DISCLAIMER: All things Buffy belong to Joss Whedon, the WB, FOX and Mutant Enemy and 20th Century Fox Film Corporation.
I stared up at the monstrosity of syncrete and steel in front of me and wondered how I could possibly have been so naive.
It was part of a housing block, obviously built back around the start of the decade when the new, cheap building material had seemed the answer to the growing housing crisis. Back home we had been spared the syncrete boom that had architecturally scarred so many of the world's cities, but I could remember seeing the apartment blocks going up on CNN, back when I was a kid. This building was only six or seven years old; it certainly hadn't been around when I was born, almost eighteen and a half years earlier.
An "old millennium baby", that was what my mother had always called me. No-one knew exactly when I'd been born, but it had certainly been back in 2000; the agency had guessed September and that was when I celebrated my birthday, but the only thing we knew for certain was the year. Mom said I'd be glad of it one day, when I could tell my grandchildren that I'd been born back in the last _millennium_ and they wouldn't believe me. Personally, I wasn't buying it. That argument depended on when you considered the millennium to have turned anyway and I doubted my grandchildren, if I ever had any, would even care.
I let my bag drop at my feet and dug the old, creased business card out of my purse. I might not have been in LA a full twelve hours yet, but I had a good sense of direction - and a good map with GPS and all the gadgets - so I knew I was in the right place. It was just that the place I was looking for wasn't.
I gazed up at the apartment block again, suddenly at a complete loss about what to do next. My good idea suddenly seemed like a very, very stupid one and I wondered if I was going to be forced to phone New Zealand and admit to Mom and Dad what I had done.
_Nice one Annie, already messed it up and got yourself stranded in the big, bad city. What now?_ Of course, I didn't have to call home. I _could_ call Uncle Frank instead and try to explain what I was doing in the States a week earlier than I had arranged. And I knew what I was doing was going to upset Mom and Dad when they found out - even though I knew they would understand - and I didn't want to hurt them.
I checked my watch, newly set to Los Angeles time, and realised with a certain degree of horror that it was going to be dark soon. It was summer at home and the days were long, the evenings stretching on into the night hours. Here, half a world away, it was winter and the balmy temperature had fooled me into thinking I had plenty of time to find somewhere to stay.
Suddenly, eighteen didn't seem so grown up after all and I wished I was still safely back at home on our farm in the hill country, or even waiting at the airport for Uncle Frank and Auntie Grace and Gillian to come and pick me up, the way they would do in another week.
I picked up my bag again and started walking back the way I had come, hoping another bus would come along soon. Or a taxi, or a hansom cab, or something. I had the creeps, that tingling in the shoulder blades feeling that promised something bad was coming, and I started walking faster. I was slowly realising that despite its loudly trumpeted "cleaned-up" image, Los Angeles probably hadn't changed all that much in the last twenty years or so, and certainly not in this neighbourhood.
This Kiwi girl from the back country wasn't up to what LA had to throw at her and I was no longer under any illusion that I might be. It had all seemed such a great idea before I left. I grimaced. _Sure,_ I told myself sardonically, _brilliant plan Annalise._ But it _had_ seemed clever then. Tell Mom and Dad I was leaving one week, tell Uncle Frank I was arriving a week later. That gave me a week on my own to try to find the answer to a question. It was a mystery I had never really even thought about until a five year old had looked at me with wide blue eyes and said, "Don't you want to find them?" And I had suddenly realised that I did, even though I never had before.
By the time I reached the bus stop dusk had settled in around me. The timetable, like the rest of the shelter, was covered in graffiti, but I managed to peer though the writing and see that there wasn't going to be another bus for at least half an hour. Unwilling to sit around waiting in one place for that long I decided to keep walking. The first place I saw that offered rooms for the night, if it looked even halfway decent, then I was stopping. Although of course, if a miracle called a taxi - or they were _cabs_ here, weren't they? - well, whatever they were called, if one showed up I was hailing it, having myself taken to the nicest hotel in town and staying there, even if I had to max out my credit chit to do it.
I did _not_ like it there. All my instincts were screaming that there was something lurking in the darkness and I so did not want to get mugged. Or worse.
So what the _hell_ made me walk into the alley? Staying under streetlights was the order of the day (or night, as the case might be). Venturing into dark and gloomy dead-end alleyways, especially when I could hear the sound of fighting coming from the far end, was not at all a good plan. But that sixth sense of mine, the one Mom and Dad pretended they didn't believe in, it made me walk cautiously into the darkness, listening and analysing and preparing to help - all while the normal, everyday, sensible part of my brain was screaming at me, demanding to know what the hell I thought I was doing.
It wasn't even like I was going to be able to be much help. Sure, I had several years of martial arts training behind me (and ballet - they went strangely well together I had found). After I'd got into some fights not long after starting school ("your mummy and daddy talk funny" - "oh yeah?" - pow! had pretty much been the sequence of events), Dad had tried to find "outlets for my energy" and somehow it had been the dancing and the fighting that had stuck. But I was unlikely to be able to pirouette an attacker into submission and I had never struck out at another human being outside a controlled classroom situation in my life, nor did I really want to start.
But despite all that rationalisation, I kept walking. The combatants didn't even notice me coming, they were so caught up in their struggle. A man in a black coat was struggling against two... two _somethings_. It was dark and they moved so fast I couldn't get a good view - and something made me certain I didn't want to - but I caught a confused glimpse of fangs and glowing eyes and unnaturally long arms with wickedly clawed fingers at the end.
The man was in trouble. It was obvious he was good, very good in fact, but he was outnumbered and outreached, meaning he had to get dangerously close to two very nasty foes to deliver any kind of effective blow. One of them had backed him up against the wall and the second was coming to join its partner, clearly intent of gutting their victim in a particularly horrible and messy fashion.
So what does clever Annie do?
I think any small amount of sense I might have possessed deserted me at that point. I dropped my bag, lowered my head and charged at the closest monster. They were both so absorbed with their prey that neither noticed me coming. I barrelled into the creature, taking it down with a tackle that would have done a star footballer proud. We tumbled to the ground and rolled and I suddenly found myself under several tonnes of a creature that could only have come from hell - or possibly Clive Barker's twisted imagination.
I heard a crash and a thud and an exceptionally yucky squelching sound behind me, but I was too worried about dying horribly to give it too much of my attention. The monster paused before tearing out my throat and raised its head suddenly, what light there was reflecting off its fangs. Then it unexpectedly jumped up and disappeared into the darkness.
I just lay there, unable to believe I was alive, unable to believe what had just happened was real. I know LA is supposed to have some dark spots, but real monsters, that slaver all over you and try to kill you? I had another thought and couldn't decide if it was worse or better - maybe I'd just completely ruined someone's movie or vid-programme or something.
Maybe if I just lay there long enough I would wake up in my own bed at home, with the empty suitcase on the floor, still waiting to be packed for me to go and visit my American relatives.
"Are you all right?"
The voice sounded nice and safely human, with are really nice accent and a kind of husky tone to it that suited that accent perfectly.
I decided to take the risk and assume the man had defeated the monster. I rolled over, feeling bruises forming already, to see a worried face looking down at me. Well, score one for the good guys - at least this one didn't have fangs. He offered me his free hand (the other one was holding a gore-covered sword), and after a moment I took it, letting him pull me to my feet.
The only downer to that was that it let me see the mess behind him. The monster - whatever it was - was lying on the ground in a gory mess, its head several yards away from the rest of its body and this yucky blue stuff was pooling around the corpse. My rescuer/rescuee realised where I was looking and shifted a pace sideways so that he was blocking the view.
"It's all right," he said soothingly. "It's dead. You're okay."
I finally managed to find my voice. It came out kind of croaky, but I can hardly be blamed for that. "What _were_ they?" An expression crossed his face and I suddenly had the feeling he was deciding to lie to me. "What were they?" I demanded again, doing my best to go with a steely look and determined voice.
I don't think they worked very well, but he shrugged and answered the question. "Demons," he said simply, while I blinked at him in amazement. "I don't know what kind yet. I'll have to look it up."
"So why did the other one run away? Not that I'm not thrilled about it," I added hastily, still not quite sure if I believed him or not. "I'm quite happy not to be demon dinner, but it just took off."
He shook his head. "I don't know. I'll have to look that up too."
"Okay..." I said slowly. I looked at him again, then back at the dead demon. "This is all quite, quite real, isn't it? Not some joke being played on the naive foreigner?"
"Quite real," he assured me. "Nice accent," he added suddenly. "Where are you from?"
I blinked at the sudden change from the arcane to the mundane. "New Zealand," I told him. "But I've got relatives here."
"Have you got a name?"
This, of course, was the point where I remembered every lesson my mother had taught me about not talking to strangers and got out of the conversation before it went any further. But it was night, I was in a bad part of a strange city and this man had just saved my life - from a _demon_ for goodness sake. And besides, something was telling me I could trust him. It doesn't happen very often, but sometimes I just _know_ these things, without rhyme or reason, and when I do... well, I haven't been wrong yet. He was telling me the truth, demons were real and I would be safe with him. So I answered the question instead of running away screaming.
"I'm Annalise Gordon." He just nodded and I gave him a puzzled look. "What about you? Don't you have a name?"
He paused for a long time, as if he had to think about it, before saying quietly, "Liam. Liam O'Connor."
"Nice to meet you, Liam," I said cheerfully. "Especially under the circumstances."
At that, his expression darkened and suddenly he didn't look so safe after all. "Under the circumstances?" he repeated tightly. "You mean barging in and nearly getting yourself killed?"
"I was only trying to help," I said weakly, deciding not to tell him it sort of hadn't been my decision, that I had just done it without thinking. He was obviously already unimpressed with me and I didn't like the feeling. Crazy, I know. I'd only just met the man, so what should I care what he thought of me? But I did.
He opened his mouth, then closed it again with a visible effort. "You did help," he admitted grudgingly. "Thank you." He looked me up and down, as if he hadn't actually thought to do so before this. "Aren't you a little young to be wandering the streets at night, Annalise Gordon? Let me take you back to your relatives."
"Oh," I said in dismay. Give me enough rope and I'll hang myself every time. "I'm eighteen," I said defensively. "And maybe you could just direct me to a decent place to stay?"
"You said you were staying with relatives."
"No, I didn't," I corrected pedantically. "I said I have relatives here. I do. It's just that they're not expecting me until next week."
He looked at me again and just shook his head. "Come on," he said and started walking out of the alley, picking up my bag on the way. I hesitated for a moment, but I didn't want to stick around with the dead demon and the alive guy was walking away with my stuff. So I followed him, jogging a couple of paces to fall into step beside him.
"Where are we going?"
"My place," he said shortly. "You can stay there tonight and we'll sort out something better in the morning. I promise you'll be quite safe."
"I know," I said, and I meant it.
He gave me a surprised look, ducked his head and kept walking. I grinned to myself and kept walking too.
Liam's apartment was a nice place - neat and tasteful in an understated, spartan kind of way. It wasn't all that far from the alley, but was clearly in a better part of town all the same. It was on the ground floor, closely surrounded by overhanging trees that probably gave the upstairs tenants a lovely, leafy view from their balconies, but did rather close in on the ground floor resident. I imagined the apartment was either pleasantly private, if a little lacking in direct sunlight, or claustrophobic, depending on your mood on the day. At night, of course, it was impossible to be sure either way.
