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

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Let Me In (4/15)

Title: Let Me In
Author: Kairos
Rating: PG-13 (violence, some language, some sex)
Wordcount: Roughly 145,000 total
Notes: Why yes let's keep doing this! You know, now that I can.

Xander knocked on the door of Riley's apartment. He had been there a few times before, but so much had changed since Riley was Buffy's boyfriend that he almost expected it to be vacant, Riley off living somewhere that nobody could find him.

"He's probably not here," said Anya. "He's probably doing Army stuff, or hanging out with his friends. He still has friends, doesn't he?"

But Riley answered the door, looking morose and a little shaggier than he used to be. He took a long look at Xander and Anya, hiding any surprise he felt at seeing them with military discipline, then said, "Come in."

Xander hadn't kept Riley at the top of his admiration list lately, but as soon as he saw the guy again he started to feel for him. The apartment, like Riley himself, was slightly unkempt, something Xander never would have expected of him in the past. After letting them in he leaned against a wall, crossing his arms, and waited for them to speak first.

Anya looked around briefly and dropped onto the loveseat, and Xander sat down next to her. "Where'd you go, dude?" he asked.

"Nowhere," said Riley, rubbing a hand through his hair. "I've been right here."

"Oh!" said Anya, as if something had finally clicked. "You've become a recluse! I read about that. You're too depressed to leave the house, so you stay in here all day and use the internet to get food delivered to you, don't you?"

Xander stepped in before Riley had to find a reply to that. "No, I think it's more likely that he leaves from time to time so he can shoot vampires with his gadgets and corner Daemonis before we do, thus proving he's the better man. Riley? Input?"

"Christ." Riley looked down at the floor, then sharply up at Xander. "Why are you on his side, Xander? Where did this come from?"

"Who?" Xander choked back a laugh. "Angel? Could you be any worse at reading this situation? I'm on Buffy's side. And call me crazy, but until you dropped off the radar, I thought you were too."

This elicited the reaction that Xander was hoping for: more anger. "Everything I do, I do for Buffy," Riley snapped. "Don't even think about acting like you know what's going on here."

Xander spread his hands. "No intentions of it. I have no clue what's going on here. Listen, buddy, here's the rundown on what's been happening since you let Angel chase you away with your tail between your legs. Willow figures out a spell to make Angel's soul stay put, but half of us don't know about it until yesterday. Now she's working on another one and won't tell anyone about it. In the meantime, a battle priest waltzes into our lives and reads everyone's minds, but gets all mysterious when we want to know what's on his. Daemonis has a scar, did you know that? And it means something! But don't ask me what, because all Father Tom has to say on the matter is 'I have to make some calls.'"

Riley started to reply, but Xander cut him off. "Wait, there's more! Buffy decides she's going to live at Angel's place, and doesn't seem to feel the need to explain why she thinks this is going to end any better than it did last time. Giles is probably the only one who could talk some sense into her, but for no reason that he sees fit to share with me, he hasn't said a thing. And then, to top it all off, we get attacked last night. Willow nearly gets killed, Oz turns into a wolf, and only then do they remember to tell us that Riley and the Initiative are hunting Daemonis- alongside Spike of all people. So you know what? I'm getting pretty damned sick of not knowing what's going on here and I thought this might be a good place to start rectifying that."

Anya looked smug. She liked when Xander chewed people out. Riley just gaped at him for a moment, then said, "Buffy is living with Angel?"

"Wow," said Anya. "One track mind much?"

Xander rolled his eyes. "You weren't exactly around to stop it. You know? Maybe you could have. Or at least you could have messed up his face a little before you took off. Throw me a bone here."

"You think she'd talk to me?"

"I think that's what you're supposed to find out in the only way you can. But I'm still trying to get started on the finding out what's going on here. Can we talk about my pain for a second, Lovesick Emo Boy?"

Riley's eyes remained blank and glassy for a moment, and then he shook his head as if to clear it.
"Fine. Yes, I've been hunting Daemonis, yes, I involved the Initiative, yes, I used Spike. I don't know why anyone would say I'm working alongside him, though. He gave me a good lead and I took it. And it sounds like Daemonis is finally starting to feel threatened, so I'm not sure why any of this is the wrong thing to do."

"Because he's feeling threatened enough to threaten us back," Xander said. "He found us last night. He knows us now. Probably thought we were with you. And I kind of hate to say it, but this all probably would have worked out better if we were."

"What," said Riley, "you want to join the Initiative?"

Anya looked from Xander to Riley. "What kind of uniforms would we have to wear?" she inquired.

"We're not joining the Initiative, Anya," Xander said. "We're just trying to cooperate with them." He addressed Riley again. "I'm pretty sure it's crossed your mind that we have the same goals here. I think you know we can help each other, even if it's just by staying out of each other's way. But you won't even pass the latest news on to us. You wouldn't even tell us you were still in the game. And I'm trying really hard to not look at your feelings for Buffy as some kind of motivation for this, but...didn't you just say a couple minutes ago that everything you do is for her?"

Riley was glowering. Xander didn't think it was even possible for him to completely let go of his civility, but he was definitely radiating strong 'you don't get it' vibes, and Xander didn't have a lot of patience for that. He was about to restate the accusation in more explicit terms, but Riley responded first. "You're right about one thing. We can help by staying out of each other's way." Then he unfolded an arm and made a placating gesture. "I don't know if anything I did put you in danger, but if it did, I'm sorry. From now on I'll warn you if there's anything I know about that you don't. But I'm just talking you and me, here, because I still have enough self-respect to not be taking orders from a vampire."

For some reason, Xander looked to Anya. What he wanted right now was one of her completely inappropriate remarks, something that would cut Riley to the core because it was so brutally honest and spoken with such nonchalance. The best part was that it was all due to Anya's ignorance of social norms, so nobody could ever really blame her for it. She was like his own personal force of nature. But now she just returned his glance and shrugged, waiting for him to finish up the conversation.

