his life."
"I could stake him."
"And I could blast him with energy bolts or cut his head off with my sword - if it's having one of its corporeal days. I'm just not sure that either of us will get the chance. Like I said; he's a powerful man."
"Maybe. Not going to find out wandering around out here, though, are we." The vampire smiled a crooked smile. "Ready?"
"Probably not, no." Wesley returned the smile, rueful, tired, but determined. "For all we know, he's ready for us. He could know that we're coming."
"Can't kill us."
"No." Angel's comment won a real smile; one of the big, oddly innocent smiles of the kind that Wesley had not used in a long time. "No, he can't. I'm not going to feel guilty about the unfair advantage, though."
"You still think he can wipe the floor with us, don't you."
"Yes." Wesley nodded, with some considerable force. "Oh yes."
"Fair enough." His companion clapped him on the shoulder. "Come on then." And with a shared smile, as one, they disappeared.
The Kra'ash liked farms. It had come to that decision soon after arriving on Earth, and discovering the wonder that was sheep. They were just the right size for a meal, they came with a pleasant tasting woollen covering, and their hooves tingled nicely on the way down. It liked to visit the local farms every so often to sample the accumulated livestock, and cast longing glances at the humans that lived nearby. Walsh's instructions had been clear - no killing of humans except to fulfil the requirements of the spell - and every night he sent the Kra'ash to the town to find his victims. The Kra'ash was always obedient, and so every night it went to the town rather than to the farms that it loved, and every night the rural women, who looked so much more tasty to its hunter's eye, went unharmed. It gazed adoringly at them when it visited to steal their sheep, and they never knew how close they were to death. This time, though, there had been no instructions as to where to go to make the kills. Walsh had merely ordered his servant to get two girls quickly, and that had been all, so the Kra'ash had known straight away to where it would go. It stood now on the hillside above its favourite farm - the one with the biggest, plumpest sheep, and the most plentiful supply of the squawky little chickens with their tasty feather coats. Two human males were playing in the yard outside the farmhouse; miniature humans - juveniles, presumably - with coverings of the same woollen material as the sheep. The Kra'ash liked wool, but it didn't think that the miniature human males looked nearly as tasty as their four legged, hoofed livestock. It growled to itself, and wondered where the womenfolk were. They were usually there, feeding the chickens, thoughtfully filling them up with the golden corn that made such a satisfying garnish to the mind of the hungry Kra'ash. It was angry that they weren't here, because if they didn't show up soon it would have to go somewhere else. Time was too short to waste in waiting for them to arrive. It had so wanted the chance to find out what they tasted like, and if these were to be its last two victims, this would be its last such chance. It sniffed the air, and chewed thoughtfully upon a gorse bush, then went to chase the fish in the nearby river. It didn't understand the fish, for they seemed to make no sound, and they lived in the wet stuff it had come to know as water. The Kra'ash came from a world with no water, and the wetness of it was fascinating. It splashed happily at the fish for some minutes before it became aware, faintly, of an approaching noise. An engine, it thought. One of the noisy metal things that propelled human vehicles about the countryside. It wondered if the engine might be bringing the missing farm girls back from wherever they had gone, but when it padded back up the hillside towards the road, it saw that the car contained only one woman; and it was not one of those from the farm. It growled its disappointment. Time was running out; it had to get two girls sooner rather than later. Perhaps it had better grab this one now, and hope for the chance to get one of the farm girls later. One was better than none, after all. Grudgingly admitting this to itself, it watched as the noisy vehicle brought its obliging cargo closer and closer. It could see blonde hair now, which was something of a disappointment. Brunettes tasted better, in its opinion; the ones with light to middle brown hair, and preferably light brown eyes to match. Blondes didn't have nearly so much flavour, even when they were thoughtful enough to wrap themselves up in coverings of tasty wool.
Buffy saw the Kra'ash when she drew the car to a halt. It wasn't easy to hide yourself when you were seven feet tall, even when night still had a grip on the world. She feigned nonchalance though, hoping that the creature wouldn't realise it had been spotted. When Wesley had first told her of the creature's intelligence she hadn't paid much attention, but since then she had come to see him in a new light - and therefore had much more respect for his advice. If the Kra'ash was intelligent, at least to a degree, then it made sense to be that little bit more careful. Treat it like a vampire, he had suggested. One of the more cunning ones. Something a little more capable than the brainless, foot soldier type she tackled easily almost every night, that never posed much of a challenge to somebody with her strength and speed. It seemed unfair that something so large and strong should be allowed to have intelligence too, but she told herself that she could handle this. She always handled these things. She was the Slayer - it was the bad guy. That meant that she would kill it, to prevent it from killing anybody else. It was the way it had to be.
Climbing out of the car, she checked her weapons as surreptitiously as possible, then rolled her shoulders round to be sure that even the short drive from the airfield hadn't left her muscles too stiff. As Xander liked to point out at every available opportunity, she wasn't as young as she used to be. The thought made her smile, for she was not remotely bothered by any signs of ageing, and such comments were typical of Xander. Behind her she heard the faint rustling that told her she was being approached. A normal human would probably not have heard the scratch of claws on grass, but her senses were sharper than most. Surprised by the lack of noise made by such a big creature, she manoeuvred herself about until she could keep one eye on one of the wing mirrors of her car, watching the Kra'ash as it edged closer to her. It moved well, she had to admit that; the grace of a ballet dancer seemed to control the chunky body and the rippling muscle. She had her first close up view of the claws and the teeth, and let one hand tighten, briefly, on the handle of the long knife that she wore strapped to one leg. She had seen bigger teeth, bigger claws, bigger muscles, but one of the first lessons Giles had ever taught her was not to be complacent. She hadn't often listened, especially in those days, but it was a lesson she had learnt anyway. As the creature rushed at her, beginning to speed up, she moved away from the car to give herself more room to move. She could no longer see it, but she could hear it, and her hearing was more than early warning enough.
