part eleven

Xander smiled and opened his arms for a hug. When Buffy leaned into him, he wrapped her up tight and lifted her off the floor. He had never held her like that before, but the moment seemed appropriate.

"Wow," she said, "Been eating your Wheaties I see."

He lowered her to the ground. "Yeah, well, there's usually not much in the fridge at home. It's either dry cereal or Angel's blood packets and...well, call me human, but the blood gives me the heebie-jeebies."

At the mention of Angel's name everyone tensed up. He wasn't sure why. After all, Angel was on his way to Buffy's place and things were ok with everyone, right?

He chalked it up to old wounds and let it go.

"Hello," Wesley said from behind Xander. He had almost blended into the background with all the commotion going on between Buffy and Xander. "Buffy, good to see you."

"Hey, Wes." Buffy was checking him out. "Wow...and..." she didn't know how to finish her sentence. In fact, Buffy wasn't even aware that she hadn't finished it.

She noticed how ruggedly handsome he had become. She thought back to his double-o-seven-looking days when Cordelia had such a crush on him. He certainly had filled out pretty nicely. The Slayer turned to Willow and raised an eyebrow and smirked. She didn't need to say a word - Willow knew exactly what she meant.

By this time Giles had stood to greet everyone and he met Wesley and Xander with a handshake.

It took a about half an hour to get the 'hellos' and 'how've you beens' out of the way.

Xander excused himself and headed for the bathroom, while Willow and the Watchers set up shop at the dining room table, preparing for the spell.

Buffy called Dawn and asked her to bring home dinner for their guests. In the back of her mind, she was unsure of how her little sister was going to handle all this company. Dawn knew what happened, of course, but everyone else was able to put the 'bad' stuff out of their minds, but Dawn...she held onto it. It was going to be hard getting her through this.

"So, what's the plan?" Buffy asked, pulling up a chair next to Wesley at the table.

"Oh," Willow said, "I'm gonna do a locator spell to see if there's any chaos around town. I know nothing's been going on up here in daylight, but maybe some stuff down below has been brewing. You know, in the sewers and stuff."

"We've theorized that the Hellmouth will most likely be the catalyst for this evil, whatever it is." Wesley realized that he had slipped back into his old Watcher's persona. Everything about him changed in the presence of a Slayer. His speech, his mannerisms, his smile. Lilah had really done a number on him. He was grateful for some of the things she forced him to see in himself, but he regretted losing some of himself with her, also. He cleared his throat and sat up tall.

"Our theory is not actually not as impressive as it sounds," Xander said as he entered the room, mocking Wesley's Mike-Brady-states-the-obvious-explanation of things. "I mean if you look in the encyclopedia under Bad Stuff it's gonna say See Hellmouth re: evil. "

"Oh, dear," Giles whispered to himself. It was starting. He had such a difficult time keeping up with the Slayer and her friends when he first came to Sunnydale and the kids were in high school. He thought at first it was because they were young and he was, well...British. But it never stopped. And when the Scoobies all got together, it made his head spin.

"Evil," Dawn said, "Something's evil? That's new." She was carrying four large pizzas and, when she walked into the room, Xander couldn't help but smile.

"Hey, Dawnie," He stood and took the boxes from her and handed them carelessly to Wesley before pulling Dawn into a hug. "Oh, man. You're all growed up."

"It happens." Dawn said.

Wesley dropped dinner on the table and stood to greet Dawn. "My goodness," he said. He was awkward in front of her, not knowing whether to hug her or shake her hand.

"Well, don't just stand there," Dawn was smiling from ear to ear.

He smiled and wrapped his arms around her. She was a woman, now. The last time he had seen her, though she was beautiful, she was a lanky teenager with a rather annoying quality of interrupting official Watcher-Slayer business. "Dawn, it's good to see you."

She held him a moment longer, enjoying his embrace. When she realized that the moment was becoming an issue she pulled away. "You, too, Wes." Dawn smiled and looked shyly at the floor.

Way to rebound, Buffy thought as she watched Dawn immediately go into happy mode.

There was chatter over the next half an hour. The table that Willow, Wesley and Giles had initially set up for the spell had been quickly cleaned off and the contents replaced with paper plates and plastic cups. Buffy scrounged up a bottle of wine and they all shared a toast. Giles insisted on actual stemware for the 'adult' libations, though.

Giles stood and raised his glass. "To our newly reunited family," he smiled at Buffy and then Willow and added, "...and absent friends. May we always listen with our hearts, see with our minds, and love with our souls." After a beat he added, "...and never know loneliness."

His glass clinked against Willow's and he bent to kiss her softly as the entire group toasted each other.

