Part Five 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
Laughing, Rita pulled the darts out of the board and spun around. "Rematch?"
"I'm in," Darryl and Noel chorused.
"Me too," Johnny said, sipping at his beer. "I'm warning you though, I've lived in London the last three years, so I'm good at this."
"Oh, like you were last round? Yeeeah."
"Was lulling you into a false sense of security before I came back to slaughter you."
"Nobody's slaughterin' anybody," Spike said, sliding in amongst them with a lightness that belied the eagle-eye he kept on his son. This pub outing was his idea, to get Johnny out of his room, get him started integrating with the rest of Angel's group.
"Do you play darts?" Buffy asked, slipping into a chair beside Angel.
It was easier to look at Buffy, to be in the same room with her, than Angel would've guessed. All these years he'd been in the habit of thinking of her as someone he still wanted if not for the impossibility of ever having her. She existed in a special compartment of his mind, where all that was holy and precious was kept away from the rest of his everyday concerns. Now she was here, sitting so near him that he could feel the vibration of her body, fill his lungs with her familiar scent, Angel could summon up every detail of his obsession with her, except for the obsession itself.
"I have done." This was a place Wesley used to like, for the English beer on tap, the darts and snooker tables. Being here pointed up his absence.
He told this to Buffy, who looked surprised. "I'm sorry. I didn't know he was so sick."
"Where did you think he was?" As soon as he said it, Angel wished he hadn't. Buffy had obviously not thought of Wesley at all, and really, given the circumstances, it wasn't fair to rate her for that. Anyway, he wasn't someone she'd ever held a fondness for.
"I'm sorry," she repeated. "Maybe I could visit him ...."
Angel could just imagine that. Tongue-tied Buffy, there out of some sense of obligation to see a long-discarded watcher she'd never respected. Wes would just find it tiring.
"Probably ... not such a good idea."
"Okay," she agreed quickly. The whole time they were talking, sitting side by side, she hadn't taken her eyes off Spike. Even when it was one of the others shooting darts, it was Spike she watched, with a light of longing in her eyes. Her son ... everybody else ... might as well not have been there. Once she managed to catch Spike's eye, and a vague smile from him that she rewarded with one of her own set at highest beam. He thought she would get up then and join him, imagined her slipping in at his side, slipping her hand into his. But she didn't go. Only sank more deeply into her chair, crossing her pretty legs, chewing on the slim straw in her drink.
Jemima came up behind them; Angel was aware of her even before she leaned in to thread her arms around her mother's neck. In doing so she touched his shoulder lightly with her body, a touch that made Angel feel warm all over, which shouldn't have been possible. He swallowed some beer and tried to look as if it was nothing, her proximity, her scent. He hadn't spoken to her since the attempt at kissing. She'd run away, but he hoped she wasn't angry. She wouldn't be standing like this if she was. She must realize how he could feel her ....
"Who's winning over there?"
"I don't know," Buffy said, still staring, "I'm not paying attention."
Compared to Buffy's flashing attractions, Jemima, with her darker hair and more hooded eyes, was so much more sedate. You had to really look at her to see how lovely she was. Like Buffy, she exuded strength and determination, but quietly, quietly. There was a softness to her that she could afford, Angel thought, because she'd never had responsibility for the safety of the world on her small shoulders.
"You two are getting caught up," Jemima said. "It's beenhow many years since you've seen each other?"
"We haven't been in a room together since before your brother was born."
It startled Angel to hear it.
"So you have to tell him about us." She gave Buffy a squeeze, whispered in her ear, "Make sure you tell Angel how proud you are of me and how smart and good I used to be."
"Used to be?" Buffy said aloud.
"You know, when I was a kid."
As if, Angel thought, he cared about that! Except, yeah, he did. He cared about everything about her.
"We talk, Jemmie. We've stayed in touch. I've bragged about you all along, ever since you were born."
"Have you? Good. Oh, look at Papa. He's made five hundred."
The others were applauding Spike's performance. Johnny stood just outside their half circle, his expression bleak.
Angel was about to go speak to him when Buffy herself started up. She looped one arm around her son, pulling him in, and the other around Spike, who gave her a raised eyebrow that was dry but not unfriendly.
Jemima came around and took Buffy's chair. She was even nearer nowthe two chair arms were touchingbut he'd lost that little bit of perhaps unconscious contact. "I hope you don't think I've been avoiding you the last couple of days."
"Ino. No, why would I?"
"That's good. Because really I wasn't."
He had a profile view of her rippled nose, hard little chin, the long line of her thin cheek. The barrette he'd given her glittered like a signal. She wore one of her new dresses, whose blue made her skin appear milky. It was almost transparent in the curve of her arm. He fought an urge to place a finger there, to feel her tripping pulse.
She looked at him, her lips curled into not-quite-a-smile.
"I don't like to ask you a favorbecause I think you always say yes, even when you might mean no."
"Do I really seem like such a pushover? I'd better work on that. What favor?"
"I have a friendmy oldest, closest friendwho is very sick, in the hospital. I go to see him every other day or so. I tell him what's going on, he says it gives him something to look forward to. He was your mother's watcher long ago, for about five minutes. He's been through a great deal, since."
"And you'd like me to come along on a visit. You call that a favor?"
"Wes has cancer. He's ... not easy to look at anymore. But he's very interested, in Johnny and you particularly. I don't think it's a good idea to bring your brother there, but if you"
"Of course. I'd like to meet any friend of yours."
"Tomorrow around seven, then? We can't stay with him long. Maybe afterwards you'd let me take you out to"
"Heyyou need to get in the game."
Johnny yanked her up so hard and hurriedly that Jemima squeaked.
"C'mon, play darts. We're waiting for you. C'mon."
"All right, but just don't pull me like that." She rubbed her wrist where he'd grabbed her.
Angel started up. "That's no way"
"She's my sister. This is how we are. Jem, tell him."
"Don't ask her to make excuses for you. You know she will. That isn't the point."
"We're in the middle of a game. She should be with the rest of us, and play."
"We were talking."
"Yeah, I noticed that." Johnny's eyes flashed just the briefest hint of gold.
You puppy. Angel didn't say it. He said nothing. Spike and Buffy were there now, each doing whatever it was they did to smooth their children down; squaring themselves off in the process, moving en masse back towards the dart board, so that Angel found himself abruptly alone.
As much claim as each of them had to be lonely, unhappy, disappointed, those four were a family. None of them was entirely turned away from the others, not really.
Jemima didn't so much as glance around at him. She was absorbed back into her unit, absorbed apparently in her two parents, talking from one to the other as if she was a friendly interpretor, or a maker of introductions. Such hope and beseeching in her face, with pride and pleasure when Spike's arm went around her. She took her turn, displaying a cool eye and a precise throw, landing her darts right where she wanted them. When Johnny shot, she gave him her full attention, applauded and cheered louder than anyone.
Angel felt he could watch her forever, and never want to look away. Yet just watching her afforded a frisson of guilt. She was off-limits, to the likes of him.
He'd take her to see Wes, because he'd already arranged it, and promised Wes he'd bring her if he could.
But after that, no more. He'd been forgetting himself, but he remembered now.
He left them all there, and went away alone.
"Hey! What part of stop that are you not getting!?" Rita's voice, loud but calm, cut through the music and chatter.
Buffy was in time to glimpse Johnny's yellow-eyed snarl before he let the game-face go and turned away with a sneer.
Shit. She pushed through the crowd at the snooker table, reaching him just behind Spike, who was already in the act of hustling him towards a quiet nook in the back.
"What the fuck were you thinkin', flashing fang at her?"
Johnny threw off Spike's restraining hand. "Nothing. I was just trying to talk to her. I don't know why she had to be so touchy."
Spike eyed him suspiciously, his head on one side.
"Girls used to like me," Johnny said. "Christ." He glanced at Buffy. "Look, I don't really need the both of you ganging up on me."
Buffy had been here before, courtesy of those demons who'd imprisoned her in their dimensional dead-end. Then it was Jemima, the only child she had. She'd been forced to see her as a beast, lashing out with hideous glee, her delicate loving mind reduced to selfish venom.
It occurred to Buffy for the first time, confronting Johnny's hard, challenging stare, to ask herself, why? Why should a soul be a guarantee of anything? Plenty of evil got done by people who were born with souls and never lost them. Just because the soul made Angel change his ways didn't mean it would have the same effect on Johnny.
Standing with them in that small space, her slayer instinct pricked her, and not for Spike. Misgiving made the tiny hairs rise on the back of her neck.
She had to raise her voice a little to hear herself above the music; there was a speaker mounted to the wall above their heads.
"St.John, do you feel remorse?"
"Spike. I'm not asking you. I'm asking him."
Johnny shifted his weight, dropping back against the dark paneling. He couldn't meet her eyes. His gaze sought Spike's, but Spike was looking at her.
"I haven't really heard you say it," Buffy said. She remained fixed on him, while the little spot at her nape that told her of danger felt bright and cold.
Johnny's head drooped, slowly, as if his neck was made of putty stretched too thin. He sank down the wall. She couldn't hear his sobbing over the driving music, but she saw his shoulders shake. He covered his face with his hands. Spike moved to kneel beside him, but Buffy held him back.
"What d'you want, Slayer?" Spike's whisper was harsh against her cheek. "He's doin' best he can."
"I don't see it," she said. "I don't see remorse here. Do you?"
Spike pulled free of her and crouched down beside Johnny.
Tears aren't remorse, Buffy thought. "Sorry" isn't either. I gave out plenty of both to you, Spike, and I wasn't feeling it either. How do I know? Because I feel it now.
Startled, she couldn't venture into this realization; it would have to wait for a calmer time, when she could talk to him alone.
Johnny tipped his head back, blinked up at her through eyes glassy with tears. "Mamma, you want to stake me because I growled a little at a girl?" His voice was reedier than usual, boyish and incredulous, and she couldn't tell if he was feigning or not.
Anger flared in her like a struck match. "I don't want to stake you. But I need to trust you. I can't trust a vampire who gets fangy the second he's frustrated."
"God, you're harsh."
"You are a vampire. All there is between you and a dusty death is your soul. And if you really have one"
"If!" He rose, plaintive hands splayed on his chest.
Buffy stayed steely. "If you really have one, I should see it in your actions. There's only ever been one vampire with a soul before, and I knew him with and without it. I could always tell which was which. But you"
She couldn't read the look he gave her. The cast of Spike's face was enigmatic too.
"Papa never had a soul."
"He's ..." How could she say, he's different? Except that he was, Spike was unique, which was how she'd come to love him at all. And he had nothing to do with this, because he didn't make her feel in her sinews that any little thing might set him off into violence. She'd long since given up trying to explain to herself why it was that Spike could curb his demon through love. But she'd never made the mistake of thinking he was anything but the exception to the overwhelming rule. "We're talking about you here."
"You're freaking me out. I can't live with you watching me every second!"
She searched his face, his stance, silently begging him for some crumb of reassurance. Something seemed broken.
Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe no souls had been meted out at all. Maybe it was only a cruel hoax on the part of the Powers, and her son's demon was in the ascendent. Maybe it was some sort of testshe was supposed to stake him, or be found wanting.
Johnny shrugged. "I'm gonna apologize to Rita." He slipped out of the alcove without looking at her. She had to clench her hands to keep from catching at him.
Spike caught at her, his hand going around her arm without tightening. He stood just behind her, so she couldn't see him as he said, "Let him go an' say his piece, an' then I'll get him back to Angel's. He won't do any more wickedness tonight."
Buffy stared after Johnny, following his sandy head as he wove his way among the tables towards where Rita and Darryl sat at the bar. "I'm not sure you see what he is now."
"I saw him with Milo's blood dripping from his chin. But he's my son." Spike paused. "Had to try to save him from himself. Anyway what he is now is a souled being same as you are."
He slipped past her to head towards the bar. Buffy wanted to pull him back, but her mouth had gone dry, her heart pounded in her throat.
She imagined Spike back at the Hyperion in a little while. He'd go to Angel. She doesn't understand what we are. Well, why should she? But you do. They'd stretch out together, they'd talk, in the easy way she'd never actually heard but which was all too easy to imagine, men who thoroughly knew one another. Spike must finally feel equal to Angel, or nearly soshe suspected he never really liked feeling entirely equal to anyone he made love to.
They'd talk about how it was too much to expect for Johnny to make good with the slayer breathing down his neck.
Spike had reached the bar now; Rita and Darryl were gone, and Johnny was standing there on his own, drinking yet another beer. They conferred; there was a minute struggle over the bottle, but Spike's persuasion held. Leaving it there, Johnny followed him out.
Now they were gone, she wasn't sure anymore what she'd felt, what she'd seen in her son's face. How could she be so eager to find the worst? He'd come on too strong with Rita, been rebuffed, let off a growl. Bad behavior, but you wouldn't kill a man for it.
He was so young, and he'd always had that awkward streak. How much more awkward, to be what he'd become?
Spike was right.
He must be.
They walked back to the Hyperion, two vampires on the stroll in a city of cars. Moving through the deep layers of human smells, echoes of everyone who'd trod the sidewalk or passed in a vehicle for the last few hours, Spike recalled when that was new, when the world was changed from just the world into a stewpot he was swimming in. Everywhere smelled like food. Every person he glimpsed could be his if he wanted him. Every night could be a spree.
It wasn't easy, changing your mind about that. He couldn't remember when he'd changed hisit took the chip to pull him out of circulation, but even after he fell in love with Buffyeven after she accepted himhe still had his appetites, his fantasies. Still gloated over vivid memories of his most satisfying kills. Loved killing demons not so much because they were evil as because he loved killing, the visceral all-or-nothing of it. Loved too what his violence, when he patterned it on hers, won from Buffy. Her trust, her tenderness.
It wasn't until Jemima was born that he came to dwell more on life than on death. He'd never imagined loving a child, caring for one, but that love nearly defeated his demon. After that, the killing he did at Buffy's side was about keeping the world right for Jemmie to live in. He thought less and less of the pre-chip past, yet shame was still something he remembered feeling as William, but never as William the Bloody.
Since the visit to the Conduit, shame was real, shifting and spreading, dogging him as a dark demonic shadow. He'd been moving too fast so far to let it thoroughly engulf him, but it flapped at his heels now, unshakeable. He didn't want to turn and confront it, lest it swallow him whole.
That kind of shame was nothing he needed. He'd stopped being a threat to the world long ago. It was his son, the blood of innocents fresh on his tongue, who required the attitude adjustment.
Which was happening. Buffy was being premature. Hell, what chance had Johnny had so far to think anything through? If that idiot episode in the bath the other day wasn't a sign of burgeoning conscience and its relentless sting, Spike didn't know what was.
"Might be a good idea to have a calm chat with your mum later, really open up, you know. Shock of it hasn't sunk in for her yet."
"Open up. Oh yeah."
"Yeah. Tell her what happened to you. Your sister filled her in, but you owe it to her to tell her the tale, an' listen to whatever she'll say to you. She's not going to hurt you."
"She's itching to run me through."
"No. She just ... she's got a job to do. An' she needs to know you're firmly on the right side of the line."
"You keep saying she loves me, but what does that even mean? You think she really cares about either of us? Nothing gets ahead of being the Slayer. Not even you."
"Let's not go there now, yeah? We're almost at the Hyperion."
"If you thought there was anything left with her, you wouldn't have crawled into bed with him."
"You know nothing about any of that. An' it's none of your concern."
"Remorse. What does that look like? Does it look the same as eat-your-vegetables? Or get-home-by-midnight?" He shrugged. "She doesn't have a clue who or what I am, and she never has. She never has."
"Nick. For chrissakes, at least call me by the name I picked. At least give me that much of a fucking say in my fucking shit existence."
"All right, Nick. Listen"
"Tara was more of a mother to me than she ever was. Even though it wasn't her job. Only she moved away, and then all I had was Jemmie." They were at the hotel door. "I don't even have her anymore."
"Think you're bein' a little overdramatic there," Spike said, following him through.
Johnny groaned, and in another moment, crying out, was on his knees. Angel appeared, catching his shoulders before he pitched over altogether.
"What is it? What do you see?"
Johnny spoke, holding his head, the words coming out on gusts of pain. Helpless, Spike watched. When the vision passed, Johnny staggered up. "That's all I can tell you. So you two go and fight."
"No, I want you along. You and not Spike. C'mon. Grab a weapon out of the cabinet, we'll go out the back."
Spike opened his mouth to question this, but paused. The sooner Johnny stood on his own two feet in Angel's operation, the better.
He glanced around at him, seeking reassurance like the little boy he'd been. "Now's when you let the demon out," Spike said. "Fists an' fangs, unleash 'em an' do it."
Johnny smiled uncertainly, as if he was indulging Spike's optimism, before he followed Angel out.
Spike was left alone with a few good hours of night ahead. He could go out again, get liquored up, find some sort of some company of the meaningless variety. Or do a patrol, find some vampires to hassle.
He was so unused to being on his own.
At the door to his room on the fourth floor of the Hyperion, he heard her voice, as if she was right there. We're not all right, are we? She'd said that the other night, following him here from Johnny's bedside, so quiet and hesitant. He'd barely thought of it, how quietly she'd taken his confessions. As if convinced she had no right to be angry. How unlike that was to the Buffy he'd fallen in love with, the pretty little Wrath of God.
Spike went back down and out.
She looked so small and fragile, curled up on a chaise by the pool. The table umbrellas were shut, the floodlights off; no one else was out. The water, lit from within, shimmered, throwing reflections on her huddled form. Standing in the doorway leading out from the empty bar, Spike waited for her to move.
She didn't. He walked towards her. When he was nearly close enough to touch her sloping shoulder, he cleared his throat.
She started. "What! Oh."
"Thought you'd have gone to bed. It's late."
She shook her head, her gaze still fixed unseeingly on the moving blue shadows of the pool. "I'm thinking about Johnny. I wonder about the kind of person he is. Even without a demon. I don't think we noticed enough."
"He's overwrought, yeah, but think you might be makin' more of it than"
"We failed him. We've failed him so many times ... what if it's too late?"
He sank down onto the chaise beside hers. "No such thing."
"No?" She squinted at him. "Do you mean that?"
"Bout him, yeah." Spike wished he had a cigarette, though he'd given them up long since. "Even if I didn't believe in him 'cause he's ours, he's got the visions. Must mean the Powers're confident about him."
"... I guess so. Maybe he'd do better without the Slayer around."
"Maybe so." Like her, he was becoming absorbed in the shimmers of the water's surface, the dancing dappled light. It was difficult to focus on but so much easier than trying to look at Buffy's face.
"You want me to leave Los Angeles?"
He had no choice but to take this live grenade and hold it, ticking. Her body was flushed with apprehension; he could feel the strain she put herself under, not to reach towards him.
"It's not about what I want." This answer, being neither 'yes' nor 'no,' might be a mite less ruinous. He didn't know what he wanted.
It was the first time he'd ever been near Buffy and not known that. It gave him a rushing sense of falling, the kind you awake from in a dream with a jolt and a cry.
She was quiet, her cheek resting on her drawn-up knee. The breeze stirred her hair. He listened to her breathing, the heightened pulse of her heart. Above their heads in one of the high-floor suites, Jemima, the best thing he'd ever had anything to do with, slept her hopeful sleep.
"I don't want to go away from you all. But if it's what Johnny needs ... the pressure of me is too much for him, I think."
"I know that's hard for you," Spike said. "I keep remindin' him that you love him. Of course he knows it. But he feels you all the time, it riles him up."
"Many vampires have mentioned that to meright before I take them out."
"Yeah, it's a thing."
But I'm glad you've stood up for me with him." She paused. "You always have."
"Boy's got to respect his mother, or else he's nowhere."
"I told Jemima about what I did."
This stirred him. "Why?"