The Kra'ash suspected nothing. All it saw was a small blonde human woman, young enough to qualify as one of Walsh's sacrifices, moving casually away from her car. She didn't seem to have heard it, or seen it; she didn't scream, as the humans who saw him usually did. She made no sudden movements. Flexing its claws it reached out for her as it ran, already anticipating the kill; the taste of the blood; the satisfying sound of the crunch as it bit into her neck. With excitement adding to its speed, it lashed out, its yellowed claws gouging at the air - and with easy speed Buffy threw herself forward, going into a dive roll that carried her out of the creature's reach even before it had realised she had moved. It growled in a rage, turning with remarkable manoeuvrability to make another grab for her, and this time she didn't dodge aside. As it came she drew the long knife strapped to her leg, the blade glinting wickedly in the light of the half moon. The Kra'ash growled, and its eyes showed its fury as it came for her. It feinted to the left and she almost fell for the move, remembering just in time that she was not dealing with a mere monster. Making her own feint, to convince it that she had fallen for its move, she dodged aside just as it did the same thing, stabbing upwards with her knife to graze her opponent's suddenly unprotected flank. She barely scratched its skin, but it growled anyway, lashing out in an attempt to disarm her. She moved with the blow, hurling herself backwards in a flip that took her neatly out of its range whilst still allowing her to keep hold of her weapon. The Kra'ash came again, roaring now, the volume proving the extent of its rage. Buffy dodged around it, executing a text book cartwheel that took her around behind the beast far too quickly for it to be able to respond it time. She hit it with the point of the knife, roughly where its kidneys would have been had it been human, then stabbing again at one of its shoulders. It roared, swinging around with its arms outstretched, knocking the knife from her hand before she could recover herself. A pair of powerful knuckles scraped at her arm, throwing her off balance, and she had to fight to stay upright. She dodged; the Kra'ash did the same. She lunged; so did the Kra'ash. It was copying her every movement, staying with her to prevent her from recovering the knife. She was impressed; she couldn't fail to be. It learnt quickly, and its surprise at her readiness and her abilities had soon worn off. It almost seemed to be wearing a cruel, lop-sided smile when it came for her now. Its eyes gleamed, hot and bright and oddly calculating. She knew that it was trying to second-guess her next movement, running her previous actions through its mind in an attempt to predict what she would do next. Clever. Far too clever for her liking. Buffy preferred her clawed, fanged beasts to be the essentially brainless type, that relied on pure instinct and couldn't think for themselves. This Kra'ash, though; this was something different. This thing was definitely more than just a monster.
She let it come for her in the end; let it think that it was getting its way. It took effort to trip up on purpose without it looking too fake, but she managed it, lying on her back on the faintly damp ground as the creature came for her. She could smell its breath as it came; watched its ugly face loom up in her vision. It was big, it was strong; she knew all that as she had known it all along. Pretending to be half stunned, she lay as she had fallen, and only when it grabbed her ankle did she move, rolling to one side, using its grip upon her leg as leverage with which to spin her body around and lash out with the other leg. Her foot caught the Kra'ash on the side of the head, and with a yell it released her. She rolled over, onto its back, drawing out her faithful stake and sinking it up to half its length in the creature's neck. It roared and flung her off, watching with cold eyes as she flew through the air and crashed to the ground nearby. Her head struck something hard and sharp and she winced, but knew that she couldn't let it stop her. If she did then she would die, and so would at least one other girl. Then Walsh might well triumph, and who knew what would happen then? No; she could not have the luxury of even a moment's weakness. She was the Slayer. She couldn't let the bad guys win.
She was on her feet almost before she knew it, dodging two swiping blows that made her hair blow in the breeze of their passing. The Kra'ash yelped in surprise, but recovered quickly, compensating for her changed position and anticipating that she would move again. She was ready for it though, and as it came for her, she came for it, meeting it headlong. It was expecting trickery; more feinting; more dodging; and the straightforwardness of her attack confounded it. She had stabbed it in the arm pit with her stake before it had had a chance to react, and as it swiped desperately at her, she threw herself into a double flip that carried her over to where the knife had fallen. She heard the creature roar, and turned to meet it again, dropping low, rolling aside. One of its feet kicked up, catching her by surprise, for she had been concentrating too hard on watching its arms to remember about its feet as well. A set of claws caught her in the stomach, but she was still rolling and the blow was weakened by her movement away from it. All the same, two of the claws slashed at her shirt, and she felt the skin break beneath. Furious, she stabbed upwards with the knife even as her hands were closing about it; stabbing up, lashing out, slashing backwards and forwards and downwards and flipping up onto her feet all in the same inhumanly fast series of movements. The Kra'ash stumbled backwards, slipping and sliding in shock, and she followed it as fast as she could, keeping up the initiative with a series of further swipes and stabs and slashes that all struck home. She saw blood blossom out of the creature's chest, but she kept up the pressure. There was no sense in slackening up now. It was still hitting out at her, and several times its weakening arms hit her. Once she felt her own blood run; felt the sharp pain of claws biting deeply into her skin. She didn't let it stop her; she couldn't. Her blood was up; her mind was focused; her adrenalin was powering her onward. With all the strength she possessed, she redoubled her efforts and went for the creature again; and with a last jumbled tangle of roars, gasps and growls, it slid to the ground. She didn't let up. Stabbing it through the head, she drew back to deliver a powerful blow that severed its neck at the base. Dark blood poured onto the ground, splattering the trees and the earth as well as her shoes. She scowled at that, but consoled herself with thoughts of the wipes that she carried in her car. An emergency stain prevention kit, for the avoidance of permanent damage to her clothing. She might be the Slayer, but there was no reason why all of her clothes should bear the marks of battle. Superheroes had a right to look sharp too.
