Disclaimer: I own none of the characters here. I merely borrow them to keep myself entertained.
Author's Note: This is the seventh, and final part of my series Fortune Favors The Brave. It's called Reprieve.
Summary: Willow deals with temptation as the final preparations are made to sever the ties Wolfram and Hart have placed on Angel. Angel reveals something startling to Buffy that could have interesting consequences for them. But is it too late to get back what they lost together? And how will this information affect Spike?
::Fortune Favors The Brave::
Willow stood at the table staring at the document in front of her. The pen was trembling in her hands and she could feel her heart racing almost painfully in her chest. She looked up at Holland again, and saw him smiling pleasantly. He seemed very confident and sure of her choice. He didn't even look as if he considered it possible she may say no. He knew he had her where he wanted her. Madame Serenity however didn't appear so sure anymore. Willow wondered if she could read her thoughts? She was a powerful psychic, after all.
Willow had been completely floored by the appearance of Tara. Or the illusion of Tara, as it was. It had felt so real and in that instant Willow didn't care what happened to her soul. All she wanted was Tara back—at any cost. Much the same way she had felt when Tara died. Willow hadn't cared if she ever came back from that brink. All she had wanted was Tara to be alive again, and for Warren and the others to suffer horribly for their crimes. She thought she was past the blind fury and emotional meltdown phase, but clearly she wasn't. The same buttons could still easily be pushed, and she was walking that narrow line again. Teetering on the edge of wrong and right; still easily swayed by power and easy fixes to complex situations. She didn't want to be like that again.
Willow looked away from the contract on the table and set the poison pen down. She backed away from it.
"No. I won't do it." She said firmly. She had to walk away from this. If she didn't, her life would no longer be her own again.
"What?" Holland was shocked. "Maybe you just need some more time? There's no rush. Give it a day or two." He offered.
She shook her head and started backing further away from him and closer to the curtain held them cloaked from the outside world.
"I'm not going to sign that. I-I can't. More time won't change anything."
"Do you realize what you're walking away from? Tara—the woman you love more than your own life. She would be alive again. Don't you want her to be alive?" He tried to break her down.
"Of course I want Tara to be alive. My god...I want nothing more—and you know that. That's why you're using her as a weapon against me." Willow said emotionally. "But even if Tara never knew she had been dead, and she didn't know that I worked for you—for something evil, I would know. And I wouldn't be able to live with myself."
"Do you really think Wolfram and Hart will be able to let you just walk away?"
"I don't really care what Wolfram and Hart does. My soul is not for sale." She said with determination.
"You won't have much choice. You'll either join with us, or die. Your power is too great for us to overlook. But it's not unstoppable. Remember that. You're not powerful enough to stop Wolfram and Hart. If you walk away now, I'll send a hundred of my best shamans out to destroy you, if that's what it takes." He told her. "I'm offering you safety, as well as having your lover back. You'd be a fool to walk away."
"Then I guess I'm a fool." She said evenly, trying to remain unaffected by his words.
"You're making a big mistake, Willow." Holland shook his head sadly.
"No. I'm really not." She said self-assuredly. "You're the one who made the mistake."
"And what mistake would that be?" He wondered aloud.
"Underestimating me." She said calmly, belying her emotional turmoil.
Before he could respond to her statement, she waved her arms out in front of her. A streak of white lightning shot from her fingertips. It engulfed Holland fully and he disappeared with a flash. She hadn't even needed a written spell to remove him from this plane of existence. She had just used her emotional energy to destroy him completely. Much in the same way she'd reacted once Tara had died. That fact didn't escape her attention. She was hanging on by a thread and she knew it. She looked over at the psychic.
Madame Serenity stared at her with terror and disbelief. Holland had been destroyed in the blink of an eye. She feared she would be next. Willow knew this. But Madame Serenity was human. Of that much Willow was certain. She may have been working closely with evil, but she was merely a person—not a walking evil corpse like Holland. Willow couldn't allow herself to go down that road again.
"Please don't kill me." The psychic whimpered softly. She feared that this was the price she'd pay for playing with fire. "I only did as Holland asked me. I didn't—"
Willow approached her with fury in her eyes.
"Shut up." She commanded her, and she obeyed.
She raised her arms again and Madame Serenity shrunk back, attempting to shield herself from Willow's devastating magicks. But Willow stopped. She allowed her arms to fall limply back to her sides and she shook her head to dispel her anger.
"Just stay away from me. Leave this shop and never come back. You're not welcome here anymore." Willow said sternly.
The psychic nodded her head silently. Willow turned around and marched out of the room. The woman at the counter had been upset when Willow went back there without an appointment. But when Madame Serenity didn't force her out, she figured the woman had changed her mind, and was getting a reading. Now she looked frightful and angry.
"Miss? Are you alright? You look like you've seen a ghost." She asked Willow.
"I have." Willow breezed past the counter without stopping.
"Are you okay?"
"No. I'm not." Willow told her as she began to run towards the door.
The woman was taken aback and she waved Willow's packages in the air.
"Wait! Don't you want your Valerian root?"
Willow didn't acknowledge her. She was too upset to even remember why she had come into the shop in the first place. She ran to her car and sped off towards the hotel. She pulled up out front and parked the car. She ran inside the building.
Lorne and Angel were sitting in the lobby when Willow ran past them.
"Hey! Slow down. What's wrong, Sweetness?" Lorne called out to her.
She didn't answer or look at either one of them.
"Willow? What happened to your hair?" Angel asked with concern.
That question made Willow pause. Her hair? Oh god...She rushed to see a mirror but found none handy.
"Where's a mirror? Why doesn't this place have any mirrors?" She cried. "Damn it...I hate living with vampires."
"Willow, calm down." Angel tried to soothe her.
"Just because you're having a bad hair day, doesn't mean it's the end of the world." Lorne assured her.
Willow shot daggers at him with her eyes and Lorne backed away.
"Okay, so maybe a bad hair day is the end of the world for a woman. What do I know?"
Willow finally caught her reflection in a glass cabinet. Her hair wasn't black as she had feared. Well not entirely. She had streaks of black running through it, and a quick check of her eyes showed they were normal. She was coming down. Her rage had fueled her magic and in turn that rage had brought the dark forces to the surface again. She couldn't even look at them when they tried to get her to tell them what was wrong. She merely ran up the stairs into her room and slammed the door.
Angel looked at Lorne, "Was this what you were talking about? Is she evil now? I remember Buffy telling me that Willow's hair went black when she was evil."
"I don't know. Something big obviously happened today. But I can't tell if she's evil. I definitely picked up some serious bitch vibrations though." Lorne remarked.
"That could just be, you know, that woman thing." Angel said uncomfortably.
"I don't know a lot about women, but I don't seem to recall black hair of evil being a part of the whole PMS process."
"Maybe someone should go check on her?" Angel wondered.
"Good idea." Lorne agreed.
Neither one of them moved assuming that the other of them would take the initiative. Finally Lorne spoke up.
"Don't look at me. I'm not going up there." Lorne said firmly.
"Well I'm not going up there either. If she's evil..."
"I'm sure she's not evil. If she was evil she would have killed us or at least turned us into something like a toad, right?"
Angel shrugged and glanced up the stairs. Then he looked back at Lorne.
"We'll just give her a little space. If she's evil, we'll know."
"Well, the us being turned into toads part will be a dead giveaway." Angel rationalized. Then, "Maybe we should call Buffy?"
Upstairs Willow sat on her bed with her hands shaking violently. She was more afraid of her own reflection than she was about dissolving Holland Manners with her mind. She wasn't sorry she did it. He was evil and she was going to vanquish him soon anyway. It had just been the way she had done it. The quiet rage that built inside her...The fact he used Tara as a lure to get her to the dark side. And the simple fact that she had almost been willing to take the deal. That was enough to make her realize that maybe she didn't have as good of a handle on things as she thought.
She needed to talk to someone but Angel and Lorne were the only ones around. It wasn't as if she didn't like them or trust them, she just didn't want to tell them what she had done. She was ashamed of her rage, even though Angel was no stranger to rage and violence. He'd probably understand. But she didn't feel close enough to him to cry and fall apart in front of his eyes. She wanted him to think she was strong. That was the image she'd projected effectively since she'd been in LA. She didn't want her façade to crumble.
She wiped her eyes and leaned over the bed to grab the telephone. She picked it up and began to dial, then she hung it up. It wasn't the right number. She had been so used to dialing that number she sometimes forgot it wasn't in service anymore. She opened her drawer and pulled out her address book. She found the correct number and dialed it again. She waited as it rang several times. She was just about to hang it up when someone finally picked up.
"Will? Hey! Wow...it's been awhile. How are you? Where are you? I tried calling you a few times but I always got the machine." He was surprised to hear from her.
"I'm actually in LA now. It's a long story, but Angel needed some help. I-I've been meaning to call you." She told him trying to appear put together well.
"LA huh? Helping out Deadboy? Guess I shouldn't be too surprised."
"Why is that?"
"Well, I just meant that I didn't think you'd stay in Cleveland long. I knew you didn't really like it there. Did Kennedy come with you to LA?" He asked.
Willow was quiet a moment, then, "We broke up. She didn't want to come here, and I didn't want to be there. It just wasn't working out. But we still talk sometimes."
"I'm sorry to hear that Will. I thought you guys would make it."
Willow then began to cry. She couldn't hold it back any longer. Xander heard her sobs and grew concerned.
"Willow, what's wrong? Is it Kennedy? Did I say something wrong?" He asked.
"It's not Kennedy...and no you didn't say anything wrong. It's me. I'm in trouble Xander." She sobbed.
"What happened? Do you need me to come there? I can be on the next—"
"You don't have to come here. I just...I need...Well, it wouldn't hurt to hear the yellow crayon speech again." She said managing a small hopeful smile through her tears.
"What? Oh Will...you didn't..."
"No! I didn't do anything." She said quickly. Then added in a small voice, "Well, I may have killed one person, but he was evil and already technically dead so that doesn't count. Does it?"
"What happened? Tell me everything." He said with worry.
She began telling Xander the entire story. How she had gotten the visions, ended up in LA, Wolfram and Hart, Angel's contract, Spike's back, Buffy's here; the entire story. She ended her retelling of the events with what had happened today at the Magic Emporium. Xander was silent for a moment then he sighed.
"He actually told you he could bring Tara back?" He asked.
"Yeah. And he did. Kind of. It was some kind of glamour I think. I know it wasn't real...but it felt real."
"You were going to sign the contract, weren't you? That's why you're so upset."
She nodded, even though he couldn't see her. She couldn't bring herself to say the words out loud. But Xander saw her in his mind, he knew her that well. Her silence answered his question.
"You didn't sign it though, right?" He asked.
"No. I-I didn't. But I wanted to. God...I wanted to." She admitted. "I was so upset and angry that he used Tara's memory like that—to trap me; control me...I snapped. I vaporized him instantly. I wasn't even thinking. I was just reacting."
"Its okay, Willow. He was evil. He had it coming."
"So did Warren, but that doesn't make it right for me to do things like that. Does it?"
"Warren was human. This Holland guy wasn't. At least not anymore. This was no different than killing the hundreds of demons we killed all the time. This wasn't the same as Warren."
