Chapter Thirty: Business as Usual
SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 1:05 PM PST (9:05 PM GMT)
By the time the rest of the team made it through the front door of the Hyperion, Angel and Spike were already swatting out the last of the hot spots on their hair and clothes. They'd been maybe five seconds away from bursting into flame out in the street: the closest call yet in a long day full of stress and adventure.
Fred clutched at Charles' arm, sighing with relief to see them only barely singed. Spike had even managed not to drop Sahjhan's urn in his rush; he'd set it on the high part of the round gray couch in the lobby, like some kind of macabre centerpiece. "You're okay! Thank God. For a second there I was afraid...."
A sudden giggle interrupted her: a young voice, loud and strangely carrying, as though its owner was on a soundstage. "Only for a second? You're more resilient than I thought."
There was something about that voice that made all the fine hairs on Fred's arms stand on end, and not just because of the mild threat implied by the words. Fred turned away from their vampires toward the soft red visitor's chairs to the left of the door, and found herself meeting gazes with a little girl about nine or ten years old. She was dressed in a party gown a few shades darker than the chair she sat in, set off with a pretty little lace collar; her hair was a dark blonde, just long enough to tuck behind her ears, and her hands were folded primly in her lap. Her expression was coolly amused, and her eyes were much, much older than the rest of her.
Fred was reminded of nothing so much as the computer avatar in that zombie movie Charles had dragged her to a couple months back, as if they didn't get enough creepiness in their everyday lives. The comparison wasn't very encouraging.
"I-- I'm sorry. Do I know you?" she asked, warily.
"How polite," the little girl replied, smiling. "Your receptionist was, too; not at all what I was led to expect. And the wards on the building; much
more comprehensive than last report. They're impressed with Angel, but They don't think very much of the rest of you, do They? I'll have to make sure something is done about that."Receptionist?
Fred thought, confused-- then glanced sharply at the figure frozen in the other chair, next to the front desk. She'd been so intensely disturbed by the little girl's presence that she'd completely missed Amy's; the recovering witch's eyes were wide, and her face was chalk-pale above the softly glowing amulet at her throat. Her stillness reminded Fred of nothing so much as a mouse trapped under the gaze of a self-satisfied cat.
What could the girl have possibly said to her to cause that kind of defensive reaction? Considering the type of person Fred had heard Amy consorted with in Sunnydale-- back when she'd gone a little crazy after spending years as a rat, not that Fred judged her too harshly, given how crazy she'd
gone after her years as a 'cow'-- things would have to be pretty awful for Amy to be that
far out of her depth.
Angel ambled casually back toward the rest of the group, deliberately blocking the little girl's line of sight to Fred and the others. "Amy?" he said, guardedly. "Care to make introductions?"
Amy wet her lips, breaking her gaze away from their visitor with visible effort. "I felt the Hellmouth leave, and I thought I'd be more useful here than at home with my dad. She was waiting outside when I got here. But she said she'd only speak to you."
The little girl kicked her feet, bouncing her heels off the front of her seat. "I like these chairs. Very red. It's my favorite color. Shame that the bullet missed its mark back in Sunnydale; there would have been a lot more of it for me to enjoy."
She glanced around, taking in everyone's reactions, then shrugged innocently. "But then again, there wouldn't have been much of a future for me in that timeline, either. So what's an entity to do but mind her manners and say thanks?"Really, really not a little girl, then
, Fred realized, sense of alarm rising. It might be the exhaustion and adrenaline talking, but some part of her that had been on edge since rescuing Lorne in Vegas the night before was really craving a blank wall and a marker right now. She squashed it down with an effort, sliding her fingers in among Charles'.
Angel answered again in clipped tones, keeping their visitor's attention fixed on him. "If we're going to properly appreciate that thanks, it might help to know what we're being thanked for-- and to whom our welcome should be addressed."
The girl giggled again, sending a wave of gooseflesh up Fred's arms. Charles' hand gripped hers more tightly, and she felt Lorne edge up close on her other side, Jonathan standing uneasily in his shadow.
"Oh, I'm not going to make it that
easy for you," she said. "You think if you can name a thing, you can kill it? You don't have the power to kill me
, Angel. Though it might be entertaining to see you try."
"Might surprise you," Spike interjected, his tone almost a growl.
"Oh, you already have, Spike," she replied brightly, shifting her attention to the younger vampire where he still stood in the middle of the lobby. "If just a few decisions had gone differently, this little band of Chosen you're clinging to so desperately would have fallen apart by now, and you might have been getting a taste of your third Slayer. Or getting tortured in Africa on her behalf, if you look a little further back for the divergence. Funny how quickly the so-called righteous will turn on each other, if only you can convince them they're asking for it, or they're doing the right thing
She sounded so smug
; another horrified shiver went up Fred's spine as she continued. "I would have enjoyed those shows very much. But I have to say, this one has its compensations as well."
