I'm going to see if I can backdate the next nine sections as I post them so that they don't flood your friends page. On the other hand, if I don't figure out a more efficient way to format, it might take me a couple weeks just to work up the motivation to do this again.
Rereading it was fun, though, if only because I can see where I've improved and maybe where I've lost a little of my initial gusto. It's pretty clear at some points that I was steering the characters into doing what I wanted them to do, or writing Buffy's relationship with Angel as I would have acted if I were Buffy. Never did figure out what to do with Anya. I kinda love my OCs in this, though.
Title: Let Me In
Rating: PG-13 (violence, some language, some sex)
Wordcount: Roughly 145,000 total
Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Boss Whedon and his merry band of Mutant Enemies. There are also a few characters of my own creation; you'll know them when you see them.
Warnings: May contain character death and pairings you don't favor. Read at your own risk.
Setting/Spoilers: Takes place near the beginning of Season 5 BtVS, Season 2 AtS. However, it drifts off canon earlier, when Oz returns to Sunnydale in "New Moon Rising". In my version of events, Willow's friendship with Tara was platonic, and it never triggered the chain of events that led to Oz leaving again, so here he is. Also, no Dawn, as she and Glory are part of a plot that doesn't happen here.
Reviews: Since this is just for archiving purposes, I’m not asking for any response to it. Naturally, I wouldn’t stop you if you felt like it.
They had been out for hours before their sensors picked up a hostile. The beep of the alarm was tiny, but the four of them were being so silent that it was audible to everyone, and they met each other's eyes in the darkness without a word. Finally, Riley put them into an impromptu formation with a few hand signals, and they headed in the direction that the alarm indicated.
There was just one vampire, a tall dark-haired male, but he was carrying something or someone in his arms and moving at a dead run. Fortunately, Riley's team came up ahead of him, and they were able to dart out in front of him and block his path. "Freeze!" Riley shouted, and the vampire did, but Riley's heart was already pounding. He couldn't be sure about the dead or unconscious human in the hostile's arms, wrapped up in some big black garment as it was, but he had the increasing feeling that he recognized the hostile himself.
By that point the team had surrounded him, each one with a weapon aimed right at him, but of course they couldn't shoot while there was an innocent person in the line of fire. The standoff was brief, though. As soon as the vampire had sized up the situation, he turned right to Riley, heedless of the guns and the burden he was carrying, and said, "Riley Finn."
Riley inhaled deeply. "Angel."
"Find Giles, tell him I found her and to meet me at the hospital." He gestured down at the human.
Riley could now see that she was a girl, and the covering around her was Angel's big black coat. A lock of blonde hair was visible though her face was hidden, and it was more than enough to confirm that Riley's worst fears had been realized.
The rest of his team had started up a low murmur of shock- this was not the kind of dialogue they expected to hear between their leader and a hostile. He didn't know if they could tell if it was Buffy. He didn't know nearly enough. Not enough to tell them to stand down, that was for sure. "You can tell him yourself. I'll take her to the hospital."
"The hell you will," Angel all but snarled. "I can get there faster. Call your boys off."
"I don't think I can do that." It wasn't easy to say that. Of course Buffy needed prompt medical attention, but how could he leave Angel in charge of that? Dammit, why couldn't the vampire detectors come with soul detectors? With Angel there was no other way to tell. "For all we know you're headed somewhere else entirely. Or maybe you only found her because you're the reason she was missing in the first place?"
Angel's face changed then, his fangs protruding and his eyes burning yellow even in the darkness, and everyone on Riley's team cocked their weapons. "If I have to," said the vampire, "I will take down you and each one of your lackeys, and break your toys, and leave you here on the ground, but I'll do it without letting go of this girl because you are not going to lay a single unworthy finger on her. If you care about saving her life, you can help by staying out of the way, so I suggest"- there he broke off and looked down at Buffy, clutching her tighter and then sinking to his knees as his face returned to its human guise.
Evidently she was coming to, though Riley from his vantage point could neither see nor hear any sign of it. "Buffy? Buffy!" Angel cupped her face in his hands, ignoring everything else around him, and the team looked at Riley for direction. Torn, Riley hesitated momentarily, then waved at them to lower their guns, doing the same with his own.
"Angel?" It was Buffy's voice, weak and beautiful and heartbreaking. Her face was showing now, just clearly enough for Riley to see the terrible shape she was in. "Angel, what- where are- oh God, Mom! Angel, I...I..."
"Shhh. I know. I've got you. Buffy, listen to me, I need you to remember." Angel's manner had changed entirely; now he spoke softly and stroked her hair with soothing motions. "Can you remember how many there were?"
Buffy shook her head, her eyes squeezed close. "Five," she said. "Six. Seven. There were seven."
"Seven is how many I killed," Angel answered. "So you're safe now. It's over."
"Where are we?" she asked in a barely audible whisper.
At this, Angel looked away from her for the first time to glare up at Riley and the other men, still standing over him in a circle. "I'm taking you to the hospital," he said firmly, an answer clearly meant for Riley as much Buffy.
There was nothing left that Riley could do. He stepped back and gestured at his men to do the same, and as Angel gathered Buffy into his arms again she caught sight of him for the first time. "Riley?" she said, sounding more confused than anything, and then Angel was running away with her again and there was no chance to even explain.
"What do we do now?" asked Carter. A man who needed something to follow, that one.
Riley threw up his hands in frustration. "I guess we go find Giles."
