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

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Let Me In (5/15)

Title: Let Me In
Author: Kairos
Rating: PG-13 (violence, some language, some sex)
Wordcount: Roughly 145,000 total
Notes: There are no notes.


Buffy had intended to spend the rest of the night curled up with Angel and not saying anything unless he asked her a direct question. It wasn't the most solid plan, but she couldn't think of anything else she felt like doing, and anyway the crux of it was about not having anyone else around. When the phone rang, Angel looked as annoyed as she felt, but both of them were always uneasy about not answering calls. The day they didn't pick it up would be the day someone needed them to save a life. So Angel got up to answer, and Buffy could tell from his side of the conversation that it was going to lead to something still more annoying.

There wasn't much that could be more annoying than an impromptu meeting with everyone, though at least Angel arranged it so that they didn't have to leave the house. He gave her an apologetic look as he hung up. Xander hadn't even told him exactly what was going on, though that was habit for most of them. Problems that needed discussion at all usually needed the discussion to be in person, or it was just too confusing.

Angel went upstairs for a shirt and Buffy stood up and tested her foot. The doctors had told her not to be putting much weight on it yet, but she suspected that they were basing their recommendations on what stage of healing they thought she should be at, and not what she actually was. It didn't hurt much anymore, and she was starting to regain some flexibility.

When the knock came she walked to the door without her crutch, slowly, but still in time to get there before Angel, who was coming back downstairs. The first visitors came in and she let out a shocked gasp. Xander and Willow looked fine, but Oz had a black eye and blood drying all over his face, hands, and hair, though none seemed to be on his clothes. He held up his hands and stepped back from her when she reached out to him. "It's okay," he said. "It's not mine."

"No," growled Angel from behind her. "It's Spike's."

Oz confirmed this with a weary nod. "Mind if I go wash Spike's blood down your sink?"

Angel pointed to the bathroom and then turned back to Buffy as Oz left the room. "You didn't tell me Spike was around." He looked at Willow and Xander, widening his accusation to include them. "Nobody did."

Buffy took a deep breath. "I just thought that if we told you...either you or him would end up dead."

Xander nodded a few times, looking pensive. Then his eyes lit up. He looked directly at Angel and said in an overly dramatic voice, "Angel, Spike is around!"

Willow and Buffy smacked him from either side at exactly the same time. "We're sorry, Angel," Willow pleaded. "But it wouldn't really have done any good, would it? I mean, it would just be one more distraction."

Angel turned abruptly and led them all into the living room, though he didn't sit down when they did, just paced a few steps in front of them. "Anyone want to tell me why it would be a bad thing for Spike to end up dead?"

"Spike or you," Buffy reminded him, her guilt putting a little more fire into her voice than she intended. Angel gave her an expression of wounded pride. Either he didn't think that defeating Spike would pose a challenge for him, or he didn't want her to think so. Buffy wanted to tell him that her confidence was all with him, but she had fought both of them and neither had been easy enough for her to put money on a hypothetical battle.

"He got Clockwork Orange'd by the Initiative," Xander explained. "Can't do any violence anymore."

Angel paused as he considered this. "I saw you had him captive. Thanksgiving last year. I thought you would have killed him by now, whatever you were up to at the time." He shook his head. "Otherwise I would have known..."

Buffy heard Xander and Willow whispering over this- Xander asked a question and Willow answered "vampire sire thing"- so Angel probably heard more than she did. He ignored them, though, just kept waiting for more answers from Buffy.

She gave a small, self-conscious shrug. "He was harmless. I couldn't kill something harmless."
"Is Oz going to tell me the same thing?"

That one hit her like a stab wound. By the time Oz had returned to them, everyone was already used to Spike being the grumpy neighborhood vampire with no means to hurt them, and since Oz went so long without a return to his werewolf side, it was easy to forget that he wasn't the garden variety human.
Spike wasn't totally harmless. Not everyone in Buffy's life was human anymore. "What happened between them?" she asked Xander and Willow, escaping Angel's very good point for a moment. "Do we need to hunt Spike down?"

"No, he's locked up," said Xander. "Oz went wolf when Spike attacked him, but he beat him down and unwolfed before we got there. He hasn't told us much more than that, but it looks like he's getting a pretty good grip on his control, so that's something."

"Locked up where?" asked Angel.

Xander looked at Buffy as if seeking permission. She didn't know what to say. She had already hidden enough from Angel; he certainly thought so, anyway. Still, the consequences of enabling a meeting between Angel and Spike...

"I don't want you to kill him," she said. The words came out in a tiny, timid voice, which wasn't at all what she had intended, but then, she wasn't sure she had intended to say them at all.

Xander and Willow were looking at her with surprise, Angel with outright shock. And, yes, hurt. He counted this a betrayal. She wondered what had made her think speaking up would be worth it. Oz reentered the room during the silence, but was doubtless immediately cognizant of the tension in the room. He sat down quietly, in a chair that didn't put him directly next to anyone else, and Buffy regrouped to explain herself.

"It's just that he and I had a deal. He helped me save the world and I let him go. I know it wasn't from good intentions or anything, but he did what was needed and I have to respect that or I can't respect myself."

Angel's initial dismay had hardened into anger. "He's evil, Buffy. Give him a chance and he'd take down everything you work so hard to build."

"He'll never get that chance. I'm not saying that all he needs is a rehab program and a shoulder to cry on. I know we can't trust him. But this is one face in the crowd of evil that is Sunnydale that we can keep neutralized without actually wreaking destruction to do it, and despite my badass rep, that's actually an attractive idea."

Angel didn't answer. She couldn't tell what he was thinking, but internally she was pleading with him, trying to project her real reasons without speaking them out loud. It's because he saved me from you. Without him helping me I would have been dead at your hands and you would have opened the portal anyway. Spike is my reminder that evil can do good even while good is doing evil. It's too horrible to forget. Angel, Angel, please remember.

Her mind raced on, too chaotically for her to even know if it made any sense, but she just looked down at her hands on her lap while nobody in the room said anything.

Finally Oz spoke, his voice uncertain and reluctant. "You're talking about Spike, right?" The continued silence, and probably a nod from someone, answered his question. "Did we tell you yet that he sold information on us to Daemonis?"

"That's it," Angel snarled as Buffy's heart jumped into her throat. He punctuated his words by jabbing his hand in the air, his eyes set on Buffy with a burning gaze. "You see? Not harmless. I'll take him out myself and you won't need to get his blood on your hands." He turned back to Oz. "What did he tell Daemonis?"

