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Part 24

"He gave me the most beautiful heart for St. Valentine's Day that year. All warm and soft and fresh." Her darkly tinted lips pursed, with no small difficulty, over pearly white fangs. "The blood dried much too quickly." An instant later her mood shifted yet again and a delicate sigh stirred the air. "But it was a lovely thought. I'll wager he never gave her a heart to play with. Just his own silly human one, and who wants that?"

Hank Summers closed his eyes and tried to focus on something, anything, other than Drusilla's dulcet tones.

He was lost in a nightmare, made ten times worse because he knew he was still awake. His body was bound to a chair by chains beyond his strength to break, leaving his mind the only venue for freedom. But she had that now too, twisting it with her placidly recounted horror stories until he was no longer sure if it was she who was insane, or he.

"She took him from me, did you know that?" Drusilla was asking for the fifth or sixth time. For all her calm delivery, the tales themselves tended to be somewhat roundabout. Time folded back, and then sprang forward, the victim of the moment tossed by the wayside when a more colorful story slithered into her head.

There was only one constant. Whenever Dru said "she" in that certain voice, Hank knew the vampire meant Buffy. That knowledge chilled him to the bone. He had never imagined so much enmity could be contained within a single syllable.

"He was mine again," she continued, dancing slowly around the room with an imaginary partner. "He came back to me. To me," she emphasized, as though Hank had dared to question her story. "We were a family again, just Angel and Spike and I. We all lived here together and we were so happy. Until she took him from me again."

Drusilla stopped dancing in mid-whirl, and stalked over to Hank's chair. Her voice grew in volume and venom with each succeeding word. "She was only teasing us when she let him go. She wanted to punish me for hurting him, so she let him go just long enough for me to feel secure. And then she cast her spell over him again, and now he'll never come home." She leaned over and pressed her ridged forehead against Hank's sweaty brow, her voice dropping to a chilling whisper. "He will never come home to me, but he will never have a home with her either. I won't let her have him. Not in a million years, and you know I have a million years to make it so."

As suddenly as her rage had come upon her, it vanished, leaving a happy child in its wake. She pulled back and began to spin around in circles in the middle of the floor, arms outstretched to keep her balance.

"I'm going to live a million years, but I'll never get any older. My Angel promised me that, and he never breaks his promises. Not my Angel; only hers. My Angel, my daddy, said I would be young and beautiful forever, and all the handsome young gentleman would come calling and we could eat them all for dinner, except the smallest. He would be our midnight snack."

"It doesn't matter," Hank said dully.

He'd said that same phrase over and over the past few hours. At first he tried to use it as a cudgel to beat her words into acceptable images. But as she ranted on and on, liberally sprinkling the mundane in with the gruesome, he had come to recognize her veracity, if not her sanity. The stories she was telling about Angel were too detailed, in matters dealing with both blood and boot polish, not to be true. The man his daughter loved, the man he had come to respect and admire for his utter devotion to that daughter, that man had been a monster.

Yet somehow, in that recognition, his repetitious denial had gained a truth of its own. It didn't matter, not anymore. The monster Drusilla described had been real, but so was the man his daughter told him so much about.

In Drusilla, Hank could still see snatches of the girl she must once have been. A girl devoted to her family, a girl who loved to dance and sing and dreamed of sharing a home someday with a handsome prince disguised as a merchant or a banker. If he could still see those pieces of Drusilla, when all that was truly left in her was the demon, then how much stronger must Angel's restored soul be in relation to his demon?

Even more convincing than Drusilla's lingering traces of human personality was Buffy's bond with the man. After all that his daughter had apparently suffered at the hands of Angelus, she still looked at her boyfriend with respect and deep affection. Surely her perceptions should carry more weight than those of a mad demon. The man he thought he knew must indeed exist, although the factors that had shaped him were far beyond Hank's imagining.

Or they had been, until Story Hour began.

Drusilla suddenly stopped dancing and pressed a hand to her brow. "Oh, so dizzy," she giggled. "My tummy is empty; I can't dance another step until I've had something to eat."

Hank could feel the blood drain from his face, but he willed himself to meet her eyes squarely. He had tried to reason with her, tried to plead with her to end this all, back when he thought there was some vestige of a soul within her that was reachable. He knew better now. His bonds were unbreakable, and her mercy was nonexistent. There was nothing to do but accept his fate.

Her eyes narrowed as she slowly swayed back and forth in front of the fire. "Hank," she called out sweetly, "are you hungry? Wouldn't you like a nice pizza, or perhaps some Chinese food?"

He was confused; this was a new game. "I thought...I thought you were hungry," he said, the words filtering cautiously through his mind before he gave them breath.

