Midnight Angel

by Isis FG

Feedback:  vagabond_angel@comcast.net

Disclaimer:  not mine, I'm just using them for my amusement.

Rating:  R
Pairing:  B/A (major), also W/S, Gi/Jo...maybe some others
Summary:  total AU - Angel moves to small town Sunnydale, never expecting to find himself embroiled in its dark secrets.
Main Characters:  Angel, Buffy, Giles, Willow, Spike, Xander
Supporting Cast:  Fred, Gunn, Faith and probably some others
Spoilers:  none whatsoever, this is a total AU

Distribution:  if you already have something of mine, you may take this.  If not, please ask first!

Author's Notes:  Initially, Stars and I were going to co-write this fic, but due to RL interference, we couldn't coordinate our schedules.  So this has just been written by me, but I have to give some credit to Stars because we developed some of the details of this fic together.  Anyway, I first started this ages ago, and am only now getting around to focusing on it completely.  It's quite plot heavy and somewhat dark (though not overly descriptive).  Hope you all enjoy it!

Thank you:  to Kristi, Lee, and L.J., who helped beta the early chapters of this fic. After around chapter 9 or 10, though, this fic was beta'less. So all mistakes are mine.

Warnings:  dark themes (murder, references to rape), angst, language


~`~`~ Prologue ~`~`~

 ~Sunnydale, year 2000~

Fingers tapping impatiently on the side of his briefcase, Rupert Giles shifted on his feet, waiting for what seemed to be endless minutes for the elevator to reach his floor. The damned machine seemed to take longer and longer each day. That was untrue, of course. He was just anxious to get home to his family. Despite having been married for twenty-five years, since he was a youthful twenty-six, he still reveled at the notion of going home to his wife and children. They were, in the easiest of terms, his very life.

The bell of the elevator finally dinged and Rupert, or Giles as he was commonly called, entered quickly. He stood straight in the compartment, always one for proper posture and presentation. And it certainly wouldn't do for one of his position to look as if he were slacking. The car stopped briefly at the next floor, allowing a young man to enter. If he was remembering correctly, the boy was one of the new copy editors, fresh out of college. They spoke quietly as the elevator continued down to the parking garage.

They parted after exiting, Giles telling him to have a good weekend. He strode quickly to his car, a shiny red convertible BMW that his wife jokingly called his mid-life crisis to which he had earnestly replied that it had simply been time for a new car as his old economical sedan had been requiring regular maintenance. It wasn't as if he couldn't afford a minor luxury. As the owner of a small, yet well respected, magazine that focused on history and culture, he generated enough profit to live comfortably. But not yet enough to move his family out of Sunnydale. That idle thought gave him pause, but he quickly pushed it aside. Soon, he told himself. Another year or two.

Giles dropped his briefcase into the back seat of his car and slid into the driver's seat. After starting the engine, he glanced at his watch and groaned. It was after seven p.m. He was supposed to have been home over two hours ago. That was one of the pitfalls of owning a business, he supposed. Less than twenty-four hours before the latest issue of his magazine was to go to print, one of the advertisers, an unfortunate but necessary evil in his mind, had threatened to pull their ads. Resolving the matter had taken an hour and a half long conference call where he'd had to summon every ounce of diplomacy in him, something he possessed normally with abundance. Thankfully, they'd ironed out the problems and now he could finally go home.

Temper already heady, he cursed audibly at the slow-driving station wagon in front of him. Why did there always seem to be a Sunday driver in front of you when you needed to get somewhere? One of those mysteries of life. All he wanted was to get home. It was movie night with his family, a tradition he cherished and looked forward to. Thirty years ago, during his embarrassing rebellious youth, he would have laughed at the image he now presented. Being a dutiful husband and father had not been his vision of the future then. But now, his family, their happiness, and his business were all he needed in his life.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of the local high school as he passed it. A shiver inched down his spine, memories leapt into his mind. He fervently pushed them aside, wishing they didn't exit. But they did, and he would never be able to forget. Things like that could never be forgotten, or the suffering that had coincided. It was all still part of him, and his family. And that was all the more reason to get home quickly.

Giles slowed his speed as he turned onto Main Street. The very last thing he needed was to be pulled over by the police, so he tread carefully down the busy street. Stopping at a red light, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. He didn't need to gaze around to know that more than one pair of nosey eyes were directed at him. It was always the same. Sighing inwardly, he wondered why after three years they still stared and why he had yet to get used to it. But then, being a town pariah was not something one could particularly get used to.

Blatantly ignoring their hushed voices and heated gazes, he proceeded through the intersection once the light turned green. Small towns had long memories, as he well knew, and this one was no exception. As much as he wanted to say that their words and stares didn't bother him, he couldn't. Not when they caused so much damage to his family. He should have moved them to Los Angeles years ago. It would have saved them a lot of pain and misery, but his responsibilities to the magazine, and the financial burden of moving, prevented it. Again, he told himself, soon. Then everything would be better.

Reaching the end of the main strip of town, he turned left and headed toward the outskirts of Sunnydale, California, the small, seemingly picturesque town that twenty-seven years ago he'd found himself settling in. Back then, he hadn't exactly been thrilled with the move, but the opportunity to be a historical consultant at the magazine he now owned had been too much to pass up. The move had worked out, though, as not long after arriving, he'd met Joyce Summers when he'd visited the art gallery she'd worked in. A short four months later, they were married, and he'd never once regretted it. Still, he found himself glad that his family's home was several miles outside of town and away from prying eyes. It was better for them that way.

With a sigh of gratitude, Giles turned into the long drive that led up to his home. The setting sun glared through his windshield as he drove through the scattered trees. He rounded the final bend and came to a stop to the left of the front door. Stepping out of the car, he glanced up at the house. It was rather large, made from local wood and stone, with two full stories and a third floor with pitched ceilings. The perfect family home.

A vivid memory of the many times his children, still young and silly, rushing out the door to greet him played in his mind. They had always loved to practically jump on him when he returned home from work. The small smile was fleeting, replaced by an uneasy frown. The entire house was dark. Unusually so. From his stance in front, he couldn't see a single light gleaming through the polished windows. Strange, he thought. Joyce would have left the lights on for him.

Quickening his steps, and fighting off a ridiculous sense of unease, he strode to the front door and entered the house. Utter silence slapped at him. No laughs, no chatter, no playful arguments. Nothing. He groped for the light switch, flipping it to illuminate the room. Everything seemed normal in the now lit room, except for the suffocating silence. The unease wound tighter. There was usually always someone there to greet him.

"Joyce?" he called out into the quiet house, his own voice startling him.

No answer came. With hurried steps, Giles made his way into the kitchen. He was met by yet another darkened, quiet room. Flipping on the overhead light, he glanced toward the refrigerator, expecting, as was typical if they'd gone out, to find a note saying that they'd gone out for ice cream or some such thing and would be back soon, but instead there was only blank stainless steel.

Growing increasingly worried, he paced quickly through the house, "Joyce? Owen?" he called out to his wife and son.

Again, no one answered. Checking his study and the parlor, he found them also dark and empty. His concern was growing by the second. This was not typical behavior for his family. And he was certain they couldn't have gone out without leaving a note. He supposed they could be angry that work had held him late, but he knew better. They understood the constraints of owning a business.

Relief coursed through him when he saw soft light emanating from beneath the door to the family room. He walked quickly toward it, already anxious to settle down with his wife and children for a night of whatever movies they'd picked out. He could hear the TV blaring through the closed door and shook his head. Dawn, his youngest, had a tendency to turn the thing up ridiculously loud. They probably hadn't even heard him come home.

Grabbing the knob, he turned it and pushed the door open. "Joyce? Childr-."

The word choked in his throat, his body came to an abrupt halt. The briefcase he'd carried with him dropped heedlessly to the floor. Bile rose in his throat as he staggered back a step.

Red, deep dark pools of it, swam across his vision, churning his stomach and horrifying him. He blinked, trying to push what he was seeing away. But it was still there. Red swimming through red.

Blood. Everywhere.

And in the middle, the still, lifeless forms of those he loved dearly.

"Oh God!!!" he choked out in a meager whisper.

Time froze. His vision wavered. Past, present, and future tumbled together and shattered in a vicious explosion in his mind as he stared, unable to move, at the horrible tableau before him. His children, his wonderful, darling children, forever frozen as they lay on the floor, violent wounds marring their youthful faces and bodies. And, there, only a few feet from him, drenched in a pool of deep red, lay his precious wife, her lifeless eyes staring aimlessly at the ceiling.

"No!!!" he barely managed to whisper before he fell to his knees, heavy sobs shaking his body, as he knew deep in his heart that it was already too late, that there was nothing he could do. Everything he loved was gone.

~`~`~ Chapter 1 ~`~`~

~Sunnydale, four years later~

The setting sun cast a low glow over the deserted beach as twenty-seven year old Liam 'Angel' O'Meara settled his tired and sweaty body onto the worn, rough stairs that stood as entry-way to his recently purchased house. For a moment, he simply stared out over the empty beach. So quiet, was all he could think. Such a difference from Los Angeles and all of the exotic places he had traveled. But then, that was what he'd been searching for. Years of the fast life had taken their toll, bringing a weariness he couldn't have anticipated. Now all he wanted was some peace and quiet.

He loved his job. Truly. Being a photographer was all he'd ever really wanted to be. There was something mesmerizing about being able to take a camera, really only a hunk of plastic and metal, and snap an image of something that would last beyond the subject. In the five years since he had graduated from college, he had been able to travel the world, plying his trade, seeing the beautiful; places, people, animals, and the horrid; natural disasters, poverty, famine. It had been an experience he wouldn't exchange for anything, but he'd also learned that traveling the world, through time-zones, traipsing around jungles, up mountains, eating out of cans by campfire, and all the rest, weren't what he wanted to spend the rest of his years doing.

Most of his life had been spent in nomadic existence. Traveling from place to place with his father, a tried and true archaeologist, he had never really had a home. His father, the only parent he'd ever really had, lived on the go. Angel had no memories of his birth mother. She'd been an undergrad student assisting on one of his father's digs in North Dakota. Their passion had flared bright and faded quick, and when the dust had settled, a baby boy had been left, his mother more interested in living her life than in being a mother. Despite the desertion and the circumstances, Angel's father had never held it against him. He'd taken the child with no regret and continued on with his life, going from dig to dig, lecture to lecture, and being both father and mother.

Angel could say little bad about the way he'd grown up. He'd enjoyed the digs as a child, and inherited his father's interest in the past. Before he was four years old, he'd visited more places than a child's mind could comprehend. It had been exciting and fascinating. And he'd always been full of questions. No, he hadn't minded the way his father lived. And then, when he was about five, came the trip to Texas.

They'd gone so his father could give a lecture at a small university, and in turn had dined in a small restaurant where a pretty young waitress named Amanda had served their food. They'd gone back to that restaurant every night, and when their scheduled week trip was up, they'd stayed. Two months later, his father had married pretty Amanda and settled his family into a small house outside of town. Ten months later, Angel had a baby sister named Winifred. That was the only time Angel could ever really remember having a home. But it hadn't lasted.

The need to dig, to dissect and study the past, continued to call to his father. He simply hadn't been suited to life in suburbia. He'd asked his wife to travel with him, to leave behind the home they'd built and the place she'd grown up in, and she'd considered, but in the end, it hadn't been meant to be. So after a short eighteen months, his father had packed up his life, and his son, and returned to the life he craved, leaving his infant daughter with his wife.

Angel knew his father had suffered, considered himself a failure, but he also knew Daniel O'Meara had done the best he could. They'd returned to Texas often, sometimes staying for only a couple days, sometimes for several weeks, but never permanently. He'd loved those visits, sleeping in a real bedroom, teasing his half-sister. He knew his father would have stayed if his heart had truly been on family, but his love for his work was too strong.

When Amanda had died of cancer, Angel saw his father cry for the first time in his entire life. The memory was seared into his mind, just as the realization of how much his father had loved his wife, and how much he'd hated himself for not being able to give her what she needed, had dawned on him. He'd been nineteen then, and had just started his freshmen year of college.

The death of his step-mother had changed his life in more ways than one. Angel thought of his sister then, as he stared out at the lapping waves of the ocean. Winifred, or Fred as she liked to be called, had been left motherless and broken hearted. With nowhere else for the fourteen year old girl to go, their father had brought her to Los Angeles, rented an apartment, and enrolled Fred in school. The three of them had lived there together, though his father still continued to travel, leaving Fred in Angel's care. He hadn't minded overmuch. He loved his sister. It was that simple.

Only a year later, they'd faced death again, finding themselves having only each other after their father was killed in a car accident while on a lecture tour in New York. They'd cried and grieved on each others' shoulders and, in the end, picked themselves and done what had to be done: gone on with life.

After four years in college, and once Fred was eighteen and starting college herself, Angel had taken after his father and traveled the world as part of his job. London, Paris, Venice, jungles in Africa, the Amazon, one forgettable week in Antarctica, and everywhere in between. He'd seen them all. And after five years of being a nomad, much as his father had been, he'd found it didn't suit him. He wanted a house, somewhere to return to each night, somewhere to, hopefully, one day raise a family.

So he'd quit his job working for National Geographic and bought a house in the small town of Sunnydale, California. His sister thought he was nuts. Maybe he was. He hadn't really taken time to consider the decision; he'd just done it. So far he hadn't regretted it. So far. Of course, he'd just started moving into the house today, so he hadn't really yet had time to have second thoughts.

Standing, Angel walked a few feet away from the house and turned to gaze up at it. No, he didn't have any regrets. This was what he wanted.

He watched Fred walk out of the house and come stand beside him. Her arms crossed and lips pursed as she, too, looked at the old Victorian. "Well, it's certainly your fixer-upper," she said at length.

Angel shrugged, unoffended. "It just needs some work. No one's lived in it for a while."

"I still don't see why you wouldn't stay in LA until the work is done on it," she replied, quirking an eyebrow at him.

Rolling his eyes, Angel stifled a sigh. They'd been around this argument enough times already. He knew she was just unhappy that he hadn't chosen to settle in LA near her. "The lease on my apartment was up." The same apartment he'd barely ever stayed in and which had only the meagerest of furnishings.

"I told you that you could have stayed with me."

"I know." He wrapped an arm around her shoulders in conciliation. "But I want to get settled, and Mr. Giles was ready for me to start my new job right away."

"I know. Sorry I'm being a pest," she apologized, leaning her head on his chest.

"It's okay." Angel gave her shoulder a squeeze. "And I'm only an hour and a half away from LA. That's closer than me being in Europe or Africa."

"True," Fred conceded, then stretched her back. "Ugh. I'm glad you didn't have a house full of junk to move in. The stuff you did have was a big enough pain to move."

"There are still all those boxes of Dad's in storage," he reminded her, referring to all the historical artifacts their father had collected throughout his career.

Fred cast an eye up at him. "You're hiring movers for those. There's no way I'm luggin' all those crates around."

Angel laughed and looked down at his sister. As he occasionally was, he was struck by the dissimilarity in their appearances. While he had taken after their father with his tall, muscular build, dark brown hair and eyes, Fred had followed after her mother's petite form and narrow face. The only trait they shared was hair color, and even then hers was a few shades lighter than Angel's.

