If you would attain to what you are not yet, you must always be displeased by what you are. For where you are pleased with yourself there you have remained. Keep adding, keep walking, keep advancing. ~Saint Augustine
Angel watched as Xander went over the plans one more time, a giant map of graduation projected onto the wall. Riley and his five men were standing to the side. They'd argued vociferously against including the graduates, but Xander had vetoed them all by going straight to the seniors and just telling them about ascension. Riley might have convinced Xander and Buffy to put the safety of the students first, but he couldn't convince the students themselves. The young man who had tormented Xander throughout his sophomore and part of junior year, Larry, stood with a flame thrower, a girl helping him figure out how to hide it under his graduations robes.
Riley stood back and watched as Xander took command of this group, reminding students where he had them assigned, and what each needed to do. Xander pointed at the map where the first line of guests would sit. Three of the soldiers including Riley would be there, waiting until the mayor ascended. Two more would be off to the side with a rocket launcher. Angel couldn't hear Xander from the far corner of the gym, but the light pointer he was using strayed over to that corner before it darted into the crowd and shone on a couple of cheerleaders. The crowd laughed. The cheerleaders didn't. Angel remembered a day when Xander would have cringed away from putting himself in the center for anything other than a quick joke and a retreat, but now Xander's voice grew louder and the laser pointer focused on the school itself.
"... to blow him back to hell," Xander's voice rose above the general din. The seniors screamed their approval.
Sometimes time amazed Angel. Not so long ago, Xander had been this child who had poked and pricked at him, and now he stood in front of these young warriors, giving them the plan that he and Oz had developed. The two boys... the two young men... had claimed to know the strengths and weakness of their classmates better than Captain Finn, and so Riley had stood back and watched as they devised their battle strategy.
Xander's voice had dropped back down again, but the laser pointer went to the side entrance to the school. The sixth soldier would be with Giles ready to set the munitions off once Buffy tempted the mayor into chasing her through the main doors. As plans went, it was insane, but it was actually more feasible than the plan to stop the Master had been. That, too, had been Xander's. Angel smiled at the memory of Xander showing up at the apartment armed with a cross and a whole lot of indignation. Angel hadn't even really understood what Xander meant by storming the castle, but even by then he'd figured out that it was easier to follow Xander than to try to talk him out of helping.
Riley was learning that lesson now. Angel could see from the way the soldier reacted that he instinctively wanted to put the students into a position of safety. Buffy had quashed that urge by slamming him into a wall. While Xander could probably beat Riley one-on-one, he had avoided that kind of fight in favor of beating Riley down the same way he had beaten Angel down: sheer determination and a stubborn belief in his own correctness. It helped that Xander could face down Spike when Spike would have cheerfully eaten Riley and his two lieutenants. Humans were not so different from vampires. Angel supposed he shouldn't be surprised given that vampires came into this world with the memories of humans. Spike frightened Riley. Xander with his threats of country music marathons frightened Spike; therefore, Riley did tend to look at Xander as someone worthy of fear.
"Boy toy's all grown up," Faith said softly as she stood behind him in the shadows.
"He's still Xander," Angel said. Three years ago, Xander had walked up to him and called him a pedophile. He'd put his life on the line in order to do the right thing and protect his friends. Xander might have grown, but he wasn't all that different. However, Angel couldn't help but think about how different his own life was. It was chaotic and confusing and if Spike made one more comment about his habit of going to church, he was going to strip the skin from the younger vampire's back, but it was a life Angel wanted to live. In his entire existence, he had never wanted to live. He wondered if he could have found that without Xander and his endless love for life.
"Is he okay?" Faith asked. She'd been more subdued since she flew in from Cascade, but for the first time, Angel had the feeling she understood what she'd done to Xander. It made it easier to control his own burning anger over the event. Father Peter did say that forgiveness of others was a prerequisite for being forgiven, and Angel was working on it. Forgiveness had just never been one of his strengths.
"He's good." Angel considered that for a second. "He's annoying."
She laughed. "Yeah, that's Xan. Look, Big-A—"
"You don't have to say it," Angel said as he turned his back on Xander and looked at her. She was wearing an old pair of jeans and a t-shirt that actually covered her breasts, but she smelled of Spike and sex and still had that danger painted on her every move, even if Blair had managed to peel off a few layers.
"Yeah, I do. I'm just not ready to say it to him. I fucked up, you know?"
