Angel could hear wolves as he drove up the hill, howling from the approximate locations that Mr. E had pointed out as the enclosures they used. He still had the feeling that something was wrong -- not in a way that made him want to panic or run to the rescue, just a weight in his chest that served as an extra motivation to return to Buffy.
He couldn’t see her from the yard, but he easily found the ladder to the roof, and could smell her by the time he had silently ascended. He called her name in a low voice, just once, and her face appeared from around the corner of the second-story wall she had been leaning against. Angel made his way across the sloping part of the roof to settle down beside her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and scanning the neighborhood around the house.
“Can you see them?” she asked, the first words she had spoken.
The two closest werewolves, Nina and Mr. E, weren’t immediately visible. Angel could hear them, but the only way he knew that it was them and not two others was because the growls were coming from within the boundaries of their personal fenced yard. He thought that he could learn to recognize the individual voices of wolves, with practice, but he hadn’t spent too many full moons around any of them, even Nina.
To answer Buffy, he pointed in their direction, and she nodded. Then he pointed outward and straight ahead, to another, more distant enclosure. There were at least ten wolves there, but even with his night vision he could only see them as darting shadows, so he doubted she could see anything at all. There was one more area where Mr. E had told them to look, down the hill on the west side, and he found three more wolves there and pointed again. “Looks like this is all in order,” he concluded.
“A place for everyone and everyone in their place,” she agreed. She rubbed her arms absently, and Angel took his coat off to drape over her. He still thought there was something troubling her, but he wasn’t sure how to ask about it.
She didn’t make him wonder for long. “I got into a spat with Oz.”
“Huh.” Sympathetic but genuinely curious, he asked, “How did you manage to do that?”
Buffy chuckled sadly. “He really belongs to this place now. Like Nina and Mr. E, at least until the Wolf business. And it’s not just the pack bond thing. Faith and Spike have it too. I’ve never felt so...incidental.”
“It was your dream that brought us here,” he reminded her.
“I know. I still think we have a job to do. But I keep trying to do it my way, and my way kind of hinges on a small group of talented misfits functioning together like a well-oiled machine.”
“Well, we’ve got the misfits...”
“And the talent. Just not the oil.” Buffy sighed and pulled his coat tighter around herself. “How’s Spike?”
Angel shrugged. “Fine. I dropped him off with Faith so they can keep looking for Howell. How was the party?”
She hesitated, but then responded, “Good burgers.”
“Get anywhere with Nina?”
He had hoped for some new insight on the Wolf, but Buffy hadn’t planned anything more than reconnaissance at the party anyway. She showed him the spiral that Oz had drawn on the Satellite 3 floorplan, and they traded a few theories before being interrupted by a hiss and bang coming from the sky. “You know, I’d forgotten all about the fireworks,” Buffy murmured, and that was the last thing that either of them said for some time.
The view from the rooftop was perfect; distant but without obstruction or any crowd save for the wolfpack. Angel had seen firework displays, plenty of them, but he had never watched them with Buffy, and it occurred to him suddenly that it was okay to enjoy this moment. He kissed her head as a spray of golden sparks exploded overhead, and she snuggled close and made a soft sound of delight when three more rockets blossomed, each in a different color. Between every thunderous crash, they could hear the wolves singing, conveying a kind of childlike excitement to the lightshow.
Before long, Angel began turning his attention to them instead of the sky. Nina and Eric had come out from their cover, and they were close enough to see by the moon’s illumination even when the frequency of the fireworks slackened off. He could easily tell which one was which -- Eric’s species, which he claimed to share with the majority of the pack, was colloquially known as “Chippewa Grey”, and there were a few visible differences between him and Nina’s Lycanthropus Exterus. He had thicker fur, a shorter snout, and broad humanoid shoulders. Although they were about the same size, Nina walked on her hind paws exclusively, while Eric would periodically drop down to all fours to rest or run in a manner that reminded Angel vaguely of a great ape.
More intriguing than their respective appearances was their behavior. Angel had the impression that Eric was trying to coax his mate into frolicking with him, but whenever he came too close, she would snap at him and snarl. They never broke into a real fight, but it was hard not to sympathize with Eric as his flirtations were rejected again and again. Angel remembered leaving Nina in Cleveland, her confident smile as she told him that she was where she was meant to be. He imagined the freedom she must have felt when she was first given a place to run with other lycanthropes during the full moon. He wondered if Eric would remember any part of this when he woke up human.