"Though why you'd want to put some of that stuff out is beyond me," she went on. "Are you really going to put that old skull out for everyone to see?"

"This coming from someone who considered going pre-med?" he teased her. Fred was a whiz with science and medicine, but she'd never picked up on their father's interest in old bones, or displaying them.

"There's a difference between medicine and putting a bunch of bones on a shelf," she stated primly, laughter in her eyes at the old joke.

The two lapsed into silence as Angel went back to studying his house. It was a good place. Yes, it needed a bit of work, but when it was done, it would be perfect. Classic Victorian lines, two stories with a large attic space, and his favorite aspect, a widow's walk. He was anxious to see the repairs begin and then completed. Most of what needed to be done was some structural work and refinishing. Otherwise, the house was sound. He looked forward to seeing it completed so he could furnish it and turn it from a house into a home.

"Tell ya what," Angel finally said. "I'll spring for a pizza for dinner."

Fred rolled her eyes. "So generous of you."

"Just for that," he answered back, tugged on her ear. "I'm getting black olives on it."

"Not on my half, buster!" She elbowed him lightly in the ribs. "You can have them on your half, but not mine."

Angel's eyes twinkled before he laughed. He knew very well how much his sister hated black olives. She had ever since he'd told her they were lizard eyes once when they were kids and he had been visiting her in Texas. Who knew a seven year old would take to such a lie?

"How about pepperoni?" he offered in exchange.

"That's works. I'll go try to wash off some of this dirt while you order."

An hour and a half later, after having devoured a pizza and soft drinks, Angel and Fred were once again back on the front porch of the house. "Are sure you don't want to stay tonight?" he asked, worrying slightly about his sister driving home in the dark.

"Yeah. I have class tomorrow and I can't miss it." She wished she had a few days to stay with Angel, but she was coming up on her last finals ever and she couldn't even consider skipping class. "Are you sure you'll be okay here?" Doubtfully, she studied the old house.

"I'll be fine. Don't worry so much."

"I'll try not to, but you have to promise to call me if you need anything," she ordered, turning to face her brother.

"Deal." Angel gave her a hug before walking with her toward her car. "Drive carefully."

"I will." She climbed into her car, rolled down her window. "I'll call you tomorrow."

Angel stood and watched his sister drive away, feeling a pang of loneliness as her car rounded the bend and left his sight. He rolled his tired shoulders and turned to stare out over the ocean. The water had a different look at night with the moon reflecting off it. He'd have to take some pictures once he was a bit more settled in. But right now he was exhausted, and he still had to put sheets on his bed.

He gazed out over the water and sandy beach for a minute longer before shifting to head inside, never noticing the small, pale figure that slipped out of the woods and onto the jetty a hundred feet away.

~`~`~ Chapter 2 ~`~`~

~One Month Later~

Loud pounding startled Angel out of his peaceful slumber, causing him to sit upright in bed. He blinked his eyes sleepily as he tried to figure out what was going on. Running a hand through his hair, he cocked his head to the side, listening to hear the noise again. After a few minutes, the banging started for a second time. Just as he was about to leap out of bed to find out who was in his house, he remembered that the contractors were starting to renovate the upstairs this morning.

With a loud groan, Angel flopped back down onto his bed. It was obvious that he was never going to get back to sleep with all the noise coming from the next room. Why on earth did the renovators have to start so damn early in the morning? Didn't they understand that some people actually liked to sleep? At least when they had been working downstairs, the noise had been somewhat muffled, but now they were in the room right next door to his.

For the past month, the house he'd bought had been undergoing almost constant work. It hadn't been lived in for quite a few years so there were a lot of repairs and updating needed. Before he had moved in the pipes had been replaced, the electrical wiring had been inspected and repaired where needed, and a new heating/air conditioning system was installed.

After moving in, the workers had quickly begun work on the downstairs of the house. The kitchen had received new appliances and countertops; the living room, dining room, and the bathroom had needed drywall repairs and repainting. New carpets were laid, and where there wasn't carpet, the hardwood floors had been sanded and sealed. The bathroom had been retiled and all the fixtures replaced. The remaining room on the first floor had also been redone. From what Angel could tell, it appeared as though the room had once been a children's playroom because of the youthful wall paper and doodles on the walls and floor. Having no use for a children's room, it had been converted into an office for him to use.

Angel sighed as he thought about the original intention of the room. He wanted to have children someday. His job had kept him far too busy for the last five years for him to have any serious relationships, let alone think about starting a family. He tended to have one-night stands, and even those were few and far between, and the women had always understood that he had no desire for a long-term commitment, and honestly, he had yet to meet someone he could envision spending the rest of his life with. But, hopefully now that he was settling in somewhere, he could actually start dating.

So the playroom had been turned into a workspace for him, and now the contractors were working on the upstairs. All of the bedrooms as well as the bathrooms were being repaired where needed, and painted. The work would likely take a few weeks, which meant he would be facing the same wake-up call each morning. Rather than lying in bed listening to hammering and sanding, Angel climbed out of bed and headed for the shower.

~`~`~

Much later that day, Angel finally managed to return home. He had only planned to stop by his office for a few minutes, but that hadn't worked out as planned. He'd only been working for the historical magazine owned by Rupert Giles for a few weeks, and so far he was still getting used to the change of employment. He had more responsibilities now than he was used to. As head of the photo department, he not only had his own projects to work on, but he was in charge of approving all other submissions. He wasn't quite yet used to working from a desk the majority of the time instead of in the field.

So he'd ended up in his office for longer than he'd planned. There'd been a slight problem with an upcoming photo shoot he had scheduled. The magazine was doing a feature on the local college's collection of Chumash Indian artifacts and he was to go over and photograph them all. Compared to what he used to photograph, it was a rather simple task, but after all of the traveling he'd done in the previous years, Angel really didn't mind.

After ironing out some of the logistical problems he faced with his new job, he'd finally been able to see to the errands he'd needed to run. By then, it had been late afternoon, and he'd had to skip going to the post office. At least by the time he'd gotten home, the contractors were done for the day and his headache wouldn't get any worse than it already was. Maybe he would make a sandwich and then head to bed early for once. The phone, though, had other ideas as its shrill ringing loudly echoed throughout the house.

Angel shook his head, already knowing who would be calling him. "Hello?"

"Hey Angel!" Fred chirped happily through the phone to him.

"Calling to check up on me?" Angel teased lightly.

"What? No! I'd never...," she trailed off and then sighed loudly. "I just worry about you being there all by yourself.

"I'm fine, Fred," Angel reassured his sister. "Besides, this is Sunnydale. What bad could possibly happen here?"

Fred laughed at his brotherly poke at her. "I know, I know...well, actually, isn't it usually the case that small towns aren't as innocent as they seem?"

"Fred!" he chastised her with a chuckle. Sometimes her imagination seemed to work in complete overdrive.

"You're sure you're fine?" she repeated, her worry betraying the fact that her brother was quite capable of taking care of himself.

"Yes, everything's great. Well, other than all the noise waking me up in the morning," he groused, still annoyed over his early morning wake-up.

"Noise? What noise?" Fred jumped in, instantly concerned that something was wrong and that Angel was just protecting her.

"Oh, just the renovators. They started on the upstairs this morning," he explained to her while walking toward his office.

"Oh, yeah, right! I forgot about them," Fred laughed at her earlier jump to conclusions.

Angel spent another hour on the phone with his sister. She'd insisted that he tell her everything that had occurred since their last conversation almost a week earlier. So he told her about the progress on the house renovations and his adjustments to his new job. His wonderful, but always worrying, sister still didn't understand why he had left his old job. So for what he thought was probably the hundredth time, he explained it to her again.

~`~`~

A half hour after getting off the phone with his sister, Angel was standing in his newly renovated office with a perplexed look on his face. He had searched the entire room for his Day Planner, but the damn thing seemed to have disappeared. Of course, he could always use the shiny, new PDA his sister had bought him for his birthday, but honestly, the thing freaked him out more than just a little. He preferred using good old paper and pencil. Maybe it was still in one of the boxes that had gotten stored in the attic during the move and renovation. With a shrug, Angel got out of his chair and walked towards the mahogany staircase in the center of the house that led to the second and third floors.

Ascending the two flights of stairs, he reached the attic. Actually, it wasn't really an attic. It was more like another floor, entirely livable if fixed up properly. But since he had no need for more bedrooms, the space would just be used for storage. Angel shook his head and chuckled at himself when he saw a box sitting near the top of the stairs labeled 'Office.' He must have forgotten to bring it down after the workers had finished on his office.

Angel sorted through the box for a few moments before triumphantly pulling out his missing planner. He set the little book aside and began putting the other items back in the box. Once everything was packaged again, he stood and began to walk towards the stairs when the window on the far side of the room caught his eye. His brow furrowed as he tried to remember if that was the one that was really a door that opened up to a small balcony. He thought so, but he wasn't sure.

Setting his planner on the top of the box, Angel wandered over to the opposite side of the room. His fingers swiped at the cobwebs and dust motes that had built up around what he could now tell was in fact the door to the balcony. Wiping away some of the dirt that had coated the old glass, he peered out into the dark night sky. Deciding to check out the view from the balcony, he reached down to root for the knob or latch that he knew had to be present. Successfully finding one, he gave the handle a swift tug and felt the door pull open. The rusty hinges creaked loudly as he stepped back and opened the door fully.

For a moment, he only stood and stared out into the midnight blue sky. He took several hesitant steps out onto the balcony, the old wood under his feet groaning from the weight of his body. He wandered to the edge and leaned lightly on the chipped white railing, unsure of its sturdiness. The nearby waves crashing on the beach drew his attention and he gazed out over the rippling ocean water. Nearly full, the moon reflected brightly off the water and cast a luminescent glow to all it touched.

The peaceful atmosphere soothed his tired mind and body, which he thought, was rather ironic considering the nature of balconies such as these. He'd read the stories behind the Widow's Walk. It was said that the wives of sailors whose husbands never returned from sea would walk the balconies, staring out at the ocean, in hopes that their husbands would come home to them. They usually never did, and the ritual pacing in wait became the Widow's Walk of denial. So Angel found it odd that standing on this balcony was soothing to his soul. Maybe it was because he wasn't searching for a lost love, or maybe it was because he'd lived in the noisy city for so long that the mere presence of the serene ocean sounds were calming. Whatever it was, he didn't know. There was just something here pulling at the edges of his soul.

Angel had no idea how long he had stood there, gently reclining on his elbows against the rail. It seemed like it had only been fifteen minutes or so, but when he glanced at his watch, he saw that it was nearly midnight and he'd been standing there for over a half hour. He cursed lightly under his breath, knowing that it would take him at least an hour to shower, get ready for bed and fall asleep, and then he would be joyfully awakened at seven a.m. by his ever conscientious contractors. Maybe if he offered them some extra money they'd change their hours a little. It's not like he couldn't afford it.

Sighing, he started to turn away from the railing to head back inside when something caught his eye off in the distance. He squinted in an attempt to find whatever it was that had flickered in his vision. Seeing nothing, he again went to leave when he saw a flash of white near the woods bordering the beach. He leaned slightly over the railing and squinted his eyes again. This time, he made out the shape of a person who appeared to be sitting on a rock. He wasn't sure, but it looked to be a female from her small physical stature and the long blonde hair trailing down her back.

Angel could barely make out the small form of what he was now sure was a woman off in the distance, but he couldn't help but be curious. After all, it was past midnight and there was some woman just sitting on a rock. There seemed to be a sort of ethereal glow around her that drew his eyes in. Unable to look elsewhere, Angel stood and stared at the luminous white form.

Laughing slightly at his curiosity, he leaned back from the railing and muttered to himself under his breath. For all he knew the white shape could be a stray dog wandering the beach. No, Angel was sure it was a person, a female person. Who was she? And what was she doing there this late at night? It was probably just one of his neighbors who suffered from insomnia and decided to go for a walk. Since he was still awake himself, he figured he might as well walk down and introduce himself. It might be nice to make a friend in his new town. So Angel stepped back into the attic and headed downstairs.

Exiting through the front door of the house, his eyes scanned the area where he'd seem the woman, but there was nothing. He took a few steps and then stopped. Maybe he was so tired that he'd imagined it all, or maybe it was just the moon reflecting off of something. No...there had been someone there. Hadn't there? Suddenly, he saw a flash of white a little further beyond where it had earlier been.

He walked unhurriedly onto the sand, hoping to shed some light over the enigmatic person. His eyes followed her as she moved farther from him. The light, fluid movements of her steps made it look almost as if she was floating across the sand. Angel knew he was being utterly ridiculous, but he had a strange desire to find out who this woman was. Of course, he had to catch up with her first. And he may have been able to do that if he hadn't suddenly found himself sprawling face first into the sand.

Out of breath from the impact of his fall, and momentarily stunned, Angel could only lay there, hoping he wouldn't inhale the sand on his face. When the pain in his chest began to subside, he pulled his body up and realized his shoelace had gotten caught on a piece of driftwood. It figured he would have that kind of luck. Untangling the stuck shoelace, he stood up and brushed the sand off his body.

Remembering the woman, he lifted his eyes, but found her gone. Dismayed, he swiftly scanned the surrounding area but found nothing. His brow furrowed at her disappearance. How could she have gotten away that quickly? Jogging over to where he'd last seen her, Angel looked over the area. There was nothing to show that there had been anything at all there.

"Hello?" he called out before he could stop himself and think better of his decision.

"Hello? Is anyone there?" he yelled loudly after receiving no response to his first shout.

Again, no one answered him. Frowning, Angel walked along the edge of the woods bordering the beach in hopes of finding some evidence that his over-tired imagination hadn't been playing tricks on him. But there was absolutely nothing.

Sighing deeply, Angel shook his head at his silly actions. He had to have been seeing things. After all, he had been up for almost nineteen hours now. Pushing aside thoughts of the peculiar, and probably nonexistent, woman, Angel slowly walked back to his house. It was definitely time for him to get some sleep.

~`~`~ Chapter 3 ~`~`~

Angel spent the next few days experiencing what publishers consider 'crunch time'. Until he'd been through it, he'd had no idea how many things could go wrong just before a magazine went to print. He couldn't quite say he was looking forward to going through it once a month. By the first week of his second month on the job, though, Angel felt like he was really beginning to settle in.

He'd spent most of Monday on the telephone making arrangements with Sunnydale University's anthropology department for the photo shoot he was doing there later in the week. He hadn't realized how much red-tape there was to go through just to take pictures of some old Native American artifacts that the university's archeology professor had dug up recently in the area.

To the average person, Sunnydale seemed to be one of those quiet little California towns that was, for lack of a better term, ordinary. The houses were ordinary, the buildings were ordinary, just about the only thing that wasn't ordinary was the ridiculous amount of cemeteries located within its City limits. But apparently, as Angel soon found out, the town was full of history, and most of it was buried, some literally and others metaphorically.