"Not nearly as bad as others have," Angel said seriously. "In fact, if you ask Xander, he'll say he made the mistake."
She snorted her disbelief at that. "He didn't do anything wrong. Fuck. I really have made some mistakes, A."
"He'll forgive you. Giles and Buffy will, too."
"Yeah, but like the Sandman says, I have to forgive myself first. I'm not ready to deal with any of them forgiving me, not yet. It's easier to have the jagged edges here, to keep people away. When I start caring about people... fuck, it just hurts when I screw them over, which is why it's easier to just not let anyone close."
"You're still my clan. You have to heal these edges eventually," Angel said as he reached out and let his hand rest on her shoulder. She had come immediately when he'd called, but he did worry about this new and quieter version of Faith. Last night she'd still slayed with reckless abandon, but this afternoon she wasn't the girl he'd met in that hotel room a year ago. He would like to hope that she was healing as Blair promised him, but she seemed so much sadder.
"It helps... knowing that." She shrugged. "I'm just not ready yet. I mean, if you call, I guess I have to come seeing as how you're the man and all, but I just need some space."
"Should I have left you in Cascade for this?" Angel asked, worried that she wasn't ready to be back here.
She laughed, and for a second, she was the old Faith. "And let you idiots get killed and open a new door to hell? No fucking way. If there's world ending to be had, I am the girl to stop it." The joviality passed and she inched a little closer as she looked down at the gathered group. Xander was talking to Riley and Father Peter was walking through the graduates, blessing swords and flame-throwers and bottles of water. The man had handled Angel's secret far better than he expected, but then as Father Peter explained, the Catholic church was not nearly as quick to give up old suspicions and superstitions as the rest of the world.
Angel let his arm drape over Faith's shoulders. "Are you okay up in Cascade?"
She considered that for a moment before making a wry face. "Horny as hell. Blair might look like a pushover, but the Sandman is made of iron. It's enough to make a girl think she isn't irresistible." She twitched her body invitingly, but he resisted temptation. He could almost see the child inside her today, and he had no intention of ever bedding a child. She needed him in other ways far too much for him to let his vampire instincts rule him on this point. Besides, he was getting good at denial with Xander around. The closer the young man got and the more he stood up and started showing himself to be a man, the more the old instincts rose in Angel... to claim, to mark, to put the boy under him and make his strength part of Angel's own. He shoved his attraction to Faith into the same corner where he hid his lust for Xander. He'd later fill his needs with Spike, and use that renewed connection to sate his demon.
"As long as you're okay," Angel finally said.
Faith didn't answer and Angel studied her. She caught his expression and planted an elbow in his stomach just hard enough to ache a bit. "Don't get your pity going because I can kick your ass."
"You can try," Angel said calmly.
She grinned at him for a second before the expression faded. "I'm getting to be okay with not being okay, does that count?"
"That's a good place to start." Angel tightened his hold on her, and her eyes got bright before she shoved him away.
"Fuck, I'm not good at this shit. Look, are we ready to move out yet? I'm ready to kill something. If the eclipse and fight doesn't start soon, Spike's going to start ripping the bricks out of the walls down there," she said with a laugh.
Angel scanned the gathered crowd on the gym floor below. Father Peter had vanished, but Xander was huddled closely with Riley and Larry. Larry kept looking to Xander as if for reassurance, and Angel couldn't help but notice Giles watching with an almost confused expression. No doubt the watcher wondered when he'd missed seeing the boy grow up. Then again, Buffy seemed to be spending more and more time taking command of her own missions, probably due to Wesley's short tenure as her watcher. The children were growing into adults.
"It's on schedule," he told her. Buffy and Ms. Calendar and Willow stood near one of the doors, and Riley walked over to them, his body tense and his eyes alert. Two weeks of Spike "assisting" in the training of Riley's team, and the man had learned to twitch at every leaf rustle. Angel was man enough to admit that he found that amusing. Xander had laughed his ass off the first time Spike disabled Riley's entire team. But despite being knocked down more often than Angel could count, Riley did keep getting up again. It was a good group gathered here.
Faith leaned forward and studied the room for herself. "We're going to win this, right? I mean, Xander and Buffy, they have this weird idea that the good guys always win, so I don't trust their judgment for shit. You tell me this is going to work," Faith's voice didn't carry any emotion, but Angel knew enough about her past now to know that she had reason to doubt the good guys. They'd rarely won in her life.
