Avox in Arcadia (perpetual) wrote,
Avox in Arcadia
perpetual

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Let Me In (7/15)

Title: Let Me In
Author: Kairos
Rating: PG-13 (violence, some language, some sex)
Wordcount: Roughly 145,000 total
Notes: You know the routine. Most of my schmoopy fetishes are hammered in during this chapter. Just to warn you.


When Angel took Buffy's virginity on her seventeenth birthday, he was painstakingly gentle, taking everything one step at a time, handling her body as if it were fragile instead of superpowered. When they made love for the second time, three years later, gentleness gave way to urgency and his kisses turned into love-bites, hard enough to break the skin if he had been using his fangs. Buffy gave back as good as she got- clothes were torn, both of theirs, and she used her nails, and she made noise. As they fell asleep, exhausted and tangled in each other's limbs, she cupped his face in her hand and said, "Angel. Are you going to be here when I wake up?"

"Yes," he whispered, the pain of memory flickering across his face, "I will."

And he was. She had woken up first, for a wonder, and she got to watch him open his eyes slowly and see her looking into them. Buffy took his hands in hers, but didn't want to move or say anything yet.

She couldn't look away from him. He was here, really here and really himself, but wearing an expression she'd never seen on him before. It was full of love and affection, but innocence, too, as if his burdened centuries had fallen away over the course of the night. He was giving her a mischievous smile, one that said he had no fear at all for consequences, and he put his arm around her and traced her spine with his fingers...

"Good morning," said Buffy an hour later.

He chuckled. "Good morning." He recovered a few pillows from where they had been strewn across the bed and propped them up behind her and himself. "What would you like to do today?"

She clasped an arm around his waist. "This. The world doesn't need saving today, does it?"

"Let me check your appointment book." He reached across her to the book she had left on the night table.

"That's my diary!"

He opened it to the last filled page and started reading anyway, holding it up and to his other side so she couldn't reach when she tried to snatch it away. "Are you sure?" he teased. "It looks like it has your plans for today-"

She clambered over his chest, but he had the book at arm's length and was still attempting to read from it while at the same time laughing and fighting off her assault. Any moment now he was going to start tickling her, she knew it. Angel was being naughty! Since when was Angel naughty? "My plans for today are none of your business!...Sort of!"

"Sort of," he agreed. "It says you want to have sex with Angel all day." With this revelation he triumphantly snapped the book shut and handed it back to her.

She tried to scowl at him and couldn't hold it for more than a second before breaking back into a grin. "You could have just asked."

***

"Okay," said Willow as she strode into the Magic Box, "I'm not going to take too much credit for this, because Giles is the one who basically identified the sneaky invisible eavesdropper spirit thing, but I found the name for it. And furthermore, I brought this!" She walked up to Giles and brandished a sheet of paper at him. "It's a shopping list!" she explained proudly.

Anya looked up from the register with a spark of curiosity. "What did you name it?"

Willow blinked out of her self-satisfaction. "Huh?"

"You said you found a name for the spying demon. What did you name it? Muffin? Binky? Charles? And how do we know it's going to respond to the name you chose?"

"No," Willow clarified with utmost patience. "It's not a demon, it's a spirit, and I mean I found the name of what kind of spirit it is. 'Moisipi.' It's a Moisipi spirit. And I found out how to get rid of it," she plowed on before Anya could ask any more annoying questions. "You can harness it easily if you can see it, but it has no form so usually that's impossible. Thus, catch-all spell for putting spirits into visible tangible shapes. Thus, me researching the spell in question. Thus, shopping list!"

Giles was frowning at the list and occasionally glancing up to search the shelves for some item he saw on it. "We have all of this here," he said finally.

Willow beamed. "I knew you would. Can we start?"

"The store is still open for another fifteen minutes."

"Aw. Can't we close early? Nobody's here."

Anya stalked over to Giles and Willow, clearly appalled at the idea of closing early, and nabbed the list from Giles's hands. "Oh, a substantiation spell," she said after a quick look over it. "It's kind of interesting to see what spirits look like, when they don't naturally look like anything. Except if it's a violent spirit it ends up taking on a form with muscles and weapons and then it kills everyone. But this should be fine, nothing on this list is too rare or expensive..."

Xander stopped what he was doing on the other side of the store- restocking some ointments in glass jars, probably just to help Anya- and said, "Okay, I wasn't listening to any of that until you mentioned a spirit that kills everyone. This isn't Spirit Summonin' Saturday, is it?" He dusted his hands off on his pants and joined them at the table.

"No summonin', just substantiatin'," Willow assured him. "And Moisipis are totally harmless, right Giles?"

He nodded, already holding a big book open in front of him and scrutinizing its pages. "They have no real consciousness, no drives or desires. Their existence is, ah, composed entirely of the five senses and a limited memory, which is why they're used as spies. In fact, they don't even seem to be terribly difficult to control, so if we can capture it..."

"We can bring it onto our side and use it against Daemonis!" Willow finished happily. "But first things first. If we keep talking about this too long, it'll phase back over to Vampire Central and report on us."

Xander eyed her warily. "Isn't that one of those things you're supposed to warn us about before we get started?"

She shrugged. "Well, I warned you, so now we can get started. Giles, please can we close the store?"

He sighed and went to lock the doors. The rest of them used her list to collect what they needed from the store's merchandise, and Willow instructed Xander on which herbs to mix while she set up a pattern of crystals on the table, forming a hoop which would confine the spirit to one spot. From there, it was all a cinch. The four of them sat around the table and held hands, Willow chanted the appropriate Sumerian words, and when she finished there was a tiny pop sound in the air above them. They opened their eyes and beheld what the spell had brought from its own reality to theirs.

Willow's first reaction was a squeal of delight. "It's so cute!"

"That's the Moisipi spirit?" said Xander.

"It looks like a kitty!" said Willow.

"This is just a forced representation, of course," said Giles.

"Hello, sweet kitty!" said Willow.

"Do we really have a use for this?" said Anya.

"Maybe we should call it Muffin!" said Willow.

Xander looked at Giles. "You know, she has a point. How come it's cute?"

