"All right, everybody. I got Cheesy Chips, Mountain Dew, Ho-Hos, those little white powder doughnutsÖ" Xander went on with the list, taking each item out of the shopping bag and onto Angelís small kitchen table.
"Iím going to have to do some rearranging if you three are going to be over all the time," Angel commented from the small kitchen. He opened the refrigerator and started to move bags of blood around to accommodate to soda.
"Just donít let any of that blood drip on the cans," Cordelia warned. "Can I say eew."
Angel rolled his eyes, eliciting a giggle from Willow who was rearranging the lone cabinet to be able to store the snack food. Christmas came and passed, and the four Slayerettes spent practically every night together. They caught Angel up on the Ďclassicí videos, helped him install the cable television, loaned him CDs for his stereo, and hung out with the vampire.
Five days remained of Winter break and the four friends wanted to make the best of them. With the sun setting relatively early, Angel was able to spend more time with the teens outside of his apartment. Once Willow and Cordeliaís parents returned home, the all night get togethers ceased, but the following Saturday a party was planned for which the girls did a round robin to be free for the whole night.
"And weíre good to go," Xander concluded, looking at the assortment of goodies on the table. He dug through the pile and pulled out a gaily wrapped package. "And this is for our friendly neighborhood vampire," he said, handing Angel the gift. It jingled when it changed hands.
Angel arched an eyebrow and shook the package. Jingle, jingle, jingle. "You guys didnít," Angel said, tearing open the paper. Inside the box was a long black cord with four colored jingle bells on it. "You did."
"No more sneaking up on us for you, big guy," Xander said.
"You donít have to wear them on patrol," Willow said. "That would give you away. But we took a vote and decided that you have to wear them at all other times so you canít do that sneaky guy routine."
Angel shrugged and put the bell necklace over his head. The bells jingled when they hit his chest. Moving, Angel tested their effect. If he was cautious, he could move without them making any noise, especially when tucked into his shirt. "Thanks, you three."
Angel was still amazed that these three teens would want to pal around with him. They appeared on Christmas loaded with gifts for him. Luckily, he had also gotten them presents for the holiday. With each day that passed, the small group of friends became closer and closer. Even the residual animosity Xander felt for the vampire had faded into almost nothing.
"What time is it?" Willow asked, putting the food away.
"7:30," Cordelia answered, looking at the expensive gold watch on her wrist.
"Gymís open," Willow said. "Giles said heíd reserve it for us tonight." The group had decided to brush up on their slaying skills, using the radios Angel had bought for the commando game in the mall.
"Then letís get a move on," Xander said, snagging a Ho-Ho on his way to the door. The four left the apartment, Angel jingling, and headed over to the school in Cordeliaís car. Arriving with a peal of laughter, they entered the building and made their way to the library to check in with Giles.
"Hey G-man? You here?" Xander called as they came through the door with exuberance.
"Xander, how many times do I have to tell you not to call me that," Giles said, coming out of his office.
"Sorry," Xander said, clearly not apologetic. "You get the gym for us?"
"Yes, it is reserved until 10:00," Giles said. "Is there anything that you need?"
Angel stepped forward towards the librarian, jingling. The other three started to giggle at Gilesí confused expression with the noise. "Weíll need the pads, a few stakes, a few vials for me to put plain water in, crosses, and the radios."
Giles got out the requested equipment and the four left the library for the gym, animatedly talking. The Watcher shook his head. He could not believe the change in the dynamics of the small group, especially the inclusion of the vampire. He wondered what the effects would be when the Slayer returned.
The friends entered the empty gym and shed their winter coats. Xander and Cordelia moved to the mats stacked against the wall and began laying them on the hardwood floor. Angel handed Willow the empty vials to fill with water, then laid the other equipment on the floor. After tucking the newly acquired necklace into his shirt, Angel turned and surveyed the group.
"Here you go, General," Willow said, handing Angel the water.
"Thanks, Red," Angel said. "Are you guys ready to start?" At their nods, Angel handed out the radios. "Ok. Hereís how weíre going to do this. I will be the vampire."
