Notes and disclaimers: pretty much everybody present property of mutant enemy. No profit garnered here ever. Thanks to Pet and Tigs. Title from Josh Ritter's song, Good Man.
"See, you're making a face. But it's impressive. I'm the back-up for the back-up quarterback. I'm that good," Connor said.
She said, "Don't we, like, suck? I mean, how bad are you that you're third-string for Stanford's shitty football team?"
"And I'm the back-up catcher for the baseball team. We have a much better baseball team, that's actually a little impressive. Mike Mussina graduated from here." He smiled and sipped his beer. "See, I'm trying to be humble here. You know, charming."
"Yeah, I'm impressed with your crappy athletic deeds. Drop some more names I don't recognize." She smirked.
Right over her shoulder, he saw something familiar. He saw Fred. See-through shyly waving Fred. "I have to, uh, I need to check on my friend."
He pushed past Blonde Girl and got about a step away before she said, "Okay, but you're coming back, right? I was doing that thing where I was up in your face and not buying your crap."
Knew it, he thought. He said, "Yeah, I'll be right back. Swear. I think he's about to throw up on his girlfriend or something."
Fred had been standing by the balcony. And now there was nothing. Just a slab of a porch with cigarette butts in every corner. "Fred," he said quietly. He hadn't even had a full beer.
"Were you hitting on that girl?"
Fred. They were eye to eye so she was floating two feet above the ground. She was wearing sneakers. And he could almost see the ground right through her feet.
"Fred," he said. "You're dead." He winced. "Sorry about the rhyming."
"I know pretty well I'm dead." She smiled. "I'm a disembodied spirit. And it took a while to get that to happen. Remembering how to think and then investigating where I was," and then she giggled.
"Actually, I liked the investigation part. And I figured out I wasn't anywhere which is the important part. And still have a soul, which is about all I have, frankly, though it is how I can do anything. Despite what some people might have said about a soul burning away. Like that's even possible. Some people might consider the level of belief they put in other evil people who have evil motives which is what you expect working for an evil law firm that did evil betraying things for some god-king called straight from the Deeper Well." She looked at him and stopped the really creepy two feet above the ground pacing. "You know?"
"No, not at all. Is there, can I help you somehow?"
"You can't help me, I'm dead." She looked like she was about to scold him. "This isn't about you, Connor." And then she completely faded away.
He waited another minute and then thought about jumping down to look around. For something.
Blonde Girl tapped him on the shoulder. "Hey, where's your friend?"
"Turns out it wasn't him."
She took out a pack of cigarettes and offered him one. "I know you're a big shot athlete, but you want?"
"Sure," he said. "I could use it." He inhaled deeply and watched Blonde Girl watching him. "You know, I didn't get your name."
He knew it was a dream when he saw a sluck skittering along the corridor. His subconscious was really repetitive with the Quor'toth imagery when he was upset. But he still ended up teetering on the edge of the four block crater in Los Angeles in panic and fear before he woke himself up with a start. "Bridget," he said quietly.
She stirred and then said, "wow, you so don't have to stay. That was great and all, but uh." She blinked and sat up. "What time is it?"
"Three am." He was already putting his pants back on. "I didn't mean to fall asleep. I'll see you later."
"Sure, whatever." She was back asleep before her head hit the pillow.
He had an invigorating run across campus and when he got back to his dorm, he was ready to figure out this Fred thing. He tried the basic Google search but there was nothing new. So his next stop was the freaks board. He'd found a few gathering places on the web where people claimed the truth was known about the mystical world, but most of them were full of people calling vampires The Lonely Ones and Connor knew for damn sure that wasn't any sort of truth. The one he thought of as the freaks board had the most people who seemed to know actual things.
He scanned the recent occurrences thread but no one else seemed to have disembodied spirits popping up at them. Fuck it, he'd have to post. I saw a ghost tonight. Saw through her, actually. She said something about a deeper well and how someone had said her soul had been destroyed but that was a lie and then she just completely faded away. I know she's dead, but I never really got the details about how she died. Does anyone know anything about any of this?
When he woke up in the morning, he checked for responses. He had five and four were bullshit, spiritual crap about putting his mind at ease with the great beyond and casting bones and tarot cards. The fifth, though, was from someone with the screen-name Tuckers_Brother. Connor had seen his posts before and he seemed to actually know his ass from a dimensional portal in the ground. Tuckers_Brother requested a private chat and when Connor checked, the guy was actually online. Connor had about forty minutes before his first class.
Ah, I_know_my_name_isnt_steven, thank you for talking to me. Tell me, what do you know of the deeper well? Also, funny screen name.
Connor had been really drunk when he picked it out, right after Los Angeles. He'd found the freaks board, learned it took a lot of drinking for him to get really drunk and that he could get really nasty hangovers all in the space of twelve hours. And that he had a really stupid sense of humor when fucked up. Every time he logged on to the board, he thought about changing it and then couldn't bother. He typed Nothing. That's why I asked here.
It turned out Tuckers_Brother knew a bunch about the Deeper Well. He'd had to do the research back in May when the Well's guardian was murdered and a new one had to be found. So now he knew more exactly how Fred had died, who that blue-haired thing had been when he was at Wolfram and Hart. We believe the guardian of the Deeper Well was murdered by the evil Angelus at Wolfram and Hart before his own destruction. I twice confronted Angelus myself, you know.
Yeah, right, Connor thought. He was pretty sure Tuckers_Brother would be Tucker's dead brother if that were the case. But he believed the guy might have met Angel. Connor rubbed his wrist and then typed You mean Angel? Cause he wasn't Angelus when he was with Wolfram and Hart. Do you know what happened in Los Angeles? That's where my friend, the spirit one, she died.
What do you know of Angel, the vampyre cursed with a soul? And we don't really know for sure what happened in Los Angeles. My mystical sources and powerful she-witches only know there was a huge explosion of mystical energy that leveled four blocks and there were a lot of demons who ended up vaporized. And people, too.
Connor glanced at the clock. He had fifteen minutes until his class. He typed Angel helped me out bigtime, more than once. And now I have to go to class, I'll check back later. Like later, he thought, when Tuckers_Brother had something new about what had happened to Angel and not just shit Connor knew from being there.
He was in his dorm room the next time Fred appeared. It had been three days. At least his roommate wasn't there. "Hey," she said, smiling. "Sorry about blinking out there. This stuff is really hard."
"Fred, what do you want me to do?" He kind of felt prepared this time. A little.
"It'd be nice if you could bring me back to life." She giggled. "But that's not possible, not near as I can tell. And I've been doing some looking. It's probably a little selfish of me. I have other things to do, too."
"I would if I could," Connor said.
She looked at him and he was pretty sure from her expression she didn't believe him. He understood that. He deserved it. But he would, actually, if he could. She said, "Don't bother. We have other issues. We have to figure out what happened, Connor. Why they're not here. Or here. And neither of us know anything, frankly." She paused and opened her mouth and faded out completely again.
He sat on his bed for ten minutes waiting, but she was just gone again. He didn't know what he was supposed to do. He opened his email and found the address he'd stashed away five months ago. He needed someone who actually knew something for sure, not someone's brother from the freak boards.
Step one: subject that didn't get thrown out as spam. He went with "HELP ANGEL WESLEY GUNN FRED." Step two: convince someone who probably didn't remember him that he needed her help. He'd found Willow's email address on a classmates website, using what he remembered Cordelia telling him when she'd stayed with him. It probably wasn't her primary email or anything, but she had to check it occasionally. She was apparently looking for Sunnydale survivors. Maybe Angel and Wesley counted there, somehow.
Maybe Fred was trying to tell him they could be saved.
He described everything he remembered from that night she'd been at the Hyperion and all the things he remembered Cordelia had said about Sunnydale. If you don't remember me, I think there's some spell that could bring that back because I didn't remember either. Sorry, I don't know what happened to get them back for me. Bonafides established, he asked for help and described everything Fred had said that he could make sense of. He signed his full name and his address and cell phone number. Then he hit send and went to work out.
He was sitting on the bench watching the usual slaughter that was Stanford football when he felt someone watching him. His mom and sister couldn't make this game so there was really no one who'd be watching him for good reasons. Maybe, he thought, it was Willow. He'd emailed her two weeks ago, wherever she was, maybe this was her finally showing up. He waited five minutes before turning around.
No Willow in the part of the stands he'd felt it from. But there was a blonde girl staring him down.
He turned back to the game. He had an incredibly embarrassing loss to watch.
The blonde girl was waiting when he got out of the locker room. "I can't believe you actually got to play," she said, looking up at him.
"Seriously," he said. "It only took four games. I thought it would be about two games sooner before the two guys ahead of me got taken out in the same game. Uh, who are you?"