"It felt the same. I-I think that's why it scared me. And my hair was black again. Not completely, but it was enough. Xander I'm afraid I'm going to lose control."
"Don't say that. You're not. You're strong, Willow. Don't you realize what it is you've done today?" He asked.
"Yes, I do. That's why I'm scared."
"No, I don't mean that. I mean that you had a chance to get Tara back. The one thing in the whole universe that you could possibly want—and you didn't do it. You knew it was wrong, and you didn't do it. That's pretty damn important, I'd think."
Willow was silent again as she absorbed his words. She had walked away from the biggest temptation she had faced in a very long time. Maybe Xander was right, and it did count for something.
"Willow, listen to me. I can be on the next plane out. If you need me I—"
"No. It's okay. Really Xander. I-I don't want to bring you into this." She protested.
It was his turn to be silent. Finally he said, "I get it. There's no reason for me to be there, right? I'm just poor one eyed pirate Xander. Good at giving pep talks but I can't possibly help in any other way. That's why no one even bothered to tell me that the gang was back together again."
She felt the sharp stab of his wounded feelings.
"Xander, that's not why. We just...there wasn't..."
"There wasn't anything I was good at except fixing windows. And I'm sure Mr. Big Shot Corporate Vampire guy can afford to pay a real carpenter. One with two eyes." He said with more bitterness than he knew he was keeping.
"Xander don't be like that. That's not what's going on here. I didn't think that after what happened with Caleb that you wanted to be on the front lines anymore. I thought you were happy to be out of this life." She told him.
More silence, then, "I am happy to be out of it. Believe me, waking up in the morning and not worrying if today is the day the world ends is a good thing. But you guys...I love you Will. And Buffy too. If something this big was happening, you should have told me."
"I'm sorry. You're right." She admitted.
"Look, forget about it. It's no big. Are you okay now? You're not feeling all destroy and kill anymore?"
"I feel better. Thanks to you...I love you Xander." She said sincerely.
"Ditto." He smiled into the phone.
They said their goodbyes and Willow hung up the phone. She wiped her eyes one last time and leaned back into the pillows. Just then there was a light knocking at the door.
"Yeah?" She called out.
"It's me. Buffy. Uh, is it safe—I-I mean, can I come in?" She asked cautiously.
Willow sighed, "Yes, it's safe. Come in Buffy."
Buffy poked her head around the door and saw Willow propped up on the bed. She looked normal; no black hair or eyes, no veiny things on her face. But her eyes were definitely red and puffy. Buffy moved into the room and sat down across from her.
"You alright? Angel said that you...well that he was worried about you. He called me."
"I had a rough day." Willow admitted.
"Wanna talk about it?" Buffy offered.
"I know what you're thinking—Angel told you I was evil, right?"
Buffy shook her head vigorously, "No. No way. He didn't say—Okay, maybe he said you might be evil."
"Well, I'm not. But I could be. Any second, I could be, Buffy."
Buffy reached out and touched Willow's hand gently.
"Will, any second any one of us could be evil. But that doesn't mean we will be."
"I killed Holland Manners today." Willow admitted softly.
"Holland Manners. The guy who Lilah was working for."
"Oh, yeah...you killed him?"
Willow nodded. "I vaporized him. Instantly. I almost killed a psychic too. But I-I didn't. I ran out of there."
"What? Willow, back up. Start at the beginning." Buffy told her.
Willow sighed and relayed her tale again to Buffy. Tears fell from her eyes when she got to the part where Tara had been there. Buffy squeezed her hand supportively.
"You did the right thing. You walked away. I-I know it must have been so tempting...But you walked away. And that's the important part."
"I know. It is. I-I called Xander and he said the same thing." Willow told her. "But I was just so scared because I almost lost it. I felt all the pain and anger of having Tara in front of me, then pulled away again...I felt like I could just completely rampage and destroy everything in my sight again."
"But you didn't. Don't stress over the what-ifs. You didn't do it. You're still in control. You're still Willow." She smiled at her.
"Yeah...I'm still me. I-I think." Willow managed a small smile in return.
"You'll be okay. You're strong. Stronger than any of us I think. You'll make it."
Buffy reached over and pulled Willow into a hug. They just sat there holding each other, trying to make sense of it all. Knowing that no matter what happened they'd always have each other to lean on.
Spike was huddled in the office with Angel, Lorne and Wes. They all looked concerned.
"So, Red wasn't red anymore? Evil you say?" Spike asked them.
"I don't know Spike. Something happened to her, but the fact that Buffy's still up there and we haven't heard any violence, I think maybe we overreacted." Angel told him.
"Yeah that, or Willow poofed Buffy out of existence silently. I'm going up there." Spike informed them.
Wes grabbed his arm and stopped him.
"No. Leave it. Buffy's alright. I don't believe that Willow went over the edge. If she had, this would be the last place she'd run to." He rationalized.
"He has a point. Buffy said the last time Willow freaked it was messy. She wouldn't have come back here. She was upset, but not homicidal." Angel remembered.
"What is it you say you saw again, Lorne?" Wes asked.
"I just saw Willow being tempted with something major. Holland was there, he was smiling, and I felt Willow's turmoil. Whatever it was, it meant a lot to her."
"Tara." Spike informed them.
"Tara?" Wes asked.
"Her girlfriend. Or rather the girlfriend who expired a few years back. The catalyst for Willow's decent into evil and ending the world. It's the only thing it could be. The only thing that could get a reaction like that out of her."
"What makes you so sure?" Angel wanted to know.
"Because I know the girl. I may have missed the dark magic show she put on then, but I know what makes her tick."
"Oh really? So you're the Willow expert?" Angel asked condescendingly.
"Shut up Angel. Spike is right. It was Tara." Buffy said as she entered the room with her arms crossed.
"I talked to her and Spike was right. Holland offered her Tara in exchange for her soul." She told everyone.
"Should we be worried?" Wes asked tentatively.
Buffy shook her head, "No. She didn't do it."
"When I get my hands on Holland Manners he's gonna wish—"
"I don't think Holland is going to be an issue anymore, Angel." Buffy interrupted.
"He's dead. Or rather, vaporized."
"Willow?" Wes asked.
Buffy nodded. "He's gone. Which is good. That's one less obstacle we have to face. With him gone, Spike should be safer. We all should be a little safer. At least for now."
"Is Willow going to be up for what's next? Pretty much all of this rests on her shoulders at this point. Can she handle that kind of pressure right now?" Angel asked.
Buffy shrugged, "I don't know. She's strong. She's pretty shaken up, but she knows the deal. She still wants to do it."
"Okay then. We let her regroup then we press on. This must be handled sooner rather than later. With Holland gone, we have a window of opportunity we may not get again." Wes informed them all.
Everyone nodded in agreement. It needed to end before someone else was tempted by their offers and before Wolfram and Hart had a chance to replace Holland and Lilah.
Later on that evening Buffy sat outside in the courtyard looking up at the stars. Everyone else was inside planning and plotting. Willow had come downstairs finally and assured everyone she was ready to work. Her earlier emotional state had been put on the back-burner to focus on the task at hand. Buffy had never been much for research. She was the fighter. Someone told her where to go and who to kill and she did it. She had failed miserably as a planner and a leader. But she wasn't upset not to be a part of that side of things. She was content to sit back and wait until she was needed for something. It suited her—not being in charge. Angel and Wes were good at that. It was their calling and she was more than happy to allow them that opportunity.
She hadn't noticed right away when someone else had entered the courtyard, but when she heard the footsteps coming towards her she smiled.
"Hey Spike." She grinned at his terrible lurking abilities.
"Not Spike." Angel said softly.
Buffy turned her head in surprise at Angel's voice.
"Angel. I-I just assumed..."
"Spike went out to get everyone pizza. Hope you like pepperoni." He smiled.
She nodded her head silently. Suddenly she felt awkward being alone with Angel under the stars. It was a romantic setting—one she shouldn't be enjoying with him. But he either didn't notice the tension, or didn't care. He sat down next to her; a friendly distance, but still too close for her comfort.
"I have to tell you something Buffy." He began softly.
"I-I'm not sure I like the sound of that. Sounds serious." She said nervously.
"It is. Well, at least I think it is." He told her. Then sighed, "The thing of it is, I'm not sure if it really makes a difference to you—to us. Not anymore."
"What is it?"
"Do you still love me, Buffy?" He asked then regretted it the minute it left his lips. Her shocked expression made him wince. "Scratch that. I don't need to know." He back-pedaled.
"Why would you ask me something like that?"
"It's not important."
"Well it obviously is important or you wouldn't have asked me. What's going on Angel?" She demanded to know.
"Nothing is going on. I just—"
"Is this about Spike? You're still jealous? The two of you drive me crazy, you know that?" She said with irritation.
"This isn't about Spike. Not directly anyway."
"Right. I tell you that I want to be with him and now you wanna know if I still love you?"
"I'm doing this all wrong. I should have just come right out and said what I needed to say." He admitted with defeat.
"What is it you need to say? I'm listening." She said impatiently.
"Willow told me that if she gets me out of this contract with Wolfram and Hart that my soul will belong to me." He blurted out.
"Yeah? Good. We knew that. That's the whole point behind getting you out of the contract." She said simply.
"No, you're not getting it Buffy. My soul will be mine—as in I can't lose it. No more curse. No more 'perfect happiness' clause. It'll be mine." He clarified.
Buffy stared at him silently. She had no words at the moment. Her mind flashed back to Spike asking her: "If things were different would Angel be the one standing here with you?" She'd refused to entertain the notion at all then. But now things were different. Angel was telling her that they may have a chance to be together. Just what they had always wanted. The fact that he was a vampire was a moot point now seeing as how she was in a relationship with Spike—also a vampire. Without the curse, nothing was standing in the way of her and Angel being together. Nothing except her. This was why he wanted to know if she still loved him. He wanted her back.
"Angel, what are you saying? You won't have the curse so now we can just pick up where we left off all those years ago?" She asked flabbergasted.
"No. Of course not." He protested. Then weakly, "Well, maybe. Can we?"
She stood up and walked away from him. She crossed her arms and shook her head.
"I can't even believe you're asking me this! Don't you get that I'm in love with Spike? Did you think I was just settling for him because I couldn't have you?" She asked angrily.
"No! That's not what I thought." He said firmly.
"Yes it is! Why else would you be asking me if I still loved you?"
He stood to face her. "Fine. Yes. I did think you were only with Spike because he was a vampire with a soul—just like me. I don't have to be a psychologist to work that little bit of transference out in my head."
"Transference? Oh my god. You really have a lot of nerve Angel. Spike is not you. He's not even close to being you. Just because he's a vampire with a soul doesn't mean I'm with him because he reminds me of you. That's like saying that if I dated another human guy, that it would be only because I was pretending he was Riley. Give me a break." She said full of bitterness.
"Well, I'm sorry. I guess I just don't understand what it is you see in Spike."
"Other than you? If your theory is correct, I see you in him. So by that rationale, since you hate him so much, that must mean you hate yourself too." She pointed out.
"Are we really going to psychoanalyze each other here, Buffy?" He said with exasperation.
"You're the one who started that with the transference mumbo-jumbo."
"Fine. Okay, so I was wrong. You aren't with Spike because of me. I get it."