"You want to show your girl you can be everything to her," said Xander. "You want to kill her enemies for her and you want to do it before Angel does. I understand that. I understand that really, really well, actually." He stood up to go, Anya following suit. "But if you're going to insult her and her entire team to do it...maybe you should have just stuck to the flowers and chocolate."

***

"Here."

Giles looked at the notebook that Willow had just placed into his hands. It was the plain green spiral kind that sold for a dollar apiece, but on the cover she had written 'Willow's Super Secret Magic Spellbook- You Are Not Allowed to Read This!' in ballpoint pen. He glanced at her. "What am I supposed to do with it?"

"Read it, of course."

"Well it says here-"

"Read it." She yanked a chair out from the table and thumped into it, folding her arms on the table. It was still within business hours, and the store wasn't empty, but they seldom had trouble with eavesdroppers here, and he thought she was being a little too reluctant to talk. "Analyze it," she added. "Check my equations and cross-reference my sources and call your special hotline that reaches directly to Merlin. Do whatever it takes, just tell me I'm wrong."

Giles slowly sat down next to her, still examining the cover of the notebook though it told him nothing. "This is your secret project? All that work and now you want to be wrong about it?"

"It's too much. I don't do well with this much responsibility." She heaved a sigh of frustration.

"Giles, the only reason I started studying this was out of curiosity. I thought it was interesting when I first noticed it and I wanted to be the one to be able to describe exactly why it wasn't possible. And then I just never got to that point. You have to help me. I can't just leave it like this."

"But you haven't actually cast anything yet?"

"Oh, no. Definitely not. I mean, unless the spell I cast on Angel counts, because that's the one that kicked this off. And I don't want to cast anything, that's what I'm telling you!"

He frowned. "I'm afraid I'm terribly confused about what you're telling me. Willow, if you don't want to cast a spell, don't do it. Do you really need me to tell you that?"

"You'll understand when you read it. I mean, maybe we can do that. Maybe we can just decide we're not going to cast it. But that decision would be a lot easier to make if it's impossible to cast it anyway, so can we just, you know, dwell in the realm of impossibility?" Willow gave him an imploring look, one that asked for support without comprehension, and he made the internal choice to give it.

He was saved from further baffling discussion by Father Tom's entrance. Giles inconspicuously slipped Willow's notebook beneath another book before the priest could see the cover, and Willow flashed him a grateful smile. She turned to Father Tom as he sat down with them. "Hi! How goes the life of slayin' and prayin'?"

Father Tom gave a good-natured chuckle and then paused with his chin in his hand. Giles suspected that he was trying to make up his mind about whether he wanted to speak openly in front of both of them. There was too much of that going around, Giles thought. Too many secrets, not enough cooperation.

"You're right," said Father Tom suddenly, and Giles nearly cursed out loud. He had actually forgotten that he was dealing with a mind reader. How stupid could he be?

"Oh, not stupid at all," the priest replied. "People do it all the time. It's not part of anyone's nature to guard their thoughts. Unfortunately, it's not part of mine to speak openly. But there's little reason for this to be secret anyway." He smiled disarmingly at Willow. "Let's cooperate."

Willow, who of course didn't know what had brought that little speech on, replied simply, "Sure, let's do that."

"Daemonis has been poisoned." He paused to let that sink in, then continued. "I wasn't able to speak directly with the one who accomplished it, but I did learn that she is one Sister Florence, of a Franciscan convent in Michigan. Very devout, but not completely in touch with the world outside her community, so she didn't think to send word to the rest of us. I learned a bit about the compound she used, but mystical poisons are not my area of expertise." He took a small folded piece of paper and handed it to Giles. "See if you can make anything of this?"

Giles took a look at the note. It had a Latin name for the poison, and a short list of effects it was supposed to have on vampires. "Shouldn't be difficult," he said. "Rather a relief to have something substantial to be able to look up, for once."

Father Tom stood up. "Right, my thoughts exactly. Unfortunately I can't stay. This diocese seems to be woefully short of members of my order, and whenever one of us ends up here there's a thousand tasks they have for us." He seemed about to leave it at that, but then he hesitated and spoke reluctantly to Willow. "My child...I can't see the details of this spell you have in mind, and I don't intend to look any closer. You're remarkably good at maintaining mental privacy. But if it frightens you, then it frightens me too, and all the more so if it involves the human soul. Please handle these choices with care."

Giles expected her to be offended at that, but as soon as Father Tom left the store, she turned to him and slapped her hands down on the table. "See?" she said. "Totally have my reasons for freaking out here!"

***

Dingoes Ate My Baby had broken up after Oz panicked and took off on his solo travels, and hadn't reunited when he returned. Most everyone counted it a loss, but Oz himself seemed to take it in stride, and he had a variety of musician friends who were happy to jam with him at any time or place. At the moment he and two other guys were gathered in the space on the porch that they had chosen as a stage, strumming away at their respective instruments and singing a few lines at a time before suddenly stopping altogether and starting up an entirely different song. They had drawn a small crowd, most of whom were yelling at them to play something straight through so they could dance.

Paper lanterns decorated the yard. A couple card tables had been set up to hold chips and dip and a vast amount of cookies. There was a keg, but Buffy had opted for soda. She was sitting with it on a chair near the porch, watching the festivities and trying to smile. The party wasn't for any specific occasion, just something that the new residents of Buffy's former home decided would be fun. She had her suspicions that it was, at least in part, for her benefit. And that made sense, didn't it? They wanted to cheer her up, they wanted to bring life back to some level of normality. Parties were good. Buffy liked parties. So why was she feeling so out of place at this one?

