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Uninvited Guest, The

by Yahtzee

     From: <>
     Subject: ATS FIC: "The Uninvited Guest" by Yahtzee (R)
     Date: Tuesday, August 27, 2002 8:44 PM

     The characters used herein are the property of Joss Whedon,
     David Greenwalt, 20th Century Fox, Mutant Enemy and various
     other corporate entities; they are used without permission,
     intent of infringement or expectation of profit. I do not
     use character-death, relationship or other spoilers in my
     headers; you read the story, you take your chances. Great
     thanks go out to Rheanna, Corinna and everyone at the Angel
     Fanfic Workshop for the beta-reading and advice.

     This story takes place approximately a year and a half in
     the future -- i.e., the winter of 2003-2004. What you need
     to know to start with: In this version of events, ATS' third
     season ended a little differently. BTVS' sixth season ended
     VERY differently. Then Faith got out of jail, and events
     unfolded from there. The precise ways in which things are
     different will gradually become clear as you go along. 

     Rating: R

     Archive: Wherever you like, but please let me know

     Summary: "'She will tell us all she knows, all she has done.
     And we will make our judgments accordingly. So you see --
     Faith has nothing to fear but the truth.'  Like that ain't
     enough to be afraid of."

The Uninvited Guest
by Yahtzee

Chapter One: The Self-Esteem Poster Child

I got a theory that you can tell a whole lot about a person by seeing what they're like at breakfast. Later in the day, you got your outfit on, your face on; you're acting the way you think you oughta act. That don't necessarily have a lot to do with the way you want to act, deep down.

First thing in the morning, though, you're too damn grumpy for all that. Guys are still scratching themselves, and girls don't have their makeup on yet, and what you see is pretty much what you get. (That is, unless you're one of those mutant-freak morning people, but in the evil-slaying business, I don't tend to run into a bunch of those.)

That's how come I started taking Fred for breakfast dates, way back about -- damn, two years ago now. The first couple of times, I thought I'd be able to find out what she was really like. Then I found out, and I didn't ever want to stop having breakfast with her. You gotta respect a girl who'll order the chimichanga omelet AND the blueberry pancakes, polish 'em off and then ask you if you're gonna eat your toast. You also gotta respect a girl who's got her head on straight at 7 a.m. when she didn't go to bed until 3, or who's in a good mood regardless of how badly we all got pounded the night before.

For a second, I remember how she looked on those mornings -- no makeup, plain T-shirt, her hair pulled back or braided up any old way. I feel just a little bit like I did back then, and for a minute, I'm not sitting in a beat-up diner in Chicago watching the snow fall. I'm back in L.A., palm trees and sunshine, and Fred's with me.

So, yeah, I miss Fred at breakfast. But other than that, I don't miss her at all.

Ain't that I didn't love her. I did, in a big, bad, whipped kinda way. Ain't that I don't wish her well. I hope she's doing great. But those few months me and Fred were together -- they don't seem to have a whole lot to do with the rest of my life. It's like some dream I had or something, where I turned into this guy who wanted to go to movies with women wearing corsets.

Like I said, I was whipped.

And damn, being whipped was FUN. Guys make fun of other guys for it, but what they're really sayin' is, "He's gettin' laid, and I ain't." I say, get yourself whipped as often as you can. It's worth doing all kinds of embarrassing shit to feel like that.

But that feeling don't last, and at the end of the day, you have to be with someone who's like you. Someone who understands your life. Even the parts you don't like.

And even right now, at breakfast -- the one time when I do kinda miss Fred and the way that girl woke up cute, ready to pack away a double-skillet hungry-man meal without blinking an eye -- I know the girl sitting across the booth understands me in a way Fred never did, never could.

I just wish I understood her.

First thing in the morning, she looks -- pretty much the same way she does any other time of day. Sometimes she'll eat, but most mornings she just drinks black coffee. That don't tell me much, which makes sense, because she don't tell me much, period.

Whatever else she is, Faith's her own woman.

It was about 4 a.m., I figure. I know I was dead-flat-out asleep, and there ain't many hours of the day or night I can count on getting a chance to sleep. 4 a.m. -- that's usually safe, though. Close enough to sunrise to get the demons and vamps off the streets, early enough that most any human with sense is asleep.

Of course, that group don't include Faith.

I heard pounding on the door, and the first thought I had was, the world's ending. Then I thought, naw. World was ending, they'd call. I hoped my landlord wasn't getting nasty about the rent, which was due way too long ago. "Who is it?" I yelled, stumbling toward the doorway and banging my knee on the table.

"It's Faith!" she yelled. "Get out here!"

She hadn't ever come to my apartment before. I'd thought about it often enough, though. Usually, the scenario in my mind was a little smoother than this, but, whatever.

I opened the door and looked at her. She looked like hell, even by Slayer standards. Her hair was yanked back, her clothes all dirty --bloody, too, but that was pretty much the way she always looked. What was weird was that she'd been crying. "You okay?" I said.

"No," she said. "I gotta get the hell out of here."

"Here meaning my apartment?" I said, wondering why she came here in the first place.

"No. I mean Los Angeles. I gotta go, like, now." She grabbed my hand. I don't know that we'd ever touched before. Not that it mattered, anyway. But it mattered right then. It was like I'd been asleep -- not just a couple minutes ago, but my whole life, and the second she touched me, I woke up. "I want you to come with me. I need you. I -- I ain't gonna make it, if you're not there."

I looked down at her. "You ain't comin' back, are you?"

"No," she said.

Angel Investigations. Angel and Cordy and Connor and Wes. Fred. I put all that on one side of the scales, put Faith and the way she was looking at me on the other. I called it.

I said, "Gimme five to pack."

"I was looking at the St. Louis paper," I tell her. "You know, we could make some serious money at casino work.

"Dealing blackjack?" Faith smiles slowly. "Who the hell would trust me to deal cards?"

"Nobody who knew any better," I say. "But I figure, some fresh new I.D.s and an innocent look on your face, and we're home free."

Like I knew she would, Faith starts laughing. "An innocent look. On my face."

"Worth a shot." It feels good to laugh with her -- don't happen that often. And she's already getting quiet again, going to that place inside herself where she spends most of her time. "Hey," I say softly. "Who's your man?"

"Same guy who's picking up the tab for breakfast, I figure." She doesn't look back at me, but she smiles just the littlest bit as she says it. Now, that may not sound all warm and sentimental, but you gotta understand a few things about Faith. She ain't real big on answering direct questions, least not with a direct answer. So if you can't deal with not getting an answer, you're best off not asking. Me, I can deal with whatever answer she wants to give me.

Other stuff you gotta understand: She's carrying that weight around with her, all day, every day. Shit, I used to think I had problems; I'm the self-esteem poster child compared to this girl. She was screwed up before she became the Slayer, then she went through a serious dark spell that earned her some jail time and some wounds that ain't gonna heal.

And then she got outta jail, and thought she had her head on straight, and came on back to Angel Investigations to make it up to everybody and maybe do some good in the world. And she was doing it, too, before that Buffy got there. I swear to God, it was all kinda working out before then. That was when it got fucked up beyond repair. When Buffy showed up.

But I gotta get ahold of myself, before I start speakin' ill of the dead.

"You sure you're okay?"

Cordelia looked over at me and smiled what had to be the single fakest, least convincing smile of all time. I still cannot believe that girl was gonna be an actress. "Gunn, I'm okay. Why does everybody keep asking me that?"

"Because you're mopin' around all the time." I shook my head and went behind the counter; it was a slow day at A.I., one of the first slow ones in a while, and I would've liked to enjoy it. But Cordelia was walking around with this permanent black cloud over her head.

"I don't mope," Cordelia said firmly.

"Not like some people," I said. "You don't wear black and brood in your room. But you ain't your bright, shiny self, neither. We're down to 40-watt Cordelia. So what's up with that?"

I figured she'd just shut me up again. She'd been doing that for weeks at that point. But instead she was quiet, thinking over what I said. I was surprised, but I didn't say anything else. No point in pushing my luck. Finally she said, "I'm doing some -- second-guessing."

Shoulda seen that coming, I thought. I nodded and said, "Yeah, me too. But if Angel wants Connor back in the hotel, I guess we gotta go with it. Angel's the one who spent a month at the bottom of the ocean. If he can forgive and forget, we can -- well, not trust the kid for a second. But I guess we gotta let him back in the door."

Cordelia stared at me like I was speaking Farsi all of a sudden. "Connor?"

"Yeah. Damien. Mr. Troclon." I narrowed my eyes. "I'm thinking we ain't on the same page."

"Not really." Her voice was flat. I wasn't sure what to be more nervous about: the fact that Cordelia didn't seem to mind having the hellspawn back in the house, or the fact that something else was seriously wrong.

I waited. When she didn't say anything else, I figured I'd struck out again, and I took some files back to Angel's office. As soon as I stepped in there, I heard the door swing open. Client, I thought; then I heard Cordelia say, "This must be my lucky day."

"Hey, Cordy." A woman's voice. Southie accent. Said hey like she was apologizing, and like she didn't apologize much.

I stuck my head outta the office and saw her for the first time. I oughta remember what she was wearing, what she did with her hair, something like that. But all I could see were the eyes -- dark and dangerous, but so beautiful you just didn't care.

Shoulda realized right then I was in trouble. But things were still going okay for me and Fred at that point, so all I thought was, "hottie."

Cordelia didn't introduce me, and the Southie didn't introduce herself. They kept looking at each other in what appeared to be a major stare-off. After a second, Cordelia said, "Either the American justice system is even more screwed-up than I thought, or some amazingly misguided person sent you a cake with a file inside."

"You were right the first time. I made parole."

"Parole?" Cordelia's jaw dropped a little. "You can get paroled for murder after two and a half years?"

Murder. I knew I was staring at her now, and I could tell she'd noticed me staring. I'd like to say that she looked less hot to me at that point, but I can't. Like I say, I really shoulda realized I was in trouble.

"I didn't get convicted of murder."

Cordelia actually laughed. "So much for new-and-improved Faith, who confessed all her sins."

The woman -- Faith -- wanted to get seriously pissed off, I could tell. But she kept her voice steady. "I told 'em the whole story. Funny thing, though: If you tell the cops you killed a guy to help the mayor of a small town turn into a giant demon snake, offed another one because you thought he was one of the vampires it's your sacred duty to slay -- they kinda don't buy it. You get a psych counselor, not a murder rap."

"So they only got you on the beatings," Cordy said, folding her arms across her chest. Beatings? I kept staring at Faith wondering just how screwed-up her story got.

"That and evading arrest." Faith shifted her weight from foot to foot. "Listen, we don't want to be talking to each other --"

"Wow. I see that laser-sharp perception is still intact."

" -- so let's cut to it, okay?"

"You want to see Angel."

Faith ducked her head a little. Very quietly, she said, "I want to see Wesley."

And here I'd been thinking the conversation couldn't get more uncomfortable. So wrong. Faith stared at Cordelia, then looked straight at me for the first time. "What?"

"Wesley's no longer with the firm," I said. "And I'm Charles Gunn. Call me Gunn."

"You got it, Chuck." I half wanted to punch her, but the other half --well, let's say that's about when I started to realize I was in trouble. "What happened to Wesley?"

"He left. We don't discuss it," Cordelia said. "And if we don't talk about it with each other, we're sure as hell not gonna talk about it with you."

Faith didn't have a quick answer for that, and the way she looked right then -- that was when I realized that she was younger than I'd thought. And I didn't know how somebody could look that young after two years in jail. Finally she said, "Then I guess I just gotta apologize to you. I'm sorry, Cordy. I hit you, and I scared you, and I was way outta line. I was screwed up. It's not an excuse," she added quickly. "That's just how it was. And I'm sorry."

"Not bad," Cordelia said. She was a little calmer, but there was still a major chill in the air. "With two years to rehearse, I think I could've come up with something better. But hey. You did your best."

Faith was gettin' pissed off for real by this time, and I could tell. But you gotta give her credit; she didn't snap. "I just wanted you to know. If Wes ain't around -- can you tell me where he is, anyway?"

"I don't think he wants --" Cordelia stopped short right there, and you could see her brain working: Did she want to protect Wesley or give him a little more hell, courtesy of Faith showing up on his doorstep?

We'll never know. Because that was when Angel showed up at the top of the stairs. "Faith?"

"Angel." Her face lit up; you'd never of dreamed the girl could smile like that. Right that second I thought maybe Faith was in love with Angel, and that was why Cordy was so hacked. Which shows how much I know.

"It was today? I thought was going to be another few months." Angel was smiling when he came down the steps. The way he talked and moved was almost like normal; he was getting a lot closer to shaking off that month in the box. "I would've come to the hearing, if I'd known."

Cordelia was giving Angel the razor stare of death. "And you were gonna mention this when?"

"I'm sorry," he said. That was all there was to it, but the apology worked better than it had coming from Faith. Angel leaned against the counter -- he didn't have his strength back yet -- and Cordelia lay one hand across his arm.

Faith raised an eyebrow, but all she said was, "Probably a good thing you missed it. Vampires don't make great character references, last I heard."

Angel grinned. The mood in the room was a whole lot better, until he said, "So, where are you living?"

"Don't know," Faith said, and Cordelia's face fell, and I knew we were in for a ride. I just didn't know how wild it was gonna get.

We pay our ticket and head out into the Chicago winter, a shock of cold that wakes me up better than the diner's coffee did. I pull my cap down further on my head and cross my arms in front of me. L.A. don't prepare you for this sub-zero shit.

Faith gives me her best wise-ass grin. She grew up in Boston, which ain't as cold as Chicago, but at least involved snow from time to time. "How's the hothouse flower?"

"I don't care if you give me hell about being a wimp with the cold," I tell her. "But you gotta find a way to do it without calling me a flower."

"St. Louis oughta be warm enough for you, Petunia."

"So, you like the idea of dealing blackjack."

"I was thinking of being a showgirl," she said. "Whaddaya think? Glitter g-string and some pasties?"

"I had a dream 'bout that once," I answer, and she grins again. "But I don't think they got showgirls there. That's just Vegas and Atlantic City."

Faith tugs her parka around her and screws up her mouth, thinking. "Atlantic City," she repeats. It's worth thinking about it. Vegas, of course, is way too close to L.A.

But maybe that's the secret -- get closer to them, instead of running away. Get so close they'd never dream we'd dare. Then again, they know me, and they sure know Faith. They know there ain't much we don't dare.

So I'm thinking about that, and Faith's thinking -- whatever it is she thinks, locked up in that head of hers -- as we make our way through Rogers Park. The snow is piled up on either side of the concrete, a couple feet high on the curbs. On TV, they show you pretty snow, all fluffy and white. But the real thing don't quite live up to the image, after about day two. It's more gray than anything else, and some icy chunks are solid black. So much dirt in the world.

"I wouldn't mind Jersey," Faith says. She's smiling as she says it, and she locks one of her arms with mine. "At least we could get some decent pizza and hot dogs."

"Oooh, don't let the locals hear you knockin' the pizza."

"We don't have to decide right off," she says, with a little half-shrug that she uses to show she doesn't care. It always means she cares a lot. Jersey's what she wants. "But we can think about it, okay?"

"Okay," I say. Faith smiles again. Every time we run, she gets like this for a few days -- kinda excited about all the possibilities. If there's any thing I love most about her, it's this. The fact that, after all she's been through, she's still hoping there's something better on the other side.

It's moments like these that I know she didn't kill Buffy.

I mean, couldn't have happened. I know they had some bad blood in the past, but they were doing okay. At least, Faith was. Buffy, now --

And there I go again. I gotta try to be fair about this. Buffy was not what you'd call the most pleasant person in the world, so far as I knew her. But I only knew her after she came to Los Angeles, and everybody else agreed that she wasn't quite the same after all that went down.

I'm still not real clear on the details, because Buffy wasn't big on talking about it, not that you could blame her. But apparently some witch friend of hers, somebody else Cordy went to high school with, got a serious case of evil and started doing some bad magic mojo. And Buffy's Watcher came back to help her, and another friend of theirs went out to talk to the witch on a verge of a nervous breakdown, but it didn't do no good. They stopped her, but they didn't stop her until too late.

I know the witch died, and the Watcher, and the friend who went to deal with the witch, and somebody who was Buffy's sister, except she wasn't -- I still don't quite understand that part --

Well, it was a big deal, if you knew these people.

What happened didn't just mess Buffy up; Cordy and Angel and even Wesley were all kinds of strange for a while. But Buffy was the one who had to see it all. So I ought not to judge how she was acting, at least not be so harsh about it.

It's just that Buffy went off the rails and got herself killed, and they want to pin it on Faith. They wanted to lock her up in whatever weird-ass medieval jail the Council of Watchers has for Slayers. Just when Faith was getting her life back together, those guys wanted to lock her up again for something she didn't do.

And I know she didn't do it. I KNOW it. I mean, I ain't ever asked her. First off, that would be pretty damn insulting, and second, she'd probably kick my butt even for thinking of it. And besides, like I said -- she's not real big on direct questions.

I'm not saying I don't ever want to ask. Sometimes, late at night, when she thinks I'm asleep, she goes in the bathroom and turns on the taps and cries like -- you heard it, it would break your heart. So I know she feels, well, guilty. I figure that's because she got there too late to save her. That's all that is. But if I asked her about it, maybe then she could at least open up and talk some. Maybe she'd hurt less if she could just talk about it.

Still, I don't need answers. I know my girl. Faith didn't kill Buffy.

"How'd patrol go?" I said, like I really needed to ask. Faith was covered in grime, blood and grease. And she was smiling.

"Fan- fuckin'-tastic," she said, hopping up on the counter. "I gave 'em hell tonight, huh, Wes?"

"Hell was given," Wesley said as he took off his jacket and folded it over a chair. He even smiled a little bit when he said it, and for the first time in about forever, I started to relax and smile back at the guy. Things were definitely still not right in that quarter --especially with him and Angel, like that's a surprise -- but Faith said she wanted a Watcher, and she didn't want some goon the Council kept on a leash, and that meant Wesley.

Given their history -- Cordy filled me in on the details -- I was surprised she asked for him. But we were all more surprised when he said yes. We didn't ever give him shit about lying to us and taking Connor, and he didn't give us shit about whatever he thought we did wrong. We didn't talk about it at all. He and Angel didn't hang around in the same room together if they could avoid it, but other than that -- well, it wasn't that much different. We kinda went back to the way things were. Plus Faith. And then Buffy. But still mostly the same idea, and a hell of a lot closer than I thought we'd ever get again.

Who said denial is a bad way to cope?

"How'd you guys do?" Faith said. She had a little edge to her voice when she said it; ever since we started dividing up into patrolling teams, there was some competition in the air. "You're lookin' kinda down in the mouth. Struck out?"

"We did fine," I said, which was true. The reason I was looking down was because Fred and I had just had one hell of a fight. About Faith, actually -- nothing had happened there, not yet, but Fred always did have an eye for that kind of thing. Girl was almost psychic sometimes. Just in case Faith was psychic too, I explained. "Fred's out gettin' herself some tacos. Connor went with. Wonder how the kid's gonna like his first encounter with hot sauce?"

Wesley looked around the lobby. "But then, where's Cordelia?"

Before I could answer, the front door swung open. Buffy and Angel -- the third patrol team -- came in. They looked totally wrung out. The usual.

Faith smiled. They were in one of their getting-along phases right then. "Hey, B. Your slayage count for the night?"

"Very slayey." Buffy smiled. I never did see that girl's smile reach her eyes. Not even that time when -- well, never mind. "We found some Hevreth demons on Melrose."

"They were financing their operation with a celebrity-autograph business," Angel said. "If you've paid a lot for any signed photos lately, you should ask for your money back."

"So the entire demon underworld makes spare change by sitting around signing 'Jennifer Lopez' over and over." I thought about that for a second. "Yeah, makes sense."

"You never did say where Cordelia is," Wesley said. Angel didn't acknowledge Wesley -- he never did -- but he turned toward me, suddenly intent.

"She's fine," I said. "I mean, she's gonna be fine."

Angel gripped my arm way too tight. "What happened?"

"Take it easy, cowboy." Faith removed his hand from my jacket. "Cordy okay?"

"She got tossed off a fire escape by a vamp." As Angel's eyes went wide, I said quickly, "Like I said, she's gonna be fine. Girl can hover now, you know? She just didn't do it quite fast enough. Bruised herself up. Nothing major. She's upstairs takin' a load off."

Angel ran to the steps, but just as he started to go up, he paused and looked back at Buffy. It was like he was asking permission -- no, more like he was trying to figure out if he should ask permission. Buffy didn't say anything. One second more and then he was halfway up the stairs. We all watched him go.

Buffy spoke next. She didn't talk about Cordy, which didn't surprise me. "Brought you a present."

Faith held her hand to her chest, mock-surprised. "For moi? And it ain't even my birthday."

"I found it in the demons' lair," Buffy said. "Beneath a bunch of glossies of David Hasselhoff. Who's buying David Hasselhoff autographs anymore?"

"Good question," Wesley said. "Of course, Knight Rider's a classic, but -- I mean, what is it you found?"

Buffy pulled out the knife, and Faith's eyes went wide. This thing --this was no ordinary knife. Curved blade made out of gold or something at least as shiny. Hilt with jewels in every color, catching the light as Buffy turned it before Faith's eyes. "B -- that's a thing of beauty," Faith sighed.

"Reminded me of you," Buffy said. Faith just stared at her, dark eyes wide, as she took the knife in her hands. Buffy almost looked shy, but she was happy. Faith loved it, and Buffy loved that. They looked beautiful like that, sitting together in the lobby, lit up with excitement and the colors of the jewels. Like they belonged together.

Like I said, at first they got along.

We're walking toward the El stop; we don't have a lot of shopping to do, so this is gonna be winter-Sunday-morning standard. We'll go back home -- it ain't much, like HUD housing ever is, but it's all right. We'll take turns reading the Sunday paper and watching whatever sports are on TV. Nap in the afternoon. And at sundown, we patrol.

I look at Faith, still so damn young, and I think of the others in L.A. I can feel myself getting mad. Do you think they realize that? That she still patrols? That she's still the Slayer, no matter what they do?

Probably not. They probably think she's still out getting drunk and getting laid. They never did want to give her a lot of credit, not even Angel. And sure as hell not Connor, or Fred, or Cordelia --

Okay, I was just thinking about Cordelia, and that's why I think I see her walking toward me.

No, Cordelia's walking toward me. Faith and I stop short. Cordy does too. For a minute, all we do is stare. Cordelia's hair is longer. No gloves. She's wearing a thick coat like nothing I've ever seen on her. Of course, I never saw her in Chicago. In winter. She's only here for one reason.

For a long time we just stand there, three lone figures in a world of white. The snow keeps falling like nothing's happened.

Cordelia says, slowly, "I'm not alone. You should just come with us. Don't fight it."

"Bullshit," Faith says. I got nothing to add to that.

"Don't make this harder than it already is," Cordelia says. She's blinking kinda fast, and I realize she's trying not to cry. You'd never know it from her voice.

The adrenaline's hitting my bloodstream now. My heart's pounding, and I'm ready to fight or run. Probably both. "Yeah, I realize how hard this is for YOU," I say.

"Charles, don't." I turn around to see Fred standing behind us. She's got a crossbow aimed right at me. Her tone's awful nice for somebody who could shoot me dead any second. But she's shaking too much for me not to know this is getting under her skin. "You're gonna get your say, okay? But the important thing right now is makin' sure nobody gets hurt."

"Funny, you guys doin' this during the day," Faith says. "Angel not in on this party?"

"If you try to escape underground, you'll find out," Cordelia says.

I hear tires crunching on the salt-crusted roads. I half-turn to see the vehicle; it's not exactly a humvee, but it's got heavy enough armor to make sure Faith can't get out. Or me neither. I can't see who's driving, but probably I don't know them. Probably Watchers.

Sure enough, as it pulls up, Wesley hops out the back. He looks bad. This is bugging him worse than it does Cordy or even Fred. "Faith," he says. "Please. We don't want violence."

Faith gives him a big ol' grin as her hands ball into fists. "It's a little late for that, isn't it?"

And BAM, Faith's slamming into Fred. I see Fred falling, see that the crossbow is already in Faith's hands as she turns. I don't wait to see what else she's doing; I just get my head down, run hard and tackle Cordelia with all my strength.

We fall to the sidewalk, and I feel the ice cutting into my skin. Cordelia tries to get her hands on my face -- if her bare skin touches mine, she can do her demon shit, and I'm not about to go into the light just now, thanks. I punch her in the face as hard as I can -- harder than I ever hit a human being before, and Cordelia doesn't even scream. She just goes limp on the pavement, and I see the blood. Oh, hell.

I hear a crunch and look up to see Wesley flat against the armored truck, where Faith apparently just threw him. Fred's struggling to her feet outside the liquor store while the other Watchers pile out of the truck. Faith starts running like hell, and I follow her. We might be a match for any three of them, but toss five Watchers into the mix, and the odds change.

Faith ain't running as fast as she can, and that could only be to let me catch up. She's still got the crossbow, though I don't think she shot anybody. Oh, God, I hope she didn't shoot Fred -- "Run!" I scream. Don't matter if they get me -- in the end, there ain't that much they want to do to me. It's Faith who's got to get away.

"The El!" she shouts. Sure enough, I can hear it -- rattling on the rails. We're close to the stop, and if we could just get on the train, maybe we could lose 'em on the red line --

We turn and start running up the steps. I can hear the Watchers behind us, but way behind us. And the train's pulling in right now. We might just make this happen. I feel myself starting to smile, and then I see Cordy's blood on my gloves, and all I want is to get the hell outta here.

Faith and I get to the top, turn the corner, go for the train -- the doors are open --

And there's Connor.

"Oh, shit," I say. Faith doesn't say anything, just shoulders the crossbow and fires. Fast as light, Connor ducks the arrow. I've seen him do it a hundred times, and it never stops freakin' me out.

People on the train are shouting and pointing as the doors slide shut. Faith throws the crossbow aside. It's pretty much worthless now. "Okay, junior," she snarls. "I always did want to see what you were made of."

"Of my father," Connor says, and he charges her. He punches high -- she blocks him -- he twists -- she stumbles --

I grab up the crossbow; maybe the son of a bitch, and I mean that literal, can't duck if he's fighting. But they're moving fast now, and there's no moment when I could hit Connor and be sure I wouldn't hit Faith.

Faith gets him hard on the jaw, but he just takes the blow, spins around, slams his fist into her ribs. She cries out in pain, and I want to kill him -- especially when he smiles and shoves her away.

"You will be thrown down the wall," he says. "To the dogs."

I heard that story, thanks to the African Methodist Episcopal Church. I put the crossbow in his face, more to stop his grinning than from the idea I could actually be fast enough to hurt him. I ask, "What the hell have Bible verses got to do with killin' my girlfriend?"

"Everything," Connor says.

He slaps the crossbow out of my hands so hard it burns through the bloody gloves. I punch him once, harder even than I did Cordy, and he barely even flinches. And then I see his fist flying out to punch me --

Oh, God, I can't see, I can't stand, I feel myself falling and it's hurting and I'm on my back and run, Faith, run if you can.