"Well," stammered Giles, caught with a question about the occult that he didn't seem to know how to handle, "it's, it's innocent, for one thing, as it has no sense of right and wrong, so that might come forth in its appearance by showing us a...harmless animal. And also," he continued, gaining confidence, "the core of its being are its senses. The enlarged eyes and ears could represent vision and hearing, the brightness on its nose could be the sense of smell...that spread of whiskers, that would be tactile, of course..."

"Oh!" Willow piped in. "And the sense of taste is why the tip of its tongue is sticking out! Its cute little pink tongue." She leaned her elbows on the table, cupped her face in her hands, and smiled up at the Moisipi.

It was still hovering a few feet off the table, revolving slowly in every direction, its big eyes moving from face to face. The little pink tongue darted back in or licked its lips once in a while, and once it squeezed its eyes shut and opened its mouth in a huge yawn. It was definitely not afraid, but then, Giles had said that it had no drives or desires, so she supposed there wasn't really any way to make it feel emotions at all. That was quite all right; it could be adorable without them. It did look like a kitty, but not a real one. Its head was too big, its features too exaggerated, and despite its new corporeal form, it had a haziness around its edges that made it look like its ethereal self. Not to mention that it was floating in the air, of course.

Giles was the one who insisted they get back to work; Willow had almost forgotten that there was still some magic required before this business was over. For now, the Moisipi was trapped within the column of energy that they had formed with the ring of crystals on the table, but as soon as they removed the crystals the trap would dissipate and the spirit, in all probability, would go back to its original purpose of following Daemonis's orders. Giles was the one who had a spell for it in mind this time, and he looked it over with her while Xander informed Anya about why normal women enjoyed seeing cute things.

It didn't take much to claim the spirit for their own team. Giles spoke the spell's words and addressed the floating kitty directly, and to everyone's surprise, it spoke back. The words were in a language that none of them understood, but apparently, a short conversation between the caster and the spirit was the way it was supposed to work. When the Moisipi had murmured its last little purring word, Giles started picking up the crystals, and the spirit disappeared.

Willow gave a little cry of dismay. Even Xander and Anya seemed unhappy to see it go. Giles calmed them with a raised hand and explained, "It's still here. From now on it will be able to phase in and out of the corporeal form we gave to it. And a good thing, too, because now that we've, ah, recruited it, this is going to be the place it considers home, and I'm not sure how I would be able to explain its presence to customers."

Willow perked up. "You mean we get to keep it?"

"In a manner of speaking, yes."

"Is this part of my responsibilities as an employee now?" Anya inquired. "Because I don't know how to take care of animals. Or spirits. Or animal-spirits."

Giles pulled out a pocket handkerchief and went to work on cleaning his glasses. "There isn't really any care that it needs. It's simply here. It will see and hear us, and the spell of control means that from now on, it should follow our commands. Although...I should have thought this out more thoroughly beforehand. The only ones it will obey are the four of us, because we were the four who were present when the spell was cast. It's a pity it can only be cast a single time, I should have liked to allow a few others access to this resource."

"Why?" asked Anya. "We've got the key members here. You're the store owner, I'm an invaluable employee, Xander's my boyfriend, and Willow's the spare tire."

"Anya," warned Xander as Willow's cheeks heated up with anger. "Don't call Willow a tire."

Giles turned away from them and walked a few paces around the store, looking up into the empty air. "Moisipi," he said. "Appear." The floating kitty popped back into existence. "There, that works just as it should," he said with satisfaction. "Now let's see what we can get it to tell us about Daemonis."

For the next hour, they tried putting the Moisipi spirit to the question. When Buffy and Angel showed up, Giles and Xander and Anya were considering what kinds of questions would work best for future communications with it. Willow was considering names for it.

Buffy broke off in the middle of a cheerful greeting when she saw the floating spirit. She pointed to it with the hand that wasn't clinging to Angel's. "So, either you guys decided to import some magical merchandise from a Japanese toy store, or...what is that thing?"

Giles floundered with a concise but accurate answer. "It's our new, ah..."

"Toy," supplied Xander.

"Pet," suggested Anya.

"Friend!" insisted Willow.

"...Tool," finished Giles. He explained everything that had happened to bring it about, as Buffy and Angel sat down at the table, both still watching the Moisipi drift around the room. Buffy reached out a hand to touch it, but it rolled lazily out of her reach.

"It does that," Willow said in response to Buffy's pout. "You have to tell it to come to you or it just keeps skedaddling. Oh, except it won't listen to you. Moisipi, go let Buffy and Angel pet you." The spirit drifted back over to allow Buffy to caress it, and Willow tried not to feel too enamored of her newfound power of command.

Buffy seemed just as smitten with the spirit kitty as Willow was, and she showed it by trying to convince Angel to pet its fur as she was. Their conversation soon began sounding like they were talking about something else entirely, and when Buffy urged him, "Come on, you know you want to touch it," Xander coughed loudly and developed a sudden interest in what Willow was planning on naming the thing.

Giles let out a long-suffering sigh. "I suggest we call it 'Artificially Substantiated Moisipi Spirit Which Is to Be Used for Information and Not Entertainment'," he said sternly. Willow and Buffy exchanged a smile that said they had both seen that coming. Giles couldn't put up with playful chatter for too long.

"Have you gotten any information out of it so far?" Angel apparently couldn't, either. He seemed like he was in an unusually good temper, though. He and Buffy both did, come to think of it. They were giving each other a lot of knowing smiles, letting their hands wander over each other, and just generally being affectionate. It made Willow want to keep checking the clock to see when Oz would be free.

"A bit," said Giles. "We've learned that Daemonis and his followers know that the spell has been published, which is a relief. It wouldn't have kept anyone safe if they still thought that we were the only ones with the key to it, and I wasn't sure of how to inform them without risking one of us."

"How does it tell you stuff?" Buffy wanted to know. "Does it talk?"

Willow wanted to make the kitty demonstrate, but they had already learned that it wouldn't talk unless it had something to say, and it wouldn't have anything to say unless it was new information. "Wait until you hear its voice," she said instead. "It's sooo..."