The other three started to laugh at the absurdity of his statement. Shaking his head, Angel continued. "I will attack you three, and you try to stake me. Just please donít really stake me, Iíd hate to leave dust all over the gym floor." Angel gestured to the weapons and put the chest pad over himself.
When they were ready, Angel attacked, using only half strength so as not to hurt his friends. "Communicate to one another. With the radios, you can talk quietly and not worry that the vamps are going to figure out what youíre doing. Theyíll be too busy trying to kill you."
He began to hear voices in his ear as they formulated their attack. Angel was concentrating on Xander, knowing the other vampires would consider the boy the biggest threat. The undead tended to be sexist.
He grabbed Xander by the arms, pulling him close for a Ďkillingí bite. He suddenly felt water hit the back of his head and pretended to be burned. Releasing the boy, Angel spun to come face to face with two crosses. Hissing, Angel stumbled backÖand felt a stake pressed into his spine.
"One dead bloodsucker," Xander announced. The girls dropped their crosses and Xander removed the stake.
"That was excellent, ladies and Xander," Angel said. "If you do that or the Ďdamsel in distressí routine against any single vamp, youíll win every time."
The four practiced fighting next, using Angel as a punching bag. He was certainly glad he left the chest pad on. Around ten oíclock, they started to clean up and went back to the library, sweaty and tired. Even Angel was slightly worn around the edges.
"Hey, Giles," Willow said, slowly coming into the library. "Weíre back."
"Did you four have a productive workout?" Giles asked, accepting the weapons.
Xander groaned and flopped into a chair. "Productive is not a very descriptive word. More likeÖlikeÖI canít even think of a word."
"Why donít you guys head home," Angel said, putting on his coat. "Iíll do a quick sweep and will see you tomorrow."
A chorus of thank yous bombarded Angel, who grinned then said goodnight.
"So, did you three learn anything this evening?" Giles asked, putting the weapons away.
"Angel tells lame jokes," Cordelia said. "Theyíre worse than Xanderís."
"I like his jokes, in a morbid sort of way," Willow said.
"Thatís because you have a thing for Deadboy," Xander told his oldest friend.
"I do not," Willow said, blushing slightly.
"You do, too," Xander said, teasingly. "You still call him the General."
"WellÖhe still calls me Red," Willow tried defending herself. "Besides, heís my friend. And I like all my friends."
"Whatever you say, Will," Xander said. "Whatever you say."
"Party time!" Xander announced as the four friends entered the Bronze. They were starting their Saturday night at the club, then a quick patrol before heading back to Angelís apartment for some serious fun.
"Xander, stop embarrassing me," Cordelia said, smacking her boyfriend on the arm. "Letís dance."
"Care to dance?" Angel asked Willow after shedding their coats. At Willowís nod, they joined the other two in the throng of bodies on the dance floor. They bopped along with the music for about an hour, then went back to the tables for a breather. Angel went and bought everyone drinks.
"So, are we ready to play the Star Wars drinking game tonight?" Xander asked, wiggling his eyebrows. "I want to be Vader."
"Iím Leia," Cordelia said. Xander rolled his eyes. "What?"
"Itís only fitting, Cordy," Xander said. "What about you, Will? Who do you want to be?"
"I was thinking Iíd be Chewbacca this time. Or maybe C-3PO," Willow said. "What about you, General?"
"UmÖ" Angel racked his brains for the list of characters they had told him about earlier in the evening. "Han Solo?"
"Cool. Characters picked, alcohol abundant, festive party hats ready and waiting," Xander said.
"We have party hats?" Willow asked with enthusiasm. She turned to Angel. "Would you wear a party hat?"
Angel arched an eyebrow. "Party hat? Isnít it enough that Iím wearing bells? Now, I have to wear a hat, too?" he whined.
The other three laughed. Angel had been dutifully wearing the bells, jingling each time he entered the room. Giles had told him it was an improvement over scaring people into an early grave. Angel, however, felt like an elf. A very large elf.
"Not to change the subjectÖwell, actually, to blatantly change the subject," Angel said, getting more laughs. "Do we have a list for patrol tonight or are we winging it?"
"Weíre winging it, General," Willow told him. "No dead bodies with puncture wounds listed for yesterday or today."
