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

Let Me In (3/15)

Title: Let Me In
Author: Kairos
Rating: PG-13 (violence, some language, some sex)
Wordcount: Roughly 145,000 total

Soon to be a major motion picture!!



Found that on Ain't It Cool News and just thought it was funny. The actual film that it's advertising is an American remake of Let the Right One In, which I found supremely disturbing but good enough that I'm curious about what they'll do with it. And yes, it's a vampire movie, and the title does reference the invitation rule.

Just remember, mine came first. :)



Willow sat on the floor and leaned her head on Oz's knee, staring off into space. He was tuning his guitar, filling the living room with repeated twangs that made her mind wander into nothingness. She looked out the window and saw the sun had moved a few inches. The day was going to pass right in front of her eyes, and she should have been studying for classes. She had been studying so hard to complete Angel's spell, though, that books just didn't hold any appeal for once. So maybe her grades this semester would break her steady 4.0. There were more important things.

"He's so cruel," she sighed. "How can something so cruel be inside Angel?"

Oz kept strumming tunelessly. "Is it inside him? Your spell worked, oughta be gone from now on."

She rubbed her eyes against his jeans. "Not gone. Just suppressed. It's the demon that keeps Angel's body alive, not the soul. If the demon died, he would too."

"Oh. See, you know what you're doing."

"I do. But I swear there was something else I wanted to look into after we finished casting that spell, and now every time I try to retrace my steps and figure out what it was, all I can think about is evil demons animating good people."

Oz stopped tuning long enough to caress her hair. "Sounds like someone's brain needs a break. You should try doing stupid things sometimes. Just for a change of pace." The doorbell rang, and he raised his voice. "Come in!"

"You shouldn't just invite someone in without seeing who it is," Willow scolded him. "I did that once in my dorm and it was a vampire."

"It's daylight," he objected, but the door opened and someone walked in covered from head to toe in a black blanket, sizzling slightly.

Willow sat up. "Angel? What's wrong-"

"I knew it!" yelled Spike as he hurled the blanket off of himself. "I sodding knew it! Angel's back in town and not a sodding one of you lot saw fit to tell me! And the Slayer, not even living here anymore? Probably over at the mansion with her tongue down my old grandsire's throat! What does it take to get some information out of you bastards?"

"You could pay us," Oz suggested.

"Uh, Spike?" Willow said, settling back down. "Aren't you always saying you can't stand any of us and the only way you want to see us is with money in our hands? Why would we be keeping you updated on our lives?"

"Because this is my life!" Spike raged. "Angel's my history! My ancestor! The bane of my bloody existence! If it weren't for him I wouldn't be stuck in this miserable town with this bloody chip in my head!"

Oz held up a finger. "Pretty sure Angel didn't put that chip in your head."

"Yeah," said Willow. "I mean, if anything you should be blaming Riley for that, right?"

Spike calmed down a little. "Well, indirectly, if Angel hadn't stolen Drusilla away from me, I would still be out of the country somewhere with her, and then you know, I was supposed to have a ring that made me invincible in which case they never could have taken me, but while we're on the subject I've got no love for that big vanilla soldier boy either and it's not a real hoot having him hanging around. Damned if this town doesn't attract the most-"

"What's Riley doing?" Willow cut in. "Why's he hanging around?"

Spike crossed his arms and gave her a condescending glare. "So, we've all got something we want to know, right? Why's Angel back?"

Willow and Oz exchanged glances and Willow thought hard. Spike was harmless to most of them, but he was still capable of violence toward other vampires. On the other hand, he was bound to run into Angel sooner or later, and obscuring the truth wouldn't change the outcome of a fight if it came to that. Spike couldn't get into the mansion now that Buffy lived there, so Angel had the advantage, at least. "He came to help Buffy," Willow said. "She was held captive, we think by Daemonis."

"And now she's good and rescued, why is she holed up with him instead of in her own house?"

"She doesn't want to be here since her mother died."

Spike leveled his gaze at Willow and said, "Joyce is dead." He turned and slammed his fist against the wall, fortunately not hard enough to break it. "And why in the devil's name haven't I seen a grave for her? I live in the cemetery. Haven't even found her body yet, have you, useless bloody little team of would-be superheroes..."

Oz started to reply, "There's more than one cemetery in-" but Willow cut him off. She was done with Spike, done with trading information with him, done with listening to him being self-righteous as if he wasn't still evil by his own admission.

"I found her body," she said in a voice of pure ice. "And I stood vigil over her. I stayed there all night with a stake in my hand, so that if my friend was still alive I wouldn't have to tell her that her mother had turned into a demon while she was gone. An abomination. Like you." She took a deep breath. "Well, she didn't, so we buried her body and not her ashes, and now you know the story and you can stop pretending you give a damn about what happens to our people."

For a moment Spike just stared at her, drawing out a silence of unmasked hatred. Oz and Willow stared back, still sitting as they had been before, Oz with one hand on his guitar and one on Willow's back.

Finally Spike said, "Riley's trying to use the Initiative to draw Daemonis out of hiding. To kill him, I s'pose, or maybe just plant a chip in him too. The oaf doesn't want to work with Buffy's friends, though, so he's working with me instead. And now you know the story."

When he finished speaking he scooped up his blanket from the floor and draped it over himself, making him look like a black Halloween ghost. He grabbed the doorknob through the fabric and stormed out, heedless as ever of the spectacle he made and the pain of sunlight.

Oz strummed a few sudden, rapid chords. "Want to help me write a song about how Spike's an asshole?"

***

"I don't really feel like a Slayer right now. Not just because I can't slay. It's just, you know, Chosen for what? So I can put my loved ones in mortal peril just by being what I am? What kind of a destiny is that?" Buffy frowned into her tea, which Giles had poured for both of them before even thinking to ask if she wanted some. She was in Angel's soft armchair, he was on Angel's couch, listening to her in sympathetic silence. "For a while I thought I'd just give it up," she continued. "Convince the world I'm not a Slayer anymore, and then we'd all be safe. But we wouldn't, would we? So that doesn't make sense either."