Deciding he needed to view artifacts he was soon to photograph, Angel made a trip to the University. As he browsed through the display cases at the Chumash artifacts that had been discovered only a couple of weeks ago, he tried to concentrate on which objects he wanted to single out for spotlight pictures. The task at hand was becoming increasingly difficult as not one piece out of the twenty-six recovered were standing out to him. Normally he could walk into a situation and something would jump out at him as needing to be photographed, but for some reason today, it was just not happening for him.

Reaching into the open display case, Angel picked up a knife that had once been used by a Chumash warrior. He eyed it carefully, looking for something that might make it stand out from the rest of the pieces. As he continued to turn the knife over and over in his hand, his thoughts began to drift.

"Mr. O'Meara, I'm sorry but we'd prefer that you not handle the artifacts until necessary for the photographs," a soft spoken female instructed.

Angel turned to see a woman in her mid-thirties with dark brown hair eyeing him in annoyance. "Hmmm? Oh, yeah. Sorry about that." Angel answered slowly as his mind switched back to work-related topics. "You must be Jenny Calendar," he said and held out his hand.

"That's me," Jenny answered with a smile and shook his hand. "The artifacts are fragile, and handling them, plus the natural oils on people's hands, can deteriorate them further," she explained.

Jenny watched as Angel carefully placed the dagger back into its case and continued studying the other objects. He was quite handsome; she had to admit, though he was too young for her tastes. Still, the muscular build, spikey hair, and deep brown eyes were enchanting. If only she were closer to his age!

The young man had only moved to Sunnydale a couple of weeks ago, but he'd been the talk of the town for much longer. It wasn't often that a small 'burg like Sunnydale had a famous photographer take up residence within its limits. Most people wondered why such a rich and successful man would choose Sunnydale, and others just didn't care. Jenny, herself, held an idle curiosity about the man, but nothing more than passing interest.

"Are you looking for anything in particular?" she asked him when she noticed Angel's continued stare at the display.

"Mr. O'Meara?" Jenny tapped his shoulder, noticing he seemed lost in thought.

Angel snapped himself out of his internal musings and faced Jenny. "Call me Angel, please. And no, I'm just trying to decide which would be best to use for the photo spread."

"Perhaps it would help if I told you a little about each of them." Jenny then launched into an extensive lecture about the Chumash and the artifacts on display which Angel tried his hardest to pay attention to.

~`~`~

Once back in her office, Jenny picked up her telephone and dialed the familiar number. "Rupert, hi. It's Jenny."

"Hello, Jenny. I presume Angel has been by. How did it go?" the man on the other end of the line questioned.

"Good, though you forgot to tell him he was not to handle the artifacts," Jenny appropriately chastised him.

"Oh, dear." Though she couldn't see it, Jenny knew he'd removed his glasses and was now wiping at the lenses. "I'm so sorry. It slipped my mind. Everything has been so hectic lately.

"Don't worry, Rupert. He didn't harm anything." She took a seat on her desk chair.

"Was your meeting productive?" Giles hoped it was. They needed to get this article done quickly, he thought as he mentally made a checklist of things to accomplish in the next few days.

"Yes. We talked quite a bit. He seemed a bit distracted, though," Jenny explained to him.

Giles frowned to himself. "Really? Did he say why?"

"No. It just seemed as if he had something important on his mind, but I wouldn't worry about it." She held back a chuckle at his concern. Rupert worried too much about everything.

"Okay. I'm glad the meeting went well." Giles didn't know why, but Jenny's words about Angel bothered him. Perhaps he'd pay a visit to his new employee tonight to see how things were going.

"Listen, I've got to run. Are we still on for lunch tomorrow?" she asked while gathering the materials she'd need for her next meeting.

"Of course. I'll meet you at one." As he spoke, Giles double checked his planner to make sure he'd written in his lunch with Jenny.

"Good, see you then!"

"Goodbye, Jenny."

~`~`~

After spending nearly four hours at the university's museum, Angel felt as if he were now an expert on the Chumash Indians. Jenny Calendar was a sweet woman, but she was quite passionate about her work. She tutored him not only on each individual artifact, but also the tribe itself and the decimation it faced at the hands of the white settlers. The history lesson had been interesting and informative; Angel just wished she hadn't been so long-winded. At least he now had a better idea of what to photograph for the article.

He had planned to explore the town a bit after his work obligations were met, but now Angel simply wanted to return to his home. Perhaps a night of laziness and TV watching would ease his frazzled mind. Or maybe a book since television wasn't something he typically enjoyed. Either way, he planned to relax. The move, the restoration of his house, and his new job had kept him on the go constantly lately, and he was just plain old spent. So, yes, a night of kicking back was definitely in order.

First, though, he needed to stop at the market and pick up some food. His refrigerator was seriously devoid of things to eat. Already making a list in his head of things he needed to pick up, Angel pulled his sleek, black BMW into the parking lot of the local food store and parked.

As he wandered slowly through the aisles of the store, he had the eerie feeling that he was being stared at. Every so often he would glance up and catch people quickly turning their eyes away from him. Wondering if maybe he had toilet paper stuck to his shoe or something, Angel checked out his body and found nothing. He couldn't figure out why people were so keen to stare at him. And if he were honest, it wasn't the first time it had happened either. He'd been stared at when he'd went to the hardware store to buy a hammer, at the bank when he'd opened up a checking account, and pretty much everywhere else he went.

Unnerved by the other shoppers, he finished his shopping as hurriedly as possible. The sooner he was out of the market the better he'd feel. Wheeling his cart up to the nearest empty register, he unloaded his groceries and stood silently as a young woman with strawberry-blonde hair rang up his order. Her nametag said 'Anya' and she, too, was staring at him, but unlike the others, she didn't cast her gaze away when he noticed.

"You moved into that old Victorian down on the beach didn't you?" she asked quite loudly.

"Uh, yeah," Angel answered warily.

"Why? I mean, that house is crap," Anya stated bluntly.

Angel sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. This woman had no tact whatsoever. "It's a nice house."

"Whatever," she waved off his defense. "Have you seen anything...weird?"

Perking up at the question, Angel gave his full attention to the annoying cashier. "What do you mean?"

"Nothing," she shrugged noncommittally. "I was just wondering."

"Oh, uh, no," Angel lied. He couldn't help but feel that there was something the woman wasn't telling him. Why would she have asked such a question for no reason? Of course, maybe he was so worn out he was imaging everything.

"Oh." Her reply was more a sigh of disappointment than anything else. "Your total is $85.32," she told him and promptly held out her hand for payment.

Angel gave her his credit card and waited while the bagger finished packing his food. He couldn't have been more glad to get out of the small store. Everybody there was giving him the creeps. He couldn't brush off the feeling that there was something strange about this town. The way people stared at him, the whispers he'd heard more than once behind his back at work, and the strange woman walking the beach at midnight. It just left him with a general feeling of unease. What the strangeness was about, he didn't know, and he didn't particularly want to know. He came here to relax and to take a break from the fast paced life he'd been living, and that was what he planned to do.

~`~`~

Hours later, Angel was feeling much better than he had been earlier that day. He'd come home, unpacked his groceries, and then checked over the progress the workers had made on his house that day. After making some notes for himself about the photo spread for the Chumash article, he took a shower and then settled onto the couch with a recent novel he'd picked up.

He was just about to take a break and find a snack when a knock on the door sounded loudly. Wondering who in the world could be coming by this late at night, Angel set down his book and walked toward the large oak door. Opening it, he was surprised at who he found on the other side.

"Giles, hello. I wasn't expecting you." Angel opened the door wider and waved Giles in.

"Yes, I do apologize for that. I was on my way home and thought I would stop over to see how everything is going," the older man explained casually.

"No problem. I wasn't doing anything really," Angel dismissed his concern. "Do you live near here?"

"Yes, actually, quite near here. It's the large house up on the cliffs." He gestured in the direction of his house.

"Oh, I didn't know that was yours." Angel thought of the house he could see some of from the beach outside his house. "It's quite a large place. Do you live there alone?"

At the question, a dark look passed over Giles' face, but was gone so quickly Angel wondered if he'd imagined it. "Yes, it's just me there," Giles answered and then quickly changed subject. "How did your meeting with Ms. Calendar go?"

"Fine. The shoot should go well."

"Good, good. Jenny said she was looking forward to seeing the article when it's done," he mentioned for lack of anything else to say.

"I expect it'll be a great article," Angel told him, curiously wondering at the kind way Giles spoke Jenny's name.

"I'm glad. So you shouldn't have any trouble with the pictures?" he asked next.

"No. I'm going back in two days to shoot some of the artifacts," Angel relayed his plans.

"Sounds good," Giles nodded. "How is everything else? Are you settled in?"

"Mostly, though it's hard with all the restoration still going on." Angel grimaced as he remembered all the noise the workers tended to make.

"I can imagine," Giles laughed wryly. "What do you think of Sunnydale so far?"

Angel pondered the question for a moment before answering. "It's a nice town. The people are a bit strange, though."

"Why do you say that?" Giles wanted to know, his voice a bit anxious.

"People keep staring at me and some woman asked me where I lived and if I'd seen anything strange," he explained the weird situations he'd experienced but left out the mysterious woman on the beach for reasons he couldn't quite explain.

"Oh, well, they are probably just curious. Sunnydale is a small town. It's not often someone of renown moves here," Giles answered quickly.

The swift dismissal puzzled Angel somewhat. For the second time that day, he felt like he wasn't being told something. He considered questioning Giles, but intuition told him the man had no intention of speaking further on the subject so he let it drop.

"I guess," Angel shrugged.

"Well, I must be going. It is quite late." Giles gave Angel a long look, wondering internally what his employee had on his mind, before walking to the door.

"Thank you for stopping by." Angel stuck out his hand and shook Giles'.

"Good night."

~`~`~ Chapter 4 ~`~`~

A loud crack of lightning startled Angel out of a deep sleep later that night. He sat up in a daze, trying to figure out what had woken him. When the room lit up because of another flash of lightning, he realized that a storm must have rolled in while he was sleeping. Considering that it was three in the morning, all he wanted to do was go back to sleep. Concern over whether he'd remember to close the windows in his car had him wearily climbing out of bed. Rain was definitely not good for the leather interior of his car. He stumbled over to the window, rubbing his eyes in the process.

Peering out through the glass, Angel saw that it hadn't yet started to rain. He could hear rumbles of thunder and see flashes of lightning, leaving little doubt that the rain would soon come. After staring at the sky a moment longer, he shifted his gaze to the driveway and to his car only to find it wasn't there. It took a minute for him to realize that he'd parked it in the garage. He'd completely forgotten that the construction workers had finally finished working on it and that he was finally able to park his car there for the first time that day.

Angel laughed at his forgetfulness then looked back up to the sky when a bright flash of light lit up everything. The storm was getting closer, and it looked like it was going to be wicked. That didn't bother him particularly. Storms could be fascinating, except when trying to sleep. He wished the moon, though, wasn't hidden behind the heavy, gray storm clouds so that he could see land below. He could only imagine what the ocean waves looked like when affected by bad weather. It was too dark, though, to see them.

When lightning again lit up the sky, this time in a series of bright flashes, Angel's eyes were gazing down toward the beach. The entire area lit up almost as if it were day. And that was when he saw it; a solitary figure near the water's edge. The glimpse was so quick, though, he couldn't be sure he really saw it. No, Angel was positive he'd seen somebody there. So he waited till the next flash. When it came a long minute later, there was nothing, just an empty expanse of sand and water.

Perplexed, Angel wandered back to his bed and lay down. This was the second time he'd seen what he thought was a woman out on the beach by his house. Was he imaging things or was there somebody really out there? Maybe, he supposed, it was someone who lived nearby. As far as Angel knew, there were only two houses close to his. To the south was another Victorian house similar to his, and then to the north, up on the cliffs, was the large mansion that he passed on his way into town, and which he now knew Giles lived in. It had to be somebody who lived in one of those houses. But as far as he knew, Giles lived alone. So it had to be the other Victorian house. He'd have to wander down there someday soon and introduce himself, and hopefully find out who the woman was who liked to walk the beach at night.

Though he'd convinced himself of the identity of the enigmatic female, Angel still wanted to know who she was. After all, they were now neighbors. It made sense to get to know the people around him, especially if she often took walks near his house. Tomorrow he had to go into town, maybe then he'd ask around and see if anybody knew who lived in the Victorian. Or he could go to the local library and check the public records.

Shaking his head, he wondered why this was bothering him so much. People walked on the beach all the time. What was so special about this one? Why was he so curious about the strange woman? Angel had no idea, but he just couldn't get her out of his mind. He supposed it was because of the fact that the only times he had seen her were in the dead of night, always alone, and seemingly there one minute, then gone the next. Yes, that had to it, he told himself. It was just the circumstances. Still, he'd feel better about it once he knew who she was.

~`~`~

The following morning, Angel rose early and was soon on his way into town. He had a few errands to run to get things for the house, and since it was still on his mind, he planned to ask around about who lived him. Laughing at his own obsessiveness, he flipped on his turn signal and made a right onto the main street of town.

Main Street. How original, he thought, but very typical of a small town. Coming from Los Angeles, the quaint road reminded him of something seen in movies. There was one lane in each direction with parking on each side. Along the street there were small stores, no doubt owned by locals, and the sidewalks were clean and neat. It was such a sharp contrast when compared to a big city like LA. He liked it though, so quiet and unassuming.

Parking his car, Angel climbed out and walked to the meter with a few quarters in his hand. He was surprised to read on the metal contraption that parking on Sunday's was free, and that for a single quarter, he'd get an hour of parking time. That definitely was quite different from LA. Shoving the coins back in his pocket, he turned away and started down the sidewalk, trying to decide where to stop first. He needed to pick up a few more things from the market, plus look for a new cordless phone since his had been acting up. It had probably gotten banged around too much during the move.

The first thing that caught his attention, though, was the wonderful smell coming from a shop to his left. Looking up, he saw a sign that said 'Java Bytes'. He chuckled at the name, wondering where people came up with these things. The store appeared to be some sort of coffee shop from what he could tell. The smell made his stomach growl and Angel figured he might as well grab something to eat and some coffee since he hadn't before he left his house.

Walking in, Angel was surprised, to say the least, to find that the shop was actually an internet café. The shop's name made more sense now. He wouldn't have figured Sunnydale as a place to have one, though. The place was nice, in a small town kind of way. It was decorated in muted tones of beige and green with an earthy theme to the paintings and other knick-knacks. All in all, it was rather welcoming, the kind of place he wouldn't mind visiting regularly.

There was an empty seat at the counter so Angel sat down on the chair, finding it comfortable. Soon, a middle-aged woman with blonde hair and a nametag that said 'Pat' came over and took his order. A minute later, she returned with his cranberry muffin and large coffee. Efficient, he said to himself. So he settled back into his chair, content to enjoy his breakfast in the quiet shop.

"Pat makes the best muffins doesn't she?" a male voice to his left soon spoke.

Twisting in his seat, Angel saw a man with floppy brown hair and a medium build. He looked to be a few years younger than him, though no more than three or four. "Yeah, they're pretty good," he answered, not used to having complete strangers start up conversations. In LA, people tended to mind their own.

"Everyone comes here for her muffins," the young man stated, smiling at Pat. "You're new in town aren't you?"

