A bucket of ice water splashed down on Kate, jolting her back to consciousness. She gasped and spluttered and tried to wipe it off her face, but found that her hands were tied down. As she shook her head and blinked the water out of her eyes, the world came into focus for her: she was naked, spread-eagled and tied to a bed. Standing at the foot of that bed was Angel, grinning and holding an empty bucket.
"How’re you feeling?" He asked.
"Angel?" She asked groggily.
He scowled. "I told you to call me Angelus," he said. "And I asked you a question."
How did she feel? She was cold, naked, she couldn’t move, and there was a raw, gnawing ache in her knee and her shoulder. On the other hand…
"My shoulder and my knee—they don’t feel as bad as they should. What did you do?"
He nodded in satisfaction. "I didn’t want you dying of shock before I had a chance to really go to work on you, so I had an Asclepian demon come in and take a look at them." He caught her look of confusion. "They’re a race of healers," He explained. "Now, generally, they’re ‘Not-evil Evil Things’, so most of them won’t have anything to do with me. But there’s always a few who are just in it for the money."
He sat down on the edge of the bed and set the bucket on the floor. She gritted her teeth against the pain and tried to move away, but he ignored it and began to stroke her hair. "I can tell what you’re thinking," he said in a bemused, thoughtful tone. "I’m naked, I’m tied to a bed, he looks and acts like an ordinary human in a lot of ways—when is he going to rape me?" He smiled down at her playfully. "Hm? Am I right? Is that what you’re thinking?" He threaded his fingers into her hair again, but this time, instead of stroking, he closed his fist. Her scalp caught fire with pain. He didn’t even have to tug. "Yes or no?"
"Yes!" she blurted.
He released her hair. "Good," he said, his voice suddenly hard. "Very good. You’re learning." Then he sat back, his grin sliding back into place. "I may get around to that," he said. "I am still human enough to appreciate a body like yours. But that’ll come later. I have other things I want to try first. Things that’ll be so much more fun. Things that’ll hurt so much worse."
* * *
Angel hit the doors of the Hyperion and threw them open hard enough to dent the walls they slammed into. "Weapons are over there," he barked, pointing at the case in the lobby. "Arm up. I’ll get my car keys."
"Angel, wait," Wesley called, forced to jog to keep up with the larger man’s strides. "Don’t you think we should at least take a moment to assess injuries?"
"I have second-degree burns on my back," Angel snapped, not slowing. He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder. "Riley has some smoke inhalation, and Faith has some first-degrees on her legs. As far as I know, Buffy and Gunn got off scot-free. Does that about cover it?"
"Yes, but—Angel, wait a moment!" Wesley called in frustration as his employer pulled ahead of him.
Angel whirled on him. "He has Kate!" He snapped. He tapped on his temple. "I saw him. He shot her in the shoulder so she couldn’t fight and the knee so she couldn’t run, and he took her. She has no time."
"Then we have no time to waste on berserk rage," Giles said sternly from the doorway. The younger ex-Watcher and the vampire both turned. Angel glared, his face twitching and showing the first signs of transformation, but Giles ignored it and strode across the lobby to them. "Running off into the night blind-crazy does no one any good. Do you know where Angelus is?" Angel opened his mouth, then shut it again. His face stabilized. "No? Were you just planning to drive around town until you caught his physical or psychic scent?" Angel dropped his eyes and shoulders. Giles reached out and put a hand on one of those shoulders. "I think I have a better plan." Then he looked at Wesley. "But I’ll need to see your books."
"Of course," Wesley said, starting toward the checkin counter. "This way."
Still standing in the doorway, Cordelia shook her head. "Why can’t we ever get him to settle down like that?"
Buffy shrugged. "Giles is good at ‘Dad’ stuff like that."
"Might have—" Riley’s voice was rough and wheezing. He cleared his throat several times and tried again. "Might have something to do with having the nerve to tell off an angry supernatural being."
"Sounds right," Oz agreed. "He’s needed it before."
Across the room, Angel settled into one of the couches with a sigh, only to leap back to his feet with a hiss of pain. He tried to pull his already-damaged shirt off, and it came away in shreds. Underneath, he was a disturbing sight: his soot-black face and hands contrasted with his dead-white skin, and his back was red and peeling. In some places it had even cracked open and started to bleed.
"Cordy?" He said, his voice tight.
"Could you find the First Aid kit and get some burn ointment?"
Slowly, carefully, with a long, drawn-out hiss of pain, Angel sat back down. The others with nothing else to do but wait gathered around on lobby furniture.
"So who’s Kate?" Buffy asked after settling down on a hassock. "I don’t think you’ve mentioned her before."
"You’ve met her," Angel said. "Remember the cop who was threatening to throw me in an east-facing cell?"
"I remember that bitch," Faith growled. She settled onto a couch and winced as her jeans chafed her legs. "Tell me why we’re saving her again?"
"Well," Angel said. "For one, no one deserves what Angelus is planning to do to her. She’s been antagonizing me for the last year, not knowing that I have a soul, all the while thinking that it’s Angelus she’s standing up to. He’s decided to show her what the real Angelus can do."
That was when Cordelia arrived, carrying a large Mason jar. "Lean forward," she ordered.
He obeyed, resting his elbows on his knees and continuing his story as she dipped a white cream out of the jar and rubbed it onto his back. "Second," he said. "She used to be a friend, until one of my Childer came to town and I had to tell her that I’m a vampire."
Everyone turned to look at Spike. He shook his head and held up his hands in the classic ‘I didn’t touch it’ pose. "Hey, now, it wasn’t me. I haven’t been to this town since the whole ‘Gem of Amara’ business."
"Was it Drusilla?" Willow asked.
"Actually, his name was Penn," Angel replied. Then he noticed how much better his back felt. "Cordy? Is that the good stuff you’re using?"
"We need you up and running quickly," she said. "I think the good stuff is called for."
"Good stuff?" Oz asked.
"We helped a healer clear her neighborhood of an imp infestation," Cordelia answered. "She paid us in supplies."
"Useful," Oz approved.
The rest of the group couldn’t help but agree. Angel’s back smoothed and returned to its original color almost as quickly as Cordelia’s hand moved over it. Riley’s breathing became easier as he merely inhaled the unguent’s fresh odor.
There are those, however, who are not easily distracted. "For crying out loud, Angel," Buffy said. "How many Childer do you have?"
"Well, I was an Irish Catholic farmboy," he answered sheepishly. "That means big families."
All eyes turned to Riley.
"Hey, I’m Presbyterian," he said.
Willow fixed him with a suspicious look. "How many?" She demanded. "Don’t make me point lights at you."
Riley sighed in defeat. "Four brothers and four sisters. I’m the oldest."
"Holy shit!" Faith exclaimed.
Joyce just winced and crossed her legs.
"Getting back to the point," Angel interrupted testily, "Even after she found out that I was a vampire, we were able to work together well enough until vampires killed her father. So I think she deserves to be cut a little slack."
Cordelia had finished with Angel and moved on to Faith. "Roll up your pant legs," she directed.
"Um…burns go up a little higher than that," Faith said. "Unless you want me to drop trou, you better just give me the stuff so I can step into the other room."
Without a word, Cordelia handed her the jar.
Giles arrived just as Faith was leaving, grinning triumphantly, holding a large open tome in his hand. Wesley trailed behind him. "I’ve found it!" He crowed, thrusting the book into Angel’s hands. "Look there," he said, pointing.
Angel looked where he was bid, read, then looked up quizzically. "Giles, this is a wedding spell."
Giles nodded irritably. "Yes, yes, that’s its most common usage, but you’re missing the point. What it does is create a psychic bond—"
"Or strengthen existing ones," Angel guessed. "And that’s how I’ll track him."
"Yes," Giles said, as if the man before him was a student who had just answered a difficult problem, rather than a being old enough to be his distant ancestor. "That’s right."
Angel hesitated. He didn’t want to strengthen his connection with Angelus. He wanted to get rid of what he had. Every time he touched minds with the demon, he was flooded with cruelty, blood-hunger, and a gleeful love of destruction. It was like be submerged in ice-cold sewage. Every time it happened, he wondered how he had carried that inside him for so long without going mad.
But Angelus had Kate. And Kate had antagonized Angel—and through him, Angelus—for a year.
Angel remembered what Angelus did to those who annoyed him. He got creative.
Kate didn’t deserve that.
"What do I have to do?"
The preparations for the ceremony took an hour. Giles had to modify the spell so that 1) Angelus didn’t have to be present and 2) Love was not the source of the purported bond. The first was easy—apparently there was a variant on the spell that had once been used so that lovers could bond even when separated by war or other disaster. The latter was easier than it otherwise might have been. After all, Angel and Angelus had once been the same being.
That gave the Warriors time to change their clothes and clean up, and it gave everyone time to arm themselves.
"Do you have any guns?" Riley called as he perused the weapons cabinet.
"Why?" Angel asked. "They won’t help."
"They won’t kill him," Riley corrected. "But he’ll probably be easy to stake with a bullet in his head."
"Besides," Riley added, "You said that Angelus would probably be raising an army. Maybe there’ll be things in it bullets can kill."
"It’s actually kind of a moot point," Angel said. "The answer to your original question is no, we don’t—"
"Actually," Wesley said, pointing. "They’re right over there, in a case behind the bookshelves. You’d best hurry, I believe Mr. Giles and Mr. Harris are over there right now, making their selections."
"Do they have any hunting rifles?" Tara’s voice came from across the room. There was a pause, and Angel suspected that whoever was involved in the conversation with her was staring in surprise. "My father taught me how to shoot with one."
"Doesn’t look like it," Xander’s voice answered. "Looks like they went for streetfighter stuff—easy to conceal. They have a shotgun, though—"
"Don’t take that!" Riley called, alarmed, as he hurried away across the lobby. "We’ll be in too close quarters!"
Wesley caught Angel’s look of surprise. "We don’t all have super strength, Angel," he said as he turned back to the spell preparations.
Angel gritted his teeth. "What is it, ‘Willy’?" he growled.
Spike growled back. He hated ‘Willy’ even more than ‘William’. Angel was perhaps the only vampire on Earth who could call him that and live. Except maybe Drusilla, and she would have had days of torture for it. "What about Mum?" He growled, jabbing his thumb over his shoulder toward where Joyce sat on one of the sofas. Startled at being acknowledged, she sat up straight and looked in their direction.
"What about her?" Angel asked.
"How ‘bout tossing her a weapon? Believe me when I say she’s good with an axe."
"Is that true?" Angel asked her. "Because if it is, we need every hand."
"Uh, yes. I…guess so."
"Good." Angel plucked an axe from the case and handed it to her. It was the smallest and lightest battle-axe he had, but it was still a full-sized battle-axe, unlike the weapon that both Gunn and Faith were now referring to as Cordelia’s "Ladysmith Hand Axe."
"Thank you," Joyce said as she took the weapon from his hand. She stood and took a few practice swings, looking surprisingly competent and dangerous. "Yes, I think this will do just fine."
"What do you know?" Angel said as he walked away. "She’s a natural."
"I could’ve told you that, mate."
The lobby’s furniture had been pushed to the walls, and a huge pentacle had been drawn in chalk on the floor, with candles at each point and intersection of the star. If this had, indeed, been a wedding, the candles would have been red or white.
As it was, they were black.
Angel stood in the exact center of the design, stripped to the waist and barefoot. Wrapped around his left arm was a cord to bind him to the object of the spell. If it had been a wedding, especially if his bride had been present for a handfasting, that "cord" would have been a ribbon.
For his hate-bond, he’d chosen barbed wire.
He was uncomfortable. Not just at the thought of what he was about to do, but because he was standing on a thirty-foot-in-diameter holy symbol. Belial hadn’t been lying: the voice of the Angelus-personality might be gone now, but he was still a demon. An unholy thing. He still hungered for blood, he still feared the cleansing fire and sunlight, and holy things like the one he stood on still rejected him.
Let it be, then. Sometimes he suspected that his purpose as a Champion of Good was to draw the darkness into himself, so that Champions like Buffy, who pierced the darkness with their light, could make easier headway.
That was what he comforted himself with, anyway. It made what he had to do easier to face.
The Scooby Gang and Angel Investigations, each holding a black candle, filed down the stairs into the lobby. Giles, as the presiding official, led the procession. Spike followed immediately behind. Nobody liked it, but as the "son" of both parties involved in the spell, he had a mandatory place of honor. Immediately following Spike was Buffy, who had agreed to stand with Angel as his "Best Man," and she carried a tray with several jars of paint instead of a candle. The three of them led the procession once around the circle, then joined Angel in the center as the rest of the group arranged themselves along the outer edge. They made sure that a Supernatural or magic-user stood at each point of the star: Cordelia, as a seer and a channel to the Powers That Be, stood at the "Spirit" point. Faith stood at Fire, while Tara took Earth and Willow Water. It had been decided that it would be unwise to channel any mystical energy through Oz’s unstable Wolf-spirit, so Wesley—a competent, if unspectacular, alchemist—stood at Air.
Spike, looking distinctly uncomfortable himself, took up his position at Angel’s left hand, while Buffy stood at his right.
Giles stepped before them and began the ceremony, asking the traditional question for the "separate" variant: "The other member of the bond does not stand before us. Do you have his consent?"
"We are of one mind on it," Angel replied. A ritual dodge. If this were a wedding ceremony, and the bond was to be one of love and trust, it would fail.
"Do you bear witness to this?" Giles said to Spike and Buffy.
"We bear witness," they replied, only slightly out of sync.
"Then let the ritual commence," Giles pronounced.
Angel held up his hands, palms out. "From this day forth, let us always be touching," He said.
"You shall always be touching," Giles confirmed.
Buffy dipped her fingers in one of the paints and drew a gray band around each wrist.
"Our hearts will beat with one beat, our blood shall be as one blood."
His heart didn’t beat, and his blood was stolen. Still, the same was true of Angelus.
"Your hearts will beat with one beat, your blood shall be as one blood."
Buffy traced a red heart on his chest.
"I shall see with his eyes."
"You shall see with his eyes."
Blue was dabbed onto his eyelids.
"I shall hear with his ears."
