Part Four of Ten
"Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in."
"I should have called it
Something you somehow haven't to deserve."
Robert Frost, The Death of the Hired Man, 1915
"What do you think of this one? Be honest."
Jemima held a shift dress up beneath her chin, the red of arterial blood.
Johnny winced. "Not red. You shouldn't wear red."
Two girls brushed past him, the heat of their bodies going straight to his groin. The mall's fluorescent lights made his eyes vibrate. The entire place smelled like food, and he was starving. Salivating at the approach of every passerby. The craving was incredible, it suffused his every thought, made his body ache. Pig blood did nothing to cut it. He imagined how he could tear the throat out of the saleswoman at just the right place so her blood would fountain into his mouth until her heart slowed.
"Well, it's such a charming dress, but the only other color it comes in is black. I don't want to wear black. This is LA, it's warm and sunny here."
"You don't live in LA."
"California girl, born and bred. I'm coming back to my roots. What about this one? This is nice and simple. Do you object to pale blue?"
How could she make little jokes and be sweet, and try on summery frocks? How could she think that bringing him along, asking him his opinion, making him hold her selections, was anything less than grotesque? She smelled like sorrow, while trying so hard to hide it from him. He couldn't stand being near her, but at the same time it was impossible to refuse her anything.
"Don't overwhelm me with your enthusiasm, Sluggo. All right, I'm ready to try on. Gimme these." She lifted the garments out of his arms and started off towards the back of the store.
He sprang after her. "Dontdon't leave me."
"I'll just be in the dressing room. I won't take too long. See, there's a chair right here, you can take a load off."
It occured to him, he could walk out of here. He was still Nicholas Grieves Summers, with a wallet-full of freshly-reissued credit cards, all of Uncle Rupert's money at his fingertips. He didn't have to stay around for this.
He could satisfying this incredible hunger.
He could feed. He didn't necessarily have to kill anyone. He could drink his fill and leave them alive. That wouldn't be too bad, would it?
The crowds were thick; everyone seemed to be coming at him, all these brightly dressed walking meals. Moving towards the exit, he was the wolf cleaving the flock. He'd get out, get a little distance, the city was full of food ripe for the picking. Before dawn he'd thrill to the pounding terror of a squirming body in his arms, fill his mouth with that essential living heat.
At the door, the cool night air hit like a drug. Yes. Freedom. Inhaling, his body, his desire, his strength expanded. He was powerful, more than alive. He could have what he wanted.
"Johnnywhat are you doing here?"
Angel stood before him, arms akimbo, all brow and broad as a wall.
"How did you know where I was?"
"I spotted you inside. I was running an errand." He held a shopping bag, too small and feminine for his big hand, with pink tissue paper sticking out of the top.
"My sister's inside. Shopping. She brought me along."
"But you're leaving."
"Justgetting a breath of air. It stinks in there. You must know."
Angel's stance softened. "I know. It'll get easieryou won't be white-knuckling forever. C'mon."
Like a truant, he followed Angel back into the mall. Led him to the shop where Jemima was just exiting the dressing room, her arms full of dresses.
"Johnny, where'd you go? I was calling you, I wanted you to find me a different sizeoh. Angel. What are you doing here? Is everything all right? Where's Papa?"
"Everything's fine, I was shopping too. Ran into Johnny here."
"Oh. Well, hello."
Johnny stepped between his sister's smile and Angel's. "Are you getting those?"
"They're too big. I didn't realize ...."
Angel reached around to relieve her of the armful of dresses. She tucked her hair behind her ear, even as it slipped forward again. "Thank you. This turned out to be a waste of time, I guess." She turned to him. "If you hadn't disappeared"
"We should get out of here," Johnny said. "I think you're more tired than you thought."
"But I need some clothes, I don't have anything with me" She glanced around, flustered. "You can never find a salesgirl when you need one."
"Sit," Angel said. "I'll pull your size."
He was off before either of them could protest, moving nearly faster than the eye could follow. Johnny watched fascinatedcould he do that too? Dart seamlessly from place to place in a blink, so that the women browsing didn't even feel his passage? Shit.If he'd known that
Angel was back, a new set of laden hangers dangling from his big hand. "Here you go. Take your time, we'll wait right here."
"Thank you." Jemima seemed not the least bit surprised at either his speed or his service, as she disappeared back into the dressing room.
Johnny nodded at Angel's bag. "What's that?"
Angel stared at him until Johnny realized that he wasn't going to answer. He dropped onto the chair. "Are you sure you weren't here checking up on me?"
"No. Should I have been?"
"Because I can't follow you around all the time. You have to trust yourself."
He sank lower in his seat, stuck his feet out. "Nothing will happen."
"Interesting passive sentence construction there."
"HeyI'm not passive."
"Aren't you? So far, you've been nothing but. I expect a period of adjustment. The changes you've undergone in the last week are profound. But I get the feeling you're just waiting for the whole thing to go away. It's not going to go away. If you want anything to feel good about, you need to commit. You need to be a player."
With a sigh, he leaned back, stared up at the acoustic tile ceiling. Blinked at the buzzing lights. He was getting a headache.
"The mission, right."
"Why's that so foreign to you? You grew up with it. Your mother"
"is the slayer. I know."
"Look, I get that being son of Spike isn't exactly a"
"Shut up. You're screwing him, so you don't get to pretend to commiserate with me about what a load he is."
The headache was getting worse. Johnny pinched the bridge of his nose. Since when did vampires get headaches?
Jemima did a catwalk turn in the same scarlet dress Johnny had first dissuaded her from.
Angel looked her over. "Tasty."
Jemima touched his arm. "Johnny, c'mon, it's just a dress"
"Not that. My head hurts." He got up. "I need to get out of here. These lights are gonna kill me."
No one spoke in the car. With a twinge of guilt, Jemima enjoyed the wind in her hair, the freedom of riding in a convertible for the first time in years.
Angel pulled into the hotel's circular drive. "Let me help you with your bags."
Behind her, Johnny started to get out. "I'll bring her inside."
"You stay here. I'll be right back." Angel bounded out of the car. She accepted his outheld hand; he gripped it only for a second, until she was on her feet, then gathered up the shopping bags.
In the lobby, she said, "I'm fine from here, thank you. Don't leave Johnny waiting, he gets so impatient."
"Another thing he's got to learn to control. He'll keep for a minute. I wanted" His confidence seemed to dry up in an instant as she gazed up at him; he looked like a tall boy whose voice had just broken.
"Yes?" She pushed her trailing forelock behind her ear.
"uhto give you this."
She hadn't noticed the tiny shopping bag amidst all the others. It looked silly dangling from his big hand.
"Is this something for me?"
"It's ... it's almost nothing, but I thought ...."
She felt down into the crinkly pink tissue until her fingers touched something cool, metallic. She drew out a small flower made of red stones that glittered in the pinspot lights of the lobby.
"It's for your hair. I noticed you're always pushing that one lock of hair backlike you're doing right now"
She became aware of the gesture, and blushed. "Oh, this isyou didn't have to"
"I know." He took the barrette from her hand. "There are a lot of things I have to do, but giving you this isn't one of them, which is why it's such a special pleasure. These are garnets."
"Garnets! I don't think I can accept"
"It's not expensivejust a little token ofthat I'm glad to have met you at lastso don't feel you have to"
"No. Okay. Yes." Confusion made her stutter. She dipped her head; he fixed the barrette above her temple.
"That's nice," Angel said. "And it'll match that new dress."
There was a mirror by the elevator bank; she went to it. Behind her reflection she saw the collection of shopping bags where Angel was standing. She had to glance around to assure herself he was still there.
She went back to him. Offered her hand. "It's beautiful. So unnecessarybut thank you. Thank you again."
"You'll come to the Hyperion in the morning?"
"Yes. Of course. Where else would I go?"
"Good night then."
"Good night, Angel." She watched him cross the lobby, go out through the automatic doors. As they opened she could see his black convertible, her brother starting to rise up from his seat in the back. He shouted something she couldn't hear, his arms opening out in a weird grasping motion.
And then he fell out of the car.
"Shit." He was seeing three of everythingthree moons in the dark sky, three looming high-rise hotels, three Jemimas bending over him, three Angels. For the first time he noticed that he had no heartbeat. His heart ought to be racing. The absence of sensation was even more disquieting.
"What is it, what happened?"
"I feel sick."
"In what way sick?" Angel said.
"Headache. It started in the mall. I thought it was the lights. But it got worse while we were riding. And then I started toI'm not surehallucinate?"
"What did you see?"
"Who cares what he saw," Jemima said, "carry him inside."
"I care what he saw. Tell me, boy." Angel didn't sound concerned with how awful he felt, or how if he could just wrench himself around, he'd vomit al over the big man's shoes. He didn't matter at all.
