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

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Let Me In (12/14)

Title: Let Me In
Author: Kairos
Rating: PG-13 (violence, some language, some sex)
Wordcount: Roughly 145,000 total
Notes: You haven't been paying attention to the chapter count, have you? Good. Don't.


Angel had never fought Drusilla in earnest. He had never needed to- for the entire duration of the time they were together, she had been completely submissive to him, though not everyone could see that by observing their relationship. She liked hurting Spike from time to time, and Spike apparently liked being hurt, but Angelus had made it clear that he wouldn't put up with anyone's sadism aside from his own. Up until she discovered that he had regained his soul, Drusilla kept her impulses in check around him, and after that, they hadn't crossed paths enough for her to plan a serious attack against him.

He didn't need to fight her to have a clear appraisal of her power, though. Physically, he surpassed her strength by far. That wasn't the issue on his mind as he walked the streets to the address he had been given. Dru's greatest assets were all mental: her flashes of insight to the future, her ability to induce a hypnotic trance, and the unpredictability of her deranged mind. If she posed any real threat to him now, Angel guessed it was probably through the hypnotism. He thought he might be immune to it, but he had never been willing to relinquish control enough to find out, and she had made a few impressive kills with it in the past. A Slayer, even. It made sense to consider mind control first on the list of dangers he was about to face.

No. He was fooling himself. The first danger wasn't any of Drusilla's powers; it was his own overworked conscience. No matter how many times he went over the logistics of the mission, there was part of him that wanted to get it done by walking into the house and letting her kill him. It made too much sense. She deserved retribution for what had been done to her, he deserved punishment for the same thing, and all of it could be tied up and finished in minutes if he would only allow it.

The realistic side of him knew that it wasn't nearly that simple. He knew that she would be just as miserable after he was gone, taking no comfort from whatever justice had been done in the act, and still a danger to those around her. He knew that his quest for redemption involved more than just sacrificing his own life, or he could have taken the First's offer of release through suicide long ago. He knew that dying now would mean abandoning Buffy, and others, too, people who depended on him. Realistically, there was no reason to even consider ending this fight with intentional failure.

Emotionally, he just hoped that she would attack first. If she was wild, and brutal, and fought like an enemy, he could let his reflexes take over and kill her like one. But if she was afraid, if she looked at him with those eyes and turned to her old submissive ways...was he ready for this? And if she ran away again, would he be able to chase her down this time? Pin her to the ground, tell her it was for her own good, and slam a stake through her heart while they both replayed the memories that had made her into what she was? Was there any chance at all that he could keep her contained and try to ease her pain for the rest of her natural life- which would have no natural end?

He should be working on answers, he knew. He should be using this time to work up some resolve and at least feel like he was ready to face her when she reached her hiding place. Instead, his mind kept trying to retreat to its usual refuge: Buffy. This time, the refuge didn't work. Buffy was going to meet Darla now, and Spike. She might be fighting them already, and no matter what happened with Drusilla, there was going to be death tonight.

He reached the house, an old saltbox painted a faded blue. The number was displayed right on the door, in flaking gold digits level with Angel's eyes. He wanted to spend a few minutes staring at them, wondering if he was sure he had remembered it right, but he knew he had. He knew there was no sense in planning any further, either. Paradoxical though it was, he seemed to have lost patience with his own desire to stall. He rang the doorbell.

There wasn't much of a wait before a man in his thirties or forties answered, holding the door open as much as the chain that still locked it would allow, and he and Angel peered through the two-inch gap at each other. "Yeah?" he asked, with equal measures inquiry and confrontation. He looked disreputable in the same way his house did- not decrepit, not hiding a violent past, just removed from the company of honest and hardworking people.

"I'm looking for someone," said Angel, "a woman. Long dark hair, English accent? She's been missing for a few days, and I need to take her home."

The man held a few seconds of silence after listening before he nodded slowly in response. "So she's a runaway, you're saying?"

"More or less." What else can she do but run away? That's the 'more' part. What is there that she could escape by running away from it? That's the less.

The door didn't open any further, but the man looked pensive. "That would explain why she didn't want to leave here all day. The way she's been babbling, though, it's hard to make heads or tails of anything she says. I did get one thing figured out, I think. She's got some kind of old boyfriend looking for her." He fixed Angel with a look of cold interrogation. "So, are you that boyfriend?"

Angel shook his head. "No, I'm her..." Killer. Father. Stalker. Savior. "...Brother," he finished after too much hesitation.

"Her brother," repeated Drusilla's host, his skepticism evident, "come to take her home."

"I want to help her."

There was a long pause as the man continued to look him over. Angel was fairly certain he understood the train of thought that was happening now: Drusilla had overstayed her welcome, and even if she was playing as a human girl and hadn't harmed anyone, she wasn't going to be an easy personality to harbor for long. Her chosen date clearly had no personal desire to hurt her or force her to leave, but with someone showing up and offering to take the problem off of his hands, he might not want to look too closely at the gift horse's mouth. "Yeah, alright," he said finally, closing the door to unhook the chain and then swinging it all the way open. "Come on in."

As soon as Angel had stepped inside, he kicked the door shut behind him and grabbed the man by the throat, turning him around and slamming him against the door. He held him there a few inches from his own face, so that the fury in his eyes would be evident as he spoke through clenched teeth. "Why did you let me in?"

The man made a choking sound, and Angel lessened the pressure on his throat enough to allow him to answer. "Jesus Christ! You told me to!"

"No," Angel corrected in a menacing tone, "I told you a bullshit story about being her brother, and you knew you couldn't trust me, and you knew she was afraid of someone who was looking for her, and you let me in anyway. So go on. Tell me you had her best interests in mind."

"The hell was I supposed to do? You said she was a runaway! I thought you were going to take her home!"

Angel used the hand on his neck to give him a shove that knocked his head against the door. "You thought," he said, his voice getting louder, "that I was taking her out of here, so whatever I did to her, it wasn't going to be in your house! Maybe I came here to kill her! To rape her! Any of that make a difference to you?" His grip was getting tighter again, and the man's hands were pawing ineffectually at his wrist, so he let go of his throat and grabbed him by the shoulders instead. "That girl was under your protection. You failed her, and now you've lost the right to see what happens next. Get out of here. Call the cops if it makes you feel better. But don't come back home tonight unless you think you can change the past."