She didn't have time to bury the body of the Kra'ash, for she wanted to get back to the airfield, so throwing it into the back of her car, stuffing its extremities into position so that she could shut the doors, she kicked earth over the bloodstains on the ground and then climbed behind the wheel once again. She hadn't been gone long - she didn't think that she had been gone long. There was still Walsh to defeat though - the unknown sorcerer who had been the cause of all of this. She wondered if Angel and Wesley had dealt with him already. Was the mission already completed? Was the danger over? She would find out soon enough, she supposed. And switching on the engine, she turned the car back towards the road. One down, she thought with satisfaction. And that left one to go.
The cellar beneath the hangar was a dark place, lit by a single caged light bulb hanging from a long wire. There were boxes piled against the walls, and jars and bottles lined up in coloured rows. Wesley's practised eye identified many of the liquids and powders that they contained, as well as recognising their many uses. Henry Walsh, as if further evidence were necessary, was clearly a serious practitioner of the magical arts.
"I was hoping that you wouldn't escape. Or at the very least that you wouldn't escape for another couple of hours." The voice came from further down the room, where Walsh was just visible amidst the gloom. "You people never play by my rules."
"Sorry to disappoint." Wesley took a few steps towards him, trying to work out what he was doing. Walsh might appear to be quite severely disabled, but with his magical skills to help him he was probably not at nearly so great a disadvantage as it appeared. Walsh laughed.
"Oh, I'm not disappointed. Just intrigued." He frowned suddenly. "And what's this? An angel? No, no, perhaps not yet. Now I really am impressed. I warrant angelic intervention, do I?"
"Not exactly, no." Angel moved up to stand alongside Wesley. "But you do warrant intervention, yeah. Give up or get stopped, Walsh. Up to you."
"Really." Walsh looked disdainful. "He's not up to the usual Watcher standard, Mr Pryce. Is he just here for muscle, or does he have hidden depth?"
"Angel has many uses, but fortunately none of them involve Watchers." Wesley looked over at Angel, trying to gauge how ready he was for action. Fortunately, being Angel, he was almost always ready. "Look, let's not beat about the bush any longer, Walsh. We're here to stop you."
"So I'm to consider myself stopped? My dear boy, it's going to take more than an enthusiastic ghost and an angel with no social graces to make me give up my plans. Leave, Mr Pryce. I would say 'leave or die', but that would be rather pointless, wouldn't it. You escaped my little trap, so you must have seen what lay beyond it. I could send you there. Both of you. And you would never stand a chance of being brought back."
"I don't think you'll be sending us anywhere." Eyes bright, Wesley moved forward, trying to block Walsh's view of Angel. "Give it up. Now."
"Or what?" The arrogance in the older magician's eyes was enough to infuriate the most patient of men, and Wesley was by no means that patient. His eyes flared, and with a sharp movement of his hand he sent a bolt of pure energy flying across the room. It glanced off its target, and Walsh laughed at him.
"Do you think I'm a fool, boy? I'm protected by spells you've only ever read about. Spells that'll deflect any magic you try to throw at me. Now get the hell out of here. I have better things to do that waste my time playing games with you."
"You think?" Wesley called up another couple of energy bolts, but this time aimed them directly at Walsh's head. They failed to make contact, but as they struck the magical shield that protected him, for a moment they shone powerfully in his eyes. It was unlikely that he was blinded completely, but in that brief moment Angel knew he had his best chance of a surprise attack. Leaping for the wheelchair, he lashed out with his fists - and found himself flying backwards through the air. He crashed against a pile of wooden crates, and tumbled to the floor.
"Angel!" Wesley threw him a concerned look, as his confederate scrambled back to his feet. "Are you alright?"
"Ow." Angel brushed the dust from his clothing. "I'd forgotten how much that hurts."
"Parlour games." Apparently disgusted, Walsh looked away. "You're wasting my time with your foolishness. Leave, before I get angry."
"Before you get angry?" Angel's answering glare was hot. "You haven't seen anything. Wes? Cover me."
"Right." Wesley didn't need telling twice. Abandoning the apparently useless energy bolts, he drew two automatic pistols from somewhere about his person, and began firing them at the furious Walsh. Magic might not affect him, but bullets were somewhat different, and the wheelchair sparked and spat under the assault. It was clearly well shielded, and nothing too serious appeared to have been hit, but it was enough to make Walsh draw back his hand and hurl a might bolt of red light straight at Wesley. The Watcher was catapulted backwards, vanishing into the midst of the boxes, shelves and crates, an almighty crash signalling his precipitate landing. Walsh laughed aloud, but by then Angel was almost upon him. The vampire reached out for the chair, wanting to unseat his opponent and perhaps overpower him that way, but before he could make contact there was a flash of yellow and red. Angel yelped, shocked by what felt like a bolt of electricity arcing towards his fingertips. The yelp became a growl, and he felt his game face turn itself on for the first time since his recent death. His fangs clicked together, and the growl became one of fearsome strength. It did him no good. With a wave of his hand, Walsh sent him flying away to join Wesley. He watched the vampire disappear into the carnage that had been his neatly arranged collection of magical ingredients, and frowned in genuine curiosity.
"Interesting. A vampire angel. Somewhat unique, I'd say."
"Ow." Sitting up, Angel looked around for Wesley, eventually spotting him sitting half inside a large crate. The parts of his face that were visible were fixed upon Angel, with an expression of fascination similar to that of Walsh.
"Interesting," he echoed. Angel rubbed his forehead, and ran his tongue down the familiar length of his fangs.
"Should that happen?" he asked. "Do angels usually have fangs?"
"They're not known for it, no." Wesley stood up, his non-corporeality making it far easier for him to extricate himself from the tangle than it was for Angel. "But then you make quite a habit of supernatural firsts."
"Supernatural lasts, the way things are going now." Angel struggled with the boxes that covered him, glaring all the while at Walsh. The magician was watching them with an expression of amusement now mingled with the anger of before. He showed no interest in fighting them unless they made the first move; secure in his superiority. "Plans, Wes? Magic is your department."