"Yes, I get it. But I still don't know why then." He told her honestly.
She sighed and leaned against the courtyard wall.
"Does there have to be a reason why? He completes me in some way. He understands me. Sometimes I hate him for that—but in the end, I always come back to him. It used to drive me crazy how that worked." She admitted.
"So then why keep coming back? If you hate it so much." He asked.
"I don't know. Why do we keep coming back to this point? Why is it every time I see you I feel sixteen again and want to throw myself into your arms?"
"Maybe because we still love each other."
"Maybe. But it's not the kind of love it used to be. I will always care about you, but the fact is, I'm not sixteen. I've been through a hell of a lot. And you weren't there for it. You left me. You walked away and left me alone, Angel. That wasn't my choice; that was yours. And now you think just because the curse is gone we can go back again? It won't happen like that. It can't. Too much has happened." She informed him seriously.
"You're still mad that I left? I did it for you."
"Spare me, okay? You may have thought you did it for me, but you did it for you. You were afraid you wouldn't be able to control yourself around me and you walked away. It was the easy way out and you know it."
"It was far from easy. And anyway, your mother was the one who begged me to leave. She wanted me to let you go and live your life. She wanted you to be happy. And so did I." He told her softly.
She let her arms fall to her sides and looked up at him.
"My mother? My mother begged you to leave?"
He nodded. "Joyce came to me and asked me to be the strong one. She said as long as I was around you'd never let go—never have a normal life. And I believed her. I agreed, and so I left." He remembered quietly. "Whether you believe it or not, I did do it for you."
"Great. Well, it doesn't really matter now why you did it. I got over it. Contrary to what you might think, I got over it—got over you. It wasn't easy, but it happened. Just because I still care for you doesn't mean that nothing has changed. It has. I'm not the same girl I used to be. You haven't seen me at my worst, Angel. You still hold me up on a pedestal. Spike doesn't. Spike knows my flaws, many of them up close and personal. And he still loves me." She said honestly.
"And you think I wouldn't?" He was wounded.
"I don't know. There were times when I didn't even like me, but Spike never wavered. I don't know why. I gave him no reason to stick by my side."
"But he did. I guess I have to hand it to him. I really don't know him at all I guess." He relented.
"Angel, you have to let me go. It's over. Regardless of the curse, it's over." She said with a single tear rolling down her cheek.
"I know. I think I knew that already. I was just..."
"Making sure?" She offered with a tiny smile.
He nodded. "I had to be sure."
"It wasn't just me that moved on, was it? Willow told me that you and Cordelia..."
"Yeah, we—nothing ever happened. But yeah, I think I loved her." He admitted.
"You think you did?" She raised her eyebrow at him.
"I know I did. I just don't know what kind of love it really was. It was complicated." He clarified.
"All love is complicated."
"I guess it is. But it doesn't really matter anymore."
"I'm sorry she's gone, Angel. I know what that must feel like." She whispered.
"It's not a good feeling. I just hope I did the right thing letting her go. At the time it seemed right, but now that I know Wolfram and Hart were up to no good the entire time, I'm not convinced anymore that she was un-savable."
"There isn't any way to know that now."
"I know. I just hope that wherever she is, she finds her way. I know she's not at peace yet." He said unhappily.
"Maybe not. I don't think she could really move on until she fixed things with you."
"Yeah, trying to fix my mistakes. I screwed up royally and Cordy knew it. Cordy always called me on my mistakes."
"That's Cordelia. Brutally honest." Buffy laughed slightly at the memory.
"Exactly. She was honest, even if the truth wasn't pretty. She'd tell it like it was. Before all of this happened, she was really the one who kept me grounded—focused. When she left...even when she came back, it wasn't Cordy. Things were never the same." He said mournfully. "I miss her."
Buffy moved over towards him again and touched his shoulder affectionately. She could see his pain. So much pain. All the things that Angel kept inside himself and never shared with anyone. He was always punishing himself for everything. And she told him this.
"Buffy I have to punish myself for this. All of these mistakes I've made—I have no one to blame but myself." He told her as he moved away from her and looked up at the sky.
"We all make mistakes Angel." She assured him.
He nodded his head. "Yeah. We all do. Some of us just make more than others." He added quietly.
Buffy went over and touched him on the arm again. She tried to pull him closer to her, but he stood firm. She was making one more attempt to reach out to him. Practically begging him to let her in and to accept comfort from someone. He realized this and shot her a confused expression.
"You shouldn't get too close to me, Buffy. Wouldn't want me to get the wrong idea, would you?"
"That's not what I'm doing. I care about you Angel. Can't you get that? Let me be here for you."
"You just told me it was over—that I had to get over you. Now you want me to let you be here?" He shook his head.
"So we can't be friends? Is that what you're saying? Either we're together or we're nothing? You're worse than Spike." She said in disbelief.
"And you said we weren't alike. Funny." He said flatly.
She threw her hands up, "Fine. Don't lean on me. Just sit here and brood over the crap your life has become. It's what you do best, isn't it? Don't let me stop you."
Angel watched as she turned and began to walk away from him. He was going to let her go, but he couldn't. He hadn't meant to push her away like that or to let his wounded ego get the better of him.
"Wait. Don't go like that. I'm sorry." He told her.
She stopped walking and turned to face him again. She folded her arms and stared at him.
"Look, I don't want us to be enemies. But you have to admit, this isn't easy. It's confusing." He told her.
"Yeah. It is." She agreed. "But just because we can't be a couple anymore doesn't mean that I don't care what happens to you. I'm here aren't I?"
"Spike's here. Willow's here. Isn't that why you stuck around? To help them? Because you care about them?" He asked.
"Yeah. But I came to this hotel to see you. I had no idea Willow was here, or that Spike wasn't dead. I came because I wanted to see you."
"Why? Why do you think? Because I care damn it! Have you not listened to anything I've said tonight?" She was exasperated now.
"Well then stop asking stupid questions."
Angel looked wounded for a moment and then he started laughing softly. Buffy tried to maintain her irritation, but his laughter became contagious.
"Why are you laughing?" She asked masking her own giggles.
"I have no idea." He chuckled.
"Well stop it. It's annoying. And not like you. You never laugh." She pointed out.
"I do so laugh. Sometimes. On a rare occasion." He protested with weak laughter.
She shook her head and smiled at him. She approached him with outstretched arms, inviting him into a hug. He hesitated briefly, then pulled her close.
"Are we friends now?" She asked as they held each other tightly.
He pulled back and looked her in the eye.
"Friends." He smiled.
Spike stood at the doorway watching them through the window. More laughter, more hugging—it was making him nauseous. Why was it every time he turned his back they were all over each other? He tried to keep a level head, and not fly off the handle again. Both of them had sworn that nothing was going on and that Buffy loved him now. Why was that so hard to believe? Maybe because of displays like this he kept witnessing between the two of them. He wanted to run out there and beat the shit out of Angel and grab Buffy and run off with her. Far away, where Angel wouldn't find them. But the logical part of his brain said that would be a mistake. He swallowed hard and closed his eyes. He pushed the glass doors open.
"Pizza's here." He said flatly, trying not to look at the two of them.
They pulled away from each other abruptly and looked over at Spike. Buffy was flustered that he had caught them in yet another embrace, even if it was innocent. She knew Spike wouldn't see it that way. Lately he had the worst timing ever.
"Spike! We were just—"
"Don't explain. Doesn't matter." Spike held up his hand to silence her.
Angel looked at Spike then back at Buffy. He could see that three was definitely a crowd. He lowered his head and walked back into the hotel, leaving Spike and Buffy outside.
Buffy walked over to Spike.
"It wasn't what—"
"It looked like?" He finished for her. "Save it. I know. It was just a friendly cuddle among ex-lovers. Happens all the time." He assured her. "Or so it seems." He muttered under his breath.
"We weren't cuddling, Spike." She protested. "We were hugging. Like friends do. Like I-I hug Willow. It meant nothing."
"We don't need to go over this again, Buffy. I get it." He told her.
"Do you get it?"
"I'm not mentally challenged in some way, Buffy. I understand English, alright? You said nothing is happening with him, and I...believe you."
"No I didn't."
"Yes you did. You said 'I...believe you'. Like you really weren't sure." She pointed out.
"So now you're analyzing my bloody speech patterns? What next?" He asked incredulously.
"I just want you to know that nothing happened here tonight."
"I said you didn't have to explain it anymore, Buffy. But it is curious that you feel the need to explain it. Why is that now? Guilty conscience?" He raised his eyebrow.
She stared at him for a moment and shook her head.
"No. My conscience is clear. It's just...never mind."
"What? If there's something to tell me, then just tell me. I don't want to play games with you." He said running his fingers through his hair tensely.
"Angel told me that Willow is going to lift his curse. The spell that that gets Angel out of the Wolfram and Hart contract frees him from the curse as well. He'll still have his soul, but the happiness clause will be gone. That's what we were talking about tonight before you got here." She admitted.
Spike felt as if the entire world dropped away from underneath his feet. This could change everything. And he suddenly felt sick at the thought that it may have already changed everything without his knowledge. The laughter and the hugging...
"So, what are you saying? You and Angel can shag like rabbits now without letting loose old Angelus? Well, that's just great. Congratulations. I'm sure you'll both be very happy. Don't forget to send me an invitation to the wedding." He said bitterly.
"It doesn't change anything. He told me, and it didn't change anything Spike." She said quickly.
He looked at her like he didn't understand what she had said. She moved closer to him and attempted to take his hands. He backed away.
"Spike, listen to me. Nothing has changed. I'm happy for Angel that his curse will be lifted and that maybe he can be happy without it resulting in murder and mayhem afterwards. But his happiness isn't with me anymore." She assured him.
"It's not? You're not back together with him?" He asked cautiously.
"No. I'm not. And to be honest, I'm just as surprised as you are."
"Well that's real comforting, thanks." He said dripping with bitter sarcasm.
"I didn't mean it like that. I just meant that I have thought about what I would do if by some miracle Angel wasn't cursed. I used to daydream about that very thing all the time. I thought it would change everything, but it didn't. That's when I realized that it really is over for us. Don't you see?" She pleaded with him to understand.
His protective stance relaxed slightly and he looked at her.
"You really aren't in love with him anymore? You aren't gonna leave me for him? I mean why settle for Angel II—the next generation; when you can have the real deal?" He asked.
"Angel II? Is that what you think you are? I thought you hated being compared to him."
"I do. I despise it. But I just assumed..."
"Yeah, well so did he. And you're both wrong. I'm starting to think that neither one of you are worth the trouble." She said with a sigh.
"You don't mean that. You like trouble." He said with a small smirk.
"I do not." She pouted.
"Yes you do. I'm trouble, and you like me." He grinned at her.
"Sometimes I like you." She said putting her hands on her hips.
"Well sometimes, I don't like you." He shrugged. "But that hasn't stopped me from loving you."
She let her hands fall to her sides and he went over and pulled her into his arms. He felt as if he had won something tonight, despite the protests from Buffy and himself that it hadn't been a contest. He still felt victorious. Buffy had made a real choice tonight. She'd been offered another chance to be with Angel. Her first love, and at times he feared, her only love. But she had chosen him tonight. It made no logical sense, but he didn't care. Buffy was his now. He kissed her softly and she smiled up at him.