"I'm not sure ... some kind of ... big snot monster that breathed fire." He jerked himself free, fell forward on hands and knees. Retched, but nothing came up.
"Where was it?" Angel said.
"What do you mean, where was it? In my fucking head."
"Where was the monster? What part of the city? A house, a street, an alley? What was going on? Were there people there? Was it hurting someone?"
"Are you crazy? What difference does it make? Anyway, I don't know."
"It makes a difference. You're vision guy now. You're supposed to tell me what you saw, so I can go fight it." Angel dragged him to his feet.
"What do you mean, he's vision guy?" Jemima said. "Is that some sort of punishment?"
"Ever since I came to LA, I've had someone close to me who gets visions sent by the Powers. They show me who I have to help. What I'm up against. I've been working blind for the last couple months, since Constanza was killed. She had them last."
Staggering around the car, willing his stomach to stop flopping, he eyed a over-neat corporate flowerbed as a good place to let fly. "I don't know where it was. I don't know this city. Mostly I just have a migraine. Christ."
"Are you still seeing it?"
"No. And I'm not gonna see anything else. Really don't want to die again any time soon."
"Constanza didn't die because of the visions. And you really don't have a choice," Angel said, his voice low and tight. "Neither of us do. C'mon. We're going back to the Hyperion. Maybe we can figure out where this thing is if we listen to the scanners."
"Don't go without me."
Jemima had the car door open, was clinging to it like someone was going to fling her away. Face full of anxious pleading.
He wished she'd spit on him, or come at him with a stake.
Five minutes later he found out what it was like to spew half-digested pig's blood at fifty miles per hour out of an open convertible. The results looked like spin-art on the Pontiac's rear flank. Head still whirling, he subsided onto the upholstery, and shut his eyes.
Cool and a little too haughty, with his exhortations about The Mission, Angel talked at Johnny's sullen silence. Peaches was usually a man of few words, but when something wound him up, he could Bore For Britain. He went on for quite a while before the boy blew up.
Spike could've told him he would, except for sensing it wouldn't do any good, and not particularly wanting to be one of the bad guys at the moment. Any intervention, even on his side, would've made Johnny savage him. So he just lounged in the shadows of the Hyperion lobby and watched.
Besides, Spike kind of enjoyed seeing the kid roar into Angel. He didn't yet know his own strength, and the first blow was a lucky one; it sent Angel flying to skid across the marble floor. It also made Jemima cry out. Spike went to her, drawing her out of the way behind the reception counter.
"Sssh, baby. Let your brother have his tantrum. They're not likely to hurt each other much."
She shuddered. "There's too much fighting. I hate it."
She pulled her head around so as not to see what happened when Angel scrambled up, although she could certainly hear it, the unmistakeable sound of fists on flesh. Spike watched the fight with her face buried in his neck. He didn't hate it, particularlyno more than he hated the whole rotten situation. Angel knew what he was doinghe could've put Johnny down any time, but took his blows and curses and game-faced snarls with a grim deadpan that concealed underlying good humor. Johnny didn't know Angel well enough yet to spot it, but Spike could see that this mostly amused him. It was like playing with a frisky puppy. When Angel decided he was through indulging Johnny, they'd be done. Meanwhile, Spike was enjoying the show.
At least until Buffy appeared out of thin air and staked the boy.
Their collective cries met and shattered against the high ceiling. In that moment Spike saw them all as if they'd been dipped in amber: Johnny, the game-face fallen away, pinned to the floor with the stake in his breast; Buffy half crouched over him, arm outstretched in the completed jab; Angel windmilling towards her. Nearer in, Jemima, her hair flared out around her head in mid-whirl, arms outstretched.
It was the moment that occurred between the stake's penetration, and the falling to dustthe un-life before your eyes moment, Spike called it. Some vamps managed a word or two; almost all had time at least to register incredulity or disappointment before they disintegrated.
Johnny had time to look up into his mother's face. His was everyway askew: glasses knocked off, mouth and eyes wide open in shock. Spike's own eyes widened, straining to take in this last glimpse of his impossible wonderful son before he became nothing but memory.
Then sound and motion crashed back into being. Angel knocked Buffy out of the way. Wailing, Jemima flung herself forward. Spike leapt over the counter and caught Buffy before she could ricochet into a fresh attack.
And Johnny, both bloodless hands wrapped around the stake, cried out, in uncomprehending terror and pain, for his mother.
Shocky, tensed around the painful hole in his chest, Johnny moaned, "Mamma, Mamma," like a frightened child awakening from a bad dream. He had no idea she was right there beside him.
Angel had pulled out the misplaced stake and gone to get bandages. Jemima knelt on Johnny's other side, one of his hands squeezed in hers.
"Let me get him up on the couch," Spike said, moving around Buffy's crouching form. Knowing the boy would be all right didn't make his limpness, or the strong scent of his spilled blood, less difficult to experience. Both women grabbed his arms in wordless protest as he gathered him up. "Ssssh. It's all right. Just gonna move him over here." Buffy followed like an automaton, her hands reaching out, large shiny tears rolling unheeded down her chalky face.
Spike laid Johnny down with his head in her lap. She touched his hair as if she'd never touched it before and wasn't sure what it would feel like. She raised her face to him then, the tears still rolling down, muscles at the corners of her mouth ticcing; it was like seeing her through rainy glass. "How ... did this happen to him?"
He couldn't begin to answer.
Then Angel was there with the first aid kit and a flask of blood. He took overdirected Spike how to hold Johnny while they got his jacket and shirt off, cleaned the wound, wrapped it. He tried to be gentle, but Johnny fainted.
"Might as well get the kid upstairs to a bed while he's still out," Angel said, lifting him. "Jemima, help me."
Buffy made no move to follow, but stood, droop-shouldered, tracking their progress up the stairs and along the gallery until she couldn't see them anymore.
Spike watched too, and watched her.
"Who turned my son?"
Spike didn't want to say the name.
"How'd you get here, Buffy? You didn't walk in through the door."
"When we got down from Nepal, when I heard my messages ... from Jemmie, and from the Council ... I thought you'd lost it. I was afraid to wait, so Willow teleported me straight here."
"What do you mean, lost it?"
"They said Milo was killed by a vampire, outside his clubI thought you'd snapped."
He was surprised, and not surprised. He couldn't bring himself to think of what it meant about their relationship, that this was the first story she fitted to the meagre facts.
"So how did it happen? Who did this?"
"In London. When I caught up with him, I brought him here, to get Angel's help."
"His help? To do what? That ... that isn't our baby. Spike ... he's got to be slain." Her eyes overflowed.
"No. He's got his soul back."
The air they stood in seemed to crackle. Buffy's expression showed how she was hurtled backwards into memory, even as she struggled to grasp this immediate news, to figure out if it could be called good or not.
"I brought him here an' Angel told me where to take him, to ask for ... to ask for ... well, never mind that. Way it ended up, The Powers That Be restored the boy's soul." Spike could've laughed. Imagine him giving a toss for a vampire's soul! He's always despised Angel's. Always been a bit proud of himself for getting on so well without onethirty years in the slayer's bed and board had to be a big endorsement, right? Buffy never talked about how he wasn't the same as William Grievesleastways, not like it was a bad thing.
But now here he was, holding out souls to her like water to the thirsty.
"His soul! And I nearly slayed him. Spike ... I never miss. I never miss."
He reached for her, but she jerked away, a skittish animal.
"How did it happen .... Tell me who turned him. I think you know!"
The floor stubbornly refused to swallow him. Nor could he swallow his own tongue, thick and stupid as it suddenly was in his cakey mouth. There was nothing to do but confess it. "...was Drusilla."
She fell to her knees. "Then it was me!"
He was barely conscious again before another vision whirled his guts. But this time Johnny was able to describe what he saw well enough that Angel, apparently satisfied, took off.
That left him alone with Jemima. Despite the nausea, she insisted he swallow the pint of warmed blood Angel had brought up. She held the cup for him to drink, even after he protested that his arms still worked. As he sipped, a sensation rode up his spine like that of prey aware of a circling hawk. He dug his heels into the mattress, arched his back against the headboard.
"What's the matter?" Jemima said. "You can't be getting another vision already!"
"It's me." Buffy stood in the doorway. "He's afraid of me."
Her slayerness shimmered off her body, made his hackles rise. His life now was shit. Saddled with these visions that turned him inside out, and in primal terror of his own mother. He wasn't sure how much more of this he could take.
"May I come in, Johnny?" she said. "I promise I'm unarmed."
"You don't need a weapon to kill me."
"I didn't mean to kill you. I didn't know." She came up to his side, looking sorry and tired.
"If I had no soul, you'd have to kill me. Put me down like any other vampire. Isn't that true?"
"Oh baby, don't talk that way." She sat and pulled him into her arms, saying all the endearments she'd called him when he was small enough to fit on her lap. He wanted to curl against her and cry and let her rock him into sleep. Her hair was slippery against his cheek, and she smelled profoundly of home. But it was a smell his demon feared and hated. He arched and curled and she let him go.