"You shall hear with his ears."
The same blue was dabbed onto the tips of his ears.
"I shall know his mind."
If this had been a love bond, the phrase would have been "Heart and Mind." The thought made Angel want to retch. He was finally free, he could finally safely be with Buffy. Nothing in the world would give him greater joy than to speak those words to her, and to hear her speak them back. Instead, he was performing a twisted mockery of a wedding ceremony to bind himself more tightly to an obscenity.
His fist clenched tight around the barbed wire coiled around his hand. Blood started to trickle between his fingers.
"You shall know his mind."
Buffy reached up drew a black sigil on his forehead.
For a moment, they stood silent and expectant. Had it worked? Would anything happen?
Then something slammed into Angel. He screamed, and the world went black.
Across town, Angelus watched the Asclepian demon—a fifteen-foot snake with arm-like tentacles—at work.
"Don’t fix her too much," Angelus was saying. "I don’t want her to be able to get away. I just don’t want her to die."
The Asclepian didn’t like that. It didn’t like back-seat healers under the best of circumstances, which these weren’t. It took questionable clients, clients that most of its brethren wouldn’t deal with: wounded Mafiosi and gang members, vampires—once it had even helped a member of the Scourge. But this itched its scales. Healing anyone who had something to trade was one thing. Healing someone just so they could be tortured was something else.
Angelus’s face suddenly lit up. "Say, do you think you could put a few things back together wrong? Cripple her so—"
The Asclepian turned around and glared at him. It said nothing—speaking languages designed for unsplit tongues was difficult for it, though it understood perfectly—but its meaning was clear: "I may not be choosy about my clients, but I do have some principles."
"All right, all right, it was just a—" Suddenly something hit Angelus behind the eyes. Hot pain blossomed, then was gone. But he could feel something there that hadn’t been there before.
"Oh, Soulboy," Angelus said, shaking his head. "What are you doing? Something stupid I suspect. You’re almost as predictable as Buff."
"Angel? Angel, wake up!"
"Stop shaking him. He’ll wake up when he’s ready."
"Was that supposed to happen?"
"Is he okay—I mean, is he gonna be?"
Angel moaned and stirred.
Several different unpleasant sensations ran through Angel at the same time. The first was what Doyle would have called a great cracking migraine. The second was the disorientation involved in finding oneself on the floor and not remembering how one got there. Both of these were at least somewhat familiar from his life as Liam. But the third—his desire to run into his apartment, burn his clothes, and take a several-hour shower in scalding holy water while scrubbing himself with industrial cleaners, was rather new.
He opened his eyes and the light speared into them, setting his head to renewed pounding. He raised his hand to shade his eyes, and the world slowly came into focus: Buffy, Wesley, and Cordelia were all kneeling around him. Giles, Willow, and Faith stood looking over the first rank’s shoulders.
"Are you okay?" Willow asked anxiously. He recognized her voice as the one who had asked before.
"I…ugh." He rubbed his forehead with the heels of his hands, and his headache started to fade. A little. "I will be." He started to sit up. Buffy slipped an arm around his shoulders and helped him up so he could hang his head between his knees for a moment.
"Did it work?" Giles asked quietly. "What did you see?"
Angel looked up at him. "I, uh—I…"
What had he seen?
He couldn’t remember. There’d been fire, and blood, and some reaching, grasping darkness.
No, he couldn’t remember what he’d seen, but he could remember what he’d felt. Oh, yes, he could remember what he’d touched. All those years, even when Angelus had been dominant, he had been diluted by his residence in the shell that had once been a man named Liam. Yes, diluted was the word, diluted as even such ancient and mighty vampires as the Master and Kakistos were diluted by that essential humanity of body and mind. Bastardized. Hybrids.
Just enough to make the Judge’s touch itch.
But now Angelus was free. Pure. And when Angel had touched him, he’d touched something old and evil and as hungry as darkness itself.. Something glacially cold one moment and wild, ravenous, forest-fire hot the next. Something that wanted to gouge the land, rip up the trees and demolish the mountains. Something that wanted to turn everything before it to ash.
"I…don’t remember what I saw. But yes, it did work."
"So you know where he is?"
"No," Angel answered as he climbed to his feet. "But I have his scent."
It took just a moment for Angel to pull on his shirt, shoes, and spare trench coat, then they were off.
The same convoy that had come from Sunnydale the previous afternoon threaded through the garish lights and hungry darkness of the 2 AM streets of Los Angeles. Before long, they had left the garish light behind and submerged themselves in the darkness. They entered the narrow, labyrinthine, tenebrous streets where the night-people lived and the night-things hunted them.
With their roaring speed and utter disregard of all traffic laws and signals, they should have been stopped. And if they had been stopped, they would almost certainly have had to resort to magic to avoid being taken in. They were a rolling arsenal.
But they were not stopped, and it was nearing 3 AM when they entered an industrial wasteland. Every city, no matter how small, has at least one such place. People don’t live there or even go there anymore. The warehouses of a dead business or even a dead industry stand deserted in the middle of an empty parking lot. Usually, the chain-link fences still stand, but sometimes the gates just stand open. As they did here.
Usually, such places stand dark and silent. But this one had a light burning.
"We’re here," Angel announced.
Angelus had set up a tray beside Kate’s bed. He’d set it up very carefully so she could see what was on it: pliers. A scalpel. An extension cord and a wirestripper. A speculum. A candle. A cigarette lighter. Some paperclips.
"I thought we’d start simple," he was saying. "I don’t have the equipment to get really exotic here, and I don’t want to maim you yet. I mean, how am I going to put bamboo under your fingernails later if I cut off your fingers now? You see how it is." He picked up the wirestripper and took an end of the extension cord. "Torture is just as much a science as it is an art. You mess something up, the whole thing is ruined." He clipped the socket end off the extension cord and began to strip the insulation from the wire. "Wishing you hadn’t been quite so bitchy when you were dealing with Soulboy?" He asked.
Kate was terrified. No one knew she was here—as far as anyone knew, she’d been killed in the fire. So she could expect no rescue. She had to get out of this herself, and she suspected that as soon as he set to work, she wouldn’t be in any condition to. She had to keep him talking. "You keep saying that name. Who is Soulboy?" She asked.
"Ah, yes. That’s right. I did promise to tell you just how stupid you are. Well, it’s pretty simple, although I doubt you’ll believe me."
"I’ll believe anything you tell me."
He chuckled, laid the wirestripper and the extension cord in his lap like an old lady’s knitting, reached out and mussed her hair like a fond uncle. "Very good. You learn quickly."
He explained vampire nature to her: how a person turned into a vampire is dead, that their soul is displaced and a demon fills in the gap it leaves behind. How he had ravaged Europe for nearly 150 years, but was finally cursed with a soul by some angry gypsies. Except for several months in ’98, the Soul—and the Angel she knew—had been dominant. But two days ago now, a devil had pulled him free from his long imprisonment.
Insane. Oh, god, he’s gone insane. MPD or something. His original personality has reasserted itself. And he’s delusional.
"Well," Angelus said as he finished his story. "Enough of that. Down to business." Suddenly, his head snapped up, as if he’d heard something. "Oops. Company."
He set down the extension cord, picked up the scalpel, and used it to slash the lengths of clothesline that tied her to the bed. "You’d better come with me."
Heaved by the muscles of the Warriors and the minds of the two witches, the warehouse’s great garage door slid up into the ceiling with a metallic shriek.
The Warriors flung themselves in through the door and spread out, weapons at the ready. Riley gripped a Combat Magnum with both hands. Angel and Gunn both carried axes, though Angel also had a broadsword strapped to his back. Buffy held a sword as well, and her hand hovered over the stake in her pocket. Faith held the Mayor’s knife and a stake of her own. Spike had scorned Angel’s weapons chest and simply picked up a length of lead pipe.
The warehouse was dim, but not dark. Roughly half of the lights were on, but they were in irregular patches throughout the building, leaving islands of light and pools of deep shadow.
Riley, instinctively looking for snipers, noticed catwalks up near the ceiling, but he couldn’t see if anyone or anything was on them. He didn’t like that.
"Tsk, tsk, tsk. I get a gun, then everyone wants one."
All of them whipped toward the patch of shadow where the voice originated.
"Come out where we can see you," Angel called. "You know hiding isn’t an option."
"Oh, I’m not hiding. In fact, there’s something I want you to see."
Some of those present—Joyce, Tara, Anya—even Gunn, Wesley, and Faith—weren’t fully prepared for Angelus’s sheer viciousness, and couldn’t suppress a gasp of shock.
Angelus held Kate upright by her hair. His gun was to her temple, and he held her in front of himself as a human shield. She was still naked, and her shoulder and knee both showed raw, puckered, half-healed wounds.
She struggled and pulled at his wrist even as she limped and stumbled along, but he jammed the barrel hard against her temple, and she froze. Angelus fixed Riley with a malicious grin.
"Pop quiz, hot shot," he taunted. "Terrorist has a police officer prisoner, with a gun to her head. Can’t shoot the prisoner because she’s been shot twice already, and one more could kill her. What do you do, punk? What do you do?"
"I wait for the terrorist to move his head. Even a little bit. Then I put a bullet in his eye," Riley said coldly.
"Hey, genius," Angelus catcalled. "Bullets? On a vampire? No wonder the rest of your little G.I.Joe playgroup got eaten if you’re the best they had."
Riley barely heard the taunt. He was ice. He’d been one of the best marksmen in the Initiative—it was one of the few areas where he excelled even Buffy. All he needed was one opening. One.
Two could play this psychological warfare game. Time to put four years of college and a half-year of graduate study to use. "I don’t have to shoot you in the head with this thing too many times before it counts as decapitation," he replied, still calm. "Besides, how do you plan to dodge incoming stakes with most of your brains painting the wall behind you?" Good. Make him feel vulnerable. Make him nervous.
"You’re not going to pull the trigger."
Heads—not Riley’s—turned. Who had spoken?
"And why not, you cowardly, obnoxious little slut?" Angelus sneered.
"Because she’s the only hostage you have," The ex-demon explained patiently. "Once you shoot her—"
"Then you’re ours," Angel growled.
Angelus pursed his lips and nodded. "Good point—except for one thing: who ever said she was a hostage? Not me. I just thought I’d bring her out here and blow her brains out in front of you for grins."
He grinned a mouthful of daggers at them, and his finger tightened on the trigger.
Willow and Tara’s hands slapped together.
Riley NOW! Shouted in Riley’s head.
Angelus’s gun hand snapped up and away.
Riley twitched his own aim just a hair away from where it had been and fired.
The explosion was deafening in the empty, echoing concrete space.
Someone started to scream.
Kate stumbled forward, her hair saturated with blood.
Oh God I missed Oh god I killed her I killed a woman I killed a cop I—
Then they all realized that the screamer was male.
Kate stumbled forward. Her body was a symphony of pain—pins and needles still stabbed into her awakening extremities, she couldn’t hear anything over the ringing in her ears, and she suspected that Angel (Angelus?) had torn out a chunk of her scalp.
But she forced herself to run. This was her one and only chance to escape, to survive, and she forced all of her remaining strength into her leg muscles, forced them to drive forward toward the safety of Angel--
Angel? Then who is--? He was telling the truth?!
--and his friends.
She’d run no more than three steps when agony like white-hot steel pins shot through her knee, splinters of pain spearing into the soft meat between her bones as the delicate, half-finished (if she’d looked into the corner of her room, she would have seen the broken-necked body of an Asclepian demon who had insisted on finishing the job) healing ruptured.
With a scream of pain, she pitched forward. The cement floor rose up to meet her—then it stopped, and she was hanging in place, and then she was flying across the room.
Willow and Tara grimaced with the effort of bringing the wounded police officer across. It would take them a moment or two to recover from moving Angelus’s hand.
It had been frighteningly difficult.
Together, the two of them could have lifted Gunn’s fully-loaded truck. Arm-wrestling with someone should have been nothing.
If they hadn’t caught him by surprise, they probably wouldn’t have been able to move him.
As they set Kate down behind the Scooby Gang’s skirmish line, Willow mentally calculated the foot-pounds of force she and Tara could apply, and compared it to Angelus’s resistance, and she came to a simple conclusion: Angelus was impossibly strong, even for a supernatural being.
This was bad.
Angel pulled the trench coat off a protesting Spike’s back and wrapped Kate in it. Then he leaned her up against the wall.
"How is it possible?" She asked in a dreamy slur. "Who is he? Who are you?"
"I’ll explain later," he said. Then he pulled a .45 that he’d brought along for this very purpose out of an inner pocket of his own trench coat. "Here, can you use this?"
Her eyes cleared, and she took the gun’s handle in a firm grip. "Yes. I can."
"Better save one for yourself," Spike taunted. "Just in case we lose."
Without a word, Angel stood up and smacked his Childe across the back of the head
Then Angelus’s screams turned to screams of laughter.
"Better come see this," Oz called.
Angelus’s right hand had been all but removed at the wrist. It was nothing but a mess of meat and bone. For a moment, he’d stood, gripping his wrist and staring in shock, screaming in pain.
But then that moment had passed, and flesh like melted wax began to flow upward into the place of the ruined hand, and the screams turned to laughter. Another moment later, the hand was replaced, only not as it had been before. Now it was larger, gnarled, ice-white and tipped with black claws.
Then he turned the palm toward them, and the laughter doubled. Madness in stereo.
There was a fanged mouth in the palm of the new hand.
"Oh, shit." Had that been Faith? No, it sounded more like…Joyce?
Then he released his wrist and turned the other palm toward them, and the fanged mouth in that hand joined in the laughter.
"Holy fuck!" That had been Faith.
Tara whispered a prayer to the protector-goddess Durga.
Angelus raised his hands. "Kill them all!" He shouted with all three mouths.
The shadows came alive. Demons began to pour out into the lighted areas. Some were insectile, others reptilian, some were humanoid, and some were tentacled horrors. But they all had one thing in common: they all wore identical gray uniforms.
"The Scourge!" Giles exclaimed, shocked.
"They bad news?" Xander asked. "The Nazi uniforms kinda hint toward yeah, but I want to make sure."