"I didn't want her to think you had no good reason for treating me the way you have. And I couldn't stand her thinking I'm better than I am." She sighed.
"You didn't tell her"
"About you and Angel? Of course not. It's not for me to say."
"So how did she react?"
"Oh Spike, how would she? You know her. She couldn't quite believe it at first, and she cried, and then she assured me that you would forgive me because you always always always do." She sprang up then, her back to him. "I told her that I didn't think you should this time. I told her that now you have a soul, you may think differently, you may want different things. You can get what you need elsewhere."
He felt her tearing up, although she didn't sob. She spoke with a strange intense earnestness. "And I think that's a good thing for you, Spike. God, just let me take back the stupid shit I said about your soul the other nightas if I know anything about it. I don't! I don't know what you're going through now, what the soul is doing to you, and"
"If Angel is who you need, then stay with him! I don't want to stand in your way! He's always been there and he'll be here when I'm gone and I don't presume to understand the bond you have with him and I've ruined what we had and now you're someone else, so you can go! Really, I give you my blessing, I don't want to hold you if you want to go." She was weeping now, her voice high and tremulous like a child's. When his hands closed around her shoulders, she leaned back against him, shaking. "Spike, I hurt you so much, and I'm so sorry. I'm so so sorry. You don't owe me anything. I don't want to make you unhappy any more."
"Ssh. Ssh. We're both unhappy." He passed his arms around her, rocked her slowly from side to side as she cried. She was warm and moist and smelled so completely like love, that he couldn't at first understand why he didn't want to take her. "Don't worry about forgiveness. That's all done now."
"Whatwhat do you mean?"
"Not angry at you any more, Buffy."
She snuffled, her hands wrapped around his forearms, giving herself with a voluptuous sadness to the gentle rocking. After a while she whispered, "You've stopped loving me, haven't you?"
His arms parted; she stepped away. He couldn't think what to say, the water's shimmer had somehow got into his head, making his thoughts into an incoherent jumble.
"Here we are," she murmured, "quiet as two mice. I thought it was supposed to be better to burn out than fade away. What's that from?"
Spike blinked. "Neil Young song. You know it" He was on the verge of reciting the lyric when it washed over him, what they were saying, and doing, the cottony nothingness of it. Numb suspension. He'd never been numb in her presence before. He couldn't understand it, it was like succumbing to a drug.
"I didn't think it would ever happen, let alone like this. But let's not talk about it."
He struggled to follow her. "Nothin's decided, pet."
Her pulse didn't leap. "But I should go from here."
"You should get some kip, anyway." He took her arm, tugged her gently. "I'll walk you in."
He brought her to the elevators. In the mirrored doors, she stood alone, even before he squeezed her hand, and let it go.
"Is Jemima Summers with you?" Wesley said, craning his neck to see past Angel to the doorway of his room.
The wording struck him; he almost said She's not with me, she can't be with me."Not yet, I wanted to have you to myself a little first. She'll be here in a few minutes."
Wes's smile was a rictus. "Do you think she'll dominate all my attention?"
Angel smiled back, hoping his expression didn't betray how difficult it was to look at Wes's wizened head, his wasted body. "Well, she's so lovely ... and I know what an eye for the pretty girls you have."
"Ah, yes. For all the good it's done me."
"Either of us," Angel said, dropping into the chair at the bedside.
"I have hope for you yet," Wes said. "I hope you won't go on being alone."
"I have my crew. As for anything else ... you know I can't. What's the point of talking about it?"
"But you've been thinking of it, I know. Why this change?"
"Wes, c'mon. New subject."
"Well, what about the boy? How's he shaping?"
"Last night he had a vision of a couple of Dhogan beasts nesting in a warehouse. I brought him along and he killed one while I was just getting started."
"That's an improvement, isn't it?"
"Yes and no. He's angry at the world. I told you about the stunt he pulled with the wrist-slitting last week. Since then he's been all edge. He can barely suppress the demon. I can feel his hunger, his dissatisfaction. I've tried to get him to open up, talk about it a little. Told him what it was like for me, and how it got easier when I found my mission. I don't think he can hear me."
"He feels trapped by circumstances."
"We're all trapped by circumstances."
"Yes." Wes let his eyes close, and without their light bringing animation to his face, Angel could see how close he was to nothingness, and what an effort he put into seeming alive for these visits.
"Listen, if you're too tired"
The rheumy eyes popped open. "You will not deprive me of my rightful glimpse at the pretty girl. Meanwhile, tell me the other news. What about Spike? Do you continue to ... comfort one another?"
Angel shook his head. "Not since Buffy got here. Not that he's gone back to her either. I don't know what he's doing, exactly. There's trouble there. What we did together isn't making it any better." And it's another thing I have to renounce.
They were all staggering around like people struck blind, confused and in pain. It was a state Angel was used to, having been in and out of it so often, but he was sorry to see Buffy and Spike and their children there too; he'd always thought of them as uniquely fortunate, their love, their unbroken family an expression of hope in the midst of the always uncertain Mission.
Before Wes could answer, he was aware of her approach, hearing the click of her high heels on the floor of the corridor, the floral lilt of her perfume. Jemima appeared in the doorway of the room, empty-handed save for her small purse. She seemed to understand that Wesley was beyond any need for flowers or grapes or reading material; instead she'd made herself into a sprig of flowers, in a flowy pink sleeveless dress with a curved, ruched hem, bare legs ending in daintily pedicured feet in strappy sandals, her hair twisted up off her slender neck.
Her appearance surprised him. He'd thought of her beauty as something secret, something he was sensitive enough to perceive where othersmaybe even Jemima herselfoverlooked it. The glimpse of her trying on clothes at the mall didn't prepare him for the full effect of her making an effort. She barely resembled the tense tweedy girl with the dangling hair and tired eyes he'd first met.
Smiling nervously, she came forward, extending a hand. Whatever shock she felt at Wesley's appearance, she hid. "Hello, I'm Jemima." She squeezed Wesley's crabbed fingers with no sign of distaste. "Angel has told me about you, Mr Wyndam-Pryce, and I'm so glad you wanted to meet me."
He told her not to call him mister, and that he'd gone to school for a time with Milo's father. For a little while she answered questions about names from the old Council days that Angel had never heard and was surprised Wes remembered or cared about. That gave him time to notice that Jemima had put off her wedding band and diamond ring. The garnet barrette he'd given her winked at the side of her updo, sometimes obscured by a quivering lock of hair as she moved her head. Her arms and legs were pale for Los Angeles, but she looked more aristocratic than wan. Wes blatantly drank her in.
"And how are you getting on at the Hyperion?" he asked.
"My brother and father are staying there, but not me. But Angel cooked for me when I arrived."
"And very well too."
They were both looking at him now. Angel shrugged.
Then Wes, saying he must not be remiss as a host either, offered her a cup of a tea. "Or a coffee. Whatever you like. I'm sure Angel won't mind fetching it from the canteen."
Wes's eye, suddenly sharp, veered onto him, and Angel realized that he was being got rid of so that Wesley could say things to her that Angel wished he wouldn't say.
Maybe Jemima would refuse any refreshment. Maybe he could stretch the visit another five minutes with more idle chat, and then take her away. She was looking at him now too, and there was something in her expression that confused him. An uncertainty. Her hand wandered up to her head, fingers slipping in her hair until they found the barrette, assured themselves of its location. Her gaze returned to Wesley, her smile soft like her voice. "I don't want to stay too long."
"My dear, you are a tonic to me. Please don't go yet."
"All right. A Coke, then. Angel, would you?"
Striding out of the room and down the corridor, Angel strained to hear anything they were saying, but it seemed the two kept silent until he was well out of earshot. He wondered whether Jemima was aware of a significance to his diversion, or if she only thought Wesley was being elaborately polite.
There was a soda machine in the lounge at the end of the corridor, but Angel bypassed that and went all the way to the hospital canteen anyway. He didn't think anything Wesley might say to her would make any difference; she'd already made it clear when he kissed her that it wasn't right. And he'd made up his own mind that there could be nothing there, for a hundred thousand reasons.
Wes didn't want to believe him. But Jemima would gently, tactfully, put his hopes to rest. In that certainty, he lingered a few minutes in the cafeteria, avoiding the sunny windows, before he bought a Coke and started slowly back.
Seeing her pacing slowly up and down outside Wesley's closed door, Angel broke into a run. "What happened?"
She put a hand out to steady him, then hastily pulled it back. "Nothing, we spoke for a few minutes, then I could see how tired he was, so I said goodbye, and decided to wait for you out here."
"He's gone to sleep. That's all. I'll wait here if you want to look in on him."
"N-no. It's okay." He remembered the cold soda can in his hand, thrust it towards her. "Do you still want this?"
"Oh, yes! Thank you." As she popped the top, she shook her head as if to toss back her hair. The gesture reminded him strongly of a gesture of Buffy's when he first knew her, awkward, graceful, girlish. Embarrassed, he looked away.
"I guess we should go, then. Thanks for this. He was so interested in seeing you." They were moving slowly towards the elevators. Angel took care not to walk too close to her. All her small movements wafted her scent to him, not just the perfume but the more intimate aromas of her body that he wished he didn't have to know, since he couldn't know them better.
They were quiet until they reached the car, parked in an underground garage. When she was settled beside him in the front seat, her little purse in her lap and the Coke can still in one hand, Angel said, "I'm sorry if that stressful for you."
"Not at all! He was lovely to me. I was glad to meet someone so important to you. He's very concerned about you." She swallowed audibly. "I'm sorry. I could see that he loves you dearly, and you love him, and it must be so terrible for you, watching him die. And knowing nothing like that can ever happen to youwhich ought to feel like a good thingbut I can see how it isn't only. I'm so sorry."
"Thanks. Yeah. He's ... Wes and I have been through incredible things."
The key was unturned in the ignition. His hands were on the steering wheel. They each stared ahead, like spectators of something not to do with them. Jemima smoothed her skirt towards her knees. "You're too polite to ask me what he said. But I'll tell you if you want to know."
The pressure of this was only bearable when there was no speaking. How had his feelings become so intense so quickly? He'd only just met her, what, ten, twelve days ago? Whatever he thought he knew about her was only his own fantasies. Whatever he thought he'd find by knowing her better was fantasy too. As for what he imagined he could give her that could possibly make her happy
"You don't have to"
She let off a soft laugh. "One thing he said was that you certainly wouldn't ask me anything. He said you would look like a big sad silent Newfoundland dog. Which you do."
He couldn't help being acutely aware of the white ovals of her knees beside him, and how smooth and cool and then warm they would be if he fitted his palms to them.
She sipped her Coke. "He also said that you like the ballet and the drive-in and that you should get out more."
He would've fled the car, except he couldn't move.
Staring at her lap, she whispered. "Wesley was very anxious that you shouldn't be alone. He said that you were a very good man, and that if that was of interest to meof course he could see that it wasthat I shouldn't be afraid of the curse. He explained to me how susceptible you were when you were involved with my mother, because you'd been alienated for so many decades, and had never known love at all. He was certain that, having given way once, the curse would always hold, because you're a very different man now, one who could never again lose himself in such a singularity. He added that despite that, you were likely to be devoted and a passionate lover, and that you would also always be kind to me."
Her blushes almost made the air shimmer; her heart was a rushing bird. Angel couldn't believe Wesley would be so presumptuous. To try to sell him to Jemima as if he was a paid matchmaker! What if she believed he'd put Wes up to this?
And could Wes really believe all he'd said? He had no doubt Jemima was quoting himthose were his sort of phrases. But could he really be confident that the risk from the curse was so much less, just because his responsibilities now were more complex? How could Wes forget that it was precisely love that tore his humanity out. Wouldn't lovethe kind that roiled him now, just because she was sitting near himdestroy his soul again? How could he take the chance?
"I know he wouldn't have talked to you like that if he wasn't so sick."
From the corner of his eye, he saw Jemima nod. "I know!" She sounded on the edge of tears. "I shouldn't repeat these things to you, I know it embarrasses youand I don't quite know what I mean by it yet either. But Angel, even with everything that's been happening, I think about you all the time. I think about who you are and what you do and I wonder who helps you and I'm really starting to wish it was me."
When he turned to her, she shied. He pulled his hand back into his own space. "It can't be you. Not like that."
"Then why did you kiss me? Why did you give me this?" She touched the barrette.
Unease was like rising water. "Because for a little while I let myself hope ... but then I remembered. And I'm sorry. This is what happens when I start to think ... what I shouldn't think. You deserve so much better."
He put a hand on the key, ready to turn it and get them out of here, but her hand fluttered out and stopped him. Her fingers were hot and dry.
"Angel ..." She peered shyly up. "Show me your game face."
"Show me. Then I'll have seenwell, not the worst, I know that. But I'll have seen what you're afraid for me to see, and we'll be at least that much ahead of things."
When she said we'll, he filled like a sail in the wind. He fought the feeling.
"There's no one around. Show me."
He couldn't quite tell what was fueling this request. Did she have some sort of odd interest, borne of seeing Spike's from an early age, of being the slayer's daughter? Or was she really only trying to put him at his ease? There was only one way to know. He fanged out. Jemima didn't cringe or blink. She looked directly into his eyes.
"Yes. Thank you." Her voice was soft, he felt what an effort this was for her, and yet he was sure she wasn't the least bit intimidated by the sight of his bumps and ridges. He shook it off.
She was quiet then for a few moments, as if spelling a break from that subject to the next, turning the Coke can in her hand, then setting it on the dashboard. "I wish you'd kiss me again."
"Jemima, Wesley means well, but I'm not a big sad Newfoundland dog. I'm a man."
"I should hope so."
"And a monster."
"Sometimes. Not lately."
She moved then, sliding across the expanse of seat, her hands coming up without hesitation to take his head and turn it towards her. "Excuse me," she breathed, "but it's my choice too, I want to." Her mouth, small and soft against his, yet had nothing hesitant about it. Their arms tangled as they tried to embrace each other. He pulled her in close: small, warm, fragrant, pulsing. The kiss broke and renewed, once, again. She laughed quietly in the back of her throat, and let him go.
"You are ... wonderful."
"You too." She slid away, buckled the seatbelt. Again her hand went to her hair, to touch the barrette. She picked up the soda can, and pressed it to her cheeks. "I'm kind of warm, can you turn on the air?"
Angel hadn't said anything about the expected frequency of the visions. Maybe he'd never kept track. There was no way to tell, that was pretty obvious. It could happen out of the blue, like a migraine or an epileptic seizure. It felt hard to get down to anything knowing that at any moment his mind would be invaded, and he'd be too sick to stand. Not that there was much of anything to get down to. He couldn't go out and pick up a woman under these circumstances, could he really? As for work, what work was there? Angel's people could run the business end of things with no help from him. Anything he might start onlike writing his memoirs, an idea that was only ridiculous on the face of itfelt too tough to concentrate on, not with the prospect of the next vision hanging over him.
He could read. Angel had given him Wesley Wyndam-Pryce's log books for the last twenty-five years, detailing every case they'd dealt with in that time. He must've assumed that going through these would fire Johnny up for The Missionhe found it sort of pathetic the way they all kept speaking of The Mission as if it was some precious thing to be revered, like a Russian ikon or the Virgin of Guadalupe. All he was getting out of these records was the dispiriting sense that of fighting evil there was no end, and no fun, and nothing to look forward to but more of the same. Certainly the only real triumph Johnny could discern in all this was that they'd managed so far not to get killed.
It hardly seemed like living.
Of course, his life had hardly seemed like living, either. The first time he really felt alive was when he became a vampire.
Mamma had wanted to know if he felt remorse.
And he did. At least, there was a sick sense of being haunted, at the edges of his vision and his thoughts, by Penelope and George and the others. He was angry at them for it, for leaving him with their mewling faces and the pleading sounds they'd made, dirty memories he couldn't dispense with.
That must be remorse. It was mixed up with other feelings, cravings and desires that he couldn't imagine weren't shared by Angel and Spike, though they pretended to be so far above their demon selvesthough not too far that they didn't jump on each other as soon as they were alone together. Just thinking about that made him shiver.
Johnny heard the elevator open, and footsteps along the corridor. Darryl. Who'd watched Rita accept his apology in the pub the other night through narrowed eyes. Johnny didn't wait for the knock. "What is it?"
"Letter came for you, man."
A letter? Who would write him a letter? Nobody wrote letters. "Slip it under the door." He rose from his chair, waited in the underlit gloom for the white edge of the envelope to show, before walking towards it. Darryl was already receding back towards the elevator. He sat down again at the desk, opened it beneath the lamp.
The plain number ten envelope was addressed in neat, anonymous looking block capitals; there was no return address.
But when he opened it, the paper inside was thick and creamy and smelled faintly of a familiaran excitingperfume. The handwriting, in a pale brown liquidy-seeming ink, was all curlicues and strange shapes and no punctuation, and he knew at once whose it must be though he'd never seen it before.
My NickYou have seen a sad lot of trouble since we parted, I knowDo you like it there with Daddy?I suppose not, he is so tiresome anymoreI cannot come there to see you, but you may come to me, and we will try if you are ruined or notI think not you are still going to be my good bad boyI will wait for you five days do come and when you come we shall go off togetherYour own D
There was a Los Angeles address under her scrawled initial. Johnny leapt up. She'd followed him! He should've known she wouldn't just abandon him, not Drusilla. She'd taken so much delight in him, given herself to him so thoroughly. He read the letter again, imagined her writing it like a child, her belled sleeve sliding up her ivory arm, her pretty mouth pursed with the effort.
She believe in him and wanted him, she loved him. He was already aflame for her, ready to fuck her until she screamed, ready to follow her anywhere, do anything. She had to be right, he wasn't ruined. He was a vampire, and he could be a vampire. It was the only thing he could be.
Fuck Angel, fuck The Mission, fuck remorse, fuck being vision boy, tied down to this forever. He'd be free. He'd go to her right now. Glancing around, Johnny thought about what to take. He had hardly anythingthe things he'd rescued from his London flat were still in Dru's London digs, and probably lost, unless she'd taken care to store them. Since he got here, he'd acquired only some new clothes and toilet articles. It felt sillyhumanto pack a bag. Like a little boy running away from home.
He'd just walk out. All he needed was her letter. All he needed was her. He would bring her a present, though, something beautiful and intimate to crown their reunion.
He made it to the elevator before he remembered his sister. She'd gone with Angel to visit Wyndam-Pryce, but before that she'd spent the long hours of daylight with him. They'd played a few rounds of Spite and Malice, a card game Tara used to play with either of them when they were laid up sick as children. It was like he was an invalid now, except that the illness he was waiting for the end of had no ending, and it was she who was dyingonly in the usual way of any human being, but that way was now foreign to him.
She was looking, oddly, prettier than she had in some time, but he still felt, regarding her across the spread of cards, that compared to him and their parents, she was teetering on the cusp of nothingness. Time felt meaningless now, like everything else. How could you love someone who wouldn't last?
She'd looked into his stare with a questioning smile.
He'd wanted to tell her then, about the millstone of loneliness, and his fears that he couldn't be what they all expected, but he hadn't. It would be absurd, to tell a woman of thirty that he dreaded her leaving him in death. And it would be unanswerable, to say that having experienced both states of being, he preferred not to have a soul.
Or thought he did. Could he do it again, what he'd done with Drusilla? Take a life, take it into himself, through his teeth, his mouth, the palpitating body hot and panicked against his own? The mere thought of that roused his hunger, but with it a twinge of disgust. Wrong.
He would talk to Jemima, instead. She must be back from that visit now. He'd show her Drusilla's letter, and that would remove its power over him, the power of his sire's summons. He'd be honest with Jem, listen to whatever she said, beg her to help him as she always had. He'd stay on the right side of the line. He'd stay where, as Papa said, he could look good peoplelook Jemimain the eye.
He just needed her help, that's all.
