The last remaining element of the summoning spell fell into the bowl, and the mixture flashed and smoked. The lights blinks unevenly, fading to the point of darkness, then bursting back brighter than before in a brilliant flare. Angel and Spike shielded their eyes from the piercing light. When their eyes finally transitioned Crowley stood before them, looking bored and examining his nails.
“Poncy tosser always did love an entrance…” Spike mumbled.
“Oh no. Imagine that? A devil’s trap…” Crowley feigned surprise flatly as he pushed back the cuticle on his left ring finger, “Oh, come now, Gentlemen—is all this song and dance entirely necessary?” his hands swept in both directions to indicate the Devil’s Trap, “Plenty of crossroads in the Cleveland Metro area.”
“Well, unfortunately, last time I had a reflection, no one had gotten around to inventing the camera,” Angel smirked.
Crowley’s eyes scanned his dripping, stinking surroundings, “So glad you lot went the extra mile for me, rolling out the red carpet for the occasion, and all. Will the champagne waiter be around soon?”
“Be as patronizing as you want, but I’m not really in the mood—“Angel began before rage exploded out of the otherwise controlled Crowley.
“And, I’m not really in the mood to re-negotiate terms with two brooding bloodsuckers while human excrement drips on my hand-tailored Italian suit,” Crowley barked, the energy of his words reverberating off the bricks and pipes in the labyrinth of tunnels, “… then again, we don’t always get what we want, do we? Which is why I’m not changing a single part of this deal-- not if you two pissants expect me to turn you back into real boys.”
“You’re the one who came to us,” Spike reminded, approaching him and staring him right in the eye, “…Begging, if I remember. So, it seems to me that the desperate party in this deal is you.”
“I. Do. Not. Beg,” Crowley emphasized his words clear and slow, eyes never deflecting from Spike’s, “I also know there are several other very interested parties I could have approached to see this deal through, but--” his lips twisted into an overly saccharin smiles, “Call me an old-fashioned, hopeless romantic though. I simply thought if was anyone should be rewarded for saving the Vampire Slayer, it should be her two star-crossed lovers.”
“Which is why you were so open and helpful about mentioning Winchester and Buffy are tethered?” Spike scoffed.
“And, ruin the surprise? Not a chance. Then I would have lost the opportunity to see that look,” Crowley drew a circle in the air around Spike’s face, “On your face.”
“I am done with your games and bullshit, Crowley!” Angel shouted, pushing Spike out of the way to grab Crowley violently by the lapels of his aforementioned suit, “I have no problem stopping the Apocalypse—hell, I’d do that for free. But, I’m not going to do it unless I can find a way that doesn’t involve the hunter.”
“You’re very, very dense, aren’t you?” Crowley directed a jab back at Angel, eyes narrowing from impatience, “See Romeo, the thing is it simply just does not work like that. Sorry to burst your moody little bubble, but it’s a fact. I’ve done my fair share of altering fates in my day. Trust me when I say the Moirae have no love for me. I only avoid their wrath because my meddling is temporary. After my hounds come upstairs to claim a soul, fate returns to its factory settings,” the emotion on his face changed to a serious determination, “The Flyboys, on the other hand, have bolloxed this reality into near oblivion, leaving us only one way to restack the Jenga tower.”
White spots were bleaching Angel’s knuckles. A beat passed between the three of them, and Angel released Crowley from his clutched fists. Both he and Spike regretted having nothing to say in protest.
When Crowley finally spoke again, it was just to add, “Do either of you honestly think making your ticker flicker is going to make her love you? Especially after everything you’ve done?”
The last part had been directed towards Angel, and he knew it. He also knew Crowley was not wrong. Even if Crowley made them human again, it would not change the fact she could never, ever forgive him. She had walked down that path before, and she had been burned on more than one occasion. Despite the fact that he could not admit it to himself, he was well beyond redemption for the trespasses he had committed. And, then there was still Spike. Was he really up for that challenge?