Willow loved him more than she could ever express. When he mentioned absent friends, she knew he was referring mainly to Joyce and Tara. It made her love him even more. She was certain that no other man in the world would welcome and celebrate the memory of a past lover. But Giles did. And it touched her more than anything she had ever known.

The dinner conversation got off to a rocky start. How do you make small talk with people who used to be such a big part of your life? Awkwardness was definitely the norm.

It was Dawn who actually engaged everyone in conversation. She made them all feel so relaxed.

Xander helped Buffy clear the table while Willow and Giles went over the incantations for the spell one final time. They were alone in the living room on the couch, practically cheek to cheek, reading from one of Willow's hand-written spell books. It was a gift from the coven and she treasured it with all her heart. At one point both Giles and Willow reached to turn the page and when their hands accidentally touched, their eyes met and Willow closed in for a kiss. Giles wrapped his arm around her waist and stroked her hair while they sank into this passionate moment.

"Never gonna get used to seeing that," Xander said when he walked into the room. "Sorry to interrupt, but it's almost midnight. You said you wanted to do this exactly at the witching hour." A part of him was jealous. Willow had loved him once, but he never felt the same way about her. And he still didn't, but...well...she never looked at him the way she looked at Giles. Xander truly was happy for her. He just didn't know how to show it. He turned and went back to the dining room.

"You're sure that you're ok with this?" Giles asked, "I don't want you to do anything you're not prepared to do." His eyebrows crept up and the lines in his forehead wrinkled slightly.

Willow just smiled at him. At one time she may have taken his comment the wrong way, but after all they had been through, she knew that his protectiveness was purely out of love. "I'll be fine." She stood and went back to the dining room where she found Wes and Dawn talking quietly in the corner. Buffy and Xander were back in the kitchen making some tea for everyone.

"All set, then?" Wesley asked.

"Yeah." Willow said.

"Let's do it." Dawn stood up and pulled her chair close to the table. She made sure there was enough room for Wesley to squeeze in. When he pulled his chair right up beside her, she blushed and raised an eyebrow to Willow.

Buffy and Xander came to the table and sat quietly while Willow was preparing herself.

After a few cleansing breaths, she opened her eyes and focused on the map. She held a crystal in one hand that reflected a tiny orb of light whose source was drawn from the four candles that held down each corner of the map. A fine sand slipped through the fingers of her other hand as she chanted something in Latin and focused on the energy of the map.

Giles watched Willow carefully. She was weakening, but he did nothing. He wanted to see if she could manage on her own. When it looked like she was about to pass out, he held his hand out to combine their energies. He wrapped his fingers around one of her wrists and the instant their skin met there was a THWACK !!!! A minor explosion. Everyone was thrown from their chairs except Willow and Giles.

The orb of light burned a hole into the map and all the sand gathered around it like a retaining wall. Everyone got up and back into their chairs. When they did, Giles and Willow were speechless and staring at the pseudo-X marking the spot of the chaos.

"What's wrong," Wesley asked, almost in a whisper. He had either forgotten or just didn't realize.

Nobody would answer. Finally, a shaken Giles said, "That's my old apartment building."


part twelve

It was three a.m. and the rain was beating softly on the windows and the roof. Dawn couldn't sleep. There was evil to be dealt with. But instead of unsettling her, it excited her a little. She kinda liked the idea of having a purpose again. And having a team to help her research.

She wrapped herself in a full, flowing pink satin robe and slid her feet into a pair of slippers. She looked like a movie star.

Everyone had spent the night at Buffy's. Giles wanted to go home, but Willow was so tired and worn out after the spell that all she wanted to do was sleep.

Buffy and Dawn had moved into Vivienne's room for the night while Willow and Giles took Dawn's bedroom and Xander took Buffy's. Wesley opted for the couch.

After half an hour of tossing and turning, Dawn quietly left the room, stopping to check on Vivienne, who was neatly tucked into a sleeping bag on the floor.

When she walked into the living room she found the sofa empty, with the blankets neatly pulled back and the pillows still fluffed. "Wes?" Her voice was a barely audible when she spoke. She knew he wasn't upstairs, unless he and Willow and Giles were having a crazy threesome in her bed or worse, he and Xander... ewwwww ...

The kitchen was empty. The dining room and bathrooms were, too. She opened the door to the basement and saw a light on below. A smile crept over her lips and she walked down the steps.

"Wes?" She could hear the click of her keyboard. "Lookin' at porn?"

"Dawn!" He was startled. "What?, no...not..." He stood and took his glasses off and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm sorry, you startled me."

