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

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Let Me In (6/15)

Title: Let Me In
Author: Kairos
Rating: PG-13 (violence, some language, some sex)
Wordcount: Roughly 145,000 total
Notes: Holy noodles this story is long.



"It's been days."

It had been six days, to be precise. For six days Spike had been in the basement, when Angel had promised her he would be gone in just a couple. Buffy had left all the questioning to Angel, knowing he didn't want her down there, but he had dutifully relayed every conversation after having it and the truth of the matter was that Angel was doing all he could. If Spike was going to snitch they couldn't let him out, she knew that, and since she was the one who insisted on letting him live, she couldn't very well complain when Angel kept going down with a cup of blood and a resigned look on his face and coming up again with nothing.

Obviously Spike was the one to blame here, so when she opened the door to the basement for the first time since it had been made a prison, her words were pure accusation. She didn't see the vampire and didn't move from the top of the stairs. He was down there somewhere, and he had heard her, and he would show himself.

"Has it? How many, then?" He stepped into her line of vision and stood at the bottom of the stairwell looking up at her. They hadn't been binding him, though they barred the door at night, and they had even brought him some of his own clothes from his crypt, which Buffy thought was going above and beyond. He hardly looked like a prisoner at all, just Spike. "Hard to keep track from my point of view," he continued.

"Don't try tugging at my heartstrings, Spike. Nothing's going to unravel for you." She crossed her arms. "What are you holding out for?"

He smiled. "Holding out to see you, of course. I like you better than I like him, wounded as I am that it took you so long to visit, and something tells me you're going to be a better negotiator."

"Oh, you've got to be kidding me. Look, Angel is speaking for both of us in this. There's nothing I'm going to offer you that he hasn't."

"Sure about that?" Spike glared up at her. "How about a little common sense? Have you got any of that in supply, or has your other half used it up for both of you?"

Buffy laughed. "Common sense? This is you speaking?"

"Listen to me, you stubborn git. If you don't trust me, how much do you think Daemonis does? He sends me to kill one little werewolf and I end up spending the next week harbored by the enemy? And you really imagine I'm going to waltz right back to him with a new list of pointless details I've learned in my time here, and he's going to take me back with open arms. No. He sees me again and it's my own cremation." He fixed her with an intense gaze, though his voice still dripped with disdain. "Angel doesn't realize this. He thinks I'm set to stir up mischief as soon as I step out the door. But you know what I'm about. You remember I kept my end of the deal, and all I wanted was to get out of the game. And that's all I want now."

Buffy listened, but shook her head slowly at the end. "You don't want out of this game. If you did, you wouldn't be keeping secrets. You would have told Angel what you knew."

"Right, and for what? He'd still think I was too dangerous to let loose in the innocent world, and I'd still be in this pit but with no leverage to keep the splinters out of my heart. Your faith in my conniving nature is touching, doll, but look at it this way: nobody gets to be totally neutral here. For a bloke whose main interest is in saving his own skin, the smart plan is to cast his chips with the winning party."

"Flattered, Spike. Really."

"Don't take it personally. We can also just label you 'the party least likely to kill me.' I don't like you any more than I did last week, but remember I'm not so taken with the idea of doing evil for its own sake, especially since evil is such a bloody pain these days. Let me out, do your best to get rid of the lumberjack from Hell, and I won't lay a finger on your people. Human or not. In fact, I'll do my part to keep the streets free from crime."

Tired of the way she was craning her neck to look down the stairs at him, she sat down on the top step. She was still above him, but this was more comfortable. "And you'll tell us everything you know?"

He nodded seriously. "The very moment you let me out of this house, and I'll keep reporting to you if I get anything new."

"Nuh-uh. Disclosure happens first. You think I'm just going to let you go and then tell Angel about it when he gets home? It's been hard enough pleading your case as it is. And I want you to say it for his ears too, so we're waiting for him."

"Brilliant," muttered Spike. "There goes the advantage I was looking for by talking to the sensible one."

She shrugged. "I'm also the persuasive one. You've got a chance yet. But one more thing." She leaned forward onto her knees, getting just a few inches closer to Spike's level. "What did Daemonis promise you?"

He paused, lips tightening into a line as if he had no intentions of answering, but he also made an unconscious motion and rubbed the back of his neck, and that was all the answer she needed. "You really thought he could get the chip out, huh? Is he a mystical vampire surgeon? Thought he could sweet-talk the Initiative into reversing the process, maybe? No, don't even bother telling me. I knew there was only one thing you wanted, and believe me when I say I'm not sorry I'm not offering it."

"Oh, there are plenty of things I want. Nothing a girl like you would ever dream of offering a man like me." He took on his vampire face, much more slowly than the change usually happened. She wondered if it was just as easy for them to do it that way, or whether it was a trick they had to work at. "Well," he said through his sharpened smile, "maybe a man a little bit like me."

"Grow up," she requested, and stood back up, opening the door to leave.

"I also want a sodding cigarette," he shouted as she closed it neatly, without the hint of a slam.
"Heartless slavedriver!"

She smiled and even chuckled to herself as she barred the door and left the basement behind. She was going to get Spike out of her house. She should have gone down there days ago.

***

"You know what I like to do when I'm around this many people?" Spike asked Angel cheerfully. "I like to rank them in order of which ones I'd most like to eat. Do you do the same thing? Yeah, I bet you do!"

Buffy had turned to Angel with a raised eyebrow before she could catch herself and remember that everything Spike ever said should be ignored. Poor Angel, he'd think she was mocking him too. He was already avoiding eye contact with Spike, which was noticeable to everyone because of the way they were walking, with Spike deliberately matching Angel's stride and sticking close to him. Buffy held onto his arm on the other side and resolutely made no comment.

"Want to hear my list for this group? Right, well first one's the Slayer, of course, but that's the obvious choice, what with the power boost and all. Say, what's that feel like, anyhow? Is it sort of like when Popeye noshes a whole can of spinach?...Fine, don't answer me. Next is the witch, and then wolf boy, but only if he's not going to do any surprise transformations in the middle of it. Lord Librarian there I haven't really got any interest for, so he's at the bottom. I'm still getting a feel for the new guy, maybe right after the mutt. Want to share yours? I'm guessing you'd put the librarian a little higher, but other than that I bet it's the same as mine."

Nobody had even tried interrupting Spike as he was talking. Giles and Wesley were still a few steps behind everyone else, discussing something privately, and everyone else was pretending to scout, as if there was any chance that a vampire would attack while they were clustered in a big loud gang like this. "So," Willow hazarded at length, "we're supposed to treat him like a good guy again?"