"Cute?" offered Anya. She turned to Xander. "She's going to say it's cute, I know it. She's been talking like that all night because normal women think this thing is cute, and that's why they enjoy looking at it."

"'Scuse us," said Willow, pulling at Buffy's sleeve. "We're going to go be normal women over here for a little while. You can all keep using the kitty for information and not entertainment."

Buffy reluctantly let herself be led away from Angel, and when Willow thought they were in a corner that was safely out of range of even vampiric hearing, she said, "You're glowing. What's up?"

Buffy looked alarmed. She patted her face and held her hands up to inspect them. "Glowing? Like, some kind of mystical glow thing? Do I need to be exorcised or something? Oh God, tell me it's not an aspect-of-the-demon kind of deal, I haven't even had any contact with any demons lately..."

"Uh, Buffy? I'm making with the metaphors. You're metaphorically glowing. I just wanted to know if you and Angel finally made it into bed."

"Oh." Buffy's face went through an amusing series of expressions, her relief blending into comprehension and then back to alarm. "How did you know that? I thought everyone thought we had already been..."

"I think everyone else does," Willow assured her. "But you can't fool me. Anyway, I understand this probably means you're booked up for a few days, but when you have a slice of time can you plan on coming back to your old pad for a night?"

Buffy nodded, but cocked her head curiously. "Why? Is something wrong?"

"No. Get with the program, Buff. I want to eat a gallon of ice cream and talk about boys." She crossed her arms, smiling. "You're not too grown up for that now, are you?"

Both of them erupted in giggles as Buffy threw her arms around Willow in a spontaneous hug. "Never too grown up for you! It's a date. As long as I can go smother my boyfriend some more now."

Willow glanced back at the table at the same moment that Angel was checking over his shoulder for them. "Go 'head," she smirked. "I think he misses you."

***

Buffy's chopsticks delved back into her Chinese takeout box as she leaned against Angel's chest and wondered how much longer he was going to be this indulgent. Usually he started biting his lip as soon as he saw her eating in bed, but tonight he was so relaxed that he had handed the food to her himself while she was sitting there. She didn't really intend to test how much she had him wrapped around her finger, but it was fun for the moment. Besides, he happened to have his phone cord wrapped around her. If he could talk on the phone in bed, it was only fair that she could eat in bed.

Living with Angel did involve some compromises of that kind. They hadn't come up right away, because her dependence on him during her recovery meant that he had been willing to allow her anything while at the same time being essentially the one who was solely in control of running the household. For a while she had felt like she was on a vacation at the mansion (which happened to have the benefit of full-time Angel access), but gradually it had become a true home and they had worked out a power balance that didn't hinge on him letting her do whatever she wanted. She was starting to see yet another side to him, one that had his own ways of doing things but could gracefully alter them to accommodate her, instead of waiting for her to accommodate him. She in turn had brought over some of her mother's favorite art, some linens with a bit more color than the ones he had, and Mr. Gordo, and the mansion was taking on some of her personality in a way that didn't stifle his. She liked it. He liked it. She fit.

"Yeah," he was saying into the receiver, "have you ever heard of a Moisipi spirit? I guess there's no way to find a picture of it, but I wish you'd been able to see it before you left." As he spoke he idly ran a lock of Buffy's hair through his fingers. "I think it'll help. We've got one up on them now...Anything new at the agency?...Uh huh." Angel steadied Buffy with one hand as he shifted his position. "Hey, Wesley, I meant to ask you. Have you heard from that Darla woman again?"

Buffy turned her head halfway to give him a suspicious glare which was blocked by her head being tucked under his chin. He hadn't mentioned anything about a Darla woman.

"No? Okay, good. They must have given up on that one...Yeah, I'm not sure what they were thinking either. Telling you that a human was my sire is like telling you that a man was your mother...Right, that too. Alright, I've got to go...Say hi to her too." He unwound the cord from Buffy and hung up.

"What's the what on Darla?" she asked, not being jealous at all.

"Nothing important," he replied. "Someone apparently thought they could convince me that she was back from the dead. And a human. And that she needed my help, I guess." His tone was casual, but she thought it sounded a little forced. He had never liked talking about Darla in any context. Whoever had tried to toy with him this way was playing a particularly nasty trick, whether or not they knew it.

Buffy stared into her lo mein. "What would you do if she really was back?"

"If she were human? Try to help her, I guess. If there was a way to help her. That kind of reincarnation is hard to even imagine."

"What if she were a vampire?"

He looped his arms around her waist, not letting the heavy topic put any space between them. "Kill her. Again. Before she got a chance to get her soul back. Right now that's all the power I've got."

Buffy finished eating and set the container aside so that she had her hands free to return his embrace. "If she were really back, and a vampire, I would kill her before you did," she told him. "Nobody should have to do something like that twice."

"Buffy." He didn't say anything more, but she could tell by his voice that he hadn't expected her to understand his feelings like that. And she didn't, not really. Vampire culture, the blood bonds between them, the way it felt to not have a soul...all of those things were too far beyond her experience to even attempt to comprehend. But she knew that a relationship that had lasted for five times as long as her own age meant something, even if it meant something that would be better off forgotten. Angel had enough emotional baggage without facing his own history over and over again.

Besides, Darla was a bitch who had messed with Buffy's boyfriend. Killing her would have been nothing short of a pleasure.

***

There were ways to get home without cutting through dark alleys, and Xander and Oz knew enough about the town's dirty secrets that they might have taken advantage of any little increment of safety they could get, but it was so easy to get bored with watching your back. Plus, Xander reasoned, they both had a fair amount of experience under their belts. Oz could turn into a savage beast the moment he felt threatened, and Xander himself...he was resourceful! That was it. There had to be some reason that he was still alive after all this time.

So they took a turn down the dark alley, and Xander, being resourceful, heard the sounds of conflict ahead of them before they were spotted by anything with insidious intentions. Oz heard it too- did he have a wolf's heightened sense of hearing? Xander couldn't remember- and the two of them ducked into a wide doorway and tried to discern something from that standpoint without leaving its shelter. They could see some shadowy figures down the way which did seem to be fighting each other, but they could hear better than they could see, and what they heard was definitely Spike's voice. Xander glanced at Oz to make sure he'd noticed it too, and Oz nodded and pointed to the dumpster next to them. It took a second, but Xander saw what he was getting at: someone had thrown away some furniture, including a wooden chair with a couple of jaggedly broken legs.