"We're going to win," Angel said confidently. "The old ones were not invincible, and with this group, the mayor is going to discover that much quicker than he expected," Angel said firmly. "And if the mayor doesn't fall for the explosives in the library trap, the army has two divisions on the edge of town waiting to come in and end this."
She nodded. "So, plan one is to take this fucker out, and plan two is to survive long enough to let the soldier boys take him out."
"That's about it," Angel agreed. "But if we can't deal with this, the army is going to move in here full time."
"We could just let them have the fucking hellmouth. It's not like B or I want to babysit a hole in the ground," Faith suggested.
Angel thought about that for a second, only because he needed to explain this in a way that Faith could understand. For Buffy, guarding the hellmouth was a sacred duty. Faith had been surrounded by people who had no concept of sacred and who had stripped her of her illusions. "Do you trust human beings to resist temptation?" Angel asked her.
She looked at him incredulously.
"That's why we can't let the army take control," Angel pointed out. "People give in to temptations. I did," he said softly.
Faith snorted. "Subtle, A... real subtle. I get it. I'm not alone in the fucking up. So, we keep the hellmouth. Now, can we please go kick some ass? Spike and I'll handle the incoming vampires and random baddies, you watch your boy, Buffy can kill the big boss. It's a plan."
"Go get in position. When the eclipse starts, Spike will find you," Angel said, giving her a pat on the arm. She had a strange look on her face, but she backed away for a few steps before turning and trotting toward an exit. Blair had told him that for her, touching had always led to abuse, and so she wanted and feared touches in equal parts. He was working with her on how to accept normal affection and supportive touches without trying to turn them sexual, and so Angel was trying to reinforce that same lesson. It wasn't easy when the smell of his childe's semen on her body made his beast want to go farther. As Angelus, he would have reveled in all that wounded power and raw sexuality. He would have taken her from Spike and taunted Spike about it. He still felt that temptation even now.
"I thought I saw you up here," a voice said softly. Angel nodded at the father as he watched the students line up and start heading out the building.
"Thank you for coming."
"It seems a small enough gesture, blessing their weapons before they fight to save me and my congregation," Father Peter said. "It makes me wonder if I shouldn't pick up a sword myself."
"One more untrained sword won't matter in this fight," Angel pointed out as he headed toward the stairs. Father Peter followed. He didn't answer until they had reached the main floor of the gym.
"I imagine not. Sadly, I'm afraid I would be more of a danger to our side than the other. However, I plan to stay and help the injured and give a last blessing to those who die. Suffering and dying in the fight against evil is a noble end, but I never thought I would see children doing the dying."
"It's always been children," Angel said as he stood just inside the doors, watching as the graduates walked to the slow music that played over the loudspeaker. "Every war, every crusade... they were commanded by men but fought by children." Angel thought about Lawson on that submarine he had recovered for the army. The man had been little more than a child and still so eager to prove himself and so willing to die. Angel had turned him because Lawson had asked to be turned, because the human Lawson would rather be survived by a vampire than die knowing that the submarine would sink without his engineering skills. He'd been so very much like Xander.
"You're a little depressed today. Aren't you supposed to be psyched up for the fight?"
Angel turned to look at Father Peter. "We'll win," Angel said firmly.
"If God wishes us to, yes, but for someone who claims confidence, you seem more tense than usual."
Angel stepped out into the sunlight and checked the position of the rocket launcher team before he turned his attention to the small man who now stepped in front of the graduating class.
"Should I be looking forward to seeing death and destruction?" Angel asked. He hated the fact that part of him was looking forward to the smell of human blood and the cries of the dying. His demon could only revel in life when he watched another die, and Angel did not like what that said about his own soul when he'd been alive.
"You might be looking forward to finally ending this long battle. I've presided over too many funerals in the last months, many more than I would have ever expected." Father Peter stood in the shadow of the bushes and watched Angel curiously.
Angel didn't answer right away, but his eyes found Xander sitting near the front. Xander had put himself in charge of the main assault, which meant making himself the rallying point for those who would be going forward against the mayor. When Spike had caught wind of the plan, they had fought until both Spike and Angel had suffered broken bones. Spike wanted to pull Xander off to safety, and a big part of Angel wanted to do the same, but it was in Xander's nature to be up front.
"What if he dies?" Angel asked softly. Xander's head was nodded in that peculiar rhythm it would get when he was pretending to pay attention.
