Angel stared down at the file on his desk. Even without opening it, he knew exactly what it was. Had known the instant Gunn had burst into his office and dropped it there with an accusing look. He shouldn’t have done it, but with Cordelia awake and asking questions, he’d had to look into things.
“So, you gonna open that, or just stare at it?” Gunn asked. “Or maybe you’re just waiting for me to leave, considering you went behind my back to get it in the first place?”
“Gunn….” Angel started, unsure of what else he intended to say. What else could he say? He couldn’t exactly just tell him that he’d wanted to check on the son he’d had removed from everyone’s memories.
“I’m in charge of the private investigators, Angel. You want some kid tailed and his history compiled, you come to me, not to one of my people.” He narrowed his eyes. “Who is this kid, anyway? He someone we need to take out, or someone we need to protect?”
“Neither,” Angel snapped as he opened the file. “We all need to just stay… away….”
He trailed off as he looked through everything. The investigator had done good work, some of it probably not legal. There were pictures of Connor growing up. Pictures that weren’t real. Couldn’t be real. Connor had grown up in an awful hell dimension. These were family photos magicked into existence. The same was true of the report cards that had been copied and the newspaper clippings about various school games.
None of it was real, but Connor remembered it all, and that was what mattered. He’d had the kind of life Angel had wanted for him. The kind I wouldn’t have been able to give him even if he hadn’t been taken away from me. It was better this way. All of the ugly memories taken away with the rewrite of reality, leaving him as the only one to remember the horror and sadness of it all. Well, him and Cordy. Though now that he was running the L.A. branch of Wolfram & Hart, maybe there was something he could do about that. Make it so she didn’t have to live with that.
The phone on his desk rang, a jarring intrusion into his thoughts. He picked up the receiver and slammed it back down. There were baby pictures in the files. So much like the ones Cordelia had taken before Wesley had stolen Connor and given him to Holtz’s people. He swallowed past a sudden lump in his throat. Connor, his baby boy….
“Uh, Angel? You alright, man? You need me to get that?”
The damn phone was ringing again. He snatched up the receiver and snapped, “What?”
“Okay, I don’t know what bug crawled up your butt and died,” Cordy’s voice said over the line, “but you need to get over it. Willow’s got a sneak peek going on in Spike’s head, and he just met Connor.”
Just met Connor…. Spike had just met Connor. Fred was working on something to let a large group of people into the amulet, and was constantly watching the recorded scenes in an attempt to understand it better. She wasn’t stupid. If she saw a mystery son that Angel had altered reality for, she was going to wonder why it was part of Spike’s hellscape. And if he asked Willow not to share any of that….
He hung up the phone and closed his eyes, feeling like the world was sinking away. He had to tell them. Maybe not everything, not the details of how Holtz had gotten a hold of his son, but he had to tell them most of it before they found out from the amulet.
He opened his eyes and looked up at Gunn. “Gather the team,” he said quietly. “I need to talk to you all about something.”
Spike’s coat still smelled like him. Which, really, made perfect sense, considering it hadn’t actually been all that long since the collapse of Sunnydale. The fact that Buffy tended to drape it over him when she wasn’t wearing it herself – like she was at the moment – probably had a lot to do with that, too. But even if it hadn’t been all Spike-scented, the coat still would have been a comforting weight as Buffy carefully pushed Cordelia’s wheelchair towards the conference room.
She hadn’t specifically been invited to this bit of Avengers assemble-age, but when the still-recovering Cordelia had gotten the call, she hadn’t protested when Buffy had offered to help her get to it. Probably because, for all her flaws, Cordelia had never really been all that into deception. She’d been almost a relief to be around back in high school when Buffy had fought a demon that had infected her with an aspect of itself. She’d ended up reading people’s minds without any way to control it, and Cordelia’s thoughts had pretty much been exactly what had come out of her mouth.
And then there had been Angel, who had been a blank slate. He’d claimed it was because he was a vampire, but then, he’d claimed a lot of things were because he was a vampire, and those hadn’t turned out to be completely true. Maybe he liked his secrets so much that it had rendered him immune to demony telepathy? She didn’t know, and she supposed it didn’t really matter. It was just more reason to be on her guard when it seemed like Angel was trying to keep things from her.
She sighed and pushed Cordelia’s chair through the door and into the room where Angel and Gunn were already waiting. Angel immediately looked at her, his expression seesawing between longing and annoyance. Lovely. Maybe she should have just sent Dawn to watch this meeting? Or, hell, she could have just waited and asked Cordy about it afterwards. But she was here now, and leaving would just be running away.