Angel carried Buffy into the emergency room with an incredible sense of deja vu. At least this time, he thought, he wasn't the one responsible for what had happened to her, but no, this was worse, this was a new low and it was going to continue to plunge before it began to get better. Every time he even began to process his gratitude that he had found her still alive, it would be crushed by the realization that she still had to be told what had happened to her mother. She herself wasn't out of danger yet either, though Angel knew enough about blood loss to feel confident that she was at a point from which she could fully recover. One thing at a time.
He had kept her conscious on the way there by talking to her, and though she spoke little, her eyes stayed open and fixed on him. When the staff brought out a cot for him to lie her down in, she grabbed his hand and wouldn't let go, and he walked alongside as they wheeled her away. He tried to fill them in on any information that would help, though there wasn't much about the actual facts that they would have believed, and they nodded and conferred with each other and moved quickly. Their professionalism calmed Angel somewhat, though he was wondering what he could do if they told him he had to leave the room. He couldn't just walk away from her now, but this was no time to be making a scene, either.
When they reached the operating room, though, Buffy was the one who addressed that problem. "Please let him stay," she said suddenly to the nearest nurse, her eyes wild and desperate. "I need him to stay with me." Angel squeezed her hand.
"He can stay," the nurse assured her. "Don't you worry about that."
It was an unexpected and gratifying answer, and Buffy and Angel both fell over themselves thanking her until she shushed them gently. "Just stand where you are," she instructed Angel, and then made way for a doctor with a syringe.
As soon as Buffy registered that they were going to put her under she began objecting, but the staff and Angel together managed to convince her that it was for the best. The medication took effect quickly, and her breath soon came more evenly as her hand loosened its grip on Angel's. At that point, the same nurse who had allowed him to stay came over and asked him to leave.
Seeing his confusion, she explained, "We didn't want to frighten her while she was still conscious, but now we need space to do our work. You can be back at her side by the time she wakes up, and she'll never know you were gone."
It was a reasonable approach and Angel didn't want to fight it. He leaned down to kiss Buffy's hand, found out which room they'd be taking her to after the operation, and wandered out to the lobby.
He had hardly taken a few steps before he saw the crowd: Giles, Willow, Xander, Oz, Anya...and Riley. They had apparently just arrived, all out of breath and clustering around the reception desk, and when Willow saw him she exclaimed out loud and they all turned as one and hurried over to him, various expressions of concern painting their faces.
Overwhelmed by the number of Buffy's loved ones and the distressing news he had to give them, Angel focused on their leader- Giles- and spoke directly to him. "She's going to live. She's going to heal. But it's bad."
Giles took these words in grave silence, but Xander spoke up. "But what happened?"
"She was bitten by vampires," Anya informed him. "Riley told us, remember?"
Angel nodded wearily. "Attacked by vampires, bitten by vampires, chained by vampires..."
"...Rescued by vampires..." Riley muttered. He looked up to see everyone staring at him, and wisely closed his mouth.
"But Buffy kills vampires all the time!" Willow wailed. "What was different? How come they got her this time?"
Giles placed a hand on her shoulder and spoke gently. "Willow, I'm not sure there's much use in looking for that kind of answer. Even Buffy could be overwhelmed by facing too many enemies on her own, and it only takes one mistake..."
"No, she's right," Angel interrupted. "Buffy said there were seven of them, but I fought all seven and won, and that was after they were powered up. If I beat them she should have been able to, too. There has to be something more to this."
Oz cleared his throat. "Powered up?"
"On Slayer's blood. It can heighten a vampire's strength for a while, and some of the ones I fought...well, they were stronger than they should have been." He had realized this in the middle of the fight, and the terror that it had ignited in him flared up again as he explained. He hadn't been able to see her, and he hadn't known if she was still alive, and for a moment he hadn't even been sure that he was going to win the fight...
Nobody seemed to know quite how to take the information about Slayer's blood. Willow had started crying quietly, and Oz pulled her towards himself so she could bury her face in his chest. Xander crossed his arms and turned away, and Anya looked anxiously around at what everyone else was doing.
"How do you know that?" Riley's voice was cold, and he stared right at Angel. He was making an accusation and he knew it.
"Connections," Angel replied, just as coldly.
"Right, of course," Riley said. "So you killed seven of them, huh? And some were powered up? Gee, I wonder how powered up you must have been to even those odds..."
It was more than Angel could take. He grabbed Riley by his shoulders, pushing him away from the others and against the lobby's wall. There were few strangers around at this hour, and the Scoobies, for whatever reason, made no move to stop him. He at least restrained himself from going into his vampire face, but he made no other attempt to conceal his fury. "I came when she needed me. I found her. I went in there and I fought for her life and I got her out, and where did I find you? Still out with your buddies, playing war games. You want to know what your great accomplishment in all this was, Riley? You delayed me. You held me back while I was trying to get her to the hospital, and you did it because you didn't want to believe that I could be trusted. Now that was just a few minutes, and as it turned out, those few minutes didn't cost her life. But there wasn't any way you could have known that at the time, was there?" He loosened his grip and stepped back a little. Riley actually looked a little scared, or at least stricken. Angel finished his piece before letting up completely: "Right now I have a few very good reasons to not harm you." He gave Riley one last murderous look. "But don't make me question them."