"I made an impact with my guns." Wesley looked down at his hands, from which the two weapons had long since disappeared. "They just weren't powerful enough. Give me a moment, Angel. Then come out fighting. I'll take the chair out of commission, and you get hold of him. We can do this."
"Yeah Wes. You keep charge of the group confidence." Wincing, Angel made it to his feet at last. "Ow. This shouldn't hurt as much as it did when I was still alive. Or - you know. Sort of alive."
"Tell me about it." Wesley straightened his shoulders, and tried to convince himself that he was as confident of success as he had just appeared to be. "Are you ready?"
"I'm ready." Angel brushed the last specks of grime from his beloved coat. "Whenever you--" But Wesley was already walking forward, through boxes, through bottles, pausing only, very briefly, to kick a jar of coloured powder out of his way, as though to prove his own occasional corporeality. Walsh laughed at him.
"Back again so soon? You know I can destroy you."
"I know." Wesley slowed to a halt no more than a few feet away from his enemy. Angel wasn't sure what he was planning, but he could see the electricity that crackled from Walsh's fingertips. Their enemy was through with playing, that much was clear. Angel gathered his muscles, ready to spring. There would very likely be no time to waste if they were going to get this done.
"You want to die, Pryce?" The mocking tone of Walsh's voice was insufferable. Wesley's back was to Angel, but in his mind's eye the vampire could see the hard set of the expression; the coolness of the eyes. He knew Wesley well enough to know the subtleties of his face, even when he couldn't see it.
"I'm already dead." The Watcher took another step forward, showing all of the easy grace that he had had during the last few years of his life. "Anything else is just window dressing. I'm ready for you now."
"You think?" The lightning flared up in Walsh's one remaining hand. Angel flexed his fingers, and knew that his eyes had just flashed yellow. Knew that Wesley had just smiled, quick and cool and sharp.
And suddenly Wesley was walking forward, and there was a sawn-off shotgun in his hands, although where it had come from Angel didn't think he would ever know. And the shots were firing themselves off, one after the other, incredibly loud in the underground space. Walsh was yelling, in fury and in fear as the powerful gun ruined his customised wheelchair. His magical barriers had apparently not been designed to protect his chair nearly so well as they protect him. He wasn't discouraged though, and even as his chair was flashing and sparking and sputtering in its dying throes, his hand was blazing with the lights of forces about to be released. Angel shouted out a warning to Wesley; running, leaping, snarling, his fangs pushing his mouth open into a hungry looking sneer that was almost more Angelus than Angel. He saw Walsh's hands come up; saw a blinding, burning flash of white and blue and gold--
And Wesley hit the far wall of the building with more force than he had ever thought possible, the pain and nausea and disorientation hitting him the way it had no right to do now that he was dead. He tried to move; managed to sit; realised that his instinct to defend himself had already kicked in. He was firing off bolts of energy; balls of cold blue flame that with luck should deflect something of the force and the fire that was being flung at him. There was too much of it; far too much. Too much of his own power, and Walsh's, and the room was too small, and there was rubble collapsing from the ceiling. He shouted out for Angel, trying to warn him that the room was collapsing without remembering that his friend was could not really be harmed by falling masonry. He couldn't see Angel, though; couldn't hear him; couldn't see him anywhere, save in his memory. Angel, being hit by a blast from Walsh; Angel, being enveloped in gold and white and blisteringly bright haloes of concentric blue. Angel, no longer being there when the colours had gone. Wesley tried to get up.
"Angel?!" He was oblivious to Walsh then; oblivious to the dangers of his energy bolts, and not caring about the great crack that bisected the ceiling. He slipped and stumbled on broken crates, tripping over some and through others, successfully hauling some aside, but unable to get a grip on the rest. "Angel!" But Angel was not there. He wasn't under the crates, or behind them. He wasn't anywhere in the underground room. Wesley wiped dust and spatterings of magical powder from his forehead, blinked it from his eyes, and watched more of it tumble straight through his body without making contact at all. "Angel!"
"He's gone. Gone to where you both belong." Walsh pointed at him. "And where you're going."
"I don't think so." He looked around, but there was no inspiration; nothing that gave him cause to hope. He saw the gold and the white and the blue, and thought about the flash that had obliterated Angel. Briefly he thought about ducking, or dodging, without believing that either option would work. In the end, as his eyes filled up with light so bright he couldn't see or think at all, he raised both his hands and let the powers he had worked upon for so long rise up through him. They burned in his fingers, and made his legs shake; made his head buzz and his teeth feel like they might be about to shatter. Finally, as the heat of the bright colours began to make his head spin, he let the gathered energy surge through his arms and blast across the limited space. With a sound like thunder; like racing horses and screaming wolves, and the worst of electrical storms, he sent streams of pure magic flowing across the room and into Walsh. There was a crack like breaking ice, a scream in the depths of his mind, and the furious bellowing of Henry Walsh, as though from a thousand miles away. Wesley's legs gave way and he crashed to the ground, as above him the ceiling broke in half. Stone and dust rained down upon him, and it was all that he could do to drag himself into its cover, trying to hide from the enraged magician nearby. Huddled in the shelter of a chunk of concrete, exhausted beyond all measure, he didn't hear Walsh's curses and cussing; didn't hear the footsteps coming his way. He didn't even know that Buffy had arrived until she was crouched in front of him, calling to him in her usual forceful way.
"Wes! Wesley, damn it!"
"Buffy?" He blinked up at her, clearly amazed to see her back so soon. He had lost all track of time, trapped beneath the earth with a furious wizard for company. "Buffy... Walsh."
"Has to be stopped. Yeah. Got that. Any ideas?"
"Brute force. Only way." He looked around. "Where is he? I can't see him."
"He's over the room a-ways. I don't think he can have seen me come in. Either that or he doesn't care. Arrogant type?"
"You could say. Though I suppose he has good reason. He can obliterate all of us."
