I'm sorry for the delay on this everyone! Due to RL busy-ness I have only just found the time to get this next update finished. Once again it also served as my contribution to seasonal_spuffy. Thank you to those who have reviewed/favourited or else added this to their alerts. I'm hoping to get the next chapter up on the seasonal_spuffy free-for-all day near the end of May - I'm afraid that my uni workload effectively doomed to failure my rather valiant effort to finish the next chapter as well...
A bespectacled Fred sat in the middle of the lab, her elbow propped up on the table and her chin resting lightly on her fist. Her face was twisted with a frown.
"What are you not telling me?" she murmured to herself.
Wesley leant in close over her shoulder, snatching a glance at what she was studying. Fred started and looked up at him. She blushed slightly at his proximity.
"It all depends how you define 'luck'," she said. She gestured at the laptop screen in front of her. It currently depicted a grid scattered with clusters of glowing dots. "We've managed to correlate the data we pulled from Wolfram and Hart's satellite and matched it up with areas of known demonic activity throughout the city."
"And you didn't find anything?"
"Oh, we found something alright," said a voice. "That's exactly the problem."
Wesley drew away from Fred in surprise. He looked up to see Knox descending the stairs from the upper office, dressed in his white lab coat and carrying a hefty box full of papers in his arms.
"A whole lot of somethings," continued Fred. "More than four dozen results. It looks like this particular tag is used by a street gang which occupies a section of inner-city Los Angeles, altogether totalling a radius of about ten blocks."
"I see," Wesley said. He eyed Knox carefully as he hefted his box up onto the table next to Fred. "Is there no way to narrow this down any further?"
Fred gave a shrug, lifting up the edge of the topmost sketch in the pile of papers resting at her elbow.
"Maybe if we could decipher some of the other sketches I might be able to eliminate some of these results. Has your department been making any headway identifying our mystery demon?"
"Not yet," said Wesley wearily. "The images Angel produced were not exactly clear. We're still trying to put together a definitive profile."
Knox removed the lid from the box sitting upon the table. It was filled with files of papers which he proceeded to sort through.
"Well good luck with that," he offered. "Seriously, I'm sure it's not exactly an easy job. There's gotta be what, about fifty thousand known species of demonic life?"
"Sixty," said Wesley. There was a mocking edge to his voice. "But I'm sure you have more than a passing familiarity with some of our more home-grown specimens in your dealings with Wolfram and Hart, Knox. Maybe you could lend us your expertise?"
Knox threw up his hands.
"Hey, I gladly defer to the experts on this one," he said. "I'm sure you're doing a bang-up job. Me, I prefer the excitement and glamour of working up in the lab here. My failed petition for casual Fridays notwithstanding."
Fred looked at one and then at the other, sensing the tension sparking between them.
"Maybe we should get back to our respective grindstones on this one," she said. "Too many cooks spoiling the demony broth. Right now I'm gonna go take a look through Files and Records and see if I can't find anything noteworthy about any of the places we've pulled up so far. I'm sure there must be something." She gestured towards the laptop. "Keep going through those results, okay?"
Fred had soon hurried out of the lab, papers in hand. Wesley watched her go and then settled down into her empty seat, pulling the laptop close and studying the readings currently displayed upon the screen. Beside him Knox turned and reached into the box to pull out a number of hefty-looking files. It was a moment before either of them spoke.
"Is it just me, or is everyone acting kinda weirdly around here lately?"
Wesley looked up at this question.
"How do you mean?"
Knox slowed in his movements.
"Your friend. Cordelia, was it? I mean, she just died and… Don't get me wrong, it was awful. Fred was crying. You and Gunn. Lorne locked himself in his office with a bottle of scotch. Even Harmony was sad there for, like, a whole ten minutes. And don't get me started on how Angel-"
"I'm assuming that this story has a point?"
Although Wesley's tone was harsh there was also a hint of understanding there. Knox flashed him a conciliatory smile, as though asking for patience as he attempted to articulate his thoughts.
