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

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Let Me In (13/14)

Title: Let Me In
Author: Kairos
Rating: PG-13 (violence, some language, some sex)
Wordcount: Roughly 145,000 total
Notes: Special thanks this time to cafedemonde, who found this story I don't know where and reminded me that I ought to finish posting it.


Angel could see that Buffy had momentarily forgotten her drenching in holy water, and he took the opportunity to keep her locked in his hug for a few moments so she could cry on his chest without distraction. At this point, only her hair was damp enough to cause him any real pain, but he laid his hand against the back of her head and tucked it beneath his chin anyway. She let herself go with a few shuddering sobs until she heard the hiss of burning skin and snapped back into awareness, disentangling herself from his arms and stepping back.

"Just when we got you all healed up from last time," she said reproachfully, her fingers hovering at the affected place on his jaw.

"It doesn't matter. Are you okay?"

She shrugged. "I guess. He's dead. I don't know what I was expecting to happen. Like my mom would miraculously come back to life, or there would be no more vampires to kill and we could retire and live together..." Her hand clenched around the fabric of his shirt and she bowed her head, sucking in air through her teeth. "Or like I could forget that he already had me beat, and they put those chains on me and they...I couldn't get out. Oh God, Angel, they won. I killed him this time, but I already lost. You had to come rescue me, and after I thought I was finally done with needing you..."

"Buffy," he said sternly, taking her chin in his hand to keep her eyes on his, "you don't need me."

She frowned up at him, sad and confused, but made no response.

"Don't think I'm denying you. I know you love me. But we learned how to live without each other, and if we have to, we'll do it again. You survived when I turned on you. You grieved and you recovered when I was dead. Every day there's something else being thrown at you, and you always handle it. With or without me. If I didn't know that about you, I could never leave your side for an instant. But I will, because you don't need me."

"But the dungeon-"

"I saved you. Sure. I wouldn't have been around to do it if you hadn't saved me first, more than once. And in more than one way. Things happen, Buffy. If it wasn't your own power that got you out of this one, that's just the way the world works out sometimes. It wasn't failure, it was chance. An act of God."

She nodded reluctantly and wiped her face with a sleeve, acquiescent but still seeming unhappy. No worse than could be expected, he supposed. She was shivering again a little bit too, and he stooped to pick up his coat from where she had dropped it on the floor. Her grateful smile as he helped her into it made the night lose some of its pressure. Before they left the room, he picked up the open bucket of paint from the floor and dumped it over the symbol that Daemonis had been using it for. All of the candles were still lit, and he chose the two longest ones to guide himself and Buffy out of the darkness as they made their exit, through the lair and up the stairwell. They left the candles at the hatch, and Buffy drew in a deep, long-awaited breath of the open air.

The walk back to the cemetery featured a lot of silence, but their hands stayed clasped together. At one point, Buffy informed him in a low voice. "I understood some of what he was saying, you know."

"What?"

"You taught me some Latin back when I was laid up. You taught me the word caritas. It means mercy, doesn't it?"

Angel nodded slowly. He had forgotten about their impromptu language lessons, but her limited lexicon had identified the word correctly. Daemonis's entire Latin speech had boiled down to little more than could be summarized by caritas. He didn't need to fill her in on the details: that Daemonis had spoken of his dead lover, the once-human woman who tied the histories of the two vampires together more than Angel ever wanted to admit. That his last moments had been spent in an attempt to cultivate enough brotherhood out of that connection to plant doubts in Angel's mind. "Yes," Angel replied simply. "He asked for mercy."

Buffy kept walking, her eyes facing forward, her grip firm around his hand. "And I gave it to him," she said.

***

It seemed like nothing was going to stir the group out of their drowsy victory gathering on the grass by the crypt, but when Xander saw two figures emerging from the pre-dawn mist and announced, "There they are!", everyone regained some animation. Willow reached them first, hurrying over with a hug ready while Xander was still gently shaking Anya so that she would wake up and let him help her up off of his shoulder. The others moved more slowly, stretching out stiff limbs and dusting debris off of their clothing.

Buffy was much more solemn than Xander usually saw her, matching the quiet intensity that generally characterized only Angel. Dead Boy, tricked out in his own quiet intensity, was walking right there beside her, though, so Xander wasn't sure what could be upsetting her. Maybe she had been forced to kill Spike, which would doubtlessly be difficult for her after she had refused to do it for so long.

Whatever her preoccupation was, she responded to everyone's enthused welcome with only small smiles and detached affection. Her eyes flickered around all of them and then she seemed to relax a little, and he realized that she was doing a head count. Once she had ascertained that all of them were alive and well, she didn't show much curiosity about anything else.

They filled her in on all the details anyway. The experience was too fresh with all of them to do anything else with it. As they gathered up weapons and set off to the waiting cars, everyone was talking at once, rediscovering all of the high points of the battle, which they had been too overwhelmed and exhausted to discuss amongst themselves before the newcomers showed up. Buffy's first real contribution to the conversation was to thank Willow for the hyperspeed spell, and the recounting took off from there.

"You should have seen her," said Xander proudly, clasping Willow's shoulder. "Just sitting up there on that crypt, cooler than bein' cool, and we're fighting and yelling and, you know, just generally being noisy brutes, and she doesn't bat an eye. And the whole time? She's levitating."

"I was?" asked Willow, genuinely surprised.

Father Tom chuckled, and Lydia queried, "You didn't know?"

Xander was already taken by another memory. "Man, and Oz! Manic attack dog extraordinaire! He must have taken down like six of them, all by his lonesome."

"I did?" asked Oz, looking and sounding like nothing but a short laconic guy.

Gunn swiveled his head around to respond from where he was walking a few steps ahead of them. "Looks like we got the masters of memory loss here," he said. "But hey, I saw you cats tearing it up tonight and I got no complaints."