“Buffy,” Angel said, and again, there was that mix of desire and irritation. “Thank you for bringing Cordelia, but this doesn’t concern you.”
“Like the amulet info you tried to hide wasn’t any of my business?” she asked, and he at least had the decency to look uncomfortable. She could pretend it was because he felt guilty and not just a reaction to the fact that she’d whupped his butt for it. Hell, maybe it even was because of that. Stranger things had happened. “I may have thought the whole mystery-man thing was romantic when I was the kid you first met, but even back then it was frustrating. I’ve had to grow up a lot since then. Grown-up Buffy doesn’t put up with your bullshit.”
Even though little girl Buffy was still in there somewhere, wailing and trying to believe in her dark, mysterious knight in Batman armor. Well, tough cookies. Little girl Buffy could go have herself a cry in the corner after Spike was safe and they were all out of the office building of Evil Incorporated.
“It’s not like she isn’t going to find out,” Cordelia added before Angel could say anything. “What, were you planning on locking her in a closet until we get this finished?”
“What are you trying to hide from me this time?” Buffy demanded.
Before Angel could answer, Lorne swept in with Fred and Wesley behind him, holding hands. Apparently, the two of them had been dating for a couple of weeks, but had been keeping it low key at the office until they’d seen what had happened to the Fred in the amulet world. Nothing gold can stay, Buffy thought, fighting back sudden tears. Screw gold. Fred and Wes could be silver. It was just as pretty. And when… when she got Spike back, they could be platinum. His hair was already that color, why not their relationship?
“What’s the brouhaha all about, Angel-cakes?” Lorne asked. “If you’d called us in just a few minutes earlier, I’d have had to cut short setting up what looks like it will be a beautiful relationship between Depp and one of our contract lawyers.”
“That the one Penny recommended?” Gunn’s voice and expression were soft at the mention of the lizard woman.
“Yep, that’s the one.”
Would Gunn and Penelope be gold, or something stronger and more lasting? She looked from Gunn to Angel. They had been gold, she realized. She’d been young when she first met him, only sixteen and just really becoming aware of herself as a sexual being. Her relationship with him had been something new and tender, that first fragile bud in the springtime of her life. The flower had faded away and leaf had subsided to leaf. Had he left, not because their “great love” would lead to more sex, but because without that, he’d be forced to realize they really didn’t have that much in common?
She sighed and shook her head. Spike’s poetic thinking was apparently contagious, and she couldn’t afford that right now. She wasn’t General Buffy standing in the breach of hell anymore, but it wasn’t over. Not until they got Spike out of his own personal hell. Until then, she had to stay hard.
“I need to get back to the lab soon,” Fred said. “I finally figured out the last part of the puzzle to get more people at a time into the amulet.”
“Right, okay.” Angel sighed and rubbed his face. “I have a son,” he said quietly.
Buffy blinked and just stared stupidly for a moment. Angel had a son? Angel had…. That just didn’t make any sense. How could he have a son? Hadn’t his whole “can’t have kids” thing been part of his reason for leaving her? Or, you know, even the stuff that leads to kids.
“Um, Angel? Cupcake?” Lorne’s voice cut through the stunned silence. “Maybe you’ve forgotten this somehow, but you’re a vampire.”
“Yeah, no, I do remember. His mother was one, too. Darla. There was, uh, some mystical stuff involved,” Angel explained.
Darla. Spike had told her about that, once. How she had somehow been resurrected as a human – had she remembered wherever her soul had been? – and then Drusilla had turned her back into a vampire. That hadn’t been all that long before Dru had skittered back to Sunnydale for her dark knight only to end up bound up in Spike’s crypt along with Buffy herself.
Darla. A small blonde who had liked to dress up as a schoolgirl, and Angel had somehow had a kid with her. There was some serious chicken and egg about all of that, but who was the chicken and who was the egg? Did Angel even know?
Gunn suddenly snapped his fingers, startling Buffy out of her thoughts. “That kid!” he exclaimed. “The one you were keeping tabs on. He’s what, nineteen, twenty? And you’re just now bringing him up?”
Before Buffy could wrap her mind around the idea of Angel having a son only a couple of years younger than she was, he shook his head in denial.
“That’s not…. Well, yeah, he’s about that, but he was only… he was only born about two years ago,” he said, voice rough. He looked lost, like something precious had been stolen from him. Buffy could seriously relate to that. Her life as a normal girl, her mom, Spike….
“Two years ago?” Wesley repeated. “And you kept it all from us?” The ex-watcher frowned. “Wait… Darla… she was here, two years ago, in L.A. She came to us for something, but I can’t quite….”