"Then why donít we try out the two pronged assault, like we practiced on Thursday," Angel suggested. "Weíll hit the park before heading back to my place."
"Roger that," Xander said, acting like military guy. "Letís take off now. Iím itching to start the festivities."
"You better not have a rash, Xander," Cordelia said, standing.
"If I did, I got it from you, Cordy," Xander said, starting another argument.
Ignoring them, Angel and Willow took the lead out of the Bronze. Angel ducked and swung Willow up onto his shoulders. "Weíll see you over at the park," Angel told the arguing couple, before turning and walking in that direction, bells jingling.
"It sounds like Santa is coming," Willow commented from her perch. "The bells, I mean."
"I was thinking that earlier. Me, one of the most feared vampires in history, jingling like a giant elf," Angel said.
Willow giggled. "All you need are the pointy shoes."
"Donít even think about it, Red," Angel warned. "Iím not wearing pointy shoes."
"How about the hat?" Willow asked.
"Not the hat, either," Angel said. They were at the entrance to the park and could see Cordeliaís car parked out front. "Where are the terrible twosome?"
"Probably making out in the front seat," Willow said. "Letís scare them."
"Youíre evil, Red," Angel said. "What do you want to do?"
Willow giggled. "Iíll take left, you take right. On three, open the car door and scream booga booga."
"Booga booga?" Angel asked. "You want me to say booga booga?"
"Just do it, you wuss."
"Iím not a wuss," Angel corrected. "Iím just a pansy."
Willow stifled her laugher as Angel set her on her feet. They cautiously crept up to the car. "Ready," she whispered, know the vampire could hear her. "One, two, three!"
Grabbing the handles, the two friends opened the doors and yelled in the car. "Booga booga!" Xander and Cordelia screamed, then started cursing at the others who were now on the ground, laughing.
"Youíre both dead!" Xander said, exiting the car. "Dead! I canít believe you did that!"
"You should have seen your face, Xander," Willow said between laughs. "Priceless."
Cordelia was busy on her side, kicking the fallen vampire. "You might live forever, but I wonít if you guys continue to scare us like that!"
"Sorry, Cordy," Angel said, clearly not sorry at all. "It was all Redís idea."
"Ooh! She is so going to get it," Cordelia declared, stomping around the car to the hacker. Angel used her leaving to stand and get the weapons bag from the back seat of the car.
"Iím sorry, Cordy!" Willow said, backing away from her friend. "You two were just sitting ducks, I had no choice!"
"Iíd stop while you were ahead," Angel said, walking around the car. He gave the bag to Xander. "I would rather have Cordy use her anger on the vamps than on you, Red."
Xander dug into the bag and pulled out the radios. After handing them and the other weapons out, the four split up, heading in opposite directions in the park. The idea was to make a full circuit, meeting in the middle on the other side.
"Three baddies, heading our way," Xanderís voice came over the radio in Angel and Willowís ears. "Weíll lead them towards the center of the park, meet us there."
"Check," Angel said. He and Willow took off at a run. They could hear Xander and Cordelia taunting the vampires and then running. They came to the center of the park and saw the three vamps almost upon the couple. With a roar, Angel bowled into the three, knocking them over like bowling pins.
Xander immediately turned and dove into the fray. He got one of the vamps attention and then began instructing Willow and Cordelia over the radio. "You two, come up behind him like we practiced. Hit him with the holy water and crosses, and Iíll stake his ass."
The two ladies did as told, throwing the holy water. The vampire turned and came face to face with two crosses. He went to run, but Xander plunged his stake into the vampireís back, dusting him.
Angel was fighting with the other two vampires. He would knock one away and the other would attack. "Calvary is coming, Angel," Xanderís voice said in his ear. "Weíll take the ugly with the blue jacket. Kick him to your left."
Angel lashed out with his foot, sending the designated vampire flying back towards the waiting Slayerettes. They quickly surrounded him, using their crosses, blocking his escape. As Angel concentrated on dusting the vampire on him, the three practically pounced on the other one, burning him with their crosses.
Soon, they were surrounded by dust, another victory for the Slayerettes. "That went well," Angel commented, brushing himself off. He joined his friends, still jingling.