"No," said Buffy and Angel together. "He's a bad guy being tolerated by the good guys," Buffy elaborated. "And even that much is still in the trial run period. No good guy treatment required."

Spike integrated a little bounce into his gait, reminding Buffy of how much she hated it when he was in a good mood. "Thought the trial run was the part when I told you everything I knew about Daemonis," he said. "We did that back in the mansion, remember?"

"And it did very little to inspire us with any great feeling of confidence in you," said Giles as he and Wesley rejoined the rest of them. "You're still working on that."

"Don't I know it!" Spike agreed. "And since the method you've chosen is for me to annoy your enemy so much that I haven't a chance at survival without your protection from him, well, consider Operation Piss Daemonis Off in full swing."

Buffy sighed. Operation Piss Daemonis Off had been her idea. It was nothing more than an attempt to repeat what Spike said had already happened: aggravating Daemonis enough that Spike couldn't have rejoined him even if he tried. Only this time, there were witnesses. Spike was going to prove, in front of everyone's eyes, that he was stuck with the Scoobies and dependent on their acceptance of his aid. If he satisfied that requirement, the deal was that he could go back to his crypt and come back to them with news, if he ever got any without being in Daemonis's loop.

She believed that he had spilled everything he knew so far, but there wasn't much that could help them. The poison was just barely beginning to affect Daemonis; he was slightly weakened and in some pain, but still possessed of his full mental capacity. (Spike's analysis of his current level of strength was "still stronger than me," and when asked if he was stronger than Angel too, Spike just laughed.) Soon he would begin to get desperate for his cure, no doubt, and the weaker he himself got, the more followers he would accumulate to get the job done. Spike assured them that attacks would be coming more and more frequently and would soon include more than vampires, and he was also confident that there would be someone out this very night who he could pulverize to prove his loyalty.

"Let's split up," said Wesley. He and Giles started in one direction with Spike; Buffy and Angel went in the other with Willow and Oz. The two groups were still fairly close when they stopped walking, but there were plenty of tombstones and trees to hide behind, and even Buffy's keener-than-usual night vision could lose the shapes of her friends among the midnight shadows. She and Angel slumped down against a large headstone and Willow and Oz sat nearby. It was Spike's night for action, not theirs, and all they had to do for now was sit and wait.

"Hey, Buffy." Oz wasn't typically the first to speak, and Buffy tensed herself automatically, thinking he was about to warn her about something behind her. But there was only cold stone at her back, and Oz went on to say, "Sorry about the bad trip."

She blinked a few times, needing a moment to remember that Oz was indeed the one who had given her some laced candies, and that they had indeed led to a bad trip- two bad trips, actually. Her cheeks heated a little, though he wouldn't have seen that in the darkness. It was Angel who needed an apology for that night, not her, but she couldn't tell Oz that. "It's okay," she said. "It was my own choice, not yours."

Oz nodded solemnly, and Buffy squeezed Angel's arm, hoping he would recognize some kind of transference of forgiveness between the three of them. He shifted restlessly beside her, and she knew he was giving Oz the critical stare, the lowered forehead. "Everyone made a choice," he said.

Buffy stiffened. "Something wrong with that?"

"There is if your choices end up hurting other people. Or yourself."

"Guys?" Willow broke in nervously before Buffy could get herself worked up about that. "I have these great mnemonic devices that we can use to help us study while we're out here, in case anyone is bored and doesn't want to entertain themselves by having arguments thinly veiled as philosophical hypotheses."

Buffy laughed in spite of herself. Willow the peacemaker. What would any of them do without her?
"Yeah, good idea. What's that one that summarizes everything I missed in all of my classes this semester?"

"It goes like, 'Here we are in the cemetery,/ Buffy never studies and that's kind of scary-"

Oz cut in. "Looks like Spike just found someone to bury."

They all turned to look. Spike was engaged in a vicious battle with two vampires, a male and a female. Perfect. His fighting style was more aggressive than either Angel's or Buffy's, though less fluid. In a way, Buffy was reminded of Faith. Another piece of personal flair from Spike was his constant string of taunts and boasts, finishing with a snide "Tell Daemonis thank you very much" as he planted a stake into the male's heart.

That was Angel's cue to stand up and let himself be seen. "Nice job, Spike," he called as Spike started concentrating on the female. A trained eye could tell that he wasn't actually concentrating on killing her, though. When she took a chance and made a run for it, he didn't pursue, and Angel approached, saying, "Ooh, but you let one get away."

Spike snapped his fingers with exaggerated dismay. "Shucks."

When the vampiress was safely out of range, the rest of them stood up and came together. "Well, it looks like I'm on your side now," said Spike. "Q.E.D., with God as my witness, and also all of you wankers. Can I go home now?"

Willow tilted her head curiously. "Aren't they just going to come kill you there?"

"Eh, I'll work out some home defense. Not entirely positive they know where I live, anyway, and I'd rather take my chances than get to know Angel's basement any better."

As Spike departed, Wesley came up close to talk to Angel. Even so, he kept his voice down very low, so that Buffy had to strain to hear it, and he looked over his shoulder a couple times at Spike's receding form. Buffy realized that he must have learned a lot about a vampire's sense of hearing. "Giles and I have been debating the merits of this mass ensoulment spell," he said. "One issue that has us puzzled is the logistics of siring new vampires. Once you had recovered your soul, did you ever...?"

He cringed. Buffy did a little sympathy cringe along with him. "No," he said. "You think we need to find out what the next generation would be like? I'm not sure it's that big of a deal compared to everything else. I never even wanted to, I can't imagine why anyone would."

Buffy prodded him gently. "But remember how you can't be the voice of all vampires?"

"Point taken." He sighed. "I wish there was just one other person with a history in all this..."

He and Buffy had the same thought at the same moment; it looked like Wesley was having it too. Everyone else had gone a little ways ahead of them, which made Buffy wonder momentarily if she was still slowing them down with her sore foot. "Of course there's no way to have a rational discussion with Daemonis," Wesley said hastily. "Even if he had something to say, he'd still kill any of us on sight."

"Nah." Angel half-smiled. "Nobody with a master plan ever wants to kill me, they just want to corrupt me. Look, Wes, can you take Buffy home? I think I can make this work, but I have to hurry before Spike gets too far away."

That was more than enough for Buffy to decide to release the fury on him, but he was too quick for her- he grabbed her by the shoulders, kissed her hard on the lips, and took off running after Spike.