"They’re a demon organization dedicated to the utter annihilation of humanity—especially in the form of racial impurity among demons."
"So they are Nazis?"
"But how can Angelus give them orders?" Anya asked. "He’s a vampire. He’s not pure."
"But he is. He’s a vampire demon now, not a vampire. Thanks to Belial, he’s probably purer than any of them."
A dragon-winged demon had been gliding down from the catwalks that Riley had disliked so much—and which were now teeming with members of the Scourge. Cordelia had shot it down with a crossbow bolt.
All eyes turned to her. "Murderers," she whispered. She dropped the crossbow she held and pulled out another, as well as the Katana she had chosen over her axe. "Murderers," she said more strongly as she leveled her crossbow at the first rank of the Scourge, who were staring in shock at the body of their comrade that one of these easy-meat humans had managed to kill. Her face twisted into a rictus of hate and she screamed "Kill them all!"
Both sides took it as their signal and erupted.
A broadside volley of gunfire broke the first rank of the Scourge’s attack, and a battering ram of telekinetic force from Willow and Tara flung the second into disarray. Then the two sides crashed together, and everything erupted into a chaotic melee.
Riley had used up his combat magnum in the initial charge. He threw it away—taking the extra moment he needed to catch a demon like a giant praying mantis in the eye with it—pulled out a pair of 9 mm berettas, and waded back into the chaos.
Faith was desperately wishing that she had a weapon with more reach than her knife. She was fighting some kind of thing that was mostly humanoid, except it had teeth like ice picks and long bone swords growing out of its arms. She looked for an opening, but it was good—it kept one "sword" back on guard while slashing at her with the other. And she was having trouble blocking with just her knife. It was backing her up—she went with it, hoping to get to an open space so she could run and get a chain or a length of pipe or something.
Then a tail swept her feet out from under her and dropped her on her back.
Swords loomed over her, drawing its arm back for a killing blow. She brought her knife up, hoping to deflect the blade so it "just" pinned her shoulder to the floor.
Swords collapsed like a marionette with cut strings, leaving nothing but a mist of violet blood in the air.
Giles, a cutlass in one hand and a pistol in the other, a chain wrapped around his shoulder, leaped into the space that Swords had just vacated and stood over her while she climbed to her feet.
"Are you all right?" He shouted.
"Five by five," she answered.
"Good. Take the chain!"
"Where’d you get this?" she asked as she obeyed.
"No proper hooligan goes to a brawl without at least one chain at hand."
Oz, though he didn’t think of himself as a hooligan, would have agreed. He stood close by Willow and Tara, providing—in his words –"Ground Cover" so they could safely throw their magic into the fray. Rather than raiding Angel Investigations’ gun cabinet, he had well and truly stocked up at the closet of hand weapons. He had a pair of nunchaku tucked into his belt, a knife in each boot, and he was currently whirling a manriki-gusari: a chain with a blunt weight at each end. He was demonstrating some of the other things he’d learned in Tibet. He’d already broken the attacking spider-demon’s mandible with one end, and he’d wrapped the other around its front legs.
He pulled, heard chitin snap, and he couldn’t repress a sharp-toothed grin of savage satisfaction.
Spike swung his length of pipe, and a serpent-demon that had been coming in low went sailing.
"Bloody hell. Hooked it."
Angel burst out of the crowd of demons and into the clear. He’d left a trail of broken bodies and severed limbs as wide as himself through the Scourge ranks.
He was right there with Cordelia on the "Kill them all" idea. Yep. Kill ‘em all. Sounds like a good idea.
But first things first.
"Angelus," he growled, going into demon face and hefting his axe.
Angelus, who’d been scowling as he watched Buffy run her sword into the belly of a demon twice her size, turned toward him and grinned.
He was also in demon face. But his face was bone-white, his ears had gone long and pointed, and he had horns where Angel’s brow was merely ridged. His jaw was distorted and oversized, full of teeth as long as human fingers.
"Soulboy," he rumbled in all three voices.
Buffy pulled her sword out of the demon’s belly and dodged another swipe from its massive, apelike arms.
"No, you don’t understand," she said. "This is the part where you fall down and die."
"Murrrgh!" Was its only answer, and it swung again.
"No, no. No ad-libbing." She panted, dancing out of range again.
It drew back its fist for a heavy overhand blow, then stopped, stiffened, and collapsed.
Wesley stood behind it, his chest heaving, a war-pick in his hands, buried in the thing’s back. "Weak…spot…" He gasped. "Under…shoulder…blade."
"Thanks, W—Oh, my God, is he insane?"
Wesley followed her gaze, to where Angel was attacking Angelus. "It seems so," he said, pulling the pick out of the demon’s back.
"You ready?" She asked.
He nodded. "Let’s go."
Angel swung his axe at Angelus’s head, but the demon dodged the blade, moved the weapon past him with the palm of his hand, and kept spinning until he came full circle and opened a quadruple-line of gashes in Angel’s face with a backhand slash of his claw.
Across the room, Xander stood in a defensive position by the wounded Kate with Joyce, Anya, Willow, Tara, and Oz.
"Look!" Anya shouted, pointing.
All of them looked.
"Merciful Goddess," Willow whispered. "He doesn’t have a chance."
Xander heard. He threw the safeties on the gun he was holding, shoved it in his back pocket, and drew a crossbow.
Angel didn’t even seem to notice that he was wounded. He just came back with a low slash, intended to take Angelus out at the knees.
Angelus leaped over the slash and kicked out, sending Angel hurtling across the room to slam into the wall. He slid down it and lay in a boneless heap at its base.
"He’s killing him!" Joyce cried.
Please, Xander thought as he drew a bead. Whoever would listen to a guy like me. If I don’t do anything else right in my life, let me do this.
Still grinning, Angelus took a step toward his victim.
Everyone, Scourge and Scooby, froze.
Angelus looked down to where the crossbow bolt quivered in his chest.
Perfect shot. No vampire had ever been struck more clear and true in the heart.
For the creatures in the room who had heartbeats, one passed. Then two.
Then Angelus started to laugh.
In his demon form, his laugh was a guttural, clotted thing. But he laughed loud and he laughed long, and he raised his arms to his audience.
"Behold!" He declaimed. Surely he was talking to the Scourge, trying to make an impression, because he would never use such pompous language with people who knew him. He pulled the stake out of his chest and raised it over his head. "I have risen above the weaknesses of the mongrel kind!"
With that, the mouth in that hand bit the bolt in two.
"Oh shit this is bad." Faith.
"We are in so much trouble." Cordelia.
No one noticed Angel sprinting across the room until he plucked something from inside his trench coat and leaped. He caught Angelus in a flying headlock—Angelus rocked on his feet, but managed to stay standing, and Angel was left hanging from his neck. It was only then that they realized that Angelus’s demon form was at least seven feet tall—and pressed something wrapped in cloth to Angelus’s face. Something hissed, and Angelus shrieked.
"How about this weakness?" Angel roared.
A cross. It had to be. Angel had wrapped a cross in cloth and smuggled it into the battle in his trench coat, suffered the discomfort of the holy symbol so near to his demon skin, all for a chance to burn Angelus. Make him hurt as he’d made others hurt. And now he had his chance.
Angelus screamed like a banshee. Only now did they recognize that his screams at losing his hand had been well-acted fakes, something to keep them off-balance until he could surprise, demoralize, and mock them with his new talents. But this was real. This was impossible to fake. This was a wild animal in agony, its hide on fire, rolling helplessly in the dirt.
"Do you like that?" Angel bellowed. "Is this funny? I don’t hear you laughing!"
Angelus screamed and staggered and thrashed and tore at Angel with his claws. Angel was battered and torn, but he held on like grim death.
"This is for those people in that apartment building!"
Angelus’s face caught fire. His new scream of anguish made the others sound like whimpers.
"This is for Jenny Calendar!"
The cloth caught fire and burned away.
"This is for Buffy and Giles!"
His own hand sizzled and—bathed in the fire from Angelus’s face and pressed against the cross—caught fire.
"For my family!" He screamed in agony and rage, pressing the cross into Angelus’s face even harder, squeezing tighter, not letting up.
"Get off me!" Angelus roared. A tentacle punched out of his shirt and lanced into Angel’s stomach.
For the second time in five minutes, Angel found himself flying across the room and crashing into a wall. He slammed his head and his teeth chipped with the force of jarring shut. Ribs cracked, his spine flexed and whiplashed, and his limbs splayed wide.
His hand was put out by the wind. There was that, anyway.
But Angel didn’t notice any of this. The breath-stealing impact in his stomach had turned into a white-hot bar of agony that shot clear through him.
Across the room, he saw Angelus smothering the charred ruin that half his face had become with his own trench coat.
"Let me show you the future, Soul Boy," Angelus whispered. Angel saw his lips move, but he heard it in his head. "Let me show you my world."
Then everything went black.
Angel found himself standing on a vast, empty, twilit plain. He looked around wildly.
"Welcome to the future, Liam," A great, rumbling whisper said. Angel whipped toward the source. Angelus’s face—his own face—filled the horizon. "Welcome to the end of history," it rumbled. "Enjoy the show."
Then he began to laugh uproariously, and as he opened his mouth wide to do so, a vast cloud of darkness poured out. The cloud filled the horizon, obscuring his face. Then it swept forward, raining blood and laughing in the same voice.
Angel turned and ran, ran from the advancing cloud-wall of darkness with its reaching, whipping tendrils, but it was no use. It hit him and swept him off his feet like a riptide.
Then all horizons were opened to him.
He saw this same darkness sweep over Los Angeles, and all of the people in it were Turned in an instant, but they weren’t ordinary fledglings, barely conscious and stuck in their half-formed demon faces, oh, my, no. Some had wings, others cloven hooves. Yet others had horns, and some had bat-faces. Every vampire born in this darkness, this mutating radiation from Hell, was a Master or a Kakistos or a Lothos.
The world spun at exaggerated speed, and light stained the horizon. The vampires descended into the storm drains while the Darkness descended into the sea, and before long dolphins and fish and whales and strange things from the deeps began to float to the surface, pale and bloodless.
Night came again, and the vampires erupted out of Los Angeles and the Darkness rose from the sea and Angel saw a blur of days pass by as the vampires and the darkness ravened and reveled and killed their way across the world. In just a few moments’ time, the whole world had been Turned. When the last human fell and rose again, all of the vampires turned to face the rising sun.
As its light swept the Earth, a great wave of fire raced behind it, fed by everything that had once been the human race. And all of the works of humankind and nature were caught in that great Burning.
And when they were all gone, the Darkness rose from the sea one last time and formed itself into a man-shape colossus, and it stood in the midst of the flames, a spreading ocean of blood still raining down from its upraised arms. It laughed its dark joy and triumph and defiance to the stars as the sun came around one last time and burned it away at last. It died laughing, leaving a dead, cold, ashen world behind.
"NO!" Angel screamed, writhing and clutching at the tentacle.
Twenty feet away, something snapped inside Joyce Summers. She had hidden from this fight. She had tried to keep her daughter away from it. She had tried to drive this man away, so Buffy could escape. But none of it had worked. It had all come back to this. If she couldn’t pull Buffy out, she would stand at her side, and now one of the men (one of the men!) that her precious, beloved daughter loved was dying in front of her eyes and
The world went into slow motion as she charged, swinging the axe as she went, putting her full momentum, her full weight into it.
The tentacle split in two, spraying her with cold blood. Across the room, Angelus roared in rage and pain. Angel began to crumple, but Xander was there to catch him.
"Come on, Buddy," Xander was saying. "Let’s get you to the nice cop with the nice gun who can cover your ass." He couldn’t carry Angel—the vampire outweighed him by a good seventy pounds. But at the last second, Angel recovered enough consciousness to stumble along on his own, steadying himself on Xander’s shoulder.
Across the room, Angelus roared in rage. "Bitch!" He bellowed. "You bitch!" Then he caught himself, visibly stopping himself before his rant could really get started. Losing his cool would be bad. Screaming temper tantrums impressed no one, not even if you were (as he now was) nearly eight feet tall and laden with more natural weaponry than the rest of the room combined. It would just tell the pathetic, dried-up has-been of a bloodsack that she’d hurt him, even if just a little. For that same reason, it would cost him face with the Scourge.
Calm. No tantrums. No berserk rages. He shrunk back down to the image of the form he’d once stolen from Liam of Galway.
Still. Time to take the gloves off.
He held up a single claw. "You have managed," he announced. "To piss me off."
He slid the claw down his chest, parting his already-damaged shirt. Then he took the flapping edges and pulled it open.
Buffy, still working her way toward Angelus with Wesley following in her wake and covering her back, came up short. "Oh. My God."
Riley used the .45 in his right hand to cross himself.
"Get it out," Angel muttered, clutching at the length of tentacle that still wriggled in his midsection.
" No, wait!" Xander said, grabbing the vampire’s hand. He’d seen the tentacle’s tip sticking out of Angel’s back: it was bullet-shaped, but it had barbs. Go in easy, come out hard. If Angel pulled it out through his stomach, most of his guts would come with it. "You have to pull it out—" He grabbed the tentacle, braced himself against Angel’s back, prayed that the barbs didn’t have venom or any other cute tricks, and pulled.
Angel screamed and all but collapsed into Xander’s arms.
Joyce and Anya hurried to help him, but Joyce froze and pointed in wide-eyed horror.
"Oh my God," She gasped. "What! Is! That!"
"The void," Angel muttered deliriously. "The hunger of the stars, the bleeding shadow, the darkness from beneath."
A massive, spike-toothed maw split Angelus’s torso vertically from collarbone to waist. There was no moist pink lining within, just blackness. Depthless blackness, as if Angelus wasn’t a solid being anymore. As if he was just a conduit to the darkness that Belial had emerged from just two days ago, where unspeakable things still swam. The Void beneath reality.
As if Angel’s delirious ravings were correct.
Indeed, perhaps that was the only explanation, because one moment there was nothing but the darkness. The next, there were things in the darkness. Moving. Writhing.
The moment after that, the things burst forth:
Tentacles. Dozens of them. Or were they tongues?