"Sorry, I should have made a little more noise." She smiled at him. "So whatcha doin'?"

"Oh, well, I thought I'd check the local news archives, see if anything interesting occurred over the past couple of years." He put his glasses on the table. "I was looking for patterns or hot spots or something." After a second he added, "Really I've no idea what I'm looking for, I just wanted to be useful."

"Need some help?"

He looked up at her and smiled. Her hair fell loosely around the line of her jaw and down her neck. Wesley didn't realize how intently he was staring at her. Not a single word came out of his mouth.

"Wes? You ok?" She moved close and looked into his eyes, seemingly checking his vitals.

This startled him again and he backed up. "Yes, uh...fine..."

"Tell you what, why don't I go and make us some tea?" Dawn said, backing away from him. She knew, or at least she thought she knew, that she was making him nervous. But in a good way. She couldn't help herself around him. "Here," she said, guiding him back to the computer and settling him in the chair. "Check out my bookmarks in the 'supernatural disturbances' folder. You might find something I missed."

"Thank you."

"Sure," Dawn said, "I'll be right back."

Wesley watched her go, her hair sweeping across her shoulders and back as she walked up the steps. He cleared his throat and turned his attention back to the computer monitor.

An hour of surfing produced exactly "zero" results.

Dawn sat with him for a while, through three cups of tea, in fact, guiding him to some websites she thought might help. But she had searched before, and still, even with a fresh pair of eyes, nothing jumped out at them.

When they'd had enough, Dawn and Wesley moved over to a sofa and started talking casually. The atmosphere in the basement was actually quite cozy. "It's hard, you know?" Dawn was sharing her feelings with him, possibly even just thinking out loud, trying to sort it out for herself, "I mean, I know that Giles left because he thinks Buffy and I drove him away, but... I know that I never said those things to him so it's hard to understand exactly how much it hurt him...I'm not making any sense, am I?"

"No, no - you are. And I know how you feel. In my case, I'm on the 'giving' end as well. Cordelia got the brunt of it from the "Wesley" imposter." He was lost for a moment, regretting a thing he never even did. "Dawn, it's...this thing - it fed on our most intimate human emotions. It knew exactly which person or people would hurt us the most, the ones we trusted most. It knew which deceptions would drive us apart."

They both sat for a moment, forlorn and exhausted. "Man, this sucks," Dawn finally said, completely changing gears. "It's done, it's over. Those things never happened." She jumped up from the sofa. "Ok, so I'm over it. For real this time, not like over dinner when I was just pretending."

"You were pretending?" Wesley asked.

"Yeah. I couldn't stand to see Willow hurt anymore. Or Giles. I knew I had to put on a happy face or Buffy wouldn't be able to get through the night." She shrugged, "I guess it worked."

Wesley smiled at her and stood. He took her hand in his and spoke softly, "We should probably get to bed."

"Why Mr. Wyndam-Pryce, are you flirting with me?"

"NO!!! Oh, dear. No, Dawn, that's NOT what I meant." His face was flush and growing hotter by the second.

"I know, I'm just teasing." Dawn smiled at him. She leaned up on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. "Thanks for the chat."

"Anytime," he said. And he meant it. This time with Dawn helped him get over his own doubts. "Come on," he said and put his arm around her. It was strictly a friendly gesture.

Willow woke with a start - heart pounding, beads of sweat trickling down her face.

"What is it? Willow - what's wrong?" Giles shot up at the waist and took her in his arms.

After about a minute she caught her breath. " was a dream." She looked into his eyes, "It seemed so real, though."

"Tell me," he said.

"I don't know what it means, was weird. Nothing made sense." She took a deep breath.

Giles relaxed and leaned back against a stack of pillows so that he was upright. Willow leaned back against him and mindlessly ran her fingers through the rough, graying hair of his chest. "We were at your old apartment. I was in high school, ...but I wasn't there. I mean, I was there, but I...I was dead, I think. I don't know, maybe I was a ghost or ... And then the ground opened up right in the middle of the living room and Xander was in a commando outfit standing next to Riley. And all this weird stuff was going on but Buffy didn't know what to do, she couldn't help us. I think I woke up when the ground started swallowing all of us."

"Well, it was just a dream. No harm. I'm here with you, now," he said and kissed the top of her head softly. Normally Giles would get right to work trying to de-code something like this, but Willow had a lot taken out of her after the spell. She needed him. And he would comfort her as long as she needed. He held her until she fell asleep. Only then did he allow himself to drift off.

Dawn crept back into bed, trying not to wake Buffy, but it was no use. "What are you smiling about?" Buffy asked.