Instead I hear her screaming. Maybe it's pain. Maybe it's fear. Maybe it's just pure rage. Because I feel the hands closing on my arms, and I know it's the Watchers. They're on us. They've got us.

I ran away with Faith because she thought I could keep her safe. I told her I could keep her safe. And I lied.

"Charles?" I open my eyes and see Fred. She's kneeling above me. Her face is already turning purple from the bruises. She holds my hands so gently I almost don't notice the cuffs. "It's all right. I promise, it's gonna be all right."

"They're gonna drag Faith off to jail, maybe to die, because of something she didn't do. What is all right about this?"

Fred shakes her head. "All we want is the truth."

"Like hell you do," I say. They don't want the truth. Nobody does.

Chapter Two: The Glue

Fred's got her arm around my waist, and I'm half-draped over her shoulders. "Hang on, Cordy," she says as we make our way through Union Station. The grubby, very unwashed people waiting for their trains stare at us -- and I realize that, with bruises on our faces and blood on our clothes, we are actually the scariest-looking people around, even in this crowd. This is not going in the life album of great moments, that's for sure. Fred whispers, "Almost there. Once we get to the train, we can rest. The Council sprang for a couple of sleeper cars."

"Sleep sounds great," I say. Two days on a train do NOT sound great, but they beat the alternative, which involves nailing Angel into a shipping crate, which would bring up some mega-awful memories. I'm making my own mega-awful memories here, of course. My ears are still ringing, and my face hurts, and my mouth still tastes like blood. I know Faith's got Gunn under her spell, but I don't care. That guy is in some serious trouble, just as soon as I can stand without assistance. So, might be a while.

As a general rule, I try not to have regrets. They're totally useless, they weigh you down, and I personally believe they have a lot to do with wrinkles. But it's moments like this that I have to wonder:

I gave up heaven for this?

"That's the test, isn't it?" I stared at Skip, frozen in time, surrounded by light. He nodded, and I knew. I had a really simple choice. The Powers, and my mission, and a celestial reward that involved heaven and redemption and calorie-free chocolate-chip ice cream. (You see God your way, I see Him mine.)

Or: Angel. Obstinate and secretive and brave and hopeful, the man I knew and the man I didn't know. Staying by his side, no matter what. Loving him.

At first it looked like a pretty clear-cut choice, you know? Love is selfish, and a mission is selfless, and I hadn't spent three years in Los Angeles working and fighting and going without sleep or money or new clothes just to go back to being selfish. I'd spent a lot of time and energy making myself into the brand-new, better-person Cordelia Chase --someone as different from the selfish, materialistic, old-style Cordelia Chase as possible. The Powers were trusting me to give the right answer -- and there might not be anybody else, on heaven or earth, who'd trust me to do that.

But just as I was opening my mouth to say it -- to give up this world, this life and Angel forever -- I thought about Angel. About the way he was standing at the seashore, waiting for me. I knew what he felt, what he hoped. And I imagined him standing there, waiting and waiting for me, and the way he would feel the moment he realized I would never come.

And I couldn't do it. The one time in my life I needed to be bigger than myself -- I couldn't do it.

"No," I said. "I'm sorry, Skip. But the Powers -- we do enough for them already, okay? I'm not doing this. I'm not leaving Angel."

Skip looked at me very strangely. "I'm sorry, I mighta zoned out there, but did you say no?"

"Right," I said. "No. I can't do it. I'm sorry, but I --"

"You're sorry?" Skip stood up straight, and those weird blades in his back scraped against each other, and all of a sudden I remembered how scary he looked the first time I saw him. "The Powers give you abilities the average DC Comics hero would envy, save your butt on average of about once a month, and explain your chance to be a fundamental part of the good of the entire world, and all you've got to say is, Sorry, I've got a date?"

"See, it sounds all shallow if you say 'date,'" I protested weakly. "How about, um, umm -- true love!" I brightened up and smiled. "I can't be destined to leave my true love, right?"

Skip stepped forward and glared down at me. His eyes were flashing this weird color. Angel said he met Skip in hell, and really, you do have to wonder how somebody gets a job in hell in the first place --

"You don't know anything about destiny, Cordelia Chase," Skip said. "And if you think Angel would like you better as the clingy girlfriend than he did as the hero, you don't know anything about true love, either."

"Harsh much?" I wanted to be mad at Skip. But the fact is, he was starting to scare the shit out of me. He spoke for the Powers, and he was so angry --

"Have it your way," Skip said. "Don't get me wrong, Cordelia. I like you. You've still got a lot to offer. But you let the team down."

"I'm sorry," I repeated. Then I winced; what if that just made Skip blow up again?

But it didn't. He just smiled at me a little sadly. Then he said, "You aren't yet. But you will be."

And then time snapped back into place, and I saw my jeep get dashed into a jillion pieces. Which told me something about the Powers then and there.

"Where are Gunn and Faith?" I ask as we stumble through the passenger car. Surely they're not gonna drive that armored car all the way to L.A.

"They've got them locked up in a freight car," Fred says. "Apparently it's not real hard to bribe the folks at Amtrak."

"Bureaucrats take kickbacks? My faith in the world is shot. Please tell me we're almost to the sleeper car. Hurling is still not out of the question."

"We're there right now." Fred steers me through a door, and we're in a little sleeper compartment. It's about the size of a file cabinet, but it's got a closet, a shower, a pull-out bed, even a teeny wet bar. I find a washcloth, find the ice, and make myself an oh-so-attractive nose pack while Fred pulls out the bed and shuts the curtains good and tight.

I tug off my coat and lie down on the bunk. It's not what you'd call a feather mattress, but it feels like heaven right now. "Thanks, Fred." I look at her as squarely as I can, with one eye swollen. "Are you okay? Seeing Gunn -- it wasn't too tough for you, was it?"

"Yeah," she says. She hesitates at the door. "I mean, yeah, I'm okay, and no, it wasn't too bad. I'm just so glad nobody got hurt." Then she stares at my face, and I stare at hers, and we both start laughing. "You know what I mean. Do you need anything else?"

"Nah. Go get yourself comfortable," I tell her. "As comfy as possible, anyway."

"There's nothing wrong with me that some aspirin wouldn't fix. Some aspirin and a good night's rest. Plus maybe some wine coolers." Fred shakes her head. "I'll drop by later."

I raise my free hand and wave as she goes out. Then I go back to holding the ice pack on my nose and staring at the ceiling.

It feels so weird. We've been after them for almost a year; sometimes it seemed like that was all our lives were about. Chasing Faith and Gunn. Chasing Faith, really; Gunn was just the sucker along for the ride. But we weren't gonna rest, not for a day, not for a second, until we caught them. Angel and the Council let Faith get away with a hell of a lot, but there was no way they'd let her walk away from this --

For a moment I remember Buffy's body, lying limp on those steps. She hadn't been dead long when I knelt down by her. I touched her hair, and when I pulled back there was warm blood on my fingers --

Well, I guess it's time to stop brooding about it. We did what we set out to do. We caught Faith. Maybe now we can all rest. Maybe Angel can rest.

I hear quick, heavy footsteps in the hallway, and I look toward the door. Angel comes dashing in, blanket wrapped around him. The other passengers know where to find the freaks, that's for sure. As he shuts the door behind us, he lets the blanket drop. It's kinda dark in here, but I know he can see me. "Cordy," he says. "You're hurt."

"Nothing major," I say. I sound all stuffy. "So how were the Chicago sewers?"

"Those are pretty much the same wherever you go." He strips off his coat, his hat, his gloves; Angel doesn't need protection from the cold, but they probably helped him with the light. Gingerly he lifts the ice pack from my face, checks out my nose. "I don't think it's broken," he says softly. "But I know it has to hurt."

"Really, it's not so bad." I feel myself softening as he looks down at me, so concerned, so focused. Then I get kinda worried that it seems worthwhile, getting smacked in the face, for him to look at me this way. But it doesn't seem to matter as he leans over and gently, so gently, kisses me. I'm so chilled from the Chicago winter that his lips don't feel cold against mine, for once. It's nice. Better than nice.

The train starts moving with a jerk, then begins to rattle slightly as we pick up speed. Angel sits beside me on the bunk, rubbing my shoulder. He's still being kind and attentive, but I can already feel that focus slipping away, being reclaimed by old ghosts. My heart sinks. I thought this was going to get us past that. I thought now, maybe, he could let the guilt go, start to get over it.

I say, "We did it. We caught them."

"I never thought we would," Angel says quietly.

Way to believe in the team. But I answer only, "We got the person responsible for Buffy's death. The one who's REALLY responsible." Meaning, not the ex-boyfriend whose only failing was not holding her hand 24/7. "Angel, if Buffy knew, I think she'd be proud of you."

"If Buffy knew." Angel looks more distant than before; he says her name so rarely, but in my heart, I know how often he thinks of her. He shakes it off quickly, though, and smiles down at me again. "Let's get to bed," he says.

He strips off his own clothes quickly, until he's down to boxer shorts. Then he starts undressing me, but he's still moving fast. Just being efficient. I couldn't really have a wild erotic encounter right now, what with the fact that my head weighs 8000 pounds. But I just wish he were tempted. Because then I'd know that this errand did its job. Besides the whole justice thing, of course. I haven't lost sight of that. I just -- don't want to be lost sight of either.

Our little cabin is so dark, and it's rocking back and forth gently as we travel over the tracks; there's no sound in the room except the rickety-rack of the wheels. Angel unbuttons my shirt, slips it off my shoulders. Then his hands move to my bra, big fingers that still know how to snap the clasp free in an instant. I watch his face as his hands brush against my bare breasts. I can feel how gentle he's being, and I see the love in his eyes. But it's -- calm. He doesn't want anything from me. And I don't remember how to get what I want from him.

We used to have so much passion. So much need. But that was before Buffy died. Since then, it's like something in him died too.

Angel and I get tucked in together, and he throws one arm across me. As screwed up as we both have to be after this morning, really, we do both just want to crash; I rest my head against his shoulder and let myself relax. It feels good, just to lie this close to him. Maybe I ought to just be grateful for what I've got.

Even if I do remember when I had so much more.

A month, I thought in despair. He's been down there a month. I got to the seashore in time to see Connor and Justine taking off with him, figured out what they were doing in no time flat, and it still took a month to find him. Dredging the ocean floor just isn't quick.

I'd insisted that Gunn and Fred let me do this alone. I knew Angel -- or what was left of Angel -- wouldn't be strong enough to do me harm. And Angel's pride affects him so much; I knew he'd want as few people to see him like this -- like whatever he was now -- as possible. That's what I told them, anyway. In reality, I felt like I had to be the one to save Angel. Because if I saved him, saved the Powers' champion, that would prove I'd done the right thing. And they wouldn't be angry and punish me -- or the people I loved.

The basement was cold and dark, and even though I'd spent jillions of hours down there, right then it seemed forbidding. And how much worse had it been for Angel? So much colder. So much darker. I cleared my throat and called to him. "Angel. Angel?"

No response, yet again. I'd called to him ever since the moment we hauled him up, and he'd never spoken. The box thumped once, but it had been doing that -- rocking back and forth, with the hollow echo of the body inside -- ever since we pulled it up. It lay in the center of the basement, still gleaming wetly in the faint light. There was a dark square that might have been a window, before it was gummed over with sludge and seaweed. I picked up the crowbar, which was comforting and heavy, ideal for breaking open the box, and if necessary, for other things.

I stepped forward, holding my breath -- Powers, I thought, please let him be all right. Don't punish me through him. Anything else, but not this.

Carefully, I wedged the crowbar between the lid and the box and started to pry. As the wood creaked in protest, the thumping inside got stronger. "That's right," I whispered. "See, it's over. All over. I'm here." Very reassuring words from a lady with a crowbar.

The lid finally split -- not fully, but partly -- and that's when he howled. I don't mean yelled, I mean howled. Like, Oz howling. I started doing the one thing I'd promised myself I wouldn't do: I started to cry. Angel was like an animal in there, like something not human -- or even less human --

Then the thrashing inside the box got stronger, and I heard something give way with a twang of metal. And through the sludge-darkened glass smashed Angel's hand.

I clapped my own hand to my mouth not to scream. Angel's hand was thin and bony, and he had fingernails like talons. But that wasn't the worst. The worst was that he cut his hand on the glass, and blood started streaming down his arm, and he yanked his hand back in and then I could hear this desperate sucking sound.

All at once I couldn't take it anymore. I started going crazy on that lid, prying and hacking and pulling; I didn't give a rat's ass what happened after the lid came off, even what happened to me. I wanted Angel out of there, that instant.

I got to the last corner before the lid exploded off the box with a crash. I looked down and saw --

Mud. Sand. Shells. Seaweed. And pulling himself out of the sludge --this skinny, ghostly creature. His clothes were sodden rags that fell away from his thin body. His hands were like claws. His face was a vampire's, and he stared with yellow eyes that didn't know me at all.

Angel was the monster he'd always believed himself to be. And that was the moment I knew I loved him beyond any doubt, beyond any help. Because I didn't want to run away. It took all my strength not to run to him and take him in my arms.

Well, strength and good ol' fashioned will-to-live. Hopelessly in love, but still not stupid, thanks for asking.

He lurched at me, sensing only a living creature with blood he could drink. But he was weak and slow, and I dodged him easily as he stumbled out of the box. Quickly, I went to the Igloo cooler Fred had prepared; I pulled out the first of plenty of Tupperware containers of blood and tossed it to him. "Drink," I said. Somehow I thought he might remember that word longer than any other. "Angel, drink that."

So very unnecessary. He scrabbled at the lid, tugged it open and started gulping it down desperately. Blood ran down his chin, and I could see his tongue flick out to wash the container clean. Then he ran his fingers along his cheeks and throat, scooping up the blood he'd spilled and sucking it off.

I tossed him another one. Then another. Then another. He grew a little less desperate as he went, but not much; he just got calm enough to stop spilling as much. The weirdest part? Watching his body change before my eyes; I swear to God, the guy gained 30 pounds back in about ten minutes. Muscles pulsed and swelled beneath slack skin, filling out, taking shape. His skin went from really, really pale to just regular pale. His hands started looking like hands again as the talons sank back into his flesh.

And I could tell just by the way he stood, the way he caught the containers -- Angel was getting his strength back. Which was why I was getting kinda anxious for him to recognize me.

After pint eight -- that's one person -- he finally paused. He looked at me unsteadily, squinting in the darkness; I held my breath, hoping for some sign that he knew who I was. Failing that, I'd settle for a sign that he knew who he was.

He tried to speak, but just made this weird croak. Then he coughed and said, in a weak, raspy voice, "Water."

I hesitated. "That's right. You were trapped underwater. But that's over now."

He shook his head and repeated, "Water." Oh, now I know he's gone crazy, I thought. He had nothing but water for a solid month, and the first thing he does is ask for more?

Wait. No. Angel had salt water. He wants water to drink. "Water," I whispered. "Okay, Angel. Hang on." I grabbed one of the Tupperware containers and went to the little sink in the corner. My hands were almost shaking too much to turn the faucet on, but I managed it. "Here you --"

I turned around and ran smack into Angel. I nearly did scream that time, but he just grabbed the water and drank it as desperately as he did the blood. I should have backed away, but I couldn't. His vampire face was finally fading, and even if he still looked wretched -- for the first time, I could look at him and really see Angel. I'd thought I would never see him again.

He emptied the container, and I took it from him. "Do you want more?" I sked.

He looked down at me. Really looked, I mean. It seemed like his eyes were focusing, and I saw what looked like -- oh, please let it be --recognition.

Hesitantly, he whispered, "Cordelia?"

"Yes! Yes, Angel, it's me, it's Cordy, I'm here." I could feel the biggest smile spreading across my face. I knew I wasn't making any sense, but it didn't matter. Angel was okay. He was going to be okay. "We found you. We looked and we looked and we finally found you, and now you're safe --"

Angel grabbed me and kissed me. Hard.

I opened my mouth -- maybe to gasp in shock, because it was that surprising. But Angel slid his tongue between my lips, kissed me deep and long. He tasted like salt. He tasted like blood. And I didn't care, because it was Angel, in my arms, here with me. I grabbed him tight, hugged him to me, hoped the warmth of my body would sink into his skin. It was just like every dream I'd had for a month now, just the way I wanted him to come home.

Just when I felt myself getting swoony, Angel pulled away a little and looked down at me. "Cordelia?" he whispered again.

"That's right," I said, running my hands through his wet hair. "It's Cordelia. I'm here. And --" I'd finally get the chance to do what I stayed on Earth to do. To say what I told the Powers I had to say. "Angel, I love you."

"I love you too," he said, so simply that I felt my chest ache. Like he'd split me in two, opened me up. "But -- but --"

"But what?"

"Is this another dream?" Angel's face was uncertain and frightened. "I had dreams -- dreams inside dreams -- bad ones and worse ones and good ones that would turn bad when I knew they weren't real. And they wouldn't stop. They never stopped."

"Listen to me," I said, taking his chin in my hands. "They stopped. They're done. It's over, Angel. This is real." I kissed him again, quickly. "I'm real."

"I dreamed of you." His hands were roaming over my body now, like he was trying to memorize the way I felt, in case he never got to feel it again. I started trembling as he caressed my breasts, my belly, my back. "I dreamed of you, telling you that I loved you. And in the dreams you loved me too."

"I do. I do love you. I love you so much, Angel. The Powers --" I don't know what I was thinking, telling him right then, when he could hardly understand what was real and what wasn't. But I'd been carrying it around for a month, alone, and I was so desperate to lay the weight down. "The Powers asked me to leave you. They wanted me to go up and help them. I swear to God. They must have some serious staffing shortages, huh?" I was trembling, my words spilling out until they hardly made any sense even to me, but I couldn't stop. "But I wouldn't leave you, Angel. I told them that I would never leave you. Not even for the Powers. Not even to go to heaven."

We started kissing again, more gently now. Angel's body was shaking, and I realized he was either laughing or crying. Maybe both. "It's not a dream," he whispered. "It's not a dream."

Thank you, Powers, I thought. Thank you for letting me go. Thank you for not punishing me.

At the time, I was too happy to wonder if the punishment came later.

I wake up, startled by some noise; I lift my head from the pillow to listen, but there's nothing else. Maybe it was a dream.

No. Somebody's knocking on the door. "Just a minute!" I call. I glance over at Angel, who is only now opening his eyes. "What happened to super vamp hearing?" I ask him.

"I guess I was sleeping really deeply," he says, sitting up. He tosses me his undershirt as he takes up his own sweater.

"You were sleeping well," I say proudly, like he got a merit badge or something. "No wonder you can finally rest easy." See, I just knew catching Faith would help! Even if Angel hasn't subconsciously let go of his bags of Buffy guilt, it must be better deep inside.

"Are you not decent yet?" Wesley's voice is dryer than usual, no kidding. But he's kinda making a joke with Angel, which is a good sign. Better sign: Angel's the one who goes to the door and lets Wesley in. I think we have actual civility here.

"So, how's it going out there?" I ask. "Are we talking pleasant cross-country journey or murder on the Orient Express?"

"It's as pleasant as being a jailer gets," Wesley says. He would obviously like to sit down, but there's no place except the little bunk Angel and I just crawled out of. "Faith's actually being fairly calm and cooperative --"

"Did they drug her?" Angel interjects.

"Fair assumption, but no," Wesley says. "I'm inclined to think she's biding her time until she has a better opportunity for escape than she has at present."

"And it's our job to make sure she doesn't get one," I add.

Wesley nods. "However, not everyone's behaving as well as Faith."

"Connor -- is he acting up?" Angel says, like Connor would be stealing from the snack cart or something.

"Believe it or not, Fred somehow talked him into playing I Spy," Wesley said. "Apparently it's new to him."

"Makes sense," I said with a shrug. "I mean, how do you play that in hell? 'I spy -- fire!' 'I spy -- more fire!'"

"Cordelia," Angel says firmly. Whoops. Gotta watch the hell jokes. "What is the problem, then?"

"It's Gunn." Wesley was the first of us to call him Charles, but he hasn't done that in years. "He's venting his rather considerable temper on anyone who comes near the cell car. Faith's making little effort to calm him. They've not been able to get any food through."

"It's only been, what, a couple of hours?" I say. "Faith and Gunn aren't starving yet. Give 'em time to get hungry, and he'll simmer down."

"He's locked up back in there with her?" Angel says. He shifts on his feet. "Is that necessary?"

"Are you serious?" Wesley says, staring at him.

"Gunn didn't kill -- I mean, Gunn didn't do it," Angel says. "He's been helping Faith hide but that's just because he loves her."

"How very understanding you are when it suits you," Wesley says, voice silky. Uh-oh. Civility over.

But Angel, for once, doesn't fly off the handle or go into forbidding sulk mode. He just meets Wesley's eyes. "I try to learn from my mistakes."

Holy shit -- did we just get an apology here?

My eyes are wide as I stare at them both. It wasn't quite an apology, but it's as close as Wesley's likely to get. And it looks like Wesley might -- just -- accept. He's relaxing a little, nodding at Angel. "Gunn can't be set entirely free. There's no saying what he might do to rescue Faith. But perhaps we could -- mitigate things for him."

"How do we do that?" I ask. I'm trying not to grin at both of them. But I can't resist slipping my arm through Angel's, giving his hand a little squeeze. He doesn't acknowledge it.

"We've plenty of skilled magic-users on board," Wesley says, referring to the kajillion Watchers who helped us track down Faith and Gunn. "Perhaps there's a means of magically handcuffing him -- preventing him from violence. I shall speak to the Watchers."

"Thanks," Angel says. Wesley just gives him a quick nod and goes. I turn to Angel; I want to hug him, start talking about what just happened -- I mean, this is huge. But Angel's not really looking at me. He's kinda looking into the distance, not that there is any distance, seeing as how we're in a train car.

I know the look, though. He's worn it just about every day for the year since Buffy died.

It's too soon to expect it all to change, I tell myself as I close my eyes and try to gather my composure. Healing is going to take time. And doesn't that sound all confident and wise? It's almost like I knew what the hell I was talking about.

"I'm gonna walk around the train some," I tell him. "Get some snacks, maybe do the I Spy game with Fred and Connor."

Angel manages a little smile for me. "Watch him, will you?"

"Of course." We kiss each other before I go out the door, but that's just a matter of habit, at this point.

I shouldn't think that way. I mean, I know Angel loves me. I know that as deeply as I know anything in the world. He's never been anything but gentle and good to me. He doesn't open up to me much, but that's still more than he opens up to anyone else, and anytime I need to talk, he's ready to listen. And the sex -- okay, it's not SEX sex, what with the cursage, but trust me, it's close enough -- is just unimaginable. I spent a lot of time imagining, and I had dreamed up a pretty impressive skill set for Angel, and I didn't even come close to realizing how good it was gonna be.

And the thing is, it didn't change when Buffy moved to L.A. That is, when we moved her to L.A.

"Okay," I said, looking around the bare bones of what was still -- for another five minutes or so -- Buffy's room. "You're sure that's everything?"

She nodded absently. She was looking at a patch on the wall that was less faded from the sun; I thought that was where her bulletin board used to be. I couldn't quite remember.

Buffy waited forever to call us after -- after it all happened. Angel had been out of the box for about two months, and Faith had been living with us for about a month. Wesley was working as Faith's Watcher again, and I was pretty sure the whole sitch was going to blow up in everybody's face pretty soon, but it hadn't. Not yet.

Then Buffy called. Told us that virtually everybody I knew in high school was dead, and Willow did it. Willow. Sweet, geeky little Willow, who could hack into the Pentagon but never figure out what to do with her hair. I couldn't believe it. Still can't, I guess.

It's not like I had missed them all that much, to tell you the truth. I mean, I feel pretty sorry for anybody who'd have to look back on Sunnydale High as the golden years. But knowing that they were gone ripped something out of me all the same. I liked knowing that if something really serious was going down, Giles was on the case. Or being able to call Willow and ask her just what the hell 'defragging' was, anyway. And Xander -- it was like all the stupid, jerky stuff he ever did or said to me melted away, and all I could think about was the boy who'd been my first love.

They were my past, and they were gone, and they'd done as much for the Powers as I ever did, and if the Powers would let them all get killed while they were trying to do the right thing -- what would they do to someone who'd done the wrong thing?

Nothing seemed safe anymore, after Buffy called us. Nothing will ever really seem safe again.

Buffy didn't call us until three months later. What did she do in Sunnydale, all alone, for three months, with that kind of devastation? I knew she had to be hurting so badly. Maybe that was why -- if you're hurting badly enough, sometimes you feel like you can't make decisions. Like you can't even move.

But when she was ready, she telephoned and announced that she needed someplace to go, and in a hurry, since they were foreclosing on the house. Los Angeles was the only possible port of call. Back at the Hyperion, Fred was getting a room ready. Wesley and Faith were patrolling, and probably panicking over which one of them Buffy would have snarkier comments for. And Angel and I were moving Buffy out. Together.

"The new people are moving in day after tomorrow," Buffy said. "I really ought to clean up more."

"It's plenty clean!" I said, smiling brightly at her through the thin haze of dust. "You've done a great job."

She looked over at me tiredly, and I realized how I had to look to her -- this grinning idiot who was so gosh-darned happy that Buffy was moving out of her home forever. The bitch she remembered from high school, the one who never took anything seriously enough, the girl who could get through a werewolf attack and just gripe about the damage to her car. Who'd want that person hanging around anytime, much less a moment like this? And Buffy didn't know the worst of it yet.

Gunn poked his head through the door. Poor man. When he sold his soul for a truck, did he not realize it would just result in a purgatory of helping people move? "We gotcha loaded up. Any other boxes?"

"Nah," Buffy said. "The Goodwill people will pick up the rest tomorrow." She picked up her duffel bag and took a deep breath. She didn't even move like herself, anymore; her body was slightly hunched over, like she'd just got punched. Or maybe like she was trying to protect herself from another blow. "Let's go."

Angel was standing at the bottom of the stairs looking up. Buffy's chin lifted a little as she saw him and their eyes met. I could feel my rib cage contract with jealousy and fear. Buffy and Angel. Major love story. Was I being crazy to think it would end with me?

Buffy went out the front door, but Angel hung back. I hung back with him. As soon as she was a few steps away, I whispered, "We have to tell her." Because once we told her, that would make it real, official. That would prove Angel loved me, and not her anymore, and the very fact that I could think like that when Buffy was hurting like hell made me know that the old Queen C of Sunnydale High was still alive and well in my heart, despite my many attempts to evict.

Angel didn't have to ask what it was we had to tell her. "I just don't want to upset her," he said. "Upset her more, I mean."

"I know. I know. It's just that -- if we lie to her, Angel, that's the worst of all." Lying to me would also be bad. That was kinda the unspoken corollary.

"We won't lie," Angel promised. He took my hands in his, gave me That Look, the one that always makes me melt like chocolate in sunshine.

I stepped closer to him. "Whenever you're ready," I said. "If you need some time -- I mean, if you want to think about things --" I hated saying that, hated even thinking it, but I wasn't trying to get him on a leash. You know? If he still loved Buffy, I was better off finding out ASAP, the sooner to begin the weeping-and-Oreo binge. Maybe that was going to be the Powers' punishment for throwing them aside for love --letting me be thrown aside for love in return.