Xander took a deep breath, then stepped out of the doorway. He and Oz each grabbed one of the chair-leg stakes and advanced slowly towards Spike's battle. At first they crept forward as silently as possible, but as they got closer there was no way to stay concealed, and they ended up walking right up to the dueling vampires just as it seemed Spike was getting the upper hand. There was just one other, though Xander was certain that there had been two voices besides Spike's to start with.

When Spike noticed them he rolled his eyes and muttered some curses without losing his rhythm. Oz looked at Xander and shrugged slightly. There was really no reason to jump into this. After a series of three kicks which all hit his opponent directly in the face, Spike whisked over to Xander, said, "Give me that," and grabbed the chair leg out of his hand. In a moment it clattered on the pavement of the alley as the vampire who had taken it in the heart settled around it in a layer of ashes.

"Dead vampire," said Xander. "Nifty." Oz said nothing, just looked at the chair leg in his hand and then turned and tossed it back at the dumpster.

Spike had no sarcastic comments this time, no colorful insults. "This is the third one," he said.

"Just the third?" Xander raised an eyebrow. "I thought your score would be better than that by now."

"This is the third one to tell me that we're all doomed. That you lot have cooked up something so terrible that I must be mad to be helping you. All of them are minions of Daemonis and all of them are scared out of their puny minds." Spike gave each of them a long, penetrating look, and gleaning nothing from their reactions, sighed and took a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. "I'm not scared," he said as he fished one out of the box and started digging in his pockets for a lighter. "You can kill us all, what of it? You can put chips in everyone else's head, I'd be pleased as punch." He got the cigarette lit and inhaled, tilting his head back to blow out the smoke in a long sigh. "And I don't really think you'll manage it either way. But you're up to something. And I'm the only one who doesn't know what it is."

"That's probably the truth," Oz confirmed.

Xander nodded. "You made your coffin now sleep in it."

"Bloody teenage brats," Spike chuckled. "Aren't you the least bit afraid I'm going to find out?"

"So what if you do?" challenged Xander. "You're neutered. And you're stuck on our side, now that Daemonis won't take you back."

"Such innocence," said Spike, taking another drag from the cigarette. "So bloody cute. If the only thing I accomplish before this is over is to make you suddenly realize how stupid you were not to kill me, I'll be perfectly content." He whirled around and strode down the alley.

"The guy could sure use some company," said Oz as they headed home.

"Maybe we should get him a Moisipi spirit," suggested Xander.

***

Angel aimed a spinning kick at Buffy's midsection, but she caught his foot with both of her hands and twisted it, sending him down to the floor on his back. He planted his hands behind himself and arched his back to spring back to his feet, keeping her in his line of vision, and sidestepped her coming punch. She retaliated with a low kick, sweeping his legs out from under him and bringing him down again, but this time he caught her by the arms and took her down on top of him. Before she could react he rolled them over so he was on top, then held down one of her wrists in each of his hands and planted a firm kiss on her neck. "I win," he announced, releasing her.

Instead of answering she pushed him back onto his back and tapped her fist against his chest, right over the heart. "No, I win."

"You can't stake me now," he laughed. "I already bit you."

"You didn't hold on long enough. I broke free." She smiled smugly and 'staked' him again.

He rolled once again, pinning her. "You can't break free. I've got you in my thrall." He repeated the 'bite' kiss, nibbling her skin a little this time, deliberately tickling her. Nothing they were doing bore much resemblance to training anymore, but she was giggling uncontrollably and he decided that was more important.

"You don't have thrall!"

"Yes, I do. Comes with the package. Nowhere near the power of Dracula's, but we all have a little bit of it."

She scooted out from under him and sat up. "Wait, really? All vampires?"

He nodded. "Why do you think it's so hard for people to fight back once they're being fed on?"

"Hm." She frowned. "Because they're scared and vampires are really strong? Seriously, you need thrall on top of that?"

"Not always, but sometimes it helps." He sat next to her and folded an arm around her shoulders, looking at the scar on her neck. "Well, you've been bitten. You should know how it feels."

"Oh, are we having this conversation now?" She glanced up at him, her green eyes big and guileless.

"What conversation?"

"The one about how you bit me and I liked it."

He winced. Maybe he should have seen this coming, but he had a feeling that she had been waiting for it to come up 'naturally'- which meant she had steered him into a conversation about vampirism. Damn her craftiness. "I was actually hoping not to have that conversation...ever..."

"Then you picked the wrong girl. I do conversations." She folded her legs underneath her and looked him in the eyes. He liked the way she always did that. When she wanted to talk, she wanted to do it openly. "Look, Angel, I'm only saying this because I don't want you being wigged by the idea that you've tasted my blood. And enjoyed it. Presumably." She arched an interrogative eyebrow. "You did enjoy it, right?"

What a question. He couldn't even think of a good evasion, except that 'enjoy' wasn't exactly the right word. "There's no safe answer to that," he told her.

"Um, I beg to differ? Let me make it easier for you: if you don't tell me my blood is the best you've ever had, I'm going to be jealous and whiny and basically turn into a complete harpy. Does that delineate your choices a little?"

"Maybe...hey, did you know that harpies are real?"

"Don't change the subject!"

"Fine." He held up his hands in defeat. "If you really want to hear about this. Don't say I didn't warn you."

She smiled disarmingly and lay down on her stomach with her arms crossed in front of her. "Oh good," she said. "Story time."

He sighed and took up a meditative pose on the floor in front of her, partially out of reflex and partially because it was the easiest way to stay comfortable. "You've probably noticed that vampires tend to go for attractive people," he began. "Not just to sire but to feed on. It's not necessarily a sexual attraction, though there's that too. There are a lot of qualities that could make someone a target. Youth, courage, intelligence, popularity...anything that a real person, with a soul and a conscience, might admire. Vampires can't admire humans, though, not in the way that you would understand it, so all of those feelings get channeled into something else."