The absence of her mother was resonating throughout her whole being- this would have been about the time that Mom started up negotiations about how loud the music could be- but it was more than that. Ever since she had been captured, everything was different: herself, her friends, her whole life. Bringing it back to music and parties felt like pretending, and Buffy wondered who they thought they were trying to fool. Everyone else seemed to be enjoying themselves, though. Buffy would have given anything to just have that carefree feeling back.

The music stopped again, and Buffy looked up to see Oz handing his guitar to another aspiring musician. He met her eyes and walked over, taking the seat next to her. It was actually a bit surprising that she had been left alone even for these few minutes; her friends seemed to have it planned out that one of them was always chatting with her, asking if she needed anything, or just being nearby. She smiled wanly and greeted Oz. She did appreciate it. And it was likely that he was getting the cheer-you-up-by-force treatment as much as she was. Days had passed since his unwitting return to lycanthropy, and hardly anyone had even spoken about it; they were all so busy with one thing or another.

After he returned the greeting he reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a plastic sandwich bag, which appeared to hold a handful of gummi candies. "I know this isn't really your thing," he said quietly, "but sometimes it helps me when I've got too much on my mind- things seem to be conspiring that way lately- and I can tell you're having a rough time of it tonight. Just a thought. If you want some."

Buffy blinked and looked closer at the candies. They were still candies, but she understood. Oz was right, it wasn't her thing. Still... "Would it make me publicly embarrass myself?"

"Probably not, but we'll be keeping an eye on you." He plucked a couple of the candies from the bag and popped them into his mouth. "And it's from a safe source. No long term effects."

She looked around the party again and realized she didn't want to be there. Well, there was more than one way to get out and dammit, wasn't it worth a try at least once? "How many should I have?"

"Not more than three," he said, handing her the bag.

She opened it and put three into her mouth at once. Noting a slightly impressed look on Oz's face, she explained, "High physical tolerance. Slayer. Might not even feel a smaller dosage." The gummies tasted like gummies, but they stuck to her teeth and she worked her mouth to get them down. "Actually I have no idea. But it seems likely."

He nodded. "It'll be a little while before it takes effect. Let me know how you feel." That was calming. Oz was calm. Oz was cool.

Twenty minutes later she was threatening his life.

***

The house on Revello Drive was unlocked, a few stray partygoers still milling about harmlessly inside. Angel went through the front door and out again the back way to get to the yard, where the party was centralized. It was winding down and there was little noise aside from one guy on a guitar crooning a song unfamiliar to Angel, to an audience of himself.

Yeah, all those stars drip down like butter,
And promises are sweet,
We hold out our pans with our hands to catch them
We eat them up, drink them up,
Up, up, up...


The words were faintly disturbing, for reasons he couldn't place and didn't have time to analyze. He was momentarily concerned when he didn't see Buffy and her friends right away, and then when he did notice them, huddling in a tight circle near the porch, he didn't know why but he felt certain that something was wrong.

"Buffy, listen, you have to believe us," Willow was saying. "There aren't any vampires here."

Angel stepped forward, revealing himself. "Not entirely true," he said, and everyone looked over at him. "What's going on?"

Buffy was sitting in the center of the circle with her head in her hands. When she heard him she lurched out of her chair onto her one good foot and threw herself into his arms. "Angel," she cried, "help me, I'm all messed up and I can't tell who's a vampire and, and I think I tried to kill Oz only I didn't have a stake."

Angel looked around at everyone. Oz was alive and well, and definitely not a vampire, but if Buffy was in a state like this then it was a good thing she didn't have any stakes on hand. "Everyone's safe," he said gently, stroking her hair. "Just calm down."

"No!" She shook her head violently. "No, I can't calm down, because they're still out there and if I can't kill them then you have to!" She pressed her face up to his chest and he could feel her hot tears soaking through his shirt.

He cupped his hand behind her head and held it against himself, subtly covering her ears so she wouldn't hear what he whispered to Xander, the one standing closest to him. "Magic or drugs?"

Xander whispered back the answer, and hearing it was enough to make Angel automatically shoot him a dirty look. Was this generation still glorifying the seventies?

"Hey, it wasn't my idea," Xander complained in a louder voice.

Enough was enough. "We're going inside," he said, addressing both Buffy and the group. He lifted her off the ground. "Where can she lie down? Might have to be all night."

"Our room," said Willow. "I mean, her room. We can sleep on the couch."

Angel nodded his thanks and carried Buffy inside. It wasn't altogether easy- she kept trying to warn him about things which didn't exist, and nothing she said was very coherent. At the base of the stairs she glanced into the living room, which was unoccupied at the moment, and gave a little shriek. Angel tried to tell her there was nothing there, but she just started crying again, mumbling, "I can't do this. I can't do this. I can't do this."

"Buffy, focus. None of what you're seeing is real. It's all going to be gone by morning." He started going up the stairs, carefully so that Buffy's occasional shudder didn't upset his balance.

"Morning?" Her voice cracked. "I can't. I want it gone now. Make it stop."

They reached the top of the stairs and he opened her bedroom door. "I can't make it stop. It's in your bloodstream now. You just have to wait it out."

She pulled back to meet his eyes, looking completely sentient for the moment. "My bloodstream, huh?" she asked flatly.

His throat tightened, and he swiftly shut the door behind them. "Get that thought out of your head," he commanded. "I'm not going to do it."

"Please, Angel," she pleaded as he sat down with her on the bed. "Just this once. I know I shouldn't have eaten those things, it was stupid, but I don't think I can make it through the night like this." She squeezed him. "I'm so scared."

He squeezed back, but he was fighting a mounting feeling of dread. "I can't risk it. Last time I nearly killed you. Remember?"

"You were delirious. This time it'll be different. Please, I just want..." She dissolved into tears again. "...I just want to go to sleep."