"These radios were a super idea," Xander said. "I feel like weíre a real commando unit. Or undercover operatives. Yeah! We can all have spy names!"
"And what would yours be? Dweeb boy?" Cordelia asked.
"Better than yours, Bitch Queen," Xander shot back.
"I think we better put a kibosh on this argument right now," Angel said, stepping between the two. "I thought we had a party to attend?"
Xanderís face brightened. "Thatís right! Címon, Jingle Bells. Letís blow this dust bowl," he said.
"Jingle Bells?" Angel asked as they started to the car. "Well, I guess itís better than Deadboy."
They didnít see the blond figure heading towards the park.
"Hey Giles," Buffy said, entering the library.
"Buffy, welcome back," Giles said, setting down one of his many books. "How was your trip?"
"Awesome," Buffy said. "Mexico was so cool. Did the whole bonding thing with mom while drinking margaritaís at the beach."
"Iím glad you enjoyed yourself," Giles said.
"Me, too. So, where is everyone?" Buffy asked, sitting up on the table. "I called Willowís and Xanderís houses, but they werenít home. I even tried Cordeliaís."
"I donít know. Did you try the Bronze?"
"Went there right after I called. No dice," Buffy answered.
"They did say that they were going to do a sweep of the park earlier this afternoon," Giles told the Slayer. "A-and theyíre suppose to check in tomorrow night around 5:30."
"Thanks, Giles. I guess Iíll head over to the park and see if theyíre there," Buffy said, hopping off the table. "See ya."
Buffy left the library and headed for the park, wondering where her friends could be. She was almost there when she heard loud voices and laughter. Peering into the night, she saw Cordeliaís car surrounded by four figures. *Has to be them, but whoís the fourth one?*
Before Buffy could catch up, they piled into the car and drove off. Buffy swore to herself, then made a quick sweep of the park. She found some vampire dust near the center, but nothing else. With a flip of her blond hair, she headed to the Bronze, certain that was where the group was headed.
Buffy arrived at the club, but could not find Cordeliaís car. She went into the club anyway and looked around. No friends. Furrowing her brow, she glanced at her watch. 10:25. "Might as well say hi to Angel," Buffy mumbled to herself, leaving the Bronze.
She walked in the cool winter air, snuggling deeper into her leather coat. She was almost at Angelís apartment when she saw the red car parked on the side of the road. Glancing at the license plate, Buffy knew it was Cordeliaís. "Whatís it doing way out here?"
With a shrug, Buffy entered the hall to Angelís apartment. She could here loud noises coming from the apartment. She put her ear up to the door, listening. *It sounds like Star Wars,* Buffy thought. *But Angel doesnít have a TV."
Buffy heard the side door open and what sounded like jingling. She turned quickly, getting into attack position. "Angel?"
Angelís head shot up. He had been watching the floor as he walked, already quite inebriated. Willowís special mix sure did pack a punch, especially if you downed two bottles in thirty minutes. "Buffy!"
She looked at the vampire standing before her. He was wearing his normal leather coat, white T-shirt and black pants. However, he was holding a brown, paper bag in one arm and had a necklace with four colored bells on it. "Hey. I just came by to tell you I was back."
"So I see," Angel said, slurring his words. He gave her a small grin, surprising Buffy with his smile. "Wanna come in?"
"Sure," Buffy said warily. She watched as Angel brushed past her and opened the apartment door. The noise she heard earlier assaulted her ears. Entering, she received the shock of her life. Willow, Cordelia and Xander were sitting on the couch in front of a large entertainment center. They turned when they heard the door.
"Buffy! Itís the Buffster!" Xander said, jumping up from the couch. He came around and hugged her. "How goes it, oh supreme one?"
"Fine, Xander," Buffy answered. She backed slightly away after the hug. "You smell like a brewery."
"Thatís because dork boy here spilt a whole glass on himself," Cordelia said, joining her beau. "Welcome back, Buffy. Did you buy anything?"
"Actually, lots of stuff," Buffy said. Before she could say more, Willow hugged her.
"Hi, Buffy!" Willow greeted. "When did you get back?"