"...And some of my clothes...No, I should have enough weapons here. Listen, I'll also need some books, do you have a pen? Okay, Aurelius and Other Orders, the first three volumes of Blood Chronicles, The Life and Death of Catherine the Relentless...because it has a passage about a Slayer's healing abilities. And talk to Wesley, he might have a few other ideas...Good, I'll meet you tonight at the mansion. Oh, I have to go, I think she's waking up. Thanks, Cordelia. See you later."
Buffy kept her eyes closed for a few minutes after she woke. Pain was waking up all over her body at the same time, but otherwise things weren't so bad. She was in a soft bed, and as long as she couldn't see anything, she could live in a world which was just a soft bed and that dear, familiar voice. He was there and nothing else mattered. Eventually, though, she had to take a look at him to be sure, and she slowly forced her eyes open.
"Hey." He smiled down at her, though his eyes were sad.
"Hi, Angel." Her voice came out as a croak, and she tried coughing it back to normal, but that hurt her throat. He understood her anyway. He touched her fingers lightly, and she curled them around his hand.
"You don't have to talk if you don't feel up to it. I'm not going anywhere."
"No, I do." She coughed again, but her voice was getting stronger as she spoke. "I do have to talk. Angel, I think I remember...there was a thing in the house, and we were attacked outside, and, and I remember my mom..." She looked into his eyes as she trailed off. "Did...did that really happen?"
When he replied his voice was full of compassion, but he didn't flinch. "Yes," he said. "She was killed. Buffy, I'm so sorry."
For a long time, she didn't have to talk anymore. For a long time, nothing else mattered.
When the Scoobies returned to the hospital it was just Giles, Willow, and Xander, all of them looking as worn out as Angel felt. Xander was carrying a brightly colored bouquet; Willow had a big box of chocolate and a travel mug, the latter giving off the welcome scent of blood. "Bless you," Angel said gratefully as she handed it to him. "I thought I was just going to have to go without for another day."
Xander shot her a confused glance. "I thought that was coffee."
Angel stayed outside of the room while the three of them visited with Buffy, figuring his presence would just take up more space. As he had anticipated, Buffy had been nervous about receiving visitors in the state she was in. He knew she needed to face them sooner or later, not only for her own sake but for theirs, but rather than lecture her about responsibility he had chosen to concentrate on telling her how much they loved her and wouldn't judge her, and eventually she had agreed to see them- just the three of them. Oz and Anya, and Willow's friend Tara, were still at the Summers house, fixing it up for Buffy's return. Riley had not been heard from since Angel sent him out of the hospital, and Buffy had not asked about him.
It was hard to be away from her, even for a few minutes, but Angel took the opportunity to stretch his legs and sip from the cup of blood. He could hear conversation coming from the room, and though he couldn't make out most of the words, the tone was light and calm. Nothing to worry about.
He had thoughts of taking a walk around the hospital- it was late morning, so he was confined to the inside of it, but there might be some space to cover just to keep himself occupied- but before he could make up his mind, Giles poked his head out of the room and beckoned to him. Angel hurried back in and took his spot next to the bed. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah," said Buffy. "Just missed you." Her eyes moved from him to the others and back again, and he realized that she wanted him to find a way to make them leave. He winced. Apparently all three at once had been too much pressure after all.
"How are you feeling? Sleepy yet?"
Buffy nodded, a little too quickly. "Yeah, way tired. All of this being wounded in bed is taking its toll, I just wanna sleep and sleep..."
Giles took the hint first. "Perhaps we should leave Buffy to get her rest. We'll be nearby, Buffy, if there's anything you need. Angel, when you have a moment..." He gestured vaguely at the door before exiting, and the others followed, murmuring goodbyes in tones of forced cheerfulness.
Angel took Buffy's hand and kissed her forehead. "Not really sleepy?"
"I wish I were. I can't get comfortable with my foot up like this. My back feels like it's on fire. Aaand...whine whine whine. Your tolerance for whining is magnificent. How long have you been here, anyway?"
He smiled. "About as long as you have."
"And it's daylight now."
"Yeah, but that's not a problem." He held up the travel mug. "Got everything I need to camp out until the daylight stops. And they should be letting you out tomorrow morning."
"Don't jinx it." He leaned closer, setting his cup on the floor away from her. "Will you be okay here tonight if I leave for a while? Giles can stay with you, or Willow, whoever you want. I'll just stop at the mansion, do a quick patrol, check back in, and then I can be waiting at your house when you get there tomorrow."
Buffy groaned unexpectedly, and Angel was already trying to backpedal before she stopped him.
"Nothing wrong with that plan, I just hate it when someone else has to patrol for me. Don't get me wrong, I know you can handle it. I just want to get back on my feet as soon as humanly possible and not have you covering my responsibilities."
"Your responsibility right now is to get better. Mine is to help you get better. So patrolling is my job, not yours." Secretly he worried that she would even talk so soon about getting back on her feet. She had hardly been rescued for a day.
"Mm," she agreed, still clearly dissatisfied, but then an aide came in with a meal on a tray and she had no chance to continue. She put on a smile and thanked the aide, but after he left she poked the food with her fork and looked almost queasy.
"It's been a while since I've eaten, hasn't it?" she asked.
Angel nodded. "At least a couple days."
"So why doesn't this look more appetizing?" She set down the fork and sighed. "Feels like my insides are at war and I'm not sure whose side the stomach is on."
"Please eat," he requested quietly. Something in his voice must have told her that he was serious, and she frowned but started eating.