"I am, pet. But think how nice it would be. A little Chinese for you, and a little Chinese for me." She chuckled at her witticism, though fortunately she didn't seem to expect him to get the joke.

He shuddered imperceptibly. For just an instant, a thought he knew unworthy of his daughter's father had crossed his mind. Perhaps with the help of another, he might escape. Alone, he was lost, but if there were two to fight...

Reason raised its ugly head an instant later, reminding him of the incredible strength and speed Drusilla had displayed thus far, as well as the hypnotic quality of her eyes. He couldn't risk bringing anyone else in on his folly, especially not an innocent bystander.

"I'm, uh, fine. But thanks."

"Oh, but you must keep up your strength, at least for a little while. Otherwise it's no fun at all."

"No," he snapped, realizing an instant too late the inherent danger in antagonizing her. "I really couldn't bear the...smell of food right now."

"Pooh," she said, pouting in a way he had found adorable just three short days ago. "Now you'll make me go out and find something all by my lonesome, when all I really want to do is stay here and talk with you. I still have so many more stories to tell you, and our time will be up soon." She put a hand to her mouth and giggled. "Well, somebody in this room is almost out of time, but I mustn't say who."

"That's all right," he said wearily. "You can tell me when you get back."

Although perhaps, if the fates were kind, Buffy would find Drusilla before she killed anyone else. Not that he was relying much on the kindness of fate these days.

She smiled brightly. "I could get take-out. Then while I eat you can tell me stories for a change. Tell me all about that little bitch you raised, so that I know the best way to make her suffer."

The most frightening thing about her proposition was the absolute lack of emotion in her voice. She might have been proposing he recite the multiplication tables while she ate.

Something hardened in Hank's heart. He knew it was risky to defy her, but he couldn't stand it anymore. He was going to die, but he was not going out meekly or quietly.

"You won't beat her. There are two of them, and they won't let anything happen to each other. You can't win against them both."

"Oh, but you don't know my plan," she whispered, just barely loud enough for him to hear. She edged closer to him, moving cautiously as though he would strike out.

As though he could.

"They are strong together; too strong. But I know of a very special place where they can't be together, and you're going to help me get your darling daughter there. And when I destroy his little Slayer, and Angel is helpless to prevent it, he will know why he was wrong to leave me all alone." She came to rest in front of Hank's chair, and waved a stern finger at him. "He was a very wicked daddy to abandon me, and he must be punished."

Hank dropped his head at last, shame outweighing all other emotions as her words hammered into his skull. How unutterably ironic to be used as a weapon against a recalcitrant "father" when he was himself such a shining example of parental abandonment.

"My poor lamb," she cooed, running her hands over his sweat-dampened blond hair. "I think you are hungry after all. Chinese it is, and I'll have it delivered straight away." She frowned at him. "But no garlic chicken for you, not even if you say pretty please."

* * * * *

"Okay, Buffy, we're all tucked in for the night." Xander threw his backpack on the corner of Joyce's sofa. "So when are you and Dad going to be home?"

Buffy leaned in the archway between the living room and the entry hall. "I'm going back now to wait with Angel until sunset. Then I think a little recon is in order."

"You know we can help with that," Cordelia pointed out. "We don't have to just sit here and bake cookies."

"Though any cookie baking you femmes want to indulge in would be okay by me," Xander put in quickly. "It's been months since we polished off those pizzas for lunch, and I'm a growing boy." He threw himself on the couch to emphasize his weakened condition.

Cordelia and Anya glared at him: Willow merely looked resigned.

"I know you guys can handle yourselves," the Slayer answered patiently. "But I think Angel's right."

"Oh, there's a surprise," Anya sniffed.

"Dru has already taken my dad," Buffy continued in a louder voice. "If she's working alone, that means she's probably going to stop with him. But if she's got anyone helping her, she can try for more."

"She tries to get us, she'll be biting off more than she can chew," Xander bragged. A moment later he covered his eyes. "Suddenly not liking where my mind is going."

"We just don't want to have to defend everyone at once. If you're all here together, you can take care of each other. And Angel and I can patrol, and look for Dru. He thinks she's going to attack tomorrow during the day, so maybe we can still find her beforehand."

Doyle grimaced. "True. She's got to get hungry sooner or later." Cordelia slapped him on the arm, prompting him to add, "And we know she's not going to try your dad. Not yet."

"But if you're looking for Drusilla, how can you patrol?" Willow asked. "Maybe we should handle the regular patrol and you and Angel can concentrate on finding her." She looked around the room for support. "It's not like we don't patrol without you, you know. Who do you think does it while you're in LA?"

"Who do you think will be doing when you're there full-time?" Xander added. "Will's right; we got it covered." He got to his feet, dinner miraculously forgotten when the bonds of friendship were called upon.

