Angel landed, hard, and the sword through his chest twisted a little on impact. Even though he had no breath to be knocked out of him, even though a blade through his heart couldn't kill him, or even cause permanent damage, he remained motionless on his back, dazed. It hurt. Besides which, he was getting his ass kicked by Lindsey. Lindsey. In what universe was this even a possibility?
The ass-kicker in question danced around Angel's supine form like some kind of deranged imp, mocking him.
"Who is this? Who is this?" Lindsey ripped off his shirt and tossed it Angel's face, filling his nostrils with the scent of the smaller man's hatred for him. "I came to put down the Angel of old. But he's gone. Look at you – pathetic corporate puppet, kowtowing to the Senior Partners. Phoning it in on a nine-to-five schedule. You used to have fire in your heart." He squatted down to look Angel in the eye. "Now all you've got in there is that big honking sword. How's that feel, boss?"
Something in him snapped, and he realized Lindsey was just kind of sad, really. All that effort, all those carefully laid plans, as he'd called them, because the other man was, what? Jealous? Incapable of letting old rivalries go? Still pissed about Darla?
Whatever. Angel was done playing. Done second-guessing himself.
"Could be worse," he said, and ripped the sword from his chest with a grimace. "If it had been made of wood, you dumbass!"
He went after Lindsey with renewed purpose, taking out all his frustrations, all his doubts from the last several weeks, on the other man. With each blow, Lindsey grew weaker, until Angel knocked him clear across the room.
Cordelia came to stand by his side as Lindsey struggled to his feet. "You okay?"
"I've been worse," Angel said, taking the moment to bask in her presence. Cordy. Awake. He still couldn't believe it.
"So what now?" Lindsey said, no dent in his puffed-up bravado. "Going to kill me for once and for all?"
Angel smiled. "I really don't think I have to."
"Sweetie, your epidermis is showing," Cordelia added, and Angel huffed out a laugh.
Lindsey glanced down at his disappearing tattoos. "Damn," he muttered, the first hint of fear on his face.
Angel would have been lying if he said he wasn't enjoying this moment. "I think the Senior Partners would like a word."
Lights flashed overhead. Lindsey darted a glance at the forming portal, then swung his gaze over to an empty corner near the stairs. "Looks like you're up," he said, just before being sucked into the portal, which closed with a pop.
"Well," Angel said, flashing Cordelia his best heroic grin. "That was –"
Angel whipped around. And stared, disbelievingly.
Standing in what he'd thought was an empty corner stood –
"Buffy?" Cordelia said. "What the hell? Where did you come from?"
Cordy looked to Angel, brow furrowed, but he had no answers for her. He could only stare at the apparition in front of him. First Cordelia, and now Buffy? Was he really so far off-track with the Powers that they'd sent him a double-whammy of both the near-dead and supposed dead to get him back on course?
"Buffy," he croaked, too overcome to say more. Cordelia placed her hand on the small of his back and nudged him forward. He met her eyes, and she gave him a little smile and nodded.
As he moved towards Buffy, Angel realized two things. The first was that the girl in front of him didn't smell like Buffy – or, more precisely, her smell was more like a lingering trace of the girl he knew. Not quite there. The second was that Buffy didn't quite look like Buffy, either. He'd never seen such implacable hatred in her eyes before, not even as Angelus, and certainly never directed at him.
Ghost, he thought. She's a ghost. Has to be. Or some parlor trick of Lindsey's. It explained why Lindsey had been addressing an empty corner.
Stopping just out of arm's reach, Angel opened his senses wider, trying to get a hint of what, exactly, stood before him. "Buffy?" he said again, tentatively.
"Angelus." Her grin was feral. "Boy, have I got a bone to pick with you."
He shook his head. "Angel. Look, whatever Lindsey told you –"
"Sorry," she said. "Don't know any Lindseys." With that, she drew a sword, lightning fast, and lunged for him.
Where the hell did she get that? He dodged backwards, and realized she'd picked up the sword he'd lost. Buffy lunged again and again, forcing him backwards across the room.