Willow beamed back at him. "Not so bad yourself, Mister Hubcap Axe! I saw you with that last one that tried to sneak up on you, and with the..." She mimed swinging an axe. "Wham! Take that! You were great."

"Coulda been a bust," said Gunn, starting to get into it. "Then my main girl Lydia here starts getting her slay on. Let's hear some respect for the creature of the night!"

"You fought with them?" said Buffy, finally showing some interest. Angel had his eyes on Lydia too, doing his glowering thing, but he hadn't asked yet about the stranger.

"Yeah," Lydia replied brightly. "Turns out I'm really strong."

Xander shook his head in wry amazement, but Angel's glower looked like it was getting deeper, and for some reason even Giles didn't seem too happy about the young vampire's self-confidence. In the interest of staving off arguments until everyone had a little bit more stamina for them, Xander decided to steer the topic back onto congratulating themselves. "Did anyone see Father Tom doing his thing? If anyone feels like writing his biography, I suggest titling it 101 Uses for a Psychic Battle Priest."

"Indeed," said Wesley, "I've never seen an exorcism performed in the field before. Most impressive. What do you suppose happened to the host body- ah- the victim?"

"He went running," replied Father Tom. "He was understandably frightened. And he'll have a devil of a headache in the morning, but assuming he made it home alright, we won't need to worry about him."

"I completely support the use of non-violent methods to dispel demons of possession who are, of course, dangerous," said Anya in a rush. "But to be practical, I think the rest of us should start arming ourselves with shotguns. Wesley killed a whole bunch of them with his shotgun, and it's entirely possible that if he hadn't done that, they would have ripped our livers out, and believe me, it's not pretty when demons rip livers out. Plus, he was badass."

Xander scowled subtly in Wesley's direction. "He didn't kill that many," he muttered. Anya raised her eyebrow at him in challenge, and finally he relented enough to add, "But alright, it was badass."

"Giles fought too," Willow told Buffy. "And Anya gave us tips, and Xander protected Lydia and Cordelia." That was generous of her, Xander thought, though it was only true under a certain interpretation. Mostly, he had kept Cordelia hidden. Lydia, of course, hadn't turned out to need any protection.

"And I did what I do best," said Cordelia acidly. "Had a brain-shattering vision at the most inconvenient time possible. One that had nothing to do with what was going on at the moment, no less."

Everyone looked at her with varying levels of shock. Xander was the only one who had known about the vision until then, and he had been waiting for her to choose her own moment to make it public. She hadn't even told him what it was, and he didn't know if she planned to tell anyone except for her coworkers. She must have known she would be asked, though. Half of the people present were asking her already.

Angel stopped walking to talk to her, which stopped everyone else walking too because they all wanted to hear. Cordelia spoke directly to Angel and ignored everyone else, but she didn't keep her volume down enough to leave them out. "It's a job in LA," she explained. "There's your typical fiendish monster of unspeakable grossness, but it also involves a portal and the host of Caritas and some girl who wears a pendant that looks like an apple. Not the clearest set of instructions the PTBs have given me, but...this one's got your name on it, Angel, a whole-team deal. Our number's up."

Xander had seen Angel angry before, angry in the worst way, but seeing him curse out loud and snake a possessive arm around Buffy's shoulders was new. "How much time do we have?" he rumbled.

"A few days to get it all figured out, but not much leisure time included in between."

Buffy spiraled into the curve of Angel's arm, coming to rest with her forehead against his chest. He closed his hold on her with his other arm and kissed her head, and when he lifted his face, Xander could see that parts of it were discolored, or possibly dirty- it was hard to tell in the darkness. "We'll head back to LA tomorrow," said the vampire.

Cordy nodded, looking no less resigned than her boss did. "Wes and Gunn and I can go up in the morning and get started on the research while you get your life here packed up." She twitched suddenly and the irony in her voice gave way to sincere regret. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean for that to sound like..." She sighed heavily, but accepted the small nod of understanding that Angel gave her as Buffy peeked out from the shelter of his embrace. "Whatever you guys have been doing all night, it probably wasn't much more fun than we were having here. Not thrilled about capping it all off with a vision, but the supernatural abilities supply store was fresh out of the power that makes everything shiny with rainbows and ice cream. So there's the news. Angel, I'm cold, can we please get moving?"

As one, the group started walking again, with much less conversation than they had previously been sharing. Xander thought his capacity to feel sorry for Angel might have hit a milestone, but he was primarily concerned about Buffy. She looked so small, pressed beside her hulking lover and covered from neck to toe by his coat. It was always a trial for Xander to see Buffy, the leader, having any kind of emotional crisis, but he knew enough to leave her alone about it until she chose to take her worries to him and the others. Right now it was obvious that Angel was the only one she wanted.

It struck him that from now on, Angel might always be the only one she wanted. With him at her beck and call, she might never think to make use of the supportive circle that she had here in town. Xander had heard warnings of how marriage could cause friendships to drift apart, and he had assumed that the Scoobies were above that. Now he had time to doubt it. Now, after he had participated in the wedding with hardly a word of protest.

***

"I don't want to get up," Buffy complained, her voice muffled against Angel's shoulder.

"You don't have to." He gently rolled her off of him and started peeling the covers from his body.

She snatched the blanket out of his hand and put it back in place, holding him down with an arm and a leg. "I don't want you to get up, either."

There was a brief pause, and then he unexpectedly relented with an, "Okay," and stayed where he was.

It was like a tennis game, sometimes, the way they passed their shared sense of responsibility back and forth. As soon as he submitted to her request, she would always feel guilty and turn it around. "No, you have to get up." She released him from her hold and gave his arm a half-hearted shove.

"Are you going to get up?"

She let out a long sigh. "Oh, alright."