"Willow sent me."
"Good. Is that your name? Cause that's kind of a freaky name."
"I'm Buffy," she said. "And don't say that's also kind of a freaky name."
"Wasn't going to. Aren't you a Slayer?" He started walking back to his dorm room. He had planned on making one or two parties tonight, but he figured that was all out the window now. Magic, he thought, still sucks. But he had invited her here, basically.
"You've heard about me."
"A little," he said. He shrugged. "A little from Wesley once, a little from Fred and Gunn one summer though that was all pretty secondhand."
"Great, I'm sure it's super accurate. Anyway, you're going to explain to me what's with the what and I'm going to take it from there."
She was incredibly hot and, so far, a huge bitch. Generally that would be a big turn-on but Connor had other things to focus on here. "Oh, right, because you're in charge."
"Pretty much. You were the one asking for help."
"Wow, that's working out well so far." He gave himself a few steps to calm down, then said, "Okay, whatever. Let me tell you what I know, since I was there for a little bit and then you do your thing."
"It's a plan," she said. They went back to his dorm room and he held the door open for her to enter.
She looked around his dorm room and said, "I would never guess two teenage boys lived here. Have you guys heard of, I don't know, a Dustbuster? You clearly know dust. And clutter."
"Do you have, like, a mode of speaking besides sarcasm and ordering people around?" He sat on the bed.
She pulled out his desk chair and sat down. She was actually smiling and not smirking when she looked over at him. "Sorry. I'm just taking everything in, and in a life of total weirdness, you and your I'm the unique special only-iest child of two vampires sending emails out of the blue and also playing football by the way actually make the top ten of weird things. Which is hard. I went to high school on a Hellmouth."
"I grew up in Hell. In one version," he said. "And I play baseball, too."
"Cause you've got that vampire strength thing going. And speed. That's what Willow said."
"Yeah, and some other things. I'm trying to get on athletic scholarship, to help out my parents. I figure one of the two will pan out. And I really like baseball."
She nodded. "That must be nice. You know, using your special gifts to get college paid for and maybe make a ton of money going pro."
"Cause you couldn't? You could play tennis as a pro, or golf. Or, uh, figure skating. Survivor. You'd kick ass on Survivor. Anyway. It's not like I'm the first not quite completely human guy in sports."
"Are there a lot of vampires in baseball?" She almost looked interested. "No, sunlight, not vampires."
"Vampires end up playing hockey. But they never last long. It's usually hockey players who've been vamped. Mostly you get half demons, people who don't even realize they have it in their blood. A few out and out demons who can pass. Faustian bargains. Mystical steroids. You're not really interested, are you?"
She shook her head. "Not even a little. You had me for a minute at figure skating. Okay, let's talk about Los Angeles. Tell me what you know."
They'd finished going over everything Connor knew, and the very little Buffy knew and had gotten from Willow, when Connor's roommate Theo came in. "Hey," he said, "I thought we had a system with the door when you bring your girls back."
"So very much not his girl," Buffy said quickly.
"Okay, whatever, I'm just here to get my things." Theo made a face behind Buffy's back and a big thumbs up which almost made Connor laugh. Theo grabbed his laptop and his bag, and walked out again, waving with a cheesy grin.
"He's made of charming," Buffy said. "Does he have to go elsewhere for his girl action?"
"Theo doesn't date. He just sleeps around. Actually, he likes to say he sluts around. He's trying to reclaim the word or something. Also, he's pretty much only in the room for about five hours a day to keep up with his World of Warcraft guild."
Buffy said, "Okay, that last sentence made no sense to me and was also a little scary, so I'm going to head out. I have a hotel room and people to catch up with. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Tomorrow. I have some books back at the hotel I want you to look through, make some IDs. I think this is going turn out pretty complicated," she said. She didn't look surprised.
Buffy found him the next afternoon, in the library. "This library is smaller than I expected from Stanford," she said.
"It's not the main one or anything. Which is why I'm trying to study here," he said. "Did you find anything? Or you have something for me?"
"I think you're being played." Buffy sat down across from him. "Last night, on my way back to the hotel, I was poking around a little. Patrolling, putting my many years of experience to work." She smiled and it didn't sound quite so condescending. "I ran into this guy, well, demon technically, but not a really scary one. Anyway, he said there's a new bad guy in town. Some vampire who's out to make Palo Alto his base of evil. Which, I know, thinking really big there. But he's hooked up with a couple of demons and one of things they're doing is sending out apparitions."
"Disembodied spirits?" Connor closed his laptop and stared at her. "No, it was Fred."
"Maybe you wanted it to be Fred."
"I wouldn´t." He'd want Angel. If he were being totally honest. It was weird missing someone he basically barely knew. "I mean, what about that stuff she said about the Deeper Well? I've never heard of it."
"I don't know, Connor. Who knows how these things work? Maybe you overheard it at some point, maybe you dreamed it." She shrugged. "You wanted to hear that Angel could be saved somehow or that there was something to be done."
"Why me? I'm not patrolling. I just do my stuff. I haven't staked a vampire in months." He didn't even know there were vampires in Palo Alto.
"Because you're you. Special and stuff. Maybe they're just sending them out to everyone who can sense them and you can." She pushed her hair behind her ear. "It's worth checking out even if you don't believe this is the actual bad happening."
"So just the two of us against some vampire and his two pet demons?" He smiled. "Okay."
"My sister's in town, too," Buffy said. "But she's not a Slayer. She can hold her own, but she's more like, Watcher help. Hang back when she might get hurt." She stood up. "Come on, let's move."
"Uh, no." He reopened his laptop. "I have a paper due and I'm about an hour away from being done. I'll meet you outside my dorm at six, okay?"
She blinked and then crossed her arms. Then she said, "Okay. That works, too."
When he got downstairs at six sharp, Buffy was sitting on the steps with another girl. They were bickering like sisters for sure. He was able to walk around and squat down right in front of them before either noticed him. "Boy, it's gonna be a fun night of hunting with you two," he said.
Buffy jumped slightly and her sister actually yelped. "Dawn, this is Connor," Buffy said. "Nice hoodie, Eminem."
"People totally wore hooded sweatshirts before Eminem."
"Yeah, and then we would have said, 'nice hoodie, Unabomber.'" Dawn grinned. "I've got a couple lines on these demons that are working with the vamp. Which is weird, right? Vampire, demon, generally not bestest pals."
"Generally not," Buffy said. "Sometimes they've just drifted apart, though." She seemed more relaxed around her sister, in a weird giggly way. Then she visibly sobered up and said, "It is weird. The last time I saw this was Adam." She glanced at Connor. "Big Bad. Half man, half demon, half computer. Actually less than half man. Anyway, he had this whole plan and he was really tough to beat. But he's definitely gone."
"Still, bad omen. Evil working together for a common goal is never a happy thing," Dawn said.
"Yeah, but we're talking about Palo Alto," Connor said. "Not a Hellmouth, not a nexus of anything, nothing. We´re not talking about some big bad guy, we're probably talking about one guy. With two demon pals. He probably met them at the bar and they all started talking, hey, let's take over Palo Alto. Next stop, Mountain View!" He rolled his eyes. "Let's get this done."
"You know," Dawn said, walking rapidly behind them. "I know three guys who sat down and decided to take over a town, and they did some real damage." Buffy looked suddenly somber again so Connor figured it was something really awful. He didn't want to know.
"Yeah, but that was a Hellmouth and this is Palo Alto. I'm going to keep saying that until you two stop citing examples from your little time in the town that evil built." It didn't exactly shut them up but he decided it gave him permission to tune them out. Listening to demon talk felt alien, half a life away.
Dawn drove them to a part of Palo Alto Connor hadn't been to. It looked distinctly shady. Buffy said, quietly, "Let's case. The demon from last night said the vamp guys have, like, a central meeting place. Basically, it's a demon friendly bar."
"There's one in every town," Dawn said.
"Sure, let's walk right in," Connor said. "Cause we don't stand out at all, what with being human and not human at the same time. Except you, I guess," he said to Dawn.
"Nope, I'm a weirdo, too." She shrugged. "I used to be green ball of energy. I don't remember it, though, so don't ask how if it was easy being green."
"Oh," Connor said. "Well, you smell normal. Not that Buffy doesn't, actually, but Slayers get recognized."
Dawn looked really appalled and then she said, "Oh, vamp senses. Okay. That wasn't gross, then."
"No, it really was," Buffy said. "Sorry, but the whole 'oh, I can smell who you last kissed' thing is creepy."
"Thanks," Connor said. "I mean, I was just born this way and stuff, but that's really good to know." He stopped in the middle of the street. "By the way, demon bar is the other way."
"Cool," Dawn said and they both turned on their heels and started following him.