Frantic, Angel looked around for Lindsey's weapon, wanting the ability to defend himself long enough to try to reason with her. "Cordy? Lindsey's sword?" he called out.
"Yeah, bit of a problem with that plan," she said from where she'd backed against the wall to stay out of the Slayer's way. "It shriveled up." She tossed him the pocketknife.
Buffy kept after him with single-minded intensity, even when Cordelia tried to distract her. She simply knocked the taller girl out of her way and kept on towards him. Her blade had connected with his body multiple times, making it perfectly clear she was no apparition, and Angel wondered just what she was. Shape-shifter? It couldn't be Buffy – couldn't. This silent, vengeful creature bore no resemblance, beyond physical, to the girl he knew.
Because you knew her so well these last years, mate?
Great. Fighting for his life against who-knows-what, and now Spike in his head. Perfect.
Spike had come back from the dead, thanks to Lindsey, if he understood it right. Maybe Lindsey had brought Buffy back too. If he had, Angel figured he'd thank Lindsey later. After Buffy had not killed him.
And speaking of Spike… "Cordelia," he said through gritted teeth, holding back a hiss of pain as Buffy slashed his arm once more. "Get Spike."
Obviously he wasn't going to be able to take Buffy out on his own. Not without seriously hurting her, or worse. If he could even take her out at all. Already he was a mass of cuts, the smell of his own blood stinging his nostrils. If there was any chance this was the real Buffy, he couldn't take the risk of hurting or killing her, though. He needed help subduing her.
"Angel?" Cordy hovered near the staircase, clearly wanting to come to his aid.
"Go get Spike! I need his help!" Despite the danger to his life, Angel closed his eyes in disgust as the words need and Spike passed through his lips. At least the bleached pest wasn't around to hear him admit such a thing. "Ow! Watch where you're sticking that!"
Buffy swung again, teeth bared. "You're going to pay for what you've done."
With Cordelia out of the way, Angel didn't have to worry so much about keeping the Buffy-thing away from her. He danced around the room, feinting at her face, then spinning a kick into her sword in an attempt to knock it away, using his longer reach to keep her at bay.
"What are you?" he said.
Buffy rolled her eyes. "The Slayer. Giles told me Angelus was clever and cunning, but I guess he was mistaken."
"I am not Angelus."
With a second roll of her eyes, she stabbed him in the gut. Angel resisted the urge to growl at her. In case she was Buffy. But if Cordy didn't get back soon with Spike, he was going to have to get more physical.
Maybe she's a robot. Like Wesley's father.
His next kick disproved that theory when his heel caught the corner of her mouth, releasing a trickle of blood. Unless robots could bleed now…
In an instant, the scent of Buffy's blood permeated the air. And it smelled right. Angel knew that smell, knew the taste of her running down his throat. The smell made his many wounds cry out for the liquid that would repair them. It made his stomach clench with the hunger that never slept. His fangs emerged against his will, followed by a low rumble.
Buffy cocked her head. "Is playtime over?" she said, and spun into him even faster than before.
"Stop," he growled. He dashed away from her and managed to make the leap to the high platform over the stairs. Maybe there he could evade the sting of her blade for long enough to catch his metaphorical breath. "Buffy would never do this!"
"But Buffy is," she said, eyeing the distance. With her shorter legs, Angel hoped she'd decide against the attempt.
She didn't, of course.
He leapt to meet her, crashing her to the ground with him on top. Buffy snarled and raged, pinned by his bulk, and Angel regretted sending Cordy for help. He could have managed this on his own after –
Flat on his back, he blinked stupidly at the circling stars overhead. Buffy gripped him by the hair and, sword hefted, said, "This is for my Watcher."
The blade whistled downward, and Angel closed his eyes against the anticipated blow. Stunned as he was, the idea of moving didn't even occur to him – later he would blame it on unconsciousness.
Buffy's slight weight disappeared, and her sword clattered harmlessly by his head. Relieved by this second sudden turning of the tide, he pushed himself up to find Buffy now pinned by Spike, who was staring at her in shock.