"You're trying to take responsibility for your mother's death," Giles chided gently. "You musn't do that."

She raised an eyebrow at him and half-smiled. "I know. In my head I do, anyway. Don't let me worry you, Giles, I'm just letting off some steam. Believe me, you and Angel between the two of you have told me enough times that it's not my fault."

He hesitated, hoping that this was enough opening to bring it up. "Perhaps we should, ah, talk about..."

"...Angel?" She looked at him and saw she'd guessed right. "How'd I know that was coming?"

"Buffy, I don't mean to pass judgment on you. About anything. I'm simply concerned about how close the two of you seem to be since you began sharing this house with him."

"Pretty close, yeah," she said dryly. "Probably because we're in love with each other. Don't look so surprised, you already knew it was true. I'm just done with denying it. Telling the truth is not cause for panic."

"No," he agreed, disliking his paternal duties more and more, "but your feelings for Angel almost were, once."

"You'll notice I haven't made that mistake twice," she reminded him. Then she sighed. "Look, Giles, I don't know what you're trying to tell me here. 'Don't sleep with Angel'? Fine. Not gonna do it. But I can't stop loving him just because it would be more convenient."

Giles considered this. Apparently she didn't know about Willow's spell yet, which was a relief, but of course she'd find out eventually. "There's more that worries me about your romance with Angel than just the terms of his curse."

Buffy remained remarkably patient, but he could see she was getting annoyed with him. "I really don't need a refresher course on this. He's immortal. He's sterile. He's allergic to daylight. And supposedly all that adds up to no future. But you know what? Nobody seems to be asking themselves what kind of future I'm looking for. What kind of future I'd have without him."

"There will always be someone to love you, Buffy. You and Riley seemed to be building a foundation."

"Yeah, but as soon as Angel saved me I realized I couldn't stay with Riley even if he offered me a perfect life dipped in chocolate. It's not fair and it's not right and I don't want it. I can't be in love with more than one man at a time, and the love I have now isn't about to expire."

Giles had said nearly all he could. It was time to play his trump card. "He drank your blood. He nearly killed you."

Buffy lowered her eyes; he could tell she had expected this to come up. Instead of denying it or citing forgiveness, though, she answered in a vague evasion: "I think that's something we can work on." Seeing Giles's skepticism, she added, "Angel's at his best when he's with me. You have to admit that."

"To be honest, I wouldn't really know." He had thoughts of bringing up Angel's relatively passive hundred years without her, as compared to the rampage brought on when she broke his curse, but that seemed more likely to just hurt her feelings than to change her mind about anything. "I won't harass you about it. You must know I'm only trying to look out for you."

She smiled at him, an innocent smile of trust. "I know." For a moment she just looked into her teacup again, swirling it idly, and he got up to refill their cups from the kettle on the stove. When he'd sat down again she started speaking in a detached way, as if she didn't know or care if anyone was listening.

"As soon as I fell in love with Angel I knew we were doomed. Subconsciously, deep inside. And he knew it too, probably better than I did. We never talked about it- not in those terms, anyway- but every time we were together there was this desperation, this need to make every moment count because it might be the last one. Seize the day. Don't let any chance slip away, one of us might be dead before the chance comes again. And then I took a chance and I seized the day and that was what brought the doom on. Ironic, right?

"When he was brought back to life I kind of lost those fears. I thought that maybe all the bad stuff had happened to us already and we could be happy together. Angel knew better, I guess. He just thought he could avert it if he stayed away from me."

She looked up. Her eyes were just barely glistening, but her voice was steady. "Don't misunderstand what I'm doing with Angel, Giles. I know we're still doomed. But we're doomed if we're together and we're doomed if we're apart, and we've already gotten pretty good at facing our doom as a team."

***

Angel knocked on the front door of the Summers house, which wasn't the Summers house anymore. Xander and Anya had moved into Buffy's mother's bedroom, and Willow and Oz were finishing the process of moving into Buffy's former room. It was a decent arrangement, since Buffy didn't want to sell the house and it was helpful for most of her friends to be based in the same place, but everyone seemed a little uncomfortable when talking about it. It was hard not to feel like they were taking something that belonged to her, despite her enthusiastic agreement to the plan.

Xander came to the door and Angel sighed- it would be Xander, wouldn't it? "Hey," Angel greeted him, and tried to avoid further conversation by brushing past him and into the house, forgetting momentarily that he hadn't been there since the others moved in. He ran into a barrier and Xander saw it happen.

"Oooh, tricky entrance, man," he taunted. "Hey, guess who lives here now? And guess who hasn't been invited in yet? And that means that the one who lives here now- and that would be me we're talking about, by the way- is at his leisure to grant or deny entrance to the one who hasn't been invited- and that one's you, you probably guessed- and that means-"

Angel peered through the doorway and spotted Willow crossing the room. "Willow!" he called out to get her attention, and she turned and saw him. "Hic stultus non me admittiet. Adjuva?"

Willow looked surprised, but she smiled and replied without missing a beat. "Is molestus interdum est. Te invito."

Xander cut his ramble short as Angel walked past him into the house. "Great," he said loudly, still holding the door open, "so now we have other languages to mock Xander with, because English alone sure wasn't cutting it."

"How'd you know I speak Latin?" Willow asked Angel as Xander left grumbling.

"You spend enough time in spellbooks, you pick up a working knowledge of it whether you're trying to or not. So you're probably way past working knowledge." He shifted his feet. "I came to get some more of Buffy's things."

Willow nodded. "Mmhm." The way she was looking at him wasn't exactly expectant, but it wasn't letting him leave it at that, either.

"Also to give Buffy and Giles some room to talk without me around." He tried to laugh and met with little success. "Since I'm probably one of the things they want to talk about."

She was still giving him the look. Finally he caved. "And also because sooner or later you and I have to talk about what happened while you were doing the spell."

"Ah hah," she said conclusively. "Come sit down."

She led him up to the room she was sharing with Oz, who didn't seem to be around tonight. They hadn't changed much so far, and they were keeping most of the furniture in there, since Buffy didn't need it at the mansion. The room still smelled primarily of her. Angel sat by the window and Willow perched crosslegged on the bed, looking oddly serene.