The mutual agreement was enough to get them both out of bed, but after getting dressed and brushing her teeth, Buffy came back to the bedroom to watch Angel pack. It wasn't much of a production- the better part of his possessions was still at the hotel, and some were going to stay at the mansion to make future visits more convenient. Unable to find any way to help and unwilling to leave the room, Buffy sat down on the bed and lifted Tara's wedding gift, the enchanted glass flower, out of its vase on the night table. The suggestion of Angel's anima seemed to soak into her through her fingertips, even while she was looking right at him. "I wish we had two of these," she said wistfully. "Would be nice if you could take one with you, but I'm not sharing."

He looked up from his suitcase on the floor to see what she was talking about, then moved over to her and laid two fingers on one of the glass petals, just for a few seconds. They had discovered that when both of them touched the flower at the same time, it gave them a slightly daft feeling of euphoria, which could be both disorienting and distracting. His hand left the charm and wandered over her face, brushing back locks of her hair. "Maybe I could take something else instead," he suggested.

"Like what?"

His eyes swept around the room, but it was evident that he had already had something in mind even as he spoke. He picked up his chosen item from the shelf with both of his hands and raised a querulous eyebrow at Buffy, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.

She raised her eyebrow right back at him. "You want to take my stuffed pig? Are you serious?"

He shrugged, holding the pig close to his face in an unbelievably adorable way. "It smells like you."

"You're so weird," she said fondly, setting the flower carefully back into the vase. "Always with the...smelling things."

"I know. So can I take it?"

She wiggled her fingers at the stuffed animal. "Bye bye, Mr. Gordo. Take good care of Angel, okay?"

Angel tossed Mr. Gordo lightly into the suitcase and sat down next to her on the bed. "Are you going to be okay here by yourself?" he said abruptly. "I mean, living by yourself. The whole reason you moved in here in the first place was so you wouldn't have to be alone, and now...is there any way I can make it better? Do you want a cat?"

"A cat?" She laughed. "No thanks. If I feel the need, I'll have Willow move Sippy over here. And I'll hang out at my old place with everyone. And you'll call me. A lot. Or else."

"I don't need to be threatened into that." He got up again and went back to packing. "I just wish I had a little time to keep an eye on the situation here. I don't think there's anyone left who's connected to Darla or Daemonis, but with all vampires having souls now, the underground is going to change. And who knows what that means for the Hellmouth."

"New logo, new coat of paint, same old hive of doom and destruction. What do you make of Lydia?"

His eyes flashed up to meet hers when he heard the name, his brow furrowing. "Unlikely circumstance. She was made right before the spell was cast, so she hardly has any soulless past to weigh her down. It's noticeable, just by listening to her talk."

"Yeah," mused Buffy. "She's pretty well-adjusted for a vampire."

"Too well-adjusted." Angel buckled his suitcase shut and set it up beside himself on the floor. His voice was full of disdain, and Buffy realized that she was about to find out why he had been acting so tense about the topic of Lydia. "She's still a vampire, and a month ago she wasn't. She still has to learn how to live on blood, and how to avoid sunlight, and what it means to be immortal. And she might not have had much time without a soul, but that time still matters. She might have killed- nowhere near my score, but murder is murder. She was evil, Buffy. She's going to have to deal with that before she moves on."

It was more information than Buffy had expected, and knowing that it came from Angel's unique perspective made her feel like she had looked at Lydia and not seen her at all. She had been subconsciously viewing the lively young ensouled vampire, who had willingly leaped into the battle with the gang the night before, as a sign of hope. Now she wondered if Angel had been working from a viewpoint completely opposite to that. "But she can move on, can't she?" Buffy ventured.

"I hope so. Her mind is still more human than vampire. It should help with keeping her demon down. But if she thinks she just gained some superpowers and a cool new image, she's going nowhere fast. And she's got nobody to teach her, now. Her sire's got to be dead. Does she know she can't go back to her family?"

"Whoa," said Buffy, holding up a hand. "Slow down the dire. Not everyone here has a vampiric past to help with comprehension of this stuff."

Angel looked down at the floor. "Sorry. I just...don't want to see her blow her chance."

"Yeah. Me either. Well, she's with Giles right now. We can check up on her before we leave for LA." They had decided that Buffy would accompany Angel back home, to ease the parting. She wouldn't be able to stay long, but it was worth it. Thinking about the day's plan, though, made her start counting the minutes that she had left with him. She told herself, not for the first time, not to think that way, and ended up finding her way into Angel's arms as a spontaneous exercise in living in the now.

***

Father Tom picked them up in the early afternoon in a comically large Buick that he said was owned by the local parish. He was still limping slightly, but hadn't needed any hospital work and insisted that he was capable of everyday tasks. Buffy rode shotgun and Angel lay down in the back with a blanket over him, listening with amused tolerance to her making jabs about it. Getting through the sunlight to Giles's door was a bit of a hassle, but the only thing that was really causing Angel any trepidation was the possibility of making a scene before he could get in. When Giles answered, Buffy breezed past him and into the house with a cheerful greeting, but Angel stood rooted to the spot, not wanting to test his access even after Father Tom followed Buffy with his arms full of books and left him alone in the doorway.

Giles understood. "Come in, Angel," he said, promptly enough that Buffy might not have noticed the delay.

"Thank you," Angel said with sincere gratitude. Giles gave him a nod and dropped the subject. There was a chance, Angel thought, that there had been no barrier there in the first place, but he would never know now.

Lydia was sitting at Giles's table with an enormous leather-bound book open in front of her. She was dressed differently than she had been the night before, although how she had obtained clothes- and makeup- of her own was anyone's guess. She was still all in black, but now it was a long skirt and a frilly corset top, and her eyes and lips were painted in dark tones to match. Angel gritted his teeth. He didn't think this style was a new development for her. Not every teenager who dressed in dramatic black clothing was a vampire-worshiper, but there were plenty of them who unwittingly mimicked the undead, and sometimes the undead noticed. He could imagine Lydia, with her delicate features and spunky disposition, being selected by some older vampire who wanted to make a pet out of her. If things had proceeded normally, she would have been tutored and protected by her sire for years, but without him and without the timely entrance of Buffy and the others, she wouldn't have survived a week on her own. And maybe that would have been kinder.