Some tentacles had stingers or barbs. Some had pincers, others had mouths. Others yet had things that looked like a mosquito’s mouthparts.
The tentacles (tongues?) lashed out throughout the battleground, cracking like whips, striking like snakes, forcing the Scoobies apart.
The Scourge, heartened by the fall of one of their opponents’ champions and the breaking of the line, surged forward with a roar.
Riley’s last gun was empty. He knew that. But he shoved it into the face of something that looked like a velociraptor in a Nazi uniform anyway and pulled the trigger. It ducked its head, wincing.
It looked up again, a confident grin on its face.
Which was when he clubbed it upside the head with the gun barrel.
Its head snapped to the side with a yelp of pain, then swung back with a snarl of rage. It had only come halfway back around when Riley shoved a knife into the spot where its jaw met its neck.
It tore the knife out of his hand as it collapsed.
That was okay. He had another in his boot. But before he resorted to depending on a single knife…
He reached over his shoulder and drew the roman gladius he had strapped to his back. He wasn’t very good with a long sword yet, though Mr. Giles was training him. He was better with a knife, but he needed more reach in this situation. The short sword was as happy a medium as he could find.
He slashed out and clipped the end off a tentacle that was biting at him.
He started backing toward the nearest wall, sword in one hand, knife in the other, as the Scourge started to close in around him.
Battle is no place for amateurs. And a pro knows when to forget about pride and yell for help. "Mayday!" He shouted. "Mayday! Mayday!"
Buffy’s head snapped toward the shout.
"Riley!" she called.
She’d been heading toward Angel, but she could see that Xander, Anya, her mother, and even Kate were doing their best to defend her lover (husband?), who was sitting up against the wall, clutching his stomach and doing his best to regather his strength.
They were being attacked by the greatest concentration of tentacles, obviously still trying to get at Angel. But Riley was alone.
"Giles! Cordelia!" She yelled. "Help my mother!"
She looked over her shoulder, to where Wesley had just chopped down something that looked like a five-foot sea anemone with wings. "You come with me," she ordered. "Faith!" She called out, raising her voice again. "This way! ‘Beefstick’ is in trouble!"
She changed direction and began to chop her way through the Scourge like underbrush in the jungle. "Riley! Hold on! I’m coming!"
Spike had lost his length of pipe. It had been sliced in two by another demon like "Swords". He’d come out all right in that one—shoved the larger piece in its ear ‘til it came out the other side—but that’s something of a one-time maneuver.
Now he fought on, grim and silent and bare-knuckled. There were no quips, no flashes of wit for his own benefit. Sure, he’d lost a chunk of meat out of his shoulder and there was still a claw stuck in his thigh—what’s a brawl without a little risk?—but that wasn’t why he’d turned serious.
He’d just seen his Sire turn into something from the far side of a nightmare. This wasn’t a brawl. This wasn’t even war. This was soddin’ Armageddon, and that wasn’t funny.
He would have run, but where was there to run to?
Option two: he was going to put his back to a wall and keep it there.
Oz and Tara had been separated from the main defensive position by the initial rush of tentacles.
Angelus had recognized the two witches and their magic as perhaps the greatest threat to his followers—the Scoobies’ artillery, if you will. The brutish members of the Scourge couldn’t counter. But Angelus was a schemer, and what is a schemer but an unscrupulous strategist? He had noticed something else: rather than separating and hitting his fighters from different angles, they’d stayed together. Why do that? Unless that togetherness was the key to their power?
A tentacle tipped with something like a chitinous scythe-blade had swung between the two witches, forcing them to part their hands. Willow had been driven all the way back to the Scoobies’ main defensive position by a writhing forest of tentacles with pincers that snapped at her like bear traps.
Tara and Oz had been left at the mercy of the Scourge.
Oz had lost his Manriki-Gusari. Something with skin like stone had wrapped the chain around its arm and yanked it out of his hands. Now he had both knives out and he was backing to the wall with Tara behind him.
Oz felt the Beast rising inside him. He was terrified, he was furious, he was the Wolf trapped in a closing circle of enemies and the Wolf wanted to come out and start ripping. He growled at them through sharpening teeth.
No. He had to keep his cool. Stay in control. Stay coolie-cool boy. He had to protect—
"Oz!" Something with a face like strips of leather held together by string had grabbed Tara’s arm, and it was dragging her away.
Willow! Help me!
Willow had been trying to push her way back through the tentacles to her lovers, but it was hopeless. She and Tara formed a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. When they were together, her power was not added to Tara’s, but multiplied by it. On her own, against Angelus’s impossible strength, there was nothing she could do. In fact, it was backing her up still further.
An image flashed into her mind: a grinning monster pulling her in among other grinning monsters. Oz, reaching, holding out his hand, unable to reach.
Willow spun. Cordelia was standing closest to her, parrying a mouth-tentacle with her katana. Willow immediately noticed that Cordelia had brought the wakizashi as well, and had it hanging in a scabbard at her hip.
"Sorry!" Willow said as she snatched the short sword from its sheath. She turned back around, murmured a quick invocation to Kali—the wild, dancing goddess who drank the blood of demons--and poked the tip of her index finger with the sword’s point, leaving a drop of her own blood behind.
Tara! Hold on! I’m coming! Oz, please help her!
Oz, please help her!
Telepathy is a funny thing. It carries the meaning, not just the message. Oz received not just Willow’s request but: I trust you. I can depend on you. I know this because I love you and I know you love me. I trust you to save Tara. Then he was flooded with Willow’s white-hot passionate, winter-blankets comfortable, spring-flowers hopeful love for Tara, and finally, the soul-blasting terror of losing (either of you) her.
Oz would stand on his own pyre and let himself burn to keep Willow from feeling like that.
She didn’t really need to ask, though. Tara was a friend (packmate? Maybe almost) and both the Man and the Wolf were in agreement on what had to happen.
Oz wished it didn’t have to be this way, but the knives just weren’t going to do it.
Seconds later, clawed, fanged, red-furred death landed among the Scourge.
The demon who had grabbed Tara vanished in a spray of rot-brown flesh and black blood, leaving only his hand clinging to her arm. It clutched once, spasmodically, then fell away.
Free, she stumbled back out of the melee and pressed her back to the wall. Her heart was jackhammering and her breath came hard. Her face and hands both felt icy, and she knew that if she had somewhere to look, she would see that her face was so pale it was almost translucent.
Oz did well—at first. The members of the Scourge were thrown off balance by the suddenness and ferocity of the attack. Oz slashed, ripped, and bit—and when a victim had a recognizable throat, he tore it out. For a moment, they did nothing but panic and flee—if they could have scattered, they would have. But it was too crowded—there was nowhere for them to escape to.
Desperate, they turned and fought.
A truncheon caught Oz in the head and sent him spinning to the floor, but he kept spinning once he touched down and swept his opponent’s feet out from under him. Another tried to kick him while he was still down low, but he slipped under the kick and hamstrung the kicker’s other leg. He leaped for his next opponent, but the demon collapsed out of his way, revealing the Scourge standing behind him: The Stone Man.
A battering-ram fist crashed into Oz and sent him sailing, and he would have flown clear to the wall if another demon hadn’t snatched him out of the air with its tentacles. Two more grabbed on so the stunned werewolf couldn’t move even if he did recover, and the Stone-Man advanced.
Willow slashed with the wakizashi. The sword was sharp and fine, but it didn’t have the chopping weight or balance of a longer sword. Even if it did, Willow didn’t have the strength or skill to put the weapon through one of the tentacles.
Kali took care of that.
Willow swung the wakizashi and cut nothing but air, but three tentacles fell away, cut cleanly and cauterized.
Angelus bellowed with pain.
Willow swung again.
Tara’s hand shot up into the right position to catch the Stone Man’s descending fist—if she’d been in front of it.
The fist froze in its downswing, hanging in mid-air.
Either the Stone Man was phenomenally stupid and didn’t even think of swinging his other fist--which she never would have been able to catch—or he realized what was happening and wanted to end it once and for all.
He kept pressing down.
The Stone Man wasn’t as strong as Angelus, but he was plenty strong enough. It was like trying to lift a mountain. Without Willow, she couldn’t hold it for long
She felt herself being driven to one knee.
He’s crushing me!
Oz was waking up. He began to thrash against his captors and yip for help.
All across the room, the rest of the Scooby Gang heard and tried to make their way toward the struggling werewolf, but Angelus and the Scourge closed in tighter, forcing them back. Willow redoubled her efforts and she was almost through, but it wasn’t going to be in time.
No! I’m not going to let this happen!
Trembling from the effort, Tara began to slowly close her fist.
The Stone Man got a quizzical look on his face.
Points of energy appeared at Tara’s fingertips, and they grew brighter and the resistance increased as her trembling hand tried to force itself closed.
The Stone Man’s face suddenly took on an expression that might have been a gasp of agony if it was human.
Tara’s fist closed and the light at her fingertips flashed from inside it and went out.
The Stone Man’s fist shattered. It collapsed, clutching the splintered stump of its wrist, its mouth gaping in a silent scream.
The other Scourge stared in horror, and Oz nearly escaped with a sudden lunge. But the one who had clubbed him before was there, and knocked him back into the arms of its comrades, who started to pound him themselves.
"No!" Tara started to collapse, but then a smaller hand caught her own.
She didn’t have to look. Strength surged into her and she looked up—Willow stood there, spattered with blood and holding a wakizashi in her other hand.
The second their hands touched, both of their eyes flared with blue light and their heads snapped toward the battle.
"Leave him alone!" They shouted in perfect unison, and the crowd of gray-clad demons parted like the Red Sea, flying through the air in all directions, leaving Oz standing alone in the trough.
Momentarily safe, Willow and Tara were able to survey the battle: Spike and Riley were both backed up to walls. Wesley, Faith, and Buffy were trying to cut their way through to Riley, but it might not be in time: Riley was tiring and the Scourge, sensing weak prey, were closing in. The Scoobies’ main defensive position was surrounded. What seemed like hundreds of Angelus’s tentacles—an impossible number, there was enough mass in those tentacles to make up dozens of Angeluses—pressed them from the front, while the Scourge closed in from the sides. Angel had regained his wits and was slowly regaining his feet, but he was still too weak to be a factor. Gunn, Giles, Xander, and Anya formed the front line. The men were out of ammunition and now depending on sword and axe to chop down whatever came near, but Anya was using her knowledge of the attacking demons to deliver sudden, lethal blows to weak points. The Scourge were coming to fear her the most—and were reacting accordingly, piling on the other sides of the perimeter and only hitting her with distance attacks. Joyce and Cordelia stood rear guard, protecting Angel and Kate against anything that got past the other four. Kate herself had put her borrowed weapon to good use, saving a member of the front line with a well-placed shot on three occasions.
It was bad. Real bad. As they watched, a tentacle lashed past the front line and knocked Joyce down. It was raising its tip—a scorpion’s sting—for the death blow, but Giles made a desperate lunge and caught it on his cutlass.
The two witches looked at each other. Their communication was instant and total: they had to do it, they had to take the gamble. There was no other choice. If they didn’t, none of them were getting out of here alive.
But oh, this was going to hurt.
The command cracked like a whip in the Scoobies’ heads. Some heard fathers or teachers or coaches. Riley heard his drill sergeant. Oz heard the snarl of an Alpha wolf.
Without thinking, all of them dropped to the floor. Giles and Joyce instinctively took the air-raid positions they’d been taught in school, crouched on their knees with their hands covering their heads.
There are some spells that are extremely simple, despite the tremendous power they invoke. A line or two, spoken in the magic-user’s vernacular. The reason for this is simple: the power for them is in the will, not the words, and an amateur couldn’t summon the power to make the words mean anything.
The spell that Willow and Tara now used was one such.
They gripped their hands tighter, and the blue light in their eyes blazed up to white. A phantom wind swirled around them and then throughout the room, blowing scraps of paper and cloth before them.
For a brief moment their spirits flowed together and they were as one being, Tara’s iron-strong gentleness and Willow’s quiet joy. They called upon all of the sources of power and will that they had: their love for each other, their love for the other members of the Scooby Gang—Giles was the father neither of them had ever had, Joyce the mother, Buffy the sister, Xander the brother—to Willow, Angel was also a brother, as Riley was to Tara—Willow’s love for Oz and what was that Tara was feeling for him?—The others, their friends—they called upon fear, fear of their own deaths and fear of losing their loved ones—they called on Rage, they called on pain.
"And all our lives through sex to death are goddess fire and dragon breath," Tara said, but she wasn’t reciting a spell. She was declaring. She felt the fire burning in her own heart, the breath filling her lungs.
"We call upon the power of the Serpent of Old!" Willow shouted.
Then they felt it. The power. It was the power of the Dragon itself, power like no mortal should ever even touch, power like gripping a lightning bolt. It rushed into them and it filled them and it burned. Their blood was liquid fire, flowing through a body that was catching like dry grass in a firestorm. Their eyes boiled in their sockets and their nerves were white-hot wires. And they felt the power, still coming, still building.
Coalescing in their stomachs, first nausea, then a ball of pain like a tiny sun.
Coming up their throats, erupting like a geyser.
They both opened their mouths in perfect unison, and twin jets of green flame burst forth.
The nearest Scourge simply evaporated.
The Stone Man and the floor fused into a single blob of volcanic glass.
Of the dozens of Scourge present, perhaps half a dozen had realized what Tara and Willow were doing. The moment they’d heard the words that the witches were speaking, they’d dived for the nearest window.
Only they lived.
Angelus howled in agony as his tentacles were burned away. In desperation, he closed the maw in his chest and bit them off, shedding them like a gecko sheds its tail—better to lose part than all. They’d grow back.
He saw the fire-front approaching him—demons that didn’t "dust" when they died exploding into ash as the witch-fire engulfed them.
Time to go.
He almost made it clean away, but the blast caught him as he sprinted out the back door and sent him sprawling, his back on fire. He saved himself by rolling on his back and smothering the flames. Then he escaped into the night, leaving only his ruined trench coat behind.
The power departed as quickly as it had come, leaving both witches hollowed-out and exhausted. They slumped against each other and let their hands drop apart.
"I don’t ever wanna do that again," Willow moaned.