They were a little bit outside the bar when Connor said, "Do we have some kind of plan here? I know I don't have a lot of experience." He figured sarcasm was all he had with these two.
"I think we do the 'oh, we're drunk stupid college students who accidentally came to the wrong part of town, woe is me' thing. That'll totally draw out the stupid," Buffy said. "And then we work from there."
"What if some of these demons came from Sunnydale?" Connor looked at Buffy while she considered. "Why don't you let me and Dawn be drunk and you wait for whatever crawls out." Buffy nodded.
Connor took Dawn's hand and said, "Come on, baby."
It wasn't just a demon-friendly bar, it was demon-full. Even the vamps were in vamp face and Dawn and Connor stood out the minute they walked in. All conversation stopped and Connor dropped Dawn's hand to get ready to fight. There were thirty beings of varying degrees of nastiness but no back rooms visible even to Connor besides the two bathrooms.
Then one demon near the corner said, "Dawnie? Kiddo, come over here." At the same time Dawn said, "Clem, hey, Clem!"
Connor stuck his head out the door and said, "I think we found a friend."
They were having drinks with Clem, that was his Sunday night. Connor sat back and didn't lower his hood for half an hour while the sisters dished with Clem, the friendly demon. He seemed really nice, actually. There were lots of perfectly nice demons, Connor thought.
Finally, after three Cokes for each of the girls and one Bud for Connor, Buffy thought to ask about her bad guy.
"Jorge? He's no mastermind," Clem said. "I mean, he's not nice or anything. But he mostly just goes after drunks and stuff. I think people resent him because he keeps trying to get everyone to stay away from college students. There's a lot of yummy college students around here. Not that I think they're yummy. I'm strictly kittens. And not even kittens, Buffy. Not even that."
"So why did the little guy say he was some mastermind?" Buffy rolled his eyes. "Because he could tell I was new in town. Rookie mistake. I miss having a town. In my own town, I would have known right away he was an idiot."
Dawn said, "And a regular place where they know how you want your mocha. Skim milk, my ass."
"You know, you've got problems, you should see the Headshrinker," Clem said.
Connor said, "I thought he just did tattoos."
"Tattoos you really need," Clem said. "And if you don't need one, he does other things."
"Bring it around to explaining for the non-natives, please," Buffy said.
"The Headshrinker works out of a tattoo parlor, actually, near here," Connor said. "He's a demon. But neutral like. Like, not about destruction. I went in for another tattoo, and the guy in front waved me into the back. And there's this guy, talking like he just got off the Grateful Dead tour, purple skin, seven feet tall, literally. And he looks at me and says I need a very specific tattoo. This one," he said and pulled back his sleeve.
Dawn said, "Is that Sanskrit? Whoa." She leaned in and traced the letters, and then sat back. "Wow, that's totally a Kutarin tattoo."
"I repeat, explaining, please," Buffy said. "And ouch."
"It really did hurt," Connor said. The tattoo was a square of text from his elbow to his wrist, on the inside of his forearm. His mother had wanted to kill him. But it looked really cool. His dad had just said something about wearing long sleeves for the rest of his life. "And it's my own blood."
"That's how a Kutarin tattoo works, they're totally cool, Buffy. I tried to talk Giles into letting me get one since I knew you'd say no. Your blood has to be inherently powerful, like a Slayer or me, or whatever and then the tattoo protects you from magical tracking and direct magical attack and," she paused and looked at the table like it was a book. "And binds magically created memories."
Buffy nodded. "Did you know you were getting all that?"
"He explained it. And the main ingredient that wasn't foul smelling plants was my own blood, so I wasn't that stressed. And if you meet him, you'll understand."
Clem put down his drink. He said, "The Headshrinker's a great guy. Seriously, Buffy, I think he's who you need to talk to."
Buffy stood up and put on her coat. Then she glared at Dawn. "And no matter what he says, *you* are not getting a tattoo."
It wasn't a far walk and the parlor was still open. Connor gave the bruiser behind the counter his best "and they called me the Destroyer at age ten" glare and the three of them got waved to the back.
The Headshrinker was waiting in the hallway like he knew they were coming. He probably did, now that Connor thought about it.
"The three of you together, that's totally cosmic," the Headshrinker said. "Right on time, too."
"Cosmic," Buffy said. She crossed her arms and did a glare of her own.
"Hey, chill out, Slayer." The Headshrinker waved his hands. "No need to be crazy here. Your answers are waiting, I promise not to offer your Key a tattoo and all you need to do is sit down." He pointed at three chairs lined up in the hallway.
"No tattoo?" Dawn sounded plaintive.
"Sorry," the Headshrinker said, as he walked away and went into a curtained cubicle twenty feet away.
"Is that how he was with you?" Buffy sat down and started fiddling with her stake.
"Pretty much. But I got instant service." The Headshrinker had called him Angel's son when they first met, then after the tattoo, called him young Mr. Reilly. It was weird. He wondered if he was back to Angel's son tonight.
Then he heard the Headshrinker talking and a voice answering. He put up his finger to shush Buffy and Dawn. They actually did it, which was nice. When he was sure he got up and walked to the curtained cubicle. He pulled back the curtain and said, "Lorne?"
"Oh, sweet Angelina Jolie," Lorne said and sat back in his chair. He was getting a tattoo from the Headshrinker. "I think the blood loss is giving me a nightmare, Shrinkydink. And that nightmare just interrupted us. Move along, kid. Move along for another three days and I won't even recognize you."
"Doesn't work that way, Krevlorneswath," the Headshrinker said. "I told you there was a block before we could do the wipe after we reversed the first wipe. And here's our solution, beautiful one. This is our block dissolved. You just have to let the dam loose. Breathe out and do."
Buffy and Dawn had followed Connor and now they were both leaning on either side of him. Lorne blinked at them and then said, "An audience. How wonderful. Can I at least wait until you finish sticking me with that needle? I'm in enough pain and you won't let me drink."
"Alcohol is a crutch, mi amigo," the Headshrinker said. "For you, right now. After we get this block removed and you have your cleanse, drink all you want. Though I think you won't want to." He smiled. He added, "Okay, look's like this where you three need to be. Pull up a chair, or sit on the floor. But sit."
Buffy and Dawn both sat on the floor, Connor squatted. Lorne sighed. "What am I supposed to say here besides 'ow' and 'go away,' Purple One?"
The Headshrinker put his tattooing gun on the table and blotted Lorne's tattoo. "Let's start from the beginning. Tell Connor something he doesn't know."
"The list is a little too long," Lorne said. "I don't have fifteen years, here. You said I could forget it all. From the night of his conception until, oh, yesterday is what works for me."
"How long is that?" Dawn looked like she wanted to take notes.
The Headshrinker turned and looked at Connor. "February 2001, am I right?" He grinned at Lorne. "Lots of omens from that night."
"I remember," Lorne said. "None of them good." He rolled his eyes. "Why are you three here?"
"They're here because you haven't told," the Headshrinker said. "They want to know about Illyria and you want to tell Connor the truths he didn't have. Let's do it in that order." He handed Lorne a milky looking drink in a clear plastic mug that with a Stanford logo. "Try this. No alcohol, but it loosens the tongue."
Lorne took a sip and spoke.
"Is he going to wake up?" Dawn gestured at the curtained cubicle where Lorne had passed out.
"In about ten hours. He'll have a wicked crick in his neck but he won't remember anything."
"He changed his mind," Connor said. "You got that, right? He said he wanted to remember Fred."
"I got that, kiddo. Hey, I know my work."
"So," Buffy said, "he just wakes up and bam, three years gone from his life? Won't he wonder about the selective amnesia thing?"
"He'll know it wasn't selective. It's like a note he left himself," the Headshrinker said.
"Like Zaphod Beeblebrox," Dawn said. She said to Buffy, "Like in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Zaphod Beeblebrox, he hid stuff in his own brain and signed it."
"That preview we saw with Mos Def, okay." Buffy sighed. "So we're done for the night, right?"
The Headshrinker nodded and showed them the door. Buffy stood outside the tattoo parlor and looked tired. She said, "Let's do a meet and greet in the morning. I can't think right now."
When Connor got back from his first class, Dawn and Buffy were waiting on the steps again. Dawn was wearing a Stanford t-shirt she kept tugging at, like she was really proud of it. Buffy said, "Okay, we're heading out. We'll be back, or I will. And we'll let you know what we're doing next. You have my email and cell if Fred comes back again and has more see-through info."
"Okay," he said. "Nice meeting you."
"Yeah," Buffy said. She smiled and then pulled Dawn away.