He didn't notice Jemima leave, but suddenly he was alone with Buffy.
"Johnny, I'm so sorry. I'm sorry I didn't protect you better. If I'd done my job, this wouldn't have happened."
"You just said you didn't know."
"No, darling, I mean, I should've protected you from Drusilla. It's my fault. And I'm so sorry about this, attacking you and frightening you and wounding you." She laid her palm gently on his bandaged chest.
"Be carefulit hurts!" Her presence made the very air jangle.
"I know. But it'll heal up in no time. This happened to your father once, and two days later there was just a bitty little scar." She pressed a kiss to his forehead.
He couldn't stand this. "Mamma, I'm so tired."
"Go to sleep. I'll sit with you."
Sleep would never come again, with the slayer looming over him.
"Don't you need to talk to Papa?"
"He went with Angel."
"Please ... I can be by myself."
She seemed to get it then, pulling away with a brief galvanic shock. She stood awkwardly. "We'll bring you more blood in a little while. You need to keep your strength up."
When she was gone he felt a little less bad. For the moment. Except that existence going forward seemed insupportable. He barely knew who or what he was anymore. Giving house-room to a demon that could torture as much as it tantalized, and a soul that had never pricked him as it did nowpossibly because he wasn't anything much but a pathetic milquetoast before. And the visions. Apart from making him wish for oblivion, this new twist effectively made him Angel's slave.
Burying his face in the pillow, he wished he was dead.
"Spike. Spike! We're done. It's dead."
"It's dead, yeah, but I'm not bloody done."
"C'mon." Angel, coming up from behind, reached for him, then leapt back when Spike arced around, sword first.
"Don't sneak up on my blade arm. Who taught me that but you?"
Standing over the eviscerated M'shokie demons with rampant sword, splattered with gore and still game-faced, Spike was magnificently pissed offand magnificent. Angel wanted to shove him against the damp brick, pilfer those parted lips, rummage below his belt so he'd gasp and shout.
Instead he asked, "So, what did she say?"
"What do you think? Said she blames herself. Which means she blames me, but she won't admit it. Wouldn't even look at me. Wouldn't have talked to me 'cept she had to."
"I wouldn't get hung up on anything she does for the first day. She didn't know what to expect when she got here."
Spike jammed the sword again into the big humped corpse at his feet, then tore it out, spattering more grunge on them both. "She thought I'd gone off the rails an' did for Milo. Thought the kids came to you for help subduin' me."
"Dunno where she gets off imaginin' that. Never have done anything like that since I had the chip out. She's got a guilty conscience, so she shoves it all off on me. I'm Big Bad."
"Neither of you is bad. You're just ... mixed up."
"Ah, I'm comforted. Ought to do this professionally. Hang out a shingleUndead Marriage Counseling."
"I'm just saying"
"Well, don't. C'mon. Fuckin' stinks around here."
Spike sat low and was silent in the car. Even as he glanced at him every few moments, Angel's thoughts drifted to his daughter. There'd been no time since he'd given his gift to savor her reception of it. He thought the gesture had gone well. After her charming confusion, she'd favored him with one of her stunning smiles. He held tight to the tactile memory of his fingers briefly in her hair as he fixed the tiny jewel, how her eyes shone up at him. He'd surprised and pleased her, which seemed to Angel only right given how she'd been surprising and pleasing him ever since she first walked through his doors.
"So, this vision thing. What's it gonna mean for him?"
Angel snapped out of his revery. "It means he's really part of the mission."
"An' what'll it do to him, besides make him sick every time? Dru had the sight, an' we both know how barmy it made her."
"It's not really the same thing," Angel said, although he wasn't entirely sure about that. He wondered if Spike had forgotten who'd really driven Drusilla mad, or if he was maintaining a polite fiction now they were on such good terms with each other. Of course, he'd never known Dru before she was thoroughly round the twist. As far as Spike was concerned, she merely was what she was.
Spike sank lower. He still held the sword across his lap. Every time he stroked it with the pads of his fingers, slow from hilt to tip, Angel felt it. But Spike never looked at him.
"So whose idea of a joke is it, him bein' afflicted with this just now?"
"Could turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to him. Cordelia thought it was, when she got them. Not at first, but she rose to it. The visions were the making of her."
"Until they killed her."
"No, that was something else."
"It's always something."
"They did make her sick. Very sick. Until she consented to accept an aspect of the demon, and then there was no more pain. Unfortunately she got taken over by something Evil shortly afterwards."
"My boy's already a demon." He spoke without affect, his fingers caressing the blade. "Already taken over by somethin' evil."
Angel felt like he could start apologizingfor following Darla into that alley, and every single thing sincebut if he started, there's be no end, and it wouldn't mean anything. Anyway, he knew that wasn't what Spike was fishing for. He wasn't fishing for anything, as far as Angel could tell. He was sunk in melancholy. Stuck. Which wasn't like him, but then he'd been changed just as profoundly as Johnny was.
"He has a soul, and now he's got a real job to do. There's worse things."
"You don't know him. He's stubborn an' broody an' he hates anything that sounds like 'have to.' He never wanted anything to do with his mother's mission. Can tell you right now, he's not gonna come to Jesus waggin' his little tail behind him."
"Uh ... no tail-wagging required."
"Right." Spike smiled suddenly, without taking his eyes off the blade in his lap. "Got me for that. Except"
"Yeah," Angel said. "Except that it's time to stop."
He braked for a red light. Spike slid over close to him. "Kinda wish it wasn't." He turned Angel's head, pressed a kiss on his moutha slow, appreciative kiss that took no notice of the dried demon gore on their faces, the imminence of the green light, or the show he was putting on for the people in the surrounding cars. "Was good while it lasted."
"It was," Angel said, sorry when the kiss broke.
"We'll do it again, in another hundred-an'-twenty years. Yeah? That'll be our standin' date."
Angel smiled. "I'll pencil it in."
"All right then." The light changed, and Spike resumed his lounging stance against the opposite door.
"What are you going to do now Buffy's here?"
He shrugged. "My instinct's to leave the boy to get on with it, without the two of us watchin' an' babyin' him every second. But his mum will want to rend her garments an' beat her breast a while, I suppose, an' I'm not the man's gonna pry her out 'fore she's done with that. She an' I'll have to talk, but can't say I'm in a rush to start. I suppose after a few days she may decide the thing to do is slam the barn door, an' then she'll be off after Dru, if she can find her."
Angel debated with himself before asking the next question; tried to restrain the impulse, and couldn't. "What about Jemima?"
"Expect she'll want to stick by her brother a while, whether it's good for him or not. Poor darling's at a loose end, otherwise. She'll work at whatever task you set her, though, an' if you don't, she'll find 'em for herself. She's always been like that. Not an idler. Still, if she's underfoot, don't stand on ceremony. Give her the heave-ho. She'll understand."
"I can't imagine her in the way," Angel said, still trying to sound off-hand, though it was clear from Spike's answer that he wasn't onto him at all.
"I like the thought of her in the warmth an' sunshine. This time of year, London's too dank an' Reykjavik is too dark, for the sweet little likes of her."
Buffy had listened to everything Jemima could tell her about what the hell is going on here. She'd cried, and embraced her, said she was sorry over and over for not having made sure nothing like this could happen. Sorry about Johnny, sorry about Milo, sorry for suspecting Spike. She couldn't talk anymore, the tears were dried up. In the lobby's vastness, Buffy stared into space, Jemima's head in her lap, combing her fingers through her hair. A little sparkly barrette was starting to work its way out of place; idly she unclasped and repositioned it. She was so tired she could barely form thoughts anymore. With all her experience of these things, how could she still be amazed at how one apocalypse could follow another? These days it was the personal ones that were far more devastating. The struggle she'd just won in Nepal, to preserve this dimension for Slurpees and sunshine, already seemed trivial, even unreal, except that her body still ached from battle, and from the stress of being teleported half-way around the world. She hadn't had a bath or seen a toothbrush or eaten a meal inshe couldn't quite think. Time was different where she'd been, anyway.
"Mamma, this problem between you and Papa ... promise me you'll put it aside now. We need to be together. We need to take care of each other."
It took her a long moment to understand. Her brain was nearly stilled with fatigue.
"He told you there was a problem?"
"No, but I'm not stupid. I knew there was something wrong back in London, before any of this happened with Johnny. Whatever it is, I wish you could set it aside."
"So do I, baby. I'm not sure your father can."
Jemima looked at her with an expression that seemed impossible for a woman who'd already lived what she'd lived. It was the face of the little girl still resisting with all her might the loss of innocence.
"Papa loves you more than anything. When has he ever held a grudge?"
"I know, Jemmie, but everyone has his limits."
