Fic: ‘The More Things Stay the Same’ (2/3) by Quinara [R]

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Cheers again to the mods (and everyone reading)!

The More Things Stay the Same.
Buffy goes to Wesley instead of Tara about the resurrection spell.

Author: Quinara
Rating: R for for reasonably explicit sex and a whole bunch of swearing.
Length: ~25,000 words (in three chapters of approx. 8300 each.)
Other Pairings: None as such, though Angel is around, so there’s certainly Buffy-Angel interaction and a friendly acceptance of the Bangel of yore.
Notes: Big thanks to bogwitch  for the beta job! It rather got away with me after she saw it, though, so don’t blame her for anything you don’t like. ;) Also, this fic is set after DMP (where the chapter titles come from) and immediately after Loyalty on AtS.
Warnings: Nothing AO3 would make you warn for; otherwise, a certain amount of S6-y misery, but it’s not what I’d call the angstiest thing in angst town.

[Chapter One: Hit the Button, Then It Beeps.]

Chapter Two: Flip the Beef, Hit the Other Button.

The hotel was bustling when they arrived in Wesley’s SUV, forty-five hours left to go. Ironically distracted, Wesley commented, “I work best without distractions,” as they walked through the door, which left Buffy standing uselessly amongst the busy. A man and a woman she didn’t know were taking weapons from a shiny cabinet, chatting in the cadences of couple’s banter, while Angel was talking seriously with another woman in the centre of the floor, who looked like she was leaving from the way she held her bag. You could tell they were engrossed in what they were doing: Spike was stamping on his smoking coat by her side, an obvious vampire giveaway, and he still wasn’t attracting attention.

But then, before Buffy had got her act together – “Who are they?” the woman talking with Angel asked pointedly. With cropped hair and a fair brown complexion, Buffy didn’t recognise her, but the way she was standing was more important. It projected an artful sort of vulnerability, checking a box in Buffy’s mind: monitor with suspicion. Also? Make her introduce herself first. And so Buffy waited, only for the woman not to offer anything. Instead she asked Angel, the question close on the heels of her last, “And why is that guy’s jacket on fire?”

Unfortunately, what with the monitoring, Spike replied before Buffy could hit him. “What, this?” he said, picking up the coat and swinging it back on. “Had a nasty run in with some angled glass.” With his tongue stuck against his teeth, it seemed to Buffy like he was daring the woman to disagree rather than trying to convince her it was true. He mourned, “It’s a terrible thing, the California sun – specially for blokes with my…”

“Ignore him,” Angel growled, apparently wanting Spike’s status kept a secret but not actually looking that surprised he was there.

Buffy could see Spike getting ready for a fight, his eyes flashing as he bounced on his toes – and so she shoved him forward, farther into the room. “Seriously,” she said at last, as Spike scowled at her. Testing was fine, she tried to tell him, but messing up Angel’s operation was not. “He’s just obsessed with making an entrance.”

Apparently picking up on the reprimand, but ignoring the request of silence, Spike smirked at her, changing the subject to his favourite. “Well, when you put it like that, pet…”

“OK!” the guy with the axe interrupted, stepping away from the wall and sizing them both up. “I think I repeat what the lady asked. Who the hell are you?”

Bristling at the tone and surprised at the new hostility, Buffy was happy to turn away from Spike and stare the axe guy down. Spike turned with her; she didn’t even care that they were closing ranks.

However, before anything could get started, Angel quickly said, “It’s all right, Gunn, they’re here to see… Well, I think they’re with Wes, actually, but I know the both of them. Fred, Gunn; this is Buffy and – Spike.” He finished with a warning, “They aren’t here to cause trouble.”

That, unfortunately, resulted in one of those awful moments of synchronicity Buffy wished would stop happening, because no way were she and Spike on the same wavelength: they snorted simultaneously, with her saying, “Him? I wouldn’t count on it,” just as he said, “Speak for yourself, mate.”

Awkward silence followed. Fred filled it. “Aww…” she said. “They’re cute!” Buffy glared, but then the woman seemed to recognise her, which was all the more worrying. “Hang on. Buffy Buffy? Aren’t you…?” She frowned, looking between Buffy and Spike, who was glaring too, and then over to Angel, who fidgeted uncomfortably.

What the hell have you told them about me? Buffy wanted to ask, though she settled for more glaring. At Angel.

“Well, I’ve gotta go,” the first woman said, drawing attention back to her – although, she looked remarkably unoffended by being skipped over in the introductions. “But – thank you,” she told Angel and his gang, smiling earnestly before leaving the hotel to various reassurances (about the pier?).

“We should get going too, shouldn’t we, Charles?” Fred then said to Gunn, before turning to Buffy and Spike and smiling obliviously. “It was really nice to meet y’all; we can do introductions when we get back, right?” And then they were gone too, saying something mission-related to Angel before heading out of the door.

And then it was just the three of them. The silence was pronounced.

“Is Cordelia here somewhere?” Buffy asked at last. “I expected Cordelia.” As much as she hadn’t been looking forward to that, she liked known quantities way more than the un-. Those were tiring.

“Cordy’s on holiday,” Angel said, telling her nothing – apart from that Cordelia had an exciting LA nickname. Then he sighed, frowning deeply as he changed the subject. “Look, Wes told me I have to be the adult here.”