"Yeah, just moved here recently," Angel supplied, sipping his coffee, sighing internally over the tasteful, strong brew.

"Why? I mean, Sunnydale's not exactly an exciting place," he said, giving Angel an odd look.

"That's exactly why," laughed Angel. "I'm from LA. Just wanted to get away from all the noise and such of a big city. Plus, I used to travel a lot and I got tired of it."

"Ah, a city boy," nodded the stranger. "Anyways, I'm Xander Harris, and this," he pointed to another young man sitting next to him, "is my buddy Jesse."

"Nice to meet you." Angel stuck out his hand, smiling, finding it relaxing to chat with the locals. "I'm Angel O'Meara, and before you say it, I know, interesting name."

Xander chuckled and shook his hand. "Hey, you said it, not me. So...where are you living in our nice little 'burg?"

"I just bought an old Victorian house down on the beach," Angel answered, taking a sip of coffee while contemplating ordering another muffin.

"Wow, really? I heard that place was bought. You must have some money saved up to afford all the work that place needs," Xander spoke, realizing the dark-haired man wasn't just some random person. Being in construction, he knew the old Victorian would cost a pretty penny to make livable.

"It's mostly surface work. I can handle it," he replied evasively, not comfortable with talking about his wealth. People tended to get weird when they found out one had money.

"Okaaayyy," drawled Xander. "So, what do you think of Sunnydale so far?"

"It's nice. A lot different than Los Angeles," Angel answered, glad the topic had shifted away from money. He didn't want people to think of him as some rich prick from the big city.

"I can imagine," Xander said with a grin. "I've only been up there twice. Too hectic for my tastes."

"Which is why I moved here," pointed out Angel.

"I don't blame ya, buddy," chuckled Xander, giving Angel a pat on the back.

Angel laughed as well, feeling comfortable around the young man. He wasn't normally the type of person Angel would make friends with. Well, actually, he didn't have many friends period, but this was a bit of a new start for him. It would be nice to get to know some people for once.

Just then, a thought occurred to Angel. He set his coffee cup down and looked once again at Xander. "Hey, maybe you could help me out with something."

"Sure, if I can," Xander responded, shrugging his shoulders.

"I was just wondering who lived in the houses near mine," Angel asked the pressing question on his mind.

"Why?" Xander replied tersely, his hands stilling suddenly.

Before Angel could explain, Pat walked up. "Would you like more coffee, honey?"

"No, thanks," he shook his head, then focused back on Xander. "I'm just curious, I guess," he went on. "I've seen some woman with blonde hair walking on the beach near my house and I figured she lived nearby."

Silence descended on all those sitting within hearing distance of Angel, causing an odd chill to run down his spine. Frowning, his eyes flickered around him and found that he was being stared at from all directions. It made him feel like he had a scarlet letter stamped on his forehead or something.

"There aren't any women living in that area," Xander bit out harshly, the friendly demeanor he had been displaying completely disappearing.

"Really? I've seen her-."

"Just drop it! There's nobody!" Xander said roughly, cutting off Angel.

"But-."

"If ya know what's good for ya," Pat interrupted, dropping his bill callously on his plate. "You'll forget you saw anything," she finished and stiffly walked away.

Before Angel could even try to figure out what had happened, Xander flicked a few bills onto the counter and quickly left with his friend. Shocked into silence, Angel could only sit there and wonder what he'd done. Moments earlier, he'd been having a nice conversation, and suddenly he was being avoided like the town pariah.

Shaking his head, he finished his coffee, feeling decidedly uncomfortable. No one was talking to him anymore, but he could feel their eyes burning into him. He couldn't get out of the shop soon enough so he pulled a twenty dollar bill out of his wallet and sat it on top of the bill. Without waiting for the change, he hurriedly vacated his seat and left, never noticing the two people who followed him out.

~`~`~

Two hours later, Angel was restlessly sitting in one of the uncomfortable wooden chairs in the Sunnydale Public Library. He'd gone straight there after leaving the coffee shop, his desire to find out about the mysterious blonde having only grown stronger from the actions of the people in the shop. So far, he had absolutely nothing to show for his research.

The supposedly simple task of figuring out who his neighbors were was starting to feel like looking for a needle in a haystack. He hadn't been able to find anything at all about his house or the people who lived around him. For one thing, Sunnydale wasn't LA, and its library certainly lacked the amenities he would have found there. Plus, whenever he thought he was about to have some success, he'd find the next volume missing, or a page ripped, or blurred so much it was unreadable. It was absolutely strange.

Honestly, Angel was beginning to feel more than a little disturbed by his current situation. What had started out as a simple search to meet his neighbors, and of course find the identity of the mysterious beach-walker, was turning into an unexpected mystery full of secrets and cranky townspeople.

Angel laughed at that thought. He'd spent way too much time listening to Fred's stories about small towns. There was a perfectly logical explanation for why he'd been given the brush off in the coffee shop and why he couldn't find any information. There had to be one. He just hadn't figured out what it was yet.

Unable to think of any other sources to check, he grabbed a book with an archive of the local newspaper. Idly, he flipped through the pages, eyes barely reading the printed text. Towards the middle of the book, his fingers stilled as he took in a partially torn page.

Brow furrowed, he stared at the ripped paper, noticing over half of it was missing. The only part left contained the newspaper's logo, and a partial headline: "3 Bodi-." That was all. Whatever article that had gone with the incomplete headline was missing. Glancing at the date, he read that the page was from July 19, 2000; only four years earlier.

Why would someone tear out the page, he wondered to himself. If he or she wanted the article why didn't they just photocopy it? Curious about the oddity, Angel flipped further through the pages and found more missing. There hadn't been any before the first one, all came after. Whatever the pages were about, they must have been interesting for someone to just rip them out.

So focused on the book in front of him, Angel almost jumped out of his skin when a crumbled up piece of paper landed directly in front of him. He eyed the little wad of paper for a second before looking up to see where it had come from. The only thing he saw was a flash of red hair ducking behind a book case.

Frowning, he gazed back down at the paper, hesitantly reaching a hand out to pick it up. This day was becoming stranger by the second, but he couldn't resist the urge to uncrumble the paper. He didn't know whether he was surprised or not to find something written on the inside.

In small, bubbly handwriting it said:

"You won't find what you're looking for. Meet me in study room 2."

~`~`~ Chapter 5 ~`~`~

Finding the room mentioned in the note took Angel only a few minutes. The library was rather small so there were only so many places to look. He'd eventually come across it in the back corner of the building. Instead of entering right away, though, he stood a few feet away for a minute while he gathered his thoughts.

The door to the room was open, but he couldn't hear any voices from inside. Angel was guessing that whoever had slipped him the note was waiting for him, and that he or she had something to tell him. What had the person meant when they'd said he wouldn't find what he was looking for? How did they know what he was looking for anyway? Hell, Angel wasn't even sure what he was trying to find.

He contemplated turning and walking away, leaving this mystery behind him. What was he doing? He was just a photographer; a simple guy wanting some peace and quiet after years of traveling. Now, all of the sudden he was seeing strange women on the beach, making enemies of the locals, and sitting in a library for hours trying to find answers when he didn't even know what the questions were. And now this, some strange person leaving him notes and wanting to talk to him. If he were smart, he would forget about all this and go about his business. It was too late for that, though. Whatever was going on had reeled him in. Perhaps if he hadn't been treated so rudely at the coffee shop hours early, he would have been able to ignore it all, but now he wanted to find out the answers, and the questions.

Taking a deep breath, Angel stepped toward the room and then into the open doorway. Inside, he saw two people standing there, watching him anxiously. One was a female in her early twenties with shoulder length red hair. Angel assumed she was the one who had tossed the note at him. The other was a man that looked slightly older than the female. He was of medium build and had strikingly odd bleached blonde hair.

Neither of them spoke so Angel decided to take the initiative. "Someone wanna tell me what the hell is going on?"

"Shhh!!" the redhead hushed him, a panicked look crossing her face.

"For pete's sake, mate," the blonde snapped quietly, rushing over to Angel and pulling him further into the room. "Why don't you yell a little louder? And close the bloody door!"

Stunned, Angel watched as the man stuck his head out of the room quickly and then pulled it back. He closed the door before turning back to the female. "I don't think anybody heard him."

"Good," she sighed in relief, sinking down onto one of the four chairs that sat around a small circular table.

"I'm confused," Angel finally said when he'd shaken off the shock of their actions. "You wanted to talk to me and now you're telling me to shut up?"

"No, it's just...," she trailed off, looking to her companion for help.

"Ya see, no one can know we're talking to you," he explained vaguely.

"Me? What did I do?" a confused Angel asked.

"It's not like that, but people are already talking about how you were asking questions today and it would be better if they didn't know you were getting answers," the redhead continued.

"Um, okay," Angel drawled, still not really understanding.

"I know it's confusing. There's just more to this than you could possibly imagine and people get kinda...unhappy if it's brought up," she told him sadly.

"If we talk to you," the man said, looking at Angel sternly. "You have to keep this conversation to yourself. We could get in trouble."

Once again, the temptation to flee hit Angel. Something was telling him that whatever these two people knew was not going to be good and that maybe he was better off not knowing. He just couldn't seem to make himself leave though.

"Sure. I won't say anything," Angel agreed to their request.

"Good," she nodded. "Why don't you sit down?"

After he'd taken a seat, the female again looked to her friend before focusing on Angel. She sighed deeply, her hands twisting in her lap. Finally, she looked directly at Angel.

"I guess I should introduce myself. My name is Willow and this is my fiancé William." At the blonde's mumbled cough, she rolled her eyes. "He likes to be called Spike for whatever reason."

"It's, uh, nice to meet you. I'm Angel," he introduced himself.

"We know who you are, mate. The whole town is talking about you and your questions," the man, Spike, said.

"Why? I mean, all I did was ask a simple question," Angel replied, again confused by the uproar he'd apparently caused.

"It's the question you asked. We were there," Willow explained. "Spike and I co-own the coffee shop so we were there and saw what happened."

"Oh," Angel mumbled. "So why is asking about a woman walking on the beach near my house on the big list of things not to mention around here?"

"It's a long story," Willow answered, her voice trembling slightly. Before she spoke again, she reached into her purse and pulled something out. Her eyes watered as she stared at the object, but she quickly shook them off and slid it over to Angel. "Look familiar?"

Gazing down, Angel saw that it was a photograph. What caught his attention, though, was the beautiful blonde portrayed on the paper. She was absolutely stunning with long hair and big green eyes. Picking up the picture, Angel's mind flashed back to the woman he'd seen on the beach a few night's earlier. He hadn't seen her up close, but what he had seen of her matched the photo now in his hands.

"It looks like the woman I saw," he answered softly, still staring at the picture. There was something about her. He couldn't take his eyes off the sad smile that should have been bigger or the dulled eyes that he thought should have sparkled.

"I was afraid of that," Spike said with a sigh.

"What's her name?" Angel asked, sparing a glance at the two sitting across from him.

"Her name was Buffy," Willow supplied, a single tear slipping down her cheek.

"Was? I don't understand," Angel murmured, his full attention shifting to Willow and Spike.

"If you've seen her," Spike started, taking a hold of Willow's left hand. "Then you've seen Sunnydale's much loathed ghost."

"Ghost?" Angel gasped. "There's-."

"No such thing as ghosts?" Spike finished for him. "Whether there are or aren't, that's what people around here think she is."

"She's dead?" whispered Angel, eyes dropping down to the photo once again. His heart lurched at the thought of the beautiful woman in the picture being dead. He didn't even know her, but it bothered him to think she was dead.

"It's a long story," Willow answered, swiping at another tear that had begun to fall. "It's probably best if we start from the beginning."

"Okay," Angel agreed, tearing his eyes from the picture.

Willow took a deep breath, squeezing Spike's hand a bit harder before she started the story that would forever haunt her.

"We were juniors in High School, me, Buffy and the rest of our friends, when this all started. Well, Spike was a senior, but the rest of us were juniors. The school year was about halfway over and Buffy's seventeenth birthday was coming up so we decided to throw a surprise party for her," she began, her mind drifting back to that horrible time. "It was on a Tuesday, her birthday. We had school that day, but the party was going to be early that night. We...we..."

"How are we gonna keep her out of the house until the party?" Faith Walker asked once she was sure that Buffy was no where around.

"Don't worry, we've got that covered," Willow answered, hopping up on one of the desks in the empty classroom. "Spike has detention today and she agreed to stay and help him with his chemistry project while he was stuck there."

"Detention," Spike snorted, still pissed off at getting in trouble for driving his motorcycle down the hallway before school one morning.

Willow rolled her eyes and held back a laugh. Typical Spike. "So that should keep her busy until we've got everything set up. Spike will get her to her house after his detention is over."

"What happened?" Angel questioned when both hesitated to go on. He knew without them saying, though, that it was something horrible.

Spike's shoulders slumped and Willow choked back a sob. Seeing that his fiancé wouldn't be able to speak, Spike told the next part.

"Damnit!" Spike cursed, storming out of the library. He was going to be in a load of trouble. Buffy had never shown up for their study session which meant she likely went home and found out about the party. The others were going to kill him.

Stomping down the hall to the front door, he exited the building. He was almost to his motorcycle when he noticed Buffy's car parked a few feet away. Maybe he was saved. But if she was still in the school why hadn't she shown up? Deciding to find her, after all he still had to get her to the party, Spike turned and headed back to the building.

Thirty minutes, and a quick search of the school, later, Spike was growing worried. He hadn't found Buffy anywhere, and his mind kept telling him it wasn't like her to not show up when they had plans.

A noise to his left startled him and he saw the Principle rounding the corner. Not wanting to be accosted by the obnoxious man, Spike ducked into the nearest door, which happened to be to the girl's locker room. Amused by his luck, he took a few steps into the room, eyeing the place few men got to go in.

Seeing nothing particularly interesting, after all school was over for the day and no half-naked females were prancing about, he was about to leave when he thought he heard something coming from the back. He took several steps in that direction when he heard it again. It sounded like a quiet cry, and for reasons he couldn't explain, it made his stomach twists in knots.

Before he knew what he was doing, Spike was dashing through the rows of lockers to the back of the room. What he found when he rounded the last corner was something he would never forget.

"Oh God, Buffy!" he screamed at the sight of her beaten, trembling body. The torn shirt and hiked up skirt told him enough, but it was the dried blood on her thighs that confirmed what he already suspected.

"She'd been raped," Spike whispered tearfully, the image still burned in his memory.

"No," Angel rasped, eyes shooting to the picture as he now knew what caused the sad look on her beautiful face.

This time it was Spike who couldn't seem to go on explaining. Willow bowed her head for a moment before she continued the story.

"She had stayed after school and planned to meet Spike like she was supposed to, but first she decided to check out the swim meet," Willow said, a harsh laugh following. "She'd had a huge crush on the star of the swim team so she'd wanted to at least catch the end of the match."

"She never made it to detention," Spike filled in the already known detail.

"What happened? Did they catch who did it?" Angel asked, hoping that the bastard who had hurt her had been punished.

"Cameron Walker," Willow spat out the name.

"The captain of the swim team," Spike added in an equally hateful tone.

