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AS TIME GOES BY (part three)

Angel looked at the lobby -- what had been the lobby, and was now a combination of that and a nightclub and a restaurant, crammed somewhat uncomfortably together. Before, the Hyperion had always had a kind of grandeur; it was shabby, perhaps, sometimes even a little frightening, but still possessed of some of the dignity it was built to reflect.

But this -- women in fabrics dark and bright, laughing too shrilly at unfunny jokes; men in suits that shone at the elbows and frayed at the collars, gulping back drinks too quickly; the buzz of conversation pitched at tones that others weren't meant to overhear -- well, it conjured up many images, some of them glamorous, some even beautiful. But nothing of dignity.

And the clock was there --

As Angel began ushering Buffy to a vacant table nearby, the band struck up another number. A voice began singing, "Something's Got To Give," and he felt his stomach twist. That voice could only belong to Lorne.

"What's that?" Buffy looked up at him, and Angel realized he had spoken aloud.

"The singer's an old friend of mine," Angel said.

Buffy smiled gently as they took their seats. "We'll have to say hi. Too few old friends to run into these days."

"I know," Angel said. "It'll be good to talk to Lorne again."

"You say that as if --"

As Buffy spoke, Lorne recognized Angel in the crowd. He didn't falter in the song, didn't so much as hesitate, but Angel saw the flash of knowledge in his eyes. Angel didn't look away.

" -- you didn't mean it."

"I mean it," Angel said. "This is just a little strange. I lived here for almost four years, Buffy. It's odd to see it so changed."

"Everything's changed," Buffy said, and Angel turned then to see the sadness in her eyes. He took her hand and squeezed. it.

At that moment, a young woman with blonde hair stepped up to them; Angel realized that she looked somewhat familiar. She was glancing back and forth between Buffy and Angel -- she obviously recognized them both and was surprised by it. "Buffy?" she said.

Buffy looked at her for a long moment, then said, "Chantarelle -- no, Lily."

"No, Anne," the woman said. Buffy straightened up as if in pride as Anne continued, "I just wanted to say hi to both of you. I -- I didn't realize you knew each other."

Buffy and Angel looked at one another; this time the smiles were broad, and mutual. "That and then some," Buffy said. "How did you and Angel meet?"

"I swindled her in a two-million-dollar deal."

When Buffy raised her eyebrows, Anne laughed. "I actually ended up with the money."

"You need to brush up on your swindling," Buffy said. Angel shrugged.

"Well, I can't stay long," Anne said. "I just thought, seeing the two of you like this, it was like something out of a book. Something out of Wuthering Heights."

Angel felt his heartbeat quicken, but he was careful to give no outer sign of his reaction. Buffy was just as placid, half-waving as Anne leaned away from the table. "Thanks for stopping by, Anne."

Anne said nothing more, just nodded and backed away as a serving troll stepped up to get their orders. "Two gin and tonics," Buffy said. "One straight, one on the rocks."

As soon as they were alone again, as alone as it was possible to be in the din, Angel said in a low voice, "Be careful."

She looked at him sideways. "Aren't I always?" That earned a short laugh.

A woman's voice said, from behind Angel, "You know, I ought to have just the right zinger for this occasion, but it seems as though I'm out."

Without turning around, Angel said, "Lilah."

Buffy looked over his shoulder at Lilah, who came around the corner wearing black satin and a killer's smile. "And who's this?" Buffy said.

"Angel and I go way back, don't we, Angel?" When Buffy frowned, Lilah laughed. "Don't worry. The relationship was always purely business."

"Buffy, Lilah is an attorney with Wolfram and Hart. They do a lot of work for the Underlords in this district."

Buffy pressed her lips together, and Lilah shook her head. Angel realized, with something that was almost shock, that Lilah was drunk. "You know, these days, I don't get into the evil as much as I used to. I miss it. I admit that. But Wolfram and Hart is stuck in the middle these days. Like most of us."

"But not all of us." Angel looked up and frowned as Lindsey McDonald strolled to his side. "Some of us have definitely chosen sides, haven't we?"

Lilah said, "Angel, I'm sure you remember Lindsey. He's the new Emissary to the Underlords. Isn't it nice to see how virtue is rewarded?"

"Amazing," Angel muttered as he looked up at Lindsey. "Millions of people have died, and none of them were you."

Buffy held out her hand to shake. "I don't think we've met. I'm Buffy Summers."

"Lindsey McDonald. Charmed, I'm sure. I've read about you. Read quite a lot. Impressive record you've got -- if you're impressed by lost causes."