"It's just, since then…" Knox returned to his task at hand. "I mean, you all got back from the funeral and it was like business as usual. Except for the boss and his extended sabbatical of course." He paused in his rummaging and looked up, his voice a little softer. "Tell me if I'm outta line here - I don't mean to be all Mr. Insensitive. But did I miss something? Or were you guys not really that close?"
Wesley's fingers stilled upon the keyboard. He was so taken aback he did not even feel indignant at the question.
"Very," he said quietly.
"So what gives?" asked Knox.
Wesley sat back in his chair, staring hard at the man for a few moments as though deciding how much or how little to reveal.
"Cordelia…" His voice trembled a little as he said her name. "She was sick for a long time. I suppose we had all mourned her to some extent. But that doesn't make it any less…" He gave a sigh. "When you lose somebody that close, especially when they have been gone for some time… sometimes the easiest way to cope is not to cope at all."
Angel stood quietly at the window, his back still turned to her. Buffy could see her own face in the glass where his reflection should have been.
"What happened to us, Angel?" She was surprised at the emotion in her voice.
He glanced up and met the reflection of her gaze.
"You said it yourself. We were never big talkers."
"Maybe," she said. "But this? It's like nothing less than the end of the world can get us together in the same room." She lowered herself onto the arm of the leather chair. "I still don't understand any of this, Angel. I don't understand why you are here. I don't understand why you couldn't tell me."
"That was the deal," he said quietly, turning away from the window. "I take the reins of Wolfram and Hart, and it all goes away. The pain. The hate. Everything like new."
"But it doesn't," said Buffy. "And it hasn't. I came here to warn you, Angel. Something bad is going to happen here. I can feel it."
"Something bad has already happened," he muttered. "Bad things are always happening. It's the way of the world. Nothing we can do to stop it. So we just gotta do our best to find some meaning in the madness. Make it worth all the pain and the heartache. Make it all matter."
She did not understand his meaning, but she caught the quiet plea which marked his words.
"You should have told me what was happening," she said. "I could have helped you."
"Well, it's not like you were exactly around to talk to those first few days…"
Buffy's eyes flashed dangerously.
"I had people to mourn, Angel."
"And so did I," he said angrily. "And that's what you can't seem to understand."
It suddenly dawned on Buffy in that moment - the reason for her absence. All of the fire went out of as her expression softened.
"Cordelia," she said. It felt like a lifetime since the name had passed her lips.
Angel could not even look at her.
"Yes." His voice was barely a whisper.
She took a hesitating step towards him.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't know… When did-?"
"Two weeks ago."
He sounded so defeated she thought her heart might break. He had been friends and colleagues with Cordelia for many years now; they had worked together even longer than he had lived in Sunnydale. That felt like a lifetime ago. She pushed aside the unsettling thought.
"Angel, if I had known then I would never have…"
"I know," he murmured.
In the silence which followed Buffy searched desperately for the right words to say. She knew very little about Angel and Cordelia's friendship. It was always Willow who relayed news from L.A. whenever it was necessary. For the longest time it had simply been too painful to do anything else. She guessed that Angel and Cordelia must have been very close.
"How did she die?" Buffy realised her voice was trembling.
"Something took her over," he told her. "Made her its host. When it left she fell into a coma. She never woke up."
Buffy shook her head.
"I'm so sorry, Angel. I had no idea."
"There was a small memorial service," he said. "It was just family."
Buffy could tell that he was barely holding on by a thread. She approached him and reached out a hand to tenderly touch his cheek. His eyes were threatening tears.
"Angel." He drew a difficult breath, forcing himself to focus his gaze upon her. "I know it's hard," she said. "I went through the same thing with my mom. But it gets better. It has to."
"You don't understand," he murmured, abruptly pulling away from her touch. "You just don't understand…"
She noticed for the first time just how tired Angel looked. His eyes were slightly bloodshot as he ran a trembling hand across his face. She wondered if he had been getting any sleep lately. She doubted it.
"Angel," she said, reaching out again and touching his arm. "It's gonna be okay."