"What?" Angel gasped, putting together the pieces of what they'd said.

"Yeah. He'd decided to use her crush to his advantage, only when she said 'no' he didn't stop," she stated angrily.

"They caught him, right? I mean you said you know who did it," Angel questioned, needing to know more of the twisted tale.

"That's the funny thing," Willow laughed though there was no amusement in the sound. "When your daddy is the police chief it seems you can get away with anything, even rape."

"He got away with it?" repeated Angel in shock. How was something like that possible? Well, he knew it was. Stuff like that happened everyday. Still...

"He did, barely even blemished his image," Spike confirmed harshly.

"That was only the beginning of it all," Willow said, glancing at the picture of her friend resting on the table in front of Angel. "It only got worse after that."

~`~`~ Chapter 6 ~`~`~

"There's more?" How could there possibly be anything worse than what he'd already been told had happened to the young woman whose sad green eyes stared up at him from the picture on the table? Being raped was bad enough, but then to have her assailant, a classmate she'd had a crush on, go free was even worse.

"Unfortunately," Willow mumbled softly. She rubbed a hand over her face, trying to gather the strength to continue the story about events she'd lived through with her best friend. "Buffy never really recovered from what happened. Well, not really. Physically she healed quickly, and I think things would have been okay after while, but..."

"But he got away with it," Angel completed her train of thought. He could already imagine how that would have affected her. First, she was viciously attacked, and then the bastard wasn't even punished.

"Yeah," Spike said with a nod. "But it's worse than even what you're thinking, though."

"Cameron Walker was like a hero in this town," Willow once again took the reigns of the conversation. "He was a star athlete, smart, likable, and he was the police chief's son. People didn't want to believe he'd done it. And add to that the police chief's best friend, our very own mayor, lending his support to Cameron."

"It got real ugly real quick," Spike supplied, shaking his head at the events from years ago. "Buffy had always been popular in school and in town. She was funny, friendly, and well, as you can see from the picture, no hardship to look at. But when going up against the power people of this town, she was nothing."

"Everyone pointed their self righteous fingers at her," Willow continued on. "The medical exam and DNA tests proved that she'd....well, Cameron's sperm was detected, but it was a pretty much a 'he said-she said' sort of deal on what happened between them. And everyone believed him."

"He said it was consensual, said she'd wanted it rough," Spike bit out, barely containing the rage he felt.

"It wasn't consensual," Willow stated adamantly. "Buffy had been a virgin, and she took sex seriously. She always said she wanted to wait until she was in a serious relationship."

Though he never knew Buffy, Angel felt his eyes watering at her pain. He felt for what she must have gone through. She'd been violently attacked by a class mate, and what was worse it was her first sexual experience. Not that that made it different than what another woman might have gone through, but he could imagine the scars that would leave on a young girl.

"Everyone rallied around Cameron, and they ostracized Buffy," she explained further, her hands twisting continuously in her lap. "They said she was a slut, or that she was getting back at him for having sex with her but not dating her. It was awful."

Spike placed a comforting hand on Willow's back. The memories of what had happened weren't easy for either of them. Dragging them up again and telling them to Angel wasn't helping, but they'd both felt it was better he get than answers to his questions from them rather than asking around town. They knew very well how people treated anything related to Buffy. If he'd kept asking, Angel would have put himself in a very bad position.

"She was harassed at school, on the streets. Anywhere she went she was a target," Spike went on.

"It took its toll on her. She tried to be strong, and she never gave up hope that people would eventually believe her." Willow shook her head, knowing they should have known better. But they'd been young and idealistic. "Any of her friends who stuck with her became enemies of the town, too," she said with a thin smile, remembering her own harassment. "Then things got worse."

Worse, Angel thought. How could this situation possibly get any worse? What more had this poor girl been subjected to?

"She started getting phone calls all the time. Sometimes they'd say nothing, sometimes they were obscene. And then the visits started," Spike explained while Willow again tried to compose herself. "She said she'd wake up in the middle of the night and there would be someone on her room. Her parents forced the police to investigate."

"But they never found anything," Angel assumed, guessing that the police were loyal to their chief, and by turn, the chief's son.

"Right," Spike nodded in agreement. "It kept on like that for two years after the rape, people following her, calling her. Just constant harassment."

"Buffy closed in on herself," Willow supplied, remembering how she'd seen her friend turn from a bright, cheery girl, to a quiet, fearful young woman. "She was afraid of everything. She stopped going to school and barely left the house. She was petrified of going out during the daytime." She shook her head, closing her eyes for a moment. "I know that sounds strange, but she seemed to associate the rape with daytime. If she went out then, people would be able to see her."

"The few times we could get her to go out, it would only be at night," Spike added in. "She thought it would allow her to blend in to the shadows better and that people wouldn't notice her."

The logic of that was weird, but Angel could understand it. He would have imagined that someone who'd be sexually assaulted would be afraid to go out at night because someone could sneak up on her easier, but in her situation he could see how she'd think she could hide when it was dark out.

"People started saying she was crazy, in a literal sense," Willow continued. "They said she was making it all up, or imagining things. It just never stopped."

Spike pulled Willow closer to him as she let loose a choked sob. He rubbed her back as he looked to Angel. "I suppose in the end, it did drive her a little crazy, but not like they say it did."

"She couldn't handle it all," Willow said with a sniffle. "And the people's opinion of her only got worse after she attacked a group of guys."

"Attacked?" Angel repeated in the form of a question.

Willow knew how it sounded. It would be hard for anyone, even someone who'd only ever seen a picture of Buffy to imagine her attacking anyone, so she explained. "We'd gotten her to go out for coffee one night. We'd just gone inside the café when she remembered she'd left her purse in the car." She paused, lifted her hands in a helpless gesture. "I offered to get it for her, but she said she'd do it. I think she was trying to prove she was strong and could handle it. Next thing we knew, people were screaming that there was a fight outside and that 'Buffy the psycho' was attacking people."

"She told us later that they'd said obscene things to her and cornered her by the car," she went on. "The guys, though, claimed they were just walking down the sidewalk when for no reason Buffy came at them." A mirthless laugh escaped.

"Everyone believed them," Angel posed what he was thinking.

"Yeah," Spike confirmed, his lips curling in a snarl. "Bloody awful it was. They pressed charges against her and they stuck. What no one bothered to pay attention to was that the guys were all Cameron's cronies. She got a police record and a hefty fine out of it. The worst was that everyone started saying she was insane and violent and that she should be put away somewhere before she really hurt someone."

"That was kinda the last straw for her," Willow said softly. "I don't think she ever left the house again."

There was a lapse in the conversation and Angel took the time to think about all he'd heard. He wondered what had happened to Buffy. They'd said she was dead. Had she killed herself? If she had, he couldn't blame her. He didn't think suicide was the answer to one's problems, but he could understand why she would have done it. There was only so much a person could take before they broke.

What kind of town was this, he questioned silently. Some poor girl is raped and everyone turns on her. It was the stuff nightmares were made out of. Only this wasn't some bad dream. This was reality. And Buffy, the pretty young girl's whose picture sat in front of him had lived it all, along with the two people on the other side of the table.

"Then..." Willow released a shuddering breath, her hand gripping Spike's so tight that he winced. "Then in July of 2000..."

July of 2000? Angel's ears perked up at that. He thought about the newspaper archives he'd been looking through when Willow's note had all but landed in his lap. Hadn't the first missing newspaper article he'd found been from that time? It only took him a moment to deduce that the articles that had been torn out related to Buffy. That was the obvious conclusion considering everything Spike and Willow had told him.

"The articles," Angel muttered under his breath.

"What?" asked Willow, giving him an odd stare.

"In the newspaper archives...a lot of articles were torn out and they were from that time," he clarified what he'd found.

"I'm not surprised," Spike mumbled to himself.

"What happened?" Angel demanded. It had to be pretty bad. He knew that somehow.

Willow opened her mouth as if to answer, but then closed it quickly. She shook her head, closing her eyes against the harsh reality of the events of that day. Slowly, her right hand reached up to tuck a few loose strands of hair behind her ear. Then, finally, after a few more seconds of silence, she told him.

"Her brother, sister, and mother were murdered," she spoke, barely audible.

Angel nearly fell out of his chair after straining to hear her words. Murdered? That was just completely unimaginable. Things like that didn't happen in small towns like Sunnydale. But hadn't what he'd already heard told him this town was anything but peaceful? He wanted to speak, to say something, but he couldn't. And from the looks Spike and Willow were sharing, he could tell that there was something else yet unsaid.

"Her father found the bodies when he got home from work." This time it was Spike who talked, turning his face away to hide his tears. "Buffy had been home that night, but...but they never found her."

"What-what do you mean they never found her?" Angel managed to utter, his mind a whirl of confusion and pain for the young girl.

"The bodies of her family were there, but Buffy just vanished," Willow elucidated, her voice raspy. "There was no trace of her."

Grimacing at the revelation, Angel tried to understand how a woman could just vanish. Why would her family be found and not her? What had happened to Buffy?

"Do they think she was killed too?" he asked, coming to what was to him the obvious conclusion.

Both Willow and Spike quickly averted their eyes, telling Angel that the answer wasn't that simple. He thought he heard Spike mutter 'if only.' But that only confused him more.

"What?" he demanded.

"The police...they investigated," Willow began, her voice harsh and bitter. "But they...they closed the case after only a few weeks. They...they concluded that Buffy had...had killed her family in a fit of insane rage."

Angel's mouth dropped open, thoroughly shocked at the newest turn of events. It was almost too much to believe. He felt like he was watching a suspense movie and not hearing the true story of the life of a beautiful young woman. Before he could object to the claim, Spike interrupted.

"We knew she could never do something like that," Spike stated, agreeing with Angel's internal thoughts. "But the town's people jumped on it. They already hated her, and said she was nuts. To them, it just proved they were right."

"They said she killed them," Willow continued. "And that afterwards, when she'd realized what she'd done, she'd killed herself by jumping off the cliffs by her house."

"You don't believe she did?" Angel asked He didn't know what to think. Looking at the picture of Buffy, he could never imagine her as having killed her own family. Of course, he'd never met her, but just from listening to the way her friends talked about her he could tell she was a good person who'd been dealt some horrible cards in life. If she hadn't done what people accused her of, though, then what had happened to her?

"No, none of us thought she killed them or herself, but," she shrugged, "she was never seen after that day."

"Except for the ghost," Angel said what they were all thinking.

Willow said nothing, but her eyes met Angel's. She didn't have to say what was on her mind. He knew instantly what she suspected. Something, though, kept any of them from actually voicing the train of thought.

"Right," Spike drawled out.

"In the four years since it happened, several people have claimed to have seen her. The locals say she haunts the area, waiting to take revenge on everyone," Willow practically spat, her disgust clearly evident. "But she's pretty much a taboo topic around here. People prefer to never have her mentioned at all."

"Which is why I got the cold shoulder this morning," assumed Angel.

"Got it in one," Spike laughed mirthlessly.

"So, what? People just ignore that it ever happened and go about their lives?" Angel bit out, angry that the residents of this town could be so callous.

"For the most part," said Willow. "None of us will ever forget it, but most people care not to think about it."

"So you're saying I should just forget what I saw?" Angel questioned in disbelief. How was he supposed to ignore that he had seen a ghost...or possibly something else entirely?

Again, Willow gave him a look, telling him with her eyes what she was unwilling to say with words. She didn't want him to forget it. She wanted to know what he'd seen. But more so, she wanted to know the truth. He could only imagine how the lies and horrors of her friend forever haunted her. So he nodded, accepting her unbidden request to keep his eyes open for anything he might see.

"All we're saying is to keep your mouth shut. If you don't want to make enemies here, you'll not talk about it in public," Spike requested, and Angel could tell that he, too, was more than curious about the so-called ghost that haunted the beach near his house.

"Right," he agreed. It made sense. As angry and disturbed as he was by all that he'd heard, Angel had no desire to actively stir up trouble. Still...if he saw something...well, he wouldn't exactly turn the other way.

"We have to go," Willow said, rising from her seat. "Here's our number...," she trailed off, leaving Angel to assume she wanted to know if he saw anything.

Angel rose, too, and accepted the piece of paper she had in her hand. "Thank you, for telling me."

"You're welcome." She nodded sadly at him before leaving with Spike.

~`~`~ Chapter 7 ~`~`~

Sleep did not come easily for Angel that night. The story – story, he snorted, this was no fairytale - Willow and Spike had told him continuously echoed in his head, reminding him of the grisly life led by an unassuming, young, blonde woman. Over and over he recalled what they’d told him: the rape, her attacker not being punished, the way the townspeople turned against her, her merciless harassment, and then later the murders of her family and her own disappearance.

What had happened that night? She couldn’t possibly have killed her own family, could she? He’d never met her, barely knew much about her, but something told him that she would not have brutally slaughtered her family. If she hadn’t, then what happened to her, and who had killed her family? Angel wondered if maybe she’d seen the vicious slayings of her family and run, or maybe she really had thrown herself off the cliffs as a means of escape, mental and physical.

Then what about the woman he’d seen on the beach? He supposed it could have been a dog, or a trick of light, but his gut feeling told him it was a person. Was there such thing as ghosts? Could the thing he’d seen on the beach be her ghost? Logical reasoning told him that ghosts didn’t exist, but then what other explanation could there be for what others, and he himself, had seen?

What bothered Angel the most, though, was his growing obsession with this mystery. Why did he care at all? This had absolutely nothing to do with him, other than what he’d seen on the beach twice now. He should just mind his own business. He’d come to this town to relax and have some quiet time, not to get involved in a volatile situation.

The image of Buffy’s face smiling sadly at him from the photograph wouldn’t let him forget. The poor girl had been wronged in every way possible. Even now, after her assumed death, she was still hated and betrayed. Where was the justice in what had been done to her? Where was the compassion? There hadn’t been any for her. She’d been a victim of power, loyalty, and corruption.

This was all in the past, though. He couldn’t change anything. Could he? Did he want to? Getting involved seemed blatantly stupid. But how wrong was it to do nothing?

Angel shook his head and flipped onto his back on the bed. What the hell was he thinking? It wasn’t like he knew anything anyway. All he’d done was see some unknown shape on the beach that looked like a person. That information constituted nothing. He needed to just forget what he’d seen and been told. Yes, that was what he needed to do.

Throwing his head back in frustration, Angel yawned and then glanced at the clock on his nightstand. It was nearly four in the morning. Great, he thought. He had to be up at seven to be at the university at eight to start shooting the Chumash artifacts for the magazine article. He needed to get some sleep or he was going to be completely useless tomorrow.

Angel flipped over onto his stomach, burying his face in his pillow and pulling the blankets up over his head in hopes of blocking out the haunting thoughts. Finally, nearly a half hour later, he managed to fall into a restless sleep.

~`~`~

Early the next evening, Angel staggered tiredly into his house, immensely glad to see the renovators had already left for the day. He wandered into the living room, carefully dropping his camera bag onto the couch. As he walked toward the kitchen, he pulled off his dress shirt, tired of having worn it all day, leaving him in a white tank top.