"It's funny," said Wesley as she stood there fuming and the group in front of them turned around to see what had happened. "Everyone talks as if Angel was once a beast, tamed by the hand of the Slayer. But he really doesn't act very tame, does he?"

***

Although he had had no particular expectations about where Spike would lead him, Angel almost laughed when he beheld the secret lair of the mighty Daemonis. It was a house, a completely ordinary two-story house in a completely ordinary middle class neighborhood, separated on either side from two other ordinary houses by a few meters and some bushes. Granted, nobody had been maintaining the yard very well, but they hadn't been there long either, so it still blended in perfectly with the other homes in this suburban landscape. Angel had to hand it to him, this was creative.

It also meant he had a door to knock on, which was a nice alternative to sneaking through crypts and sewers. He ordered Spike to go back to the mansion and guard Buffy ("Sure beats guarding you," said the younger vampire), and was promptly invited in by a pair of fledgling vampires who had probably never even been in a real fight.

There were more of them inside, perched on the scant shabby furniture or leaning against the walls, but not many. The rest were probably on the streets making the most of the night, or hidden in another lair, of which Daemonis probably had several in town. Angel was just glad that nobody had brought a victim here. He hadn't come to fight, but he wasn't about to measure his purpose against someone's life.

He was pointed toward a door at the back of the room and entered it without a second glance at the residents. It was a bedroom, but without a bed or much of anything else. No, Daemonis was definitely not living here full time. Anyone who had held power for as long as he had must be accustomed to some luxury, and wasn't going to be found in conditions like this unless he had a specific reason for it- like meeting with Angel. If there was any further proof needed that he had expected the visit, there he was, sitting in an old leather chair that faced an older and uglier empty one, the only two pieces of furniture in the room. He grinned and gestured at it as Angel came in.

Angel sat down and regarded him silently. He remembered the way he had confused Darla when he was young, because the sight of an elder vampire didn't awe him the way it was supposed to. Even as he learned to recognize and respect them, they had always just looked ugly to him. Who would want to lose access to a human visage?

"You're cheeky," said Daemonis. "I knew you would be."

Cheeky? He had been there for thirty seconds and hadn't said anything. Then he remembered. Protocol said he should be in his own vamp face, acknowledging the presence of one older than himself. "I'm rusty on the proper etiquette," he replied. "Am I supposed to threaten to kill you now, or do you go first?"

"Oh, threats are redundant at this point." Daemonis steepled his fingers, like a true classic villain. "And of course we should get to know each other a little bit first, don't you think? We're like spirit brothers. The only two who truly know."

"No." Angel wasn't in denial, he knew their shared experience tied them together in a way that no other vampires matched. But he had enough pride to resist getting fraternal about it. "You used to know. You chose to forget."

"Spare me. As if you don't try to forget every day. The guilt, the loneliness. You kept it because you didn't know there was a way out, and you're trying to condemn me because I found one when you didn't?"

"There's more to this than guilt," said Angel, sidestepping the issue of whether he had known that there was a way to lose his soul again. He hadn't, and he still didn't know how Daemonis had done it, and it might soon be relevant, but direct questions weren't going to get him very far right now. "And there doesn't even have to be loneliness. And I found that out when you didn't."

Daemonis leaned forward with another one of those sickening grins. "Are you sure?"

For a moment Angel wasn't quite sure what to make of that. Maybe each thought the other was talking about something else. But Daemonis continued speaking with the word, "Love." No, they were talking about the same thing.

"Yes, I knew love," said Daemonis. He nodded at Angel, whose surprise must have shown on his face. "With a human girl, no less. Like yours."

Angel's surprise deepened; this time he even shook his head in denial.

"I didn't always look like this, you know," Daemonis rebuked. "Once I was the very model of male perfection. Any woman might have fallen for me. One did. And I for her, of course, and for a time it was beautiful and tragic."

"Probably more tragic than beautiful, though."

"You're rather cynical for one who's still fighting the good fight. But yes, we had our difficulties. On top of everything else, it was not an era which was particularly kind to a woman having an affair, so we both knew that she at least was doomed if anyone ever found out. But I'd tell her she had to leave and she would just come back in tears the next night. We promised our undying devotion, and we raged against the unfairness of the world that kept us apart, and we made love a thousand times beneath the stars."

"Ah," said Angel, not bothering to hide his envy. "So no loophole, huh?"

Daemonis chuckled deep in his throat. "I've heard your story, you know. More tragic than beautiful, indeed, but now you have her back again. And I wonder how that must feel when you know it can't last."

There always had to be some kind of evil authority lecturing him on his relationship with Buffy, didn't there? He didn't rise to the bait- Daemonis didn't know as much of the story as he thought he did, anyway. "How did it feel for you?" he asked. "Did you watch her grow old and start feeling disgusted with her while she was cursing you for your youth?"

"Nope. Never had to. I solved the problem like a rational vampire would. I kept her."

Angel stared as comprehension set in. This was what he had come to find out, in part, but he had never expected this kind of story to go along with it. Daemonis had loved a human woman when he had a soul, and he had turned her? There was no way to escape the next thought; Daemonis had covered it succinctly with the 'spirit brothers' comment and now he could only keep drawing parallels between them. It came in a series of mental images, the same ones he had forced down so many times before because they were too sordid and too alluring: drinking from Buffy, finally taking as much as he wanted to, feeling her heartbeat slow down, ripping his skin on his own fangs for her, sending his blood down her throat, having her with him for all eternity; too much, too terrible, too never. He never would. Buffy was safe from that much, at least.

"I had my doubts, I'll give you that. 'Oh my dearest, you deserve better than darkness and blood!' That whole routine. But the one result I hadn't counted on...well, I hardly knew what a soul was until she woke up and she didn't have one and I still did." There it was. The answer.

"You never considered that? Are you serious?"

Daemonis shrugged, not seeming to notice the way the hump on his back hampered the motion. "Like I said, it was all a mystery back then. But it put some serious strains on our relationship. I still had her blind devotion, but she wanted to kill and I was squeamish about it. She had a sense of humor and I was still moping about the curse of eternal life with a conscience. She adored me, but for my soul she had only contempt, I could tell. So it had to go."

"Wow," said Angel, putting as much irony into his voice as he could attain. "That's love, alright."

"Don't go looking for me to express my regrets. My paramour and I had centuries of bliss together once I eliminated the problem between us. In fact, it was only thirty years ago that I had to leave her to the daylight- long story, still no regrets- and I freely admit I still miss her."