"So are we done with Angel rivalry thing?" She asked curiously.
"Done? No. That's never gonna happen when I'm so clearly the better vampire." He smirked.
"Oh god..." She laughed and shook her head. "Dream on."
"Hey now!" He protested. "You must think I'm the better one, or I wouldn't be the one standing here."
"There is no better one." She told him.
"Yeah? Well then I'm at least the luckier one." He grinned at her.
"Don't forget it either." She kissed him again.
He pulled back from her and pushed her hair away from her face gently.
"Better get back inside before all the pizza is gone." He told her.
"I'm not really hungry." She whispered as she kissed him again.
And he wasn't complaining. Outside in this courtyard with her tonight was the only place he wanted to be.
Dawn sat silently next to Connor as they drove through the intense rush hour traffic on the freeway. It had been stop and go for the last five miles and Dawn was getting antsy. She turned to Connor.
"Are you really sure you want to do this?" She asked him.
He nodded his head. "I have to. You said that maybe I needed some kind of closure, and I think you're right. I have to see him again."
"Maybe it should wait until after the winter break?" She offered.
"Why wait? If I wait, I may not be able to confront him. I'll lose my nerve."
She nodded her head, trusting that he was really ready to face Angel again. They had talked about it in depth for the last several days but she had been surprised when he told her he wanted to meet with him today. But she supposed that if he didn't do it before the break, he'd obsess over it the entire time. And that would definitely not be a good thing.
They finally made their way at a crawl towards the freeway exit that would take them to the hotel. Dawn suddenly wondered if it would have been smart to call first? But it was day time and Angel wasn't likely to be out for a late afternoon stroll in the California sunshine. He'd be there. Dawn just hoped that both of them were ready for this.
They pulled up out front and parked the car. They each got out and Dawn stopped Connor momentarily to grab his hand. He squeezed it tightly and smiled at her.
"You've helped me a lot Dawn. I hope you know that." He said sincerely to her.
"I-I haven't done much." She looked away humbly.
He reached over and touched her face, turning her towards him to look her in the eye.
"Yes, you have. You didn't know me before...What I was like. Trust me when I say that civilized conversation and rational thinking weren't my strong suits."
"Well you're different now. And not just because of the spell."
"I know. That's why I'm thanking you. I never—Connor never had anyone that really made him feel special. Loved and important...Steve may have had it all, but that's still not real. This with you—this is real. This is the truth. And this is who I am now." He explained to her.
She leaned up and kissed him gently.
"You're going to be okay. I can feel it." She whispered with a smile.
He nodded his head and took her hand again. They made their way towards the hotel. Inside, Gunn was sitting on the counter cleaning some weapons as Angel perused some files.
"After years of working with her, I still can't figure out Cordelia's filing system." Angel shook his head.
"What can't you find?" Fred called out from the back office.
"I can't find that client we had a long time ago. Remember the little old man? Harvey Silvers. He had a Harkan demon under his front porch. I looked under S for Silvers. And even H for Harkan or Harvey. I've got nothing."
"Did you try looking under O?" Fred asked.
"O? Why O?"
"O for old man."
Angel sighed and opened up the filing cabinet again. At that moment Connor cleared his throat and announced their presence in the lobby. Gunn looked up first and quickly put his weapons down and jumped off the counter. Angel looked up to see who was there, and promptly dropped the files he was holding all over the floor. He scrambled to pick them up.
"You must be Connor, right? And you're Dawn. Buffy's lil' sis." Gunn nodded his head in a friendly gesture.
Dawn nodded and Connor calmly spoke, "Yeah, Gunn. I remember you. You didn't like me."
"Yeah? Maybe I didn't like you cause you tried to kill Angel by dropping him in the ocean for a coupla months." He shrugged.
"You remember that?" Connor was surprised.
Gunn shook his head, "Nah, but I've heard the story now."
Angel finally picked up his papers and looked at Connor and Dawn nervously.
"Uh, why are you guys here? Buffy's not here, if that's who you're looking for." He offered.
"We aren't here to see Buffy." Dawn shook her head.
"I'm here to see you." Connor directed his stare in Angel's direction.
"Me? Really?" Angel felt awkward and anxious. He feared that anything he said may be the wrong thing, and Connor would run out and leave again. He wanted to tread lightly.
"Yes, I wanted to talk to you. If that's alright?"
"Should I check him for weapons or something?" Gunn asked Angel.
"He doesn't have any weapons." Dawn assured them.
"It's alright, Gunn." Angel looked at Connor. "We can talk in the office."
Connor let go of Dawn's hand and she smiled.
"I'm gonna see what Willow is up to." She said as she turned and headed up the staircase.
Connor walked behind the counter and Angel led him to the office. Fred was still typing away on the laptop when they entered the room. She looked up and was startled to see that Connor was with him.
"Oh, y-you must be Connor." She stammered as she stood up from the desk.
"We need a few minutes." Angel told her.
She nodded and grabbed the laptop as she rushed out of the office. She didn't know a lot about Angel's son, only that he didn't seem to like Angel very much. She didn't know why he had suddenly shown back up, but she wasn't about to get in the middle of it.
Angel shut the door once Fred exited and he turned to Connor.
"So...what is it you wanted to see me about?" He asked, unsure if he even wanted to know why he was here.
"I'm leaving for awhile. Winter break. I'm going home." He said quietly.
"Oh? Well, good. That's good to hear." Angel nodded.
"I know Frank and Judy aren't my real parents...That's their names, by the way. Did you know that?"
Angel shook his head. Connor continued. "They aren't my real parents, but I've decided that they don't know that. They won't ever know that. Understand?" He asked firmly.
"Connor, I'm not going to cause trouble with your new family. You were never even supposed to know that—"
"I know. I wasn't supposed to know that I didn't belong there, but I do know. I just don't want them ever knowing that. They wouldn't understand."
"Well they won't hear it from me. You have my word." He assured him.
"Good. And as far as I'm concerned, you're not my father. Not anymore. Frank is my father."
"Understood." Angel nodded.
"You and I...we'll never be family. I know that your blood is in my veins...But blood doesn't make a family." Connor explained.
"Connor, I know all this. That's why I did what I did. I knew I could never give you the kind of life you deserved."
"I know. I think I understand that now."
"The last thing I ever wanted to do was pretend you didn't exist. No one knows how hard that was for me. But I loved you enough to let you go—right or wrong—I did it because I loved you. But I know you never loved me. You couldn't. And I get that now."
Angel tried to keep his emotions in check. Emotions never came easy for him and this situation was no exception. He was afraid to say too much or too little—knowing that the slightest mistake either way could push Connor away entirely.
"You're right. I didn't love you. I couldn't love you. I blamed you for everything. Some of the things you deserved. But most of them...well that was just me. I was angry and lost and you were easy to take it out on. You were always there, in my face, trying to make nice with me. It was easy to throw it all back at you and blame you for everything. But I know it wasn't all your fault. I blame Holtz too. I blame him a lot. And I blame me."
"You weren't to blame for the way your life was." Angel protested.
"No, I wasn't. But I was the one who chose what to do with the life I was given. And most of that was a really bad choice." He admitted. "But I have a second chance now, and I want to take it."
Angel relaxed a little and leaned against the desk.
"I hope that you can find peace now. That you can be happy. For real, and not just because of a spell that I set in motion."
They were silent for a few moments. Angel just tried to memorize Connor's face the way it looked now. Calm and serene; with just a hint of happiness glowing in his eyes. It was a look Angel wished for him many times, and now it was reality.
"So, I understand from Buffy that you and Dawn are getting pretty close." Angel tossed that out there in an attempt to know more about Connor's new life.
He nodded, "Yeah. I like her a lot. She's...special. Different than any of the other girls I've met."
"She is special. Buffy too."
"I guess it runs in the family." Connor agreed cordially. "Look, I have to go now. I just wanted—before I left, I wanted to let you know that I'm okay."
"I'm glad to hear that. I hope you have a nice visit with your parents." Angel said sincerely.
"I will." Connor turned around and put his hand on the doorknob. He turned his head slightly, unable to make direct eye contact with Angel. "Thank you. What you did for me...maybe it was wrong. Actually I know it was wrong, but thank you anyway."
Angel didn't know what to say. You're welcome didn't seem appropriate. Nothing seemed appropriate for this moment. He suddenly wished they made a Hallmark card that fit this situation. But there wasn't anything he could really say.
"Take care of yourself, Connor." He said finally.
"You too. Hope you get yourself out of the mess you got into for me."
"Bye Angel." Connor turned the knob and exited the room without looking back.
Angel let out a deep breath and buried his face in his hands. That was one of the single most tension filled conversations he had ever had. In the end, it went a hell of a lot smoother than he feared it would. Connor wasn't angry anymore. He was calm, and accepting; ready to move on. He may have renounced Angel as his father, but for once the phrases 'I hate you' and 'You ruined my life' didn't come into play. Either way this story ended, Connor was doomed to be lost to Angel forever. If he had done nothing all those months ago, Connor would have surely died, or ended up in prison forever. Angel let him go then without ever hoping to have him back. Nothing had changed now except Connor made his own choice this time about his future. Angel couldn't make everything better with a deal anymore. Connor could have flipped out again and lived in rage at his fate, but he didn't. He chose to accept it; to accept that Angel gave him life, and move on from it. Angel had never been more proud of his son than he was at this moment.
Angel lay awake that night thinking about what had happened with Connor. For the first time since he'd made the deal with Wolfram and Hart, Angel felt truly at peace with his choice. He was angry with himself for getting the others involved in this mess, but if he had to do it all over again, he probably would still do the same. Connor had thanked him. It was an amazing moment for Angel. What he had done had not been a mistake. It may not have been a wise move, but he couldn't accept that it was a mistake. Not when Connor was finally making amends with himself.
Angel thought about getting up and patrolling the streets for trouble. It had been a while since he had done that. There hadn't been much need or time lately. The streets seemed fairly quiet and Spike hadn't had a vision in several days. In the end, Angel decided it was too much like work to get up and get dressed again. He glanced at the clock noting that it read 3am. Maybe he would just run down to his office and catch up on paperwork? He couldn't stand lying there any longer.
He tore the covers off himself and rose from the bed. His bare feet padded across the floor as he fumbled to turn on the light. All at once he halted, and stood motionless in the middle of the room. Something was in there with him. He felt it. He listened for the sound of breathing or a heartbeat of some type, but he heard nothing of the sort. Maybe his instincts were wrong? He began walking slowly again, and stopped. His instincts were never wrong. He whirled around and called out into the darkened room.
"Who's there? Spike? If you've come for a bedtime story—"
"You read Spike bedtime stories? Okay that's weird...and a little disturbing." Cordy said sarcastically as she moved from the shadows of the room.
Angel stood with open mouthed shock at the sight of her.
"Duh. Who else would it be?" She asked with a small smile.
"What are you doing here?"
"Not quite the welcome I was expecting, Angel." She shook her head with a sigh. "No, 'I missed you Cordy' or 'Gee! It's good to see you!' I just get, 'What are you doing here?' That's weak." She complained.
"Well, you're dead. I-I just assumed if you're here visiting me you must have a reason." He explained. Then softly, "I missed you Cordelia."