"Me? Smiling?" Dawn's grin grew wider as she took off her robe and climbed into bed next to Buffy. "Not smiling," she mused coyly.

"You are sooooo smiling. C'mon," Buffy said. "Give."

"I plead the fifth."

"There is no fifth. Not in this house. What's going on?"

Dawn started giggling. It was like she was 14 again. "Ok, but you promise not to be all sister-y and judgmental--y."

"I make no promises," Buffy said, raising her eyebrows at her little sister.

"Oh, fine," Dawn gave in so easily, "Nothing and I mean NOTHING happened, but..."

"What?" Buffy was practically about to explode.

"Wes and I had a nice chat."

"And?" Buffy asked, completely oblivious to what Dawn was getting at.

"Aaaaand," Dawn said, "It was nice."

"Oh!" Buffy finally realized the implication. "You and Wes? He's waaay too old for you."

"Uh, yeah, 'cause Spike's centennial during World War II didn't really count, right? And Giles is only a tad older than Willow. And there's Angel and then Anya...."

"Point made." Buffy said, smirking. "Wes, huh?"

"Ohhhh, yeah," Dawn said. Her eyes sort of blanked out and Buffy could tell that she was thinking of some rather 'romantic' scenarios involving the two of them.

"Have you always felt like this?"

"Well, no," Dawn said, "I mean...I don't know. I was just a kid when he left, you know? I mean, I used to have a little crush on him, he was so James Bond back then. But now he's so..."

"Va-va-va-voom?" Buffy asked.

"And then some." Dawn shrugged. "I don't know. I was kinda getting a vibe from him, too." She looked at Buffy, "At least I think I was. Hard to tell."

"Yeah, well - he's British."

"Yeah." Dawn leaned into Buffy and closed her eyes. She reached for her sisters hand for comfort. "I'm glad they're back," she said, softly.

"Me, too." Buffy gave Dawn's hand a little squeeze and the two drifted off to sleep together.

While all this commotion was going on, Xander slept soundly wrapped up under the covers in Buffy's bed, clutching Mr. Gordo.


part thirteen

"Mommy, I like Xander. He's funny." Vivienne was crawling into her bed with a book in her hand. Her hair was still a little wet from her bath.

Buffy took a comb and ran it through her daughter's hair as they talked. "I like Xander, too."

"Can he come to the park with us tomorrow?" Vivienne sat still and relaxed while Buffy combed her hair.

"Of course he can. I'm sure he would love that." Buffy hoped that Xander would stick around long enough for them to all get to know Vivienne.


"Yeeeessss." Buffy put down the comb and began braiding Vivienne's hair.

"Mr. Giles and Miss Willow brought me a present. A new book. Will you read it to me?" She held it up for her mother to see.

"A present? I didn't know that!" Buffy finished the braid and took the gift from her daughter to have a look at it.

"I know," Vivienne said and giggled. "You were in the kitchen when they came in, remember?"

"Oh, yeah." Buffy helped her daughter scoot under the covers and then she lay down next to her, but on top of the blankets. "Ok, let's see. Chapter one...."

Xander stood in the hallway, eavesdropping on Buffy and Vivienne. It touched him more than he imagined a moment like that would. When she asked if Xander could go with them, he had no control over the smile that crept across his face. He listened for a minute, but then left them alone, careful as he walked down the steps so he didn't make too much noise.

Just as he reached the bottom Willow and Giles were coming through the front door. "Hey, guys." Xander said.


"Hello." Giles closed the door behind them.

"Buffy and the little tyke are upstairs," Xander said, "Dawn and Wes are in the kitchen cooking dinner. Angel just called and said they'll be here in about half an hour."

"How's Buffy?" Willow asked, taking off her coat.

Giles took her coat and headed off to the living room to drop a few things off before he found his way to the kitchen.

"She's good," Xander said. "You want something to drink?"

He had spent the day there with Wes. Willow and Giles had gone home in the morning. They opened the store for a few hours, but closed early enough to reconvene with the gang.

"Sure," Willow said. "I'm kinda cold, how about some.."

"Tea?" Xander asked. "Man, I shoulda bought a coupla hundred shares of Lipton when I knew the gang was getting back together," he joked. "C'mon."

They walked into the kitchen. Giles was sitting at the table sipping from a glass of wine, thumbing through the daily paper. Dawn and Wesley were hard at work on dinner. And it smelled delicious.

"Wow, what is that?" Willow asked, her nose leaning over a pot of rolling steam.

"Wesley's recipe," Dawn said. She smirked at Willow. She knew Buffy had told her the 'details' of the now infamous Dawn/Wesley chat.