The words left Crowley’s lips and stabbed Angel like daggers. He had to stop pretending this was all just part of the chase. She was lost to him, and had been for a good while. It took the cold, calculating words of a crossroads demon to finally nail the coffin lid on his vain hope. One moment of pure happiness… and in that one moment he had won and lost everything. No more running from what he was, and no more chasing after that dream. The battle had been lost, and the fight no longer burned within him. A long time ago he had let her go—left for her to have a chance at a real life. For one second, when Crowley had appeared to him with the proposition of returning his humanity for the bargain basement price of preventing the Apocalypse, he had believed they could have a second chance together. Even all these years later, he was still naïve enough to believe that it was his curse keeping them apart. And, somehow, at this realization, all he could hear Spike’s voice in his head calling him a sodding git
"Here's what is going to happen Crowley,” Angel countered, "I'm going to help Buffy, and stop Lucifer from rising. I'll even do what I can about Dean... but, when you make me human again, you wipe the slate clean. I don't want to remember anything. I don't even want to have deja vu when it comes to Buffy Summers."
Slack jawed, and more than a little confused, Spike asked, "Have you experienced some, until now, unknown head trauma?"
"No, Spike," he sighed, turning towards Spike, replying without malice, "I just had an epiphany, and I realized something you're going to realize eventually too..."
"Well, I don't want any brain washin' going on in my noodle, got that?!" He warned Crowley by pointing a chipping black lacquered finger at him, "Whatever temporary insanity he's got, I ain't got, and he's not speakin’ for the both of us! You make me human again, I want my batteries included."
“Can we agree these are acceptable new terms then?”
Tossing his head from side to side, Crowley weighed and measured the counter offer, “Agreed, I suppose, as I can’t really see where I lose out in this.”
Stepping on the lines that traced out Crowley’s prison, he drew his shoe down on the paint so that his sole scratched a break into the marks.
“Much obliged,” Crowley nodded his thanks, stepping towards them, placing a hand on eachof the shoulders, “Now, since you two nimrods clearly lack any proper cognitive processes, I’m going to tell you exactly what you’re going to do. Here’s the plan… you might want to take notes, or perhaps in your case,” he looked at Spike, “You could draw pictures. Whatever works for you.”
While the ground was hard and cold, the sun on her face was like a kiss from California. After three days of cold, brittle air seeping into her bones, an unexpected warm day in the midst of the week was a pleasant little gift. Although, it was a little sad that a forty-two degree day had become something so desirable. Living in the Midwest was basically learning to live with extreme contrasts, especially this time of year. Winter in the Midwest was ridiculous—one day you could be dealing with two feet of snow and blizzard conditions, then two days later it could be damn near sixty degrees with a tornado watch. She missed California-- there were no seasons out there, no surprises-- just sunshine and warm breezes and palm trees. Out here in Ohio, it was the best you got this time of year, and she needed a little time away from the apartment to think.
Of course, absolutely no one was going to let her leave, not by herself and not under the circumstances. Which is exactly why she had to do a fair bit of sneaking. By no means did she run away, or anything dramatic like that. She just created an elaborate distraction by leaving a frozen pizza in the oven to burn, left while everyone argued over how to shut off the smoke detector, went down to the park, found a sunny spot, fell on the ground emotionally and physically exhausted, cried for twenty-five minutes, ate the entire pack of Twizzlers she had stashed in her coat pocket, seriously considered running away for another ten minutes, and now she was laying with her eyes closed, flat on the ground debating the futility of her existence—nothing dramatic
Everything felt wrecked. The kind of life she led, nothing about it was enviable. For a very long time she had struggled to make it fit within the parameters of a normal girl’s life. And, god damn how she had tried, desperately. The hard truth about being the Slayer that Buffy took about a decade to realize was that you can be normal, or you can be the Slayer. But, you absolutely cannot be both.
When she finally let go of that, and accepted that her life was remarkable, there was a serenity that had settled within her. She found predictability in the unpredictability of her life. She experienced satisfaction in what she accomplished, or prevented. She took comfort in the fact that the other Slayers would never have to make the kind of sacrifices she had been forced to make.