"Bloodlust," stated Buffy.

"Yes. And it has a lot to do with what kind of person the vampire would have been drawn to as a human. Daemonis was probably a lecher in his day. Now he sees a pretty woman and he wants to drink her. An old female vampire might see a brawl in a tavern and pick out the best fighter. Everyone's got their preferences. Spike was an aesthete when he was human. Afterward he'd choose his victims based on the strength of their personality. Drusilla was...she was so innocent. She's killed a lot of children." Angel didn't try looking into Buffy's eyes at that point. He didn't think he could handle it, not until he had gotten through the worst of the explanation. "Animal blood all tastes the same. Human blood always tastes different. And you can tell, by the way someone looks, or acts, or smells, whether you want them. Sometimes, it's just hunger, and the only choice involved is what's easiest. Sometimes it's about sadism, or hate, and then none of that applies because it's just for the sake of causing pain." He hesitated. "Is this too much? Should I stop?"

Buffy's eyes were rounded with disbelief. "Spike was an aesthete?"

"Oh, you don't know the half of it." Angel relaxed a little. For a moment he had been afraid she was going to ask him what his own preferences used to be. She wasn't so insensitive, of course. He should have known that.

"I bet. So, I'm just gonna go ahead and block all thoughts of Spike's pre-undeath and Spike's anything else from my mind, and you carry on with how all this applies to us."

He paused again. Maybe this was the worst part. "My capacity to love throws everything out of order. I don't have that block that stops me from seeing people for their own worth. I can understand that someone's virtue or beauty is good for its own sake, and not just because it makes them taste better. But I still have the demon's instincts. The feelings I have towards someone- towards you- can come to me in both ways. The real way...and the vampire way. So, yes. Your blood is the best."

"But you still don't want to drink it, because you're afraid you'll hurt me." Her voice was serious; she wasn't teasing him now.

"That's about it."

She pushed herself up off the floor and into a sitting position again. "You know, it's pretty tough to hurt me. Even when you lost control, it was because I let you. And last time you didn't lose control anyway."

"What are you saying?" He was pretty sure he knew, but this wasn't the time to be making guesses.

"Okay, my turn. I said I liked it, didn't I? Want to hear about why?"

"That would be enlightening."

She slipped her hand lightly into his. "Angel, you're mysterious. And that's cool, but it's hard to be in love with you and still have so much I don't know about you. I'm not asking you to tell me the hard stuff. That wouldn't help anything anyway. But it's not the same the other way around, is it? You know me. You knew everything about me before I even knew what your name as a human was."

He blinked. "When did I tell you what my human name was?"

"Uh, never?"

"Oh." Well, he had walked right into that one. She was right, of course. When they had begun working together, taking those long patrolling walks, it had been her life that filled the conversation, not his. She had known even then what not to ask him about, but answered all of his questions easily and at length, and most importantly, she had never once assumed he wouldn't be interested. Any distance that his age and background would have caused between them was sealed up by the understanding that she wasn't constantly wondering how best to talk to a vampire. It meant a lot to him. It was just one of many things about her that was completely new to him.

She squeezed his hand reassuringly. "It's okay. Keep the mysteries. But there's kind of an imbalance here. You've been human, you know what that's like. And neither of us want me to find out what it's like to be a vampire, but I still want to understand you, like you understand me. And when you were drinking from me, I did. I knew what it meant to be what you are. Everything you just said about love and instincts, I got that. I was there with you."

"But that's not who I really am," he objected, his voice quiet and cautious. "That's the part of me I want to get rid of."

"I know," she said earnestly. "And I want you to. If we can bring human Angel out to play, I'll never look back. But right now the Angel I have is vampire Angel, and that's not all bad, is it? You're strong and you're hard to kill and you can make that one really sexy sound-"

"What sound?"

"The one that's like a growl except kind of more like a purr and sometimes you do it when I kiss you?"

He tried it. She shivered in momentary delight. "Yeah, see, humans can't make that sound. Now don't do it again or I won't be able to remember what I was saying. Wait, what was I saying? Oh, right. Vampire Angel. Can't we make the most of it?"

It took him a few tries before he could respond with a proper sentence. "It's hard to turn off the craving once it gets started, Buffy. That's why I don't drink any human blood."

"Maybe the cravings are just part of always denying it to yourself."

He considered that. He didn't want to just tell her she was wrong, because he wasn't certain that she was. Still... "It's dangerous," he said.

She smiled sweetly and poked him in the chest. "Not if I can kick your butt as soon as I think you're getting too into it."

"You sure you can? A few minutes ago I believe I won."

She gasped in mock offense. "That was before I knew you had thrall! I was unprepared. I demand a rematch."

Ever compliant- at least for this- he got to his feet and offered a hand to pull her up. They both took fighting stances, but before either of them moved to attack, Angel remembered one more thing he had to say. "It was Liam."

"That was your name?" She wrinkled her nose and tried it out. "Liam. Good name. But you're always going to be Angel to me."

"Even if I'm human?"

"Angel is Angel." She began to circle, but this time she was the one to put off the attack in order to say something. "Can you make that sound again?"

He laughed, made the sound, and reached for her. He was beginning to suspect that she didn't actually want to spar after all.

***

Willow left the UC Sunnydale arts building to find Xander waiting by the door for her. "Oh hey!" she greeted him, pleased. "Is this a surprise ride home? I was just gonna take the bus, but I can easily be convinced to not have to wait the extra five minutes."

"Especially at night," he replied, sounding unusually somber. Maybe he was starting to get a little more cautious about the ways of the Hellmouth. To be honest, it made her a little nervous to have to wait in the dark, too. She only had a night class once a week, but it always got out so late.

He led her out to the parking lot, where she saw with some confusion that he wasn't in his own car. It was Giles's, and there was Giles in the driver's seat, and there was Father Tom riding shotgun.

"And a...surprise entourage?" asked Willow. "What's the sitch? This is a sitch happening here, right?"

"We're being extra paranoid tonight," said Xander as he and Willow ducked into the back seats. "Right Giles?"