"Gee, Wes, I never pegged you for much of a chef." Xander said.

"This from a man who thought Nigella Bites was...." Willow didn't get to finish the sentence.

Xander clamped a hand over her mouth from behind and interrupted with a, "Never mind!"

Everyone laughed.

"So, you ready for this?" Cordelia asked as they turned onto Revello drive.

"Sure, why wouldn't I be," Angel asked.

"Oh, right. I forgot. You already had that Angelus thing going on, you're used to stuff like this." Cordelia looked at him and winced. "Oh, man, I am soooo sorry. I didn't mean..."

"It's ok, Cordy. I know we're all a little on edge." He put the car in park when they reached Buffy's, but neither got out.

"So...." Cordelia stalled, "....big stuff, huh? Scooby reunion. I was just getting used to having you back. Not sure if I'm ready to share you." Her words trailed off at the end, as if she wasn't sure she wanted him to hear that last part. But Vampires have ears. Pretty good ones, too.

"Cordy, I..." He looked into her eyes. Angel assumed the 'this thing between us can never go anywhere' speech would come out of his mouth. He was shocked when he heard himself say, " day at a time, ok? I know we have a lot of things to talk about. But I'm not going anywhere." He reached out and covered one of her hands with his own.

"Good to know," she said and smiled.

"I've found that a dash of nutmeg and just a soupcon of lime juice will really...." he looked at Dawn and realized he wanted to sound a little more manly...."....kick it up a notch." Wesley stirred his creation with a wooden spoon and then lifted the spoon to Dawn's lips for a taste.

She smiled and leaned in, blowing a cooling breath on it before she tasted it. "Wow. Delicious."

Their eyes were locked on each other's. It seemed that neither one was talking about the food anymore.

" it," Wesley unbuttoned the top button of his shirt, suddenly feeling asphyxiated as their bodies drifted closer together.

"I can handle it," Dawn whispered.

"Hey, should I set a place for Angel?" Willow asked, breaking their moment.

Xander chimed in. "Well..." He was going about this logically. "He doesn't usually eat, but I think he'll make an exception in this case. Unless he wants to get right down to business and head out on patrol, in which case he won't even be here. Of course he may sit at the table with us just for company."

Since Xander really hadn't helped her make her decision she asked the question again.

"So, should I set a place for Angel?" She raised her eyebrows and smiled at Xander. He just shrugged.

"The End." Buffy whispered. Vivienne had already fallen asleep, but Buffy kept reading. It was a good place to be, curled up next to her daughter in a house full of people she loved. Life was funny. Sometimes funny 'ha-ha', sometimes funny 'oh, crap', sometimes funny 'serendipity.' This was of the latter variety. This reunion was purely an accident, but it was a good one.

She stood slowly, careful not to wake the sleeping beauty. Buffy click the light off and crept out of the room.

She walked into her own bedroom and got a look at herself in the full length mirror on the back of her door. Her sweatpants and tunic weren't exactly the fashion statement she wanted to make. She brushed her hair and put on a little makeup and then Buffy looked into the closet. She wasn't the same anymore. Maybe it was because she had grown older. Maybe it was because she was a 'mom' now. She wasn't sure. But the things in her closet said a lot about her. It was all kind of blahh. The Slayer smiled. The closet looked like it belonged to someone ordinary. Someone run-of-the-mill. Someone who was just a girl. She chose to stay dressed in her sweats. It was comfy. It was Buffy. New and improved Buffy.

She stopped at the mirror once again before leaving the room to practice a few times. "ANGEL! Hey, what's up?" No, that wouldn't work. "Angel...good to see you." Naw, that either. "Wow, you look...." Nothing sounded right. She would just have to wing it. She turned the light off and headed for the kitchen.

When she got there Xander was sitting with Willow and they smiled when she walked in.

"Hey, dinner smells great. When do we eat?" Buffy asked.

"Actually, it's ready," Wesley said as he carried a basket of warm bread past the trio.

"Come have a seat." He led them all into the dining room where Giles was pouring a drink for everyone.

As soon as everyone sat down the doorbell rang. Buffy looked around the room and smiled, though she could have cut the silence with a knife.

"Buffy, do you want me...." Giles asked, but she cut him off.

"No, it's ok." She stood up and said. All eyes were on her, worriedly. "Really, guys. I'll be fine."

Giles reached out and placed a reassuring hand on her arm as she walked past him.

He watched as she left the room and then locked eyes with Willow. " Can she handle this?" He asked Willow telepathically so as not to start a round-table discussion on the Buffy/Angel saga.

" She'll be fine... " Willow answered, " She's got you." She smiled at him.