"That’s okay," Tara panted. "I don’t know if we could."
Oz. They’d forgotten Oz. He was still in wolf-form, wild with fear of the fire, and he was coming right at them.
Angel and Spike had heard Oz rising to his feet and pacing about wildly. They smelled his fear. They knew something was going to happen. Both made a limping, broken charge toward the witches and the werewolf.
Willow broke away and held up her hands. "Oz! Wait! No!"
Magic! I have to hold him down, push him back—something!
Nothing. She couldn’t move a pencil in the state she was in. Someone she loved was about to kill someone else she loved, and there was nothing she could do.
Buffy raced across the room, Faith close on her heels.
This isn’t happening this isn’t going to happen I won’t let this happen have to run have to jump have to tackle
NOT GOING TO MAKE IT IN TIME!
And Tara dropped to the ground.
Oz stopped short.
Tara rolled on her back and spread her arms like a puppy waiting for its belly to be scratched.
Oz dropped to his forepaws beside her and sniffed.
Angel came up short himself, and held out his hand to stop the other rescuers. "Wait!" He called.
Oz nudged Tara’s face with his nose. She looked up into his eyes, squirmed on the ground, and whined.
"What the hell is she doing?" Faith demanded half-frantically.
"She’s submitting," Angel said, awed.
"Of course," Wesley said, finally catching up with the Slayers. "Brilliant. Wolves don’t fight to the death. Not against their own."
Tara wriggled and whined again, and Oz began to nuzzle her and lick her face.
With a shuddering sigh of relief, Willow dropped to her knees beside her lover and her ex. She took one of Tara’s outstretched hands and began to stroke Oz’s shoulders with her free hand.
Oz yipped happily and began to rub against her. The mate! She was back! After so long!
Willow didn’t notice Oz’s fur was thinning until she felt bare skin under her stroking hand. "Oz?"
The happy smile had dropped from Oz’s face as soon as it had turned human. Instead, he was staring in horror at the blond girl beneath him.
"I’m all right," She said softly.
He nodded, then closed his eyes tightly and looked away from both witches.
"Clothes, please," he murmured.
"You saved me," Tara said. "If it hadn’t been for the fire, you never would have—"
"Listen to her," Willow pleaded. "If she says it’s okay—"
Oz stood up and turned away from them, completely unmindful of his audience. "Clothes, please," he repeated sharply.
"Don’t look at me," Spike muttered, although no one was until he spoke up and walked away. "I already loaned out me leather."
"Here," Angel said, pulling off his own trench coat. "There’s a hole in it, but it’s better than nothing."
Oz took the coat with a nod and a "Thanks." Without another word, he walked past the assembled Scoobies, ignoring several attempts to reach out to him, and stood by himself in the doorway. He was upset, but not fool enough to run out by himself into a night that still sheltered Angelus.
The emergency past, attention was turned to Angel, Riley, and Kate.
Riley was found to be mostly okay. He’d suffered a few defense wounds—shallow slashes and scratches on his forearms, for the most part—and a bruise here and there.
Angel insisted that he was okay, too. Or soon would be. Impalement was never fun, but it had happened before, and he’d had worse. At least the wound was clean—no venom or any nastiness like that. A good swallow of blood and a few hours, and he’d be good as new. As to what had made him scream so and sent him delirious if the tentacle itself didn’t have any dirty tricks…he’d explain later.
Kate was a different story
While the wounded were being seen to by those who knew how, others turned to things that were less urgent, but important nonetheless.
"What were you thinking?" Buffy yelled. "Were you crazy?"
Joyce and Xander looked at each other and shifted their feet uncomfortably. It was unusual for Xander to be on this side of this lecture, unprecedented for Joyce. They were finding that they didn’t like it very much.
"We were just trying to help," Joyce protested.
"And you succeeded!" Buffy shouted, sounding as if she was infuriated by this fact. "Spectacularly! You saved Angel’s life, and I can’t ever thank you enough for that!"
Xander and Joyce looked at each other again, this time in total, fogbound incomprehension.
Buffy got up in their faces, waving her arms in a fury of frustration, as if they were failing to comprehend that one and one did not equal seventy-eight. "But you took on Angelus! Yourselves! That’s what Champions are for! What would I do if I lost either one of you?"
That sounded good. But it was still going by so fast. Their faces were still blank masks of confusion, but hope started to grow in their hearts.
"You both make me so mad I could break I-beams!" She ranted. "But I love you more than anything else in the world! Did you think you needed to prove something to me? Do you think that I wanted to punish you?"
Both of them nodded mutely.
"Well I didn’t!" She snapped, nearly taking the tip of Xander’s nose off with the snap of her teeth. "All I wanted was a friggin’ apology! Is that so hard to say? ‘I’m sorry’? I would have forgiven you just as much!"
She paused, glaring at them and panting.
"Does…that mean…we’re forgiven?" Xander asked tentatively.
Buffy raised her eyes to Heaven. "Yes. Yes, damn it. It does. If…you just…say it."
It was at this point that anyone who had been watching in morbid, flaming-car-crash fascination, turned away. Anya had to be turned away forcibly by Giles.
The words almost came blurting out of Xander’s mouth, but he stopped them. He knew he was being given a chance that he didn’t really deserve, and he had to do it right. He took a deep breath, and took it slow. "Once upon a time, I said that I hadn’t been the best of friends where Angel was concerned. You, and Angel…and Belial…have pointed out to me that might have been a little bit of an understatement. Fact is, I treated you like crap. I have an armada of reasons why I did it, and not one of ‘em floats. Here you are, forgiving me two days after the fact, and I stayed angry at you for a whole year. I don’t know what I did to deserve you, but it must have been something great. Thanks. And I’m sorry."
"I’m sorry, too, honey," Joyce said. How long had she kept berating Buffy for running away? Right up until graduation day, hadn’t it been? Now that same girl was extending her own forgiveness not two days after discovering her betrayal. She didn’t know where Buffy got it—if either she or Hank had possessed it, their marriage just may have lasted. "Mr. Giles told me that in your…family, you can’t turn around without hurting each other, and your best intentions are the ones that get you in the most trouble. But not all of my intentions were so good. Some were, but others…like Xander said, some just don’t float. I…you deserved so much better than…you saved the world, and you never even got a thank you. I’m so sorry."
Buffy let out a deep, relieved sigh. "Finally," she said. "It’s been hard making it through these past few days without you two for support," she admitted. They stood in silence for another moment, then she spoke up again in a small, embarrassed voice: "Um…can I have a hug now?"
They were only too happy to oblige. But as the two of them squeezed her between them in a way that Buffy sadly remembered involving both of her parents, Joyce whispered in her ear.
"Buffy…I have something to tell you," She said.
"We didn’t help Angel to impress you," She answered.
Buffy stared back at her quizzically. "Why’d you do it, then?"
"We helped Angel to help Angel," Xander explained.
The next moment, both of them were nearly crushed by a ferocious, joyfully teary-eyed Slayer hug.
Kate was the most seriously injured. Most of the Asclepian’s half-finished work, at least on her knee, had been undone by her escape attempt. Once the battle had ended, her consciousness had started to gray and become fuzzy around the edges.
Angel’s face loomed at her out of the fog that was filling her vision.
"I’m here, Kate. You’re going to be okay."
"Who was he, Angel? He said he was you…said he was Angelus."
"He was Angelus. He—"
"Was pulled out of you by the devil?" She finished. "He said that too. But that’s crazy, that can’t happen."
The concrete she was lying on was beginning to feel distinctly comfortable. Angel’s face was far above her, and his voice seemed to be coming from miles away. "I’m sleepy," she announced.
Angel’s distant face became alarmed. "Sleepy? Just hang on, Kate. We’ll get you some help."
"Hang on? I’m not going anywhere. I’m just a little sleepy…"
With that, the gray filled her mind and she slept.
"She’s in shock," Angel announced. "We need to get her to a hospital." He slid his hands under her limp form, but Wesley caught his shoulder.
"You still have a hole through your torso that’s two fingers wide," Wesley reminded him. "Granted, that’s an improvement over the size of my palm, but you should still let someone else carry her."
Half an hour later, a young, bespectacled man with a British accent, and an even younger African-American man delivered Officer Kate Lockley to the emergency room. They vanished back into the night as quickly as they had come, leaving only a note explaining the patient’s identity and how they’d found her in an alley across the street from the Benton Arms fire.
Dawn was already breaking as the Scooby Gang stumbled into the Hyperion. No discussion was made of the battle they had just completed or strategy for the future. They were exhausted—some were all but drunk from their need for sleep. What else could be expected? In three days of extremely strenuous activity, they’d only had a few stolen hours of sleep.
An unspoken agreement to discuss those things after they slept was formed as they all broke for the rooms.
Knock, knock, knock
Giles rolled toward the door. "Yes?" he called sleepily.
"May I come in, Rupert?" A whispered voice called in return.
The elder Summers woman opened the door slowly, entered on stocking feet, and closed the door carefully, holding the knob turned until it was time to let the latch slide back into place. All of this was done with the air of a mother trying not to wake the children—which Giles supposed was exactly what Joyce was at the moment.
He propped himself up on his elbow and put on his glasses. "Is there something I can help you with?" He asked.
"Maybe," she answered. "I’ll get to it in a moment. First, I wanted to thank you."
"You were right," she said, a beatific smile spreading on her face.
His sleep-starved mind was running on fumes, and it was running slow. "About what?"
"Buffy," she answered. "I was certain that she’d never forgive me, but—" She gave a ‘here we are’ shrug, but the smile never left her face.
"Yes," Giles agreed. "Buffy is a remarkable young woman."
She nodded in agreement. "Our daughter is turning out wonderfully."
He was already nodding in agreement himself when it hit him what she had said. He froze, and his eyes widened. "I beg your pardon?" He said in a choked voice.
Joyce crossed the room and sat down on the bed. "A father isn’t a man who creates a child, Rupert," she said. "He’s the man who raises her. Even when we were married, Hank wasn’t much of a father to Buffy. You’ve only known her since we came to Sunnydale, but you’re already much more of one."
"I’m…honored to hear you say so," he said. "I would never mean to presume, of course—"
"You never did," she reassured him. "Now we come to what you can do for me."
"Yes?" He asked warily. "What would that be?"
She took a deep breath. Apparently, it wasn’t something entirely easy for her to ask, and he recognized the look on her face as the one Buffy assumed when she was determined to be bold about something. "I’ve been pretty self-sufficient since I moved to Sunnydale, Rupert. I haven’t had sex since that night with the band candy, and I haven’t slept in a man’s arms since before Hank and I divorced. But these last couple days…’self-sufficient’ just won’t get me through. I’m not asking you to do anything. I’m exhausted, too. But I just can’t face an empty bed after everything that’s happened."
Dumbstruck, Giles answered her the only way that he could.
He drew back the covers.
Charles Gunn was pretty much as exhausted as he had ever been. He’d been in street fights, but even against supernatural beings they were nasty, brutal, and short. Pitched battle against an army of demons was something new. His arms and shoulders didn’t just ache, they burned, and his back felt like it had turned to stone. Or maybe glass. There was no way he was making it back to the squatter.
He took the first room he came to on the floor above Angel’s guests. If he’d been someone else, and he’d come from somewhere else, he might have just left the door open and fallen onto the bed. But he wasn’t, and he hadn’t. He not only closed the door, he locked it.
Then he fell onto the bed. When he landed, though, the bed squealed and the next instant he was facedown on the floor, his left arm twisted up behind his back and a hand like a vice-clamp gripping his neck and forcing his nose into the carpet.
"Hi," he muffled into the shag. "Faith, right?"
His assailant paused for a moment, then released him. "Yeah. Sorry, G. I mean, Gunn." She muttered something that sounded like "Damn, too many G’s around here," then continued. "You just kinda surprised me. And that’s kinda what I do when I’m surprised."
Gunn slowly climbed to his feet, rubbing the back of his neck. "Bet it never happens twice," he said.
"One way or another," she agreed.
"So what’re you doing up here?" He asked. "Most of the guests are downstairs."
"Well, I don’t hang with them all the time," she said. "I need my space, you know?"
"Yeah, actually, I do," He said. "I’ll just find another room."
"You don’t have to go," she said quickly. He turned back to her, and he had a strange, watchful, questioning look that reminded her of Angel on his face. She felt herself blush and silently cursed. Shy. She hadn’t felt shy in a long time. But then, she hadn’t dealt with a guy who might want more than to get into her britches in a long time, either. That look, like Angel’s, asked too much of her. "If you don’t want to," she finished lamely.
Suddenly, his face lit up with a broad grin that was entirely unlike anything she’d ever seen on Angel. "Sister, there is nothing I want less." As if to prove it, he kicked his boots off, swung one leg up and dropped onto the bed, then rolled to the other side to give her room. She didn’t use much of that room, however. She curled up to his side, resting her head on his shoulder as he put his arm around hers.
She waited for his other hand to come into play, to start grabbing for things. But it never did.
Suddenly, she was wide awake. Getting done and getting gone was one thing. Sleeping with a guy was quite another. It meant—well, it meant that you were sleeping, and he might wake up first, and then he could do, well, anything he damn well pleased, couldn’t he?
Besides, even if that wasn’t a factor, you’d still wake up together, and that was a definite turn-off. Stubble and morning breath. Gross.
She began to stroke his chest. "Hey," she said.
"Yeah?" He said fuzzily. He must have been starting to drift off. Which confused her even more. He was in bed with a girl, and he actually intended to just sleep? That was a first.
Her hand started a slow pilgrimage down his torso. "We don’t have to go to sleep right away, you know."
He grinned up at her. "No?"
She got up on her elbow and shook her head. "No. We could have a little fun first." She grinned. "Bump the headboard a little. I’m always horny after a fight."
He chuckled, then his face fell. "Oh, damn. Wait. I don’t have any protection."
Beltline. "How many guys has that ever stopped?"
He caught her hand. "It stops me," he said. His voice wasn’t harsh. It was soft and even a little kind, but she knew right away that he meant it—and this was one guy who didn’t change his mind when he meant it.