"No," Buffy answered firmly. "We want you here, safe. We can handle patrol and Dru-hunting. If any of you are out there and she finds you...that's what we're trying to prevent."

"What if Oz and I went?" Anya suggested. "She doesn't know me, and I'd be surprised if she knows him either. And we're not close to you like the others. We would make very poor bait."

"Nothing but reruns on tonight anyway." Oz squeezed Willow's shoulder, readying for a quick farewell.

Buffy stared at the former vengeance demon. "Anya, I don't want anything to happen to you either." She glanced over at Oz, including him in her thanks as well. "That goes for you too, Oz. I appreciate the offer; really I do. But no one is expendable, okay?"

Anya shrugged, clearly bored with the topic now. "It was just a suggestion."

"And not a good one," Xander said angrily. "What on earth were you thinking?"

Anya turned to him in surprise. "I thought you would be pleased. You always want me to 'pitch in' and 'help out'." Her air quotes ended with her hands resting on her hips as she scowled at her clueless boyfriend. "Besides, everyone always looks at me funny when I point out that things are hopeless, and we should all leave town before we die horribly." She tossed her head in an eerily close imitation of Cordelia. "I'm just trying to be one of the gang."

"By volunteering to get yourself killed?" The old Xander would have been embarrassed by the squeak in his voice; an Anya-inured Xander barely noticed the change in pitch.

"Drusilla doesn't know I know any of you," Anya explained, demonstrating what she felt to be the greatest of patience. "She has no reason to kill me."

"Yeah, other than that she's a vamp and you have blood running through your veins." He grabbed her by the arms and held on tightly. "She's not the Red Cross, Anya; she doesn't need to know who that blood has been associating with."

She leaned forward, peering closely at Xander's red face. "Are you...concerned about me?"

His jaw dropped in astonishment. "Well duh! You're my girlfriend; I love you. I don't want you to die. Is that plain enough for you?"

"Well you volunteered first, and I don't want you to die either." Anya sniffled for a moment before throwing herself into Xander's arms.

"No one is going to die," Buffy said firmly, though she was certain Xander and Anya were paying her no mind at the moment. "No, actually Drusilla is going to die, but she's already dead, so that doesn't count."

"Are you sure we can't help you in some way?" Giles asked, stepping around the scattered knapsacks and duffel bags to reach Buffy's side. "I realize that physically Drusilla is no match for the two of you fighting together, but she has an emotional advantage that may throw you off. Frankly, she has several emotional advantages, one of them being she doesn't any real emotions."

"I know it's hard to just sit here and wait, but honestly, that's all we need from you guys." Buffy pled her case to Giles with the slightest of smiles tugging at her lips. "Take care of each other, and especially take care of my mom. Angel and I will take care of Dru and my dad."

"I wish you would let Angel handle this himself, honey." Joyce stepped closer to her daughter, trying to bridge the physical gap between them in the hopes of mending others. "He's known her a long time, and he has the best chance of outwitting her. And...I know you're worried, but he's strong enough to take care of himself."

Buffy turned to Joyce, trying to keep Angel's words in mind as she answered her mother. She had to be honest and treat Joyce as an equal; it was the only way to rebuild. She had been able to forgive her father his unwitting neglect, and risked a chance on a new relationship, as one adult to another. She had done that in the name of the past he had been a part of, and the future she hoped to build with Angel.

Despite her mother's bigotry and interference, Buffy felt she owed Joyce no less of a chance.

"It's my job, Mom. Even if this had nothing to do with Angel, even if this had nothing to do with Dad, it would still be my job. She's a vampire, and I'm the Slayer."

"But you don't have to fight every battle yourself," her mother pleaded.

Buffy sighed; obviously headway was going to be made only in the smallest of baby steps. "I know you don't approve of what I'm doing, and I know you don't understand why. But will you at least please believe that it needs to be done?"

Joyce knew Buffy needed her support right now, but the parent in her was torn by that need. A mother was supposed to guide and instruct her young, gradually stepping back as they learned to stand on their own. When support was all that was required of her, was a mother even needed, or would any friend do just as well?

It was, however, the idea of Buffy's friends that shifted the balance ever so slightly. While Joyce had been trying to dissuade her daughter from fighting someone else's battles, these children were willing to lay down their lives in that same cause.

Giles, damn him, had been right after all.

"I do believe that it needs to be done, honey," Joyce said slowly, fighting the admission with a dying will. "And I'm also starting to believe I won't be able to talk you out of this one. Just...please be careful." She reached out tentatively and pulled Buffy into her arms for a hug.

Surprised and touched, Buffy returned the embrace. She had heard, and understood, Joyce's carefully phrased concession, and she knew this changed nothing about her mother's feelings with regard to Angel or slaying. But in this moment, with one parent trapped in the lion's den, and the man she loved treading the finest of lines between a guilty past and his responsibilities to the future, she was willing to take whatever allowance was offered.