She squinted. "What are we talking about here?"
"I ... really don't want to say. If your father hasn't told youand I'm glad he hasn'tI'd really prefer not to."
"You've hurt him."
This was more than she wanted to hear. "Jemima, I don't think we should be having this conversation. Look, I'm really tired, and"
"Papa has a soul now. I've got to think that makes him even more of all the good things he's always been. I wish you could've seen him, confronting the Conduit. He was so brave. He didn't think of himself at all."
You didn't think of me at all. You forgot what we are, Buffy.
"I miss him," Buffy said. "I miss him so much."
Jemima's eyes sparked. "It'll be all right then. I'm sure it will. Come, I'll show you which room is his, you can rest and wait for him. I'm sure he and Angel will be back soon."
Bewildered and barely able to hold her eyes open, Buffy followed her daughter up the stairs. "Are you staying here too?"
"No, I'm still at the Bel Age." She kissed her. "I feel better now you've come. Now we're all together."
" ... good. That's good Jemmie." The doorknob was beautifully cool against her palm. "Call me if ... if Johnny ... or if anything happens."
The room was large and impersonal and not uncomfortable, like all the hotel rooms she'd grown used to over the peripatetic years. The books she'd last seen on the guest-room bedstand in London were on the bedstand here, and one of Spike's black shirts was draped over a chair. In the bathroom, his hair gel and shaving tackle and toothbrush were neatly lined up beside the sink. Feeling glazed, she washed, stripped to her panties, and climbed into the bed. The pillow smelled faintly of the gel. She pressed her face into it.
In Nepalbeyond Nepalshe'd had a little time to think, moments snatched from strategy and battle, when she let herself crave him, let herself wish, even hope. He was punishing her, whether he meant to consciously or not, but she'd begun to think that the punishment would have to come to an end, that if she rode it out, with patience and humilitynot her two finest attributeshe would turn back to her. She'd never doubted wanting to go on with him. The more she tried to understand why she'd seduced Saleem, the less sense it made. And somehow the less importance it heldwhat were those few weeks of physical conversation against the conversation of decades she had with her mortal enemy of old?
Maybe Jemima would be right, maybe the death of their son would wipe it all away, allow Spike to believe again in her love, their commitment.
She drifted, making a starfish in the cool sheets. When she awoke he would be lying beside her, and they'd weep together over their poor stricken son.
"What are you doing?"
"Shove over. I'm lyin' down with you."
"But Mama's come back"
"You're the one need's company right now." Spike pulled the blanket up, then stretched his arms up, twined his hands around the headboard. Looked at the ceiling with an insomniac's gaze. Johnny rolled onto his side to see him better.
"That doesn't hurt?" Spike said.
"A little. It's all right. I can feel it closing up. It's the weirdest thing."
"Hope so. Hope it's the weirdest thing that ever happens to you, from here on out."
"It won't be. But it's nice of you to say." Weird was the word for this, Spike climbing into bed with him, but to his surprise, Johnny didn't mind it. He was lonely and scaredlonely and scared enough to even admit it to himself, if not to anybody else.
"Look, try not to hold it against your mum. She couldn't have known it was youlast thing she was expecting. Yeah, it was a rare miss, but it was a miss, an' best thing is not to dwell on it."
Without meaning to, Johnny blurted, "But she feels like an enemy. I mean, I feel herthe slayerit's like my ears are ringing but it's all of me. How do you stand it? How have you stood living with that all this time? It's intolerable!"
Spike looked surprised at this. "She's your mother. Loves you same as ever."
This missed the point. He started to protest, but Spike went on.
"You just have to believe me when I tell you, she wouldn't have staked you if she'd known, even if you were ready to savage her. What I did for youshe'd have done the same if she was there. Anything she could do to preserve you, rescue you, she'd do gladly. You're her son. That's what she sees when she looks at you. It's what I see."
"Yeah, okay." Obviously Spike wasn't going to answer the question. Maybe, Johnny thought, he didn't want to hear the answer, because what could it possibly be that a father could tell a son about his mother? Anyway, he knew. No two people in the history of the world exuded such a clog of sex and passion and blind involvement as his two parents. Of course Spike was aware of her as the slayerhell, he addressed her that way half the time, even in the supermarket or on line for a movietheir whole relationship was the Big Sublimated Death Wish thing. His fires flared and were quenched in her only to flare again, because he was a vampire and she was his appointed enemy. Maybe Spike still thought about killing her. Killing and fucking, he'd learned since awakening undead, could be almost the same thing.
Spike looked at him, his eyes softening. After a moment he put a hand out, pushed the hair off his forehead. Johnny started to flinch away, then stopped and let him do it.
"I'm sorry," Spike said. It was almost a joke, Papa coming in here to keep him company. Obviously he couldn't just go back to fucking Angel now Buffy had returned, but neither could he crawl into bed with her under Angel's roof.
With nowhere to stick his cock, Papa was at a loose end.
"Hope eventually you an' I'll be better friends. I see you hate all this right now, but it's a second chance for you. Your existence can still have meaning."
Papa didn't get it. "She wanted me."
"Who, Drusilla? Dru ... wants a lot of things. She picks an' plays an' forgets an' remembers. She's like a little child."
With her I was a king. "It's easy for you to dismiss her. But she satisfied you for a long time."
"Satisfied me? That a claim she made?"
Why stay with anyone for a hundred years otherwise? It was that he wanted so much, that cocooning of two spirits. Easy enough for Spike to shrug about it when he'd never had to do without it. He didn't know what it was to be lonely.
"Angel's all right," Spike said, not waiting for an answer. "Could do worse than learn from him. He's the expertthe only onein dealin' with a soul an' a demon both."
"So are you planning to stick around and go on taking lessons from him yourself?"
"I'm talking about you."
"I don't think you're really qualified to be handing me advice."
"No?" Spike quirked an eyebrow. "Well, perhaps not. I'm finding my way, same as you."
You're not the same as me. He squinted at Spike. He was what he was, and always had been: almost impossibly handsome, cocky, privileged, and despite the intense familiarity of how he talked and acted, remote too, being in on mysteries that were not for children or the merely human.
"I don't know if I can do this. The visions. What Angel expects."
"You don't really know yet what Angel expects. But we all have to grow up sometime. Even naughty Bad Ass vampires."
"That's not true."
"No it's not," Spike said, rolling to his feet. "Caught me there. Can go on bein' a teenaged turd for centuries, as Angel would be happy to tell you, I'm sure, if you ply him with a bit of whiskey to loosen his tongue. But if you ever want to be anything worth a damn, ever want the love of someone worthy of love, want to look good people in the eyethen you bloody well do it. That's my advice, qualified or not."
He went to the kitchenette. Johnny listened to Spike moving around behind his back. He smelled blood heating. Spike thrust a warm cup into his hand.
"Drink up, an' get some sleep, an' try not to worry."
Spike settled himself in the armchair. Johnny listened to him breathing, and heard him stop. No, they were nothing alike. He couldn't possibly sleep. If Spike understood anything, he wouldn't be able to either.
Alone in the kitchen at the Hyperion, surrounded by glimmering copper pots and the masses of groceries she'd brought strewn on the counters as if spilled from a cornucopia, Jemima chopped vegetables. The onion started her weeping like a bit of yeast starts the dough. She'd been holding back for days. After the initial shock of Johnny, Milo, the one-two punch, she'd shut off the pain. The flight back to England, the couple of days there, the return to Los Angeles, were undertaken in a sort of cocoon; she'd not allowed herself to think or feel too deeply. She cried without making much sound, still listening with half her attention to the radio tuned to NPR, hands moving in the practised rhythm. Kitchen work had always soothed her. No matter what was going on, people had to eat, and she'd long ago learned that she liked feeding them.
The blood simmered in the big pot as she sauteed the onions together with hot sausage and tabasco sauce, adding extra cayenne peppers. She couldn't taste this particular dish as she went, but she'd made it many times before, if not lately. The stink of it didn't bother her. She tipped the contents of the frying pan into the pot of blood, and stirred it in with a wooden spoon.
"My God, what is that aroma?"
She jumped and turned, a hand on her breast. "You should wear a little bell!"
"Sorry," Angel said. "What are you doing here? And are you crying?"
From being a figure in the doorway, filling the doorway, he was all at once a colossus right at her side, forcing her to look up. He filled her entire field of vision, pensive, attentive. He lifted a hand as if to touch her face, but the touch never came.
"I didn't think you'd mind. I'm cooking, so we can all sit down to dinner later."
"But what?" Angel lifted the pot lid. The heavy spicy smell enveloped them. For her, it was too familiar, too wrapped up with good associations, to be sickening.
"That's blood soup. Mamma invented it for Papa. It takes longer than anything so I started it first." She stirred it again, then lifted a wooden spoonful out of the pot, holding her hand beneath to catch the drip. "You taste. Tell me if it it needs more spice."