He hadn’t planned on being out so long, but after taking some pictures at the university he’d stopped by the magazine office to talk with Giles about the article. That short trip had ended three hours later, and now he was exhausted. And starving, which was why he was now digging through his refrigerator looking for something to eat.

As he sat at the table in the kitchen, his mind drifted back to Buffy and her shattered life. He’d been so busy that day that he hadn’t had a chance to think about her, but now that he was sitting in his kitchen alone with his thoughts, she was back on his mind. Angel only hoped that his utter exhaustion was enough to keep her from impinging on his sleep again.

Dumping his plate in the sink, he walked back to the living room. He stopped when he saw his camera bag, a sudden idea occurring to him. Without thinking too much about it, he grabbed the bag and then climbed the stairs all the way up to the attic.

Once there, he set the bag down and walked over to one of the boxes of stuff he had yet to unpack. Pulling out one of his tripods, he paused for a second and wondered what the hell he was doing. Instead of stopping, though, he carried the metal object over to the door to the balcony.

Angel propped the door open with a heavy book and then set the tripod up just inside the attic so that it was protected from the weather. After getting it situated, he removed his camera from the bag and put in a fresh roll of thirty-six exposure film. He fiddled with the settings so that it would take a picture every half hour before attaching it to the tripod and focusing it down onto the beach below.

Having completed the crazy task, Angel backed away a step. He stared at the set-up and again questioned his sanity for what he was doing. With a shake of his head, he left it there, and quickly retreated to his bedroom, determined to go get some sleep. If he was lucky, his sheer exhaustion would keep thoughts of a green-eyed blonde out of his mind

~`~`~

Someone shaking him woke Angel the following morning. His eyes snapped open as he grabbed at the obnoxious person’s wrist, halting their movement. Looking up, he saw one of the construction workers trying to back away from the bed.

“What the hell are you doing in my room?” he demanded, glaring at the intruder.

“I’m sorry, Mr. O’Meara,” the man apologized quickly. “But there is some guy downstairs with a delivery truck wanting to speak to you.”

“Did he say what he wanted,” Angel bit out in annoyance.

“N-no,” he stuttered, slightly wary of his boss. “He just said he wanted to talk to you.”

“Fine. I’ll be down in a minute,” groaned Angel before glancing at the clock. He was shocked to see it was almost eleven in the morning. Somehow he’d managed to sleep through the entire night and most of the morning despite the workers being present.

Angel waited for the worker to leave his room before climbing out of bed and throwing on whatever he could find to wear. Upon descending the stairs and seeing who was waiting for him, he sighed loudly, already knowing it was going to be a long morning.

~`~`~

Four hours later, the relatively minor catastrophe had been dealt with, but not without some yelling and diverting of construction workers to handle the situation. The delivery man that had shown up that morning had been there to deliver Angel’s new Jacuzzi, a Jacuzzi that hadn’t been meant to be delivered for another two weeks. Some sort of paper work mix up, though, had it waiting virtually on his doorstep this morning.

He had tried to get the man to take the hot tub back, but that was an unsuccessful venture. So instead, a few of the renovators had to be sequestered to clean off the back patio to make room for the large object. Then, they’d all run around like monkey’s with their heads cut off trying to get the damn thing set up properly. If Angel hadn’t been so annoyed by it all he would have found it funny.

Now, as Angel stood on the back patio staring at the expensive monstrosity, he couldn’t help but laugh over the fact that he’d even bought it in the first place. It was a guilty pleasure, he supposed. Having spent most of his time traveling in years past, plus living in a condo, he’d never been able to have one. So he’d bought the thing on a whim, thinking it would be a nice way to relax. He could have done without all the hassle it caused, though.

Angel considered testing out the new hot tub, but before he could, the phone rang. Trudging back through the house and into the kitchen, he grabbed the cordless phone.

“Hello?”

“Umm, hi. Is this Angel?” the caller asked.

“Yeah. Who is this?”

“Oh! Hi, Angel. It’s Willow,” she chirped.

“Hi, Willow. I wasn’t expecting to hear from you,” Angel said, taking a seat at one of the chairs next to the counter.

“Sorry for the out of the blue call. Spike and I were wondering if you wanted to get together for dinner. We figured you probably don’t know many people around here and might want some company,” she babbled on.

“Umm, sure. But, uh...” He looked down at his attire, which consisted of track pants, a t-shirt, and bare feet. “I’m not really dressed to go out so why don’t you two come here. I can order some pizzas”

“Sure. That sounds good,” she agreed. “Is there anything you want us to bring?”

“No-,’ he started to say then quickly remembered that he hadn’t been able to get out of the house since early afternoon. He’d managed to make a quick run to a deli for sandwiches for the workers as compensation for the hot tub debacle, and he’d also stopped to drop off the film he’d set up in his camera the night before. Normally, he preferred to develop his own film, but he hadn’t yet been able to set up a dark room. “Wait, could you possibly stop and pick up some film I dropped off to get developed this morning?”

“Yeah, sure,” Willow answered, her tone curious.

“Great, thanks. I’ll pay you back for the costs,” Angel said swiftly, suddenly feeling anxious. He gave Willow the name of the shop he’d dropped off the film. If she was curious as to why he’d chosen a place on the outskirts of town, she didn’t ask.

~`~`~

Just as Angel was carrying the delivered pizzas into the kitchen, the doorbell rang again. He set the boxes down and walked back to the front door. As expected, Willow and Spike were waiting on the other side.

“Hi!” Willow greeted with a smile. “I hope we’re not late, or early.”

“No,” Angel shook his head, grinning at the redhead’s babbling. He’d only met Willow once, but he already liked her. Spike seemed like a good guy, too, though Angel had to admit he wouldn’t have pictured the two of them together. “The pizzas just got here.”

“Oh, good,” she breathed a sigh of relief.

Spike whistled as he entered the house along with Willow. “Wow, quite a house you got here.”

“Yeah,” Angel laughed. “It’s been a pain to get livable again, though.”

“I can imagine,” sympathized Willow, setting her purse down on the entryway table. “It looks good.”

“Thanks. The pizza is in the kitchen,” he pointed in the direction of the food.

The three sat and ate while chatting and getting to know each other, talking about their jobs, hobbies, and anything else pertinent. Angel found himself liking the pair more and more as the meal drew on. He was surprised to discover that Spike shared his interest in old poetry, but as Angel came to realize, much of Spike’s bad-boy exterior was just an image. He was a nice guy at heart, and from his actions, Angel could tell the bleached blonde loved his girlfriend very much.

They had finished eating and were sharing a bottle of wine when the doorbell rang again. Angel’s brow furrowed as he glanced at the clock and wondered who could possibly be visiting him at eight in the evening. He didn’t really know many people in town so he couldn’t fathom who could be at his door.

Standing, and giving his apologies to his guests, Angel walked through the house to the front door. Opening it, he was even more confused to see a young man standing there, fidgeting nervously. It took Angel several seconds to recognize him.

“Um, Xander. Right?” he asked slowly.

“Yeah. Look, I’m sorry for just coming by, but I was hoping I could talk to you,” Xander requested hesitantly.

“I sort of have company right now,” explained Angel, glancing to where Willow and Spike were waiting.

“Please,” Xander pleaded, taking a step forward. “It’ll only take a minute.”

“Sure, I guess. Let me just tell them I’ll be back in a few minutes,” Angel said then turned and headed back to the kitchen, not realizing that Xander was following him.

“I’ve got to talk to someone for a few minutes,” Angel started to say as he entered the kitchen. “It shouldn’t take long, but you don’t have to wait if you don’t want to.”

“Xander?!” Willow suddenly gasped, having seen the young man trailing behind Angel.

“ Willow? Spike?” Xander spoke, giving a shake of his head. “Why am I not surprised to find you two here?”

“You know each other?” a confused Angel asked.

“Umm, yeah,” mumbled Xander in response.

“We went to high school together,” Willow added, leaving Angel to make his own assumptions, which he did. It was abundantly clear to him that Xander knew Buffy and her situation. What he didn’t know was what role the young man played in all of it.

~`~`~ Chapter 8 ~`~`~

For a long silent minute Angel simply stared at Willow, Spike and Xander, who were all busy staring at each other. If he wasn’t mistaken, there was an undercurrent of anger between them. He had a sudden urge to pull out his hair and run far, far away from whatever the hell he’d managed to get himself involved in.

“Look,” Xander began, finally breaking the silence and turning to Angel guiltily. “I just wanted to stop by to say I’m sorry about what happened yesterday morning.”

“Oh..uh, okay,” Angel said, stumbling slightly over his words. He hadn’t expected the young man to say that.

“I shouldn’t have acted that way, but there are things you don’t know,” explained Xander evasively.

“We told him,” Willow interrupted, cluing her old high school friend in to what Angel now knew.

“You what?” he asked slowly. “All of it? Why?”

The redhead shrugged, meeting Xander’s eyes. “He deserved to know. We saw what happened at the coffee shop. If he’s going to live here, he should know about what these people are like.”

Xander didn’t miss the hostility in her words. Another pang of guilt shot through him as he remembered everything that had happened years earlier. An image of Buffy’s smiling face appeared in his mind which only served to make him feel worse.

“Xander...,” Willow said softly, seeing the look on her friend’s face. She knew what he was thinking about.

“Don’t say it, Willow,” he pleaded, holding a hand up to cease whatever she’d planned on saying.

“You know I’m right,” she pushed, standing and walking toward him.

“No,” Xander replied with a shake of his head. “What I know is that I abandoned my friend when she needed me the most.”

“You did what you had to,” Willow corrected him.

“Umm...I feel like I’m missing something,” Angel interrupted, lost as to what the two were talking about.

Before explaining, Willow glanced at Xander. He gave a slight nod of his head, signaling that it was okay for her to tell Angel what they were talking about.

“We were all friends in high school,” she began, once again taking a seat at the table. “Xander, Buffy and I were really close. We’d known each other since pre-school.”

When Willow paused, not sure how to continue, Xander took over. “When Buffy was...was raped,” he choked out the word as if it were poison. “I was on the swim team, and I was also dating Cameron Walker’s sister, Faith.”

“Oh,” Angel breathed out heavily, sinking down onto one of the chairs nearby. He already had an idea of where this was going.

“Yeah,” snorted Xander, seeing where Angel’s thoughts were leading him. “Let me tell you what a fun position that was not. I was screwed no matter what I did.”

“You didn’t stand by her,” Angel assumed, eyeing Xander with distrust.

“I did. At first, but then Faith left. As in left town. About two weeks after the...well, she was sent to the east coast to live with her Mom. She never even said goodbye, or why she left,” he relayed, still feeling the sting of having lost someone he cared about.

“So you just abandoned your best friend?” Angel bit out hotly. What kind of friend would do something like that, he wondered.

“No, not from that. See, like I said, I was on the swimming team and I was pretty good. My family was poor and swimming was going to be my way to get into college,” Xander explained, his voice low and sad. “My grades weren’t too good so a sports scholarship was my only chance, but Cameron and the rest of the guys on the team weren’t too happy with me sticking by Buffy. They started threatening me, and hassling me. That was when I started to distance myself from Buffy.”

Seeing Angel’s disturbed look, Xander sighed. “I know you’re thinking that I should have stuck by her, no matter what. But you don’t know what it was like. All I’d ever wanted was to get away from my family, to be somebody, and my only chance was hanging by a string controlled by Cameron. So I caved and all but ignored one of my best friends.”

“And got to go to college,” Angel deduced out loud.

A loud, unhappy laugh sounded from Xander at Angel’s conclusion. “No, I didn’t. I guess I pissed off Cameron too much because I was kicked off the team anyway. Some phony story was concocted about me using steroids. And, well, no college would take me on scholarship after that”

“God,” Angel spat in an almost growl. “I thought this kind of shit only happened in the movies and on tv.”

“You’d think so,” Spike said, sighing loudly. “But that’s what we’ve lived. Some people just like to abuse their power.”

Angel slumped back in his chair, running a hand over his face. He was utterly shocked at the corruption and abuse of power that these people were telling him about. Not only had Buffy suffered immensely, possibly leading to her death, but others had as well. Though he wasn’t sure he agreed with Xander’s actions, they were understandable. The young man had lost his only chance to better his life. Angel wondered what revenge had been sought against Willow and Spike. They hadn’t told him anything, but he knew they must have been on plenty of people’s bad sides.

Just as he was about to ask Willow that question, Xander spoke again. “Did you really see her?”

“What?” Angel asked, confused by the change of direction.

“Buffy. You said you saw the ghost,” he clarified.

“Oh,...OH!” Angel exclaimed loudly, jumping out of his seat. “The pictures!”

“Huh?” Spike grunted.

“Willow, did you pick up those pictures?” questioned Angel eagerly.

“Uh, yeah. Why?” she asked slowly, dazed somewhat by Angel’s abrupt request.

“Can I have them?” he said instead of answering.

“Sure.” Willow quickly dashed out of the room and retrieved her purse from the foyer.

Once she returned, she pulled the paper package out of the bag and handed it to Angel. He said nothing, just took the photos from her and sat down silently at the table. The others watched as he tore open the envelope and pulled the pictures out, wondering what was so important about them. Their curiosity only grew when Angel’s face suddenly went pale and his eyes wide.

“Angel?” Willow spoke cautiously.

He looked up at the three friends, opened his mouth to speak, but closed it quickly. His eyes went back down to the pictures. Slowly, he pulled out three of the photos and laid them out on the table.

“Look,” he told them, pointing to the pictures.

All three hurried to the table, anxious to see what had stunned Angel. Willow gasped at the images, holding a hand up to her mouth. Xander stumbled back a few steps, his eyes not wanting to believe what they were seeing. The last of the group, Spike, could only stare at pictures.

“Buffy,” Spike mumbled, picking up one of the three pictures.

Each image was similar as they were all taken of the same area. The first one showed a figure, pale and barely visible, emerging from the woods that lined the beach. The second showed the same figure, this time clearly depicting a female body, standing a few feet past where she was in the first. And in the third and final picture, it showed her standing along the waterline, staring out at the ocean.

In the last two, it was clear as day that the mysterious thing Angel had seen on the beach was a person, a female with blonde hair. Just like Buffy. Though none of them could make out any facial features or anything else to make a clear identification, the other similarities to the missing girl were striking.

“It m-might not be h-her,” Willow stuttered, finding it hard to face something she’d only heard rumors about.

“Is...is that the g-ghost?” Xander asked in equal shock.

“I don’t think that’s a ghost,” alleged Angel. Logical reasoning told him such things as ghosts didn’t exist. But even so, the figure was too clear, and if he wasn’t mistaken, she was wearing something different than the first time he’d seen her. Ghosts didn’t change their close...did they?

Xander’s head whipped around to face Angel. “What are you saying?”

“It might be her. Buffy might not be dead,” said Willow, finally voicing the suspicion that she and Spike had had for quite some time.

“Oh boy,” Xander muttered, stumbling over to one of the chairs.

“This doesn’t prove anything,” Spike pointed out the obvious.

“No, but it’s the first clue we’ve had as to what happened to her, and I’m not going to forget about it,” Willow stated firmly.

“Willow...,” Spike said cautiously.

“Don’t say it!” she hissed at him. “I’m not just gonna push it out of my mind. This has gone on too long!”