"Okay." Buffy's matter of fact approach was refreshing - encouraging. "Then I'll hit him high, and Angel take low. Make it fast, and don't give him time to work any magic." Buffy broke off. "Angel do you still have that ribbon? I like to know where you are."
"He's not here." Wesley saw the worry flare in her eyes, and the anger it sparked into life. She turned on him then, directing her growing ire toward the ghost.
"Not here?" Her voice was like ice. "Where is he?"
"Gone. I think. Walsh--"
"Don't give me 'gone', Wes. Where the hell is Angel? Tell me, or I'll twist your head off whether it'll kill you or not. Gotta be uncomfortable either way, right?"
"I'm a ghost, Buffy. Only the dead can touch me, and right now I--"
"Where's Angel?" She had him by the shoulders, lifting him clear of the ground, slamming him backwards into the pile of fallen masonry behind which he had taken cover. Stone showered down, and he blinked at Buffy, wincing and frowning in equal measures.
"You're dead?" he asked her. She scowled.
"Not anymore. Now where the hell is Angel?"
"Nowhere." She started to haul off as though to hit him, and he held up one hand to stall her. "No. Seriously Buffy. He's nowhere. I think. Walsh has sent him to the other side, or one of them at least. He's gone."
"Then we have to get him back."
"We have to deal with Walsh." Extricating himself from her hold, he winced as he moved away from the rubble against which she had thrown him. Corporeality could be a bugger, at times. "Deal with him, and Angel might come back. Cordelia can get him back, so long as Walsh's magic isn't still holding him there. I'm sure of it."
"Are you really sure?"
"No." He touched gingerly at his head, glaring at the blood on his fingers, then shot an equally fierce glare up at the invisible sky. "I'm supposed to be dead, Cordy. Could we lose the damage?"
"Forget it." Buffy looked around at the carnage. It had been easy for her to find out where the battle was taking place, for the first hangar had been almost completely destroyed, and she had arrived to find it glistening with coloured flame. Now that she was here, though, she was more than a little unsure as to what should happen next. "Where's Walsh?"
"Here. Somewhere. He came down here to get equipment that he needs for the spell set up in the second hangar. He's probably trying to find it all. There's quite a mess down here right now."
"I'd noticed." She nodded. "Okay. Same plan as before, just without Angel. We hit him fast. How do I stop him?"
"With his powers? With difficulty. The only way to be sure is to end it for good. It's not like a prison could ever hold him."
"What?" She couldn't believe the insinuation. "I can't kill him. He's human!"
"Buffy..." He shook his head, frustrated by her morals. "You... all of you people. You think that humans are untouchable. Above everything else. A higher life-form. You'll happily kill a demon, but never a human, no matter how lethal he or she is. I was the same myself once. But the last few years I've counted a demon amongst my closest friends. I've spent much of my leisure time in demon bars. And if there's one thing I've learnt, it's that humans aren't better than demons. If you'll kill one of--"
"I won't kill a human." She pushed him away from her, climbing over the rubble. She could see better now, as the dust began to settle, and thought that she could distinguish a shape on the other side of the room. A broken, twisted shape, in a broken, twisted chair. It took her by surprise. "That's Walsh?"
"A wheelchair never stopped somebody being evil, Buffy." Wesley came over to her, walking through the mess in a rather disconcertingly non-corporeal manner. "He's dangerous. He may not be able to use his limbs the way that we can use ours, but he has power enough to do other things instead. Don't underestimate him."
"I never underestimate anybody." She eased her way forward, watching the curious, long ago injured man using magic to sort through his scattered ingredients. In a way it fascinated her to watch him at work. Part of her sympathised with him, for the loss of his limbs, even as she found herself revolted by the sight of a man who would have innocent girls killed for a piece of magic. Squaring her shoulders, and stretching herself up to her full, not hugely impressive height, she cleared her throat. Walsh turned towards her.
"Hello?" He was obviously interested by the sight of a young woman appearing before him. "And you're another of the hero squad I suppose? You look solid, but then appearances can be deceiving. Are you more or less dead than the last bunch?"
"Less." She shrugged. "Currently, anyway. Still - all been dead at some time, haven't we."
"Actually, no." He smiled. "They should have sent you in first. Far more appealing as a rival than the vampire or the Watcher."
"Thankyou." She took a few more lazy steps forward. "Your chair seems to be broken."
"It had a run in with a sawn-off shotgun."
"Oh." She smiled. "Yeah, I'd guess that'd do it. Were you hit?"
"Me? No." He shrugged. "I don't think he was aiming at me; and anyway, it wouldn't have done any good if he had been. I've been wearing a bullet-proof vest ever since the Watcher Council sent a pair of their assassins after me in 1974." He laughed shortly. "As though blowing off most of my limbs five years earlier wasn't enough."
"I doubt a bullet-proof vest would be much use against a sawn-off shotgun," she pointed out. He shrugged again.
"Mine would be, believe me. So anyway, my dear. What now?"
"I stop you." She smiled quite charmingly. "Sorta why I'm here."
"Oh, quite." His own smile was almost rakish, although she didn't like the glint in his eyes. "Where's the ghost? I managed to get rid of his so-called angel friend, but the ghost eluded me."
"The ghost is pretty much done for. Which, gotta say, impressed me rather. That's quite some power you've got."
He gestured dismissively. "It's a talent."
"One you can't be allowed to use any more. Magic is too dangerous in some hands."
"Magic is my only chance to get my life back." He flexed the fingers of his remaining hand, and coughed hard. "I'm running out of time. Now, don't take this personally, but you look just about right to join our five dead friends upstairs beside my cauldron. Don't you think? And since it's looking increasingly as though my Kra'ash friend won't be returning... it seems oddly fitting that the person who very likely killed him should get to take the place of his intended victims. Something tells me that you could easily count for two ordinary girls. Wouldn't you say?"
"Can't let you do that." She shrugged. "No hard feelings."