"I've learned that causes aren't lost," Buffy said. "People are, sometimes. But it's not quite the same thing."

"People are lost sometimes, it's true." Lindsey was studying Buffy's face carefully, as if trying to communicate with more than words. Then he said, slowly, "Take, for instance, Charles Gunn. Good man, once upon a time. More recently, just one more poor dog on the streets of L.A. But as of tonight, he's a prisoner in our custody."

Angel breathed in sharply; if Lindsey registered his shock and dismay, he didn't acknowledge it. "You see, he stole this dagger. Mighty fine dagger -- curved blade, jewels in the hilt, enchanted six ways from Sunday --"

"I bet it makes great julienne fries," Buffy said.

Lindsey actually smiled. "Might at that. And we'll have to find out, soon as we find it. We've already found Gunn, so I imagine the answer will be forthcoming real soon. One thing's for sure -- he's outta luck. And so are the poor saps who were hoping to buy it. Any idea who that might be?"

Buffy shrugged, and, as ever, Angel found himself admiring her nonchalance in the face of even the most ghastly setbacks. "Maybe you should check the subscription list for the Really Cool Magic Daggers catalog."

"I've got a better idea," Lindsey said, and all the slick pleasantry had left his voice as he leaned across their table. "Why don't you guys come down to the Wolfram and Hart office tomorrow? We'd love to ask you a few questions. About why exactly Angel decided to pay a visit to his old haunts. Your future plans. That kinda thing."

"Small talk, really. Like a cocktail party," Lilah said. "But with guards. And no booze."

"If we walk inside Wolfram and Hart, are we going to walk out again?" Angel said.

Lindsey studied him for a moment, then nodded. "As long as you walk in under your own power. If we have to drag you -- no guarantees then."

"We'll be there," Buffy said. "Now, do you mind? The troll's been waiting to serve us for about three minutes."

Lindsey smirked as he took Lilah's arm and led her away from the table. The troll stepped close, set down the gin and tonics, and left.

As soon as they were alone, Angel whispered, "This is bad."

"Stay calm," Buffy said. "So we didn't get the dagger yet. It's still out there somewhere."

Angel thought about that for a minute. "You're right. Lindsey let that slip. He must have been drinking almost as much as Lilah."

"So we hang in there," Buffy said. She smiled at him -- that same wistful smile he remembered from the young girl he'd fallen in love with. "They counted us out before, you know. And we always come back."

He smiled back at her, took her hand again. "Always."

"Angel!" He turned his head, and this time, the surprise was far more pleasant.

"Wesley -- Fred -- oh, my God. You're here. You're both here -- " They were coming toward him, images out of a past that seemed unspeakably distant. How different they looked -- Wesley was almost painfully thin, with hair that was now salt-and-pepper instead of black. Fred's hair had been bobbed in a fashion that somehow managed to make her look even younger than she had when they'd rescued her from Pylea. Angel rose as they reached the table and embraced them each in turn. Wesley then wrapped his arms around Buffy, who returned the hug with such warmth it was hard to remember she and Wesley hadn't always been the dearest of friends.

Wesley whispered into Buffy's hair, "Some old contacts told us Heathcliff and Catherine might be coming to town. So we thought we'd check and see."

"Hey there," Fred said to Buffy. "I've heard a lot about you over the years. And when I say a lot, I mean, a whole lot. I don't suppose you heard a lot about me, but then, you know, what is there to tell, compared to, oh, 'Slayer' and 'great love of Angel's life,' or not-life as the case might be --"

Buffy grinned. "Don't tell me. You're Fred." When Fred nodded happily, Buffy laughed. "And it is life now, you know."

"That's right -- shanshu. We heard, but -- " Wesley held his hand to Angel's neck -- right at the jugular, where the pulse would be strong. His face lit up, and for a moment the past few years seemed to have dropped away from Wesley. Angel knew he ought to return the smile, but he couldn't help but realize how bony Wesley's fingers were against his skin. How shadowed his eyes were.

"Oh, good show, Angel," Wesley said softly. "At least one part of that dratted prophecy was all we hoped it would be."

"You should talk to your friends, Angel," Buffy said, stepping away from the table. "I need to get a twist for my drink. At the bar. Maybe talk a little literature."

Angel quietly repeated, "Be careful."

Buffy just nodded as she turned away.

**

How like Angel, to be frightened for her on an errand as small as this. He would rush into battle with her -- even now, when he had no powers, no special strength save that of his resolve -- and never hesitate. He had seen her leap through fire, jump off cliffs, fight three ogres while she was armed only with the contents of a basic tool chest. He never doubted her, but he always worried about her. Buffy decided that she rather liked the balance.