It had taken some time for her to accept her destiny, to really be honest with embracing her fate. She was never going to have a 9-to-5 or a suburban address… or a wedding anniversary. Sixteen year old Buffy would never have accepted that twenty-six year old Buffy was going have a life that would never resemble normal, ever. But, maturity yielded perspective. Now Buffy knew that if sixteen year old Buffy had gotten her way that she would have ended up very miserable.
She was the record holder—the longest living Slayer to date. And, she had no intention of retiring any time soon. There was a certain comfort now with abnormality. The idea of “settling down” seemed pretty pedestrian. Her normal was slaying, and no average Joe was going to fit into that equation. But, Dean… Dean was different. He had grown up in the life, trained from childhood to hunt evil. The parallels between their lives were not lost on Buffy—replacement father figures, supernaturally touched siblings, crawling out of your own grave… the similarities were eerie and familiar. If there was any kind of life to be built and shared in their world, they might have that possibility with each other.
Unfortunately for Buffy, good things did not come without strings-- wihtout strings, how could fate to dangle hope in front of her. A life with Dean meant she was going to lose that peace she had struggled for so long to find. It would mean that what she had been happy to accept as her destiny, the path that had brought her resolution, was not her path after all. The destiny she had embraced was constructed from false promises and deceptions. Eventually, she was going to have to choose which destiny she was going to follow.
The colors dancing in her eyelids from the back light of the sun darkened a couple shades. Opening her eyes, Willow hung over her upside down. There was nothing happy about her face, and Buffy was positive that it had nothing to do with the fact she was upside down.
“I just needed to think,” Buffy moaned, pushing up onto her elbows as Willow circled.
“I’m not even going to say it, Buffy,” Willow sighed, disappointment and bottled anger coloring her words.
Buffy looked up at her through the tops of her eyes, shoulders slumped, and replied knowingly, “Yes you are.”
“Damn right, I’m going to say it!” Willow shouted, “This was the dumbest thing you have done in a really, really long time! Running away, practically burning down the apartment building, and here I find you lying out in the open, completely defenseless, like demon bait!”
“Oh, you know what? Cram it, Willow. I’m going to start calling you Giles, or Joyce… or Joyles…” she got a bit distracted, and struggled in the middle part, “or, whatever… just stop acting like my baby sitter.”
“Then stop acting like you need one,” Willow bit back, “I know you said that vision you had was intense, but you gotta shake it off for now, and focus on the end game. We don’t have time for you to be acting out, Buffy. There are two seals left, and you’re one of them, like it or not.”
“Like it or not…” Buffy laughed darkly, “Story of my god damn life… I’ll see you at the apartment, mom.”
Watching as Buffy walked away, Willow gave her a head start to leave some space between them. She was not sure if that was her way of giving Buffy breathing room, or because her anger made her not even want to be around Buffy right now.
"Trouble is paradise?" A female voice teased from behind.
"Excuse me?" Willow turned to acknowledge the speaker, a dark haired woman she did not recognize.
“Buffy seems pretty bent,” she replied.
“Yeah…” Willow agreed, skeptical of the stranger, unsure of where she had come from, or how Willow had not notice her approach, “You know her?”
“Only by association,” she half smiled, “You’re Willow, right?”
“Have we met?” Willow asked, confused and searching her brain to place the face of the girl she was talking too.
“No, actually we haven’t, but,” her eyes blinked, and opened again to reveal blackness, “We’re about to become intimately acquainted.”
Black smoke erupted from the girl’s mouth, and before Willow could finish her counter spell of protection, it was already entering her own. The body from which it had ejected fell to the ground, lifeless. She could feel her body walking back to the apartment, and see with her own eyes, but it felt like her body had been hijacked. It was like she had been sedated. Her mind was still functioning, but her body was on auto-pilot. That is when she heard the voice in her own head.
“Sorry Willow, but I’m on a tight schedule here, and you've got two things I need desperately—the amulet, and some black magic.”
“You think I'm just going to tell you where it's at?” Willow responded, yet the words did not come out of her mouth.
“I’m in your head, Glinda—I already know where you hid it. What I need now is to convince Sam he has to use it to defeat Lilith. And, thanks to you, now I have the power to make him very receptive