She glanced at him when he came in, but neither of them spoke to each other. Angel didn't know what she had been told about him, but she already seemed to be holding him up as some kind of authority figure, and she probably wasn't the type to accept authority too easily. The theory was advanced when Father Tom greeted her by name and got only an uneasy nod in return. Buffy, on the other hand, received a ready smile and "Hi!"

Buffy returned the smile and pulled out a chair across from her. "We brought you some blood," she said, holding up a container she had taken from the mansion's refrigerator.

"Thanks. I am so hungry." Lydia reached out to take the blood, but Giles took it out of Buffy's hand before she could.

"I'll put it in a cup," he said, taking it into the kitchen with him. "I'd like to see some table manners, as long as you're here." Lydia frowned, but made no objection.

Buffy regained her attention quickly, asking, "So how are you doing? Still kind of spun?"

"I'm okay," said Lydia noncommittally. "Except everyone is treating me like a kid."

Angel held back a growl. He was leaning on the wall near the entrance to the kitchen, some distance from the table, but Lydia would be able to hear even sub-vocalized sounds from him, even if she didn't understand what she was hearing. "How old are you?" he asked instead, not moving from his spot.

She gazed back at him with dark, suspicious eyes. "Sixteen. Going on eternal."

"Sweetie," said Buffy, "even for a human, that's pretty young. We're not trying to be condescending, but we really need you to listen to us. You might think we don't know anything about what happened to you, but we've got Angel on our side and he's an old pro at this. And Giles is an old pro at knowing stuff about everything."

Giles passed Angel at the doorway and came back into the room with the blood in an opaque tumbler. "Buffy, was that a compliment?" he said, sounding mildly astonished.

Angel's attention was divided when he saw Father Tom studying the spines of the books he had carried in and shelving them carefully with Giles's collection. It occurred to him that he might not be seeing this particular ally again, and he crossed the room to speak to him. "You borrowed all of those?" he asked, gesturing at the books.

"Yes," Father Tom replied, grinning. "And I confess that they were mostly for my own entertainment."

Angel laughed. "So your tenure in California wasn't entertaining enough as it was?"

"Oh, it was a welcome change of pace. And I can't say I got the job done, but the job got done."
It had almost escaped Angel's mind that Father Tom had come all the way out here to kill a master vampire, and now he wondered if leaving the kill for Buffy had caused any regret. "I'm...sorry for what Daemonis did to you. The friends you lost to him. I hope that it helps to know he won't be killing anyone else."

"Indubitably. It wasn't self-satisfaction I was seeking from the mission." He paused, watching Buffy as she talked to Giles and Lydia at the table. "And she needed to be the one wielding the stake this time, didn't she?"

Angel's eyes ran parallel to his, but he tore them away before Buffy could notice she was being scrutinized. "She did," he said in a near-whisper. "I hope it's enough."

"I know an unhealthy mind when I hear one," the psychic replied. "And hers is the mind of an exceptionally resilient woman."

"Exceptional all around," Angel agreed as both of them noticed at the same time where the conversation at the table was going.

Lydia was ignoring their presence in the room, but had just asked Buffy, "So you're a human, but, like, you and Angel seemed pretty cozy last night. Is he really, you know, your boyfriend?"

"He's my husband," Buffy corrected smoothly, holding up her ringed hand like a badge.

Father Tom raised his voice to address Lydia. "He's her vampire," he said with openly evident mirth. "That's what she told me."

"That too." Buffy drew Angel back to her side with a warm smile, and he put his hands on her shoulders.

The phone rang, and Giles excused himself to answer it. In his absence, Father Tom came up to the table and stood over Lydia, examining the book she had in front of her. "What's this you're studying?" he asked.

She flipped through a few pages with her thumb to show him the illustrations. "Mr. Giles said I should read about some occult history. Things vampires have done, and stuff. This one says it's a collection of written accounts of attacks in London from the last couple hundred years."

"I see," said Father Tom. "Learn anything interesting so far?"

"Sort of. Mostly it's just really morbid, but I guess that's kind of inevitable. And some of the people writing it didn't actually believe in vampires, so you have to know what you're looking for." She sighed. "I think he wants me to keep reading it until I have some kind of revelation and tell him I vow to only use my powers for the good of mankind. Or he's trying to freak me out. I mean, some of this stuff is just sick. There's this transcript of a letter that some woman wrote to the Mother Superior of a local convent in eighteen hundred something...here, let me find it."

Angel looked around at the others as Lydia searched the book for the passage in question. Giles was still on the phone, and Father Tom was absorbed in the book. Buffy didn't look up at Angel's face, but she did reach for his hand and lace her fingers through his.

"Here it is," said Lydia. "There's some boring stuff about preparing to take holy orders, and then, 'The stranger still torments my days and haunts my nightmares, leaving me not a moment of rest, but the true horror he brings is one that I must hold secret. None would believe- even now, the townspeople whisper that I am becoming a madwoman- but I have seen the marks defiling his victims, and the whiteness of bodies drained of their blood. He is a son of Cain, a demon that walks the earth, and he has chosen me as his prey. I beg you for sanctuary, Mother, by the grace of God. No other can help me...' See, if you guys think I'm going to be that kind of vampire, you've got a screw loose."

Angel felt hoarse when he spoke in response. "Is the letter signed?"

She blinked at him and turned the page to look. "No, but it has the response from the Mother Superior, and that one starts, 'Dear Elizabeth'..."

