Exaggeration and Blank Verse
They Say You Can't Go Home Again
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Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel the Series

There was more hate in her eyes than he’d ever seen there, but they were red around the edges and watery as well. Even the dead could grieve. But he wasn’t kidding himself that that had given any advantage to his side of the table. Even mourning, Lilah was a professional.

“Done,” she said, scrawling an illegible signature across the page. “No more apocalypse.”

“Just the usual pain, death and despair.” Gunn was a few shades too pale to still be on his feet, standing there with Illyria’s hand jammed up inside the wound in his stomach, her form shifted into something that could hold his guts together.

Lilah shrugged. “Human condition, Charles. You bring us- and the First, I might add- on yourselves.” She pulled an ornate gold-and-gemstone contraption from her pocket. “This will take you back to your own dimension. Get the hell out of ours.”

“Mind the puns, love,” Spike said with a faint smile, trying to downplay the way he was leaning on his sword just to stay upright. “We might just want to stay.”

She stared at him for a long icy moment. “Don’t try to come back or interfere with our work again. All business between us is terminated.” A swirl of dark hair, the click of expensive heels, and she was gone.

The four blinked at each other, too weary and stunned to speak. After a moment, they began moving toward the cavern’s exit, for no better reason than Spike’s objections to doing any magic involving amulets in closed spaces.

“If the bloody sun’s going to come out of that thing,” he muttered as they inched their way to the outside hellworld and its yellow sky, more than happy to keep to the stagger-shuffle-stop pace set by Gunn and Illyria, “I’d like to be able to run away.” He hesitated and glance down at the acid-burned mess of his left thigh. “Or have the option, at least.”

“Okay,” sighed Angel as they entered the pale green daylight. “Where’s the thingy?”

The others stared at him.

“The amulet.” An edge came into his voice. “Spike, give it to me.”

“I don’t have it,” Spike shrugged, stabbing his sword into the purple soil and leaning on it again. “The dead girl gave it to you.”

Angel patted at his jacket. “I don’t have it either.” They turned and looked back into the cavern, dark and mocking and looming large as a football field. “I must’ve dropped it...”

They stood there for a moment, too tired and numb to even call him a stupid git, or a damn fool, or a sniveling worm. Then they began to stagger-shuffle-stop back the way they came.

They found it halfway back to where they’d met with Lilah, barely visible through the heavy white mist crawling over the ground. Spike frowned at the mist for a moment while Angel awkwardly dropped to his knees to scoop up the amulet. “I think...does this not seem very mist-like to anyone else?”

“It has no moisture,” Illyria said briefly, shifting her weight to take on more of Gunn’s.

“And it’s sticking to the amulet.” Angel held up the piece of metal and began the painful process of getting back to his feet. Spike frowned at the amount of blood soaking his sire’s clothes- they were going to have to do nothing but feed for a week before they were of any use at all, once they got out of here. Angel brushed at the filmy whiteness that clung to the gold like cobwebs.

“It’s souls,” Gunn said heavily, seeming to go paler even as they stood. Dark fluids were leaking out around Illyria’s hand. “I remember, from when we pulled yours out, Angel. Looked like that, in the jar. Soul-stuff.”

They stood for a moment staring at the white cloud crawling around their feet and as far as they could see. Hundreds of thousands of souls, drifting into eternity.

In the distance, something roared. Angel gripped the amulet tighter.

“Spike, you’re just going to have to set your phobia aside for the trip...I want to get us out of here now.”

“Any idea how it works?” Gunn asked, mopping at the sweat pouring down his face with the arm that wasn’t wrapped around Illyria. “Cause I don’t think Lilah’s gonna come back with the manual...”

“Spike’s the amulet expert...” He turned it in his hands, and it fell open. Light began to gather over each gem. “Oh. Think I got it.”

They reached out and took each other’s hands. Angel glanced at the rocks over their heads.

“Here we go...”

****
“We made it,” Spike gasped, flopping onto his back in the tall grass. “And I’m not on fire.”

“We’re alive,” Gunn said weakly, falling to his knees and bringing Illyria with him. “Thank God I’m gonna die in my own dimension.”

“You’re not going to die,” Angel said, staying on his feet with sheer force of will. “I’m not losing another-”

A woman was whimpering. It wasn’t Illyria.

She was lying in the grass, naked and shivering, her outstretched fingertips just brushing the hem of Spike’s jacket. Her dark hair fell over her face, tears soaking through it. Spike’s eyes widened, and he scrambled over to her side, sniffing at the air and gently touching her shoulder.

“It can’t be,” he whispered, brushing her hair back and staring at her. She closed her eyes tightly and rolled over to bury her face in the grass. “Anya?”

“Who?” Angel stared as Spike took off his duster and gently wrapped it around her. It was torn, burned, and bloodstained, but her fingers clenched around it like a lifeline. “How did she get here?”

“Soul must’ve gotten stuck on Spike’s jacket. Knew that damn thing must pick stuff up wherever you go, Blondie.” Gunn slumped farther into the tall grass. Illyria tugged him halfway across her lap, like an overgrown toddler at storytime, her free hand gripping his shoulder like a C-clamp. “And we all know Wolfram & Hart amulets do crazy shit.”

“You know her.” Angel watched Spike gently guide the woman into a sitting position, his arm around her shoulder, guiding her head down onto his. She was shaking like a leaf. “What are the odds...”