The lobby was empty, but he heard sounds in the garden.
They'd barely spoken to each other on the drive back from the hospital. In the car she'd wondered whether she'd done the right thingit didn't exactly feel wrong, and she didn't regret it, either. She enjoyed riding with him, and the silence felt easy, maybe even easier than it should, as if they'd agreed on all points between them after long and fruitful discussion. Which was odd, because they hadn't talked much yet at all, not about anything very substantial. Still, she felt comfortable at his side.
But not merely comfortable. The sight of his vamp face, leonine and fiercer, somehow, than papa's, excited her. It was an excitement that felt like cheating; it wasn't supposed to be about that. She wasn't supposed to be like that. (Though Milo had probably believed she was.) Her attraction to Angel wasn't about him being a vampire. Well, not exactly, though it was impossible to imagine him otherwise, and she didn't care to try. Nor was she attracted to him because of his history with her mother.
His goodness, so hard-won and perhaps precarious, stirred her. He made more difference in the world than all the stuffed shirts of the Council, with their procedures and their record-keeping and their received dogma, and he did that good out of a constant resistence against its opposite. It was that in particular she liked. Angel deserved help, especially because he thought he didn't. He needed the kind she knew she could give, the kind Milo hadn't known how to accept.
She wanted to look after him. It was something she thought Papa would understand, because he always got what drove her, which was so different from what drove Buffy, or most of the girls she'd gone to school with, or the other women she'd met, working for the council. Not that she could tell Spike about this, she knew that. Not yet anyway. He might understand, in his heart, but he'd still fly into a rage about it, call Angel out, make a fuss.
Mamma wouldn't like it either. And she wouldn't even try to understand.
As they'd left the parked car, she'd planned to say a quick good night, and go up to knock on Johnny's door. But Angel gave her his arm to walk her inside, and once in the lobby steered her towards the garden, murmuring something about it being a nice night.
Out here in the enclosed space, the breeze didn't reach; the air carried a rich earthy scent of growing things, intermixed with wafts of sweetness. She took a deep breath and turned to him. She couldn't see Angel's face; he was only a looming black shape beside her, outlined by the filtered orange light coming from the lobby windows. "Everything smells so nice."
"It's supposed to. The plants were chosen for their fragrance. Like this one." He broke off a sprig, brought it to her nose. "Night-scented Stock. Hesperis Tristis."
"Hesperis tristis, huh? Okay, now you're trying to impress me."
"Is it working?"
"Oh, maybe. So who does the gardening here? Not you, I guess."
"What, you think I can't garden?"
"No, just ... you know, it's hard to garden in the dark."
"It's not dark. You think this is dark?"
She giggled. "Uh, yeah, I'd say it's a little dark. I can't see a thing."
"I can see you just fine. Your eyes are this really beautiful color" His hand came up in the dark, the thumb grazing her chin.
"No, they're the color of the undersides of leaves on a stormy day, with streaks of something darker, golden brown."
She'd never heard him talk this way, and suspected that hardly anyone else ever had either.
He dropped into a whisper. "I noticed you, Jemima ... right away. When you first came here."
"Can you really see me right now?" She knew he could. When she was a child Spike used to read to her in bed at night without a lamp on, the room completely dark except for the outline of the drawn shades, and the thin pencil of light from the hall in the gap where the door didn't quite meet the jamb.
"You have the advantage of me." She pulled the lighter from her bag, lit and held it so it cast a deep-shadowed glow up onto Angel's face. "Ah, there you are. Like an Easter Island idol." She let it go out with a click.
"That looks familiar."
"It's Papa's Zippo, of course. Mine now. He gave it to me when he finally gave up smoking altogther. When my brother was b" It hit her suddenly, a boot to the gut. Why she'd met Angel at last, why she was here in LA at all.
"It comes back on you when you least expect it," Angel said. "Here, sit down." He guided her to the stone bench.
"We've all been so busy, trying to ... make things right ... but my family is all broken up."
Her parents, who had always been as constant with one another as sunrise, were far apart and might never come together again. They'd both left LA, Buffy to seek solace with her sister at a spa a few hours up the coast, Spike retreating for a couple of days with Xander. It wasn't these visits that were dispiriting, but that they made them separately.
"You don't know that."
"I know that when they should be helping each other cope, they've gone their separate ways. That's not like them. I've seen them fight but I've never seen this ... nothingness between them." As she talked it seemed worse; she realized how much energy she'd been putting into keeping herself on an even keel, when in fact nothing was even anymore anywhere. "And my brother's never going to be the same again, is he?"
"He's still with you, he's still himself."
Lighting the zippo again, she met his eyes. "Do you believe that? He's so strange now. I try to tell myself I'm imagining it, but ...."
"Nothing. Nothing, I shouldn't talk about him."
Capping the lighter, she thrust it back in her bag and rose. "I'm sorry, I've ruined the mood here. I'm not a very good flirt."
"I don't want you to be a flirt. I'm sorry you're hurting. What can I do?" His hand closed around hers, pressed it gently. It was, like Papa's, like Johnny's now, still and tepid. It occurred to her that almost everyone she cared for was either some sort of immortal, or quite a bit older than she wasthat much closer to death. With Angel's hand wrapped around hers, his unshrinking mass beside her, she felt more alone than she could remember since the most barren depths of her marriage.
She pulled away and rose. "Help him. Help me help him. You know what it's like to be him. I don't anymore."
"Aren't I helping him?" Angel said.
"You are." At the door, she paused, then came back to him. Angel was still seated on the bench. She lit the Zippo again so she could see his face. "Please don't think I've been making up to you only because of my brother. You don't think that, do you?"
She couldn't get a read on his expression; his eyes were in shadow, but his gaze stayed steady on hers.
"I'm not like that. And I wouldn't do ... I only do this ..." leaning in to kiss him, she was thrilled and relieved when his mouth opened beneath hers, " ... because I really like it." The flame went out; she straightened up. "And I'd like it some more, but I'd better go look for him now."
"I can't cry anymore," Buffy said. "Tell me something good, Dawnie."
"Well ... work's been good. Xander's good. Things are good." Buffy heard the frown in her voice, and felt guilty. She knew she'd dropped a bomb on her sister, Hello, your only nephew has been turned, and then almost immediately followed it with But we're not gonna talk about it. She knew what she was doing wasn't fair or right. And lying in a mudbath listening to piano glissandos at this expensive spa really wasn't going to make her feel better.
"Tell me about work."
"Buffy ... you don't care about my work. I have students, my latest eye-crossingly dull book is in press, I'm preparing a paper for the next Ancient Languages Congress, which will be in sunny San Juan Puerto Rico, by the way, so Xander will probably come with if he can afford to leave the site. That's it."
"I never said your books are eye-crossingly dull."
"You don't read them."
"C'mon, that's not fair. I don't ... I'm not much of a nonfiction reader. They're academic books. I mean, we all know you're a good writer. Spike reads them."
"And how is Xander really? I haven't spoken to him in a while."
Dawn sighedsome things never changed, and though she was in her mid-forties, she still had that teen-girl, eye-rolling exhalation down.
"He's good. He's a good boyfriend. We ... we have some nice times."
"Yeah. He can be, y'know ... some times it's better to leave him be for a bit. But he's been pretty okay lately, and ... look, don't ask me again why we haven't gotten married. We're not going to. We're just together."
"I wasn't going to ask."
"I wish someone had called me sooner. I'd have liked to know about Johnny. I'd have liked to help."
"Don't be angry at Spike or Jemmie. It seems like things were happening so fast there was barely time to think about letting the rest of the family know. They were overwhelmed."
"And you can help. I'd like you to go visit them, if you can. Especially since it looks like I have to stay away for a while." She wanted to rub her eyes, scratch her nose, but she had to stay still beneath the mud. At least it was easier to talk to Dawn while they couldn't look at each other. "Sometimes I really hate being the Slayer. I just want to be a mom, and I can't. I have to think about"
"Are you and Spike really breaking up?"
She'd dreaded this question, which she knew Dawn would have to ask sooner or later. In filling her in, she'd told everything, including Spike's confession of his affair with Angel (which made Dawn go wide-eyed but otherwise passed without remark). But she was very careful not to make a pronouncement about their last conversation, or her decision to leave Los Angeles without hima decision that felt less like a choice than an imperative. She'd been careful, in fact, to show as little emotion as possible, because if she let go of her control, she wouldn't have been able to talk at all.
"I don't know. We haven't actually said so."
"It doesn't always have to be said. Sometimes you just know."
"Well, then I still say I don't know. I don't know anything." She couldn't stand the mud another second. It wasn't time to get up, but she did anyway, pulling her limbs out of the sticky, hardening clay. For the first time it occurred to her that this "treatment" was too much like being interred alivewhy had she chosen it?
At least there was no box to keep her from digging out.
"I'm going to shower this off. I might go for a run, after. Shall I meet you for lunch?"
"I thought we were supposed to be spending time together."
"We are. We are spending time together."
"I just get the feeling I'm annoying you. But I don't know how you can expect me not to need to talk about this."
"Dawnie, I realize that. You're not annoying me." She sat on the edge of her sister's tub. Dawn's eyes were covered with a cloth, but she lifted it off. "Here I am, okay?"
"Spike is never going to leave you, unless you force him to. Or you leave him first. I hope that doesn't happen."
She didn't want to hear about Spike. Everything was always Buffy and Spike, the children relegated to afterthoughts, and that was why they were in this mess. She'd wanted, since getting to LA, to concentrate on Johnny. Except that hadn't worked out too well, and now she was exiled from all of them, powerless to help because she was the Slayer. All her mistakes of the last thirty years were bursting open now, in this.
Walking away from Angel was hard. Her whole body resisted it, wanted to swerve around and taste him again, take time to really experience the slinky tactile shimmery feeling he gave her. She carried a pulsing knot between her thighs; knowing that he could scent her excitement was embarrassing but not as much as she would've thought. It was a secret message, one only he could read.
Johnny was waiting for her as she stepped back into the lobby, and she saw it in his face at once. Whatever Angel could scent or sense about her was open as well to her brother's own preternatural faculties.
"What were you doing?" His voice was a low croak. He was staring, not directly into her face, but at her head. With a nervous dip in her belly, she lifted a hand to her hair. Was it slipping down? She touched the barrette, and realized that in the short time she'd owned it, this had already become one of her habitual gestures.
"I was talking to Angel in the garden."
She walked briskly past him, towards the elevator, and gestured to him to follow; if this was going to be a confrontation, she wanted it to be well out of Angel's earshot. When she pressed the lift button, then pressed it again, suddenly madly impatient, she realized that in the last few seconds she'd moved from absorption into the heights of rage.
In the car she rounded on him. "Don't you dare question me! First of all, I'm an adult and I can associate with whom I please! And second of all, you killed my husband, so ... so ... you have no right to pass judgements about what I do!"
"Don't tell me you're in love with him!"
"And third of all, you will not talk to me like that! I am older than you and I expect you to respect me!"
The elevator car was a cauldron; she was vibrating. Johnny's look continued sullen. The door opened onto the dim, empty corridor. She stepped out without turning her back on him. "It's none of your business if I make friends with Angelor anybody. I'm only in LA for you, because I'm always there for you, I'll thank you to remember, and at this point frankly I could use a little more cooperation and a little less overstepping the bounds!"
He smiled then, and held up his hands in a gesture of peace. But there was no peace in the smile.
"Don't you mock me!" Before she quite realized what she was doing, Jemima hit out at his upraised hands, and found herself, in the next breath, pressed against the wall by her wrists.
She feigned a calm she didn't feel. "I can't believe you're using force on me. Let go of me right now, Johnny."
He stepped back. She resisted an urge to rub her wrists. It was easy to forget that his reedy figure concealed a demon's strength.
He said, "We have to talk. Come into my room."
She followed cautiously, suspicion warring with her natural tendency to give him the benefit of every doubt.
His room had a depressing transitory air. Window shaded although it was night, bed unmade, books and clothes scattered around. At least his London digs had taken on an impress of his personality, and there was an attempt at actual decor lurking beneath the mess. Here it was just musty, reminding her how he was now forever shut away from sunlight.
Somehow that seemed tragic in his case whereas it never really did for Spike. For Papa, it was just the way things were. They'd always managed, even so, to keep an airy, well-lit house. So much so that she even had childhood memories of things she knew were impossiblePapa playing outdoors with her in the daylight. Spike never dwelt on what he couldn't do, he just made the most of what he could.
Johnny's wasn't the room of someone engaged in making lemonade.
"Why are you getting involved with Angel? Smelling him on you ... it's sickening."
"You're so out of line."
"You don't know anything about him. If you did"
"What don't I know? I'm sure I know more than you do! I know about Angelus. And I know about him and Mamma. Which was a long time ago."
Johnny cocked his head, regarding her with a bug-under-glass look. Two sandy elf-locks dangled nearly to his eyes. A minute ago he'd been savage with her, and now he most resembled the little boy he'd once been.
Sounding reasonable, he said, "Sowhat? You love him? You're going to be his mistress?"
"I wouldn't say that." She drew herself up, spoke more forcefully. "No, it hasn't gone that far. Not that it's any of your business. Johnny, you're not doing yourself any favors with me by"
"He's been with Papa."
This sentence made no immediate sense. Yes, Angel was with all of them, and they were withoh. Been with. Been with. That was dizzy-making, but it was over in a second, because she knew this one. "That's not exactly a secret. I've worked with the Council for my entire adult life, I'm aware of vampire social structures. Very strong family bonds exist in the old ordersand yes, they're incesty. So I know that in the 19th century, when Papa lived with Darla's family, he"
A slow smile burned across Johnny's face. "Last week. Angel was fucking Papa last week. And he'd probably have fucked him last night too, if Papa hadn't gone to visit Uncle Xander."
Last week. Oh. She groped back for a steadying touch of the wall. Johnny smiled wider at that. He was full of perverse pleasure, his look probing her for shock and dismay, ready to feed on it. She was determined to give him none.
Johnny moved in closer. "And it's not just my own senses that told me that, in case you don't want to believe me. They both admitted it." He paused a moment to let that take hold. "Angel's been all over him since we first got here. Multiple times. I don't suppose he mentioned that to you, while you two were smooching it up."
Squaring her shoulders, Jemima said, "It's true, he hasn't mentioned it. He wouldn't violate Papa's privacy like that."
"His privacy! You're unreal! When are you going to get angry! Everyone deceives you and jerks you around"
"Johnny, I'm not going to go off in a swoon because you've told me that two vampires with a long long mutual history have come together and done ... what it's natural for them to do. In the ancient undead orders, profound attractions exist between vampires and their sires. Needs that transcend hatred, or love, or dependency. You might as well fault a child for going to his mother, as fault Papa for going to his sire when he had nowhere else to turn. It's not our place to play gotcha! over relations that are so long-established and deep and ... outside our experience." She struggled to speak calmly, to pull reassurance from her own explanations. She might as well have been writing out a blue-book for a Council exam on what she'd absorbed in all her study. It was true to the best of her knowledge, and she believed it, and yet when she tried to picture what had passed between her father and her erstwhile lover these last nights, her imagination seized up.
Johnny gave her a look of jeering incredulity. "You can explain anything, can't you?"
"I can understand, which is more than you ever attempt. Considering how much pain Papa is dealing with, between you getting vamped and Mamma"
"Oh, yeah, it's all my fault Papa's cheating onwhat about Mamma?"
He didn't know. Well, how could he? She only did because of Buffy's confession. Spike wouldn't breathe a word against Buffy to either Johnny or her, not even with a stake to his heart.
"They've been ... going through a rough patch for quite a while. Mamma had an affair with someone else, a few months ago."
Johnny's face fell. For a moment she hoped that this would deflect him. "I don't believe you."
"I wish it wasn't true. But Mamma told me herself."
"Shit." Johnny dropped onto the bed, cradling his head in his hands. "Shitshitshit."
"Papa would never have done it first. You know that, Johnny. His coming to Angel ... it's not the same thing. It's really not."
He gave her a bleak look. "You sound so reverent, speaking about Papa and his sire."
"Not reverent, just ... respectful. There's strength there, support ... trust. It's a different kind of family, but it's family all the same. Family older than ours."
"Eternal, yeah," Johnny mused. "Old and permanent and mysterious."
Old and mysterious, yes. Angel was so old and full of secrets, she was mad to think she knew him because she'd read through the Council's files. And mad to think she could carry on a flirtation with him, an affair. He was an elephant to her mouse, enormous and incomprehensible; even if he didn't mean to, he could squash her flat in a moment.
She felt nearly squashed right now. "I'm not sorry you told me about this. But I've got to go." She didn't pause to see if he'd try to detain her. She realized when she reached the lobby that she'd been holding her breath, and let it go in a gust.
She didn't pause to listen for any sign of Angel lurking in the shadows. She wasn't ready to see him. Outside she drew the air down deep into her lungs. She'd been with the undead, and, poor Wesley!, the nearly dead, for hours and hours. She couldn't stand it anymore, that choked, brimming darkness.
She drove her rented car with the top down, fast through the late-night streets, with the radio blaring and her unfurled hair whipping around her face, and was still driving at daybreak, when she stopped to watch the sun rise, because she could. She could sit in the sun all day, and that's what she wanted to do.
Her nostrils flared, her pretty little nose curdling as he moved in to kiss her.
"My boy smells of dreadful animal blood, all foetid and weakening."
"And you smell like heaven. Don't turn your head away from me."
"They tried to undo you."
"But they didn't. I'm here, aren't I? Kiss me."
Drusilla gave him a hooded stare. "I can smell the soul. It smells like rotten flowers and broken promises."
She was making him impatient. "I'm here, aren't I? With my sis's blessing, even. She says there's nothing should be more important to me than my sire." Johnny shoved her hard against the wall, making sure her head got a good crack against the brick. Dru laughed at that, as he guessed she would, and gave a happy shriek when he shoved his knee between her thighs. "Pull up your dress and show me your cunt."
She was smiling now, and obeyed slowly, her hips stirring to the beat of her internal music, eyes locked on his.
"You'd better be wet for me. That's what I expect."
"For you, lover."
He drove four fingers into her, pushing at her clit with his thumb at the same time, receiving a gratifying gasp as she tightened on him. Her body shook in orgasm; flinging her arms around his neck, she drew up her legs so all her weight hung on him. Bouncing her lightly, he kissed her hard. Swarming her tongue into his mouth, Drusilla fanged out and bit at his lips.
She growled and spat.
"Put me down! You do taste dirty."
He didn't put her down, but pressed her tighter against the wall of the abandoned warehouse where she'd made her temporary nest. This was the moment of truth. He'd walked out on the Hyperion, leaving Angel and his sister behind, and he'd have left the soul behind too if it was as easy as that. And why shouldn't it be easy? He didn't want it, it was a constant irritation, like being aware of your tongue. It made him think of his five victims and hate them because they were beyond help or recall.
The thing to do about that was to up the numbers. If there were so many more, he wouldn't recall all their faces, all their sounds. They would blend into one undifferentiated mass of nonentities, cows for his sustenance, and that would be fine. That would be perfect. He could do it. It would be easier than trying to be what Spike and Angel expected, living like a servant, without power or love.
Power and love were here, with Drusilla.
Who shoved at him, struggling to get back on her legs.
"Don't be a bitch, Dru. I need you."
"And I need you. Not some tamed pig-swiller. What will you do in the open air, my Nick?"
"What'll I do? Hunt. Kill." He swaggered back to her. "Let's go right now. I'm ravenous."
"Ravenous?" She grinned and growled.
"As anything." He yanked her arm. "C'mon, I'll show you. Let's paint the town."
"Ever feel sorry you didn't have children?"
Xander scratched at the smooth moist sand with a stick of driftwood. In the moonlight he looked younger than he did in the house, but his age showed in the slack line of his chin. They'd walked far up the beach, and sat now cross-legged above the lacy edge of the surf, both bare-chested, their trousers wet.