Spike snorted, interjecting, “You?”

She would have stomped on his foot, but, actually, she was as suspicious as he was. It seemed pretty obvious that she’d been sold as Angel’s ex, committed enough that she was meant to be out of tune with any other male-type guy she appeared with (and, yes, her indignation there was stronger than her annoyance about the Spike-syncing). More than that, though, this MO really wasn’t one that Buffy recognised and, also, if Wesley had talked to Angel, then…

Angel knew.

Her eyes shot to his. Oh, crap. She could see it in the way Angel stood, the way he frowned. Her first and greatest love, with whom she had nevertheless spent only one night of tentative virginery, who’d left her for humans and picnics and sunshine – he knew she was fucking a soulless vampire. One he’d always kind of hated anyway.

And yet… He wasn’t saying anything, just looked pained.

Was she really that disgusting? “Don’t you have anything to say?” Buffy asked, feeling weak, crossing her arms instinctively. The marks and stains on her skin were making themselves known, burning as spots of forgettable but suddenly consequential pain; she couldn’t bear it.

Spike tried to cut in, “Hey, Slayer –” but Angel growled, the sound full of menace; she heard Spike step back in surprise, which was gratifying. There had to be someone else who could keep him in line.

Then, however, Angel answered her question. “No,” he said quite grudgingly, but serious. “It’s ‘none of my business’.” OK, Wesley really had told him – and convinced him to be reasonable, which was… Beyond strange. Even if Angel did sulk, “I thought you were only – you know – patrolling or something.”

Buffy frowned, pulling the strength together to respond, but that was when Angel’s eyes slid away, his head ducking. Seriously; whatever hold Wesley had on him, she realised, it was big. He finished, “I’m gonna show Connor his new things,” and after that he was gone, cooing at the baby in the bassinet before taking him upstairs, boots pounding the whole flight.

She watched Angel walk away, starting to shake, but of course Spike had to fill the silence in the worst way possible. “Well,” he said, preening with a cluck of his tongue. “Some blokes just know when they don’t measure up.”

“Shut the fuck up, Spike,” she replied, delayed fear juddering through her bones.

Not that that stopped him responding in kind. “Fucking make me, Slayer,” he said with a snort.

Buffy shook her head. “Don’t start.”

“Don’t start?” Grabbing her arm, he turned her to face him, looking almost actually insulted. He always picked the worst times, and now wasn’t an exception. Could he not leave anything alone? “What does it take, Buffy,” he asked, “for you to talk to me like I’m real? For you to have a joke with me when we’re not the only ones in the room?”

“What the hell’s that got to do with anything?” she shot back defensively, her brain still working through the conversation. Couldn’t he be grateful? Didn’t he see how much worse things could have gone? They could have been thrown out into the sunshine, sent back to Sunnydale without answers or anything. Angel could have sworn to tell all her friends; he had the power to judge, the right of a champion behind him; he could have confirmed all her worst fears of failure.

Spike’s jaw clenched as he looked away from her, eyes glancing to the sunlight outside and to the stairs up which Angel had fled. “You don’t have to pretend here,” he insisted. “None of them give a toss – even Angel knows he shouldn’t want to. Apart from him and that Wesley, who is there who knows you? No one.” He snarled, looking back at her, “You don’t have to treat me by the Scoobies’ rules.”

“They’re my rules,” Buffy said roughly, pulling her arm out of his hand and getting angry. How slow on the uptake could he be? “I need rules.” From his face she could tell Spike was holding last night against her, like that was the truth and this was the lie. But it was the other way around; it had to be. “When I break rules, people die. You can’t understand –”

“I can’t understand?” he cut her off, sounding like he was bringing up all the surliness since they’d got up, the way she’d crumpled under Angel’s scrutiny, getting way out of hand. He laughed, dry and harsh, turned away – but then he shot back, deadly serious. “You listen to me, now, Buffy, ‘cause there’s a lot of things I don’t understand about you, but for the last two years the one and only rule I’ve allowed in my life – for over a century – is not to let people die.” His jaw clenched. “So don’t you dare say I can’t understand. I know how high you hold that, bloody rebel that you are when the whole sodding species values most life at fuck all. Falling for you… It’s you who can’t know what you’ve done to me, making me stop, making me think –”

“And you’re my responsibility!” she yelled over him, because he didn’t understand, couldn’t know the compass he didn’t have. “Do you even realise? Every moment I don’t stake you, you’re my responsibility.” His eyes were hard, harder than she could keep hers. “And in case you haven’t noticed, I’m flunking those more every day.”

How?” Spike shook his head. “How are you –”

Buffy cut him off, turning away. “You have to stay a duty, not a care. Those – they get done.”

“If you’re gonna say that,” he snapped, steps scuffing, “bloody look at me!” And he pushed her, two hands on shoulders, forcing her round so she was stumbling backwards, eyes flicking up to take in his angry face. She recovered, but he was still coming, not understanding at all, so with two turning steps and a kick she roundhoused him away from her, making his body fly ten feet across the lobby.

Spike crashed to the floor, bones cracking on the marble.

She waited, heart pumping with the last of the adrenaline, expecting him to get up and rush her again.