"About two hours ago. I went looking for you guys," she said.
"Well, you found us!" Willow said. "Wanna drink?"
"UhÖno," Buffy answered. She looked around the small apartment. Food, empty bottles and clothing were scattered all over. Angel was standing by the table, unloading the bag with Xanderís help. "So, what are you guys doing here?"
"Playing the Star Wars drinking game," Willow informed her. "Weíre having a last night of freedom party."
"Here?" Buffy asked, confused. She thought that they didnít like Angel.
"Of course here, silly," Willow said. "Weíre always here."
Angel came up next to the Slayer and gave her a Mountain Dew. She accepted it, giving him a strange look. "Hi, again."
"Hey," Angel said. "Would you like to join us?" He had shed his jacket and was holding a glass of red liquid in his hand.
"I guess," Buffy answered. She took off her own coat and was pulled to the couch by Willow. Soon, Xander, complete with food, and Cordelia joined them. Angel lay on the floor in front of the group, arm holding his head up.
"So, whatíd I miss going out for the dweeb," Angel said.
"Hey," Xander said, nudging the vampire with his foot. "Can I help it that we ran out of food?"
"We wouldnít have if you werenít the human vacuum," Willow told her friend. "I canít believe you ate all that food."
"Cordy ate her fair share," Xander said, defending himself. "She ate all the donuts."
"I did not!" Cordelia said. "That was Willow."
Willow grinned. Buffy looked to her friend and saw that powder sugar covered her dark shirt. She was following the conversation from person to person, still confused.
"Well, it wasnít me who ate all the Cheesy Chips," Willow pointed out.
"That wasnít me, either," Xander said. "That was Jingle Bells."
"Hey, what can I say? Theyíre good," Angel said from the floor.
"Time out," Buffy said. "Jingle Bells? Cheesy Chips? Someone care to clue the Slayer in?"
"Xander, stop the movie a minute," Willow instructed. After the television was off, she turned to her friend. "What do you want to know?"
Buffy looked at each of her friends, then finally down at the vampire on the floor. Angel was now laying on his back, looking up at the ceiling. "First of all, are you guys drunk?"
"Big time," Willow said, bouncing in her seat.
"What about you, Angel?" Buffy asked.
"What about me?" Angel said, blinking. He turned his head to look up at the blond. "Oh, Iím very drunk." Then, he grinned.
Buffy looked at the vampire in shock. Sheíd seen him smile earlier, but not this completely happy grin. When she left on vacation, Angel had been his guilt laden self. NowÖ
"Buffy? Earth to Buffy?" Willow said, waving a hand in front of Buffyís face. "Whereídja go?"
"Heís smiling," Buffy said, as if that explained everything. She was in for another shock. The group started laughing, including the vampire. "Now, heís laughing. Iím definitely wiggin here."
"Ut-oh, sheís wiggin, guys," Angel said between laughs. "Does that mean Iím possessed?"
The laughter grew, and Buffy knew she missed an inside joke. *How could I miss an inside joke? Why is there an inside joke?*
"Buffy, Buffy, Buffy," Xander said as they calmed down. "You missed a whole lot while you were gone."
"Obviously," Buffy said.
"Letís give her the short, short version," Angel said from the floor. They started to laugh again at his reference to Spaceballs, which they watched earlier in the week.
"Um, guys? Me, Buffy? Donít understand whatís going on?" Buffy said.
"Sorry," Willow said. "Long story really, really short: the General kidnapped all of us."
"Hey!" Angel protested. "I did not! You came over on your own fruition."
"Fruition?" Xander said. "You sound like Giles."
"Jealous, much?" the vampire asked. Buffyís eyes widened at his use of slang.
"Like I want to sound like the tweed man," Xander said.
"Oh no. Big words scare you," Angel teased. Xander scowled at him.
"Ok. Iím totally lost," Buffy interrupted.
"Red, why donít you fill Buffy in on how you got me plastered then threw me into the fountain at the mall," Angel suggested.
"What?" Buffy asked.
"I pushed him into the water," Willow said, excitedly. "It was great. You should have seen his face!"
"And why did you do that?"