"Me? Are you talking about-- Buffy
?" Spike's voice was sharp with outrage. "I don't know who you are, but if you think I would ever
-- or that she--"
," Angel barked, punctuating the command with a glare; then he turned back to the girl. "You're connected to Wolfram and Hart," he said, even less politely than before. "That means-- you're here because of the Hellmouth. Found out having a portal to a demon dimension in your basement's not all it's cracked up to be?"
"Smart boy," the girl said, finally moving. She stood like she'd sat: ruler-straight posture, hands clasped in front of her, hair hanging just so
against the angle of her jaw. The cheeriness had evaporated out of her voice, though; she even sounded as emotionless as the Red Queen, now. "Linwood's mistake caused me a lot of trouble. Don't get me wrong, I love trouble-- but I hate chaos. That's all better now, because of you."
"I hate to break it to you, luv, but that wasn't exactly our intention," Spike replied, ignoring Angel's attempt to shush him again. "It was for
that Slayer, and her friends, and all the other little Happy Meals on Legs they so love to protect. The whole wide world your Wolfram and Hart lackeys say their masters want to end."
"What is it the humans say? The ends justify the means?" The girl grinned again, suddenly: a wide, gap-toothed smile with all the chill of endless space behind it. "So as a token of my thanks, I'm giving the order for all local branch employees to leave your operation here alone-- and to make sure everyone else
leaves it alone, as well. Wouldn't want anything to happen that might draw all that chaos back to our city, now would we?"
Lorne drew in a sudden breath at that; but only shook his head when Fred threw him an alarmed glance.
"By... by chaos, you don't suppose she means...?" Fred heard Jonathan whisper from behind them.
"Ssshhh," Gunn murmured back, as if their guest couldn't hear them. "Better not risk it."
The girl raised an eyebrow, gaze sliding around Angel to linger briefly on Fred and each of the others. "I'm called Mesektet, in this vessel; conjure by it if you dare," she said, finally answering Angel's first question. "I think I'm looking forward to the next time we meet."
On that cheery note, the lobby filled with a sudden flash of white light, brighter even than Cordy shone when she was exercising her scrubbing bubbles power. When it cleared, the space where Mesektet had stood was empty-- and the lobby phone immediately began ringing off the hook.
Amy scampered over to the phone, still a little wild-eyed, and grabbed onto the receiver like it was a lifeline. "Angel Investigations, we help the... yes, ma'am, we felt it. No, no, it's all right, it was just...."
Fred tuned the rest of the conversation out, turning to Charles and letting him wrap her in his arms. Her knees felt all trembly, and her pulse was faster than it had been even when they were facing Sahjhan. "Well," she managed to say, shakily. "That
"More so than you know, kitten," Lorne said, his voice sounding troubled. "I know we were intent on keeping a base here in the city, Angelcakes, but I think that cute little avatar of evil might just have put the kibosh on half our businesses. Any of our contacts or suppliers on the murkier side of things, the ones that do business with Wolfram and Hart-- I'm pretty sure she just banned all those ties."
"But how's she planning to enforce it? I mean, besides being utterly creepy in person-- the law firm's in ruins. Most of their staff is dead," Fred pointed out.
"I wouldn't count on that," Lorne shuddered. "They're an interdimensional
law firm, remember? And if the Hellmouth really was keeping Mesektet stuck there like a cork in a bottle-- now that she's out, anything
"Back to business as usual, then?" Angel shook his head.
"On the bright side, though, sounds like this place mighta just got a lot safer," Charles pointed out, voice rumbling under Fred's cheek. "That's not nothin', considering what's gone down here in the past. And we were always planning on keeping a roaming team, weren't we? Whoever's traveling can handle anything that won't come to us
"Wouldn't have figured you to be the optimistic one, Chuckles," Spike drawled.
"I just think we're staring down the barrel of enough shit already, might as well look for whatever silver lining we can," Charles sighed, suddenly sounding as tired as Fred felt.
"Oh, my God. Wes." Fred pulled back out of her boyfriend's grasp, suddenly reminded of Sahjhan's taunting words. She couldn't believe she'd forgot! "You don't think he's really...."
She cast a pleading look at Lorne, the only one of them with a working mobile phone at the moment-- except maybe Amy, who was still taking one call after another on the hotel line.
"No, no. I'm sure he's fine, Fred," Lorne hastily assured her, reaching into his pocket for the phone he'd lifted at the airport. "He's as tough as old leather, just like his old man, and you know he isn't exactly alone over there."
"I hope you're right," Angel said, holding out a hand.
Lorne frowned, glancing between the phone and Angel's pale, wide palm. "Are you sure, sweet cheeks? Because you know I'm more than willing to...."
Angel swallowed. "Yeah, I'm sure. I've got to know, Lorne. He's... he's my son."
"Right, right. Sure." Lorne handed it over, then turned to watch as Angel hurried toward the office and some semblance of privacy, dialing a number from memory as he went.
The rest of them stayed where they stood, looking at one another helplessly.