Seconds passed, but he didn’t get up, didn’t move. A dozen fantasy fights went through her mind every day, but none of them were like this: he always got up, he always laughed, he always loved it. Where had she gone wrong? That shouldn’t have sent him unconscious, not that kick.

Buffy couldn’t help but panic. Rationally, she knew she shouldn’t care, because it wasn’t right to care and it didn’t matter with him a vampire anyway, but her muscles weren’t rational: her feet were carrying her towards him now and her voice quavered as she said, “Spike…?”

When she leant over him he looked dead; her heart stopped –

– but only until his eyes snapped open, as his boots met her chest on his flip up to standing. Before she could recover, he rushed her against the wall, trapping her in with his hands on her upper arms.

“Tell me you don’t care,” he demanded, eyes blazing as he took in her panic. “Bloody tell me.”

She shouted back on instinct, face twisting beyond her control, “I don’t love you!” The words echoed round the lobby, rough and blurred and worryingly close to saying something else. Spike froze, but she carried on. “What are you gonna do? Beat me till I say different?”

He snarled on a delay, “That wasn’t the fucking question!” But then he caught up, so shoved her one more time before retreating, hands pressed to his eyes, apparently realising the plan was a bust. After a moment of silence, he told her bitterly, “You do my head in, Slayer.”

With his words, she heard it again, the sound of his head slamming into the floor. Her blood hadn’t cooled, so she couldn’t help but feel a dirty sort of pride that he’d been able to get back up, despite everything. The words slipped from her tongue: “You underestimate yourself.”

She didn’t even know what she meant, but it had him looking at her again, eyes disbelieving but his lips pursed in a promise she was turning him on. “I think you’ll find that’s mutual,” he said, just holding her in his gaze.

There was nowhere to go after that. She had nothing to say.

In the end, Spike sighed and reached out his hand for hers, not so much with entreaty as disdain. The contrary thing seemed to be to accept his grip, so she took it, stepping away from the wall.

With his fingers gently pulling at her, thumb across the back of her palm, Buffy found herself where she was that morning, a soft and strange warmth flushing through her in the wake of her dissipating anger. She hated everything in this world, herself most of all and the hollow wreck of shame and confusion she was, so there was nothing else to feel for him but hate – and yet he was different, when they were like this he was different, and she didn’t understand that different shade of feeling. Spike wasn’t like Dawn, whom she hated so little she simply felt nothing at all; she didn’t know what she felt about him.

Following his footsteps, Buffy found herself on the couch where she’d sat with Angel the night before, but closer to the body at her side, leaning in as an arm came around her shoulders and looking at nothing. What was the point in resisting, really, when there was no one around to care?

In the silence she wanted to ask Spike how it felt to fall in love with her – but she knew that to ask that would be to admit it had happened. So instead she wondered idly, because she had idle thoughts and most of them were dismissibly crazy, whether it felt anything like this.

Because, when she looked at him these days, she saw him like she saw nothing else, like he was cast in negative against the colour system of the world. He was different. From her friends, from her enemies, from herself; he had no secrets, no shame, no fear. He tried so goddamn hard and that – it made her realise how much she hated everything else a whole lot more than she did him. He was terrifying, but above all else he was necessary, if only as a truth she tried to ignore. If only as the one who made her know things were wrong.

Like, even now, sitting in Angel’s seat, he was kissing her hair as if he didn’t care how angry it might make Angel – or her – as if he cared more about the chance she might like it. What could you do to someone with that sort of nerve? She couldn’t bring herself to push him away; what could you do with someone who made you realise that?

“D’you think anybody heard?” she asked instead.

Spike just shrugged, which had the effect of rocking her ever so slightly closer against him. Bastard. “Who cares?” he asked nonchalantly. “We probably gave that bint a good show.”

OK, now she was just confused.

“Huh?” Buffy asked. I do not say ‘bint’. “There’s a woman?”

“The one from before, with the questions and the Karate Kid foot stance,” he said, as if she should know exactly what he was talking about. “Doubt she left straightaway. She knew exactly what I was but didn’t want to say so: blatantly here on a reccy.”

Then she got it, the suspicious check-box woman – was probably still here? Dammit, she should have trusted her instincts. “And you didn’t say anything?” she asked, shrugging off Spike’s arm and leaning forward on the couch. “She’s probably a bad guy – Angel probably has bad guys, and traps, and…”

Spike really wasn’t getting it, just staring at her like they weren’t speaking the same language. Not that she could be sure they did, most of the time. “So?” he asked.

So we don’t let that happen to our friends,” she told him sharply, before remembering with a pang that she was the one who’d scowled him into silence. Double dammit.

Standing up and looking quickly around the hotel, Buffy realised there wasn’t anybody she could tell about this. (Why did everyone have to be so busy and/or flammable?) And she’d just told Spike they couldn’t let it go, so presumably it was her problem now. “Wait here,” she told him, exasperated but letting some mildness return.

He sighed, looking put out as he grumbled, “And off she goes a-heroing,” nevertheless keeping his eyes locked on hers until she turned away.

Of course, when Buffy left the hotel she had no idea where she was going. But every now and then – when it was to someone else’s benefit – she got lucky, so, stealthing down the street, she actually managed to catch the woman just as she was heading into nearest subway station. If she really had left the hotel when she’d seemed to, the woman shouldn’t have taken this long to get there. Sure, maybe she’d stopped for some falafel or bought a magazine, but she could just as easily have been watching. As far as Buffy was concerned, the decision was made: tailing was the prudent choice.