He looked into her eyes and wiped some of the moisture off of her face with his thumb. She was a wreck. He knew how it worked- she wouldn't be able to sleep for hours, and if the experience was frightening her this much right now, it wasn't going to turn into a happy one until it was over. But as soon as he had started thinking about her bloodstream, he had felt a kind of buried excitement that was much, much worse than dread. Could he do it? Could he ease her mind and keep her safe at the same time?

He was sitting on the edge of the bed; she was on his lap with her legs off to one side and her head leaning on his shoulder. She trembled again, and he made up his mind. In precise movements he brushed the hair away from her neck, kissed her scar, kissed it again, and sank his fangs into it.

Buffy gave a low moan that could have been pain or pleasure. It was a familiar sound, one that Angelus had drawn from countless victims, and it had always triggered an instinct to bite harder, to increase the sensation. Instincts had to be ignored now, though. One slip in his concentration and he could drain her before he had even realized it.

He drank as slowly as he could, trying to tell himself that it was out of caution and not because he was savoring it. That was a lie and he knew it, though. This was Buffy, the best thing he had ever tasted, and the one thing which he had resolved to never taste again. The heat of her blood rushed through him in exhilarating waves. Starlight, he thought. It's like drinking the stars. Her body was pressed against him, pulsing with life, relaxing gradually as the source of her turmoil was sucked out of her. He hugged her gently and smoothed her hair to show her- and himself- that he was still in control, and she sighed contentedly. Was it possible she was enjoying this? He knew that some humans experienced a temporary ecstatic feeling when they were fed on, but he had never expected that from the Slayer herself.

When he had taken enough he pulled away quickly before he had a chance to second guess himself.
Separated from her blood flow he felt cut off, isolated, but after licking the punctures once to make sure they were clean, he kept himself away from them. Slipping his arms beneath her, he lifted her off of his lap and lay her down on the bed. She was out of danger now. For him it wasn't over, but he had stopped at the right time and she was going to be okay.

She stretched out and then rolled onto her side, eyes closed. "I feel better," she murmured, and then her eyes snapped open as she heard Angel's footsteps moving away from her. "Hey! Where are you going?"

"I'll be right back," he promised as he left the room. He returned with a first aid kit and a glass of water and a thankful feeling for not having run into any of her friends while he was out there.

The holes in her neck were small and weren't bleeding; a pair of band-aids was enough to cover them. He made her drink some water, took a sip himself, and then lay down beside her, propped halfway up on the pillows. He pulled her closer to him and she rested her head on his chest. "Ooh," she said. "You're warm."

"It's your warmth. I just borrowed it."

He didn't know if she knew what he meant by that, but she turned a lazy smile on him. "Did I taste good?"

"Buffy, don't." He realized that she had no idea of what she had just put him through...or what was coming next. He had tasted the difference in her blood immediately, but it hadn't started to affect him yet.

She was too out of it to notice his terseness. "Well, I hope I tasted good." She snuggled closer. "I love you."

"I love you," he whispered back.

She was asleep by the time he started seeing things. He had been closing his eyes, feigning sleep because he knew he wouldn't be able to sleep for real, and when he opened them after an interval, he had visitors. Spike and Drusilla were standing over the bed, smiling sardonically as they stared at him and Buffy. They were dressed in modern clothes- Dru had a tight leather top that belonged on a dominatrix- and had their hands all over each other, as usual. "You're not real," Angel whispered. "Get out of here."

"How about that, love?" said Spike. "This bloke thinks we're not real."

"I knew a man who wasn't real," Drusilla replied. "He had his teeth in a pretty string around his neck, and he sang songs to me as I opened up his bones to see his heart."

"Maybe she's the one who isn't real," Spike said, looking at Buffy. "Maybe you're the one who's chained up in the crypt, and all of this fancy about swooping in and saving her was just a story you made up to make your sad self feel better." He made a move as if to prod her.

"If you touch her I'll kill you," Angel rasped. He wanted to shout, but he had a vague understanding that his voice would wake Buffy even though Spike's wouldn't, and it was all-important that Buffy stay asleep during this.

Spike laughed. "If I'm not real I can't touch her," he pointed out. "Of course, if I'm not real you can't kill me, so I s'pose I can do whatever I bloody well feel like doing."

"Marvelous," said Drusilla, referring to nothing that Angel could see. "Splendid." She threw her head back and reached into her mouth, taking hold of something inside of it. Her tongue? No, it was the hilt of a long, narrow sword, which she removed from her throat bit by bit, hand over hand. When the whole thing was out she twirled it around like a princess with a magic wand, the point of its blade narrowly missing Spike's face as well as Angel and Buffy.

"Splendid it is," Spike told her. "What can you do with that splendid thing, duckling?"

In answer, Drusilla held up the sword and began walking around the room, mincing her steps and swinging the weapon with exaggerated motions. She slashed at the walls where they met the ceiling, and Angel soon saw that wherever she cut, a sickly light seeped into the room from whatever was outside of it. Drusilla paid no attention to it, but she worked deliberately to reach every edge of every wall: she was cutting the room out from around them. When she had made a full circle, she took Spike's hand and the two of them departed. They didn't disappear, just walked through the door, leaving Angel to wonder if they really had been hallucinations.

He couldn't wonder about it for long, though, because there was now something else that needed his attention. There was no more light coming through the cracks in the walls. Now it was blood, smooth and dark, pouring down evenly, blanketing the room from the top down. It was odd, though- he was sure it was blood, but why couldn't he smell it? Because it's not real, he reminded himself. It's just the drug, none of this is really happening.

Wasn't it? As the veil of blood crept steadily towards the floor, the walls themselves began to fade and he realized that the room was just an illusion, and the blood was washing it away. Gradually his real surroundings came clear, and as much as he tried to deny them, he had really always known he would be back again someday.