He let go. The man was out the door without a second glance and running hard as it closed behind him. Angel turned away from it and rubbed his hands over his face. Very little of that conversation had been what he intended. On the other hand, there wasn't much about it that he was going to regret, either. He looked around the little house. There was definitely nobody living here except for the occupant who had just departed, but he could sense Drusilla nearby, had caught her scent before he even entered. It was good, he supposed, that she hadn't tried to run from him after hearing him enter, though it could also mean that she was going to attempt to ambush him. He took a few steps down the hallway and turned to the left, into the kitchen.

She was sitting on the floor, her back against the refrigerator at the other end of the room, her skirt spread out around her. She didn't look up when he entered; all of her attention was focused on a small, pale fragment of something that she was holding close to her face and stroking with her fingers. Angel leaned against the doorway in silence. He was straining to hear the tune that she was humming in breathy bits and snatches, as if something would change if he could only recognize it. Finally he gave up and took a step closer.

"I've killed her," said Drusilla sadly.

Angel's vision swam. He had spent the last few months wondering if it were possible for all ensouled vampires to repent, as he had, and now he realized that from Drusilla, it was the last thing in the world that he wanted to hear. "It wasn't your fault," he said. "Darla was...it wasn't your fault, it was mine."

She tilted her face up as he kept approaching as slowly as he could. Unshed tears sparkled in her dark eyes, but her voice was merely plaintive. "I've killed Miss Edith."

Angel stopped in front of her and sank to his knees. He saw now that the object she had been fondling was a broken piece from the face of a porcelain doll. He could see its sculpted lips and the curve of its cheek, but that was all that was left. The rest of the doll's remains were nowhere to be seen.

"I covered up her eyes," Drusilla continued. "But she could still hear the screams. I covered up her ears, but she could still smell the blood. So I had to kill her." She looked directly at him. "Do you think she'll understand?"

That was the question, wasn't it? Angel reached out tentatively and touched her hair. What he wanted right then, more than anything, was to call her by her real name. Drusilla was the name he had chosen for her before he had even begun his sordid project, and he had never called her anything else. He could still remember the rage and terror in her voice as she screamed at him in one last moment of defiance before the end: "Stop calling me Drusilla! My name is-!" ...But there the memory ended. Try as he might, he couldn't recall the name her parents had given to her, and of course he had killed them too, had killed everyone who ever cared about her so that he would be the only one she had left. His success had brought him here, sitting on the floor of a stranger's kitchen, with his arm around a broken girl who had her hand around a broken doll.

Collaring her with a new name had been his first betrayal committed against her. Forgetting her real one would be his last.

"Miss Edith talked to me of the screams, you see. She knew all the sounds and the smells. Ah, and the colors. She remembers...red. There was a night full of red. It came through one skin and it painted another, and there were dishes that fell from up high and shattered, bang, on the floor, and nobody wanted to stay but none of the doors went outside." Drusilla leaned her head on his shoulder, a gesture which froze him in shock for as long as it lasted, but that was only a second. Then she lifted up her face and looked him in the eye again. "And you were there," she remarked, as if just remembering. "You were the one who painted in red. Your hands in sister's hair. Your lips on mother's throat."

A hundred years of remorse had done its part to desensitize Angel to hearing his sins described, and his time in Hell had picked up where the self-propelled guilt left off. Still, hearing her speak of it made the memories so vivid. He hadn't laid a finger on her that night, just watched her clutching at the bodies of her murdered family and laughed and laughed. Too overcome to attempt to answer her, he stroked her hair and placed his hand over hers, which was still clinging to the shard of Miss Edith's face. She covered it with her other hand, itself as cool and smooth as the porcelain. He didn't know why she was allowing him to comfort her, but it was all he had to give at the moment, and he had to admit that he was, in the end, glad that he wasn't fighting her right now.

Suddenly she giggled, a disturbing sound to come from her even on her better days. "This is all wrong," she informed him. "It should be my pet Spike here with me. The Slayer with you. But now I have my Angel instead, and Slayer-girl's gone to play with Spike. Ah!" She arched her back and reached up toward the ceiling. "I see him. My sweet William, so righteous and left out of the club, and the girls have gone swimming."

"Swimming?" Angel didn't know why he asked. Even if she were having a genuine vision, it wasn't always possible to get a coherent description of it from her, and he didn't want to concentrate on that now.

"One swims in fire. One in memory. Both in God."

The last word made him remember her piety as a human, and he wondered if there was anything of that former self left in her. "Do you believe in God? Maybe he's waiting for you, up in Heaven with your family."

She showed her teeth in a smile full of bitterness. "Mercy for a demon child. Where is Spike?"

"He wanted to find you. He wanted to help you." Angel's voice tripped a little, wanting to use her name. He couldn't call her Drusilla, though, not anymore, so he searched for some kind of substitute. "Sweetheart, he loves you. Can you understand that? Remember being loved?"

"We could swim in love. It's fire and memory and God."

"Yes it is," he agreed. Too close now to need to wonder if his touch was frightening her, he embraced her fully, letting them both slump into the corner together. "I'm sorry, little one. I can't change anything. I can bring you home, though. Do you want that? Do you want to...to go with Miss Edith?"

She met his eyes and nodded slowly, and he knew he wasn't going to get more of an answer than that. Steadying himself against the cupboards behind him, he dug into his pocket and found the garrote that Buffy had given him earlier. Drusilla was watching him with detached curiosity, so he reluctantly opened his hand and showed her the coil of metal and plastic.

Her eyes lit up. "It's lovely! Is it for me, then?" She leaned forward and turned her back to him, lifting her hair away from her neck in an obvious request for him to fasten a clasp for her. She had done the same thing whenever he killed a noblewoman and stripped off her necklace to give to his girl. Drusilla liked getting new jewelry, though she liked it more when it was spattered with blood.
Angel stared at her bare white neck, unblemished by the kiss of death he had once placed there, and then he looped the plastic strand around it and crossed the ends behind her. "Goodbye," he whispered as she let her hair fall back down over his hands gripping the brass handles, and then he pulled.