"I told you, I don't"
"Taste." She brought the spoon to his lips; obediently he parted them for her to tip the contents in.
For a moment he held it in his mouth, and she could see him thinking. Then he swallowed, and a smile bloomed, a smile that reminded her that he'd been a very young man when he was turned, lively and handsome.
"That's ... gee. Something. Something good."
"See? I'll get you eating yet."
"You just might." He took the spoon from her, went for another dip, but she grabbed his wrist. "It has to cook."
"When will it be ready?"
"Tonight. There's lots more to do. I'm making a ratatouille for Mamma and me, and steaks because everybody likes those, Papa especially, and baking some bread, and a cake and a pie, because I like to bake. Papa has a sweet-tooth and maybe Johnny will too."
"Your father's unusual. Really, vampires don't"
"Everybody should eat, and enjoy themselves a little ... I want us all to sit down together as a family, and ... you see, my husband tried to separate me from them. Now that I'm finally separated from him, I want my people all around me. You're part of our family too, of course. You're like ... you're like the lovely benevolent grandfather. I don't have any grandfathers, and I've always sort of wished"
Angel stared at her, his face frozen around his previously pleasant, absorbed expression.
Blushing, she backed. "I meanI don't think of you asit's just because, with my father, and you're his sirebut you're not like a grandfather at all, I mean, you're not old, well, you are, but I don't see you asyou're a friend. I see you as a dear family friend."
"A family friend." His voice was dull.
"Not just that! My friend too. You've been a good friend to me since I came, and I think ... at least, I hope ... we will get to be better friends."
He looked completely demoralized, and she wasn't sure how or why. "If you're not busy, you could help me here. There's a lot to do."
He chopped vegetables at a prodigious speed, and when it came to kneading bread dough, he was almost too strong. But she noticed that he did everything carefully, intelligently, apparently mindful of the finished product, and again this bemused her, because he didn't eat.
"Did you like food before? When you were alive?"
"Not as much as I liked drink. I was a drunken lout, when I was alive," Angel said. "There was nothing goodbenevolentabout me."
She'd really hurt his feelings with that thoughtless remark. Sometimes she kind of was a Pollyanna, always trying to put the best face on things. She'd been like that for as long as she could remember, it was a way of dealing with the fear and uncertainty of her life, and though she wished she could do it less, change was difficult. "I know that. Remember, I've read all about you."
"All about?" Now he was really pouting.
"Everything there was," she said boldly. "But being around you ... shows what none of the chronicles can, about who you really are. You were given a second chance, and made good on it." Johnny too had been handed another chance. She wanted to believe he wouldn't squander it. "Tell me, Angel. Can vampires be alcoholics?"
"Sure, if they were in life. I was a gin-hound myself, when I was alive. Actually, I was less interested in booze afterwardsthere was too much other fun to be had, that I wanted a clear head for. Not that I was a teetotaler. Far from it." He stopped kneading, and stared into space, his aimiable expression once again dissolving into solemnity.
She debated whether to tip him off about her brother. Instead she said, "The visions Johnny has now. Will they always hurt him like that?"
Rousing himself, Angel dug the heels of his hands into the dough, folded it, dug again. "Probably. More or less. That seems to go with the territory." He met her eyes. "You're very worried about him. About him and your parents, I can see that, but you barely say a word about yourself. You were crying when I first walked in here."
"It was just the onions."
He came up to her again, she would've called it looming except that it was comfortable, like standing in the shadow of a tree on a too-sunny day. She didn't mind when his flour-coated finger touched her chin, tipped her head up. She couldn't remember the last time a man had looked at her that wayinterested, but undemanding. Milo had been nothing but demands.
"Tell me, Jemima."
There was something thrilling, freeing, in the way he said her name. "Well ... I was thinking about what I was spared. Milo would've made our divorce an agony every step of the way. I don't have to go through that now. Which is such a relief, but my God, I shouldn't feel relieved, because he's been killed."
"You didn't ask for any of this to happen."
"No, I know I didn't. But" She told him about meeting her brother in the pub, how Milo came, and what happened after.
Angel listened with a grim patience. "It's not your fault. This kind of thing ... I've seen it often. Vampires ... sometimes they still care for the people they loved before, but they have no moral compass anymore. That can give rise to certain perverted favors. Grotesque expressions of ... what they think of as kindness. I'm sorry this happened to you."
"It's not that it happened to meit's Johnny I feel sorry for. He's never going to be able to forget it. That's why he doesn't want me here, because the mere sight of me reminds him what he did. It's no joke, getting a soul after you've gone without. I think the Powers gave them to him and Papa, to mock them. It's a booby prize."
"It doesn't have to be," Angel said.
And again! "OhI didn't mean"
He went back to punching the dough with renewed force.
Waking, Buffy knew he was in the room. Without opening her eyes, she listened. He touched the clothes she'd draped over a chair. She imagined him lifting them to his face, inhaling them.
"What are you doing now, Spike, administering the sniff test to check up on me?" She flipped the lamp on next to the bed.
"WhatGod, what are you doingget out of here!" She yanked the sheet up over her bare breasts.
"Is that any way to talk to your beloved only son?" Johnny meandered to the foot of the bed, sat down. "I thought you'd be happy to see I was up and around."
"II am. But Sweetheart, you should've knocked."
"Now I'm Sweetheart, that's good." He laid a hand on her ankle under the sheet. She pulled her leg back.
"I need to get dressed. Can we meet in the lobby in a half hour? Then we could talk."
"I don't want to talk to you in the lobby. I want to talk to you here. You look so beautiful, Mamma, just like that. So beautiful and powerful. I can feel you, no matter where I go in this place."
Okay, I hate this. She wasn't supposed to have to be creeped out around her own son. Guilty, yes. Distraught, of course. But not held prisoner in her bed by his too-bold stare. "Where's your father? Have you seen him?"
Johnny shrugged. "You can manage without him for a little bit, can't you? I thought you missed me. You were away a long time, Mamma. A lot happened while you were gone."
She forced herself to relax, her hands still curled around the sheet pulled up to her armpits. "I know, baby. I'm sorry I wasn't around. It couldn't be helped." He looked the same as ever, her handsome young man with the curly sand-colored hair, the sweet near-sighted expression.
He leaned in closer, smiling, then closed his eyes and inhaled her. "You smellI can't describe how you smell. But it's no wonder Papa was obsessed for so long with your--"
"Don't do that!"
"What?" His eyes sprang open, twinkling behind his glasses. "Can't I even enjoy my heightened senses? I have to find something good in this utter shit I've turned into."
"Sweetheart, please leave the room now. I'll meet you in the lobby in half an hour. If you see your father, please send him up to me."
"Why? I don't think he wants you anymore, Mamma, despite your tantalizing scent. If he did, he'd already be here." He paused. His gaze bore into her, without shame or mercy. "I'm here."
"Yes, and I've asked younicelyto go."
"Because you want to get up, right? And you don't want me to see your pretty breasts."
"I've seen them before. That's how I know they are pretty."
What, she wondered, did he expect was going to happen? This vague insinuating menacing was supposed to leadwhere? Was he trying to provoke her to smack him down? She didn't want to do that to him. She didn't want to be slayer-versus-vampire with her boy. Anyway, he shouldn't be acting this way. Not with a soul.
"Please don't say anything else that you'll regret. Let's just stay ... on the right side of the line, okay? Get up and go, and we won't have to refer to this again."
"And you won't tell my father, right?" His voice was so reedy, so young. He'd always been young for his age. "Because you know Spike would want to stake me himself if he got wind of what's going on here. How I'm breathing you in, how excited you're making me. You've always driven me crazy, Mamma, but nowI can barely stand it."
"Stop? How can I stop? Even from my own room, I can smell your blood, your cooze. I don't know which I want more. I'm hard as a rock."
With all her strength, Buffy yanked at the sheet, rolling away from him. He tumbled off the bed; she made for the door.
He was there waiting for her.
"Where are you going, Mamma?" His hand cupped her jaw. He lowered his face past hers, sniffed at her neck. Her skin revolted in goose pimples; she trembled against the urge to just make a fist and knock him out. Why couldn't she do it? It was what this horror called for.
Instead, she murmured. "If you don't stop this now I will scream, your father and Angel will come running, and they will know without my even having to tell them, what you're doing here. There will be no going back from this. But if you go away quietly, they won't have to know, and we just won't talk about this ever again."
He tilted his head. Just the same way his father did, the way that made her melt. "I'm disappointed. Don't you love me anymore?"
"Well, Mamma, when you call me by my odious name, I know I'm meant to listen. Fine. I'll just have to go wring myself out all alone. At least I'll know that you'll be thinking about me. That's good too."
He slipped out. Buffy sank to the floor, the tears coming in a hot rush she tried to stifle. He would smell them too, and know he'd caused them.