Oz's answer was cut off by the doorbell. Angel cast a quick glare in the direction of the door, prompting Willow to get up and answer it rather than let anyone be greeted by him. She returned with Giles, Father Tom, and Anya, who arranged themselves on the furniture still left vacant. Buffy noted that they had all the core members of their group here now, but there was no pretense of formality to their meeting. Probably every one of them was confused about one thing or another, and everyone was waiting for answers, and that was the only business they had.

"This is an uncomfortable silence," noted Anya. "Someone should say something, preferably about why we're all here."

Xander took the initiative to complete the story that they had already told Buffy and Angel, while Oz and Willow contributed additions and corrections. Everyone tried not to interrupt, but questions came up swiftly, the first being one that was first on Buffy's mind, too: how did Spike know what he knew?

It seemed to take some effort for Xander to answer; he locked eyes with Buffy first and pursed his lips, but before he could open his mouth, Willow spoke instead. "He says Riley told him."

This time Angel was too furious to even make a sound. He was leaning on the back of the couch, and Buffy thought she was the only one who could see his hands tightening on it for a second. She was too preoccupied with her own reaction to pay attention to his, though. Riley? The world's most stable former boyfriend had turned traitor? The world's most morally absolutist soldier was sharing confidences with a vampire? "This can't be right," she said, studiously avoiding looking at Angel.

"Let's get him over here and find out," Angel suggested softly.

Buffy stood up, not knowing why except that he was standing up. "No way," she said.

"I expect he would be averse to accepting such an invitation anyway," put in Giles. "And in the meantime we have other matters to resolve."

"Yeah," said Xander. "Like, how many notches on the Danger Scale is Daemonis up since yesterday?" He looked at Father Tom. "How bad is it that he knows you're a psychic?"

Father Tom folded his hands with an indifferent shrug. "It's possible that he knew already, and if not, he would have found out sooner or later. I can't read his mind, so the only danger it poses to him is what I learn from the humans who happen to see him. Now, the other secret that this Spike has divulged concerns me a bit more."

"Concerns us too," said Buffy, sitting back down. "What was it again?"

"That we've seen Daemonis's scar, and we know what it means."

Buffy, Willow, Angel, Xander, and Anya all simultaneously responded to this anti-revelation with some version of "We don't know what it means." Willow, however, followed her response with, "Some kind of poison, right?"

Giles took over from here, holding up a book he had brought along with a few papers stuffed under the cover- his style of bringing along the absolute minimum in research materials. "Ah, yes," he said. "I've recorded all the necessary information on the origins of the compound used, and the symptoms he should be, ah, should be suffering because of it. It's magical in nature, and specifically intended for vampires. In fact..." he paused here, and sure enough, the glasses came off, and sure enough, he was cleaning them as he began speaking again. "...It's a variant of the poison that Faith used on Angel before the Mayor's Ascension."

Buffy didn't care if she and Angel weren't getting along at the moment, she still had to reach up and squeeze his hand when she heard that. He rubbed her hand with his thumb in response- not a resolution to the argument, but an acknowledgment of their feelings in spite of it. She relaxed a bit, and he confided for her ears alone, "Had about enough of finding out things I've got in common with this guy."

"That stuff was hardcore," said Oz. "How come he's still walking around?"

"Because it's a much weaker variant," Giles explained. "He may be feeling some of its effects already, but they won't disable him for months. Aside from the slower rate of affliction, however, it's, ah, almost identical. It was administered in the same way, it will eventually kill him if left unchecked, and...the cure is the same."

Various sighs and swears came from throughout the room. Father Tom blinked. "I don't ask to hear the whole story, but the phrase on everyone's mind seems to be 'Blood of the Slayer.'"

"We don't like to talk about it," said Willow.

Anya's answer was a blithe contradiction of Willow's. "Xander said that Angel kind of went crazy and sucked all of Buffy's blood out, only she was the one who decided he should do it. And he was all ashamed and ran off to LA, but I'm not sure what the big deal was because hello, both still alive-"

"Anya shut up." Buffy's whole body was quivering with tension. She wished she had something to hit. "The point is that now we know what brought Daemonis to Sunnydale."

"Yes." Father Tom remained stoic, but Buffy could see that his eyes kept returning to the face of the only person in the room whose mind was locked to him. "I'm sorry, Buffy. If Sister Florence had known that her poison could have this kind of consequence, I doubt she would have used it. And I feel very optimistic about keeping anything untoward from happening, now that we know what he's after."

"Hold on," said Xander. "Sister Florence? There are battle nuns? Willow, you should-"

"Jewish," Willow snapped, putting a quick stop to Xander's derail.

Giles got them back on track. "We can certainly be optimistic about this. With or without our interference, Daemonis's days are numbered if he doesn't get his hands on Buffy, and we can see to it that that doesn't happen."

"Oh good," said Buffy acidly. "I wasn't feeling sheltered enough."

Angel's hand slid into a protective grip on her shoulder. "His days can get a little more numbered, as I see it. He won't get his hands on her if he's dead."

"And we're all okay with killing him," Oz affirmed. He looked around. "Right?"

Buffy nodded. "You're not going to see me pull the 'harmless' card on this one. I mean, a bad guy we can trash without any moral ambiguities getting in the way- bright side!"

She meant only to lighten the mood a little bit, but nobody laughed, and Willow actually looked like the comment had compounded her anxiety. Buffy peered intently at her, wondering if it was best to ask what was wrong or to wait until she could get her alone, but Willow took the matter into her own hands and spoke up, sounding like she was about to hyperventilate with pressure. "I'm? I'm working!
On a, on a, on a spell. I'm working on a spell!"

"So," said Giles heavily. "I suppose we're ready to talk about this."

***

"I noticed something when I was researching the spell to secure Angel's soul. I found out how to remove it from his body, and I thought I saw how to get it back without the loophole, but I couldn't seem to specify which vampire I wanted to put a soul into, and I didn't want to risk getting the wrong one. So finally I, you know, had a little interview with the vampire, and I got the information I needed to put the right postage on the soul, and it worked and the rest is history.

"Except it's not, because afterwards I looked into it to see why narrowing it down should be the big hurdle. I wanted to know what would happen if I didn't specify any vampire at all. And I found out pretty fast, the answer is nothing, 'cause me by myself doesn't have enough power for it to work, but when I added some more power to the equation- I'm talking heavy duty spellcasters here, and lots of them- all it means is that there aren't any limitations to the spell. We could cast it again, leave out the part I tailored in about Angel, petition for volunteers...and it would be universal.
"Guys...we could give the souls back to all vampires."