He didn't have to watch her head fall off, for which he was grateful. The cord went through cleanly, leaving only a thin red line around her neck as evidence that it had been there, for the few seconds before she disintegrated. The doll's face fell from the empty space in front of Angel and landed into Drusilla's remains, fine black powder blanketing the tiled kitchen floor, the last signs of herself that his wayward child had left in this world. Before standing, he knelt over the ashes and used his fingertip to draw a cross in them. He had no other rites to perform, no words to speak over her. She had heard him say goodbye, and he had meant it.

***

Darla had been clinging to Buffy as they fell from the dock, but they had separated at the moment of impact. As the water closed in over Buffy's head, she forgot everything about the fight, knowing only that she was cut off from her oxygen and had to get back to the surface. In her panic she sucked in a nose full of water, and the feel of it stinging her throat was a forcible reminder that she knew exactly how it felt to drown and that it could happen again. It could be happening right now if she lost control, and it was so hard to keep control when her clothes were bogging her down and she didn't know which way was up and she could still hear the Master's laughter, long gone to the rest of the world but echoing forever in her nightmares.

But the Master was a loser and he hadn't stopped her back then, drowning or no drowning. She flailed out with her arms, found her equilibrium, and kicked herself upwards. She wasn't in nearly as deep as it had felt, and her face broke the surface before she knew it for a painful, sputtering breath.

She had no time for her recovery to turn into relief. The reason that she was in the water in the first place came back to her with a vengeance: Darla was still alive, and the fight was back in action. The vampire, Buffy saw immediately, had no chance of survival; her skin was scarlet all over and she was screaming horrifically, but still apparently intent on taking Buffy with her. The one breath that Buffy had managed to take was vital, for she was pushed back under before she had the opportunity for another, Darla's hands clawing at her head as if she were trying to use her to climb up out of the ubiquitous holy water. Buffy used all of her strength to fend off the assault, but after one glimpse of her opponent's rapidly deteriorating face, she closed her eyes. She wished she could shut out the ongoing sound of Darla's screams, too. New struggles brought new nightmares, and she had a feeling that these would be lasting her a while.

Her limbs were getting weaker, but they still sufficed to push Darla off of her again and take in another breath. Darla was weakening, too. It was too hard to estimate how much time had gone by, but Buffy could tell that Darla had already lasted much longer than any of the vampires that had been in the lake when it was originally transformed. Father Tom had said something about the concentration of the holy water changing as time went on, but that didn't help much. She just had to keep fighting until-

-It happened. With a final bloodcurdling shriek, Darla went silent and Buffy found herself grappling with a cloud of ashes. Slowly she opened her eyes. The moon was still shining down on the lake, and the water was still lapping against the rowboats, settling easily out of the churning that the fight had given it. She faced the sky, treading water, and tried to take a deep breath. The water in her lungs turned it into a coughing fit instead, and she put all of her focus into getting herself out of the lake.

As she paddled awkwardly to the boats, she saw a solitary figure peering down at her from the edge of the dock. "Spike," she croaked. He had probably been watching the whole thing with his irritating style of disinterested interest. She knew he might well have saved her life when he pushed Darla in, and his last minute turnaround was nothing short of momentous, but she couldn't help feeling resentful toward him anyway, for what he had just put her through. It would have been easier for her to be alone just then.

"Don't expect a hand out of there," he called. "I've got enough of that rotten liquid on me as it is."

She didn't answer. Getting herself out was toil enough. How had she managed to drift this far away from the dock when all she had done was thrash around? Finally she got both hands onto one of the boats, and let herself hang there for a moment before hauling her soaked and heavy body into the vessel. Then she rested again. She had half a mind to just sit there in the boat until Angel found her, now that she was out of danger, but she needed something stationary underneath her and she forced herself to make the extra effort and climb up the rope that fastened the boat to the dock.
Once firmly seated on the hard wood, she curled up her legs and leaned on her hands, and Spike stood over her, watching as she coughed and shivered. "Where's Dru?" he asked quietly.

"With Angel." She raised her eyes to give him a challenging stare. "He saves souls."

Seeing that he wasn't going to get anything more specific than that out of her, Spike cursed and walked away, giving her the solitude she had been craving. She almost called after him, but she wasn't sure if it would be in words of gratitude, warning, or something else altogether, and she decided not to risk it. After the sound of his footsteps had faded away, she got up and wandered down to where the dock met the land, stepping gingerly over the missing plank that gave access to the lair. Daemonis was down there, waiting for her, but she wasn't ready for him yet.

And the truth was, she didn't really want to be alone.

***

Dazed by the magnitude of what he had just done, Angel spent the first part of his walk on autopilot. Buffy and everyone else were supposed to at the cemetery where Willow's locator spell had found Spike, and the only thing Angel was feeling, other than numb, was anxious to find out how they were faring. He didn't think he needed to worry too much about anyone's safety, considering the range of skills they had among them. Darla wasn't going to be prepared to face the Slayer, let alone a small army. But the fact that it was happening at all was bad enough, and he wanted to see with his own eyes that it was over.

By the time he reached the end of the block, though, his thoughts had become occupied with a replay of his conversation with Drusilla, and it brought him to an unexpected hitch. She had spoken of the girls going 'swimming,' which he had taken to be metaphorical if it meant anything at all, but what if her vision had shown her what was happening at that very moment? If she had seen Spike, it was probable that 'the girls' were Darla and Buffy, and if there was actual swimming involved, it meant they were at the lair by the lake. Angel changed directions and started moving faster. Buffy had a phobia about drowning; she wouldn't have taken the battle into the water out of her own choice.

Before he made it through the wooded area around the lake, he had already concocted an array of different scenarios for what might have happened between his sire and his love, and all of them ended in Buffy's death. The more he thought, the faster he ran, until he hit the dirt road that led to the dock and went tearing down it. When the glint of light on the water's surface reached his eyes and neither she nor anyone else was immediately visible, he yelled out her name, reckless in his haste though he had enough presence of mind to slow down so he could look for her.

"Angel?" came the answer. She had been huddled in a dip in the ground at the shore end of the dock, and at the sound of his voice she picked herself up and stepped out to meet him. Her clothes and hair were soaking wet, and she was hugging herself and shivering hard, but she was unharmed. When he rushed over and reached out to her, though, she held up her hands and took a cautionary step back. "Don't touch me." Before he could react- coming from her, those were words that belonged only in his nightmares- she explained, "It's holy water. I fell in the lake."