“More things on heaven and earth, Horatio...” Spike glanced up at his grandsire, worry warring with the exhaustion in his eyes. “It’s Anya, Harris’s girl. Formerly vengeance demon. Died in the battle to close the Hellmouth...saving Andrew, of all people...she’s shaking so bad. Anya, can you hear me?” He cupped his hand around the curve of her cheek and she pulled away, wailing. “Angel, what do we do?”

“We can’t stay here.” He looked around the empty field the amulet had left them in. “Gunn needs a doctor, and we all need to rest. She...” He hesitated, staring at the crying woman in Spike’s arms. “She needs time. It’s hard, coming back.”

“Yeah,” Spike said softly, stroking Anya’s hair. “Where can we go?”

Angel closed his eyes, asking whatever little gods looked out for vampires to give him strength. He was supposed to be dead. None of his plans had involved him surviving the rush into hell. In the most optimistic ones, the others lived, to tell Buffy and Connor he was sorry. But in every dream, he died.

Instead, he was still here, and somehow still in charge. Still carrying a sword and searching for a way that they could all survive until another morning. And he couldn’t even run out into the sunlight of that morning...because they were still looking up to him, for reasons he couldn’t recall.

“Angel?” Gunn wheezed. “You got a plan or what?”

All I’ve got is a death wish, a destiny I can’t shake, and a sword.

“Yeah,” he said wearily, opening his eyes. “Illyria, put on Fred’s form and carry him over to the side of the road. Flag somebody down and tell them you guys got hit by a car and need to get to the nearest hospital. Spike and I will find a place to hole up.”

She blurred, and Fred’s dark eyes stared up at him, the blood and bruises so much more shocking on her face than they’d been on Illyria’s. “And then what?”

She only followed him because Wesley had. He had never given her any reason to respect or trust him. It still hurt, hearing that skepticism in Fred’s voice. “I will come for you.” He stared into her eyes for a beat, then turned away. “I promise.”
*****
“You can’t stay here.” Buffy’s voice was gentle, and in his mind he could see it, sunshine and summer rain. He closed his eyes, to see it more clearly and to shut out her words.

“Angel.” She was insistent, and, obediently, he looked at her. “It’s been long enough. You’re healed. You have to go.”

She was right; he and Spike had finished healing a month ago, but now even Gunn was up and about. “I guess we’ve imposed on you long enough,” he said, nodding slowly and picking at the couch cushions. “Okay. The four of us will be out of your hair by-”

“Uh, Angel,” Gunn cut in, folding his hands in front of him and leaning his elbows on the table, “I’m staying.”

He blinked. In all the half-formed plans he’d dreamed up and discarded while at the Slayer house, they had all left together. “What?”

His old comrade shrugged and shifted in his wheelchair, eyes jumping from the table to the wall to the floor and back. Anywhere but Angel. “Giles says they need another pair of hands around here. I’m no good in a fight anymore, but they need someone in the library.”

“The library?” He knew the disbelief in his voice was downright rude, and that he was staring. He was too busy listening to the roaring in his ears to care.

“I know the damn alphabet,” Gunn said, the old fire coming into his eyes as he sat up straighter. “And it can’t be that hard to learn a filing system. G-man says they can use some help around here, and I’m game for it. I’m staying.”

“Okay, okay,” he said quickly, staring down at the worn hardwood flooring. “Working, right, no more imposing. All right, Spike and Illyria and I will-”

“I will leave this place,” Illyria said from her chair near the doorway, eyes never moving from the flock of ducks in the yard. “But not with you.”

He literally gaped at her, his jaw open. The word that came to his mind- crazily, impossibly, falsely- was mutiny. They were all running out on him.

“I wish to see more of this world,” she continued, utterly unaware of and indifferent to his state. “During the daylight.” She glanced over her shoulder then, at the far corner where the late-afternoon shadows gathered. “Anya has agreed to accompany me.”

Xander whirled in his chair, choking off words in his throat. In the corner, Anya shuffled her feet and pushed back her hair. “Yes,” she said softly. “I know a little bit about going from demonic power to humanity. We’ll be all right together, me and Illyria.”

Giles rested his hand heavily on Xander’s shoulder, and the younger man dipped his chin and stayed silent.

“Angel,” Buffy said softly, taking his hand, “I actually only meant you and Spike.”

He stared at her, shaking his head slowly, too numb and bewildered to speak. She went on, eyes fixed on the couch beside him, voice steady and level and low.

“I can’t...we can’t have vampires in the house. It’s bad for the girls, it confuses them...something with the spell, we don’t know why, but the Slayer sense for when vampires are around is a lot stronger in them. Having you here, it’s hurting them.” She met his eyes then, and the ache in them matched the one in his heart. “I’ve already turned their worlds upside down. I can’t hurt them anymore.”

He nodded slowly. “I...I know. I understand.”

“And they need clarity, right now...they need to understand their mission.” She let go of his hand and ran both of hers through her hair, tucking it tightly back off her face. He stared at the angles of her cheekbones, so sharp and stark in a thin, pale face, and remembered when it was rounded and soft and full of laughter. “They’re learning to protect humanity by killing the vampires. Having souled ones around to confuse the issue...it doesn’t help anybody.”

“Teaching them the black and white of it.” He bit his tongue to keep back other words, hurtful ones. “Probably a good idea.”

“Angel-” She reached for his hand again, but he pulled back, clumsily gaining his feet and stepping back toward the door.

“I’m going to get my stuff together,” he said, carefully. “I- I need to be...away. Right now.”

He could feel all of their eyes on his back as he ran.
*****
Late that night, when the full moon had reached its peak, he went out to the garden.