His eyes were filled with tears.
"You can't know that."
"I promise," she said.
Before she knew it Buffy had pulled him into a desperate hug. She was startled as she felt his weight sink into her. She raised a hand and let it come to rest upon his shoulder. Her thoughts flashed back to the night he had come to comfort her after her mother's funeral. His just being there and holding her had meant more than he could ever have known. She just hoped she could do the same for him now.
"Why didn't you tell me?" she murmured into his shoulder.
He sniffled as he sought to compose himself again, pulling away from her embrace. She kept her hand upon his arm.
"I thought it would be easier this way."
She nodded, still close.
"I get that. But Angel we can't keep doing this. We have to be there for each other. Tell each other all of it. The good and the bad."
"I appreciate you coming to Sunnydale," she told him. "I really do. But if I'd known about Cordelia or, God, your deal with Wolfram and Hart then I never would have kissed you."
"So why did you kiss me?" The hurt in his voice was plain to hear. Whether out of bruised pride or because of a deeper attachment there she could not tell.
"Because," she offered. Her shoulders slumped in defeat. "I don't know. Because I got carried away, I guess. You were standing there, all with the romantic lighting and the lack of damselling. And Spike had just said that-"
"Spike?" he said in bewilderment. "You kissed me because of Spike?"
Buffy tried to backtrack a little: "It's more complicated than that."
"Why don't you explain it to me then?"
She shook her head.
"Angel, I really don't want to get into this…"
"No, let's do," he insisted. "You told me he wasn't your boyfriend."
"He wasn't," she said half-heartedly.
It was obvious that Angel did not believe her. She was not sure if she even believed herself.
"So what is he then?"
The question caught Buffy off-guard. Her hand dropped down to her side as she contemplated her answer.
"He's the guy who never did the things he was supposed to."
Despite the strength of the afternoon sun Spike stood in the shade at the top of one of Wolfram and Hart's many fire escapes, smoking his umpteenth cigarette and gazing down at the city below. He was preoccupied, but not so preoccupied that his vampiric senses did not detect the door of the stairwell opening up behind him. He did not turn around.
"Taking a break from the office?" he ventured.
Gunn stood framed in the doorway, one hand securely in his trouser pocket. The other clutched his eponymous briefcase. He shook his head in amusement.
"Thought I might find you up here," he said. "For a vampire you're not exactly sweating the sun."
Spike smiled with good humour.
"Just working on my tan." He glanced up towards the sun, squinting his eyes a little at the harsh light as the cigarette hung limply from his mouth. "Being a ghost doesn't exactly work wonders for the complexion." He took one last drag and then dropped his cigarette to the ground, stamping it out with the heel of his boot. Then he turned and cocked his head inquisitively. "I take it Angel sent you?"
"Fred, actually. She needs your help with something." Gunn reached into his briefcase and pulled out a handful of printouts. "One of the symbols in Buffy's dream turned out to be nothing but your regular brand of L.A graffiti." Spike turned away from the railing and took the printouts he was offered. "We've tracked it down to about four dozen locations in the downtown area. And seeing as how you've been out and about helping the helpless lately she figured you might be able to help narrow down our search."
Spike glanced up at him.
"Buffy saw this?"
"Along with a bunch of shady-looking demons. Wes is trying to I.D them as we speak."
Spike flicked distractedly through the printouts.
"And you want me to what? Take you on a tour of fabulous downtown Los Angeles real estate?"
Gunn gave a small shrug.
"Something like that. We figure the clock's probably ticking down on this one pretty quickly so the sooner we can locate the source of all badness the better."
"Uh huh. But no pressure, I see."
"Except for the impending arrival of the aforementioned badness? None at all." Gunn stood expectantly as Spike continued to look at the printouts he had been given. The vampire gave no reaction. "Uh yeah." Gunn cleared his throat impatiently. "So I'm guessing you're not exactly hiding up here because Angel's on the warpath?"
Spike did not raise his eyes from the printouts.
"Your point being?"