Liam unlocked the door and ushered me in and I found myself standing at the entrance to a huge open area - more like a studio than a room. There was furniture spread sparsely across the available floor space; a sofa, a couple of arm chairs, a table, all very practical but still with a touch of old-fashioned class that the current craze for chrome and synth-leather was trying to destroy. There was artwork around the walls, mostly sculpture, the odd painting, again all old and seeming to barely tolerate the occasional concession to modern technology. Like the large in-wall tvnet that I could only see because the heavy velvet curtains hiding it weren't closed properly. Matching curtains covered what I assumed were windows and in some impossible fashion the rich velvet actually managed to avoid making the room seem dark and gloomy.
Liam was halfway across the floor before he realised I wasn't following him. Except for my time at boarding school, I had lived my life in a one hundred year old farmhouse, all sagging piles, polished wood floors, cosy clutter and quilts on all the beds, full of love and warmth and laughter. This sparse, understated elegance was cool and clinical and way outside my experience.
"Nice place," I managed not to stutter, trying for world-weary nonchalance and failing utterly.
Liam didn't seem to notice. He just shrugged and said, "It works for me." All the same, I got the feeling his heart wasn't really in it. "The spare room's this way," he added, nodding towards one of the doors on the far side of the room and this time, when he started walking again, I remembered to follow him.
He led the way into a small bedroom and put my bag down on the bed. It was obvious that the bed was really only there because bedrooms were supposed to include beds. This was actually a small library. Most of the walls were covered with shelves stacked to overflowing with books - old books with leather spines and faded gold lettering and indecipherable titles in strange languages. I could recognise Latin and Greek and Arabic - even if I could understand any of it - but there were other scripts I was sure weren't in common usage anywhere on the planet. There was even the odd book written in English; I managed to read _Common Demons of the North Americas_ on one, which left me wondering what the others might contain.
After a moment's reflection I decided I probably didn't want to know.
"You can stay here." Liam sounded suddenly awkward, as if he didn't quite know what to do with a teenager in his spare bedroom. "How about I make us some coffee or something?"
It was such a commonplace suggestion it took my breath away. Everything had been so crazy, I had been so crazy just to start out on this misadventure, that the idea of sitting down with a cup of coffee sounded so wonderfully normal. Or even better...
"Cocoa?" I asked in a small voice, trying not to sound too hopeful. Or too childish. But Mom had always made cocoa when life got overwhelming and I suddenly felt like I was in need of some cocoa magic.
Liam actually smiled, something I was beginning to suspect he didn't do too often. "I think I can manage cocoa," he agreed. "Come through to the kitchen when you've settled in." He started to leave, but stopped at the doorway and turned around. "And please don't try to read any of the books. Some of them are quite dangerous. I don't often have visitors, so it doesn't usually matter."
"Okay," I agreed, planning to have a look all the same once he was gone.
He gave me a stern stare, as if he could see right through me. "Promise?" he asked quietly.
You'd think he'd known me for years. If I promised, I was going to have to stick by it, and my curiosity was killing me. I knew instinctively that there was no way I could win this, but maybe I could manage a compromise. "I'll promise if you'll tell me about the demons and stuff," I hedged.
For a moment, the stare turned into a glare, then he laughed shortly, as if he hadn't meant to but it had slipped past his guard. "You remind me..." he began, then stopped. "All right," he agreed. "You promise to leave the books alone and I promise I'll try to explain."
"Promise," I agreed cheerfully. That was the best I'd been aiming for anyway.
He shook his head and left the room. "Cocoa in the kitchen," he called as he walked away.
"Cocoa in the kitchen," I repeated quietly and pulled my bag across the bed towards me.
Liam made good cocoa, creamy and rich with a little too much sugar, just the way Mom made it. We were sitting facing each other across his kitchen table, me sipping my cocoa, him cradling a cup of coffee between his palms.
"So?" he said finally.
"So," I agreed. "Demons?"
"Demons," he nodded.
I drank some more cocoa, he drank some coffee.
"Demons," he said again. "They're real."
"I got that bit," I admitted.
He shrugged. "I try to protect people who need protecting."
"And other things."
This conversation was bordering on the monosyllabic. "Creatures of the night?" I queried half-sarcastically. "The spawn of Hell, that kind of thing? Evil forces of darkness out to... To do what? Conquer the world? Eat people?"
A strange shudder had passed through him as I spoke, as if my words had struck a chord I didn't even know existed. But at my last question he shook his head and almost smiled. "Demons don't generally eat people," he told me, and there was an irony in his voice that I didn't understand. "Mostly, they just kill you."
"Okay," I said slowly, no longer feeling the slightest bit sarcastic. "So why didn't that demon in the alley kill me? It was going to and then it just ran away." I thought I was taking all this rather well really. But that could have been because part of me still didn't believe it. Oh, I knew everything was true, everything was dangerously real, but at the same time I didn't really believe it yet.
"I don't know," Liam admitted, and his calm, confident voice sounded vaguely uneasy. "But I think I had better find out."
"How do you find out?" I asked. "From all those old books? Or is there a demon directory on the Net or something?"
"You'd be surprised," he told me. "But mostly, from those old books. And I'll call a friend and ask him to come over and give me a hand."
"I can help," I suggested, but spoiled the offer by yawning halfway through, almost choking on my mouthful of cocoa in the process. I coughed and spluttered, while Liam looked torn between diving across the table to thump me on the back and pretending he hadn't noticed that I had suddenly lost the ability to breathe. Remembering the way he had pummelled those demons, I was rather glad I managed to get my breath back before he made up his mind.
I took another swallow of cocoa - more carefully this time - and managed to hold back the next yawn until the mug was empty and safely back on the table again.
"Why don't you go to bed?" Liam suggested gently and reached across the table to take the mug from me.
I almost jumped at the feeling that raced through me as his hands closed around mine. It was like nothing I'd ever felt before, a sensation that was more emotional than physical and that I doubt I will ever be able to put into words, no matter how long I live. There was nothing of romance in it, nothing like the mush you read in books where you know before you start that Jane and Edgar will get together at the end no matter how much they might hate each other on page one. There was nothing of attraction or desire, just a sense of recognition that went so deep I didn't know how I had lived my life so far without it. And the way Liam's fingers clenched over mine told me he had felt it too.
Then, just as suddenly as it had come it was gone again and we were facing each other across the table, our hand jointly clasped around my cocoa mug, both of us looking totally embarrassed. We needed a neutral topic, something to break the silence and make everything normal again and it was clear that Liam was as speechless as I was. So without even consciously deciding to do it, I just opened my mouth and waited to see what fell out.
"Nice ring," I heard myself say.
"Huh?" He blinked and looked down, as I was, at the gold ring on his finger, the heart at its centre pointing towards him. I knew what it was, knew what it was supposed to mean, because I had one myself, on my finger under his. But I wore mine the other way around. It was the crown that pointed towards me, although I hoped one day to have a reason to change that.
Of course, I didn't know if he knew what it meant or not. Pretty much anything Irish had been all the rage for several years now, starting back in '15 when Reunification had finally taken place. And the rings had been _really_ popular, both for the design and for the symbolism most people knew existed but didn't understand.
I knew about it because I'd made an effort to find out. I'd had the ring all my life and it was one of my most treasured possessions, not some trinket I'd bought in a market one day because it was trendy. I didn't know about Liam's, but I got the feeling his ring was as important to him as mine was to me, and that perhaps there was someone out there wearing its pair, his heart turned towards her.
But since I had no intention of talking about my ring and therefore I wouldn't dream of asking about his, I rather wished my subconscious had chosen to lock onto something else.
Liam was still staring at the ring, a faraway kind of look on his face and I wished all over again that I had just kept my mouth shut, or kept on with the choking until I turned blue and dropped to the floor unconscious.
Finally, he looked up and met my eyes, his a steady brown, gazing into my murky, no-particular-colour ones, and he just said gravely and gently, "Thank you."
I snatched my hands free and made a point of walking to the sink and rinsing my empty cocoa mug more vigorously that was really necessary. "Can I help you with your research?" I asked over the sound of running water and excessive scrubbing.
I almost jumped out of my skin when his hand dropped lightly on my shoulder. I hadn't heard a thing, and even with the noise I was making I should have heard _something_ as he stood up and walked over to the sink. He seemed to realise he'd startled me because his fingers tightened for a moment, reassuring rather than caging, and then his hand dropped away.
"Get some sleep, Annalise," he told me in the same, gentle voice, but it held a hint of steel that I recognised from arguments with my father. Arguments I always lost.
And when my body betrayed me completely by yawning again, several times in succession, I had to acknowledge that he was probably right. I was just about asleep on my feet, and although he had been too polite to come right out and say it, we both knew I wouldn't be any help researching a grocery list, let alone a mysterious demon, especially when only hours before I hadn't even known such creatures existed and I couldn't read any of the old languages his books were written in.
"The books," I said suddenly, putting down the mug and turning to face him. "Aren't you going to need the books to do your research?"
"Oh," he said in exactly the same tone I had used and I got the clear impression he had never had enough guests stay with him for the problem to have arisen before. He thought about it for a moment then shrugged. "Easily solved. You can sleep in my bed."
"I can't do that," I protested. "What about you?" Because he was a nice guy, and I didn't want to toss him out of his own bed, but I certainly wasn't planning on sharing. Okay, this whole "finding my roots" thing was proving to have been a pretty dumb idea so far, but I still wasn't _that_ stupid.
He shrugged again, dismissing my unspoken concerns and his own comfort with the same gesture. He was really very eloquent with the whole shrugging thing. He could communicate more with a flick of his shoulder and a twist of his mouth than I ever could with a thousand, probably rambling, words. "I doubt I'll get much sleep. And I don't really need it anyway."
I found myself being guided back across the main room. "Come on, Annalise. Go to bed." He opened a door into a second bedroom, gave me a gentle push forwards and disappeared again. He was back in a moment with my bag; he pressed it into my arms, wished me goodnight and shut the door.
I found myself standing in the doorway of his bedroom, my bag clutched in my arms, listening to the sound on his receding footsteps echoing off the wooden floor. It was at exactly that moment that my day caught up with me. I was suddenly so tired I couldn't think, couldn't reason, could barely even move from where I was standing. I stumbled across the room to the bed, managed to dig the oversized t-shirt I wore as a nightgown out of my bag, dragged Markie out from where he was hiding down among my socks and scrambled under the covers. I curled myself up into a little ball, with the pillows all around me and the sheet pulled up over my ears and tired to pretend I was back home in my own bed where the world was normal and boring and I only had to be a kid, not a grown up on my own, dealing with stuff that shouldn't really exist but did.
If life was a book - say, one of those romances I swear I have never read, even though Mom keeps a stash of them under her bed that she thinks I don't know about - then I would have woken, refreshed and relaxed, to sunlight streaming through an open window and a soft breeze blowing jasmine scented air into the room. Oh yeah, and without a single hair our of place.
It isn't and I didn't.
I clawed my way into consciousness, my eyes feeling like they were full of grit and my mouth like it was the inside of an old coat pocket. The temptation to stay safely tucked up in bed - even if it was someone else's bed - was a strong one, but it was being worn away by the demands of a full bladder. I forced my eyes open and peered blearily around the room. It was big and also sparsely furnished, but compared to the main room it could almost be called cluttered. The same heavy velvet curtains covered the windows, keeping the room cool and dim, although I was sure it must be light outside by now.