The sky was black smog, the air was red and dusty, and so very very hot. Machines clanged in every direction, and people screamed, like they always did, and there was no horizon or distant shore or an ending of any kind. The demons were there, he could feel their presence, and soon they would notice him and the pain would begin and this time it wouldn't stop, it would never, ever stop.

In sudden horror he looked down at himself. He was still lying on the bed- and Buffy was still asleep in his arms. He had brought her with him to Hell. He didn't know how, he didn't know why something beautiful like her could end up here with something vile like him, but she was here and it had to be because of him. No no no no no. Desperately he tried to think of some kind of bargaining tool, something that he could sacrifice to get her back to the world where she belonged, but he was already down in the inferno with her and there was nothing he had left. All he could do was stay still, not disturb her, keep her asleep for as long as possible because once she woke she would know where she was and they would come for her and he couldn't stop it.

So when she moved against him and he thought she was waking, he nearly cried out, but she settled again without opening her eyes and her breathing remained even. The shock of it had been enough to change the scenery, though. When he looked around himself again, Hell was gone. It was Buffy's old bedroom again. Overwhelmed, he clutched her more tightly and buried his face in her hair. It never happened. We're safe. I just have to remember what's real and what isn't. And at the moment, there was only reality, the room and the bed and his love sleeping soundly with her head on his chest. Did that mean it was over?

No such luck. The next spectacle was a visual tally of all of his victims. It started with his little sister and then his parents, and they were followed closely by a full parade of everyone he had ever killed. They came through the door, walked past without even glancing at him, and then climbed out the window one by one, and there was no way to see what happened to them after that. It went on and on. Angel recognized every one of them, even kills he hadn't thought of in years, the routine murders that he had considered only as meals. None appeared to notice him or Buffy, and none appeared to be dead or wounded. They just kept coming in, shuffling through, crawling out the window.

The last faces were the most recent ones, including the especially painful ones of some of Buffy's classmates. When they had cleared the room, one more stepped in: Jenny Calendar. He had been haunted by her visage before, the First Evil using her form to antagonize him with guilt. Was it the First this time, or was it Jenny herself? Neither, he told himself. She's not here and this isn't happening. But Jenny stepped over to the bed, smiled at him, and said, "You were born to hurt her."

She vanished. Angel hugged Buffy, like a child with a stuffed animal, and closed his eyes to wait for the night to end.

***

Willow tapped uncertainly at the bedroom door. It was still early in the morning, but she had to check on them even if it meant waking them up. "Buffy? Angel? It's just me. Can I come in?"

It was Angel who answered, a muffled groan. "Yeah."

She cracked the door and slipped inside. They were both lying on top of the covers of the bed, both fully clothed, Buffy apparently asleep but looking well considering the state she'd been in last night. It was Angel whose appearance surprised Willow: he was disheveled and sallow, wearing a look of great weariness. "Just wanted to see if she- if you were both okay," she said.

"She'll be fine. Slept it off." He looked at Willow with bloodshot eyes. "Anyone else take any?"

"Just Oz, and he's used to it. I can't stand the stuff, myself. I tried it once and all I saw were these little green frogs hopping all over the floor. I just watch Oz on it and that's more than enough for me." She lingered in the doorway, trying to figure out what was wrong with the scene in front of her. Then she saw it. Two band-aids on Buffy's neck, and those had definitely not been there the night before. "Angel, did you..." Her voice dropped to an incredulous whisper. "...Did you drink her?"

He nodded weakly. "Just enough to get it out of her system."

"And into yours," she finished, comprehending. "Is that why you look so bad?"

"Hallucinogens and a past like mine...bad combination."

That wasn't hard to believe. She'd read the book, after all. This was a difficult situation to referee, but she couldn't help sympathizing. She crossed her arms. "So is this going to be another secret I'm keeping for you?"

His eyes creased in sorrow, and his voice got even quieter. "She was suffering," he said. "She was crying. I couldn't take it."

Willow crossed the room and stooped over to look at Buffy more closely. She really did look okay, breathing normally and curved comfortably around Angel. "I won't tell," she decided. "If Xander saw this he'd probably stake you."

"I'd probably let him."

Now that was a scary thought. She straightened and went to the closet, found a turtleneck shirt and showed it to Angel. "She can borrow this, it'll hide the..." She searched for a word, came up empty, and gestured at her own neck to demonstrate. "Bring her downstairs when she wakes up, okay?"

She turned to go, but Angel's voice stopped her. "Why did you let her do it, Willow?"

Her hand already on the knob, she turned her head and said over her shoulder, "She was suffering." Not wanting any further discussion, she closed the door behind her and went downstairs.

It turned out nobody was in a very good mood that morning. Anya and Xander were bickering in that tireless way they had, Oz was unwilling to leave the couch, and Giles, when he called looking for Buffy, was inordinately annoyed that nobody had told him that she wasn't going to sleep at Angel's last night. He was supposed to take her to a check-up on her broken foot, and Willow, embarrassed that she had forgotten about it, lied and said they thought it would be easier for him to pick her up from the Summers house. She promised to make sure that Buffy would be ready in an hour, and was steeling herself to go knock on the bedroom door again when Angel shuffled down the stairs with Buffy supporting herself on his arm.

She was freshened up and wearing Willow's borrowed clothing, but Angel's condition hadn't improved much, and he readily accepted Anya's offer to drive him home in his car. He made sure Buffy could be dropped off at the mansion after her appointment, kissed the top of her head without saying anything to her, and draped a blanket over himself to protect him from the daylight.

Buffy sat with Willow at the table and watched him leave the house with Anya. "He's mad at me," she said sadly.

"'Cause you didn't Just Say No to Drugs?"

Buffy rolled her shoulders. "I guess. He didn't really say. I didn't really ask."
Willow stood up and started taking out the breakfast foods again. "Buffy, this is a really bad time for you to not be communicating well with Angel."