"Er, how about the vampire slayer currently waiting around downstairs?"
"It's complicated," Spike muttered.
"And what is complicated, exactly?" prodded Gunn. "It sounds like you two were all with the togetherness in the not-too-distant past. Or at least that's what I gathered from Angel's complete lack of disclosure…"
"We had…" Spike gave a sigh. "It was…" He gestured wildly with the papers in his hand. "And just why in the hell are we talking about this anyways? It's nobody's bleeding business."
"I was just wondering why you were so afraid to-"
"Hey, I'm not afraid of anything," Spike protested. "'Cept for maybe burning alive in a soddin' ball of fire..." He paused at this. "Come to think of it, I already did that, so no. Not afraid of anything." Spike looked down again, and quietly he added: "Slayer's got enough to worry about. Dreams of death and pending destruction and all. No point digging up the past. It's done and dusted."
"Or at least you were," Gunn pointed out.
Spike paused on a certain page.
"Wait. This one. Looks familiar."
Gunn leant in close. He had landed upon a page detailing a derelict building, complete with a few black-and-white photographs. One of these depicted the graffiti tag in better detail.
"You know it?"
"It's an old factory, downtown. South Central. Heard a vamp nest got chased out a few months back. Didn't hear what it was that did the chasing."
"Looks like we've got a candidate."
It was not long before most of the team was assembled together in the science lab, ready for a debriefing. Although it was not dark the reading lamp was turned on, scattering light across a row of glass instruments and papers on the desk next to Angel. He was perched on a stool and flicking distractedly through some of the sketches he had produced earlier; Gunn and Lorne were at his elbow, peering at these over his shoulder. Nearby Wesley was hunched over as he stood working at something on a laptop. Buffy simply paced distractedly. Angel did not even attempt to disguise his impatience as Fred and Knox finally strode in the door. Both were still dressed in their lab coats, Fred with her hair now pinned back into a messy bun.
"Sorry for the delay everyone," she said. "Files and Records is, would you believe it, just crammed full of files and records." She sighed as she pulled down her spectacles. "Is everybody here?"
"More or less," said Lorne. "Except for-"
"Spike," said Buffy. He had strolled in just a few paces behind the others. She stepped forward in surprise as a smile tugged at her lips. "You're here."
He paused and took in the room.
"Can't get rid of me that easily, pet."
Angel gave him a sidelong glance.
"So I've noticed."
If Spike was planning on replying to this comment then he was promptly cut off as Fred stepped out in front of him, clutching a manila file tightly to her chest. She held out a hand in greeting towards their visitor.
"Buffy, hi. I'm Winfred, but everybody calls me Fred." Her smile was nothing less than enthusiastic. Buffy returned her handshake a little bemusedly. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you. You're sorta like this quantum theory in need of puzzling." She caught herself. "Not in the sense of being something difficult and incomprehensible, rather in the sense of being this enigmatic variable that always seems to be just out of…" The handshake ended. Fred's smile slipped closer to something a little more self-conscious. "And I should really stop talking now…"
Somebody cleared their throat beside her. Fred turned to him apologetically and gestured. "Oh, I'm sorry. This is Knox."
Knox also extended a hand for their visitor to shake. Buffy simply gave a frown as she regarded him properly for the first time.
"Have we met?"
Knox lowered his hand, the proposed handshake forgotten.
"Er, no," he said. "Not as I recall." A pause. "I must just have one of those faces."
Buffy continued to look puzzled to distraction. Angel looked first at her and then at Knox and gestured impatiently.
"Okay, so what have we got?"
"Oh yes," muttered Fred. She reached into the folder she carried and pulled out a few sheets of paper, sliding them across the desk. Angel picked them up and studied them intently. A few detailed the satellite results, sorting them by city district and street name, whilst another depicted a map of Los Angeles and yet another several photos of a building obviously taken from old newspaper clippings. "We ran a search on the satellite to any place which matched the symbol in Buffy's dreams. We narrowed it down to about four dozen possibilities, but thanks to Spike we might have pinpointed the exact location."