"Not really. I used to think about that a lot with Faith, but after I lost her ... not so much. I never thought I'd be any good at the father thing."
"You? That's bollocks."
"Yeah, well. You didn't know my father. But I've got him in here." Xander tapped his breast-bone. "Thing is, since her birthday Dawnie's been experiencing some why-didn't-I-have-a-baby remorse. She's talking about adopting. And she thinks I don't know this, but she's stopped using birth control. Maybe thinking she still might strike it lucky even at forty-six."
"Huh. So, you along for that?"
"Sure, I will be if it happens."
"The adopting, though? Kind of have to sign on, don't you?"
"I'll do whatever makes her happy. She's the one."
"Forty-six. Bloody fuck, I remember her when she was, what, eleven?"
"Except you don't really. And I've got memories of her that go back farther than yours." Xander chuckled. "Ah, it doesn't matter. She's my girl."
Spike watched the moving water, watched it creep slowly up the shingle. He'd come to Xander, his plain-talking friend, thinking he could clear his head for a day or two before going back into Los Angeles, into what felt more and more like the road paved in good intentions. For a creature who didn't need to breathe, he'd felt half-strangled for days now, struggling against a sense of impending doom he didn't want to look at too closely, lest admitting it make it so.
He felt he shouldn't be sitting here on this beach, that he'd abandoned his post. At the same time, he was afraid that his presence just made Johnny more skittish and angry. He wasn't sure he could blame him; without the ballast of thirty-five years of abstinence from real vampirism, the sudden influx of the soul would be unbearable for him too. At least the last victims he had to remember all had bad nineties hair.
"Speaking of our girls," Xander said.
"So what's going on ... you two taking a short break from it?"
"From each other, I meant."
"'Spect so." Dunno how short.
Xander went on drawing figures in the sand. After a while he cleared his throat, and Spike braced himself. "One thing I want to say on the subject."
"About trust. I know that's your sticking point."
"Yeah. Not that it's a bitty thing. I don't think it is."
"No, no, of course it isn't. But here's something I know about that. I told you about how I tried to stand by Faith when she'd gotten herself in trouble. This is when I was in high school. The others had already written her off, but I thought ... well, you know, she was my first, so there was some sentiment there. Only on my part, of course. Anyway, she responded to my overture with attempted murder."
"She got herself a lot deeper into the shit too, before the next time I saw her. Giles got her parolled from prison when Jemima was born, she came back to Sunnydale all jittery and brittle and scared, still without a real friend among us. I wasn't sure she was any more truthworthy then than she ever was, but she needed someone to trust her. Trust isn't anything until it's tested, see?"
"So that's my point. I took the leap ofwell, ha ha. I just decided to trust her as if she'd be trustworthy. And she built it back. We built it back together. The whole mutual trusting thing."
"She broke up your marriage."
"I broke up my marriage. And Anya was subsequently much much happier with Giles."
"Don't bring a lot of sticky little details in to gum up my meaningful life lesson, here, pal."
"I'm saying that you and the Buffster still love each other. I know she loves you, Spike. She talked to me about you when she got here, before she and Dawnie took off together. I wasn't supposed to repeat this to you, but fuck that. She's afraid you're never going to get past this, that she's lost you, and it's tearing her up."
"She does feel it, I know."
Xander was quiet then, making exes and zeroes in the sand. "... since when are you so hard? I mean rigid. You've always been so good to her. Why can't you flex a little now? Especially now? This thing with Johnny should bring you together, not ...."
"It should, shouldn't it? But I can't feel what I can't feel. Ever since she came back from Saleem, I've been trying to shrug it off, but all that happens is I get further an' further from her. An' when I look at her or think of her, something smoulders inside me, gives me no peace. I've tried goin' on in the usual way, hopin' the emotion would catch up with the action. It's a neat theory but that's all it is."
"I can't believe it."
"I'm takin' no pleasure in torturing her."
"Is that true?"
"Christ, you better know me by now."
"I thought I knew both of you. My immortal super friends with the all-enduring love. I found it kind of comforting. Something I could quietly rely on, like the annual apocalypse, only on the positive side."
"I'm not proud of this."
"I know, I know."
"Doesn't make my existence any more comfortable, believe me. She's my home. Hell, she's my entire world. What the fuck am I gonna do if I'm not at her side. But when we're together, it's not right. I can't ... can't even explain it to you." He got to his feet. "Gonna go in for a swim."
"Time," Xander said.
"Time changes things. I've got to think it'll change this situation. I can't even imagine what kind of pain you're both in, over the kid. How helpless it must make you feel."
"You're a brick, Harris." He stepped out of his trousers, started towards the foaming surf. "Comin' with?"
"You always go too far out. I'll wait for you. Look at the stars."
Spike paused. "I hope you an' Dawn pull it off. It's terrifyin', yeah, but there's no kinda love like that you feel for a kid of your own. 'Specially ... 'specially when you never ever thought you'd have one."
Spike didn't answer his mobile. When it went to voicemail, Jemima hit the off button without saying anything. It was just as well; she couldn't ask him about any of this, not on the phone; nor could she chat to him like usual while pretending she wasn't swimming around in this new knowledge, like Alice in her own tears. So she turned her own phone off and spent the whole bright day driving up the coastal highway, light bouncing off the glittering sea into her face, stopping once in a while to pee and gulp bottled water, oldies on the radio.
Various ideas and memories popped in her head as the hours slipped by. She found herself going over her abortion experience, telling it in her head to some imaginary listener, maybe someone about to do the same thing. Later, the song playing was one Papa sometimes crooned to Mamma at sentimental moments: Oh, since the day I saw youI have been waiting for youYou know I will adore youTill eternity For a little while, without turning her head to give it the lie, she pretended Milo was in the seat beside her, that he was restrained and silenced and had to listen to her tell him that she'd come to hate him, that she wasn't sorry he was dead, only sorry she'd given him so much of her life. Mentally she wandered the chilly rooms of their house, hearing rain dripping from the eaves, peering out the windows into an endless static grey Sunday, opening a can of beans in midafternoon to spread on toast for Milo's tea, wondering why she'd stayed for so long with someone who routinely ate such revolting food. Why she'd chosen to marry someone who so disliked her family. In anyone else it would've been an act of rebellion. But she'd never been a rebel, never even went through a phase of being embarrassed by her mother, let alone by Spike. She'd gone with Milo because he'd so ardently wanted her to, and she'd never been able to refuse anyone who said he needed her.
When she was fourteen she'd overheard Papa say to Uncle Rupert Our Jemmie is such an old fashioned girl. She thinks like my sisters used to think. Not like girls now. And Uncle Rupert had solemnly agreed. Spike's tone was far more admiring than critical, and so she'd felt complimented and not even bemused. Now she wondered where that came fromwho had taught her to be that way? Not her mother, certainly.
It was late afternoon when she pulled up in front of Tara's house, feeling she'd just barely won a race with exhaustion. The porch steps looked like Everest. When Tara opened the door and cried out at the sight of her, Jemima's knees folded.
She came to in the house, the magic used to waft her up and in still tingling on her skin. She was lying on the sofa in the front room, Tara sponging her face and arms with a cool wet cloth. "You've got sunstroke. What were you doing driving around like that without sunscreen? You're burnt to a crisp."
Jemima had cried, and talked, and cried again, and, painted pink with calomine, fallen asleep on the guest room bed. Tara, who liked to think that nothing much could shock her anymore, was only mildly surprised by the tale she'd told. Spike, Buffy, and Angel were passionate people, so large that their emotions were practically weather systems. That these storms would cause them to get lost and take shelter in all sorts of unwise yet expeditious places wasn't astonishing, nor was it a surprise that Jemima was overtaken by the flood and nearly drowned.
It was Jemima's attitude that Tara found a little unnerving. She'd known for years that where the girl loved she was capable of infinite and convoluted understandingand rationalization. It was hearing that almost painfully convoluted understanding applied to Angel as well as to her parents and her brother that showed Tara the state of Jemima's emotions. When asked, she denied being in love with Angel, denied it thoughtfully, hesitantly, in a manner that showed Tara the disconnect between her impulse and her consciousness. Yet she spoke of Angel with such admirationhe'd gone out of his way to help Johnny, wasn't put off by her brother's obnoxious outbursts and violence. He was tender and attentive to his friend Wesley, and kind to Spike, though she knew their history was by no means one of friendship and respect. He was a complex man, living with immense pressures and obligationsshe couldn't presume to judge him. He'd been immensely good to her as well, and of course he was right not to speak to her about her father, that was none of her business, absolutely none.
Wild crying was the closest Jemima could get to the anger she couldn't begin to permit herself at any of them. Tara realized as she listened that not only couldn't Jemima even approach resentment of her mother for her absence, her father for being her romantic rival, or Angel for his deception, but she was so far from being angry at her brother that she almost blamed herself for his predicament in being turned and murdering her husband.
Perhaps though, there was no rage. Was Jemima so pure of heartor free of egothat her love had no flipside? Those were the traits of a saint. It hardly seemed likely that Buffy the vampire slayer and William the Bloody would produce a saint. More likely that in her own unknown recesses, Jemima feared that even righteous rage at these betrayals would obliterate her.
Tara knew the pain that came with loving those who are infinitely more powerful than you are. She'd failed at it, but she suspected it might be different for Jemima, whose outlook was so unique. There was an intelligent common sense lurking beneath the girl's mildness that glittered, when Tara glimpsed it, true as steel.
Jem's perceptions of the people she cared forcall them illusions or notmight well be her super-power. The last thing Tara wanted to do was shatter them.
Her mobile, ringing in her purse on the bedside table, startled her awake. For a moment she couldn't think where she was, and scrabbled in the dark at the unfamiliar linens, frightened by the strange heat and tenderness of her skin. Then it came back to her, and when she answered the phone, she was calm.
"Where are you, Pudding? Angel said you weren't at your hotel."
"Angel said? Oh, I'm at Tara's. I missed her, so I came up here. Where are you? How's Uncle Xander?"
"He's all right. Sends love. I'm headin' back to LA. So's your mum. Seems your brother's gone walkabout, so we're gonna try an' track him down."
"Since when?" She glanced at the illuminated clock on the far bedside table. It felt like the middle of the night, but it wasn't even ten. She was logy with sleep and fever.
"No one at Angel's has seen him for twenty-four hours now. Has he been on to you?"
"... no." Questions piled up in her head, but she couldn't bring herself to ask any of them. It didn't surprise her that Johnny wouldn't want to remain at the Hyperion after their conversation the night before. But she couldn't tell Spike what he'd said, what she now knew. It was one thing to understand and accept it; quite another to mention it out loud. Just thinking about Spike and Angel making love brought a blush to her already flaming cheeks. "He probably just needed to take a little break. You don't think he"
"Oh no," Spike said, "nothing like that." His tone was so reassuring that she immediately tensed. If they weren't particularly worried about him, why were they rushing back to hunt for him?
"You should give him a little space. Show him you trust him."
Spike was quiet for a moment. "You think so, sweet?"
"I do. The more he feels like he's a prisoner, the harder he's going to struggle."
"S'true. It's just, you know, can't really afford to make a mistake here."
She wanted to say, It's too late for that! Didn't you realize he'd know? Didn't you realize he wouldn't understand?
"I don't think it can be a mistake to treat Johnny as we'd like to be treated. He'll certainly get in touch if he has a vision."
"Sure he will. Still, it's time I was gettin' back there anyway," Spike said.
To Angel? For all she knew, they'd resume where they left off when Spike went away. She knew nothing about the dispensation of their affair. Spike's tone when he said your mum was unrevealing.
"He might need a bit of help, now that Wesley fellow's looking like buying it."
"He's not supposed to last the night. Least that's the word Angel got. He was out looking for your brother when they called him to the hospital. So I said I'd be on hand. One souled vamp's as good as another, yeah?" He paused. "For some things."
"Wesley is going to die tonight?"
"Could do, so Angel said."
"Oh." Her thoughts rushed to Angel in a straight trajectory, like a bird's. "His best friend."
"I know. That's why it's no time for our Johnny to be creatin' aggro. Anyway, you stay there with Tara long as you like. I'll be in touch."
"Johnny will come back."
"Tell Mamma I love her. Kiss her for me."
"You tell her yourself. Ring her if you like." Spike sounded detached now; he wanted to get off the phone. She imagined him, driving, always going just a little too fast, and eager to listen to something loud and relentless on the car stereo.
He wouldn't promise to kiss Buffy, not even for her.
Lying back, she let the tears spill without wiping them away. They felt cool tracking down her burned cheeks. After a minute, she pressed the speed-dial button for her brother's number. It rang seven times. The voice that asked her to leave a message sounded subtly different from the vampire's who'd taken him over, but she left him one anyway, with her love.
Angel had looked death in the face plenty of times. But not this kind of death. Not the slow, hollowing-out sort, where the violence of it was all the body's doing on itself. Wes was so exhausted, so steeped in morphine, that he was barely conscious, but once in a while his fingers twitched in Angel's grasp in a way that seemed to indicate he welcomed the touch, wanted to hang onto it.
The nurse had told him when he arrived that often the sufferer would, whether consciously or not, cling to life until some significant moment was pasta birthday, anniversary, particular visit or some such. Did Angel think there was anything like that in Wesley's case?
He didn't know. Birthdays had never meant much to him, and there weren't really any glad anniversaries to mark. There were deaths he quietly noted each year, but those black letter daysFred's, Lilah,'s Gunn'swere hardly ones to inspire him now.
Angel could barely hear him breathing. Wesley's heartbeat was slow, labored. Physically, there was nearly nothing of him left. Swaddled like a premature baby in the knitted cap, the thick comforter pulled up to his chin, he still shivered. Angel grieved, amid all his other griefs for Wesley, that he had no warmth to share with him.
He wanted to tell him the news, but it hardly seemed fair to unburden himself on his friend when death was in the room. There would be nothing comforting for Wesley in his last hours in Angel's burgeoning fear that his indulgence with Spike had put him at a permanent disadvantage with Johnny Summers, who'd done nothing but try to escape since he'd arrived, despite Angel's impassioned talks about the Mission, Wesley's log books, and the key role bestowed on him by the visions from the Powers. In the time he'd spent trying to find him before the call came from the hospital, none of his usual sources had anything to offer. One had suggested that maybe the kid had just gone out to the movies, and would be back after the bars closed. Which was probably the case, except that Angel had a bad feeling. He was used to his bad feelings bearing bad fruit.
Except maybe the bad feeling was all about what was happening right here in this darkened room. Wesley was nearly his first friendin his souled wanderings he'd made none before Whistler's appeal. Angelus had wanted no friends, and Liam in his short life had managed only drinking buddies, and few enough of those. Doyle was a friend, but he'd lost him so early. Wesley knew him as no one else did; housed Angel's secrets and hopes and gravest disappointments. Helped keep him honest. Believed in him when belief was in short short supply. Wesley had, in too many ways, stifled and stunted his own life in order to be at Angel's side. He'd leavened his work with no wife or lover, no children, no other close friends. He'd never spoken of regrets, but Angel didn't kid himself that there were none.
He wished he could tell Wesley something good about Jemima. He'd have liked to describe the sweet way she flirted with him in the garden, lighting his face with the flame of the silver Zippo, saying he looked like an Easter Island idol. Except for the understanding that seeped in when he'd called her at her hotel, only to be told she hadn't been seen there.
She knew. Johnny had told hertold her, certainly, in the most crude waywhat he'd done with her father. What else would explain her withdrawal? He'd tried her cell phone a couple of times, but she'd never answered.
The mobile purred in his pocket. Spike. Just getting into town, wanting to know if there was news. No, none. His eyes fixed on Wesley's grey face, Angel murmured a question about Jemima. Yes, he'd spoken to hershe'd gone to San Francisco. Just as well, maybe.
Just as well, Angel agreed.
Wesley's hand had gone slack in sleep. He rose and went out into the corridor. Still no answer from Jemima, but this time he left a message, feeling his way to the words as if over broken ground. "I know this isn't the right way to say thisif I didn't have to stay here with Wesley, I'd drive up and see you right now. The way you heard about it ... wasn't right. I should've told you myself, when we were talking before. It's over, and it's separate from what I feel for you, what I hoped we could ... I'm sorry I hurt you. I'm sorry my timing is lousy. You took me by surprise, I didn't know you'd be so ... so dear to me. Jemmie, I can't talk into this thing anymore, but I wish you'd come back to LA."
The nurse came up; Angel snapped his phone shut and followed her in. "He's sleeping."
She reached to check the IVs, the monitor. "That can only be good."
Angel didn't know anymore what was good. When it first became clear to them both that the cancer wasn't going to be curable, and that the time left was to be counted in months, he'd thought, in a horror-striken way, of turning Wes. Once there must've been some intimation of this reluctant fantasy in his face, because Wes had said, in a way that implied they both knew what he was speaking of, "Don't. I shouldn't like it. And it would end by making you even more unhappy."
"I know," Angel said. "Of course I know."
Johnny tossed his mobile onto the puddled clothes beside the bed, and pulled Drusilla tighter against him. "Messages messages messages. They're all looking for me. Lassie come home. Only I won't."
"You're home an' all," Dru crooned. "Right here with me."
"Right here in my loving sire's arms." He gnawed at her neck until she laughed and kicked him with her sharp little foot. They'd had a very good night. Starting with a veritable feast of homeless teenage rent boys, then on to a couple hours of dancing and drinking in an after-hours dive, and back here to a surprisingly cozy nest for some energetic fuckingDrusilla had a knack for making herself comfortable anywhere, it seemed, and now they were together again, Johnny expected he'd learn how she did it.
"You're not being silly," Drusilla said, approvingly. "Daddy went all silly and dull when he got his soul, but you are different."
"I'm not like Angel."
"No one is."
He wasn't quite sure if he heard, even so, a tinge of regret in her voice, but when he pinched her breast she giggled, and it was gone. He couldn't stand it if this didn't work. He needed her; and he'd thrown away his other chances forever, by answering her call. This was the only place he really fit: he couldn't be like Angel, a champion, tireless in the never-ending struggle between good and evil. He couldn't be like his parents, a herohe was just a guya demon-guy, he wanted pleasure, he wanted not to be set apart, deprived.
"You were fierce," she went on, her voice dreamy.
"That was what I needed. Getting stuck in again. Being natural."
The killing, it turned out, was laughably easy. He'd felt a little pang at the first approach, not so much of conscience as of confidence, fear that he might bollix it up, that the victim might fight back and make him look bad in front of Drusilla. But once he'd tucked in, once the power of real live human blood was flooding through him, appetite took over, and everything became possible. Drusilla crowed, dancing around him happily as he drained his victim. The high salty stink of the kid's unwashed hair, his untrammeled fear, was lurid and delicious.
"Fierce and terrible," she said, "with those poor dirty little boys that no one cares about."
"You liked them too," he said, beginning to sense a tone of criticism.
"Oh, I like them all." She was using a lock of her hair to tickle his nose. He pushed her away. "But I need to be sure of my sweet beautiful prince ... can I really be sure of you? I cannot bear disappointment, you know." She sat up, turned to straddle him, dipping her moony face in close, her swirly eyes fastening on his. She lifted his hands to her breasts; her nipples were tight and pebbly against his palms. "Will you satisfy me?"
Her hair trailed against his face. She dipped in close to kiss him, a deep tender kiss that seemed to promise every possible excitement and comfort, if only he truly deserved them.
"I will," he said. "I'll satisfy you in everything."
She smiled, a smile like moonrise, and patted her hands together. "Oh goodie. I know just what I should like."
"Then I'll like it too." He tumbled her off and pounced, driving into her again. She gave an enraptured little scream, and pretended to faint, though her hips rose to meet him.