"Only for you," she said. "And it's probably cheating if I just finish all the Jell-O, right?"
He cracked a grin. "Jell-O isn't food."
"Don't knock it until you've tried it. And I bet you never have tried it, have you?"
"If I say no, is this going to end with Jell-O in my mouth?"
She smiled- a real smile this time- and scooped up a quivering red cube on her spoon. "Good idea. Just for the sake of the argument, you know."
Seizing on the opportunity to please her in some small way, he let her feed him the spoonful and rolled it around in his mouth, unsure of what to do with it. She saw his grimace and giggled, and he swallowed the whole lump with an exaggerated shudder. "I think I win the argument. I at least know what food feels like and that was definitely not food."
"You'd probably understand if you could taste it better."
"Maybe. What flavor was it?"
"It's my sense of taste that's deficient, not my color vision."
She shrugged. "Flavors don't apply to Jell-O. Just colors. Welcome to the world of synthetic sustenance." She turned back to her tray and the lighthearted spell they had shared began to fade. "Wow. For a moment there I kind of forgot..."
He nodded, not needing her to finish the sentence. "Is that bad?"
"I'm not sure. It didn't feel bad." She met his eyes, her hand still pushing the fork into her food.
"You just take me back, is all."
"I'll take you wherever you want to be." He brushed a lock of her hair back from her eyes, and then remembered Giles and stood up. "Mind if I step out for a moment?"
"Go 'head. Hey, if Willow and Xander are still out there..."
"I'll send them in." He pointed at her tray of food. "Don't cheat."
Giles stayed in the corridor to talk to Angel; they couldn't see Buffy through her room's window, but they were close enough to come quickly if anyone in there called for them. For a moment they were both silent, looking towards the room as if there were answers there, unsure of where to start.
"How is she?" Giles asked finally. He didn't think he needed to specify his meaning. Along with his fierce devotion to Buffy, Angel had a touch of Watcher in him. He could look through his own emotional turmoil in times like this and analyze the situation, see what was needed.
Sure enough, Angel bypassed all talk about her physical condition and went right to the heart of the matter. "Mostly in denial. She's not acting crazy or anything, she's just not ready to think about what happened. She understands that her mother is dead. She cried about that. She can grieve, I think, get through it in time."
Giles nodded. "And the rest of it?"
Angel took his time answering. He was still holding the travel mug that Willow had brought for him, and his knuckles went white on the handle for a moment before he leveled his gaze and spoke. "I think you're going to have to be the one to talk to her about that. I don't want anyone else try to approach it before you do."
"Why is that?"
"Because you're the only one of her friends I know of who has been tortured."
The silence that followed was an ugly one. Giles didn't want to be thinking of anything but Buffy, but Angel's presence alone was sometimes a forcible reminder of that day, and the two of them had never actually discussed it. Furthermore, Giles wasn't at all sure that the experience could help him with counseling Buffy. He swallowed hard. "And what about yourself? Haven't you been tortured as well?"
"A few times. And there was Hell. But for me it's too old, too much a part of me." He made a motion as if to brush it off, dismissing his own history of torment. "I don't want it to be a part of her. I want her to recover."
"Yes, of course."
Another silence. Angel broke it with a question, his voice betraying no emotion but curiosity. "Do you still hate me, Giles?"
Giles couldn't answer for a moment, and Angel filled the gap by saying, "You don't have to tell me." A noble gesture in its own way. "I always thought it would just insult you if I tried to apologize, but if it would help..."
Giles shook his head firmly. "No. No apology." He breathed in, feeling strangely grateful for his own dependence on oxygen. "Angel, I have studied you and your case extensively. I understand the nature of the soul as well as anyone can claim to, and I know how its absence applies to vampires and how losing and regaining it affected you. Buffy has the extraordinary ability to keep you and Angelus separate in her mind, and that is something that I cannot fully acquire, but I can at the least use my intellect to pardon you when my intuition falls short. You have grievously harmed me and those I care for, but given your remorse and the punishment you've already endured for it, I see nowhere to take my complaints. I don't hate you."
Angel relaxed visibly upon hearing this, and Giles wondered if this exchange meant more to him than he was willing to admit. It was a rare moment of acceptance between them. Giles wished he could leave it at that, but instead he plowed on: "But I fear you."
The vampire stiffened, his eyes flashing.
"The demon is still there, Angel. You show no sign of it, but I suspect it takes more control than you'd like us to know. You left Buffy for all the right reasons, but now that it seems she needs you here again, I can only hold my breath and hope that someone else has a plan. I trust you because I have no choice. I still fear you."
He had nothing more to say and no way to soften what he already had, so he turned away without another word and went back to Buffy's hospital room to collect Willow and Xander. Angel remained in the corridor until all three were leaving, and barely nodded when they wished him farewell. Giles glanced once over his shoulder as they departed and saw that Angel was still standing just outside the doorway, looking for all the world like he was afraid to enter.
Angel had lived in the mansion for a relatively short time in his life, but it was full of memories, not all of them pleasant. He steeled himself as he approached the front door, and having no key on him, prepared to break the lock, but instead the door swung open as his hand touched the knob. Well, that could mean anything. He knew he had left it locked up, but it had been over a year since he'd been back, and all kinds of people might have decided to go in and take a look in the meantime.