At the moment he would have gladly swum across the lake for the chance to hold her, but ignoring her warning would have just upset her. He settled for taking off his coat and handing it to her, and she accepted it gratefully without making contact with his skin. It was absurdly big on her, the hem almost dragging the ground, but she wrapped it around herself with a sigh of pleasure, dipping her head to breathe in the scent from it, and he consoled himself by thinking that they were embracing each other with the coat as the middleman. All the same, after he had safely disarmed the stake sheaths still on his wrists, he came up close and touched her cheek lightly. She was almost dry there, but he still felt a little bit of a sting, and she gave him a pained look that convinced him to withdraw his hand.

"Darla's dead," she stated.

He nodded. The dull ache inside of him, the one that had been there ever since he learned that Darla had come back to life, barely changed. He supposed it would eventually, once he went through the full emotional process of dealing with her death all over again, but right now there was too much to think about. "Spike?" he asked.

"Ran off. But, Angel, he helped me. Darla told him to cast the spell, but he turned on her instead. I don't know what would have happened without him."

"Good. That's good." He meant it, though he knew how distracted he sounded. Spike wasn't causing trouble, and that was all the clearance that Angel needed to put him out of mind for now.
Furthermore, the thought of Buffy needing to rely on Spike's intervention instead of the people she trusted was damn near infuriating. "Buffy, where is everyone? They were supposed to be backing you up."

"I had to leave them at the cemetery," she admitted. "There were some demons attacking. They had it under control, but I had to get here fast."

"Oh." His anger faded. He hadn't really thought that one out, anyway. Of course their friends would never abandon her in a time of crisis. "You think they're okay?"

"For now." She drew in a deep breath and looked up into his eyes. "How did it go with Drusilla?"

He had a fleeting urge to tell her the full story right then and there, complete with confessions of all the horror in the past that he had shared with the mad vampiress, but he knew that to do so would be begging for comfort. She would have given it freely, but he never could bring himself to beg her for anything. It was unworthy. "She's dead too."

Buffy cringed a little. "Are you...okay?"

"I will be."

"Just one left, then. Ready for the big ugly? I waited for you. Figured you would want to be here for it."

Angel had no qualms about ridding the world of Daemonis that very minute, but he was bothered by Buffy treating the subject with such indifference. She looked so exhausted, and still cold despite the coat, and he wanted to protect her from her life's work more than ever. "Let me take care of this one. Please. It only needs one of us, and tonight has been hard enough on you already."

Instantly she was on the defense, as indignant as if his words were intentionally patronizing. "And it's been a trip to the day spa for you? Don't even think about going down there by yourself. He's been tormenting us for long enough. I'm going to see this to the end."

"I understand. I do. It's just that...you've never killed a vampire with a soul before, and it might be kind of intense. And I know, the world what it is right now, sooner or later you'll have to do it, but you don't have to start tonight. It's different for me. Easier, in some ways."

He wasn't sure if he had made his point, but he stopped talking when he saw the stare of disbelief she was giving him. "How quickly they forget," she murmured, shaking her head.

"What...what do you mean?"

"I killed you, Angel. Soul and all." Her tone turned sarcastic, as so often happened when she was upset about what she was saying. "Come to think of it, that was kind of intense. But hey, someone had to do it, right? Seems like someone keeps turning out to be us, and it's not getting any less intense each time it happens. But Daemonis, he's just one more evil guy, as far as I'm concerned." She sighed and looked toward the dock and the lair, then back at Angel. "Killing you almost destroyed me. I don't even like making the comparison between that and this, but the truth is that now that I've been there, this is a walk in the park. Honestly, I wish it were harder. I wish I could think about his soul, and redemption and everything, and start having doubts. I know I was a lot more innocent when you fell in love with me, and I miss that as much as you do. But innocence isn't going to help me stay alive. I can't make room for that much guilt and still be able to do what I have to do."

It wasn't hard to see that she had chosen to say her piece in a way that she knew he would understand. Guilt was what he had always seen as his burden, something a pure-hearted, pure human girl like Buffy should never have to shoulder, and part of the reason that he hated constantly seeing her in these life-and-death situations was that he knew that eventually she would end up shouldering the guilt whether she deserved it or not. She knew it too. Obviously, she was more prepared for it than he was. They shared a look through the darkness, and when she saw from his silence that he wasn't putting up any further resistance, she lifted her shoulders in a resigned shrug. "Right now the only sense I can make out of what I feel is that Daemonis is mine to kill. Sick, but there it is."

"You're still innocent," he replied.

"Don't say that. Don't fool yourself."

"I'm not. It's true. You've made hard choices and you've endured some terrible things, but that doesn't change who you are. I know," he said to still the protest she was about to repeat. "It doesn't feel that way. But I just wanted to say that I don't miss the way you used to be. I love you as you are right now."

Her expression got softer as she considered this, and then she gave a short laugh. "We sure seem to pick some strange moments to have these conversations."

"Yeah. We need to find the others."

"And then go home and take a shower and get under the covers."

"Let's get this done."

The plank that the vampires had pulled out from the dock seemed to be in the right place to allow someone to slip through it and into the lair's door without touching the water, but Buffy insisted on going through first to be sure. She opened the hatch with a firm kick before letting go of her handholds on the dock, and he heard a small splash before she called up to him, "Swing forward a little before you drop, and you should be fine."

He was. He stayed at the top step for a moment, adjusting to the increased darkness of the stairwell. She was a few steps down already; he could sense her presence there before he could see her, and he could hear her attempting to keep a little space between them as he descended, as she was still being careful with her damp hair and skin. Too careful, he thought: her night vision wasn't as sharp as his, and she hadn't been down to the lair before. If there was anything for her to be cautious about, it was these steps. He caught up with her and grabbed her hand without warning, ignoring the slight hiss that his skin made when it touched hers.

"Hey," she complained, trying to pull away.

He refused to let go. "It's not right," he said tightly. "I'm done with staying away from you. We're doing this together, I've earned that much."

She hesitated for a moment, and then she squeezed his hand and kept a firm hold on it. They went down together.

***

"We need to be somewhere safer than this," said Xander. He wasn't offended by being put on fledgling vampire babysitting duty, especially since he was allowed to carry a comfortably dangerous mace during it, but his charge wasn't being wholly cooperative and neither was his fellow babysitter.