"Elizabeth." He felt as if a floodgate had opened on him, and he sagged forward, gripping Buffy's chair to hold himself steady. "That was her name. Of course it was."

Buffy peered up at him, slipped out of the chair, and grabbed him by the wrist. "We'll be right back," she informed the priest and the vampiress, and marched him out the door.

***

There was a shadow cast behind Giles's house, big enough to comfortably shelter a vampire and his wife while the sun still shone over them. Angel looked at Buffy expectantly as they sat down against the wall, and she wondered suddenly why she had brought him out there. It was plain to see that this wasn't another meltdown moment, but she was still getting the feeling that it was private. If Angel didn't want to explain the significance of Elizabeth, well, she didn't want him to be asked about it, and besides, she had the right to want to keep him to herself today.

"Was that a coincidence?" he asked. The question sounded rhetorical, but still curious.

"You mean, that Lydia was interested in that passage?"

"That she was reading it in the first place. Did Giles give it to her because he wanted me to hear it?"

Buffy frowned. Angel and Giles always seemed to have some kind of passive-aggressive war game going on beneath the radar, and she wondered if she was ever going to be in on it. "I don't think he knows enough about you to want you to hear it."

He nodded, still deep in his thoughts but accepting of her reasoning. "Had to be coincidence, then." He stretched out his legs, just skirting the edge of the shade. "It's good he's making her read up on the past. Our past. Gets her acquainted with the reality of it. She can't stay with him forever, though."

"I was thinking the same thing. They'll drive each other off the Cliffs of Insanity. But she probably shouldn't go with you, either."

There was little surprise in his eyes, or in his unnecessary exhalation, but definitely some relief. He had to have been wondering if they were going to saddle him with a protegee despite his discomfort with her. Angel being Angel, though, he questioned the free pass Buffy was giving him anyway. "Why not? I mean...I know what she needs, and it's not like I don't have room for her."

"Because she thinks you're mean and scary and she doesn't like you. Duh." She locked her hands around her knees and leaned her head on his shoulder. "I'm not saying you're not our number one expert on vampires with souls, but she isn't going to be the only penitent-in-training that the spell churns out, and most of them are probably going to be in worse shape than she is. I'd rather have you open to deal with the ones who need you the most."

Angel's expression was full of distaste, but he made a sound of agreement. "I may have to open the hotel," he said, resigned.

There was no point in trying to coax him into a more positive outlook- or in trying to find other options. Angel was always prepared to take on the tasks that suited him best, and she had to be prepared to assign them to him. If he didn't like vampires, and of course he didn't, all she could do was sympathize. So far, she had only found one vampire that she liked, herself. Maybe that would all change in the future, though. They would have to compare notes.

She felt an involuntary smile coming on at the thought, and decided it was time to change the subject. Ever since they had woken up, it had been Lydia, Lydia, vampires, souls, questionable futures. Today was supposed to be strictly Buffy and Angel Time. "So," she said. "Into the S&M stuff, huh?"

It was a question geared to get a memorable reaction out of him, and she wasn't disappointed. She had considered waiting to spring this one on him until they were walking somewhere so she could see if she could get him to walk into a tree, but this would do. "What?" he sputtered. "Who- how did- why would you ask that?"

She shrugged, feigning a casual interest. "Had a talk with an old girlfriend of yours. It might have come up."

"Buffy," he protested, still entertainingly flustered, "I was evil. Are you really going to put any stock in what I did with Darla when I was evil?"

"Ha!" she exclaimed. "So it's true! You were into it!"

He looked truly mortified. "I can't believe we're even talking about this."

"Yeah, it's always a shocker to find yourself actually talking about something, isn't it? Come on, isn't this the kind of thing we're supposed to discuss as a couple? And don't try to tell me it was only fun when you were evil. I'm not that naive."

For a moment it seemed as though he had settled into his stubborn silence and wasn't going to budge. Then he switched to sullen defiance and muttered, "What kind of spell could you be under that would make you get engaged to Spike, anyway?"

Buffy soon lost track of how long they had been out there. She was too busy winning the argument to notice that the shade's coverage was extending. A quick recap of Willow's temporary loss of control over her magic the previous year was enough to clear the air of any compromising stories involving Buffy's first engagement, and then she commandeered the conversation again and demanded some straight answers on Angel's less conventional appetites. She felt guilty at first for pushing the issue, but as she gradually convinced him that she wasn't about to run away screaming, his responses became more and more riveting. Naturally, that was when someone opened the door beside them.

Her alarm at seeing this particular person at that particular moment was eased quickly when she realized that he couldn't have heard anything incriminating, and then it returned tenfold when she remembered the talent that belonged to the man. "Father Tom!" she squeaked. "Hi! Um, were you reading my mind just now? Because you really shouldn't bother. My thoughts, they...weren't very interesting. Dry, even. Totally inane girly stuff. You'd just get annoyed."

The priest looked stoic as ever. Buffy wondered if being born telepathic gave him some kind of built-in immunity to embarrassment. "I wasn't listening in on you," he said. "As a rule I do my best to entirely block out the thoughts of newlyweds. I just came to inform you that some other visitors have arrived." He moved to go back inside, then paused, looked back at her with an expression of idle curiosity, and asked, "Why? What does shibari mean?"

Buffy's face went as hot as she had ever felt it, and she hastened to get to her feet. "I'm sorry, I really need to not be around a psychic priest right now," she said as she stepped over Angel's legs and squeezed past Father Tom to get back into the house, not making eye contact with either of them.
They gave her some space before following, but behind her she heard Father Tom telling Angel, with some chagrin, "I didn't mean to rattle her."

"Nah," Angel replied in an amused voice, apparently enjoying the benefits of his own unflappability. "She completely deserved that."