As Willow finished speaking she tried her best to see everyone's reaction at once. She knew there would be questions, statements of disbelief, and probably enough shouting to excuse her from the duty of trying to understand what anyone was saying, but before all that happened, there would be shock, and shock meant silence, and that gave her a grace period. So, reaction examination time.

Giles, who had already known all of it, gave her a reassuring nod of approval- he knew how hard it had been for her to get all that out at once. Father Tom, who also knew a bit about her intentions, was nonetheless deep in thought, rubbing absently at his beard. Xander was clutching his head and staring wide-eyed at the floor, and Anya seemed more interested in him than in the news itself. Buffy and Angel were staring at each other with matching expressions of dread. Oz, though, he stared at Willow. He was halfway across the room from her and the last thing she'd really said to him was that she was pissed, but she knew that look. Distorted as it was by the purple bruise still spreading around his eye, that was the look that told her he was going to support her in whatever she chose, and for the moment, that was enough to keep her going.

"Pretty sure that's impossible," Anya said offhandedly.

Willow's blood boiled, but she refused to take it as a challenge. Instead she looked at Giles, hoping to pass the floor to him.

"Ah, yes, I understand it would seem so," he said. "I've certainly never heard of it being attempted before. But I've examined Willow's formula at length, and it appears completely legitimate. The question we must now address is about whether we should use this power."

Xander lifted his head from his hands. "I'm not feeling ready to address that yet. You're just going to dump something impossible in our laps and ask if we feel like trying it out?" He looked at Willow. "Isn't there some kind of scientific method to this? Are we just going to launch it from the hypothesis stage?"

"You don't understand." Willow realized that she had failed to predict how much the questions and statements of disbelief were going to frustrate her. Why couldn't everyone just not be stupid for a few minutes? "I saw the possibility before I had even cast Angel's spell. All I've been doing since then is trying to disprove it. We're way, way past hypothesis." She glanced at everyone again. Most of their expressions hadn't changed, but their attention was now with her. "So I just want to say that if this were up to me, I would say let's not do it, because it scares me and it makes the future really complicated in ways I don't want to list but which will probably be listed for me. But I can't be the one to make the decision, so...discuss."

"We have to do it."

The words had such a mechanical, hollow sound to them that Willow had to look up to be sure it was Buffy who had spoken. Buffy wasn't looking at anyone, just shaking her head slowly. "We have to," she repeated. "It's the right thing. It could save so many lives."

"And destroy so many others," Father Tom intoned. "A vampire with a soul is no longer a vessel of pure evil. It's a person, capable of good and evil, like any of us. To do this is to rework the destiny of more souls than we can count. It's playing God, in short."

Oz rubbed at the area around his black eye. Willow made a mental note to find him some salve or something for it. "What makes this playing God?" he asked, sounding genuinely curious, not confrontational. "Everyone starts out with a soul. Vampire comes along, takes it away. Wouldn't we just be putting it back where it belongs?"

"Putting the theological aspect of the issue aside," said Giles, "there are still ethical complications integral to our decision. For instance, we cannot assume that all vampires will change their behavior immediately upon, ah, becoming reacquainted with a conscience. Daemonis is proof of that. Depending on the original human nature of the individual vampire, it might even become worse, and it goes without saying that there will be an added element of unpredictability."

"Yeah, and on that note," said Xander. He looked sideways at Angel. "Is our resident expert on the matter going to weigh in any time soon?"

Angel had been listening to everyone as they spoke, wearing a dark frown but showing neither agreement nor objection to anything that was said. "Giles is right," he said shortly. "It's unpredictable."

"Well, that was massively helpful," Xander groused. He clapped his hands together decisively. "I say we cast the spell and then sit back and see what happens. That should make it a lot more predictable."
Willow glared. "Funny, you weren't so gung-ho about restoring souls when it was Angel's at stake." The words were out before she'd had a chance to consider them, and suddenly she wondered if Angel knew that Xander had opposed her plan to try Miss Calendar's spell, preferring to make Buffy kill him instead. Well, it wasn't as if she could put them on any worse terms with each other than they already were.

Angel showed no reaction. "Don't count on suicides," he said. It wasn't clear if the remark was directed at Xander or all of them. "There will probably be some, but most vampires are afraid of death, even if they're miserable. It's too much to hope for all of them killing themselves off."

Buffy gave a short, cynical laugh. "How did we end up living in a world where hoping for mass suicide was overly optimistic?" She slouched against the back of the loveseat, where Angel still hovered behind her. "And I just can't wait for the way they're going to try to persuade me that it's kinder to let them keep feeding on humans than it is to take away their chance at redemption. You sure you don't have any secret mega-spells to turn all vampires human instead?"

Willow knew she wasn't serious, but she shook her head sadly anyway. "Maybe they won't want to keep feeding on humans, though."

"Yes they will." Angel's hard voice had no trace of uncertainty in it, and Willow didn't want to know why. "Doesn't mean they'll do it, but they'll still want it."

"It's the nature of the Beast," Father Tom added quietly.

"Okay," said Buffy as Anya opened her mouth, doubtless for another humiliating comment. "Who wants to adjourn and go home and talk about this later after I've had a day or two that doesn't make me want to puke?"

Giles was the first to agree. "Ultimately I believe we'll have to make this choice together, and if we do conduct a spell of this magnitude, we'll need everyone's participation in one way or another. However, nobody is expected to offer any insight before we've had a chance to think about it by ourselves. Willow?"

She shrugged. "It's not like we're on a deadline." A moment later she realized that he was treating her as the leader, waiting for her acquiescence before letting the discussion end. She wasn't at all sure that she liked that.

"Great." Buffy stood up abruptly and limped out of the room without her crutch. Angel watched her go, but apparently he could see that she didn't need or want his assistance. The limp was definitely less pronounced today, Willow thought. A moment later Buffy returned, giving everyone an odd look as if she hadn't expected that they would all still be in there waiting for her. "Just called Riley," she explained. "Left a very brief and uninformative message on his machine and don't anyone try to tell me that it wasn't my place."

Angel looked like he had just received an unwarranted chastisement. "Of course it's your place," he said.

"Right, so now that we're off the souls topic," said Oz. "How about the cranial implant topic?"

"Spike?" said Giles. "Yes, we should deal with him as soon as possible. Where have you left him?"
Willow saw Angel lean forward, almost imperceptibly, under Buffy's apprehensive gaze. She stumbled over her response to Giles. "In, in the cage. Oz's cage. Um...what are we supposed to do with him?"

"I'm sorry," said Angel coolly. "But Spike is my responsibility. I'm going right now."