“Do you really want to stir this up again, Will?” asked Xander, facing his long-time friend. “Don’t you remember what it was like before?”

Willow crossed her arms over her chest and glared at both Spike and Xander. “I’m not saying we go running around telling what’s in these pictures,” she jabbed a finger toward them. “But I want to know if this is really Buffy. I NEED to know if this is her.”

“What do you want to do?” Angel spoke up for the first time in a while.

“Angel,” Willow said, tilting her head slightly as she looked at him. “Why are you getting involved in this?

“I...I don’t know, honestly. I want to help, though,” he pleaded, thinking about the picture of Buffy he’d seen and of all she’d been through. If he could do something for her, he would. That was the right thing to do, wasn’t it?

“Are you sure, mate?” Spike inquired. He knew they were about to start some serious trouble, but he also knew he needed to do whatever possible for Buffy. They were friends, after all. “If people find out we’re lookin’ in to this it could start a lot of shit.”

Angel gazed down at the photographs on the table, taking in the solitary figure standing on the beach. “Yes, I’m sure.”

“Count me in,” Xander added. He hadn’t done what he should have years ago. Now, he might have the chance to make up for it. If he could help Buffy, he would.

“Well, now that that is settled, anyone got any ideas?” Spike posed with a frown, wondering what the hell they were supposed to do now.

Glancing down at the pictures, Angel thought for a moment. “Well, first I’m going to try to find a dark room to use tomorrow.” At the perplexed looks from the other, he clarified. “I’m going to see if I can blow up, and crop these three so maybe you guys can tell for sure if it is her.”

“It is,” Willow stated definitively. “I know it is.”

~`~`~

Later that night, Angel sat at his desk staring at his laptop. His fingers tapped over the keys as he searched through the internet trying to find information on the murder of Buffy’s family. He figured if he was going to get involved in this, he might as well get all the information straight. He no longer bothered to question his sanity about his involvement. It was too late to back himself out now.

Angel considered looking for an online archive of the local newspaper, but knowing how loyalties in this town ran he figured they might not be the most objective. So instead he decided to try looking up newspaper archives from Los Angeles. Sunnydale was close enough to LA that there had probably been coverage in the LA papers. He wasn’t sure, though, that he’d find anything since the murders had happened four years earlier, but it was worth a try.

Almost immediately, he found several articles matching his search criteria. Clicking on the first link, he read the article that appeared on the screen.

“Local police in Sunnydale, California have officially closed the case of a triple murder that occurred there four weeks ago. On July 19, the bodies of three people; Joyce Giles, 48, Owen Giles, 19, and Dawn Giles, 16, were found brutally stabbed to death in their home. A fourth occupant of the house, Buffy Giles, 20, has been missing since the homicides.

After a thorough investigation, police have come to the conclusion that the case is a murder-suicide committed by the Giles’ eldest child, Buffy. Townspeople interviewed stated that Buffy was a mentally unstable young woman, and none seemed surprised by the recent tragic turn of events. It is suspected that Buffy Giles killed her family and then jumped from the nearby cliffs to her death in the rocky ocean below....”

“Buffy Giles?” Angel murmured out loud, gaping at his computer screen.

Buffy’s last name was Giles? As in Rupert Giles, his boss? Angel thought this situation couldn’t shock him anymore, but this newest piece of information had him completely and utterly stunned.

~`~`~ Chapter 9 ~`~`~

Sleep. That was what he should have been doing. But as had happened a lot lately, the elusive dreamland could not be found. He’d been in this town, what, a week, two weeks? And it seemed like he slept less and less each day. It wasn’t as though he didn’t want to sleep. It was just that whenever he tried, visions of a smiling blonde girl invaded his mind along with the words Spike, Willow, and Xander had spoken to him.

To say he wasn’t disturbed by it all would be a lie. The situation itself was horrifying. There was also the part, though, where he’d somehow managed to get dragged into it all. Well, maybe dragged wasn’t the right word. He hadn’t exactly put up much of a resistance. Still, that didn’t tell him why he hadn’t just forgotten about it as he had been ordered to do in the coffee shop, and why he couldn’t stop thinking about the blonde girl named Buffy.

Angel told himself he was only getting involved to help right a wrong, that he was doing what any morally correct person would do. But were those the sole reasons? He could lie to himself and say yes, but that wasn’t the truth. It was Buffy, the young woman he’d never even met, that had him enraptured.

Sure, she was beautiful on the outside, but something told him she was just as much so on the inside. She had to have immeasurable inner strength to have survived what she did after the rape. Could she somehow still be alive? And if she was, what had happened that night in her family’s house? That was the million dollar question, he supposed.

Regardless, he couldn’t do anything about it tonight, and he certainly wouldn’t be able to do anything at all if he didn’t start getting some sleep. With that in mind, Angel shifted onto his side, hoping that sleep would finally come.

~`~`~

His watch showed that it was barely seven-thirty in the morning when Angel dragged himself into the magazine’s office building. He’d gotten no more than three hours of sleep the night before. Too much on his mind. So when he’d awoken at the crack of dawn he’d simply rolled out of bed instead of trying to get another hour’s sleep. Plus, he had things he wanted to do.

The building was practically empty this early, which suited Angel just fine. He didn’t want anyone questioning what he was doing. Not that they would have any reason to really. He was a photographer, and he had every right to use the magazine’s dark room for an hour or two. Even so, it would be best that no one questioned him, or asked why he was at work an hour and a half before he normally arrived.

With sure steps, he walked down the hall toward the darkroom. In his pocket, his fingers were running over the negatives of the film he’d had developed the day before. Time would tell what he would find once he blew three of the shots up to larger sizes and cropped them down on the single figure that walked the beach late at night.

~`~`~

An hour and a half later, Angel stood in the darkroom holding one of the shots that he’d worked on enlarging. On the photo in his hands stood a petite blonde woman, her gaze staring out over the sea. The details were fuzzy, and the face only showed a side view, but Angel had little doubt. The woman, the mysterious figure who walked the beach, was Buffy.

But what did that mean? If the figure was really Buffy, had he photographed a ghost? Or was Buffy really still alive? Each choice was baffling, to say the least. Idly, Angel wondered if her being a ghost would have made things much simpler, because if she were actually alive, it left so many questions that needed some very serious answers.

How was she still alive? Had she killed her family? Where was she living? Why did she walk the beach at night? And what the hell did Giles know about all this?

Angel slipped the three photos he’d worked on into a folder and left the darkroom. He needed to call Willow and set up a meeting with her and the others. As he walked toward his office, he firmly pushed aside the voice inside his head that told him he was in way over his head.

He was almost to his office door when he heard someone calling his name. Turning, Angel found himself facing the very last person he wanted to see at that moment. Giles. And he was holding pictures of the man's supposedly dead daughter in a folder in his hand. Great. Just great.

“Good morning, Angel. You’re in early today,” Giles stated as he walked up to Angel.

An excuse. He needed an excuse. “I needed to do some work on the Chumash article,” he improvised.

“Oh?” Giles asked and looked down at the folder Angel was holding. “Are those the pictures? May I see them?”

Wrong excuse. Damn. “Oh, no, this is just some paperwork. I have the photos of the Chumash artifacts in my office,” he relayed and nodded toward his closed door.

“Yes, I would appreciate seeing them,” Giles answered with a small smile that told Angel he’d bought the story.

Opening his office door, Angel strode in quickly. He waded through the mess on his desk and produced the portfolio of pictures. After handing them to his boss, he waited a moment until Giles attention was diverted then swiftly shoved the folder with Buffy’s pictures into the top drawer of his desk. If he was lucky, he could get Giles out of his office before he did something the clue the man in that he was doing something he shouldn’t.

~`~`~

Early that evening, Angel found himself walking along the beach near his house. It hadn’t been intentional. He’d stepped out onto his porch, and then suddenly ended up walking to where he’d twice seen the ghostly female figure walking. The area had simply just drawn him in.

Walking forward, he approached the water’s edge and stared out over the lapping waves, just as Buffy had done in the photo he now possessed. A myriad of questions whirled around his head. The most prevalent being was Buffy Giles still alive? He was hedging his bets that she was. And that she walked this beach at night. It made sense. Willow had told him that after her rape she’d preferred to go out at night. Just one more detail to add to the puzzle.

What did she see when she stared out at the ocean as he was doing now? What did she think? Angel shook his head and took a step back. For all he knew, Buffy was dead and the figure was just some woman who liked to walk to the beach. But his gut instincts told him that was not the case. She was alive.

He swiveled on his feet and gazed up at the roofline of the house up on the cliffs. Giles’ house. If Buffy was walking this beach, there was only one logical conclusion as to why. She had to still be living in that house. And if she was still living there, it was fairly easy to assume that Giles knew she was there. The house was big, but it was unlikely that Rupert Giles would be unaware that his supposedly dead daughter was living somewhere inside.

Giles had to know, and he had to know a lot more than he’d told anybody, even the police. What was he hiding, and why? One thing Angel knew for sure, the man was going to have some serious questions to answer to. But first, he had to meet with Willow, Spike, and Xander so that he could show them the pictures he’d developed and worked with. From there, they’d have to decide what to do next.

Angel started to walk back toward his house when the setting sun reflected off something shiny in the sand a few feet away. He thought for a moment that it was probably a piece of trash, or a coin someone had dropped, but he decided to check it out anyway. Bending down, he saw that it was a thin gold chain. A necklace? It was half buried in the sand so he pulled it the rest of the way out. Once it was free, a heart-shaped locket dangled from the bottom.

His pulse thudded briefly, unexplainably. It’s just a locket, he told himself. Some beach-goer or tourist had probably lost it. He twisted it around with his fingers for several seconds, taking in the rose etched into the gold heart and the delicate braiding of the chain. His knowledge of expensive things told him that this was no cheap item. Someone was definitely going to be upset about losing it.

Flipping open the delicate clasp of the locket, Angel felt his breath whoosh out of him. “Buffy,” he breathed out heavily.

Gazing up at him from the inside of the locket was a miniature family portrait, and he recognized two of the players. Giles stood with his arm around a middle aged woman with dark blonde hair, and standing in front of him were three children, one of which he instantly recognized as Buffy.

On the opposite side of the locket was another picture. This one was of Buffy and the middle aged woman - her mother, he assumed – with their heads close together, bright smiles on their faces. Buffy looked a few years younger in the picture than she had in the one that Willow had shown him. There was a lightness in her, the relaxed smile, the bright eyes, that hadn’t been in the other picture. It was from before the rape, he realized. Before her life had been torn to pieces.

What was it about her, he wondered as his thumbnail ran over her face in the picture, that drew him in? She was beautiful, but not quite stunningly so. Her looks were enough to draw a second glance, but he wasn’t the shallow type to base everything on a person’s outer appearance. Was it the tragedy that had befallen her? He supposed that was a large part of it. Knowing what this innocent young woman had been through twisted something inside him. Whatever it was about her, he just couldn’t get her out of his mind.

Angel clicked the locket closed and stared at the gleaming gold. This was her locket. Who else’s could it be? He doubted Giles would wear such a feminine piece, and it wasn’t logical for anybody else, besides Buffy, to be wearing a locket with pictures of her family. It had to be hers.

He turned the heart over a few times in his fingers. The gold was clean and unblemished, no nicks, dents or tarnish. It hadn’t been on the beach for long, that was obvious. Lifting the chain up, he studied the clasp. It was broken, as he’d suspected. She’d lost it while walking the beach. If the photos hadn’t been damning enough, the locket was pretty much proof positive. Buffy Giles had to be alive.

The sounds of tires on gavel drew Angel’s attention. Someone was at his house. He glanced down at his watch, saw that it was too early for Willow, Spike and Xander to there, and wondered who was paying him a visit. With the locket clasped in his hand, he walked back to his house.

The last thing he’d expected to see was a police car sitting in his driveway. A tall man with dark hair was climbing the steps of his front porch. Pure instinct had him slipping his hand in his pocket and depositing the locket inside.

“Can I help you?” Angel asked as he approached the bottom of the stairs.

The man turned, flashed Angel an over-friendly smile. “Hello,” he greeted and walked back down the stairs. “I’m Philip Walker, the chief of police here in Sunnydale.”

Every muscle in Angel’s body tightened, his hands clenched for a moment before he forced them to relax. Inside, he was seething. This man was Cameron Walker’s father. His son had raped Buffy, and he’d helped cover it up. It took every once of self control to battle back the urge to shove his fist in the bastard’s face.

“What can I do for you?” he inquired, forcing his voice to remain neutral. What the hell was the chief of police doing at his house?

“Oh, I just thought I’d pay a visit to our town’s newest resident, see if you were settling in okay,” Philip explained, his public servant smile still in place.

“Been busy,” Angel answered with an indifferent shrug. “Between work on the house, and my job, it keeps me on the go.”

“Yes,” Philip agreed, giving the house a once over. “The place is looking good. I’m glad to see someone restoring it.”

“It’s a good house.” What did the man want?, Angel wondered. He wasn’t dumb enough to believe the chief of police was checking up on his well being. There was ulterior motive written all over his face.

“Just needed a little good old fashioned TLC,” he said with a chuckle. “No problem with trespassers or anything.”

Ah, so that was it, Angel thought. “Trespassers? No, why?”

“I heard in town you’d seen someone wondering around,” Philip relayed, his eyes staring Angel dead in the face.

“Oh, that. I’m pretty sure it was a dog. I’ve seen some footprints in the sand,” Angel covered quickly, the lie running smoothly off his tongue.

“Hmm, well,” the chief said vaguely. “You’ll let me know if you have any problems?”

“Yes, of course,” Angel lied again. He had no damn intention of telling the man anything.

“Good, good.” Philip nodded pleasantly. “Well, I must run along. Got a dinner meeting to attend.”

“Thank you for stopping by,” Angel stated, flashing his most pacifying smile.

“No problem.” Philip took a few steps, turned back to Angel. “Welcome to Sunnydale, Mr O’Meara.”

“Whatever,” Angel muttered under his breath as he watched the police cruiser pull out of his driveway. He was going to have to be very careful what he said to any of the townspeople. Tongues obviously waggled in this place.

~`~`~

The unexpected knock at his back door almost made Angel drop the beer he was holding. Who the hell was knocking at his back door? Peering out the window, he saw Willow, Xander and Spike waiting for him to let them in. With a shake of his head, he opened the door.

“I didn’t hear you guys pull up,” he said with a faint frown and peered over his at driveway, finding no car there.

“Oh, we parked in a lot about a mile down the beach,” Willow explained as she walked into the kitchen.

“Umm, maybe this is a stupid question,” Angel began, his voice weary. “But why?”

“Cuz, mate, it wouldn’t look too good for us to be seen over at your house regularly,” Spike relayed, and made himself at home by walking to Angel’s refrigerator and pulling out a beer.

“Right,” agreed Angel, pressing his fingers to his temple. Damnit, he was getting another headache. “I had a visit from your friendly chief of police today.”

“Walker was here?” Xander’s hand paused in the act of opening his own beer, his face paling. “Why?”

“Oh, he claimed he just wanted to greet the town’s newest resident,” Angel said sarcastically.