Buffy's cheeks got a few impossible degrees warmer. Damn that man and his resistance to telepathy- making her look like the one with a dirty mind! Angel ought to be forced to explain the whole conversation to Father Tom. In fact, Angel ought to be stuck in a room with Father Tom and forced to tell him everything he'd done during his unlife. No, wait. That had already happened. Maybe the whole idea was a lost cause. Buffy stalked down the hall, glaring at the floor, and ducked into the bathroom to splash some water on her face before she had to actually talk to anyone.

***

Willow and Oz had stopped by Giles's house to say goodbye; Xander and Anya, Angel suspected, had stopped by to say good riddance. It had been a while since Xander said or did anything openly obnoxious, but he wasn't that hard to read and there was definitely some lingering animosity there. Angel still didn't know what to make of Anya. He had thought he would be able to relate to an ex-demon, but he at least had lived among people during his evil past, and he at least regretted the evil past. In comparison to her he felt almost human, and that was without even accounting for her inexplicable attraction to Xander.

Both were civil, though, and Angel even suspected that Xander had been coaching Anya in how to pretend that you were going to miss someone. He thanked them both for their participation in defeating Daemonis and the others, and for witnessing at the wedding, and they returned the same sentiments. Buffy saw that he was playing nice and rewarded him with a charmed smile and a kiss on the cheek. Ever since she emerged from the bathroom, she had been trying so hard to keep herself from thinking inappropriate thoughts that it took some effort to restrain himself from whispering something lewd in her ear. She was just too cute when she blushed.

The other farewells were harder for Angel. Willow looked piteously sad at the thought of him leaving town, and exacted promises about visitation as if she really thought he could stay away. He knew that her distress was mostly on behalf of Buffy, but he also sensed that she had a deep-seated fear of losing the people in her life, any of them. High school in Sunnydale must have been especially hard on her. He gave her an affectionate hug and invited her to come up to Los Angeles with Buffy sometime and spend a weekend at the hotel, and she smiled and reminded him that his top priority was taking Buffy on vacation as soon as possible.

Oz didn't require any sentimentality, seemingly content to send Angel off with a simple, "Keep it real, man." Angel hesitated to leave it at that, though. He remembered that he had talked the werewolf into staying in town, and offered to work with him on the control issues. The offer had been earnest, but time had been so sparse with everything else going on, and it had slipped Angel's mind. Obviously, Oz had done well enough on his own, but Angel still wished he could make it up to him somehow. He had just opened his mouth to voice an apology when he saw Oz shake his head, almost imperceptibly, while the corner of his lips twitched in amusement. The intentions of the gesture weren't totally clear, but the message was. Angel nodded and matched his silence.

Giles gave him a handshake and a stern, wordless look of warning. Father Tom gave him a phone number and a request to be kept updated on how things progressed in LA. As the sun was setting, Buffy asked Angel if he had anyone else he wanted to see before they left. "One," he answered, "if you don't mind."

The two of them set out on foot, leaving the sidewalk when they reached the cemetery's borders and using its roads to get to the headstone they sought. Buffy knelt in front of it and touched her fingertips to its smooth surface. "Hi Mom," she said. "Look who I brought. Your son-in-law."

She spoke so naturally, radiating such love and serenity, that Angel had a hard time finding his voice. "I wish I had some flowers," he said.

"Oh, she gets lots of flowers. I'll bring some more next time." Buffy stood up and took her place next to him, sliding her hand into his. "Did you want to, um, say anything?"

"Just wanted to be here with you. To show her I meant it."

"Meant what?"

Angel considered before answering. He had promised to keep Buffy safe and happy, and a safe and happy Buffy was what he wanted Joyce, wherever she was, to see. It could be risky to speak openly to Buffy about protecting her, though, so he went back further in his memory to find the words to explain the silent pact he had made with her mother. "She told me I would have to make choices. And I did. And I'm going to stand by them."

Buffy gave him an appraising look and then a sound of affirmation. For long moments they stood there, taking in the chirp of crickets and the smell of earth and the first stars appearing in a sky that had not yet lost its color. Then Buffy murmured, evenly and without judgment, "You know, Jenny Calendar is buried here too."

He hadn't known that, and he felt his whole body stiffen when he heard the name. Buffy felt it too, through his hand that she was holding, and she leaned her head comfortingly into the crook of his neck. "Left at the fork, past the crematorium, third stone on the right. If you want to."

"I think I'd better," he said gravely. "You'll be-?"

"Right here," she assured him. "Just start yelling if you run into a pack of feral zombies."
There were no walking dead, of that kind, out tonight to distract him from his purpose, and he found the stone easily. This time, he didn't have even a few paltry words to offer, but he didn't try to find any. All he wanted was to stand over the body, to see the name carved out in stark letters- and to be alone at the site, with nobody to witness his presence there and misinterpret it as an affectation of grief. Most of his victims would never receive even this much in the way of a tribute, but she was unique among them. She was part of the culture that had instilled a soul in him, part of the deceit that had led him to lose it again, and part of the efforts that had ultimately saved him. A moment of silence was the very least that she deserved.

But even the solitude he needed to accomplish that much didn't last long. Angel didn't know which of his senses first tipped him off, but he wasn't alone anymore and the other presence wasn't Buffy. He let himself be watched for a few minutes, gauging the threat and then keeping his focus on the reason he had come. Finally the other stepped out of hiding and came up behind Angel, stopping a few feet away and waiting silently for acknowledgment.

Angel obliged, not bothering to look up, his voice low and toneless. "Hello, Spike."

***

Giles looked at his watch, didn't believe it, looked at the wall clock for confirmation, and said, "Oh my." It wasn't the first time he had lost track of the hour while reading in the store, but this time it had especially caught him by surprise, as he had subconsciously been expecting Willow to leave long before it got this late. She had been sitting at the table, playing idly with the Moisipi spirit, and when he looked over at her for the first time in at least an hour, she was doing exactly the same thing. The spirit was emitting a faint glow, currently the only source of light in the store aside from Giles's own desk lamp, and the red shine of the young witch's hair was just barely visible under it.