"Bu- Buffy?" Spike licked his lips, his expression disbelieving and amazed and grateful.
If Angel had cared one bit for Spike, his cold, dead heart would be breaking over that look.
It was a good thing he didn't care at all.
"Is it really yo-oof." Spike lay on his back, taking his own turn to blink at the overhead stars.
"And William the Bloody too," Buffy said, rearing back for another punch. "I guess this really is my day. Two-for-one special on justice."
Angel retrieved the fallen weapon and rushed Buffy, saving the smaller vampire's face from another brutal blow. Spike continued to lay there, blinking, his every thought and feeling plain for Angel to see.
Refusing to be affected by Spike's transparent hope and confusion, or be reminded of his own jumble of emotions, he turned back to the Slayer and tried to hem her in with the sword she'd lost. Buffy evaded him, as nimble and quick as he'd ever seen her, and Angel had to admit that even though he now had the weapon and she had none, he still needed Spike's aid.
"Spike," he called. "Little help?"
"I don't understand," the other vampire said hoarsely. "Is it Buffy?"
Angel dodged a kick to the head. "Jury's still out on that. Whatever she is, she came with Lindsey. And she doesn't seem to like us very much."
Buffy sighed and pulled a stake from out of nowhere. "Me, Slayer. You, vampire. Duh."
Eyes fixed on Buffy, Spike hauled himself to his feet. "She smells off. Robot?"
"She bleeds. Doubt it."
"Know she's no ghost. 'Sides, Buffy would never act like this. Shape-shifter?"
"Why's it so hard to believe I just want the both of you dead?" Buffy said through gritted teeth.
"Tell you what," Angel grunted as her fist found his groin. "Let's figure it out when she's a little less homicidal, how about?"
With Spike at his side, and Buffy weaponless, they soon had her boxed in. "How you want to play this?" Spike asked.
"No permanent damage," Angel warned him. "Just in case. Her blood – did you notice its scent?" He nicked her shoulder with the sword, just enough to send a rivulet of red down her arm.
Clapping a hand over the wound, Buffy's heated glare promised retribution.
Spike inhaled and shot the girl in front of them a startled look, speculation mixed with an undercurrent of reverence. "Gentle it is."
Though Buffy fought like a wildcat, leaving what Angel knew would be serious bruises on all of them, he managed to trap one side of her long enough for Spike to get her into a sleeper hold. Spike eased her to the ground as she fell limp, free hand stroking the hair off her brow. "Shh, love," he said. "Shh. I promise we won't hurt you."
"Can't – make you – same promise," she managed before falling unconscious.
Head bowed, Spike held Buffy in his lap, his shoulders quivering. Angel didn't need to see his face to know it was covered in tears. A part of him wanted to join them on the floor.
The other part of him could feel Cordy's sympathetic gaze on his back.
"We need to do something with her before she wakes back up," he said, hating how cold he sounded. But Spike had already claimed the emotional breakdown option, which left him to make the hard decisions.
Angel ignored the way the smaller vampire's shoulders continued to shake beneath the leather coat. "Nina's cage should hold her for now. Until we can figure out what's going on. Can you carry her?"
Shooting him a scornful look, Spike climbed to his feet, carefully holding Buffy close. Angel's fingers twitched with the urge to reach out and take her away, to carry her and smooth her brow himself.
But it was better this way. Better that Spike – whom he probably couldn't take her from anyway – was the one carrying her through the basement to the level that housed the cage Nina used. Despite the rightness of her blood, he still wasn't convinced it was Buffy that Spike held in his arms. And if it was Buffy, there were so many questions – how had she been brought back, and why did she hate them so? What had Lindsey done?
Too many questions.
I don't have to worry about it right now, he told himself. We can deal with it later. The thought prompted an immediate and overwhelming sense of relief, and then Angel just as immediately felt like shit for feeling relief in the first place. Buffy was the girl he loved with all his heart. The woman who'd loved him no matter his sins, and showed him how to be a good man. How could he not worry about her right now?