I pushed back the covers and half-tumbled, half-staggered out of the big bed. Sore muscles in my thighs and back immediately protested and I stood stiffly, stretching to try to relieve some of the tension. It didn't make a whole lot of difference, but it did at least wake me up a bit more.
_Right, priority one. Bathroom._ I suddenly realised I had no idea where the bathroom might be. I hadn't exactly had a tour of the apartment last night; while I could find the kitchen and both bedrooms with ease - and the living room was kind of hard to miss - I had no idea of the location of what was, at that particular moment at least, the most important room in the whole place.
I snagged some practice pants out of my bag and dragged them on, figuring that between them, they and the t-shirt would keep me more than decent for the time being. Then I went exploring.
I found Liam and another man taking up a good half of the outer room. They had old books and papers scattered across tables and spread on the floor. The TV screen was on, the interface console out, and it looked like they were running some kind of automated net search. Pictures flashed across the screen, much too fast to be recognisable, and text wrote and rewrote itself as the images changed, quite impossible to read as it raced by and was gone again.
Liam was sitting in an armchair, turning the yellowed pages of a leather-bound book, an expression of extreme concentration on his face. There was a stack of similar looking books beside him, bits of torn paper sticking out of marked pages.
The other man was leaning over a small table and he was muttering as he read the words on the page in front of him, marking his progress along the line with one finger. He was probably in his late forties or early fifties, lean rather than actually skinny, with a sharp, intelligent face and short, slightly unruly hair that showed the first, light frosting of grey. He had his shirt-sleeves rolled up and there was a leather jacket draped over a chair behind him.
He was so intent on his reading he never even heard the sound of me opening and shutting the bedroom door, but Liam looked up almost immediately, marking his place in the book with another scrap of paper.
"Morning, Annalise." He looked disgustingly wide awake - the bastard - and the fact he was still wearing the same clothes as last night suggested he might not have actually had any sleep between now and then. Add to that the fact that I had just noticed the clock on the wall, which was telling me it was almost midday, and I suddenly felt very small, young, grubby and sleepy.
The older man looked up at his words and after a second, spotted me standing in the bedroom doorway. He stared for a moment, before looking at Liam with raised eyebrows. "You didn't tell me she was that young."
"I'm eighteen," I protested automatically. "I can drive, I can drink, I can vote. I can even get married if I want to." Well, I could do all those things at home, anyway. I didn't know if it was the same in the States or not, but that was a quibble I wasn't going to let anyone bring up. "I'm not - " and I copied his tone exactly, right down to the lurking traces of a British accent " - _that young_."
Liam laughed shortly. "That's telling you, Wes." He looked back at me and gave me one of those almost-smiles of his. "I realise it's a bit late, but how about something for breakfast?"
"Bathroom?" I begged plaintively. Food sounded like a wonderful idea, but I had more important and immediate concerns I wanted to take care of first.
"Oh." He sounded surprised - and something else as well, as if he was a little embarrassed he hadn't thought of it himself. Again, I got the impression he didn't have guests very often. Liam O'Connor was a loner and the people he let into his life - like the man he had called Wes - must have had to fight their way in and been very stubborn about staying there. Which made me realise how astounding it was that he had let _me_ in with such ease. And I rather thought I would insist on staying there.
After I'd dealt with my more pressing concerns.
Liam pointed down a short corridor. "At the end," he told me. "There are towels and stuff in the cupboard. Make yourself at home."
I left them to their researching and went to turn myself back into a human being.
Standing under the shower, with the hot water cascading over my hair and pouring across my skin, certainly helped me regain some measure of equilibrium. My world was still upside down, but I was beginning to feel more like I could cope with it, given a little time, some support and lots of detailed explanations.
Towelling my hair dry, I almost felt ready to go out there and demand those explanations. Or at least a proper introduction to "Wes", whoever exactly he was. I dressed in my practice leggings and a new t-shirt I had bought at LAX Airport, mostly because I couldn't resist the cute pig on the front. He kind of reminded me of Markie. I couldn't find a mirror - a fact that under normal circumstances would have been strange, but after the last 24 hours really didn't seem like a big deal at all - so I pulled my hair into a ponytail by feel and force of habit and left the wet towel hanging on the shower rail because I didn't know what else to do with it.
This time both men looked up when I came back into the room. "Breakfast?" Liam asked in his usual, succinct manner, making his friend give him a despairing look and shake his head. He stood up, stretching out the kinks as he did so and proving to be not only lean, but also tall. He walked over to join me and held out his hand.
"We haven't been properly introduced, but I'm Wesley Wyndham-Pryce."
Not sure what else to do, I shook the offered hand and reflected that maybe my name, while uncommon, wasn't such a burden after all. Imagine going through school being called Wesley Wyndham-Pryce! Besides, I was part of the generation that had all had weird, unusual names. I'd gone to school with girls whot names like Edyge and Lianna, Djoram and Adia; as well as the usual Susans, Marys and Jackies. It was only in the last ten years that names like Jane or Laura or Elizabeth were coming back into fashion.
"Nice to meet you, Mr Wyndham-Pryce," I answered, remembering my manners just a little belatedly. "I'm Annalise."
"So I understand," he agreed. "And now we've introduced ourselves, you can call me Wesley. It does save a lot of time and extra breath."
I laughed and he smiled back, suddenly looking years younger and a lot less suave and confident. I found I liked him all the more for it. You could intimidate people with a name like that, if you had the personality for it and you wanted to do it. But he didn't, he let it be a sort of private joke instead, a way of inviting you to be a friend, if you thought you might like to be.
"So," he added companionably, sounding as if this could have been his place instead of Liam's. "How about that breakfast?"
I was shown the cupboards and the contents of the refrigerator - "Anything on the top three shelves," Liam told me - and left to my own devices to fix myself a meal. I was, Wesley said, welcome to decide for myself if it was breakfast or lunch and should just help myself. Liam gave him a pained look at this usurping of the host's duties, but he just nodded in a resigned kind of way.
They went back to their books again and I started exploring. In the end, I settled on cornflakes with milk and orange juice. I still wanted to get in some exercises if I could, assuming Liam wouldn't mind me borrowing some of his unused floor space, and putting something heavy into my stomach didn't seem like a very good idea.
I flopped down in an unoccupied chair and watched them while I munched my way through the bowl of cereal. Except for the turning of pages and the crunching of my cornflakes as I chewed, there was silence in the room. A silence thick with ancient languages and old scholarship and the smell of dim, musty libraries and to me, a child of the computer age, it was both fascinating and overwhelming at the same time.
"How's it going?" I asked finally, when I'd finished the cornflakes and swallowed the last of my orange juice and couldn't stand the quiet any more.
Wesley looked up, ran a hand through his hair and sighed. "Badly," he admitted. "We still haven't worked out what kind of demons those were or what they wanted."
"We know a lot of things they're not, though," Liam added ironically. "They weren't Brikanal demons and they weren't Xelenic demons, or Led Zeppelin demons or..."
"There's no such thing as a Led Zeppelin demon," Wesley protested indignantly. "You made that up."
"There should be," Liam told him with a sudden, brief grin. "It was a joke, Wesley. I'm a lot better at making jokes these days, remember? I've been practising."
"A joke's only a joke if someone laughs," Wesley said pedantically. "I didn't hear anyone laugh." He looked at me. "Did you, Annalise?"
I just stared, finally managing to shake my head. The whole exchange had gone right over the top of my head and then whistled off out a door somewhere. It might have been a joke, but it was private one that you probably had to have been friends for years to understand.
"See," Wesley finished triumphantly. "She's too young for your so-called jokes." He suddenly looked curious. "Besides, I don't believe you've ever listened to Led Zeppelin in your life."
Liam grimaced. "There was that six weeks Spike decided to stay with me, remember that?" He shuddered. "There are some things in life I would rather not know about and his taste in music is definitely one of them."
"It's not the music," Wesley suggested. "It's the volume he plays it at."
Liam shrugged, another of those incredibly eloquent shrugs. "Maybe. To answer Annalise's question - we're still working on it."
"Can I help?"
Wesley shook his head. "I don't think so. We've already exhausted the English volumes." He suddenly gave me a hopeful look. "I don't suppose you can read Ancient Etruscan?"
I shook my head, not sure if he was serious or not.
He sighed. "Oh well. It was worth a shot. Mine is rather rusty."
It didn't look like I could do anything to help them, so maybe I could just run through a few exercises and see if I couldn't work out some of my kinks and sore places instead. I waited until Liam was clearly between pages and cleared my throat nervously. He'd been so generous already, and I was suddenly anxious about asking such a strange favour. He looked up, obviously saw my white face and gave me an encouraging smile.
"I... I wanted to do some practice, some exercise," I began hesitantly. "Is there a place...?"
"There's a bit of a yard out back," Liam offered. "Would that do?"
I shook my head, half of me wondering why I'd even asked, the other half starting to get stubborn. "It's an indoor thing," I explained. "I dance. Ballet." And waited for the surprise and amusement that usually followed.
"Ah." The single, short word, not even something you would find in a dictionary, held a level of understanding I hadn't expected. "There's plenty of space down the other end of the room," Liam suggested. "If you don't mind an audience?" He pointed towards an empty space where two antique embroidered tapestries hung on the wall. "Take those down and you'll find the lower rail might even be the right height for a _barre_."
I blinked. Most people thought I was weird - especially since I had kept up my dancing without ever intending to perform. It gave me a sense of balance, the same kind of reasons other people did things like yoga or tai chi or meditation. And I needed some of that centering Just then. But Liam not only didn't think I was weird, he seemed to know exactly what I was talking about.
"Thanks." I grinned at him and went to get my dance slippers out of my bag. As I left, I heard Wesley chuckle.
"Spent some time with the _corps de ballet_ in your misspent, ah... youth, did you?"
I missed Liam's response, but it made his friend laugh harder. "Don't look at me like that. You make a joke, I make a joke. Turnabout is fair play."
This time, I heard Liam growl. He could do that as eloquently as he could shrug.
With the hanging removed, two wooden rails were revealed, just as Liam had promised. One was way above my head, but the other was a perfect height. Circumstances had prevented me from doing any practice in the last couple of days and since I was still stiff and a little sore from my encounter with the demon I went right back to the basics, starting with the same exercises I had learned in my very first ballet years ago as an over enthusiastic eleven year old and progressing onwards from there.
As always, I was quickly lost in the movement, in the stretch and play of my muscles, the motion of my hands and line of my body. My focus narrowed until I could feel my blood pulsing through my veins, my lungs and diaphragm moving in unison as I breathed, my muscles unknotting and my bruises smoothing themselves away.
I moved away from my improvised _barre_, out into the floor, moving through balances and stretches, arabesques and the leaps I could safely fit into the space I had available. I had totally forgotten I had an audience now, forgotten where I was even as my sense of self strengthened and surrounded me. I was wrapped in the dance, the discipline and the concentration, the motion and movement, all pulling me into focus, clearing my mind and revitalising my body.
When a muffled shout from across the room impinged itself on my awareness I was so startled I did something I hadn't done in years. I fell out of the dance's enchantment, both figuratively and literally, tumbling gracelessly to the ground and landing with a tailbone-jarring thump.
I looked up, gathering the shreds of my dignity around me, to see Wesley staring at me, concern on his face and Liam poised, as if caught in mid-movement, torn between coming to my aid and finishing whatever it was he was doing before I fell over.