“The aggressive one is Nina, isn’t it?” said Buffy as the last few fireworks died, leaving only smoke and echoes behind.
“Yeah,” Angel answered, glad that he wouldn’t have to explain it to her. “And I don’t think she’s acting like herself now, either.”
Buffy subvocalized her agreement, then said, “It doesn’t look like she’s trying to escape, though.” She was right -- both wolves had been ignoring the visitors on their rooftop, as well as the fireworks and everything else outside their pen.
“I don’t think she’d have to. If it’s true she’s been present at the deaths so far, she must have gotten there as a human first. And I’d bet the Wolf infection allows her to transform at will, if she hadn’t mastered it on her own already.”
“I wonder what’s going on in her head.” Buffy’s voice was low and pensive, her two hands holding one of his like a gift. “Ever since Giles told us about the toxoplasma, I can’t stop picturing it. Imagine some garden-variety rat, no clue that it’s even sick, suddenly deciding cats are the in crowd...just sidling up to them all ‘Hey, I’ve been wrong about you feline types.’ And then getting disemboweled, all because some microscopic dictator in its blood had its own plan.”
Angel answered in the same quiet tone. “Imagine if the virus really could make its own plans. Imagine if the cats were in on it.”
“And the victim,” Buffy finished, “was too intelligent to go along with these impulses unless she made up reasons to convince herself it was what she wanted.”
There was a long silence, made eerie by the wolves’ apparent participation in it. The sky had grown blacker, the moon brighter, and Eric had settled down with a long bone, leaving Nina to pace the length of the enclosure by herself. Angel fixed his eyes forward and spoke in an unwavering voice: “I’m not going to kill her.”
“Angel?” Buffy sounded concerned. “I didn’t say…”
“You didn’t have to. Nobody had to. We all knew what this was going to lead us into. Willow said there’s no cure. Giles said it would be a mercy to release the Wolf’s host. Now we know it’s Nina, and nobody can come out and admit that the rules haven’t changed just because she’s a friend.” He felt Buffy flinch, and hung his head. “I’m sorry. I probably sound angry...I’m not. Not at you, anyway. I just know there’s going to be someone thinking this is my job, since nobody else wants to do it. And I won’t. I can’t.”
Her answer came reluctantly, though her hands didn’t move from his. “It’s funny. I...I haven’t been thinking that at all. For me it’s just been, ‘How are we going to get this done without taking an innocent life?’ The part of my brain that knows we can’t, it’s like it’s password protected. But I think you just logged in.”
Hopeless as he was, he couldn’t help appreciating that Buffy had known that a computer analogy would no longer throw him off. “The part that really scares me,” he confided, “is that I still kind of believe that it is my job. If this is something that has to happen, the consequences for it ought to go to the one who’s already doomed anyway, right?”
“No!” Without warning, she swung a leg over his, straddling him so that they were eye to eye, and held him by the shoulders. “Angel, you’re not doomed. You’re a warrior, like me. You can’t come this far just to throw it away.” She slumped down a bit, changing her grip to an embrace. “A couple days from now, we’ll save a life. Maybe we’ll learn something that helps. Maybe there really is a way out of this, and we just haven’t seen it yet. But we’re in it together, remember? I’m not going to just throw you to the wo-- ugh. I swear that was not on purpose.”
Angel slipped his arms around the small of her back, then cradled her head so that he could support her even as she leaned in the direction of the roof’s decline. He kissed her hard and passionately, and after a single second of surprise, she returned it, her tongue in his mouth and her warm fingers on his face and neck.
It wasn’t the first time they had kissed since coming back together, but it felt new, and a little frightening. Angel knew that they were in no danger of losing their senses and making love on his ex-girlfriend’s roof in full view of a pair of werewolves, but he couldn’t know for sure if this was the first step toward a mutual desire that they could only contain for so long. For now, all he could do was hope, and stand firm, and kiss.
“Hey,” whispered Buffy, long minutes later. “Happy Independence Day.”