Her face flaming, she yanked her hand out of his and sat up. Good reason or not, rejection was still rejection. And it was still humiliating. "Yeah, well babies aren’t a worry for me anymore," she snapped. Then she froze. Oh, fuck. Why in hell did I tell him that?
He was silent for a long moment, and she waited for him to decide this bitch is crazy and get up and go. Instead, he asked: "Who was he?"
He leaned up on his elbow and looked her in the eye. "You said ‘anymore’, so it once was. If it wasn’t cancer—and you seem too young for that—then a guy was involved. Disease or damage, you probably got it from some guy."
The night and exhaustion have a way of stripping the heart bare. Perhaps that’s why people make love in beds. In any case, Faith heard herself answering before she even had time to think about it: "His name was Frank. He was just this…guy my mom was dating. I was eleven."
She waited for the pity, the promises that it would all be all right, accompanied by the sidelong, wary look at the messed-up, broken girl. Instead, he just nodded. "The same thing happened to Alonna," he said.
"My sister." He lay back down and stared up at the ceiling. She settled back down onto her elbow. "It was the first time I ever failed to protect her. I killed the fucker who did it—just one more pimp with his head bashed in by some junkie, you know? And then I swore it would never happen again."
"Did it?" She asked.
"Once," he answered. "And it was the last time."
Anyone else might have asked what he meant, or just assumed that he had reinforced his vow. But she knew better. She knew just what he meant. She stayed silent. What was there to say?
"But hey, enough of this bad shit, huh?" He said. "Let’s get some sleep. Now, don’t get me wrong, ‘cause you are damn fine, and I may change my mind when we wake up, but for now, let’s just sleep."
"Sounds good," she said. If she were someone else, she might have been confused by his abrupt shift. But it made perfect sense to her: they’d seen each other’s scars. Why stare and pick at them? She rolled back to the mattress and put her back to him so they could spoon.
As he did so, he sleepily muttered "It’s safer that way, anyway."
Faith stiffened. In her head, she knew that anyone could pick up an STD. One time and bad luck was all it took. But in her experience, it had been mostly used as a rhetorical stone to throw, part of an accusation that she was skanky. Grounds to ostracize her. She couldn’t count the number of times she’d heard "I don’t want to catch something" or even "I don’t want my dick to fall off" in her one year of high school.
"You don’t know where I’ve been," he finished. Then his breathing became deep and regular.
For the first time in her life, Faith drifted into a sound sleep with a man’s arm around her.
Knock, knock, knock
"Oz, please let us in. We need to talk to you."
Knock, knock, knock
"Oz, can you hear us?"
Of course he could hear them. How could he not? If he listened carefully, he could hear their heartbeats. But he refused to listen. Facts were facts, and he didn’t want them trying to make him feel better about those facts. Both the Man and the Wolf hated lies.
So he just lay on his bed, staring at the ceiling, his hands folded on his chest, and ignored them.
"He can hear us. He’s just not paying attention. He makes up his mind, and he refuses to talk about it any more."
Damn. Willow usually wasn’t so good at reading him. But then, he supposed this was relatively billboard.
Oh, well. What was she going to do about it?
The security chain suddenly slid sideways and popped out of its slot with a click.
Oh. Yeah. That’s what she’s going to do about it.
"Okay, okay," he called as he levered himself up off the bed. "I’m coming."
He crossed the room, and in very sharp, abrupt, un-Ozlike motions, he turned the deadbolt and flung the door open. Those three actions cost him the last of what remained of his strength, and he leaned drunkenly against the doorjamb.
Willow and Tara stood outside. Actually, "stood" might have been the wrong word. They were actually leaning up against each other, using the mutual pressure to keep from falling. They were pale, hollow-eyed, and haggard. He suspected that he didn’t look much better.
"Go away," he said. He was too tired to be polite.
"Not until we talk to you," Willow said. Then she pointed at herself. "Resolve face, Oz."
And it was. If he closed the door, they would use strength they couldn’t spare to open it. So he stepped back and pushed swung the door open for them. "Come in."
They obeyed, coming in and crossing to the bed, where they sat down.
"You should be in bed," he said as he closed and locked the door again.
"But we are," Tara said, pulling a corner of blanket over her lap to make the statement true.
He was about to snap "You know what I mean" when he realized that Tara had made a joke. A pretty weak joke, but the first one he’d heard her speak.
"Not funny," he said. Tara’s face fell. Willow patted her on the back and looked up at him reproachfully. Good. He could live with them being mad at him if they’d just leave. "Why are you here?" He demanded.
"We wanted to talk to you about this morning, Rude-o," Willow snapped.
"Nothing to say," Oz said, starting to pace. He would not sit down on the bed with them.
"I wanted to thank you for saving—" Tara began.
"Stop," Oz commanded, stopping short and cutting her off with a flat sweep of his hands. "Just stop. What happened is I almost killed you. Again."
"But it wasn’t you," Willow protested. "It was the Wolf."
"And even the Wolf wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t so scared of the fire," Tara added.
"Kinda the point," Oz said, resuming his pacing. "If it was an accident or mistake on my part, I could learn from it and promise not to do it again. But it’s something I can’t control—"
"And you can’t stand that, can you," Willow said, her anger rising. "You always have to be so cool, so detached, so in control."
Oz ignored her. "—Except to turn it on and off, and sometimes not even that. I’m dangerous."
"So’s Angel," Willow said, getting to her feet and advancing on her first love. "So’s Spike. So’s Faith. Hell, so is Buffy, so is Tara, so am I! We’re a bunch of really dangerous people, Oz! Nobody else is running!"
"Stop it," Tara whispered.
"Angel did," Oz said. "For the same reason I did: he couldn’t always decide who he was dangerous to. Now he can. I still can’t. You’re all dynamite. I’m nitro. Even if you make a mistake and blow up something you didn’t mean to, you can learn from that mistake—"
"If we survive it," Willow countered.
"—And avoid it later on. Me? There’s nothing to learn. I’m just a big boom waiting to happen. That’s why, when this is over, I’m getting back in that van and heading for Montreal."
"No, you’re not!" Willow shouted. "You have a problem, and I’m going to help you with it! Then you can leave, if you want. That’s what love means. You’d remember that if you weren’t too busy protecting me from yourself to care!"
"St-st-st-st-stop ih-ih-ih-ih-it! Tara shouted.
Willow whirled, slapping her hand to her mouth. "Oh, my God, Tara, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—"
"It’s all right, Willow," Tara said, waving the apologies down. "It’s all right."
"It’s not," Willow insisted, sitting down and taking her hand. "I shouldn’t have said that."
"You never forget your first love," Tara said, smiling wanly. "I still carry a torch for Jenny Liederman."
If they’d had more energy, they might have broken down into peals of laughter. As it was, Willow smiled gratefully, and Oz just gave a chuckle and a grin.
Tara smiled along with them, then her face turned serious. "Want to make sure something like this morning never happens again?" She asked.
The other two froze, staring at her.
Finally, Oz nodded. "Yeah."
Tara waved them over to bed. Willow sat back down beside her, and Oz took a seat on the other side of Willow, where he took her hand and gripped it with silent, but frantic hope. He was surprised but pleased when she gripped back.
"I told you that when I found out about you, I started studying werewolves," Tara explained. "I was hoping to find a cure. I’d never known any werewolves before, and I wanted to help."
"And you found one?" Willow asked eagerly.
Willow and Oz’s faces fell.
"I found the name of a spell that bonds your spirit with the Wolf. You change when you want to, and you keep your mind when you do." Their faces rose again. Willow’s eyes and mouth gaped in joyful astonishment, and Oz almost had an expression. "The book I had didn’t have the spell in it, but it had the name of a book that did—and I saw that book on the shelves when I was looking at Mr. Pryce’s gun cabinet."
Willow whirled to Oz. "That’s wonderful! Isn’t she amazing? We can—"
Oz waved her down with his free hand. "The catch?" He asked.
Tara chewed on her lip a little before answering. "You and the Wolf become one," she answered at last. "You get a few of its instincts, but you can take those out on some rabbits and squirrels. The big catch is that you’ll always be a werewolf. No cures."
Oz sat for a long moment, looking at his lap, contemplating that. "But it becomes a superpower," he mused. Then he looked back up at Tara. "I get to choose who I’m dangerous to."
Willow squealed in delight and hugged first Tara, then Oz, then each of them several more times.
"When can we do it?" He asked once Willow had settled on squeezing both of them at once.
"Midnight," Tara answered.
"Of course," Willow said. "The moment when one day becomes another—the moment of change. We can do it tonight if you want."
Oz nodded. "Sounds good," he said. "Better rest up."
The two witches agreed that was a good idea, but the trek back to their room seemed immeasurably long, and they were reluctant to start it. They dawdled just a bit, chatting—Oz accepted Tara’s gratitude for saving her that morning.
In the end, they wound up sleeping curled up together like puppies on Oz’s bed.
Angel took a blood bag from his refrigerator, bit into it, and drank the whole pint cold.
A moment later, he fell onto his bed, asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow. But that sleep was neither sound nor restful: he descended from consciousness into fevered dreams of fire and blood and shadow.
Floors above, Buffy began to writhe and moan in her sleep.
Riley stirred to half-wakefulness beside her and began to stroke her back and make comforting noises: "Shhh…shhh…it’s okay. It’s just a dream. You’re safe here…I’m with you, your family’s all around…it’s all right…"
Did some part of him, some instinct unfettered by his conscious mind in his semi-conscious state, realize what was happening? If so, he didn’t remember when he awoke. In fact, he never quite remembered what he said to calm Buffy down.
It was simply this: "You, too, Big Man. They’re just dreams. Whatever he showed you, we aren’t going to let it happen. We’ll keep her safe."
In his apartment, Angel settled into his bed—and a deep sleep—with a faint smile on his lips.
In their room, a similar smile drifted across Buffy’s face as she, too, settled back into sleep. Riley draped a sheltering arm over her, and joined them in dreams.
And for a time, the Hyperion slept.
Wolfram & Hart
Lindsey jumped, almost dropping the briefs he was carrying, but he recovered himself quickly. "Angelus," he said, turning to the figure who was sitting in a shadowed corner of his office. This explained why the blinds were drawn. "Is there something I can do for you?"
"Not really," Angelus replied, rising from his comfortable armchair and approaching his attorney. "I just stopped by to check your progress."
Then he emerged from the shadows, and Lindsey gasped. "My god, what happened?" he exclaimed.
Angelus shrugged. A jagged borderline ran down the center of his face. On one side, his skin was human-colored, if pale. On the other, his skin was the color of chalk. Someone had pressed a cross into his face. No, it must have been a Crucifix—a small, but perfectly detailed image of Christ was imprinted even deeper into his flesh. Worse, that side of his face showed a vague brow-ridge, as if it was part way to its demon form. Perhaps that was so—scar tissue twisted that side of his lips into a snarl, revealing sharper teeth that weren’t quite fangs.
"I took a hit, Lefty," Angelus explained. "I had my eye on the wrong hand, and they caught me off guard. The little witches were a lot more powerful than I thought."
Lindsey set the briefs down and turned to his new primary client. "How bad is it?" He asked.
"I’m okay," Angelus replied. "Or I will be in a few hours. I ran into a cop car almost right away, and I ate both of them—"
"You what?" Cop-killing was difficult for even Wolfram & Hart to cover up. The authorities couldn’t be bought in a situation like that, and making investigators "disappear" just exacerbated the problem.
Angelus ignored the question. "Then I came here—"
"Looking like that?"
"Hey," Angelus snapped. "Either they know what I am, in which case they’re not the people that you have to worry about, or they thought I was just some guy with burn scars on his face. Either way, no problem. So I slept in here for a few hours, then I ate the first couple interns that came in this morning." He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb, to a pile in the corner that Lindsey hadn’t noticed before.
"You did this in my office?" Lindsey demanded as he hurried over to investigate. He cursed aloud when he saw the mess Angelus had left for him. Six of them. Five looked like normal vampire attacks—pale, with bite wounds in their necks. But the sixth…he had to fight hard to keep his breakfast down. He wouldn’t have been able to recognize her if she hadn’t still had her company ID pinned to what remained of her blouse. "Oh, god," he choked. "Carrie."
"Yeah," Angelus said. "I was actually pretty full by that time, so I decided to play with my food a little. You know I just had to take advantage of a place that’s magically soundproofed. Besides, I figure that you’ve had some experience in cleaning up messes like this."
Lindsey took a deep breath. He’d be dead within seconds of showing any kind of hostility to this…creature. If he was lucky. "Yes," He said evenly. "I have."
"Good. Now, the real problem is that almost the entire vanguard was killed. When is the main force going to arrive?"
The entire vanguard? The entire vanguard of the Scourge? These little heroes were more powerful than Lindsey had thought. Maybe they even had a chance. He kept his hope off his face as he answered. "About half of them are here now. We’re moving them into the warehouses as we speak. The rest are en route."
"Are you planning a counterattack?" Lindsey asked.
Angelus shook his head. "Uh-uh. I was stupid once. Not again. I’m just going to sit back and let nature take its course. By tomorrow night, I’ll be invincible. Then I’ll deal with them.
Lindsey called a limousine and had Angelus taken to the warehouses where his troops awaited him. Then he called the "special" janitorial crew. Within a few hours, five unfortunate young, rich students would be discovered in various spots about the city, the victims of muggers, or accidents, or random crackheads. Lindsey didn’t really care.
That left Carrie.
They didn’t have to cover up Carrie’s death. They could just lose it. If she had any relatives, they didn’t give enough of a damn to follow up on her.
It was a trite thing to say, but Caroline Ramsey reminded Lindsey of himself at that age. She’d dragged herself out of hopeless poverty by her teeth. He had taken her as much under his wing as company policy allowed, and he’d come to admire her sheer will. She would have been a marvelous lawyer—but not at Wolfram & Hart, Lindsey suspected. She was just a little too ethical.
After he’d ordered an oak casket, a marble headstone (Inscription: Caroline Ramsey 1980-2001. You Deserved a Better Chance), and several bouquets of flowers for her, he got down to work.
Angelus wasn’t even a paying client. Even if he was, Lindsey had taken enough.