“Yeah, sure,” Spike snorted. “And little piggies fly around my head while I sleep.”

Angel eyed Spike for a moment. Strange man, he decided. “He was fishing for info. Heard that I’d seen something on the beach. I told him it was a dog.”

“Good choice.” Spike toasted him with his beer.

“Where are the pictures, Angel?” Willow cut in anxiously.

Grabbing the folder off his counter, he handed them to Willow, saying nothing. He watched as she pulled them out, stared at the images. All the color drained from her face and she fell heavily into the one of the chairs at the kitchen table.

“Oh, god. Buffy,” she whispered, choking back a sob.

Spike and Xander gathered around her, looked down at the photo of Buffy staring out over the ocean. “Damn,” Xander breathed out, his eyes closing slowly.

Willow looked up, a single tear falling down her cheek. “She’s alive.” Anger flashed into her eyes, her hand tightened on the photo. “She’s alive,” she repeated, this time stronger, harsher.

Before anyone could speak, she leapt out of the chair, the photo still gripped in her hand, and dashed out the back door.

“Where the hell is she going?” Xander asked in tired exasperation.

Spike gave him a steady looked, flicked his eyes to the door. “Giles,” he said then followed after Willow.

“Christ,” Xander mumbled, letting his head fall back.

Grabbing his car keys off the counter, Angel strode quickly to the door. Willow wanted answers. And, so, did he.

~`~`~

“What the hell are we doing?” Xander hissed at Spike as Willow pounded on the front door to Giles’ house with a barely restrained fury.

“If you have to ask, then you’re bloody stupid,” Spike bit out, his eyes trained solely on his fiancé who seemed to be holding it together by a mere string. His own emotions were in turmoil, but Willow was a powder keg ready to blow.

Angel stood behind the three, hands jammed in his pockets. This was their fight. He was just a bystander, really. They were the ones who needed answers the most.

Willow was still pounding on the door when Giles finally appeared. “Willow, what’s-.”

He didn’t have a chance to finish speaking. The angry redhead had shoved the picture clenched in her hand before his eyes. Every ounce of color drained from his face, his mouth dropped open. Willow ignored it all.

“I want answers, and I want them now, Giles!” she demanded and pushed her way into the house.

~`~`~ Chapter 10 ~`~`~

The foyer inside Giles’ home was deathly silent. Near the entranceway, Spike, Xander, and Angel stood in an abbreviated huddle, unsure of what do to or what to say. They simply held their positions and waited for something to happen. Waited for Giles to respond. At the moment, he was only staring down at the picture, his face tense and pale. In front of him, Willow glared angrily, her body trembling.

Finally, Giles raised his eyes, glanced at the people who’d invaded his home, who threatened to destroy what was left of his family, before his eyes landed on Angel. “You took this?” he asked tightly.

“Yes,” Angel said with a nod. There was no reason to deny it.

Removing his glasses, Giles pinched the bridge of his nose. He’d hoped he’d never have to deal with this, never have to tell the truth of what had happened that horrendous night four years prior. His life had already been torn to pieces. Now, what remained was hanging by a thin thread that was already frayed. The four people in front of him had the ability take away all that he had left.

“I’m waiting, Giles,” Willow snapped. He looked up at her, opened his mouth to speak, but abruptly closed it again. “Don’t you dare lie to me!” she demanded, yanking the picture from his hand. “I know she’s not dead!”

“Willow,” Spike stated softly, walking over and putting a soothing hand on her shoulder.

She shook off the gesture, shot narrowed eyes in his direction. “I’m not going to let him wiggle out of telling us what the hell’s going on!”

“Okay,” Spike agreed. He placed his hands back on her shoulders, turned her to face him. “He’ll tell us, but why don’t we give him a minute? We can go into the living room, sit down, and let him explain.”

Willow took a deep breath, tried to calm some of her frustration. It didn’t work. “Fine,” she bit out and stomped to the room on her right.

Spike ran a hand through his hair, looked at Angel and Xander then back at Giles. “She’s not going to leave until you give her answers, and frankly, she’s got every right to know them. We all do,” he told the unsteady Giles. “So you might as well go sit down and start explaining.”

Shoulders slumping minutely, Giles replaced his glasses and walked hesitantly into the room Willow had entered. Behind him, Spike, Xander and Angel followed, sharing unsure glances between them. Inside the room, Willow’s pacing abruptly halted when she saw Giles.

“Answer me one question. One,” she requested as calmly as possible. “Is Buffy alive.”

“Yes,” Giles responded dejectedly, not over the fact that his assumed dead daughter was really alive, but that he was going to have to reveal his deepest, darkest secret.

Hand clenched, Willow walked over to the couch, dropped onto it, and stared hard at Giles. “Why have you been hiding her here all this time?”

“Because I had to!” Giles shouted desperately. “They would have taken her away! They would have locked her up in some institution! I couldn’t let that happen! She was all I had left!”

“Why the bloody hell would they do that?” Spike challenged, his own anger and frustration growing.

Giles released a shuddering breath, his eyes closed, his head drooped. “Because she killed them.”

“She... – NO!” Willow roared, leaping off the couch. “No! You can’t believe that!”

“I know what I saw,” Giles stated wearily, all but flopping into one of the living room chairs. It would all come out now. Each and every little detail.

Spike grabbed Willow’s arm, led her back to the couch. She looked as if she wanted to tear Giles’ eyes out. Not that he could blame her. Believing Buffy could kill someone, let alone her own family, was absolutely ridiculous. But for whatever reason, Giles believed his own daughter had committed murder. “Why don’t you tell us exactly what happened?” he asked Giles.

In the doorway of the room, Angel hovered between wanting to enter and feeling like he should turn and leave. He was an outsider here. He hadn’t been part of this. He’d never met Buffy, barely knew the people in the room. His right to be there was relegated to the fact that he had seen a supposed ghost and then had taken a picture that proved the ghost was indeed a live person, who was believed to be dead. There was no reason for him to be part of this.

He stayed. He had to know. So he listened as Giles told of the events the night his family was murdered.

~`~`~

“No!!!” he barely managed to whisper before he fell to his knees, heavy sobs shaking his body, as he knew deep in his heart that it was already too late, that there was nothing he could do. Everything he loved was gone.

He could do nothing but stare at it all. The blood. The bodies. It was too much. His stomach churned and he retched violently. The stench went unnoticed, the bile in his mouth untasted. The only thing he was aware of was the scene graphically displayed before his eyes.

Dawn. Little Dawnie. His baby, her body half sprawled across the couch, a jagged wound torn across her throat. And the blood, spilling down her skin, staining her pale pink shirt a violent red.

Owen. His only son, his body draped across the floor. Gouges dotted his arms, thin trails of red flowed from them. But they were nicks compared to the deep, penetrating wound Giles could see over the heart, surrounding by a circle of life’s essence. A killing blow.

And Joyce, his lovely wife, laying only a few away, but so far out of reach. Her glassy eyes staring unseeingly, her face beautiful even in death. The body he’d loved and stood faithfully next to for twenty-five years was unmarked, except for the twin slashes at her wrists.

He crawled to wife’s body, lowered his forehead to hers. “Oh God, Joyce,” he choked out brokenly.

Tears ran down his face, falling unheeded into his wife’s hair. A sob echoed through the room, bouncing off the walls and ringing in his ears. He fell back on his heels, his mind blank except for the searing grief.

He didn’t want to see it. Couldn’t help but see it. Joyce and Dawn and Owen and – Buffy! Where was Buffy???

Giles scrambled to his feet, his eyes darting around the room in search of his eldest child. Knees weak, he almost fell, his hand grasping at the end table by the couch. That was when he saw it, saw the knife, dripping with red, stabbed into the wood of the table. Pinned beneath it, scribbled on a stained piece of paper, was a note.

“I’m sorry
I’m sorry
I’m sorry”

“No,” he whispered in denial. “No!” This time louder. “Buffy!” he shouted, stumbling away from the table.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the door to the little closet open and dashed toward it. Relief warred with fear, with anger, with denial, when he found Buffy curled inside the closet. The pretty blue top and khaki shorts she wore were splashed with red, her fingers stained with it.

Kneeling, he pressed his fingers to her throat, felt her pulse beating beneath them. The fingers dropped away, his eyes closed. “Dear God,” he breathed out, the sound of his own voice startling him.

His eyes blinked open again, focused on his daughter. He remembered the note, and his shoulders shook under the heavy sobs that rose in his throat.

Buffy. His precious little girl. The one who’d sat on his knee and asked him to tell her stories, fairytales, with knights on chargers, and long-haired princesses. The one who’d spilled grape juice on one of his white shirts and then claimed it was a new fashion statement.

The one who’d been violated, tormented, harassed, and shunned.

The one who’d snapped and broken.

Giles wiped the tears from his eyes. He wouldn’t let them take her. No matter what she’d done. She was his daughter. She was all he had left. He would NOT allow them to lock her up in some little room. He would protect her.

Any doubts he may have had ceased to exist when he scooped up her body, felt her press herself unconsciously closer, heard the merest of whimpers reach his ears. No, he wouldn’t let them take her.

He held her close, carried her out of the room and away from the life he no longer had.

~`~`~

“I hid her and then...I don’t know why I did it, but I took one of her shoes and tossed it down on the path leading out onto the cliffs,” Giles continued on, his hands lifting helplessly in his lap.

“So the cops would think she’d tossed herself off the cliffs,” Spike concluded, dazed by all that he’d heard. It couldn’t be true, could it?

“I don’t know,” Giles responded, sighing heavily. He shook his head, still trying to makes sense of it all even now, four years later. “I guess I just wanted them to think she’d left the house. I don’t really know what I wanted them to think. If I’d been thinking more clearly, I would have gotten rid of the knife and the note as well but...” He shrugged. He hadn’t been thinking too clearly at the time. “I came in and called the police.”

“Didn’t they search the house?” Angel spoke up, wondering how the police could have come in, studied a crime scene and not found the girl, the supposed murderer, hidden somewhere inside.

Giles gave him a pitying look, Xander snorted. “They conducted only a cursory investigation, I can assure you,” Giles answered, his eyes darkening.

“And they were only to happy to deem Buffy a murderer,” Spike pointed out.

“You can't really believe that – that she did it!” Willow said harshly, the first time she’d made any sound or movement since Giles had begun his story.

“There was a note. She was covered with blood, but unharmed,” Giles reminded her. “It’s not what I’d wanted to believe.” And he hadn’t. Nothing in the world had been worse than finding his family dead, and by the hand of his own daughter. But there was nothing else for him to believe.

“She couldn’t have done it. Couldn’t! And you...you!” she spat out, pointing an accusing finger at Giles. “You should be ashamed for even thinking she could!”

“Willow-“

She didn’t let him continue as she jumped up from the couch, shrugging off Spike’s hand. “And you’ve kept her locked up here for four years! All this time and she’s been there!”

“You’ve kept her locked up here for that long?” Xander asked, steel underlying the quiet tone of his voice. “What? Do you have her shut up in some dingy room in the basement?”

“Of course not!” Giles denied, offended the boy would think such a thing. “She uses the third floor. We had it redone about six years ago and made into an apartment of sorts in case family or friends ever came to stay for more than a few days. She rarely leaves there, of her own choice. I knew she was sneaking out at night, what with the ghost stories and all, and I asked her not to. It was too risky, but she still does it anyway.”

“So you just live here with someone you believe murdered the rest of your family?” Willow questioned hotly.

Giles looked down, ashamed. “I keep my door locked at night,” he mumbled.

Willow walked over, stood directly in front of Giles. “I want to see her.”

“Willow-“

“Don’t tell me no!” she demanded forcefully. “I’ll tear this house apart until I find her!”

“S-she’s up on the third floor, like I said,” Giles replied hesitantly.

Turning quickly on her heels, Willow darted out of the room. “Willow! Wait!” Giles pleaded, but her footsteps were already echoing on the stairs. The others hurried after her, desperate to see Buffy for themselves.

Spike caught up with her as she started up the last flight of stairs, grabbing her arm to halt her. “Willow, you can’t just barge in there like an elephant. You don’t know how she’ll react. You might scare her.”

Willow started to speak, took a deep breath released it slowly. He was right, of course. “It’s okay. I’m fine,” she assured him.

Slowly, she climbed the remaining stairs, stopping when she reached the door at the top. Her hand trembled as she lifted it toward the knob. She hesitated, then gripped the metal tightly, and opened the door. Stepping into the room, she paused, taking in only the smallest details of the room lit only by a floor lamp in one corner. Her eyes drifted until they landed on Buffy, seated on a small window seat with her knees pulled up to her chest. Willow steeled her suddenly jumping nerves and walked over to her friend, stopping a few feet away from her, unaware that the others were right behind her.

“Buffy?” she said ever so softly.

For a long minute, there was no response, not even the slightest twitch of muscle from the small blonde seated on the cushion to signal recognition. Then, just as Willow was about to speak her name again, she saw Buffy’s arms tighten on her knees, and her head begin to slowly turn towards the group.

Buffy’s blank gaze roved over the intruders – from Willow, to Spike, to Xander, to her father – and landed steadily on Angel. He fought the urge to shuffle his feet and instead met her stare, losing himself in the sad, haunted eyes that shone a dull green.

“You live on the beach,” she stated faintly, fragilely.

Angel gave her a small smile. “Yeah,” he confirmed.

“I’ve seen you,” she told him then turned her head to stare back out the window.

For the rest of their time on the third floor, Buffy failed to acknowledge their presences any further, not even when Willow sat beside her. After five minutes of trying, Spike took her arm and led her out of the room, knowing she’d sit there for hours if allowed. He didn’t think that would do Buffy any good. She appeared to be locked in her own little world.

The group reconvened in the living room. Spike held Willow in his arms as she sobbed against his chest. He tried to soothe her, but she was heartbroken, a feeling he could understand. It hadn’t been easy to see Buffy that way.

“She almost never speaks,” Giles finally said. “Sometimes if you talk to her, she’ll say a few words, but most of the time, she acts as if you’re not there.”

“Didn’t-didn’t you ever ask her if...if she did it,” Willow choked out, her voice muffled against Spike’s chest.

Giles looked pained, turned away. “She won’t speak of that night. I’ve tried, but I haven’t ever been able to get anything out of her, not what happened, or why, or anything.”

“I...I c-can’t be here,” Willow sobbed, tore herself out of Spike’s arms and ran out of the house before anyone could stop her.

“I’ll go after her,” offered Xander wearily, swiftly leaving.

Giles turned back, looked hard at Spike. “You won’t tell anyone? At least not until I can move her somewhere else? I won’t allow her to be taken away.”

“If you believe I’d say anything, like you believe she actually did it, then you really are a bloody flaming idiot,” Spike snarled at him before taking Willow’s lead and leaving.

Finding himself in the awkward position of being the only one left with Giles, Angel shifted on his feet, stuffed his hands in his pockets. What was he supposed to do now? “We won’t tell anyone she’s here or alive, Giles. She’ll be safe,” he settled on saying.

Nodding once, Giles sank tiredly into a chair as Angel left. She would be protected. At least for a while, he told himself.

~`~`~


Next: chapters 11 - 20