"Cordy," Angel whispered. He touched the side of my face with his fingertips -- so gentle -- and of course, that was the moment Buffy walked back in the door.

She stared at us. We stared at her.

"You," Buffy said. She meant it in the plural.

"Us," Angel said. "It's --" He looked at me as if he expected me to come up with the words. I couldn't do anything but stare back at him, because the only words I had handy were, Oh, crap, which didn't quite seem like the thing. Finally he said, "It's been leading up to this for a while now."

"Figures," Buffy said. She laughed -- one short sound. I didn't like it. But what the hell was I gonna say? Because even though Angel was NOT Buffy's property, and he fell for me fair and square, right then I felt guilty as hell. Buffy had lost so much, and we just told her she'd lost one more thing. She didn't look at us long; instead, she glanced around her house. I mean, the house. It wasn't really hers any longer.

Angel spoke to her gently. "Do you want a minute alone?"

"I've been alone enough," she said. Angel's hand felt cold in mine as we walked out.

As I buy some M&Ms from the snack cart, I think about how that first night at Sunnydale really kinda set the stage for everything that came after. That's how we always acted toward each other, the six months she was in Los Angeles. Buffy was in pain. Angel was desperate to reassure me but still take care of her. And I was the one running around trying to make everything okay. Want to go clothes shopping, Buffy? Want me to make you some tea? Basically, I did everything except give her a pedicure to show just how gosh-darned guilty I felt for taking Angel away from her. He was the last person she had left, and he was mine.

I tried really hard to be good. I didn't always make it.

Fred and Connor are hanging out in one of the restaurant cars. Fred gives me a big grin when I walk up, but Connor doesn't pay much attention -- that is, until I hold out the M&Ms. His eyes light up. (Turns out there wasn't any chocolate in the hell dimension. I'm not surprised.) "Thanks, Cordelia," he says, holding out his hand. Technically, he's off; I haven't given him any yet. But I encourage the manners where I can.

"You're welcome," I say. "And the green ones are lucky." Connor frowns down at them as I smile at Fred. Her face still looks a little scary, but she's covered up the worst of it with makeup. "How's it going?"

"So far, so good," Fred said. "I'm worried about Charles."

"We're gonna let him out," I tell her, and she beams. God, that girl still loves him so much. How could he have been so stupid as to throw her away -- and for a skank like Faith? Once you work through Faith's obvious charms, which would have to take a couple of weeks, max, I don't think there's a whole lot left there.

"I'm so relieved," Fred sighs. "I knew you guys wouldn't stay mad at him forever."

"He helped Faith," Connor says. He's glowering at us with a scowl that's so perfectly, 100% Angel that it has the opposite effect than the one he's going for: I have to fight not to smile. "How can you let him go?"

"He's gonna be monitored," I reassure him. It sounds really convincing. Maybe I'll start believing it myself. "He won't be able to do anything violent. Gunn's probably going to do a lot of yelling, but that's it."

"It is not a question of what he will do," Connor says. "It is what he has already done."

"Charles doesn't think Faith did it," Fred says quietly. "When people are in -- when they care about somebody, they don't always see straight."

"That is not an excuse."

God, Connor is such a hard-ass. I exhale, count to five inside my head and then say, "Connor, we have enough crimes to punish here. Seven members of the Brotherhood of Amesace are dead, and they may have been weirdo cult loonies, but they were humans, so their lives matter. And Buffy's dead, and she was the Slayer and -- and her life mattered a lot. Compared to that, Gunn driving the getaway car for his girlfriend is pretty small potatoes."

Connor stares. Fred adds, "'Small potatoes' means 'not important.' Or sometimes it means 'new potatoes,' but not here."

"Then I don't agree," Connor says. "But I'll obey the rule."

He slouches off, all teenage put-upon, to get himself a soda. Fred smiles after him and shakes her head. "He's giving us attitude," she says, "but you got through to him. I can tell."

I didn't see any sign of it, but then again, Fred's sometimes better at reading those kind of clues than I am. "Connor might be right to give us some 'tude," I say. "Gunn might go seriously feral on us, you know?"

"Then we'll just sic you on him," Fred says.

"You're siccing me on people? What, am I Lassie again?" It feels good to laugh.

Fred's laughing with me. "It's true. You are. You're the glue, Cordy."

Glue gets invisible as it dries. All of a sudden, I don't feel much like laughing anymore. "I'm gonna go back to Angel," I tell her. "I want to make sure he's dealing okay."

Fred nods like she understands as I get up and go. I have to resist the urge to ask her to explain it to me.

Angel loves me. He didn't love Buffy anymore, at least not romantically. He let Faith back into our lives, which he shouldn't have done, but still, he couldn't have known that decision would wind up getting Buffy killed. The blame belongs to Faith. Nobody else. And now that we've caught Faith -- now that he can get some justice for Buffy -- he should be okay again. That's how I've told myself it would work for a whole year now.

Yet when I go back into our cabin, Angel's back in bed. Alone in the dark. I don't have to ask what he's thinking.

He looks up at me, his eyes dark, and I can tell that he wants to talk to me. He wants so bad to tell me everything, and I need to hear it --no matter what it is, I could take it. But I know by now that he won't tell me.

What he does do is lift up the blanket, inviting me back to bed. I'm not at all tired, but I slip off my clothes and climb in beside him. I wrap my arms around Angel's chest, and he nestles his face into the curve of my neck.

I should fight for him. If I felt like I deserved to be happy, I would fight for him. But that feeling's been draining out of me ever since the day I turned down heaven. To think I spent so long being scared that the Powers were going to punish me with some big apocalypse, some big thunder-and-lightning catastrophe. They're more efficient than that. They know how to wear someone down, until she's just a shadow.

I stayed here to be with Angel, and the Powers fixed it so that I can lie in bed with him and we can still be a million miles apart.

"I love you," Angel says, his lips brushing against my neck, and it still has the power to bring tears to my eyes.

"I love you too," I say. The first time we told each other that, it was because I had brought him back to life, back into the light.

Now we tell each other that as we lie alone together, shut off from the world, enclosed in the dark.

Chapter Three: The Scholar Of Mistakes

"The origins of the Slayer's power have never been certain." I needn't turn my head away from the train window to know that it's Cornish speaking. Wise, measured, but as always, a bit too earnest for his own good. I used to think we were much alike. "And I've always wondered why we put so much trust in what we cannot understand."

"High time you considered that." Ramsay sets down his tea quickly, so that it rattles on the saucer, and he coughs liquidly into his kerchief. In a younger man, it would be uncouth. "We can never forget the darkness at the heart of every Slayer, or the power it wields over them all. But remember -- the Slayer has been humanity's protector for centuries. How can we not trust that power?"

"You don't trust every helpful magic, though, do you?" I turn at that and see that Vambrace's mouth is puckered in a tart little smile. She thinks she's helping me out, and I'm sure I'm supposed to be grateful. "Take, for instance -- Angel. Years of endeavor for our side of the fight, and it's all Wyndham-Price can do to keep you lot from staking him."

"Angel deserves to be more fully theorized than he has been to date." Oh, God, spare us from Revelstoke. Any Watcher before a deconstructionist Watcher. "The 'vampire with a soul' is the third term that destabilizes the human/demon binary, of course --"

"Enough of that," Ramsay says. "We are not academics today. Our prey is not obscure fact or philosophical truth, but a person, and she is in our grasp. And we must prepare for that task which lies ahead."

"And what task is that?" It's the first time I've spoken to them in a few hours, and they look at me in some surprise. "You must mete out justice for the murders of eight people, including another Slayer. We can't go near a court of law with this. So how precisely do you propose to judge Faith?"

"There's a procedure," Cornish says with an elegant shrug. "We're not meant to question it. But I know you'll be shocked to hear that it hasn't been altered since the 10th century."

I want to ask more; they're being deliberately coy about the procedure, teasing me with the information, trying to get me to beg. It's just one more reminder that I am not a real Watcher anymore.

Vambrace tucks her dark hair behind her ears and draws out a leather-bound journal. No Palm Pilots in the Watchers Council yet, I see. "I think this would be a good time to raise an objection I've had for some time."

I sit up a little straighter in my seat. "You have a question about the charges against Faith?"

"That's it precisely." She folds her hands in front of her and says, "The murder of Buffy Summers is of course reprehensible. But Faith is charged with seven other murders as well, and I question --"

"What? That seven dead people are not a loss?" Ramsay lifts his bushy white eyebrows, preparing for battle.

"The term 'people" can of course --"

"Oh, shut UP, Revelstoke," Vambrace huffs. "These people were members of the Brotherhood of Amesace, a cult whose practices are unvaryingly unpleasant. The highest form of their rituals demands human sacrifice."

"There's no sign they'd ever harmed a person," Cornish interjects. "I've read Wyndham-Price's report; shame about the dogs, but we're not PETA, now, are we? The fact is, there are pockets of Amesace followers all over the world, and we've never run across more than a handful who were more than pretenders. Just amateurs who found Amesace's book in an old shop and thought it would be fun to dress up in robes from time to time."

I remember the first night we found one of the dogs. A silly, fluffy little thing; I imagine its owner put bows in its hair. Alive, it would have been something for Faith to laugh at and mock. But she knelt by its dead body, saw how its killers had taken their time, and she shook. I was moved, too, and ashamed to admit it, though I do not know if I was more ashamed of feeling compassion for the little dog or for Faith.

"I grant you, most of the Brotherhood are amateurs," Vambrace continues resolutely. "But there are those few who are genuinely connected to Amesace's magic, and have tapped into the darkest of powers. They represent the most grave danger. A danger that a Slayer would be duty-bound to confront."

Ramsay shakes his head slowly. "This is all theory, Vambrace. Correct so far as it goes. But the fact remains -- these Amesace were not of the dangerous breed. Wyndham-Price did the search. And was there anything incriminating? At all?"

"Nothing," I said. "A handful of items in a closet -- robes, a few 'sacramental' candles that I suspect were purchased at Pier One. But the items that would have signified the cult's danger --" I know listing them is a schoolboy's impulse, a sign that these people still have power over me, and yet I cannot stop. "-- braids of human hair, bones carved with runes, bronze chalices -- were all absent. They weren't dangerous. There was no need for Faith to do what she did to those people."

They died because I failed with Faith. Because I dared to be a Watcher again and failed a thousand times more spectacularly than I did before. Seven stupid playacting teenagers dead by Faith's hand. That redefines my failure, don't you think?

But no. Buffy's death does that.

Apparently, for once, I'm to be granted the last word on the subject. No more is said about the Brotherhood; Faith will remain charged with eight murders. Meanwhile, the subject drifts to other things: Revelstoke wants to discuss the semiotics of "amateur," Vambrace is coordinating plans for what she calls a "post-trial referendum" but sounds suspiciously like a cocktail party to celebrate the coming conviction, Cornish is assuring me that he'll find the handcuff spell for Gunn, and Ramsay looks as though he may doze over his tea.

I look out the window again; it's a brilliant, sunny afternoon as we cross the plains. There's less snow here, just a dusting, and yet the world has a snowy stillness to it. The main thing I hear is the clacking of the train rails, and all at once it seems to me that they are bearing me back into the past.

Because I've been traveling back in time for a while now, really. I was an apprentice Watcher, uncertain and eager. Then I was a Watcher, overly proud and destined to fail. Then I was a rogue and a loner, though not nearly so much as I dared pretend. Finally, I was a member of Angel Investigations and a loved and trusted friend. Or so I thought.

Then I was a rogue and a loner again, and I did it right that time. Then I was a Watcher again, and I failed on a far grander scale. And now I am back with the Council again, surrounded by my betters, expected to learn from their example.

I try to put all those times together, all the people I've been, all the things I've done. Wearing leather trousers and riding a motorbike through Southern California. Fencing with the late Rupert Giles and being trounced. Having sex with a woman I despised, only to flinch from the acid burn of truth between us. Talking over the meaning of life with Angel as he folded his baby's laundry. And so much more besides.

The acts don't fit together. They don't assemble into one complete, logical, understandable man.

And yet they all belong to me.

I opened the door to see Angel standing there. I was more surprised than I ought to have been. Hadn't I been expecting this all along?

I calculated the distance to my crossbow -- too far -- and to my axe --just close enough. This was more to steel my resolve than anything else, as I didn't even try to shut the door. No need. "If you're planning on barging in, you'll discover that you've been uninvited," I said, by way of greeting.

"If I were planning on barging in, I wouldn't have knocked," Angel said. His tone of voice was -- reasonable. No more, no less. And that alone was enough to confuse me.

I'd thought about this confrontation a hundred times. More. Sometimes, Angel came to scream at me some more, to attack again. He jumped out from behind corners, was lurking in dark alleyways. I always had a weapon at the ready, a stinging comment that would slice into his soul the moment before my stake slammed into his heart.

Other times, Angel came to say that he was sorry, that he'd been wrong. He admitted that he needed me, that they were lost without me. His speeches on the subject were very fine, very sweet to hear. But the endings then were less definite. Sometimes I turned him away coldly, because he deserved that. Sometimes I went back, because he deserved that. Sometimes I couldn't imagine what I would say at all.

But I never prepared myself for this -- Angel standing in the door, apparently as free from rage as he was from guilt. He'd done the one thing I never allowed him to do in my wishful fantasies: He'd caught me off-guard.

Still, my lines were well-enough rehearsed not to fail me. "I take it then that you aren't here to kill me."

Angel's eyes narrowed slightly at that, betraying -- what? Remorse? Anger? I did not know. "I never intended to kill you."

It was too ridiculous even to laugh. "Really. Funny how I missed that, when the pillow was being held over my face."

"If I wanted you dead, you'd be dead." Angel smiled, and I saw more of Angelus in him in that moment than I did when he attacked. "I didn't want to kill you, Wesley. I wanted to scare you. I know how to kill somebody so that it takes a long time. A longer time than you'd think it could. But there's no death that lasts as long as fear. Play your cards right, and fear can last forever." His eyes flickered in the rough direction of my crossbow; he couldn't see it from where he was, but I knew he'd seen me look for it. I hated him then.

"So you're here for vague threats. Disappointing. You may tarnish your reputation for inventive cruelty. The inventive part, I mean."

Angel closed his eyes and took a deep breath; as Angel never needs to breathe, it's usually a sign of emotion. When he opened his eyes again, he was calm. "We could go on like this forever. It's useless. I'm here to ask you something."

This was a little more like it; the grappling didn't feel useless to me. "Are things not running so smoothly at Angel Investigations? You're not able to manage with the able help of, oh, Gunn's swordfighting skills, or Cordelia's knowledge of Aramaic?"

"We manage well enough," Angel said, some of that calm gone. "We have to hire people to do translations. But at least the people we've hired don't make mistakes."

Mistakes. It was all a mistake. It was all for nothing.

He tilted his head slightly, studying me as a bird of prey might. "How are things running here, Wes? I guess you're out every night, righting wrongs, saving souls." I didn't answer. I couldn't. I knew he could see the stubble on my chin and the wrinkles in the clothes I'd been wearing for two days. I wondered if he could smell Lilah on me, then realized, of course he could. Angel's eyes narrowed. "Funny we haven't run into you on patrol."

All at once, I knew that I was going to have to get rid of him. I needed to -- vomit. Or collapse. Or scream. But I couldn't let him go yet, not until Angel saw that he did not hold the sole ownership of pain. "I'm not interested in what you have to ask me, Angel. I'm not interested in you or your gang of sycophants, any more than you are interested in me. But before you go, I want to ask you something." I stared into his eyes. They'd changed -- the anger was gone -- but the shame I sought wasn't there. "How do you -- you, so deep in sin -- how dare you condemn anyone? How dare you beg the Powers for forgiveness when you won't grant it?"

"I haven't been asked to forgive," Angel said, very quietly.

He puts a pillow over my face and shrieks about my death, and he wants an apology? Bastard. "We had a mission, Angel. We had responsibilities that were greater than your fate or mine -- or even Connor's, whatever destiny he may have. Oh, yes, I know he's back. I saw you two." Angel had gotten back what he had lost, and I never would. I straightened up and continued, "Forgiveness was a part of that mission. It was a part of our most sacred duty. If you've forgotten that, then there's no hope for your redemption. You're only postponing the day you go back to hell."

I ought to have slammed the door right then, but Angel did the last thing I expected him to do. He smiled. As I stared at him, he said, "I'm glad you said that. It makes this a lot easier."

I glanced back at the crossbow and didn't care if he saw me. "What's that?"

"It turns out you are interested in what I have to ask you, Wes." Angel's eyes were gleaming with a sardonic joy, and yet one that had nothing of Angelus in it. "Since you're the expert on forgiveness and redemption and duty, I guess you'll be glad to forgive Faith. She's out of jail, and she needs a Watcher again. That's more important than our problems, isn't it?" Angel grinned. "She's lucky you're such a forgiving guy."


The company of Watchers begins to pall after a while, even for other Watchers, so I begin browsing about through the train cars, looking for better companions.

The sun is still in the sky, at least for another hour or so, and I know I shan't see Angel. Though I know nobody around us suspects this, I find his company less onerous than most of those who surround me. We take our digs at each other, but in the past year this has settled into more a matter of form than anything else. Cordelia smiles and pats our shoulders when she sees that we're able to speak civilly; she has no idea that I've accepted him, or that I despise her.

Cordelia, of all people -- she couldn't speak for me? Couldn't use her powers of persuasion on my behalf? She holds the whip hand over Angel, and she employs it freely, but she did not bother to do so for me. She and I were friends when he was our enemy, and she forgets it all as soon as he strikes her romantic fancy. I was never anything but a loyal and caring friend to her, and when I needed her most, she abandoned me. Angel's wrath had been more terrible than the others' negligence, but at least he had some excuse, however inadequate. I couldn't condone what he'd done to me, but I could understand it. I shall never understand what motivated Cordelia's decision to abandon me at the first sign of trouble. Some mornings, as she chirps at me while drinking her coffee, it's all I can do not to slap her smug, sanctimonious face.

Whereas Angel -- well. At first, I knew myself to be more sinned against than sinning, but I also knew I had sinned. A certain measure of self-blame is bracing; I'd like to talk about that with Angel someday, though I suspect we never shall.

But after Faith's descent -- after Buffy's death -- I know myself to be a sinner on a far grander scale. I failed my Slayers again, and the end was tragedy beyond anything I had before caused or endured. I couldn't claim the moral high ground after that. I hadn't realized how much I needed that high ground until I'd lost it forever.

Angel never blamed me. All the little comments he makes -- so casually, as if I wouldn't catch that mean-spirited bit about "learning from mistakes" -- still refer to the matter of Connor. In this one matter of Buffy's death -- so much more my fault than a damned false translation -- he casts no blame. The perversity of the man.

Yes, I do sometimes still get angry at him. It is strange how angry we feel towards those we have wronged.

"Excuse me?" A young Asian girl is staring up at me, and I realize that I've simply come to a halt in the center of the car, making a fool of myself and blocking the way in the bargain. I murmur apologies and make my way to the restaurant car.

I see them right away. No matter how much time goes by, Fred will always be the first one I see. Connor sits beside her. They each have their feet tucked up under them on the seat, and they both look far younger than they are. Fred's hair is falling loose from the knot she had it up in this morning; her soft curls frame her face, fall in curves that mimic the silver loops in her ears. As I walk closer, I hear her saying, "I spy -- a red turtle."

Connor begins searching the car; his eyes travel over me, and I know he recognizes me, but he doesn't care. He's just hunting for the red turtle, as intently as though he were stalking a demon. His focus unnerves me, at times. Finally he smiles. "On the little girl's backpack. In the corner."

"You're way too good at this," Fred says. Then she sees me and grins, hugging her knees to her chest. "Wesley! Are you hungry?"

"Famished," I say, and I am surprised to realize it's true. "I don't suppose they have much here beyond warmed-over hamburgers."

"The pizza's not bad," Connor offers.

"Take his advice," Fred says. "I tried the burrito. Big mistake. I mean, I don't know why I expected quality Mexican food, or for that matter any good ethnic food, on a train, which is owned by a large bureaucracy and designed to please the widest array of people, which means any cuisine that relies heavily on spices is going to suffer." She hears herself, stops and wrinkles her nose. "Did that make sense?"

"Near enough," I say. "And I'll get the pizza."

By rights, of course, I should be as angry at Fred as I am at Cordelia, or as I was at Gunn before he compounded his sins by helping Faith get away. However, I am not. I have marshaled logical reasons for this --Fred spoke out when the others didn't, Fred is not a forceful personality and would not be able to best them. Of course, what it all boils down to is that I was -- and am -- in love with Fred, and rightly or wrongly, it makes a difference.

However, in these two years, I have never seen the slightest evidence that she's in love with me. And that makes her company hard to bear for too long. But I can allow myself these few moments, now and then.

"Fred has taught me a new game," Connor says. "It's like a hunting game. It's fun."

The fact that he thinks so is evidence of the pitifully small amount of fun Connor's had in his life, a subject on which I don't want to dwell. "The Council's so bloody cheap," I say. "If they'd chartered us a jet, we could have been back in a matter of hours, instead of wasting two days on a train."

"I kinda like it," Fred says, pulling her sweater arms over her fingers. "I like seeing the countryside. Besides, I need a couple days to gear up for whatever's gonna happen with Faith. And with Charles." Her voice caresses his name, and her eyes are liquid with concern. Gunn threw this woman away for Faith. After some of the things I've done, I can't claim not to understand him, but I can condemn his stupidity along with my own. I've failed to learn so much, but I've become a scholar of mistakes.

She leans forward and puts her hand on mine, an intimate gesture that surprises me so much that I almost don't hear what she's saying. "Cordelia says you're trying to find a way to get Gunn out of that awful cell car. Some kind of spel -- magi -- um --" She tries to think of a way around saying "magic spell" in a public place and falls short. "Helpful thingy?"

"The Watchers are working on it," I tell her. "With misgivings, of course, but they'll have an answer soon."

"Why do the Watchers want to let him go?" Connor says. "I thought they cared about the rules."

"Oh, they do," I tell him. "But they'd rather be guilty of undue mercy than of ignorance. They'd prefer to let Gunn out than admit they don't know how to do it."

"They shouldn't do that," Connor says, which I expected. But then he adds something I didn't expect: "It's not smart, to show people everything you know."

Clever boy.

"Charles will be grateful," Fred says. "Of course, he won't show that he's grateful, because he never does at first, and he'll walk around all mad and puffed up for a while, but wait and see. He'll want to talk it out sooner or later."

It's likely to be later, if at all. But there's no point of trying to disabuse Fred of her belief in the man. There's no understanding women's choices of whom to love.

My patrol with Faith had gone well. We did not argue. She did not act inappropriately. A few vampires and one demon were killed. Success.

But those simple words, which could have made an entry in my Watcher's Diary, did not capture the experience, I thought as I cut through the Hyperion's kitchen. (I might have simply walked out from the lobby, but the some of the others were congregated there, and I did not wish to see them.) Patrolling with Faith was invariably an experiment in excruciating uncertainty. I despised her and, though I tried for duty's sake, I could not always conceal it. For her part, she wavered violently between desperate attempts to please me and more of her typical attitude.

We could do our jobs, but we could not do it without suffering the entire time. At first, I had been unwilling to consider leaving her for this alone -- that would give Angel what he would consider a moral victory, and I'd be damned if I would let him have it.

However, in the past two weeks, a new opportunity had opened up for me. Buffy had come to L.A. Another Slayer needed a Watcher -- who was to say that Faith deserved my services more than Buffy? No one, that was certain. I imagined they would be hard-pressed not to admit that Buffy deserved more of everything than Faith. Faith had fallen into the paths of darkness, and I was no longer so young and so naive as to deny the Council's wisdom -- once fallen, Faith could never be trusted again. Her descent was inevitable, and I did not want to be borne down with her.

I thought nothing would shake such thoughts from my head until the moment I pushed open the kitchen door. Buffy stood there, locked in his embrace. I did not know him, but I knew he was a vampire.

She pushed him away savagely, and I thought for a moment she had heard me. But no -- they were too caught up in each other to see me, though I was only 20 feet away. "I'm not doing this," she breathed. "I can't. It was killing me before, and that was before -- I thought it was bad then, but I didn't know. I didn't know anything."

Before? This vampire was already her lover, then. Good God. I'd always imagined her affair with Angel to be something singular, something romantic, however misguided. But apparently she had some sort of bizarre taste for vampires, some variant of necrophilia. I was disgusted, but mostly I was shocked.

The vampire, for his part, was unwilling to take no for an answer. "But -- but it's different now, baby, don't you see?" He had a lower-middle-class accent, hair that showed evidence of having been bottle-blond a month or two before. A lit cigarette was in one of his hands, and from the jittering of its glowing tip, I could tell that he was shaking. "This changes everything."

"Why would I believe you?" Buffy was backing away from him. "You'd do anything to have me, Spike. You proved that."

So that was Spike. I'd heard of him, but this was the first time I'd laid eyes on him. He looked different than I'd expected, though I couldn't quite say how. Spike was Buffy's lover.

He winced at Buffy's words, but held his hands out in naked pleading. The smoke rose from his cigarette as he begged, "I've done my time for that one, pet. And for all the others -- I'm paying my debt to society, wearing the bloody scarlet letter, all of that. You don't know what it's like --"

"Neither do you," she said. "Because you're faking. You're lying."

"Please, baby. I did this for you. Don't tell me I did it all for nothing."

"If you ARE telling the truth -- " Buffy pulled out her stake, and he skittered back. "You're not what I need anymore. Get out of here before I make myself some dust."

"I'll go," he said. "I'll do what you want. But I'll be back." A faint smile hovered around his lips. "I'll come back night after night, show you I've changed."

"Yeah, you never used to hang around alleyways before."

Spike kept backing away, but he was really smiling then, trying to put some swagger in his step. "You'll see, baby. Might have to serenade you outside your window. A guitar and 'Our Lady of Spain,' how would that suit?"

"Get OUT!" Buffy screamed, and he ran away. But he was laughing as he went.

After a few moments of silence, she put the stake back in her pocket. Buffy ran one hand through her hair, sighing. "I sound like Dawn," she muttered as she walked back toward the hotel. Her head lifted slightly, and then she saw me.

We stood very still, staring at one another for a few long moments. I don't know how much of my disgust showed on my face, but I suspect it was enough. Her face kept changing in the streetlamp's glow -- confusion about how much I might have heard, anger that I had eavesdropped, then pure terror. Buffy stepped a little closer, her eyes wide, and we stepped into the kitchen together. Our little secret. "Don't tell," she said. "You won't tell."

"No," I said. "I won't." I meant it. I thought it would be far more pleasant to let Angel find out for himself.

Her face was pained. "That -- with Spike -- I can explain that --"

"You don't have to." I didn't care to hear her rationalizations.

She mistook my reaction for charity, and she hugged me tightly around the waist -- so tightly I thought my ribs might crack. "Thank you," Buffy whispered, her voice tremulous. "Thank you."

I didn't stop her from going back into the hotel. I no longer wanted to ask her to patrol with me. I wanted her to stay by Angel's side, lure him back into her heart, so that it would burn him all the worse when he discovered her other vampire lover. I was angrier then.