He wanted to walk, feel air on his skin, gather his thoughts in the nighttime silence that wasn’t silence, but astir with all the life that hides its face from the sun. But as he walked the tidy dirt paths, he heard voices up ahead and slipped into a stand of lilacs to listen.

“I’m sorry, Xan,” Buffy said softly. “It must hurt so bad.”

“It’s okay,” he replied, tilting his head back to look up at the stars. “I’m kind of surprised that it is, but...it’s okay.”

“You just got her back, and she’s leaving...” She rubbed his back and he turned to smile at her. She smiled back, and Angel wondered if his heart would hurt this much if it could only beat.

“I understand that we can’t go back to the way it was, Buffy. That’s over, that’s gone. And...I’m okay with that. Just having her back in this world makes me happy, even though we’re not together and we’re not going to be. Knowing that she’s out there anywhere, alive...that’s enough, for me, now.” He hesitated and looked down at the painstakingly trimmed grasses between his feet, then back over at her. When he spoke again, his voice was so soft that a human standing in Angel’s place never would have heard it. “I loved her for being Anya, not for being mine. And I still do, and I still will, wherever she goes.”

She caught his face between her hands and kissed his forehead softly. “My Xander,” she whispered. “When did you get so smart?”

“Half an hour and two shots of whiskey ago,” he chuckled, squeezing her hand and getting to his feet. “I’m going in and getting some shut-eye...what about you?”

“In a minute,” she said, staring off over the sleeping flowers. “I’m just going to sit here for a little.”

He nodded and in a moment was gone. Buffy looked over at where Angel was standing, and smiled.

“I know you’re there,” she said quietly. “Come here and sit with me.”

He crossed the space between them as quietly as only a vampire could and sat, head bowed and hands clasped in front of him. He could feel her looking at him, but couldn’t find the courage in a heart that had faced dragons to look into her eyes.

“You’re gonna be okay,” she said. “You’ll go on. It’s what you do, ‘cause you’re strong, remember? You go out and fight, every day. You can keep doing that.”

“I know.” He shuffled his feet in the grasses. “It still hurts.”

“I wasn’t lying when I said it was for the girls.” She leaned back against the bench and ran her hands over the edge. “But it’s also for me.”

“I figured.”

“It’s too much, Angel, it’s too hard. Having you both here.” She looked up at the midnight sky, at the spaces between the stars that reached out into eternity. “I need...I need to be alive right now. I need to focus on the living, I need to...take a break from this fixation with the troubled, gorgeous, and immortal...” She laughed wearily. “Let’s face it, I need to find a man that I can kill.”

He smiled faintly. “I know.”

She blinked. “You do, don’t you.” Her hand brushed over his temple, touch light and soft as butterfly wings. “You’re not...”

“Mad?” He shook his head and looked down at his feet. “No, Buffy, I’m not mad. I’m...a little sad, I guess, but that’s mourning for a memory.” The words all seemed to stick in his throat, but he went on, because the pressure in his mind was too great not to. “It couldn’t be like it was. I’m not who I was then, and neither are you. I could never be that guy again. And you don’t need him anyway.” His brow furrowed and he leaned forward, bent almost double on the bench, talking down to the grass but knowing she heard every word with perfect clarity.

“I mean, a million things have changed since then...everything. Everything. God, we were so young!” He laughed, and she laughed with him, a gentle mutual chuckle that died too soon. “I mean, I was 240 years old, but I had barely lived at all, in this world. I was just as young as you were. And now...”

“We’re older,” she said softly, nodding. “Some days I feel as old as you. And on really bad days, as old as Giles.”

He didn’t smile this time. “Older, wiser, sadder...a hell of a lot more tired...I’ll never forget how I felt then, Buffy, and I’ll treasure it always, and I’m never going to stop loving you. But what we had...we can’t have it again. It belongs to the people we used to be, and we shouldn’t take it from them by trying to get it for ourselves.”

She rested her head gently on his shoulder. “I understand what you’re saying,” she whispered, “and you’re absolutely right, and I’m so...proud to have loved you, Angel. And I think that this new person, this guy you are now...I think he’s someone I’d very much like to have in my life, as a friend.”

He smiled down at her, at the silver moonlight on her golden hair and the soft skin that kept a ghost of California’s tan even in England. “I don’t know what I’d do if you didn’t.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes, listening to the night birds calling and the soft insect song. The moon and stars continued in their eternal courses. After a time she sat up.

“I already had this talk with Spike,” she said, a lopsided little smile on her lips. “Or at least a version of it. So I think...can we all...be good now?”

“Yeah,” he said, planting a gentle kiss on her hair, “we’re good.”

She smiled again, got to her feet, and began to walk back up to the house. As he watched her go, he suddenly wanted to call out to her- “Still my girl?”

But he held his tongue, and she walked away in silence.
*****
Spike came to his room as the sun was breaking the horizon. “You talked to her,” he said flatly.

“Yeah.” He sat on the edge of his bed, as he had for an hour or more. He patted the mattress beside him, and Spike sank down in a sigh of new leather. They stared at the floor for a moment.

“Andrew says she has someone else.” Spike rubbed his hands together and jammed them into his pockets. “Watcher in training, Australian bloke. Says he’s nice enough, and a swimsuit model, and fuck-all else.”

“Andrew’s an idiot.”

“Yeah.” Spike looked out the window at the red, swollen sun. “It’s funny...I don’t have the foggiest idea what to do with myself. I mean, yeah, help the helpless and whatnot, but in between that. For years it’s all been about Buffy, you know? Trying to kill her or trying to shag her or just thinking about her...but there’s been Buffy.”