Nobody except Buffy seemed to have an appropriate answer to that. She grabbed his shoulder and yanked him around to face her, cutting off her words in a low, savage voice: "Then I'm. Going. With you."

***

"You're not doing him any favors, you know."

It had been a long silence for such a controversial remark to break it, and Buffy wished she were in a position to refuse to answer. Forced to lean on Angel's arm and keep to his slow pace as she was, though, it was no good ignoring him. "Who says I want to do him favors?"

"Especially if he's around when Willow's spell goes through," he continued as if she hadn't spoken. "The best thing we could do for him is kill him before he has to learn what it's like to have a soul."

Buffy plugged on, wishing they would get to the crypt just so that the walk would be over. "You talk like nothing good ever came from your curse."

"I wasn't cursed so that good could come of it. They just wanted to make me hurt."

"Sure, and they accidentally made a hero. If you're trying to make me believe that putting souls back into vampires is a bad idea, you shouldn't be using yourself as an example."

Angel shook his head. "I'm not. But if you're trying to make me believe that killing a vampire right now is killing a potential hero, you shouldn't be using Spike as an example."

"I'm not." Buffy paused and sighed. "I don't think I am. I'm not sure what I'm trying to make you believe."

Angel graced her with an unexpected and welcome kiss on her head. "It's confusing, isn't it? And everyone's going to think it's less confusing for me because I've gone through it. But I can't be the voice of all vampires. It took me a good century to even understand what a conscience was supposed to mean for me."

"But you never thought it meant you should die?" Aside from the way his experience influenced the choices ahead of them, she had always wondered about this. "You never considered killing yourself?"

"Oh, I did. It was just cowardice that stopped me, at first. Then guilt. Then you, but you know that part."

"Cowardice, guilt, and Buffy," she recited. "The three big lifesavers."

Angel let that one slide, and they walked a little more in silence. Buffy's anxiety was eased a little now that they'd had a conversation with a minimal amount of hostility, but she still didn't know what was going to happen when they reached Spike. The silhouette of the crypt with the cage in it loomed out of the darkness ahead of them, and she looked up to Angel's face to see if there was any mercy there.

Mercy? For Spike? Maybe it was time to figure out how she really felt about dishing out mercy for demons.

She went down the steps first, keeping one hand against the wall to balance on her one good foot. It was as dark as, well, as the grave is dark, and she had to rely on a tiny pocket flashlight as her eyes began to adjust. Spike had heard her coming and was standing with his arms crossed through the bars, smiling as if he hadn't a care in the world. "Slayer," he greeted her. "Been a while since I rated a personal visit. I'm charmed. And you're not alone."

Angel came to her side, noiseless as a cat. "You're alone," he said.

"Yet somehow, not lonely." Spike straightened out of his pose on the bars, his movements seeming sudden and disjointed in the beam from Buffy's flashlight. "So! Are we going to do this in here, or out under the stars?"

"I'm not here to fight you," Angel replied, and Buffy let out a breath she hadn't realized she had been holding.

Spike seemed truly surprised. "Bollocks! Do you need more incentive? You want to hear about every depraved act of violence I've committed since last time I saw you? You want to hear about the incriminating evidence I've been sharing with Daemonis? You want to hear about what your girl's been up to with her life-sized action figure while you were gone?"

Buffy took a step toward the cage. "You want to hear about how painfully obvious it is that all you've been aiming for is a shot at Angel?"

"Actually," said Angel, "you might get some mileage out of one of those. What can you tell us about Daemonis, Spike?"

"That he's lucky in cards but unlucky in love, and he dreams of one day leaving this life of evil behind so he can retire to the woods and become a lumberjack. Is that going to be enough to set me free? No, wait. You won't be doing that no matter what I tell you. Suddenly I'm not sure why I should comply with your requests."

"We could hurt you a lot if you don't," Buffy suggested.

Spike chuckled. "Right. You with your bum leg, or him who just said he isn't going to fight me?"

"She could probably beat you into oblivion with both of her feet broken," said Angel, "but how about both of us? I only mention this because I'm about to open this cage, and I don't want you giving me reasons to kill you before Buffy agrees to it."

Buffy beamed at him as he started entering the lock's combination, the new one that Oz had set on it. "That is so sweet!" Her smile faded as the door opened and Spike stepped out. "Wait, why are we doing this?"

"We're going to have to take him home with us." Angel grimaced as Buffy shined her flashlight in his face to see if he was joking. "Hey, I don't like it either, but I need to question him and besides we can't keep an eye on him if he's all the way over here. It's just for a few days." He glanced at Spike. "And you're not getting your old bedroom back, I already turned it into a studio."

"Makes no difference to me," Spike assured him. "As long as I can get a room you two have screwed in, and that's probably all of them..."

Buffy pulled back and gave him her best right hook. It was enough to knock him to the floor, and as he scrambled back to his feet she let out a sigh of pent-up energy and said, "My God did that feel good! It has been way too long since I punched a vampire!" She turned excitedly to Angel. "I think I'm ready to start training again!"

He smiled and gave her shoulders a congratulatory one-armed hug, as if she had just won a stuffed toy at a carnival game. Spike glowered at her, full of the sheer fury that Buffy had only started seeing in him once he was forced to contain it, quivering slightly with the desire to hit her back. In a flash he spun toward Angel and hit him instead, full in the face, sending him staggering backwards.

Buffy wasn't surprised at how quickly Angel returned the punch. She knew what it was like to start operating on reflexes once a fight began. This wasn't supposed to be a fight, though, so she was relieved when he prepared for Spike's retaliation by posing to block it. "Are we good here?" she said to both of them as Spike pulled himself together for the second time. "Everyone got one in, so we're all even, right? It's...balanced."

Spike wheezed in an attempt to laugh. "No, princess, it would be balanced if he hit you."

Buffy shrugged. "Well, he's over that." She peered into the cage. "Hey, look. Ropes. You want to be tied up for the walk home?"

"Oh, you're into that?"

"So did you attend the School of Perversion, or were you actually an instructor?"

Spike grinned. "Instructor. In fact, you've just reminded me that there's a lot I know about Angel's past that you don't, and I would be more than willing to instruct you, as we'll be spending the next few days together."

Angel placed a hand on Spike's shoulder, a gesture that was just barely benign enough to keep Spike from starting another round of violence. "If you think that's ammunition," he said, "you don't know a thing about Buffy." He gave him a push in the direction of the stairs.

"And you never will," Buffy agreed cheerfully. "Plus, I'm thinking you can stay in the basement, where I don't have to see you."

"The lady of the house makes the rules," said Angel as the three of them made their exit.