And then nothing happened. Two weeks of class and practice and phone calls to his parents right on schedule. Two games where Connor played a total of forty minutes and he was just barely making progress on getting a scholarship. He got sacked ten times total because the O-line was more porous than a disembodied spirit. It turned out, linebackers from the PAC-10 hit as hard as the Beast. Fred didn't appear. No one emailed. Every time Connor remembered his dreams, there were slucks. Once his father was petting one, while Angel kept walking out, stepping over another one.
Buffy just showed up one Sunday, standing outside his dorm again, tilting her head up at the sun. "This weather," she said. She grinned. "How are you?"
"Tired," Connor said. "Long time, no hear."
"Well, did you really want to help us move? And I know, because once your friends realize you can move the couch all by yourself, you're getting calls every Saturday." She sat down on the steps and patted the spot next to her.
He stayed standing. "You moved here?"
"I know, Palo Alto's gotten so trendy." She smiled. "Yeah, Dawn talked me into it. We've spent a year moving around and suddenly she wants to go to college, she wants to live in one state and take the SATs. And I decided," she said, looking down at her hands, "what the hell, right? I should probably try the responsible parent thing again. The kind of parenting where you let your sister attend a real school and not home-school herself from texts about zombies. And this thing looks really complicated. It should keep us busy for a while. Plus, there's always Slaying to do. If not here, Mountain View."
"She wants to go to Stanford?" He sat down next to her.
"She wants to go to Berkeley and since she's apparently a genius, she'll probably get in and I'm excited about the in-state tuition. Which requires being in-state. Also, Dawn had this whole rule about how far away I have to live from her in her first year of college. She wants warning before I show up. Bells, whistles, loud alarms. We settled for twenty or thirty miles and wicked traffic."
"Dawn in high school," Connor said. "Huh."
"No, community college. Her transcripts are too crazy to make regular high school make sense. This is all information you totally need, I know."
Connor said, "No, I'm interested." He rubbed his wrist. "What about Angel?"
"And Spike," she said, sighing. "Yeah. We've got theories and thoughts and crazy guesses. But Willow doesn't think they're dead. Or on this planet. Or this dimension. And how I don't know."
"What about Wesley and Gunn?"
"Same. She can't find them. So maybe they're super duper dead. Or maybe something else. We've got some ideas."
"And crazy guesses," Connor said.
"We always have those," she said. "Actually, I did call last week. And you weren't home. So I haven't been completely no see, no hear."
"I was home Saturday night," he said. "Home, home. Visiting. So, what do we do now? What happens next?"
"I have to get a new driver's license Monday, that's the total of my planning."
"And figuring out Angel," Connor said.
"Yup," Buffy said. "That's Tuesday."
Tuesday he sat in Buffy and Dawn's spanking new apartment and waited for them to finish arguing about where the new dishes should be. Buffy felt it was important they be on low shelves because she was short and Dawn said it didn't matter because Buffy could stretch and often wore heels.
The apartment had a small living room and two even smaller bedrooms. The kitchen wasn't small and the bathroom had very neon blue tiles. That much Connor could see without getting up from the couch. They hadn't done much decorating besides getting secondhand furniture and putting up some photos. There was even one of Angel, next to a young Buffy at some sort of prom. Otherwise, it just looked like family pictures, friends, the whole kit and caboodle. Connor had taken down all the pictures in his dorm room last spring, and only put ones back up that were taken after he was really there. Maybe, if Angel were back, he could put up the older ones. He didn't want to think more about it.
Finally, Buffy said, "Okay, fine, but you have to get all the bowls down for me." She sat down on the couch next to Connor. "And unpack them."
"Jerk," Dawn said but she did it.
"Meeting?" Connor debated shifting away from Buffy because she smelled really good. But then he stayed put because he wasn't actually thirteen years old.
"Right," Buffy said. "Okay, so Fred's appearing to you and telling you that she pulled her soul back together and she's totally dead. But no one else is. And Willow can't find them either, on the astral plane or anything. So they're not dead and they're not somewhere else."
"And we made a call," Dawn said, clanging the dishes as she put them up on the higher shelf. "You know what's wacky? Illyria's back in the Deeper Well."
"Seriously?" Connor said, "Does that mean she's dead again?"
"Yeah. She's the only one," Dawn said. "Fred and Illyria. But she's really hard to kill. Even with the depowering Angel and his guys did, that Lorne told us about."
"Maybe she got her power back," Buffy said. "Green guy said if she'd exploded, it would have leveled city blocks. Which is what happened."
"We don't really know much," Connor said.
"We do know someone who might," Dawn said. "Did you ever know someone who worked at Wolfram & Hart named Lilah Morgan?"
"Lilah. She's dead. Another one who is actually totally dead," Connor said. "Lorne said so, she was dead and she came back to offer them Wolfram & Hart. And Wolfram & Hart isn't around anymore."
"It's gone from LA and most of the North American branches are closed. And the other ones in this dimension are greatly reduced," Dawn said. "They had a fire-sale."
Connor waved his hand for her to continue. She said, "They sold off a ton of assets. Mystical objects, scrolls, and staff. A lot of dead staff. Apparently all those standard perpetuity contracts allow for transfers. Which is really creepy. The Council doesn't do that, right?"
Buffy grinned. "It's kinda a cool idea, but no."
"So who bought Lilah?"
Two days later, he sat outside in his car with Buffy, looking at the club where Lilah now worked. "She's a hostess. That seems like a waste."
"She's not a hostess, she just works at the bar. It's basically her office." Buffy looked at the rearview mirror and blotted her lipstick.
"What a come down. She had a huge office at Wolfram & Hart." Connor remembered how she'd smelled at the Hyperion, desperate and bleeding but it never really showed up in her voice. He felt sad for her. "She sells wishes?"
Buffy got closer to him and took his hand. "Okay, I couldn't hear that. Say it again."
"Sorry, still getting your limits. Strengths," he said a little louder, smiling. "So she sells wishes?"
"Sort of. Her contract was sold to some firm that sells wishes and curses. It's like Anya, this vengeance demon friend of mine, she would hang out at the local club and get scorned women to wish for their exes to turn into demons or something like that. That's what Lilah does."
"Sucks for her," Connor said.
"You really feel sorry for the evil lawyer." Buffy pulled him inside after the bouncer barely glanced at Connor's fake ID and Buffy's real one. "Wasn't she, like, evil?"
"Sure," Connor said. "But I knew, like, ten people tops in LA back then and she was one of them. In the end, before she died, she was trying to help. So she could survive. And then she didn't."
The club was packed. "This place is only about seventy per cent human," he said to Buffy. He had to take a moment to adjust to the sensory overload but he was already searching for Lilah. She was definitely here, somewhere. And still dead.
Buffy hadn't let go of his hand, so it was easy to drag her past the dance floor towards the bar. He had a ton of smells and sounds to sort through and the lights were flashing which was always annoying. His night vision was awesome, his daylight vision was pretty great, but switching between the two suddenly wasn't something he did regularly. Buffy's hand was very warm.
"And there you go," he said. Lilah was dressed to the nines, straight out of a magazine, perched on a bar stool. She somehow smelled like death and contempt.
She definitely saw them. She downed a shot and raised her hand for another one as they walked up. "Go away," Lilah said. She looked at her nails and then smiled at the new shot the bartender had put down in front of her.
"Or you'll what, slice me open and look at my insides?" Connor sat down next to her.
Lilah smiled. "My new bosses don't care that much about your insides. Lucky for them, they don't know you exist."
Buffy leaned over from her seat next to Connor and said, "Hi, I'm Buffy."
"I don't care," Lilah said.
"We have questions," Connor said.
"I don't have any answers. Non-disclosure clause," Lilah said. "It was part of the deal when I got sold out of Hell."
"Can you write it down?" Buffy waved her cocktail napkin.
"That would set my fingers on fire. If I say it, my tongue goes up in flames." Lilah swallowed her second shot. "You two can beat it now. You should go home to the new Mommy and Daddy."
"See, you could say that. You don't even know what we're going to ask about," Buffy said, smiling. "Like, where did you get those heels?"
"Pan-dimensional market, three blocks over, every other full moon. These are Prada, from an alternate universe." Lilah said, "There you go, your questions answered. I'll draw up an invoice."
"Do you know what happened to Wesley?" It was the only thing Connor could think of that might get her to react.
It sort of worked. She at least looked away. Then she said, "He didn't have a perpetuity clause. I drew up the contracts for Angel and his people, so I left it off. Angel wouldn't have thought to ask." A slight wisp of smoke came from the corner of her mouth. She signaled for another drink.
"Are you okay?" Buffy slid her glass over to Lilah.