"Uh yeah," offered Spike. "Best bet is an old vamp nest in a factory downtown. Industrial district. Heard some rumblings through the otherworldly grapevine."
Angel glanced up from the papers.
"And you're sure this is definitely the place?"
"Seems like our best shot," said Fred. "Files and Records had a lot on this place. Turns out this building has a rather colourful history."
"Murders, blood sacrifices," said Knox. "It was even used as the dumping ground for a particularly prolific serial killer in the 1990s. This was apparently where he took the bodies after he was finished and… disposed of them, so to speak."
Gunn grimaced and raised a hand.
"Okay, count me in the not-wanting-to-know-the-details party."
"So this place was like evil central?" asked Buffy.
"Apparently so," Wesley replied. He had walked around the table and was now peering at the papers over Angel's shoulder. "It says here it was preserved as a crime scene for a number of years and then stood abandoned as the city argued over zoning rights. It was eventually saved from demolition by a rather substantial offer from a certain law firm."
"Let me guess," said Buffy. "Wolfram and Hart?"
Angel looked up in surprise.
"You mean we actually own this building?"
"Sounds like a prime piece of real estate to me," said Gunn.
Angel lowered the file.
"And Buffy's dream was warning her about this place."
"That would be our guess."
"What about the prophecies?" he said. "Is there anything in there which could shed more light on this?"
Wesley pushed away from the desk and folded his arms.
"The Pergamum Codex prophesized Buffy's death at the hands of the Master," he said. "But we all know how that came to pass."
Fred looked puzzled.
"I died," Buffy chipped in. "But then I came back again."
"And also another time after that," said Spike.
"It's a thing."
Fred made an 'oh' expression and fell silent.
"Er yes," Wesley continued. "We also found some obscure passages in the Writings of Dramius concerning the Hellmouth, but it might have been referring to the second portal located in Cleveland."
"But nothing specifically about Buffy?" said Angel.
"No," said Wesley. He snatched a glance towards her. "For all intents and purposes, at least according to these writings, you are supposed to be dead."
Buffy took this in.
"I guess I'm non-prophecy girl then."
"In theory, yes. But you can still influence events in unforeseen ways."
"That's why I couldn't read you, kitten," Lorne explained. "You don't have a destiny. Well, at least not in the traditional sense."
Wesley nodded in agreement.
"Your absence from the scriptures simply means that there is no set path you are destined to take. You have the freedom of choice like no Slayer before you."
"Goody for me," she muttered.
Angel shook his head.
"That means these dreams are about something else," he said. "They're a warning."
"But a warning for what?" said Gunn.
Buffy looked around at everybody assembled, knowing that the same unease on their faces was also reflected on hers.
"That's exactly what we need to find out."
The group sans Fred, Knox and Lorne soon returned downstairs and headed for Angel's office. Buffy marched a few steps ahead of the others, aiming for the weapons display behind his desk with purpose.
"I'm gonna need weapons," she said. "I wouldn't normally ask, but I couldn't exactly smuggle my crossbow through customs. I had a hard enough time keeping Mr. Pointy hidden."
Spike raised an eyebrow.
"Dare I ask whereabouts?"
Buffy looked at him and smiled shyly. Noticing this Angel stepped forward and interrupted:
"Are you sure about this, Buffy? We don't even know what this demon is. It might be something stronger than you've faced before. Then I've faced before."
Buffy stopped and turned towards him.
"Then I'll deal," she said. "Look, these dreams brought me here for a reason, Angel. Maybe I'm supposed to kill whatever this thing is before it can do some real damage."
"Or maybe your dreams were warning you to stay away."
She shrugged purposefully and approached the display of weaponry behind his desk.
"Then that's a chance I'm going to have to take."
Spike went with her.
"Not alone, you won't."
Angel shook his head and took down the knife that Buffy had been angling for before she could reach it.
"We can handle this, Buffy. I can send in special ops, lead them in the clean up. I don't want you out there. It could be a trap." He looked at the knife in his hand, and then added more quietly: "I don't want to risk losing anybody else."