“I had the office.” Angel watched the wild colors fade from the clouds as the sun found its balance and mounted the sky. “Or if there weren’t any cases, Cordelia always had something going on, or Gunn and Wes were around, or Fred needed feeding.”

“And now...”

“And now.”

They sat in silence until the sun moved high enough to be clear of the window. Spike left and Angel fell back into the sheets, hoping to find some sleep.
*****
When he woke up, his keys were gone.

He’d bought a used car of flashy design and dubious quality shortly after they got to England, figuring it would come in handy on whatever foggy, far-off day they decided to leave. And he had thought it would be a they leaving, four people, bags and baggage. Not just him skulking off into the night.

But the keys were gone. And when he got downstairs, he found out that Spike was gone too.

“He said you told him he could have the car,” Willow said, her puzzled frown quickly turning to annoyed understanding. “And of course I should’ve realized that you’d never in a million years...I’m sorry, Angel.”

“He did leave this for you.” Dawn handed him a tightly folded piece of paper with a hastily-scrawled stick-figure angel as its address. He opened it with a scowl that slowly faded. “That bastard,” he whispered, staring at the paper in utter amazement. “That- magnificent- bastard-” He dropped the note and ran out of the room.

The young Slayers looked up from their studies in puzzlement at a sound none of them had heard in all the preceding months-. Angel was laughing.

Willow picked up the note and read over it quickly. “Catch me if you can, old boy. Good luck picking up the trail, but if you manage, there’s a beer in it.” She glanced at Dawn. “Does this make any sense to you?”

“There’s a PS,” Dawn pointed. “ ‘What else are we going to do?’ ”
*****
Spike pushed the beer bottle across the table, grinning the same cocky grin he’d had since he took up being cool as a hobby. “Only two months this time! You’ll take all the fun out of the game.”

“Maybe you’re running out of tricks.” He slumped down into the booth, glancing around the room at all the people...things...things that were also people...drinking and talking and flirting in the gloom. “Can’t we ever meet in, you know, human bars?”

“Not in this dimension.” Spike slammed back a shot of something green and steamy. “Gah! That’ll put hair on your ass.” He blinked and tossed the shot glass aside. “Which, actually, would be tremendously unattractive, and I think I’ll switch to something safer.”

“Good idea.” He took a sip of his beer, which tasted like apple juice and old socks. “I actually would’ve found you even sooner if I hadn’t stopped to put down a demon cult in Burma.”

“Aren’t they Myanmar these days? Or is that over now?” Spike waved his hand at the waitress, pointing to Angel’s beer bottle and miming drinking one of his own. “At any rate- bullshit.”

“Whatever. I’m here now. And I’ve got a plan for the next round, it’ll take you two years and every brain cell you’ve got to find me.” They glared at each other over the scarred table, a glare that quickly dissolved into matching weary grins. As fundamentally childish and absurd as this game was, it kept them going. Gave them a reason to scour the globe and the known dimensions, racking up hopeless helped along the way.

“Hear from Buffy lately?” Spike asked casually, cracking open his beer.

“Got a message from her yesterday, actually.” He rolled the bottle between his hands. “She asked me to come back in, says there’s something they want my opinion on.”

“Oh.” Spike stared down at the table for a long moment, and in the utter absence of a smart remark Angel realized that the other vampire hadn’t received a similar invitation.

Well, that was just rude, he thought, filled with a sudden fiery rebellion. And she didn’t say I couldn’t bring a guest...

“Come on,” he said, standing up and tossing the empty bottle aside. Spike looked up at him, eyes confused and startled and grateful and too, too blue. “I left the car in Burma. There’s a portal down the road.” As they stalked out of the bar- “Do we have to pay for any of that?”

“Nah, they know me...”
*****
This time he walked with Gunn in the garden, out to the far corner where a new granite monument arched up over the lilacs, carefully holding back his pace to match his companion’s.

Because Gunn was walking across the garden, leaning on a cane but without wheels. “Physical therapy?” Angel had asked after the hugs and greetings.

“Physical violence,” Gunn had replied with a sheepish grin. “Or at least the threat of it. Faith and Robin decided there was no reason I couldn’t be back on my feet, that I was just being a pansy. Said they’d slash my tires. At Christmas, when I made it off the walker, they gave me this.” He held up the cane and showed how, with a twist of the handle, it produced a needlelike sword. “Old-school, man. Like the rich dudes back in the day, Giles says.”

“I remember,” Angel grinned, and they headed out into the softly scented night.

The memorial was simple, stark, and beautiful. Flat planes of granite were etched with names and dates, a flame burned in a bronze cauldron, and wrought iron letters declared “They Kept The Faith.”

Angel touched the carvings that were all the earthly reminders of Cordelia, Wesley, Fred, and Doyle. “You remembered Doyle?” he asked, blinking sharply and looking away.

“Yeah,” Gunn said, shifting his weight to his good side and shoving his hands into his pockets. “Only seemed fair.”

“Thank you,” he whispered, stepping back to look at the entirety. There were names he didn’t know, probably of the girls lost at the Hellmouth and in the field more recently, and a few that he did- Joyce Summers. Jenny Calendar. Tara Maclay.

“When we get back up to the house,” Gunn said with an odd little smile, deliberately breaking the moment, “there’s something you’ve just got to see.”
*****
The satellite feed was in Danish, and nobody seemed to know how to turn on the subtitles. It didn’t matter. Understanding the language would only have made it more confusing.