"Have you told anyone about the things I said?" he asked.

She shook her head. "Nope. Should I?"

He thought carefully before answering. He wanted to just tell her no and be done with it, but unless he could convince her that there really wasn't anything to worry about, keeping secrets wasn't going to help. "I knew it was hopeless. I was only trying to scare you."

"Need I say you succeeded?"

"None of it was true. I swear. There's no way I'd ever want to kill again, or hurt people, not unless I lost my soul. And thanks to you and Tara that's not going to happen anymore." He attempted a smile.
"You did an amazing job. There's really no way it could have gone any better than it did."

"Except that you basically told me that I can't trust you anymore, and now you're telling me the opposite." Willow wrung her hands together and gazed at him with eyes heavy with worry. "Angel, which one of you tells the truth?"

He looked around the room, seeking strength from Buffy's energy there. "The one who's still alive?" he offered.

It didn't seem like that was the answer she wanted. She sighed heavily. "Look, if you think you're safe, I'm not going to fight you on it. I just want to know that if anything goes wacky in your brain, you're not going to try to handle it yourself."

"If Giles starts having doubts about me, Willow-"

"I know," she broke in. "Hence the me not telling anyone? We're talking about what happens if you start having doubts about you. If you can't tell Giles, if you can't tell Buffy, you've gotta tell me. I don't even know right now what I could do about it, but someone has to know."

Angel nodded hesitantly. "Okay. That makes sense. It's a deal."

Willow yawned. "Want some tea?"

"No, I'd better...on second thought, I'd better give Buffy and Giles some more time. Sure." As they both stood up he remembered to ask, "Willow, is Tara likely to say anything about it?"

"No. But if Cordelia does that's your problem."

Angel smiled. Cordelia was back in LA by now, after privately threatening to kill him in creative ways if he ever turned evil again. "Even a little bit," she had added, leaving him to wonder what counted as 'a little bit evil.'

"Cordy's not a problem," he said. "Do you have Earl Grey?"

***

Father Tom began stopping by the Magic Box with some regularity. He perused Giles's books and found quite a few that interested him, explaining on his first visit, "Many of the churches I know have an occult section this size, but the titles in our collections are almost completely different from these. Oh, except for this one. And this one."

Xander told him that Giles was going to be jealous, but the two men quickly developed a scholarly respect for one another. They began seeking each other out to share any new information, and Xander suspected that they were also discussing moral quandaries when no one else was listening. Well, that was their business, but Xander couldn't help being intrigued by the very existence of a psychic battle priest, and Father Tom had some especially cool stories about his sacred mission of smiting evil. It was enough to make Xander actually volunteer to help them research, and Anya grew suspicious and asked him if he was going to give her up so he could join a celibate order.

He wasn't, of course. In fact, he had secretly resolved to stop helping if it led to being told to go to church, and then realized that he couldn't exactly keep secrets from Father Tom and kept waiting to be assigned some penance. But that never happened, and there wasn't much to do besides research anyway. Buffy was getting tired of constant supervision, Willow was absorbed in some kind of wiccan studying project again, and with both Angel and Father Tom working the beat, patrolling with the Scooby Gang wasn't that useful. Daemonis hadn't shown his face again. Actually, Father Tom was still the only one who had seen him up close.

"That's good news," said Father Tom when Xander brought it up. "He doesn't feel strong enough to face us yet. He has a weakness. We just have to figure out what it is."

***

"So the next step is recon," Angel told Buffy as she picked up a dishtowel and started drying off the dishes as he washed them. "We're going tomorrow night to see if we can find any clues."

Buffy scowled. "And I'm still too gimpy to come, of course. Dammit."

"You...might not want to anyway. We're starting in the crypt where I found you."

"Oh." She pondered this, but didn't dwell on it. "I guess detective work is more your specialty, anyway."

He smiled. "Angel Investigations, we help the helpless." He set the last few dishes into the strainer and drained the sink. "But you'll be back in the field before you know it. Let's take a look at your war wounds."

Although she hadn't needed to bandage them for a while, Angel was still checking all of her injuries every day. "Hey, good news," he said when she had sat down on the floor in front of him and slipped her shirt off. "The rest of the cuts finished closing up. Soon they won't be there at all."

She exhaled and twisted her head to flash him a smile. "Does that mean I can finally get a backrub?"

"Sure thing." He kissed her temple and stood up. "Here, I'll get a blanket. You can lie down in front of the fire."

She settled down on the blanket face down, crossing her arms underneath her head. He had tended the wounds on her upper body so many times by now that her bare skin hardly gave him pause, but seeing her reclining in the firelight, looking so peaceful, moved him to stillness until he snapped out of it and knelt down beside her.

Backrubs were easy. He had no special technique, but he could feel which of her muscles needed attention (most of them), and his hands were strong enough to work the tension out of them. And she was enjoying it, that was clear. Her eyes were closed and her breathing steady, and she might have been asleep until she murmured, "I'm sorry about Riley."

It was a surprising thing to hear, but he tried to keep his hands moving in the same rhythm. "Why?"

"Don't ask me that. I know it hurt you. I gave myself to someone else and I flaunted it. Riley could never replace you, but I tried to make you think he had. It just...seemed like the only way to cope."

"But I wanted you to cope. I told you to move on."

"But it hurt you."

He had no answer for that. Of course it had hurt him. He thought it might have been okay if he had only had a sign that she was happy in her new life, but all he had seen of Riley was his misunderstanding, his sad attempts to be close to a woman he could never truly know. And from Buffy, Angel had sensed only isolation and her need to release tension with Riley. The nice guy. He hadn't made her happy.

As Angel's hands kept traveling across her back and shoulders, she whispered, "I don't want to hurt you."

"No more guilt," he answered, just as softly.

When she pressed her forehead into her wrists and drew a shuddering breath, he realized she was crying. "How can there be no guilt? My mom's dead. I didn't save her. I should have. Everyone who ever gets close to me is in danger, and now there's this new danger I never even saw coming, and instead of saving the day I got chained up and you had to come rescue me and I'm useless..."