"Did you find something?" I asked weakly.
Wesley's frown turned into a satisfied grin. "They're Antara demons."
"Never heard of them," I said facetiously, and then wished I hadn't when I saw the utter seriousness of Liam's expression.
"And...?" he asked his friend, ignoring me completely.
Wesley's smile faded a little at that and he tapped the page. "See for yourself."
While Liam read the passage over Wesley's shoulder I climbed to my feet, mentally cataloguing a new set of bruises. By the time I joined them, Wesley's expression was serious again and Liam's already pale face was almost white.
"That's it then," he said softly.
Surprise, shock, concern, they all slipped from Liam's face to be replaced by an implacable resolve. "We're going to Sunnydale then," he said. "Now."
In the end we didn't leave for Sunnydale - now that was a Californian name for a town if ever I'd heard one - until after dusk. Liam had been all for charging out the door on the spot but eventually a wiser head - namely Wesley's - had prevailed. After offering a series of arguments, warnings and what I think were threats (the substance of which I didn't understand), Wesley finally managed to get Liam to calm down enough to listen to him and reluctantly concede that he was right.
Instead, Liam spent the rest of the day preparing.
Enough weapons appeared out of cupboards, armouries and other unexpected places to furnish a small army. It would have needed to be a medieval army though, as Liam's weapons collection consisted of things like axes, swords, crossbows and other ancient nasties I couldn't name. He examined them all with an experienced eye, polished many, cleaned others and returned a small number of them back to the places they had come from.
Wesley tried to reason with him at first, insisting that this kind of outfitting wasn't really needed to take on a single demon. After getting a glare and growl dangerous enough to kill, he gave up and helped instead, quickly proving he was almost as familiar with this kind of weaponry as Liam clearly was.
As for me, I spent the afternoon trying to talk Wesley into taking me with them. It was soon clear that he didn't have any experience when it came to winning arguments with determined teenagers and when the car pulled away from Liam's apartment just as the sun set, my bag was in the truck and I was in the back seat.
It was well past dark by the time we flashed past the "Welcome to Sunnydale" sign on the outskirts of the small town. Fifteen minutes later we pulled up outside a typical suburban house with a low fence across the front and welcoming lights in the windows.
"I still think we should have called them first," Wesley muttered.
"Mmm," Liam answered absently, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, and got out of the car.
Wesley looked back over his shoulder at me and sighed. "Come on, Annalise. Or he'll leave us behind."
So there we were, the three of us, standing in a huddle on the front porch, waiting for someone to answer the door. Just as Liam was about to have a second go at bashing it in - and he'd come pretty close to succeeding the first time - we heard the sound of footsteps coming towards us. Liam let his arm drop back to his side and I decided to pretend I hadn't heard Wesley's sigh of relief.
The woman who opened the door was maybe my mother's age, perhaps a little younger. She had auburn hair of the kind of colour I'd be prepared to kill for; it hung down to just brush her shoulders in a cut that was young and trendy and still suited her perfectly. There might be the first signs of age on her face, but her eyes were young and her smile, when she saw who her visitors were, was younger still.
"Wesley! Angel! What are you doing here?" And then she saw me, no taller than she was and feeling rather lost behind the two big men standing in front of me. "And who have you brought with you?" Her face fell suddenly. "There's trouble, isn't there? You wouldn't have come here if there wasn't."
"There's trouble," Liam agreed shortly. "Willow, can I come in?"
Willow - the name suited her I thought, even if I couldn't quite decide why - gave him a surprised look. "Why shouldn't you?"
Liam sighed and I saw his shoulders tense. "You've moved since I was last here. This is a new house and I never got an open invitation."
"Oh," Willow said softly, clearly understanding something I was missing altogether.
There were too many mysteries and unanswered questions here and if someone didn't start explaining things to me soon I was going to start getting violent. In my fantasies, at least. In reality, I'd probably just find myself whining. And she'd called Liam something else, too. What had it been ?
"Come in, Angel," Willow said, something archaic and formal in her tone. "You are always welcome in our home, wherever it might be."
"Good," Liam muttered and marched into the house. Wesley followed a step behind, while I stayed on the doorstep, staring after them both. I had no idea exactly what was going on and all I could hear was the name, running around and around in my head. _Angel._ I'd come on my wild goose chase across the world chasing an angel, but it had never occurred to me that it might be a person's name. And surely the chances of meeting that person in a back alley, fighting with demons of all things, had to be about the same as getting hit on the head by a falling meteor. Which was rather a good description of my feelings at that particular moment.
"Men," Willow commented in an exasperated, good-natured voice and I looked up to see her watching me, a quiet, gentle expression on her face. "They haven't even bothered to introduce us, have they? I'm Willow Giles. And you?"
She smiled again. "And you're totally confused, right?"
"Oh," I said in relief, glad someone finally seemed to have worked that out. "Way beyond totally."
She slipped an arm around my back and gently guided me into the house. "Come along then. I'll make sure you get properly introduced to my husband, and then we'll see if we can fix some of that confusion."
"Promise?" I found myself asking in a small voice, and then could have died for sounding like a four year old in front of a total stranger.
But she just nodded. "Promise."
Willow ushered me into a comfortable living room where Wesley and Liam were in animated discussion with an older man, who was looking very patient as they both tried to talk to him at the same time.
Willow took control in an instant, with an authority that belied her friendly, quiet appearance. "Hey!" Anyone else might have needed to shout or stamp one foot, but she just raised her voice a little and made it crack across the room. Silence, startled and a little guilty, fell at once. She aimed a finger at Liam and Wesley in turn. "You and you - sit!" Not surprisingly I thought, they did as they were told. "Rupert," she finished, her tone still dangerous.
The other man turned and gave her a beautiful smile. "Yes, love?" He was older than she was - quite a lot older actually - but he carried his age with ease and dignity. If I had had to use a single word to describe him I would have chosen _distinguished_. And his smile, that was as young as his wife's.
"Rupert, this is Annalise Gordon, whom those two cretins," she flicked a disgusted glance at Wesley and Liam, "abandoned on the doorstep. Annalise, this is my husband, Rupert Giles."
He offered me his hand with grave courtesy and I shook it, offering him a shy smile. "Hello, Mr Giles."
"Hello, Annalise. Welcome to our home." Like Wesley's did, his voice held the remnants of a British accent. He gestured towards an empty chair and turned his attention back to his other two visitors. But it wasn't a dismissal, it was an inclusion. As far as he was concerned, I was a part of whatever was about to happen next. His friends had brought me here, his wife had welcomed me in and therefore I belonged. It was a weird, delicious feeling and I sat down, automatically tucking one leg under me as I always did, aware I had a silly grin on my face.
Willow threw me an understanding look and sat down beside her husband. He took her hand without even noticing he did it and gave Liam a long, thoughtful look. "So what's happened to bring you back to Sunnydale?"
To me, his answer bore absolutely no relation to the question at all. "Where's Buffy?"
"At home, as far as I know," Willow answered, sounding confused.
"Get her here." It wasn't a request, it was a command.
"Now just a moment," Mr Giles protested and his voice had turned hard and a little dangerous. "You can't waltz in here after all this time and make demands like that."
"Please, Giles," Wesley interrupted. "It's important."
Willow shared a glance with her husband, then nodded. "All right, I'll call her."
"And while she does that someone had better explain what's going on," Mr Giles finished as his wife stood up and left the room.
Before anyone got the chance we were interrupted by the arrival of a small tornado. It hurled itself at Wesley with a shriek of delight, and when he grabbed it around the waist it resolved itself into a young girl with her mother's red hair and her father's hazel-green eyes. "Hi, Uncle Wes." She hugged him with a lack of self-consciousness that she was probably going to lose fairly soon. I remembered turning thirteen and suddenly deciding I was much too grown up for hugs, even from family. Fortunately, by the time I turned seventeen, I'd worked out just how stupid that really was. Of course, I'd also thought that at eighteen I finally really was grown up - until I'd met two demons in a Los Angeles alley.
Wesley hugged her back and set her on her feet again. "Hey, Aly," he said cheerfully. "How's school?"
Beside him, Liam looked like he was about to explode, something Mr Giles had obviously noticed. I had a feeling he noticed a lot of things. "Come over here with me, Aly," he suggested, making room for her beside him on the couch. "Your Uncle Angel has something to tell us."
The girl seemed to notice Liam for the first time. The welcome she gave him was a lot more restrained than Wesley's had been. "Oh," she said, snuggling up beside her father. "Hello, Angel." Sitting on the couch cross-legged, with the pillow she had moved to sit down lying on her knees, she finally looked across at me.
"Aly, really," Willow's voice said from the doorway. "That's Annalise, she's a friend of Wesley's and Angel's. Annalise, this ragamuffin is Alianne."
She gave me a careful nod and I smiled in return. Obviously, I was going to have to earn my welcome from this young lady.
"I talked to Buffy," Willow told Liam as she sat down on Alianne's other side. "She's coming over. I didn't tell her you were here, just that there was a problem."
"So, let's hear what the problem is," Mr Giles said firmly. "I want to know more about what brought you here before Buffy arrives. Because," and now his tone was so quiet it sent a shiver down my spine, "if I think it's going to hurt her, you're leaving before she arrives."
"There's a demon," Wesley began.
"An ugly one?" Alianne asked curiously and I was surprised by the calm way she took the statement. What kind of kid listened to a discussion about demons the same way anyone else might talk about their day at school?
"Really ugly," I told her. "With fangs and claws and red eyes."
"Oooh," Aly said in satisfaction. "Yuck."
"I had a run in with a pair of demons," Liam said, finally getting a word in edgeways. "Annalise got caught up in the fight. I killed one and the other ran off. Wesley and I spent the night and the better part of this morning trying to find out what they were."
"And?" Mr Giles prompted.
"They're Antara demons," Wesley offered.
Mr Giles thought for a moment, then shook his head. "I've never heard of them."
"Neither had we," Liam agreed. "Wes finally found them in Caliastri's _Compendium_."
"Wow," Willow commented. "Obscure."
"Very," her husband agreed. "And you only killed one of them. I take it the second is the reason you're here?"
Liam just nodded and it was Wesley who explained further. "It turns out Antara demons are assassins. They hunt in pairs and they are at least partially empathic. If one is killed, the other abandons the intended victim and goes after whoever the target, in this case Angel, loves most."
"Oh," Willow said very softly, her voice barely above a whisper. "Oh. And you're here. It's Buffy, isn't it? It's still Buffy."
Liam shrugged. "It's always been Buffy. I haven't seen her or spoken with her in ten years, but yes, it's still Buffy."
"I'm sorry," Willow said in that same, soft voice.
Liam half-shrugged and shook his head. "Don't be. I'm not. Not really. I " He shook his head again. "She just needs to know what's coming."
"It sounds like you defeated the first demon without too much trouble," Mr Giles commented, but the ice was gone from his voice now, replaced by a guarded sympathy I didn't understand. "Buffy shouldn't have any trouble with the second."
"The surviving demon gains the full strength and wit of the dead one," Wesley said matter-of-factly. "Apparently it's something to do with the empathic link between the pair. Even Buffy may need some help with this one."
Alianne's eyes had gone wide as the conversation progressed. "Is Aunty Buffy in danger?" she asked. "I don't want her to get hurt like last time."