Having spent her fifty cents on the phone call to Wesley and used her last favour for the bus, Buffy didn’t have the money for a ticket – but she headed down the stairs anyway. It wasn’t like she’d forgotten how to dodge the barriers; it was even easier with Slayer reflexes, more so when she wasn’t attracting attention in a giggling gang of fourteen year olds. She had to remind herself this was Slayer business when the guilt came creeping in, but otherwise the three-stop journey went without incident, bringing the woman and Buffy to a reasonably short walk and a shady-looking mansion. Possibly the woman lived there, but Buffy chose to suspect.

Wishing she had some dark glasses and a hat, Buffy snuck around the side of the house to a dust-darkened window, kneeling in a weedy flowerbed to look inside.

Definitely a bad guy, she decided, peering in. The woman had come home to a motley group of people in a gloomy, badly decorated living room and, after receiving what looked like a jovial piece of congratulation, she took a camera out of her bag, handing it to someone with a laptop. Despite this damning evidence, however, Buffy couldn’t quite figure out what the set-up was, bad-guy-ish though it seemed, because as she watched further it became clear that this didn’t resemble the evil cults she’d known – there were no robes, no demonic statues, no funky herb repositories. And the people all looked so… Human.

Although – was that a demon? Something man-shaped, but with bad hair, materialised at the edge of the chatting group. A short guy who walked like he was in a costume drama led him away to some books, where they gestured emphatically for a few moments, before the demon-thing vanished again. Huh.

Buffy watched the goings on for a while, as the pictures were printed and the hotel woman debriefed the rest of the group; no more demons appeared. The costume drama guy definitely looked like he was in charge, and a chick with a big-ass belt buckle was his second in command. Obviously they had some sort of plan, but it didn’t seem to be coming into action quite yet, at least not in any way she could see. And whatever that meant, there wasn’t anything Buffy could do about it now. Angel would probably know who these people were, so the best thing to do would be to get back to the hotel, tell him, then ask if she should head down to the pier or something to warn his friends there. Maybe check how Wesley’s research was progressing. Not think about snuggling under Spike’s arm.

Unfortunately, like all of Buffy’s recon plans, it didn’t go the way it was meant to. There was a reason she usually went for the mount-up-and-charge approach.

When she passed by the front path again, having got up awkwardly and rubbed dirt from her knees (way too much like a cemetery-sex stain), the house’s front door opened. It revealed the costume drama guy, who stepped out and said, in costume drama British, “Are you going so soon?”

Nonplussed, Buffy looked back at him, eyes wide as she wondered how cowardly it would be to run away. What exactly was she supposed to do with this man?

“Come now,” he continued, gesturing towards the doorway but not issuing an invitation. Smart. “You must know so much about us, while we know so little about you.” For some reason, when he said it like that, it sounded like she was being really impolite. She thought it was probably the British. “You’ll be quite safe. After all –” He looked up, shielding his eyes from LA’s afternoon sun, before saying, “Our cause is against vampires, so you have nothing to fear.”

If they were human and had no magic, she had nothing to fear from them in any case, but he didn’t have to know that. “But you know I hang out with them,” Buffy replied as a challenge, not moving from the street. “Vampires, I mean.”

The man smiled, calculating. “And yet you carry a stake in your boot and two more inside your jacket. You stand as someone to whom combat is no stranger, yet you observed instead of attacked.” He deduced, “I believe we are on the same side – and it is always a pleasure to meet a comrade.”

OK, he got extra points for noticing the stakes. But she’d met freelancers before, and, while this one had a Watcher-like accent and more charm than the wolf guy, she was still wary. “I’m not your comrade,” she told him. “I’m not a soldier.” What was she? Oh yeah, a human warrior dead from mystical means. Only alive. Wrong.

“Perhaps not,” he replied agreeably. “But I believe we should speak anyway.”

When it came down to it, Buffy wasn’t sure if this could actually go that badly. She knew practically nothing about Angel’s situation these days – certainly not more than the woman had already found out – so she probably had nothing to give this guy, while she had everything to learn from talking to him. The house had a lot of windows; she could find a way out if she got into trouble.

“Fine,” she said at last, making her way up the path. “But you’d better offer me tea.”

The man laughed, in that smile-and-exhale way Giles had always been fond of. “All in good time,” he replied as she followed him inside. “And my name, by the way, is Captain Daniel Holtz.”

The introduction hung expectantly, even as she took in all the faces of people watching her. She thought about calling herself Joan, but, when it came down to it, as much as she had to hide she didn’t care to show a weakness like that, not when any vampire hunter worth their salt should know her face. “Buffy Summers,” she said – and could immediately tell the best fighters in the room from the ones who didn’t laugh.

Daniel didn’t even crack a grin. He nodded, showing her to the seating area where she watched everyone sit just minutes before – where, huh, there was a photo of her with ‘Fi(?)’ written underneath it. The belt buckle chick (who’d only broken a small smile) sat with them, while Daniel he asked the woman from the hotel, “Aubrey, considering our guest, would you mind making some tea for us all?”