Buffy's announcement that she wanted to resume training seemed to be prophetic; they were attacked by a pair of vampires on their way home. She got in one good punch before Angel steered the fight away from her, but the big surprise was that Spike didn't hesitate for a second before joining in. As Angel was staking the first vamp, Spike was kneeling over the other, pummeling him repeatedly.

"Stake!" he yelled. Angel examined the scene for a moment before tossing his stake to Spike, who dusted his opponent and stood up.

The two vampires eyed each other, Spike twirling the stake in his fingers with a knowing grin. There was a precarious moment of indecision as Spike remained there, unbound, holding a weapon. Then he flicked the stake back to Angel and put his hands in his pockets. "So. Are we there yet?"

***

Angel didn't feel like talking business with Spike after they had locked him away in the basement, and Buffy maintained that she didn't feel like seeing him at all, so they decided to pretend he didn't exist for the rest of the day. There was a lot that Angel wanted to talk about- why they had spared Spike, how the universal re-ensoulment would affect their future, whether they could anticipate the next move from Daemonis- but it was too much for words and by the next night they still weren't quite ready to get too in depth with it. He wanted to be doing something with her, though, so he suggested they start training with some Tai Chi.

There were a few simple forms that worked for her current condition, and he modified a few others to keep the weight off of her foot. She moved in serene immersion in the exercise despite his occasional interruption to offer pointers, until he told her for the second time to focus on her breathing. She stayed in the form, but opened her eyes to give him a wry look. "You don't breathe."

"I do for this," he told her. "And for you there's an actual benefit in keeping the oxygen flowing. It's all part of the..." He broke off, peering out the window. Had he seen something moving there?

Buffy stepped out of the pose and stood normally, waiting for Angel to continue. He pried his eyes away from the window and sighed. "I'm sorry. I'm the one who's not focused here. Do you mind if I go take a look around outside? There's probably nothing there, but it's been a long day, and..."

"And it helps you rest easier," she finished for him. "I know. I'm going to go give Willow a call, she's probably still in need of a shoulder." She stretched her arms over her head and then flopped them down and headed upstairs. "Let me know when you've got all the boogymen exterminated."

Angel took his keys and locked the door behind him- if he was going to be paranoid, he wasn't going to do it halfway. Outside was exactly as he had left it: clear, crisp, a few stars, no boogymen. He started a circuit around the house and was half done with it before he saw movement again. Something was headed for the front door. He quickened his pace, keeping silent, and approached the front of the house without being seen. Suddenly devoid of patience, he poised himself to intimidate as he stepped forward, taking a protective stance directly between the house and the intruder, a tall human man.

"Riley," he said. He wasn't sure if it sounded more like a threat or a greeting. He wasn't sure which one he intended.

The soldier stood his ground, stoic in the face of danger. He was dressed in civilian clothing, unarmed as far as Angel could tell, though he had on a big jacket that might be hiding something. "I came to talk to Buffy."

"She's not home."

Riley accepted the lie as easily as it had rolled out of Angel's mouth. "Fine. I'll come back later." He cut off the response Angel was about to make. "And I will keep coming back, until she answers the door or you decide to deal with me once and for all." He turned to go.

Angel stopped him verbally instead of giving in to the urge to stop him with a cuff on the head. "Maybe you should talk to me instead."

"Oh," Riley chuckled over his shoulder. "Should I? Didn't think you were much for talking. Has the throwing-people-into-walls style of communication not been working out for you?"

"Why does everyone think I want to fight them lately?" Angel took a step closer. "Look, if it would make you feel any better, we can take a few swings at each other, but I'd just as soon skip that stage and buy you a drink." That was a lie too. A really big one. Angel was dying for a little catharsis and Riley's face looked very inviting to a restless fist. But there was no way to squeeze a fair fight out of that scenario, and explaining it to Buffy was not an appealing prospect. "You are drinking age, right?"

Riley wasn't entirely as dumb as he looked; he could hear the lie and his skepticism was evident. Unfortunately, there wasn't an easy way to explain to someone like him the difference between wanting a fight and starting one. Angel sighed. Trying to build trust between the two of them wasn't going to be the right approach. "Okay, forget the drink," he said. "But you're at least going to sit down and talk to me."

"Why?"

"Because I don't want you coming back here, so I'm dealing with you once and for all." He headed toward the outdoor path to the enclosed garden, beckoning over his shoulder but not looking to see if Riley was following. After a brief pause he heard footsteps behind him.

When they entered the garden, Riley looked up and all around, studying everything around him, stone and flowers and statuary. Angel wondered if it was reflex for him to do that whenever he was in a new place, or whether he was picturing Buffy and Angel living there, comparing it to his own life. Angel sat down on a low wall; Riley sat on the same one, so they didn't have to face each other.

"You really want to hit me, don't you?" asked Angel after a while. "It's not about winning. You just want to express yourself physically." He hesitated, noting Riley's silence. "But you're not going to be the one to throw the first punch."

"No." Riley stared straight ahead. "And it looks like you're not either, so here we are."

"Guess we have something in common after all."

"Thought that was the problem in the first place."

Angel eyed him through the darkness. "Maybe in the first place. Now we have some other problems keeping me occupied. Why have you been giving information to Spike?"

Riley snapped his head around to face him, appearing both astonished and offended. "What the hell would make you think I was doing that? I've been getting information from Spike. Big difference."

"Well, today he told us he'd learned all about Daemonis's scar, and Father Tom, and Oz's lycanthropy. And then your name came up."

Riley shook his head in disbelief. "Xander filled me in on what's been happening, but I didn't tell anyone. Even my squad, I only told them what they needed to know so we could use the new facts." He considered for a moment. "I asked Spike about his scar." He tapped his own eyebrow. "Xander didn't tell me what the deal was with Daemonis's, so I asked Spike how a vampire could get a scar."

"Huh." Angel hadn't expected that answer, but his impulse was to believe it. Even he hadn't really believed that Riley had just spontaneously started fraternizing with an obvious enemy. "If he's met Daemonis, he's seen his scar. He could have guessed why you were asking."

"And the other stuff...I assumed everyone knew who Father Tom was. I warned my men that he could read their minds. Spike might have been around. And Oz was all over the place that night. Wouldn't have been hard to put two and two together, and Spike seems to like to create chaos for us."

"Could be," Angel allowed. "Sneaky bastard."

"I'm going to kill him," Riley vowed.

"Oh, you can't do that."

"What, because he's helpless? I didn't have you cut out as caring about that too much."

Angel shrugged. "I don't. It's just, I got there first, and he's locked in my basement. So, you can't kill him."