"Listen, I have to go." Buffy stepped out of her mother's arms, brushing her hand quickly across her eyes to wipe away any evidence of tears. "Angel is waiting, and we have things to do before the sun sets."

"I'll bet." Xander snorted, also struggling to recover his equilibrium. "Try not to wear him out before the big game, huh?"

"That's not what I meant." Buffy tried to keep a rein on her temper. Giles was right; the tense situation was letting loose more emotions than she could afford to indulge. "We told you from the beginning this was our show. We have some strategies to plan, and some talking to do." A quick frown chased across her face. "I don't want to leave him alone for too long right now. This is all so hard on him."

Doyle rested his hand lightly on her shoulder. "I know it's got to be rough on you too, watching how hard it is on him. Try to hang in there just a wee bit longer."

She smiled ruefully as she adjusted the strap of her bag over her shoulder. "And our other option would be?"

* * * * *

Part 25

Hank was still in a state of shock. The body lay not five feet from him, the neck wounds licked clean and only the terror on that cold, still dead face as evidence of the horrors he had just witnessed.

"Gracious, I'm so full." Dru smiled happily and rubbed her stomach as she gazed down at her "meal" lying on the stone floor. "Oh, but Hank, my darling one, you haven't had your supper yet." She pounced on the thin white cardboard cartons discarded just a few feet from the body. She opened one and sniffed it experimentally before holding it out to Hank. "Aren't we lucky you didn't order shrimp? It would have gone bad by now."

Hank turned his head away from her and the proffered food. "I'm not hungry," he mumbled, closing his eyes to shut out the horror, only to have it replayed by his mind's eye.

"You must eat, pet." Drusilla tossed aside the carton she was holding and snatched up another. "I can't have the Slayer saying I was taking poor care of our daddy."

"I'm not your daddy," he said wearily. "I'm sorry your real father was killed, and I'm sorry for what was done to you too...but it wasn't me. And it's over; it was over long ago."

"It's never over," she said in a low voice. For a change, she sounded frighteningly lucid. "As long as there have been slayers, there have been vampires, and when we have killed the last of them...there will still be vampires." She laughed merrily, her momentary lapse into sanity but a memory.

Hank could feel a cold anger brewing deep within him. He had been tied to this chair for hours, forced to listen to and observe unspeakable acts of violence. His own mortal needs had been used to lure another human being to his death, and the mortal needs that had brought him here in the first place were about to cost him his own life. If he was going to die anyway, he might as well go out with style.

"Fine, you'll still be here when the sun goes supernova. Congratulations. Are we still going to be having this same conversation then?"

Drusilla looked strangely hurt. "Are you angry with me because your food is cold, Hank? I didn't mean to eat first, but I was so hungry. I can warm this over the fire if you wish." Without waiting for an answer, she hurried over to the huge stone fireplace and held the carton in her hand over the flames. A moment later the carton caught on fire, and Drusilla's hand with it.

"Oooh!" she cried out, dropping the flaming carton in the fire. "That stings!"

Hank smiled grimly. He'd just experienced his first, and probably last, moment of pleasure for the day, but it had been a beautiful sight.

Drusilla turned back to Hank, shaking her burned hand in front of her. "I'm sorry, love. You will have to eat your meal cold after all. But if you're a very good boy and clean your plate, perhaps we can stop for an ice cream soda on the way to see our dear little Buffy. After my own little errand, of course."

"We're going out? To see Buffy? I thought...I thought you were planning to kill me." His brain was numb with the effort of following the twists and turns of Drusilla's thousand moods. He no longer knew who she was, and he wasn't too certain of who he was anymore, but he had clung with perverse determination to the one fact he knew. He was going to die. Tonight. By Drusilla's hand.

She smiled sweetly at him as she picked up the last of the cartons of Chinese food and opened it up. She also retrieved the plastic-wrapped chopsticks from the floor, but a moment later she shook her head and tossed them into the fire.

"Nasty things," she explained placidly to Hank. "Very dangerous. They should be ashamed of themselves for encouraging humans to use them." She watched with satisfaction as the cellophane burst open with a small pop and the wooden chopsticks caught on fire.

"Now, pet, you were saying?" Drusilla turned her attention back to Hank as she approached him with his dinner. "Killing you, is that what you asked about? Why yes, of course I'm going to kill you." She shook her finger at him. "But that's no reason not to eat your dinner. Eat, drink and be merry, isn't that what they say? You eat, I drank and we'll both be merry. Then tomorrow you die."