Spike shot him a sideways glance.
"Buffy can handle herself."
"Spike's right," she said patiently. "I didn't come all this way just to wait around for Evil Incarnate to show up and… carnate in all its evilness. For all we know there could be a doom-laden clock somewhere ticking down to oblivion." She gave him a disapproving frown. "This is me insisting," she said. "I have to do something, Angel."
He studied her then, his expression unreadable.
"So there's nothing I can say that would convince you to sit this one out?"
She flashed him a reassuring smile.
"Angel, you know me. What do you think?"
He did not react for a moment. Then he reluctantly passed her the knife. She took it gladly and removed the sheath, studying the edge of the blade in the light from the window.
"I have more stuff upstairs," Angel offered.
"Great." She returned the knife to its sheath. "Show me."
Wesley stepped forward.
"You should take a cellphone," he said. "Call us as soon as you locate the demon or demons as the case may be. We can advise you from there."
Angel nodded in approval.
"Keep researching in the meantime," he said. "I'm gonna need as much information as I can get about this thing. What is it? What does it want? And how do I kill it?"
"I'm coming with." Gunn did not wait for an answer as he took down an axe from the weapons cabinet; a smile of approval quirked at his lips as he turned it over in his hands and then hefted the thing over his shoulder. "I need a break from the office."
Angel glanced about at those assembled.
"I'll drive," he said.
"Like hell you will."
"I'm the better driver," Angel said.
"More like slower, gramps."
"Enough, children!" Buffy cried. "There is a simple solution to all of this." She drew herself up a little straighter. "I'll drive."
Spike and Angel answered simultaneously:
"No, you won't."
It seemed the battle lines had been drawn. Gunn looked at each of them in turn, then delved into his pockets and withdrew a key fob. He held it up for them all to see.
"Allow me to solve your dilemma," he offered. "We'll take my Porsche." All three of them turned and stared at him. He noticed the look on Angel's face and added: "What? You think you're the only one who got the company car?"
The sun was waning but still in the sky as their silver Porsche pulled up on the edge of one of the city's larger industrial areas. Gunn let the car come to a gentle stop just before a disused factory. He had ditched his suit jacket before the drive over. Buffy sat in the passenger's seat beside him, whilst Angel and Spike were crammed in the back. They did not look too pleased about this arrangement.
"This is the place," said Buffy. "Wonder if the locals will appreciate our dropping by unannounced?"
"I'm just saying that seniority should count for something," Angel grumbled. "In or out of the office I'm still the boss. I should get the front seat."
"You're not my boss," Spike cut in.
Buffy rolled her eyes as she removed her seatbelt. Through the necrotempered glass the waning sun glinted off the dashboard and caught her necklace on its golden chain.
"I called 'shotgun'," she said. "You all heard it. Is nothing sacred anymore?"
Gunn shot a look in the rear-view mirror. He saw nothing there but an empty back seat.
"The lady is right, Angel. The rules of shotgun are very clear on this."
Angel folded his arms in a huff.
"I still think I should have gotten to sit up front," he muttered darkly.
Beside him Spike leant over and gazed out of the window at the building looming before them. It was daubed liberally with graffiti and appeared slightly fire damaged. Sparse weeds had sprung out of the gravel drive which led up to the service entrance. The symbol from Buffy's dream, an image almost like a Catherine wheel, was prominently emblazoned on the factory door.
"Maybe not the best neighbourhood to leave the shiny new Porsche on the drive," he said.
Gunn shrugged and turned the keys. The engine cut short with an abrupt growl.
"I'll deal," he said. "Got insurance on this thing so tight it would make Donald Trump…" He trailed off at their deadpan looks. "Guess I've been to one too many corporate brunches lately, huh?"
Buffy leant forwards and gazed out of the window too. She heaved a small sigh as she measured up the place.
"The sun doesn't look too high," she said, "but it's probably best not to risk it. Maybe we of the not-so-living-dead should go first, check there is a way in?"