Riley released a heavy sigh. "You always get there first," he said with undisguised jealousy.

In a way it was sobering to hear that kind of honesty from him, but Angel couldn't help feeling a little smug, and he hoped it wasn't showing. To be on the safe side, he didn't say anything until he was sure he had his facade back under control. Both of them sat silently on the wall, listening to the crickets. Angel glanced upwards; he could see the bedroom window and the light was still on. He wondered if Buffy was still on the phone with Willow, and whether they were comforting each other at all.

Riley was the first one to speak. "You know, she said your name in bed once."

Angel turned to him in outright incredulity, and Riley raised an eyebrow and nodded. "It's true. It was near the beginning, before I knew about you." He laughed bitterly. "I took it as a compliment."

He had known that Buffy had slept with Riley, though he tried not to imagine how frequently it had happened or details of any kind. He had known, too, that Buffy had never stopped caring for him during her relationship with Riley. But somehow, this little revelation felt enormous to him.

Riley didn't show any special interest in Angel's reaction. "I'd forgotten all about it until recently," he said, and shook his head, staring down at the ground.

Was there any kind of appropriate response to this? Don't worry, Angel imagined himself saying, I'm sure she really did think you were an angel. Or, Don't worry, at least you got to touch the body of the most incredible woman you'll ever meet while the man who really loved her was keeping away from her for her own safety. He remembered how he had warned him the last time they met, saying he had good reasons to not kill him but could be swayed into questioning them. The dirty truth was that it still held. He and Riley were essentially on the same side, but if that ever changed... Angel flagged down that train of thought and brought himself back to the present. "Did you ever take her out for breakfast?" he asked.

"Uh, yeah." Riley narrowed his eyes as if expecting a trick. "A few times."

"I always thought that would be nice, to take her out to breakfast."

There was another long silence. Then Riley said, "I'm leaving California."

"Thank God." Angel decided that honesty was working pretty well for this conversation after all. "Where are you going?"

"I don't know. The army might have a mission for me overseas. Either that or I'll go back to Iowa."

Angel nodded. For the next few moments he occupied himself with trying to remember if he had ever been to Iowa. Either he had, and it looked just like every other state around it, or that was just the impression he got from what he heard about it. Well, from now on he could actively avoid it. He stood up. "Buffy's upstairs," he admitted. "I can go get her if you want to talk to her."

Riley looked bemused for a moment, then resigned. He stood up as well. "I don't think I need to. Just...tell her goodbye for me, I guess."

"I will," Angel replied, hoping that Riley could tell that it was a promise.

He led him out of the garden and back around to the front of the house. There wasn't much in the way of farewell that either of them wanted to give each other, but as Riley offered a simple nod and turned to go, Angel remembered something. "Wait. Riley."

"What?"

"Keep in touch with someone from here. Xander, or Giles...just make sure someone knows how to contact you. There might be something happening here that you need to know about."

Even Riley's inevitable look of exasperation looked tired from the emotional effort put into it. "But you're not going to tell me what's happening, right?"

Angel shrugged. "Apparently we're going to change the world. Good luck in Iowa."

***

"Getting anywhere with Spike?" Willow asked casually. She sat down at the table with a mug of hot chocolate and an armload of reference materials, completely in her element. She had always been good with research, Angel recalled, but now she seemed more at home here in the Magic Box, handling Giles's occult books and swapping commentary with him and Father Tom, than she was at the Summers house.

Giles and Father Tom both looked up at Angel upon hearing the question. He had told them he would let them know as soon as he had any worthwhile information, but he couldn't blame them if they were antsy. Spike was currently their closest link to Daemonis, and with the Initiative out of the picture they and Spike were the only ones who had any kind of link to him. "Not really," said Angel. "We're still negotiating what's in it for him. Just telling him we'll let him live isn't really holding any water. He knows I'm not going to leave him in my basement forever, and he knows we're not letting him loose while they're still a chance he's going to carry tales back to Daemonis, so it's hard to find a threat I can make good on or a bribe I'm willing to offer."

There was an uncomfortable silence, which Angel didn't quite understand until Willow said timidly, "So you're not going to, like...make him hurt?"

Angel blinked. "Torture him? Are you asking me if I'm going to torture him?" He looked around at the others; the answer was clear on their faces. He sat back heavily in his chair and rubbed his temple. "No, I'm not. Especially not in my own home, and Buffy's, when he probably knows precious little if anything. If you want to see him hurt, someone else can do it." That last sentence wasn't called for, he knew, but it bothered him that all three of them could still see inflicting pain as part of his profession.

He was distracted enough as it was. He had been as honest as possible about Riley's visit, but Buffy had an unexpected reaction to it: pure guilt. She had never even officially broken up with him, she said, and owed him an apology that she couldn't give now that he had gone. Angel didn't think his feelings on the matter were going to help at all, so he had mostly held his tongue, and that just put another difficult subject of conversation between them. Now he had to leave her at home with Spike. If there were two people that Angel didn't want to think about when he thought about Buffy, Riley and Spike fit the bill.

"Right, well," said Giles, covering up the tension. "We'll have to see if we can come up with anything that will entice him to speak. In the meantime, has everyone brought some ideas on who can be petitioned to assist us in our other endeavor?"

Father Tom held up a hand. "The Church has channels of communication that I can use to call on our defenders around the world. The question is whether they'll be willing to take part in this, and to be honest I'm still not sure that I am. All of the clergy's actions must be in line with our Lord's teachings, and oddly enough the catechism says nothing about the act of imbuing all the world's vampires with souls."

"Yes," said Giles, "Of course we're, we're not yet decided on our own actions in that regard. However we choose, though, I should like to be prepared for it. Perhaps we can ascertain their point of view beforehand? Find out if we can count on their support, if we find ourselves in need of it?"

Angel spoke up before Father Tom could. "That means letting the whole Church in on this," he said bluntly. "That's not meant to offend, Father, but I'm not sure if we want that many people- around the world, as you say- knowing about what Willow has uncovered here. Especially before we decide if we're doing it."

Willow paled; she for one certainly didn't want that. Father Tom regarded Angel with a closed-off expression, then said, "You know I can't keep secrets from the Vatican. If nothing comes of this, then it's not a secret and there's no need to bring it up, but if it does happen, I'm letting you know right now that I'm not a free agent."

"So there's that," said Willow unhappily. "And let's not any of us suggest trying to keep secrets from Father Tom, 'cause I don't think that works out too well." She sighed and removed a sheet of paper from one of her notebooks. "This is a list I made of the biggest names in English-speaking Wicca circles. I can probably expand on it, what with the universal languages of spellcasting and all, but I thought I'd start here. I'll kind of have some issues with these people too, though. Nobody's going to take me seriously until they all read my formula and double check it and mutter at each other a whole lot, so again with the going public too soon thing."