"So what now?" Jonathan said.
"Well, we're not going to England tonight. So... when'd you say those U'Halu demons were gonna get here with the truck?" Charles raised an eyebrow in Lorne's direction.
"Not for a few hours yet," the Pylean shrugged.
"Then how about a nap? 'Cause I'm beat
. We never did get to rest in Sunnydale."
, have all of you just forgotten about the other
thing Sahjhan said?" Jonathan frowned. "Shouldn't we, I don't know, be looking up that soul-curse already? No offense, Spike, but if there's any chance you're gonna eat me in my sleep...."
Fred stared at Spike, startled. That's right, Sahjhan had mentioned the chip, too. Was that what all that business with the transmuted silver had been about? The idea that whoever'd cast the spell had been targeting the moving van had always seemed a little... squidgy. But Spike wasn't acting any differently that she could tell; nothing like the sharp divide between Angel and Angelus.
"If I wanted to eat you, little man, I would have done it already," Spike replied, with a bitter curl to his lip. "See, now this
is why I didn't say anything. Does no one ever remember that I'm a master vampire
? If I was that keen to kill you all, there were any number of ways I could've done you in long since without ever laying a fang on you myself."
"I guess... we could lock you in the basement? Just for today?" Fred suggested, then turned to their aura-reader. "Or... Lorne! He could sing for you, couldn't he?"
"I don't always get a good read off the soulless... but Spike's always had more humanity than most vampires," Lorne agreed, reluctantly.
Spike glared at him, then turned a sneer on Fred. "And you'd just take his
word for it? Vampire, luv. Filled to the brim with bloodlust, even on a good day. Maybe especially
on a good day. What d'you expect he'll say when you ask him if I want to eat any of you? Not on my top ten list of things to do
? That really gonna be enough?"
Fred swallowed, taking in the defensive way he hunched his shoulders under his coat; the uncertain look on Jonathan's face; and the way Charles had edged half in front of her, but hadn't drawn a stake. This was one of those divergence things Mesektet had talked about, wasn't it?
She could choose fear... or she could choose faith, and shape the future with it. Put like that, the choice was simple.
"Yes," she said. "Yes, it would."
Spike's expression softened immediately. "For you, then, ducks," he said, then jerked his chin toward the stairs. "Out of earshot, though. 'M in no mood to put on a show."
"At least try
to pick something easier on the ears this time, would you?" Lorne sighed, but followed him without further objection.
Fred watched them go, then sighed and moved to the chair Mesektet had abandoned, slumping wearily onto the cushion. "God. When will today end
? Every time I think I've got a handle on what's going on...."
"I know, babe, I know." Charles sat down on the arm of her chair, and Jonathan shuffled over to sink into the chair Amy had been using, burying his face in his hands.
Amy turned away from the front desk at the motion, blinking over at them, then hung up her latest call. "Hey... where'd everyone else go? I didn't get a chance to ask-- did you leave the rental truck in Sunnydale? You weren't originally supposed to be back until tomorrow, right?"
"It's a long
story," Jonathan mumbled. "Let Angel tell it."
"...Tell her what?" Angel opened the office door again. His shoulders were much more relaxed than they had been as he strode out of the office, and Fred felt all the fretful tension knotting in her stomach finally start to dissolve at the sight. "Hey, where's Spike and Lorne?"
"Singing," Charles said. "So what's the news, man? Wes okay?"
"Yeah. He's fine."
Charles blew out a breath, and Jonathan looked up from his hands, eyes wide.
Angel smiled then, a more genuine smile than Fred had seen on him in a while; maybe even since he'd cooed over Connor when he was a baby. She could still remember the day they'd brought him home from the hospital... when Angel had named him, and Wes had asked Angel if he'd ever considered naming Connor after him
. Funny how things turned out.
"And Faith?" Fred asked. "Did he find her?"
"And, uh. My dad? I mean, Ethan?" Jonathan pressed. "Is he there?"
"They're alive," Angel nodded, looking happily stunned. "And everyone else, too. I mean, a house did
fall down on them, and they sort of dismantled the Watcher's Council-- I'll have to get the details later; they kept passing the phone around-- and some of them will have to stay behind for a few days to sort things out, but it sounds like Travers and his people are all out of the picture. There's no reason for the Council to be after Wes and Faith anymore. It's actually over
Charles snorted. "Don't say that
. We still got the remodeling to finish, and that
piece of ugly pottery to deal with, and whatever our surprise visitor was talking about...."
Amy waved a message slip. "And that cop from Sunnydale-- I don't know how he found out where we went, but he left some weird message about bringing his daughter to see her friends?"
"Yeah, so don't jinx us, man," Charles finished, a grin of his own breaking out as the news sank in.
Fred laughed, then looked up as Spike and Lorne came back down the staircase. Their green friend acted... relieved? And Spike seemed... a little thoughtful, but not unhappy?
"Back to business as usual, then," she smiled, deliberately echoing Angel's earlier words.Index
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