"We're in a cemetery fully of angry demons," Cordelia retorted. "Which safe place around here is catching your eye?" She was armed with a slender sword and looked fully at ease with it, though he hadn't seen her use it yet and she didn't seem to be in any hurry to join the fight.

Xander scanned the area, already knowing that their options were few. "The crypt," he suggested. "We should stay in there until it's over."

"No way," interjected Lydia. "You guys need to breathe. Right? And I was down there all day and believe me, it sucks. Do vampires have to live in crypts?"

The crypt was still the best place to go, Xander thought, but she might be right about its breathability. He considered stationing them all against its wall instead, but Oz-wolf had staked that area as his territory, and from what they could see, the wolf wasn't in the mood to differentiate friends from foes. Xander sighed and led them to an especially large headstone nearby. Not all of them could hide behind it, even if it had covered them on more than one side, but that was why they were standing guard.

"So your sire didn't give you a lecture and a pamphlet?" he asked Lydia as they found positions to keep themselves as concealed as possible.

"Hey," Cordy reprimanded him, "show some sensitivity." She turned to the vampire and said brightly,

"You can live wherever you want. Angel lives in a mansion!"

Lydia's eyes widened covetously. "A real mansion?"

"Yeah, and he's got a hotel in LA, too. I work there with him."

"That's so cool. Who's Angel?"

Xander let the girls get acquainted while he tried to scope out how the rest of the team was doing. He wanted to stay closer to Anya, but she was busy doling out information on the demons she could recognize, and protecting herself by sticking close to the brawny types. Xander fought a surge of jealousy and told himself that she was doing the right thing, but her exposure out there made him want to heft his mace and start whaling on anything demonic in his range. Except for Lydia, of course. And, well, Anya herself. At least the blurry lines between demons and good guys, in this case, were made clearer by the demons on his side being attractive women.

He had only taken a few steps away from the headstone, but while his back was turned, Cordelia gave a little shriek and he whipped back around to see that a demon had caught sight of them. It was one of the big dumb ones, making loud huffing sounds and wearing a variety of studded chains, and as it began lumbering toward the girls, Xander wondered if this was the one that was going to kill them all. He lifted his mace and stepped forward.

The demon didn't get a chance to lumber any closer. It had apparently crossed the boundaries that Oz had set for himself, and the werewolf broke out of his circuit around the crypt to launch a headlong attack. He ripped off some serious flesh before the monster's huffing turned into wailing, and soon it was trying to run instead of fight back. Oz chased it for just a few yards, then apparently realized that he had gone too far from his station, and let his victim melt back into the darkness. As he passed Xander and the girls on his way back, he paused and bared his teeth at them, as if making a point.

"Don't make eye contact," Xander instructed quietly, then raised his voice and called, "We're friends, Oz. Xander. Cordy. Go protect Willow."

The wolf bounded off in that direction immediately, and Xander mopped his forehead with a sleeve. It was hard enough being surrounded by cranky demon freaks without needing to worry that one of their own was going to go berserk and turn on them. He knew Oz wouldn't have chosen to go wolf for this battle if he thought there was a chance of that happening, but it was all too clear that the wolf lacked the rationality of Oz's human mind. As an animal he was very much tuned into the raw elements of the world around him, and with this much violence and heightened emotion going on, he had to be near his fraying point.

"Wolf-wrangler Harris," said Cordelia, impressed. "Where'd you learn the magic words?"

He shrugged. "Just from hanging out. He's in there, he just needs a little reminder sometimes. He usually recognizes the sounds of our names, so that's the easiest way to get through to him. Pretty far cry from the werewolf you remember, I bet."

"It's always the quiet ones," she agreed. "But man, that demon. For a moment there I thought we were a midnight snack."

"Yeah," said Lydia, standing suddenly and brushing off her black jeans. "Screw this." She sprinted off, not away from the battleground but to the center of it, and Xander saw her bend down and scoop up one of the last few weapons still available from their pile on the ground. Then she was headed after the demon that the werewolf had temporarily defeated for them, and Xander was left with a mouthful of stunned and fragmented objections.

He couldn't run after her; she was too fast and obviously knew what she wanted. Instead he followed her with his eyes until the night swallowed her, then said to Cordy without turning to look at her,
"We are complete crap at babysitting."

Cordy's answer was an unexpected gasp and a thump as her back hit the headstone, hard. Xander whirled and saw her holding her head and jerking in a few rapid spasms. She opened one eye as he knelt beside her and held her steady. "Vision," she said weakly. "Oh God, where's Angel?"

***

The walls on either side pressed tightly against the narrow stairwell, and Buffy thought they seemed a little damp. Angel didn't seem to be affected by it, though, so she supposed the holy water hadn't gotten this far. He held onto her hand and stayed in step with her the whole time, shoulder to shoulder despite the cramped space. By the time they got to the bottom, their footsteps were echoing in a synchronized pattern. Angel pointed the way from there, but she could hardly see even him in the pitch black surroundings, so he guided her with a touch, saying nothing.

She couldn't get much of an impression of the lair except that it was dark, and that she hated it. This was where Daemonis had been hiding from her, still pulling her strings even after he stopped being seen by anyone. This was where Darla had come to toy with Angel and team up with his enemies. This was where almost every vampire in Sunnydale had taken shelter when they chose the easy way out of their guilt. Buffy had no use for such a place. She wondered if Giles had access to explosives, and whether the town's residents would like having a bigger lake.

Angel stopped them in front of the only door that had even a sliver of dim light showing through the crack, and she breathed a sigh of relief. She was tired of not being able to see anything. Both of them pushed at the double doors and found them locked, and they shared a look of silent agreement and took a step back. Buffy laughed inwardly, realizing what an appropriately dramatic entry they were about to make, and then they each lifted up a foot and kicked at the doors, which burst open and then dangled forlornly on their hinges. Angel offered her his hand again as they crossed the threshold, and in the newly found candlelight of the chamber, she could have sworn she saw an amused twinkle in his eye. She accepted his hand and they continued their march.

The room was too big to be adequately lit by just candles, but there were a lot of them and they were arranged on an assortment of tables and shelves that had been dragged to the middle, so that the illumination was centralized. The floor just in front of the candle collection was adorned with a nearly-finished round symbol in black paint, and kneeling over it was a master vampire with a paintbrush in his hand.