Time to put a little sand in his engine.
Over the next twenty-four hours, a truly fantastic string of accidents and bad luck befell the incoming half of the Scourge. Several cargo planes carrying barrels of fuel crashed into several different mountains. The pilots managed to parachute to safety. Of course, members of the Scourge were the real cargo. There were just enough barrels of fuel to make the crash—as Willow would say—extra flamey.
Several cargo ships sank. Some of the Scourge aboard might have been able to make it to shore, if someone hadn’t alerted some of the Things in the deep-ocean trenches that a shipment of food was on its way.
Finally, several trucks belonging to a Wolfram & Hart subsidiary just exploded while their drivers happened to be in truck stops. Tsk, tsk. Must be industrial sabotage by rival mages. We’ll try to track that down for you.
Twenty-four hours after Angelus left Lindsey with a pile of bodies in his office, the only members of the Scourge left alive on Earth were headquartered in those warehouses in LA. They were down to half their former strength, but there were still hundreds of them.
Time to call in some help.
Someone was shaking him.
A woman’s voice. Familiar. Smell. Also familiar. Similar to mate’s, but not the same.
"Angel," she called, both her voice and her shaking growing more insistent. But waking was difficult. He was sleeping soundly for the first time in decades, and pulling himself free from the warm dark of sleep was like trying to pull himself free from a tar pit.
"Muh?" He finally rolled toward the person shaking him, opening his eyes just a slit.
His eyes flew the rest of the way open.
"Good morning, Angel. Or good afternoon. Or evening. Anyway, hi."
"Joyce?" He sat halfway up and stared at her in sleepy confusion. "Can I help you?"
"Where’s your kitchen?" She asked.
"Huh? My--? Uh, I have a stove right—" he pointed over his shoulder, toward his apartment’s kitchenette.
She gave a worried frown. "I was hoping for something bigger. Does the hotel have a kitchen? For room service or something?"
"Uh…yes it does. But what do you want it for?"
"I want to make breakfast," she answered.
Angel was about to ask why that required a larger kitchen than his, when his mind finally woke up and his eyes widened. "Breakfast? For all of them?" He asked.
"That’s an awful lot of breakfast," he said. "You know, I’m the only one who actually lives here. There’s nothing here that’s really suitable for human consumption."
"I ordered some groceries," she replied. "They should be here soon."
That brought him up short. He wanted to ask her "Where the hell is this coming from?" Instead, he softened it to "What gave you this idea?"
She sighed and sat down on the bed beside him. "Do you know what Faith said to me after battle?"
He shook his head.
"She said ‘You were pretty cool out there, Mrs. S. I wish my mom had been like you’. Mind you, this is after Buffy has yelled at Xander and I."
"Buffy’s overprotective," Angel said. "I can’t say I’m innocent of it, either. I think it goes with being a Champion. Fact is, you did better against Angelus than I did."
"Thank you," she said. "But that’s beside my point. You’ve known these kids for about five years now, right?"
"Give or take," he answered. He decided not to mention Whistler showing Buffy to him on the day she became the Slayer, and how he had fallen in love with her on that day. His relationship with his (Saints preserve us and Devil brought the tidings) mother-in-law was still a bit precarious.
"Have you ever gotten the impression that they were raised by wolves?" Joyce asked.
Now Angel understood what she was getting at. He nodded. "Actually, some of them might have been better off with the wolves," he said. "I hear they’re pretty good parents."
"I know," Joyce said, now nodding her own eager agreement. "Willow came out to me before she did to her own parents. Xander seems to suffer ‘Slaying Bruises’ far less often now that he’s moved out of his parents’ basement. Tara—well, you probably heard—"
Angel nodded. He’d heard of the Macrae’s attempt to--recapture was the only word that he could think of for it—Tara. His own father had been an impossibly demanding and unsupportive man, who perhaps had something in common with Xander’s. A hot temper, a quick hand and a harsh tongue could be understood, even if they couldn’t be condoned. But Mr. Macrae’s deliberate, calculated psychological cruelty to his own daughter would never make sense.
"—and now Faith! I want to take care of them," she declared. "They have a surrogate father in Rupert. I think they’ve half-adopted me as their mother already."
"And they haven’t eaten anything but McDonald’s and chicken wings for two days—" He prompted.
"Time for a proper meal," she finished.
"Sounds good," he said, swinging his legs off the side of the bed and putting his feet down on the floor. "Just let me change my clothes, and I’ll help."
"Oh, you don’t have to—"
"But I want to," he said. "You’ll be surprised, I’m actually pretty good. Just because I don’t have to eat doesn’t mean I can’t." He paused, listening. "Better go down front," he said. "Your groceries are here. I’ll meet you in the lobby."
The rest of the Scooby Gang woke up to the smell of cooking.
Xander and Faith led the charge down the stairs, followed very closely by Gunn and Riley, with the rest following in a straggling parade behind. Giles and Wesley brought up the rear, working very hard to maintain their stoicism in the face of rumbling bellies and the smell of bacon, toast, sausage, coffee—and were those pancakes? Then a teapot started to whistle and Wesley’s reserve broke. He rushed down the stairs after the younger members of the group—and Spike—while Giles managed to restrain himself to quickening only to a trot.
The whole mob stormed the kitchen, where there was indeed coffee, and bacon, and toast, and sausage, and even pancakes. There was also milk, and juice, and fruit, and Angel—wearing a "Kiss Me, I’m Irish" apron was working on some scrambled eggs. There was even a pot of water on the stove where two pints of blood were heating like baby formula.
Joyce flipped the last of a stack of pancakes onto a plate, turned to the salivating crowd, and held it up. "Okay," she said. "First lot’s blueberry. Who wants some?"
"Ohhhhyeah," Faith moaned in satisfaction as she set her plate on the lobby floor and pushed it away. "I don’t think I’ve ever been this full."
"Good," Joyce said. "Everyone else had enough?" She called.
"Everyone else," who were scattered about the lobby—some on the chairs, some on the stairs, some on the floor—grunted or moaned something vaguely affirmative. Only Giles managed something coherent, which was to say "Couldn’t have another bite."
"Good," Angel said, emerging from the kitchen with a convenience store gulp-cup in his hand. "Because there aren’t any bites left." He crossed to the couches and sat down in the only open space, which was beside Tara. "So." he said. "I hate to say it, but I guess it’s time to get down to business."
Surprisingly, it was Cordelia who spoke first. "Okay. Who here thinks that there aren’t still a lot more Scourge where those came from?" She asked, raising her hand.
Riley, Joyce, and a few others who were more ignorant in the ways of demons, had thought exactly that. Seeing the grim-faced certainty of those who were more knowledgeable, they said nothing about it.
"And Tara and I can’t use the dragonfire again anytime soon," Willow said. "Even if we had the power, we still have to do a few ceremonies to get permission."
Several members of the group stared at he quizzically.
"Permission?" Xander asked.
"Dragon is really particular about who calls on him," Willow explained. "If he doesn’t recall giving you his number, he gets cranky."
"Ah," Xander said. "I see—cranky as in slam down the phone and leave you with a headache cranky, or cranky as in explosive, flamey death cranky?"
"Depends on just how cranky he is," Willow shrugged.
"We need reinforcements," Riley said.
"I agree," Giles said. "Do you have any allies that you can muster?" He asked Angel.
"I do," Gunn said. "My boys’d be happy to go out and whup some ass, rather than sit at home and wait for the army of demons to come to us."
"We might also be able to muster an army of demons of our own," Wesley suggested. "If any cause can get demons to fight beside humans, it’s resistance against the Scourge." He turned to Angel. "We should talk to Lorne."
Angel nodded. "We should," he said. "But the Scourge isn’t what I’m really worried about right now." He could feel their stares of amazement. "We’ve been thinking about Angelus all wrong," he explained. "We’ve been acting like he’s a super-vampire of some sort. Just like he always was, except maybe a little moreso. Undiluted or upgraded, or whatever, and that’s not how it is."
"So he’s new and improved," Faith said. "What’s the big whoop? He can still be killed."
"Perhaps not," Wesley said. "Xander staked him in the heart, and he was set on fire twice. Once with magic, once with a holy object. It seems the traditional methods of killing vampires are insufficient for a pure vampire demon."
"That’s just it," Angel said. "We keep focusing on the ‘vampire’ part of it, and forget about the Pure Demon." He tapped his temple. "He gave me a vision when he had me pinned to the wall. It burned out our connection. I can’t feel him anymore. But I was able to sense one very important thing before it went:"
He paused to choose his words, but no one interrupted. They were all paying rapt attention. "Whatever humanity he might have had from me is fading. Soon there’ll be no more jokes, no more games—he’ll be just a primal force of destruction." He took a deep, unnecessary breath. "He’s an Old One now," he said. "And I don’t think he’s even close to his full potential—or his final form."
Faith was the first to break the silence this time. "Shiiiit." She breathed.
"I’ll meet your ‘shit’ and raise you a ‘Bugger me’," Giles agreed. The people who knew what that meant stared at him in shock. "Did this vision show you anything else?" He asked.
Angel described the vision in detail, and by the end none of his listeners were surprised that whatever part of his mind it was that was connected to Angelus had been destroyed. Bridges burned. Or collapsed under too much weight.
"So…" Buffy began. "He’s an Old One." The words tasted strange in her mouth when spoken in the present tense. She’d heard them often enough from Giles, but they’d always seemed…remote. An ancient, forgotten nightmare that overshadowed her own nightmares of vampires and demons. The world’s nightmare. It had always been a given that, if the Old Ones got in, the battle was already lost. "He’s an Old One," she repeated. "And he has a novel plan for destroying the world. Do we have a tactical on it?" she asked. "Could it work?"
"We don’t know," Giles answered. "But we have to assume it can."
"An Old One," Xander said, shaking his head. "How do you fight something like that?" His head stopped in mid-shake, and turned toward Anya. One by one, everyone else’s followed.
She looked back at all of them blankly. "What?"
"You told us we should learn to ask you about these things," Xander said with deliberate patience. "Well, we’re asking."
"You expect me to know how to fight an Old One?"
"It’s worth a shot," Xander replied evenly.
"Sorry," she said. "Your shot missed. I was only a demon for twelve hundred years. The Old Ones have been gone about a hundred times longer than that."
"Damn," Angel said. "If only the Oracles were still alive."
"The who?" Buffy asked.
"The Oracles," he explained. "Spokesbeings for the Powers That Be. Sometimes, when I needed extra information, I could go to them. But a demon killed them last spring."
The rest of the people present looked a bit more crestfallen at this pre-closed option, but Wesley suddenly brightened. "Of course! The Eyes of the Seer!" He blurted.
"Beg your pardon?" Angel asked.
"We need a channel to the Powers That Be," Wesley explained eagerly. "And we have one." He waved his hand at Cordelia. "But the connection is one-way, and she has no control over it. However, I have a spell—its name translates as ‘The Eyes of the Seer’—that would allow her to call back, so to speak."
Most of the rest of the group just stared at him. Joyce spoke for them all when she said "Where did you get something like that, and what on Earth made you think that you’d ever need such a thing?"
"Nothing did," Giles interrupted eagerly. "Sometimes sorcerers can be like bloody kids collecting football cards: they’ll probably never have any actual use for it, but they want it because it’s cool."
"I’ll have to look it up," Wesley said. "I don’t remember the ritual off the top of my head. But I do remember that it starts at dawn—"
"When the gods’ light returns to the Earth, revealing what was hidden in the dark," Giles agreed eagerly.
"Whoa!" Cordelia interrupted, waving her hands. "Whoa, whoa, whoa! Vision Girl should have some input into this, don’t you think?"
The two grinning wizards immediately sobered. "Of course, Cordelia," Giles said.
"I hate to take your new toy away," She continued. "Actually, no, I don’t. Is this necessary? I mean really necessary? You can’t find a way to fight these things in one of your old books, or on some web site that only Willow or Oz can find for us?"
Willow answered before either ex-Watcher could. "There really isn’t," she said, shaking her head. "We got lucky with the Mayor—if he hadn’t tried to cover it up, we never would have made the connection with the volcano. None of the few books that mentioned Olvikan said anything about volcanoes."
Faith swallowed hard, and she suddenly felt her eyes begin to sting. Lester. Poor Lester. She’d almost been able to forget—for a while. He was her one true innocent kill: Deputy Mayor Finch had been an accident (and now, she knew for a fact that he’d been dirty), and the courier was in league with demons. But Lester was just an archaeologist, and it turned out that killing him had been not only pointless, but counter-productive.
Cordelia sighed. "All right, all right. Dawn it is."
Wesley rose to his feet. "We’d best start researching and gathering supplies, then."
Gunn also rose, and started for the door. "I’ll head home and rally the troops."
Faith sprang up and started after him. "Mind if I tag along?"
Angel started toward door to the basement. The sun hadn’t quite set yet, and he needed to take the sewer route. "I’ll go to Caritas and talk to Lorne, see what he can muster for us."
"I’ll come with," Buffy offered.
"Wait!" Willow called as the group started to split up in a dozen different directions.
Everyone obeyed, stopping and turning back to hear what she had to say.
"Do you think you can make it back here before midnight?" she asked. "We’ve found a spell to treat Oz, but it requires that the whole ‘tribe’ be present."
It was a sign of just how bizarre the past few days had been, even by Scooby Gang standards, that they all just checked their watches, said "Okay," and continued on their way.
Rallying the Troops
Angel strode through the entrance of Caritas, walking so fast that—with his longer legs—Buffy was nearly forced to run to keep up.
Caritas was not yet very crowded, and Lorne was leaning on the bar with a drink in his hand, watching something that looked like a minotaur, except that the ‘bull’ parts of its body came from an American bison, bellowing that it was too sexy for its shirt.
"Well, hey," he greeted them. "Glad to see you. How did that rescue mission go last night?"
"Not good," Angel answered.
Lorne nodded sadly. "I’m sorry to hear that, but I can’t say that I’m surprised. Are you here for some more help?" He grinned at Buffy. "Is our little ingenue here ready to sing?"
"We need help, but it’s not the kind you sing for," Buffy said.