She smiled, "That's better." She walked closer to him and he could see that she wasn't completely solid in form. "You're right though, I am here for a reason." She told him.
"What reason is that? Have we missed something?" He wondered.
"No, not really. I'm happy that you guys finally woke up and figured out what I was trying to tell you. Cause that was really annoying. Do you know how hard it is for me to appear to you guys like this?"
"No, I don't. My god...you look good." He said with awe, then realized how ridiculous it sounded. He cringed openly.
"Death becomes me? Thanks. I think."
"I just meant you look rested. No, wait, that's not right either. You just look...well you look like I remember you." He admitted quietly.
She softened her look and smiled at him again. "You're not looking so bad yourself."
"It feels like forever since...well, since I've really seen you."
"I know. But I was always here Angel. Even when I couldn't let you know. But I gotta say one thing. How the hell couldn't you tell that thing walking around here last year wasn't me? I mean, hello? The outfits alone were so wrong. And sleeping with Connor? Eww. I-I mean, no offense. He's a cutie and all...but eww!" She exclaimed with distaste.
"How was I supposed to know? You were still you. Kind of. You looked like you." He defended himself.
"But the black belly dancing outfit? Please. That so didn't come from my closet. Where did evil me shop anyway?" She rolled her eyes.
Angel had to laugh at that one. It felt so good to have Cordelia back again. Only he knew she wasn't really back. She was gone. This was likely the last time he'd ever see or speak to her. He didn't want the moment to end.
"Okay, so I wasn't on the ball. I should have known you'd never dress like that." He conceded.
"You used to know my taste. Remember all those clothes you bought me that one time? When you were trying to suck up and make me not hate you?" She asked with a grin.
"I guess it's not important now. It's not like I'm gonna be wearing my Jimmy Choo shoes anytime soon. This is pretty much the standard dead person get up. White on white. It's kinda boring." She shrugged.
"I'm sorry that I let you go. They said there was no way...I mean, they said you couldn't be saved. You were in limbo. You know I only set you free because I didn't want you to suffer." He told her seriously.
She looked down at the floor and avoided his eyes.
"It was a trick Angel. They wanted you to think I was nothing but a vegetable. But the truth is I was there the whole time. Watching you guys. Waiting to jump back into my body. But they had some kind of barrier up. I was screaming at you guys to hear me, but you couldn't. I knew you couldn't."
Angel felt like falling to his knees over this news. Yet another mistake he had made. Cordelia was dead because of him and his ties with Wolfram and Hart. He didn't know what to tell her except that he was sorry.
"You don't have to be sorry Angel. It wasn't your fault. That thing with Connor and everyone losing their memories and you signing away your soul? That was your fault. This with me, you didn't know. Nobody did. I hadn't worked out how to make myself visible yet. This netherworld crap doesn't come with instructions. But once I realized you weren't going to hear me, I had to do something." She explained.
"That's when you contacted Willow."
She nodded. "Yeah. She was easier to connect to. She's tapped in. But I knew the visions weren't for her. I'd known they were meant for Spike for a long time. I just couldn't tell anyone."
"How'd you figure that out?" He wondered.
She shrugged, "You learn a lot when you're incorporeal and bored. I listened in on a lot of interesting conversations. But it got too risky. Holland was after me." She told him.
"He's gone. In Hell where he belongs. Willow saw to that. Finally, I might add. But that's why I'm here now. It was an opportunity for me to move freely between worlds without him and his henchmen breathing down my neck."
"Why are you here again? You said there was a reason." He inquired.
"There is a reason. A good reason." She sighed softly and looked away from him. She moved closer and reached out to him. He felt her fingers brush against his softly, almost like a butterflies wings. "I came to say goodbye Angel." She whispered to him as her hand rested on his for the briefest moment.
He looked up at her and felt her hand slip slowly away from him, almost as if it were dissolving. She pulled back and smiled at him.
"I miss you Cordy." Angel told her sadly.
"Miss you too."
She started to fade away and he suddenly panicked, not wanting her to leave him again. He wanted to find some way to keep her here, but he knew it wasn't possible. He looked at her anxiously.
"I love you." He said quickly. "I know it doesn't mean much now...But I do. I love you."
"I know." She smiled. "You know that's what I was coming to tell you that night. The night I disappeared. I was rushing off to tell you what I felt. Never got the chance. Obviously. But, now you know. And now I know too."
He tried to smile amidst his sadness at losing her again.
"Try not to annoy the other dead people up there, okay?" He told her wryly.
"Well then what fun would that be?" She teased. Then, "Don't forget me, okay?"
"Good." She smiled.
Before he could say another word, she was gone. Her spirit exited the room and Angel slumped against the wall. He closed his eyes and tried to burn the image of her into his mind. Don't forget me...she had said. And how could he? Cordelia may have been a lot of things, but forgettable was not one of them.
Angel walked downstairs a short time later. He had completely given up on sleep. His mind was too busy, and seeing Cordelia like that, and knowing she had come to say goodbye, had affected him greatly. He decided to try and occupy his thoughts with mindless paperwork. He walked distractedly into his dark office and went to the mini-fridge. He grabbed a container of blood absently and sat down at his desk. He flipped on the small desk lamp and was startled to find the room already occupied. He reflexively jumped and spilled some of the contents of his snack onto his papers.
"Damn it." He muttered. Then looked up at Spike. "What the hell are you doing in my office at" He looked at the clock on the wall, "4:30 in the morning?"
"Couldn't sleep." Spike shrugged as he set his own container of blood down on the desk.
"So you figured the best place to hang was in my office? In the dark?"
"I was hungry. I'm all out of refreshments in my room. So I pilfered a bit of your stash. Hope you don't mind."
"It's a little too late if I did." Angel picked up Spike's empty container, shook it, and tossed it into the trash.
"You seem extra annoying tonight. Couldn't sleep either? Or did this two year old case file on your desk warrant your attention in the middle of the night?" He asked, as he thumbed through the papers on his desk with boredom.
"I couldn't sleep. Too much on my mind." Angel admitted, grabbing the papers away from Spike.
"Yeah, I know the feeling."
"I don't really feeling like chatting Spike. If you don't mind." He motioned him towards the door. "Get the hell out of here."
Spike became annoyed that Angel refused to even be civil to him. Spike felt like he had put up with a hell of a lot of crap from Angel, especially where Buffy was concerned. The least he could do is exchange three words with him as if he mattered.
"Fine. It's not like chatting you up was the highlight of my evening." Spike scoffed and headed for the door.
Angel wasn't really sure why he did what he did next, but for that briefest moment it seemed the right thing to do.
"Stop Spike. I'm...sorry." Angel said quietly; almost painfully.
"What? You're sorry? Okay now I know something is wrong with you." Spike said with surprise.
Angel sighed and ran his hands through his hair with agitation. "I saw Cordelia tonight." He informed Spike.
This garnered his interest and he turned around and moved back over to the desk.
"Cordelia eh? What was it this time? Anything new we need to worry about?" Spike asked curiously.
Angel shook his head, "No. Nothing new. Well, nothing that affects anyone but me."
"Ah, well, you seem a bit shook up. Guess it's tough for you." Spike offered uncomfortably.
"It was tough. Especially when she informed that I was the one that killed her."
"What? You still feel responsible for—"
"I am responsible. She told me it was all a trick. Wolfram and Hart tricked me into thinking she was in torment and could never come back. So I did them a favor and got rid of her. I can't believe I was so stupid." He scolded himself angrily.
Spike wasn't sure how it happened, but he actually felt a tiny bit of sympathy for the big lug.
"You had no way of knowing Angel. I'm sure she knows that." He assured him.
"She does. She doesn't blame me. But I blame me. I made a mess of everything." Angel stood and began pacing the room anxiously.
"Well you certainly complicated everything, that's for sure. This Wolfram and Hart deal was bad news. But you knew that. Seems like you chose to pretend it meant something other than it did just to make yourself feel better." Spike proffered.
Angel wanted to argue that point, but he couldn't. Hearing it from Spike was the worst possible thing, but he was right. Angel had pretended that things would be okay and that he had a handle on Wolfram and Hart situation. But that had never been true. Angel had wanted something and they had delivered it. Simple as that. Angel had chosen to pretend that there were no consequences for that choice, but now it was biting him in the ass.
"Maybe I did know that Wolfram and Hart lied about a lot of things. But if I had thought for a moment that Cordelia was savable, I never would have let her go. I didn't just trust them about that, I had my own people looking into it. Only I had no idea they were actually blocking her somehow from coming back. But if I had known..."
"Yeah, I know. You would have saved her. But you didn't know until now, and well, it's just too late." Spike explained.
"I'm well aware that it's too late. I don't need you reminding me of that. I know I screwed things up all around. The thing of it is none of you have the slightest clue about what it's like to have a child. None of you know the pain of watching that child screw up in every possible way, while you sit there helpless to stop him or save him. You don't know what it's like to love someone so much that you'd gladly die rather than see harm come to them." Angel explained.
"I know plenty about love and being willing to die for it. Trust me."
Angel shook his head, "No, you really don't. Love between a parent and child is different. You wouldn't get it, Spike. You couldn't. I sacrificed my soul and my life and the woman I loved—all for my son's happiness. Just so he had a chance. It was wrong of me to tamper with everyone else's lives, but..."
"You're not sorry you did it. That's what all this torment is about, isn't it? You know the consequences now, and you'd still do it again." Spike theorized.
Angel didn't respond, but his silence spoke volumes. Spike didn't know what else to say. He took a chance and tried to find something relatable to tell him, however futile.
"I may not know what it's like to have a child. That's a privilege I'll never get. But I do know a thing or two about love and sacrifice—even if it's not the same, I still know." Spike told him. "You've never even asked me why I got this soul. Curious?"
"Not really." Angel shot back. Then he softened his tone. "Why?"
"Because of her. Buffy. I had a chance to go one of two ways. I paid a visit to this bloke; a demon who offered me anything I asked for if I completed a series of death defying trials. Up until the time I stood before him I wasn't sure whether I would ask to be free of my government chip, or to get a soul. Either way, living the way I was living had to end." He explained. "I knew if I got rid of the chip, I could move on, be evil as I should be. I could forget Buffy ever existed. Or I could get the soul. I knew either way Buffy would never give me the time of day again. Not after..." He trailed off.
"Not after what?" Angel asked.
Spike snapped out of his reverie and shook his head. "That part's not important." He wasn't about to share his most shameful secret with Angel. "The part that is important was that I chose to get a soul. Me, a demon! A soulless creature born only to kill. I chose to get a soul because I loved her. And I knew even if she never loved me, I wanted to be the kind of man that she could respect and not despise. I gave up everything for love, so you can't tell me I don't understand why you did what you did. People do stupid things for love—any kind of love."
"I still don't get it, Spike. Why would you even bother with the soul? If you thought Buffy hated you, why?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. Glutton for punishment? That's what she always used to say."
"That makes two of us."
"Then maybe we're both crazy." Spike wondered.
"Maybe." Angel agreed.
It took a moment for both of them to realize they were actually conversing and relating to one another. Both of them seemed flustered and uncomfortable by that fact. Spike backed towards the door again.
"I'm gonna go see what's on the telly upstairs. Bound to be some catchy infomercial that will pique my interest."