As her babbling began to trail off into slow sobbing, Angel stopped massaging and stroked her hair instead. She wouldn't look up, but she didn't resist his touch either, and eventually she quieted and wiped the tears off of her face. For a moment she propped herself up on her elbows and looked straight ahead, but then she let her head drop back down to the floor, and Angel heard her muffled voice say, "Keep rubbing please?"

He obliged, offering the words, "You're not useless. You're the most precious thing I have ever laid eyes on."

When she spoke again it was in a different voice, somber and distant. "Angel." She hesitated only for a second. "Tell me about Hell."

This time he was shocked enough to lose his rhythm. "Why?" he managed before continuing.

"Because you got out. Because you're still sane. All the sources say you had to have an amazing strength of will to come through that, and I need that strength. I need to know how you can take the pain like you do every day."

"It was you," he told her. "I was gone. You brought me back. The details don't matter."

"They do matter," she insisted. "I want to know what you went through. I want to understand."

He kept rubbing her absently, stroking both palms up and down her back. "Maybe," he conceded. "But not now. It's hard to talk about." He thought about that for a second. "I think so, anyway. I don't believe I've ever tried talking about it before."

Without warning Buffy twisted, reaching her arm around and catching his wrist, and he froze. Had he said something wrong? But she just pulled him to the floor on his back, displaying some of the Slayer strength she hadn't used much since she'd left the hospital, and rolled over on top of him. Pinning him with her hands, she set her lips on his and gave him a long, hungry kiss. He closed his eyes and returned it; he hadn't the power to refuse. She touched his cheek lightly and went in for another kiss, and he ran both of his hands through her hair. It had been so long...

And abruptly it was over, as Buffy took hold of herself and pushed herself off of him. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that."

He sat up slowly. "Don't be sorry."

"No, I am. That was too far too fast, I can't do that or I'll just want more and hey, you have to show some restraint here too, mister." She looked down at her bare chest, blushed hotly, and hurried to gather up the blanket from the floor and drape it over herself. "God, look at me. Halfway there already."

"Buffy, there's something I have to tell you." He stood up and offered her his hand, guiding both of them to the couch when she got to her feet. When they had settled down beside one another he put his hands on her knees as she watched him expectantly, still holding the blanket around her shoulders. He steadied himself. "Willow cast a spell. Last week, that night when Father Tom came here to talk to you, she changed my curse. My soul is staying where it is from now on."

Buffy stared. After a moment she shook her head in disbelief, then said, "Perfect happiness...?"

"Is just perfect happiness."

"Oh God," she gasped, shaken. Then her eyes narrowed and she jerked her hands away from his. "Last week? When were you gonna tell me?"

He shook his head. "I couldn't make the first move. I know I want you, I've never wanted anything else. But this is something you have to choose for yourself and I can't let myself influence you. Not like that. Not yet."

"I want you. I do. You have to know that."

Angel reached out to her again, just a light touch on her hand. "Buffy, when I brought you here and you had to invite me before I could get in, once I understood what was happening, I felt so relieved. Do you know why?"

"Why?"

"Because it meant that you chose to let me into your life. It meant that you were the one to decide that we were going to share a home. The rule about invitation, it makes life harder for me but I wouldn't give it up for the world. Vampires are evil and unnatural, but it's good and right that they can't enter the places where people sleep at night. That's the power that comes with humanity, that sense of self that lets you call the shots on who comes into your sacred space. And you let me come into yours."

Buffy listened attentively to all this. She was starting to smile, just barely.

Angel touched his fingertips to her heart, feeling its steady thrum under the bulky blanket. "And this is your real home. This is your sacred space. And right now it's lonely in there, I know. You want company. But sometimes finding it can just end up hurting you more, and I know that because I know how much I've hurt you. We don't have the same danger that we did before, but I still see something in you that I want you to protect, even from me." He caressed her face, keeping his eyes locked onto hers. "We can be together. I believe that. But first you have to really, truly know that you're safe at home."

"I love you, Angel."

It was the first time either of them had used those words with each other since Angel's return to Sunnydale. Speechless, he leaned forward and kissed her, soft and romantic, tongues meeting slowly through parted lips. The rest of the night passed with more cuddling than talk, but the talk had been enough to keep their clothes on (or in Buffy's case, to put the clothes back on). Buffy confessed at one point that she still didn't fully understand why Angel wasn't as eager as she felt about getting physical, but made a point of saying that she could tell when she should yield to his wisdom, with or without full comprehension.

That was enough for him. He didn't want to talk about it anymore, not only because he had exhausted his words on the subject but because it was smothering him with a memory that he didn't want to describe to her, one that filled him with pain and pride at the same time. He remembered being soulless, facing her with a sword in his hand, smirking at her fear and anger. He remembered taunting her: "No weapons, no friends, no hope. Take all that away, and what's left?"

The clarity he had felt was the hardest thing for him to recall now that it was gone. The total lack of remorse as he had thrust the sword at her for the killing blow. The emptiness, the evil. But the pain hid a jewel that made it tolerable: he had lost. Buffy had stopped him with her bare hands, met his eyes, and answered his question with a single word, truer than she even knew: "Me."

She would prevail. She was at home in herself. They fell asleep in each other's arms and he had never trusted anyone more.

***

The recon party met at the Bronze, in part so that Buffy could see them off and Giles could pick her up from there and take her home. He had volunteered to keep her company for the night so that she didn't get too depressed about being left out, but everyone else was going. Willow, Oz, Xander, and Anya all came together. Willow thought they would be the first to get there, but as they entered the club she spotted a rare sight: Buffy and Angel standing at the edge of the dance floor, swaying together and locked in a deep kiss.

Willow batted at Oz's arm in barely contained excitement. "Look! Buffy and Angel are totally sucking face! In public!" She bounced on her heels. "I am suddenly very proud of myself."

Oz just smiled, but Xander overheard and gave her an incredulous look. "Okay, two questions: one, why are you taking credit for this; and two, how is it possibly a good thing?"