Many nights after that, I would wait outside the hotel. I saw her often enough, strolling in the alleyways, or just gazing down from her window. I knew Buffy was looking for Spike, but I did not know whether she was guarding against him or hoping he would appear. In neither case did it matter, for he never came back again.

In the weeks after that incident, her temper grew worse and worse, her remarks more mean-spirited and cutting. Strangely, it seemed the only person she ever had a kind word for was Faith, and then only rarely. More often they fought, as Buffy began fighting with everyone.

Well, nearly everyone. One afternoon I peered into the workout room, looking for Connor, and instead saw Buffy with Gunn. They were laughing and carrying on as they sparred, until she backed away from him and slowly peeled off her shirt. She wasn't wearing a bra. Gunn didn't look away, but I did. I went back upstairs and poured myself a cup of tea with shaking hands.

Even then, at the height of my bitterness, I cared too much for Fred to be casual about Gunn's infidelity. I mean, his first infidelity.

Fred smiles at me as she picks up her coffee. Connor has left us, to do whatever it is he would find amusing on a train. I can think of almost nothing to say to her now, and yet I cannot leave her; I am still greedy for these moments, when I can have her to myself alone, in whatever sense. "You know, I'm feeling a lot better about all of this," she says.

"Resolution is always a comfort," I say.

"Besides, it's not like Faith's up for the death penalty or something," she says. Her lipstick is shell-pink, almost too delicate to see against her pale skin. But traces of it line the cup she holds in her hands. "She's going to Watcher jail, which is some kind of castle, which I realize isn't as plush as it sounds, because after all dungeons are part of castles too, but Faith won't be in the dungeon part, will she?"

I don't suppose there's any point in mentioning that a manor built in 1710 is neither a castle nor likely to be equipped with a dungeon. "No. She'll be suitably housed." After her trial, whatever that might be. I wish I knew what it will be.

"So, any part of a castle that's not a dungeon probably beats the heck outta San Quentin," Fred says. "And they'll get her help, right, Wes? Psychologists? Therapists? A lot of Watchers have degrees like that, don't they? I'm not saying Faith didn't do wrong, but -- there was always something about her that I felt kinda sorry for. I can't really give it a name, but --" She looks off at the horizon, her voice softer now. "-- it was the same thing that always kinda made me feel sorry for Buffy. I mean, besides everything that happened in Sunnydale. I felt sorry for Buffy because of that, but there was something else too, you know? They shared that, whatever it was." If only she knew.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?"

At first I can't even imagine what Fred is referring to. Then I look out the window. The sun is setting; we can't see it, as the train is headed directly west at this point, but the sky is turning brilliant shades of orange and violet that shine on the snowy ground. "Yes," I say quietly. "I suppose it is."

I always wanted to see the world through her eyes, so simple, so beautiful, so full of hope. I know now I never will. Add that to the list of failures.

Chapter Four: The Big Bad in Nikes

None of them are watching the sunset.

The people on this train remain huddled in their seats, peering down at books with illicit embraces on the cover, or at laptop computers with frivolous "news," or at small electric games they hold in their hands as they pretend to be warriors. One old woman is knitting a blanket, which is a useful activity. But I do not understand the others.

But then, this is their world, and they have seen sunsets many times. They are rich in skies and scenery and beautiful things. I do not envy them; such wealth can lead to poverty of the spirit. They fail to appreciate what they have.

I do not. My father taught me to be grateful for what we had. Now that I have so much more, I am more grateful. I have warm clothing that is clean and does not need mending. I have not felt long hours of hunger in more than a year. My shoes are well-made and do not let the water in when it rains. And I can watch the sun set in a peaceful sky. I should be content.

But I'm not. The others around me are trapped in their ways, and when I tell them they are not effective enough, they will not change, and I think they do it sometimes just to displease me. We spend too much time talking, and not enough time fighting. And Winifred is with Wesley, and maybe he will ask her to eat dinner or go see a movie, and then he will be her boyfriend, and she won't spend time with me anymore.

I remind myself that I am too young to court Winifred. My father always said that men should choose wives younger than themselves. So what would he think of me if he saw me coveting a woman ten years older? If the others knew, they would just laugh. So I should try to be glad that she has found someone who would suit her, someone who is at least a better man than Gunn. Wesley takes our mission seriously, and he doesn't get along well with Angel. That's why I like him.

Though I don't mind Angel as much anymore, I guess. He will never take my father's place, no matter how hard he tries. But the home I live in, the good clothing I wear, even the name I use in this world -- they are all things Angel has given me, and I know well how to be grateful. I have seen Angel destroy many evil creatures during the time I have lived and worked with him, and he does not kill humans, so I think it was the right choice to return.

Those aren't the only reasons I try to be less angry at Angel. I did wrong to him, and I don't like thinking about that.

I did not realize all at once that Justine was lying. It took time, more time than it should have taken a hunter. She told me what I wanted to believe, and this made me weak. I must remember that lesson.

But my father made me a hunter, and being a hunter means being able to think logically about the behavior of other creatures. My father's murder consumed me for weeks, and as I became able to control my emotions, I became a hunter once more.

I found my father outside. Why would he have gone outside? So long as he considered our lodgings a home (something he could do very quickly, at will, and I am not sure it was not magic), Angel could not have entered without permission. My father was safe indoors. Why go outside? It was a stupid thing to do, and my father was not a stupid man.

His body bore none of the marks of a great struggle - no broken fingers, no scratches, no torn clothing. My father was old and feeble, but he was a man of great ability, and I cannot believe he would have fallen to Angel without fighting.

When I beheaded my father's corpse to save him from becoming a vampire, I was shocked by all the blood that poured into the ground. At the time, I could think of little besides seeing my father's head severed from his body, by my hand. But later I realized that it was too much blood. If Angel had fed from him, my father would not have had so much blood left.

Justine drank too much; drunkenness is a shameful thing, especially in a woman, but it can work to a hunter's advantage. I waited until one night when she had had even more to drink than usual, and then I confronted her with my suspicions. She finally confessed the truth.

There, at least, I had justice.

I was relieved to learn that Angel was already free. I felt no guilt for my action, and I still do not. Angel's crimes deserve far greater punishment than that. But I did not wish to act unjustly. My father taught me right from wrong, as though they were separate lands, divided by great chasms. It is troubling to think that this might not be so. I do not like to think about being wrong.


I look away from the sunset to see Winifred standing there. She took her hair down, and now it falls loose, and she looks beautiful. She is delicate, timorous, like a dove. At least, what I think doves are supposed to be like. She smiles at me uneasily. "They've got the -- you know -- for Charles." Winifred, like the others, will not talk about spells in front of most people. "I was going to go be there when they --you know." She grabs my arm. "Come on so we can talk about this."

"Where is Wesley?" I ask as we begin moving into another car.

"Wesley doesn't want to see Charles. He's still got a bug up his butt about it." I stare at her, and she laughs a little. "That's a euphemism."

Oh. Good. "But you want to see Charles."

"Well, yeah," she says as she smoothes her hair. "I'm not mad at him. Not anymore."

For my part, I'm mad at Gunn for many things. But I go along with Winifred and resolve to be polite when he is released. There was a time when I liked Gunn better than any of the others. Except Winifred, of course.

"Hey, you there."

I looked up to see Gunn standing in my doorway. I was sharpening my knives -- properly, by hand, with a leather strop. "Hey," I said, trying to use his terms. I worked on getting the vocabulary right as much as I could.

Gunn did not like the fact that I was sharpening knives, even though it was a useful thing to do. I think Gunn was always a little scared of me, or at least he didn't trust me. I liked that about him. It was smart. "You got a second?" he said, his hands in the pockets of his jeans.

I felt strange -- the others did not often come to my room, and then they did not come to visit. They told me that my dinner was ready, or that it was time for patrol. Sometimes Angel wanted to know when I would bring clothes down to be laundered; it took me a while to get used to how clean everyone tries to be here. But no social visits. I could not think of any reason to say no. "Yes," I said. "Sit down."

Gunn sat on the corner of my bed, and I continued my work. He did not insist that I look up at him while he spoke. "You know Buffy's been actin' a bit on the strange side lately."

I had learned already that it was smart to say as little of what I truly thought as possible. I told the truth, just not the entire truth. "She starts arguments," I said. "But she fights very well."

"Yeah, she's got that goin' for her, no doubt," Gunn sighed. "But that's not quite what I'm gettin' at." I did look up at him then, trying to understand. He was choosing his words very carefully. "If Buffy comes to you -- like, say, on patrol, or maybe even, uh, here in your room -- if she says or does somethin' that makes you uncomfortable, you can just tell her to get lost, right?"

"Buffy would not get lost in the hotel," I said. "She knows her way."

"'Get lost' means leave." Gunn stared at me for a moment longer and shook his head. "Hell, you're a teenager. You're surfin' a hormone tsunami. What am I sayin'? She's not gonna make you uncomfortable, is she? More likely to make you pretty damn comfortable, if you get my drift."

"Drift?" Did he mean sand? I put the knives down. "What is it called when you use a word to mean another word?"

"Huh? I guess you'd call that a euphemism."

Euphemism. I memorized the word then and there. "Right. Euphemism. I'm not good at those. Say what you mean."

Gunn smiled at that. I hadn't seen him smile much; he looked like a friendly person, which I'd never thought about before. "Okay, junior, you asked for it." He leaned back on the bed and looked skyward. "I think Buffy's kinda hacked -- I mean, not real happy that your dad and Cordelia are together."

When he said "your dad," he meant Angel. I stopped correcting them all about that fairly quickly, because I realized they would never learn. "Buffy was once Angel's concubine."

"You gotta stop usin' words like that. Anyway, she's been actin' out. Doin' stuff she wouldn't normally do. And I don't want you gettin' mixed up in it."

"What stuff?"

Gunn looked at me carefully, then leaned forward. "You gotta promise not to tell anybody about this. You gotta keep your mouth shut."

Keeping your mouth shut means not talking. I knew that one. "What happened?"

"Couple nights ago Buffy asked me to spar with her down in the workout room. Well, things were goin' along just like usual. Better than usual. We were laughin', jokin' around, having a high old time. Until all of a sudden she starts doin' this striptease. I mean, she started taking her clothes off."

It took me a moment to recall that nudity is considered improper in this dimension. People bathe in private, and if they are nude with another person, that means that -- oh. "She wanted to fornicate with you."

"You damn sure don't need euphemisms, do you? Yeah, that was the idea."

Gunn was Winifred's boyfriend. He owed her fidelity. I stared at him. "Did you know her carnally?"

"What? Oh. No. No, no, no," Gunn said. He seemed uneasy. "Buffy didn't want me; she wanted to get under Angel's skin, is all. That means she wanted to hurt him. She didn't say that's what she wanted, but that's what was goin' on. We, uh -- the way it ended up, we had a conversation that went up to eleven on the awkward dial, and she wound up gettin' dressed while I lit outta there. Nothin' happened, not really."

I should have noticed that Gunn did not mention Winifred as a reason not to fornicate with Buffy. "Do you think she would do something like that to me?" I would not have been surprised. Any woman so debased as to lie with vampires --

"I don't know," Gunn said. "Probably not. In three words, you are Statue Tory Rape." I knew what rape meant, but I thought it referred to something wicked men did to women. "But if she's really runnin' off the rails -- if she really wants to hurt Angel bad -- well, you'd be one way. And you don't want to get mixed up in that. I realize, at your age, you can't imagine that gettin' some booty couldn't be a good thing, but trust me on this. And booty don't mean 'treasure,' okay?"

"It means lying with a woman," I said. I had heard it in songs. "No, I wouldn't do that with Buffy."

"Good. Okay." Gunn studied me for a moment, then smiled again. "This is probably all for nothin'. Probably nothin' to it but temporary insanity. Buffy probably had a couple pina coladas, got a look at my fine-lookin' body and couldn't help herself."

At first I was surprised at his arrogance. Then I realized he was joking. They joked like this a lot. The right response would be to insult him in some way. "I think she could help herself if she got a look at you."

I must have done it right. Gunn grinned and laughed. "Oh, now the kid's gettin' a mouth on him," he said. "Time to look out."

"You motherfuckers think you can chain me up?" Gunn's face is like a battle mask, hard with rage, teeth bared. "We on a goddamned slave ship now?"

The Watchers watch him carefully; they are wondering whether or not to do the spell. I wonder too. Next to me, Winifred trembles, but she is silent. I wish it were proper for me to put an arm around her. But maybe that would only make Gunn angrier, and that would frighten her more, and I do not want her frightened.

"Mr. Gunn," said the Watcher named Ramsay, "Your former coworkers asked for this as a kindness to you. If you wish to reject their offer --"

"Kindness. Aw, hell, yeah, they know so damn much about kindness, don't they? They ain't got any kindness for Faith. You can tell every one of them -- you gettin' this, Fred? -- you can tell them --"

"Hey!" Faith's voice silences him. She steps into view; she is already healed from our battle, and I find myself wishing we could have fought longer. Faith is degenerate and wicked, but she is a worthy opponent. There are so few in this dimension. "I need you to do something for me."

She is speaking to Gunn, who looks at her. He is still shaking with rage. "What's that, baby? Anything. You name it."

Faith puts her hands on either side of his face. "I want you to go out there," she says, with a nod toward us and the rest of the train. "And I want you to get me a Milky Way."

Gunn stares at her for a moment, as do we all. "What?" he finally says.

"A Milky Way," Faith repeats. "Chocolate. Caramel. Nougat. I want one. Go get it." He stares at her a moment longer, and then he begins to laugh. To my surprise, I realize that Winifred is trying to hide her own smile. I don't understand what these people find funny. Why is Faith's trivial request funny to them?

Even stranger, it seems to calm Gunn down. "One Milky Way, comin' up. You want a soda to go with that?"

"I'm guessing the Tweed Patrol ain't gonna let you bring me a Long Island Iced Tea," she says. "So -- coffee."

"Black," Gunn says. Faith nods. They kiss briefly, and then Gunn steps toward the door and holds his hands out. "Cuff me," he says.

The Watcher called Vambrace reads a few words in a language I do not know, and Ramsay crushes a bundle of herbs in a bowl, then lights a candle and lets the wax drip into the bowl. A pale blue light twines around Gunn, and he shivers, and then it's gone. Vambrace says, "You won't be able to make any sudden moves, hostile or not; you'll want someone with you most of the time, lest you fall. You wouldn't be able to put your hands out to brace yourself. Technically, nothing's stopping you from attacking anyone -- but you won't be able to do so effectively, and even a fairly small child will be able to get the better of you."

"Deterrent effect in place," Gunn says. "Can we skip the damn lecture?"

"Are you sure the spell worked?" Winifred says.

"I imagine we shall find out as soon as the door's opened," Vambrace says. "And blow out that candle, will you, Ramsay? The last thing we need is this train stopped on the tracks for a fire alarm."

Gunn comes out, and he does not strike anyone, though he looks as though he might like to. But when he looks at Winifred, he smiles at little. She smiles back. They are both uncertain, and I realize that I am glad of it. Maybe Winifred is finally learning to be cautious.

But no. She gestures backwards. "Restaurant car is that way," she says. "Walk you to the snack bar?"

"Yeah, all right," he says. They turn to go, and I move to follow, but Winifred glances at me with annoyance. Annoyance, as anyone might feel toward a child. As I watch them walk away together, I remind myself that it is good to remember our proper relationship. But I still do not care for the feeling of being a child to her. I am not a child. I scuff the floor with the heel of my shoe.

The Watchers re-enchant the door to the cell car, and Faith goes off into her unseen corner. I imagine Wesley is in no mood for company, if he knows Winifred and Gunn are together. To my surprise, I find myself considering going to Angel and Cordelia's cabin. He will always trouble me -- his inability to know what is right and wrong, his opinions of me that he does not speak -- but he tries very hard to be kind to me. It is weak of me, but I like that. And Cordelia is funny. She makes me laugh, and Angel too; we get along better when it is all three of us.

But with Winifred spending time with Gunn, helping to buy candy for a murderess, I realize I do not want company. I want to be alone. And I want to be of use.

I walk to a place in the train where two sections join, and I go through the door. It is very cold outside, but the discomfort is bracing. It reminds me of childhood and of home. I climb the small steel ladder to the top of the train. Here, the wind is sharp, and it is a struggle to maintain my balance as the train rocks back and forth. I begin to grin. Now, this is a superior way to travel.

Am I of use here? In truth, probably not. But I am alone, and I am standing guard. Maybe it is unlikely that we would be attacked here, but I am very good at standing guard.

They always quit patrolling by two or three in the morning. The humans needed sleep, and Angel absurdly tried to match his diurnal rhythms to their own. I had been raised to rest in the day, when protection was more easily possible, and to hunt at night. So sometimes, when they returned to the hotel to eat their snacks and tell jokes about their mistakes on patrol -- as if this were something to joke about -- I would go up to my room, slip out the window and patrol some more.

Every now and then, Angel would follow me and join in. He said very little, just came to my side and fought with me. I did not mind his company then.

But the night I saw Buffy in the alleyway, I was alone. I have wondered what would have happened if I had not been.

Minutes after I left my room, as I was walking away, I sensed the presence of a vampire heading toward the Hyperion. Not Angel. Another. That was strange; the low and vile creatures of this city knew and feared us, and in my time there they had never dared arrive and attack us upon our own ground. This was brazen, and I did not care for it. I decided to see to the matter before the vampire had a chance even to go through the door. It might have startled Winifred.

I turned back around the corner and saw the vampire in the back alley. It was male, with hair that was both light and dark, and it wore a long dark coat. I took note of these things automatically, as a hunter should. I got my stake ready and prepared to run the hundred feet or so down the alley toward the vampire.

Buffy stepped into the alleyway. She stared at the vampire. It stared at her. I felt only disappointment: this would be Buffy's kill, and not my own.

Then the vampire said, "God, Buffy, I've missed you."

"Can't say the same," she replied. Her lips were thin and white. "Get lost, Spike."

It did not get lost. It smiled at her. "Everything's different now, love. I -- I did it for you. I changed for you."

I realized that they were lovers.

I felt the realization like physical shock, and I responded as my father had taught me: I ducked into the nearest hiding place (behind a dumpster) and tried to control my physical response. But it was hard to contain the revulsion I felt.

I knew that Cordelia lay with Angel. But she is part-demon, and Angel --I did not and do not know what he is, but he is not wholly demon. And so their union always seemed appropriate to me. They were neither humans nor beasts, and so they were fit for no mates but each other. Anyway, I tried not to think about it. It seems strange and unnatural, to think about anyone who would call himself my father having such relations.

But Buffy was a Slayer. My father told me of Slayers when I grew up. He described them as holy women, maidens and warriors, with the purity of Mary and the fierceness of Deborah. Months in the company of Buffy and that hoyden Faith had taught me this was not so, but I had never dreamed of anything so debased as a Slayer giving herself carnally to a vampire.

When I was calm once more, my hands steady and my breath measured, I peered from behind the dumpster again. The vampire was kissing Buffy, and it took her some time to resist. A door opened at the corner of the hotel -- somebody else was watching -- but I never learned who.

Buffy told the vampire to leave, and for no reason I could imagine, it tried to threaten her with singing. She was not afraid, as well she might not have been of such a stupid threat. The vampire ran away from her, laughing, and it ran toward me. I remained still; motion would alert him to my presence more quickly.

As it got closer, though, it began running more slowly. Its laughter stopped. I heard it sniff the air. It was perhaps fifteen feet away. "Hey, you there," it said. Its accent was strange to me. "Not a good idea, camping about in alleyways. That's like puttin' yourself on the menu."

I stepped out from behind the dumpster. It shook its head. "You'd just be an appetizer, wouldn't you? Get yourself home, squirt." It laughed again. "Listen to me, with the warnings. Like a bloody flight attendant."

It was strange for a vampire to warn its prey. I did not care about its strangeness. "You will die, fiend," I said, as I got in battle stance.

It skittered back, but it was laughing still harder. "Oooooh, look at the big bad in Nikes. Are you Angel's latest hard-luck case?"

I did not expect that. "You know Angel?"

"'Course I know him," it said. "He was the Mr. Miyagi to my Karate Kid. Taught me a lot of what I know." It was grinning, and then it seemed to remember something unpleasant, and its face fell. "Oh, God, the things he taught me."

I stepped closer to it, and its head snapped up as we felt it at the same time. I could not describe the sensation -- it was like standing too near something very loud, or looking down over a great height. Disorientation and discomfort and confusion. But even though I'd never felt it before, I knew what the feeling meant. This vampire had something to do with me.

It was staring at me, taken aback by the same sensation. "You," it said. "You've something to do with Angel. With Darla, too."

"Darla?" That shocked me more. "You knew my mother?"

Its eyes went wide. "Your MOTHER? Bloody fucking hell!"

And all at once I could not think about the monster that had been my mother, or about Angel who is and is not my father, or about this thing that knew me without knowing me. I could not bear to be near it any more.

I plunged the stake into it as fast as I could. It was too surprised to react in time. It did not say anything as it turned to ashes.

The next day, when I began to try and tell this to Angel, he finally made it known to me that Buffy had been his lover. This explained much of the way Buffy and Angel behaved toward one another. I was only more disgusted by the revelation, though, and so I never did tell Angel about the other vampire, or what happened after. It's just as well. If I had wanted an explanation, I would not have killed it.

"What are you doing up there?"

I look down to see Winifred standing between the cars. She is wrapped in a thick coat with a knit hat pulled down over her ears, and in one hand, she has my jacket. Winifred was worried that I was cold, and this pleases me enough to climb down. We stand between the cars together as I put the jacket on. "Are you trying to freeze to death?" she shouts, forgetting that my hearing is better than hers.

"No," I shout back. "I just wanted to be by myself. How did you find me?"

"You're louder than you think up there," she says. "Thumping around on the roof like my daddy playing Santa Claus."

I misjudged the thickness of the roof. Embarrassing -- the kind of mistake I should be past making. Quickly, I ask, "Where is Gunn?"

"Went back to Faith," she says. She doesn't seem unhappy about it, and she doesn't mention that I was loud again. I am relieved.

I expect Winifred to pull me back inside, but instead she goes to the edge of the car. We stand there together, braced by the railing. Her face is framed by the deep blue of the heavens, and speckles of ice glitter in her hair. She would laugh if I kissed her. I still wish I could kiss her. Snow has begun to fall from a few clouds in the sky, but there is a patch in the distance that shows stars. Winifred points toward it. "See that?" she says. "That's Andromeda."

"Andromeda?" I do not know this word, or why she would be pointing at the sky. So for the next several minutes, I stand and listen to her as she tells me the legends of the people she sees in the stars. Winifred is always patient with the things I don't know. She remembers what it's like to be different in the world, not to know all the rules. I don't have to explain things to her; Winifred just understands, without words.

As she gestures at the heavens, she tells me about the princess chained to the rocks, and the horse that could fly. And she teaches me the name of Orion, who was a hunter, like me.

Chapter Five: The Angel of Vengeance Herself

You don't get a whole lot of proof, in this life, that somebody loves you. This is mostly because not that many people love you. Most people don't love much of anybody besides themselves. I learned that one early.

Later on I figured out that you don't ask people to prove that they love you. Not in the right way, anyway; not any way that actually tells you what's true. You ask them to stop the drinking, and they do, at least for a while. Don't prove nothing except that all that 12-step higher-power crap works just like brainwashing. You ask them to sleep with you and they do it. What's that prove, except that somebody's horny?

This last year, though, I finally realized that sometimes you just don't look in the right place for the proof. You gotta learn a lot before you can do what I'm doing right now -- look down at a styrofoam cup of coffee and smile like it was a fuckin' diamond ring.

"They had what they said were omelets," Chuck says as he starts pulling stuff out of a paper bag. "Looked like day-glo frisbees to me. So I went with the muffin option. You want apple cinnamon or banana nut?"

I don't each much in the mornings, so it's not like it matters. "Apple cinnamon," I say, and I musta guessed right, because Chuck grins as he starts unwrapping the one he wanted. "You know, I coulda gone for another Milky Way."

"Girl, you keep doin' damage to those candy bars like you did last night, and the train ain't gonna be able to pull you no further," he laughs. I flip him off, and he grins, and we split the newspaper he bought and eat the rest of our breakfast.

This would be a lot easier if we had a table. Damn Council takes this jail thing real serious. They coulda put the containment spell on a nice sleeper car, if they gave a shit. But instead me and Chuck get this freight thing with a couple of cots that aren't bolted to the floor, which made last night an adventure, let me tell ya. It's warm, though, and to tell the truth, if you just added an old tv and some pirated cable, it wouldn't suck that much worse than our place in Chicago.

And then I remember that -- like it was a million years ago, instead of one day -- me and Chuck curled up on our mattress, pretending like this cheap-ass comforter we got at the Salvation Army was enough to keep us warm, making out before breakfast. Then I remember the night before, when we got kinda wild and crazy in the shower and made the neighbors beat on the pipes. Then I think about the patrol we had before that --did some serious slaying, showed off some serious moves. I'm a better Slayer now than I ever was back in California. Partly this is because I got Chuck with me now. But mostly it's because I know I'm the only one. I never was, before. B was always there, so I never really had to try on that "one girl in all the world" thing. I was kinda surprised how well it fit.

First time in my life I'm happy is when it all comes crashing down for good. First time in my life I'm happy is when Buffy is dead and gone. Figures.

"This is the high temple?" Buffy put her hands on her hips. "This is not the high anything. This is like a frat house, only without the cleanliness and tasteful decor."

"What do you expect from a bunch of wannabes?" I sat down on the sofa, total work of beauty in avocado green. These cult jerks had cut out for the night. I figured they were probably doing something stupid like buying sacred wine in a cardboard box. I didn't want to think that maybe they were after the dogs again. I didn't like thinking about the dogs, about the way they had to hurt so someone else could feel good.

I remembered what it was like to think like that, and I didn't want to remember it any more than I had to.

B and I were patrolling together that night. We didn't usually do that -- usually she hung with Angel, even though it seemed to drag them both down. But tonight Angel was off with his creepy kid doing their Batman and Robin routine, and Wesley was tooling around with Cordy. So it was just us. Just me and Buffy.

Buffy -- she wasn't really the person I remembered anymore. Still smart, still funny, still always with her perfect hair and nails and outfits even if we were going down to fight demons in the sewer.

But B used to be the platitude queen, all full of goodness and sunshine and light, like one of those damn greeting cards that sings every time you open it. She was plucky, brave, noble Buffy, and I -- well, I wasn't. I never believed all that rainbows-and-roses stuff, even when it came from somebody I liked (and looked up to, and wanted, and maybe just a little bit on the side loved).

Still, though, when I got outta jail, I was staying on the sunny side of the street, you know? I still wasn't in rainbows-and-roses land -- two years of sleeping in the same room with your toilet kinda kills your illusions, even if you didn't have many to start with. But I was ready to straighten up and fly right. Floss. Wear a bra. Whatever normal people did. The next time Buffy started talking about all the things we oughta do and be, I was ready to listen.

Thing was, she never talked about that anymore.