Maybe there were no souls, in him or in Spike. What proof was there? She'd never been able to sense Angel's soulonly his behavior signaled its presence or absence.
Johnny's behavior ... was a monster's, monstrous.
Smiling at everyone gathered at the table, Jemima lit the candles. "Okay, where's Johnny? I told him we'd sit down at eight."
Spike leapt up. "I'll get him." It was only a few minutes' reprieve, but that was better than nothing when it came to sitting there next to Buffy, feeling how she wouldn't look at him, how her flesh went hot and cold at his mere proximity.
Her hand shot out and closed around his wrist. "Maybedon't. If he doesn't want to sit with us ... let him be."
"Last thing he need's to be alone. S'more soup here than me an' Angel can eat, anyhow."
He took the stairs two at a time, threw himself down the long corridor to the last door, Johnny's door. Knocked hard and went in without waiting.
The room was empty. Clothes were strewn on the unmade bed, and on the floor. An empty bottle of Jack stood on the bedside table, beside a short stack of books.
Spike pushed through to the bathroom, and stopped.
What he saw in the brimming tub was the kind of thing no one wants to find, especially in their child's room.
Spike dragged Johnny out of the red water, let him drop onto the tiles. One of the bottles on the tub rim tipped over into the water; the other, still half full, fell to the floor and shattered in a brown burst. Diluted blood spread pink onto the white tiles from the gashed wrists, creeping to meet the brown puddle of bourbon.
"Hate to tell you, my boy, it doesn't work that way. Can't drown, an' bleedin' out won't end the madness either."
No response. Spike knelt over him, shook him. "Oi! Open up."
He wasn't dead, of course, only dead to the world. When Spike put pressure on his chest, more pink water spilled from his slack lips. He'd been submerged a long time.
"Fucking hell. You're determined to put your mother through her paces, aren't you?"
"Spike, what is it? Oh."
Angel stood in the doorway.
"I don't want Buffy seeing this. Or Jem, needless to say. Would youkeep 'em from coming up here."
"What should I say?"
"Christ, I dunno. This is makin' me tired."
"Not as tired as it's making him."
"I thought he'd be stronger than this."
"You thought? Spike, when it happened to me, it took decades for me to find any kind of equilibrium. I spent months at a time in various kinds of stupors."
"But you were alone. He's got people to look after him. Bloody good job we're making of it."
"C'mon, I'll help you move him."
"No, you'll be stained, and then the girls will wonder. I'll clean him up and put him to bed."
"He needs blood."
"First he needs to sleep it off." Spike gathered him up, the water soaking his clothes. This was the most physical contact he'd had with Johnny in years; he pulled him in tight. If carrying him could make the slightest difference in Johnny's future, Spike would go on carrying him forever. Except it wasn't going to be that easy, and it wasn't up to him.
"He's not going to wear out his welcome. I said I'd help himhelp you alland I will. However long that takes."
Angel waited for his words to sink in. Spike nodded.
"Go an' eat some soup. Tell 'em Johnny had a fit of vapors. They can see him later, when he's presentable again."
Coming into Johnny's room with the tray balanced on one hand, Buffy found Spike sitting at the bedside, in the near dark, a book in his lap. Johnny lay motionless much as he'd been just the day before, recovering from the stake-wound.
"I brought you up some hot soup. And blood for him, when he's ready for it."
"Won't be for a while. He's too steeped in Jack Daniels to drink anything else. Would take a steam hammer to wake him up."
Buffy set the tray on the dresser, brought the bowl and spoon to him. "Here, Spike. Eat."
He made no move to take them.
"You are hungry. Don't starve to spite me." She kept her voice low and gentle. "Please, sweetheart." The rare endearment touched him and fell to the ground, a badly-sailed paper airplane.
But he accepted the bowl, tasted a spoonful, and smiled, a smile she knew was for the cook, and not her.
She leaned against the wall, just beyond his circle of light. "I'm sorry I suspected you. Of killing Milo. I realize it was very hurtful, I shouldn't have even told you, only I was so upset, I didn't think."
"You're the slayer."
"No. Spike. Don't say thatnot that way. I still trust you the same as ever."
"Do you? Then I suppose it was just bein' angry at me that made you so eager to think I'd kill a man because I didn't like him."
The conversation, impossible to plan or control as it was, skittered ever more out of her control. Buffy kept her eyes fixed on Johnny's blank, shadowed face as she struggled forward. "Not because you didn't like him. I was afraid that he might've hurt Jemima. I know you would do ... almost anything ... to defend her."
"Oh Buffy, leave it alone."
"Listen to me, Spike. Jemima told me everything that happened while I was gone. The bargain you tried to make with the Conduit."
"Nothing went right there."
"She told me you were going to trade yourself for him. Oh Spike. You were going to go away from me."
It would always come up to haunt and shame her, this strong sense that she loved unnaturally, because he was just a little bit more to her than the children. Even now, when the thing of so many of her nightmares had come to pass. She closed the heavy space between them, perching on the arm of his chair, leaning in so her face was beside his. He didn't look at her, but he ceased the motion of spoon to mouth.
"How could you think that would be goodyou taken from us, from our memories! I'm glad your offer wasn't acceptedSpike, I know I couldn't live without you."
Nothing in his cool unresistent flesh suggested that her touch meant anything.
"I know they gave you a soul, too. You omitted to mention that, but Jemima told me."
"An' will that make a difference, do you think? You always set such store by 'em. Me not having one, always seemed like a bit of a lack."
"I haven't thought of you that way in years." She smoothed his hair, loving its texture, the feathery feel of his nape. He closed his eyes, as if to reject some sight too horrific to gaze at. She needed his attention, his forgiveness. If he would just realize that she understood, that she loved him for everything he'd done, everything he was, he would see that it would be all right.
"My Spike lover you always take care of us you're so good to us but I'm going to take care of you now. I'm going to take care of you and your sweet new soul I can see that it hurts you, but it'll get better. Everything will get better, as long as we face things together. I'm so proud of you, and so grateful, and I love you so much."
His hand came up, fingertips tracing the line of her cheek, her lip, with all the gentleness she was used to. He studied her with a widening gaze whose heat was something it seemed she might dare bask in.
"Been fuckin' Angel, since we got here."
"I guess after what happened the last time he tried to sit down for a meal with our parents, slitting his wrists seemed preferable." Jemima didn't quite know why she had to make a jokemaybe because Angel looked so deeply stricken when he told her what was really going on up in Johnny's room. She wasn't sure just when, but she'd begun to feel protective of his sensibility.
She began gathering up the unused plates and silver, but Angel took them from her hands. "You don't have to do this. I'll clear this away later."
"What else is there for me to do? I can't go up to him. It helps to keep busy." She leaned in to blow out the candles. "I think that's what'll help my brother too, if he'd only try."
She started into the kitchen, Angel at her heels.
"He did this before, when he was in high school. Our parents were off on a mission, I was staying with him in Sunnydale, because I was separated from my husband then. He took an overdose. Afterwards he swore it was only an accident and begged me not to tell Mamma and Papa. I promised, not so much because he asked me to as because I couldn't imagine they'd find anything to do for him that wouldn't make things worse. That sounds bad, I know, but, I gambled that less drama, rather than more .... I wanted to think he'd scared himself good and wouldn't do anything like that again." She set the plates on the counter with a clatter.
"That must've been so hard for you."
"I'm used to looking after him. I've been looking after Johnny all my life. Maybe if I'd done it better, he wouldn't be so" She started back towards the dining room.
"Hey, no." Angel stepped in front of her. "Jemima. None of this is your fault."
"No, of course it isn't, I didn't mean to imply that I thought it was. I was only saying" She started to sidestep him, intent on getting the rest of the uneaten food off the table.
Angel caught her shoulders. "Wait a minute. Wait. Everybody always says I'm slow, but I see what you're doing."
"What I'm doing?"
"Remember, I knew another little girl who was Miss I Can Handle It All By Myself of the late twentieth century."
That hit her like a thump between the shoulder blades. "Of course, you were one of the things she had to handle."
"Yeah. And I'm still trying to make amends in the world for all that trouble I caused her. But that's not what I want to talk about. I want to know about you. How are you?"
He looked at her so intently, his heavy face wide open in a way she'd never seen it yet. With a whoosh of the mind, she understood what had eluded her until this momentAngel wasn't just being nice to her because she was Buffy's daughter, because she was bereaved, and a guest in his house.
He was, in his clumsy way, flirting with her.
The realization made her blaze; she raced back over everything she'd said and done in his presence so far, the heat rising up into her face. The barrette, which she hadn't taken off except to wash her hair. How could she have missed this when he gave it to her? What man gave a gift like that to a woman for no reason at all?
Everything they'd said and done in each other's presence was remade. Yet, with comprehension, came the understanding that his attention wasn't unwelcome. She liked his touch, wanted to fold herself against him and disappear in those big encompassing arms.