It didn't take long to explain about the spell she'd done, especially since she decided not to care if he wasn't happy about it. He seemed a little hurt that he had been so thoroughly kept out of the loop, and that she did care about, but she made a mental note to talk to him about it in greater depth once they weren't in a noisy club. Anya actually helped, for once, by getting them off the topic.

"We could be sucking face on the dance floor too, you know," she said.

"Better idea," said Oz. "I propose that we all go sit at that table near them, and when they come up for air the first thing they see is all of us staring at them. All in favor?"

Four votes of "aye" brought them to the table, and Slayer and vampire looked up at the same time. Buffy blushed and hid her face against Angel's chest, but she was smiling, and he actually looked less embarrassed than she did. He had probably known they were there all along, Willow realized, but it was nice that he was allowing the public display of affection. He had always been very discreet about that when their relationship was new, and Willow didn't think discretion was Buffy's favorite thing.

"So you finally told her," Willow said to Angel as he and Buffy sat down with them.

"Congratulations!" added Anya. "I hope you enjoy your happiness!"

Angel acknowledged both of them with a nod, and Buffy gave them a wry little smile. Then she cast Willow a challenging gaze and asked with mock-aggression, "So, getting pretty good at keeping secrets, huh?"

Willow shrugged, feigning nonchalance. "I figured it's okay to keep a secret from someone when it's about a present you have for them."

As she and Buffy ribbed each other, Angel and Oz started up their own conversation in low voices. Willow tried to eavesdrop, and heard Oz say, "I was getting pretty tired of Will being more interested in your sex life than mine," and Angel answer, "I'm pretty tired of everyone being interested in my sex life."

Willow was still trying to decide if she wanted to interfere with this discussion when Buffy asked,
"So what are you going to do with yourself now that you don't have the world's awesomest spell to work on?"

Xander jumped in. "She's already started on another. Got her nose in one of those big old leather books at all times, and won't tell anyone what it is."

"Really?" Buffy looked intrigued. "C'mon, spill. What's the next big thing?"

Willow leaned back in her chair and mimed zipping her lips. "It's big, and probably the first thing you hear about it is going to be that it's not going to work and I was silly for trying. Don't try squeezing it out of me! In this matter I am officially unsqueezable."

"You know," said Buffy, "I am so impressed by your newfound powers of mystery that I'm actually not going to try squeezing it out of you. As long as I get full reports on everything that happens tonight, because here come Father Tom and Giles."

The priest and the Watcher were making their way to the table through the crowd of teenagers and twentysomethings. Giles had his usual aura of indifferent tolerance for the party scene, while Father Tom looked all around with a scholar's interest, oblivious to his own incongruence in the Bronze. Everyone rose except for Buffy, who kissed Angel's hand before letting it go.

"Have fun," she said to all of them. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."

***

There was more than one room to the crypt; it continued on underground for more space than it would have needed for just burial. It had probably been built by humans originally, but claimed and hollowed out by vampires, and it was now more a dungeon than a crypt.

That was what they started calling it as soon as they began to explore it. Angel thought they could have made the party smaller, but didn't say so- everyone wanted to help, and they had a right to do so. More pairs of eyes in a case like this could be an advantage, anyway. They all came armed, Angel with a large battle axe and everyone else with bows or stakes, but they weren't really expecting any of that kind of action. Vampires weren't likely to stick around a lair that had already once become a killing ground.

The dungeon was very atmospheric, dark and chilly with rats scurrying about and the sounds of dripping water between leaky stones. It was pitch black, but Willow murmured a few words and a ball of light showed up to accompany them, making the place even more atmospheric. Angel continued on to the next room while the rest of them were still near the entrance. He was the only one who had been inside this place before, and he knew where he was going, with or without the light.

It was exactly as it had been when he left it with Buffy in his arms. The manacles were hanging from the same place on the wall, and the ashes on the floor which had once been vampires were hardly disturbed. Angel stood staring until he heard the others coming in behind him. Without looking back he raised a hand and beckoned. "Oz," he said.

Oz stepped forward. Angel spoke for his ears alone: "You smell anything?"

Oz inhaled. "Buffy," he responded reluctantly, after taking a moment to consider. "Really faint Buffy, anyway. And a lot of vampires. Nothing else I can really pin, except for us."

"Me either," said Angel. "Just thought I'd ask." He kept staring at the wall. "You guys can go check out the next room, I'll finish up in here."

Oz moved away and Angel heard him and the rest continuing to the doorway, but Willow remained. "This is where they had her?" she asked in a small voice.

Angel nodded. "Bound with industrial strength chains and they still decided they had to break her foot to keep her there." He had found the key to the manacles and used it to release her, the only way he could have done it without injuring her further. The key was still jutting out of one of the restraints.

Willow swallowed and turned away. Angel didn't. Hoisting his axe over his head he brought it down directly onto the chains, smashing them loudly, and then repeated the motion five or six more times until bits of stone and metal were quivering on the ground and the wall itself gained a gaping hole where the chains had been screwed in. Willow gasped and jumped away, but didn't run and didn't say anything.

Finally Angel lowered the axe and left the mess behind him. Willow was looking both impressed and cautious. He caught her unspoken question and shrugged. "Felt the need for some spontaneous destruction." She raised an eyebrow, and he sighed. "Not the evil kind of spontaneous destruction. I told you I'd tell you if I was lapsing. I'm not." He slung the axe over his shoulder and headed in the direction that the others had gone. "Just a little angry," he added, not caring if she heard.

In the next room, the team was shining their flashlights over the walls and into the corners where the magic ball of light didn't reach, but they all looked up when he and Willow entered. "Did that big noise give us cause to be concerned?" asked Xander.

Angel shook his head. "I broke something."

"I see," said Xander, not sounding like he saw at all. "So are we learning anything?"

"So far it doesn't look like anyone's been here since I was," said Angel. "But I want to keep looking. Some of them probably lived here at some point, we should see if they left anything in the other rooms."

The 'rooms' became more like caves the farther they were from the entrance, and they weren't set up with any logical plan, just one in front of the other so that anyone who wanted to get to the last one had to walk through them all. "I'd rather not have us all cornered in the back like this," said Father Tom as they approached the end. "Might we split up?"