"Oh, not at all." He moved his hand, quite lazily to all appearances, though she couldn't help but see the lightning that sparked between the fingertips. "Tell me where the ghost is. I have my suspicions that he's about to jump out at me."
"And do what?" Trying not to keep too overt an eye upon his crackling fingers, she moved a little closer. "I think you've already proved that he can't hurt you. Not with magic. Not with a gun."
"True. But it's nice to know where one's enemies are." He raised his hand, apparently in a casual and innocent gesture. "And now..."
"I have a spell I'd like to get underway. No hard feelings, you understand, and it seems like such a shame when we've only just met, but... Well. I didn't come here for the views."
"Neither did I." She wasn't sure how to go about attacking a man with no legs and only one arm. It seemed to go against her personal sense of fair play, even if he was evil. Still - it had to be done. He couldn't even turn his chair towards her, so great was the damage done by Wesley's shotgun, but she knew that Walsh had to be magician enough to still get around, especially if he was serious about killing her to facilitate his spell-spinning. She closed on him, moving cautiously, slowly, keeping an eye on the hand that still crackled with waiting energy.
"Be careful Buffy." Wesley had emerged from the rubble, standing on the edge of her vision. He didn't seem to be standing right, and his image flickered as though displayed by a broken projector. "He's got tricks you won't be counting on."
"You should listen to him," Walsh told her. Buffy smiled.
"I have a history of not listening to him. Kind of a character flaw. Mine or his, one or the other."
"Really." Walsh's lazy smile broke off briefly for a coughing fit. "You might wish you'd fixed that flaw, by the time I'm through with you."
"Really." Her own tone mirrored his. He smiled. She smiled back. She wasn't sure, later, which one of them moved first.
Buffy leapt forward with the speed and agility to which she was accustomed, hands reaching for the broken body, eyes bright and alert. She heard Wesley cry out a warning, and saw a bolt of light burst from Walsh's hand. It didn't fly towards her though, and she saw, in the corner of her eye, as Wesley sent his own ball of fire to intercept the first. There was a flash and he staggered back, falling, his figure as clear as glass for a second, then Buffy was reaching out to grapple with Walsh. She never made contact. As soon as her fingers seemed about to seize hold of that one, deadly arm, something gripped hard at her throat. Something real and yet not real; something that had fingers, and fingernails, but didn't really exist. Something far too strong for her to resist, that pushed her backwards up against the nearest wall, and held her there, unable to move, her feet barely touching the ground. She choked.
"Buffy!" Wesley was struggling back to his feet, wobbling, uncertain, fading in and out of view as she watched him. Walsh was laughing and coughing, and Buffy could hear her own tortured breathing in gaps between his. Her eyes widened as the pressure on her neck increased, and she looked towards Wesley, wondering if there was any chance of help from that quarter. Her own strength seemed as nothing compared to the impossible, unearthly grip upon her neck.
"Wesley--" She could say nothing more. "Wes--"
"Don't look to him for help, my dear. He has nothing that can stop me." Walsh turned his head to watched the weakened ghost, his smile one of utter triumph. "You're both mine now."
"Is that so?" Wesley's voice was loud and clear; far more so than seemed to fit given his condition. Buffy turned her head as far as she was able to see what he was doing, trying to keep her blurring vision in focus. He was walking forward, and as she watched him, a sword appeared in his hand. It glowed faintly, but as he walked the weapon passed uselessly through the chunks of stone and broken boxes through which his feet also passed. The sword was as non-corporeal as was he; useless. The 'hand' gripping her throat tightened, and she struggled helplessly.
"You expect to defeat me with a sword that doesn't even know it exists?" Walsh was laughing; at Wesley, at Buffy - at the whole world. "I'm protected, Pryce. By spells, by barriers. Your magic couldn't hurt me, your guns couldn't hurt me. That sword definitely can't."
"Want a bet?" He was so far removed from the Wesley that she knew; so ramrod straight, but with determination now, rather than the officiousness of before. Strong, assured, hard as nails. His eyes flared, with a supernatural blue light. Walsh laughed, coughing with almost every breath.
"I'm more powerful than you could ever dream of being. No sword can break through my barriers. No weapon can hurt me."
"Wesley." Buffy could barely get the word out. She could hardly breathe now, and part of her refused to believe that any human could do this to her. She was so used to being the strong one; the one who could always fight back. The Watcher didn't even look at her. She was trying to tell him to drop the act; to forget about the useless, phantom sword, and try to do something else. She couldn't say it all, but she managed to spit out a few words. An unpleasant smile lit Walsh's eyes.
"You should listen to her, my boy. Why risk oblivion? You can't hurt me." He raised his hand, and once again the lightning danced between his fingertips. "One spell, boy. One move from me, and you're gone forever."
"Go ahead." Wesley spoke with cool precision, standing tall and firm now, even though the room was visible both through him and his sword. He took another step forward, and Walsh drew back his arm and flung a ball of light. At the same instant, Wesley threw his sword.
It sped like a spear, passing through the ball of light, and Buffy saw then what would happen even though she didn't entirely believe that it would be possible. The sword, non-corporeal as it was, passed harmlessly through Walsh's magical barrier - before turning solid even as it was passing through Walsh himself. He gave a great gasp; a great shudder; and his eyes widened in fear and disbelief. Blood gushed from his neck and his mouth.
"No--" The word had hardly any volume. "I--" His eyelids fluttered and his body convulsed. "No." His body toppled sideways. Almost immediately, Buffy was free.
"What the hell-?" She ran to the dead body, looking him over, staring in amazement at the gleaming, long - and definitely corporeal - sword that was driven so powerfully through his throat. Even as she looked at it, the sword faded away. It left only the hole of its own making; jagged and horrible, and still running with blood. "Wesley, what the hell did you do?"