"Willow," he said to her, "don't you want to get home?"

"Hm?" She glanced up and shook her head to clear it, then looked at the clock. "Oh. It's late, huh? Sorry, I was just...thinking about prophecies."

That was an odd thing to be thinking about, he thought. They had all been through a lot lately, but prophecies had no part in it that he could remember. "Why is that?" he asked.

She straightened in her chair and rubbed her eyes, and when she spoke again, she was awake and forthright. "Have you heard about Angel's Sanshu- uh, Shansu- okay, call it, Shanshu? Buffy told me, but I don't think it's supposed to be a secret."

Giles nodded, remembering. "He's meant to become human. Wesley told me."

"But it doesn't mention him by name, so now...which vampire with a soul?"

"Very perplexing. There's no way to know until it happens, I suppose, but as far as I know, Wesley is still convinced that it refers to Angel, and he seems to have made himself the expert on the subject."
Willow propped her elbows up on the table and set her face in her hands. "That's not much."

"I know," said Giles gravely.

"And then, he's supposed to stop an apocalypse, right? I just can't stop thinking. Daemonis had an apocalypse brewing, and Buffy and Angel stopped him while he was casting the spell, so that seems like it should count. But Buffy was the one who killed him, they said. What if it was supposed to be Angel? What if that was his big chance?"

No wonder she had been so lost in thought. These were questions that could indeed keep one up all night. "A prophecy is a powerful force," Giles said carefully. "I think it would take more than that to thwart it, if it truly speaks of Angel's destiny. And if it doesn't, everyone is prepared for that, Angel most of all. The best we can do for him is give him hope that one day the world will no longer need him."

"Yeah. Well, we'll do that, then." Willow frowned, reaching out and absently stroking the Moisipi spirit, which let out an entirely unexpected purr. Later on he would have to ask her how she had managed to make it do that. She didn't even seem to notice. "Do you think Buffy still thinks he's going to turn human?"

He thought about the most positive spin he could put on it, some token words about Buffy's acceptance of her husband as he was, or the unpredictability of life and prophecies and what they could be hiding. In the end, though, he had to opt for honesty. "No."

***

"So who's this bird, then?" asked Spike as he stepped up to Jenny's headstone, unscrewing the cap of a silver hip flask he had just taken from a pocket inside his coat. "Friend of yours?"

"I killed her." It was easier saying that then it would have been to admit that she had, in fact, been a friend of sorts. Angel finally raised his eyes to glance over at Spike. "You don't remember?"

The younger vampire took a swig from his flask before leaning forward to read the dates on the stone. "Ninety-eight? Oh. The Watcher's squeeze, i'n't it? Had your soul all lined up for you, and you offed her before she could finish the deed. Good times. Too bad she's not here to see what a trend she kicked off. Souls being all the rage now."

All the rage indeed. All the rage was bubbling just beneath the surface of Spike's indifference, manifesting in the slightly drunken cascade of his words only through the hard edge on a few scattered syllables. There could be no doubt that he knew what had happened to his girlfriend, and thus no doubt about why he was there now, but Angel didn't force the topic. "That they are," he said. "How's yours?"

"It's a putrid, senseless, worm-eaten, vitriolic ball and chain. Standard issue, I'll wager. And for some reason I'm feeling compelled to hang onto it anyway. Lucky stroke I've got you around to blame for everything, or I'd have to just wallow in guilt."

"Compelled?" Angel didn't want to say it explicitly, but that word worried him. Spike wasn't supposed to have a choice about whether or not he was going to hang onto his soul.

"I was in with the bad crowd, Peaches. Darla didn't fancy us being soulful, didn't you notice that? She had her latest sugar daddy's technique all ready to be tested on you and me, and trade secrets get passed around."

"Then you know how to get your soul removed."

Spike lifted his flask to his lips for another chug before answering. "Not yet. But I'm probably the only one on this bloody planet who knows where to start. So! Is that going to make this a cause for justifiable homicide, or, let me guess, you're 'not here to fight me'?"

"No," said Angel affably. "This time I'll fight you." He proved his words by spinning around as soon as they were out of his mouth and landing the first strike, a vicious backhand to Spike's face. His movements were too sudden for Spike to dodge or counter, and the flask went flying, dribbling whiskey out onto the ground, as Angel's fist connected with flesh.

Spike didn't fall, but he staggered backwards and let out a stream of curses before straightening and facing Angel. He had vamped out as soon as he was hit, and he had an angry growl to go with it. Angel kept his face the way it was. He was willing to provide as much violence as Spike wanted or needed from him, but his body knew that fury wasn't part of this and neither was survival. Unlike his opponent, he was sober in every sense of the word.

The fight escalated quickly, Spike making up for Angel's initial advantage with a nonstop flurry of punches and kicks. Angel blocked what he could and pressed the attack when he had the opening, but for the first few minutes his main goal was to move the conflict away from Jenny's grave. He had already snapped the woman's neck; he didn't need to add a botched attempt at respecting her to that. Spike didn't seem to notice the maneuver, or care. His intentions were much more pure, and when he started talking, it was to emphasize the blows, not distract from them.

"You think I'm going to ask you why you did it, don't you? And you've got your speech ready, all dressing yourself up as the bleeding-heart martyr with the golden hand of mercy. Well, save it, because I'm the original phantom from your past and I know the truth. You killed Dru for the same bloody reason you killed Gypsy Calendar. The same reason you had for every last one of your kills since the day you dug your way out of the ground." Spike broke off from his onslaught at that point, both physical and verbal, and he put a few paces of distance between himself and Angel, who allowed it, realizing against his will that he wanted to hear what Spike was going to say next.