On the screen, to a throbbing techno backbeat, Illyria tossed her hair in slow motion, swiveled her hips, glowered over her shoulder. The camera zoomed in close to caress the blue streaks on her face and the iciness of her eyes, then panned extra-slowly down her red-clad figure. Exoskeleton or catsuit, Angel had never figured it out, but on TV it really didn’t matter.

“What is it?” he asked. Beside him, Spike shook his head slowly, too stunned to speak.

“Reality show,” Gunn shrugged, settling himself deeper into the couch cushions. “Six people every week, competing for some damn thing or another.” The camera swung ecstatically around an odd, lumpy little car under a strobe light. “I think this week they’re trying to win that.”

“But what do they do? What’s the premise?” Illyria pointed at the camera and tilted her head menacingly. The music rose to new heights of ecstatic frenzy. It cut to a commercial.

“No idea.” Faith shrugged from her overstuffed chair. “Nobody here speaks Danish. Doesn’t really matter, though- they’re all the same. Don’t need to understand ‘em to laugh at people making jackasses of themselves.”

“Does Illyria speak Danish?”

“She’s a god, remember?” Spike intoned dramatically. “She was speaking Danish when the rest of us were muck.”

“Oh, right.” He nodded as the show roared back en medias res, with the players hurling themselves off a platform into bubbling water. “I forgot about the muck.”

“She’s really mean to them,” Andrew added. “It’s so cool.”

“We think she’s being mean,” Faith said pointedly. “We really can’t tell.”

“Oh, she’s being mean,” Gunn said, nodding firmly. “Maybe not on purpose, but Illyria...count on it.”

“How in the world did she get into this?” Spike leaned forward to watch closer as two of the players strapped a third one to a giant wheel.

“Three guesses,” Xander said wearily, “or, forget it, I’ll just tell you. Anya’s her manager.”

“Say no more.” The wheel began spinning. The man strapped to it screamed. Illyria waved her arms and shouted something. “Let me guess- she has the most expensive deal ever signed in Denmark.”

“Got it in one.”

“If you children don’t mind,” Buffy said from the doorway, “I did want to talk to Angel while he’s here.”

“Oh. Yeah. Coming, Buffy.” Slowly, Angel levered himself off the couch and began backing toward the door.

“Don’t worry,” Gunn said without looking up. “We TiVo it.”

Buffy rolled her eyes, grabbed his arm, and pulled him out the door.

When he lost sight of the screen, the Old One was grimly arming two contestants with purple rubber mallets, and Spike was yelping, “God bless the Danes!”
*****
Buffy pushed open the door at the top of the stairs and ushered him into a sitting room. He didn’t think they made those anymore- rooms of chairs and couches without TVs. Rooms for talking.

“It’s Oz,” she said briefly. He blinked.

“What’s Oz?”

“I’m Oz,” said the man on the couch. He got to his feet and held out his hand, smiling.

“Oh. That Oz.” They shook hands and he looked the smaller man up and down. Maturity agreed with him, if you could call it that when Oz did it. Anyone who’d met Oz at fifteen would know him at fifty. He’d figured out who he was early on.

Buffy was standing with her arms crossed over her chest, ignoring Willow’s gentle gestures to sit down. “Oz has a problem. We thought you could help. How much do you know about werewolves?”

“Me? Werewolves?” He furiously told himself that the blood in his veins was just recycled from dead pigs and certainly not rising to his face in a hot wave. It couldn’t be hot. He was dead. “What makes you think I know anything about werewolves?”

She shrugged. “All that time in LA, we thought you might’ve picked up something.”

“Oh.” Suddenly his mind was full of Nina, her eyes and face and hair and smooth tan body naked against his own. He shook his head as subtly as he could, trying to focus. “No. Nothing.”

“Damn.” Now Buffy flopped down onto the couch next to Willow. Oz, smiling his enigmatic little Oz-smile and settled back into his own seat. “Sorry, Oz. Guess we didn’t really need to drag him all the way back here.”

“Well, what’s the problem?” Angel asked, a little miffed that his considerable years of experience were being dismissed out of hand. “Maybe I can help and I just don’t know it yet.”

“Know anything about werewolf cults?” Oz asked quietly. Angel frowned.

“No...why?”

He shrugged. “They’re hunting me. A few of them. Apparently I have a destiny.” His brow furrowed just slightly, which with Oz meant that this was something keeping him awake at night. “I don’t think I want a destiny.”

“You really, really don’t.” He rubbed his hands together and tried not to think about parchment signed in blood. “Is there by any chance a prophecy involved?”

“Of course. Wouldn’t be much of a destiny if there wasn’t.”

“Apparently they think Oz might be the messiah of the werewolves,” Willow said helpfully. “He’s going to do something big.”

“No, I’m not.” That sounded pretty definitive.

Angel leaned back and stared at the ceiling. “There are ways out of prophecies. You can dodge destiny if you try.”

“Then it isn’t destiny,” Buffy said irritably. “Your destiny’s forever.”

“Actually, your destiny can be pulled out and sold at an evil casino, but that’s beside the point.” He put on his best intelligent frown, the one he’d cribbed from Wesley years and years ago. “The first thing is to find out if it’s even really Oz’s destiny at all.”

“How do we do that?” asked Willow.

“I know a guy.” They all smiled and relaxed just a bit. “But I can’t ask him.” They tightened up again.

“Why not?” Buffy said, kicking at the leg of the couch. “Is he dead?”

“I don’t know. He told me not to bother him again.”

“Well, I’m sure he’s heard a little line about desperate times and desperate measures.”