"I know. I know." Buffy stared vacantly at the orange juice before finally pouring some into a glass. "I'll talk to him when we get home."

***

The underground chamber felt cool and damp after the heat of the outdoors above it. Oz rushed down the stairs and punched the combination into the cage's lock, noting as he did that there was a pile of cut ropes on the floor inside. He didn't remember those being there last time, but it had been months since he had come down here. There hadn't been a reason for it. And it didn't matter if someone else had visited. He was just lucky that the combination still worked. He slammed the door behind him and slumped down to the floor, some of his urgency fading now that he was safely locked away.

It was time, though. He had to try it sooner or later, and he wanted to do it alone. So anger was the catalyst? No better time than now, then. He had been angry enough at himself, ever since he learned that his 'cure' was situationally dependent and all this time he had been putting everyone around him in danger. Last night was the last straw. Nobody had even confronted him about it yet, but they all knew. He was the one who had given Buffy the acid, he was the one responsible for the bad trip that had scared her so much. God, he thought. Nobody should ever have to see the Slayer in hysterics. He had been tripping himself at the time, but it was hard to forget being mistaken for a vampire. She seemed fine in the morning, but Oz could tell there was still something wrong. Maybe he had lied about there being no long-term effects.

How was he supposed to have known it would happen that way? He had been using the stuff since he was fifteen. It never did to him what it had done to her.

He could feel the change approaching, just as it used to on full moons. It was already starting to make more sense. The anger helped to bring it on, but now he could choose to coax it forward or hold it back. The real question was whether he could reverse the process on his own, but there wasn't any way to find that out aside from just doing it. He took his shirt off and steadied himself with a few deep breaths.

As he finished undressing he heard a deep chuckle behind him, on the other side of the bars. He whirled around to see Spike stepping out of the shadows in the back of the crypt, lighting a cigarette and staying clear of the single beam of sunlight coming through the ceiling.

"How did you get in here?" Oz asked, his voice shaking a little with the effort of suddenly having to repress the transformation.

Spike took a long drag from his cigarette. "Been here all day. Surprised your nose didn't pick me up, but I'm guessing you were a bit distracted."

"Yeah. You know, this isn't really a good time for me to talk." His skin was tingling, an especially strange feeling since the physical sensation of the acid hadn't fully worn off yet. He knew he couldn't stop the wolf from coming now, just delay it.

"I can see that. S'alright. You don't have to talk. I'm doing that." Spike strolled around the room, hardly glancing towards Oz. "I speculate there's a question you must ask yourself sometimes: 'Am I human?' Your curiosity in that department is well warranted. These days, a person's humanity seems to count for an awful lot. Just for instance, I can't harm humans. Demons? No difficulty there, but as soon as I try to rough up someone who counts as food, I get punished by my little technological Jiminy Cricket."

Oz clenched the bars of the cage as the urge to change grew stronger. He had to know what Spike was up to; no way had he waited down here all day for no reason.

"But we were talking about you, of course," the vampire continued. "Are you a human? Are you a wolf? Are you sometimes the one and sometimes the other? Well, I've got good news, mutt." He stopped pacing and stood in front of the cage, blowing a cloud of smoke at Oz before dropping the cigarette and grinding it out with his heel. "I'm going to help you answer that question."

Oz looked up at him, breathing heavily with exertion. "You can't get in here."

Spike laughed. Quick as could be, he stuck out a finger and entered the code into the keypad. "Did you think I couldn't see the numbers you hit from where I was sitting? Or is this your home now and I'm not invited?"

"Spike, I'm warning you..."

"Good. Warn me." He pushed the cage door and it swung open. "You're the first one of the Slayer's little band of do-gooders that I've got a decent shot at. I don't feel inclined to listen to warnings." As he entered the cage, he went into his vampire face and shaped it into a hideous smile. "And this time maybe I'll get paid some real money."

When Spike threw his first punch, it was at a human. By the time he had fallen to his knees, doubled over and groaning in pain, there was no longer a human in the room. There was predator. There was enemy. There was fury, savagery, a thirst for blood. There was also an open door.

The wolf did not know which excited him more.

***

Buffy hobbled into the mansion with the help of her crutches and Giles, who brought her as far as the living room and then said goodbye. Angel was shirtless and barefoot, sitting at the cold fireplace with a broadsword across his knees, which he was about to put aside before she told him she could get in and sit down without his assistance. He went back to what he was doing: sharpening the blade with long, meditative strokes. A few other weapons sat nearby; evidently he'd been at it for a while.
"How did your appointment go?" he asked quietly.

"As expected. I astonished them all with how quickly the bone was knitting. Good thing Sunnydale doctors know better than to publish anything about medical miracles." She paused, then took a deep breath. She had to bring it up now, she couldn't spend all night waiting for him to give her some kind of sign. "I gather last night was kind of stressful for you."

The whetstone swept down the length of the blade under Angel's hand. He was as cold and blank as she had ever seen him, as if the lifelessness of his body was somehow carrying over to his mind. "It's better that it happened that way," he said. "I was starting to lose perspective about us. It could have gotten a lot more than stressful."

Buffy's heart skipped a beat. For a moment the only thing that her mind could comprehend was the rasp of the stone on the sword, maddeningly repetetive. "You're going to leave me again," she said with sudden certainty. He didn't answer right away, and she demanded, "Aren't you? It's been your plan all along, hasn't it?"

"Not all along. When Willow secured my soul I thought we had a chance. I thought it changed something."

"What didn't it change? What are we supposed to be afraid of now?" She was rapidly losing her composure. This couldn't be happening, not again. "The curse was the reason we couldn't be together!"

Angel finished another stroke and then held still. "No. The reason we can't be together is that I'm a vampire. Sometimes I forget. It's crazy, that I could actually forget, but when I'm around you..." He stared down at the sword, one hand at either end of it, and shook his head. "Last night I remembered."