She glanced down at the carton in her hand as Hank processed her answer. "Oh dear, I'm afraid I don't know if we have any forks. I guess you'll have to eat with my fingers." Her smile turned impish, in an eerie echo of the expression he once found so beguiling. "I did say we were going to be merry, didn't I?"

* * * * *

Angel paced the length of the living room, and upon reaching the far wall he wheeled around and paced back again. He should be sharpening weapons; he knew that. Not that any weapon under his and Buffy's combined care ever got rusty or dull, but at least then he would feel like he was doing something. He could sharpen weapons, or train some more, or study the city sewer maps that Willow had left them.

Anything would be better than this endless, mindless, motion. It left him far too much time to think about the various troubles that besieged him. Drusilla, who must be destroyed; Hank, who must be saved; Joyce, who must be won over. And Buffy. Buffy, whose future mattered most of all. He had to make all the pieces fit, and quickly, before she suffered for his failures.

It always came back to time. He, the immortal, could never seem to find enough of it when it was needed, and yet it dragged when he had no use for it. Maybe, he reflected grimly, he wasn't so far from being human as he had supposed.

The sound of the door opening distracted his melancholy thoughts, as did the bright smile that shone over the brown paper grocery bags. He rushed over to remove the bags from Buffy's arms as she struggled to shift their weight to her sides.

"Hey," she said breathlessly, "I picked up dinner while I was out."

He peered down into one of the bags and laughed. Sliced roast beef for her, fresh blood for him.

She shrugged as she led the way into the kitchen. "I figured I'd do the beef and you could do the 'au jus.' You know, put the parts of the cow we can't wear to use too."

Despite all the intimacies they had shared over the past few months, and even though they were on the verge of making one home together, he was still amazed at her casual acceptance of the things he considered most shameful.

"You are my perfect woman," Angel said with a grateful smile. "You know that, don't you?" He set the bags down on the counter and pulled her into his arms to steal a kiss.

She obliged him with one, but pulled back when he tried for a second.

"We need to eat," she said firmly. "And we need to plan, and we need to talk. Not necessarily in that order."

Reluctantly, he let her go. "What do we need to talk about? We both know what has to be done, and what comes after...comes after. End of story."

"No, baby, it's only the beginning. Dad knows now; we've outed ourselves." She began pulling dishes from the cupboards. "And now that he's been spending some quality time with Dru, there's no telling what his view of vamps is going to be."

Her voice sounded calm and self-assured. If she had any doubts as to the outcome of the fight with Drusilla, she was not allowing them to the surface. Angel debated forcing the issue, but decided this strange form of optimism might serve her better when they went into battle.

"Meanwhile your mother is not exactly sitting on my side of the bleachers either," he concurred with a wry smile. "It could get ugly." He put his hands over hers, forcing her to place the glasses on the counter so he could turn her to face him. "Are you scared of dealing with two disapproving parents instead of just the usual one? Or are you worried that I am?"

"A definite 'no' to question number one, and a slightly less sure 'no' to number two. This wasn't quite what you bargained for when you followed me into the alley behind the Bronze four years ago." The corners of her mouth tilted upwards, in a wistful half-smile. Had it really only been four years?

He shook his head and smiled. "No, it definitely wasn't, and I can't tell you how glad I am to be wrong. Even with the disapproving parents."

She raised an eyebrow at him. "And the extra parent available in stuffy British Watcher Guy size?"

He nodded. "And him."

"And the nosy and kind of tactless friends?" She took a step closer, pressing her body against his.

His arms automatically slipped around her waist. "Them too."

"Even Xander?" she teased, tilting her head back to look up at him. It would have really annoyed her how much taller he was, except for that lovely little hollow of his shoulder that fit her cheek perfectly. She turned her head to settle in to that very spot, but Angel's hand on her cheek tenderly subverted her plan.

He dipped his head down to kiss her, murmuring against her lips, "Even Xander."

"You...are seriously...whacked," she mumbled back, removing any sting from her words with the judicious application of conciliatory kisses.

Angel wanted to shake his head, but that would have involved turning his lips away from hers...definitely not an acceptable solution. He waited instead for air to become a necessary consideration. When Buffy pulled her head back to inhale a quick catch-up breath, he brushed his nose gently against hers.

"I'm not whacked," he said softly, but firmly. "I just know how lucky I am."

There were at least a dozen reasons to end the moment there; Buffy ran through each of them in the space it took her lungs to fill with air. Her father was still in serious danger; her mother was playing the unwilling concierge to all her friends, who were trapped together with all their ex and current loves in one small house; the dinner she so carefully picked out would go to waste.

And none of it meant a thing when she looked up into those trusting dark eyes.

"Lucky?" she asked with a suggestive lilt in her voice. "Baby, you haven't begun to get lucky yet."

* * * * *

"I feel guilty."