"My tongue's on fire, but I'm fine," Lilah said. "It's just my tongue." She sipped Buffy's drink and pushed it back to her. "Look, I don't know anything. Whatever Angel did, before the final battle, it was devastating. The explosion, on the other hand, was a death blow. It wasn't just Los Angeles that got hit." The smoke was back from her mouth and the bartender was glaring at her. Lilah looked at him and he went to the other end of the bar. "That thing that killed the sweetest girl to ever come from Texas took out a lot of real estate before it died itself. They were always afraid of that."
Lilah took Buffy's drink again and drank half of it. She patted her chest. "Word down in Hell was that, that thing --" she glanced at them to make clear she was speaking of Illyria and Connor nodded. "It liked Wesley. It listened to the others. I think it would have wanted to save them." She quickly finished Buffy's drink and raised her hand to order another. "My new bosses will be pissed you're wasting my time."
"Should we make a wish?" Connor could think of a few he'd like.
Lilah stared at him. "Didn't you learn anything from dear old Dad?"
Connor took Buffy's hand and got up. "Thank you," he said. "When we get this done, I'll tell Wesley how to find you."
Lilah ignored him and turned to smile at the blonde who had sat down in Connor's seat.
Buffy sat on Theo's bed and brushed her hair. She'd said she was too tired to drive all the way back to her apartment and Theo was out, anyway. "So all we know is that Illyria's death explosion thing was really stupendously big. And I didn't even get my drink."
Connor closed his laptop and tapped at the desk. "And we confirmed that wherever they are, Wolfram & Hart doesn't have them. I think Lilah would have told us."
"But she's evil. With excellent shoes," Buffy said.
"Sure, but I really think she loved Wesley. Or something. If she thought the law firm that sold her to some place that has her working out of bar had Wesley stuffed somewhere, she would have told us. I'm sure," he said. "You know, there's a thing. Angel mentioned it once. I think. An Axis thing. You can use it find people who aren't anywhere. We could look for that."
"We could," Buffy said. She stretched out on Theo's bed and pulled his comforter up over her. "Tomorrow. It just feels like all we're doing is eliminating possibilities and impossibilities and then what do we have?"
"I don't know," Connor said. "But what else can we do? They wouldn't leave us. Well, Angel wouldn't leave me out there. And he'd talk Wesley and Gunn into it."
"Spike wouldn't leave me out there," Buffy said. "Or Angel. Whatever, what are you doing this weekend?"
"Possibly playing football, going home Saturday night." He got into bed and turned off the light.
"You go home a lot. You big nerd. Or you hate doing your laundry, which that I can completely understand."
"My dad's sick," Connor said. "Pancreatic cancer." He would have added it's going to be okay, like people always did, but it wasn't something anyone did with that kind of cancer. His dad had retired and now he was just fighting to make it past the six months they'd given him. Connor couldn't imagine a world without his dad.
Buffy was quiet for a long time and then she said, "That sucks. But you're still a big nerd."
He smiled. "A big nerd football player. And I have really cool tattoos. It works on the ladies."
"The ladies still go for that stuff, huh?" He heard Buffy turn on her side and he closed his eyes and wished for sleep.
"We're stuck," Connor said. He sat back on the steps of his dorm and watched Buffy blowing on her mocha. "It's been, like, almost three months since I first saw Fred and all we know is, hey, they're not dead. They're not on this plane. No one knows where they are. Dawn can't find the Axis."
Buffy sipped her coffee and smiled. "But that cart makes amazing mochas. And I am two weeks away from graduating from bartending school."
"You could get a better job," Connor said.
"I like the service industry," Buffy said. "They don't care that I dropped out of college and can't define a haiku. They just want my time, half my brain power and my grudging courtesy. And bartenders get sweet tips. Way better than the Doublemeat Palace."
"Don't bartenders mostly work at night? Like Slayers." Connor shook his black coffee and waited for it to get cooler. Always too hot.
"How much Slaying do I really do anymore? There's about twenty demons, total, in all of Palo Alto. And I'm not killing Clem, even if he is back to eating kittens. He totally fixed our Tivo. And I'm not killing the Headshrinker either, so that leaves eighteen demons who don't really bother anyone. Besides dusting the vampires who are passing through, I'm just doing nothing." She smiled. "I think I love it."
"It's nice, isn't it?" Connor smiled back at her. She was really hot in her knitted hat and orange coat. She'd be really hot in a potato sack. He looked at his coffee and took a small sip. "But we're not making much progress on why you came here."
"Please, I came here because my sister made me. Well, I moved here because she wanted us to. I do want to find Angel and Spike and I want to save them. But I also find myself deeply interested in how you make a Buttery Nipple."
Connor blushed. His mind went right to the sex with Buffy place with those words. He said, "But we're champions, you know. We should be fighting and stuff."
"Come summertime," Buffy said. "We totally will. But you have school and your dad and football. And scoring with the naïve college girls."
He'd had sex all of four times since Buffy had moved to Palo Alto, it was actually his slowest time since his dry spell in the fall. Buffy thought this made him a slut, but Theo was doing much better than Connor could ever hope. Buffy had a very prudish definition of slut. And Connor used to be a lot better at just enjoying sex, but since he and Buffy had become something like friends, it was harder to turn on the charm with random girls long enough to get to the good part. He thought about saying that, but he drank his coffee instead. "Well, this has been fun, touching base on absolutely nothing."
"It's not nothing," Buffy said. She patted his arm. "I mean, yeah, totally nothing on the saving our friends and family and exes front, but we got to hang. You and me. Good buddies."
"You have no friends besides Clem." He laughed and ducked before she could hit him.
"That's totally not true. I have lots of friends. I just don't have many who live here. And I'm having coffee tomorrow with this girl from my bartending school."
"What's her name?"
Buffy smiled. "Tami. Tami Berkman. I even know her last name. We talk about Lost every class. She's totally into Sawyer. She has two sisters and she likes cats."
"So you don't need to me for a pretend-friend," he said. He was surprised how bitter he sounded. Maybe he wasn't doing the best job lately at keeping his old version of how people thought of him out of his head. "Sorry."
"You're not my pretend-friend," she said. "You're my all the way friend who doesn't just want to talk about Lost, but also vampires. Maybe that's what on the island."
"I actually don't watch Lost. I hate serials," he said.
"But you and Dawn had that whole discussion about the L Word," she said. She'd finished her mocha and threw it perfectly into the can two feet away.
"I've always had a crush on Jennifer Beals. She's incredibly hot. And a gifted actress. Really. And, also, on the L Word, lesbians have naked sex."
Buffy said, "Men are pigs. And you, specifically. Do you ever think that maybe it was just one of the evil magic workers who made up your whole life in not-Hell who thought Jennifer Beals was hot?"
"I try not to," he said. "Thanks for bringing it up, though."
"You said I had no friends," she said. She patted his arm again, pretty hard in fact, and got up from the step. "See you tomorrow after the game?"
"Yup," he said. He was starting now which was good. He got sacked every single game but he also threw well and scrambled nicely, according to his coach. The sacking wasn't his fault, really, which neither of them brought up. It was definite progress towards getting a scholarship. That would be pressure off his dad and whatever money they had left.
He waved to her as she walked away.
Connor pulled Buffy up from the ledge of the roof. "Dawn got away," he said. "I saw her drive off."
"Good," she said. She brushed at her pants and frowned. "Did we catch the name of that demon truck?"
"It wasn't a truck, it was just a really big door. Wielded by two vampires. I dusted the other two they were with, though."
She touched her forehead. "Is this blood?"
"Nope," Connor said. He showed her his shoulder. "That's blood. Can you believe that fucker tried to bite me?"
"Okay, gross. Is that a tooth still stuck in there?"
He pulled it out. "Yeah. I'm surprised it didn't dust with him."
"Souvenir," she said. "Didn't you use to keep a string of ears from things you killed?"
"Why did I ever tell you that story?"
Buffy took the tooth from his hand and looked at it. She tucked it in her pants pocket and said, "You were drunk. It was a lot of 'I was the Destroyer, I was feared, blah blah I grew up in hell.' I hope you stick to different stories when it's not me and Dawn and Clem."
"Mostly," he said. "I try not to get drunk generally. But you were having a graduation party. I support you."
"And tomorrow I start my exciting new job. Bartender," she said.
"Dead," the vampire said. He'd crept up behind them and Connor had been too damn stupid and flirting to notice. Buffy backed up against him in her fighting stance.
"Funny," Buffy said. "I've heard that before. It's still not very clever. Maybe something like 'deadtender?'"
"That's not clever, either," Connor said. The vampire had a very long pike of some sort it was waving at both of them. Where the fuck did they get those things, he wondered.
"I got hit on the head," Buffy said.
She kicked at the pike and Connor leaped at the vampire. He went full speed but the vamp saw him coming and grabbed at Connor's shoulder as they hit the ground. Connor used the momentum and rolled the vampire on top on him. As he'd expected it exploded into dust a second later as Buffy staked it from the back.