"I don't care what you are. I never have. I love you."

"I care," he said tonelessly. At long last he looked up from the sword and into her eyes. "Do you really want to know about Hell?"

Buffy was struck dumb, but he wasn't waiting for a verbal response.

"Hell is the way I felt when you saved me from Faith's poison. Hell is seeing you bleed, thinking you're dead, knowing I was the one who did it. Because I'm a vampire. Because the crucial moment came when I had to control the demon in me, and I couldn't. I almost killed you, and this is when I did have a soul."

"No," Buffy stammered, "it was me, I made you do it."

Angel answered in an even voice, still holding her gaze. "And you knew, didn't you, that I would have rather died a thousand times over than endanger you. You chose my life over your own, and part of me still can't forgive you for that." His eyes dropped down to his sword again. "But I'm the one who bit. I'm the one who held on too long, when I intended to die first. You can't trust me, Buffy. And you know it."

She took a few breaths to stabilize herself, feeling that every word she said now was an enormously important choice. "I trusted you last night. You didn't lose control. You helped me."

He was silent for a moment, and she hoped that meant she had made a point. She couldn't remember the details of last night, but she knew what he had done for her and she knew it had brought them to where they were now, the one place she didn't want to be. There had to be a way to make it right.

He took the sword off of his lap, setting it down with the other weapons, and leaned his elbows on his knees. For a moment he dropped his face into his hands, then just hung his head and spoke to the floor. "I came here to help you. I can't do that if we get involved again. Please, Buffy, try to understand. All I've ever done is stand in the way of a real relationship for you. When I go, you can...move on, find...someone..." His words were coming out with a strangled quality. "...Start forgetting," he managed finally, with more bitterness in those last two words than she could have imagined. She remembered saying them the first time she had seen him after he left town, and knowing even at the time that she would live to regret it.

"Like you will?" she asked pointedly.

His eyes snapped up and he looked at her in disbelief. She knew what he was thinking: of course not. He never would. She could almost see the words forming on his lips, but he stopped himself before saying them, seeing where she was headed. She had him on the ropes; this was more familiar ground.

"If you have to go," she forced herself to say, "you have to go. But if you're not going to be with anyone else then don't ask me to. From now on it's you or it's no one, Angel. No more Rileys. No more lying to decent men about being in love with them." She felt moisture on her face and wondered how long she had been crying. "I've lost you too many times. I can handle it once more if it's just to another city. Even if I can't see you at all anymore. But I can't handle hearing you say we're over when I know and you know we never will be."

He stayed seated at the fireplace, staring straight ahead, and Buffy longed to cross the room and be close to him. She restrained herself, kept from saying anything further, too, just held herself in the silence, waiting. At length he spoke. "Don't you want a family someday?"

"No," she said immediately and vehemently. "No family. Ever. Honestly, how can people even expect that of me? Can you imagine a pregnant Slayer? And then what, a couple of little ones just waiting to become targets for everyone who wants to hurt me? Just like Mom. They're always going to go after the ones I love. People die because I'm the Slayer. Just like Mom. What kind of horrible person would I be to bring more victims into this world, when they'll kill them, just like they did Mom..." She lost it then, sobbing brokenly into her hands, and then he was beside her and he wrapped her in his arms and she wasn't alone anymore.

After a long while, he said something in such a quiet voice that she would have missed it if they weren't so close together: "There's a prophecy." She looked up, brushing tangled hair out of her face, and he continued. "We think it's about me; it refers to a vampire with a soul. It says that after I've gone through some battles and somehow stopped an Apocalypse, I'll become human. I don't know how long it will take. I don't even know if we're interpreting it right. But there's hope."

She threaded her fingers through his, trying to process this revelation. Before she had fully succeeded, she asked, "And until then?"

"Until then, and forever after, I love you. And we'll never be over."

***

Willow was the last one to leave the house, after Xander and Anya had gone to their respective jobs and Oz said he needed some time alone and was going to take a walk. She didn't like that- she wanted him to talk to her- but sometimes the only way to work things out with him was to let him work things out by himself first, so she didn't make a fuss. She went to class as usual, feeling distracted and lonely, but turned down Tara's invitation to come over and work on some spells. Company would have been nice, but she felt like she was going to miss something if she wasn't at home waiting for it to happen.

However, she was the first one back. Xander and Anya weren't expected yet, of course, but she wished she had at least made Oz tell her where he was going to be. She thought about ringing up Giles or even Father Tom for some advice, but didn't want to be the one to tell them what had happened last night. Visiting Buffy and Angel was out of the question. They both had her sympathy, but what they were going to do next was between the two of them.

When Xander came in, he found her cleaning up the party's mess from the house and yard, but the first thing he said was, "What's wrong?"

She paused at the dishwasher with an armload of dirty cups. "What?"

"My Willow-Has-a-Sadface sense- well, I guess that's my eyesight sense- anyway, it's tingling. Why's Willow got Sadface?"

Good old face-reading Xander. Willow let down the cups and turned to him. "Would you help me find Oz?"

They took Xander's car. Oz wasn't at the Bronze, he wasn't at the Magic Box, he wasn't at any of his usual haunts on campus. Finally Xander said reluctantly, "You think he might have locked himself up?" and Willow sighed and admitted the possibility. They walked to the cemetery to check the cage.

The sun was setting as they descended the stairs of the modified crypt. Willow got there first and screamed. Oz was sitting in the cage, human, conscious, but spattered with blood. And on the other side of the bars, slouched against the wall and covered with even more blood than Oz, was Spike. Xander scrambled down in response to her scream, and stopped short when he got there, unable to say or do anything any more than Willow was.