"Last time?" Liam repeated, half-rising from his seat as if he couldn't stop himself from moving. "Last time?"
"I'm not going to get hurt, Aly," a new voice said from behind me. "I was careless last time. I won't be again."
Liam had frozen, half standing, staring at the woman who had just entered the room. I turned in my seat to see her watching him in return, an equally frozen expression on her face. She was smaller than I had expected from what I'd heard about her so far, probably a little shorter than me and I'm not tall by any means. Blonde hair, expressive blue eyes, an athletic build; I couldn't make a guess at her age at all. She looked younger than her friend Willow, at moments barely older than me, and I guessed she probably fell somewhere in between the two. And I had this sudden, instinctive feeling that I would like her, if only she would give me a chance.
Just then though, she hadn't even noticed that I existed. All her attention was caught, focused solely on Liam, who had remained as motionless as she.
Finally, she was the one who moved; breaking the spell, exhaling a long breath that turned into a word. "Angel."
And as if that released him in turn, Liam straightened and smiled, as if he couldn't even help himself. That smile lit the room, its edges warming the rest of us even though he was oblivious to our presence. "Buffy."
For just an instant his smile brought a matching light to her eyes, and the room was warmed by their combined presence. Then she took a deep, shuddering breath, breaking eye contact. Her hands closed on the doorframe for support and the link between them faded until she was frowning at him instead.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded abruptly.
"You look well," he said, not answering the question. "Very well. Very ah..." He looked at her again, actually looking this time, instead of just staring without seeing. "Very young."
Something unreadable flashed across her face and was gone, carefully smoothed away behind a mask of casual indifference. "You can't exactly talk," she replied in a pointed tone.
"Ah, yes..." Mr Giles broke in before this not-conversation could go any further. "Buffy does appear to be ageing more slowly than is normal. We're not exactly sure why, but since she is the oldest living Slayer in history we're into completely new territory."
Buffy herself shrugged. "It's a Slayer thing. When did any of it ever make sense? I guess they must want to keep me in shape or something."
Mr Giles frowned, almost involuntarily, as if it was an old habit. "Buffy, I'm sure there is a reason. Perhaps this is a way to keep your experience available for as long as possible. After all, the Slayers from Kendra's line continue to be Called, to fight and to die. You keep each next one alive just that bit longer."
A cloud passed over her face, like his words had conjured up a bad memory, a series of bad memories she couldn't ever quite escape.
"What's a Slayer?" I blurted into the silence, then wished the floor would open up and swallow me when everyone turned around to stare at me.
Buffy actually noticed me for the first time, giving me a penetrating look that had me wishing even harder for that unexpected chasm to appear at my feet. "Who are you?"
"This is Annalise," Willow offered, coming quickly to my rescue. "She got caught up in Angel's demon hunting last night."
An expression something akin to pity crossed her face, and she managed to smile at me. It was a fairly poor attempt, but she deserved points for the effort, and it made her seem a lot more human than she had so far. "Scary the first time, huh?" Her eyes grew distant for a moment. "I remember..."
"Indeed," Mr Giles said quietly, a wealth of understanding and shared experience in his voice.
It seemed to offer Buffy some kind of anchor, one she had lost when she had walked in to discover Liam sitting in her friends' living room. She smiled again, and this time it was closer to a grin. "I'm a vampire slayer, Annalise. Actually, I'm _the_ Vampire Slayer. There's all this prophecy and stuff about it, but basically I go around shoving pointy sticks into the undead and they turn into dust."
"Oh," I said weakly. "I see." Then, slowly, what she had said started sinking in. It didn't make any more sense than anything else that had happened to me in the last day but I had finally reached the point where I realised that was irrelevant. It might not make sense, but all the evidence insisted it was true all the same. If Buffy said she was the Vampire Slayer, who was I to argue? "There are vampires, as well as demons?" I asked, giving myself one last chance to be told it was all a joke at my expense, even though I knew we were well past that.
Willow nodded. "And witches and warlocks and... and werewolves and all sorts of evil nasties that go bump in the night." She gave her friend a proud look. "Buffy protects everyone from the bad guys."
"Like Liam does," I said, finally feeling like we'd reached a topic I knew something about. At last I had personal, first-hand experience to back something up.
"Liam?" Buffy repeated, giving him a funny look. Liam just gave her a matching one back and she shrugged. "Whatever. Why _are_ you here anyway?"
"A demon," Mr Giles said matter-of-factly when no-one else answered. "Angel killed one in LA and there's a second after you."
She looked at Liam. "Haven't you heard of this little invention called the telephone? You talk into it and you can tell people how to kill demons without ever having to leave home."
"I came to help," he said firmly. "I'm the one who set it on you."
Buffy gaped at him for a moment, then her eyes went hard and the sudden pain in her voice startled me. "Now just a minute," she spat. "You decide it's finally time to face me again and you do it by sending a _demon_ after me. Is this to make me grateful for your help, 'cos I assure you I'm not. Haven't you ever heard of sending a girl flowers?" She took a sharp, tight breath. "Of course not. Fiends over flowers any day, that's more your style, isn't it?"
"It was an _accident_," Wesley stressed, coming to his friend's defence.
"He didn't know killing the first demon would send the second after you," Mr Giles added.
"It's only hunting you because Angel loves you," Willow blurted out and then clapped her hands over her mouth, her face the same shade as her hair and looking like she wanted to be struck by lightning on the spot.
Buffy stopped, staring at Liam like he had just turned into a toad. Or perhaps like the toad had just turned into a prince.
He looked down at his hands and said softly, "I never stopped."
"You lied to me," Buffy said in a voice as quiet as his, and I doubt she even knew the rest of us were in the room any more.
"I thought it was best for you," he answered, his voice even quieter this time.
"Oooh!" Buffy exploded, furious again. "You would..." She swallowed whatever she was going to say with extreme effort and turned towards the door. "I'm going after the demon. I think I need to kill something."
Liam stood. "I'm coming too."
She glared back at him. "Oh no you are not."
He didn't say a word, just stood there silently and finally she sighed. "I'm not going to get rid of you, am I? If I go without you, you'll just follow me."
"I know how to kill it," he offered. "I've got weapons in the car."
She sighed again. "All right then. Come on."
Liam's eyes flashed, full of a kind of surprised triumph, but fortunately Buffy was already heading for the door and she didn't see it. He followed her out of the room and moments later the front door banged shut behind them.
Wesley let out an explosive sigh of relief. "Well, that went better than I expected."
"Yes it did, didn't it?" Mr Giles agreed. He gave his wife a fond, exasperated look. "Willow, really. Did you have to say that?"
"I didn't mean to," she answered in a small voice. "It just sort of came out. I get nervous, I babble. You know that, Rupert."
He ran a hand through her hair, the gesture gentle and familiar, clearly one of long habit. "I know," he agreed with a smile. "And most of the time I find it very endearing. But sometimes..."
"I know," she agreed miserably. "Sometimes it's a disaster."
"Is Aunty Buffy mad at Mommy?" Alianne asked suddenly. "Or is she mad at Angel?" She frowned as she thought about it some more. "Or is she just mad at everybody? Is she mad at me?"
Willow wrapped her arms around her daughter and gave her a hug. "She's had a bit of a shock, sweetheart. And I said something very stupid, which didn't help. But no, I don't think she's really mad at anyone. She _certainly_ isn't mad at you."
"Is love stupid?" Aly asked.
Her father sighed softly. "No, Aly, love isn't stupid. But sometimes it can be very complicated."
"And that," Wesley said ironically, "must be the understatement of the century." He stood up, suddenly looking gangly and a bit awkward. "It doesn't look like we're going to get back to LA tonight. Giles, can Annalise stay with you and Willow? Angel and I can find somewhere, but I think she'd be better here."
Willow set her daughter on the floor and stood herself. "Don't be ridiculous, Wesley," she said briskly. "You can all stay. If you don't mind sharing, you and Angel can have the spare room. And Annalise can share with Aly for the night." She glanced over at me. "If you don't mind?"
I shook my head. "I don't mind." And remembering how I had been at her age, I had the presence of mind to add, "If that's all right with you, Alianne?"
She thought for a moment, giving the matter its due consideration, then she nodded. "Okay."
"Right," Willow said decisively. "How about cookies in the kitchen, then I make up the spare bed for Annalise and..." She fixed her daughter with a mother's look. "...then it's bedtime for you, missy."
"Oh, but..." Aly protested automatically. I was with her all the way. I wouldn't want to be sent to bed at this point in the proceedings either. I might miss something.
"That was the deal, Aly," Mr Giles reminded her. "An early night tonight before you go camping with Dara and her family tomorrow."
She pulled one of the most awful faces I had ever seen - the kind where Mom warned me to be careful in case the wind changed and I got stuck that way - as she thought about it. "Okay," she finally sighed. "But I get cookies and cocoa first, right?"
"Right," Willow laughed, steering her towards the kitchen. "Cookies and cocoa all round."
"I'll go and get our bags from the car," Wesley offered.
Twenty minutes later we were all gathered around the Giles' kitchen table, munching our way through a large plate of fresh chocolate chip cookies. Alianne and I were drinking cocoa, Willow coffee, and Wesley and Mr Giles tea from delicate china tea cups. Obviously you could take the Englishmen out of England, but you couldn't take England out of the Englishmen!
It was the most normal time I had had since coming to America. No talk of demons or monsters or vampires, no strange comments I didn't understand or complicated, tightly-leashed emotions that effected everyone in the vicinity. Suddenly I was Annie as often I was Annalise and I was calling Mr Giles just plain _Giles_, something he actually seemed to be more comfortable with. Willow had laughed at that and told him it was because no-one except his dentist and the man from the IRS had called him 'mister' for twenty years.
I found myself talking about home, explaining the while I had been born in the States, Mom and Dad had moved to New Zealand when I was still a baby, liked it and stayed. I talked about the farm and my parents and my American relatives I hadn't seen since I was ten years old. Alianne chattered about her camping trip the next day and I made her laugh by telling her about my adventure falling over a (fortunately small) waterfall on a school hiking trip. She found the concept of boarding school totally weird and her eyes went round when her father admitted, as if it was some kind of guilty secret, that he had gone to boarding school himself, back in England.
"In the dark ages," Willow added with a chuckle as she collected her daughter's empty mug. "You and me, Aly, we'll have to stick together. We're the only normal people here. I'll bet Wesley went to boarding school too. It's a Watcher thing."
"Really, Uncle Wes?" Alianne gave him a disbelieving look.
"Really," he agreed, but his face was tight, as if it was something he didn't want to discuss
Willow threw him an apologetic look and made a point of changing the subject. "Plate's empty, Aly," she said firmly. "Bedtime."
"Awww, Aly complained, but she followed her mother up the stairs without a fuss. Wesley disappeared to consult a book in Giles' library - which it turned out wasn't in the spare bedroom but was big enough to warrant a whole room to itself - and that left Giles and me.
"Why don't we go and sit down?" he suggested. "And I'll try to answer some of those questions you're just dying to ask."
"Do you do this often?" I asked as I followed him back into the living room.
"Do what?" He sounded puzzled and I laughed.
"Read people's minds. Tell them about vampires. Either. Both."