"He will eventually," Father Peter said.
"I know." Angel ended the conversation by simply stepping away and starting to walk along the back of the gathered chairs. The mayor was up front now, and several members of the back row were starting to get restless. The heavier and weaker students who could not be convinced to stay home were in back, tasked with the job of chasing parents away by yelling about a gas leak and hallucinations. Riley and his two men along with a unit of students including most of the cheerleaders, Oz, Wesley, and the swim team would be fighting off any attack from the rear to open up a retreat. Riley had hated the position Xander had given him and had argued against it, but in the end, Xander had won. They needed the retreat open, and they needed to have some of their top fighters at the rear.
Angel was more reassured by the fact that Spike and Faith would be coming up behind any reinforcements. But none of that mattered right now. Xander would be in the middle; he would not try to retreat. If the Gem of Amarra worked for humans, Angel would have forced the boy to wear it. It did not, and Angel had no idea how to protect him when he insisted on throwing himself in the middle of the fight.
The sky went dark and now the mayor started changing, his head peeling away, and Angel started running. A student screamed, and then Buffy was up yelling, "Now!" at the top of her lungs. Angel cursed in Gaelic as he threw himself over the last few rows of students to reach Xander just in time for him to climb onto a chair and make an even bigger target of himself.
"Flamethrowers!" Xander screamed and a half dozen students threw off their robes and targeted the mayor who seemed to be transforming into a giant snake. The snake hissed and rose up from the ground, but the fire didn't slow him down.
"First wave!" Xander yelled, obviously forgetting the small microphone Riley had carefully fitted on his shirt. "Fire!" Crossbows came out and a dozen blessed arrows sailed across the sky, tiny puffs of smoke going up where the touched the demon. Behind them, people were screaming, and Riley was barking out commands in his military shorthand. Xander glanced back for a second, but then he clenched his jaw and turned back toward the mayor. "Fire!" he called again and a dozen more arrows flew out.
A young minion came barreling through the crowd, targeting Xander as the one shouting directions, and he bared his fangs. Angel waited until the vampire got close enough and then reached in and ripped the vamps heart out. The demon had a second to look shocked before he exploded into dust.
Rather than retreat from the attack, the mayor, now a giant snake, struck at the first line of students. "Second wave! Fire!" Xander screamed. These were the big guns. From the side, Riley's rocket launch team fired their weapon which screamed toward the demon just as Ms. Calendar launched a giant green fireball. The two hit the snake on either side, and it reared up, shaking its head.
The little man from earlier was now out front shouting, "This is simply unacceptable! Unacceptable!" Before anyone could move, the snake darted down and snatched the little man up and swallowed him. Angel flashed into gameface and snarled at the evidence of the beast's speed. He should get Xander away.
"We're having to fall back!" Riley's voice shouted over the general screaming, and Angel could see the nice straight lines waver as students who had been organized just moments ago began to panic.
"Arm bow men," Xander shouted before he reached up and finally remembered to switch on the microphone. Many of the students turned their backs to the mayor, but others stood frozen in harm's way. Angel glanced toward Xander before making a run for the closest of the fools in trouble. "Fire!" Xander shouted, and Xander's voice now boomed out over the entire crowd. Yanking two students back into the rough circle of defenders, Angel flinched as three more students ran for it, running right into the arms of a group of vampires. "Fire!" Xander called again.
With a whoop, Spike literally flew into the fray, leaping from the back of one vampire to land on a group of them and began dusting with undisguised glee.
Several vampires broke through the defensive line, and Angel raced back toward Xander who now seemed to be the target for a good number of them. Larry took out one, shoving the end of his bow into the creature's chest before tackling a second one to the ground. Xander's eyes went comically large before the third vampire tackled him off the chair.
"Aw, shit, no," Xander's voice rang out, the microphone still on. The sound of a vampire exploding into dust went out over the crowd. "That's what you get for crashing our party, fangface," Xander said with glee. Angel reached the fight, and staked the vampire who had pinned Larry to the ground, checking the boy who was weak and punch-drunk, but still alive.
"Hand to hand!" Xander shouted. "Stakes and holy water!" He was standing his ground with his own stake in hand as he stepped in front of Larry and two other fallen students. Father Peter had appeared from nowhere and was kneeling with them, holding a bandage to a girl's throat. "Show 'em who owns this town," Xander yelled, and then he threw himself into the fight, a stake in one hand and his cinquedea in the other.