He returned to the front with Willow and Oz, and Angel inspected the last two rooms with Xander and Anya. There was indeed evidence that vampires had been using it as a lair, but nothing that was worth coming back for even if the occupant was still alive. Angel shuffled through anything paper he could find, looking for letters or anything that might have names or plans on it, but the vamps here didn't seem to be the well-written sort.

The three of them had just agreed that they weren't getting anywhere with the final room when they were interrupted by shouts and clatters from the first one. Angel snatched up his axe and used a burst of vampire speed to get back up front, catching up with Oz, who was rushing out of the chain room by himself. They both saw the same thing at the same time: Father Tom staking a vampire and being grabbed by another, two more coming through the door, and one gripping Willow from behind, holding down her arms and going for her neck. She was struggling to break free and also trying to recite an incantation of some kind, but interrupted herself with a cry of pain as the vampire's fangs reached her skin.

Angel didn't think twice about which enemy to attack first, but Oz chose the same one. With a yell that turned into a roar midway, he changed, right before everyone's eyes, clothes tearing off of him as his body warped and grew into a monstrous lupine creature. The vampire biting Willow let go of her immediately and turned to run, seeing that he was the werewolf's target, but he didn't get far. Oz reached him in a single leap and went right for his throat, tearing it out with a set of fangs bigger than Angel's. He didn't stop to mangle his prey any further, just moved on to the next closest vampire. Willow, despite her obvious shock, had the reflexes to get down to the floor and stake the fallen vampire before he got back up. Father Tom was down to a single opponent and handling it, so Angel tried to help Oz take his down.

He didn't get the chance. The vampire had seen what the werewolf could do, and he turned tail and ran up the stairs, back outside. Oz followed, snarling and single-minded as only a wolf on the hunt could be. There was a final explosion of dust as Xander and Anya came running up, a second too late to join the fight. They saw Father Tom leaning his hands on his knees and breathing heavily, and Willow kneeling in a pile of ashes and bleeding from the neck, and rushed over to help her. "Oz," she panted, pointing up the stairs.

Angel took all this in and left them to help each other recover. He ran up to the entrance to stop the werewolf before they lost him, but as he cleared the top few steps he was stopped short by the appearance of one more vampire.

And what a vampire. He must have been seven feet tall, his chest bulging with muscles, clearly visible because he wore no shirt. Angel could see why: he had a hump on his back that protruded too far to allow normal clothing. It didn't seem to affect his posture, but the deformity continued up his neck and pebbled the skin of his bald head. He also had an identifying mark of a different kind: a round red scar in the middle of his chest, directly under his collarbone. Like all ancient vampires, his face was fixed in its fanged form, though that didn't stop him from giving Angel a hideous smile. When he spoke, his voice was a bit gravelly, but otherwise unremarkable. "Angelus, right? We'll have to talk sometime." He stepped out of Angel's line of vision- Angel was still within the doorway of the dungeon- and was gone by the time Angel advanced to follow him.

Father Tom and Anya had come up the stairs behind Angel with just enough time to see the vampire before he disappeared; now they came outside and looked around for any lingering sign of him. Angel was confounded. Nobody should have been able to hide so quickly, especially since there was nowhere to hide. He whipped around and said to Father Tom, "Daemonis, right?"

"It was. And there's no use trying to catch up to him now. He's prone to vanishing. I'm not sure how he does it."

Angel slammed his hand against the wall of the dungeon in frustration. "No time for that anyway. We have to catch Oz before he does any damage."

"Right," said Father Tom, "and speaking of that..."

Willow stumbled up the stairs, supporting herself on Xander's shoulder and pressing a handkerchief to the wound on her neck. "It's not even a full moon!" she cried.

Everyone automatically looked up at the sky to confirm it. She was right: the moon was hardly a crescent, nowhere near wolf time even if Oz hadn't already found methods to prevent it. This is turning into a really bad night, thought Angel uselessly.

"We'll find him," he told Willow. "Father Tom and I. The rest of you should go home."

Willow pushed Xander away and took a few unsteady steps toward Angel. "No," she said, "I have to find him!" She cupped her hands to her mouth and called out into the darkness, "Oz! OZ! OZ!"

"Willow," Angel urged, taking hold of her shoulder and twisting her to face him, "you're hurt. You have to go home. We'll find him, I swear. Please just trust me."

She looked up into his eyes. "You need the tranquilizer gun," she said. "Giles has it."

Angel cursed inwardly. She was right. He glanced at Father Tom. "Will you be able to find me if I start tracking him while you go with them and get the gun?"

"Uh, guys?" said Xander. He held up a cellphone. "Miracle of modern technology." Soon he had reached
Giles, outlined the situation, and handed the phone to Father Tom. "He'll call back when he's got it and meet you out here. Track away."

"Thank you," said Angel sincerely. "And I'd appreciate it if the three of you stayed at the mansion tonight until we come back. Buffy needs to know what's going on."

They looked at each other and nodded, and headed off in that direction. They'd only taken a few steps before Willow looked back and warned, "Don't you dare hurt him," but after that she let herself be led away without resisting.

As soon as Angel and Father Tom were on the trail and out of earshot, Father Tom pointed at his chest and asked, "Did you see a little scar on him? Right about here?"

Angel forced his mind off of Oz and onto Daemonis. "Yeah, I saw it. Looked a little too fresh to be called a scar, though."

"I saw him about a month ago and he had that mark. Two months ago he didn't."

The werewolf had left a clear path to follow, both visual and olfactory, and Angel was able to keep on it without paying much attention as he considered Father Tom's remark. "It should have healed up if it's that old. I don't know what that could mean."

Father Tom looked straight ahead grimly, keeping pace with Angel's long stride. "I think I might."

***

Nobody could sleep, and being indoors felt too restrictive. They huddled together on the steps in front of the mansion, hoping that the vantage point would let them see someone or something come out of the dark tree line and end their long waiting game. Father Tom had called just once since Xander, Anya, and Willow had arrived, saying that he and Angel had met up with Giles and received the tranquilizer gun, and that he was turning off the cellphone so they wouldn't be distracted by it. Buffy had the cordless house phone on her lap anyway, in case the search party ran into an emergency, but the first news they got wasn't a call but a howl, long and mournful, far out somewhere in the night.