"But if we do want to go public," inquired Giles, "you can get their attention?"

"Oh yeah," Willow affirmed, recovering some of her cheeriness. "I know this one website? It'll spread like wildfire."

Angel tried to hide a wince. He had tried surfing the internet a few times and it served as a disturbing reminder of eternity. It had hardly occurred to him that modern witches were using it as an avenue to discuss the occult. Were there websites about nineteenth-century vampires, too?

Giles exhaled, seemingly matching Angel's discomfort with the topic. "It seems all of our potential contacts are shaky in one way or another. For my part, I'd like to raise the possibility of involving the Watcher's Council."

Willow and Angel both groaned, eliciting a dry chuckle from Giles. "Nobody's favorite people, I know, but they have some power at their disposal, not to mention a wealth of information found nowhere else."

"They'll try to take charge," complained Willow.

"So will everyone else," Father Tom pointed out.

Giles shuffled some papers around on the table. "Indeed, we could benefit from some less complicated allies. Angel, do you have any sources for us?"

"I called LA," he replied. "I've got my team on it. Wesley's going to call back tomorrow with a list of names and then we'll try to work it out so that the minimum amount of money is required."

"Very good," said Giles. "How is Wesley, then?"

"Doing fine. Getting to be a good person to have at your back in a fight." He thought that would interest Giles, who had suffered having Wesley at his back in a fight when it wasn't a good thing.

Willow was interested in something else. "Money, huh?" she asked.

Angel smiled. "It's a different kind of scene than you have here. Before we set up the agency I really never thought I'd be wishing for the simplicity of Sunnydale."

"Well, soon there won't be a simplicity of anywhere." She frowned. "I really don't want to do this."

"You've said so," Giles reminded her, not unkindly.

There was a part of Angel that couldn't get too troubled over the spell because he didn't really believe they'd end up doing it. The rest of him, though, was convinced that this kind of doom fit right into his life and he should have seen it coming years ago. He still needed to talk some more with Buffy about it. He could tell they had both had the same thought as soon as Willow made her announcement, but neither had brought it up yet. That night with the acid had strained something for them that wasn't fixed yet, he felt. They were getting along fine, but in a way he could still taste her blood in his mouth.

"I don't either," he said abruptly. "I've been responsible for a lot of different kinds of pain, but I've never been responsible for making someone feel the way I feel. Let alone every damned member of my species. You don't know what they're going to go through. It's torture." He looked all three of them in the eyes, making sure they knew that he was addressing all of them. "And I don't like to torture."

He stood up, gathering what little of the material on the table belonged to him. He could see the hurt in Willow's eyes, the slight nod from Father Tom. Giles he tried not to see at all. Before any of them could reply, he picked up where they didn't realize he had left off. "But that's not what this is about. This is about the people who will still be dying brutal and pointless deaths, generations from now, because we didn't want to get our hands dirty. Maybe this isn't going to lead anyone into Heaven. Maybe we have to do it anyway."

He left the store immediately, not wanting to consider any opposing viewpoints at the moment. He had considered them all already anyway. He slipped a hand into his pocket and wrapped his hand around the stake he found there, gripping it tightly. The more of his kinsmen he could kill before the spell was cast, the more merciful he could feel.

***

Wesley called back the next day with a professional's punctuality, and had compiled a decent list of potential allies, all of them people and benevolent demons skilled in the use of magic. He even offered to start calling them, but Angel explained the uncertainty about when and how to involve others, as well as the uncertainty of the wisdom of doing the spell at all. Wesley sounded surprised for a moment that there was any doubt about going forward with it, but understood the need for secrecy and promised to pass it on to Cordelia and Gunn as well. Angel was relieved that they hadn't started spreading the word already- he hadn't even thought to tell them not to.

"I must say, I'm rather surprised at your optimism," said Wesley after Angel had written down the whole list, with notes by each item, and thanked him several times. "I was about to apologize for the lack of substance in most of these possibilities."

He had already apologized, actually, since after almost every name he added some kind of qualifier: "Unfortunately he's been known to back out of arrangements," or "They'll probably request some kind of blood oath from us," or "Nobody is precisely sure if she even exists." He had correctly interpreted Angel's lack of objection to the warnings as optimism, though. At this point Angel was only looking for raw power, and those who had it were bound to have some kind of catch, so if anything this was a good sign that they were legitimate. He could scrutinize them further after the team had actually contacted some of them.

"Wes, the other leads we have right now are the Watcher's Council, the Catholic Church, and the witches of cyberspace. Believe me, this is great."

"I see your point." Wesley was about to go on, but he was interrupted on his end by Cordelia's voice and replied to her before returning to Angel.

Angel could hear their conversation clearly enough, though part of it was muffled, probably by Wesley's hand over the receiver. "Is that Angel?" asked Cordelia at first. "Did you tell him about Darletta?"

"No, I'm not going to trouble him with that now," said Wesley in the quick voice he used when trying to be firm.

Cordelia's voice rose in indignation. "Then give me the phone and I'll trouble him! Seriously, are you just going to-"

At this point their words became scrambled as they started talking over each other, and Angel had to practically shout to get Wesley's attention back. "What are you talking about?" he demanded when he finally did. "What's Darletta?"

Wesley sighed. "I should have known you could hear."

"Put Cordy on," Angel said curtly. It always had to be one or the other of them being difficult, didn't it?

"Angel?" said Cordelia a moment later. "Yeah hey it's me. Okay, so a couple weeks ago this woman shows up at the agency and says her name is DeEtta Kramer. Pause- does DeEtta ring any bells for you?"

"I'm not sure it's even a name."

"Yeah, me either. Anyway, she's all acting like she's got a case for us, but when she finds out that the Angel of Angel Investigations is not personally available, she completely loses interest and leaves before even telling us what her case is."

"Very rude," said Angel. "Did you do any investigation on her afterwards?"

"Naturally! And everything checked out- normal human married American lady. Except for one thing: recently had some business with Wolfram & Hart." She paused to let him react, which he did with an aggravated groan. "Yep, our lawyer buddies are apparently not as dormant as we thought. But that was a dead end, and we didn't hear anything else from them or from her, so we figured they were just trying to get a look at you and we let it go."

Angel thought about that for a moment. He wished that they had told him about it at the time, but he had already realized that they weren't going to give him detailed accounts of everything that happened while he was gone and that he was just going to have to live with it. He wasn't sure he would have done anything differently than they had in this case, anyway. "Go on," he said.