Giles glanced at them in the rearview mirror as he started the car. "We saw a demon earlier. Nobody was hurt, and in fact it may not have even seen us, but I believe this is what Spike was referring to when he said that Daemonis would be gathering more followers as he himself grew weaker from the poison."

"Oh." Willow chewed her lip. "So are you going to send Angel after it?"

"It's the kind of demon that causes problems for Angel," said Xander.

"What kind is that?"

"The Broad Daylight kind. We saw it this afternoon."

Father Tom cleared his throat. "Of course, that's not to say that Angel can't hunt it by night. And if he fails, Giles and I can keep searching tomorrow."

Willow looked out the window as the car left the parking lot and headed towards home. There wasn't much to see, but there wasn't much she could say, either. Fighting the demons wasn't her job, not when the real fighters were around to do it, and she hadn't especially wanted to spend the night worrying about them. Her art class had actually been fun tonight. She had felt so normal.

"The demon itself shouldn't pose too much of a problem," Giles agreed. "What concerns me is its lack of discretion. And I've called Buffy and Angel and can't reach them."

"I think they were going out tonight," murmured Willow.

"Yes," said Giles. He sounded like he was gritting his teeth. "That's their prerogative." He twisted to look back at Willow for a second before getting his eyes back on the road. "Willow, that spell you used to reveal the Moisipi spirit in the Magic Box. Can you bring Tara over to your house to help you do it again?"

Willow tried to think about it and was distracted by wondering why he was asking. "Um," she said. "She doesn't need to come. I need a second person to help me, but now that I know how to do the spell, it can be anyone."

"So we're worried about eavesdroppers again?" asked Xander. "There's more to this particular sitch than you're letting on, isn't there?"

"We were careless to leave our homes unchecked in the first place," said Giles evasively. "We should have repeated the spell as soon as we discovered it."

Xander looked like he was about to take issue with that answer. Giles glared into the mirror as if he was ready for that. Father Tom opened his mouth to intervene if quarreling started in earnest. Willow screamed, because she was the first one to see the demon.

It seemed to come from nowhere, but that was a stupid thought. It was pitch black outside, so of course nobody saw it until it had stepped into the path of the headlights. For some reason the moment reminded Willow very much of Bigfoot- had she seen this in a movie or something? But unlike Bigfoot, the demon didn't run or melt back into the woods; it faced the car and roared with a mouth full of big sharp teeth. The horns on its head and shoulders cast hectic shadows over its body, and its eyes were glowing as if it had its own set of headlights pointed at them.

Giles showed the reflexes of a Slayer when he saw it. While Willow kept shrieking and Xander shouted "That's it! That's the one!", he hit the gas instead of the brake and slammed right into the demon, sending everyone in the car rocking as they rolled over its body. She turned in her seat to try to spot it from the rear window, but before anything showed up, Giles had made the fastest three-point turn she'd ever seen, and sped up once again to give it a second hit. This time there was a sickening crunch, and in the red glow of the taillights, Willow could see a large humanoid body bent in all the wrong directions. Giles stopped the car and threw the parking lights.

"We're, uh," panted Xander. "We're not getting out and exchanging numbers, are we?"

"It's dead," said Giles shortly. He opened the glovebox and found a flashlight there, and he and Father Tom left the car. Willow and Xander looked at each other for a moment, then they both shrugged and followed.

The flashlight's beam on the demon's broken form confirmed its death for everyone. It was lying in the middle of the road, though, and Giles ruled that they had to move it before another car came by- which thankfully hadn't happened yet. They were on a rather lonely road, and it also had the benefit of a ditch on one side. The four of them together managed to hurl the dead demon down there, and then cover it with a few leafy branches.

"Is that going to do it?" asked Father Tom uncertainly.

Giles nodded. "This type should decompose entirely within a few days. Once they're dead, they can't hold together outside of their home dimension."

Xander clapped his hands together. "So! This has been a blast, but I kind of want to get home and beg my girlfriend to make me a sandwich before we get our magic on."

Willow and Father Tom were already moving toward the car. Giles paused at the hood and put his glasses back on, having just finished cleaning them, to inspect the slightly crumpled bumper. He shook his head regretfully. "They're going to bleed me on this."

***

Buffy knew she wasn't back up to full strength yet, but she also knew that most days, that wouldn't have stopped her. She wouldn't have let Angel draw the fight away from her, as he had learned to do so easily and without sparing her a glance. He had it under control; he always did. There was only one vampire, and though it was clearly older and more experienced than most that crossed their paths, it was no Angel. They traded blows rapidly, sometimes using headlong tackles and sometimes elegant maneuvers, both showcasing fangs at each other but making no noise beyond the occasional thud of impact, both trained fighters. There was nobody but Buffy to witness the battle, and no reason that anyone else would happen to wander up to such a lonely place. It had been odd that they had even run into a vampire here, but maybe he wasn't hunting. Maybe he had just wanted some solitude too. In any case, he hadn't found it, and Angel was doing a perfectly serviceable job of killing him without Buffy's assistance.

That wasn't the point. She was the Slayer, she didn't just stand there watching other people kill vampires, no matter how competently they could do so. Truth be told, she wouldn't have wanted to go solo on one of this level of strength just yet, but she could have certainly stepped in and thrown him off balance a little. Instead she was just standing there, a passive female letting her man defend her, watching.

Well, maybe she had her reasons, just this once. One of them, she wasn't afraid to admit, was that Angel looked really, really hot during hand-to-hand combat. He was all lightning reflexes and swirling black coat, and even the brow ridges seemed to add to his ferocity instead of detracting from his good looks. It was hard to appreciate this view when she was engulfed in combat beside him.

Tonight there was a better reason to stick to observation, though, and she was just starting to unwrap it. She was staying out of the fight because he wanted her to. He had a chance to protect her, and to lighten her workload, without even putting himself in any real risk. Angel had been doing that for years, she now knew, but mostly it had happened without her knowing about it at the time. To see her facing one less enemy was valuable to him, and to step in now would be to take it away.