"Oh, lovely," muttered Spike. "Here comes the cavalry. Look, if I've awakened any more murderous rage here, can you just stake me and get it done with? I'm too embarrassed to be alive and sober at the same time."

"Embarrassed about what?" asked Xander at the same time as Willow asked Oz, "What happened? Are you okay?" She started entering the combination into the lock with fingers made unsteady with haste, before she realized that the door wasn't fully closed and thus wasn't locked.

Oz braced himself against the wall and used it to help himself stand up. "I won," he said, effectively answering all three questions without actually explaining anything. He was fully dressed, though disheveled, but for there to be this much blood, he must have gone wolf. Willow looked from him to Spike and back again, trying to figure it out.

"You won because you ran outside where I couldn't get you," complained Spike. He spat on the crypt's dusty floor and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Playing against the bloody rules, that's what I say."

Oz ignored him and let Willow look him over for actual injuries. He had an obvious black eye starting, but nothing was broken and she didn't see anywhere that the skin was cut. A little feeling of pride welled up in her, completely against her will. She didn't want her man getting into fights, but if he was going to anyway, at least he emerged victorious. Maybe this would teach Spike to not mess with them.

"If you ran away how come you're still here?" she asked him.

"Came back," he said simply.

Spike was struggling to his feet, evidently without any of his own bones broken, though his face and body bore numerous gashes. "Came back human," he agreed. "Or I would've gone another round."

"Why did you come back?" asked Xander. "I mean, I'd understand if you wanted to finish him off, but here he is-" he pointed to Spike, on the outside of the cage, "-and there you are." He pointed to Oz, still standing inside the cage even after Willow had opened the door.

Oz answered with a question directed at Spike. "Who are you working for?"

Spike laughed. "Looks like pretty much everyone, at this point. You know, I used to be the one who had people working for me. Not actual people, most of the time, but definitely underlings. I was a harsh master. Universally hated and feared." He waved his hand vaguely at the three of them. "At least you lot haven't inspired any such emotions in me."

"You said you were getting paid for this," Oz pressed. "Who's paying you?"

Xander coughed. "I think he means to say, 'Who's not paying you,' because you are so definitely not walking the streets again after this. What's the deal? You and Daemonis are all buddy-buddy now?"

"Maybe I'm just a trophy hunter," Spike countered. "You've got to admit, the boy has a nice pelt."

Willow grabbed Oz's wrist, pulling him behind her as she stalked out of the cage and slammed its door behind them. "Shut up about his nice pelt! How could Daemonis send you here when nobody except us knew that Oz was having werewolf troubles again?"

"Oh, this is precious," Spike chuckled. "You're like a ready-made soap opera mix. All I have to do is add water. Daemonis asked me where the wolf boy likes to hide. After I told him who the werewolf is and why he was loose that one night. The Big Ugly's also interested in what you know about his scar, by the way, and he doesn't seem altogether surprised that the priest who's been hunting him is also a mind reader." He paused to look around at their astonished faces. "Riley told me, you sodding idiots. Poor fool must think I'm one of his soldiers, keeping his military secrets confidential."

Xander stared at the floor and scrubbed a hand through his hair. Willow looked sideways at him. "So who told Riley, huh?" she hissed. She didn't really blame him, though. She had always half-expected him to attempt to rekindle their friendship at some point, and he wouldn't have thought that Riley would be stupid enough to divulge anything to Spike. Nobody would. Unless Riley was trying to sabotage the Scooby Gang? No, that was a terrible thought. A bad breakup couldn't be cause enough for that.

Oz reeled a little, still weak from his fight, and Willow tightened her grip on him. "We need to get out of here," she said. "It's getting dark, we can move Spike."

Xander shook his head. "Move him where? How? Let's just lock him in the cage until we figure out what to do with him."

"Aw," said Spike with mock concern. "But you'll come back for me, right?"

Xander opened the door of the cage and gestured grandly, and Spike strolled in without a protest.

"Hang on," said Oz as Xander closed the door. He rubbed the heel of his hand against his forehead. "Trying to remember how to change the combination."

It took a few tries, and Spike kept trying to find a way to peek, but finally he was locked inside and the three of them were outside the crypt. Xander took out his cellphone and dialed Giles. "Hey. Yeah, G-Man, it's Xander and, uh, we have some weirder-than-usual stuff happening, can you swing by so we can all get down with our bad selves?...Well, we could, but I don't know if you want that many of us in your place. I think we need everyone for this one...Yeah, grab him if you could...No, I mean everyone as in everyone, which incidentally includes Riley this time...For real. And also a bleach-blond chain-smoking mystery guest...I know! That's why you need to come over! Okay. Thanks. I'll call Buffy and Angel. Bye."

Oz hung his head at Xander's last few words, and Willow cringed. "Do we really have to bother Buffy
and Angel tonight?"

Xander looked at her as if she were speaking Latin again. "I'm pretty sure they want to know about this, Will." He started dialing again as they all started walking to the car.

As Xander was on the phone with Angel, Oz said privately to Willow, "Angel's gonna be pissed at me, isn't he?"

"Probably," Willow agreed. Oz didn't know that Angel had drank the acid out of Buffy, and he probably wouldn't be finding out any time soon, but everyone knew how angry Angel could get about someone scaring Buffy. "I'm pretty pissed at you, too."

Xander flipped his phone closed. "Bossy McFangersons wants us to go over there instead. Guess I'll just call Giles all over again..."

"Wait wait wait. You're not going to ask Riley to come to Angel's, are you?"

"You don't think it would be funny?" Xander shrugged as Willow gave him the reproachful look she reserved for his especially bad jokes. "Fine. We'll figure out the Riley part after we get there. You know what really irks my tater?"

Willow rolled her eyes. "Buffy's lovelife?"

"No, I was going to say...okay that was what I was going to say. Is it disloyal to wish your friends were lesbians?"


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