“Sure,” the woman, Aubrey, replied, apparently quite nice even when she wasn’t faking. “Hot tea, right?”

“Yes.” Daniel nodded as she scurried away. Then he turned back to Buffy and commented, apologetically, “Forgive me, but I am not fond of the sugar customary in the ‘iced’ version of the drink. My tastes are rather traditional.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, mostly surprised there hadn’t been more specifics. “I’ve known a few ol-, um, traditional British guys in my time.”

He raised his eyebrows, nodding as if in understanding, before turning his head towards the other woman. When Buffy looked her way too, he introduced her, “This is Justine Cooper –”

However, just as he was saying this, and quicker than a normal human would have noticed, Daniel took a ball point pen in his hand and threw it at Buffy like a dart, aiming for her neck. She, of course, took it out of the air easily, fingers closing around the plastic – it hadn’t been flying that fast and would have caused her more of a surprise than a wound, but she spun back to face him anyway, not appreciating the test. “What the hell was that?” Buffy demanded.

“As I thought,” Daniel commented, unconcerned, as though this was simply a further part of their introduction; Justine looked just as confused as Buffy felt, so this apparently wasn’t any sort of major set-up with a poisoned pen or something. “I always hoped I would know the Vampire Slayer should I meet her.” He bowed his head. “It is an honour.”

“Really?” Buffy asked, still on edge but not averse to the flattery. What was a little pen-throwing between friends? Clearly Daniel knew his stuff, and his tone was respectful, almost deferent; it was weird how nice a change it actually made for somebody to recognise her. “Did you not expect me to be, I dunno, taller or something?”

He frowned. “I was aware you would be a woman, and have known many women of your stature. Or slighter: my beloved Caroline…”

Then his explanation slackened, words coming to a ragged halt. It all began slotting into place – possibly this guy had skills and throwing reflexes that came from more than a few years experience, but setting up out of an abandoned mansion with a gang of henchpeople-in-training? Daniel had a mission. And, in her experience, where there was a mission, there was, well, death.

“Was it vampires…?” Buffy began, hesitantly. “Did vampires kill – ?”

He focused on her again, hate clouding his expression. “Angelus murdered my wife and family.”

Shocked, she froze in her chair. “Angelus?” Daniel was in his, what, late forties, early fifties? “How – ? Are you from Sunnydale?” Oh god, was this her fault? How long would it be before she stopped meeting the fallout from that one mistake? How long till she stopped deserving to? “I feel like I would have…”

“You are acquainted with his history, then?” the man responded, looking satisfied but apparently not knowing or realising that she was Angel’s history. “Yes, the soul has been present for a hundred years. I imagine it won’t be kept from you, when you return to him with my location, that I am not from that century, nor the one preceding. The crime, however, remains.” So he actually was from a costume drama…

Taken aback by Daniel’s bizarre revelation, Buffy couldn’t keep eye contact with him, looking instead at all the people bustling around the hideout. Her gaze eventually fell on Justine, who smirked, just a little. Maybe it was funny; stranger things had happened. Maybe. “Are all these people…?” Buffy began.

Justine, however, shook her head, taking pity on her but laughing while she did it. “No,” she said. “We’re from this time – just sympathetic to the cause.”

“The –” Now Buffy paused, staring the woman down, because this wasn’t funny. “This isn’t about vampires,” she realised, a little belatedly, with a sinking feeling in her stomach. This wasn’t a regular anti-vampire group. “This is about Angel. You’re all after Angel.” She glanced at Holtz, who was unreadable, then back to Justine, accusing, “I understand fighting vampires – my god do I understand fighting vampires – and I understand revenge… But you? You’re here because your sympathetic? This guy rocks up from the – eighteenth century, with a vendetta and a musket – I bet he had a musket – and you let him…”

“You don’t know what I’ve been through,” Justine told her coldly, taking Buffy’s full attention.

“And I don’t care,” she replied, hard, even as Aubrey appeared with the tea. That had been kind of a joke anyway; she wasn’t thirsty anymore. “There are no excuses, not when people’s lives are at stake.” Six years on earth Buffy had been living by that credo, and every time she’d tried to change the rules it had bitten her on the ass. In all likelihood this woman did have pain, deep pain that hurt her like a stab wound in her side, every day she got up, every night she went to sleep – but that didn’t change the rules.

“Well said,” Daniel interrupted their stare, pouring the tea for the four of them as Aubrey took her place at the table. “I hope you take that message to heart, Justine. I dare say, Miss Summers,” he continued, lifting his teacup from the tray and holding it before him, steam rising past his face, “that our ethics almost certainly align. You fight evil everyday; you are aware of the responsibilities of judgement and forbearance which follow.” One sip of the tea, which had him frowning like the taste wasn’t all that familiar to him. “I, however, pursued Angelus for a little over seven years – which I imagine is longer than you have been called.”

“About the same, actually,” she interjected, joining Justine in rejecting her cup.

“Commendable,” came the praise again, though it was sitting less and less comfortably. “You know the nature of vampires, I presume, their hearts and will? Well, I know Angelus and the blackness of his heart, the torment it must bring upon that wretched soul of his. I know in the name of God that what I do is right.”