"You seem to be holding up well in your time of grief."

"I get by." Daemonis gazed squarely at Angel, his eyes looking more orange than yellow. "I've felt healthier than this, though. Tell me, how fast does that miracle cure start to kick in? More importantly, is it as tasty as it looks?"

He's seen her, Angel thought. It wasn't that surprising; Daemonis obviously had a knack for lurking unseen, but Angel still felt cold upon hearing it confirmed. "The only cure that you're getting is the one that will send you to join your paramour."

Daemonis snorted. "I don't miss her that much. I have an idea: I'll tell you how to break your curse, you can get that taken care of, bring me the girl, and instead of just draining her I'll sire her too, and you two can have your happily-ever-after. How's that sound?"

This had the effect on Angel that proper protocol hadn't, and he bared his fangs as one animal to another. "I have an idea," he snarled. "I'll lock you in your own dungeon and watch that poison drive you insane if the hunger doesn't do it first..."

"Now that's not very creative," the deformed vampire chided. "Didn't you used to be a master of torture? Did that talent die in you when you realized that nothing could possibly equal your own misery? Or is punishing me with your own angst the whole purpose of this little plan you're cooking up with your human buddies?"

Angel's rage vanished instantly, replaced by sudden fear. "What plan?" He had to hear more. This could still be a bluff.

"Don't play dumb with me. I'd have killed you long before this if I wasn't so interested in what you thought you were doing. The one vampire in all the world who could understand what I went through, how hard I pushed to gain my freedom, and all you want is to take it away from me again. I even offer you the same release, and you turn it down for the sake of some toothsome wench. Not funny, Angelus. Let me put this into terms you'll understand: I do not want my soul back."

"I didn't want mine either," Angel said cautiously. "But I accepted it when it came back to me."

"Very honorable," Daemonis sneered. "Do you think the whole world will accept theirs by your example? Succeed or fail, boy, letting this spell be cast is betrayal of the worst kind, and it's going to be the end of you. This is your chance to give up on it now before that happens."

This spell, he'd said. The whole world. He knew. He knew the whole plan, or close enough to it. Angel stood up, backed away from Daemonis for a few steps, and then ran. He was dimly aware of the fledgling vampires in the other room giving him bewildered stares as he burst through it, and the door swinging open behind him as he got out into the night air. This was his chance, Daemonis had said. He could only hope that one chance was enough.

***

"Thought we were leaving that door unlocked for him," Willow mentioned as they heard a rapid pounding knock from the back entrance that could only be Angel.

"I don't like leaving the doors unlocked," Anya said defensively as Giles got up to answer it. "It means untrustworthy people can come in and steal things instead of paying us money for them like customers do."

Giles ignored her this time; they'd been through it too many times already and the urgent sound to the knock made him concerned that Angel was in some kind of immediate danger. He thought he might break the lock if he had to wait another moment.

Angel was alone, but he stepped in swiftly and bolted the door behind him. "He knows," he said.

Everyone at the table heard him. "Who knows what?" asked Xander as Father Tom rose from his seat in an automatic response to Angel's dire manner.

"You saw Daemonis," said Giles. Until now he hadn't quite believed that was really Angel's intent. "What does he know?"

Angel strode further into the store, grabbing books and papers and setting them in a haphazard pile on the table. "He knows about the spell. He knows he's in danger of getting his soul back again and he knows we're the ones behind it. None of this is safe here." He gestured widely at the stack he was making, which Giles now saw was compiled of everything they had used to author the final version of Willow's spell.

"What do you think he's going to do?" squeaked Willow, easily surrendering the notes she had been working on.

"I know what I would do." Angel's eyes glinted with suppressed fury. Giles could see the tactical mind of Angelus behind them, and he could feel the alarm in the room growing. Angel pointed at Willow. "I would kill you. And I would kill Giles. And I would destroy every scrap of paper that mentions a word about what you've discovered, and every book you read to lead you there, and every tool you're planning to use." He waved his hand at the table. "How much of this is strictly necessary? Can we start destroying it?"

"Not just yet," Giles barked. "What is your plan here, Angel? Are we going to abandon our progress and then hope he doesn't attempt to eliminate us anyway?"

"No." Angel's determination didn't waver, but he slowed down a little. "Just the opposite. We're taking this public, and as soon as we possibly can."

Xander stood up next to Father Tom. "Does anyone else smell a little bit of the crazy coming from him? Is it somehow not enough for Daemonis and his vamp buddies to know what we're up to, so now we have to tell the whole world? So much for group decisions!"

There was always some kind of reminder, whenever both were present, that Xander and Angel didn't like each other, but since Xander hid his contempt with jokes and Angel did his best to avoid all interaction, it was easy to forget the depths their enmity could really reach. "Shut it, kid," growled Angel. "This isn't group decision time. They could decide to make their move at any minute, and if we're still the only ones who have the secret when they do, they'll stop at nothing to keep it from going any further. You see this?" He picked up a sheaf of paper- it was a printout of the spell in its entirety, complete with diagrams and instructions, Willow's final draft. She had dutifully prepared it for distribution in the case that they chose to distribute, even though she hadn't wanted to. "Five seconds with a lighter and it's gone for good. You see your friends? They wouldn't last much longer. Then Daemonis takes a nap and goes back to hunting Buffy, if he hasn't already gotten her in the first attack." He looked from Willow to Giles as he kept speaking. "You cannot be the only ones to know how to do this. You're painting targets on yourselves."

"He's right," said Father Tom as Giles was coming to the same conclusion. "If the formula is public domain, Daemonis can't contain it and he wouldn't gain anything from attacking us."

Willow looked no less scared. "Except he knows it was our fault and he'll wanna kill us for it anyway."

"It's survival versus revenge," explained Angel. "He already wanted to kill us. With this much at stake for him, though...he'll move fast. He'll go for the threats."

Angel was staring down at the table, but gradually he lifted his eyes and met Giles's, who only realized then that he had been staring at Angel. He was thinking about a smashed computer in a school laboratory, a broken orb, and a teacher whose good intentions proved fatal. Of course Angel knew what Daemonis would do in this situation. "Willow," said Giles. "How soon can you get the spell online?"
Willow's laptop was on the table in front of her. She looked up at Giles and saw resolve. "Five minutes," she said gloomily.

"Do it."