"Can't we just call the cops on these guys?" I said. "Animal cruelty's a crime. They can lock you up for that."

"Can't prove it's them," Buffy said with a shrug. She started to sit beside me, then squinted at some stains on the cushions. I raised an eyebrow. B stayed on her feet. "They don't bring the dogs here, looks like."

"Don't look they do much here except drink and screw," I said. "None of that shit Wesley told us to look for is lying around."

"We'll still have to come back," Buffy said. "They can change at any time. You never know when the game could turn real."

Great. Two girls in all the world to battle the yadda yadda, and we're gonna be spending all our time spying on these losers. "This place is freakin' me out. Let's motor."

"Wait." Buffy said. Her voice sounded -- weird. Tense. Like she'd been waiting on this for a while.

And truth was, I'd been waiting on this too. She'd been totally cool with me since the day she came to L.A.; I figured she was too shell-shocked after all that went down in Sunnydale to worry about hating my guts. But we just kept on getting along, surprising the hell outta Wes and everybody else. Surprising the hell outta me. Buffy let it go. She liked me. She got me that kick-ass knife. Hell, sometimes she even flirted with me, though I knew that was just to give Angel some shit for dating Cordelia. (I don't know what tricks of the Kama Sutra Cordy was using to keep him under her spell, but hey, can't argue with success. The man didn't budge from her side.)

But I always knew we were gonna have to settle things between us sometime. And it looked like sometime had just turned into now.

"Back in Sunnydale -- all the stuff you did -- all the stuff you used to do --" she blurted out.

Here it came. I took a deep breath. I'd been getting ready for this for four years, but I still felt like I was gonna pee my pants. "Yeah," I said.

Buffy whispered, "I understand."

So that shoulda made everything good, right? All that time, I'd been wishing that B could find it in her to forgive me. And there she was forgiving me. I didn't have to ask for it. Didn't have to work for it. Just had it handed to me on that silver platter that hadn't been passed my way, like, ever. So what was my problem?

That I didn't have to ask for it. I didn't have to work for it. In prison I got used to thinking of myself as a person who had a lot to make up for. And if I wasn't making up for something -- what the hell was I supposed to do with my time?

"I'm sorry, B. But that -- that's all over now," I said, just because I had to say something.

"No, it's not," she said. I stared at her, and her eyes glittered in the dark room. The sofa smelled like old beer and older sex. "It's never over. I get it now. I finally learned that you were right."

"Right?" None of this was making any sense. It was like she suddenly started talking in French or something. "Right about what?"

"About taking what you want. About facing the fact that we pulled a bad card from the deck, and we get to play it any way we want. About looking out for yourself," Buffy said. "Because nobody else is ever going to look out for you."

"No," I said. "No -- that's not true --" My voice was all shaky, like I didn't mean it, which made me crazy, because I did mean it. We were both living under Angel's roof, right? Cordy and Wesley and Chuck and Fred and even Connor -- they all helped us patrol, kept us company, watched our backs. Sure, they were annoying as hell sometimes. But we were in this together.

The worst of all was that I knew all that, and what Buffy was saying still felt like it was true. Part of me wanted to believe it. If I could believe it, I wouldn't have to feel bad about what I'd done anymore. I wouldn't have to care. Sometimes I didn't want to care.

"Faith, they don't understand us," Buffy said. She knelt on the floor in front of me, brushed her hair away from her face. She actually kinda looked excited for what seemed like the first time in forever. "Not Angel, not anyone. They all act like there's some -- point to all this. Like they can beat this game, or win it. But we understand, don't we? What it's like to fight, and fight, and -- and know there's nothing else for you, ever, but fighting --"

"Yeah," I admitted. It made me tired, just thinking about it. And I'd gotten so good at not thinking about it.

B rested her hands on my knees and leaned forward. "I'm sick of playing by the rules, Faith. It doesn't get you anywhere. You just end up alone." Her eyes were wide as she gazed at me. "I'm so tired of being alone."

The way she was looking at me -- I used to dream about Buffy looking at me like that. Hell, anybody looking at me like that. Like she thought I was beautiful, like she couldn't get enough of me. Like she had seen down deep inside me, and knew me, and wanted me anyway. I whispered, "B -- what are you --"

"I know what I need," she said. Her lips shone with gloss. Her eyes were wide. "You're what I need."

She kissed me. We're not talking tongue, here, but we're not talking sisters, either. It was a pretty good kiss, actually -- slick and sexy. Felt it from my lips on down. Maybe I shoulda kissed her back.

Instead I pushed her away -- not shoved or nothing, but yeah, pushed. "Buffy -- no."

"Faith -- you used to want this," Buffy said. Her voice was shaking. Her whole body was shaking. "I know you did."

"Yeah," I said. No point in denying it now. "I did. But I didn't love you, B. I mean -- not like that. I just wanted to take something from you. I don't want that anymore."

"That's not all it was." Buffy was getting mad, good and mad. And she was right to be mad, because that's not all it was. It was more than that. It was knowing that there was something down in the heart of her, something deep and dark and powerful, just like what was deep down in the heart of me. I hadn't stopped feeling that, not ever. Not one single day. Whatever that something was that tied me and Buffy together, it was too strong to ever really die.

But that was the same something I'd spent four years learning to ignore. I wasn't gonna listen to it ever again. Not for anyone. Not even for Buffy.

"We can't do this, okay?" I stood up fast, and that knocked her backwards. She was sitting on the filthy floor of this gross little room, and she looked more beaten than I'd ever seen her after a fight. I felt like total shit. But I wasn't gonna do anything different.

"Fine," she said. All that energy was gone. She was just limp and tired and mad as hell. "I'll just patrol with Angel from now on. Okay?"

"Okay," I said. It wasn't like we patrolled together that much anyway. She just wanted to try and hurt me, like I hurt her.

I guess I shoulda tried to talk to her. Not about us getting together --but the way she was talking. Thinking the way she was thinking, wanting the stuff she wanted -- not good. Even wanting me. Hell, especially wanting me. Buffy was burying herself down in the dark where nothing else could get at her, like anything else could be more dangerous than what she was doing to herself.

But I didn't do it. Why? Get real.

Me save Buffy? The fuck-up of all time giving life advice to the Buffy the Pure? I mighta figured out how to save myself, but that didn't mean I had the first clue about saving anybody else. I'd just drag her down even lower, making her dredge up all that crap. I don't make situations better. I make 'em worse.

We went back to the Hyperion without a word.

Back at the ranch, looked like nobody else was real happy either. "Of COURSE I double-checked the reference," Wesley was saying as we came in the doors. "It's standard procedure."

Buffy smiled at him, a weird, thin-lipped smile. "I guess you double-check everything these days, huh, Wesley? You can only screw up so many times, after all. There's only so many of us to get killed."

Wesley went white. Angel looked surprised, but he didn't say anything as Wesley started for the door. "Uh, hey," I said. Wes didn't answer as he swept on out.

"So. You're -- back," Fred said to us. The awkward factor was already in force big-time.

"I'm sure you're glad," Buffy said. "Gunn almost had to go a whole hour without talking to Faith. He must be ready to pop."

Fred stared. "What the hell is your damage?" Chuck said.

"Sorry," Buffy said airily. But I knew was she was doing. I just told her we were in a good place. She was gonna prove to me that I was wrong. And if that meant pushing everybody's buttons to see who'd explode first, she was gonna do it. She glanced over at Cordelia, aka the next victim. "Did the gods talk to their messenger while we were out?"

"I prefer to think of them as the Powers," Cordelia said. "Gods sounds so -- mythology class. I don't think the visions are getting sent by a bunch of guys in togas."

"Like 'Clash of the Titans'?" I said. Cordelia smiled back -- not that she thought any of my jokes were funny, but she was pretty desperate to change the mood, too. Angel obviously did not have a damn clue what 'Clash of the Titans' was -- lucky him -- but he looked relieved, like maybe this was gonna pass.

B didn't let it pass. "Must feel pretty good, huh, Cordy? To have direct messages from heaven all the time? To know that you're so holy and pure and good that you can't do any wrong?" Buffy was looking at Angel then. "I get thrown out of heaven for no reason, and you turn 'em down, but they love you all the same. Some gals have all the luck."

"Some gals have all the nerve," Cordy snapped -- and for just that second, she wasn't acting all Goody Two Shoes. She was Cordelia Chase, Queen of Sunnydale High, pissed as hell. "The martyr routine's getting old, Buffy. Time to stow it."

Then Cordelia's eyes got wide, and she looked at Angel, who was staring at her like he'd never seen her mouth off like that before. Buffy was doing her wounded-deer look, and Angel always was a sucker for that. "Cordy --" he said quietly.

"Hey," Cordy said. Her voice was all shaky. "Whaddaya know? The bitch has come out of retirement." Then she ran out to the courtyard. Angel started to go after her, then glanced back at Buffy, and basically looked like he was about to split in two.

"I do not have to stick around for this," Chuck said, grabbing his coat and going to the door. "You want to play a little pool, Faith?"

One time I saw a Nyoier Demon shoot fire out of his eyeballs and fry a person. The look he had on his face right before the fire shot out was a lot like the look Fred had on her face right then. "No, I'm good right here," I said.

"I'll just bet," Fred said, and she stamped upstairs. Chuck swore and went out the front door.

Buffy sighed. "Well, now that I've proved that everybody hates everybody, most of all me, I guess it's time for bed."

As she headed upstairs, Angel called, "Buffy? Nobody feels like -- we understand that -- " Angel put his head on the counter for a minute, then looked up at me. "Connor. Where's Connor?"

"Wasn't he patrolling with you?" I asked. Angel didn't answer, just took off to the basement. Which left me standing all by my lonesome.

I thought about what had been happening. What had just happened. And then I realized something.

Out of all these people, I thought, out of everybody here -- I'm the stable one.

I muttered, "This is NOT good."

Chuck started fidgeting around ten in the morning. Getting us some lunch (microwaved hamburgers, soggy buns, total grossness) chilled him out for a while. But by about two in the afternoon, he was all wiggy again. He hates being cooped up almost as much as I do. I could deal with it when he was just pacing. I was even okay with him shadow-boxing in the corner. But now he's started humming, I have to draw the line. "You gotta get out of here."

"Tell me about it," he says.

"No, I mean NOW." He looks at me all weird, and I sigh. "You help me out. You know you do. But you don't have to be stuck in here all day. You're gonna be happier out there."

"Are you gonna be happier without me?" He's not hurt. He's not joking. He's just asking, straight-out. I like that about him.

"I'll be happier when you come back," I say. Musta been the right answer or close enough, because he smiles.

"I ain't gettin' you no candy bars," he says, and the way he says it makes me think he's gonna have a Milky Way in every pocket. "Maybe a diet soda."

"Maybe you oughta get yourself a new face to make up for the one I'm about to slap off." We kiss each other, and he's gone. He doesn't look back at me, and even though I knew before then that he didn't want to be in here -- it still kinda hurts.

But as long as it's time to face facts, I gotta face a few I don't like. One -- the place I hated most in my life, the place I swore I wasn't ever gonna go back to, was prison. And now it's looks like I'm headed there again, and I don't think the Council ever heard of parole. Two --Fred's still got it bad for him. I saw her for about two minutes, but I could tell. Three -- I think he still misses her, sometimes, and if I get packed off to Ye Olde Big House for good, it ain't gonna take him long to start thinking Fred's looking okay again.

I guess I'm supposed to be all grown-up and mature about this. But the fact is, I want to rip this car apart with my bare hands. I want to throw this train off the rails, and to hell with everyone inside. Anything to stop Fred from getting him back.

And as much as I hate that idea, as much as I love him, you know what? If handing Chuck over to Fred would get me outta this mess, I'd tie a bow around him and give him back with a smile.

Oh, God, I don't want to go back to jail. I went there of my own free will once, but even now I gotta admit, that's mostly because I didn't know what it would be like. I don't think I can go back again.

But then, there's two kinds of jails. There's boxes and bars that hold you in, and then there's the jail you carry around inside your head. Ain't no getting out of that one, no matter what you do. I know. I tried.

Why did I ever think it would be any different? How come I ever thought I was gonna come out on top? For the past year, running around with Chuck, I let myself pretend I could beat this game. But I never was gonna be lucky. I never was gonna get it right. I shoulda known all along. It's not like I didn't have plenty of proof.

My jaw dropped. Then I started to laugh. "This is yours?"

"I admit it's impractical," said Wesley, standing next to an honest-to-God motorcycle.

"This is one sweet machine," I said. "What are you doin' with wheels like this? You havin' your midlife crisis ten years early?"

"The jeep's in the shop," Wesley said. He was being about as prim as you can get wearing a leather jacket. "And it would be twenty years."

"What?" I frowned at him while I picked up this dumb-ass Miss-Piggy pink helmet that was apparently his idea of revenge.

He straightened his glasses. "My midlife crisis would be twenty years early," he said. "I'm only 34."

"Huh," I said. "I thought you were older." I knew it would hurt his feelings. But you know, I wouldn't have said it if I hadn't meant it. Wes acted a little more -- wrung out than that. "You've got gray hair."

"I most certainly have not," Wesley said.

"Yeah, you do, Denial Boy," I said, leaning forward to look at his temples, where I remembered the gray. But there wasn't any.

"Told you," he said.

"Grecian formula," I said. I mean, he HAD to have gray hair. He was a gray-haired kinda guy.

He didn't answer, just got on the bike. 'Let's get to the waterfront," he said. "We're wasting time."

I was gonna bitch about the pink helmet, but what the hell. After prison coveralls, I figured my fashion score was pretty well shot.

We took off for the waterfront, where some Velga demons were supposed to be stirring up some hell in a shopping center. No big. You jab 'em a couple of times, they shriek and run off, end of story. Might have time to run by the Gap on my way out. Of course, the Gap is closed at midnight, so that would technically be shoplifting. Would've done it anyway, once. It's still kinda nice to think about.

It was also kinda nice to ride along the streets of L.A. on this bike. Wes knew how to handle the machine; when did he learn how? I didn't know, didn't care. It just felt good to zoom along, darting in and out of the city lights, racing toward the ocean.

When we pulled up to the shopping center, though --

"Hell," Wesley said.

"Not that nice," I said. The main entrance was surrounded by a glass wall, and through it we could see about four dozen demons rooting around, throwing stuff, having a big time. Not good. I know just how much ass I can kick, and this was over the line. Or -- maybe --

"We've got to run them out," Wesley said, like I didn't know this. "If the staff arrives in the morning and even one or two remain --"

I checked the knife at my belt - the knife B gave me. I'd been scared she'd ask for it back, but she didn't. I looked back at the demons. "We can do this," I said.

Wesley looked over his shoulder at me and raised an eyebrow. I waited for him to say something smart-ass, or just plain chicken out. But the expression on his face --

He was surprised that I said we could do it, that I trusted him. He wanted to hear what I wanted to say. He wanted a challenge. He wanted to go in there and kick some serious ass.

I felt myself start to grin. "I've got a GREAT idea."

"Uh-oh," Wesley said. But he was grinning back.

I don't spend a lot of time wondering what demons think. They go grr, they kill stuff, they get killed, end of saga. But sometimes I wonder what those demons thought that night, while they were going crazy in the shopping center. When they heard the roar of the motor. When they turned to see what was happening.

Or when they saw me and Wesley come smashing through that wall, tires and glass and metal screaming, motorcycle catching air, Wesley like a bat out of hell in black leather, and me -- Faith, the Vampire Slayer --with my knife in my hand and a smile on my face, swooping down like the angel of vengeance herself.

We landed hard, but Wes kept our balance, tilting us so the bike slid into -- through -- a couple demons to the left. Bits of glass were raining all around us. Anyplace I felt scales, I slashed. I heard 'em howl. "Go!" I yelled.

The minute he could get the bike back up, Wesley turned us around and we started charging demons right and left. On our feet, we were slower and weaker; with 500 pounds of Harley-Davidson between our legs, the odds changed in our favor.

I hopped up on the back of the bike, clamped one hand on Wesley's shoulder and kicked out. Caught a demon right in the jaw, sent it down. Tried stabbing the demons from above instead of the side. Worked good. Wesley kept swerving like crazy, steering us around benches and trash cans -- and it was like I could read his mind. I knew when we were gonna turn before we turned. I knew which way he was gonna lean, when he was gonna gun it. And I could use it all. Before we accelerated, I'd find my target, get in place. Before we swerved left, I'd kick right, get the momentum. It was like that bike was a part of me, like Wes was steering us both without saying a word.

I knew I wouldn't fall.

Right about the time we sent two demons crashing into the Disney store, the rest of 'em finally got the message. Pack demons are like that; you spook a certain number, and you've spooked 'em all. They started running for the exit and the water, howling the whole time. Usually we just let 'em go, but that night Wesley and I ran them all the way out of the shopping center, down the pavement, all the way to the beach. "You better run, motherfuckers!" I screamed after them. I was laughing. And Wesley was too.

Then he drove me back into the city. And I swear to God, L.A. was more beautiful than it had ever been before. Everything was more beautiful than it had ever been before. This bike was bigger, and the lights were brighter, and Wesley was the greatest Watcher in the world, and I was the greatest Slayer. The only Slayer. The wind around us felt like silk, and I knew we couldn't crash. We couldn't fail. Whatever it was -- that shine Giles and Buffy had, that something about them that told you they weren't gonna get it wrong -- Wesley and I had that, then. Just for one night.

We went back to his place, where the bike belonged, and where Cordy would be coming to get me at dawn. Wes and I stopped in the garage, and he killed the motor, and for a long time we just sat there, my arms around his waist, like we didn't want it to end.

I tried to tell him that. I said, "I hate to get off."

Wes said, "That's not what I heard."

And it was the funniest fuckin' thing ever, except that I wasn't laughing, and neither was he, and the next thing I knew we were kissing. His mouth was open, and mine was too, and the leather jacket crunched as I grabbed him, and I couldn't get him turned around so I slid to the front of the bike, straddled him, felt him hard and ready for me.

When I could pull my mouth away from his, I panted, "Get me inside." He dragged me off the motorcycle and we started heading upstairs, away from his garage. Wes pushed me against the wall of the stairwell -- cement blocks in my back, his hand down my jeans. I pushed him down on the stairs -- my knees on either side of his shoulders, my hand hanging onto the rail for balance. It was like some bizarre, fantastic wet dream, something where you'd wake up the moment you came.

Instead, I woke up the moment we got naked. Last piece of clothing hit the floor, and all of a sudden I wasn't the Slayer anymore. I was Faith, same old screw-up Faith, taking what had been the world's greatest Slayer-Watcher moment and turning it into -- what? A doomed fuck? This redefined doomed.

Wesley was staring at me, and I was staring at him. He had a nicer body than I would've thought. But we weren't looking at each other like lovers. It was -- colder than that. I was staring at his scars, the ones I made on his body. I had scars from him too, but they didn't show.

I felt weird. I wanted to say, Let's stop. But Wesley stepped toward me, and I knew he still wanted this, strange or not. And how was I supposed to say no? Because I knew what that had to mean for him, to drop his weapons and his clothes in front of the person who tortured him, who nearly killed him.

Wesley had less reason to trust me than anyone else in the world, but that was what he was doing. Trusting me. I was just gonna have to trust him back.

His lips were cool when he kissed me again. I put my hands up to his shoulders, but he pushed them down again. Was he gonna stop? I wondered. But instead he started tracing over my body with his fingertips, going straight for the hot spots -- no sweetheart stuff, just pushing the buttons. I tried to put my hand on his cock, but he pushed me away again, and then I got it.

This wasn't about what we were gonna do together. This was about he was gonna do to me. He wanted to control me. No way in hell he was gonna let me control him again, even if it was through feeling good instead of feeling bad.

He got me onto the bed, and I was kinda freaking out -- I'm not big on letting go. Wesley's hands felt good, but I couldn't stop thinking about what that would mean -- giving myself over to a guy I tortured. Sex or revenge? What was it gonna be? And I was thinking there was just no way I was gonna get through this when Wesley got his face between my legs, and GODDAMNED if his tongue ain't as overeducated as the rest of him.

I stopped freaking out. I started enjoying the ride. He enjoyed it too -- I'm damn sure of that. I let him hold me down. I let him fuck me hard. I let him make me scream. By the time we fell asleep, the sheets were sweaty and our voices were hoarse from yelling and I had some new marks on my skin to match Wesley's old ones. I felt good. No, I felt great. It wasn't the best fuck of my life, but it was definitely in the semifinals bracket.

Of course, I knew it wasn't gonna last. Me and Wes? Crazy. But I figured it was a good thing, you know? We'd have a big "friends" talk in the morning, grab some coffee, make dirty jokes the others wouldn't get. It was stupid to think that screwing could count as Slayer-Watcher bonding, but if I was that smart, I wouldn't have screwed him in the first place.

When I woke up, instead of the chummy coffee run, I saw Wesley standing at the foot of the bed. He was already dressed. It was right around sunrise; the curtains were closed, but you get a feel for that when you're a Slayer. "No rest for the wicked," I said as I stretched. I heard that someplace.

Wesley didn't smile. "You should get dressed," he said. "Cordelia will be here any moment now."

Oh, yeah. Cordy. I started to laugh. "Yeah, don't want to shock the locals." I jumped up and starting looking for the panties -- I thought they landed somewhere near the fern. Wesley turned his face away. "What's the problem?" I said. "You've seen the merchandise."

"Don't remind me," he said. And that seriously pissed me off. What the hell? I knew Wesley hadn't had a whole lotta nights like that one before. Guy oughta be grateful.

I tried to be cool about it. "Hey, bad idea. I know this." I slid the panties on, started looking for the bra. "Spare me the no-strings talk, okay? It was just one night. That's all you wanted, that's all I wanted."

"You cannot possibly be misguided enough to think that I would ever have contemplated anything else," Wesley said, which was really fancy for, "Like I'd want you."

I pulled my T-shirt over my head. "Coulda fooled me on the stairs last night," I said. He drew back, all offended, and I tried to calm down and chill out. "Wes -- come on. We don't gotta be ugly about this. Last night wasn't a big thing. Okay? We just had a moment where -- where --" Where what? I thought about it for a minute, then said, "Where we kinda understood each other. You know?"

It was like dropping a lit match into a barrel of gasoline. Wes grabbed my arm so hard it hurt, and his face -- I've seen people that mad, but not much. He said, "I do not understand you. I am not like you. I am nothing like you. I have made -- mistakes in my life, but I have never, ever -- I didn't let myself -- I stopped -- I'm not like you." He was shaking. I knew my jaw was hanging open. He let go of me and stood there for a minute, and then he repeated, "I'm nothing like you. If you think that, you don't know me at all."

Right that second, he didn't look familiar. He didn't look old. He didn't look smart. He didn't look kind. I just said, "Check."

I grabbed my jeans and went out. Put 'em on in the hallway, and waved at a very surprised guy coming home late. I waited on the curb to get picked up, just like the trash.

I hear someone at the door of the car, and I figure it's Chuck. Back already. I start smiling, and then I hear the Watcher on guard talking with someone -- not Chuck --

A man steps into the jail car. He's wearing a long coat, gloves and a ski mask. I laugh before I can help myself. "Angel."

He pulls off the ski mask, and his face looks so weird --

Then I remember just why Angel's been hunting me down the past year, and I figure he doesn't have a handcuff spell, and I wonder just how this is gonna go.

But he doesn't attack. He doesn't yell. He just studies me for a minute before saying, "Hello, Faith."

The Watcher is staring through the window in the door. I guess if Angel goes for my throat, he'll step in and save me. So not confident about this.

Angel is trying to get up the nerve to say something to me, but he's taking his time. I say, "So, you didn't have a speech planned for this? A lecture all ready for when you hunted me down?"

"I didn't think we'd ever catch you," he said. Angel stepped a little closer. "I hoped we wouldn't."

Hoped? Angel hoped he wouldn't find us? I stared up at him, and I didn't know whether to be scared or start crying or what --

The doors slid open, and the Watchers came in. "Well, well," said the old one. "Angel. Come to threaten the defendant?"

"No," Angel says. He doesn't say anything else.

The Watchers kind of relax, and I realize they must have been called by the guard. "You guys just showed up to make sure I wouldn't get killed?" I say. "That's real nice. Like making sure I don't slip and fall on my way to the electric chair."

"You do know you're not going to be executed for your crimes?" says the woman. She seems a little nicer than the others, which wasn't saying a whole lot.

"Yeah, I got the part where I just rot in jail forever," I say.

"What's going on?" Chuck comes in. He looks kinda surprised to see that I'm throwing a party. He glares at Angel, but he keeps his mouth shut.

"We were explaining to your friend that she's going to be tried for her crimes in accordance with our process," says the old one.

"Just what is this process?" says Gunn. "Is this medieval crap? Dunking or iron maidens or --"

"Good lord, no," says the woman. "What do you take us for?" Gunn opens his mouth to answer that, but she keeps talking, "We will hold a trial."

"You guys got fingerprints or something?" Gunn says. "I'm kinda doubting the due-process thing."

"There is only one witness," the old man says. "Faith herself."

"What do you mean?" Angel says.

The old guy says, "She will be put under the influence of a spell that will compel her to tell the truth. She will tell us all she knows, all she has done. And we will make our judgments accordingly. So you see --Faith has nothing to fear but the truth."

Like that ain't enough to be afraid of. I need to be alone for a second -- no, not alone. Just with Chuck. "Everybody out," I say, holding my hand out to him. "Except you."

"You heard the lady," he says. The others go -- and Angel shoots me this weird look as he goes. Chuck sits down with me on the cot. "You okay?"

"Yeah," I say. Because I am. I'm better than okay. I'm so much better than okay I can't even believe it.

The truth. All they want is the truth. For the first time in forever, I don't have to lie anymore. They'll know I didn't kill Buffy.

Chuck brushes my hair. He's so gentle; you wouldn't think he could be gentle like that, but he is with me. And I'm gentle with him. You put us both together, you get about one good person. I'm lucky to get even that close. "Hey," he says. "Who's your man?"

It feels nice to give him a straight answer. "You are," I say. "You're my man." And the look on his face --

Now I know that old saying is true. The truth shall set you free.

Chapter Six: The Broodmaster

Of course, Faith was there. We know she was there. Her shoes left tracks on the front steps in blood; I didn't know the kind of shoes, but Cordy did. And we found her knife -- the one Buffy gave her, the one she always kept on her body -- next to Buffy's body. Faith was there, she knew what happened, and she didn't come to us. She took off right away, ran like hell, and if she slowed down at all it was to call Gunn. So probably she's guilty.

I want to believe that. I have to believe it.

I dropped down from the fire escape, about thirty feet from Connor. Close enough that he could see and hear me, far enough that, if he decided to attack, I'd have a chance to prepare myself. Or just run. I'm not a big fan of running from a fight, but I'd only been out of the box for a couple of weeks; I wasn't even a match for a regular human, at that point.

Connor didn't attack. I didn't run. We stared at each other for a moment, and then he said, "They found you."

"Yeah," I said. "You had to know they would, sooner or later."

"I didn't think they were that smart," Connor said. From almost anyone else it would have been a taunt or an insult. From him, it was simple. That was how he evaluated them, but he'd realized he was wrong. "Connor, I want you to hear me out."