“He told me,” Aubrey added, quietly but with no less conviction as she caught up with the conversation, drinking her tea. “Not knowing who I was, Angelus told me that when a vampire takes a life, all they leave is an evil thing. He admits it.” She sipped, her eyes not showing vulnerability anymore, but zeal, burning. “There was no hope for my son,” she asked Buffy, though she sounded certain of the answer, “How can there be any hope for him?”

She wasn’t going to get it: “Because he’s not the same person!” Buffy wasn’t sure she could believe what she was hearing; neither of the women were listening to her, she could see that in the way they scowled, but she kept speaking anyway. “The soul changed him,” she insisted. “Maybe not straight away, he admits that, but it made him see things differently – he made himself into someone new. And, yeah,” she accepted. “It sucks that Angelus was the one who got that. In a lot of ways that sucks – but life’s not fair, and Angel? He deserves a chance to live.”

“His soul deserves a chance to find salvation,” Daniel replied plainly, dismissing all her passion. “The creature remains an abomination, his choices little different from those I knew so many years ago. He holds a child in his arms, but still he –”

Buffy’s stomach clenched, but she nevertheless interrupted, not wanting to hear what Angel had done, what the baby meant, not from this man. “I can’t listen to any more of this,” she said, standing up and drawing the attention of the others training in the room beyond. “This is a horrible world, and it’s – hard.” So, so hard. “And maybe you’re used to dealing with that by looking around and seeing the saved on the one side and the damned on the other; I get it, you’re old.” She met Daniel’s eyes with what she was sure he was thinking of as New World insolence. She didn’t care. “But thinking that simply does nothing but get innocent people killed. Because – maybe you care about souls, Captain Holtz, but I care about lives, and all I see is you leading a group of frightened, angry people into a massacre. I’m leaving.” Then she looked one last time at Justine and Aubrey, telling them, “You should think about what you’re doing here – whether doing this guy’s work will ever really sate what you feel.”

They said nothing as she left, and she was happy for it to go that way, but on the way out she caught sight of some movement in the corner of her eye, just beyond the group she hadn’t spoken with. There were vampires, she saw, chained up in a group and ravening, with bruises on their demon faces. One was nursing a broken wrist; another was bleeding from a sword wound to the chest.

Pausing, Buffy snorted, then took one of the stakes from her jacket to twirl in her fingers. This place, this mission would fall, she knew it then and there, but there was one last thing to do before she left. Setting one foot in front of the other, she purposefully approached the vampires snarling where they stood. One of the human guys called, “Hey!”, another rushing to stop her – but with a step and a flex of her ankle he was on the ground and tumbling towards the skirting board. The rest backed off.

“You’re a God-fearing man, Daniel,” she said, loudly and clearly in the voice she reserved for these particular moments, looking at nothing but the creatures in chains. “So, you must know.” Coming close to the vamps, they seemed to sense who she was, quietening down and waiting – proof their time was done. She explained, “There’s something far more powerful than vengeance, more frightening, more holy.” With her movements as quick and efficient as she knew, it took less than ten seconds to stake them all; the one with the stab wound was last, his eyes fading from yellow to something human in the gloom before he went. “I mean,” she finished, as the feral screams died and the dust fell to the floor, “you’ve heard of mercy, right?”

Then she was gone, not looking back.

The late afternoon was warm as she wandered back to the Hyperion. There didn’t seem any reason to skip the subway fare again, not when she knew LA well enough to find her way and had nothing waiting for her but problems. This was how it always went: when she knew what she was doing, things were so easy, and she felt as powerful as she had always done. But things were hard too often; if she could just keep walking, alone with the sun in the sky, she was fairly sure she could live her life.

She got back eventually though, and found Spike reading a book on the couch to the soundtrack of Wesley on the phone. Otherwise, the hotel felt as empty as when she’d left. Maybe it felt more welcoming when Cordelia wasn’t away.

“Big Daddy’s taking a nap,” Spike told her, putting the paperback down on his chest but not getting up. “Some baby book nonsense about ‘sleeping when he does’.”

Buffy sighed. “You haven’t been bothering Angel, have you?” If Spike would just stop making her life harder, she was pretty sure that most of it would fix itself.

“Maybe he bothered me,” he replied, a little sulkily (and worryingly human).

Rolling her eyes, Buffy ignored the look that implied they were supposed to be talking about before. “Is Wesley…?” Thankfully, a concluding rise in tone and the slam of a receiver signalled the end of Wesley’s phone call, so she didn’t have to worry about sustaining the conversation any longer.

Spike made some sort of noise as she left the lobby for Wesley’s office, but he couldn’t seem to work out what to say. That suited her fine.

Letting herself in like the night before, Buffy met Wesley’s eyes and took his nod as invitation to sit down opposite him. “Did you find anything?” she asked, wanting this all to be over and done with.

At first he didn’t say anything, shifting the papers under his hands and seemingly switching gears after the phone call. Then he cleared his throat, before apologising with, “I’m sorry you’ve wasted a trip.”

“What?” she replied shortly, shaking her head, not understanding. “Could you not –”

“No,” he said, finally meeting her eyes. Serious. “What I mean is – as far as I can ascertain, the spell went fine. There’s nothing different about you.”

