The angel chronicles vol.., p.4
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       The Angel Chronicles, Vol. 3, p.4
 

           Nancy Holder
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  “Happy birthday,” Cordelia chirped sweetly.

  Giles tossed his noisemaker over his shoulder.

  Buffy lit up. “You guys did all this for me?” She looked at Giles, who smiled faintly, and then at Angel, adoringly. “That is so sweet!”

  As if he couldn’t let go of it, Angel said, “You’re sure you’re okay?”

  “Yes. I’m fine,” she assured him.

  Oz was still staring at the spot where the vampire had exploded. Willow came up to him.

  “Are you okay?”

  “Yeah.” He looked around at the group. “Hey, did everybody just see that guy turn into dust?”

  Willow hesitated. “Uh, sort of.”

  Xander stepped forward with a “jig’s-up” look. “Yep. Vampires are real,” he intoned, as if repeating a very old story. “Lot of ’em live in Sunnydale; Willow’ll fill you in.”

  Willow said gently, “I know it’s hard to accept at first.”

  Oz cut her off. “Actually, it explains a lot.” However, he still looked fairly stunned.

  Miss Calendar came in the door, struggling under the weight of the box Dalton had been loading onto the truck. She said, “Hey, can somebody give me a hand here?”

  Angel, Buffy, and Giles moved to help her, putting the box down on a tall white table.

  “Those creeps left it behind,” Miss Calendar added.

  Buffy cocked her head. “What is it?”

  “I have no idea,” Giles told her. “Can it be opened?”

  Buffy moved her hands under the lid.

  “Yeah. It feels like there’s a release right here.”

  She clicked it. Together, she and Giles pulled up the lid.

  Inside lay a powerful arm and hand encased in a thick gauntlet of some sort.

  Buffy turned to the others and frowned in astonishment. Then, without warning, the arm shot from the box, grabbed Buffy by the neck, and squeezed the breath right out of her.

  CHAPTER 3

  The living arm choked Buffy as she fought to pull its fingers from her neck. Angel rushed to help, struggling with the macabre thing, finally managing to pry one finger loose. Then another, and another, until he wrestled it back into the box. As Buffy doubled over, coughing, he and Giles slammed the lid into place.

  There was a moment of stunned silence. Sounding more freaked than witty, Xander said, “Clearly, the Hell-mouth’s answer to ‘What do you get the Slayer who has everything?’ ”

  “Good heavens,” Giles said. “Buffy, are you all right?”

  Angel led Buffy away from the table. She rasped, “Man, that thing had major grip.”

  “What—what was that?” Willow asked anxiously.

  Matter of factly, Oz replied, “It looked like an arm.”

  Angel’s face was grave as he stared at the box. “It can’t be,” he said quietly. “She wouldn’t.”

  Xander gave him a sharp look. “What? The vamp’s version of ‘snakes in a can’? Or do you care to share?”

  Buffy could tell Angel was freaked in the extreme. “Angel?” she prodded.

  Angel looked over at the box again. “It’s a legend. Way before my time. Of a demon brought forth to rid the earth of the plague of humanity.”

  He walked toward Giles and the box. “To separate the righteous from the wicked, and burn the righteous down. They called him the Judge.”

  Buffy registered that this registered with Giles.

  “The Judge,” her Watcher said, a bit breathlessly. “This is he?”

  “Well, not all of him,” Angel replied.

  Buffy waved her hand. “Uh, still needing backstory here?”

  Giles looked over his shoulder at her. “He couldn’t be killed.” He looked at Angel for confirmation. “Yes?”

  When Angel nodded, Giles continued. “An army was sent against him. Most of them died, but finally they were able to dismember him. But not kill him.”

  Angel took up the story. “The pieces were scattered. Buried in every corner of the earth.”

  Miss Calendar said, “So all these parts are being brought here—”

  “By Drusilla,” Buffy said. “The vamps outside were Spike’s men.”

  “She’s just crazy enough to do it.” Angel looked even more worried.

  And he should know, Buffy thought. He’s the one who drove her crazy. When he was Angelus, he hung with her. To put it politely.