She straightened her white suit as she went up to the bar. Fortunately, the bartender was swamped with customers, making do with his inadequate stand. That was going to leave her quite a bit of time in line with Anne.

Anne pretended to simply shift in place, turning so that she was much nearer Buffy's ear. She whispered, "We've got trouble."

"So I hear," Buffy said. "The guy with the dagger's in custody."

"He'd been out of the fight for a long time. He came back, though, and pulled this huge job for us -- and got caught right away. He'd even talked about going to Sunnydale with you guys -- he was ready to fight again --" Anne's face clouded for a moment, as though an old sorrow were making itself felt again. But she quickly continued, "Gunn still didn't trust a whole lot of people. He didn't tell me where the dagger is. It could be anywhere. Absolutely anywhere. I'm not sure that we can find it."

Buffy breathed in and out. Okay, she thought. Staying calm. Coming up with a plan B. "What else could we use?"

"There's a handful of other artifacts," Anne said. "The Mirror of Yeram might do -- we'd have to do some major bargaining to get it, particularly as fast as you're gonna need it, but we can try." She laughed and shook her head. "The ironic thing is, we're standing five feet away from the most powerful magical item on the West Coast."

Buffy stared at her, forgetting to be discreet -- then caught a glimpse of what was behind Anne, glittering on a pedestal. A jewel, shining bright in the smoky darkness of the hotel. "What IS that?" she whispered.

"The Eye," Anne said, as though that answered everything. "A jewel given by the Powers That Be at the Venareth. Channels their sendings, makes them available to good and evil alike."

"Boy, that's big and shiny and helpful and not heavily guarded."

Anne shook her head. "Forget about it. The Powers have certain rules about that jewel. If anybody tries to remove it without the owner's permission, that person becomes marked for vengeance by the Powers. You might not drop dead that day -- but from then on, you're pretty well guaranteed some serious trouble for the rest of your fairly short life. If anybody kills the owner, same thing."

Buffy opened her mouth to ask another question, but as she did so, she glanced over at the table where Angel was talking animatedly with Wesley and Fred. She squinted -- it looked as if there were a kind of a fog over them. A shadow, but not a shadow -- "What is that?"

Anne sighed. "Sad, isn't it? The first couple years after the Venareth, when our resistance was getting started, Wesley was just -- a rock. The first person we went to for answers, the first guy in the fight, the last one to get to safety."

Time changes us all, Buffy thought. "But what happened?"

"About a year and a half ago, we had a raid on one of their camps. They call them labor camps, because that's actually more comforting than the truth. But all those vampires Wolfram and Hart employs -- well, you know they're not eating at the company cafeteria."

"So I've heard."

"Anyway, Wesley got caught. We thought they'd kill him for sure, but they didn't. Not fast and easy, anyway." Anne's face was hard. "They wanted to make an example of him. So they tethered a Solonach to him."

"A Soloflex?"

"Solonach," Anne repeated. "It's a kind of -- life vampire, I guess you'd say. It sucks the life energy out of you, little by little. Just attaches itself to you and never lets go, not until you're dead. But it takes you a couple years to die. I hear it hurts a little more every day."

"Oh, God," Buffy whispered. She thought of Wesley in his brand-new, shining-white tennis shoes, panting as he tried to keep up on the obstacle course. She remembered laughing at him. "There's nothing we can do?"

"Best not to think about it," Anne said. "And if you don't squint, and the light doesn't hit it quite right, you can't even see it."

Buffy shook her head, tried to clear it. If she let herself concentrate on any one of the countless tragedies unfolding around them all the time, she knew she'd go mad. Better to concentrate on what she could do, how she could help. "So, this Eye. What if we did get the owner's permission to take it out of here?"

Anne laughed. "You've obviously never met her."

**

Angel tried to concentrate on Wesley's smile, his clear happiness at seeing Angel again, as his old friend spoke. But he looked so thin -- "And when we heard about the fall of the vampires' stronghold in the north, we knew it had to have been you and Buffy."

"Mostly Buffy," Angel said. "Human now, remember? I can't eviscerate a Hrunta demon like I used to."

"Aw, bet you can," Fred said. "It's like riding a bike. Except no little wicker basket."

"What I mean to say, Angel -- you're an inspiration to us all. Those who are still fighting. Those of us who can fight no longer."