Angel turned his head on the pillow and pressed a kiss to Buffy's forehead. "That's my line."

"Angel, I'm serious." She shifted in his arms, still half-draped across his body, yet somehow more distant. "My father is in terrible danger, and we sent all my friends away to keep them safe, and instead of making plans to rescue him or protect them, we make love. And I enjoyed it. What kind of person does that make me?" she complained.

"Human, love."

"Not good enough," she answered flatly.

Angel sighed and turned to his side so that he could face her. One arm was still wound around her waist, holding her close to him, while he softly stroked her hair with his other hand. The golden strands clung to his fingers, as loath to let him go as he was to release them.

"Sweetheart, the hardest thing in the world to do is go on living when your world is crumbling all around you; I think we both learned that last summer. We didn't do so well at it then, but we've grown up a lot since then. Both of us."

"That sounds more like an excuse than a reason," she accused him.

"Do you have any idea how you make me feel when we make love? I don't mean just the physical, though that is...amazing." He couldn't suppress a slightly dazed smile at the memory. "But you make me feel alive, Buffy. Not just pretending to be alive, the way most vampires feel, but actually a real live part of this world. Even when I was human, I never felt so...connected, not to another person or future or anything. Now I belong, thanks to you. I belong with you, in every sense of the phrase."

Her hazel eyes were troubled as she looked up into his pale face. She knew how hard it was for him to express his emotions with words; he was a man of deeds, and thus his heartfelt admission was doubly precious to her. But as profoundly grateful as she was to be the source of his joy, she still could not suppress the guilt at her own happiness.

"It just seems wrong to be happy now," she said slowly. She brushed her hand across his chest, something deep inside of her tingling at the silky feel of his skin against her palm, even as she repented the emotion. "Everything you say that I give you, you gave right back to me, and I feel like a cheat for taking it. I should be pacing the floor and pounding on things and making all sorts of threats to your PTB's about what will happen if they don't protect my dad until we can get to him, and make me feel whole for the first time in my life and it feels so good I can't even believe I ever survived without it. That seems...wrong. Bad."

He pressed her head into the hollow of his shoulder and buried his face in her hair. "I'm the king of doing the wrong thing, love," he murmured into her ear. "Especially doing the wrong thing for the right reason; I've got that one down to a science. So will you please trust me when I say that this was not one of those situations?"

She turned her head just slightly to lay a lingering kiss on the warming skin resting beneath her cheek. "Are you just trying to make me feel better? Because I think that right now, feeling better would only make me feel worse."

"Then I don't know what to tell you, Buffy." His long fingers got tangled in her hair as he reached through to caress the back of her neck. "Love is about sharing the pain as well as the joy, and hopefully turning one into the other. Trying to heal your pain is the most natural thing in the world to me."

She sighed as she wound her leg around his beneath the sheet. When did things get so horribly, and gloriously, complicated?

"I do love you, Angel. So much." She stretched up to kiss the corner of his mouth. "And even though I might feel guilty about being so happy when there's so much to be not happy about...I wouldn't want to love you any less."

His heart ached for her confusion, but he could also see she spoke honestly of her great happiness. It was the foundation of her being; a glowing presence that shone from her eyes through all the myriad of worldly considerations. It existed because he did, and because they did.

"Good, because I've gotten kind of used to it." His fingers slipped from her neck and held captive her hand on his chest. "And I'm not about to love you any less either."

* * * * *

Part 26

"Hank, my dearest, I'm going to go out for just a tiny while. You will be all right here by yourself, won't you?"

Hank marveled at how normal Drusilla sounded. She might have been off to the library, or the grocery store, for all the import she gave to her words. When she spoke like that, he felt much better about his abysmal blindness to her true nature. How could he have know when she left him all those other times that she was going off to torture and kill innocent human beings? When Joyce had told him she was going to the store, she actually came back with groceries.

"Where are you going?" he asked hesitantly, not sure whether he wanted her to lie or not. His ignorance had been fairly blissful.

"I have to meet some friends." She drifted towards the door, and then hurried back to pat his cheek. "Do be a good boy while I'm gone."

He flinched from her touch and tried again for a straight reply. Bliss was over, but he might be able to put his hard-won awakening to good use yet.

"What friends? Where?"

She straightened up and stared down at him. "Aren't we a nosy lad tonight."

"You said you wanted a father. This is what fathers do." He tried to shift position in his chair, moving within the tight grasp of the chains to assume a more upright, and authoritative position.

Her eyes wandered up over his head and fixed on the high windows set in the far wall. "Do they?" she mused. "I don't remember."

"I want to know where you're going," he insisted. He felt like he was gaining a little ground at last; mastery of a tiny portion of Drusilla's quicksilver mind. He pressed his advantage. "I also want to know who these friends are that you'll be seeing and when you'll be back."