As Willow began to open files and copy text, Angel moved away from the table and started checking outside through all the store's windows. Anya was already up and doing the same thing, Giles noticed, and probably had been ever since Angel came in. Giles picked up the printout that Angel had referred to and flipped through its pages. "I can fax this to the Watcher's Council in the meantime. Father?"

"Here's another number you can fax while you're at it," said the priest, scribbling it down and handing it to Giles. "I'll call them tomorrow and tell them what it's about."

"Light it up when you're done," called Angel from where he was standing, up by the front door. "And any other copies. And don't leave it on a disc. Or in your own files."

Xander sat back down and dropped his head into his hands. "This is insane."

"That's enough," Giles reprimanded him so that Angel wouldn't. He started feeding paper into the fax machine. "As soon as these go through we're all going to our homes, and the books are coming with us. Everyone take a few, keep them separated."

"I wanna know something," Xander persisted. "How does Daemonis know about this? I feel like I would remember that detail if it had been covered already."

"I don't know," said Angel, still holding his post at the front door but apparently making use of his keen senses to listen to the conversation at the table.

Father Tom was stacking up the books and straightening the rest of the materials. "Nobody in this store has disclosed any secrets," he assured Xander without taking his eyes off of his work.

Xander was certainly feeling dogged tonight. "Except you can't read the mind of everyone in this store, right?"

"Oh shut up Xander." That was Willow, who at the same time was typing furiously on her laptop and locked onto its faintly glowing screen. Finally she leaned back, hit the 'enter' key, and said,
"Done." Somehow she made that single word sound like an apocalypse chime.

Giles still had a lot of pages to finish faxing. "Yes, perhaps you could make yourself useful instead," he said to Xander. "You know how to use this machine, yes?"

"Yeah, I met one once before the world learned they were already obsolete." Xander got up and took the pages from Giles, freeing him to approach Angel and put a little space between them and everyone else.

"We will all follow your lead in this," he said quietly to the vampire. "I don't regret that. But now I need to hear what happened tonight."

***

"The sheer nerve of that man! Running off like that and you just know he's got some plan to risk his life before he gets back here, and how about that 'Take Buffy home' comment? And as if that's not protection enough, now he's got Spike all standing sentinel outside? Why doesn't he just write me a love letter that starts with the words 'You can't take care of yourself'? Oh man and you should have heard him going off earlier about making choices that get people hurt, it just could not be any clearer that he's talking about his own guilt complex, like it's not my place to make a choice about whether I want to be with him. And then he gets snippy with Oz, who's like the one male person in my life who doesn't give him the evil eye every time he sees us kissing, oh, no offense Wesley, you're the bomb, but if Angel thinks that since he's the boss in LA he can be the boss around here, he's got another thing coming. Soon as he walks in that door he's getting the time-honored Indignant Housewife Slap Across the Face, and then I'm going to sit him down and make some rules about how much he's allowed to take care of me. Damn skippy."

Buffy took a deep breath and released it, fingering the spring-loaded stake sheaths on her wrists. She was glad she hadn't loaded them, and Wesley probably was too, because with the way she had been gesticulating, she probably would have accidentally fired them by now. "These are cool," she said to Wesley, holding up one of them. "Did he make them himself?"

"I think so." Wesley sounded relieved to have something to reply to other than a longwinded rant about Angel. "He uses them fairly often, so I thought he would appreciate having them here."

"I wonder if he could make a pair for me." Even with the straps cinched as tightly as possible, they were still loose on her; Angel's hands were so much bigger than hers.

"It might be difficult to conceal them under a tank top."

Buffy had to laugh. Wesley was so much more tolerable now that he wasn't her Watcher. "Good point. I have a strict rule about using weapons that I can't coordinate with my wardrobe."

"He isn't just being overprotective, you know." Wesley's eyes were sympathetic but confident behind his glasses. "He always tries to take the harder responsibilities on himself. With all of us."

"I know," said Buffy. "I hate that. It's like he thinks he's already damned, so he might as well take the fall for everyone else, too." She looked up at Wesley, suddenly needing to share her concerns with someone else who really knew him. "But he isn't damned. The part of him that's really him, it's, it's pure. He just doesn't see that part."

There was a sound at the door, Spike's voice, Angel's voice, Spike's footsteps departing. Buffy wasted no time before striding over to the door just as Angel entered and hugging the living daylights out of him (even though living and daylights were already just about antithetical to everything that was Angel). She thought she saw Wesley from the corner of her eye, with an I-just-knew-it look on his face, probably thinking of what she had said she was going to do when Angel walked in the door. Well, she hadn't said it was the first item on her to-do list. The slap came immediately after the hug.

"Hi, Buffy." He could do that resigned voice like nobody's business, even while rubbing the redness from his cheek.

Wesley cleared his throat loudly. "So, I'll just be on my way..." He had been offered a room at the mansion, of course, but he had decided to stay with Giles, which suited Buffy at the moment. She and Angel both put off their quarrel until Wesley had left the building.

"I don't want to hear about what happened tonight yet," she told him after they'd sat down in front of the fireplace. "First I want some expressions of your eternal devotion."

He looked taken aback. "Buffy, has that ever been in doubt?"

"Well, it's been sandwiched between a lot of attempts to set me free for my own good, and those are starting to wear on me. I don't want to be set free, okay? I locked myself in your crazy selfless stationary heart, and I'm the one holding the key. Do you know how stressful it is to always have to worry that one day you're going to decide that I'm better off without you, and you're just going to vanish from my life? You could do that. You're Vanishing Guy. It's freaky."

Angel took his time before answering. "You can't ask me to put you in danger."

"You can't ask me to interpret every kind of danger as your fault. You've kind of been doing that lately, you know." Buffy let herself calm down. She'd already had enough ranting for the night.

"Have I?" He twitched a little, like a sigh without the air. "It's just been a lot of reminders lately of what I can't be for you. The prophecy, and seeing Daemonis tonight...and that normal ex of yours showing up..."

So he had seen Daemonis. Curious as she was, that still had to wait a few minutes. "You really didn't like Riley, did you?" she said gently. "It wasn't just that he was my boyfriend."

"To be honest?" He raised an eyebrow at her. "I would have rather seen you with Xander."

"Oh, wow. Huh. Give me a moment to process that one."

"Riley thought I was evil," Angel said. "Twice. And sure, he didn't know what he was looking for, but he knew how the curse worked, didn't he? When you came back from LA that time, he thought you had cheated on him, released an evil vampire into the world, did nothing about it, and came home and lied to him. You wouldn't have done any one of those things. Why would he not know that?"