He moved silently through the antechamber, and saw them before they saw him: two vampires, both young and male, lounging on Angel's couches and talking of trivialities. Angel sized them up and chose the stupider-looking one to kill first. He pulled a stake out of his pocket, came up behind the couch, and dusted the vampire before either of them had a chance to rise. The other reacted with a shriek, stumbling and tripping over the furniture as he tried to get away, but there was really nowhere for him to go anyway, and in seconds he was on the floor with Angel's foot planted on his chest.
"You're going to tell me everything you know about the attack on the Slayer and her family."
The vamp's eyes widened. "Holy shit, you're Angelus."
Angel tapped his stake against his fingers. "Not only that, but I'm pissed off and impatient. Short fuse. Tell me who was involved aside from the ones who died for it last night."
"Last night?...Hey! You killed my sire!"
Maybe this was the stupider one after all. Angel kicked him in the face, careful not to break his jaw, and let the pain speak for itself as he pinned him down again. He didn't think this was going to have to escalate into a full-scale inquisition, but sometimes Angelus's reputation alone just wasn't enough.
"I don't know anything!" the vampire yelled. "There was some big plan, lots of whispering, I wasn't part of it! Even my sire said I'd screw it up if he let me join them! You know as much as I do, I swear!"
"Uh huh. Except I don't know what you're doing in my house."
"I just needed a place to sleep! Come on, nobody thought you were ever coming back!"
That much at least was likely. Angel himself hadn't thought he was ever coming back. On the other hand, he could have sold the mansion, but he had kept it...just in case? "Give me the name of anyone who's still plotting against the Slayer, and I'll let you go."
"There isn't anyone! I don't know!" The vampire was headed towards full panic, but it changed to confusion when Angel lifted his foot off of his chest and let him up. He staggered to his feet and gave Angel a long, suspicious look. He didn't believe he was being given his life.
He had good reason. Angel took one step forward and plunged the stake into his heart. The vampire had time for his expression to evolve into full-blown shock, and then he was ashes. Angel dusted some of them off of his sleeve and slipped the stake back into his pocket. The mansion was going to need some heavy duty cleaning. It was going to need a thorough inspection before being pronounced free of more squatters, too. He was just glad he had gotten there before Cordelia.
While waiting for her he searched each room for anything out of the ordinary, checked all the locks and windows, and straightened up what he could. There was enough furniture and tools left to make the place livable, and even a few rare items and works of art that he had forgotten about. One window was broken, probably the work of the two trespassers, but that was easily fixed. All in all, it was in good condition, aside from being big and dark and overstocked with questionable memories.
Feeling the need to occupy himself with something, he starting fixing the lock on the front door. Cordelia showed up while he was working on it, her heels clacking loudly as she hurried up the walkway. "Angel!" she panted. "Okay, tell me everything."
"There's nothing new to tell. She's asleep in the hospital." He peered outside at the moon. "I've got a few hours before sunrise. I want to put a few things in order before they take her home in the morning."
"On it! Help me get your stuff out of the car."
The luggage was piled up in the trunk and back seat of Wesley's borrowed car. "Wow, Cordy," said Angel. "You brought my entire wardrobe." He unzipped a bag to reveal its brand-new contents, price tags still hanging off of the clothing on top. "...And then some. What's this about?"
She gathered up a couple of the smaller bags and rolled her eyes. "Please, do you even realize how fast you go through clothes? Blood stains don't just come out in the wash. Neither do bullet holes, for that matter. Besides, shopping on the company's dime? Pretty much a good time even if it's not for me. Don't worry, I've got your style down pat."
Angel smiled. Cordelia's attitude could be oddly comforting in troubled times. He hauled the rest of the luggage out and followed her back to the house, where they set everything down in the middle of the floor and looked around. "Dark," Cordelia proclaimed. "But classy, in a...vampire way. I guess I'd be more impressed if I wasn't already used to you living in your own hotel."
"Electricity's not back on yet," Angel explained. "I don't always keep it dark, I swear. It's not in bad shape but I still need to take care of that, and the plumbing, fix a window, get some firewood, dust the living hell out of it..."
Cordy sneezed. "And here I thought I could only notice that dust because of my pesky breathing habits. Look, don't sweat that stuff, I got it. Once it's daytime and I can see the dustpan, anyway. You go dote on your girl, or whatever your plans are."
He nodded slowly and picked up some clean clothes to change into. "Actually I was going to check out the nightlife."
"Be careful," Cordelia said, then flipped her hair and laughed at herself. "Duh. Anyway, I'll be in town for a few days so I'll catch up with you tomorrow. And no offense but I'm totally not camping out in this place tonight."
"I'm sure someone will put you up. And thank you. For everything."
"Just doin' my job," she assured him. Then her face grew more serious. "But hey, Angel. It looks like you're really settling in. Like you're gonna be here for a while. Any idea...?"
He shook his head helplessly. "I was hoping your visions would tell me. But if they don't"- he added hurriedly, seeing her begin an objection- "then I'll keep you informed. I don't really know what to expect here but I know they're going to need me."
"Agreed!" She flashed him another wide, disarming smile. "Go kill something. You'll feel better."
Buffy was fast asleep when Angel checked in shortly before dawn, his patrol having come up empty. It would have been a stretch to say that she was sleeping peacefully, though. Her eyelids fluttered and her hands twitched, and even her heartbeat didn't seem to be at quite the right pace. He laid a hand on her shoulder to wake her from her nightmare, but Willow's tired voice stopped him.
"Don't bother. She hasn't slept any better than this all night, and she's gotta sleep sometime, right?"