Dru's smile grew wide as her focus slipped from the window to Hank's tired face. "Oooh, I just knew I was right to pick you as my new daddy," she whispered in delight. "I didn't get to kill my real daddy, you know; Angel did that before I was born. But I'm all grown up now and you're mine for the taking."

Hank felt his mind lurch when Drusilla's past collided once again with his daughter's present. He fought to keep his attention in the now, where there were yet battles that could be won.

"You can't just go out and leave me chained up like this, Drusilla. What if something happens while you're gone? I'm helpless."

She patted his cheek one last time. "I suppose you are." Then, with a tiny wave, she was gone.

* * * * *

Buffy's guilt had subsided by the time darkness fell. Being able to go out and patrol, with Angel by her side, gave her the illusion of purpose, even if she believed their mission would be fruitless. She knew deep in her heart that they were working according to Dru's timetable, and all the pro-active behavior in the world wouldn't hurry things along. Still, she felt at her most productive when she had a crossbow in her hand.

Angel stayed but a short distance away as they moved swiftly through the old cemetery. He was preternaturally aware of Buffy's presence at his side, and he could feel the gradual easing of her tension as they patrolled.

If Joyce could only see her daughter now, he mused, she might understand the futility of expecting a Slayer to settle for a "normal" life. Buffy came alive any time they were together, but he never saw her more focused and more sure of herself than when they were hunting together.

A ghost of a smile flitted across his face as her words flowed over him.

"Doyle seems more his old self today, don't you think? I mean you know him old self better than I do, but..."

She had been born to do this, as had he, though they had both initially fought the realization. They were meant to fight battles great and small, working as one, in the name of the humanity he supposedly no longer possessed. The same humanity Buffy gave back to him every day with her very presence in his life.

These were the things Joyce sought to deny her daughter, in the name of another type of love.

Angel shook his head and tried to focus on the present. He couldn't afford to drift off right now; they had too much at stake. The odds were slim they would find Dru herself out and about when Hank was still her captive, but they could rule out a lot of hiding places, and interview a lot of witnesses before they settled in for a few hours sleep.

And then the real battle would begin. He and Dru, to the death. He would prevail, because he had too much to lose not to, but he would never be able to call it winning.

"Angel," Buffy called softly. "Are you actually in there, or are you just a hologram with good fashion sense? Because I could kind of use the genuine article right now."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to zone out like that."

He took a few steps closer, resting one hand on her shoulder. She looked so small and fragile in the moonlight; he was deeply grateful that was only an illusion. Physically she was tough as nails. Stronger than Dru, and in so many more ways than just the flesh. Poor Dru; if she had possessed a fraction of Buffy's inner strength he never would have broken her, and they would not be out hunting her this warm May night. She would be in her grave; dead perhaps as the result of a vampire's bite, but at least not a demon herself.

Angel suddenly realized his ruminations were really not helping and forced himself to concentrate on the sound of Buffy's voice.

"I want to check Willie's again," she was saying decisively, "just in case he's heard something new.

Buffy could see Angel was having trouble staying in the here and now; she knew the No Thanks for the Memories Face when she saw it. It had grown increasingly rare in the past few months, but she remembered it all too well from the bad old days. The only way to deal with him now would be to drag him into the present and keep him there until he could share those memories with her.

"We also need to check those other places you mentioned," she continued. "The ones where Angelus used to hang. Someone has to know something."

"Agreed." He nodded, before reluctantly adding a warning. "Just...well, we'll need to be really on our guard in these places. I was a little nervous going there when my demon was up and running, but now...and walking in with the Slayer..." He shook his head and laughed sharply. "We're not going to be popular."

She couldn't quite suppress her own snicker, though it sprang from an entirely different source. "The Scourge of Europe was nervous about going to a demon club?"

He stopped walking and emitted something close to a growl. "You know, that nickname only works if your audience actually knows what the word 'scourge' means. You'd be surprised at the lack of education in the demon community."

"Oh swell; he's on the public school riff again."

Buffy and Angel both turned swiftly to find the source of the whine. It didn't require much in the way of detective skills; a small war was apparently breaking out next to a decrepit mausoleum a few yards up the path.

"Oops. Did I say that out loud?"

"Nice going, Cor," Xander could be heard to complain. "All those new computer skills and you still can't search for the meaning of the word 'quiet'."

Doyle jumped in a moment later with, "Do you honestly think they wouldn't have sensed us in a minute anyway?"

"Oh they would have been doing the graveyard grope long before they got to us," Anya mumbled through her fingers as she smothered a yawn.

"I told you we should have split up," Willow complained.