"Right. I should really work on these files." Angel told him quickly.
"Yeah. Later." Spike turned and walked out of the room. The impromptu vampire bonding session was now adjourned. But somehow, deep down, they both knew they were better for it.
Willow and Fred drove silently towards Wolfram and Hart. Once Willow had gotten herself together, she had gone to Fred and asked her for a favor.
"Are you sure you're okay doing this for me?" Willow asked softly.
Fred nodded. "Yeah...But just remember, I-I'm not a doctor. I'm a physicist."
"No, I know that. But you know doctors. Several of them."
"I-I know. I think Doctor Taylor is our best bet." Fred assumed.
"We just need to get the information out of there before all of this goes down. If we wait, there's no telling what might happen to it. It could get lost forever. I-I don't want to risk that." Willow told her.
Fred nodded silently. Then she glanced over in Willow's direction again.
"Are you sure you're okay?"
"Why wouldn't I be? Do I not look okay?" Willow asked.
"No! You look fine. It's just...well I wasn't sure how you felt. Inside." Fred inquired softly.
Willow sighed, "Yeah, I'm pretty much a mess. But I'm dealing. I-I have something new to focus on. I can't help Tara, Fred. She's gone, and I had accepted that. At least until I saw her again. But I have to realize that nothing has changed. She's still gone but I'm here. And I can still do something good. That's what she would have wanted."
"I-I think you're right. I'm sure she'd be proud of you now." Fred reassured her.
"I hope so." Willow nodded softly. Then she glanced at Fred again. "You probably think I'm pretty awful don't you? Being tempted like that. Almost losing control. I-I'm not scary am I?" She asked nervously.
Fred shook her head vehemently. "You're not scary or awful. W-we were all tempted. Even if Angel hadn't signed that contract, I may have." She admitted.
"No you wouldn't have. You're a good person Fred. Smart. You wouldn't have." Willow protested.
"You don't know me that well Willow. I was going to take the offer. But Angel beat me to it."
Willow looked at her with surprise, unable to believe that sweet little Fred was ready to make a deal with the devil all those months ago.
"Why?" She asked finally.
"Because." She shrugged. "Maybe I thought that I could make a difference in the world. I-I knew Wolfram and Hart was evil, but I'm not. And maybe if I had some control over what they did with that evil...well, I could make a difference. All that research they've done...it may have been done for evil purposes to begin with, but in the right hands—my hands...well, I thought I could control it somehow. Use it for good. Just like I'm trying to do now." She explained.
"They didn't offer you anything else you wanted? I-I mean they tempted me and Angel pretty severely by dangling a prize in front our noses." Willow asked.
"They only offered me full access to their medical research files. I didn't care about anything else. All I wanted was control of that information." She told Willow.
"Control is a good thing. It's too bad it didn't end up that way."
"But it did. I still have control. I-I have an entire closet filled with copies of their records." She admitted.
Willow was impressed. "How did you manage that? And more importantly, why? Did you know it would end this way?"
"No, I didn't know. But evil is evil. In the end, there's always a catch. I wasn't naive enough to think I'd be working there forever. I may not look it, but I know a thing or two about taking care of myself. I've had to do that a lot." She added quietly.
"I guess you have."
"When I was stuck in Pylea I had nothing. I knew I had to get out of there and the only possession I was allowed to have was my mind. And even that was slipping away after awhile." She explained emotionally. "But now, I feel better when I have the knowledge with me, for safe keeping. All written down and filed neatly. You never know when you might need it."
Willow sensed how painful it was for Fred to talk about Pylea and she didn't want to press it. She'd only learned the basics; that Fred had been there and rescued by Angel and the gang. She didn't know details and sensed that Fred was not eager to relive them.
"So how come this particular research wasn't in your collection?" She asked as they rounded a corner and saw the Wolfram and Hart building come into view.
"Well, I have some of it, but it's not complete. It was always heavily guarded. I managed to tuck some of it away, but the real meat of it, the spells used to complete the regeneration process, that's what I'm missing."
They pulled into the parking structure and Willow switched off the ignition. She turned to Fred.
"Well, we won't be missing that for long." She smiled.
They got out of the car and headed for the secret entrance they'd used to save Spike. They didn't know who was left to watch them with Holland and Lilah gone, but they didn't want to take any chances. This information was too important to Willow for her to fail.
Angel and Wes were inside Angel's corporate office, likely for the last time. Angel hadn't been there in a awhile. At least not for any length of time. He had been trying to keep his distance from the place. But now it was important that he be there. He walked around the room as Wesley sat at the desk with the computer humming. Angel was dictating a message and Wes typed dutifully.
"Do you think we should mention that Holland and Lilah are gone?" He asked Wes curiously.
"No, I think it's better to leave it vague. Something to the effect of 'you no longer have to worry about who's watching you'. Put them at ease, yet we don't want to give out any details that could prompt someone to get power hungry."
"That's true. But it's going to happen anyway. We know that." Angel conceded.
"Yes, it is inevitable. But we need some way to let those who want out to know that they are free. Otherwise they'll still believe they're chained to Wolfram and Hart for eternity." Wes pointed out.
"Okay, how about this: Contracts have been renegotiated. You're free to leave. End memo." He offered with a shrug.
"Simple yet to the point."
"Exactly. If someone has questions we direct them to the Hyperion. Anyone on the up and up gets amnesty. Those who are looking to get ahead; ferret information and rebuild, we terminate."
"I meant fire them. But if they warrant killing..." Angel left that sentence dangling precariously.
"Well, it may confuse some people if we aren't more specific about what's transpired." Wes brought up a good point.
"These are smart people, Wes. Smart people who care about only one thing. Saving their asses. If they're curious about what it means, they'll ask us." Angel told him simply. "Long term, this little magic show isn't going to matter much. But short term? We gain a few more knowledgeable players for our side, and the rest of them are left to flounder out there for awhile until they come up with something else. Either way, it buys us time and gives us power."
Wes nodded his head. Angel was right. If they pulled everything off flawlessly, at best all they had done is buy time. But anyone who defected from Wolfram and Hart was another check in the plus column. One more soul saved. At least that's the way Angel was looking at it. Wes finished typing and looked up at Angel.
"Anything else you want to add to this?" He asked.
Angel shook his head, "No. That's enough. I want this memo sent out tomorrow after all is said and done. Can you do that?"
"Yes, I'll set it up to be emailed tomorrow evening, as well as a paper memo. By the following day I'd say it will reach everyone."
"Good. Then it's done."
"Not quite. We still have the last hurdle to cross." Wes reminded him.
"I'm not worried. Willow can do this."
Wes silently nodded in agreement. He had faith in Willow, but her fragile mental state was worrisome to him. He didn't confide this to Angel though. No sense in worrying about something that may or may not come to pass. He kept quiet as he set up the mass mailing for all the Wolfram and Hart employees.
Buffy sat on the edge of the bed up in Spike's room at the Hyperion. He was looking over some paperwork that Willow had given him. Apparently she had spirited away from the Wolfram and Hart research lab with dozens of spells used to regenerate human tissue. The only problem was, the spells were in a demon tongue she'd never seen before. Spike had offered to try and make use of them. He spoke dozens of languages; some human, some demon. Buffy had been surprised when he had recognized one of the spell languages with just one glance. The others were proving to be a little trickier.
"Are you having any luck?" Buffy asked with a slightly bored tone.
"A little." He told her as he put the papers down on the table. He walked over to her. "You're bored, aren't you?" He asked.
"No. Of course not. I'm just—well, a little bored. I-It seems like I'm not really needed around here. Everyone has some special skill and I'm just sitting here. I feel a little useless." She admitted.
He stroked her hair gently and sat down next to her. "You're not useless. You've never been useless." He assured her.
"Well, so far I haven't had to do anything except stand around and look intimidating to evil things. I haven't even broken a sweat in days."
"Well, there was that Covack demon we killed the other night. Remember the vision? Angel wasn't here so you stepped up. That meant something didn't it?" He asked.
She sighed, "I guess."
"You don't seem convinced." He noted.
"I'm not. I've been thinking a lot lately...And I think it's time I do something real with my life." She said letting out a deep breath.
"This isn't real?"
"No, it is real. But...well, it's not enough for me anymore. I-I still want to help out, and if I'm needed, I'm there. No questions asked. But all this sitting around...I've decided to go back to school." She informed him.
"Yes. You know that building with all the teacher shaped people? Students, books, etcetera."
"I'm aware of what a school is, but why would you go back now? Aren't you a little—"
"What? Old? I'm not even twenty-three yet. Not for three more weeks. And you're one to talk about being old." She glared at him.
"I was going to say aren't you a little behind to start that up again." He clarified. "It's been several years since you were in school. Do you even have any school records?" He wondered.
"Oh. Well, I-I am a little behind. But Dad pulled some strings about the records. He got me enrolled again. I just had to take a placement test. Classes start at the end of January." She told him.
Spike was silent for a moment as he studied her face.
"Are you trying to tell me something else, Buffy? Are you saying I don't fit into college Buffy's life?" He asked softly, not wanting to hear her answer.
"No. That's not what I'm saying. But maybe college Buffy doesn't really fit into your life." She told him sadly.
He scooted closer to her and took her hand again.
"Why would you think that?" He asked.
"Because. You fell for the Slayer. And now I'm really not. I mean technically I am a Slayer, but not the Slayer. There are others now. I'm surprised another one hasn't shown up on Angel's doorstep yet."
"And you think that the minute another Slayer shows up my interest will suddenly lie elsewhere?" He asked incredulously.
"I don't know. Maybe." She shrugged. "I mean you have to admit, if I wasn't the Slayer, you and I wouldn't be sitting here right now. Nothing that happened with us would have happened. Angel too. So don't tell me it doesn't make a difference to you."
"I never said it didn't make a difference. But just because you decide to further your knowledge and go back to school doesn't mean you cease being a Slayer. It's not your job, Buffy. It's who you are. You're the one who told me that, don't you remember?" He recalled.
She nodded her head slightly and looked away from him.
"Yeah, I remember. I just don't want to be...boring to you. I always whined about not having a normal life. Then I had one and hated it. Then I tried to be nothing but a Slayer again because it felt familiar. But now I'm not sure who I want to be or what I should do." She admitted with her voice trembling slightly.
"You can do anything you want to, Buffy. This has always been your biggest problem. You keep thinking you have to choose who and what to be. There is no either or. Buffy the girl is Buffy the Slayer. They're one in the same. Don't you get that yet?" He asked.
She looked up at him and shrugged slightly. "I think I'm starting to get it."
"It's about time. The world is yours now. Once you accept that you can save the world and yourself at the same time, you'll be on your way."
"I guess you're right." She agreed. "Maybe I really am too stupid for college if I can't even figure out who I am when it's apparently so easy for everyone else to see it." She groaned and flopped herself back on the bed.
"You're not stupid. Believe me when I was your age, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was wasting my days away writing poetry and having tea with my dying mother."
"You didn't go to school? College?" She asked as she sat up again.
"No, I did. I graduated with honors from the University. The only problem was, I had a degree but no direction. All this useless knowledge up in my brain and not a clue how to use it. I always figured once Mum was gone I'd figure it out. I obviously didn't plan to become a vampire in between that time." He remarked.