What Drusilla expected of him, he would do.
By dawn, Buffy had endured the hairy eyeballs of a lot of things that didn't have eyeballs at all, or else were nothing but eyeballs. She'd slain half a dozen vamps and a couple of demons, was bodily thrown out of one joint down by the waterfront, and had the beginnings of a black eye. But no one she'd spoken to would admit to seeing a vampire anything like Johnny.
When she got to the Hyperion, after a stop at Starbucks for the largest, sweetest, joltiest thing on the menu, Spike was already there, slumped on the pouf in the lobby. His posture told his storysame as hers.
"We need to bring in magic if we're going to find him," she said. "I'll call Willow, see what she can do."
"Sounds good." Spike was staring, but not at her. Buffy wanted to drop down beside him, snuggle into his side for a little comforting time out from this whole mess. But she was afraid if she did that, he'd just get up and start to pace, and she'd feel worse than she did right now, if that was even possible. Far worse than her son being missing, was Spike's absence even as he sat right in front of her.
"I'm thinking he might've taken off after Drusilla."
That name hung in the air between them like a bad smell. She expected Spike to protest, but he only sighed.
"But no one's seen her either."
"Like they'd tell you, if they did," Spike jeered.
"Well, did any of them tell you?"
"No. If she's here, she's layin' low. I asked, an' I checked around every place I could think of that she used to like. But she could've sent for him, from anywhere. It's a wide world."
"You really think he'd go to her? The soul" Soul, soul, vampire with a soulit was supposed to be the big panacea, the safeguard. But they really knew nothing about it. Angel was the only demon with a soul, and you couldn't draw conclusions from an N of oneeven Buffy knew that.
"Do I think he'd go to her? Lonely an' pissed off as he is? At this point, I'm thinkin' shit yeah, he'd go to her."
"Do you think she'd still want him, though?"
"Christ, how should I know? No. No, I'm pretty sure she won't like the smell of that soul at all. But she won't have known about it. She talks a lot about havin' the sight, but that doesn't mean she knows everything that's going on all the time."
"So maybe when he gets to her she'll reject him."
"Probably. An' if she doesn't stake him, perhaps he'll come back to us then, our little lost lamb, waggin' his tail behind him."
"Do you think so?"
He frowned up at her. "Fuck no."
"I didn't ask for this. Was his life I wanted to get back. Clean slate for him. Shovin' a soul in him, just makes him aware of how he's ruined himself. You know how he's always been, so all or nothin', he's gotta be thinkin' there's no going back. That he's all ruined an' irretrievable."
"That isn't how it is for Angel. Angel's been" She stepped closer to him. "Spike, is that how you feel now?"
He sprang up. "Need a feed an' some kip. Let me know what Willow says."
"Spike" She touched his arm. "Don't walk away from me."
He stopped. He was just like her husband William in this moment, in the rigid line of his back, that icy studied politeness he could show to a woman that masked disdain not just for her request but for her sex. She moved to face him.
"Is that how you feel? That you're ruined? Or that we are? It isn't true. You're a good father and a good man, Spike, and there's no one I want the way I want you." Saying this to his cool face, she trembled, anticipating rejection, but unableunwillingto hold back.
"Failed that boy from the moment he was born. Loved him, yeah, but was prejudiced against him. An' then he falls into Drusilla's way, which I could've prevented an' didn't, an' I try to give him back to you, an' what happens? Fuck him up worse."
"Spike, please, don't talk like that, like it's all your faultit isn't true, it isn't!" She was in tears now, and wished she could draw them back, because she knew he'd feel manipulated by them, and that wasn't the effect she wanted. Crossing her arms, she stepped away. "Just ... please don't think I'm blaming you. I'm really really not. I just want us to be together in this. Our child is in trouble, we should pull together. That's all. I'm going to call Willow now."
He ducked his head, as if the toes of his shoes were suddenly fascinating. But he threw himself back on the bench instead of leaving her. "Wait to hear what she says. Don't think I could sleep now, anyhow."
"C'mon, let's use the speakerphone in Angel's office. Maybe after we talk to her, we could ... lie down together." It tore at her, how the simplest things that once were taken for granted between themcuddling with him in bedwere turned into minefields.
Spike said nothing to that. He followed her at a distance.
There was nothing now between them that lacked distance, a harsh glaring distance she tried to squint through, though it made her wince.
He did it. He did it again, and again, and once more for good measure. To show her, his wicked, exacting princess. To show himself. That he was a vampire. A demon whose appetites couldn'tshouldn'tbe suppressed. To demonstrate that remorsethat troublesome thing his mother set such store bymight touch him, but couldn't hold him. With every victim he took, he became more himself, the self he was now. Each kill killed JohnnyJohnny the fumbling, stumbling, ineffectual, confused, insufficiently loved. The vampire Nick would have no such problems.
He did it different ways. Ripping the throat was best, because feeding was the most amazing sensation, as different from eating regular food as great sex was from scratching. But there was something to be said for breaking necksthere was a necessary neatness to it, you had to get it just right to hear that satisfying crunchy snap. It was a maneuver that made good use of demon speed. You could get in, do it, and get out in a wink of the eye.
Moving like the wind, they left corpses on every level of the galleria; by time the ones at the top were beginning to be discovered, the police flooding in at every entrance, they were already slipping past the cordon as if they were invisible.
When they were well away, they fell about laughing. Johnny pulled her into his arms, pressed kisses to her mirth-rounded cheeks, her open mouth. "God, I love you. And I need a drink."
"If you take too much courage, you'll wind up with none."
"That's very profound, my love. Very profound. Let's find a nice bar."
He ordered a double, slammed it back, ordered another. Drusilla was wrong; it wasn't courage he wanted, or oblivion. He just liked how it felt, the high, the smoothness borne of booze. It took so much more now to get him drunk, and he wasn't drunk, not reallyall his senses were sharp, his movements and thoughts precise. He knew precisely what he'd promised, and what he'd do, and could even guess how he'd feel afterwards, at least, how a part of him, the smaller, weaker part, would feel. There would be pain, regret. But Drusilla was correct to exact a test; it was a test he wanted to take, a trade-off he was more than willing to make. Having chosen his path, he'd follow it on. Maybe, like Angel or Spike, he'd have to turn to something else in a hundred years. But for the first hundred ... he preferred to be happy, rather than right.
She roused. Spike had brought her into his room, and even lain down with her on the big bed. She'd thought she would watch over his sleep, or his pretending to sleep, but it was she who'd dozed, and he was sitting now at the foot, looking at the television.
Buffy sat up. "What is it?"
Spike was staring at the local news program. "They're callin' it Mass Murder at the Mall. I'm callin' it vamps. Big showy vamps."
"No way of knowin', is there? Anyway, they'd be long gone, whether or no. It's nine in the morning."
"Willow hasn't called?"
She crawled down to the edge of the bed, knelt just behind him. The reporter was interviewing witnesses, except that none of them had actually seen anything.
"Eight adults an' a couple of kiddies. Surprised it wasn't more of thoseDru likes the little ones."
"Oh God. Oh God, Spike. But we don't know it was them. It might not beLA is full of vamps. Maybe Johnny's gone off alone to think. Or maybe something happened to him, he's trapped, or, or ... dusted. We don't know, do we? Not really."
He glanced around at her, his face impassive, but then he reached an arm back to circle her shoulders. Gratitude went through her in a spasm; she huddled against him.
"He knows we love him. He has a soul. That has to mean something." She didn't know how much longer she could cling to this idea; Spike, who until recently was the one ready to foster every benefit of the doubt, seemed now to have given up hope.
He stroked her hair, and pressed a kiss to the top of her head. "This's what comes of sleepin' with the enemy, yeah? No good. Catches you up, sooner or later, an' ups the body count." He rose and went into the bathroom, so quickly that her What? No! bounced off the shut door.
How could he say that? How could he think it?
He'd never have talked that way before ... before he got a soul of his own. She leapt up, pounded on the door. "Spike!"
No answer, just the sound of running water. She drove her shoulder against the wood. But the door wasn't locked; she fell into the room.
Spike was leaning over the sink, crying.
She caressed his sob-wracked back through the smooth teeshirt, and wondered if he was wishing for someone else to be holding him instead. Jemima. Or Angel. It wasn't a thought she'd ever had to have before, and it made her angrynot at him, but at herself. But there wasn't room for that anger to exist as a separate thing in the midst of this overwhelming grief and horror.
Should've staked him when I caught him with Milo dripping from his fangs. He didn't say it, because she'd only try to let him off in this abject new way of hers, her eager rush to forgive him everything he'd ever done or ever would do, in the hope he'd forgive her too, give himself back to her. I'm no prize. Forgiveness seemed so beside the point now. Everything about the two of them was beside the point, the point now being that he was steeped in violence, inescapable: it would out, like the curse in a Greek tragedy. He could change his nature, marry the slayer, help her defend the world, but all that came out of it was more murder. Johnny was a killer because he'd been a killer, and Drusilla, and Angel, and Darla, and back and back and back.
Now he and Buffy had to hunt their perverted child like an animal. By loving the slayer, he'd only made her a party to the evil she was sworn to oppose. Plunged her into muddy bloody water, so she'd clung to him to keep from drowning.
Her hands were warm. He wanted to shrug her off, push her away, but he lacked the strength. He couldn't stop crying. Fanging out, he bit through his lip, and still the sobs came. "Brought this on you."
"Spike, this isn't your fault. It isn't. And blame isn't important here."
"Was bound to happen, this. Bound to. Good never comes out of evil. Shouldn't have given in to me, Slayer. Should've staked me first chance you had, back in the day."
"Stop it. I'm not listening to this bullshit. You're my best friend, Spike, my lover, my husband, my partner. I'm not letting you push me away. We'll get through this. This isn't going to break us."
"Hey! Hi! Uh, sorryinterrupting here"
They wheeled around at the bright sudden voice. Willow stood just outside the bathroom door. "The teleporting, not always so discreet. I was aiming for near you, but not right here with you. Sorry."
Spike saw her take in his tear-streaked face and wince; he turned to the sink and began to wash. Behind him, Buffy was talking about what they'd seen on the news, steering Willow away while she made her low noises of dismay and commiseration.
She could say they weren't broken, but what was the last six months, except proof they already were? After thirty years of suppressing her natural revulsion at him, a demon, of course she'd wanted the mage, who was infinitely pure and good and lofty, like she was, or ought to be, before she'd stooped for him.
She must've felt, in her bones, that their union was impure, unstable, and would breed monsters.
"What are you smiling about like that?" Tara took her eyes off the road long enough to catch her, having checked her voicemail for the fifth time since they'd set out for LA, press the silvery mobile against her cheek, as if it was a kitten.
Blushing, Jemima slipped the phone in her bag. "Nothing. Just ... nothing."
"That's a lot of nothing. You keep checking the messages, but I haven't heard it ring, have I?"
"No. I was hoping I'd hear from Johnny, but I haven't."
"Well, I was just listening to Angel's message."
"Again?" Tara laughed.
"He sounds so sad. His oldest friend is dying, and he's worried that he hurt my feelings. I don't want him to feel bad about me. I was a little thrown, I guesswell, oceans of tears thrownby the thing with Papa, but I know it didn't mean he wasn't being sincere with me at the same time. And Papa couldn't have imagined I was mixed up in it in any way, or that I'd ever find out about it. He wouldn't want me to be hurt either."
"So you think Spike will be supportive of ... whatever is happening between you and Angel?"
"Supportive? No, he'd hate it. So would Mamma. I'm not so besotted I don't realize that. Which is why I don't want them to know anything is brewing. Especially because I'm not sure myself. It may come to nothing." Saying this made her feel like a child disappointed by a grown-up's broken promise. But she hadn't promised herself anything, and she couldn'tor at any rate, mustn't. Not yet. Angel was appealing as a prince in a fairytale was appealing, or ... as her father was to her mother. But she wasn't her mother, not a superior being, not immortal, and not, most of all, irresistably drawn to adventure and peril.
Maybe what she felt for Angel was nothing more than the stirrings of her long sensual deprivation. He made her throb, but if that was all there was to it, then ... "I don't know. I don't know!"
"You don't have to know," Tara said. "It's okay to just, you know, take it one day at a time."
"I don't want to hurt him."
"Oh, Angel's a big boy. I think he can look out for himself."
Willow was concocting spells to find them; Spike had no patience to wait, for that, or for nightfall. He plunged into the sewers with one of Angel's battle-axes, heading towards the hospital where Angel was with Wesley. Would pry him out of there, and somehow or other they'd track her down. Angel made her; his instinct would lead them to her. Drusilla would pay.
This underworld was, anyway, the right place for him to be now. The darkness, the heavy wet stink, dripping and scrabbling of rats, absorbed him, like to like.
Leaving the axe in a remote corner of the hospital sub-basement, he made his way up, finding the note of sire-scent in the air and following it to the room on the seventh floor.
The sick man seemed to be unconscious; his heart beat barely a suggestion. Angel held one of Wesley's hands in both of his, head bent over them as if in some sort of prayer. Spike stood in the doorway, giving them another moment. Then he cleared his throat.
Angel glanced up.
"Heard the news?"
He strode nearer. Strange, how the diminished man in the bed made Angel look smaller beside him, rather than larger. "S'been a massacre. Think it was my boy, an' Dru." He described what they'd heard on the news. Angel stared, his mouth slack. His grip never loosened on Wesley's hand. "You know her late haunts better than I. Need you to help me find her. Gonna kill her."
"Spike ... I can't leave him. He's ...."
"He's nearly gone, yeah. But 'til we find those two, they'll kill an' kill. People who've got life before 'em, not like this one." He enjoyed the chance to be harsh, to see Angel flinch.
He stared at those conjoined hands. Knew what Angel dreaded the end of, because he was caught too, in an unbreakable tangle of loss. His whole nearly-human life was ruined. The life he never should've dared in the first place.
Angel looked at Wes. His face was grey, the skin dry and runneled like drought-land.
Suddenly the sunken eyes opened, the lids lifting only half way, like broken blinds. A puff of speech, almost too low for even the vampires to hear.
"Wes, I don't want to leave you alone."
With great effort, he repeated himself. "Go." The hand that was barely more than bone stirred, too weak to break the bond of Angel's grip, but signaling that it must be broken. "I ... will wait."
Spike thought Angel might burst into tears. The halo of solemnity around that bed made him feel small, and lost. He withdrew to the door. Behind him, Angel kissed his friend.
They'd kept the radio off during the drive down, but after Buffy called, Jemima and Tara turned on the TV in the hotel suite, flipping the stations around until they found a report, and stood hugging each other as they watched it.
"We don't know it was him," Jemima said, turning off the TV. She trembled in Tara's arms. "This city is lousy with vampires."
"Honey, maybe you want to lie down."
"Where are you going?"
"Mamma said Willow is here. Will you see her?"
Tara recognized this attempt at self-distraction. "Of course I'll see her. Why wouldn't I?"
"How long has it been?"
"Oh ... let me see. Six years? Noseven. But that time was very brief. We didn't have a chance to talk. It was a gathering of white witches. Business, you could say."
"And you didn't make time to talk to each other?"
"I was there with Allegra. We were in love."
"I remember her. What ... what happened with that?"
Tara stroked Jemima's hair. "What happened is what happens. We were in love, and then we weren't."
"And since then, haven't you"
"Oh, there've been women. Just no one I introduced you to."
Jemima raised her face to her, her gentle smile breaking through the tension. "Is there a woman now?"
"Maybe. It's a little too soon to say."
"I hope so." She shuddered then, and pulled away. "We always say that it's better to be together, that love is more important than anything, but then so many of us choose wrong, and there's so much pain. Maybe it's better to stay apart!"
"Sometimes it is better. For a while. You have to know for yourself."
"It's hard to know. Or you know, but ... you're still tempted."
Tara couldn't quite imagine the girl with Angel; when she tried, it was as if she became doll-size, and disappeared into his arms. Which was strange, because despite her history, Tara thought of Jem as always distinct, strong, her own person. Her attraction to Angel seemed more like a symptom of the change her life was undergoing, than an authentic beginning of love.
Or maybe that's just what Tara wanted it to be.
"I don't want to think about it now," Jemima said. "I will lie down. Maybe I'll sleep. Could you sleep? That was a long drive."
Tara walked her to her room. "We can't know it was Johnny," she murmured. "I'm sure it wasn't."
"I hope you're right."
"I know I am. I'll see you later." Jemima kissed her.
"So? Where's my son? Is he with Drusilla?"
Willow frowned. "This isn't so easy. The geographical area is so largeand it's not just that it's large, but it's complicated, because it's not all on one level. The ... the tall buildings confuse matters."
Buffy couldn't believe this. With everything Willow was capable of, she couldn't find one little vampire in a major American city? "I thought you were, like, all-powerful these days."
"Well, you thought wrong. I need some time."
"But when it gets dark, they'll be able to move!"
"I know. Of course, they can move now. In the sewers. In a car. They may not be in the city anymore at all."
Sighing, Buffy got up and paced. They probably weren't here any more. Johnny was foolish, but he wasn't exactly stupidor like his father, in the sense of wanting nothing more than to tangle with a Slayer. Johnny had done his big show-offy thing at the Mall, and having gotten away with it, he'd just want to get away. Somewhere he imagined she'd never find him.
As Spike had told her that long ago night in The Bronze: all that power, and nobody to worry about except for one girl. Or, as the world was now, two.
Any vampire less stupid than dirt could have a fine time indefinitely, for all the slayer could do about it.
"Can you find Spike? Because I think he's gone off the rails too." Saying it brought the tears to her eyes again. "William Grieves said this would happen. He was convinced the children would be corruptedand I just thought he was being a boring old chauvanist. Maybe ... maybe I should've let him keep the baby. Maybe Johnny would have lived longer"
"The Boer War."
"He'd have been just old enough to die horribly in the Boer War."
"Some people fight in wars and come back and live for another sixty years."
"True. But I can't believe you're wishing you didn't have your kid, just because you might've lost him now. Might've, because it's by no means certain"
"... I've lost Spike. I'm afraid I've lost Spike."
Willow craned around from her magical cookery to stare at her. There was a glint of recognition in her eye that Buffy suddenly didn't want to face. She turned her back.
After a few moments of what felt like a dropped connection, Willow said, "I know you love him more than you love anybody else. It isn't shameful, it just ... it just is."
"Don't say it!" Buffy slammed a fist into the wall. "You can't say that. You can't ...."
"I think you're lucky. That you have someone you feel that way about. So many people ... don't really ever have that at all."
"Stop!" Buffy cried. "We don't talk about this! It isn't true! Find my son!"
He was waiting.
He'd been wanting to tell Wesley, for days now, that he shouldn't try to hang on anymore, not for him. It was terrible to Angel to think of Wesley prolonging his own suffering because he sensed that his friend wasn't really ready to lose him. He'd never be ready, but Wesley, what little was left of him, was clearly ready, in every other way, to die.
Angel wanted to go to him and help him do that.
This search was futile. They'd found vampires, fought and questioned and slain them, but learned nothing about Johnny or Drusilla. As the hours passed and the trail grew no warmer, Spike clenched tighter and tighter, body and mind one hard fist. When Angel spoke to him, he didn't reply. It was Angel who made the calls to Buffy and Willow, who had no success to report either.
In a crumbling disused factory, all cement and old iron and long beams of late-afternoon light streaming in through the broken west windows, Angel turned to him. "They're probably long gone."
Spike, who'd been checking behind every rusted hunk of equipment as if expecting to find his son huddled there, looked up now at Angel.
"Spike, I'm sorry. There are other things we can do, but this ... this isn't getting us anywhere."
He shrugged. "Sure. You're thinkin', s'not my boy. Buffy's not my woman. S'got nothing to do with me, really has it? 'Course, it is you. It's you who began this, an' condemned us all, you fucking cunt." He swung the axe so that the flat of it connected with Angel's head.