As if he could read her mind, he drew her in; slowly, giving her ample opportunity to resist. She didn't resist. She wouldn't have made a peep if he swung her up off the floor.
"Jemima. Do me one favor. Don't do it with me."
"Try to be what everybody needs, at the expense of yourself."
How could he know? She was voicing her denial, the words stumbling out, when Angel tipped her face up and touched his lips to hers.
She just had time to taste the winey, meaty undercurrent on his breath from the blood soup, before his mouth was abruptly withdrawn, along with the encircling arms and the chest she was already leaning into. She teetered.
Angel retreated to the far side of the table, snatching up the ratatouille.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't haveI'm sorry." He disappeared into the kitchen, the swinging door flapping. Her heart fluttered like a hummingbird on amphetamine. Her mind, moving much more slowly, was stuck on what just happened?, a question that went round and round without finding a resting place. There was a strange urge to laugh.
If he'd only said what he'd said, without taking her in his arms, she'd have thought he was displaying an extraordinary sensitivity, the sort of thing she usually associated with Papa, who often seemed to have an uncanny knowledge of what made her tick and what she needed to hear.
But he had kissed her, or at any rate started toa kiss whose resonance made her feel airy inside, like she was on a swing.
Like she might have a bad fall.
She didn't want to wonder if this was how her mother used to feel when kissing Angel. Or if he was trying, with her, to recapture any of that long-gone sensation. She didn't think so ... thought he'd probably forgotten, despite his mentioning of her just moments before, that she was Buffy's daughter. Maybe it was remembering it that made him pull away with such confusion. That, and her status as a widow-for-a-week, and who knew what else.
Except if he hadn't pulled away, she thought it quite likely she'd be kissing him still. She was all lit up inside, churning and unnerved as she hadn't been in ... too long. She wanted to dash after him, make that swinging kitchen door really flap. Which couldn't be good, could it? After Milo, she shouldn't make such another bad choice. This soon after Milo, she shouldn't be choosing anyone.
When the time came ... after a suitable interval ... maybe she'd meet someone new. Someone who would be hers, without reference to anyone else in her family. Not Mamma's first lover, not Johnny's mentor or boss or grandsire or whatever he was.
The swinging door opened; Angel looked through. "Jemima, are you?"
Her face was hot. She had to force herself to look at him calmly. "I'm feeling a little headachey. I'm going back to my hotel." She gestured to indicate the half-cleared table. "Sorry to leave you with all" This mess. We're all a great big mess. Snatching up her bag from the sideboard, she walked out. The effort to be measured and dignified as she left the Hyperion made her sure she'd turn an ankle, stumble and fall.
But she didn't.
"Been fuckin' Angel, since we got here."
Buffy's heart rose up in her chest like a ball through water, rushing past incredulity and horror and jealousy and anger to pop up high into the clear bright air. Suddenly it was the easiest thing there was, to look at him. She hadn't been able to before, but she could now.
Because one thing, at least, was over.
Gone, gone gone, his towering superiority. He'd given up his high-ground with an enormous swan-dive that brought him right down here, right down to her, where she could gaze into his face with nothing to deflect her. Saleem had stood between them for months, but he wouldn't be holding that over her anymore.
"Didn't do it to get back at you."
She could imagine a time when hearing him say that would've enraged her, but now she just believed him. If he was going to lie, he wouldn't have brought this up at all. "So why then?"
"He's my sire. I needed his help."
"Help. So, whatAngel's price for helping you was getting into your pants again?"
"No, it's not like that." He crooked a dry smile. "That's what Johnny thought too."
"Vampire. Could smell it on us."
"God, right. Your undead noses get you guys into all sorts of trouble." Her mind whirled like a camera on a pivot. Imagining what she hadn't yet confronted fully: what it was like for Spike, after she walked out on him via nasty note, to have to deal on his own with Johnny's catastrophe. She knew what it was like, to learn that some unthinkable series of events was in train, powerless to stop the worst, desperate to control the damage.
"So this help. Is it helpful?"
Spike looked away. "Some, yeah. I came here in a white-hot rage. Wanted to pin the whole thing on Angel, for makin' Drusilla and abandoning her out there. First thing we did was have a big punch-upI started that. An' then he"
She touched his shoulder. "You don't have to tell me the details."
Spike looked up at her. His expression made her re-evaluate again. She sucked her lip. He'd listened when she told all about Saleem, though it tortured him. "If you think it's important, I'll listen."
Spike's eyes flitted from her face to her hands and back again. He shrugged. "Just don't be angry at Angel. He was only taking care of me. That first night, I neededneeded some seeing to."
She saw it in his eyes, and the way he sat in the chair like he'd been collapsed into it. What he must have needed. Solace, reassurance, support. What she hadn't been there to give, and which he might not have been able to receive from her even if she was. They'd slid so far away from each other.
"Go on, tell me."
"Little later, after we finished with the Conduit, had our souls, Johnny scarpered. I was feelin' the weight of my sins. Easy enough to say, an' impossible to describe, Buffy. Jemmie was with me, so I had to hold myself together for her. After she'd gone to bed, I got drunk. Angel was there. For the first time we understood each other. We could ... converse."
"And this conversation ... it's still going on? It's going to continue?"
"The sex is over. We broke it off."
"Oh. So does that mean ..." She didn't want to have to ask. Thought it might not be the time, either. But she couldn't stop herself. "Are we still together?"
Spike didn't even blink. "Listen, other thing I done ... left Milo to die. Maybe he could've been saved if we'd rang for an ambulance, but I didn't give a toss, I just wanted to get the babies away from there."
She was more struck by the way he said the babies than by this fresh confession. The last time she'd seen Milo, he'd been rude to her. He'd never done more than make a thin effort to veil his suspicion and contempt in all the years he'd been in her life. She couldn't bring herself, in the midst of everything else, to work up much indignation over the manner of his death. But she saw it pricked at Spike, and that disturbed her even more than the news about Angel. It was the first indication she'd seen of the soul within him. It pointed to a changechangesshe couldn't begin to anticipate.
She didn't know what it was going to mean for either of them.
What it meant at this moment was that he was no longer looking to her to see if he'd done well or ill. As long as they'd been together, he'd mimicked her sense of right and wrong, and like an exceptionally talented parrot who seems to carry on a real conversation, made it seem, most of the time, that he steered by his own inner compass, as finely-tuned as her own.
It took his acquisition of the real thing to point up the illusion's perfection.
"I think I'd have done the same."
"No you wouldn't. You'd have summoned the bloody ambulance even at risk of gettin' caught by the coppers or the Council. You wouldn't have lied to Jem's face to hurry her off, telling her the fellow was already dead when you knew he wasn't."
"Spike, you did everything for our son that I would've done. I can't thank you enough. I'm so sorry I wasn't there."
He gestured dismissively.
But she didn't want to be staved off. It felt important to tell him. "Look"
Johnny's groan interrupted her. Spike was up like a shot. Buffy hung back, watching as he murmured to their woozy son, checked the bandaged wrists, propped him up to sip at the blood from the thermos. She realized she didn't know why Johnny had hurt himself. Was it remorse for what he'd done earlier in her room? Or did it have nothing to do with that at allanother thing that wasn't really about her?
She was lost here. It wasn't merely that she'd missed the main event and its aftermath, so that they all were leagues ahead of her in the new world Johnny's turning had made, while she was still toiling away in the old. She'd been lost for a while, since before she ever saw Saleem. The way she lost herself over and over since she was first called to the mission. The life of the Slayer and the life of Buffy Summers ran in parallel tracks, but she never had been able to stay on top of them both at once. It was always at being Buffy that she failed.
Johnny was gazing past Spike, focused on her. He held out a hand. His wrists looked so thin and fragile, wrapped in white gauze.
"Baby, I'm here."
"Mamma, I'm so sorry." Tears tracked down his wan face. "Please say you don't hate me. I don't know why I did it."
Spike made room for her to lean in close. She hoped he didn't understand what Johnny really meant. Kissing his cheeks and forehead, that were cool and dry where they should've been warm and clammy with fevered sleep, she said, "Of course I don't hate you. I never could. Put that out of your mind."
"I'm so glad you're both here. Please make up with each other. I need you to be together. I need you ...."
"No one's going anywhere, sweetheart."
Johnny's lids fluttered; he was nearly asleep again already.
She followed Spike out of the room. At the other end of the long corridor, outside his, he stopped with a hand on the knob and glanced back at her.
She wanted to put her arms around him, to coax him back to her in the way that almost never failed. But remembering what he'd done in London when she offered herself to him, she stepped back.
If he didn't know himself now, how much less, then, did she?
The Hyperion lobby was shadowy and empty. Crossing it, Buffy briefly considered turning around and searching out Angel. She wasn't sure what she would say to him if she saw him, but she felt the promptings of a strange curiosity, as if he would appear differently to her now.