  “Do what?” Willow’s voice rose. “Reassemble the Judge?”

  “And bring forth Armageddon,” Angel finished.

  There was a long silence. Then Cordelia piped up, “Is anyone else going to have cake?”

  She had no takers.

  Giles moved into strategy mode. “We need to get this out of town.”

  “Angel,” Miss Calendar said immediately.

  Buffy blinked. “What?”

  Miss Calendar stepped up, slightly behind and between Angel and Buffy. She looked at Angel and said firmly, “You have to do it. You’re the only one who can protect this thing.”

  “What about me?” Buffy asked.

  Miss Calendar shrugged. “What, you’re just going to skip town for a few months?”

  “Months?” Buffy echoed, taken aback.

  “She’s right. I have to take this to the remotest region possible.” Angel spoke in a low voice, as if he was thinking aloud.

  “But that’s not months,” Buffy interrupted anxiously.

  He continued, “I can catch a cargo ship to Asia, maybe trek to Nepal.”

  Buffy caught his attention. “You know, those newfangled flying machines are really much safer than they used to be.”

  “I can’t fly,” he said impatiently. “There’s no sure way to guard against the daylight.” Then he looked down and back up at her, his tone softening as he drew closer to her. “I don’t like this any more than you do, Buffy. But there’s no other choice.”

  She took that in. It hurt to admit he was right. It hurt a lot.

  “When?”

  He hesitated. “Tonight. As soon as possible.”

  It hurt even more.

  “But . . . it’s my birthday.”

  He looked down again, and she knew it was hurting him, too. She took absolutely no comfort in that.

  Miss Calendar came up between them. “I’ll drive you to the docks.”

  Giles looked at Buffy very sadly.

  * * *

  Drusilla was enraged as she glared at the officious little clerk who had ruined everything.

  “You lost it. You lost my present,” she said in a dangerous, hushed voice.

  “I know,” Dalton mewled, like the weak creature he was. “I’m sorry.”

  From his wheelchair, Spike drawled, “That’s a bad turn, man. She can’t have her fun without the box.”

  My Spike is so right.

  “The Slayer,” Dalton blurted. “She came out of nowhere. I—I didn’t even see her.”

  Glaring at him, Dru put her finger to his lips and hissed, “Sssh.” Then she ripped his glasses off his face and crushed them beneath the toe of her lovely crimson satin shoe.

  She closed her eyes and said, “Make a wish.”

  “What?”

  She made a fist, extended her pointer and middle fingers and aimed them toward his eyes as she grabbed the back of his head. “I’m going to blow out the candles.” When he gasped, she smiled brilliantly.

  Perhaps there’s fun to be had after all.

  “You might give him a chance to find your lost treasure,” Spike cut in. “He is a wanker, but he’s the only one we’ve got with half a brain. If he fails, you can eat his eyes out of the sockets for all I care.”

  Dalton said quickly, “I’ll get it.” She clawed at him, toying with him, amused by his terror. “Please. I swear.”

  She couldn’t quite stop herself, but somehow she managed it, rushing at his eyes one more time, then capping it off with two fists in the air.

  She retrieved his ruined glasses and put them on his face. “Okay,” she
said casually. “Hurry back, then.” She patted him on his bald head, and went to sit on Spike’s lap.

  * * *

  All too soon, Buffy and Angel reached the docks. Diesel oil filled the air as the cargo ship moored just ahead of them prepared to leave, its engine rattling. Waves hit the pylons beneath Buffy and Angel’s feet as they walked slowly toward the ship, hand in hand. The box containing the Judge’s arm was on Angel’s shoulder.

  Lost in misery, Buffy rested her head against his arm and tried to get even closer. Angel touched the crown of her hair with his lips, and she thought she would lose her balance, she was so unhappy.

  They got to the gangplank. He put down the box and said, “I should go the rest of the way alone.”

  Though she was crying, she kept it together. “Okay—”

  “I’ll be back,” he promised. “I will.”

  “When? Six months? A year? We don’t know how long it’s going to take. Or if we’ll even—” Her voice cracked.