When the darkness gave way, one eye was filled with blood; the crunch of his shattered cheekbone was loud as he fanged out; he growled and grunted, pulling himself to his feet. Spike hit him again before he was half way up.
"SpikeI'm trying to help you, what good is this doing?"
"Help? You've ruined everyone you ever touched! You ruined Buffy's life the second you laid eyes on her! An' it's her children pay the price for what you began! You're the bloody cause of it all!"
Angel staggered up; Spike shoved him. He fell into the light, it scorched his skin, the way Spike's invective, and the mad pain in his eyes, scorched his heart. Angel rolled before the flesh ignited, but Spike was there, bringing the flat of the axe down on him again.
"Bugger souls! Bugger atoning! Nothin' makes up for the wrong. Those poor beggers my boy killedthey're on my head an' yours. What's ruined is ruined, an' what's done is done. You an' me an' Dru an' the boywe're a pestilence."
This wasn't like the fight they'd had when Spike arrived at the Hyperion, his grievous rage the hard crust over an infinity of hope. All he'd needed that night was to be throughly tired out in order to become reasonable again.
That was before he'd learned that even a soul wouldn't put his son back on the good side of the line. Somewhere in the last day or so, hope had deserted him, leaving in its place this burning despair. Opposing Spike's onslaught was like opposing a speeding train. Blood poured into Angel's eyes, his body ached all over. Spike had gone silent now, except for the low effortful huffs as they wrestled on the dusty cement. All Angel's energy went into just keeping Spike from dragging him into the golden strip of light that would immolate them both. Despair gave Spike new strengthdespair meant Spike didn't care if he died himself.
Suddenly Angel understood: it was his own death Spike wanted more.
He stopped resisting. They tumbled together into the hot glare, Spike heavy on top. He heard the whoosh that was Spike's flesh turning to fire, and a second later, his triumphant yelp.
That's when Angel gathered himself, and shoved with all his might.
"Help meJemmiehelp! I need you, help!" She tried to run to him, but her legs were stuck in something like tropical mud, and as she watched the fire was consuming him, his limbs, encased in flame, flailing, his face melting even as he continued to cry out to her. The air was as thick as the mud, she tried to cry out to him, but no sound came out. Her heart was exploding, the air so hot that she had to turn her face away, and still he cried out "JemmieJemmieplease!"
Then Johnny's cries turned into a wordless high-pitched alarm, terrifying and full of doom, that shook her so she screamed.
Her face was pressed into the pillow, beneath which her mobile was ringing and vibrating. Jemima snatched it up. The movement made her dizzy; the dream's grip was still strong. "Yes?"
"Oh thank God! I was afraid you wouldn't answer."
"Johnny! Where are you? Everyone is frantic"
"Jem, I know. I know they are. They think I did that killing at the mall, I saw it on the news. But I didn't. I had nothing to do with it."
"You ... you didn't? Really?"
"Of course I didn't. Jemmie, did you really imagine I could have? Jemmie, it's me. I have a soul, I wouldn't"
Her heart rose up, she could've burst into song. "Oh, I knew! Of course I knew you didn't! Tara and I both said to each other"
"Are you with Auntie Tara? Where are you?"
"At the hotel in LA, you know. Where are you?"
"I ... I'm in LA too. Look, you have to help me. After we talked the other day, I was upset, and I did something stupidI left the Hyperion without telling anyone. I was angry and confused, I needed some time on my own, not boxed up in there, to clear my head. But now this thing has happened and they all think I did itif I go back there, they'll stake me."
"I don't think they would. Johnny, no one wants to stake you. They're all looking for you."
"They're sure I did it. They're searching for me so they can put me down. Let me come to you, and you can tell them that they're mistaken. They'll listen to you and Auntie Tara. You can bring us together again."
"It's really true? That you haven't been with Drusilla? You didn't kill those people?"
"On my honor, it's true. And I haven't heard from Drusillaif I saw her, I'd slay her. You know that."
"Yes. I know. Oh Johnny, it's so good to hear your voice! I was so afraid!"
"Please help me. I know you'll help me, darling Jemima. You always do."
"I always do. Come right away. I'll tell Tara."
He'd summoned Darryl and Noel with the truck to get Spike back to the Hyperion. Willow, Buffy and Rita were waiting in his room, ready with the first aid kit. At the sight of Spike, most of his clothes burned away, back and arms and face blackened and blistered, Buffy let out one groan, and clapped a hand over her mouth.
"It looks worse than it is," Angel said, his own burns making him wince. "Remember, it can't get infected, and it won't scar. He just needs rest and blood."
"But it must hurt like a bitch," Rita said.
"Sure, it hurts." His own face and hands were raw and oozing.
"How did this happen?" Willow asked. "Were you attacked?"
Rita was already wringing out clean rags in a basin of cold water. Buffy touched her arm. "I'll do this. You help Angel."
"We ... got into a scuffle in a bad place," Angel said. He watched Buffy, her face fixed in that wide-eyed blank stare he'd once known all too well, laying the wet cloths on Spike's back with gentle hands. He was either unconscious or pretending to bealthough Angel was pretty sure he must be out. He was burned from head to heels, and wouldn't be lying on his back for a few days yet. Buffy bent over him and whispered in his ear.
If Spike imagined she'd stopped caring for him, Angel thought, then he was an idiot.
Still, given his state of mind, he might see it as worse that she did. He was so sure of his own taintby loving him, Buffy lowered herself in his eyes.
He'd try to talk to him about that, later. There was enough pain to go around, without that bit more.
Rita led him into the bathroom to bathe his wounds. She clucked sympathetically as he gasped. "Poor boss. And I guess no sign of the kid of the hour."
"Still alive last time I checked, abouttwo hours ago, I guess. I want to get back there."
"I'll bandage this up, and you can go."
He was grateful to her for her competence, and for not asking questions. Willow, though, was hovering in the bathroom doorway, her eyes full of query.
The sight of her was a little off-putting. She'd sheared some fifteen years of age off her appearance not by the usual LA method of plastic surgery and heavy physical training, but with a light glamour she applied like the perfume or the floaty chiffon scarf she was never without. None of the humans noticed anything odd about her, but there was something in the magic that tickled Angel's nose in a sort of spiritual hay fever.
For a moment they stared at each other. Then Willow shrugged and dropped her glance. "Either they're not in the region at all, or she's got some kind of mojo working that's masking their presence. I've got nothing."
"You tried." Rita was winding bandage around his hands. "Anything you can do for him?"
"I can go down to the kitchen and heat up some blood."
"Did that already," Rita said. "It's in the thermos on the bedside table. There's a straw too, I thought he'd need one."
"Oh. Well, there might be something else ... I'll go see."
Angel was impatient to get back to Wesley. The adventure with Spike was a bustthe only consolation in it being the thought that perhaps, had Spike not insisted on his coming alonghe'd have done himself in where there was no one to rescue him, or even witness his passing. Angel could imagine Buffy's frantic grief if he just failed to come back. His own contusions, broken bones and burns would heal up in a day or two.
When Rita was done with him, he passed through the bedroom again. Willow, standing behind Buffy, held her shoulders between her hands, while the slayer's rested on Spike's cloth-covered back, and chanted in some magical language Angel had never heard before. The air around the bed crackled as Willow's spell forced Buffy's strength into Spike.
Angel doubted he'd accept this gift, if he was capable of rejecting it. Buffy's eyes were closed, and her lips too were moving. A tear tracked down her cheek.
Spike's body jolted. He came to with a long moan. Willow stepped back. Buffy knelt at the bedside, near Spike's face. His slitted eyes, the blue weirdly bright against the blackened skin, stared dully. She glanced at the thermos on the bedside table, but instead of taking it up, she put her own wrist close to his bubbled lips. "Sweetheart ... drink."
Angel left the room.
Jemima checked on Tara, who was still asleep. She decided not to wake her; she wasn't sure when Johnny would arrive, but once he did, she imagined the three of them would be sitting up late.
She considered phoning the others, to call off the search. But if she did, they'd descend on the hotel, and things might, as Johnny feared, become confrontational and even violent. On the phone he'd sounded so afraid of that, begging her to intercede for him. It would be better to wait, to let him talk quietly with her and Tara. She could ease his qualms, and then they could call Mamma and Papa together.
She moved around the suite, light-headed and nearly giddy, fidgeting with the sofa cushions, changing the water in the vases of cut flowers, aligning the books on the end tables. It was only now that she felt how frightened she'd been; her body ached with the cessation of tension. Everything would be all right now. Johnny had done the right thing by contacting her, putting himself under her protection. He'd be over the worst now, he'd settle down as a member of Angel's team, and learn to live his new life.
He might even turn out to be an ally for her with their parents, if she did get involved with Angel ... although she probably wouldn't. She thought she shouldn't. Not now, anyway. It just wasn't a good time for embarking on anything new, especially with ....
When the knock came, she paused to regard herself in the mirror. It seemed important to welcome her brother with a cheerful, confident demeanor.
When she opened the door, there he was, two large sheaves of bright flowers tucked under one arm, looking spruce and nervous. His eyes were moist and a little bloodshot, as if he'd been crying recently.
"Oh Jem, I don't know what I'd do without you ...."
She took him in her arms, the paper around the flowers crinkling as she hugged him, drawing him inside. "It'll be all right, darling. Come here, sit. These flowers are wonderful."
"Some for you, and some for Auntie Tara. Where is she?"
"She was lying down. I'll go tell her you're here." She pressed him tight again, looking up into his face until he showed a tentative, sheepish smile. She felt proud of him, for admitting his mistakes, for continuing to try, although he was so unhappy. "I'll show her these. Wait here a minute."
Tara was emerging from her bathroom when Jemima came in. "More flowers! Who sent them?"
"Johnny. He brought them. He's here."
The expression on Tara's face made Jemima blush. She hadn't expected to see alarm and fear from the always queenly calm Tara. "Here! In the suite?"
"Yes. He phoned a little while agoTara, he didn't do it." She whispered, suspecting that even so Johnny could hear them perfectly well.
"Have you told the others?"
"No! He wants us to help him, he's afraid Mamma will slay himdon't look like that! He's fine, he's innocent, just like we knew he was!"
Tara looked at her then, looked hard, and touched her cheek with one soft palm. "You're sure of that." It wasn't a question.
"I know my brother."
"Yes. Well, let's not keep him waiting."
Jemima, still holding the flowers in her arms like a baby, followed Tara out to the suite's living room. Johnny rose from the sofa when Tara appeared, his brow in an anxious furrow. "Auntie, please don't be afraidthe last thing I want is to frighten you" He held his arms open. Tara didn't pause before walking into themJemima would've blamed her very much if she had.
"You've made us worry."
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry." They hugged. After a moment, he put one arm out to draw his sister in. She pressed herself between them, much as she used to do with her parents, and like them, Tara was soft and warm, Johnny harder and still and tepid, but that almost seemed right, because he looked like Spike and so should feel like him too.
"You're back, you're back, you're back ... Johnny, don't scare us like that again."
"I won't, I promise." He smiled at them both, his arms still around them, pressed kisses to their cheeks. "You two are a sight for sore eyes. My two best girls. Thank you for this. Thank you for taking me in."
"Of course," Jemima said, blinking tears.
"We have to tell Buffy and Spike you're here," Tara said. "They're frantic. Let me call them. I can persuade them to stay away a while so we can talk."
Johnny frowned. "I don't think ... well, all right. I guess they must be pretty worried."
"I'll go put these flowers in water, and then we can talk. Do either of you want a drink?"
Tara shook her head no. Johnny said, "Lager, if there's any."
"Are you kidding? The mini-bar here is stocked." Full of triumphtrust was rewardedJemima carried the flowers into the kitchen.
With a vase in either hand and a tall can of Carlings tucked under her arm, Jemima returned to the living room. "Johnny, will you take this from me, and I'm going to put these others intowhat's the matter?"
She stopped. It took a moment for her to grasp what she was seeing: had Tara fainted? It was lucky Johnny had caught her before she could fall; she might've hit her head against the coffee table, and that would beno.
The vases hit the plush carpet without breaking, splashing her legs, filling the room with the heavy green smell of the wet cut stems. The heavy can bounced off her bare toes and made her gasp.
As Johnny let Tara's slack body slip from his embrace to the floor, she glimpsed blood on her neck through the veil of thick hair. Some of it soaked into the pale carpeting as Tara lay, her hips and shoulders twisted in different directions, heavy-lidded eyes slack, staring.
"Johnny. Whatwhatwhat have you done?"
He smiled mildly out of his human face. "Oh Jemima. When are you going to learn that you can go too far, even with forgiveness?"
"Wes, I'm here."
Except that he could feel the minimal pulse of his diminished body, Angel would've thought Wesley was dead. He took his hand slowly, mindful of startling him with the touch of his own gauze-wrapped paw, although he didn't expect any response.
"I'm sorry I had to leave you. I won't anymore."
Angel was amazed to see Wesley's eyes open, and focus. He even started to smile, before his mouth opened in an O of shock.
"I guess it looks pretty bad," Angel said. "I couldn't see for myself, obviously."
Wesley's watery gaze filled with compassion and inquiry. "We didn't find Johnny. Spike was upset. He ... well, he did this to me, but ... there were mitigating circumstances. And you should see him. Orbetter not."
Wes sighed. When he spoke, he didn't have enough breath to aspirate; Angel read his lips.
"No, like I said, we didn't find him. I don't think he's here anymore."
Wes spoke again.
"The girl ... I don't want to lie to you." Angel did want to lie, he wanted Wesley to feel satisfied for him, so he could let go. But after all they'd been through together, he couldn't do it. "I think you'd better forget about Jemima. The way things are going ... that isn't going to happen. Even if she still wanted me, which she won't ... I know I wouldn't be good for her."
The moist eyes blinked rapidly, the lips working as if he was trying to expel something. Angel saw the word "loss." And the word "sorry." He absorbed them for a few moments, like poison. So much losssome of it people he'd only just met and yet didn't want to loseeven Johnny. He wanted Johnny to grow into a comrade, he wanted Jemima to stay with him, to be his mistress, confidant, advisor. He wanted too not to lose the new intimacy he'd established with Spike. They'd never been friends, but they'd become friends these last weeksthe attack of that afternoon didn't change that, it just made Angel wish he could do something to ease Spike's distress.
What he wanted, though, was meaningless against what was. What had to be.
"Wes, I've been meaning to tell you, I want you to understand ... you don't have to worry about me. You don't have to, you know ... hold on, just for me. I don't want you to suffer anymore, if you're ready to stop."
The eyes seemed to blaze at this, and Angel wasn't sure what he was seeing: indignation, or promise, or merely the stoical bearing of a mental agony that Wesley had borne now for decades.
"You are my dearest friend," Angel whispered. The burns made it difficult to talk; every little facial movement stung. A smile would've been impossible. "You have been my partner and helper and support. My gratitude to you will never end. I will grieve for you every day for as long as I go on. And I will go on. By your example. D'you hear me, Wes? Do you understand?"
The tiny pressure on his bandaged hand was a fulsome answer. Angel leaned in to kiss him, and then remained, resting his head on the pillow beside Wesley's. After a while he recognized that the odd low sound issuing from Wes's throat was meant to be a little tune, crooned to comfort him.
Jemima opened her mouth to scream, and found it stuffed suddenly with a ball of something dry and ridgeya dish towel. Hard small hands with talon nails gripped her upper arms; craning around, she saw Drusilla's yellow-eyed face snarling an inch from hers.
Rippling with revulsion, Jemima tried to pull away, but Drusilla was planted, her strength absolute.
She spoke, but not to her. "Come, my knight, here's your quest nearly fulfilled. Come and show Princess that you're still and always hers."
Johnny stepped, slowly and deliberately, over Tara's body, and came to stand before her, still smiling, still looking like his old human self. He tipped his head to regard her, his lips slightly parted, in a gesture so like Papa's it made her wince. She struggled to spit the towel out, but Drusilla had jammed it in so far that her jaw already ached, and she had to draw breath hard through her nose to keep from passing out.
"Jemmie, my pretty sister. Well ... not so pretty, really, are you? You're actually kind of plain. Mamma and Papa and I, we're the pretty ones. You, you're just ... serviceable."
"Ah, now, I think she's quite sweet," Drusilla said. Her speaking breath blew cool and sibilant against Jemima's neck. "Looks aren't everything, are they, Petal? Inner beauty counts, doesn't it? And she's so much of that, so much lovely trust in everyone. It's touching, it really is. She makes me think of myself ... before I met Angelus."
Johnny touched her face then. She reared back, and received a good shake from Drusilla.
He laughed. "And she was all over me with the hugs and kisses five minutes ago." Leaning in close, his lips near her ear, he said, "Tell me, Jemmie. Shall I turn you? You could be like all the rest of us, then. And my Dru could use a lady's maid. Someone to dress her and brush her hair."
"A hundred strokes, every night," Dru crooned.
"Would you like that, Jemmie? You enjoy taking care of people. You could take care of the two of us, forever. Of course, we'd go somewhere far away, where the Slayer wouldn't find us, where your lothario Angel wouldn't either. You wouldn't want him to find you, anyway, because you know he'd only stake you."
His lips grazed her neck, right beneath the ear in that sensitive place that went straight to her groin. She groaned, tried again to pull away. The fear was so intense that she couldn't feel her legs; her body seemed to be one big thubbing heart.
"Or should I just drain you, like I drained Tara? Tell me which you prefer." He pulled the towel from her mouth, with the sort of flourish of hand that a magician uses to pull scarves out of unexpected places. He was close enough to her that she could see his fine beard stubble, and the streaks of gold in his blue eyesnot demon gold, just the gold that was always there, gilding the lily.
"I didn't know you hated me."
"Hate you? I don't hate you, Jemmie. I'm only doing what you said was natural for me ... I've gone back to my sire. I've accepted her guidance."
"They say we always end up hating those we've wronged. It's true."
"I don't know what you're talking about. You're supposed to be answering my question. I really need to know what you want, Jemmie."
All at once, she stopped being afraid. Dru held her tight, but not in a way that prevented her slipping a hand into the pocket of her skirt. "I don't care what you do. But stop talking and do it."
Drusilla giggled into her hair. "Yes, Nick, do stop talking and make an end. Or else Princess shall think you're stalling, and be quite vexed."
"Stalling? I'm not stallingI promised you I'd do this, and here I'm doing it."
His move was so sudden, so swift, that it seemed his fangs were sunk in her throat even before he'd finished speaking. Jemima screamedit wasn't the pain that shocked her so much as the intense intimacy of the invasionand Dru thrust her a little forward, as if she was feeding her to him. Jem drew her hand from her pocket, and in a moment Drusilla screamed too, releasing her grip. The heat flared at Jemima's back, accompanied by the harsh outdoor sound of something flammable going up fast and hot, and she knew she'd succeededhalf way. Startled, Johnny raised his head, and for a moment she saw, as he gaped over her shoulder, the reflection of the flames in his pretty eyes. Jemima wrenched away from the pillar of fire that had been Drusilla's long white dress, shoving Johnny against her as hard as she could. He caught Drusilla in his arms, and for a moment it was almost as if he was going to rescue her; she looked at him, gape-mouthed, pleading, silent, her face curiously still white and pure above her garment of fire. Then her hair was alight, her features curdling and melting; he cried out and pushed her off. She fell, exploding into ash. But his clothes were already on fire; his dash towards the kitchen made the flame engulph his body. A string of curses poured from his black mouth.
Jemima threw herself in his way, one arm raised to shield her own face from the heat, the other wielding the silver lighter. She jabbed it at his head, saw the spark catch in his hair, the flames spreading across his head like a cap he was pulling on. The smoke alarm on the ceiling wailed, louder than Johnny's own dying scream. He grabbed for the lighter, for her arm, but she leapt aside. In the next moment all that was left of him was a long scorch mark on the suite's pale carpet showing where he'd burned to ash.