“No,” she echoed, using his word because she had none of her own. “No.” She was calm, but she was swallowing down bile. The thing was, when he said it, in some ways it felt inevitable. And yet it was impossible – because she was wrong. She knew it, in the marks on her hips that hadn’t been there this time yesterday, in the way that Spike talked to her like they were friends and the way that she talked back. “You’re mistaken,” she told Wesley, because that was the only way this could work.

“It’s a dangerous spell,” he explained, his gentle tone nonetheless cutting. “It should never have been attempted – but, in terms of the subject… For the most part, it’s – foolproof.” Foolproof. Like an Easy-Bake Oven. Funny. “It either reanimates the body whole or doesn’t work at all.”

“No,” she swore again, looking down at her hands, which had done so many things. The lines of the wood grain twisted and merged around her fingers as she explained, “Spike can hurt me, so I’m wrong.” Why would no one get the logic? “I’m not human, I’m different.”

“Your body,” Wesley said, making her fists clench, every cell a traitor. “It’s – reconstitution was probably enough to distort any biological censors in Spike’s chip – through its magical trace… If it really was developed to create weapons,” he suggested, “it may be that that’s what triggers a prevention of feedback against de–”

“Demons?” she interrupted, seizing the word again from the air. It made Wesley jerk back. “If the chip thinks I’m a demon, then I can’t be human, can I?” That explained it, why she could still kill so easily. Everything was so easy in the night, the demons’ world. (Apart from Spike, apart from –)

“No,” the man insisted all the same, getting aggravated now. “You are human. Magically reconstructed, but as human as you were before.”

It was his anger that got to her. She stood, laughing as she saw the truth; she’d had enough of Englishmen today. “How can I even trust you?” she asked, which seemed to surprise him; she was surprising herself. “I know you’re keeping something from me.” Slowly Wesley’s mouth went slack, fingers clutching around his papers, and she knew she was right. The books, the avoidance, Holtz’s words: they all added up to this. She’d been so stupid to come here. “You and Angel, you’re hiding something about that baby. Don’t think I don’t know.”

What do you know?” Wesley asked, afraid and standing up fast out of his chair.

But she was already backing away, out of the office, because she knew she wouldn’t get anything more out of him. Spike was still in the lobby, introducing himself to some random green guy, who had a butcher’s paper bag in his arm (why did she know where it came from?), and he met her eyes the moment she was there – but she stalked past him, taking to the stairs like Angel had before.

She couldn’t climb them; darting across the floor, Spike appeared in front of her on the flight. “Get out of my way, Spike,” she told him, glaring with as much violence as she could.

For a moment he said nothing, apparently working out what she’d been told. As he stepped down another stair further into her space, she could see he believed the same as Wesley, that she was human and she wasn’t wrong, which almost made her cry, definitely made her shake, because now everyone was ganging up. It couldn’t be true, didn’t Spike see that? It couldn’t be right for her to want to destroy him, not so very often as she did, to beat him and wound him at the same time as she let him – when a moment later the feeling would vanish away, as it was vanishing now as he brought soft soulless hands to her shoulders. “Don’t,” he told her, shortly but with kind eyes.

She almost didn’t, lips parting without words – but then she heard Wesley coming into the lobby behind her, the purposeful knell of hard-soled shoes. On her arms, Spike’s hands tightened; she said, “Please,” to make him let her go. She couldn’t deal with him now, not his kindness, not his touch, not as her words came out weaker than anything she’d said at Daniel’s.

Reluctantly Spike stepped aside, touch fading with a tight caress. “It’s 312,” he told her as she headed on, sounding disgusted with himself. She was glad someone could be.

Buffy found the room two more flights up, with a rested Angel appearing from the doorway. “Buffy?” he asked, confused.

“Tell me what’s going on,” she begged, trying to demand. “Don’t lie to me – you can’t, not when you know everything I’ve done.”

“What’s wrong?” Angel asked, still confused – but purposefully blocking the doorway, it seemed to Buffy, keeping the baby from her. “Did Spike –”

“Don’t say his name!” Her voice rose to a shriek, just for a syllable; she was surprised to hear Angel say it, didn’t want him saying it. “This isn’t about him.” Why was it always about him? “This is about me.” Before, in the house, she’d had so much control, but here her speech was breaking down, her conviction and her self-belief. Why couldn’t everything be as she knew it was? She forced herself to carry on, begging now with words “You know I’m wrong, don’t you – but you won’t say it. You won’t let Wesley fix it.” The reason why hit her afresh, slammed into her lungs. “You’re holding it back because of that – baby.” She pointed at the room, at Angel’s chest. “Because of…”

“My son?” Angel suggested, making everything real.

She stared. And then her arm slumped to her side. My son.

“Connor?” Angel asked, still urgent. “What about him? What did Wes say?”

She shook her head, her mouth dry, her head spinning; was it not a secret? It had to be a secret. “He didn’t say anything.”

“Then why are you so upset?” The question came from far away; she was staring at the floor.

“He said…” Buffy didn’t finish, asked instead, “Your son? How…?” She wasn’t sure what she had thought, what else she could have thought, in light of the evidence, but it was still enough to make her brain go cold. “And not adopted, I guess.” She looked up.

Angel sighed, easing away from the doorway and inviting her in. “Come meet Connor, Buffy, I’ll introduce you.”