Buffy gave a tiny shrug. There was always going to be a little bit of regret when she made Angel speak as openly as he was now. "He said it was because he loved me so much he couldn't think straight."

Angel scoffed. "Want to see a funny trick? I can love you and think straight at the same time. And so can Xander."

She smiled. "Thank you. That's generous."

"It's the truth. I still don't like him, and don't expect me to ever start, but I've seen enough to respect him. When you were in the hospital-" He hesitated there. Buffy waited, noting his downcast eyes and the difficulty he was having with choosing his words, and realized that he wasn't talking about the last time she'd been in the hospital. These were the signs that said he was talking about the period in which he had lacked a soul. "I...I came for you one night. I might have killed you that time if I'd gotten to your room. Xander made me leave. He was afraid, but he stood up to me, and he stopped me in the only way he could. I can't tell him that I'm grateful for that, but I am." He picked his eyes up off the floor for a moment. "And that's why Xander feels more like competition to me than Riley ever did. Because I could feel like he was there for you, even if it hurt me to know it."

"There you go again." She slid closer to him and put her head on his shoulder. "I never see any reminders of what you can't be for me. Only what you can."

"Really?"

"Really." She let some of the exasperation back into her voice. "So enough with the leaving-me-so-I-can-have-a-normal-life deal?"

He gave her a crooked smile, and she knew she had won. "Okay, I won't do it anymore. Because you don't like it. Oh, and-" he lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. "-I promise you my eternal devotion."

"This is turning into a decent night after all. Probably means it's time to ruin it by filling me in on the latest news about Team Evil." She arranged herself with her legs draped over his and his arm around her shoulders. "Okay. To business."

***

The beast lunged at her, savage and senseless, and refused to be cowed by the metal bars that kept it back. It pressed its body against them, slavering as it set its teeth on them, straining to reach its claws out as far as the bars would permit. Finally it threw back its head and howled.

Willow turned a page in her book. She was getting used to the wolf's antics, but it was annoying when he howled- the sound echoed terribly in the stone chamber. She checked her watch. He'd been canine for at least twenty minutes now, so he should be winding down.

Sure enough, the beast backed away from the bars, panting, and threw himself onto the floor in a frustrated heap. Willow stayed still, making sure not to look at him. Sometimes eye contact could get him riled up again. She had a theory that the change from wolf back to human came as much from boredom as anything else. Oz claimed that if he locked himself up when nobody was around, he could go back and forth with surprising ease, as if the wolf didn't have any good reason to remain a wolf. When Willow was watching over him, though, she was distraction enough to throw a wrench in the works, and that was the wrench that Oz wanted to work on.

A few minutes later she heard the panting subside and looked up to see that her boyfriend was back. She welcomed him with a smile. She wasn't scared of the wolf- not in these conditions, anyway- but there was always an irrational fear in the back of her mind that one of these times, he would just never turn back. He trudged back over to the bars and leaned against them, making no move to leave the cage or to get dressed. "You must be so bored," he said apologetically.

"Oh, you'll have to try harder than that to bore me," she replied. "Remember anything this time?"

He considered briefly, then shook his head. "I remember seeing you sitting there, but that's what I'm seeing right now, so it's kind of hard to tell if that's a wolf memory." He scratched his chin. "Hey, maybe you can try talking to me?"

"Sure!" She closed the book. "I can talk. I can even ramble. I can do a first-class ramble with complimentary peanuts. One ramble, coming right up."

Oz gave her a tired smile and dropped to his hands and knees for an easy transformation. Willow started rambling as soon as the fur started coming in, and didn't let his growling and attacking the bars interrupt her when the change completed. "So, Tara's coming by tomorrow to help me with this seeking spell, it's supposed to reveal any kind of magical devices or charms or demons that could have been placed in the Magic Box to eavesdrop on us. Giles thinks that if anyone heard us talking about the plan, it had to be there, since that's where most of the planning went down. Hmm...okay, looks like I've exhausted that topic already, need something else to ramble about..."

The wolf whined like a dog, as if he agreed. Then he went back to his usual display of aggression, but Willow was encouraged. "So you know how Angel got kind of pissy at you the other night over the acid trip thing? I don't think that was fair, I mean, you were apologizing! And that just got me thinking, he's really been hovering over Buffy lately, and that's cool and all, I mean if you take away the 'forbidden' aspect of it they're the perfect couple. But I kind of miss her. We haven't had any real Scooby time in ages." Oz backed off for a moment- another good sign, but Willow had to be careful not to show she had noticed, so she kept talking. "Now she's walking on her own two feet, I thought we could all go do something, like, like bowling or dancing or ice fishing."

Suddenly Oz was human again, sitting in an awkward position on the stone floor. He shook himself vigorously. "You really think Angel would go bowling?" he asked.

"Oz!" Willow jumped to her feet in excitement. "You understood what I was saying! And you changed back so fast! And you...thought bowling was a weirder idea than ice fishing?"

"Hm." He stayed on the floor, still looking bemused. "Turns out language is really difficult. Not sure I caught the ice fishing part. But I know you said something about doing a spell, and then you were talking about going somewhere with Buffy and Angel, right?"

"Close. That actually wasn't quite where I was headed with that. I want a little Buffy-sans-Angel excursion. Is that wrong? It's not that I don't like him or anything, it's just...sometimes he kind of acts his age. And you know," she went on as Oz took a breath and started changing again, "I really don't think he would go bowling."

As the wolf paced the length of the cage and scratched at the corners looking for an escape route, Willow sat back down on the floor and rattled off a few more ideas for things they could do with Xander, Anya, and Buffy. Then she started worrying out loud about whether Angel would be offended if they tried to exclude him, and how to sell Buffy on the idea without offending her, and whether two couples and one other person meant fifth-wheel syndrome. She knew she was doing that insecurity thing like she did, but she had promised him a ramble, and it wasn't as if this was anything she wouldn't say to Oz as a human. Oz as a wolf was still kind of a good listener too, she reflected. He always kept his attention at least partially on her, but he never interrupted.

She had just leaned back to stare at the ceiling when Oz said, "So let's do something in the daylight." Willow jumped a little. His transitions were getting smoother and quieter, but that was the first time he had managed to shift without her even noticing. "Nobody needs to make excuses to exclude Angel then. And don't feel bad about it either, baby. He's got a different kind of life than the rest of us." As he spoke, he reached through the bars to grab the clothes he had left on the other side so he wouldn't run the risk of gnawing on them. Willow entered the lock's combination as he got dressed. "He'd probably welcome the chance to hang out with the grown-ups for once."