“Buffy...” He sighed and tried not to look at any of them, especially Oz, sitting there slumped under the weight of destiny. “It’s not that simple.”

“Did you kill his family?” Willow asked sympathetically. He glared at her. “Just asking...”

“I asked him to give up his personal morality, Willow. You can’t go back after that and be like, ‘Yeah, thanks, but could you do me just one more favor?’”

“But it’s not for you,” Buffy pointed out, tossing her head. “It’s for Oz.”

He rubbed his temples with his hands and thought about it.
*****
It was a bar. Of course it was a bar.

“I told you not to come looking for me.” There was nothing of the Host in the figure slumped over the far table. This place wasn’t his; his aura didn’t reach out to fizz and bubble within the walls, giving welcome to whoever stepped through the front door. If the guy scowling from behind the bar was the “Sparky” the sign out front declared proprietor, Angel really hoped similar aura-projection wasn’t coming from this host. Although that would explain the crawling sensation on his lower leg.

“You have a cockroach,” Lorne said, looking pointedly over his glass. Whiskey, not a Sea Breeze; those probably weren’t in old Sparky’s repertoire. He shook off the insect and sat down across from his old friend.

“Again, I seem to recall saying ‘you won’t find me. Don’t try.’”

“I did find you.”

“Because you can’t follow directions. You’re lucky you were born two hundred years too soon for kindergarten, buddy, because you would’ve flunked.” He drained the glass and set it aside. Sparky was in no hurry to fill it. “So what do you want?”

“Thought I’d see how incognito was working out for you.” He looked pointedly around the bar. “Gonna take a shot in the dark and say not well.”

“I’m between gigs.” He picked up the glass again and frowned at finding it empty. “So how have you been killing the last few years? Beige again, I see.”

“Oh, come on, it’s got to be closer to cream. Ecru, maybe.” Not even a chuckle. He plunged on. “Well, let’s see, the abridged version...we stormed the gates of Hades, negotiated with the Senior Partners to skip Apocalypse and just settle for the standard entropy of the system, accidentally dragged an ex-vengeance demon back to earth with us, thereby earning the undying gratitude of Xander Harris, not that he’ll admit it, and since then Spike and I have mostly been hunting each other across the known dimensions.” He paused. “I’m thinking about breeding large dogs for the purpose.”

“How very Champion of you.” Lorne rolled the empty glass between his palms and continued pointedly not looking at Angel. “Gunn made it?”

“He’s doing files and records for the new Slayer’s Council. He considers it kind of an homage to Fred- working in a library and all.”

“And Illyria?”

“She’s hosting a reality series on Danish television. Doing very well. Spends most of it on this greenhouse she’s building, I guess. Something like six hundred varieties of ferns, I didn’t even know there were that many.”

“Good for her.” Lorne set the glass aside and rubbed at his horns. There were grayish undertones to his skin that hadn’t been there before. He looked tired, sad, hopeless.

Another long silence. “You do realize I’m trying to apologize here, right?”

“In your inimitably awkward way, yes.”

“I’m sorry, Lorne. Will you come back with me?”

“Where to?”

“London. There’s this werewolf kid you’ve just got to hear sing...”

“So that’s what this is all about.” He sat back in his chair and glared at the vampire with all the pent-up fury and resentment that stretched back to the first time Caritas burned. “You go against my specifically expressed desires, hunt me down in my squalid exile, and without even the courtesy of missing me? Or being worried about me? You didn’t even think to come looking for me until some kid needed a reading?”

Angel had a feeling that things were moving very, very fast and his shoes had been weighted with cement when he wasn’t looking. “But you said not to.”

“Still! You could’ve had the decency to try!”

“I’m very confused.” Angel found himself waving at Sparky for a drink, thereby breaking a vow he’d made when first stepping through the door. “This is not at all how I imagined this conversation going.”

“Well, tough.” Lorne’s eyes were sparkling with anger, but at least there was something there. Color was flushing into his cheeks. He sat up straighter and glared with a purpose.

Maybe this went okay after all, Angel thought, just before he took his first sip.

Maybe not...
*****
When Gunn got the phone call saying Lorne was coming in, he promptly declared that this deserved “as close to a reunion as we can get” and started text-messaging Denmark.

The reply was from Anya- Illyria’s official opinion of cell phones, and modern technology in general, was a sneer of “the candles rendered by beasts from their own tallow to seek comfort in the dark”- giving assurances that they’d both be there as soon as filming wrapped the next evening. Illyria was no longer allowed to travel alone, after an unfortunate incident with a first-class passenger, a Seeing Eye dog, and the onboard oven.

Spike and Oz were still at the Slayer house when Lorne and Angel arrived, along with Dawn, who’d finished up her school years at a ritzy institute in London and was laughing off the courtship of several prestigious universities. The European custom of a gap year apparently held considerable appeal.

“I’m thinking about Stanford, though, when the time comes,” she said breezily. “Definitely want to go back to California.”

“I know a kid at Stanford,” Angel said, keeping his voice as light as he could. “I’m sure he’d be glad to show you around. Actually, I think you two would really hit it off.” He dug his fingernails into his palm to keep from laughing. “I think you’d have a lot to talk about.”

If Buffy smiled and laughed more now than she had before, of course it was because Dawn was home, Angel told himself, and had nothing at all to do with Spike’s three-week sojourn at the house. Or the dark-eyed guy with the accent who hung to the back of the room and smiled all the time. Absolutely because of Dawn.