It was easier than thinking about anything else – distraction, that was good – and so she followed him inside the room, trudging in her boots across the carpet. Angel brought her to the side of the cot and she looked down, at the bundle of blankets and life, sleeping peacefully in the multicoloured glow of his nightlight.

“Buffy,” Angel said softly, “this is Connor.”

And there he was.

The boy was beautiful. She could see that, in the soft ruddiness of his cheeks and the tiny spot of his nose; he was fragile and breakable and perfect, he was everything she shouldn’t be allowed near. Hadn’t she told Angel the Giga Pet story? “Who was his mother?” Buffy asked softly, probably proving how hard she was, but nonetheless needing the answer. “I’m guessing you didn’t actually lie, so – was she close to you?”

Sighing again, Angel said nothing at first, but she didn’t push him – just watched the colours on the nightlight change from blue to green, to yellow, to orange, red, purple, stars falling on Connor’s pudgy face. She realised, quite suddenly, that this had to be the goodness Angel had been talking about, that he’d been so goshdarn pleased with. She didn’t want to know the badness that Daniel saw.

“I guess you could say I made some bad choices too,” Angel said eventually, inevitably making her heart sink. “Worse, probably. Or certainly, since the baddest thing Spike does these days is backchat.”

And steal and gamble and drink and smoke… “You think that isn’t bad?” she asked, back on topic, not sure whether he was joking – and what that meant for what he’d done. “You think that’s all of it? He – he undermines my friends, gets me to talk about them behind their backs – to the point I start to wonder whether I even like them anymore…”

Do you?” Angel asked mildly, catching her eye.

She hesitated, before retreating from the cot and saying, “That’s not a fair question to ask.”

“Buffy.” Turning around, Angel crossed his arms over his chest and kept his distance, which was just about enough to stop her leaving. He looked serious, as if he’d figured what Wesley had told her. Apparently everybody could believe it but her. “When we met up, after you – I could barely get through to you. Do you remember sitting in that diner, the silence while we ate?”

If she thought back, she could, just about. Sort of. Those first few weeks were slightly confused. Time wasn’t her friend (what time was it now?); it was all part of the wrongness. She didn’t say that, though, just, “I had cherry pie, right?”

“Right,” Angel replied, though it came with a frown. “My point is, they put you through a lot. And, I guess, it doesn’t seem to me like you have to be OK with everything all in one go.” He gestured between them. “Talking to you now, I mean, I recognise so much more of the girl I knew than that shadow with her pie.”

She laughed shortly, so bright and brittle she was worried she’d wake Connor. Recognised her. He thought he recognised her. “Then you’re not looking very hard,” she told him – because she was wrong. Whatever the magic said, she could feel it. Everything was twisted and inverted inside her. “There’s nothing about me that’s the same as what I was.” Desperately she tried to describe it, “I try and I try and I try, but it – everything means nothing to me. My friends, maybe I feel – but Spike and I… I go to him because he makes me forget. About everything.” Oh, she could feel it all coming back – the Doublemeat and the bills and the debt she didn’t even open, sucking her in. Now, an hour’s walk away, she remembered what it was like to be Justine and just want an out, but – “That’s wrong. I know it’s wrong, and still…” Why, Spike, why is it you’re allowed to make me happy? “The things he does, the things he says, the things I say to him – it’s wrong, it’s all wrong.” She shook her head again, looking up at Angel. “You have to understand. We’re – awful.”

Angel’s eyes were dark, unyielding. “Let me guess,” he finished knowingly, not knowing anything, “apart from when you aren’t, right?”

What could she say to that? Had he even been listening? Tears leaked out her eyes as she blinked, trying to focus on the carpet. Maybe they were good sometimes, she could give him that, but what was good? How could it be good when sometimes she felt like she was dying?

Not accepting the silence, Angel sighed. “Seriously Buffy, until you’ve fired all your friends and have a room full of bodies on your hands, I…” He let that sentence drop; she wasn’t sure she wanted to know. “All I’m hearing is – well, things I don’t wanna hear. But nothing I can judge. There’re worse relationships out there, believe me.”

“You don’t understand.” Again she tried to tell him, “You left so I could go in the light, right, could walk through the sunshine?” He was starting to look uncomfortable now, but that was fine with her. “Well, he wants me in the dark, wants me there with him. He tells me that’s where I belong. He wants me to be wrong.”

There was silence, but then Angel replied, “So, what, that means you are?” He was brusque and she started back. “Buffy,” he continued, shaking his head, “all that’s about him, not you – ‘cause, let me tell you, if you haven’t worked this out yet…” He paused, before saying, “Spike is full of shit.” They shared a stare. “If that doesn’t bug you, then I’d really worry you like him, because it’s his number one annoying characteristic. He’ll say anything – just to see if it touches a nerve…” Then Angel sighed, probably at the look on her face. “Don’t use him to beat yourself up,” he said. “It’s not worth it. If you treat him like a drug, he’ll become one – but he doesn’t have to be.”

“He doesn’t have a soul,” she tried, annoyed it had taken her so long to bring it up.

“And as I’m pretty sure you know,” he responded impatiently. “That’s not really the question.”

She scowled. Really, it was time for him to stop avoiding the elephant, if he wanted her to believe anything he said. “Who was Connor’s mother, Angel?” she asked, changing the subject, but not by much.

He told her.

[Chapter Three: There’s Not a Button for That.]


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