"That's him, isn't it?" asked Buffy quietly.

Willow nodded, staring blankly in the direction of the sound. It couldn't have been anything else, really. It was too forceful and otherworldly to be a dog or coyote, and it went on and on, sometimes stopping for a few minutes and then starting up again from a slightly different location. It was mesmerizing- Buffy had a hard time even speaking, as if she'd be interrupting it.

Xander didn't, though. "Well, if that's him, that's a pretty good sign." Three pairs of eyes turned to him, and he explained, "If his mouth is busy howling, it can't be chomping on someone, right?"

Willow sniffled, and Buffy put a hand on her shoulder. The door opened behind them. Giles had come back to the mansion after delivering the gun, but wouldn't sit outside with them and plainly disapproved of them doing it either. "You're very exposed out here," he mentioned, not for the first time.

"Uh huh," said Buffy. "So exposed that we can see anything coming a mile away and run like squirrels back to shelter." She leaned her head back to look up at him. "Is it time for another safety talk already? Thought we had a few more minutes."

He sighed. "Actually I was going to offer to order a pizza for you, ungrateful hoodlums that you are. You don't even know how long you've been out here, do you?"

"Wrong. Checking my watch every thirty seconds or so. Pepperoni."

"Pineapple," said Xander.

"Onion," said Anya.

Giles gave another long-suffering sigh and went back inside. Buffy felt guilty for a second- Giles really did have a thankless job, and it wasn't even really a job- but thinking about anything but Oz and Willow right now was making her feel guilty, so any new guilt was just redundant. Of course she wanted Oz to get back safely, but the real reason she kept checking her watch was because she couldn't stop counting down to daybreak. She told herself that Angel knew what he was doing, he had been successfully avoiding the sunrise for over two hundred years, but she wished she knew why it was taking so long to track down a single werewolf. There were so many things that could go wrong.

"Dawn's coming soon," said Anya, as if she knew what Buffy was thinking. She had a different conclusion, though: "So Oz ought to turn back into a human and then he won't rip throats out."

"Who knows?" mumbled Willow, the first words she had spoken in a long time. "He's only supposed to change on nights around a full moon. If it's happening now, there's no way to know what to expect."

Buffy tried to sound confident. "Hey, if there's a way for him to change, there's a way to change him back. Don't worry, Will, they'll find him. He'll be Oz again before you know it."

Willow responded with a weak smile, but she couldn't be distracted from her surveillance of their surroundings. A pair of large pizzas arrived and got eaten up, Giles came out to tell them they needed to stand up and stretch, and the howling went through a few more rounds before ceasing completely. Nobody knew what to make of that, either, but Buffy figured that wolves had to get tired of making noise eventually. He had probably just gone to sleep, as she told Willow.

It was perilously close to sunrise and Buffy's heart was pattering overtime before a solitary dark figure finally approached the mansion. Buffy's concern at seeing him come alone was momentarily surpassed by her relief at seeing him at all, and she hopped over on her crutches to meet him and hugged him tightly. Angel returned her embrace, but it was Willow he addressed. "He's still out there."

The collective response to this was surprisingly calm. Buffy realized that they had all been fearing the worst: that Oz was dead, that Father Tom was dead, that both were vampires, that Oz had killed dozens of innocents. If the first thing Angel had to tell them was just that Oz wasn't captured yet, then it couldn't be too bad.

"We couldn't get close," Angel continued. "All night long we've had vampires attacking us, and every time we stopped to fight them, Oz got a little farther away. Father Tom is still searching for him, and we're hoping he'll have better luck now that the vampires have to leave him alone."
Xander shook his head in amazement. "And we had, what, five of them come at us in the dungeon? Is Sunnydale's entire bloodsucker population out partying tonight?"

Angel shrugged. "No, they were just cannon fodder. You want to cause trouble, you have your gang sire a bunch of minions the night before and send them on suicide missions. It's an old tactic. What I want to know is what brought Daemonis out of hiding. He should have had no reason to go back to that crypt." He squinted up at the lightening sky and stepped past Xander and Anya, still sitting on the steps, to get inside. Buffy and Willow followed, and as they entered they saw Giles sit up, after apparently falling asleep on the couch.

Willow looked deeply pensive about Angel's last words. She looked first at Angel, then at Buffy, and then said, "What if we're not the only ones looking for Daemonis? What if someone else brought him out of hiding?"

"Like who?" said Buffy.

"Like..." Willow sounded tentative, and Buffy wondered if she was hiding yet another secret. "...the Initiative?"

Angel was in the kitchen, half hidden by the open refrigerator door. "I wouldn't put it past them," he said as he set something back into the fridge and closed it. "We'll have to look into it." He came back into the living room and stood facing them, as Giles stood up and started rubbing first his eyes and then his glasses. "Willow, I'm sorry. I told you I would find Oz and I didn't. If I could, I'd be out there right now..."

"It's okay," said Willow quickly. "Not your fault. But, um...maybe some of us should go take over for Father Tom? I mean, he's kind of old to be staying up all night, isn't he?"

"One would think," muttered Giles, and then in a clearer voice, "I'll go. It seems I'm the only one who's had any sleep at all tonight."

Buffy could see Angel was starting to brood, a specific variety of brooding that she recognized as the one brought on when he couldn't help out because of the daylight. This time she empathized- she wanted to be out resolving things, too. She sat down with him on the couch and rested her head on his shoulder, hoping she gave him some comfort as he did for her.

Before Giles could leave he had to have an argument with Willow about whether she was allowed to accompany him. Buffy was impressed. She wouldn't have had the nerve to tell Willow she wasn't allowed to do anything right then. The conclusion was foregone, but before they could actually get to it, Anya opened the door and started yelling excitedly, "Guys! Guys!"