Angel pulled his own sword and beheaded three vampires who pulled up short at the sight of a human attacking them. All around, dust swirled up into the air and the smell of blood clogged his nostrils. Keeping close to Xander, Angel attacked any vampires in sight, watching with determined joy as one after another turned to dust under his sword. The whole time, Spike moved closer, the feeling of kin growing closer as Spike drew near.
A huge vampire appeared now, and Angel could tell he had more years on him that most. Rather than sailing right into the fight, he worked along the edge, his eyes never leaving Angel. Where the hell was Buffy and the explosion? Angel gritted his teeth as Xander slowed, human muscle not able to keep up with demonic strength.
"Spike!" Angel called out desperately hoping that his childe could defend Xander before he turned to face the newest threat. The vampire smiled with glee and brought his own sword up. But the stance wasn't right. He didn't look ready to counter a blow. Angel didn't catch that something was wrong until he felt the pressure of the stake go through his heart. He froze, his body locked in place by fear as he saw the tip of the wooden stake just peeking out from his chest where someone had driven it in from the back. Angel turned to find a much smaller vampire standing there with a smug expression.
"NOO!" Xander shouted, and his sword decapitated the vampire before it could react to the charging human. Without Angel saying anything, Spike sailed past him, his hands held out like claws as he grabbed the large vampire and physically ripped his head off.
"I'm okay!" Angel gasped out, and then an explosion ripped the sky open, throwing him forward onto Xander. A second explosion followed, and then garbage was raining down onto them: ashes and papers and bit of wood and drywall and tiny pieces of twisted metal.
"Cover the fucking wounded!" Spike called out. It wasn't exactly the phrase Xander had written into his plan, but the students who hadn't panicked or bolted started grabbing military issue plastic covers from under bushes and tables to fling them over the fallen.
"You're..." Xander reached down and touched the tip of the stake where it protruded from Angel's chest. He looked up at Angel with eyes ringed white with fear.
"Fuckin' hell, you always did know how to grab the center of attention," Spike said as he appeared over them and ripped the stake out of Angel's back.
Angel roared in pain and arched his back.
"Big baby," Spike declared. "Sun'll be up in a minute, you lot alright?" he asked. For all his brash attitude, Angel could see the uncertainty and worry there.
Angel nodded. "Yeah, we're fine, get to cover." He waved his hand at Spike. For a second, Spike reached out and touched his shoulder. Angel caught his wrist in a hand and for a half second, they just touched. Even without saying anything, Spike's love and need and fear of loving and needing shone through. Sometimes Angel regretted that he had beaten the boy into hiding those all-too-human emotions. "Be safe," Angel said, knowing that Spike would be suspicious of anything more. The words were enough because Spike smiled brightly.
"Always, luv. You know me, land on my feet and all." Spike wiggled his eyebrow at Xander, and then he was gone, racing across the lawn still sprinkled with the debris of the school and crying students.
"Tell me we got the bastard," Xander said, and the military issue microphone was still working. The students fell silent, crying muffled as everyone waited for the answer to that. Reaching up, Xander pulled off the microphone and tossed it aside.
"This is officially a demon free graduation ceremony, congratulations graduates of 1999," Buffy called from the far side of the lawn. The cheer started going up as students struggled to their feet.
Xander broke into a wide grin. "We did it," he said, clutching Angel's arms. "We did it. I don't know how we did it, but we did it." He reached up and touched the bloody spot where the stake had pierced Angel's heart.
"The ring," Angel said softly as he let his own hand rest on the back of Xander's so that Xander's palm was pressed to his chest.
"You're never taking that off again," Xander said firmly. Then he caught Angel in a desperate hug. Angel returned it, clinging to a young man who he had come so close to losing. The smell of death pounded against him, reminding him of Xander's mortality. Slowly, the sun began to return, a wind stirring the dust that scattered the ground. Angel looked up to see Faith standing in the distance watching. He smiled at her. For a second, he thought she was going to come over. Instead, she held up a hand before turning around and walking down the street, her walk steady. She was okay physically, and Angel had to let her go long enough for her to find a way to be okay emotionally.
"You okay?" someone asked. Xander finally let go of him, and Angel reluctantly released the young man.
"We're good, Percy." Xander struggled up to his feet wearily as Angel studied the boy foolish enough to sleep with a slayer and then anger her. He was more stupid than he looked, but he had fought with them, and that earned him some forgiveness, at least from Angel.