"Yesterday that same woman came to the agency again, only this time she was calling herself Darla."

Angel shivered. It had to be coincidence, but still...

"She was upset," Cordelia continued. "Not making a lot of sense. She said we had to find you and bring you back, and wouldn't tell us anything else no matter how many times we told her we were trying to help. Angel...wasn't Darla your sire's name?"

"Yes," he said haltingly. "But she's been dead for years. This is just one of Wolfram & Hart's mindgames. They've probably messed with some poor girl's mind in one way or another, but it's not Darla. If she comes back, offer to take her in, she can use my room. But don't tell her anything about us and don't promise her I'm coming back."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Cordelia snapped. "You're never coming back?"

"No! No. I'll be back. Just not for this. They still need me down here. Buffy still needs me."

Cordelia's voice softened. "Priority number one, right? How is she?"

"Back on her feet. Starting to train again. Being hunted by an embodiment of pure evil who wants to drain her blood to heal himself." He chuckled sadly. "In other words her life is starting to get back to normal."

"Yeah, that's our girl. Tell everyone I said hi. I've got to go yell at Wesley for trying not to trouble the boss."

"Don't be mean. He's been great. Is he still planning to come down and visit?"

She laughed. "Yeah, I'm sure a couple days poring over ancient books with you and Giles is exactly the kind of vacation he needs. Gunn and I are going to rearrange all the weapons while you're both gone."

"Don't do th-"

"Bye!" Click.

***

He was back in the dungeon, surrounded by ashes on the floor and darkness that human eyes couldn't penetrate. Manacles hanging from the wall before him held the pale form of a girl, kneeling with her back to him, red slashes standing out against her bare skin. Her head hung down as far as the restraints would allow, but he could see blonde hair spilling over her shoulder as she slowly turned her face to look at him.

"Hello, lover," said Darla. Her voice was languid and smoky, and she stretched against the chains in a sultry arch. "You're not going to stop now, are you? Don't I need to be punished a little more?"

"You certainly do," he replied, a smile dancing at the edge of his mouth. "I'm just considering the best way to go about it."

From the doorway to one of the deeper chambers appeared another woman, dark haired and bony, holding up her arms as if pushing invisible streamers away from her face. "Are you going to hurt Grandmummy?" she inquired in a lilting accent. "The stars are all breaking tonight, it's dreadfully noisy."

"I think I'm going to hurt both of you," he said, looking her up and down. "Get back in bed, Dru."

She laughed, a high pitched sound of delighted madness. "Oh, goody," she proclaimed, and sashayed out of the room.

He turned back to Darla, thinking about which way he wanted her. Finally he stepped forward and unlocked the manacles, intending to take a taste of her blood before bringing her to the bed to join Drusilla.

"Angel?"

He lifted his face from Darla's neck with a low growl. It was nothing but the English translation of the name Darla had given him, but nobody called him that, and the voice was neither hers nor Drusilla's.

"Hey, Angel. Wake up."

Angel's body jerked as he reached consciousness. He pulled away from Buffy for a moment, afraid to touch her, but she ran a hand through his hair and over his back, and gradually he regained the sense to separate her from the dream.

"Your turn for the nightmares, huh?" She sounded only sympathetic. If she only knew.

"Yeah. A nightmare." There wasn't really anything else he could say about it. "Sorry I woke you up."

"You didn't." She shifted herself on the pillows to a more upright position. "I've got prophecies keeping me awake."

So it had finally come up. "The Shanshu," he said.

She nodded, never taking her eyes off of him. They were engulfed in the strange kind of artificial darkness of morning sun blocked by heavy drapes, the kind of atmosphere that had meant bedtime to Angel for centuries. Buffy was probably still getting used to it, but she had been sleeping better lately than she had after first moving in. Spike's presence in the basement didn't seem to bother her at night, perhaps thanks to the two floors between them. It was a shame there had to be prophecies interrupting that progress. "If all vampires have souls," she said, "which one is the prophecy for?"

He sighed and let his head sink down on the pillow. "I don't know. Somehow I can't quite believe we'll all become human, though."

"No. Me either." She curled her fingers around his hand. "But maybe it means, like, the original vampire with a soul."

He raised an eyebrow. Didn't she remember? "In which case..." he prompted her.

"Oh. Daemonis. Ugh. Bad thought." She shuddered as if shaking it away, and tried again. "What if this is the apocalypse you're supposed to prevent? Then you would Shanshu before everyone else gets souled on the idea."

He surprised her with a passionate kiss as soon as she finished speaking. "Been too long since I heard you pun," he explained through her giggles when he broke away. "And maybe you're right. We can hope for it, anyway."

"Okay. Hopeful is helpful. I can get back to sleep if you can."

"Buffy." He stopped her with a hand on her wrist as she started settling herself back into a sleeping position. "I know this is hard for you. I only just told you about the prophecy, and now it might be taken away from us already. And this on top of all the other consequences...I just want to say I understand if you...need some distance. Some time to think about what we're doing."

"It's okay." She kissed his cheek and nestled her head into the curve of his neck and shoulder. "I don't. I'm in for the long haul, said so before I knew there was even a chance you'd turn human someday. You're still my future. Sweet dreams."

As warmed as he was by that- no hesitation, even- he wished she had chosen different words to wish him goodnight. The images of Darla and Drusilla had not fully faded away, and he feared they would return as soon as he closed his eyes. He focused on Buffy instead, sliding his fingertips through her hair and trying to be hopeful, as she'd said. He might be human for her. There was still a chance.

What would it be like? He remembered his one day of human life (as vividly as if it had actually happened), but it had been so brief, and he had been so absorbed in Buffy's presence, that there were still aspects of it that he could only wonder about. Aging. Daily routines in the daylight. Maybe a legal identity and a last name. Or a first one. Nothing about human life was the same as it had been when he was young.

The dreams would never go away, he realized. The demon in him could die, leaving him as merely a soul and a body, and maybe he could forget the way it felt for his face to change on him every time he fought someone, forget the sudden stabs of panic whenever he felt himself approaching happiness, even forget the taste of Buffy's perfect blood, but he couldn't forget the past. That kind of punishment didn't have an expiration date. Food and sunshine and a heartbeat, all those were good, but the real reward being offered to him was mortality. An ending that would be chosen for him with no more need for sacrifice on his part. Everything else was icing...and a chance to give something back to Buffy.

"Shanshu," he whispered to her sleeping form. The word sounded like a breath. "For you, my darling."


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