The answer came out as an absolute condemnation. "You kill because you've never met a person living or dead who you didn't think belonged to you. It wasn't lives you were ending, it was your own property, isn't that right? And it didn't stop with the soul, oh no. Now you're just invested in keeping your property safe, no less than you did for us when we were wanted. The Slayer, your Team Angel, all those thousands of innocent lives you strive to safeguard...they're just toys on your shelf, and you don't want anyone else touching." He hissed through his fangs, his eyes flashing with the reflection of the almost-full moon. "And if one should happen to break, why then you've got to be the one to take off her head and leave your signature in her ashes, with all its ironic artistry."

Angel shook his head. "You're wrong. I don't own anyone."

"No, see, I'm aware of that. But you're about to be." With that, he lunged, and the fight began anew. Angel met the attack easily and returned it. He didn't know where this was going, but he knew from experience that the two of them could keep it up for hours. If he let it happen, anyway.

"So that's your plan? Kill me and you'll be free? I don't think so." Something occurred to him as he caught Spike's fist and turned it away. "You didn't even bring a stake, did you?"

"Oh, sod it." Spike put the scuffle on hold again as he blocked a hit and then raised his hands.
"Called my bluff, eh? Well, if you came prepared, then the victory goes to you, the better man." He dropped to his knees and held his hands over his heart, a pose that seemed at first to be pure mockery but carried an unmistakable overtone of true spiritual defeat. His eyes closed, a second before his face turned back to its human guise. "Let's have it. Thus fell William the Bloody. I regret that I have but one life to give for my pathetic inferiority complex."

Angel rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand. He actually didn't have a stake himself, which felt like it was careless of him even though he was sure Buffy had one and he didn't want to use a stake right now anyway. Spike's misery was the last thing he wanted to deal with during these last few moments he had in Sunnydale, but not all of his problems could be solved by turning them to dust. He hovered over his grandchilde, almost offering him a hand up, and then thought better of it and sat down on the ground beside him instead. Spike opened his eyes, and his lips curled into a sneer before he changed his kneeling position to sitting like Angel was. He felt inside his coat for his flask, then apparently remembered that it was already out and spilled, and gave up.

"I killed her because she was hurting me," said Angel, "and I had to make it stop. That's all."

"Well, now she's hurting me, and you've left me no one to kill."

"There's me. But you didn't bring a stake."

As a taunt that went much farther than Angel would have gone with anyone else, but Spike just chuckled as if they were sharing a joke. "Wouldn't help anything to kill you. Never really wanted to, truth be told, unless it was the only way to move up and see the end of you. I always fooled myself that sooner or later you would stride off into the setting moon and let the younger lion take over the pride, and all I had to do was wait for it."

Maybe it was Spike's sense of humor catching on, but Angel had to laugh at that. "Some pride."

"No," Spike agreed, "there wasn't really much to be proud of, was there? Just an old bitch, a crazy bitch, a son of a bitch, and me." He sighed and met Angel's eyes for the first time since his own had gone back to their usual pale blue, and his voice dropped an octave, less intoxicated than it had been before and with an underlying current of fear. "The soul's making a difference. I've been trying to ignore it this whole time, but it's changing something. Eating away at me. Got this little chorus in the back of my head singing Oh, evil Spikey, what have you done, over and over, and they never get past that part or stop long enough to let me actually think about what it's supposed to mean."

"Yeah, that...that never really goes away."

Spike snorted disdainfully. "That's my chum, knew you'd have a word or two of encouragement for me. Look, here's the Cracker Jack prize: I'm keeping the soul and I'm keeping the secret. And we can skip the threats about what you'll do to me if I break my word on that. I don't fancy spending any more time in your basement, so you can slay me or you can believe I'm not off to do anything stupid with magic."

"Alright." It was an answer given too easily, Angel knew, but there wasn't anywhere else to go with it other than killing Spike, and he wanted that less and less. Darla and Drusilla were dead without a chance to make something of themselves. Penn was dead, along with a fair number of other failed disciples. Even the Master, Angel's own grandsire, was dead. Spike was the last gasp of the Order of Aurelius. "So what are you going to do?"

"I dunno. What's the rum thing to do for an undead bloke who's got nothing left to lose?"

Angel shrugged. "You mean, other than living on the streets and eating rats? My suggestion is to leave town."

Spike rolled his eyes. "Right, right, clear myself off your territory and keep my distance from your girl. What was I thinking, implying that you were possessive."

"You don't want to be around me or her anyway. Just go take a journey. You know, to find yourself, or whatever they call it."

Unrestrained laughter rang out into the stillness of the cemetery. "They call it soul-searching, nitwit."

Angel pondered the phrase for a few moments in silence. It wasn't long before he ran out of ways to find a deeper meaning in it, and he looked over at Spike, who was now opening a pack of cigarettes.

"You want to fight some more?"

"No, I think I'm good."

"Then I better get back to Buffy." Angel got to his feet.

Spike was concentrating on lighting his cigarette- with a flimsy disposable lighter, Angel noticed, for some reason- and didn't bother to glance up at him, though he did have a remark to offer. "You're completely whipped."

"Oh? I thought I was possessive."

"You're both, granddad, and that's the key to just one of those special neuroses that make you so irresistible to the ladies." Spike got the cigarette lit after a few annoyed flicks of the lighter, and then stood up. After one long drag and exhalation, he looked at Angel and said, "Ah, hell. One for the road."

Angel reeled as Spike's fist shot out and caught him on the jaw. Immediately following the punch, Spike turned and set off at an easy gait, and Angel glared at his back without attempting to retaliate. He didn't have a chance to follow anyway, as the sound of Buffy's exasperated voice behind him swiftly brought his attention off of the departing vampire.

"I leave you alone for five minutes and you get in a fight!"


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