He looked a little surprised. "After the last twenty four hours, you would have be a very unusual young woman if you didn't have questions. And I've been designated answer-guy in the past." He frowned for an instant. "Or was it book-guy? Knowing Xander, I expect it was both. And no, actually, we usually try to convince people they didn't notice anything strange at all. But I don't think that's going to work with you."
"Neither do I," I said thoughtfully as I curled myself back up in one of the armchairs. "I mean, it would be much easier just to pretend nothing was different, but somehow I don't think I can."
He leaned back against the sofa and gave me an encouraging smile. "So ask."
That was way too vague an opening. There were so _many_ things I wanted explained I didn't know where to think about starting. Until I realised that all the stuff about demons and witches and vampires and Vampire Slayers could wait. There was something else I needed to know about more.
"Is his name really Angel?"
Giles looked surprised, as if that was the very last thing he had expected me to ask, but he nodded. "Yes, it is. But he seems to call himself Liam just as much now. That was his name first and I think he's more at peace with his past now, which allows him to identify with who he was as much as who he has become."
"I don't understand," I said in confusion.
Watching me carefully, he said very softly, "Angel is a vampire."
I stared at him. "I thought vampires were bad," I said blankly. "And Buffy kills them, right? How can he be a vampire?" But it made a kind of sense. It made all those weird things I hadn't quite consciously noticed become sensible instead of being just plain strange. Heavy curtains, no mirrors, the way Wesley had made sure we didn't leave Los Angeles until the sun had gone down. The way he had waited for Willow to invite him inside. Even some of the jokes I hadn't understood made a certain amount of sense now.
"When a person is turned into a vampire they die," Giles explained. "The demon takes their body, and with it their memories, even a trace of their personality, but the original person is gone. Their soul is gone and the demon remains - a creature of evil, no conscience, no remorse."
"_Liam?_" Maybe things didn't make sense after all. Liam wasn't like that. He wasn't like that at all.
"Angel," Giles agreed. "Angel is different because he has a soul. Around a hundred years ago, he was cursed by a clan of gypsies. He killed one of the clan's daughters, and as punishment they restored his soul."
"But that would mean..." I trailed off as the last pieces began to fall into place.
Giles nodded. "Angel has done some truly terrible things." He paused for an instant, unconsciously flexing his fingers, before continuing in a steady voice. "When his soul was restored, he also regained his conscience and he's been trying to make amends ever since." A hint of a smile twitched at his lips. "That's the short version, of course. If you want the long version, you'll have to ask Angel yourself. Or maybe Buffy."
I was suddenly terrified of what might happen if I asked my next question. The one I had come halfway around the world to ask. I picked my purse up from the floor and fished through it until I found the tattered card. I just held it for a long moment, not sure if I was prepared risk myself enough to hand it over. Giles waited, with calm patience, for me to decide.
Finally, I passed it across to him. "Is this him?" I asked. "Because I came to America looking for these people."
There was a long, long silence as Giles held the card, reading and rereading the words on it over and over again. "Where did you get this?" he asked eventually, looking back up at me.
"I..." I began and stuttered to a halt. I took a deep breath and tried again. "I'm adopted," I said, and the phrase that had never, ever bothered me was suddenly hard to say. "I've always known that, Mom and Dad never kept it a secret. And I never really cared about it that much. I didn't need to go rushing out looking for my birth parents or anything."
A five year old's blue eyes swam in front of my face for a moment, and I could hear that young, curious voice again. "When I finished school, my old primary teacher asked me to talk to her class about adoption. She thought I was the perfect person to do it. And there was this little girl in the class; she asked me if I wanted to find my parents. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I realised I did."
Giles was silent, a good listener who just waited, genuinely interested. And that interest pulled the words out of me, words I hadn't said aloud to anyone at all before. "I'm not just adopted, I'm a foundling. There are no records anywhere that say who I am or where I came from. Instead, that card is one of three things that were left with me. They're the only things I've got to tell me who I am."
I blushed, suddenly embarrassed. "So I did something _really_ stupid. Mom and Dad think I'm already with my aunt and uncle. They think I'm still home in New Zealand. So I got myself a week to go looking for the address on the card." I shrugged. "It didn't help much."
"Ugly apartments," Giles commented helpfully. "I've seen them. The building you were looking for got blown up back in 2000."
"Blown _up?!_" I repeated, but stopped myself before I got side-tracked. That story could wait for later.
"Blown up," Giles confirmed, but he obviously didn't want to be diverted either. "Get Wesley or Angel to tell you about it some time." An amused expression crossed his face. "Or Cordelia, when you meet her. She has a unique perspective on things."
Everyone around here seemed to have a unique perspective. Of course, they were all pretty unique people, and they made me feel rather plain and ordinary.
I pulled my bag around from where Wesley had left it at the side of the chair and fished through it, dragging Markie out from his usual hiding place among my socks. Setting him on the coffee table, I was surprised to see just what a battered little pig he was these days. He'd been well loved throughout my life, comforting me through childhood, helping me out through the first, totally-overwhelming months at boarding school, accompanying me on my crazy quest to Los Angeles and stowing away for the ride to Sunnydale. There was a lot of my life invested in that well-worn and patched stuffed pig.
"Exhibit two," I said, trying to sound flippant.
Giles barely seemed surprised. "What's the third thing?" he asked me in voice that almost cracked.
It made my heart race, my breathing threaten to become erratic. He knew. He knew the answers and suddenly I was terrified of finding out what they might be. _Ignorance is Bliss_, they say. I'd never truly understood that before, but at that moment I was standing on a precipice, and if I went forward my life would never, ever be the same. It might be better, it might be worse; I couldn't know that unless I stepped off. But it would most certainly be different.
I looked down at my hands for a very long time, then I very slowly slid the ring off my finger and handed it to him. "This," I said simply. "This."
Giles turned my ring over in his fingers, his face very, very white. I heard a soft gasp and turned my head to see Willow standing at the bottom of the stairs, Wesley beside her. I wondered how long they had been there because I hadn't heard them come back. Of course, a herd of wild elephants could have stampeded through the room and I wouldn't have noticed. I looked back at Giles, who was still turning the ring over and over, as if suddenly nothing and everything made sense, both at the same time.
"You know the answers, don't you?" I said quietly.
There was a long pause. "Yes," he finally admitted reluctantly. "But Annalise, they're not my answers to give you.
"Then who can tell me?" I asked, surprised by how forlorn my voice sounded.
He closed his eyes for a moment, as if he was pulling up strength from deep inside, and when he opened them again they caught and held my own. "I promise you, Annalise. You'll get your answers. Tomorrow, all right? After Aly goes, I'll get everyone here and we'll talk about it."
I must have looked dubious, because Willow stepped closer and said gently, "Rupert keeps his promises, Annie. I don't know what it is he knows that we don't, but if he says you'll find out, then he'll make sure you do."
Giles smiled at his wife gratefully. "It wasn't my secret to tell you, love. If it had been, I would have. But it wasn't."
She bent down and kissed him. "I know that, stupid," she said lovingly. "But you do realise that now I'm really curious. I am going to get to be part of this discussion, aren't I?"
Giles laughed. "Yes, I think so. I just have to speak to someone else first."
"Who?" she asked, and he shook his head and laughed again.
"Oh, no. You're not going to trick it out of me that easily."
Willow sighed. "It was worth a try. Annalise, do you want me to show you to your room now?"
I nodded, bed and sleep sounding like a wonderful idea before I went into information overload. Tomorrow would be soon enough. I'd been waiting for eighteen years. I could wait a little longer.
I put the _Angel Investigations_ card back in my purse, tucked Markie under one arm and gathered up my bag. Giles gravely handed back my ring and I tried, a little awkwardly considering how much I was carrying, to slide it back onto my finger. Willow rescued me by taking my bag and I slipped the ring back on, wished Giles and Wesley goodnight and followed her out of the room.
As we reached the bottom of the stairs, I heard Wesley sit down and ask, "So Giles, what do you know about the Prophecy of the Stone?"
"That's one of Belzara's, isn't it?" Giles answered, sounding animated.
"Very early too," Wesley agreed. "Part of his first extant volume of auguries."
"Watchers!" Willow muttered, sounding both exasperated and affectionate.
"What's a Watcher?" I asked as I followed her up the stairs.
Alianne woke up long before I did. And as hard as she tried to be quiet, that is something it's quite impossible to keep up for too long when you're twelve. I know. I remember. When I finally managed to force my eyes open and actually keep them open I found her sitting on her bed, fully dressed, watching me.
"Well, at least you don't snore," she said by way of greeting.
It hadn't been _that_ long since I'd been pushing thirteen and I knew better than to let that pass. "Thank you," I said gravely. "I've been practising not breathing when I sleep. It's a good cure for the snoring."
She blinked, then she smiled shyly. "Are you really a ballerina?" she asked curiously and I realised I'd passed the test. She was willing to give me a chance to be her friend, and I found myself delighted beyond measure at the honour.
"No." I pulled myself into a sitting position and shook my head. "But I am a ballet dancer. I don't perform, I just dance because I love it."
"Mommy and Daddy are taking me to see _Sleeping Beauty_ in Los Angeles for my birthday. We're going to stay with Uncle Wesley and go shopping and go out to tea and _everything_." She sighed suddenly. "I want to learn ballet, but Mommy says I'm too scatterbrained. And she says I have the power to be a witch like her and if I don't learn how to use it properly I'll do things without meaning to and that would be bad."
"Well, you do need to be dedicated to be a dancer," I said gravely, deciding not to mention my own scatterbrained phase or the fact that generally, _witch_ would probably be a long way down most parents' list of possible careers for their daughter. Ironically, this revelation that Willow was a witch didn't surprise me at all. In the last couple of days I'd helped kill a demon, met a vampire (with a soul no less), a Vampire Slayer and two ex-Watchers - why not add a witch or two to my collection of unusual new acquaintances?
"Do you practise every day?"
"I try to," I told her. "Sometimes I don't get the chance, but I do try."
"Like Aunty Buffy," Alianne said thoughtfully. "Only she does fighting stuff. She lets me watch sometimes. Can I watch you?"
I looked at her more closely. She was finely boned like her mother, with an underlying strength she probably got from her father. She was fit and slim and the way she was sitting on her bed, with her feet unconsciously tucked into a basic yoga position suggested she was pretty flexible too. Assuming Giles and Willow had a back yard with some suitable soft grass, it wouldn't hurt to teach her a few basic positions and stretches. "How would you like to have a first, unofficial lesson?" I asked. "And after _Sleeping Beauty_, if you really want to try, you could talk to your mom again."
"That's two whole _months_ away," she said with another sigh, then her face brightened. "But you could talk to Mommy for me now."
"Let's just start with the lesson," I suggested quickly, knowing better than to get involved in family disputes I didn't know anything about.
She looked a little disappointed, but she soon grinned at me. "Okay, what do I wear?"
After a few false starts, Alianne proved to be an apt pupil. Which was a good thing, because I wasn't confident I was an apt teacher. Sure, the basics were the basics, but they had been drilled into me so long ago that I no longer thought about them consciously. Where to put my feet, how to hold my arms - I didn't think about it, I just did it. Trying to explain it all to Aly, I found I suddenly couldn't remember anything at all.
But we persevered, and after a few stumbles and tumbles Aly got the hang of the first position, heels together with her toes pointing outwards. She managed it with a bit of arm waving to keep herself upright, and slowly found her balance enough for me to work her through the basic arm positions too. She certainly had enough natural talent to make taking some classes worthwhile, but that was something for her and her parents to decide, not me, and I didn't say anything about it, just congratulated her on each new position she mastered.