"Yeah, I guess that part wasn't planned." She said awkwardly.
"It's not really important now. The thing I'm trying to get across is people are always trying to find themselves. Age has no bearing on that. Why do you think people like your father have mid-life crises and end up shagging their secretary and driving shiny sports cars? He's just as lost as you are, I'd reckon."
"That's really not helping Spike. That's just saying that I'm borne of a long line of losers with no sense of self." She complained.
"That's not what I'm saying." He protested.
"I know. I guess I just need to be strong." She said lifting her chin up and taking a deep breath.
"Maybe I'm the one who needs to be strong here. Maybe you'll never find yourself hanging around with the likes of me. Maybe I should let you go." He said remorsefully.
She shook her head vigorously. "No. No way. I don't want that. I don't want anyone else to walk away from me because they're stuck on being noble or some other crap like that. If you end up hating me then fine, walk away. But don't you dare leave me because it's the 'right' thing to do." She said seriously.
Spike laughed slightly and shook his head. "The noble act isn't cutting it with you anymore, eh?"
"No. It never did. I don't give a crap about nobility. I just want to live my life the way I want without someone trying to make decisions for me. If I wanna date a vampire, I'll date a vampire. If I wanna go to school I'm going to school. I don't care what anyone else thinks of my life. It's mine and I'll do what I want with it." She said with strong conviction.
"Well then, I pity the poor sod who tries to challenge you." He smiled at her.
Some of the tension drained from her shoulders when she saw his smile. She relaxed slightly and looked at him.
"So you really don't care if I go back to school?" She asked.
"Why would I care?"
"I-I don't know. I guess I thought it made me seem ordinary."
"You've been to school before. And you couldn't be ordinary if you tried. In fact you have tried and look where that got you." He chuckled.
She laughed slightly at that point, realizing she was working herself up over nothing. She just hadn't wanted Spike to be disappointed in her decision. In the past he tried to convince her she didn't belong in the real world. She belonged in the shadows with him. But she had to remember that was the old Spike. The one who didn't have a soul. The one who would do anything to keep her isolated and with him. He wasn't like that anymore. She'd had known he had changed, but sometimes she wasn't sure how much.
"So where is it you'll be matriculating? UCLA? USC?" He asked.
"Think lower, like Santa Monica College." She told him. "Seems I was a little rusty on my knowledge. But that's okay. I-I can always transfer later."
"What are you going to study?"
"Um, teaching I think. I'm not sure what yet, but I liked working at Sunnydale High. Even if Principal Wood only hired me to guard the Hellmouth and keep tabs on me. I still enjoyed it." She told him honestly.
"Well, that's great. I know you'll be good at whatever you decide to do." He smiled at her.
"I hope so." She said uncertainly.
He pulled her closer to him and just held her for awhile. Buffy was on her way to finally making peace with herself and her destiny. Spike was still unsure he belonged in the picture of her shiny new future, but he wouldn't bring it up again. This was Buffy's time. She needed to find her own way and if somewhere down the line she realized that way didn't include him, he'd be ready for it. But for now, he wanted to enjoy the way she felt in his arms. They were both working on their second chances at life and Spike knew that neither one of them should be alive right now. Somehow that made him feel like the luckiest person on earth. But he knew better than that. They'd both been brought back to life not to find happiness but to serve a purpose; a mission. It was a lot of weight to rest on anyone's shoulders. But for the first time in Buffy's life she'd finally found the balance she was craving. Spike was still working on it.
Sometimes he wanted nothing more than to scoop Buffy up and leave town to go to a place where no one knew them or what they were. He wanted to forget all about saving people he didn't even know, and try and save what was left of himself. But that wasn't a luxury he could afford. With a soul he knew this. Other things were more pressing than his personal happiness but his impetuous nature was still intact. He was trying to keep it in check and keep his eyes focused on the bigger picture. Even if Buffy decided he wasn't fitting into her life at some point in the future, he had her now—and that was more than he ever expected he would get.
Willow had transformed her bedroom into some kind of magical shrine. She had stacks of contracts positioned around a circle of leaves that she had collected from outside. In the middle of the circle were red and black candles, encircled again by a thin line of purple colored sand. Incense burned in ever corner of the room, making everything smell like sage and myrrh.
Fred was walking to each corner of the room chanting something and sprinkling a fine powdery substance onto the floor. Willow glanced over at her.
"Are you almost done?" She asked.
Fred nodded, not looking up as she finished her last chant and sprinkling. "Done." She said with satisfaction.
"Good." Willow nodded. "Wes? Do you have the Valerian root?"
"Right here." He handed over a small plastic baggie. Willow had sent him out to get what she had failed to procure the day Holland had confronted her. She couldn't bring herself to revisit the store yet.
She took the root and placed it into a small ceramic bowl. She sprinkled it with a red powder and placed it on a table behind her.
"Okay. I think everything is in order now. Why don't you get the others." Willow instructed Fred with a small smile.
She exited the room and Willow and Wes looked at each other.
"So it's the big day. Ready?" She asked him.
"Are you?" He wondered.
She nodded, "I'm more than ready." She said confidently.
"You aren't worried that you may tap into the dark energies surrounding these contracts with the devil? One contract—Lilah's contract, was merely a small sampling. We're talking about over a hundred contracts this time."
"I'm ready Wes. Don't you trust me?" She asked slightly hurt.
"I do trust your skills, yes. But your mental—"
"My mental what?" She asked hurt by his doubts of her.
"Your mental state. I realize that what happened with Holland was a good thing. I'm certainly not judging you in any way for destroying him. But you admitted to a loss of control of your power at that moment. That's what concerns me. I believe strongly you can do this, but I worry what it may unleash for you." He said honestly.
"I'm in control now. Believe me. The last thing I want to do is put myself at risk—or put any of you at risk. I'm okay. If I didn't think I was okay I wouldn't be doing this. You just have to trust me." She said seriously.
It hurt her that he doubted her, but she supposed she couldn't blame him. Only days before she'd been teetering on the edge. But she truly felt okay now. She was calm and relaxed. Her emotions in check. She was ready and she just hoped she could prove herself here today.
She went back to busying herself with the final placement of things around the room. Anything to distract her from Wes's doubting eyes. A few moments later everyone else began shuffling into the room, proving the space to be a little cramped. But Willow didn't notice. She was too focused on her task.
"Okay, I need everyone positioned outside the circle. Holding hands." She instructed them. "It's important for me to draw on your energy, so no matter what happens, do not break the circle."
Everyone except Buffy joined hands around the magic circle of contracts and leaves. Buffy was to aid Willow during the spell. She was the only one who had no ties to Wolfram and Hart, by employment or otherwise. Her presence in the circle wasn't required but Willow did need her and her strength.
"Are you sure you're okay with this Buffy?" She asked quietly, trying not to let everyone else hear.
She nodded, "I'm good, Will. It's not the first time I've shared power with people." She said lightheartedly. "And it's not the first time I've shared that power with you." She remembered.
Willow smiled and gave Buffy's hand a squeeze. Willow placed a purple stoned amulet around Buffy's neck that matched one she had around hers. The stone connected them together on a metaphysical level. Willow flipped the lights off, plunging the room into semi-darkness. Dozens of candles served as the only light Willow would need.
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
"Goddess of protection and light, we beseech thee. Evil abounds. Goddess of wisdom and power grant me the strength to overcome." She chanted. "Goddess of serenity and peace bestow unto me your tranquility."
The floor began to rumble slightly and a slight breeze threatened to blow out the candles. Willow never wavered.
"Puritan of goodness release the bonds that tie these souls to eternity. Release the shackles of torment and restore!" She commanded. "White light of the righteous encircle their souls!"
Willow's words were getting more and more forceful as her power began to grow. Willow reached out blindly and grasped Buffy's hand tightly. A powerful white light shot through the room and through everyone in the circle, coming to rest around Buffy and Willow. Effectively encasing them in a protective shield. The ground began to quake more violently and Willow shouted to the others.
"Don't let go! No matter what happens, don't let go!" She told them and they obeyed.
"Guardian of the damned, release them! Release their souls. Make them whole again!" She shouted.
This time a red light shot around the room, but bounced off the protective shield Willow had put up around them all. Willow reached behind her grabbing the bowl with the Valerian root and the powder. She held it in front of her.
"Purify!" She shouted and the contents of the bowl erupted into flame. Willow picked up a copy Angel's contract and held it over the flames. It began to smolder and char filling the room with an acrid smelling red smoke. "Release and return!"
All at once the contracts surrounding the circle at everyone's feet erupted into flame, startling them. Their first instinct was to recoil and Willow knew this.
"Don't let go!" She told them, and they all tried to push back from the flames without severing their connection.
At this moment the flames transformed in front of their eyes becoming almost human like. They melded together forming a discernable figure in the middle of the circle. It opened its flaming mouth and shrieked at them painfully, sending sparks flying across the room. Willow saw this and let go of Buffy's hand and began chanting in a language no one else had heard before. It was as if she was possessed and Buffy began to get worried. She wondered if she should do something, but Willow had instructed them all to let everything be no matter what happened.
Willow raised her arms in the air and shot white lightning from her fingertips, much like the lightning that had disintegrated Holland. The flame beast recoiled, screamed and disappeared in a shower of white and blue sparks. Everyone ducked down, but never released their hands.
"Guardian of purity restore them! Return what was lost, what was stolen. Right the wrongs. Sever the ties!" She shouted.
All at once the room filled with white light again nearly fooling Angel and Spike into thinking it was daylight. Reflexively they turned their eyes away to shield themselves. The sound of breaking glass filled the room but no one paid attention. The light vanished with a loud popping sound and a gust of wind blew through the room extinguishing the candles and the remnants of the burning contracts. Everyone became quiet and still except for the heavy breathing emanating from Willow as she leaned back against the wall trying to compose herself. Buffy rushed to her side.
"Are you okay? My god, Willow!" She said with concern as she realized Willow's eyes were glowing completely white.
She panted and nodded her head, unable to form words. She closed her eyes and Buffy tried to help her stand straight. Everyone else released their hands and gathered around Willow.
"Is she okay?" Angel asked worriedly.
"I-I don't know." Buffy shook her head.
Willow threw her head back and opened her eyes again. They were normal once more. She looked at everyone.
"I'm okay. I'm okay..." She assured them.
"Is it over? Did it work?" Gunn asked curiously.
"Yes, it's over. And it worked. I can feel it." Willow nodded her head as she attempted to return her breathing back to normal. She looked at Angel. "You're free Angel."
Angel nodded his head thankfully and looked at Buffy.
"We should lay her down. She's weak." He told her.
Willow pushed off Buffy and stood up straight. "I'm fine. Really. It was just very...intense. But I'm good." She assured them again.
Fred flipped the lights back on and they surveyed the damage to the room. The windows were broken, and the mirror over Willow's dresser was shattered. There were scorch marks on the carpet and everything smelled like burning wool and incense. The bed was drooping to one side and the bedspread was filled with broken glass and pieces of wood from the window frame. The drapes were burned leaving small scraps of charred fiber dangling from the curtain rod. Willow walked slowly to the bed and brushed off some of the debris to sit down.
"That was amazing." She said finally, a smile creeping over her lips.