So she watched, and he won, and as he sidestepped a cloud of ashes and returned to her side in his human face, she refrained from ironic applause or wry comments and just said, "My guardian Angel." He smiled at her, accepting the praise as his reward, and wrapped his arms around her from behind so that they both faced the view.

And what a view it was. The whole town and far beyond was visible below the bluff, lights twinkling from a thousand different sources. Angel sat down, still holding onto her so that she was pulled along into his lap, and she leaned back into his embrace. "I love this place," he said contentedly.

If he noticed what an odd thing it was for someone to speak contentedly about a place where he had once come to kill himself, he showed no sign of it. And Buffy loved the place too, she realized. It had been too hard to be here without him, but now that he was back, she almost felt like there were still miraculous snowflakes drifting down around them, assuring them that everything was going to be okay.

They deserved that feeling, she thought. It was hard to get anything like a date lately, between her training, Angel's patrolling, and everyone's fear that Daemonis was out for her blood. And then when they pushed all that away to make time for themselves, date night ended up consisting of a visit to her mother's grave, a coffee shop that got their orders mixed up, and now some unscheduled slayage on the bluff. Why it still felt like everything was going to be okay, she didn't know, except that it had something to do with Angel.

They kissed for a while, the kind of insatiable, prolonged kissing that they had so often engaged in when she was a teenager trying out her first steady relationship and he was a vampire reacquainting himself with human emotion. Then she rested back against him for a while, and his cool hand slipped between her jacket and shirt to rest on her heart, and then they kissed some more.

At length Angel removed his hand, now as warm as hers, from her chest and reached into his pocket. "I got you your ring," he said, offering her a small jewelry box.

It was too dark for her to see so much as the color of the box itself, but as soon as she opened it, it lit up from inside. A light-up box was not a difficult confection to procure, she knew, but it was dazzling in its own right, and necessary for her to see the difference that this claddagh ring had from the last one. It was gold instead of silver, and in the center of the heart was set a single, sparkling stone. "Angel," she breathed, twisting to look him in the face. "Is this a diamond?"

He nodded. "They didn't used to make them like this in my time. I'm mixing some traditions, but I didn't think you'd mind. Diamonds suit you. They're pretty in the sunlight." He put two fingers under her chin, bringing her gaze back to his eyes from where it had fallen, spellbound, back to the ring. "I had a whole speech planned for tonight, about what I could and couldn't give you, and what it meant for us to be together. But then I remembered that you already knew all of that, and...that you'll bite my head off if I talk about leaving you for your own good. So there's really only one question left. Will you marry me, Buffy?"

Buffy had the feeling that her mouth was hanging open, but couldn't collect herself enough to fix it. She was going to get married. She was going to marry Angel. They were going to be together forever and ever and nothing could come between them and it was really happening. Angel wasn't going to leave her again! He had given her a diamond! She needed one of those bridal magazines. Willow had to be the maid of honor, of course. Should they write their own vows or use the traditional ones?

"Uh, Buffy?" said Angel with just a trace of nervousness in his voice. "I could really use an answer here."

She threw her arms around him, the ring in its box clutched tightly in one hand, and kissed him hard before pulling back and replying, "Yes, yes, duh, yes! I will. I will marry you."

He didn't have to say anything to that. It was all evident in the way he kissed her back and the way his eyes stayed locked on her however she moved. As he took the ring from the box and slipped it onto the finger she had kept vacant for it, she looked up at him and asked, "Where's yours?"

It was in his pocket; he took it out and showed her before donning it. His was silver again, which she had to admit suited him better than gold, and it lacked the jewel in the heart, but they were still a match. "I didn't want to put it on until we were actually engaged," he explained.

She squeaked. "Angel, we're engaged!"

"Yes we are." He brushed her cheek with his newly ringed hand. "Want to go home and celebrate?"

Buffy reflected on the walk home that no matter how happy Angel got, she could probably always count on him for at least one dire warning per occasion. This time it was delivered reluctantly, in his kindest tone: "The world isn't going to accept this so easily."

"I know." She mused about it silently and then decided to share her conclusion. "I really don't care."

***

Everyone was downstairs in the Summers house- they would probably never stop calling it that, thought Giles, even if there was never another Summers who lived there. When he had arrived with the others who had been in the car when they hit the demon, the first thing they had done, before answering questions, before comparing notes, was to cast the seeking spell. Nothing turned up, and now they were free to speak openly, but Willow was cleaning up her magic supplies and Anya was grilling Xander about the demon, and Giles ended up sitting at the dining room table with Father Tom and a pot of tea, comparing Willow's spellcasting discipline to those condoned by the Church. When the doorbell rang, Giles stood up mid-sentence and beat the others to answering it.

Buffy and Angel were both there, both wearing incongruous smiles and leaning on each other. He knew he shouldn't hold that against them. They hadn't even heard the news yet; there was no reason they shouldn't be cheerful tonight. Cheerfully romantic, God help them all. He beckoned them in and locked the door behind them.

"We got your message and figured we better head over," said Buffy as they followed him back into the dining room. "You sounded pretty Book of Revelations. Is it giant snakes? Zombie cyborgs? We need a rocket launcher?"

The others drifted over to the table, automatically taking seats as they greeted the new arrivals. Buffy and Angel both sat at the head, chairs pushed close together, still looking like nothing was going to spoil their shared good mood. A few days ago, Willow had made a comment about how the couple was 'glowing.' Giles had a feeling that that word would be coming up again today, but he had no patience for it now. He started by describing the incident with the demon. That got their attention.

"Everyone's okay?" said Buffy, looking them over. She got nods from all the participants, and looked back to Giles for further information.

He explained about seeing the same demon earlier in the day and what he thought it meant, and that he didn't expect there to more of that kind right away. He also let them know that the house had been checked for eavesdroppers, and that he wanted to repeat the process at the mansion as well as his own house.

Angel understood the implications in that. "You've got some news we need to keep secret."

"Yeah," put in Xander, "and the rest of us are waiting for it too. He's been all British headmaster about this, wouldn't tell us anything until we were properly secure. So now we're all up to speed, can we learn something?"

"I've been on the phone with the Watcher's Council all day," said Giles. "They called to inform me that they'll be casting the spell that Willow authored. With or without our consent."