Knowing what she did about Spike's past with Angelus, It was rape an' it wasn't, he'd told her after she'd seen the old pictures in his metal box, what it always was was complicated, didn't do much to prepare her for their coming together again. She could only imagine what Spike meant by taking care of me, unless it was the same thing as when he took care of her, an experience most inadequately summarized by the verb fuck.
Spike had come down from his angry pinnacle all right, but trust him not to merely return her transgression for transgression. This thing with Angel was something else. It reminded herand apparently she needed remindingthat he was his own person, not merely her faithful undead side-kick.
Spike with a soul ... Spike with other options ... this Spike might leave her. Here was an opening all ready for him, complete with a shiny and important new Mission, a son who'd need his supportive presence for a good long while, and plenty of room in his sire's big brass bed.
Angel might even fight to keep him. This development had to be the first break in his long long loneliness since ... well, since he'd loved her.
Spike called it a conversation.
Conversation. That was a big scary word. The conversation of two long-lived vampires, sire and sireling, both imbued with souls, felt like something much bigger and tricksier and more complex than she'd ever been able to offer him.
Spike had started to love her in an enigmatic fashion, and she'd come to rest on his love as on a featherbed underlaid with steel. But what was to say that love might not evaporate just as mysteriously as it begun?
Buffy hastened out into the cool evening air, as if escaping a crucible.
At the hotel, she found Jemima waiting up for her. A flash of suspicion made Buffy look at her hard; did she know about Spike and Angel too? Her body was still bruised and sore from the battle in Nepal, but not so much as her mind was by the repeated lashings of the last day. There was no time to absorb and mourn one before they were on to the next.
"Do you want me to brush your hair?" Jemima said.
"Yeah, that would be so nice, baby. Afterwards, I'll brush yours."
Sitting on the bed with her back to Jemima, she tried to relax into the rhythmic strokes. In the mirror over the dresser she could see herself and her daughter, both sallow-faced and solemn. Jemima seemed disinclined to talk, but Buffy couldn't achieve anything like a quiet mind. After a while she said, "So, you've finally met Angel. Is he anything like you imagined?"
The brush tumbled from Jemima's hand and bounced onto the floor. She dropped down to retrieve it, leaving Buffy alone in the mirror, a small tired woman huddled cross-legged on a bedspread, the corners of her mouth downturned.
"Sorry to be so clumsy," Jemima said.
"It doesn't matter, sweetheart. So, Angel."
"Oh, he's been very nice to all of us."
"That could describe any insurance salesman."
"Well, you know him. I had to be firm with him at first, because he didn't want to take me to where Papa had gone with Johnny. But once we were over that, he's been ... nice."
"That word that doesn't mean anything."
"Of course it means something. It means ... nice." Jemima applied herself diligently to the brushing for a minute, then said, "I think he's been so kind to me because of you. Because you're my mother, and maybe I remind him a little of you."
"Probably. Of course Angel's always been very susceptible to pretty girls."
"I don't think that describes me, really."
Buffy glanced up at Jemima in the mirror, then turned and pulled her into her arms. "Baby, I am so glad you're finished with Milo."
"I didn't want him to die. But I'm not all that sorry. It's terrible of me to say that." She took a deep breath. "I didn't go to the funeral, but I wonder how many of the people who did really were sorry." Jemima raised her head from Buffy's shoulder, looked into her face. "Mamma, why did you come back here? I thought you'd stay with Papa."
Buffy had been dreading this question, and had no glib answer ready. She was getting tired of dissembling; the privacy of it, the intense need to appear well to her children, no longer seemed as important as it did even as recently as the night before. "I told you, your father and I are ... look, I don't want to add to all the things you've got to be unhappy and worried about. But you already know things aren't right between us."
Jemima's face took on an expression so like Spike's own wounded one, that it hurt her to look at it. "You don't have to tell me."
"Last spring, I had an affair." A sharp laugh escaped her, because that sentence was so banal. Anyone could say it. It didn't seem to have anything to do with being the slayer, bearing responsibility for the continued existence of this entire dimension.
Jemima gasped and drew back. "You didn't!"
"With a mage named Saleem. He was centuries oldthough he didn't look itand unlike anyone I've ever known. He was the only one who had the power to help me avert the apocalypse. Which is ... how we met. But that wasn't why I seduced him."
"Oh Mamma! And Papa knows about it?"
"He does." There was no way to hide it from him. Even if he'd lacked the sensory confirmationwhich the good bath she took before seeing Spike after the final battle did nothing to expungeher grief and confusion at Saleem's sacrifice were obvious enough. Anyway, she'd blurted it out before Spike had time to accuse her. Imagining that somehow she was sparing him the extra pain of feeling he'd been lied to.
She forced herself to go on looking at Jemima, even as Jemima, with no forcing at all, looked like her father, all wincing incredulity.
"I can't believe it. You two have always been"
"We've always been," Buffy repeated. "Is that how it's seemed to you? That we've always been, and always would be?"
"When I started my relationship with your father, I was barely alive. All I wanted was to go back to being dead. When I finally fell in love with him, my vitality came slowly back. I hoped I might get to have a year with him before the next time I'd be slaughtered. Imagine that, a whole year! Remember, I wasn't used to thinking more than a week or two ahead. I'd already died twice. Hell, I'd already lived longer than most slayers."
"So is that what made you do it? You were bored, after thirty years?"
"Not bored. Never bored. Not for a second." That was something Spike had liked to brag aboutthat Drusilla never bored him, that she never did either. Boredom with him was a sign of inferiority; he always spoke of it with contempt. Better to burn out than fade away, Spike sometimes said. She knew it was a quote from something, but she didn't know what. Vampire and Slayer, lovers who shouldn't be, they'd lived at a pitch of excitementstimulated not by the Mission but from within themselves, a song of call-and-response that never ended, a dance with no let-up. That love bore her up, it was the entire armature of her life.
A life no other slayer had had. Years in which she grew stronger, mightier, even as the foes she had to defeat burgeoned too.
A slayer didn't expect peace, or rest. Her rest came at the end, when she was finished.
There seemed to be no threat, no guarantee, of a finish for her anymore. Immortality opened out like a space so vast it could have no meaning. It terrified her.
She'd never put this together in her head. All the times when Spike begged her to explain to him why she'd done it, she couldn't find a way to articulate why she'd turned to Saleem.
"This wizard, I needed him to augment my power, as I was going to augment his. But the aspect of him that attracted me ... moved me ... it was his incredible stillness. He was so serene. Transcendent with a capital T. There was this resounding peace about him, and ... it pulled me like a magnet. God, I wanted to just crawl inside of him and be."
Be the way she'd been when she was in heaven. Coupling with Saleem seemed to offer that same static ecstatic tranquillity. She couldn't tell that part to her daughterthere seemed no way to say it that she wouldn't hear as Buffy wishing she was dead again. Death wasn't what she'd sought, but some undefined relief from rich incessent life.
"I ... I see."
She didn't see, of course she couldn't see. Jemima looked shattered.
"I'm not trying to excuse it. I got lost. I let myself get lost." That peace she'd sought in Saleem's arms never quite materialized. Over and over in those intense, desperate days, she'd chased it, harder and harder the more elusive it proved. Saleem's joy also peaked in the very first encounter, never to resurge in the same way, until by the end she knew, though he remained courtly and decorous, that he was sunk in confusion and disappointment after forfeiting his long solitude.
That was probably why, after he was sure they'd saved the world, he didn't try to save himself.
She'd dishonored all three of them.
"Spike thinks I don't love him anymore, and that makes him suspect I never did. He's wrong on both counts. But he can't hear me when I say it, and when I try to show him ... except I don't even know how to show him anymore. I've messed that up so badly."
Jemima's eyes were fixed on her face, even as tears coursed down her cheeks. "Oh baby, don't cry. You don't want to know me this way, see me this way, clumsy and thoughtless and don't-know-my-own-strength. I should've learned to be more graceful by now. But it's what I am. I'm so sorry to burden you with this."
"No, no," Jemima murmured, bowing into her, encircling her in her arms. "I don't judge you, Mamma. How could I? How could I ever understand what it's like for you, what you have to be and do?"
"Don't let me off the hook. I made a vow to Spike, and I broke it. That's all. I know that."
"Papa has always forgiven you."
"Maybe he shouldn't have, though. Maybe he shouldn't this time. He has a soul to steer by now. That's got to change his perspective. Make him see" That it's not all about me. I get it now, Spike. I get it, just in time for it to not matter for us anymore.
Jemima raised her head. Her eyes were red and pleading. "What? You think the soul could possibly change how he feels about you?"
"Baby, don't you think it should? Don't you think it should change everything?"
"Not Papa's love. I know nothing can change that."
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