All of the people arriving at once had led Willow to declare an official State of Party, with a hearty second from Xander and a disapproving wince from Giles. There were streamers and balloons, a banner in the main hall, and hints that cakes and alcoholic beverages might appear for those who behaved. The change from the somber House of Training he recalled from their first visit was dizzying.

There were other surprises.

He was slipping through the narrow hallways to his room to get some presents he’d picked up on his swings around the world when a hand reached out of the shadows and caught his sleeve. “Vampire.”

He turned to stare into huge dark eyes, deeply set in a lovely faced framed by thick tangled curls. “Dana.”

She tilted her head to the side and studied him for a long moment. “The souled one. Angel.”

“Yeah.” He nodded and kept from pulling his arm away with an exercise of will. “That’s me.”

She smiled suddenly. “I’m glad you’ve returned. Perhaps now the blond one won’t be so nervous.” She released his arm and he tried to maintain an edge of subtlety as he crossed them over his chest.

“Can’t say I totally blame him,” he said cautiously. She shook her head.

“I’m different now.”

“I know.” He let his arms fall to his sides, suddenly ashamed for being uneasy around her. The whole aura about her was different.

She smiled again, suddenly, a quick flash of joy like metal in summer sun. “So are you.” And she was gone, slipping away through the shadows before he even saw her move.
*****
“So he just has to sing?” Buffy looked doubtful. “That’s it? He goes through a chorus of ‘The Song That Never Ends’ and you tell him his destiny?”

“If he actually uses that song, muffin, I’ll jump out the window,” Lorne said calmly, “but that’s the gist of it, yes.”

“Do a Dingoes song, Oz,” Willow said, her eyes shining brightly. “Take us all back to high school for a little.”

“Our songs had words?” Oz blinked. “That was more Devon’s thing.”

Giles silently held out a guitar. Oz settled it across his lap and stared blankly at the floor for a minute. Then his fingers began to dance, picking out gentle chords. He hummed for a few bars, then faded in mid-verse.

Out on the road today, I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac
Little voice inside my head sayin’ don’t look back, you can never look back
Thought I knew what love was- what did I know?
Those days are gone forever- I should just let ‘em go but...”


Angel’s gaze shifted of its own accord, across the room to settle on Buffy. In a near-perfect mirror image, Spike’s head turned too. She acknowledged neither of them, her head held high and proud, watching Oz as he sang.

I can see you, your brown skin shining in the sun
You got that top pulled down and that radio on, baby
And I can tell you my love for you will still be strong
After the boys of summer have gone...


His voice faded away again, but his fingers danced on, weaving chords into the air, his eyes closed. Angel felt a tightness in his chest that would’ve stolen his breath, had he needed it. As he looked away from Buffy, he saw Spike doing the same, mirroring him again, right down to the tear he brushed from his eye.

Lorne finally broke the silence. “Oh, kiddo,” he said, the smile on his face the broadest Angel could remember, “now that was something.”

“What’s my destiny status, doc?” Oz asked stoically, handing the guitar back to Giles with a nod. “Am I clean?”

“Sweetie, you’ve got one hell of a destiny- but it’s not the one you’re worried about. They’ll figure it out soon, don’t worry. Another month or two, you should be home free.” Willow clapped her hands gleefully, and Oz actually smiled- a normal-sized smile, not an Oz smile, which was the same as anyone else turning cartwheels. Lorne leaned forward and touched his arm lightly, grin not fading a whit as he went on.

“Two quick things- the percentage the agent’s going to offer you? Don’t give in till it’s doubled. Oh, and rethink naming the kid Eric.”

“Kid?” Xander said after the requisite moment of stunned silence. “What kid?”

The smile was just mysterious and annoying now, Angel decided, not at all charming. “You’ll know when the time comes.”

Dawn shook her head. “I don’t believe it.”

“Well, snookums, that’s a kick in the pants...” Lorne had adored Dawn from the moment she took his coat and complimented him on the color. He did a lousy job of pretending to be affronted.

“No, not that! Of course I believe your reading, Lorne.” She rolled her eyes. “I just don’t believe Oz is a fan of the Ataris. They’re so lame.”

Oz glanced at Giles. “You want to take this one?”

The glasses came off, the handkerchief came out, and a weary British accent settled into an explanation of the existence of Don Henley and the fact that music history did in fact extend before 1985.

Lorne caught Buffy’s sleeve and pulled her aside as the room broke down into swirls of conversation. “Sweetie pie, who’s the kid with the hair over there, the one I heard singing ‘The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins’ in the kitchen?”

“Him?” Buffy brushed her hair out of her face and blinked. “That’s Andrew. I thought you’d met him.”

“Oh. Right. Well, like I said, he was singing in the kitchen.” He gave her a significant look, and she shrugged helplessly. He sighed. “Sugar plum, I’d keep an eye on that one if I were you. That’s the most ambiguous aura I’ve seen since...well...Angel.”

Her lips tightened. “Is he going to go evil again?”

“Oh, I can’t predict that, sweetie. That’s the thing about him. He has no moral compass of his own. He’s absolutely blowing in the wind, and he’ll fall to whatever side blows harder.” He watched Andrew bounce from cluster to cluster with a tray of canapes. “I know what Angel would do with someone like that, but I’m not sure of the house rules here. So I just thought I’d give you a heads-up.”

“Well, thank you,” she said, eyes following Andrew as he moved out the door and vanished down the hallway to the kitchen. “We know he’s extremely ambiguous...in all possible ways...but it’s good to have a professional opinion to confirm it.” She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “You ever considered working as a kind of good and evil x-ray?”