  “If we’ll even what?” he pushed, making her say it.

  “Well, if you haven’t noticed, someone pretty much always wants us dead.”

  “Don’t say that. We’ll be fine.”

  She refused to pretend. “We don’t know that.”

  “We can’t know, Buffy. Nobody can. That’s just the deal.”

  They looked at each other, two people whose lives had completely been altered by time and circumstance. Strong people. Passionate people. People who needed each other desperately.

  Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small velvet box. He opened it. “I have something for you. For your birthday. I was going to give it to you earlier, but . . .”

  It was an exquisite silver ring, dwarfed in his hand, shining in the dock lights. Two hands held a crowned heart. She had never seen anything more exquisite in her life.

  “It’s beautiful,” she said sincerely.

  His voice was husky. “My people . . . before I was changed, they exchanged this as a sign of devotion. It’s a claddagh ring. The hands represent friendship, the crown represents loyalty. And the heart, well, you know . . .” He smiled hauntingly. “Wear it with the heart pointing toward you, it means you belong to someone. Like this.”

  He showed her his hand. He was wearing a ring identical to hers. And the heart was pointing toward him.

  He belonged to somebody.

  To me, she thought. She took his hand and kissed his ring with all the longing of her soul. Oh, Angel, I love you. I love you with all my heart.

  “Put it on,” he urged.

  She did. And then there was nothing more to be said, or done. It was time.

  “I don’t want to do this,” she confessed brokenly.

  “Me, either.”

  “So . . . don’t go.” She was begging him, even though she knew he had to.

  He kissed her. She kissed him back, long and bittersweet and needing him to stay, needing so badly for him to be with her, tonight and every night.

  They held each other, clinging against time and tide, and then Angel whispered, “Buffy, I—”

  Two vampires leaped down from a cargo net over their heads. One attacked Buffy, and the other went for Angel.

  Buffy’s opponent tossed her to the ground; she rolled backward and sprang to her feet as he threw a few punches; she got off three good ones to his midsection. Meanwhile, Angel flung his attacker into a wild flip, but the vamp quickly recovered and started swinging.

  Using the dock rail as a support, Buffy pulled her legs to her chest and kicked her vampire.

  While they were both occupied, Dalton dropped from the net and grabbed the box. At the same time, Angel hit his attacker so hard he slammed into a crate, but he came back for more.

  “Angel!” Buffy shouted. “The box!”

  Angel pummeled the vamp into submission, finally slamming him onto the wooden dock. He chased Dalton and threw him down.

  Buffy thought she’d gotten control of her opponent, catching him around the neck with a string of lights attached to the gangplank. But she was distracted, trying to see if Angel got the box, and her vamp got free and flung her against a wooden barrier. Then he used her momentum to swing her around and fling her off the dock and into the chilly water.

  In that moment, Angel had to make a decision: the box or the Slayer. He chose, and the vampire he had fought darted up beside him, grabbed the box, and ran.

  Angel shouted, “Buffy!” and plunged in after her.

  * * *

  Everybody was supposed to be reading their research books, but nobody really was. The sleeves of her sweater stretched to cover her fists, Willow stared at her page anxiously as Giles and Xander stared at theirs. Everyone was anxious. The word for the day was anxious.

  Or maybe, really, really worried.

  Giles flipped over his page and stated the obvious. “They should be back by now.”

  “Maybe Buffy needed a few minutes to pull herself together,” Willow hoped. “Poor Buffy. On her birthday and everything.”

  Xander nodded. “It’s sad. Granted. But let’s look at the up side for a moment.” He stood. “I mean, what kind of a future could she have really had with him? She’s got two jobs. Denny’s waitress by day, Slayer by night. Angel’s always in front of the tube, with a big old blood belly.

  “And he’s dreaming of the glory days when Buffy still thought the whole creature of the night routine was a big turn-on.” He pointed his finger for emphasis.

  Willow frowned. “You’ve thought way too much about this.”

  He warmed to the subject. “No, no, that’s just the beginning. Have I told you the part where I fly into town in my private jet and take Buffy out for prime rib?”