"Hey," Buffy greeted him casually, as his diabolic orange eyes darted from her to Angel and back again. "Shouldn't you be in bed?"

***

The wolf gagged on the taste of demon, wiped his muzzle on the grass, and then charged at another. There were a lot of them, but the wolf wasn't keeping track. Some of them seemed stronger than him, but that didn't matter either. All of them learned to fear him quickly enough.

Oz had made his decision after a complete assessment of his powers and his current state of control. He had done his best to account for the wolf's hypersensitivity to bloodshed, knowing that there was a strong possibility that his sentry duty was going to turn into fighting duty. He hadn't guessed, however, that there would be so much more fighting than guarding. He had also somehow failed to register the fact that tonight was the full moon.

The moon didn't mandate his wolf cycle anymore- there was no wolf cycle, ever since psychological stimuli took over the change- but he could always feel its influence waxing and waning throughout the month, in either of his forms. Ordinarily he would just stay human through the three most extreme nights, leveling out the excess of passion by means of music or some time alone in the woods or a few magic mushrooms, but now he had deliberately taken on the feral form and the moon was his master. Some part of him understood all of this fully and even worried that the savage joy surging through him was going to get out of hand. The currently dominant part of him didn't care.

Rules of engagement were simple: nobody and nothing came near the crypt. If it tried, it got fangs in its throat. If the throat was too hard to reach, there were always guts that could be spilled. A few might attempt to sneak around to the other side, but they never made it. One got so far as to touch the stone wall, searching for a handhold to climb up. That one got more attention than the others, and it certainly didn't get the chance to run. The wolf felt centered, absorbed in the function that he was built for. Fighting didn't need a reason; fighting was its own reason. At the same time, seeing humans taking place in the battle filled him with disdain instead of hunger, a clear warning from his duality. They shouldn't be here. This was between him and the hellspawn. And there was something else that gave the fighting a reason: he had to guard the crypt. The crypt itself was nothing, but there was something on top of it worth protecting, someone who needed to stay alive. Not for the wolf's own sake, not for blood or passion or the moon, but because it was good and right. Unbelievable, really, that the wolf could think that 'good and right' was more important than the moon, but for him to stop and think about it would be more unbelievable still.

He had a moment of respite to make a loop around his territory. Two humans were hacking at a beast that he would have attacked on his own if it had come nearer to the crypt, but they were taking it down themselves without assistance. One glanced at him and said something to the other, who made a reply that somehow seemed to lead to both of them keeping their battle away from him. Giles, thought the wolf as he watched the one who had spoken second. He didn't know where the word had come from, but he did know that it meant he could trust the man to fight on his side.

There came a thump and a cry from the roof of the crypt, and without any need to consider the sound or its source, the wolf turned and ran the few paces that brought him back there and gave him the momentum to leap swiftly up and onto it. The human who was worth protecting was picking herself up onto her hands and knees, and when he came up close and sniffed at her to see if she was alright, she pushed a hand through the thick ruff of fur on his neck and leaned some of her weight into him. "I'm okay," she panted. "I just wasn't ready, Buffy dropped the feather and the spell kind of had this kickback, knocked the wind out of me. But that means she got there, and I'm fine...none of this means anything to you, does it?"

Unable to make much sense of her string of words, the wolf did his best to communicate by licking her cheek. She giggled and patted his neck, then said, "You should get back down there where you're needed. I'm going to...I don't know, I'll think of some way to help. And when you're human again, I have some great ideas for rewarding ourselves for this. Don't worry about me, okay? I'll stay up here."

Enough of the meaning came through for him to understand that she wanted him to keep fighting, which worked out fine in his view. The moon wanted him to keep fighting, too. Everything was perfectly in accord.

***

Daemonis's fear was rolling through the air in waves, enhanced by the thin tendrils of smoke rising from his candles and the alien starkness of the symbol painted before him. It wasn't a pentagram or anything else Angel could recognize, but it was clearly meant for black magic, a spell that would never be cast. And the mighty Daemonis was already on his knees, overcome with more fear than he had likely felt in centuries. The demon in Angel loved it that he could sense fear. This time, the soul loved it too.

"Thought you were sick," Buffy continued.

A cough forced its way out of Daemonis's throat before words did. "Sick enough to die," he said.
"Strong enough for one last ritual. The words will take but a moment to speak. Are you certain you can destroy me before I have it done?"

Buffy cocked her head, pretending to think. "Uh. Yeah, actually. I'm completely sure we can do that. Any more idle threats?"

"It could be that taking my life is the spell's trigger."

"Ahem," said Angel. "It isn't."

Buffy was still wearing his coat, and she squeezed his hand and then let it go, so that she could reach into the pocket. She found one of the stakes from his wrist sheaths that he had put there, and then shrugged out of the coat, letting it fall to the floor behind her. Angel noted that her clothes beneath it were still damp, and adhering to her curves in a very appealing way. He blinked as he realized the direction that his thoughts were taking. Admiring Buffy's body at inopportune moments like this was turning into a bad habit. More than that, though, he suddenly wondered if Daemonis was checking her out too, and that put his hackles back up and his attention back on the enemy where it belonged.

Daemonis had indeed been staring at Buffy, but not in admiration. He was in bad shape, hardly stable physically and probably losing it mentally too, but Angel thought back to his own experience with being poisoned and knew that Daemonis had not yet reached those final stages. These last efforts he was making were evidence enough. "Think," he croaked. "I can be of use to you. There is another Slayer, I know. Doesn't need to be your girl, Angelus."

"And now you're asking us to hand over Faith's blood instead of mine? ...And accept you as an ally?" Buffy asked incredulously. "Go back to the idle threats. Compared to this, they were working in your favor."

There was a silence. Angel assumed that Daemonis was beginning to see the true hopelessness of his situation, and wondered if Buffy was ready to end it. But the old vampire was looking at him, not her, and it was to Angel that he delivered his next words. "Amabo te," he pleaded. "Caritas. Habe caritatem, Angele."

Buffy narrowed her eyes and shot a questioning glance at Angel, mouthing the word "Incantation?" He shook his head and listened to what the old vampire was saying, and some part of Buffy must have been curious too, because she started to raise her stake but halted the motion when Daemonis saw it and reacted by talking faster and louder, although he still wasn't talking to her.