“Whatever I do, honey bunch, that seems to be my destiny. But I’d prefer to keep it as a sideline.” He sipped at the Sea Breeze Willow made sure never ran dry. “I will say, though, that if it means I get to stay in a house with those two vocalists,” he nodded toward Giles and Oz, “I might be persuaded to change my mind...”

Angel slipped away from his eavesdropping post as the conversation turned to voice lessons for Dawn and the possibility of Slayer uniforms. He had an odd feeling, one he didn’t recognize for a moment.

It was the sensation that maybe, just maybe, things were going to be okay.
*****
He ran into Illyria in the hallway. She was standing stock-still in a spill of moonlight, watching moths as they writhed against the glass. He stood for five solid minutes before she acknowledged his presence.

“You are alone,” she said mildly, eyes not moving from the moths. “Spike does not follow you?”

“He’s arguing music history with Gunn and Oz. They’re trying to set an exact date for the birth of punk.” He tried to guess what she saw in the fluttering white patterns, but after a moment gave up. Doubtlessly, it was one of the mysteries that dated back to when they were muck.

“I, too, am alone.” She tilted her head and reached out to brush her fingers against the glass. “Anya is downstairs, speaking to the man who isn’t Wesley.”

The pain flared again, that familiar frozen splintered ache. “No one here is Wesley.”

“No.” She let her hand fall again and finally looked at him. “But she speaks to the one who seems like he ought to be Wesley, but isn’t.” Her face was as impassive as ever, but now emotions shone from her eyes. “It pains me. I wish him to choose who he is and remain there.”

“He doesn’t know he’s doing it.”

“His knowledge or lack thereof is no concern of mine.” She stepped closer to him- still no concept of personal space- and looked deeply into his eyes. “You still mourn him.”

“Of course.” He willed himself not to flinch, to stare back with equal force. “Don’t you?”

“Until the end of time.” She turned away again. “All of time, not merely the shell’s existence.” She stepped to the window again. “But it lessens. Each day, I find it more bearable.”

“That’s how it goes.” He watched the shadows of the moths in the spill of moonlight, and for a moment thought he saw the pattern that held her eyes.

“That itself becomes a burden. The fear that my grief will cease to be real.” She put her hand flat against the glass and tilted her head down, letting her hair fall forward to hide her face. “Is this the way of things?”

“It never goes completely away.” Slowly, so slowly, he felt himself stepping forward. He watched his hand rise and settle on her shoulder like it belonged to someone else, observed the stiffening of her body instead of feeling it under his skin. “You just learn to keep moving on.”
*****
“Onward and upward, hmm?” Lorne stared up at the monument, bleached and impersonal in the moonlight. “Bury the dead and move on.”

“Nobody’s buried here.” He straightened the flowers under the names- lilacs for Fred, roses for Cordelia, modest forsythia for Wesley, forget-me-nots for Doyle. He didn’t know why he’d chosen the particular flowers; they were just the ones that called to his hand. “We had the funerals in our hearts.”

“So we can’t move on. We carry them forever.” Lorne nodded slowly. “Sounds about right.”

“No, that’s not it at all.” He suddenly felt very sure of this, and desperately needed to make him see. “They don’t weight us down, Lorne. They’re...they’re driving us forward.” He tilted his head back and looked up at the stars. “We can’t go back...and nothing comes from standing still...so they want us to move forward. They want us to go on.”

“I don’t know how,” Lorne said simply, without bitterness. Heartache couldn’t linger long here, in this garden of peace and hallelujah.

“Somebody once told me you don’t have to,” Angel murmured, searching out the constellations he’d learned too long ago. “You just put one foot in front of the other, and it kind of takes care of itself.” He looked over at his friend, bereft and alone without his disillusionment to accompany him. His hand reached out again to settle on a demon’s shoulder, to make a connection that had lain broken too long. “You can’t have what you did before...but you go forward, and you make something new. And chances are it’ll be something worth having.”

Lorne looked over at him, pale and ancient and just starting to learn, and smiled. “When did you get so Zen Master on me, Angelkins?”

“Epiphany,” he shrugged, his face aching with the weight of the wide grin across it. “This makes three. Better hope the third time’s the charm, or next time the Powers might just wipe out Greenland or something to make their point.”

“I’ll tattoo the message on your forehead if I have to, buckeroo,” Lorne replied, pointing at him. “No more existential crises for you, got it?”

“Yes, sir,” Angel said, saluting. “I think I’ve got it now, finally. I think it makes sense. It’s not souls saved, it’s not apocalypses foiled, and it’s not even the mission, not really. It’s people- letting them love you, and letting yourself love them back. And it doesn’t matter what kind of love...there’s so many kinds, and they’re all real, and they’re all too precious and awesome to let slip away. That’s all that matters, I think, in the end. Maybe what the Powers have been trying to beat into my head all these years is that...”

“All you need is love?” Lorne threw his head back and laughed. “Sweetcheeks, four very wise men said that fifty years ago. But who knows, between the five of you, you just might have something.” He slipped his arm through Angel’s and looked at the monument one last time before turning back to the house. “Come on, crumb cake, my glass is empty and Rupert has promised to break out the old 45s. I think this is a night that calls for dancing.”

And so they walked back towards the wise old house that had seen its share of sunsets, wound all about with magic that had seen eternity, and the friends, old and new, who had seen pain and heartache and learned to face it with a song in their hearts. They walked up the rambling paths of the garden to a house where neither of them lived, and yet if you’d asked, they would have said they were going home.

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