"Yeah," he said, drawing back. He turned his attention to Willow and they spoke in hushed tones. "Are you doing okay here?"
"Not the best night of my life." Indeed, her face was haggard and her eyes were puffy. She was balled up on a cushioned chair, covered with a quilt, but Angel doubted she had done any sleeping herself. "But I'm coping. I'm so glad we're bringing her home tomorrow."
"Me too," he replied. It was half a lie. He knew Buffy wanted out of the hospital as soon as possible, but he thought of the way she would feel when she went back to her house and it didn't have a mother in it, and wished for an alternative.
Willow reached for the little digital clock on the night table and then turned her bleary eyes back to Angel. "Shouldn't you be...?"
"I should." He gave Buffy a goodbye kiss, lightly enough to keep her from waking. "Everything under control for tomorrow?"
"Uh huh. When can you get to her house?"
"I'm headed there now. I'll see you in the morning." He turned to go.
"Hey, but-" She called him back, then hesitated. "Nobody's there right now. Do you have a key?"
Angel smiled sadly as the memories rushed in. "I won't need one. She's never locked that bedroom window."
Despite the constant churning of his mind, despite his desire to be up and alert at all times, despite the powerful feelings brought on by being in her room, Angel slept. He lay down on her bed, still fully dressed, and let the scent of her blankets comfort him until the strain of the last few days caught up and he dozed off. He was woken by the sound of the door being opened downstairs and the voices of Buffy and several others. It was bright and sunny outside, but last night he had taken the precaution of pulling the drapes on all of the windows to make it safe for himself in the morning. He jumped up and rushed to the stairs.
She wasn't accompanied by the complete crew again, just Giles, Oz, and a still-exhausted Willow. Buffy herself was in a wheelchair and clearly hating it; Angel saw her swat Giles's hands away from the handles as soon as they had cleared the doorway so she could propel it herself. She glanced around the room. "Hey, you minimized the fallout. Looks good."
"Yeah, and we had such a good time doing it that we partied here all night just so we could clean all over again," Oz offered. "We're thinking of making it a weekly thing."
Angel descended the rest of the stairs, and Buffy smiled when she saw him. "Angel."
"Buffy." He knelt next to her wheelchair and they clasped hands. She looked better. For Buffy, anything as minor as a bruise tended to clear up overnight, so there was little evidence on her face of her ordeal. Her foot was in a light cast, and she wore loose and comfortable clothes. No cross around her neck. He wondered if he should go get her one from her room.
Without asking for help, Buffy aligned her position with the couch that Willow had already flopped onto and used her arms to push herself into a half-standing position. Everyone in the room automatically moved towards her to lend a hand, and she managed to glare them all away without saying a thing. In a few awkward seconds she had heaved herself from the chair to the couch. She gave the chair a shove. "Can we get rid of this thing, like, immediately and forever?"
"If you wish," said Giles, "but we're allowed to rent it until-"
Everyone stood or sat there for a moment looking at each other with blank expressions on worn out faces. Buffy broke the silence bluntly. "When do we bury my mom?"
Giles answered with cautious words. "The arrangements have been made. We were waiting to hold the funeral until you were with us again."
"We can do it tomorrow," Willow told her. "I talked to them. The people."
Buffy put her hand over her friend's. "Thanks Will. Tomorrow is good."
"Do you want to talk about her?" Angel asked, knowing she wouldn't, knowing they couldn't change the topic until he had asked.
"Not right now. Actually, if you don't mind, I think I'd really like to be alone for a little while." She looked up at the stairs, down at her broken foot, over to the wheelchair, and then up at Angel. "Take me upstairs?"
This time she really did look sleepy, and he also believed that she really did want to be alone, so after settling her into her bed he went back downstairs to the living room. Willow had spread out to the full length of the couch, and finally had her eyes closed for some actual rest. Oz was sitting on the floor in front of her, idly stroking her fingers with his own, and Giles was on the phone with somebody in the other room. Angel dropped into a chair and massaged his temples. This would have been a good time to study the books that Cordelia had brought them, but they were all at the mansion. He was essentially stuck in the house until nightfall, and then he would have to leave Buffy again to patrol, and at some point he needed to find a time and place to sleep. How was this going to work?
"Tossed that ring, huh?"
Angel looked up. Oz was addressing him, casual as ever, but Angel couldn't pin down his meaning. That ring? Did he mean the claddagh ring? Oz had never even seen it, as far as he remembered. Then it came to him. "The Gem of Amarra. Yeah, it's gone. Everyone told me I was going to regret it, and you know what? I do."
Oz shrugged. "To be honest I thought it was kinda gaudy. Besides, where's the thrill in life if getting set on fire doesn't even pose a threat?"
"That's one way to look at it." The mention of the ring made him think of Doyle, hero for a day and then gone forever. It was his visions, passed on to Cordelia, that had alerted Angel to Buffy's disappearance. Doyle's gift was still at work, helping to save lives, and that was a comforting thought.
"She's gonna be okay," Oz said softly, still looking at Angel, still caressing Willow's hand. She hadn't moved or opened her eyes since Angel came downstairs, evidently undisturbed by his quiet conversation with her boyfriend. Angel raised an eyebrow, but had no other response.
"She will," Oz repeated. "She's Buffy. You saved her, now just trust her."
"I didn't save her soon enough," countered Angel. "She was down there for two days. Two days, Oz. Alone. Afraid. Grieving." He shook his head. "I left town to try to keep her safe, and then this happens and I'm not around to stop it. What am I supposed to think? Every choice I make seems to end up hurting her in one way or another."