"You were amazing Will." Buffy said happily, relieved that Willow had escaped any lasting harm.
"You really were! I almost peed my pants when that fire beastie thing appeared." Fred said anxiously.
"Yeah, I wasn't expecting that." Buffy agreed.
"I was. It's okay. I had everything under control." Willow told them.
"Yes, you did Willow. Nice work." Wes said honestly as he stepped forward. He gave her a nod and she accepted his wordless apology. Despite his worries she had pulled it off flawlessly.
Lorne stepped forward and patted Willow on the back.
"You done good, Sweet-cheeks. I always knew you were a strong one." He smiled at her.
"You didn't seem so convinced of that a few days ago when you and Angel thought I was evil." She pointed out with a raised eyebrow.
"No, I was always convinced you were strong. Believe me. But now I know that strength doesn't just extend to your magical abilities." He said sincerely.
She smiled at him and looked down at her hands.
"So it's really over then? Angel doesn't work for Wolfram and Hart anymore?" Fred asked curiously.
"It's over, Fred. Angel's free."
"And so are hundreds of other employees." Wes reminded them all. "That memo will be going out shortly. We'll have our work cut out for us very soon."
"Let's not think about that now. My brain hurts." Willow complained rubbing her temples.
Everyone agreed with a collective rumbling about how tired they all were. No one noticed when someone else entered the room.
"So...looks like you guys could use a carpenter." Xander said as he surveyed the damage from Willow's spell.
Willow looked up at his voice and grinned widely. She stood up and ran over to him.
"Xander!" She shrieked as she engulfed him in a warm hug. "You came! Hey! I told you not to come." She said as she pulled away from him and gave him a disapproving look.
"What can I say? I missed cleaning up after you guys. Looks like I got here just in time." He indicated the destruction around them.
Buffy walked over and hugged Xander tightly.
"I've missed you." She said sincerely as she gave him a squeeze.
"I've missed you too, Buff." He said warmly. "I've missed all of you guys." Xander took in the rest of the faces in the room. Some familiar and some not. He focused on Spike and Angel. "Well, maybe not all of you." He added giving them a look.
Angel and Spike just ignored his jabs and stood there with their arms folded across their chests. Xander just shook his head and sighed.
Willow looked at everyone else in the room and took Xander's hand.
"Everyone, this is Xander. Xander this is everyone." Willow introduced him. "That's Fred, Gunn, and Lorne and well, you know Wesley." She pointed to everyone.
Wes stepped forward and extended his hand to Xander. They shook and Xander appraised him.
"You've changed. I didn't even recognize you." He told Wes surprised.
"You've changed a bit yourself." Wes noted Xander's eye-patch.
He touched it self-consciously and turned his head away from Wes.
"War wounds." Xander said dismissively.
Wes fingered the scar around his neck where he'd been slashed by Justine.
"I know the feeling."
Later that evening Xander and Willow sat in her temporary room. She had taken up residence in the room adjacent to hers for the night. They sat cross-legged on the bed across from one another. Xander was silent as he absorbed what Willow had just finished telling him.
"Are you sure it's safe?" He asked finally.
She nodded, "Yeah. Fred said it's been very successful. You don't have to do it though. I-I mean if you don't want to."
"No I want to. Believe me. I guess I just wasn't expecting this." He said surprised. "When were you going to tell me?"
"Later. Once everything else here settled down. I was going to call you. But since you're here now...well, surprise!" She said with a hopeful smile.
"Well, it's a surprise alright. But I'm game. What's the worst that could happen? If it doesn't work I'm pretty much in the same boat as I am now."
"Fred and I are planning to find a doctor to perform the actual surgery. She knows someone from Wolfram and Hart that she trusts."
"Yeah, Wolfram and Hart. That's the only problem I have. I don't want some evil doc to cut me open and do freaky things with me, Will." He shook his head.
"No, it's okay. Really. Dr. Taylor is a good surgeon. And he's only a level two." She told him.
"A level two?"
"That just means that he's less corrupted than the others."
"Well that's a confidence booster. Hey, my doctor may be corrupted by evil, but he's less corrupted. That's very comforting." He said wryly.
"I'm not selling you on this am I?" She asked weakly.
He took her hands and gave them a squeeze.
"It's okay, Will. I want to do it. I'm really happy you thought about me." He told her.
"Of course I thought about you. You don't still think I didn't tell you about all this because I didn't want you here, do you?" She wondered sadly.
"No, I'm good. Either way, it doesn't matter. I would have just been in the way. I get that and I'm not mad."
"Are you going to stay now?" She asked.
"I don't know. My cousin's hardware store is pretty exciting business." He said sarcastically. "But who knows? I could get used to LA. Especially if I've got two eyes again. Maybe there's hope for me yet?"
"There's tons of hope. A boatload of hope." She smiled.
He looked down at his hands.
"So...uh, Fred? She's cute huh?" He said tentatively.
"She really is." Willow agreed. Then frowned. "You've got a crush on Fred?" She asked.
He looked up at her with surprise.
"No! Will, I only saw her for five minutes. I was just merely saying she's cute and that might prompt a fellow with two eyes to get to know her better."
"Oh. Well, she's great. Sweet and kind...but she's a tough chick. You'd never know it by looking at her."
"It's always the quiet ones." He laughed. "Wait. You don't have a crush on her do you? I don't wanna step on anyone's territory."
"Me? No. Of course not." She protested. Then she shrugged. "Maybe I did a little. But it's hopeless. Believe me. She used to date Gunn. I-I can't really compete with a sexy bald head and a mountain of muscles."
Xander laughed and shook his head.
"Sadly, neither can I." He looked at his paunchy physique. "I really need to hit the gym again."
"You look great Xander." She said reassuringly.
"Thanks for lying. It makes my wounded ego feel better." He chuckled.
Later on everyone else had retired to their own rooms. They knew they needed to be rested for the inevitable fallout that would occur with all of the Wolfram and Hart employees suddenly displaced. It would be a long road ahead restructuring everything, and trying to stay ahead of the Senior Partners as they struggled to recruit again. But they were up to it. The slight reprieve they had gained was badly needed.
Buffy had decided to spend the night with Spike in his room. Angel had cringed slightly when he saw them walk hand and hand towards Spike's quarters. He knew he had to let Buffy go, but knowing so blatantly what they may be doing in that room together would never be comforting to him. But it wasn't his place anymore to worry about it. As Angel walked past the room he heard Buffy laughing inside and against his will he smiled. She was happy. He had to admit that. He didn't approve or understand, but she was laughing. Spike could make her laugh. That was something Angel rarely, if ever, accomplished with her. He slipped into his own room and shut the door behind him.
Willow lay in bed trying to find sleep. She was exhausted, yet she couldn't switch her mind off. It didn't help that she was in an unfamiliar room for the night. Suddenly she felt a presence in the room and her heart started racing. Her immediate thought was that she had unleashed something evil and it was now roaming around the hotel looking for trouble.
She sat up quickly and looked around the room. She saw Cordelia materialize once more at the foot of the bed. Willow let out a relieved sigh. Cordy smiled.
"Hey you. Good job." She told Willow.
"Thanks. I-I thought you were done coming around? Angel said—"
"Yeah, I know. I wasn't supposed to be here tonight, but they made an exception for me." She shrugged.
"They? I-Is there something else I need to know? Did I mess something up?" Willow asked nervously.
"No, not at all. In fact you were brilliant. That's why I'm here."
Cordy nodded. "I have a message from the Powers That Be. They were pretty impressed with what you did. I think they called it miraculous or something. I wasn't really listening. They tend to ramble on using a lot of big words." Cordy waved her hands dismissively. "Anyway, they sent me here to give you a message. A present actually. A thank you."
"A thank you? From the Powers That Be?"
"They think you earned it."
"Earned what?" Willow asked.
And with that Cordelia disappeared. Willow was completely confused for a moment but then she saw the glow that Cordy left behind taking shape again. Willow stared at the sight as another figure formed. Blonde hair, long and flowing, partially concealing her face. But there was no mistaking who it was. Willow gasped as tears began to flow from her eyes.
"Tara." She whispered in awe. "Oh my god...It's really you this time, isn't it?"
Tara stepped forward and smiled.
"It's really me." She assured her.
Willow threw the covers off of her and stood up. She faced Tara and grinned through her tears.
"I can't believe it's really you."
"I can't stay long. But I wanted to let you know how proud I am of you." Tara said supportively.
"Oh god...you've seen it all haven't you? All of the things I did." Willow gasped in horror as she remembered her crimes.
Tara nodded. "I saw it all. I felt it all, Willow. I know everything."
"You must be so disgusted with me." Willow cried softly.
"Shh...No. I'm not. I was sad, not disgusted. You lost sight of yourself, but you found your way back. I saw what they tempted you with. Trying to make you believe that was me you were talking to. First with Cassie then when Holland tried to trick you. I watched your pain, and I couldn't do anything. But you overcame it without me. You held onto the truth. I always knew you were amazing and you proved me right."
"I've missed you so much." Willow whimpered.
"I've missed you too. But I've never left you. Not really. I'm always right here." Tara reached out and placed her ghostly hand over Willow's heart.
Willow felt a chill run through her and she reached down to take Tara's hand. It wasn't solid and Willow felt a fine mist float over her fingers as she passed through her.
"I love you, Tara. No one else will ever take your place." Willow said sincerely.
"I know. But you've started moving on and that's good. It's healthy. I can't come back but you still have to live. Whatever you do or whomever you choose, just know that I'm smiling. The only joy I'll ever need is knowing you're happy again." Tara smiled.
"So you forgive me for everything I did? All the mistakes I made..."
"I forgive you. And I still love you. I'm at peace now, so don't you ever worry about me." Tara whispered soothingly.
She reached out and ran her hand over Willow's hair. Willow felt the faintest tingle of cool air breeze through it. Tara leaned over and placed her lips over Willow's. Chills ran through her as the softest whisper of a touch brushed over her lips.
Tara pulled back and smiled at Willow. She took her hand and placed something solid into it. Something smooth and thin, but Willow didn't look down.
"I love you Willow. Always."
"I love you too."
And with that Tara disappeared again. Willow stood breathlessly trying to discern if that had been a dream or just some fevered fantasy she had dreamed up to make herself feel better. She suddenly remembered the object in her hand and looked down. In her hand she held a photograph of herself with Tara. Smiling and hugging each other. It had been taken at Tara's birthday party all those years ago when her family had tried to take Tara away. They were so much in love in this picture. Everything was still new and fresh. Willow wiped her eyes and smiled at the photo. Somehow, someway, Tara had found a way to give her this one last gift. The gift of memory. Proof that Tara had existed and had been in Willow's life. She would cherish this moment forever. But it was also time to move on, just like Tara had said. It was time to let go of her pain and start living again.
Everyone had to let go of the past and start anew. Los Angeles may have been a city filled with lost souls, but the souls that resided in this hotel were well on their way to finding themselves again. Everyone had made mistakes but they were stronger for them now. It was a new beginning. It would be a long road filled with obstacles, but Willow felt confident for the first time ever that all of them would be okay. It was that knowledge that Tara had given to her. The knowledge that all the previous damage they all had done was finally going to be righted. She had to be brave. They all had to be brave and fortune would smile upon them.