"What had... to be done." He sounded as though he were in pain, and she turned to him in surprise. He was lying on the floor, clearly having been hit by Walsh's last ball of fire. Almost transparent now, it was clearly costing him all of his energy just to stand once again. "Just because you... can't kill humans, Buffy... doesn't mean I can't."
"We, Wesley. We can't kill humans. We're supposed to be the good guys! It's not just me."
He smiled at that. "No, it's not just you. It's... it's Angel, and... and Gunn. Faith. But I'm not a hero, Buffy. I just... I just do what I have to. What you others can't." He smiled painfully. "Like now."
"Now?! Just who else do you plan to kill?"
"Nobody." He made it to his feet at last, and his form flickered in a brief return to greater translucence. "But there's something else... only I can do. Upstairs. That cauldron."
"Wait!" She grabbed for his arm, but this time her hand passed through it. It only caught on the second attempt, gripping his wrist when he turned back towards her. "What about Angel?"
"He'll be back." He smiled, almost endearingly. "You could wait for him. He'll see you."
"And I'll never know it." She cast a look back at Walsh, slumped dead in the wreck of his chair. "You didn't have to kill him, Wesley."
"Maybe." He turned away, and this time she let him go. "But he's dead now. It was all that I could think of in the end, Buffy. And it saved you. Now it's over. I'll see you upstairs." And taking two or three steps away, he disappeared into thin air.
When Buffy clambered out of the ruined cellar, the world seemed lighter than before, though it was still far from dawn. The second hangar stood open, purple smoke drifting slowly into the wind, the smell of burning disturbing the otherwise quiet night. Wesley, apparently have regained some of his strength, was no longer transparent, and his eyes were once again glowing with the supernatural spark of blue that seemed to mean strong magicks were afoot. Clearly he had just finished dismantling Walsh's spell, and had required some considerable amount of power to compete the task. His fingers sparked occasionally, with a blue that matched the lights of his eyes, just as Walsh's own hand had crackled with similar telltale lightning arcs.
"Buffy." All trace of his earlier harshness had gone. "Are you alright?"
"Better." She rubbed at her neck. "What about Angel?"
"He's over there." The Watcher pointed, apparently at their mutual friend, but as far as Buffy was concerned just at a fallen tree. "Seems a little subdued."
"Oh." She stared at the fallen tree, wondering where exactly the vampire was, and wishing that she could see him. She had hated the idea of a guardian angel to begin with, but now that she was growing accustomed to the idea, she found that she almost liked it; she just wished that it meant she could see her old boyfriend when he was nearby. Whatever she had had with Angel was over - had been over even before he had died. She had her own life now, and a new relationship in the form of the Immortal - on an occasional basis, anyway. But she wanted to see Angel, and she wanted to see his smile, and more than anything she wanted to see the warmth in his eyes that had always showed the human soul held inside. She tore her eyes away in the end, and looked back to Wesley.
"Everything dealt with?"
"I think so." He stretched, obviously exhausted, and apparently in some considerable pain. Being a ghost was no protection against such things, then, obviously. She wasn't surprised. Everything changed, when magic was involved. "The accumulated energies have been dissipated, the central potion is gone. It just looks like the work of a serial killer now. The authorities can find the bodies and return them to the relatives. It's unpleasant, but it's better than never getting the bodies at all."
"What about Walsh?"
"He's gone." The ghost looked skyward for a moment, as though to indicate. "My employers. Or whoever or whatever they are. They've dumped his body elsewhere. It wouldn't do to have it found here. There are awkward questions that would be asked, and some enterprising somebody might find things that are best left unfound. It's better this way."
"I'll take your word for it." She looked him up and down, from his scuffed shoes, his filthy black jeans, and his ruined crimson shirt, to his bloodied face and much awry hair. "You look like hell."
"I'm dead. It's nothing serious." He shrugged. "I'll be alright, in a little while. I just need to rest."
"And Angel? I mean, since I can't see him. Is he... is he okay?"
"He's fine." Angel was standing behind her now, although of course she knew nothing of it, and hadn't heard his words. He didn't look fine to Wesley whatever his claim, for he was as bedraggled as his confederate, and there was a troubled look in his eyes. Wesley didn't need to wonder why - Angel had been sent to that same dark, empty place that had so nearly claimed him, and that was more than cause enough for a thousand nightmares. "Everything's fine now, Buffy."
"Is he still over by the tree?" Buffy turned her head towards the place at which Wesley had pointed earlier. Wesley seemed about to speak, but a quick shake of Angel's head stopped whatever answer he had been about to give. He shrugged instead.
"He's probably wandered off. He looked tired. He hasn't got the hang of his new status yet, I don't think."
"Only thing weirder than being dead is not being dead anymore." She sighed and nodded. "It's just that I'd like to say goodbye. I know Angel will be around, but he won't be around. Not like now. We've almost talked, but only because he was sent to properly help me this time. It'll be business as usual from now on, won't it."
"Yes, I suppose it will. I'm sorry Buffy."
She shrugged. "Not your fault."
"No. Maybe not." He sighed. "Look, I... I might be able to do something. Not permanently, you understand. There are certain rules that can't be broken. It just might be possible to bend them a bit, provided the universe will look the other way for a moment."
"What?" She didn't understand him, not that that was unusual; he was a Watcher, after all. Behind her, Angel shook his head hard.
"Wes..." he said, with meaning. Wesley looked straight past Buffy, into the clear eyes of his closest friend.
"It's alright, Angel. Cordy will understand. I'm too tired to make it last for more than a few minutes anyway, even if it does work. And besides..." He trailed off, and both Angel and Buffy saw the sudden sadness in his eyes. "If I had a way, Angel. Any way, just to see Fred again, for a moment. For the briefest of moments..." He almost shook himself. "I want to help."
"Cordelia will have you working with Spike for a month as punishment."
"Spike's not so bad." Wesley reached out, taking Buffy's hand. "It's only a glitch in Fate that will allow this to work, anyway. If Buffy were any other person on the planet, I couldn't do this. It's almost as though somebody somewhere wanted this to happen."