With her in her bare feet, I didn't really want to do much more than the basic positions, but I knew she would probably find that kind of boring, so we compromised and I finished off by teaching her a curtsey and how to walk with her toes pointed, placing her toes on the ground before her heels. We each curtseyed gravely to the other and then she grinned and went walking around the garden, careful to keep her steps light, the way I had shown her.
Beside me, I heard a low chuckle, and turned to see Willow watching us. "You do realise we're never going to hear the end of this now, don't you?"
"Oh," I said apologetically. "Oh, I'm sorry. I only..."
She shook her head. "It's all right. Rupert and I had already decided to let her take classes. Just don't tell her. It's part of her birthday present."
"Along with _Sleeping Beauty_ and shopping in LA," I said.
"You heard all about that?" Willow asked with a laugh.
I nodded. "In great detail."
She smiled again, before calling out to her daughter. "Aly! Come on. It's time to come in and pack or you won't be ready when Dara gets here."
Alianne looked up, a frown of concentration still on her face, and walked carefully back to us. She had a good natural posture and would probably do quite well if she decided she did want to take up ballet. "Did you see me, Mommy? Annie's teaching me."
"So I see," Willow agreed. "Now go on, upstairs with you and get packing while Annalise and I make lunch. If you're not ready, you don't go camping."
That was a serious threat. She abandoned being a dancer and turned back into the whirlwind I had first met the night before, bounding up the stairs with enthusiasm.
"She makes me feel old and tired sometimes," Willow said with a motherly smile as I followed her into the kitchen. "I've never quite dared ask Rupert if she has the same effect on him. But I suspect she does."
"Where is everyone?" I asked as she handed me a loaf of bread and a wicked looking knife and instructed me to start slicing.
"Angel's sleeping. He got back early this morning after seeing Buffy home. He was covered in gore, but they killed the demon." She laughed as she pulled a variety of packets and bags out of the refrigerator. "It was rather like old times in a way. Angel occasionally came and stayed at the old place, so when we moved we made sure the spare room could be blacked out in case he visited us here. We just never expected him under circumstances like these. Especially since he and Buffy usually avoid each other."
"Why?" I said, asking the question I hadn't dared to ask of anyone else. "When she came in it was like they both caught on fire, then they started arguing."
Willow dumped her armful on the counter and looked at me. "Buffy and Angel is an epic tragedy that it would take several years to explain, if it was even my place to explain it, which it isn't. The very, very short version is that they were a couple when we were in high school. But some bad things happened, they found they couldn't be together and now they try to stay away from each other." Her eyes went distant for a moment. "Although Angel just proved he still loves her and I think she still loves him. She just won't ever admit it."
"Oh," I said quietly, surprised at how much I could hurt for two people I had only just met.
"Yeah," Willow agreed. "Oh." She went to one of the cupboards and started pulling out plates. "As for everyone else, Rupert and Wesley went to the Museum to look at some very musty old book that has had Rupert in raptures for weeks. I don't quite know how Wes is going to get back because Rupert is going to go by Buffy's place and pick her up. He said he didn't want anyone else along and I think he wants the two of them to have a strategy discussion before they face the rest of us."
"You know something," I said suspiciously.
Willow put down the plates and faced me, her expression serious. "Annalise, I know _some_thing. After last night I'm beginning to wonder if the thing I know is true or not. I don't know what the _real_ thing is and I'm not going to confuse you with my suspicions. So I'm sorry Annie, but we're both just going to have to wait until they all get back and decide to tell us."
I sighed and held out a hand for whatever needed slicing next. "Yeah," I agreed. "We wait." And if I was totally honest with myself, a part of me was glad for the reprieve. I wanted my answers, but I was afraid of them too. What if I didn't like them?
Lunch had been eaten and Aly had been driven away by her friend Dara's father amid a flurry of hugs and goodbye waves in which I had found myself automatically included.
Now we were all sitting in the Giles' living room, waiting for a storm to break.
Angel - among his friends who knew him that way I found I was thinking of him more as Angel than as Liam now - was sitting in an armchair carefully out of the sunlight. Willow had pulled the curtains too, as an extra safety precaution. Buffy who was sitting beside Giles on the sofa, as if his presence gave her an extra dose of strength she felt she was going to need. Wesley, Willow and I were scattered on chairs around the rest of the room and Markie was sitting on the coffee table, the _Angel Investigations_ card at his well-patched feet.
The silence grew, becoming increasingly more uncomfortable by the moment. Finally, Giles turned to Buffy. "Do you want me to begin?" His voice was indescribably gentle and it made my throat tighten and my pulse race.
"No." Buffy's voice was tight. "No, I have to. So I might as well just start." As if it was an instinctive reaction, a child's source of comfort, she picked Markie up and started turning him over in her hands. "His name's Mr Gordo," she said almost absently. "Or at least, that's what I called him when I was three." She looked at me and took a deep breath. "I'm the one who gave him to you." Another, even deeper breath. "You see Annalise, I'm your mother."
I stared at her in silence, my heart thudding in my chest and my stomach doing flip-flops. I'm not stupid, so yes, I had been half-expecting this, but to hear it actually said was something else altogether.
"I know," she said bitterly. "Big disappointment, huh?"
I tried to shake my head, still feeling like I was in shock. I had come to America for this, and now I was hearing it, I couldn't believe it was happening. "I... No... Um..." I finally looked up at her. "How?"
"If you don't know that at your age, sex education in New Zealand can't be up to much." It was an instinctive reaction, a snappy, smart mouth remark that let her avoid answering the real question, and a moment later she shut her eyes and sighed. "I'm sorry. That was uncalled for." For someone who spent her nights out slaying evil, she looked almost unbearably vulnerable.
Somehow, I managed to smile and get some words out around the lump in my throat. "It's okay. That sounds like something my dad would say. I'm think I'm immune."
I got a very small, wry smile in return and I was startled to recognise it as one I saw occasionally in the mirror. My stomach did another somersault and I could only stare at her, totally unaware that that same smile was on my own face.
Angel's voice broke the silence, confused and hurt. "Buffy? You had a baby?" The hurt turned into a lost kind of pain. "And you never told me?"
Buffy sighed. "At the time I would have been quite happy if I could have gotten away with not telling anyone at all."
Wesley, who had been doing a particularly good imitation of a stranded fish, turned accusing looks on Giles and Willow. "You don't look particularly surprised, either of you."
Giles just shrugged, while Willow looked down at her hands. "I knew there was a baby," she admitted. She glanced up at her friend, who very carefully wasn't looking at her, or at anyone else in the room. "But I'm beginning to wonder if what I know is the real story."
Buffy had the grace to look abashed. "I'm sorry, Wills. There were reasons we didn't tell you all of it."
"We being you and Rupert?"
"Yeah," Buffy agreed quietly.
"Things were different then, love," Giles said softly, giving his wife an apologetic look.
She waved that away as if he was being particularly dense. "I know that. It was you and Buffy back then. Watcher and Slayer."
"Ex-Watcher and ex-Slayer," Giles pointed out mildly.
"Almost totally ex," Buffy said , her voice full of self-derision. "I was doing a very good job of ignoring you until I got into trouble and needed your help."
Giles shrugged again without answering and Buffy gave him a grateful smile that spoke volumes I knew I would never be able to understand.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Angel asked into the silence. "You know that's what I wanted for you - to be able to have a normal relationship, the chance for a future and a family. It's why I left." His tone turned bitter. "You could at least have told me my sacrifice was worth it."
"I didn't ask you to leave me," Buffy pointed out tightly. "And do the math. It was in my freshman year, when I still had this broken-into-a-million-pieces-by-Angel heart. I was too hurt and too embarrassed to tell you."
Angel stared at her. "Why would you be embarrassed? You know I wanted you to be happy. Even if it _was_ with that Finn person."
"Parker the Poophead," Willow muttered softly - clearly without thinking because a moment later she turned scarlet and shut her mouth very abruptly.
"His name was Riley," Buffy said sharply at the same moment. She grimaced. "And no, we never..." She trailed off. "Well, we just never."
Wesley looked from Buffy to Willow, a puzzled expression on his face. "Who's Parker?"
Willow pulled a rude face and Buffy sighed again.
"Someone I met on the rebound," she said in that same I-was-so-stupid voice she had used before. "He came on really nice, he made me feel special again." She raised her hands and let them fall again. "I slept with him, I got pregnant. A not uncommon story, even if it doesn't say much for my taste and good judgement."
Suddenly, words spilled out of me, as if they had been backed up behind the seemingly permanent lump in my throat and had finally, inexorably broken free. "Is that why you gave me away? Because you didn't like him and he'd made you look stupid? Why didn't you just have an abortion and be done with it?" I asked bitterly.
Buffy looked like I'd slapped her in the face - with a large tree trunk - but I didn't care.
"Well?" I demanded harshly.
She opened her mouth to reply, but nothing came out at first. "No..." she managed finally, her voice barely audible. "No, it wasn't like that."
"It was the Council," Willow broke in, clearly trying to ease the tension in the room. She gave her husband a sharp look. "It was the Council, wasn't it? That's what you told us at the time."
"It was the Council," Giles agreed.
"The who?" I asked.
"The Council of Watchers," Giles said, his voice suddenly sounding tired. "The organisation Wesley and I used to work for. Theoretically, it's their job to support and assist the Slayer. Somewhere along the way, they got the idea it was the other way around."
"You thought the Council would want to study the baby?" Wesley asked in a horrified tone.
Buffy looked up at him, her gaze suddenly direct and piercing. "No," she said flatly. "We thought they'd try to take her away from me. The Council of Watchers was _not_ having my baby. I was prepared to send her away before letting them get their grubby little hands on her."
"So you just dumped me," I said bitterly.
"No!" Buffy declared vehemently, looking at me with hurt in her eyes. "No, never. That wasn't the plan at all, it was just..."
"Buffy," Giles interrupted gently. "You're getting ahead of yourself."
She swallowed convulsively and looked pleadingly at the man beside her. "Do I have to?" she asked in a voice that made her sound more like Alianne's age than her own. "Can't you do it?"
He shook his head. "No, you have to do it. Go on. Now's the time to tell the truth."
For a moment she looked mutinous, then she rubbed her hands across her face, took a deep breath and nodded. "Maybe half way through the pregnancy I started having dreams," she said. "Ones that felt like prophecy dreams." I must have looked totally confused, because she actually managed to smile. "It's a Slayer thing," she explained. "Sometimes I dream real things. Things that are going to happen." She paused. "Or things that have already happened."
Angel suddenly went completely, totally still. "What did you dream?" he asked in a voice that was much, much too level.
Buffy smiled ruefully and glanced at Giles. "He's quick, isn't he? That probably deserves some kind of prize."
She looked back at Angel and her smile turned brittle and hard. "Why didn't you tell me, you bastard? I said I wouldn't forget, and you let me. How could you do that to me?" Just as suddenly, her face softened again. "How did you carry that all alone for all this time?"
"Is anyone else completely lost, or is it just me?" Willow asked tentatively into the silence that followed. Wesley put a hand in the air. Neither Angel nor Giles even moved.
Buffy turned to face her friend. "Do you remember how I went to LA, Thanksgiving our freshman year?"