"We were playing commando," Xander said. "Willow won. I say re-match, tomorrow night. Last fling before we are locked away at school."
"Youíre on," Willow said. "Two hour game. Meet here at 6:30, and weíll go over together."
"Um, guys? Buffy, still here?" Buffy said once again.
"You want to play?" Willow asked the Slayer. "General, weíll have to get her a gun and radio."
"Check," Angel said. "Iím dying to get back at you, Red."
"Youíre already dead, Jingle Bells," Xander commented from his end of the couch.
"Very funny," Angel said. "Just for that, Iíll help Cordy put the ice down your pants this time."
"Angel, buddy, pal," Xander said. "You wouldnít really do that." Angel grinned evilly at the boy. "Ok, guess you would."
Buffy didnít know what to make of the teasing between the males. When she left, Xander still didnít like Angel. Now, it seems as they were close friends. She was going to have to talk to Giles about this one.
"I need a straight answer here," Buffy said. "The truth. Why are you guys all chummy?"
"Ooh! Weíre playing Truths again!" Willow squealed. "Iíll go first. Iím friends with these three because I like them!"
"Iím here because somebody has to drive," Cordelia said. They looked at her. "Fine. I like you guys, too."
"Iíve been friends with Willow forever, Cordy is my girlfriend and Angel is, well, the newest member of the Scooby Gang," Xander said. "Youíre alright, Jingle Bells."
"Thanks, Xander," Angel said. "My turn. Iím friends with you guys because you want me to be. Buffy once asked me if I had any friends, and I couldnít answer her because I didnít. Now, I have the three best a guy could ever have."
"Aww," Willow said, sliding onto the floor and hugging the vampire. Angel put his arm around the hacker, her head pillowed on his chest. "Youíre so sweet."
"I told you so, Will," Xander said. "You have a thing."
Willow blushed heavily, burring her face in Angelís chest. "I do not," came her muffled reply.
"She has what thing?" Angel asked. "What thing do you have, Red?"
Willow tried to distract him. "Pointy shoes. To go with the bells."
"I am not going to wear pointy shoes!" Angel declared. "Iím wearing the bells, isnít that enough?"
Buffy gave up as the conversation deteriorated. Sheíd have to wait until they were sober to get a straight answer. "I better get going," she said, standing. "I promised mom Iíd be home tonight."
"Canít you call and stay?" Willow asked. "Weíre all staying."
"Sorry, no can do. Iíll see you tomorrow at the library," Buffy said, putting on her coat.
A chorus of good-byes followed the Slayer out of the apartment. She paused outside the door, listening to the conversation and laughter. Shaking her head, Buffy left for home.
Willow, Xander and Cordelia all sat at the table when Buffy arrived the next evening. They were all wearing sunglasses and were extremely pale. "Hey guys!"
"Aah! Buffy, not so loud," Xander said, grasping his head.
"Hung over?" Buffy teased, but quieter.
"Very much so," Giles told her, coming down from the stacks. "How was your patrol last night?"
"Dead, excuse my pun," Buffy answered. "No vamp activity."
"We dusted three in the park," Willow informed Buffy. They had already filled Giles in on the Slayerettes activity from the night before. "We rule."
"Thatís great, Willow," Buffy said. "But donít you think you should leave the slaying to the Slayer?"
"Nah. Us Slayerettes can hold our own," Willow said. Her head picked up at the sound of bells coming from the second floor of the library. "The Generalís here."
"Who?" Buffy asked, looking for the source of the noise.
"Jingle Bells," Xander said. "Angel."
"Somebody call me?" Angel asked, stepping into the light. Buffy noted that he looked paler than normal and was a bit unsteady on his feet.
"Just pointing out that youíve arrived," Buffy said. "Complete with bells on."
Angel smiled at her. "Gag gift."
"Now he canít sneak up on us," Xander told Buffy.
"I see," Buffy said, still befuddled by Angelís smile and the friendly conversation that filled the library.
Angel walked down the stairs and sat at the table next to Willow. "Howís everyone doing?"
"Donít ask," Cordelia said. "I feel like I went three rounds with Xander in the closet and lost."
Angel chuckled. "Think youíre up for the rematch at the mall?"