He jumped when Cordelia touched his arm, distracting him from the sight of Spike settling Buffy onto the cot in the cage. She offered him a cautious smile, and his feelings grew even more jumbled.
How could he ignore Buffy in favor of Cordy?
And how could he ignore Cordy in favor of Buffy?
At least Cordy still likes me, a small, petulant corner of his mind pointed out. And she's awake, he quickly added.
"What's the plan, Champ?"
What was the plan? He looked between the two women of his unlife, torn. "I should –"
"Go," Spike said. "You've still got Eve to deal with. I'll sit with – her." He nodded at Buffy, still unconscious on the other side of the bars, and Angel wondered if Spike hadn't used Buffy's name on purpose in an effort to distance himself.
"I'll send Wes down soon, see if he can get a bead on who – what – if she's really –"
Spike half-winced, half-nodded, and settled in on the floor, back to the wall.
Turning away, Angel said to Cordy, "The Powers say anything about this?"
"Not a thing. You'd think Lindsey corrupting the Slayer would be something they'd give a head's up about. Instead all I got was a vision of glyphs."
"Try Lindsey bringing Buffy back from the dead. Maybe."
Cordelia stopped walking. "Buffy was dead? Again?"
"Wow, do I feel like yesterday's news. All I did was wake up from a lousy coma."
"But at least you woke up still liking me," he said before he could stop himself.
Cordelia walked on. "I wouldn't be so sure of that if I were you, buster."
Angel took a breath he didn't need, trying to hold it all in. All the rage and frustration, all the pain and loss of the last few hours.
"No," he said in as calm a tone as he could manage. "We are sending her to Giles, and that is final. He can sort out who or what she is."
"Look," Spike began.
Slamming his fist on the table, Angel said, "No, you look. You and I, even with our vampire senses, can't tell if she's really Buffy, or if she's somebody or something else. Fred and Wes are just as clueless, and when Lorne tried to read her, he got nothing. A complete blank. She's either Buffy and seriously spelled beyond our capabilities to reverse, or she's something else entirely, but either way it doesn't matter. Rupert Giles already doesn't trust us –"
"Doesn't trust you, you mean –"
"Can you imagine what will happen if he gets wind that we may be holding Buffy here? Keeping her from him? Treating her like a prisoner?"
"Face it, Spike. We are. And what good can we do her anyway? She doesn't trust us one bit. She'll be better off with Giles. Not only is he the expert, but he cares about her. And he's a Watcher. She'll trust him enough to let him help her – at least more than she trusts us."
Thankfully Spike fell silent, finally seeing the sense in Angel's argument, or so Angel hoped. He was sick of bickering with the other vampire, sick of worrying about what was wrong with Buffy, sick of thinking. All he wanted was to curl up in his bed, pillow over his head, and not have to deal with the world anymore. Not have to think about his destiny, not have to think about what the Powers wanted of him, not have to think about the phone call informing him that Cordelia was –
Angel closed his eyes. "Can we argue about this later? I..." He trailed off, unable to finish.
Spike's hand landed on his shoulder, his touch hesitant. "You want to talk about it?"
He considered it. Considered where talking might lead, especially if they got to drinking. It was tempting. Eyes still closed, he half-leaned into Spike's hand before changing his mind and shaking his head. "I think I need to be alone."
"Figured you'd say that." Spike moved to the doorway, and Angel immediately wished he would return. "You change your mind, you know where I'll be. Keeping time with Mr. Daniels and the missus."
"You know you don't have to watch over Buffy. She'll be safe in there – and we'll be safe from her."
"Have to is not the issue."
One corner of his mouth quirked into a weak smile. "Figured you'd say that."
Spike huffed out a dry chuckle in return, saluted, and left him to his thoughts. Angel groaned. Alone with his thoughts was the last thing he wanted to be.
How could they take you away from me? Now? I need you more than ever.
He crawled into bed, buried his head beneath his pillow, and tried to relive the kiss Cordelia had given him without recalling the knowledge that had come with it.