Angel looked up once more at the Solonach above them. "Wesley, isn't there any way --"

"If there were, surely between the three of us, we'd know of it, wouldn't we?" Wesley shook his head. "You with your centuries of experience as a vampire, me with my Watcher training, Fred with her absolutely compulsive study of my texts --"

Angel said, "But I could have sworn I remembered that there was something --"

"Oh, yes, there are ways," Wesley said. "If I perform a spell to move it to someone else, to force them to die in my stead. Fred tried to convince me to -- well, it was out of the question."

"I would," Fred said quietly. "You know I would."

Wesley didn't verbally acknowledge what she had said, but he slipped his arm around her shoulders. "The only other option is for one of the people who tethered it in the first place to release it. But as it was attached by our dear friends at Wolfram and Hart -- no chance there."

"I'm sorry," Angel said, feeling that the words were inadequate, but not knowing what else he could say.

"Angel, truly -- it's all right." Wesley smiled at him, his eyes bright behind his glasses. "I know why I fought. I'm willing to pay the price. If I hadn't fought -- something else in me would have died. And I'd rather lose my life than my soul."

"Take it from someone who's been there," Angel said. "You made the right choice."

Fred cut in. "I'm not feeling very well. Wesley, maybe we should go home."

"Fred?" Angel frowned. "You okay?"

"She's fine," Wesley said. "That's her tactful way of getting around the fact that I don't feel very well. Fred's forever convinced I'm overtaxing myself. But honestly, Fred, I'm all right --"

"You are overtaxing yourself," Fred said. "But, seriously, I'm really tired. I mean, it's not like I'm not happy to see you, Angel, but I just am about to drop --"

Angel didn't believe her for a minute, but he couldn't blame her for wanting to take care of Wesley. "We'll see each other again while Buffy and I are here. Maybe tomorrow afternoon -- are you still at your old place?"

Wesley shook his head as, resigned, he slowly rose to his feet. "We aren't able to afford such luxury now. Not that it was all that luxurious before, but -- well. What say we meet you back here tomorrow night? We can raise a glass to old friends."

Fred took his arm, and they were about to go -- and Angel finally knew, absolutely, that he could put it off no longer. "Is -- is she still here?"

They didn't ask who. Fred just nodded. Wesley said, "I'm surprised she hasn't walked through the lobby already."

"She still owns the Hyperion?" Angel was astonished, though he couldn't think why -- seeing, now, that so much of his former life was intact here, albeit greatly changed, he should have realized this on his own. But somehow he could not put her in the middle of this cacophony -- this smoky, desperate echo of the place they had all lived and loved -- and make the image make any sense. "How is she?"

Wesley and Fred looked at each other for a moment, clearly uncertain as to how to answer. Finally, Fred said, "We don't talk much. That's the way she wants it."

Angel nodded. Wesley quickly hugged him once more, and Fred followed suit; without another word, they went back out into the night.

He took a deep breath and glanced back at Buffy; she was still talking to Anne, still doing a good job of not looking as though she was talking to Anne. Lorne finished the last song of his set, and applause rang throughout the bar. Angel glanced at his watch.

Three minutes to ten.

After a moment's hesitation, Angel got up and walked to the grandfather clock. The time was all wrong, and cobwebs laced around the still pendulum. The weights had all dropped to the bottom..

Slowly, carefully, Angel began bringing up the weights, winding the clock.

"You know, big guy, I'd love for us to have a big old emotional reunion right now, complete with a violin score and soft-focus lighting, just like they used on Joan Collins in the later seasons of 'Dynasty,' but I gotta tell you, you're not supposed to be doing that."

Angel looked over his shoulder and smiled. "It's good to see you, Lorne."

Lorne smiled back at him, but his eyes were guarded. "Likewise. But you're still winding the clock."

"About time somebody did." He shifted the hands. One minute to ten.

"She's the boss. More to the point, she's MY boss, these days. And she doesn't want anybody winding that clock."

Angel put the pendulum in motion, heard the clock swing back into action as though it had never stilled. As it ticked, he shut the door again. "How is she?" he asked, for the second time in a few minutes.

"She's been better."

"Haven't we all?" Angel said.

And then the clock began to chime. One, two --

A few people in the crowd glanced lazily over in their direction. Nobody seemed to pay it much mind.

Three, four --

"Any chance you'd just bolt through those doors and never come back?" Lorne said. "Because you did a pretty good impression of it last time."

Five, six --

"I never ran away," Angel said. "And I'm not running away now."

Seven --

"Lorne!" That voice -- her voice --

Eight --

Angel saw her coming in from the courtyard, older, more beautiful, angry as hell. "I thought I said never to --"

Nine --

She saw him, stopped in her tracks, stared at him as her face went pale.

Ten.

Angel lifted his chin. "Hello, Cordelia."

Continue on to part four...

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