"Weíll be ready," Willow said, her head pounding. "Weíre just waiting for the coffee to kick in."
"Ok. Iíll see you at my place at 6:30. Iím going to stop at the toy store and get equipment for Buffy," Angel said. He looked at the Slayer in question. "That is, if you still want to play?"
"Sure," Buffy said. "Why not."
"Cool. Later," Angel said, leaving the library.
"íCool?í" Buffy questioned. The three teens didnít respond, use to Angelís slang and behavior. "Giles, can you clue me in as to whatís going on between those four?" Buffy asked, cornering the Watcher in his office.
"They are all quite close now, Buffy," Giles told her carefully. "Ever since the Saturday after winter break began. Willow was at the forefront in bringing Angel out of his shell. Theyíve gotten together every night, patrolling and doing other group activities."
"Itís wiggy seeing Angel all happy," Buffy said.
"Yes, it is. Iím still not use to his laughter when they come to the library," Giles said. "But I do know that each would give their lives for the others."
"Boy, go on vacation for two lousy weeks and the whole world changes," Buffy commented.
"Ok. Are we set on the rules?" Xander said, accepting his equipment from Angel. They were at the vampireís apartment, gearing up for a night of fun at the mall. "Buffy?"
"Iím set," Buffy said, putting on her new earpiece. "So, you guys did this two weeks ago?"
"Yeah," Cordelia said, checking her super soaker. "It was a blast."
"Cordelia, itís so strange to see you be so gung ho like this," Buffy commented.
"Thereís a lot more to Cordy than any of us realized," Angel said, tucking the watergun in the waistband of his pants.
"So says the vamp who got iced," Xander said.
"Watch out, Xander," Angel warned. "Youíre on the list tonight."
Xander swallowed perceptively. Willow giggled. "Hey, I just thought of something. Whatís Buffyís rank?"
"Private," Angel said. He smirked at her. "Any complaints?"
"UhÖno, sir?" Buffy said. The others laughed and they left the building.
Upon arriving at the mall, they split up, having only five minutes to get as far away from the others as possible. When it was time to start, Angelís voice came over the radio.
"Roll call. Major Harris?" Angel said.
"Ready," Xander replied.
"Iím good to go," Cordelia said.
"Uh, roger that," Buffy said.
Willow giggled over the radio. "Iím ready."
"Then let the game begin."
Stalking each other in the semi-crowded mall, the five players were soon soaked. Fast and furious the attacked one another, avoided security and other hazards. Buffy was thoroughly enjoying herself. Her respect for her friends went up several notches at their stealth and cunning.
Near the end of the game, however, a problem arose. "Uh, gang," Xanderís voice came over the radio. "We have trouble. Pointy teeth kind of trouble."
"Location?" Angel asked.
"First floor, back by Sears," Xander said. "I see seven of them heading this way from outside."
"Xander, we need to keep them away from the people in the mall," Angel said. "Everyone, converge on Xanderís location."
"Iím already here," Cordelia said. "And those guys are in definite need of a facial."
"Red, where are you?" Angel asked.
"Coming down the escalator near the fountain," Willow said.
"Ok. Iím right below you. Cordy, youíre the mall expert. We need a place to herd them," Angel said.
"Access hallway two stores down from Sears," Cordelia told him.
"Perfect," Angel said. "You two try to get their attention and down that hall. Weíll be at your position in less than a minute."
Buffy was listening with intense concentration. She happened to be at the opposite end of the mall, near JC Pennyís. Hurrying, she ran through the crowd, waiting for instructions from Angel. None came.
She heard Xander and Cordelia say something to the vamps, then heavy breathing she assumed came from the two running. Angelís voice came back over the radio.
"You have four on your tail, Xander," he said. "Red and I will round up the other three."
"Got it. When we get to the end of the hall, Cordy and I will make a stand. You guys get here as soon as you can," Xander said. "Cordy is filling up her super soaker with holy water. Hope thereís enough."
Buffy heard the sound of fighting and commands coming over the radio. She was almost to the access hallway when the sound stopped. Cautiously, she entered the hall. It was very long and narrow, with cement walls and floors lit by fluorescent bulbs. Buffy could see her friends gathered at one end. No vamps were in sight. "Guys, are you ok?"