"You didn't kill my father." It stung, hearing him call Holtz his father; it always does. But this once the pain was eclipsed by relief --unexpected and exhilarating.

And then I could only feel confused; I'd planned out what to say to convince him, not what to talk about afterward. I honestly didn't believe we'd get to an afterward. I could only stare at him. He was wearing clothes he had to have gotten from a thrift store or a charity. He hadn't bathed recently enough. He wasn't starving, but he was even thinner than he had been when he emerged from Quartoth. He was glaring at me, and his hands were clenched around a stake. He looked so young.

"Where are you living?" I said. "Are you -- are you okay there? Is there something you need?"

Connor cocked his head at me. "You're not mad."

A month of starvation and hallucination. Dark and cold and hunger beyond anything I'd ever imagined. The knowledge that I was in hell before hell, that nothing awaited me but more fear, more madness, more terror. All of that wrought by my son. It frightened me that I was telling the truth when I said, "No. I'm not. You -- you were mistaken, and you were upset."

"I was mistaken," Connor said. "I was wrong." His head dropped; oh, God, he felt bad about it. He regretted it. I could feel something go warm and liquid inside my chest, something not unlike hope.

"It's okay. I'm okay. It's all over now." I tried taking a few steps forward. Connor didn't run. Good sign, I figured. I'd take what I could get. "Listen, Connor -- or, or do you want to be Stephen? If you do, I can --"

"Connor's fine," he said. "It doesn't matter."

Maybe that meant Connor wanted to be my son again. I wanted it to mean that. "I could get you something to eat. There's a diner a couple blocks over, open all night. Have you had a hamburger yet?" I haven't had a hamburger yet myself; they came along after I gave up solid food, and it wasn't one of the things I got around to on my one non-day of humanity. But to judge from all the commercials and billboards, and the sheer number Gunn could put away, they must be pretty good. The sort of thing Connor might like.

He walked closer to me, studying my face. His body was still tensed, poised to strike, but I knew he wasn't planning an attack. He just didn't know what to do. At last he said, "I was living with Justine. She gave me a place to stay."

I remembered the one time I got to punch Justine in the face. I didn't savor it enough at the time. "You were living with her, but -- you aren't now?"

"Not since yesterday." He shrugged with one shoulder. "She's the one who killed my father. I got her to admit it."

I hadn't planned on saying this for a long time to come, but I knew I had to try. "You still have a room at the hotel," I said. "You still have a place with us, if you want it. We could use your help."

Connor was surprised, I could tell. And doubtful. But he didn't walk away. "We'd fight vampires together," he said. "And demons."

"That's right." Angel & Son, Killers of Supernatural Evil Since 2002. I tried to step down hard on my surge of enthusiasm. "We could do a lot of good together, Connor. More than we could do alone. And you'd be with people who care about you." I was icing that last sentence; when Cordelia referred to Connor, she was obviously trying to be polite --and Gunn didn't bother trying. But I knew they'd accept him in the end.

We stood there in the alley for what seemed like an eternity. I was nervous, even fidgeting as he weighed the decision. He, on the other hand, was very still. Finally, he said, "My stuff is still at Justine's place."

How much stuff could he have? Then again -- if Connor only had a handful of possessions in the world, all the more reason for them to be important to him. "We can go by there, pick it all up. My car's just a couple blocks over --"

"It's right here," he said, gesturing at a building across the street. "I was going to go get it as soon as I knew where I could put it. I mean --"

Connor's face was uncertain, uneasy, but there was a hint of a smile. I thought, thank you, Powers, or whatever got us to this place. Was that Holtz? I was willing to thank him too. I was illuminated by a spirit of charity and goodwill almost unlike anything I'd ever known. Fate had granted me mercy. Fate had given me back my son. The world -- even the grubby apartment building we walked into, the foul-smelling stairwell we climbed -- was a better place than I'd hoped. I thought I would even be able to be civil to Justine, if the situation demanded.

The situation did not demand. Connor pushed the door open, and I saw Justine.

He went to a back room, and I could hear rummaging. "I have some clothes, and a blanket, and glasses that make the sun not as bright. Justine said these were the right things. She might have lied. She lied a lot. Will you tell me if they're not right?"

"I'll tell you," I said slowly. I stepped through the doorway. The smell of the blood was overpowering; I couldn't smell anything else. I was nauseated and hungry at the same time. What I saw, what had become of Justine --

Angelus would have approved.

This is what Holtz taught him to be, I thought. You can teach him better. You still have time. He still has a chance.

Connor came out from the back with a bundle tied up in a bedsheet. He didn't even have a box to call his own. He didn't look at Justine. "Can we go now? I don't want to stay here."

I didn't look at Justine anymore either. I held out my arm to him. "Let's go home."

"Hey, Broodmaster." I look up to see Cordelia standing over me. I didn't even notice her entering the cabin; I've got to stay focused better than this. Now, more than ever, I need to be sure what's going on, so I can figure out what to do.

She sits by my side on the cabin's small sofa and slides one arm around my shoulders. "I'd feel guilty about leaving you in here all by your lonesome for so long, if I didn't know you would have been just as broody with me here."

"I'm sorry." I apologize to her so often, now. She's heard little else from me, this last year, and I know she worries about the silence. I don't know what to say to her, anymore. The one thing that claws at me, the one thing I can't stop thinking about -- it's the one thing I can never tell her. To avoid betraying my son, I betray the woman I love. As traps go, this one's pretty effective. I made it well. "But I wasn't in here the whole time."

"The sun just went down --" I hold up the ski mask, and she smiles. "You had a serious case of stir crazy, didn't you? Well, tomorrow morning we get to L.A. Then we can get this trial thing over with." She strokes my hair, and her touch feels so good. If only I could relax into it, just concentrate on the way she can make me feel. "We can send the guilty party to jail."

I tense up, though I try not to let her see it. Cordelia keeps on making comments like that -- "the guilty party," "the person that's responsible." It's like she's avoiding Faith's name. Like she might share the same suspicions I do.

Oh, God, it would feel good to tell her my fears, to hear hers in return. But if Cordelia doesn't guess -- if the secret is still mine and mine alone -- it has to stay that way.

"I'm not in such a hurry to get back to L.A.," I say. That's as close to the truth as I can come. Cordelia slumps forward, her hands on her knees. She looks dejected, and I already miss the warmth of her arm against my shoulders. "What's the matter?"

"I just wish --" Cordelia looks upward, and I realize with an unhappy jolt that there are tears in her eyes. There's no fight in her, and I realize for the first time how long it's been since she had that fierce will. I used to think it was as much a part of her as her skin. But she's adrift now, because I cast her off. "I wish I could make this better for you."

I take her in my arms and hold her close; that's as much comfort as I can give. It's not in anyone's power to make this better for me, or for anyone. But I know how badly you can want to do that for someone else. How badly it can hurt when you realize it's impossible.

Buffy and I patrolled together almost from the beginning. There were exceptions, sometimes; every now and then, she and Faith would pair up, and I'd go out with Connor. I always felt a little better when I could watch over Connor myself. But Buffy asked for me, and she hadn't asked anything else, and I could give her this, at least.

And deep down, I thought of it as something I could give myself, as well. I loved Cordelia. But every day I knew more and more -- I still loved Buffy.

"You sure we're not wasting our time at the tar pits?" Buffy said. We were riding along in my convertible, her gold hair fluttering in the breeze. She'd all but given up makeup and fashion, but there was something new and alluring about her now, her unadorned face, the simple lines of a T-shirt and jeans -- "Angel?"

"Oh, right. Why would you think we were wasting our time? Cordy had a vision." Cordy's feet had been dangling above the ground. I hooked my fingers in her shoelaces, and she smiled down at me. I forced myself to remember the beautiful way Cordelia smiled.

Cordelia was everything that was good in my life -- the one who kept A.I. sort of solvent, the one who had the visions that guided our missions, the one who listened to my problems and laughed at my jokes, the one constant in what seemed like an endless sea of change. And she did that cute thing with her nose when she smiled. How could I not fall for her? But if Cordelia was my anchor in that sea, Buffy was still the star I steered by.

I had remembered Buffy as a girl, both in good ways (her innocence, her giddy humor, her open and unguarded heart) and in bad (her jealousy, her self-absorption.) And though I could remember that girl with love and gratitude, I no longer needed someone like her in my life. My love affair with Buffy was like -- heaven. Cordelia, on the other hand --loving Cordelia meant having both feet planted firmly on the ground. That's what I told myself when I fell for Cordy, when we became a couple, even when we went to go get Buffy and bring her to Los Angeles.

The truth was that Buffy had changed as much in our three years apart as I had. The jealous, self-absorbed girl was gone forever -- but so were the humor and the innocence. Buffy was someone new now, and all I knew about this new woman was that she was haunted.

I understood that. It was the first thing I ever felt like we'd shared, down deep. And that one connection was awakening the need for more. Something I'd thought was dead in my heart was only dormant, and it was springing back into wakefulness and life.

"Cordy's visions are always right, huh?" Buffy always spoke very politely about Cordelia. She never used to. That alone told me that she wasn't saying all she felt about Cordy and me.

"They always have meaning," I said. I could smell the tar; we were getting close. "We've misinterpreted them before. And sometimes they don't arrive for the reasons we expect. But each vision is important, yeah."

"And she takes it really seriously."

"Yeah," I said. "Cordelia's as serious about her duty as you and I are about ours."

"Our duty," Buffy said, and then she laughed. I didn't have time to wonder why. As we took the final corner, I could see the shadows of various shapes surrounding the tar pits. Some of those shapes were the plaster models of the creatures who had died there in millennia past --sloths and saber-toothed tigers. But some of them weren't.

"Cuzfau beast, nine o'clock," Buffy said, taking up her crossbow. I nodded as I grabbed my sword from the backseat. I was thinking a stealthy approach, get on either side of it, which the beast totally blew by seeing us, snorting and charging.

I ducked out of the way, looking back just in time to see that Buffy hadn't moved at all -- she was just staring at the fucking thing --

"Buffy!" I turned on my heel, tackled her hard and knocked her to the ground about four seconds before the Cuzfau beast would have gored her. Instead it hit my car, which was not good for the paint job, but secondary to the fact that Buffy and I were flat in the dirt. And the beast was coming around for another charge. And Buffy still wasn't moving.

"Buffy, come on, pull it together," I panted, hauling her to her feet. "What's wrong?"

She laughed at me. "What ISN'T?" Then she spun around and fired at the Cuzfau beast. The arrow split its eye. It stumbled, staggered and fell, its gigantic head landing on my trunk.

"Buffy --" I looked at her, and I felt so many things at once -- anger at her for not taking this seriously, fear for her, compassion for the pain I knew she was still in, and God help me, desire from the long-remembered feeling of her body beneath mine, on the ground. "What happened here?"

"We killed a monster," she said flatly. With a glance over her shoulder, she checked out the rest of the La Brea park. "There's a couple more. None this big, though. We can polish 'em off in a jif."

"You know what I mean," I said.

"What? You noticed that I'm not my usual super-Slayer self? That things aren't hunky-dory, gold-plated, shiny great with me? I noticed that way back around Willow's funeral. Or was it Xander's? The one with the big yellow wreath, anyway. Not that you'd know, since you weren't there."

I was in a box at the bottom of the ocean at the time, which is pretty solid as excuses go, but arguing with her wasn't the point. "I want things to be okay with us, Buffy."

A faint smile played on her lips. "Define 'okay,' Angel."

Buffy was standing so close to me. I wished I had something of Cordelia's -- a ring or a token or something -- that I could take hold of, to bring her here in this moment, make her real and not a memory. "I don't know that I can."

It was a small admission, but it was enough. Buffy kept smiling, but her expression was wistful and sad. Familiar. I slumped against the side of my car, folded my arms against my chest. "I love Cordelia," I said, because I had to say it. I needed to hear it.

"You guys are good for each other," Buffy said. "I can tell. You're happier now, Angel. Not in a curse-happy kinda way --"

"No," I added quickly.

"-- but in a day-to-day kinda way." She watched one of the Cuzfau beasts coming closer, sniffing the air to see what had become of the large one. It would find out pretty soon. Then she looked at me again. "You're not like you used to be. All that stuff that used to drag you down every day, give you nightmares every night -- you've put it behind you."

"I don't know that I can ever put it behind me," I said. "But -- as much as I can -- I've made my peace with the past." And Cordelia helped me do that. She was the one who made me leave the nightmares behind. So why was I still looking down at Buffy and wanting to kiss her? If I'd made peace with everything else in my past, why not her?

Buffy stepped a little closer and put her hand on my arm, and I felt myself slipping, falling, tumbling down to a point where I was going to lose control. But then Buffy said, "Let me make this easy for you."


She squeezed my arm once. "You're not what I need anymore." Then she walked off, toward the Cuzfau beast. I tried very hard to just feel relieved.

I hold Cordy for the longest time, trying to take some of her hurt into me. God knows a little more won't do any further damage. Back when Buffy was alive, I dedicated a lot of energy to proving to Cordelia that I loved her best -- paying her extra attention, making sure I listened to her opinions, treating her like a princess. I tried not to think that I might be trying to prove it to Buffy, too. Least of all to myself.

She gave up heaven to be with me. If I'd been there as she chose, I could've told her she was making a mistake.

"When is this going to be over?" Cordelia whispers against my chest. "When are you gonna come back to me?"

If only I could make her understand that I belong to her a thousand times more than I did before. That in this last year, when I've been so unsure of what I knew, of whom I could trust, I came to love her so much more than ever. Cordelia's strength, her courage, her ability to endure my silences and selfishness -- God, I don't deserve her. I want to try to deserve her.

But I can't devote myself to her until I know the truth, until I know what else I have to do.

"Cordelia," I whisper, brushing the tears from her cheeks with my thumbs, "I'm so sorry."

The pain in her face vanishes, replaced by fear. "Are you breaking up with me?"

"No! God, no." How could she think that? How could I even let our relationship get to a point where she could think that? Cordelia looks stricken, and I feel slightly sick as I realize that she's been hurting even more than I knew. "Listen to me. I know I haven't been there for you like you deserve. But don't think I don't see that you're there for me. Okay? I don't want to lose that. I don't want to lose you. I love you, Cordy."

"Then talk to me," she says. Her chin is set. "I love you too. Love is not our problem. We have, like, bags of love. But I need some trust here, Angel." Cordelia takes a deep breath, blows it out, then continues, "If you want to talk about Buffy -- that's all right."

Does she mean Buffy's murder? Does she suspect the truth?

I realize it all in a flash -- the truth I've been hiding from, the truth I don't want to face, is the only thing that can possibly make things right between me and Cordy. But it might also destroy my son. The one person I love more than I love her.

"I don't need to talk about Buffy," I say, and I try to mean it. "I want to talk to you. I miss talking to you." I hadn't realized how true that was until I said it, and I smile gently at her. "Remember that? All those late nights sitting on the foot of the bed, talking for hours?"

"Pretending we weren't flirting." Cordelia's smiling a little too, and the sight of it breaks my heart. She was always the one I talked to --about everything, but especially about Connor. How I felt when he returned from Quartoth. Whether we should try and tutor him for a G.E.D. About the way he liked to chew on my fingers when he was teething.

I'd give anything to be able to talk to her about that now. Cordy might understand. She might help me. On the other hand, she might not.

Carefully, I say, "After the trial -- let's go away together. Just you and me. We can take a couple weeks to recover from all this. And we can talk."

"We could also talk right now," she points out. I don't answer. She slumps a little, but she nods. "Okay. After the trial. Let me think of some vacation spot that's not sunny this time of year."

"I hear Alaska's dark," I say. Then I think maybe that doesn't sound too appealing. "We could see the Northern Lights."

"Sounds nice," she says faintly. Apparently Alaska doesn't rank very high on her life of romantic destinations. Without asking anything else, she gets up and goes to the door. "I'm gonna find Fred. She's probably more bent about this whole Gunn thing than she's letting on."

"Good idea," I say. Cordy doesn't answer, just goes out the door.

I am about one day away from losing her. I might also be one day away from losing my son.

We should have expected trouble, that night. Each of us was patrolling alone.

Dangerous and stupid thing to do -- but relationships were so strained by that point that we had a better chance of concentrating on our own. But I still should have known to watch Connor, stay with him.

He'd complained about the Brotherhood of Amesace often enough. "They worship demons," he would say. "This is reason enough for us to act against them." Faith and Buffy agreed with him. Faith and Buffy didn't know what Connor meant by "act against."

But I'd told myself, over and over, that Connor did what he did to Justine out of understandable emotional pain. Justine killed the man he thought of as his father. She made him believe a lie that led to his hurting and torturing me. When he learned the truth -- he lost it, that's all. I've lost it before. It's a passing thing. What matters is what you do afterward.

So I told myself, until that night.

I went by the Brotherhood's "temple" purely as a precaution. If they were up to some of their nastier tricks, it would be fun to scatter them, get them scared. I also thought it was possible that I might run into some of the others; we all kept pretty close tabs on our local cult-in-training. Faith watched them pretty carefully, and I thought Wesley did sometimes. Connor went by there almost every night he could.

As I got closer, I breathed in, checked for his scent. Sure enough, Connor had come this way tonight. He'd traveled on these same rooftops not long before.

When I got a little closer, I smelled the blood. The smell of the blood was overpowering; I couldn't smell anything else. Not Connor, not anything, just the thick heat of blood.

I went straight to their roof, went down from the fire escape and looked in the window. Just what I saw in that first glimpse told me I would be able to enter. No invitation necessary. No one left alive.

They'd fought their attacker. Some of them had weapons in their hands, and one woman had slivers of skin under her fingernails. But they'd had no chance. A few clues -- a broken doorjamb, a bent lampstand --revealed that their attacker's strength had been far greater than human.

This room reminded me of slaughters I'd committed, of Darla's first lessons, of Spike's more striking work. But most of all it reminded me of Justine, or what was left of her when Connor was done.

Could he have done this? I asked myself. I knew the answer was yes.

I worked fast. I grabbed up a scrap of torn clothing and wiped down every surface that could have a fingerprint -- doorknobs, light switches, tabletops. I scraped under the dead woman's fingernails, removed the skin so nobody could identify it. There were all these bits of junk lying around that might have been touched as well, so much stuff I decided to toss it rather than try and rub it all down. Pizza boxes, braids of hair, CD cases, a bronze cup, some head-shop incense burners -- it all went in a trash bag.

Some of that might have exonerated Connor. No -- nothing could excuse what had happened in that room. Nothing. But could it have helped the others understand? I'll never know. Before I could think of it as anything besides fingerprint surfaces, I'd already dumped it in an incinerator.

When I was done, I went out the way I came in. I didn't ever see the scene at the front door. If I had -- if I'd seen Buffy lying there, dead for the third and last time -- would I have done anything differently?

I don't think so.

There's a knock at the door. Cordelia, I think, with a rush of relief. Then I realize that she wouldn't knock on her own cabin. "Who is it?"

"It's me." Connor opens the door, looks around. "Where's Cordelia?"

"Off talking to Fred." I take a moment to calm myself, then gesture to the sofa. "Do you want to sit down? We have soda in here. Maybe a couple of candy bars, too."

"I'm good," he says. "I was watching Gunn. I don't trust him."

Why? I want to ask. Do you not trust him because you think Faith's guilty, and you hate Gunn for helping her? Or do you not trust him because you don't trust anyone? Are you still judging everyone, all around you? Are you still the jury and executioner, too?

Instead I say, "How about pretzels?"

That hits the spot. Connor smiles, and despite everything, I'm warmed by the sight of that smile. "Pretzels would be good."

I toss him a bag, and he tears it open and begins wolfing it down. Cordy's drummed something resembling table manners into him, but he still has a predator's instincts about eating. Go fast, hold it close, or someone will take it from you.

He's been so hurt. He's suffered so much. I don't judge him for what he is, whatever he is. And I want so desperately to tell him to go -- to lose us at the train station, or just jump off the train right now. Connor could hide someplace the Watchers would never find him, live his life as best he could. Sooner or later, I know he'll learn. I know the good inside him will win out. He just needs time.

But I finally I know -- I can't keep protecting him. The cost has already been too high. Buffy's life, and the lives of those seven people, Gunn and Faith's safety and freedom, Cordelia's peace of mind.. As long as Faith was on the run, I could bury these thoughts under the hope she was guilty. But now, with the proof at hand, I can't hide from it any longer.

Maybe everyone was right about Faith. Maybe she did do it. I hope to God she did.

If she didn't, though -- if tomorrow we learn that she went there after the murder and saw Connor leaving, or even saw him committing the crimes -- then he'll have to face justice.

"Did they have pretzels when you were alive?" he says. He doesn't ask about my life much.

"Not in Ireland," I say. I wish he'd let me hug him. It would feel so good, just once, to hold my son in my arms again.

"Too bad," he says. "They're good." He smiles up at me, like the young boy he still is. Connor's eyes are like mine, his hair and his nose, but that smile -- that's Darla's. I recognize it well.

It's the strangest feeling, recognizing Darla's face, and feeling love.

Chapter Seven: The Girl With The Mojo

I realize the Watcher's Council is a little on the cheapskate side and all, but I really wish they would've paid for more than one full-sized sleeper car. I know Angel's the one who needed it most, so I don't begrudge him his, but I wish I had one too. These little bunks -- you just have to lie here stiff as a board to fit in. It feels like lying in a coffin. Or does it? I should've asked Angel to come try it out last night. He could have told me for certain. Then again, maybe I really don't want to know.

"Winifred?" I smile and pull back the curtain that encloses one side of the bunk; even if I didn't recognize the voice, Connor is the only one allowed to call me by my full name. He's kneeling by my bunk. "We're almost there. Do you want to go get breakfast in the restaurant car with me?" He says it really fast, with a little hopeful smile. Connor has a crush on me. I try to be real gentle with him about it, because when I was in junior high, I had the biggest crush on Scott Moore, and he wasn't gentle with me about it at ALL, and I got my feelings hurt and spent my free period crying in the bathroom, so I wouldn't want to do that to anyone, even though Connor doesn't seem like the crying-in-the-bathroom type.

Also, it's kinda fun, knowing somebody has a crush on you.

"The food here's not what you'd call -- well, food, really." I prop up on one arm so that the blanket falls away from my shoulder, and Connor gets all blushy, even though I'm wearing a T-shirt. He's so bashful. "But I tell you what. On our way back to the hotel, we can swing by and pick up doughnuts. How's that?" Then I frown. "Or would that not be appropriate? I mean, murder trial, doughnuts, not really the best combination."

Connor considers that for a moment. On one hand, he's got that 18th-century side of him that likes things to be proper. On the other hand, he's a teenage boy who needs to eat his weight in junk food every four hours. I hug the pillow and smile as I watch him decide. At last he says, "We'll eat them in the car."

"Perfect," I say. "Now scoot while I get some clothes on." He's so cute when he turns red like that.

This is the day Faith's going to be made to admit that she killed Buffy and those Amesace people, so they'll be talking about Buffy's death a lot, and that's going to make Angel and Cordy and Wesley really sad.

I guess it makes me sad too, kinda. I always did feel bad for Buffy. But the fact is, we really ever got to know each other very well. And it's hard to keep mustering up grief for a person I barely knew.

Charles and I had fought again, supposedly about Faith. I kept telling him that he wanted her and not me. He kept denying it. I kept pointing out that she was pretty in that flashy, ho-baggy way he liked. He kept saying he didn't need flashy. I kept asking why he wouldn't be all over a girl who liked all the same stuff he did. And at that point he just got rude.

As I went up to the roof of the Hyperion to recover from the fight and get some fresh air, I wondered: When is he EVER gonna get gone?

I was so sick of Charles. I was sick of his weird music, all of which was sung, or should I say yelled, by people who had criminal records. I was sick of having to drink beer instead of wine. I was sick of having to define every fourth word out of my mouth. And I was really, REALLY sick of pretending that I liked talking dirty during sex. I mean, I think a rousing "fuck me" now and then adds some gusto, but every single minute, every single night? I was starting to have to think up things to say ahead of time, which totally kills the mood, if you ask me.

Most of all, though, I was sick of being sick of Charles. He's a good person, and I wanted to relax and like all the things I used to like about him; I thought maybe I could do that after we stopped dating and started being friends again. But Charles wasn't going anywhere, and I was starting to realize that I really was ready for him to go -- well, somewhere.

I'd been jealous of Faith for so long; those two had energy, chemistry, all those science words we use for attraction. And I had hated her for it for so long. But at this point it was starting to sink in that maybe, deep down, I was hoping Charles would leave me for her. That I kept worrying about the two of them, not because I was scared they'd get together, but because I was scared they wouldn't.

Of course, I could have broken up with Charles myself, but I still didn't feel strong enough for that. He was one of the people who saved me from Pylea; he'd done so much for me, in every way. It didn't matter if all the good between us had kinda gone sour. Dumping him still felt -- wrong.

I sighed as I stepped out onto the roof, then realized I wasn't alone. Buffy was up there too, curled up in a little ball right on one of the corners. Like a gargoyle, if gargoyles were pretty blonde girls instead of Gothic stone monsters. So not that much like a gargoyle, then. "Hey," I said, because I didn't want to surprise her.

Buffy half-looked over her shoulder, then looked back out at the city lights. "Hey," she said faintly.

Obviously, she'd come up here to be alone. So had I. But we weren't alone, and I figured there wasn't any point in pretending. I went and sat by her, just on the edge. It looked like a really long way down, but I wasn't scared. Who could protect me better than a Slayer? "Charles and I just had a fight," I said, in case she wanted an explanation.

If she did, she was willing to leave it at that. We sat in silence for a while, and I tried to relax. After a while, it started to work; I stopped fretting about Charles and started just looking at the city. "It's beautiful from up here, isn't it?" I murmured.

Buffy glanced over at me, like she didn't understand what I was saying. I said, "You know, you can't see the alleyways, or the trash cans, or the really scary guys in polyester who tell you that you ought to dance in one of their clubs." She smiled a little at that, and I kept going. "You can't see anything but the lights. And Los Angeles -- there's so much light! Spotlights and streetlights and headlights. It looks like nothing but light, from up here."

"Is that what you see?" Buffy shook her head. "I wish I could see it like you do." I realized she had tears in her eyes.

I felt -- all kinds of weird. I felt bad for her, but I also felt super-awkward, because she and I just didn't know each other that well, and it's not like it's comfortable even when somebody you know really well starts crying. Still, I'm pretty sure there's some unwritten international rule about helping out other women when they start to cry. "Are you thinking about -- about your friends? The ones who died?"

Buffy wiped her eyes and nodded. "That's not all of it," she said. "But that's a lot of it."

"What's the rest?" I knew Cordelia was worried about this, maybe Angel too; maybe I was the right person to ask. A neutral party. "Is it about Angel? That he's with Cordy now?"

She shook her head. "That was over a long time ago. I miss him -- I miss the way I used to feel about him, I guess. But it's just part of this whole other world I miss. Where Willow was good, and Xander was happy, and Giles was wise, and I was the strongest and fastest and bravest of all." Buffy smiled, and something about that smile made me want to cry with her. "I left that world a long time ago. And I ended up here. It's the same world, but it doesn't feel like it."