Willow smiled and kissed Oz's nose. "I believe I was promised a bubble tea if I helped you with your wolfing today."

"Then we, damsel, are bubble tea bound." As they left the crypt, he added wistfully, "Ice fishing does sound like fun."

"Ice is cool," she agreed. She took his hand as they came up into the sunlight together.

***

Nobody made any jokes about a priest, a vampire, and two Brits walking into a bar, but Giles thought one of them might after they got a few drinks into them. He even entertained the possibility that it might be himself. It had been a while since Giles walked into a bar with anyone- the Bronze didn't count, despite its alcoholic options- and it was actually something of a relief to be able to do so without his companions being carded. He made a comment to that effect as they each made a purchase at the bar and then took a table in the corner together.

"Good thing, too," Angel replied. "I've got to get Cordelia to make me a fake ID in case that ever happens."

Giles tried to imagine that situation. It could happen. Angel looked to be in his mid-to-late twenties, but there were enough bartenders in the United States trying to play it safe that it was a credit to Angel's skill at handling people that he had avoided confrontation on the issue so far.
Wesley glanced nervously at Father Tom. "Of course, it's sometimes necessary for Angel to temporarily assume an identity of some kind for the sake of his work. We would never bend the law just to get a round at a pub."

The priest didn't bat an eye. "Render unto Caesar," he said. "I've got no particular allegiance to the laws regarding the drinking age. And I'm of Irish Catholic descent."

Angel grinned broadly. "What's the difference between a Roman Catholic and an Irish Catholic?"

"About three pints," Father Tom answered promptly, and he and the vampire clinked their glasses together.

Giles blinked. He didn't know what was stranger: that the two could tolerate each other's presence at all, or that they were bonding over cultural and religious stereotypes. "So," he said. "Evidently we deem this establishment a safe place to talk about fabricating legal identification. Shall we also consider it safe enough to discuss more pressing matters?"

"Safer than that shop of yours, anyhow," said Father Tom. "For now."

That was true enough. Willow and Tara had cast a variety of spells aimed at exposing whatever unwelcome magical energy was hidden there and had succeeded only partially. Something was there, haunting the shop, and it had enough consciousness to be labeled a spirit. Once this much was established, the girls had started coming up with ideas to narrow down the possibilities of what it was, but Giles had stopped them there. Willow had already crossed so many magical barriers. If her work wasn't becoming so integral to their needs, he would have asked her to refrain from using it at all for a while. She at least listened to him when he said they had done enough for one day, though, and now they had enough information to know to keep business talk out of the Magic Box.

"But do we actually have anything to say about the pressing matters?" Wesley asked. He was getting frustrated, Giles could tell. He had pulled his weight with the responsibilities of researching, and now he wanted payoff. Well, so did they all.

"I've got news," Father Tom informed them, "but I don't know that you'll like it. I've received a response from the bishop of my diocese. He's received word from the Vatican, now that they've reviewed the documents we sent them. It looks like the Church is the first one to have come to a conclusion about participating in the spell."

"And?" Giles was curious, but impartial. It was difficult to be anything else, what with his own uncertainty about which way he wanted the road to take them.

"They- we- will have nothing to do with it. The theological debate keeps coming back to the answer that we have to err on the side of caution, and leave matters as they are. The main problem-" he paused for a swig from his glass "-is in the uncertainty of the afterlife. We believe in a Heaven and a Hell, and the possibility of other options, but we don't claim to know where any one soul ends up. We also don't make any kind of choice about who goes where, and when. That's God's decision. Humans can't take it upon ourselves to send souls to the afterlife. We can't choose to bring them back from there, either." He was looking at Angel now, not questioning him but letting the questions come as they would to everyone else's mind. "Especially since nobody really knows what happens to the soul when a human becomes a vampire. To bring a soul out of Heaven, for instance, even if there remained no memory of being there...that would be reprehensible."

Angel's reaction to this line of logic was unexpected. "Good for the Church, then," he said shortly. "Good for you." Giles heard no sarcasm in his voice, and inspected his face to see if he had missed it. Angel seemed to know what he was thinking (and the other two at the table seemed to be thinking the same thing), and elaborated, "They chose a stance. Everyone else keeps wavering. Sounds like they went at it through a reasonable line of thinking, and if I know anything about the institution, nobody's going to change their mind now they've set it. So good for them."

Wesley listened to him and nodded. "And it's still possible to cast the spell without their support, if our other channels come through. I don't think it would even require all of them." Then he glanced up sharply at Father Tom. "Is the Church's position one of neutrality, or can we expect actual interference from them?"

"Neutrality. They want to be kept updated on how things progress, but I'm not meant to sabotage any more than I am to contribute."

Giles thought of what that could mean, and to his surprise it gave him a brief pang. "Does this development mean you'll be returning to your home?" he asked.

Father Tom shook his head, and Giles could see that he was hiding a small smile which said he had telepathically noticed that pang and appreciated the reluctant affection behind it. "I'm here for Daemonis, not your spell. I crossed the whole country to get to him, and I'll go home when he's dead."

"You're his nemesis," mused Angel, tracing a finger around the rim of his half-empty glass. "Hunter with a personal grudge, I had one of those once. Did he kill your family?"

"He killed a few of my parishioners," said the priest casually, showing no distaste at Angel's reference to his bloody past. "Close enough."

Angel nodded. "Probably women, right?" he said. "Pretty ones, not too young not too old. Maybe kind of shy."

If Giles was perplexed by that comment, Father Tom was startled right out of his composure. "How- how did you know that?"

"Love," stated the vampire. "You can go through it and come out the other side, and it still sticks with you in one way or another. In his case, it would be a nasty way." He looked up and saw everyone around the table examining him again, and drummed his fingers on the table restively. "I talked with the guy, remember? I'm good at guessing someone's type. His was easy."

"Right, because of his romantic side." Wesley had a far-off, pensive look as he picked up the thread of conversation. Giles wondered if working closely with Angel made it easier to remember that he was inhuman, or just the opposite. "That's so...unspeakably macabre."

"He offered to sire Buffy." Angel dropped the words like a bomb, his good humor now thoroughly gone.
"Offered it, like he was doing me a favor. You can't understand what it means to sire someone. The way they idolize you, especially at the beginning...it doesn't matter how much she hated you the day before. The moment she wakes up she belongs to you." Everyone was quiet as Angel's voice became increasingly harder. "And he'd do it, too. Just to wreak havoc. Just to see how much he could hurt someone before it drove her insane..."