"Weíre fine, Buffy," Xander told the Slayer. "Just tired. Angelís hurt, but not by much. Weíre going to take him home as soon as we catch our breaths."
"Wow. Iím impressed," Buffy said, joining the group. "You four took out seven vamps all by yourselves."
Willow grinned wearily at the Slayer. "Told you we Slayerettes rule." She was holding onto Angel, supporting him slightly. His face was cut up, but they were superficial and would heal rapidly.
"That you do, Will," Buffy said. Inside, she was upset. They didnít seem to need her at all. She was not a part of this close knit group that had formed in her absence. Sighing, she tucked a piece of hair behind her ear. "Letís get Angel home."
"Címon, General," Willow said, helping her friend. They left through the back entrance to the hall.
Angel sat gingerly on the couch, wincing at the broken ribs as they rubbed together. Willow helped him remove his leather jacket and T-shirt while Cordelia retrieved the First Aid kit.
"Ooh. That looks nasty," Willow said, bending closer to the gash across Angelís back ribs. "Cordy, hand me the peroxide and some gauze."
Buffy stood back by the door, watching Willow work. Xander was talking to the vampire, trying to distract him while Willow and Cordelia played nursemaids. Buffy couldnít believe how alone she felt at this moment.
"There, all better," Willow said, taping the gauze in place. "You should be fine by tomorrow. Until then, bed rest."
"ButÖ" Angel tried to say.
"No buts. See my resolve face. Weíll go now," Willow told him. "Iíll come and check on you tomorrow night."
"Yes, Red," Angel sighed. He watched as his friendís packed up to leave. "Hey, who won?"
"Letís call it a draw," Xander said, putting his arm around Cordelia. "Or not even count it, due to vampirus interuptus."
"Xander, that was actually funny," Cordelia said as they exited the apartment.
"Are you coming, Buffy?" Willow asked, pausing by the door.
"Nah. You go ahead. Iím gonna take another sweep of the cemetery," Buffy said to her friend. Willow nodded and left.
Buffy stood silently by the door, watching Angel. "You can sit down," Angel said to her.
She moved and sat on the opposite end of the couch.
Angel leaned his head on the back of the couch with a sigh. "Whatís on your mind?"
"Who me? Nothing," Buffy said quickly.
"Donít lie to me, Buffy," Angel said, looking at her.
Buffy inhaled and let her breath out slowly. "Sorry," she told him. "Itís justÖwhat happened while I was gone?"
"You mean, with Willow?"
"And Xander and Cordelia," Buffy clarified. "You guys are soÖI donít know. Buddy, buddy."
"We became friends," Angel answered her.
"I can see that," Buffy said. "But what I donít understand is why?"
Angel shifted and winced. He ran his hand over the side of his ribs. "I canít tell you that, Buffy. All I can tell you is that Iím happy that they want to call me friend. That anyone wants to call me friend, after all that I did."
Buffy nodded, the memories painful. "DoÖdo you think weíll ever be friendís again?"
"Iím always here for you," Angel responded. He took her hand. "And maybe someday, when your wounds heal, weíll become good friends, able to share everything."
"Iíd like that," Buffy said.
"Iíd like that, too."
They were silent for a few minutes, each deep in their own thoughts. Angel squeezed Buffyís hand and let go. "Is there anything else on your mind?"
"Do you like Willow?"
Angel looked at her in surprise. "Of course."
"I mean like like, as in that ooey, gooey feeling in your stomach," Buffy said.
"IÖ.I donít know. She is a little spitfire. When she decides something, watch out," Angel replied. "Redís a lot of fun, too. And her mind is like a steel trap, always moving and thinking."
"Mindís have a tendency to do that," Buffy said, hearing the message behind his words. She stood. "Well, I should bail."
"Arenít I always?" Buffy smiled cheerfully at him. "Get well." With a small wave, she left the apartment. Once outside the door, Buffy leaned back against the wall. It hurt to know Angel was moving on, that he had feelings for her best friend. She had hoped that someday they would get back together. But nowÖ