"Hey Buffy, hey Angel," Oz called out, the only member of the group composed enough to notice the rapidly advancing presence of the angry Slayer and her favorite vampire.

"What are you doing here?" Buffy demanded. She looked from one guilty face to another, counting only one among the missing. "You're one short; where's Giles? Hiding under a bench?"

"He stayed with your mom," Willow answered. The moonlight could not entirely disguise the flush of shame that suffused her face. "I know we were supposed to stay too, but we wanted to help."

"We did help," Anya said stoutly. "We found a vampire before we ever saw you and Xander killed it." She patted her boyfriend on the back, silently daring anyone to belittle his accomplishment.

Cordelia, of course, was never one to back down from a dare. "Xander tripped and pulled the vamp down on top of himself, screaming like a girl the whole time, of course."

"Xander, not the vampire," Oz added, strictly in the interests of clarity. "The whole screaming thing, that is."

"He fell with his mouth open," Xander protested, raising a hand to rub his neck. "Hello fangs, this is Mr. Neck. Bad feeling; very bad."

"Then Doyle staked the vamp," Cordelia finished serenely.

"With, umm, the stake Willow threw me," Doyle admitted. "I sort of dropped mine somewhere around here." He looked down to the grass beneath his feet, as though expecting the prodigal stake to rematerialize by sheer force of will. "I'm more used to using my fists, you see. They're harder to misplace."

"Doyle, my new best bud, let me help you find that stake." Xander tried to slip past the stiff shapes of Buffy and Angel, scuffing his feet along the ground to locate the elusive weapon. "Those things don't grow on trees, you know."

"Go home," Angel said firmly, catching Xander by the collar as the human tried to pass him. "All of you need to get back to Joyce's house and stay there. We will take care of this."

"Angel, man, I know you think this is your fight alone, but it's not." Doyle's sheepish grin faded as he clapped his hand on Angel's shoulder. "We're all a part of this, because you and Buffy matter to us. And we can't just sit back and let bad things happen to people we care about. Or to innocent bystanders, like Buffy's dad."

Buffy stepped around Angel to talk to Doyle directly. "We understand that, Doyle. But the more people take her on, the more confusing it's going to be, and the greater the chance that someone will get hurt." She glanced around the small group, trying to reach each of them simultaneously. "If we were talking Dru and her usual entourage, we'd definitely give two thumbs up to strength in numbers. But as far as we know, she's working alone."

* * * * *

Willie stretched up a shaking hand to fumble for the portable phone on the bar. He swore and pulled his hand down to inspect it when his fingers encountered broken glass instead.

Just a slight cut, he was relieved to see. Nothing compared to the swollen jaw, or the matching black eyes or the two broken ribs he was now sporting. Nothing like a Sunday night bar brawl to add a little color to a guy's cheeks. As he tried to make his weakened arms support his weight long enough to push him to his feet, he revised his estimate of accrued injuries. Definitely three broken ribs.

The new tally didn't change anything, though. He had to call the kid. He had to warn her that Spike's psycho ex was on the loose and rounding up guests for a "party." He didn't know where this shebang was going to be, but the guests of honor were easy enough to guess.

Not that Willie didn't have complete faith in the Slayer and her vampire bodyguard to take out the bad guys, otherwise known as his devoted clientele. Talk about your sure things. But the bar had been packed tonight, and Drusilla definitely had Pied Piper potential. They followed her out of the bar like lemmings to the sea...if the sea was made of blood and bones that crunched.

Jeeze, that was all the kid needed: a bunch of hyped-up, and 'likkered-up,' demons looking to party. They were rowdy enough before Elvira Doolittle showed her dead white face, but by the time she floated out of the Alibi Room the ones who could still walk were ready to take on the first hellbeast that looked cross-eyed at them. Even a Slayer needed a little advance warning to handle these goons.

Willie managed to stand long enough to grab the phone, and then clutched the bar for support as he cautiously lowered himself back to the floor. He'd call the kid and give her the heads' up and then it was time to stop playing the hero and dial good old 911.

Hell, he was a taxpayer, wasn't he? Most years, anyway.

* * * * *

The phone rang only once in the deserted apartment before it was bumped through thecall forwarding service Buffy insisted they couldn't possibly fight evil without. Angel privately thought she was more interested in not missing a call from Willow than she was about receiving a hellmouth red alert, but if she wanted to be followed around by ringing phones 24/7, he was not the man to deny her.

Tonight, as always, he had automatically set up the phone before they left for patrol. The numbers were pre-programmed to speed up the process, so all he had to do was remember to turn it on.

After one lonely ring, the call hit the computer sequence that redirected it. From there it was a straight line to Angel's cell phone...which currently lay abandoned, along with its dead battery, on Buffy and Angel's bed.

Go to Part 27