  Buffy rushed into the library. Willow said warningly, “Xander.”

  Xander was oblivious. “And she cries?”

  Giles saw Buffy and got to his feet. “What happened?”

  Buffy looked all business. “Dru’s guys ambushed us. They got the box.”

  No joy, Willow thought, her sentiments echoed by Giles’s deep sigh.

  “Where’s Jenny?” Giles asked.

  Buffy gestured. “She took Angel to get clothing. I had some here.”

  Xander looked perturbed. “And we needed clothes because . . .”

  “We got wet,” Buffy said simply. “Giles, what do we do?”

  Giles took off his glasses and paced. “The more I study the Judge, the less I like him. His touch can literally burn the humanity out of you. A true creature of evil can survive the process. No human ever has.”

  “What’s the problem?” Xander piped up. “We send Cordy to fight this guy and we go for pizza.”

  Willow wished she could laugh. Buffy totally ignored Xander and walked over to Giles. “Can this guy be stopped? Without an army?”

  Giles put his glasses back on, leaned forward, and showed her a couple of lines in one of the books. “ ’No weapon forged can kill him.’ Not very encouraging. If we could only prevent them from assembling him . . .”

  “We need to find his weak spots,” Buffy said. “And we need to figure out where they’d be keeping him.”

  Giles sighed. “This could take time.”

  “We better do a round robin,” Willow suggested. “Xander, you go first.”

  “Good call,” Buffy said, as Xander went to the phone.

  “Round robin?” Giles echoed, puzzled.

  “It’s when everybody calls everybody else’s mom and tells them they’re staying at everybody’s house,” Willow explained.

  “Thus freeing us up for world save-age,” Buffy added.

  Willow smiled and raised her brows. “And all-night keggers.” When Buffy and Giles stared blankly at her, she protested, “What, only Xander gets to make dumb jokes?”

  “Mom, hi. Xander,” the guy in question said into the phone. “Yeah. Willow and I are going to be studying all night long. So I’m not coming home.”

  * * *

  It was 2 A.M., and they wer
e no closer to a solution than they had been at midnight. Or at 1 A.M.

  Xander was exasperated. “I think I read this already.”

  Playing with her hair as she looked up from the laptop, Willow said, “I can’t get over how cool Oz was about all this.”

  Xander said snippily, “Gee, I’m over it.”

  “You’re just jealous because you didn’t have a date for the party,” she taunted.

  “No, I sure didn’t.”

  Willow didn’t know that she’d landed a good one. And he was glad she had a honey. On the other hand, he felt kind of conflicted about Willow’s change in status. Before, she was old reliable, his chum in all things, and they were both sweetie-free. Not by choice, but by virtue of the fact that they had been branded with the scarlet letter of Nerdatry and blithely ignored by any and all serious potential sweetie material.

  His situation with Cordelia, well, that was a very strange thing, wasn’t it? ’Cause she’d probably strike him dead if he thought of it as any kind of a “relationship.”

  Cordy and I hate each other, but we can’t keep our hands off each other. We’ve got this total repulsion-attraction deal that I sure can’t explain. Willow would probably pass out if she knew I spend half the day making out with Cordelia Chase in closets and empty classrooms, and the other half thinking about making out with Cordelia Chase in closets and empty classrooms.

  As well as in her car.

  He stared at the book some more, just to have something to do.

  Giles moved from the checkout desk as Angel came down the stairs from the landing.

  “Angel? Any luck?” Before Angel could reply, Giles spotted Buffy, her head on his desk in his office, fast asleep. He whispered, “It seems Buffy needed some rest.”

  The two looked on, Giles with fondness, Angel with love. They moved away.

  “Yes,” Angel said. “She hasn’t been sleeping well. Tossing and turning.”

  The others stared at him.

  He huffed, “She told me. Because of her dreams.”

  That seemed to satisfy them.

  Everyone got back to work.

  * * *

  Because of her dreams . . .

  In a white gown, Buffy wandered through a candlelit room. The tapers were almost completely burned, wax dripping off ornate candelabra. She passed chairs decorated with dark leaves.

 
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