He was touched. Willow always made him feel good about himself, always knew when he was doubting his place in the world. Her smile was as soothing as her words.

" You know I love you, right?" He asked.

She responded by sliding her foot up his leg and then between his thighs.

"Yes, but you can still show me later."

Giles squeezed his thighs together briefly before he reached under the table and took her foot in his hand and gave her a short massage.

All this time they had been talking telepathically, but their eyes were so intent on one another that it unsettled everyone at the table.

"Uh, I'm not sure what's going on between you two but you're kinda freaking me out." Xander said.

Giles cleared his throat and sat up tall, releasing his hold on Willow. "I've no idea what you're talking about," he said and lifted his glass to his lips.

Willow just smiled.

"Angel, I don't know about this," Cordelia said.

"A little late for uncertainty, isn't it?" He asked.

"It's's been so long," she said. "I haven't seen Buffy...since forever."

"You'll be fine. I promise," he assured.

Cordelia's apprehension was because of her feelings for Angel. She just got him back. How was she supposed to compete with Buffy for his attention? She would never win.

Just as she opened her mouth to say something else, the door opened.

"Buffy!" Cordelia said, over-enthusiastically. "Wow, love what you've done with your hair. Short is in." It was all fake, Cordelia the former queen of insincerity, but her words weren't meant to be mean. Cordelia just didn't know how to act around Buffy anymore. It was awkward. So she just shut up.

"Hey, Cordy." Buffy said and smiled. She then turned her attention to, "Angel. Hi."

"Buffy." He said. It was his version of a hello.

"Well, now that we've got that out of the way, what IS that smell? Something's cooking and I'm famished." Cordelia was just prattling on, running her words together. Her theory was 'keep talking and the awkwardness will go away.' It wasn't a good theory.

"Oh, dinner. Of which you are invited to join us for." Buffy said. "We just sat down to eat."

"Great!" Cordy said and blew past Buffy. The quicker she got into a room with more people, the easier it would be to blend in. Another one of Cordelia's theories that wasn't quite working for her.

"I've been meaning to call," Angel said when they were alone. He was still on the porch, just outside the door.

"Angel, it's ok. I'm sure whatever I said to you was probably a million times worse than the things I did to the others."

"It wasn't YOU, " Angel stressed. "And it didn't matter. I should have known. I should have sensed it. I've been alive a long time, Buffy. I've seen a lot of things. Deception tears people apart, but it shouldn't be enough to drive them away for good. I've seen a lot of years wasted over words. I never should have let a thing like this keep us apart." He just looked at her.

"Wow," she said softly. "Didn't see that coming."

"Well, it's true. I should know better." Angel said.

"Angel, it is not at all your fault. In fact there's a whole houseful of people behind me who are regretting the same things you are. But we're done with the regret thing, and we've all moved on." She looked into his eyes. "No more of that, ok? New leaf?"

Angel just smiled at her.

"Come on in."

He didn't actually need the invitation, she'd never revoked it from before. But he waited at the door out of habit. And good manners.

"Thanks," he said and crossed the threshold.


part fourteen

"Yeah, me and Angel, here - we fight evil, don't we buddy?" Xander slapped Angel on the back in the middle of his sentence. "Keep the streets safe in L.A. for the kiddies."

"Don't touch me," Angel replied dryly.

They had almost finished dinner. The conversation never ceased, and it amazed everyone in the room. Each of them had doubts or fears, but the group also had an undeniable link. A purpose. They spoke the same language, and it was comforting to be surrounded by familiar faces. By friends.

"He likes to kid," Xander said, "But down inside, he's proud of me."

"I'm not much of a kidder," Angel said, almost exclusively to Dawn.

She was the one person in the room who probably knew him the least. She was a child when he left. His relationship with Buffy was important in her life, but Dawn was an adult now. "Yeah, I kinda remember," she said softly and smiled.

It relieved the vampire and he even smiled back.

"So, why don't I clean up and you guys can fill Cordelia and Angel in on the new info." Dawn stood up and took her plate and then reached for Wesley's.

Wes stopped her hand with his own and announced, "I'll help." Their eyes met, and both of them smiled uncontrollably. Without hesitation they left the room.

"O...k...." Buffy said when the pair left the room. Her words were stilted and there was a little bit of question in her voice, as if she were wondering if she should put the kibosh on the whole Dawn/Wesley thing. She chose not to think about it any longer and, instead, turned her attention back to the group at the table. "Well, last night Willow did a locator spell, searching for anything in town that was..." Buffy couldn't find the right word.

" Off," Willow said, tentatively, as if she had chosen the wrong word, also.