She turned and exchanged a look of affirmation with Gunn. Without waiting for an answer the two opened their doors simultaneously and climbed out of the car, weapons in hand. Two resounding slams shook the space.
Spike and Angel were soon left alone in the back of the Porsche. Neither moved a muscle.
The factory certainly looked abandoned. The skylight far above was so dirty that it had failed to let in any sunlight long ago. A vast space stretched before them, punctuated here and there with large metal containers and industrial shelving units. Some sort of disused crane stood against the far wall, with a hook hanging from a rusted chain. The floor was scattered with discarded newspapers and suspicious stains which might have been blood. Their footfalls threw up bursts of dust as they made their way along the space between two large shelving units.
"This place definitely has the creep factor alright," said Buffy.
"I've gotta say," agreed Gunn. "I've seen nicer places of bloodshed and horror in my time."
They walked in companionable silence for a time, Gunn with his axe and Buffy fidgeting distractedly with Mr. Pointy. She also wore the knife she had taken from Angel's office at her belt and a crossbow and quiver of bolts slung across her back.
"How was he?" Buffy asked suddenly. "Spike, I mean. When he first came back. How was he?"
"Started off with a whole lot of screaming," said Gunn. "Then after that he spent a good few months with one foot stuck in the ghostly beyond. He and Angel had this whole vamped sibling rivalry thing going on for a while. Soon as he got all solid again he disappeared to go and look you up. Next thing we know he's out and about on the dark streets instead, fighting the good fight and doing our work for us."
Buffy took this in.
"Did he ever say why he changed his mind?"
"Sorry. He wasn't too forthcoming on that front." Gunn seemed to notice the melancholy which had settled upon her at these words and added: "He seemed pretty anxious to know that you were okay though."
They continued walking on. Buffy was silent again as she considered the implications of this news.
"I, uh, heard about Cordelia," she said eventually. "I'm really sorry." Gunn turned and looked at her in surprise. She saw the pain flash briefly in his eyes. "Did you guys work together long?"
"'Bout four years. Angel started asking for my help and she was the one who insisted I get a paycheque out of it. Wasn't long before I joined the gang fulltime. She'd get the visions, we'd all go out and kill the evil together. Mostly in the form of Wolfram and Hart. Then we ended up running the place." He frowned. "Still not too sure how we came round to that logic."
"You and me both," said Buffy.
Gunn actually smiled at this.
"Hey, give it time. I promise that soon you'll feel just as confused and morally ambiguous as the rest of us."
Their conversation was soon interrupted by the sound of approaching footsteps. Buffy and Gunn exchanged a look of alarm and then turned in unison to face this danger, weapons at the ready. It turned out to be nothing but Angel and Spike approaching them in an extremely unstealthy manner, bickering pointlessly between themselves. Both were carrying swords.
Buffy lowered her stake in frustration as they approached.
"I thought you two were going to wait in the car?"
"We got bored," said Spike.
Angel shot him a look.
"Well, I guess we can rule out the element of surprise then," said Gunn.
Buffy did not even bother to engage in this latest round of antagonism.
"Okay," she said. "Here's the plan. We split into two teams. That way we can cover a lot more ground a lot quicker, try and flush out any nasties into the open."
"Sounds like a plan. So who's on Team Slayer?"
Buffy looked at all three of them in turn and then gave a sigh.
"Angel," she said. He smiled in triumph. "Stay with Spike."
"What?" said Spike.
"What?" said Angel, his smile disappearing.
"Guess that would be me."
And he came to stand beside Buffy instead, toting his axe in readiness.
"Okay," she ordered. "Spread out, but don't go too far. We don't know what's lurking out there. Keep your weapons close. If we find something you'll be the first to hear about it."
"Has everybody suddenly forgotten that I'm the boss around here?" Angel complained. "You can't put me on a team with this guy!"
Spike folded his arms and scoffed.
"You won't get far on Team Spike with that kind of attitude."