"I need someone over here!" a voice called. Xander turned, and Angel had to physically catch him to keep him from falling. Adrenaline was failing the boy, leaving shock behind. Angel had seen the human body reach the same way time and again, even if he was usually the one inducing the adrenaline and shock through torture.
"Jonathon?" Xander asked. It was hard to recognize anyone under the blood and ash.
"We need medical help here!" Xander called out, still leaning against Angel. When Xander's legs started to shake, Angel put his arm around Xander's waist to hold him up.
A young woman came running over, her cell phone already open. "They're sending ambulances. They need to know who's worst."
"She's bad," Angel said quietly. Xander flinched and looked away from the girl on the ground.
The next few moments repeated on an endless loop as Angel watched Xander flinch away from the evidence of the injured and the dead. He'd knelt next to one body and brushed long blonde hair back to reveal a brutally torn neck.
"Harmony," he had breathed. After that, Xander hadn't even had the strength to stand back up, and Angel had to all but lift him and guide him back to the place where they had all agreed to meet after the demon was defeated.
Flashing lights filled the air, and Angel could hear Wesley off somewhere at a distance complaining. "It's rather a lot of pain, actually. Aspirin? If you would…"
"Xander, are you okay?" Buffy asked as she got up from the ground.
"Willow." Xander had frozen, his fingers digging into Angel's arm as he looked at the girl's pale face.
"Hey, mister, no tragic faces. I'm just fine," she said stiffly. Oz was behind her, bracing her arm which was clearly broken. "This... this is just a way to get my parents to feel guilty enough to buy me that new car," she joked weakly.
Xander reached out mutely as though afraid to touch her. Slowly, he moved forward and sank to his knees next to her.
"My fireball needs work." Willow grinned crookedly.
"Bad aim," Oz commented, and she looked up and gave him a sheepish smile.
Riley appeared, nodding at Buffy, and for one moment, Angel thought the man was going to offer her a salute. Then his eyes slid down to the ground where Xander knelt next to Willow.
"Willow, do you need something for the pain until the medic can get here?" Riley asked, his hand going towards a pocket.
"Nope. I may only be an apprentice witch, but I can do a pain spell. I'm good," she answered. Riley looked doubtful, but he dropped his hand back down to his side. "I have one casualty: Forrest. Smythe was injured, but he'll be fine."
For a second, Buffy looked confused as she gazed around the scene. Angel wondered if it had even occurred to her that while she was doing the most dangerous job, others were more likely to die than she was. Ambulance workers had scattered across the grounds to tend to groups of students and identify the most injured. Luckily, their first wave had managed to evacuate before the mayor's army had come in or else Angel could just imagine the carnage that would have been laid out on the lawn. Neither Buffy nor Xander would have ever forgiven themselves if they had led their classmates into a massacre. He traded looks with Giles, and he could see the same worry in the other man. This would take an emotional toll on all the young people. Well, Buffy was Giles' concern... Angel just had to worry about Xander. Right now, Xander still knelt at Willow's side, his fingers barely touching her ankle.
"Harmony Kendell, Ursula Nadler, and Katrina—I'm not sure about her last name. I don't know how many injured." Xander spoke the names softly, but the group reacted by going silent. Angel only knew Harmony, but just the reminder of humanity's fragile hold on life left him struggling against his own instincts. He could preserve Xander, make him strong enough to hold a sword against an army of enemies, but if he did, he would lose Xander and have only the body left and not the soul that Angel had grown so fond of—even if it did annoy him.
Xander looked up at Riley and then Buffy. "We got off pretty cheap… considering." Xander looked around, and from the tight lines of his body, Angel was guessing that the young man considered the price anything but cheap. His eyes stopped scanning the crowd and he sat up a little straighter. Angel looked over, and Cordelia was standing in the distance, watching them. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and gray ash had drifted across her shirt in an abstract pattern, but other than that, the woman looked remarkable unmarked.
"Seems like we did," Buffy agreed weakly, not even noticing where Xander was looking. Cordelia nodded and then turned her back. For a second, Xander closed his eyes, and Angel could see the guilt and the pain still there under the surface. It was probably best that Faith wasn't around to see the results of her thoughtlessness. Riley was watching Xander curiously, and Angel found himself caught between wanting to backhand the soldier and order him away from Xander and feeling grateful that the man was observant enough to know when he didn't understand a situation. Xander looked up at Riley and shrugged.