One hand clapped over the torn wound on her neck, the blood seeping through her trembling fingers, she crawled towards Tara.
Whose chest was, just slightly, slightly, rising and falling. Jemima scrabbled for the phone.
Angel found her alone in a curtained cubicle, perched on an exam bed, bandaged at the neck, bleary and disheveled. She'd called, her voice tiny and breathless, saying very little more than I'm here where you are and I need you.
He'd promised not to leave Wesley's side again, but that wasn't a promise he could keep. Mercifully, Wesley was sleeping when Angel let go of his hand and slipped out, descending from the lofty silence of the cancer ward to the crowded frenetic emergency department.
When she saw him, she started, staring. He remembered his blackened, broken face. "It's nothing, Jem," he said, keeping his voice low and calm. "Don't think about it."
"Oh," she said, glassy-eyed. "Okay. Johnny thought he killed her, but Tara's alive."
"I slew him with this," she said, thrusting something at him. He caught the silver Zippo as it slipped from her fingers. She stared at it on his palm, and burst into ragged sobs.
He pulled her against him. She wailed into his neck, pummeling his arms with her tiny fists. She couldn't speak, and he didn't try to question her. The details, at the moment, didn't matter. He felt frantic at the thought that, while he'd sat in Wesley's room, she'd undergone her own mortal struggle, all alone. He wanted to rescue her, to do the violence for her, where she wouldn't have to see it, know about it. But it was too late, it was already done, and his part was only this, to hold her.
He was amazed by her summons, amazed that she didn't recoil from his undead touch.
Her fingers twisted into his shirt front, Jemima sobbed into his chest.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry this happened, that it happened to you. That I wasn't there to help you. And that I failed your brother. I should've worked harder with him. I didn't get through"
She just shook her head. Tears seeped from her eyes, squeezed shut as if in rejection of a sight too horrible to face.
"Where's Tara? Do you want to go to her?"
"They took her ... she's in ... I don't know! I don't know where she is!"
"Ssh, ssh. I'll ask. I'll just ask, and they'll tell us." He led her out to the desk. She clung to his arm like a child, still weeping.
Tara Maclay was in the ICU. He brought Jemima there. At the door, she let go of him. In ending her tears, she became distant, brittle. "I know you want to go back to Wesley. Tell Mamma and Papa where we are. I don't think I can talk on the phone right now."
"I will. Call me again if you need me. I'm right upstairs, on the fifteenth floor."
She nodded, scrubbing her hands through her hair, which was already messy. Angel noticed that the barrette he'd given her was there, slid down to dangle behind her ear. He couldn't resist retrieving it, and fixing it in a better place. She let him touch her, without acknowledgement, staring through the square of reinforced glass at the ICU corridor.
"He knew we all love him, but it didn't seem to matter to him, somehow. It wasn't only to do with becoming a vampire. I don't understand what made him that way. I just know I'm going to be trying to figure it out for the rest of my life." She pushed through the swinging door without a glance at him. Angel watched her float slowly up the ICU corridor, her skirt swirling unheeded around her legs, towards the nurses' station, getting smaller and farther away. He didn't move until she wasn't in sight anymore.
When she was little, in a storm of tears because she'd been caught out doing something naughty, Mamma sometimes said to her, If you don't stop crying, you'll make yourself sick. That admonition always seemed rhetoricaluntil now. Now she was crying, and she'd been sick twice, spewing up boiling hot acidic vomit, so violently that her neck started bleeding through the bandage. Her head ached and the pounding in her chest made her whole body vibrate in a rhythm of misery.
She couldn't go back to the bedside of the aunt she'd almost killed with her naive belief in a vampire's sincerity. Huddled in the bathroom, shaking and sobbing, a wad of toilet paper pressed to her mouth, Jemima rode out the horror that kept coming in spasms, nausea's emotional twin. This must be what they mean by a delayed reaction. Like a flashbulb going off, bits of what she'd just experienced kept coming back on her: the sight of Tara's limp form slipping out of her brother's arms. The shock and physical insult of Johnny's body pressed up against hers, his fangs sinking into her flesh. The reflection of Dru's flames in his eyes. And the angry, incredulous cry, the grasping at the air, that spelled his last moments.
She'd trusted him, loved him, looked after him all her life, her baby brother. And he'd forced her to kill him or be killed, and now she'd never forget what it felt like, to set her own brother on fire. The sight of that, the stench. Jemima leapt up from her seat on the toilet lid, and was sick again.
Someone knocked on the door. She turned the sink taps on full force. Another knock. "I'm in here!" she called. "Go away!"
"Jemmie, it's Mamma."
She spun around. The room was tinysink, toilet, pull-down baby-changing table on the wall. No window, no escape. She couldn't open the door. She couldn't face her. She'd hurt Tara so badly, she'd made so many mistakes. She'd killed Buffy's favorite.
"I didn't mean to hurt him! He began it! I couldn't help it!"
"Baby, let me in."
"Mamma, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry."
"Oh baby, you don't have to say that. Just open the door. Please open the door."
Her knees gave like Playdoh, she sank to the cold tiles. The pounding behind her eyeballs was too much. Everything was too much.
"Jemmie, let us in."
The new voice made her start. They were both there! Both of them, just on the other side of the door. Papa and Mamma together.
"Sweet, come out now an' talk to us. Your mum an' I want to see you."
"Papa? Oh Papa, I didn't want this to happen. I didn't. I was stupid, he tricked me. It's my fault Tara's so hurt. Everything is my fault."
Buffy said, "Baby, do you think we're angry at you? We're not. We need to see that you're all right. But no one can tell us what happened but you, and we need to know. Please come out."
She tried to rise, but her legs were useless. She reached up to the door lock, tried to twist it open with jelly fingers. It took a long time; the metal felt impossibly slick, and then she was blocking the opening. Spike's hand curled around the door; his fingers were red and blistered. She screamed, and tried to slam the door again. On the other side, there was some scuffling, Buffy's fierce whisper, Let me, all right! and then the hand was Mamma's, and she saw a sliver of Mamma's face in the gap, one big moist eye.
Jemima reached for her, crying, and then she was wrapped in Buffy's arms.
The parting from Jemima, Angel thought, as the elevator glided up, felt like a goodbye. Even as she clung to him, he'd sensed from her a rejectionprobably unconscious still, but no less real for thatof everything he was. She couldn't love a vampirenot after this. Not even though she still loved her father ... and Angel wondered what this experience would do to that love. Whether Johnny hadn't managed to inject poison even there, by teaching her with such vivid crudeness what happens when you trust in a vampire.
The doors opened on the false peach and beige serenity of the cancer floor. Not all the flowers and Monet prints and natural light in the world could mask the cruelty of pain and death in the air here. Angel moved slowly back towards Wesley's roommore slowly for all his eagerness to see him again, his hope that perhaps Wes would be awake, might even be capable of some further little conversation. Angel decided he wouldn't tell him about the boy's death. No point telling about it, it would only distress him. Not a lie, just an omission.
As he passed the nurses' station, someone called his name. He paused, glanced in at the white and grey space, brightly lit and crowded with desks and file cabinets. Serena, the senior nurse who looked after Wesley, rose from her chair with eyes fixed on him. Her movements seemed slow, like a film shown at half-speed. She didn't smile as she usually did at him, and he knew.
He knew. Stopping, he waited for her to reach him. Her dark hair was pulled back in a bun; she wore pale yellow scrubs, her ID pinned to the collar, her name written in gold script glimmered at the base of her throat. She was menstruating, and wearing two different perfumes, which suggested she'd spent her lunch hour at the Galleria, where she was spritzed with something new. She smelled sorry too, and he wondered how she bore it, how all the nurses and doctors bore it, the constant sorrow or performance of sorrow or deliberate suppression of sorrow.
She was right in front of him now, looking up. "Just a half hour ago. I really don't think there was pain, he was sleeping when you left him, and just slipped off without awakening again."
"I ... yes. I see."
"He was such a lovely man. He had grace even at the times when his dignity was threatened, and when the pain was bad. He was always so kind and considerate to us."
"He is that," Angel said. "Thoughtful. He doesn't like to hurt anyone, because he knows ...."
The tune Wes had hummed before, something Angel didn't recognize, something that was barely music at all, recurred in his head; he wanted to follow it, catch it, do nothing but listen to it forever.
"Would you like to see him once more?"
She led the way to the room, whose door was closed now. "Take as long as you need."
"Thank you. It won't be long. I know you'll want to ... to move him. I just want to ... I want to be sure." Hollowed out, filled with silence, Angel opened the door and went into Wesley's room.
His every sense showed him that Wesley was no longer there.
The last time her daughter had shuddered like that, she'd been two, with a crazily spiking fever. Buffy hadn't thought of that night in years, and was amazed to find it popping into her head now, when the here-and-now should have absorbed her completely. She could see them so vividly in the upstairs hall, Spike holding their curling, squirming, squalling child snugged to his chest, moving fast and smooth from her disordered crib to the bathroom, where she'd already started the cold water running into the tub. Rushing behind, she'd been on the phone, to whom? Not the pediatrician, not at that hour. Who else had she known who had small children? Perhaps she'd been talking to Giles, who was always good for advice on all subjects. Spike, more tolerant of extremes of temperature than a living person, climbed into the tub with her, dunking her with deliberate gentleness, speaking to her all the while in his comforting sing-song. Her screaming stopped as soon as the water touched her, and for a long moment she'd looked wrenchingly bewildered and indignant, likelike a small child plunged into a cold bath. Buffy remembered how Jemima's skin, bright red, hard and too-smooth as an over-ripe fruit, paled and seemed somehow to deflate. Spike handed Jem back into her arms, to be wrapped in a big towel, and held. He'd held them both, his wet jeans legs soaking her nightgown, making her shiver, but they'd giggled, heads together, because Jemima was cooler, and quiet. They kissed her and each other and didn't want to move, even to put her back to bed, and change into dry things.
They were both holding her now; Jemima clung to Buffy, weeping into her neck, but she had one arm flung around Spike too. Buffy glanced at him, to see if the weight of that arm hurt him where he was burnedthanks to her efforts, he was already much better, but even so, she had worried when he insisted on getting up and dressing. But if he felt it, he didn't say or show anything. When their eyes met across Jemima's head, he looked completely unmindful of himself; there was a deep yearning in his eyes, towards their daughter, towards her. Buffy lifted her hand from Jemima's hair, and stroked his cheek.
Even though Angel had said, when he called, that it was very likely that Jemima had slain Johnny and Drusilla, Buffy wasn't ready to believe it. It was a theory, only a theory, and probably Angel was jumping to conclusionshe'd said she was pretty incoherent. Buffy couldn't imagine her daughter doing that . If she allowed herself to fully imagine it, she'd have to feel Jemima's terror, and her own enormous sense of failure at not being there to do it herself.
Because she was the slayer. Not Jemima. Jemima wasn't supposed to have to go through such things.
But it was true. Little by little, blaming and reproaching herself in every sentence, Jemima shivered out her story. She sounded not like a grown woman but like a child who'd made a terrible mistake, and knew it. As she took it in, inhaling the reek of fear and distress from her daughter's skin, Buffy felt herself split in two. One part, dumbstruck, turned in a circle, arms dangling empty, wailing in grief over her only, her irretrievable, her precious twice-murdered son, consumed by fire, dying in agony. The other kept a stubborn focus on the two dear ones right here. She couldn't break down in front of them, not now, when Jemima needed her to be strong and calm.
Spike, though he hadn't actually moved, seemed broken off, drifting apart. Jemima's narrative had wound down into sobs and hiccups and whispered pleas for forgiveness.
Forgiveness. Buffy, with a realization that startled her, found she wasn't angry, at any of them. Only at herself. She could've stopped this all, if she'd been a better mother, a better wife, a better woman.
"Baby, none of this is your fault. None of it. We're just so glad you're safe."
"I should've called you when I heard from him. I still thinkwe might've reached him. I might've. If only I"
"No, no, stop this. Spike, tell her it isn't her fault."
Buffy begged him with her eyes. He met her gaze with reluctance. His cheek twitched, and twitched again; his nostrils flared, the skin white and transparent. He looked ill, miserable, and caught somehow, between two statesas if on the verge of fanging out.
When she saw that Spike couldn't talk, she said, "You saved Tara, and yourself, and that's all that matters."
He moved then, getting to his feet too quickly. His face was a mask. "Gonna ... have a quick look at Tara. See if ... see if she's awake."
Jemima got up too. "Wash," she murmured, hastening towards the bathroom. Alone, Buffy was adrift. She couldn't think what to cling tothe last few times she'd seen her boy were all terriblerebuffing his advances. Staking him. As a vampire, they couldn't relate at all, everything was twisted up and cruel, bad sensations and urges and instincts .... Yet back in London, the last time she'd seen him alivehad she really seen him? Had any idea what he was thinking or feeling? He'd been so angry with them both, and she hadn't quite bothered to find out why, had she? She'd been more annoyed, than anything else, at Johnny for ruining his own birthday dinner, for picking fights with Spike. She didn't want the distraction of his aggressive feelings, while she was trying to convince Spike they were still a loving couple, a functioning family.
Jemima was away a while. When she came back, her eyes like two bruises, but hair and clothes smoothed, she said, "Where's Papa?"
"I guess he's still with Tara. Maybe they're talking." She rose slowly. Her bones ached; for the first time ever, she fully felt her age. "Let's go see."
"I don't know how I can apologize to her. I was so foolish, I"
"Come, let's see her."
They went, arm in arm, back into the ICU. Tara was awake, but Spike wasn't with her. He hadn't been there at all.
"Are you sure?" Buffy said. "Maybe he looked at you while you were asleep, and"
"No. I'm sure he wasn't here."
A fresh terror raced through Buffy like fire up a rope. She checked at the nurses' station, then hurried back towards the lounge where they'd been sitting. As she burst out the door, she ran straight into Willow, Xander and Dawn. They caught her, and there were a million questions, but she couldn't wait. Had they seen Spike as they came up? No? She broke away, took the stairs down, rushing towards the parking garage.
The car wasn't where they'd left it. Spike was gone.
Filling out forms was almost comforting. The task was nearly mindlesshe'd long since memorized Wesley's various numbers and addresses and funeral wishes, and could unload them onto the clipboarded pages Serena gave him without having to think much. Yet the job kept him from thinking about anything else. So when the phone rang in his pocket, he answered with a stab of annoyance. He didn't want to talk about this yet.
"The Conduit. Tell me how to get there."
She was hard black vehement impatience. Wouldn't have to tell her about Wesley, which was good. "I don't think you should go there."
"I don't think I should go there either, but Spike's already gone, and if I don't get to him in time I don't know what'll happen. So. Tell. Me. Where. It. Is."
It didn't occur to him until a full quarter hour later that he should have driven her there himself, or tried to contact Spike. He didn't understand what was going onvoices in a different room, their tones low, words garbledwasn't really ready to engage with them. Wesley's death, after so much friendship and so much pain, ought to be allowed a still space for respect, repose.
That's what Angel wanted.
But he knew how much inaction would disappoint Wesley. Leaving the forms on Serena's desk, he made his way back down to the ICU.
"I can't believe it. I can't believe it, Sluggo's gone. And yet now it feels like one of those things that was always going to happen." Dawn stared out the window, eyes mindlessly fixed on the tops of the palm trees below, tossing in the breeze. "And I hate that. I hate it."
"Right there with you."
She turned. "Xander. This isn't right. Your children aren't supposed to die before you do. I mean ... okay, Spike and my sister, probably immortal, but he shouldn't have died before me. Before us."
"Yeah. And Jemmie shouldn't have been the one to slay him. God, remember how she used to tote him around everywhere when they were small?"
"Yeah. She used to remind me of that picture from Alice, where she's got that baby and it turns into a piglet and she'd holding it. She was such a little mommy. And then when she was a teenager and he was a little pill, she was always so patient with him. Not like Buffy was with me."
"She really adored him."
Dawn folded her arms. "And that's what nearly got her killed."
"So what're you saying, Dawnie? That we all should all love each other less, because"
"No! No ... but I don't get it. He had a soul. That was supposed to make him safe. Like, like Angel is safe."
"And like Idi Amin was safe, and John Wayne Gacy, and"
"All right, all right, we don't need to review the serial killer hit parade."
"I don't know why the soul works for Angel and didn't work for Johnny. Maybe because it came with a curse? Who can say? And I don't know why Spike has been safe all these years without one, even after the chip died. But they're the only two vampires I've ever heard of who weren't like all the rest. Vampires are monsters, Dawnie. We can't forget that because we have one for an in-law."
"Plenty of people's in-laws are monsters. God. God." She tapped her forehead against the window glass. "Quipping with us is a disease."
"We quip in the face of death."
"Speaking of which, we have to make the funeral arrangements. I told Buffy we would Shit. Shit." She began to cry.
Xander drew her into his arms. "I love you, Dawn Summers. I love you so very much."
They sprang apart. "Angel!"
"Dawn. I'm so sorry."
She embraced him, watched as Xander, steeling himself with a nearly invisible wince, shook Angel's hand.
"What can I do to help here?"
"Well, we were just saying"
Behind them, Willow appeared with Jemima. "They kicked us out of the ICU for the niAngel."
He spoke to Willow, Dawn noticed, but it was Jemima he looked at. Well, a vampire would want to keep an eye on a proven vampire killer.
"Where did Mamma go?"
"I thought Buffy was with you," Dawn said. "Sitting with Tara."
Willow shook her head. Jemima began to pace. "Something bad is happening, isn't it? Where did she go? Where's Papa? Why can't we all just stay in one place? I feel safer when we're all in one place!"
"I'll ask someone to have her paged," Xander said.
"She's not in the building." Angel stepped up to Jem. "I ran into them in the lobby, they needed to get out, to ... to talk. They wanted me to tell you."
"Oh! Oh ...."
"This must be so hard for them," Willow said.
"So, Jemmie, we'll drive you back to the hotel." Xander took Dawn's arm; she felt his eagerness to quit the hospital, to breath the open air.
"I ... thanks, but Angel will drop me. It's on his way."
"Are you sure you wouldn't rather come with us?" Xander said. "We're going to get some dinner. You should eat."
"I'm okay. I just want to go back and have a little alone time." She went to each of them in turn, bestowing kisses and hugs. "Auntie Willow. Uncle Xander. Auntie Dawn. I'll see you all in the morning, back here."
At the end of the corridor, before the turn for the elevators, Dawn glanced back. Angel and Jemima were still there, in the lounge. They weren't touching, or even looking at each other, but there was something ... noticeable ... about their juxtaposition. She couldn't say what it was. Maybe only that she'd never imagined Jemima and Angel would meet. Buffy had been so careful, all these years, to keep her family, and Angel, at a distance.
"You lied," she said. The fluorescent lights made her blink as she gazed up into Angel's face, reminding her she was wrung out, dehydrated, verging on numb. But she pushed the fatigue away. "My parents didn't go somewhere to talk. Did you really think I'd buy that?"
"No, but I thought the others would. Buffy suspects Spike went back to the Conduit. She asked me how to get there, and took off after him. I didn't want to tell you in front of the others, I didn't think you'd want to have to get into it with all of them. The fuss."
"The Conduit? Oh no. NO. How could he go there again?"
"Well ... I don't know for sure that he did. But Buffy seemed convinced, and she ... she knows him."
Jemima did too. Pressing the speed dial button on her cell phone, she already suspected Spike wouldn't answer. But listening to the seven rings gave her a chance to take a couple of deep breaths, to reel herself in. How many times in a day could she be wound up to breaking point? She'd never have guessed how many. "And you didn't go with her? To help?"