For the first time ever, I felt like I knew what she was talking about. "When I got back here from Pylea -- they told you about Pylea, right?" Buffy nodded, and I continued, "I couldn't quite believe this was the same world I'd left. This world had vampires in it, and demons, and all these events I didn't remember and couldn't understand, and the governor had become president, which was pretty dang weird if you were one of those people who couldn't even figure out how he got to be governor, and I'm one of those people, but that's not the point, is it? Sorry. Getting back on track." I took a deep breath. "What I mean is, I know what that's like -- feeling like the whole world changed around you. And what's really scary is thinking maybe the world's the same, and you're the one who changed. Not for the better, either."

Buffy stared at me for a moment, and then she nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, that's it exactly." She leaned back on her hands as she studied my face. "So, you're not freaking out anymore. How did you do it?"

When I tried to remember that, I couldn't think of any one answer. I remembered Angel taking me out for ice cream, and my parents calling every Thursday night, and Wesley acting like it was perfectly normal to chat with someone hiding under a table, and Cordelia going clothes shopping with me, and Charles feeding me pancakes. I hadn't thought of Charles like that in a while, and it made me kinda misty. "It wasn't anything I did, exactly. It was just -- time, and trying, and hope."

"Hope," Buffy repeated. She looked up at the sky. "That's what it takes, huh?" I nodded, thinking she'd brighten right up. Whenever people talk about hope in the movies, they get very cheerful and brave, and a lot of times the music gets really loud. But this wasn't a movie, and Buffy and I didn't have any music, and all of a sudden she looked tired and small.

She got to her feet. "I'm going inside," she said. I thought I should try and stop her, talk to her some more, until she really did feel better.

But then I remembered what I'd just said; it would take time for Buffy to feel better. We could talk more, get to know each other better, and she'd open up eventually.

We didn't get the chance, though. That was the week before she died.

Connor and I scarf down about eight Kripsy Kremes before we get to the hotel. That leaves four in the box, but I figure we can smuggle it into the fridge without anybody seeing our non-mournful breakfast. "The trial is set for one o'clock," Connor says. "We have a couple of hours. Do you want to -- to drive around, maybe?" He keeps trying to get one of us to teach him how to drive.

"I think we ought to stay here today," I say. "Your dad probably needs us. Needs you, anyway."

Connor rolls his eyes. Teenagers. "Angel doesn't need me. He has Cordelia."

"It's not the same," I say. "And you know it." But now that I think about it, I realize Angel's not the only one who's going to be hurting a lot today. Wesley is too. He took Faith's betrayal hard; he thinks it's his fault, and even though I've tried to talk him out of it, he just won't believe me. If I know Wesley, he's at home all torn-up right now. He won't come back here until right before the trial, so he won't be burdening us or whatever it is he thinks he's doing. I wish Wesley wouldn't do that. I wish he'd talk to me.

"Winifred?" Connor's looking over at me strangely.

I shake my head. "You go on inside," I say. "And be sweet to your daddy. Just this once, it won't kill you." Connor hesitates, so I resort to a little dirty pool. "What, you scared because Faith's in there?"

Taunting is always a good way to motivate teenage boys. Connor draws himself up very straight. "I'm not scared of her," he says. "I'll prove it."

"You do that," I say, and I wave at him as I pull out of the lot and head over to Wesley's. I hope Wesley will be glad to see me. I think he might be. I smile a little. It's kinda fun, knowing someone's got a crush on you.

I never was the kind of girl boys had crushes on back in high school. Or even college, though you might have thought the guys in the physics department might have been a little more appreciative of the only girl in lab. I squint in the rear-view mirror: same face, same hair, same everything. Oh, well. I'm just gonna enjoy being the girl with the mojo while I've got it.

I go up the steps of Wesley's apartment building, through the garage where his motorcycle is parked under a tarp -- wish he'd take that out more often; riding on a motorcycle would be fun -- up through the stairwell. When I rap on the door, he doesn't answer at first. "Wesley?" I call. "Come on. I saw the jeep and the motorcycle, and I know you hate the bus!"

At last he opens the door, looks at me warily. It reminds me of that time -- well, I don't like to think about that time. "What is it, Fred?"

"I knew you'd be over here moping," I say. "I'm either gonna stop you or mope with you. Your call."

He smiles a little. "Why don't we compromise? Come have some tea."

I flop down on his sofa and prop my feet up on his suitcases, still sitting unpacked in the front room. He starts the kettle and comes to sit with me; he sits all the way across the room in a chair. Wesley is a very smart man, but he has a lot to learn about flirting. But then, he's not acting very flirty. He's quiet, and he's drawn inward. He's hurting.

"This trial today -- it's a good thing, you know," I say. "I think we're finally gonna be able to put the past behind us."

"It feels unnecessary to me," Wesley says with a shrug. "The Council will accuse Faith, Faith will deny it, she'll be found guilty and we'll pack her off to England. I don't think I'm going to feel any better afterward. I don't imagine anyone else will either."

"I think it could be closure," I insist. "Anyway, Faith won't be able to deny it. She'll have to tell the truth."

"You think the Council's that persuasive? Or that Faith would have some long-dormant morality that would forbid her lying under oath?"

"The magic spell," I say. Wesley looks at me blankly, so I go on. "They're doing this magic spell that makes Faith have to tell the truth. She can't lie. So we'll know for sure what happened. I mean, we know already, but we can just get it all set in stone. And if she didn't do it -- not likely, but if it turned out like that, we could go after whoever did do it."

Wesley keeps staring at me. He looks kind of pale. "Wesley?" I say. "What's the matter?"

He looks awful. His hands are balling up, and the muscles in his jaw are tense, and his eyes are wide. He looks like he's going to do --something, I don't know what --

Why would Wesley be so upset about us getting the truth?

It hits me like a wave -- like the way adrenaline hits your bloodstream when you hear a strange sound in the night. My ears prick up and my eyes go wide and my skin is numb and I can't do anything but stare at him. He can't do anything but stare at me.

"Wesley?" My voice sounds very strange.

He's trying to think of something to say. Something else, something that doesn't have anything to do with the trial, or Faith, or Buffy. He can't. It's too late. I know. He knows I know.

Wesley opens his mouth, but he can't say anything. I want to jump up and run out of there, but right then the teakettle starts to whistle. Both of us jerk around to stare at it, and then Wesley gets up and takes it off the heat. He doesn't pour our tea. For a while he stands at the kitchen counter, and I try to think of what to ask, where to begin.

"Faith is guilty of the other murders," Wesley says at last. "I wouldn't have -- I'd never have framed an innocent woman. Believe that at least."

"Okay," I say automatically. I don't know what I believe. Right this second I don't know up from down.

Wesley isn't looking at me; he's sort of staring down at the mugs he'd set out for our tea. One corner of his mouth turns up. "That's rather rich, isn't it? I'd never frame an innocent woman. But I murdered one." His hands are shaking, and he grips the counter to steady himself. "Oh, God. I never said it aloud before."

"Aloud?" I'm too freaked to do anything but repeat what he's saying. But I make myself calm down; I take deep breaths, concentrate just on what I can feel -- the sofa's upholstery against my hands, the soft cushions against my back. I can focus when I have to. You never know what might depend on it. "Wesley -- why?"

"I went by their temple on patrol. Just to be cautious. I -- I am so very cautious, for all the good it does." His voice has that bitterness to it that I remember. I hate it. "Buffy came out, and she was covered in blood -- the Brotherhood of Amesace were dead --"

"Buffy killed those people?" I say.

Wesley bows his head. "I thought she had."

"But you -- you were wrong."

"I knew, once I'd found Faith's knife," Wesley said. "The tracks of those ludicrous boots she used to wear. The evidence was all there for me to see. But I didn't look until after -- after."

My stomach's churning, and I hug myself with my arms, trying to hold myself together with my own hands. I just found out one of my best friends is a murderer, and my skin is flushing hot and cold, and I'm shaking, and most of me wants to run away from him as hard and as fast I can. But the person I'm looking at isn't some crazy killer. It's Wesley. Same Wesley, same kitchen, same teapot painted to look like a rooster. Behind the lenses of his glasses, I can see tears in his eyes.

Get the facts. "Tell me what happened."

Wesley lets out a breath I hadn't realized he was holding. He didn't think I'd listen. "Buffy had clearly been in a great fight. I asked her what had happened, and she said only what needed to happen, and I said murder never needed to happen -- Oh, God, I said that, right then, and I meant it. And she said we didn't always like the things that needed to happen, and I thought she meant she'd killed them herself. It sounded like that, didn't it? Don't you think?"

He walks over to me, hand out, as though he were showing me a book. "They teach us from the very beginning, you know. A Slayer's power is fundamentally a dark power. If they do not die very young, they begin to sink into that darkness." Wesley starts to sit by me, but he can't quite bring himself to do it. To my surprise, he kneels near my feet. "We give them a test when they turn 18. Take away their powers, make them fight for their lives. They're meant to lose. We kill them so that they can't go on to become -- what they all have the potential to become."

"What Faith became," I say.

He nods. "I'd been watching Faith. You all knew that. But I watched Buffy too. The way she was behaving -- you couldn't have known this, Fred, but she wasn't at all like herself. She was hostile, difficult, acting out in ways none of the rest of you knew -- violent and sexual and God knows what else besides."

"How --" My throat is dry, and I have to swallow before I can finish. "How did you kill Buffy? She was the Slayer."

"I stabbed her in the back. Very courageous." He takes a deep, shuddering breath. "I thought -- I thought she'd gone mad. I should have -- but I -- with the blood on her, and the dead people upstairs, it seemed different to me. I told her she had to come back to the hotel, tell the others about the Brotherhood, about what had happened here. She said they were dead -- I took her word for it, and never went up to take a pulse or call an ambulance -- maybe some of them might still have been saved --"

Wesley's shaky and strange, and I know I have to pull him back to the here and now. If I don't, he'll get lost in his memories, and I'll get lost in them too. "When did you stab her?"

He closes his eyes, forces the words out. "After the fight -- if you could call it a fight. After I tried to drag her to my motorcycle and she shoved me down. I hit her once, hard as I could. Perhaps she flinched a bit. Then she hit me so hard -- broke two ribs I had to pretend weren't hurting for weeks." Wesley opens his eyes again and looks squarely at me as he finishes. "She didn't think I'd be foolish enough to try anything else. She turned her back on me. I thought -- I thought she'd gone mad -- I stood no chance against her, and what she might have done -- I stabbed her. I stabbed her in the back. She didn't say anything. She just fell."

For a little while, we are quiet together. There's nothing to say. We're both wrapped up in visions -- Wesley's are memories, and mine are imaginings. Buffy, falling down dead. At last I say, "So you let Faith take the blame for Buffy, too."

"She deserves it, doesn't she? I wouldn't put it past her to have set the whole thing up to destroy me and Buffy both. But I -- Fred, they couldn't punish me anymore than I do myself. Living with this, knowing what a damned fool I am, what harm I've done -- there's no jail worse than this, Fred." He laughs, and it's a horrible sound. "I'm always making mistakes, aren't I, Fred? I was fooled by the scroll, and I took Connor away, and you all hated me so much for that --"

We didn't hate you, I want to say. We hated ourselves for letting it happen, the world for being the kind of place where it could happen. But how was Wesley to know that, when the rest of us didn't talk to him and Angel -- oh, God, if that's what Angel did then, what would he do now?

Wesley's still at my feet. Whatever Wesley turned into that made him capable of what he did -- I had a part in that, when I let them shut him out after Holtz got Connor. We all did a little bit to push him to that breaking point. Maybe every one of us has a breaking point. Only the unlucky ones find out exactly where it is. I whisper, "Angel mustn't know."

Wesley stares at me for a long time. At last he says, "What?"

"You made a mistake," I say. "It was a terrible mistake, Wesley. But --it can't be undone now." Right now it doesn't seem possible to do anything except try to keep us both steady. Like we're on a runaway train, and all we can do is brace for impact.

Wes breathes out slowly. Then he starts, his whole body tensing. "The trial," he says. He glances at his still-packed bags. "Once they learn that Faith didn't kill Buffy, they'll start looking -- God, Fred, I have to get away from this place." He looks up at me, hesitates, then says, "Come with me?"

Despite everything, that kind of sends shivers up my back. It's kind of thrilling, having someone ask you to run away with them. I wonder if that's how Charles felt, when Faith came to him. "Wesley, think," I say. "If you run, they'll know it was you. And they'll find you just like they did Faith."

"Yes," he says. He's calming down just a little bit. "Yes, you're right."

I finally know how to feel. I don't have to worry about guilt or grief or fear or anger. All I have to worry about is being practical. Wesley needs somebody to steady him, and I can do it. I just have to focus. "We just have to go to the trial," I say. "Faith will admit she killed the Brotherhood of Amesace, but nobody will know what happened to Buffy. They'll figure it was a cult member who got away, most likely."

"I don't know how I can endure it," Wesley says. He rests his head on my knees, and I stroke his hair. That always seems to calm Connor down. "Every time I hear you all talking about Buffy's death -- every time, I have to fight not to confess. Every night I dream about her -- about the way her head tilted back when she fell --" His voice chokes off, and I'm glad. I really don't want to hear the details. I know too many already. "I thought about killing myself, you know? The expiation of guilt. Confession through action. If nothing else, the end of this torment."

"You have to promise you won't do that," I say. "Please, Wesley. We've all been through too much already. We don't want to lose you."

Wesley's hand finds mine and squeezes it tightly. "It feels so good to have told someone. To have told you. But in that trial --"

"You'll get through it," I tell him. "I'll help you. I'll be with you."

"Fred," he whispers, and he kisses me -- not a romantic kiss, just a way for us to touch. Then he lays his cheek against my knees again. I hold him, arms curved around his shoulders, and when he cries, I rub his back.

Confession through action. The expiation of guilt. If I helped make Wesley break, I can hold him together too. He's held on so long; I just have to help him make it a little longer.

We get to the Hyperion in time for the trial, but just barely. The ballroom has been opened up and aired out -- at least a little bit --and the Watchers are all assembled there. The four on the train seem to be in charge, but there are dozens more, crowding around in chairs. They seem to regard themselves as the most important ones there; they take all the seats in front, which means Wesley and I have to sit in back. Right on the same row with Cordelia and Connor and Angel; this morning, I wouldn't have expected to sit anywhere else, but right now, it feels very, very strange to be sitting between Angel and Wesley.

Connor's on the other side of Angel, and he keeps leaning in front of his dad to whisper to me. "When will this start?" "That Watcher is really fat." "Did you get lunch?"

"Connor," Angel says, and he doesn't sound amused. He's tense and freaking out, not that I can blame him. "Be quiet. You can talk to Fred -- after this, if -- you can talk to Fred later."

Cordelia sighs. She's sitting right on the other side of Connor, but somehow it seems like she's a lot farther away. She and Angel don't say anything to each other.

Wesley squeezes my hand very tightly. I squeeze back.

Charles walks in and looks at us. I smile at him a little; I know this must be hell for him. I feel bad; he wouldn't be in this mess if I hadn't driven him to her. Poor Charles. He sits by himself, over in the far corner.

This room still smells a little stale. There's some dust haze in here. Everything's white and shining. It doesn't seem like a courtroom at all.

Finally, the door opens, and the guards bring Faith in. I wonder if she's got the handcuff spell? Makes sense, I guess. Faith doesn't look scared. She looks like her usual cocky self, chin up, swagger in her step. No surprise there.

Ramsay holds up his hands and starts an incantation -- oh, this is proto-Bantu, Wesley and I went over this. But try as I might, I can only catch a word or two: "Compulsion." "Totality." "Murder." The other Watchers join in the incantation; I don't understand it, but it has power anyway -- you can feel it. Low, murmuring voices send a seismic shiver through the room, and I can feel it in the floorboards beneath my feet. My hair stands up on the back of my neck. The meter of the incantation has everyone speaking LOUD on the THIRD note and LOUD one more TIME and we HEAR and it GRABS us and --

The air in the room goes thin, and room shimmers in a weird blue-green, and the light goes liquid; it looks a little like we're at the bottom of a swimming pool. Feels a bit like it, too -- sound seems further away, and I know I'm working a little harder to breathe.

Faith is pale in the blue-green light, her skin unearthly, her eyes glittering. Cornish says, "You are Faith, the Vampire Slayer."

"You got it," Faith says.

"Tell us a simple truth that you don't want to tell," Vambrace says, her voice echoing strangely in the enchanted room.

Faith says, "I'm totally hooked on General Hospital." Then her eyes go wide. "Holy shit, that really works."

"You will answer the questions put to you, and no more," Ramsay says. "You are the chosen one, the vampire slayer, anointed by destiny to battle the vampires and dark forces of the world. Have you forsworn this duty?"

"No," Faith says. "I take it serious. I do my job."

Ramsay raises a bushy eyebrow. "I should not have expected that to be true, and yet it must be so. Still, this court has but two inquiries before it. Answer the first inquiry: Did you kill Buffy Summers?"

"No," Faith says. Gasps echo around the room, and I have to force myself to act surprised. Angel tenses up. Oh, brother. Here we go.

The Watchers up at the front look at each other for a minute. Finally, Ramsay continues, asking the second question, the one that ought to save us, "Did you kill the seven members of the Brotherhood of Amesace?"

Faith holds her head high. "No. I didn't."

Everyone's talking, murmuring, freaking out. Angel puts one hand on Connor's shoulder. I glance over at Wesley, who can only stare at Faith.

"Order!" Vambrace is talking now. "Do you know who did kill them?"

Faith hesitates for a moment before she says, "I know who killed the Brotherhood of Amesace. Buffy killed them."

Angel's head jerks back. Cordelia makes this weird, strangled sound in her throat. I cover my mouth with my hand so nobody can see my smile.

Oh, thank goodness, Wesley was right.

"How do you know?" Ramsay says. "Were you there?"

"No," Faith says. "She asked me to meet up with her there that night. B said -- she wanted us to patrol together, sometimes -- she hadn't in a while, so I kinda wondered -- well, it doesn't matter now. I was late, because I ran into a vamp nest. By the time I got there, she was already inside. I went up and found -- what you guys found. I tried to drag her outta there. We fought. Not with fists or nothing -- just argued. About whether or not she'd been right to do it. She thought I woulda seen it her way, but I didn't. Finally I left without her."

Cornish leans forward. "You left the area immediately. While she was still alive."

Faith's face gets cloudy, and then she says, "No. I didn't leave right away. I was freakin' out, and I didn't know what to do. I hung out down the street for a while."

Wesley's hand tightens around mine, way too tight. It hurts. I feel like someone punched a hole in my stomach. Oh, God. Oh, no.

"Faith," Ramsay says, "Did you see the murder of Buffy Summers?"

"Yes," Faith blurts out. "Yes, I did."

There's no place to run to. There's no weapon I can grab -- oh, God, why didn't I get a stake or a crossbow or, or -- I look up at Angel, who for some reason is looking down at Connor. When he hears this, he's gonna go after Wesley, and that means he's gonna go through me --

Ramsay asks, "Who killed Buffy Summers?" His eyes narrow, and he adds, "Was it the vampire Angelus?"

The Watchers swing toward Angel as one, hundreds of eyes on him in an instant. It feels like they're looking at me -- or at Wesley. But they're looking at Angel, who doesn't seem to notice or care. He still only has eyes for Connor.

"No! Hell, no," Faith says. She pauses barely long enough to take a breath. "I'd have recognized him if it were Angel. I was close enough for that. But it wasn't him."

It sounds like she doesn't know the person who did it. But if she was close enough to recognize Angel, she would have been close enough to recognize Wesley -- any second now, she's going to tell them it was Wesley --

Faith hesitates again, then finishes, "It was this guy who came up to her on the street."

What the hell? I don't dare look over at Wesley right now. Anyway, it's hard to look away from Faith's face. She's ashen, and there are tears in her eyes, and her whole body is locked up, like she's so upset she can't stand it.

Vambrace leans forward and says, "Can you describe this man?"

I can see every muscle in Faith's arms, in her hands. But she's steady as she says, "His back was to me. He -- he -- he looked older." She relaxes a little. "I'd say he had gray in his hair. At the temples. Seemed that way to me."

Does Wesley have gray hair? I force myself not to turn and check.

I guess he must, though, because she's telling the truth. Everything she's saying is the truth. It's just not the whole truth.

"As best as you could determine from your own personal vantage point, worldview and set of preconceived concepts and prejudices, what happened?" Revelstoke asks.

Faith blinks at him, then starts talking again. "Uh, I couldn't exactly hear from where I was standing. I knew he -- the man -- he was asking Buffy what had happened. And she was telling him, like, daring him to do something about it. She was gesturing around a lot, and I could tell she had my knife. I musta dropped it."

"Did you not realize she was in danger?" Vambrace says.

"No," Faith says quietly. "I thought he was. I thought she was -- Buffy wasn't herself. Don't write her off like a bad person, like you wrote me off. It wasn't like that. She was just mixed up in her head." She swallows hard, then continues, "Sometimes, enough bad shit happens to you, you can't see straight anymore. That's not an excuse. That's just the way it was. That's what happened to her."

"So the man struck first," Ramsay says.

"No, there was a fight. Not much of one, but a fight. She pushed the guy down, gut-punched him. Then he saw his chance and stabbed her in the back," Faith says. For the first time, I can tell she's angry. But she's still lying to protect Wesley. Or, well, not telling the whole truth to protect Wesley. Why? Why would she do it? They hate each other. But she's doing it all the same.

"Undoubtedly one of the other cult members," Cornish says, and Ramsay hushes him. But I can tell by the murmuring in the room, that's what the others think too. Faith pulled it off. Wesley's not going to get caught. I look over at him, and though I don't dare smile, I know he can see the surprise and relief in my face. Wesley just looks more shocked than anything else. Can't blame him.

Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Charles beaming. I turn to face him and smile right back. He looks surprised, and then he winks at me. Next I glance over at Angel, who must feel awful right now. Imagine finding out your ex-girlfriend had some sort of psychotic break and murdered some people while you were supposed to be looking out for her. But he doesn't look awful. He's slumped back in his chair, almost relaxed, and he's got an arm around Connor's shoulders. And Connor's letting him do it without rolling his eyes or anything. This day is officially completely insane. For a second I wonder if I'm having another cave-moment, where all the real and unreal things are running together again.

But no, Wesley's hand is still in mine, and the sweat is still cooling on the small of my back, and I can still smell the funky old aftershave that seems to be Council standard-issue. All sensory perceptions report this as reality.

Ramsay finally gets the room quiet, and then he stands. "Faith, you have proved yourself innocent of the charges against you. It is the judgment of this Council of Watchers that you are free to go, and to resume your duties as the Vampire Slayer."

"Yes!" Charles shouts, and Faith turns to smile at him. Revelstoke makes a few gestures and blows out the candle, and the blue-green light fades away. Faith breathes out heavily, then puts her head in her hands.

"I can't believe it," Cordelia says, her voice weak and uneasy. "I just can't believe it."

"Me either," I say. "Come on, Wesley, I need a drink of water." Which is as good an excuse to get him out of the room as any. He leans against me heavily as we make our way out of the room.

I ought to feel great. Wesley was right to suspect Buffy of murder and to be afraid of her. He did the right thing, and finally he knows it, and that will help him get over this so much faster. Faith came through for him, for whatever reason, so maybe they'll end up Slayer and Watcher again. I'm sure Angel's going to lose it over this, but at least Connor's being nice to him. But I don't feel great. I can't feel much of anything besides profound relief. Well, that and -- I don't know. Something I can't quite name.

I suppose that, even after years of fighting evil and learning about the world and watching "Law & Order," I always had this belief that the truth would come out, in the end. That if you killed someone, sooner or later, you would be caught.

Guess not.

Chapter Eight: The Uninvited Guest

So, I'd been trying to figure out how all this was gonna end up ever since the day Faith and me went on the run. Sometimes I saw us going out like Bonnie and Clyde, bullets flying. Sometimes I saw us hiding for the rest of our lives. Once or twice I tried to figure what we'd look like if we got old together -- Faith with one of them blue rinses in her hair, me with a cane and a baggy old sweater. Yeah, well, it didn't quite look right to me either.

But I sure enough didn't think it was gonna end with me and Faith upstairs at the Hyperion, getting ourselves settled into one of the guest rooms.

"You feel right stayin' here?" I ask her.

Faith shrugs. She looks all kinds of worn out, but she's smiling. "I feel all right crashing here tonight," she says. "After dragging our asses halfway across the country, I guess they can put us up for the night."

"They're all hangin' around down there," I say. "The Watchers, too. Like a damn cocktail party." They're talking and carrying on -- not partying, just doing their Watcher thing to the max.

"I think they were planning on celebrating the big conviction," Faith says with a grin. God, that girl's gorgeous when she smiles. Maybe she's gonna start doing that more often. "Didn't get what they wanted, but, hey, shame to waste good booze. And it's not like they ain't got plenty to talk about now."

I put my feet up on the bed, try to get comfortable. Feels weird, making myself at home at the Hyperion again. "So what are we gonna do tonight?" I ask her. "Normally, I'd have a few suggestions 'bout what you and me could do with two beds and a claw-foot tub --"

"I wanna hear those later," Faith says.

I smile at her. "-- but nothing like the sound of Watchers using big vocabulary words downstairs to kill the mood."

"Chuck, are you crazy?" Faith shakes her head in amazement. "Open bar downstairs, and you want us to stay locked up in our room? Free booze!"

I give her a couple seconds to laugh and say she's joking. She just keeps shaking her head at me. "You're for real?" I sit up straight on the bed. "Those people were 'bout to lock you up and throw away the key, and now you want to go party with 'em?"

"Hey, wow, now that you mention it -- that might be uncomfortable," she says. "Might make some people feel real awkward. Some people's brandy might not go down so smooth."

I think about that for a minute. Then I grin at her. She grins back. "Let's go," I say, and she grabs my hand, half-dragging me to the door.

Faith didn't do it. I always knew she didn't do it. I didn't need any damn spell to know the truth. If you love somebody, really love 'em all the way through -- you know the truth without even asking.

I splash some cold water on my face and pat down with a washcloth, but it's no good -- I still look like I was just crying. Of course, that could be because I'm starting to cry again. I watch my face crumple in the mirror until the tears blur my vision, and then I just hold the washcloth to my mouth to muffle the sobs.

It was all supposed to be over. Faith was supposed to be guilty, and Angel was supposed to accept that he wasn't to blame, and that was supposed to be the end of it. Then Angel could start to heal, and we could maybe find our way back to each other again.

But now Faith's innocent, and Angel just found out Buffy went crazy and homicidal on his watch, plus there's some anonymous stranger out there who killed her, and no way Angel's not gonna want to go after that guy. It's not over. It's never gonna be over. It's just beginning.

And I can't do this anymore. I just can't. As much as I love Angel, I can't be with him anymore. I can't watch him tear himself apart any longer, because I just get torn apart right along with him. I feel myself getting weaker every day. It's like when the visions were getting worse, except it's not my body getting torn apart this time. It's my soul.