"Ea me vocavit Amor! Eius Amor! Meus nomen tempore Frater fuit, sed ei, solus Amor fui. Angele, frater mei spiritus, debes credere. Animum habeo, mutare possum. Sine me vivere. Gratia amoris, gratia tui puellae. Amabo te, non me neca."

"Te non necabo," Angel started to reply, then stopped himself and switched to English, so Buffy would understand. "I'm not going to kill you," he repeated, and let some hope reach Daemonis's desperate eyes before he concluded by pointing to Buffy and saying, "She is."

***

The fall hadn't caused Willow any real damage, but it had left her legs and tailbone sore, and her mind distracted and grouchy. How had she managed to fall like that, anyway? The roof of the crypt was flat and she was still on top of it. Last she remembered, she had gone into her trance while sitting there cross-legged. She couldn't tell how much time had passed, but not much about her surroundings had changed except that the battle around her was now in full swing. From her vantage point she could see most of her friends, but there was too much going on to be sure about everyone's condition.

Her first thought was for Xander, who she hadn't seen since he had gone with Cordelia to watch over the dazed young vampire girl, but the three of them had evidently found some kind of shelter. Willow was still concerned. Knowing Xander, he would probably end up fighting just out of impatience, but she couldn't protect him if she couldn't see him. She had to concentrate on figuring out who needed her and how she could help them using what little energy she had left. She had pushed herself hard already tonight, and most of the spells she had at her disposal weren't designed for combat, anyway. Offensively, the most she could manage would be little more than a single hit to a single demon. Defensively, she might be able to put shields on some of the warriors, but she couldn't be sure that they would be more help than hindrance.

A black shape on four legs- or was it six?- slunk into the scene with its eyes on Father Tom. Willow's heart skipped a beat, but Anya had already seen the creature and yelled, "Wusufu beast, right behind you, go for the heart! No, its heart is in its back! That's right. Good job! And try not to ruin its teeth, they're valuable!"

The priest cast her an annoyed look as he held the fallen demon down with his foot and yanked his sword out of its back. "I need information on their weaknesses, not their collector's items." He tensed suddenly and pointed with the sword to something out of Willow's range of vision. "Do you recognize that one?"

"Sure," said Anya. "Just lop its head off, that'll take care of it." As he was advancing on it, ready to strike, she added, "Or stab it in the chest or hack it to pieces. Skizlors die pretty easily."
Father Tom froze right before bringing his sword down on the demon, whose humanoid shape was now visible though masked by shadows, and turned his move into a block instead. "Skizlors?" he demanded of Anya, loudly enough to make his anger clear over the growling of the creature in question. "Skizlors have no corporeal form! They possess humans!"

"So? You wanted to know its weaknesses!"

Without responding, the priest dropped his weapon and grabbed the cross he was wearing around his neck instead, brandishing it in front of him and emphatically reciting the words of a prayer. The Skizlor began to back off immediately, its discombobulated mutterings escalating into a series of pained howls, and before it retreated fully into the shadows with Father Tom on its heels, Willow could see that it was changing somehow. Something was trying to pull itself out of the body, which looked more and more human, but the end of the drama happened in the concealment of the trees and headstones.

"Oh," Anya called after him. "I guess you would want to do it that way, huh? No killing humans, and peace on earth, and all that." She turned to find something else to identify.

Willow was impressed by the way Father Tom had handled his last two opponents, but with his black clothing and solitary fighting style, he had melted away into the darkness and so had the Skizlor he was pursuing, leaving Willow to wonder if he really had made a clean victory out of it. Anya had attached herself to Wesley and Gunn. It looked like they were doing fine in their own fight, but the field was so unpredictable right now. Nobody knew how long the demons would keep coming after them, or when, or from where, or what kinds they would be, and the terrain left all of them open to attacks from virtually every angle.

Inspiration struck Willow a split second after another wave of fear did. Gunn had just experienced a random strike from a hitherto unseen foe, just as she had been fearing, and though he deflected it skillfully, it was too close a call. The real problem was the darkness. The full moon was shining down on them brightly, but the trees and tombstones caused so many confusing shadows that the demons had no problem at all keeping themselves hidden until they had chosen a victim. Willow found her bag of magic supplies and pulled out the one small candle she had in there, along with the Zippo that she had decided she might as well keep. It was a little too late to give it back to Spike.

It was the work of a minute to light the candle, say the words she needed, and sprinkle a little sage over the flame. She closed her eyes and blew it out, and when she opened them, the graveyard around her was full of demons. No more than there had been before, of course, but now each one of them was emitting a substantial blue-white glow, making it impossible for them to use the darkness as concealment.

The gang made some sounds of surprise and alarm, but they all regained their bearings quickly, and it was evident that they saw the advantage in having their enemies so clearly labeled. If they were a little freaked out by the change, Willow couldn't blame them. It was one thing to know that dangerous things were lurking around every corner; it was another to see what they were up against, and to be able to count them. Willow herself resisted the temptation to count. It wasn't going to do any good, and she didn't have that many fingers anyway. Her waning strength meant that this was probably her last spell of the night, so she put all of her concentration into holding it and making it last.

A vicious snarl ripped through the air, and Willow didn't need to look down to know that it wasn't the voice of a demon. You tell 'em, Oz, she thought grimly as she got back into her meditative pose. These guys have nothing on us.

***

Buffy was quick to take Angel's cue and step forward. "I can't believe you," she said. "You're as good as dead and you're still using the last bits of your strength to try casting evil spells? Okay, so points for perseverance, but I just heard you go through the worst string of verbal attempts to save your pathetic life that I've ever heard, and that was just the parts in English. I'm guessing that little old school style monologue was more of the same. Don't you have any dignity to try to salvage?"

It was rhetorical, of course, but she waited for an answer anyway, wondering if he would say anything else in English or whether something had snapped in his memory and he had lost the language. She felt like a cat with a mouse, keeping him alive out of a morbid fascination, but seeing him in person was so foreign, and ending his life would be so final. He had been at the forefront of her thoughts and fears for a long time, and it was giving her that unwelcome sense of closeness that she sometimes felt with her longer-lasting enemies. It almost seemed a waste to kill him before getting to know him.

"Dignity?" he answered at length. "I have a soul."