"Oh? What can I do for you, then?" He asked.
"LA has become Poland, and you’re about to get blitzkrieged," She said. "We’ve already spotted the Nazis on the border."
"Beg pardon?" Lorne asked.
"You did pay attention in history class," Angel said, impressed.
Buffy shrugged modestly. "It was a good day. Patrol had been easy the night before, so I slept well, and I was more awake than usual in class."
"But what did she say?" Lorne asked. His specialty was obscure musical references, not historical.
"The Scourge are in LA," Angel clarified. "Angelus is using them for an army." Lorne gasped, but Angel continued on relentlessly. "He’s planning to destroy the world. Last time he tried, it almost worked, and he was a lot less powerful then than he is now. They may even know that, but they hate humanity so much that they don’t care. They’ll destroy the world and themselves, as long as every drop of human ‘taint’ is destroyed, too."
Then Lorne’s face did something that Angel had never seen it do: it hardened. Angel realized that, for the first time since he had met Lorne, the singing demon was furious.
Without a word, Lorne turned, stalked up to the stage, turned off the music and took the microphone from the minotaur. "Sorry, Mowl," he said. "Something’s come up. You can stop worrying—your cow’s being one hundred percent faithful to you. In fact, congratulations—you have a calf on the way." With that, he hustled Mowl off the stage and turned to the audience. "Ladies, gentlemen, and others," he announced. "I regret to inform you that Caritas will be closed for the next few days, but an emergency has arisen." Disgruntled murmurs rose from the crowd, but Lorne silenced them with his next statement: "The Scourge has entered LA." The murmurs turned to gasps of horror. "Those of you who aren’t very good fighters, I recommend you return to your homes and lock up. Better yet, take a vacation for a few days. In Vegas or Hawaii. Those of you who are good at busting heads—" He pointed at the floor. "Spread the word: The resistance meets here."
Then there were cheers—a sound familiar to Caritas, but they weren’t usually this angry.
Obeying a summoning wave, Buffy and Angel followed Lorne into his private apartment behind the bar.
"Some of us like this world," Lorne was saying as he unlocked a trunk at the foot of his bed. "She’s been good to me, and I’m not about to let a bunch stupid, racist philistines hurt her." He reached in and pulled out a sword. Its hilt was finely tooled, though neither Angel nor Buffy recognized the symbols engraved into it. Its scabbard was some sort of green leather. "A souvenir from my homeworld," Lorne explained. "I was hoping I’d never have to use it." He drew the sword, and the blade was some kind of black metal.
"Give us a day to gather the troops," Lorne said. "Then call us whenever you find these bastards. We’ll be ready."
Running With the Wolf
Once again, the furniture had been pushed to the walls of the Hyperion’s lobby, and a pentacle had been chalked on the floor. Angel was seriously considering just painting one on permanently. But that wouldn’t work. There tended to be differences for each spell and ritual. This one, for example, had required certain extra symbols beyond the pentacle, chalked hand prints, and other marks that looked like claw-gouges. Besides, if a line got scraped away while the furniture was being moved, that would be a Bad Thing.
Faith and Gunn had been the last to return to the Hyperion, bearing the good news that "They’ll be there." That had been 11:30. Everyone else had been almost done preparing. It was fortunate that their preparations were simple, and even so, it was a near thing.
Spike, refusing to "play" had returned to his room with a fifth of bourbon.
Angel, Buffy, Riley, Faith, and Gunn stood at the outer points of the star. They were the ‘tribe’s’ warriors, and it was their duty to protect the sanctity of the circle—and the other participants, if something went wrong. Each wore war-paint and carried their favored weapon: Angel and Gunn carried axes, Faith her knife, Buffy a simple stake, and Riley a tranquilizer gun. He would actually have preferred his M-16, but this was good enough for symbolic purposes, and it was better for the situation. A crack shot with a tranquilizer gun could prove very valuable if an emergency arose.
Wesley, Giles, Anya, Joyce, and Cordelia stood on the inner five points. Joyce and Giles were the tribal elders (a position Joyce didn’t particularly appreciate), so they wore the closest things to crowns available. Joyce sported Cordelia’s old May Queen tiara, while Giles (spared a Burger King crown by the fact that a foolish appearance on the part of the Elders might disrupt the spell) wore a simple metal band that Angel had fished out of his ‘souvenir chest’. Wesley, as an elder-in-training, wore a simple cloth headband. Cordelia had a crescent moon painted on her forehead, symbolizing her role as a Seer, while Anya wore the shawl of the Wise Woman ("She knows all about magic and demons and stuff—it works, doesn’t it?").
Xander had been deemed the tribe’s Trickster, and now had half his face and one hand painted many bright colors. He moved freely between the outer and the inner circle and, indeed, was not to stop moving at any point during the ceremony.
Tara, Oz, and Willow stood in the center of the circle. The two women wore white robes, while Oz wore only his pants. Wolf-paws had been painted on his hands and feet, and a symbolic wolf-mask had been painted on his face.
The grandfather clock in Angel’s office struck twelve.
"It is time," Tara intoned.
"Midnight, the time of change," Willow said.
"We bring before the tribe one with two spirits: Man and Beast," Tara said. "What must be done?"
"Make him whole," the outer circle pronounced. Angel, whose education had taken place in an era when "passing a test" meant being able to recite one’s lessons back by rote, was best at remembering lines like this. Everyone followed his lead.
"Make him One," the inner circle added.
"Let the Two-Souled One speak," Xander said, making sure to keep walking as he read from his note card. "What does he choose?"
"I would be One," Oz replied. "I would be whole."
"Beware," Willow said. "For the One you will become is not the One you once were, and what is done cannot be undone."
"So it is with all things:" Oz replied. "A choice made cannot be unmade, and often there is no choice at all. I choose now: let me be One."
"He has chosen to be One!" The witches declared.
"Into the forge-fire then, to be made into One," Xander declared. "And to see how many pieces he breaks into before the forging’s done."
"Do you accept the strength of the Beast?" The outer circle demanded, holding up their weapons.
"I accept," Oz declared.
"Do you accept the wisdom of the Man?" The inner circle asked.
"Do you accept the guile of the Man?" The inner circle cautioned.
"Do you accept the rage of the Beast?"
Oz swallowed hard. The rage of the Beast was actually what he was trying to get away from. It was what he’d been fighting since the day Jordy bit him. Still, if the Beast’s rage was brought to the surface, where he could feel it and control it himself, that was better than how things currently stood. He took a deep breath: "I accept."
"Then let him drink!" Xander shouted. He dashed out of the circle—dropping his index card with a sigh of relief once he left its confines—and grabbed a wine glass that sat on an end table just outside the circle. He rushed the glass back to the center of the circle and handed it to Oz. "Let him drink the blood of the Beast!"
"We call upon Cernunnos, the Stag King, Lord of the Hunt," Tara invoked.
"We call upon Luna, Mother of all who Change," Willow added.
The chanting faded into the background as Oz raised the wine glass to his lips. It was filled with red wine and "special ingredients" that Willow had refused to elaborate on. Last chance. This wasn’t safe.
But it was worth anything to be able to choose who he was dangerous to.
He drank. And the world went away.
Oz’s eyes faded into the distance and the wineglass dropped from his nerveless fingers, shattering on the floor.
Angel suddenly manifested his demon face and roared, striking the butt of his axe on the floor. Then he began to beat it on the floor in the rhythm of a heartbeat.
"Angel!" Buffy shout-whispered. "What are you—"
Keep doing that! Willow’s voice shouted in their minds. The rest of the Warriors—join him! I don’t know why, but it’s helping!
The other four Warriors shouted, and Gunn began to pound the butt of his axe on the ground, while the other three stomped.
Thump, thump. Thump, thump.
Then they felt what Angel felt: they felt the Beast moving in their own blood, and they shouted again.
The full moon shone down on the night forest that Oz walked through. Massive, grasping things that might have been trees in the daylight loomed on either side of the trail, and the occasional rotted log appeared like swells in the ocean. He couldn’t see very well, but that didn’t matter. This place was as familiar as any bedroom he’d ever had. Sticks and dead leaves crackled under his feet as he walked, but that didn’t matter either. He wasn’t trying to hide his approach.
He didn’t have to walk far. It was only a minute or two before he entered the clearing where the Wolf was waiting.
Funny. After all this time, he’d expected it to be some sort of hellhound, the size of a VW Beetle, with glowing red eyes and flaming foam dripping from its mouth. But it was just a wolf.
It began to snarl and bristle the moment he stepped into the clearing. He stopped walking, but he refused to lower his eyes or look aside. That would be submission. That wasn’t what he was here for. "Do you know who I am?" He asked.
The Wolf snarled, but he was able to hear its answer in his head: The Man.
"Then you know why I’m here."
To eat me.
Oz shrugged. "Close enough."
The Wolf crouched back on its haunches, ready to spring.
Kill you first.
Oz crouched, too, his feet spread and his arms out in a wrestler’s stance.
"That’s one possibility," He growled.
The Wolf lunged, launching itself for his throat. In the physical world, it would have knocked him down, maybe killed him before he had any chance to fight back. In the physical world, it would have been faster, stronger. This wasn’t the physical world. They were inside his spirit. Here, the Man’s arms were as strong as the Wolf’s jaws.
For a moment, Oz struggled just to keep the Wolf’s teeth away from his throat. Slowly, he gained the advantage, wrapping one arm around the Wolf’s neck and forcing the other up under its chin.
I could kill it! He thought, wild exultation whipping through him. I could break its neck and then I could be me again! No bonding, just free!
The Wolf snarled wildly and raked at him with its claws.
No! Won’t let you abandon the Mate again!
"You’re the reason I had to abandon her," Oz snarled. "You tried to kill her!"
Confused! Blood-frenzied! You hurt her more.
Rage surged in Oz’s shoulders and arms and he wanted—oh, how he wanted—to kill it. Instead, he flung it across the clearing. He was acting like it—like the Beast. Responding to everything with violence. Was he here to become it? That wasn’t the kind of bonding he wanted.
Time to act like the Man. There were things that the Beast could never do: compromise. Share. Understand. The last was the key, the Man’s highest strength and advantage. The Beast could never understand anything but its own narrow perspective. But if he could understand the Beast…
"Made you just about crazy, didn’t it?"
"Being trapped inside me except when the Moon was full. When the Mother’s call was the strongest. Unable to run, unable to hunt. Then, when you do come out, it’s to a place where the Earth itself is rotten, and everything is a threat."
The Wolf was calming. It stopped snarling and allowed its hackles to settle.
"Then when you do get out, we have you chained up and trapped in a cage. It must have been terrifying. If any of the Bad Things came, you wouldn’t have been able to defend yourself."
The Wolf sat down.
The Wolf whimpered and tucked its tail.
"And I tried to lock you up forever." He took a deep breath. Was there any actual air to breathe in a place like this? "No wonder you went just about rabid. Look, I’ll make a deal with you:"
The Wolf’s ears perked up.
"I’ll let you out to run. But you have to run with me."
Oz’s eyes fluttered open.
He’d never left his feet. He’d just stood, rigid and blind, through his entire vision. How long had it been. Seconds? Hours? He had no idea.
The Mate and the Mate’s Mate (how was such a thing possible? The Man understood perfectly, but the Wolf was confused) closed in tight around him. "Oz? Are you okay?" The Mate/Willow asked.
"It worked," he answered, the words making strange shapes out of his tongue. Apparently, the part of him that was wolf needed practice talking.
Willow threw her arms around his neck with a squeal of joy, while Tara let out a long-held puff of breath. "Praise Luna," she said.
Oz nodded his agreement. Then something occurred to him, and he held Willow out away from him. "Question," he said. "If I had killed the Wolf while I was inside, what would have happened?"
"You would have died," she answered. "You might not have been fully bonded, but the Wolf was already enough of a part of you so you couldn’t survive without it."
"Huh. Why wasn’t I told that was a risk?"
"We didn’t know it was," Willow answered. "The people who never came back from the trance never got a chance to say why, so we didn’t know you killing the Wolf was a possibility."
"So now what happens?" Tara asked softly.
"What do you mean?" Willow asked.
Tara nodded at the two of them, where they stood embracing. "You have him back. He can choose who he’s dangerous to, now. We’re in the same place as Buffy, Angel, and Riley. Who do you choose, Willow?"
Willow released Oz and turned to the other witch. "What are you saying, honey? You know I love you."
"And you never stopped loving him," Tara said. "Just like Buffy. So now what happens?"
Willow’s mouth worked helplessly, utterly lost.
"Um, if I can say something before the angst really gets rolling?" Oz interjected, holding up his hand.
The two witches turned to look at him.
"I know I’m just one out of three, here, but if it’s my call, neither of us leaves."
"I don’t understand," Willow said, her voice just as lost as her expression. She’d been here before. Twice. It wasn’t a place she’d wanted to come back to.
"Yesterday morning, when you submitted to me," Oz said to Tara. "I ‘accepted’ you. There’s no other word for it. As far as the Wolf—I—am concerned, we’re a pack now. I need you almost as much as I need Willow. Though not quite in the same way, of course."
The two witches were staring at him incredulously now. So was the rest of the circle, but right now, the rest of the world didn’t exist.
"I like you," he continued, to Tara. "What’s more, I need you. A packmate is more than family. A packmate is part of yourself. Do you like me?"
Struck dumb, Tara nodded silently.
"So you like me, I like you, and we both love Willow. We either have a really big problem here, or an interesting solution." He held out both of his hands "What do you say?"
Slowly, tentatively Tara took his left hand, and held out her other to Willow.
Willow had gone beyond confused to genuinely frightened. But as she saw both of her lovers holding out their hands to her, hope blossomed within the confusion and fear. Taking a deep breath, as she once did before plunging into water that she knew was cold. She reached out and took their hands before she could talk herself out of it. It wasn’t the smart or the sensible thing to do, she knew. But it was the right one.
They stood there for a moment, holding each other’s hands and smiling into each other’s faces before Willow took both of them into her arms and hugged them close.
The rest of the circle couldn’t help but stare. Faith summed up the general opinion when she said "I guess I’m happy for them. But, dude! This is fucked up."