"Life on the Hellmouth. The monsters suck but it's the moral dilemnas that really get you."
"Hm." Angel sat back and shut up for a moment. He was surprised that he had opened up that much just now, and relieved that Oz didn't claim to have a solution for him. The Hellmouth had dealt a lousy hand to both of them, and he didn't mind commiserating on it a little. "How's that werewolf thing working out for you?"
"Could be worse." Oz held up the hand that wasn't entwined with Willow's. It was wrapped in a string of finely crafted beads, recognizable as some kind of magic charm. "Full moons not so much an issue anymore."
As Angel was congratulating him, Giles reentered the room. "I've called Xander and Anya over, I think there is a great deal of discussion that needs to take place between us all. Cordelia is with them. I can't seem to get ahold of Riley, however."
Angel held his tongue. Oz asked, "You think something happened to him?"
"Doubtful. I reached some of his friends, and they say they've heard him coming in and going out, but nobody has actually spoken to him since yesterday." Giles took off his glasses and began cleaning them. "Perhaps something or someone has made him feel unwelcome around us."
That one was a bit harder to ignore, but Angel was saved from trying to defend his actions when Willow woke up- at least a little- and said, "If we do a Scooby meeting here everyone has to be nice and no yelling."
Oz leaned back and kissed her forehead. "You got it, baby. Just rest. No meeting yet."
Willow closed her eyes, but she didn't go right back asleep. "Joyce got me a Hanukkah teddy bear last year," she said. "It had a little plastic menorah glued to its paw."
Angel had no concept of how much time passed before Xander, Anya, and Cordelia came to the door. Willow had said nothing further, and neither had anyone else.
Xander had never thought about exactly how agonizing it would be to have his ex come to town and stay the night in his apartment with himself and his extremely possessive girlfriend. He had never considered that it might actually happen. Honestly, he had never really thought that the universe had a sense of humor that was quite so cruel.
When it did happen, though, there were a few more things happening that he had never expected, first among them being Buffy's deliverance from the hands of her enemies, and against a backdrop like that, the drama of relationships didn't seem that important. Aside from showing her disappointment when she learned that sex was not an option when someone was sleeping on the couch in the next room, Anya hardly complained about Cordelia's presence, and Cordelia's bitchy streak seemed to have faded somewhat since the last time he saw her.
The really odd thing was that the girls hit it off immediately. They had met before, of course, but Cordelia had never gotten Anya's full story, and between that and the stories they each had from the last two years, they hardly stopped talking. Inevitably, Anya brought up her fondness for money, and then they had even more to talk about. Xander himself was the one who eventually left the room to give them space, throwing himself into bed to wait for Anya to get tired and join him.
Before she did, though, he heard Cordelia shriek and went scrambling out of bed to the living room, where she was curled up on the floor clutching her head. "I didn't touch her!" Anya insisted. "She did this herself!"
"It's okay," Cordy said weakly. "I'm okay, it was just a vision." She pushed herself into a sitting position, still rubbing her head.
"A vision?" Xander echoed. He wished he had paid attention to what people had been saying about Angel Investigations.
"Yeah, I get visions now. Graphic images of the atrocity du jour, set to the tune of searing pain. It's a barrel of sadistic monkeys. I need an aspirin. And some water. And-" she hesitated, wrinkling her brow as if she had just noticed something. "Huh, that's weird. Can I use your phone?"
"You know, catching up with old friends isn't as simple as it used to be," said Xander to Willow and Oz as he entered the Summers house. He pointed to Cordelia, who was coming in right behind him with Anya. "She gets visions of people in danger. Did you see that coming? I did not see that coming."
Angel got up from his seat and rushed over to Cordelia. "You had a vision? Why didn't you call me?"
Cordelia smiled broadly, not a typical expression for her to be wearing when visions were involved.
"'Cause it wasn't for you, hotshot. Figured I could let you sleep."
"It wasn't for...what do you mean?"
She sighed. "Look, don't ask me how I know, it was just part of the vision. Every other time I've gotten one, it's given me an Angel vibe, but this time it had Wesley and Gunn written all over it. I called them right away and they're hard at work on it, so just chill and let them do their jobs."
Angel considered this. "Are you sure?"
"If I wasn't I'd say so, don't you think?" Cordy scolded. "And I'd say so if I didn't think Wesley and Gunn could handle it. Really loudly, in fact."
"Alright," he surrendered. The last thing he wanted was to be called back to LA right now, anyway.
"But what was the vision?"
She shrugged. "Something with an orange tongue. So, we're gonna do a meeting here?"
The dining room table was big enough for the seven of them to gather around, though they had to find extra chairs from around the house. Everyone sat down awkwardly, feeling a formality in the occasion that didn't quite fit. Angel suspected that his presence, and possibly Cordelia's, had something to do with it- the rest of them probably had frequent meetings during all kinds of circumstances. He realized, too late to amend, that the chair he had chosen was at the head of the table, and hoped nobody would think he was trying to take over.
All the same, he spoke first. He didn't want to waste time with social courtesies, and he was the one with the most information. "Okay, so I think what we're dealing with here is someone's long term strategy to get rid of the Slayer. I'm guessing it's all vampires this time; they're the ones most threatened by her and most likely to target her directly."