Angel's mouth opened. His glance darted from her, to the corners of the room, and came back to rest on a point beyond her shoulder; on nothing. His large face was all brow and downturned lines.
Even through her own misery, she sopped up his. Shame made her cheeks burn. "I understand. I shouldn't presume that our sordid troubles are all you have to deal with. You ... you didn't need to come down here now. Go back up to Wesley, Angel. I can call a taxi."
For a frozen moment, he didn't seem to have heard her. "No, I'll drop you off. You must be so tired." He offered her his arm.
They drove in silence. As they neared the Bel Age, Angel roused. "Wait. You can't go back to the same suite wherewhere it happened."
"They'll have moved our things to another one. The manager said so before, when ... when the ambulance people came. Because, you know, of the smoke damage, and the cleaning." That's what her brother's whole life was reduced toan extra fee for steam cleaning a carpet. "Actually, though ... could I ... could I stay at the Hyperion tonight?"
They were stopped at a light. Angel stared at his hands on the wheel, glanced into the rearview mirror. Looked everywhere but at her. The light changed, and he turned into the Bel Age entrance. She thought he was going to refuse her. But stopping, he said, "Maybe you want to go in and get your things?"
A doorman approached to help her out of the car; she waved him away. "Angel, I don't want to keep you from Wesley. I can see how anxious you are. I can get a taxi from here. Really. Rita or someone will be there to open a room for me."
"He doesn't need me."
"He isn't ... isn't waiting for me anymore."
"Oh. Oh!" They fell into place, the clues in his demeanor that she'd been too absorbed to take up before, in the hospital lounge. "Angel. I'm so sorry. When ... when did he die?"
"A little while ago ... when I came down to find you ...."
"I took you away from him."
"No ... no, he would've insisted I go to you. Jem, he was so taken with you. I'm glad you got to meet him, before ... before ... of course you didn't really see him. The real Wes, my best friend. Was already gone."
"Angel. Oh, I am sorry." She stretched her hand out, clasped it over his on the steering wheel.
"I don't think I've taken it in yet ... I don't know what I'm going to do without him."
His bewilderment seared her. "Let's go on now. There's nothing I need that I can't find at the Hyperion."
Without question, he put the car back into gear. She watched him, scrupulously keeping his eyes on the road, maneuvering as if he was in a good-driving instructional video. She wasn't tired or bleary now; the events of the day were withdrawn somehow to a manageable distance, like a root-canal appointment postponed for a week. She even felt a little bit high, and wondered if this was some effect of brain chemistry, a defense against too much bad news all at once. How much could the body bear?
Some people, she knew, detached altogether. Angel might be one of those.
In the Hyperion lobby, he walked a little ahead of her. "I'll open a nice room for you, one that'll be sunny in the morning."
"I don't want to be alone. I don't think you do, either." She caught at his arm, stepped around in front of him. "Angel, let's go to your room."
After miles on a road winding through scrubby half-desert, she saw Spike's car, parked in a field, and pulled off.
Buffy felt, the whole way, like she was driving through aspic. Yet the roads were miraculously clear, Angel's directions good. Every glance at the clock on the dashboard showed she was making good time. But Spike had the advantage of her, was sped by some miasma of guilt and rage and misguided conviction that he could fix the situation by attempting another insane, unreasonable bargain.
She just might kill him herself, if she could reach him before the Conduit got the chance.
Which might not be so easy, because the entrance wasn't exactly outlined in neon. Buffy ran forward, hoping to stumble through it even if she couldn't see it. She darted back and forth, feeling at the air. Nothing.
Shit. What if she was too late? The Conduit might have swallowed Spike already.
Throwing back her head, she screamed, "Slayer here! Let me in!"
All around her, the air rumbled, shimmering. A cosmic laugh, deep and terrible. Then she felt herself born up, up and into something hot and moist and deeply repugnant, the maw of some unseen being that had all the halitosis of the universe concentrated in it.
"He's here, Mamma."
She couldn't see, the aira word which dignified it too muchwas so thick. But she knew her son's voice. He could've been right beside her; she flailed out, but touched nothing. "Johnny?" No no no! I can't be too late, I can't, this isn't the way I want it to go! "Where? Let me see!" She stamped her foot, and the ground rippled under her feet, nearly felling her. "Don't fuck with me!"
"We're both here."
She saw him then. Not the sly-faced vampire who had pressed his thigh between hers, breathing hard against her neck. It was her boy ... her little boy, seven years old, brown as a nut, radiant as a sunflower with his curly hair, light-over-dark, clustered around his face. "Mamma." He beamed up at her, his arms upraised.
She wanted to grab him up the way she always used to, feel him wrapped around her like, as they used to say, a funny little monkey. He'd kiss her over and over on both cheeks, on her nose, giggling out in high clear joy.
She didn't touch him. "Spike! Where's Spike!"
The child pouted. "I told you. Here's right here. You always want him more than me."
"That isn't true!"
"Don't lie," the child said. "I saw you. I saw who you loved more."
"I'm not discussing this with you. Spike! Where are you!"
He became visible then. He was suspended over their heads, just out of arm's reach, staring right at them, but she wasn't sure if he saw them or not. Buffy jumped, tried to touch him, wanted to tear him down. "Give him to me! Let him go!"
"You can have him," little Johnny said. "You can have him ... or you can have me."
"You're not ... you're not my son. You're a trick."
"What trick? I'm Johnny." He was twenty-one again, dressed in the same old tweed jacket of Giles's, the round gold-rimmed spectacles, that he'd worn for his birthday dinner. "You can have me back, Mamma. I can have my whole life again, if that's what you'd like. Your sweet little boy back again? They always say children grow up too fast. I could grow up with you a second time. Or ... I can be like this. Grown and made innocent too. I can know you love me ... really love me."
"And what? Spike stays here?"
"Don't worry about him. He'll be fine."
"I'm not bargaining with you. I came to talk to Spike! Spikelet's get out of here. This isn't right."
"Spike's already given himself, so you could have your son again. Because he knew I'm what you need, and he's always given you what you need. You can have that assurance to remember him by. When we walk out of here, you'll have that, but you won't have to feel sad. You won't have to feel anything bad, because we'll be together, and it'll be all right."
"No!" She turned her back on the Johnny-thing. It was a meat-puppet, a manipulation. She craned up towards Spike, pleading with that blank face to recognize her, speak to her. "Spike!"
"Mamma, aren't you ashamed?" The high piping voice startled her. He was before her again, head thrown all the way back to look at her, eyes wide and adoring. Round baby face. Four. He'd been absurdly beautiful at four, people used to flirt with him in the supermarket, passersby would turn to watch his progress in the street, at the park. "Mamma, don't you know a mother loves her child more than anything else? After all, you made me. I lived inside you. I nursed at your breast. Through me, a part of your mother still lives. I belong to you. Who's he? Undead. Unclean. And not even a relative."
She hurled her fury up at Spike. "How dare you do this? How dare you force this on me!"
"Believe me," Johnny said, "It's better this way for him too. He hates himself. He hates everything he is, and he's only too grateful for a chance to give me back to you, sweet and unsullied and untouched, in exchange for his own quietus."
"You're lying. This isn't about quietus. Which is a stupid pretentious word. Who says quietus?"
"He did NOT. Spike!" She grabbed the child, shook him. "Let him down! Let him speak!"
"You can have him," the child said. He rubbed his face against her arm, smiling shyly up at her. He'd done that, all the time. Pressed his lovely face to her skin in his excesses of affection. Such a loving little boy. Always wanting to sit in her lap, wrap his chubby arms around her neck. Peppering her face and neck with kisses. Singing to her, telling her stories in his prattling voice. He was delicious, irresistible. The sweetest little Johnny in the world. "You can have him, leave with him. He'll hate himself and you forever, and I'll endure eternal punishmentbeatings and burnings and rape and mutilation, over and overin the lowest circle of hell. If that's what you want, you only have to say, Mamma. Or you can have me, all clean and new, my crimes undone. That's what Papa wanted. He agreed. But now you're here, the choice is yours."
The little boy reached for her, arms uplifted, his hands two starfish. It was the pick-me-up pose, and she yearned in every cell to do that, to hold and cradle him and go back to the beginning, so it could all be different.
Now you're here. Buffy looked at him. Her sunny, beautiful son. Whom she'd loved, with all the love she had. Love which somehow wasn't enough, or ... or wasn't the right kind. She knew that, was ashamed of it. But that was beside the point, now.
She shoved him aside. Threw her voice up at Spike, sure he could hear her, whether he could let on or not. "This is false! Not real! Innocence doesn't get restored, broken things aren't made whole! We made what we made, we lived what we lived! Now we have to live with this! Our son made his choice, and when he got a second chance, he chose the same! You can't undo that, Spike! And you can't evade me, our marriage, what we are to each othernot like this!"
"He can," Johnny said. "He is."
"He isn't! He's made a mistake. He's forgotten that he has a job to do, with me, a job that's nowhere near finished. He's forgotten how courageous he really is, or else he wouldn't retreat here, give up. It doesn't take courage to give yourself over to hell, Spike! The courage is in living! Remember? You reminded me of that once. You've reminded me of that every day since."
"He thinks this isn't the same," the child said, in a helpful tone, like an interpreter.
"It is the same. He's forgotten that I love him ... more than anything, or anyone. I can be the slayer without him. But I can't be happy if he isn't with me. I can't be content. Maybe I am a bad, unnatural mother, maybe I should prefer my children to my husband. But that isn't the way I am. I'm not going to pretend I don't need what I need."
"You'll send me to hell, Mamma." Johnny's cheeks were hot now, fear in his bright wide eyes. He snatched at her hands, her clothes. "Don't make me go there! I'm afraid! Mamma, don't send me there!"
Buffy knelt, held his small hunched shoulders in her hands. "Baby ... I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry I didn't protect you better. I should've made sure Drusilla could never touch you. That's my fault, that you had to die that way, and I will never forget it, never not hate it. But ... getting turned ... you chose that. And going back to her after your free will was restored ... you're responsible there too. It isn't me sending you to hell. And it isn't in my power, or your father's, to keep you from it."
"Mamma, I'm just a child! Look at me, I'm just a little child!"
She snatched him close, breathed deep of the clean smell of his baby body, pressed kisses wildly to his hair, his face. The last time, the last. Her precious only son. He clung to her, sobbing, tried to shimmy into her lap. Memory flashed on her, of that last run, that dive off Glory's tower. How glad she'd been then, to take the pain, the sacrifice, onto herself.
But this was different. She put Johnny firmly back, pushed his hands away, rose.
"Spike! It's time to go. It's time for you and me to deal."
The foetid miasma of the Conduit roiled, convulsed, squeezing the breath out of her. Then it was gone. Buffy found herself sprawled in the sharp dry grass, under the black moonless sky. Spike lay beside her, his back to her. She reached for his arm, pulled him around. His face was convulsed with tears.
She punched him.
"You bastard! I can't believe you did that again!"
He couldn't quite believe what she was proposing. Now? Now, at the end of this Day of Death, when they were each so broken up and stunned, she wanted to give herself to him?
"Oh, you're thinking. Please don't think, Angel. Just kiss me."
Her mouth, claiming his, tasted of fever and sweetness; she groaned when he pulled her into his arms, her own tightening around his head. Angel wasn't quite ready for the hunger of her kiss, her tongue questing into his mouth, or the way she pressed herself against him, straining up on tiptoe. Her body's smallness, softness, its pulsing heat disoriented him for a moment, so different were they from the last person he'd kissed ... her father.
They hadn't talked about that.
They hadn't talked about anything. They should talk. This wasn't something to rush into.
She wriggled against him, as if she wanted to burrow in, or climb him like a tree. "Angel, I don't know what I'd do if you weren't holding me right now."
She was the most desirable woman he'd ever seen.
But there was the bandage on her throat, the spicy salty smell of the wound reminding him that he was the second vampire that day to crowd in on her, to touch her with his mouth on the way towards going inside her. How could she want him, after that? Not just tonight, but ever?
This was dangerous.
Damn Spike and Buffythey should've been here, with their girl, instead of haring off after magical loopholes. It was them Jemima needed. Her family.
"Is this hurting?"
She touched the bandage, her eyes widening. "You know ... for a minute I forgot." She blinked rapidly. "It's so odd ... how you can be all freaked out, for hours and hours ... and yet the reason why can slip your mind." Her expression changed, became somber. "Does it bother you ... I don't know, tempt you ... that my skin is broken here?"
It did bother him. Not in a wanting-to-rip-the-bandage-off-and-bite-her way, but because the scent of blood made her even more appealing, and because he didn't want that to be any part of his desire for her. A desire he really shouldn't be indulging anyway. "It should bother you."
Suddenly he couldn't bear to touch her. He was angry at himselffor sleeping with Spike, for falling for her, for being undead in the first place. He was angry at Wesley for putting the idea into Jemima's head, that anything with him was possible. Wesley shouldn't have done thatdone that and then died.
He wanted to take care of Jemima, but he was the last man who had any right to attempt it. Sidling off, he threw himself onto the pouf, rubbed his eyes.
Wesley was dead. Wesley was dead. Wesley was dead. And he hadn't cried yet, or told anyone but her. All that was still hanging over him.
"Angel." She followed slowly, until she was leaning against his knees. "I want you very very much. I'm not at all afraid of you. You won't lose your soul with me. You're nothing like my brother. I'm not repelled because you're a vampire. Then I'd have to hate Papa too, and that couldn't ever happen. As for what you two were doing a little while ago ... we can talk about it later, but I don't care now. I guess that covers everything."
His feeling for heralready palpitatingsurged. "It doesn't cover anything. For God's sake, I don't want to hurt you, butthat's why I don't"
"I'm being dreadfully forward, I realize that. But I wouldn't say all of this if I didn't know that we're going to be together. Angel, we are. Why shouldn't we begin now, when we both need so much to be comforted?" She slipped a hand into her pocket, and came up with the silver lighter. "Anyway, I still have this, and I know how to use it." She was brave, beautiful, the tears welling up in her eyes even as she smiled a wavery smile. "If you don't take me upstairs right now, I'llI'lloh God, I'm already crying."
Angel wasn't sure what he'd expected her to be like. He hadn't actually gotten so far as to fantasize about making love to her, beyond knowing that he very much wanted to. It would've felt ... impertinent ... and presumptuous ... to mentally undress her. But her usual manner, demure, dignified in a way that made her seem older than she wasbetween the flashes of nervy verve that marked her out as her parents' daughterled him to suppose she might be diffident, at least at first.
Arched over her in his bed, Angel didn't want to think about Jemima's father, whose smooth, creamy white skin he'd passed on to her. Didn't want to think of her mother, whose small, pink-tipped breasts were reproduced on Jemima, along with her way of tossing her head as he kissed them. Didn't want to think about Johnny, with his fangs sunk in her neckright there a few inches from his own lipsso that the scent of her blood mixed with her perfume, and the musk of her skin, and the intoxicating aroma of her pussy when she parted her thighs.
Didn't want to think about how culpable he was in the disaster that was Johnny. There were so many ways, it was like a reflection in a four-faceted mirror.
He wondered about her husband, the miserably-murdered Milo. It was too easy to imagine that a man whom he loathed, though he'd never seen him, was a needle-dicked no-hoper. But Jem's responses to his every move were those of a woman unused to being satisfied. She was the opposite of passive, even as her confidence seemed to have come off with her clothes. How many other men had she had? He knew she'd paired off with Milo youngremembered Buffy's late-night phone call with the news of their elopement, when the girl was just eighteenbut could she really never have slept with anyone else since?
There seemed no way to ask.
He wanted to be good for her, give her what she needed. He had no clear idea what that was. Before Spike, he'd gone ... he counted hastily ... nearly eighteen months without sleeping with anyone else, and the last time was with the madame of that demon brothel, paying in kind after he retrieved her daughter from kidnappers. They'd done things that ... that they'd both enjoyed, but were nothing like what was going to happen right here, nor should be, even leaving aside that Jemima didn't have a tail, and only the one set of genitals. Jemima deserved to be cherished, and pleasured, and made to feel as precious and beautiful and unique as she wasnot to remind him, with every kiss, of Buffy. It wasn't her fault that she was Buffy-shaped, Buffy-sized, that her smell, her essence, was a sort of echo of her mother's, that she'd somehow picked up her mother's questing way of kissing.
The bed was full of these other people he'd loved and wronged, when he wanted to be alone with Jemima.
She stirred beneath him, her small hands traveling up and down his flanks, exploring his contours with avid curiosity. His cock, in retreat from the anxious barrage of thought, was only at half-stand; she hadn't touched it yet, and he felt oddly shy about directing her attention there.
As if she'd been reading his mind, she said, "I'm not as experienced as you're probably going to wish I was. My best trick is getting myself off, I'm afraid."
"I don't want you to be any different than you are."
"Don't worry about making this first time amazing or anything. We're both tired and grieving. I just ... I just really want to have you inside me, and holding me, and ... you know. For you to come and for me to come. That's what I want." She didn't meet his eyes, and her blush heated the air around her.
"That's what I want too."
"And you won't be too happy. Don't be afraid of that."
"Probably not tonight, yeah. But I have to think of it."
"Nothing bad will happen."
"I want this to be good for you," Angel said. "I'm going to take care of you."
"Okay, yes." She touched him then, her palm sliding across the head, warm fingers grasping his heft. He jerked and gasped, hardening in an instant, thrusting into her hand. Her smile was sun through clouds. "Oh my."
"You ... you see what you do to me."
It was all right after that. They kissed some more, and her kisses weren't like anyone's but hers, and weren't for anyone but him. Despite her caution, she was a good kisser, and held him like he belonged to her, touching him everywhere with no more shyness. When he lowered himself down her body to address her quim, she cried out and squirmed and came hard within a minute, and he knew then that she trusted him. He stayed there for a while, learning the taste of her, trying what made her gasp and groan and even grunt, a low babyish grunt that delighted him. She was small and flushed and pretty there, the dark curls unmanicured. He was free to imagine she'd never had a lover who cared to serve her all her potential pleasure.
When he went into her, she held him tight, looking stunned and glad in a way that couldn't have flattered him more, until she undercut it with a wide yawn.
They rocked softly together along the tide-line between release and sleep. He made sure she got there first, tensing into a long shudder, before he made his few last thrusts and spilled.
"I'm glad you're with me," she murmured. "I'd be too sad and scared by myself."
She was out before he could answer, even with all his weight on her. He shifted off, drawing her in against him. She pillowed her heavy head on his shoulder, her pulse already slowing into deeper slumber.
Somewhere in the midst of this laconic and ill-considered act, they'd crossed over into a state of ease together, as if there'd never been any doubt about their union at all.
Angel didn't drift off. He didn't want to miss this, the first experience of holding her while she slept, with complete abandon, in his arms. She'd been right, that there was no danger to his soul, tonight at least. Not with Wesley's death and all the suffering that surrounded Jemima foremost in his mind. But his conscience still pricked himwhat right did he have to try again, when his first foray into love brought forth nothing but carnage and misery? The pain he'd cause Jemima if he pushed her away now would be nothing to the agony that would follow if he lost himself once more.
She was so confident that wouldn't happen. Was that only because of Wesley's reassurances? And what made Weswho had seen him at his worstso sure?
In her sleep, Jemima sighed and hitched closer. One leg was thrown over his, an arm encircling him, as if he was a bolster. They might have been sleeping together for years, so relaxed was she.
She seemed to know what she was doing. Perhaps he could just trust her.
Through half-shuttered eyes, he saw the glimmer of her silver lighter on the bedside table, and the blue glow of his cell phone. A text message had come in; he reached for it.
It was from Buffy. Found Spike. All OK.
OK could mean anything. Would they be seeing Johnny again? Angel hoped not. He texted back: OK here too.
Return to Herself's Fic.