"I doubt that." Angel didn't object further, though; didn't resist when Wesley reached out for his hand as well. He heard the Englishman mutter something, that sounded like the ever present Latin - then faintly the ghost began to glow. At first it was the same blue light of his earlier spellcasting - then, inch by inch, the blue turned to red and the red turned to green, until finally the Watcher was surrounded with a corona of bright white light. A second later both he and the light had vanished, and Angel found that the hand he now held in his belonged to Buffy. Wesley was no more than a blurred outline several feet away, hovering just above the ground with his eyes closed and his lips moving faintly. Angel whistled.
"He's getting good. I never even knew that he was practising before we died. Not seriously. And now look at him."
"Yeah." Quite clearly, though, Buffy was not looking at Wesley. Instead her eyes were fixed upon the man standing right beside her; the man holding her hand. The man who was not a man at all. He looked just as she remembered him, albeit with a few more bruises. The same dark clothing; the same long, leather coat; the same half spiked hair with its coating of gel. She realised that she was grinning like an idiot.
"Buffy." It gave him extraordinary pleasure just to say her name, and know that she would hear him. Reaching out, he tentatively brushed some stray strands of hair away from her face. "I've missed you."
"There seemed to be two hundred things I wanted to say to you, and now..." She smiled. "There isn't time to say any of it, is there."
"I shouldn't think so." He took her shoulders, beginning to draw her near. "Keep fighting, Buffy. Stay strong. Whatever happens, I'll never be very far away."
"I know. In a way it's kinda cool." She grinned up at him, delighting in the sight of his faintly goofy smile, and his honest, dark eyes. "I'm proud of you, Angel. You deserve this. You never belonged in hell."
"Thankyou." After the years searching for redemption; the years of uncertainty; they were the finest words she could have said to him, and she knew it. On a sudden impulse, for old times sakes, he pulled her towards him, and drew her into a powerful hug. For one, short second she relaxed in the welcome embrace, then realised that she was alone. Angel and Wesley had gone. She stood there for a moment, imagining that the arms were still about her, then smiled a secret smile and turned away. She had a Kra'ash corpse to dispose of, and the rest of her life to live.
"Thanks Wes." They were alone in the hotel, which was a welcome surprise. Angel had half expected to get pounced upon by a Spike eager for news of Buffy, but the lobby was bare. Cordelia must have sent the other vampire on a mission. She was probably out in the garden herself, enjoying the sunshine. Angel felt a sudden desire to be out there with her.
"Where's the point in having a magician about if you don't make use of him?" Wesley smiled at his companion. "When you go back, she won't be able to see you again."
"I know. I just wanted one more chance. We haven't really spoken in far too long, and our relationship was hardly at its best when we all died. Buffy was pretty mad with me for joining Wolfram & Hart."
"Yes, I remember." Wesley stifled a yawn. "She seems less cross with you now, anyway. And we did some good work today." His eyes strayed towards the door that led out to the garden. "I think we've earned a little relaxation." His inference was clear. Wesley had lost his girlfriend - he didn't want Angel to risk the same. The vampire looked rueful.
"You did good work. All I did was get banished to some other dimension. Some sort of hell, or nowhere land." He almost shuddered. "It was horrible, Wes. So cold, and dark. Like… like nights alone, when I was a proper vampire. All those nights thinking of the terrible things I'd done all those years. Worse than that. And it felt like home."
"It felt like everything you deserved. Like the place where your soul was destined to rest. Like everything you had ever done in your life had fated you for just such a place in your death, and for an eternity afterwards." Wesley looked away. "I know. That's where I went, too. I thought it was where I belonged, and maybe it is. But it's not where I am. Not today."
"Yeah." Angel nodded, and gripped his friend's shoulder. "Not today. Not any day, Wes. That's what I realised. We don't belong in hell, because if we did, that's where we'd be. We'd have gone to that place when we died, and we wouldn't have any of this now. It's a crazy feeling. Like… like curtains lifting. For the first time since the gypsies gave me back my soul. It's like…" He frowned, looking for a simile or a metaphor, but unable to find one. Wesley smiled at him.
"Like dawn," he said in the end, finishing Angel's sentence with a gentle word. "After all those years, Angel, you're finally getting your own sunrise. And you deserve it. Don't you see? You think you didn't do much today, but maybe that's not why you were supposed to be there. The universe is telling you things. It's time you listened to it. You've got your redemption, Angel; if you really want it."
"Yeah." Angel looked away, his eyes seemingly focused upon something far away, "Maybe."
"Definitely." Wesley looked back over at the door to the garden. "Now go on. She's waiting for you. Chances are she's been wondering if she'll ever get you back, now you've had the chance to spend some real time with Buffy. This must have been one hell of a difficult mission for her to send you on."
"Yes. Yeah, I guess it was." Angel drew in a deep, unnecessary breath, a habit he hadn't lost through several hundred years of being dead. "Thanks Wes. I'll see you later." Clapping his friend on the back, he strode away towards the garden. There seemed a lightness in his tread, although the century of brooding was too much of a habit to be dispelled by one quick pep talk. Wesley smiled at him nonetheless as he went; hearts were warming; brightening - even long dead hearts once believed cold and hard. The world looked better every day. It was the most curious piece of luck that had seen them all die.
But for the one member of Angel Investigations who had seen the true reality of a Wolfram & Hart contract, there was one worry that would always remain. Wesley was happier than he had been in years, but he couldn't shake the fear that gnawed away at the back of his mind. The memory of Lilah's contract, sealing her to her employers even after death; a contract that could never, ever be broken - a secret that Wesley was determined to keep. If there was to be one small patch of darkness that marred this newer, happier existence, it would be endured by Wesley alone. He could do that for his friends; for Angel. It was the sort of thing he did, and the sort of thing he felt that he needed to do. For Wesley, just as for Angel, salvation and joy were difficult lessons to learn.