She helped him up and said, "So now there's only one left."
"Deadtender, you big nerd," he said, brushing at his jeans. "This shirt is history."
"I did get hit on the head," she said. "I hate tourists. They think, oooh, Palo Alto, yummy college students. You'd think the word would get out. Slayer! Me, for goodness sake. I used to have a rep. Demons were scared even by the robot imitation of me."
Connor looked at his shoulder. It was already closing up, thankfully. It would just be a cut tomorrow morning, so no need to explain at practice. Buffy was staring at him, probably waiting for more banter.
"Sorry," he said. "Um, I'm sure your reputation is known far and wide."
She took his arm and led him to the door downstairs. Of course, it was locked and barred. Of course, it took the two of them five minutes to wrench it open. As they went downstairs, Buffy said, "Okay, nights like this I always find myself remembering when Faith said a night of slaying made her horny or hungry and all I want to do is sleep. No horn or hung here." She giggled.
"How is Faith?"
"Good," she said. "She's, like, you know, Slaying. Stuff."
"Being a deadtender," Connor said.
"Haha. You're not going to let me forget that one, huh?" They'd reached the street. "Dawn took the car. Should we call her?"
"Mine's two blocks over, remember? We met here." Connor sighed. "We didn't get any information about the Axis."
"Maybe if we find the other vampire," Buffy said. "It was kinda an outside hope, anyway. Near as Dawn can tell, it got sold two years ago to a buyer somewhere in California. Probably around here. But probably not those guys."
"Yup," Connor said. He leaned against his car. "You could drive."
"I got hit on the head. And I suck. I mean, I think concussed Buffy is actually even worse than exhausted Connor. Possibly even worse than exhausted and blind Connor, as you'd know if you'd ever actually been in a car with me when I'm driving. Plus, your night vision is better." She stepped up close to him and looked at his shoulder. "Already closing up."
It felt easy to put his arms around her waist and pull her closer. Ten hours of staring later or maybe a second, they were kissing. She still had some lip gloss left after all the fighting, something like mocha flavor. It was worth the wait to have her pressed against him, open and kissing back.
At least for a half minute. She said, "Woke up enough to drive?"
He pushed her away. "I should drop you off at your apartment, right?"
"Hey, chill. I was kidding," she said, grabbing his arm.
She smiled. "The waking up part. You can drop me off at your place. And take me up to your room and everything else. Not to sound slutty, but yeah, that's what I'm shooting for." She looked like she'd made up her mind.
He rubbed his mouth. "Okay, sorry. Yeah, let's go home. Before the other one jumps out and ruins this."
The whole drive home, he kept thinking he should say something about being too tired, after being chomped on by a vampire and beaten by another and sacked three times in practice which was fucking ridiculous and nearly impossible. But when they got to his room and she sat down on his bed, he was definitely awake and ready.
Connor sat down next to her and then pulled her on top of him. He kissed her again, hands on the back of her neck. He took a deep breath and said, "Where did you get hit in the head again?"
"Forehead," she said. She ran her hands up under his shirt, her nails just nearly scratching him. He shuddered as she pulled his shirt up and winced when it unstuck from his shoulder. "Sorry," she said. Then they got their arms tangled getting it all the way off and they were both laughing. She sat up and took off her shirt. He smiled as she rolled a little over his groin doing it.
"You're mean," he said, holding her waist. He unbuttoned her jeans. "Also, could we have been doing this earlier? Cause I'm just wondering, not complaining."
She took off her bra. He said, "or not. We can stop talking." She had really perfect breasts.
"I have to admit, I've been thinking about you for, um, a month? Those football pants are really hot." She bent down across him, her breasts against him. Then he was solidly focused on the kissing, the feel of her and getting her pants off. The damn things were skin tight and she was only helping a little. She was mostly wiggling to make him crazy. Which he also appreciated.
Then she sat up again suddenly. "I believe in condoms," she said.
"Gosh, me, too. Right now?"
"I think so," she said. She got off the bed and took off her jeans and her underwear in one push. "Where would that be?"
She turned around and he lost all his focus. "Damn, you're. Wow."
"Thank you," she said. "Where?"
"Oh," he said. He reached up to the shelf on top of his bed and grabbed a shoebox. "In here."
She laughed as she sat down, legs together, next to him. "Wow, you're a confident man." She took out one. "Also, take off your pants."
"Good idea," he said. He did it really fast which was not that easy. Skills, he thought.
She straddled him again, resting on his thighs. "See," she said. "This was a good time." He took a deep breath and thought about calculus while she put it on. She was really good at it for someone who'd dated two vampires.
"Okay," he said. She lay on her side against him, one leg over his. It was an odd moment of quiet. He turned so his leg moved up between her thighs and he could kiss her again. Her legs tightened on his thigh. He said, "I'm really strong, remember." She clenched harder and started grinding against his leg.
He held her ass and pushed her closer. Her thigh brushed his balls and he thought about calculus again. She laughed in the middle of their kiss.
"I bet you've got twice in one night in you," she said. She pushed him so he was lying on his back as she sat up and then lowered herself onto him.
She was amazing, incredible and he couldn't breathe for two hours or a second or two. "Awesome, you're awesome," he said. He gripped her hips but didn't try to set her rhythm. He just wanted something to hold on to. He'd fucked girls who were fit before and once a horseback rider but Slayer was apparently something else altogether. He stopped thinking and just let himself thrust. It was all unreal overload.
He came first and then just watched her. She was sweating, her hair damp at the roots, tiny beads between her breasts and her smell was everywhere. He got in two deep breaths before she came.
For a moment, they were just breathing. Then she sat up and he said, "Gimme a second." When he got back to the bed, he said, "I really don't have twice in one night in me. Tonight."
She was already curled on her side with the blanket pulled up to her shoulder. "Works for me," she mumbled. When he got in next to her, she pressed closer. "You're like a furnace."
"Your hands are cold," he said but she'd already fallen asleep.
He woke up before his alarm went off and turned it off to save her the radio blast. By the time he got back from the bathroom and put on his jeans, she was starting to stir. He waited for her to sit up and stretch before he said, "I have class."
"Cause you're in college," she said. "Right. Do you have to leave now?"
"In about ten minutes."
"What about breakfast?" She blinked and rubbed her eyes. "I want breakfast."
"In about two hours," he said. He sat down on the side of the bed. "I mean, if you want to go back to bed, I can bring you something. When do you have work tonight?"
"At seven. But I'm up, so I'm up. I should go home. I texted Dawn from the car, so she's not up worrying or anything, but if I don't get home before she leaves, there's no cereal."
"You really can't reach the bowl?" He nearly laughed. She grinned.
"I don't feel like all that jumping and dragging boxes," she said. "Time for the big fat talk."
"With Dawn?" He played with the strap of his messenger bag. "Uh, no, I know what you mean. But you go first."
"Meanie," she said. "I am not a one night stand kind of girl. I tried that last year, actually, it's not Buffy. Well, for a week it was but I'm bad at it. Anyway. I like you, you like me, yay?"
"Yay," he said. "I definitely like you." He took her hand. "So when do you get off work?"
"Two am. Maybe let's do breakfast tomorrow for our next exciting date."
"Excellent," he said. He kissed her cheek and got up.
An actual girlfriend for two whole weeks. Not one who'd woken up with made-up memories telling her to love him, not one who ditched him after that first night. Second dates at afternoon movies and sleeping over at her apartment even. He'd even told his parents. His dad thought it was awesome that he'd snagged an older lady. Connor laughed remembering it.
He licked the fork while he waited for the microwave to work its magic. It tasted, for a moment, like burnt wolverine. Not a real wolverine, whatever they were that looked like wolverines in Quor'toth. That's what they called them, anyway.
He preferred the microwave lasagna to eating seared demon flesh. He thought of his dad, picking at a tray of hospital food in front of him and trying not to flinch at the look of it. Funny how better than expected translated to a year to live instead of six months. "Pick the more painful memory," he muttered and started eating.
They'd decorated a little more every time he came back. Plants were in the windows and abstract paintings with lots of red splashes were hung on the wall and everything.
He heard Buffy on the phone as she unlocked the door and came in. "And now I'm home, and I'll talk to you later, Xander. Bye," she said. She looked at him while he ate his microwaved lasagna. Then she said, "How much of that did you hear?"
He finished the lasagna and started licking sauce from his fork. "He doesn't like me. He thinks you're settling."
"That's not fair," she said. "You shouldn't be able to hear that well."
"I try not to use it," he said. "But come on, you asked. I am what I am."