"And?" Cordelia asked.

"And we've found a power center. A mystical disturbance, perhaps a lair of some sort." Giles reached for his glass and sipped his wine.

"Great. Let's go take care of it," Angel said. His approach was always hands-on. He could afford to have this viewpoint - he was strong and immortal. The others...not so much.

"Well, first, two things," Willow said. "One - if it is the source of our," Willow flashed an air quote, "break up...then we should talk to it, first. If it's been there all this time, it must have something big brewing. Something that would take years of planning. But this something would, obviously, have a weakness, otherwise it wouldn't've needed us apart."

"And second," Giles continued, "We're not even sure what we'll be facing when we arrive. It's doubtful that something that has been plotting or planning for this many years is working alone." He looked around the table and realized that, even with the army that the Scoobies had organized, it may not be enough to fight something this big. "There could easily be an army of hundreds, perhaps even thousands and if we go in ourselves, we'll be facing certain death." Yeah, always leave it to Giles to spoil the fun.

"We can still go in and check it out. I'll go alone, it'll be safer." Angel offered.

"No way," Xander said, "I'm not lettin' you get all the glory. Besides, we're a team, remember?"

"This is really not up for discussion," Angel said and tried to continue.

But Buffy's voice stopped him, "You're right. It's not." She stood up and looked around.

"We'll go together." Xander smiled. "Meaning me and Angel," Buffy added. "Strictly recon. No muss, no fuss."

"In and out," Angel added. "Ready?"

"As I'll ever be," Buffy said. They had made the decision on their own, right there in front of everyone. It was as if the rest of the group had no input, had nothing to contribute. Some feelings were hurt, but that's the way it had to be when Buffy and Angel were working. They were the leaders, the heroes.

"Buffy, please be careful." Giles knew the area well, the grounds around his old apartment complex, and knew there were a million hiding places. The perfect breeding ground for evil to run amuck. Every ounce of resolve in him wanted to state that he would go along, also, but he knew Buffy wouldn't allow it. And it was too soon to overrule her decision. In fact, he may never assert himself around her again. Not in an 'official Watcher' capacity. It was ok, though. Buffy was strong.

"I will." She led Angel out of the room but stopped in the doorway and turned back around to the group. "Xander - check on Vivienne for me? She usually wakes up at least once before midnight. One cookie and a glass of warm milk and she'll go right back to sleep."

He was feeling left out until that point. "Absolutely." Xander smiled and gave Buffy a quick salute. Dawn was there and quite capable of taking care of her niece, but Buffy wanted to include her friends in every way that she could.

"Thanks," she said and smiled. "We'll be back."

And with that, Angel and Buffy set out to explore.


part fifteen

"So you and Giles are, like...." Cordelia was pumping Willow for information.

"Uh-huh," Willow said, smiling. She never passed up an opportunity to talk about her relationship with Giles. Their love was magical. Literally.

"How's that workin' out for ya?" Cordy asked.

"Pretty good," Willow said, a devilish grin on her lips. At first she was enjoying the conversation, explaining how Giles was her knight in shining armor. But after a while, sitting and talking with Cordelia put Willow a little on edge and she decided she should probably switch gears. "You know, Cordelia, Xander can probably use some help with Vivienne. Why don't you go check on him?"

"Oh, right, the baby. Sure, I can do that." Cordelia stood and headed for the steps.

"Not really a 'baby'," Willow muttered after Cordelia left the room, with a hint of sarcasm in her voice. No point in correcting Cordy, though, she probably wouldn't notice how far off the mark she was even when she actually saw Vivienne. Willow didn't exactly picture Cordelia as the 'mothering' type.

Giles entered the dining room and glanced casually over at Willow, "All alone?" His eyes were full, his eyelids heavy and worn. In all the commotion, he didn't realize how much alcohol he had consumed.

"Buy a girl a drink?" She teased, holding up her empty wine glass.

Giles picked up a bottle of wine from the buffet against the wall and filled Willow's glass. "Penny for your thoughts," he said and sat down at the dining room table with her.

His voice caressed her skin and simultaneously sent a chill down her spine between her shoulder blades.

"Just wondering if Buffy and Angel found anything." She looked into his eyes, "Kinda worried, you know?"

"You?" Giles asked and chuckled, "What about me? That's my home they're searching. Well, it was, at one time. Something evil set up shop in my old neighborhood. It's very upsetting."

Willow just raised her eyebrows at him in question.

"Oh, fine, you're right - things stopped being upsetting four glasses ago," Giles said and clinked his glass against hers before he took a sip.