“I didn’t keep it from you. You all knew about it. Well, most of you.” He looked at Buffy before continuing. “Something happened,” his gaze flickered towards Wesley then away, “the baby… Connor… he ended up with one of my enemies and was raised in a hell dimension where time flows faster than ours. He came back, but he was all….” He shook his head and made a small, helpless sound. “He was really messed up. Confused about things. And then it got worse, so… when Wolfram & Hart approached us, that was my price. They altered reality so he and everyone in L.A. would think he’d had a normal, happy childhood, and only I would remember it…. Well, and Cordy, apparently, but I, uh… I think that’s because of the coma.”
Buffy frowned. “Why would you do that?” She couldn’t really gripe about altering reality to insert someone into a family, not with Dawn and everything, but why leave himself with the memory? That just kind of seemed like using your bare foot to kick a board with a nail in it out of the way even though it would have been easier to just pick the stupid thing up. And then to make sure no one else knew about it while you tended your injury, letting the pain remind you that you’d done something self-sacrificing. It wasn’t noble, it was selfish. “Why keep the memories? Why not just let him go?”
“Because… well, I….”
“It’s not like it’s the first time he’s changed things and made it so only he remembered,” Cordy said. “Though the first one involved turning time back, and he ended up telling Doyle about it, and Doyle told me.”
“Cordy!” Angel barked, staring at her in alarm before shooting a stricken glance towards Buffy.
She felt sick, suddenly. Oh god, what had Angel done? It had something to do with her, she knew it from his look. Something had happened involving them, and she didn’t remember it. He did, though, and he’d told other people about it. People who weren’t her.
“What did you do?” Here voice was cold. Hard. Ice. She was made of ice.
“Nothing!” He flinched slightly at her look. “It doesn’t matter. It had to be done. It was for the best.”
“Oh? And who decided that, exactly? You? Or did we actually sit down and discuss whatever it was like rational adults?” His expression said pretty clearly which it had been. She narrowed her eyes and stalked towards him. “What. Did. You. D-”
“Buffy!” Dawn practically flew into the room, eyes bright. “We got more! There’s more, a big chunk! I don’t know what happened, but Willow brought up the stuff in Spike’s head again, and you were all Slutty McSkankpants in Rome, and all this funny, terrible stuff was happening to Angel, and Spike’s coat died, but it’s okay, because you’re wearing the real one and I think the one in there being murdered was a symbol of the chunk that went into the fish tank, and I think I’m gonna pass out if I don’t breathe real soon.”
Dawn leaned heavily against the doorframe, taking several deep breaths while Buffy stared at her like she’d grown a second head. The coat had died? There was more in the fish tank? Slutty McSkankpants, really? That was totally unfair. It could have just been Dawn being Dawn, but…. What was Amulet Buffy doing in there? Did Angel think moving on from him meant she’d turned into some kind of great big ho? Buffy shook the thought away. Not important right now.
“That’s good.” Understatement of the year. “That’s really good.”
Before she could gather up her scattered thoughts enough to actually say something intelligent, a man with a package came up behind Dawn and peered into the conference room.
“Ms. Burkle? I have something for you here.”
Fred took a step towards the doorway, but Wes’s hand was still entwined with hers, and he wasn’t budging. She smiled back at him. “It’s okay. There’s probably not any mummy dust in there.”
God, they were adorable together. Had she ever been like that with anyone after Angel? She glanced at him and shook her head before reaching out to grab the package. “I’ve got this.”
“Buffy, don’t!” Angel called out, taking a step towards her. “I should –”
Buffy rolled her eyes in disgust and opened it up. Packing peanuts and…. Huh. A jar full of glowy… stuff. She took it out and considered shaking it, but thought that might not be the brightest idea ever.
“Oh!” Fred cried out. “That’s it! That’s the last thing I need to create the interface modules.” She frowned in confusion as she took it from Buffy. “But I hadn’t even had a chance to order it yet.”
Buffy dug into the box again and pulled out a small note card. “It says, sent with love, from Love.” She looked around the room. Most of the others looked just as confused as she felt, but Cordelia was smiling.
“We do have a Power on our side, remember?”
Buffy let herself smile back for a moment, then she hardened her expression and squared her shoulders as she glared at Angel. “You aren’t off the hook, buster. After we finish this, you will tell me what you did.” He didn’t even try to argue with her, just nodded, looking defeated. She turned to Fred. “Let me know when it’s all ready.” She took a deep breath. So close. They were so close now. She could feel it. “Then I’ll gather the troops, and we’ll finally bring Spike home.”
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