Anya's hand shot into the air. Angel stared at her for a moment. Was he supposed to call on her like this was a classroom? She didn't wait for permission, though, just said, "What about the thing?"
He stared again. She looked around the table for support. "The thing? Didn't Buffy say there was a thing in her house and it chased them outside?"
"Oh, right. That thing. We'll see if we can identify it when she's ready to tell us more, but I think it could have been some kind of summoned hellbeast. Savage, hard to kill, but no intelligence of its own. The vampires would have set it loose in there to get her away from the protection of the house and into their trap, and it probably got automatically ported back to its home dimension afterwards."
"So if they had her trapped, why didn't they kill her?" asked Xander.
Giles answered this time. "They wouldn't want a new Slayer to be called," he said. "Vampires attempt to kill Slayers all the time, but I expect all of them would prefer to, ah, have her in captivity if they could manage to take her alive."
Angel could have added to that, but he didn't want to talk about Slayer's blood. He didn't want to think about it, either. How many times had they drank from her? Had she screamed? Struggled? Passed out? He tried to shake the images out of his head and concentrate.
"Well, automatic disappearance of the hellbeast thing is good news, right?" asked Willow hopefully.
There were a few scattered shrugs and halfhearted nods around the table, but Giles brought it back to the cold truth. "Good news if it's true, but even so, not everything has disappeared." He looked squarely at Angel. "Has it?"
"No. Nobody but her and her mother saw what really happened that night, but it's safe to say she went down fighting. Before they knocked her out she must have killed a few, maybe a lot. And that plus the seven who were guarding her...it's too many."
"Too many vampires to kill?" said Cordelia. "Uh, why?"
"Too many vampires to be involved," Angel corrected her. "Vampires don't work in groups that big. A few might form a nest or travel together, but too many in one place means too much competition. And they might enjoy each other's company, but they're not going to make sacrifices for each other, so any organized attack falls apart pretty quickly once they're put in real danger. It's very unlikely that this was just the result of some locals getting together and starting a Capture-the-Slayer club."
"Then what was it?" Oz prompted.
That was the real question, of course, and now the real theorizing had to begin. "There had to be some kind of network that kept them all in communication, and there have to be some of them left to question if we can just find them. We're also going to be looking for some individual who's leading it, someone old, influential. Probably from a prestigious order, unless they started a new one just for this."
He saw Giles pull out a small notebook and make a few hasty notes. "You got some ideas?" he asked, trying to see what was being written.
Giles adjusted his glasses and kept writing without looking up. "More like stray thoughts. There are a few orders I'd like to investigate, especially the ones we've encountered here before, Aurelius perhaps..."
Angel shook his head. "It's not Aurelius, they haven't been worth the mention since the Master died. Might be one that branched off of it at some point, though. Do you have a copy of Librum Gentis?"
Xander cut in before Giles answered. "Okay, did all that go over anyone else's head, and if so, can we just let the two of them go gossip about it and come back when there's something the rest of us can contribute?"
"I can contribute," Anya protested. "I mean, I can gossip about vampire orders. There was always a lot of gossip when one of those broke up, I'll tell you that."
Giles sighed. "I suppose at this point the next step is research. Anyone who wants to join in can meet me at the Magic Box, all of the books are there. Are we finished here for now?"
"One more thing." Angel's voice sounded weary in his own ears, but he spoke firmly as he looked around the table at everyone. "If she's okay with it, I want to move Buffy to the mansion."
The reaction to this proposal was loud, upset, and inevitable. Everyone spoke at once, but it was Willow's voice, full of anguish and indignation, which stood out to Angel. "You can't just, just isolate her like that! I know you don't want to crowd her but we all get that and she needs all of us, not just you!"
"I know," he answered, trying to sound reassuring. "I'm not going to isolate her. You're all welcome to visit any time you want to and she wants you to. My point is that I think my place is safer. It's like a fortress at night when it's locked up."
Giles cleared his throat. "Fortress it may be, but it has one, ah, disqualifying feature as far as safety is concerned. You're not human, Angel. Vampires can enter your home uninvited."
"Not if Buffy lives there too."
Clearly this had not occurred to Giles. "That's an interesting theory," he said, removing his glasses and furrowing his brow. "Probably unprecedented, a vampire and a human living in the same house. Offhand I can't think of any reason it wouldn't work, but..."
"But it's kind of irrelevant when we're looking at the bigger picture?" Xander snapped, unable to hold back any longer. "Is that what you were going to say? Something about how Angel gets too close to Buffy and his happiness clause kicks in and then he kills her in her bed so no one else has to do it, oh, and then he goes after the rest of us-"
He was cut off here by Angel standing up and slamming his hands down on the table. "Didn't see that happening at any point in the last three years," he growled, "even in the best of conditions. You think I would even approach the idea of sex in the state she's in now?" His voice was getting steadily louder, and he nearly shouted the last couple sentences. "Buffy has been ravaged. Happiness is the last thing on my mind!"
Complete silence lingered around the table for a few seconds, broken at last by Oz's softly spoken question: "Still here, Angel?" It wasn't until then that Angel realized he had taken on his vampire face. He quickly morphed back and slumped back into his chair, feeling shamed.
The debate carried on, but Angel won. He wished he could think of it as convincing the group that he was right rather than 'winning,' but he had the uncomfortable feeling that he had simply worn them down. He at least was convinced that he was right, though, so when he saw the opening, he said, "I'll go ask what she wants to do," and went upstairs.