Willow put a hand over her mouth, trying to muffle a whimper. Oz put an arm around her, but Giles saw his lips form a curse. Everyone else looked completely blank for a moment, and then Xander broke the silence with the desperately voiced word, "Jesus."

"Can they really do that?" implored Buffy. "Just by themselves?"

"They won't be doing it by themselves," Giles said coldly. "They've joined forces with a number of powerful witches who found the spell on the internet, and also with some of Angel's contacts. Given their skill at organizing business on this scale, it should be a matter of little difficulty for them to establish a worldwide network that can be used to channel enough power to fuel the spell. They have the formula they need to complete it and they won't require our assistance for anything else."

Angel dropped his face into his hands for a second, then rubbed his eyes and lifted it again as Buffy ran a soothing hand down his back. They still didn't seem that upset. Not as much as he had expected, anyway.

Anya tapped her finger on her lips thoughtfully. "Nobody respects us, do they?"

"No, they don't," Giles confirmed. "As far as the occult world is concerned, we're not even an institution, simply a few assorted individuals. Counting the Slayer among us adds some influence, but she's not known to work alongside anyone except for the Council itself. As a team we have no reputation and there's little reason for them to adhere to our wishes. I might have expected this to happen."

"When are they going to do it?" said Angel.

"I haven't the faintest idea."

Willow spoke up at last. "It'll take a lot of preparation. We've got some time."

"Sure," said Oz, "but time to what?"

"Time to pray about it," suggested Father Tom evenly. "If anyone is open to that idea."

Xander raised his hand. "I'm actually thinking of taking you up on that. After I have a chance to try my first idea, which is blind panic."

Anya nodded. "I'm going to panic with Xander."

"Well I'm not," said Buffy indignantly. "Come on, guys, we can figure this out. So we've got a few extra moral dilemmas to deal with. It's out of our hands, so now we concentrate on what we can do. Remember Daemonis? It's still going to feel good to take him out, right?"

Angel smiled and kissed her temple. Willow gazed at them, almost jealously, before answering, "Yeah, uh." Obviously she had more to say, and just as obviously didn't want to. Everyone knew by now the easiest way to get her to talk, and they all stayed silent until the pressure wore her down. "So, I spent some time at the store today questioning Sippy"- despite Willow's best efforts, this was the only name that had stuck for the Moisipi spirit- "and it looks like Daemonis got his hands on a copy of the spell, and he's going to try to use it to write a counterspell."

This was news to Giles as much as the rest of them. "How likely is it that he'll succeed?"

Willow shrugged one shoulder, the corner of her mouth twisting disconsolately. "Not very. I don't think I could do it, not without more knowledge than I put in there."

"Daemonis already knows how to remove the soul from a vampire," said Angel suddenly. "He did it to himself, and he said he could do it for me. I thought the reason that he didn't want us casting the spell was that he didn't want to deal with the consequences of making it worldwide."

"Maybe..." Willow looked from Angel to Giles and back again. "Maybe it's not exactly a counterspell. Maybe he just wants to reverse it. Instead of putting souls into all the bodies that didn't have them...it could take the souls out of all the ones that did."

"Apocalypse ahoy," announced Xander. "Oz owes me ten bucks."

Oz started digging in his wallet as Xander got a few dirty looks shot his way. Willow reached over the table to smack him, couldn't reach, and smacked the table in front of him instead. "It's still not that likely!" she insisted. "It's not the Apocalypse if he can't do it, and I don't think he can."

"And let's not forget the idea about killing him first," Buffy reminded everyone.

"So," ventured Oz in the following lull. "Anyone got any good news?"

The look that passed between Buffy and Angel at that point happened very quickly. She simply turned and looked up at him, as if in automatic response to Oz's words, and Angel's eyes widened in alarm. He shook his head almost imperceptibly, and both of them snapped their attention back to the discussion.

But the discussion wasn't really happening anymore, and Xander had evidently noticed Buffy's reaction along with Giles. "You got something, Buff?" he prodded. "'Cause I gotta tell you, I'm ready to get psyched about anything right now. Tell me they're putting Surge back on the shelves, and you'll infuse me with a new inner strength."

"Ah..." Buffy blushed. "It's nothing. I mean, I'll tell you about it later. Right now it's kind of off-topic."

Xander clearly hadn't seen all Giles had seen. When Angel had shook his head, telling Buffy no, she had hidden her hand beneath the table, but even as she did so Giles caught a glimpse of a sparkle on one of her fingers. He knew now what had transpired between them tonight, why they kept smiling through the grave news. Xander didn't. If he had, he never would have kept pressing Buffy on it.

"Don't hold out on us!" he pleaded comically, and the other young people were starting to echo him.
Finally Buffy and Angel shared another look, and Giles could see that they were giving each other permission- and bracing themselves, as well they might.

Angel was the one to speak. "Buffy and I are getting married," he said, addressing everyone. Buffy smiled uncertainly and held out her hand, displaying the diamond ring.

Giles wondered if an announcement of engagement had ever produced such a varied reaction. Xander stood up and left the room without saying a word. Anya looked as if she were about to follow, but instead she moved to the head of the table to inspect Buffy's ring up close. Father Tom placed his chin in his hand and peered at the couple with extreme interest. Willow gushed, loudly and with little pause for breath. She exclaimed over the beauty of the ring, gave them her blessing in several different phrasings, tugged on Oz's sleeve repeatedly to solicit his agreement, and fired off a series of questions about the wedding plans that Buffy couldn't possibly have had time to think about yet.

Buffy did an admirable job of keeping up with Willow's thrilled chatter, her own enthusiasm clearly being ignited all over again. Giles could also see Buffy's immense gratitude towards her friend for filling up the silences that they were receiving from half the company. Willow was doing it consciously, he realized. She wasn't faking, but she was deliberately overdoing it to save Buffy and Angel from awkward confrontations, and they knew it. That's me, he remembered. She's protecting them from a confrontation with me.

With great difficulty he swallowed his misgivings and said, "Congratulations." It sounded bitter even in his own ears, but it was all he could do for now.


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