Willow stood and strolled over to him and sank in his lap. She placed a soft kiss on his forehead along his hairline, then brushed her lips lightly against his cheek before she found his lips with her own. His kiss was cool and sweet. She broke away and rested her forehead against his before she added, "We'll figure it out."

"I know, love," he said, "I know." He pulled her close to him and nuzzled against the crook of her neck. He placed a soft, cold, wet kiss on her skin before he closed his eyes and rested his head against her shoulder. She interlocked her fingers with his and relaxed in him embrace. Giles held her in his arms for the next hour.

"So...dinner was great, Wes." Dawn said. She was washing dishes, Wesley was drying.

"Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it." He took a plate from her, dried it off and walked across the room to put it in the right cabinet. "Terribly sorry I forgot about dessert."

"You can make it up to me," she said and cocked her head to the side. He couldn't see, but she was smiling. She finished rinsing off a glass and reached out to hand it to him. Their fingers accidentally touched and both of them stopped moving instantly, enjoying the feel of the others energy.

"Just you," Wesley asked, voice quivering, "Make it you?"

"Forget about the others, they can fend for themselves." Dawn said and smiled.

"Already forgotten," he whispered.

"So, you're just gonna sit here in the hallway all night and wait for this kid to wake up?" Cordelia asked.

"Well, no....." Xander said and met her questioning eyes before he felt the need to add, "...maybe." He straightened up and moved aside for her to sit next to him. "You were there, Buffy said she wakes up and wants cookies. A girl after my own heart." He perked up and patted the ground beside him, encouraging Cordelia to join him, "Sit. Visit. We'll catch up."

Cordy shrugged and sat down next to him. They sat in silence, their eyes uncomfortably roaming the wall in front of them, each waiting for the other to speak. Two minutes went by. Then three. Four and the silence was deafening. "I got nothin'," Cordelia finally said.

"Me, either."

Cordelia stretched out her legs in front of her and leaned back against the wall. Next to Xander was probably the best place to be if she had to be stuck in Buffy's house. A lot of people thought she was oblivious, but Cordy knew what was going on with Wes and Dawn. And she couldn't handle being around Giles and Willow, 'cause...eww...And where was Angel? Beside his beloved Buffy, as usual. "Mind if I hang for a while?" She asked.

"Not a problem," Xander said and stretched his own legs out in front of him.

"You didn't mention that it was Rupert's old place," Angel said as they stood in the courtyard. "Are you sure it's his apartment, specifically?"

"No. It wasn't exactly a 3-D map. Just kinda going on gut instinct, here," she said.

Angel felt a pair of eyes trained on them and he moved quickly to get Buffy out of the line of sight. "Someone's watching."

"Might just be the neighbors," Buffy said as they sat crouched behind a bush.

"I don t think so," Angel said.

"Spider sense?"

"Something like that." He narrowed his gaze and peered through one of the windows. A woman appeared inside the place, tall, pretty, shiny black hair, exotic features. She was shimmery, almost translucent and, as she looked out into the courtyard from behind the heavy draperies, she faded away before their eyes. Her presence was not threatening, but somehow protective. It was as if she were guarding the area. But she wasn't protecting what was inside from the rest of the world, she seemed to be protecting the world from what was going on within.

"Uhh....Angel?" Buffy asked, her mouth dry, the hair on the back of her neck standing at attention. It couldn't possibly be....

"I saw," he said, barely able to speak. He carelessly rustled a patch of leaves in his haste to pull out of the line of the ghost's vision. After the noise he had made, the light inside the place quickly turned off and a solid figure appeared at the window. The woman was gone, but now a man stood beside the drapes, his figure only a black silhouette. But he was real. Human, even. He was faceless hidden in the shadows, but his presence was still menacing.

Buffy couldn't tell if they'd been seen or not by the way the figure stood still in the window. In an instant the drapes were pulled closed and the place was cloaked in total darkness. And anything could have been going on behind those closed doors.

"What do we do, now?" Buffy asked.

"I don't think we should tell Giles, not yet. Not until we have more information," Angel said. He looked deep into her eyes, his face somber and full of remorse, knowing that Buffy would be the only person in the world he could admit this to. "Buffy....I can't go in there. And at this point I don't think you should, either. We need to find out what's going on."

"That was kinda the mission statement of tonight's outing," she said, trying to break the ice. Maybe even trying to convince herself that they were getting in way over their heads. All of them. And if emotions ran high before, just wait until everyone heard about this.

"Well, I wasn't exactly prepared for..." he couldn't even finish his sentence. His soul could not speak her name.

"...the ghost of Jenny Calendar?" Buffy said. "Me, either."



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