Willow frowned, sifting through twenty-odd years of memories, and finally she nodded. "You went to see Angel, didn't you? But..." She trailed off, a look of dawning realisation on her face. "But you said you only saw him for _five minutes_. And besides, he's a vampire."
"I thought I only saw him for five minutes," Buffy said. "But I was wrong. It happened differently the first time."
"The first time?" Wesley queried sounding a little put-out, and I realised there were some things he didn't know about his friend and former employer. Something it was clear he had just discovered himself.
"It's complicated," Angel said quietly. "Buffy and I fought a Mohra demon. When I killed it some of its blood mixed with mine." He looked down at his hands as if he was seeing them for the very first time. "It made me human."
"Oh," Willow said softly. "Oh, wow." Which pretty much summed up how I was feeling.
A look of immense pain crossed his face. "But being human made me vulnerable. Because I was vulnerable, Buffy was vulnerable. And the demon said the end times were coming and Buffy would die."
"So he did the heroic sacrifice thing again and asked the Oracles to turn him back," Buffy finished, and her voice was half angry, half proud.
"They said they couldn't do that," Angel added, carefully not looking at her. "They told me the only way to undo things was to roll the day back and to make it as though it had never been. They said I would be the only one who would ever remember it, so I could make sure it didn't happen again. I wasn't supposed to ever tell you, and I didn't."
"Well, your Oracles messed it up," Buffy said ironically. 'I got pregnant. And because I didn't remember, I figured the baby," she looked up at me and smiled without realising she was doing it, "had to be Parker's. The dates weren't perfect, but they were close enough and it wasn't as if there were any other options."
"Until you started dreaming," Wesley said quietly.
"Not Parker's," Willow whispered. "Never Parker's."
"No," Buffy said with that same soft smile. "When I remembered, I realised I wasn't carrying Parker's baby, I was carrying Angel's." She looked at me, then at Angel, as if we were both some kind of mirage that would disappear if she blinked. "I was thrilled. I was furious. I was terrified. My first reaction was to go straight to LA and chew Angel out for not telling me about the day."
"I'm surprised you didn't," he said ironically.
She actually laughed. "Me too. But I started thinking. I did a lot of thinking. And I realised that if the Council might want the Slayer's baby - what about the Slayer's baby with a vampire who was human when she was conceived on a day that had never happened?"
"When you put it like that," Wesley commented, "it makes me remember what a bizarre world we live in."
"That's me," Buffy agreed, sounding vaguely amused. "Queen of Bizarre." But now she was finally telling the story, she wasn't going to be deterred or side-tracked. "As well as the Council, there were also my ordinary, everyday enemies and I knew Angel had his share of those too. And they'd all be more than ready to attack us through our child. So then I was _really_ terrified."
"And that's when you went to Rupert," Willow said matter-of-factly.
Buffy nodded. "That's when I told Giles the entire story and we decided never to tell anyone the whole truth, in the hope the lie about Parker would help keep the baby safe."
"We came up with a plan," Giles said, taking up the tale. "It even seemed like a good plan at the time. We agreed to let everyone believe the baby was Parker's and that Buffy, being young and unmarried and not wanting anything to do with the father, had decided to give the child up for adoption." He looked at me, and shrugged kind of apologetically. "But you were never meant to be _really_ adopted."
I was beginning to believe them. I _had_ been wanted, but perhaps they had been right and I had needed to be protected even more than I had been wanted. "What went wrong?" I asked.
Giles sighed and spoke directly to me. "We gave you to a friend of mine, another ex-Watcher. There were beginning to be a few of those as people started realising how corrupt the Council had become. The idea was that he and his wife would keep you for a few years and then bring you back to Buffy. We'd see how the wind blew with regard to the Council and Buffy would use the time to make sure she was in a position where she could protect you properly."
"When William came I didn't want to give you to him," Buffy said in a voice that shook. "You were so tiny and so beautiful. You had your father's eyes. You were a little bit of him, the only bit I had left. And you were mine and wanted to hold you and never let you go. Or run away with you and never come back." She swallowed convulsively. "But William said the Council was already on his heels and I had to let you go. I gave you Mr Gordo, because I wanted you to have _something_ that was mine, and it was Giles' idea to give William card, so that he could go to Angel for help if he needed to. And at the very last minute, I gave William my ring, just in case something happened and I never got to give it to you myself." She was crying now, silently, tears running down her cheeks, and Giles pulled her against his side, putting a comforting arm around her shoulders before finishing the story.
"Two weeks later we heard William had been found in a ditch with his throat cut. There was no sign of you. I called in every contact and favour I had, trying to find out if the Council had you, but it didn't appear that they did. They were as frantic as we were and you'd just vanished off the face of the Earth."
I shook my head, feeling rather like crying myself. "Not really. Just to the other side of it. Mom and Dad moved about two months after they adopted me and they never came back."
"I'm sorry," Buffy said suddenly, her voice muffled by the fact she was talking into Giles' sweater. He disentangled her gently, forcing her to sit up and face us. "I'm sorry," she said again, the tears still streaming down her face. "I did what I thought was right at the time. I was nineteen and I was afraid they were going to hurt my baby and I would have done anything to keep her safe. But I did the wrong thing and I'm sorry and I love you both so much." The words tumbled out, mixing with her tears, and I knew, in one of those moments of perfect clarity, that everything she had said was true. This was my mother and she loved me, had always loved me and missed me and wished things had been different.
Angel looked like he was torn between going over and comforting her and going into total shock. In the end, he didn't do either. He got half way across the room and stopped, turning to me instead. Some unspoken understanding passed between the pair of them and Buffy stood, walking to join him, and they both came to stand together in front of me. Angel crouched down beside my chair and reached out one hand, his fingers softly brushing my cheek, the touch as gentle as if I was made of glass.
"Iníon," he said softly.
I was too stunned by the emotion in his voice to reply, but from behind him Buffy asked quietly, "What?"
"My mother called my sister Kathleen that. It means..." He paused, a look of wonder crossing his face. "...It means daughter." He looked at me again, his expression unchanged. "Iníon. I have a daughter." He finally tore his gaze away from me to look at Buffy. "No," he said softly. "_We_ have a daughter."
"We have a daughter," she agreed brokenly. She looked at me and I was stunned by the look in her eyes, full of love and regret and fear. "The most beautiful daughter in the world. Who, if she has any sense, probably doesn't want anything to do with either of us."
I looked at them both in turn - at my father and my mother. There was so much between them that it was almost scary; fire and passion, heartache and pain, and a love so deep neither would ever recover from it. Normal, everyday people like me don't ever feel a love like that, and to be honest, I'm not sure that I would want to. But to see it in two others, in my parents, to see the love and the emotion that had made me... There was something awe-inspiring in that.
I slipped the claddah ring off my finger and held it out to Buffy, surprised to see my hand was shaking. "I think you should have this back," I said softly.
She looked at it for a long moment, the circle of gold lying in my palm, then she reached out and took it, and her fingers shook too.
"You wear it with the heart facing towards you," I said, fully aware she didn't need me to tell her that.
She nodded all the same. "I know," she agreed in a choked voice as she slid it on her finger, her wedding finger, a place I had never had reason to wear it myself. She brushed the fingers of her other hand across the gold, softly, as if she couldn't really believe it was there. When she looked up again she didn't even see me, she only saw Angel. "I know," she repeated in a whisper. "I know."
I was lost, caught in the look in my parents' eyes, included in something so perfect I should have felt I was intruding but I didn't. Angel lifted his hand to cup my cheek again and with the other he brushed his fingers across Buffy's lips, his brown eyes dark with emotion.
Behind us, I heard Willow suddenly whisper in horror, "The curse. Perfect happiness."
Angel heard her. His hands dropped and he spun around to face her, his expression full of terror. "No," he breathed, the word a desperate plea. "No. Oh, please, no."
"Angel..." Buffy reached out towards him and froze, her hand still in mid-air as Angel staggered and crashed to his knees, clawing at the carpet with his fingers as if having something to hold onto could protect him from whatever was happening.
His head jerked back, a totally involuntary movement, and the expression of pain and terror on his face cut right across my soul. His whole body shook and he gasped desperately for breath he didn't need, like a fish tossed suddenly into an element where it didn't belong.
Then it was over as unexpectedly as it had begun and he collapsed to the carpet in a crumpled heap, curled in a shuddering, foetal ball. Around the room everyone stood frozen, matching expressions of horror and fear on their faces. And I saw that Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, was suddenly holding a stake, sharp and pointed, in her hand.
"What...?" I began and Willow shook her head at me, her expression tight. I shut up, terrified all of a sudden even though I didn't know why.
Finally, slowly, Angel raised his head, a confused look on his face. Automatically, instinctively, his eyes sought out Buffy, and when he found her he just looked at her for a long, long time, as if he was witnessing a miracle.
He lifted an arm, holding his hand out to her. After a moment she took it, letting him draw her down to join him. Still holding her small hand trapped in his larger one, he raised it again, setting her palm against his chest.
For an eternal moment she simply knelt there, tears welling up in her eyes. "I can feel your heart beating," she whispered softly. The stake dropped from her fingers and she raised her other hand to touch his cheek, his lips. "You're warm. You're breathing."
"I'm alive," Angel said quietly, his tone disbelieving, his expression once again full of stunned, awed wonder. "Buffy, I'm human."
Across the room, I saw Wesley smile suddenly, the expression one of mixed amazement and delight. "To shanshu..." he breathed softly and Giles turned his head to stare at the younger man. "To shanshu."
So here I am, sitting on Rupert and Willow Giles' porch steps, watching my parents kissing in the sun. They're standing underneath a tree, the leaves throwing dappled shadows on their faces. The light is shining on them as if in benediction, creating a soft halo around Angel's head that can't have been seen for 250 years, turning Buffy's blonde hair into molten gold. Their kiss is tender and passionate, both at the same time, and they fit together with a rightness that is all the stronger from being denied for so long.
I'll have to ring my parents, I realise. Admit what I've been up to, tell them I've found my parents, who have to be the two most unique people on the planet. I... I stop that train of thought, discovering that I have just walked into a quagmire of inadequate terminology.
I have two sets of parents.
Whatever am I supposed to call them all? My new parents and my old parents? That makes it sound like one lot is better than the other, and that isn't true. My birth parents and my adopted parents? Those are the official terms I guess, but they are so clinical. They don't allow for the love and passion and emotion of any real, human relationship.
My real parents?
But who are my real parents?
Mom and Dad brought me up and loved me, kissed my scratched knees better, watched over me when I was sick and worried about me the first time I took the car out by myself. They were there when I learned to walk, their names were the first things I learned to say. We have the history of my lifetime behind us and I love them and they love me.
Buffy and Angel, they created me out of a love that belongs in books and ballads more than in real life. A love they only now have a true chance to express. We have a beginning ahead of us, the three of us. A chance to make ourselves a family, and it's a chance I want to take. A chance I know they too want to take a risk on.
Maybe, if it's real parents I want, I just have to accept that I have four instead of the usual two? That makes me lucky I guess, but I'm still trying to get used to the idea. The breeze brushes across my face as I realise I have a sudden urge to talk to my mom. She has an amazing knack for helping me put things into perspective. If I reverse the charges, hopefully Giles will let me use his phone to call New Zealand.
I look back at the couple on the lawn and find myself smiling. Life is going to be a lot more complicated and confusing from here on - but it is going to be good.