Angel was obviously trying to claw back some semblance of authority. It failed miserably as the other three simply followed Buffy's orders and broke away from the group in opposite directions. Angel cleared his throat awkwardly before hurrying off after Spike as he started into the shadows of the building.
Spike glanced over his shoulder at Angel. He gave a chuckle.
"Give it up, mate."
Angel fell into rhythm beside him, carrying his sword.
"What is it now, Spike?"
Spike gestured animatedly with his hands as he walked.
"Alpha," he said, indicating one hand and then the other, "meet Alpha. Both self-proclaimed leaders of their own teams, but throw them both together and hijinks and power struggles inevitably ensue. Fun for all the family."
"And what is that supposed to mean?" Angel said. His eyes darted about distractedly as he surveyed the space for any other vampiric activity.
"She"—Spike indicated in the direction which Buffy had went—"is the big boss lady. And if you're planning on partaking in this little raid well, then, like it or not, you gotta answer to her."
Angel tightened his grip on his sword.
"I have no clue what you're talking about."
"Let's face it, Angel, ever since you left Sunnydale you've somehow managed to grow a pair. And every time your former comes back into the frame you revert back into the simpering little puppy you used to be."
"Is that so?"
"You've changed," Spike said. "You both have. And at some point you're gonna realise that. I just wonder whether Buffy still likes the guy that you've changed into."
"Speak for yourself."
"And what would you know about it?" said Spike defensively. "Unlike certain people we could name, I own up to all of the dirty little things that I did without a soul. I don't have a convenient doppelganger to blame every time I get my jollies."
"And that's where you're wrong," said Angel angrily. "I take responsibility for everything that I did without a soul. Every life I took. Every person I destroyed."
"Spare me the company line." Spike put on an affected voice: "Oh, I'm so tortured and driven out of my gourd with guilt. That's why my friends can still stand to be in the same room as me after everything I've done to them. Or might do to them." He scoffed. "Face facts, mate. You're just one soul away from straddling the abyss of unrepentant evil. And don't you forget it. I sure as hell haven't."
Angel stopped then and leant in threateningly, his expression twisted with anger.
"And you think you're any better?" he said. "I know you. I taught you. Everything you've seen, everything you've done. Just because they stuck a leash inside your head and dragged you kicking and screaming to the side of good you think that you're any better?"
Spike visibly sobered.
"Are you kidding, mate? I'm going to hell. Same as you. Wont make a bloody bit of difference in the end. But doesn't take an idiot to see that you're steering the corporate flagship straight into oblivion. Just wanna make sure you don't drag the rest of us down with you."
Something in Angel snapped then.
"Buffy doesn't love you," he growled. "She could never love you."
"Is that so?" Spike said. "And what makes you so damned sure she still has eyes for you? Did she even bother to come and visit after Sunnydale did its smoking crater trick?"
"She called," Angel said meekly.
"She called," he said. "Right. And what exactly did she say?"
Angel kept on walking.
"She said that she had won. And that you were dead." He paused a beat. "And that she was leaving the country."
Spike raised an eyebrow in amusement.
"Not exactly throwing down the welcome mat, is it?"
Angel whirled around in his steps. This comment had obviously gotten under his skin.
"It's more complicated than that," he growled. "There were circumstances involved."
Spike remained nonplussed.
Angel looked as though he wanted to scream in frustration. Or perhaps punch Spike in the face. In the end he did neither. Instead he simply ripped his frustrated gaze away from Spike and continued on their patrol of the factory. They soon emerged into an open space bathed in the artificial light of an overhanging lamp.
"Do we really have to get into this?"
Spike shrugged, one hand thrust in the pocket of his duster.
"Just thought you'd appreciate the distraction," he muttered.
As if in answer to these words there was a clanging noise to their right. Both vampires turned as a piece of metal piping skittered across the factory floor out of the shadows. In its wake two dozen vampires suddenly emerged from the darkness. They were soon surrounded on all sides. It was obvious they had just stumbled upon their nest.
"The thing about distractions," said Angel. "Really not gonna be a problem..."