Riley coughed and focused on Buffy again. "We got our asses kicked less than I thought we were going to when I saw the full-sized demon." His voice sounded almost joking and everyone looked at him.
"You're going to fit in just fine," Xander said with a smile as he tried to stand up. He didn't quite make it, and Angel reached down to help him up.
"There was a definitely lack of ass kicking on our side," Buffy agreed, "but I'm ready to sleep for about a year."
"I should imagine so. It's been..." Giles looked over at Angel... "it's been a difficult year, one in which we have to count ourselves lucky for having allies to see us through some remarkably difficult times."
Before Angel could say anything, Buffy was answering. "I am not up for counting anything. My brain is so fried I'm down to 'fire bad; tree pretty'."
"Fire pretty, demon go boom," Xander countered. Buffy smiled at him.
"Understandable," Giles offered.
"It was a hard battle, the hardest I've fought, and I've fought in a few classified areas with some pretty dangerous conflicts," Riley agreed. "I still have trouble believing that high school students are better trained than some of those units I've led."
Giles adjusted his glasses. "When everyone has recovered enough brain function to remember what is being said, I will make a point of congratulating you all on a job well done. There is a certain dramatic irony that's attached to all this. A Synchronicity that borders on… on predestination, one might say." Giles got a distant look on his face, and Angel braced himself for the man to ruin any goodwill by lecturing them on some petty watcher philosophy. Xander's hand clutched tightly at Angel's shirt.
Buffy said firmly, "Fire bad; tree pretty."
"Yes, sorry," Giles stammered, clearing his throat. "I'm going to see to Wesley, see if he's… is still… whimpering."
Buffy smiled at him. "Thank you. And tell Wesley he did good...even if he did whine a bit while doing the good," she amended herself.
"Yes, I will pass on your gratitude," Giles said before he hurried away.
Angel wondered if Giles felt the passing of that torch. Buffy wasn't his charge anymore. She was the commander subtly dismissing him and considering the field. Riley was certainly watching her with the same respect he'd shown the general. If Angel had to guess, he would say that Captain Finn's report would be complimentary enough to convince the army to leave Buffy in charge from now on. She would certainly have any support she needed, but hopefully they would see that she had the ability to defend her own territory. And if the army gave her any trouble, Angel had no doubt that his clan could enforce any rule she set with very little difficulty.
"So, once you've defeated the enemy, what do you do?" Riley asked. "Should we quarantine the dead? Do we need to do anything to control press coverage or minimize collateral damage from any splinter groups?"
Angel managed to not smile at the soldier's ignorance. Riley was simply lucky that Spike wasn't around to make fun of him and offer another "lesson" in hellmouth life. The last lesson with the field trip to Willy's place had left the unit traumatized. Angel figured if Spike didn't drive them away, they might make pretty good demon hunters eventually.
"Hellmouth blindness takes care of most of that," Buffy offered.
"Demons scatter. Their loyalty does not survive the death of the leader, so I wouldn't worry much about splinter groups," Xander added. "Most demons are a fickle lot."
Riley looked around at them. "So what is the post-op protocol?"
"We enjoy the moment." Oz nodded knowingly. Right now, Angel agreed with the werewolf because just feeling Xander's weight as he leaned into him was all he wanted to do. He wanted to hear Xander's heart beat and feel his warmth.
A paramedic hurried up to them, bag in hand. "Any wounded?"
"...and we're done," Oz finished.
"Oh! Me!" Willow said, raising her good arm.
The paramedic knelt down next to her, and Angel gently pulled Xander away. His Xander might have grown into a man, but he was still a man who was going to drive himself until he fell on his face and broke his nose if Angel didn't take him home and get him into bed.
"I guess... I'll see you tomorrow?" Xander asked as Angel pulled him toward the car.
"Go home, get some sleep. I'll call with Willow's room number at the hospital," Buffy promised. Xander had been offering a token resistance to Angel's pull, but with that, he yielded and followed Angel back to the car. The battle was over, and now it was time for each clan to withdraw to their own territories to heal.
"Home team two, apocalypses zero," Xander said quietly. He leaned nearly all of his weight on Angel, his head resting against Angel's shoulder. "We done good."
"Yes, we did," Angel agreed as he guided Xander's footsteps. They'd done well, and now it was time to go home to family.