"I wish your am didn't have such good hearing. I like having that little bit of privacy where you can't hear at least the other side of the conversation. And Xander's wrong, anyway. He never likes my boyfriends, always something wrong with them. And he's almost never right which includes this time." She shrugged and put her bag down. "Anyway. I hope that lasagna wasn't one of the good ones. Dawn gets really mean when you take her vittles."
"It was one of the shitty ones I bought when we were shopping and left here for moments like these."
Buffy smiled and came over to him. "Did Dawn call with more details?"
"She's surprising us," he said. She leaned against him for a few minutes. He liked the quiet most of all. He wanted to tell her it was always easy to breathe around her but he was pretty sure it sounded incredibly stupid. The kind of dumb thing her college student boyfriend would say.
Then Dawn and someone else came in the door, carrying a large box. "Rona," Buffy said, clearly pleased.
"Buffy," Rona said. She smiled and put the box down. "I guess you guys were looking for this, huh?"
"So we're spending a lot of time catching up, cool. After the box opening, I want to hear all about how things are with you, seriously." Buffy opened the box and pulled out a white carved thing.
"The Axis," Connor said. "You found the Axis!"
"Rona did it," Dawn said, bouncing a little on the couch. "And then she called me and I drove down and we drove up and we got it."
"Is this worth any money?" Rona tapped the top of the box.
"Over thirty million," Connor said.
"Seriously?" Rona backed up. "And we just threw it in the trunk? Okay."
"And how do we even use it?" Buffy sat forward. "You looked all that up already, right?"
"Duh," Dawn said. She got up and ran into her bedroom.
"She's really excited about this," Rona said. "What does this thing do? For thirty million, I'm thinking, you know, I have no idea."
"You can use it to locate people across dimensions, any dimensions," Connor said. "And then hopefully, figure out how to get them out."
"It should give us a location," Dawn said, running back in with her hands full. "And an access point from this dimension. After that, we're kinda on our own." She dumped the usual smelly herbs and weird snake skins on the table. "Connor, this one is probably best for you to do."
"Blood tie," Connor said. "Always blood."
"Always," Buffy said. "You need a knife? We have knives."
"It really feels like I'm home with the Summers now," Rona said, laughing.
Dawn said, "Let me run you through it before we whip out the serrated edges."
It was actually pretty simple. Dawn had found a number of ways to use the Axis and chose the one she thought would be most effective for their particular problem. Apparently it looked pretty freaky, judging by Rona's face when Connor's eyes refocused.
"LA," he said. "Our access point is the Wolfram and Hart building. Or where it used to be."
"It was Illyria," Dawn said. "Must have been. She found a way to get to the place where her powers were and she took the powers and shoved the four of them in there."
"It felt like a stasis. No time, no movement," Connor said.
"Stasis is good they were probably injured or something," Buffy said. "And if Wesley and Gunn are injured, we'll need to get them right from stasis to a hospital."
"We're already planning, okay," Rona said. "But how are you getting them out of that stasis field? Also, who are we talking about?"
"Spike," Dawn said. "And the three guys he was working with."
"You know," Buffy said, "If you say that on the access point loud enough, Angel will probably come out of stasis just from pure rage. That would be a pretty easy way to do it, actually."
"Wesley and Gunn were working for Angel," Connor said.
Rona nodded. "So we're going to rescue the guys who were running Wolfram & Hart? Okay. This is a plan that makes a whole lot of sense. I'm having a Sunnydale flashback. But let's do it!"
Connor sat in the locker room and rubbed his head. He could get hit by a van and be fine, but one game against another PAC-10 school with a chance at the championship and it was like being thrown out a window and landing on a car after having the crap beaten out of him. He almost laughed. He had such great memories from that first time around. That was how he was viewing it now. Like reincarnation. Which was also pretty laugh-worthy.
He heard and smelled Buffy, and then he started hearing the guys left stepping back and one whistle. She stopped in front of him and smiled.
"You're not supposed to be in here," he said.
"Whatever, it's the last game. Season's over. And I waited. Everyone's dressed." She made a little pout. "Also, we have to go, so you should put on your non-uniformy shirt."
"Tonight?" He stood up and found his shirt. He turned away from Buffy so she didn't notice he was wincing when he raised his arms. "That was fast."
"It's been three weeks. And I'll tell you the rest in the car," Buffy said. She watched him pack his bag. "You got hit a lot out there, buster." She whispered, "Dawn would be a better blocker."
"We have an opening at left tackle. But I think there's this kid from Iowa coming up, so maybe next season will be better." He made sure to say it as quiet as her even though he was pretty much the last player left in the locker room. No dissing the team in front of the team.
"You're starting next season?" She was smiling.
"Barring some hot half-demon kid showing up in the spring. But he'll probably commit to USC." He put on his jacket and grabbed his bag. "Yay."
"Rein in that enthusiasm, jumping for joy boy." She took the bag from him and held his arm as they walked out. "That's what you wanted, right?"
"Yup. I'm just tired. Hopefully, baseball will go just as well. And then I'll be set."
"Set for life," she said.
"Why not," he said. "I promise to donate a lot to charity, okay?"
She shrugged. "I don't really object. Also, I'm starting a charity for semi-retired Slayers who work at bars. Make sure to keep us in mind."
He got in the back seat of Rona's car. Dawn said, "Did Buffy tell you about the dream?"
Buffy smacked his thigh. "No, how we figured it out. So, last night, I had this wacky dream with three blind teenagers telling me how to open the stasis dimension. They said Angel had saved them once, when they were kids, and he had a lot left to do. And possibly Spike. With the lot left to do, Spike never saved them. Or tried to kill them, so really, neutral on Spike. Anyway, I wasn't sure it was one of the real ones but then it turns out Dawn had the same dream."
"And me," Rona said.
"Why not me?"
"Maybe they couldn't find you," Buffy said, rubbing his arm where the Kutarin tattoo was.
"And I checked," Dawn said. "I called Willow to make sure the ritual wasn't a set up or anything, you know, raising a demon."
"Technically, we're bringing back two demons," Connor said.
"Summoning the wrong demons," Dawn said. "And she said the blind triplets? Totally real. They live somewhere in California. They were mentioned in some scroll."
"So that's that? Say a few words, and bang, they're back," Connor said.
"Seems way too easy," Rona said.
"Right with her," Connor said.
Dawn turned around in her seat to look at Buffy. "Well, not actually. We're not the only ones who know that spot's an access point. For things. Not just Spike and Angel, apparently."
"And Wesley and Gunn," Connor said. It was weird to him how everyone else forgot them. At least he wouldn't. He owed them, too.
"No one but us knows everything, I think." Dawn turned back to the front. "But Wolfram and Hart have demon guards there since they technically still own the land. And the whole area, around the building or what's left of it, is a nexus of bad vibes. Huge bad vibes. Not quite Hellmouthy, but it wouldn't take much work to make it one."
"So prepare for a fight," Buffy said. "Any idea who, besides the demon guards?"
"Wouldn't you rather be surprised?" Dawn dodged Rona's attempt to smack her. "Yeah, I have no idea."
They stopped for coffee and bathroom breaks around San Luis Obispo. Connor wondered if he had time to drive by his old house. "Don't you live around here?" Rona leaned on the car next to him, sipping on her coffee.
"I did. My parents sold the house when my dad retired back in September. Now we've got a place in Atascadero." It was closer to the hospital his dad had picked and way less acreage.
"Don't you ever get tired of all that info? Working everything out. Sometimes, you know, I'd rather just get my marching orders."
"Who to kill and who not to kill, point and shoot," Buffy said, leaning on the car herself. "I think that's how Slayers used to be. Pre-me. But then I was thinking, I bet all those old Watchers used to just lie in their reports to make it look like that. Of course, Kendra was like that before I taught her."
"Who's Kendra?" Connor put his arm around Buffy. He really liked the way she just fit against him.
"The Slayer who came after me. And before Faith. Faith, there's another Slayer who never did well with the old march, kill, stake, move on. Though, actually, she also did prefer just being told where to poke things without having to think about it until the whole turn to evil. Then it was evil telling her where to poke."
"I mind being ordered around," Rona said. "I just get tired of all the complicated stuff. Prophecies, destiny, rituals, demons, all that. I like vampires. All bad, all ready to be staked. Except Spike, I guess."
"Yeah, but simple gets all fucked up," Connor said.
Rona stepped away from the car and said, "I'm gonna get another coffee. And make sure Dawn's okay."
"What happens when this works?"
Buffy said, "I think we'll need a serious scrubbing. Dawn brought some really smelly dried eggs. Not hatched from any chicken."
"I meant, when they're okay. You know, us and stuff." Dawn and Rona were looking at a magazine in the store, laughing. They probably had a minute or two.