"And a fat lot of good it's done you," she snapped. "Stand up so I can fight you." He was still kneeling there in front of them, and it filled her with contempt. Darla had at least given her a few bruises.

He wouldn't stand. He stayed on his knees, his eyes fixed on hers, leaving every choice in the matter up to her. She knew he was playing some kind of mind game with her, possibly testing her to see if she could kill a foe who refused to hurt or attack her. She decided to make it very clear to him. "Cash in the dignity or die as a coward: that's the either/or, but it's for your sake, not mine. I am going to kill you no matter what. I hate you more than I have ever hated a vampire without a soul." Doubts entered her mind as soon as she had said the last sentence, but she pushed them away. She was under no obligation to be honest with Daemonis. "Before I even knew who you were, you had me chained up in a dungeon being eaten alive by your lackeys. You had my mother killed right before my eyes. You hunted me like an animal, and you threatened my friends, and oh yeah, looks like you were trying to end the world. But even that wasn't enough for you, was it?" She took a step closer, planted her foot in the middle of his chest, and pushed him down onto his back, meeting with little resistance aside from the uneven angle that his humped back gave his position. He stared up at her with those ugly eyes in that ugly face, wearing the one basic expression that a permanently vampiric face could take, but it seemed that his last words had already been chosen and spoken. "You just had to take it one step further," said Buffy softly. "You had to interrupt my honeymoon."

She dropped into a warrior's crouch, faster and more elegant than the move needed her to be, and swung her stake down and into his heart in one fluid motion. Before his last few seconds of unlife were up, she had already jumped back up to her feet, not wanting to be any closer to him than she had to be. Daemonis gagged, a sound as empty and meaningless as his soul, and then he was gone, leaving behind only an ashen skeleton. The Master had left bones, too, she recalled. In fact, she had personally smashed them to pieces. Daemonis must not have been as old or as powerful as the Master, though, because his were grey and disintegrating already. She felt no need to help them along this time, but there was one moment from that memory that she wanted to replay. She backed away for a few steps, turned around, and found Angel.

***

When the Rothkar demon that he was fighting began to give off an incandescent light along with its pungent smell, Giles thought that it was more surprised than he was. Simple deduction said that this was Willow's work, though it took a moment longer for him to realize that her aim was to make the demons more visible- he was so close to this one already that the glow did more to hurt his eyes than to delineate its shape. He didn't let his onslaught slacken, though the array of similarly lit forms appearing at the corners of his eyes brought on a strong temptation to take a closer look at them.

He was especially interested in what was happening a few meters away on his left, because he could only guess at where it was headed. He also couldn't quite tell who was involved. The glowing white figure was obviously a demon, and one of the darkly dressed fighters engaging it was cursing in Gunn's voice, but the other was much smaller and moving with almost inhuman speed. Had Buffy already returned? No, whoever it was had a long mane of dark hair and was dressed all in black. In any case, she was evidently on their side and doing an acceptable job of keeping herself alive, which would be more than they could say for Giles if he didn't keep his mind on what he was doing.

"Stand back!"

Giles followed the cue without looking to see where it had come from. He recognized Wesley's voice, though the crisp, assured tone to it was still new to his ears, and he knew the command wasn't issued lightly. He yanked his sword from the Rothkar demon's glowing gut and danced backwards and out of the way. Instantly he saw holes appear in the demon's chest, accompanied by the loud blasts of a shotgun.

The echo from the shots seemed to carry on for longer than should have, and in a moment Giles realized that it was because everything else around them had gone silent. Wesley's fresh kill lying before them with the light fading rapidly from its body was the last of them, aside from a few retreating rapidly from the scene and the one that Gunn felled just seconds after the Rothkar went down. Giles finally had the opportunity to look around himself, and he couldn't immediately see everything he wanted to see. He stepped into the moonlight of the clearing in front of the crypt and cupped his hands around his mouth. "Is anyone wounded? Is anyone missing?"

The girl who had been fighting alongside Gunn walked over and joined him in the clearing. It was the vampire, of course- Lydia. He had forgotten all about her presence after she had been instructed to stay with Xander and Cordelia and avoid combat. Before he even made the connection that she was supposed to be with them still, both of them emerged from their hiding spot, looking rumpled and wary but unscathed. Cordelia was rubbing her forehead and grimacing. Anya jumped up out of nowhere and launched herself into Xander's open arms, and Father Tom came next, walking with a limp and wincing after every few steps. Wesley met Giles's eyes as they were both looking over the group, and a spark of alarm passed between them in lieu of spoken words. They were both in leadership roles here, but the missing parties were from Giles's troops, not Wesley's, and he was the one who vocalized it: "Willow! Oz!"

A sharp growl, not the sound of a happy creature, preceded Willow's voice. She was no longer on top of the crypt, but nearby and out of sight, probably behind it. "We're fine," she called. "We just need a moment." Giles considered going to fetch her away from there anyway, but she didn't sound afraid or overwhelmed, just tired. And when she continued to speak, in a lowered voice that was obviously directed at the wolf and not them, he could have sworn that she was downright exasperated. If this was the kind of lovers' quarrel that the young couple had in the future of their relationship, he didn't envy them, but in a way Willow was in her element. There weren't too many girls her age who had the inner calm needed to talk down an agitated werewolf. When he overheard her urging Oz to think positive thoughts, he half-smiled and turned back to everyone else.

"Is there anyone who needs medical attention? Father?"

Father Tom shook his head. "It's just got a bit of a strain. Not my best ankle in the first place, anyway."

We'll take a look at it once we're in some better light, Giles thought, and the priest glanced over at him and nodded once. Giles addressed the others out loud: "Then we'll wait here for Buffy, unless there's any objection."

"Oh, right," said Xander sarcastically. "We can just leave her a post-it note on a headstone or something that says we got bored and started the recuperation without her."

"In any case, the option is open to those who need to rest," said Giles. "Provided you leave us with a vehicle, of course." He searched his mind for anything else that needed to be said to everyone, came up empty, and reviewed the possibilities for the next action he could take. The winning option was to sink down to the grass and take the time to breathe. Some of the others around him began to follow suit.

"So," ventured Lydia as she hugged her knees to her chest. "Good fight. Right?"

Giles took off his glasses- they seemed to be a bit dirty. "Hm?" he replied absently, searching himself for a pocket handkerchief. "Oh, yes. Very productive."



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