The Powers invited me to heaven. I said no. I always knew they'd make me pay for it. I just didn't have any idea how long it would last, how many more people they would hurt to make sure they hurt me too. I don't know anymore whether I'm getting out of here to save myself or save everyone around me.

I splash some more cold water on my face, pat dry again, go out into the room Angel and I share. I've never let my own apartment go -- seemed cruel to abandon Dennis entirely -- and now I'm glad I didn't. All I have to do is pack a few things, and I can be out of here in a couple of hours.

Just as I start dumping my hanging clothes on the bed, Angel comes in. Oh, God, I'm not ready to tell him -- I have to tell him --

Then I see his face as he comes up to me -- and he's smiling.

"There you are," he says, and he picks me up and twirls me around once before hugging me tight. "You ran off so fast." Angel leans back and grins wolfishly at me. "I'll just have to be faster." And then he kisses me so long and so deep I feel myself starting to get lightheaded.

This can't be happening. This is happening. He's happy? He's happy that we found all that out about Buffy?

When our lips part, he looks down at me expectantly. He's waiting for me to say something. Do something. "Cordy?" he whispers.

"What the HELL is going on with you?" I smack him across the shoulder as hard as I can, which is hard enough to make him jump back. "You don't talk to me for months, and you mope and you brood about Buffy, and then we find out she went total psycho killer, qu'est-ce que c'est, and THAT makes you happy? You -- are -- " I'm whacking him on every word now, and I'm getting really riled up, and my hands are starting to do the glow thing, "-- MAKING -- ME -- INSANE!"

And the light swells up and flares out in the room, bathing us both in Dr. Feelgood energy. Oh, MAN, I haven't done this in way too long. It's like your soul suddenly gets carbonated -- bubbles and sugar and foam all inside you. The anger goes someplace else; the feeling weird doesn't. But for a couple of seconds we can't fight anymore. I can't be scared anymore. There's just this fizzy, wonderful sensation that makes you blink and gasp and tingle.

When the light dims down enough for us to see each other, the look on Angel's face is so flat-out bewildered that I have to smile. He smiles back. Then we start to laugh. Then we start laughing even harder --giddy, punch-drunk laughter. Much better, on the tension-release front, than beating up my boyfriend. Finally, I wipe tears from my eyes and say, "Are you okay?"

"Better than okay," he says. "Better than I've been in a long time."

"Yeah, I can see that," I say. "I just thought you'd be upset by what we heard. That's all."

Angel looks a little more serious then, and already I want to kick myself for wiping that beautiful smile from his face. "I'm not -- I didn't like what we heard. Of course not. But it could have been worse, Cordy."

I put my hands on either side of his face. "How?"

He considers that for a moment, and then he hugs me close. "That's part of what I'm going to tell you in Alaska."

Alaska? Oh, yeah. I almost forgot I agreed to that. Jeez, I should at least have bargained for Iceland. Or, oooh, Norway. But what the hell --to judge from the way Angel's touching me, I don't think we're gonna be spending a lot of time outside the hotel. "Alaska," I murmur. "Okay, never thought THAT would sound romantic."

"Sure it is," he whispers into my ear. "I'll keep you warm. Make you a fire. Wrap you in furs."

We kiss again, slow and wet. His fingertips trace down my spine, settle on my hips, pull our bodies close together so that I can feel just how much he's looking forward to this trip. Angel's kissing me the way he hasn't in a year, and somehow, despite everything, the trial did just what I hoped it would do. It set Angel free. When Angel starts nuzzling his way down my neck, I manage to gasp out, "Think we could go downstairs just long enough to shoo out our eighty super-stuffy guests?"

"Mmmm. Sounds good." The tip of his tongue flickers along my collarbone. "Think they'd abandon the open bar?"

"Hell, no." Presto change-o, the mood is killed. But Angel's laughing, and I am too, and somehow, the world's gone from hell to heaven in about two minutes. I'm not gonna fight it. "Come on. Let's go down and make nice and do our part to drink up the store. When we're out, they're gone."

He puts his arm around my shoulders as we head downstairs.

I'm never gonna understand this man. I should probably go ahead and accept that now. I know we still have a lot to deal with -- if he thinks all his sexy talk about Alaska is gonna stop me from interrogating him on that trip, he's only right until, like, day three. After that, he'd better expect to do some serious opening-up.

But until then, you know what? I'm gonna relax and enjoy this.

Maybe the Powers are gonna punish me someday. But not today.

Faith lied for me.

But why? Why? What possible reason could she have to protect me? I know she despises me; if she didn't before that one night together, she must after the way I reacted the next morning --

I close my eyes in shame. I threw her out then because I sensed the evil in her, or so I thought. I had spent too much of those past few months getting close to evil, and I feared it was beginning, perhaps, to rub off. To taint me.

Now, though, I have to wonder if the evil I sensed was in Faith at all. Or in Lilah, or in Angel, or in Buffy. Maybe I need to face the fact that it's been in me, all along.

Ramsay is saying something, and I force myself to pay attention. "Inevitable, of course," he says.

"Of course. I mean, what was that?"

"Faith's ultimate descent," he says. "Once a killer, always a killer."

Cornish, at Ramsay's elbow, shakes his head. "I'm not convinced," he says. "The very fact that Faith continued her duties while on the run --well, it's persuasive, don't you think?"

"Perhaps she is stable for now," Ramsay concedes. "But what we have just heard about Buffy Summers -- a Slayer far less mentally troubled than Faith, at least insofar as we knew -- only goes to demonstrate the inevitability of it. The origins of the Slayer's power spring from darkness, and in the end they return to darkness. We cannot forget it."

Cornish shakes his head. "But Summers passed the Cruciamentum. Normally Slayers can't manage that, unless they've put darkness far from themselves."

"True. But the fall remains inescapable," Ramsay repeats, and at this I can hear no more. I gesture at my near-empty glass, and they turn toward each other, talking on and on about Slayers as though they understand them. My hands are shaking, as I think about darkness, and tests, and inevitability.

The blood on Buffy's clothes -- the feverish energy in her eyes -- I thought she was a killer, and I was right. I was right. Those three words are unfamiliar to me, and I can't quite accept the truth of it.

I've relived that night in my mind a thousand times since then -- no, more. The shading of Buffy's voice, the things she said to me --

And yet she was. I was right. My memories deceived me, and my instincts did not.

When the time came to kill, I killed. I understood the truth on a level beneath consciousness, a truth in defiance of all I believe as a man. .

Yet as my memories of Buffy's death have grown more fluid, one truth has never been dimmed. One thing remains as real and as vivid to me as the moment it happened. I remember the moment I struck, the way the knife's hilt pressed into my hand as the blade met the resistance of flesh. I remember the heat of blood between my fingers, the muscles I tensed, the sound of Buffy's last breath catching in her throat. Those are a killer's memories.

The one consolation I've had is that all my mistakes have been the mistakes of a good man. A man who was trying to do the right thing. Morally, I may have been confused and uncertain, but I was always trying to stand on the side of good. And it turns out my instincts are better than my morals after all.

I glance across the room, to where Fred has engaged Faith and Gunn in conversation. They are all smiling at one another. Faith knows what it is to have a killer inside, one that eventually rules both head and heart. And if her descent into darkness is inevitable, is mine?

The bartender is a worker hired for this occasion. She does not understand the true purpose of what we do here, or the many duties and responsibilities I have. This must be why she demands identification.

"Many people here know me," I explain. "You can ask them my name."

"Yeah, and all your friends are gonna say you're 21, aren't they?" She folds her arms. "Best you're gettin' is a club soda, kid. Take it or leave it."

I would have liked a Coke, but this woman is argumentative and displeasing. "I will take it." She hands me the glass, and I begin weaving through the crowd. It would be wrong to interrupt Winifred while she is talking to Gunn, but maybe after that I could get her attention, and we could go up to the roof together to look at the city. I know she likes that. I bet Wesley doesn't know she likes that.

"Hey, there," Angel says behind me. I turn to see him with his arm around Cordelia, who looks both happy and sort of confused. I guess she's thinking about Buffy. "Have the Watchers been bothering you?"

"Two have tried to discuss my part in apocalyptic prophecies," I tell him. "And another one asked me the way to the bathroom."

"Hey, not bad. Very, very low on the nag-o-meter for Watchers." Cordelia pats Angel's side. "I am getting myself the stiffest drink available. You want something?"

"Red wine." He kisses Cordelia, and it takes a while, and I feel a little embarrassed. But they pull apart, and Angel smiles down at her. "Hurry back."

"Okey-dokey." Cordelia goes toward the bar, leaving Angel and me alone. I'm glad; this way, I have a chance to ask Angel about something that has been confusing me for the past day.

"What have you got?" Angel is frowning at my glass. "I hope that's only club soda."

"It is," I say. Is there some significance to club soda? I'll have to ask. But some other time. "Angel, the trial today --"


"Why did you let me come?" When Angel looks at me, puzzled, I explain, "You thought I might have killed them. Didn't you?"

He stares at me for a long moment. "Connor -- oh, God. You knew?"

"You don't ever let me patrol alone anymore. You watch me carefully. You ask me questions you think I don't understand, but I do. And besides, you had reasons for suspicion." I list them, the way my father taught me to when I wanted to prove a point. "I had passed by earlier on patrol. So if you were there, you might have recognized my scent. I had talked about the need to be rid of the Brotherhood before, so you knew I had thought about it. You are -- you are a hunter," I say, and though it feels strange to pay Angel this compliment, I cannot deny it is true. "A hunter would suspect me."

His face is set as he nods slowly. "Yeah, Connor. I suspected you. I'm sorry."

I watch him very carefully as I ask, "Why did you never ask me?"

"Because -- Connor, I'm so sorry. I just wanted so badly to believe it wasn't true." Angel puts one hand out, as if to touch my shoulder, then lets it drop. "Maybe I knew, deep down. But I still wondered, and there's no excuse for that, and I --"

What is it that's bothering him? I try to get to my question, the one I must get the answer to. "If you thought I did it, then you thought I would be captured during the trial today. But you let me come. Why did you do that?"

Angel looks as though he is in pain, and he shakes his head at me as though he cannot answer. But I must hear, and he knows he must speak. Finally, he says, in a low whisper, "It was time for the truth, Connor."

And if I had been guilty, he would have let them take me away. Angel would have given me up if I were a murderer. He would not have protected me.

I smile at him, and at his look of astonishment, I can only smile more. "You did the right thing," I say, and I try not to let him see my surprise. I thought Angel cared nothing for greater justice; I thought he cared more for his own friends than he did for the victims we try to save. But that is not true after all. There is good in him. I guess -- I guess my dad must have been wrong about Angel, at least a little bit.

Angel's mouth is slightly open, but he collects himself. This time he does touch my shoulder. "You understand?"

"Yes," I say. "I do." Angel is a good man after all. If he would sacrifice me to the greater good, then I know he is truly committed. Because -- I don't think about it much, but he does love me.

"Connor, I want you to bear with me for just a minute," Angel says. And then he hugs me very tightly. Right in the middle of this party, and I know the Watchers are staring at us, and this is very embarrassing. But Winifred said to be nice to him, so I hug him back a little, and I hope he won't try and do this again anytime soon. At least not in public.

"Okay," Angel says, stepping back. He is smiling down at me very proudly, and I like it and dislike it at the same time. Maybe I like it a little more than I don't. "I'm glad you understand. And I'm really glad I was wrong. We're okay, right?"

"Yes," I tell him. "We'll get a lot more done, now that we understand each other." Now that I know Angel is not as weak as I thought him, I can tell him more. Maybe he will want to do things my way from now on. At least he will listen.

"You and me," Angel says, as though he can't believe it.

Cordelia comes back up then, a glass of red wine in each hand. "So, are you two scoping out all the hottie action in the room? Father-and-son scamathon?"

Cordelia says many words I don't understand. I look over at Angel, confused, and I see that he doesn't understand either. We smile at each other, and then Angel takes his wine and kisses Cordelia on the cheek. "Let's go talk to Faith and Gunn, okay?" She grimaces, but Angel takes her hand firmly. "It's not gonna get any more comfortable. We owe them some apologies, don't we?"

"I HATE payback time," Cordelia sighs, but she follows as Angel leads her away in the crowd. I watch them go for a few seconds, then I look for the snack table. They might have pretzels.

"It's no big," I say to Angel and Cordelia. Chuck makes this weird sound, like he's choking on something, and I don't have to ask what. But I'm serious, kinda. "You thought I did it. No wonder you went bounty-hunter on me."

"We shouldn't have assumed," Angel says. He means it, I can tell. Feels like hell about it, and he's still got himself a drink, which is just pure classic Angel. Damn, I missed him.

Cordelia, her I didn't miss so much. She smiles at me, but kinda weird, when she says, "I mean, sure, there were the tracks in the blood and the knife at the murder scene, but really, what's a little incriminating evidence between friends?"

"It's my fault too," I say, and I clamp down hard on Chuck's hand before he can cut in. "I shoulda trusted you guys not to execute first and ask questions later. I ran off because I thought you'd think I was guilty, like that wasn't the number-one way to make totally sure you DID think I was guilty. I shoulda stood my ground, told you the truth, trusted you guys to check it out. I didn't." I smile at Chuck, which is a warning to smile along with me, as I say, "So me and Chuck saw a little of the world last year."

"Gonna see a little more of it this year. We're not staying here," Chuck says. He sounds like he's ready to put up a fight to make sure of it. Angel looks all concerned, and here comes the sales pitch, but I can set them both straight.

"Either of you guys remember the parole board? I skipped out without notifying. That means I've got a one-way ticket back to the California penal system waiting for me. And now that the world's only got one Slayer again, I figure I better earn my redemption on the outside. But I'd feel easier setting up shop in a different jurisdiction. Maybe Jersey." I grin at Angel. "The West Coast's in good hands."

Cordelia looks real happy about that. "Okay, I'm thinking what a Jersey Watcher would be like. Subtract tweed, add polyester. Where you would have a scone, put a pastrami on rye. Yeah, could be fun." To my surprise, I start laughing. Cordy always was funny; gotta give her that.

But speaking of Watchers --

I see Wesley skulking around, trying to look like he's not looking at me. Time we had a little talk. "You guys do the mingle thing, okay? I'm gonna talk with Wes."

Angel and Cordelia mostly look relieved. Chuck knows I need to talk to Wesley, though he doesn't know half the reasons why. They let me go, and I walk through the crowd. People move the hell out of my way, trying not to look like that's what they're doing. I'm parting this group like the Red Sea. Feels good to be around a bunch of people who know I'm the Slayer, who know I've got power. I missed that.

Wesley sees me coming, and he doesn't dodge. He squares his shoulders, getting ready for it. Last time I saw him, he killed B. He's got some hell to pay for that, but I ain't the one collecting that bill.

"What now?" Wesley says. He still thinks I'm gonna blackmail him or something. He's halfway right.

"I'm gonna need a Watcher," I tell him. "Chuck watches my back, but he ain't so much with the research, you know? I need a Watcher, and I need one who understands me. Somebody who ain't gonna pull any high-and-mighty crap. That looks like you. Of course, you'd have to come to Jersey, but I figure if you got used to L.A., you can get used to anyplace."

"You can't mean it," Wesley says.

"I won't make you do it," I say. "If you don't want to, screw it. But we both got a lot to make up for, Wes. We'd make it up faster together." That look in his eyes -- freaked-out and fucked-up and a million miles away all at the same time -- you wouldn't ever guess what it really meant, unless you'd seen it staring back from a mirror.

"Why? Wesley says at last. "Why did you -- do what you did for me?"

I hug him hard, one arm around his back, the other hand behind his head. He stiffens up, and I whisper in his ear, "You said you weren't anything like me." I pull back just enough to look in his eyes. "But you are, aren't you?"

Slowly, Wesley nods. I feel something wound up all tight inside me finally relax, let go. "That's all I ever wanted," I say. "For you to admit it."

It takes him a couple seconds to recover. He straightens up, gets a little British in his backbone; it's good to see it. "And for me to move to New Jersey."

"New place. New life." I let go of him. "You're a lost cause the day you decide that's what you are. Until then, it's up to you. Think about it."

It's gonna take him a while to decide, so I cruise on over to the bar. Might as well stock up on the free vodka cranberries while the getting is good. And right now, I could use a drink. Because I know if Wes says yes, it's gonna screw things up in more ways than one. But if he says no -- could be worse.

I look back over my shoulder, see Wes looking around -- either for somebody who ain't in the room, or for something he doesn't know how to find. I know the feeling. I used to think it meant I couldn't ever be saved. Now I think it might be the reason I could save somebody else, if he'll just take the chance.

What's it gonna be, Wes?

Connor forgives me.

All this time he knew that I doubted him, and he didn't hate me. He didn't leave me.

"Angel, none of them have left," Cordelia whispers in my ear. "Not one! How much alcohol did they stock that bar with?"

"I don't think any of the Watchers scheduled flights out any faster than tomorrow," I tell her. She groans, and I slip my hands around her waist. "We can use the time."

"What for?" She sticks out her lower lip in a bit of a pout. Cordy's wearing dark, plum-colored lipstick. I love it when she does that pouty thing.

"Lots of things." I brush her hair away from her face; she's a little sweaty. It's warm with body heat in here -- dozens of humans, flushing the air with their blood and scent. "Packing, for one. Checking with a travel agent about our trip."

"We can do that online," Cordy says, then brightens. "Oh, I can start doing that now. Think anybody would care if I ducked out of here?"

She looks so happy. For the first time in years, Cordelia looks her real age -- a young woman, carefree and beautiful, about to take a romantic holiday with the man that, for whatever undeserved reason, she still loves.

We made it in the nick of time.

"Go," I say, and I kiss her cheek. "Remember, no planes."

"Great," Cordy says, rolling her eyes. "Can't WAIT to get back on a train." But she's grinning.

She darts away into the crowd, heading toward the office. And in the middle of all these people, I'm suddenly alone. I look around for Connor, but he's not in the room. I can imagine he wouldn't enjoy this any more than I would.

Connor. My son -- perhaps more now than he has been since he was a baby. Somewhere, somehow, he learned how to let go of the past. All that anger and vengeance, I know it's still in him -- but there's finally more there. Compassion. Understanding. Forgiveness.

Joy wells up inside me, and I force myself to do something I started a long time ago -- I turn my thoughts toward something that will temper that happiness, make me just sad enough. Can that hold the curse at bay? I won't know until it fails. But it's not hard to come up with something, not today.

All that carnage I saw -- Buffy did all of that.

My Buffy. I remember her as she was when I met her, teenage attitude and drugstore perfume and perfect side kick. She had a diary and pink nail polish, and she turned her lampshades upside-down, and she cried from happiness, from sadness and when her favorite commercial came on. Sweet and vulnerable and yet strong. Another version of that Buffy came to me, hurting so much it hurt just to look at her, the ache as much a part of her as her skin.

And I didn't help her. I couldn't help her. She knew that, though I don't know if she understood why. I know I didn't until much later.

Just out of the ocean and the box -- trying to accept what Connor had done to me, what Cordelia had done for my sake, what Wesley and I had done to one another -- then, more than at any other time in my life, I had to put the darkness inside me aside. I couldn't look into it, draw upon it for power like I used to do, or have done since. I couldn't let it have any part of me. If I had, I would never have come out again. And Buffy had fallen into the core of that darkness.

We traded places, she and I. It was as though I had found a way to walk in the sun without being burned, but Buffy could no longer bear the light.

At any other time in our relationship, we would have grown closer because of that. But what we would have become afterward? Would we have made each other stronger? Or would the darknesses inside us have bled out, flowed together, and become something more dangerous still?

I don't know. I'll never know. And I can't be sorry. But I know how Buffy felt. I know it because I lived it, and I close my eyes and ask for forgiveness, that the one time she needed a companion in the darkness, I couldn't follow.

But I know one thing that nobody else does: I know Buffy did what she did for the right reasons. She wasn't insane. She wasn't mad. She was just fighting the best way she knew how. I can't do anything else for her, not now or ever again, but I can remember her the way she deserves to be remembered, as a hero.

Oh, poor Connor. He's trying so hard to be a gentleman.

We're sitting up on the roof, looking out at the city. Well, I am. Connor's looking down, trying to be very dignified. I want to put an arm around him or hold his hand or something, but that would probably just make things worse.

"I like Wesley," he says at last. "He's a good man. You -- you deserve a good man, Winifred."

"Thanks," I say softly. "But really, there's nothing going on between me and Wesley."

"You were with him today," Connor says, which means absolutely nothing. Just as I'm about to tell him that, though, he adds, "I can smell him on your clothes. I know you were -- you were close."

I forget how many of the vampire senses he got with the package. I say, "I hugged him for a while, Connor. He was upset about the trial, and everything that's happened." This is the truth, just not the whole truth. "But Wesley and I aren't dating. That's just not how things are with us."

"That's how he wants things to be," Connor says. He watches me carefully as he says it; he thinks I don't know, that things will be different once I do.

"That's not how I want things to be," I reply. "Connor, I wouldn't ever start dating somebody and not tell you. I'd tell you right away. I promise."

He takes a minute to let that sink in. Then his head comes up, like he's taking it on the chin. "Of course," Connor says. "We're friends." He smiles over at me, and he looks so grown-up -- he's acting so grown-up -- that for the very first time ever, I see him as a man instead of a boy.

And right in that moment it hits me that I like Connor more -- that I trust him more, and with more of myself -- than any man I've ever dated. Even Charles. But then the breeze catches Connor's hair, and the way it ruffles makes him look a little younger, and he's just Angel's boy again.

"Maybe you and Wes can get to know each other better," I suggest. "You two might hit it off and be friends too. You haven't really had a chance to do that yet."

"No." Connor half-shrugs. He might take me up on the suggestion, but he doesn't want to think about him and Wes being big pals right now. Instead he says, "There's one thing I don't understand."

"What's that?" Okay, this might not be a fun question. To add to the not-fun-ness of it all, the rooftop door swings open and Wesley steps out. Bad timing. Very bad timing.

Connor glances over at him, but he doesn't seem dismayed. I understand why as he says, "I don't understand about Buffy." He then nods at Wesley, inviting him to come near us and talk it over with us. For about two tenths of a second, I am in love with Connor.

"What is it you don't understand?" Wesley says.

"I don't guess any of us understand what happened with her," I say. "Not really. In the end, only Buffy understood that. Maybe even she didn't."

"That's not what I mean," Connor says. "I mean -- before. When she was with us, she was always angry, and she started fights, and she made everyone uneasy. I know she was a good fighter, but she was dangerous. We knew that even back then."

"Did you?" Wesley looks surprised. I hope Wesley takes that to heart, sees that somebody else perceived the same things he did.

"So what you're asking is why we didn't stop her?" I say.

"Buffy could not have been stopped," Connor says. "She was a Slayer. It is difficult to stop a Slayer from doing anything. But why did Angel have her in our home? Why did he keep her with us? If he didn't know she was dangerous, he knew she made things difficult for everyone. I knew he used to be her lover, but he loves Cordelia now, so that wasn't it. Was it?"

"It wasn't that," I say. Wesley sits beside us, and I'm finally glad he's here; he needs to hear this too. "Connor, Buffy wasn't just a girlfriend to your dad. She was the person who changed his whole life." This is all secondhand information, of course, but I'm pretty sure I know the story by now. "I guess -- for lack of a better word, you'd say Buffy was Angel's savior. Just like Angel was my savior, when he got me out of Pylea and helped me fit in the world again. The person who rescues you -- not just saves your life, but saves whatever it is inside that makes you yourself -- that person isn't somebody you can ever turn your back on. Even if they do wrong. Even if they make it tough for you. Even if they hurt people you care about." I look back over at Wesley. "Right or wrong, that person owns something in you from then on. It's a debt you can't ever repay. But you can't ever quit trying. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

It's Wesley who answers. "Yes," he says. "Yes, I do." But he's not looking at me as he says it. He's looking off into the distance, like he never saw Los Angeles before. Or maybe like he doesn't expect to see it again.

It's not like it was last time. I'm not always alone, but I am sometimes. And I can't really be happy, where last time I couldn't be anything else. It seems like I still have some things to work out before I get to that point. Some things I have to accept.

For instance, I used to think that you needed the truth.

You couldn't understand anyone without the truth, and you couldn't love people or be friends with them or work with them if you didn't understand them. So I wanted to know the truth about the people around me. But that's mostly because I didn't know it.

I can see them all much more clearly now. I know how little they understand each other, how little they even understand themselves. If I were still shortsighted, still had an ego, I'd laugh at them for that. That's how I'd react if I were still alive.

But the thing is, as I watch them all, Angel and Cordy and Wes and Faith and the rest -- I see the whole picture. Crystal-clear. In focus.

They don't understand each other. They don't even come close to understanding each other. Their mistakes and their confusion sometimes come close to tearing them apart. And yet, they don't. They still love each other. They still try to do the right thing. They still struggle on, finding their way through the world as though they were blindfolded, clumsy and slow, but finding their way nonetheless.

Each of them turned away from me during the last, awful months of my life. I hated them for it. They weren't frightened of me or the things I had done or would do -- they were frightened of themselves, of the pain and anger that sits at the core of every single person, kindling waiting for the right spark to burst into flame. They saw that in themselves when they looked at me, because that pain and anger was all I had left.

I thought they were fools. Willfully blind. I was disgusted with them for their refusal to see what I thought was the truth. Now I know I was as blind as they were.

I saw Angel as a guy who couldn't ever be my lover again because he was so freaked out by how dark I'd gotten. So I didn't see him as a man doing his best to be a good father, or how much of his kindness to Cordy was an attempt to do better by her than he'd been able to do by me. I saw Cordelia ducking and scraping around me as proof that she felt bad for stealing Angel. So I didn't see how desperate she was to do the right things, to make up for the one time in her life she was asked to put every selfish concern aside, and she said no.

I didn't see that Gunn was faithful almost to a fault. I didn't see that Fred was always trying to reach out to other people. I didn't see how much Connor tries to find a way to love both his fathers. I didn't see that Faith was awkwardly trying to set a good example. Or that Wesley needed so badly to believe he'd been able to protect someone.

The terrible things I believed about them were mostly true, but so were the good things I refused to believe, and the ultimate balance -- that I don't know, and never will. I think that's weighed in ways that go beyond simple truth.

Wesley -- I feel bad for him, for all the blame he's going to keep heaping on himself. I killed myself, in the end; I used the cultists for an excuse, and Wesley's hands for a weapon. Angel threw away the proof that would have vindicated me; still, I never expected to be vindicated until after I died. Before, I would have been mad that none of them ever realized the Brotherhood of Amesace had changed and become dangerous after all, that I saved a lot of lives by taking those others. They think I went crazy, which wasn't exactly what I was going for. You only get one chance to make a last impression.

Now, I see how much it just doesn't matter. I know what I did. I know what I was, bad and good, whole and entire.

None of them want to know the truth. They run from it, play games to avoid it. It's the uninvited guest at every table. But when you reach the point I'm at now, the truth takes you over. And how you feel about it -- I guess that depends on how you've lived. What you regret. What you don't.

I wonder what they'll each think, when they can no longer run from their own truths. When they look into their own darkness and their own light, I wonder what they'll find.

I hope that some of them will find me there. I would like to see them again. I would like them to know what in me was true.


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