"Us?" Buffy jabbed him in the ribs. "Right, totally. As soon as Angel out, we're going to start dating again. I mean, it's been five years, but we'll just pick up where we left off, right after he dumped me before prom. Even though I've been in love, oh, three times since then and he's been in love since then and dated a werewolf, apparently. I'm his girl, for sure. Who cares about the pesky curse? Hello, you're stupid. Not that I don't care about Angel or Spike, but there's been moving on, for me, in both cases."
"I think more insecure than stupid, thanks. I mostly meant, you know. Angel and Spike and all that. Down here in LA, I guess. And you and Dawn up in Palo Alto."
"Before it was them in LA and me and Dawn all over. Or me and Spike in Sunnydale and Angel in LA for four years. I think it'll be good. They'll be fighting the good fight," she said. "Four people back in the mix and me out. Almost equal exchange. Almost."
"You think you're awesome," he said. He hugged her closer. Dawn and Rona were walking out of the store, both of them holding snacks.
"I really am," she said. "Sucks I'm about to be mostly retired, huh?" Buffy squeezed his waist. "I dunno. I don't. But I've been through a lot of world changing crap over the last few years and I'm pretty sure about this one thing: it's not worth planning for the day after. Except so far, there's always been a morning and afternoon and night after, so you kinda have to plan. It's one of those catch-22 things."
"You think you're so wise," he said.
"Smarter than you," she said. "I mean, not SATs wise and stuff. And the college thing. But every other way."
"You're totally faking not being scared."
"And I'm doing so much better than you," she said as Dawn and Rona walked up.
"I'm having Sunnydale flashbacks," Rona said, gritting her teeth and swinging her axe at the last demon standing. "How many of these things are there?"
"I think they're regenerating," Dawn said. "From the cursed ground. Wolfram and Hart still own this plot of land and when they own something, they leave their stamp." She sat down on the ground with a sigh. "But if we have five minutes, we can do the ritual."
"And then we'll have Angel and Spike to help," Buffy said.
Connor kept his eyes on the hole in the corner where the demons kept coming from for the past hour. They were next to a hill of rubble, in the shelter of one remaining door leading to the walls of a corridor. Everywhere else was dust and concrete slabs, the entire place ringed with yellow tape. "Also, we need to hurry. Dawn's in about an hour. The sun rising one."
"Got it, got it," Dawn said. She started chanting and Connor could smell the non-poultry eggs Buffy had mentioned. He tried not to gag. "Throw some bodies in that fire. Demons'll do." Connor turned to make sure Rona and Buffy were on it and then turned back to the hole. No movement so far.
Then there was a bright flash, a rush of air and smoke, a million different smells, and a clap like lightning. Connor turned again and saw four bodies fall towards the fire from a rip in the air.
He felt a ripple behind him and looked back at the hole just as five more demons leapt up. "Incoming," he said.
"Thanks for saving us," Angel said. He seemed taller to Connor but it was probably just because they were both squeezed into the front seat of Rona's car. Angel shifted in his seat and then said, "Do you think she'll really mind if I put the seat back?"
"Since it's broken and you'd have to break it more to do that, I think so. I mean, she's a Slayer, I assume she would move the seat back herself if it just took some elbow grease." Connor said, "Did you have any more questions? I know Buffy and Dawn ran through the basics."
"And then some," Angel said. "I think I'll wait. Actually, I do have a question." Connor braced himself for the 'what the fuck are you thinking dating my girl again' moment. Angel said, "How are the Kings doing?"
"LA Kings. Hockey. Did I ever tell you I like hockey?" Angel smiled. "It's a great game. We should go to one."
"They're on strike. Lock out. Sorry," Connor said. "I didn't know you liked hockey. Not actually a sport I ever got into."
"Oh, it's great. I can't believe they're on strike. Well, given who Bettman really is." Angel looked in the rearview mirror on his side. "So you don't like hockey, huh?"
"Not so much don't like, just, you know. I like baseball and football. Two sports played in the blinding sunshine, mostly, so I guess it makes sense they're not something you're into." Connor picked at the hole in his jeans. "Actually, I play baseball. And football, at Stanford. It'll be baseball season soon, you could come to a night game."
"I could," Angel said. "Thanks."
"I don't have tickets, extra ones, you'll have to buy them. So don't thank me," Connor said. He had a few but those were for family. It sounded mean in his head, but it was what Angel had wanted. He had a family. And all this hadn't been to replace them. He was sure of that and Angel should be. "Sorry."
"No, that's okay." Like Angel had read his mind.
He probably had figured out the drift of things. But it was Angel and being very very clear was the best way to go. "I mean, I do have tickets, but they're kind of spoken for. My family likes to come up for the weekend games. And I'm glad you're back, and we saved you and everything, but you know."
"I figured as much," Angel said. "And thanks again. For saving us. Wish we could have left Spike in there." Angel rolled down the window and there was Spike, in fact, leaning against the car door.
"Heard that," Spike said. He smiled and made a rude gesture at Angel. "Charlie and Wes will be okay according to the doctors. Big Blue must have grabbed them at the point of able to be saved. I wouldn't think she paid enough attention to biology to tell."
"Maybe the stasis was good for them," Connor said. "Like a hyperbolic chamber or something."
"Which would be true except those have oxygen and time moving forward," Spike said. "Is there any chance someone has a smoke, or there's some in the car there?"
Connor reached into his bag for his emergency pack and got out of the car. He offered one to Spike and lit his own. "You really shouldn't smoke," Angel said.
"Thanks for the concern, Pops," Spike said.
"Didn't mean you, Spike," Angel said.
"I think I can heal up pretty quick from my raging pack a month habit," Connor said.
They smoked in silence. Dawn and Rona came downstairs into the parking garage about twenty tense, annoying, still thankfully silent minutes later. Dawn said, "We should head out now if we're going to get back to school tomorrow."
"What about Buffy?"
Spike said, "And also, where are we supposed to go?"
Rona crossed her arms. "Hey, we brought you guys back. Now the rest is up to us, too?"
"There's sewer access from here, we'll be fine," Angel said.
"I was joking," Rona said. "Dawn and Connor'll take my car back, me and Buffy are staying here to help you guys get settled. At least for today and tonight."
Dawn was already in the driver's seat and she honked the horn. "Come on, Connor."
"She gets to drive?" Connor looked at Angel and went for the strong forearm grip instead of the highly embarrassing hug. They'd never been huggers. Angel nodded and stepped back. "Okay," Connor said, "tell Buffy to call me."
"So, after all that, it was kind of major anti-climax," Buffy said. She was sitting on the stairs in front of his dorm, sipping her mocha. "Lucky for them, Wes and Charles were not declared dead since there were no bodies. Just missing."
Connor watched her lick her lips. She said, "Aren't you going to ask me who reported them missing? Because it wasn't Wolfram and Hart."
"They both had friends. I think. Right? Gunn did, at least. And why are you calling him Charles?"
"Like me, before now, I note, they didn't actually have friends. Well, Wes didn't. He was reported missing by one of his neighbors. Charles got marked MIA by a girl he knew who runs a teen shelter. Which, strange story, I think I know her. I think I named her." Buffy frowned and then sipped her mocha again. "And I call him Charles because that is how he introduced himself to me. 'I'm Charles,' he said. I think he was flirting."
"Great, more competition," Connor said. He put his coffee down.
"He is pretty hot, I bet. When he's not hooked up to, like, a million machines and too weak to go to the bathroom on his own." She smiled. "Don't worry."
"Sure. I fit in with your settling."
"I'm not playing the self-pity and reassurance game." She shifted closer and held his hand. "Since I am totally settling. I'm settling for the hot younger boyfriend who's alive and the mostly enjoyable job where they actually think I'm the best bartender ever because I am. I'm available for the big bad annual apocalypses and world saving stuff, as are you. And along with all those Slayers in place, I just put four fighters for good back in play."
"You had help there," Connor said. "That wasn't really self-pity."
"It was a little," she said. "Still, it's heavy weirdness having Angel back. For you."
He shrugged. "I guess. I already have a dad, you know? Mostly, I'm glad everyone's okay. So Wolfram and Hart doesn't win, and we do. Hopefully Fred will rest easy. Wherever she is now. But I kinda see what you mean about anti-climax."
"Totally," Buffy said. "I think it's because we didn't have a big bad to kill or anything. It was all just putting the pieces together and killing some lame demons. Lots of little rituals Dawn did all the work for and driving around."
"They weren't that lame. I have actual bruises," Connor said. "But yeah. Shouldn't there be a big evil killed at the end?"
Buffy kissed his cheek and stood up. "I'm sure there's one coming. There always is. Maybe it won't be coming for us this time. And until then, even if it doesn't come, I have a bar to tend."
He was watching her car drive off when he saw a wisp of something to his left, in the trees. When he turned to really look, it was Fred, smiling and waving. For a split second and then she was gone.
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