Buffy, Willow, and Giles rushed outside; Angel hovered just inside the doorway. At a distance, but still clearly visible in the morning sun, an oversized canine was taking slow, uncertain steps towards the mansion, his head hanging down and his sides heaving. When he saw the crowd he spun around and ran a short ways back to the shelter of the trees, but instead of bolting away altogether he stopped and turned again and resumed his gradual approach.

Oz's wolf form could not be mistaken for a dog by anyone knowledgeable about animals, but nor did it look exactly like a wolf. He was bigger, for one thing, with stronger jaws and longer claws: a brutally efficient killer when he had the full werewolf beserker rage in him. But as far as Buffy remembered, that mode went hand in hand with the transformation. Where was the rage now? "Don't anyone get too close," said Giles in a hushed voice. "He may still be dangerous-"

Willow ignored him completely and walked away from the mansion before anyone could stop her. She moved just as slowly as Oz was moving, and he didn't stop or turn away when he saw her coming toward him. He whined a little, and Willow starting speaking in a soothing voice, words that weren't quite discernible to Buffy. They were no more than ten feet away from each other now, and Giles whispered, "If he attacks her, we may have to..."

He didn't need to finish the sentence, and in a moment it wasn't relevant anyway. As everyone watched, the exhausted werewolf turned into a naked, exhausted Oz, and he stumbled to close the distance between himself and Willow on a human pair of feet. As he launched himself into her open arms, the voyeurs on the mansion's stoop burst into ragged cheers- and catcalls, Buffy noted. Trust Xander to call attention to the absurdity of the situation. Oz looked over as if seeing them for the first time, which, in a way, he was.

When Father Tom showed up at last, he found all seven of them nestled into Angel's living room. Nobody was fully awake and Xander was snoring loudly from the floor with a single pillow under his head, but Oz was squeezed into an armchair with Willow, wrapped in her arms and looking distinctly odd in Angel's dark and oversized clothes. "Hey, man," Oz greeted the priest. "Sorry if I kept you up last night."

***

Everyone left Angel's house by noon, and he had the best day of sleep in recent memory. Buffy clung to him like a barnacle and snored lightly, and he woke up in the early evening and watched her until she too opened her eyes. She yawned and gave him a sleepy kiss, then picked herself up off his chest and reached for her crutch. She hobbled into the bathroom and he got up and got dressed while she was out of the room. He was still avoiding nudity around her, though she hadn't been very self-conscious about it ever since he'd told her about the alteration to the curse.

She was still in the shower when he heard the doorbell. He was torn for a moment- if he wasn't upstairs when she was ready to come down, she might well attempt it on her own rather than call for help, and he was pretty certain that stairs were still a bad idea in her current condition. He had at least a few minutes, though, so he ran downstairs and opened the door, staying behind it to avoid the last few rays from the sunset.

"Oz," he said with some surprise. He hadn't expected to see him again so soon, especially on his own. "Come on in."

Angel went into the kitchen and started making coffee as Oz sat down at the table. His experience had left him none the worse for wear, and he was dressed in his own clothes now and had brought back Angel's. It was a few minutes before he actually spoke, though, aside from monosyllables answering questions about coffee. After Angel took a seat with him he finally said, "You have any idea what the hell happened to me last night?"

Angel shook his head regretfully. "Werewolves aren't my specialty."

"Well, that makes all of us." Oz rested his chin in his hand. "So here's what's chewing on me. You skipped out of here because you thought you were dangerous, right? How did you know? And what changed that made you come back?"

"I left because I hurt someone," Angel said carefully. "I came back because someone else did. Nothing really changed. Not until Willow cast her spell on me, anyway."

Oz drummed his fingers on the tabletop. "It's not really the same situation, is it."

"No, it's- hold on." Angel darted up the stairs just in time to intercept Buffy, who gave him an exasperated look but allowed him to support her on her way down the stairs. The two of them reached the kitchen as the coffee finished brewing, and Angel went to pour it as Buffy sat down.

"Didn't think Willow was going to let you out of her sight for the next month," she said to Oz by way of greeting.

"Kinda had to sneak away," he agreed. "I wanted to ask you guys if you had any pointers on making sure this never happens again."

Angel set down three cups of coffee and sat back in his chair. "Are you sure that's what you want?"
Both Buffy and Oz gave him a bewildered look. "Uh," said Oz. "You were there, right? You saw me turn into an animal and go postal all night?"

"I saw you save Willow," Angel pointed out. "I saw you send a couple vamps running in sheer terror, and frankly I was pretty impressed myself. If you had that kind of power under full control, I'd probably be offering you a job."

"Hm."

"Hey," said Buffy, her eyes widening in sudden realization. "You did kind of control it at the end there, didn't you? I mean, have you ever gone back to human out of choice before?"

Oz scratched the stubble on his face. "No. And actually I remember more of it this time than I ever have before."

"Really?" Buffy looked intrigued. "What do you remember?"

"Definitely remember seeing Willow and turning human. And just before that, deciding that howling wasn't fun anymore and I should go find...something. Find you guys, I guess, I just didn't understand it at the time. And I remember fighting vampires, though I guess I couldn't have actually killed any, huh? Too bad werewolves don't have wooden claws."

"Do you remember transforming in the dungeon?" asked Angel.

Oz nodded slowly. "I had never been so angry in my entire life."

Buffy and Angel exchanged glances. "Guess we found the trigger," said Buffy.

Oz sipped at his coffee, lost in thought and still not looking quite comfortable. "So now what? Just don't ever get angry anymore?"

"We can work with you," Angel offered. "Remembering what happened, choosing to come back, understanding where it comes from, those are all good signs. Give it some practice and you may be able to use it to your advantage."

"It's kind of cool, isn't it?" said Buffy happily. "I bet Willow's gonna be psyched."

Buffy certainly had the optimism covered, but Angel could see that Oz's apprehension wasn't about to disappear. "Don't leave town just yet," he said bluntly. "You haven't hurt anyone."

Oz met his eyes. "You don't think I'm dangerous?"

"Oh, I think you're dangerous alright. Like I said, you made quite an impression last night. Fortunately, dangerous is exactly what we need right now."



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