Wesley cut in quietly. "You're not Daemonis, Angel."

Surprise flickered through Angel's eyes as he lifted them from the spot on the table where he had been staring. Then he nodded once and leaned back, the tightness about his shoulders diminishing.

Giles looked at Wesley with renewed respect. He himself would never have guessed that Angel needed to be told that he wasn't Daemonis, and he doubted even Buffy would.

"I know," Angel allowed. Now that he had broken out of his angry trance, he looked distinctly uncomfortable about the emotion he had just spilled. "I just can't get him out of my mind anymore. He killed his own lover and now he wants mine." He looked at Father Tom. "I hope you don't mind sharing your grudge."

Giles tried not to twitch when he heard Angel use the word 'lover.' He tried to tell himself that Buffy was an adult and thus none of this was his business, but some part of his mind was always keeping tabs on how her relationship with Angel was progressing, and it was certainly progressing. Even a week ago, Angel wouldn't have been likely to refer to her so naturally with possessive pronouns. "Where is Buffy tonight?" he asked. There, that was a safe thing to say. Got them off the topic of grudges, and there weren't any implications that Buffy didn't belong under Angel's care.

"With her friends. They're doing..." His brow furrowed, trying to remember. "One of those things they do. Having fun. She's safe."

Wesley smiled. "Ah, if only Cordelia were here to complain on your behalf about Buffy having fun without you."

Angel stared at him blankly. He didn't even seem to realize that his friend was teasing him. "Buffy has to have fun. With or without me. She's safe and she's having fun. What else matters?"

"Sure," said Father Tom heartily, completely out of the blue. "You can share my grudge."

***

The mansion seemed especially silent tonight, but not in an ominous way. Angel knew that Buffy was upstairs, not only from the single light on up there but because, well, he knew. She was waiting for him. He had just come home and Buffy was upstairs waiting for him. Why had this not sunk in before?

He closed the door behind him quietly, locking it up as always. Nothing would get in to disturb them. Sacred space. Safe as houses. The silence remained, thick and inquisitive, and it made Angel keenly aware of everything around him. The fireplace, full of last night's ashes. The table he had staggered into when he tried to run away from Buffy and the terrible sacrifice she intended. The spot on the floor where he had landed, uncomprehending, after Hell let him go. The coat rack. The coat rack? Oh, right. He took off his coat and hung it up, still examining his surroundings. Everything was familiar. Everything was new. Even the memories were new- he was looking at each one as part of a whole, as a series of events that had brought him to where he was now, and that was a good place, and that was new. He slipped off his shoes at the bottom of the stairs and went up as part of the silence, one step at a time.

The light he had seen from downstairs was coming faintly from their bedroom, the door cracked open invitingly. He pushed it open gently and stood in the doorway for a moment. She was sitting crosslegged on the bed, writing in a book she had in front of her by the light of a single bedside lamp and a few candles, and she looked up at him and smiled. She didn't say anything, but he thought her lips formed the suggestion of his name.

"I remember this," he said, not knowing the words were coming until they were out.

She arched an eyebrow. "Remember what?"

He leaned against the doorway, taking her in. "Happiness."

"Angel." She gave him the liquid eyes, the shy smile. Not everyone got to see that smile. "What's got you all sentimental?"

"I don't really know." He snapped out of it a little and closed the door behind him before crossing the room to sit by her on the bed. She was wearing silk pajamas, purple ones with pockets and buttons, and her hair was let down to tumble over her shoulders. "I was just thinking," he said. "You even look pretty when you go to bed." He looked down at the book and pen she was still holding. "What are you doing?"

She left the compliment unanswered, but he could tell by her stifled chuckle that she remembered the first time he had said it. "Journalling," she replied. "I got out of the habit while I was off duty, but then I realized that stuff is still happening so maybe I should take some notes."

He touched the journal, felt the mass of filled pages and the streamlined blank ones. "Is this the one with the fantasy about the charming foreign exchange student Ahmed?" he asked.

"Oh man," she laughed. "We really are taking a trip down Memory Freeway tonight, aren't we? I filled up the Ahmed Hypercrush Chronicles years ago. And hid them." Her forehead creased in sudden consternation. "In my old room, where Willow and Oz live now..."

"But Willow probably heard all about it at the time anyway, right?"

"You bet she did." She shrugged calmly. "Highschool diary stuff doesn't matter. It was really only embarrassing that one time. I just can't believe you remember it."

"Yes you can."

She gave in and grinned. "Yes, I can. But props for being so suave about it at the time."

"Well, the suave part was short-lived," he reminded her. "I also recall being a little uncouth..."

"Oh, you're not referring to scaring the bejeezus out of me with your growly face and then jumping out my window, are you?" She waved a carefree hand. "Water over the bridge. And did I ever not think that that was going to be a memory I could someday look back on and laugh."

Hearing about it in those terms added a whole new dimension to the night's surreal parade of memories. He started to laugh. She started to laugh. As it ran its course they were both silent for a moment, lost in their respective thoughts and memories. Then Buffy set the diary on the bedside table and said, "We're okay, right? You're not still mad? About the acid and the...Spike and everything?"

He laid a hand on her thigh. "I was never mad. Just afraid."

"Then, are you still afraid?"

There was a lot to consider in that question. "Some," he admitted. "I don't know how to let my guard down anymore. Even- especially when I'm happy. I'm still atoning, and it gets ugly sometimes. I don't want to drag you down into that."

"You won't," she said, full of confidence. "We're going to be good this time. I do my job, you do yours. And when it's time for you to retire from atonement, I think we'll know it."

The last of his smile fell away. "You might not be here to see it."

"I'm ready for that." Her voice had a new maturity to it, complementing the innocent wisdom she'd had for as long as he had known her. "I'm still yours."

"If you weren't so independent that would be a hard thing to hear from you. I want to give you more than I have to give," he implored, hoping it didn't break her new rule about talking about what he couldn't be for her. He had to get it out. "Buffy, I have to go back to LA sooner or later. I might have to stay there for years. For a lifetime. For your lifetime. It doesn't seem fair, making you wait for me when I might never get to you."

"I'm not waiting for you. This isn't waiting. I told you, I'm yours. No matter where you are or what you are." She leaned closer to him. "Aren't you going to tell me you're mine, too? Because this is the right moment to tell me that."

"Always."

Her smile showed that she was perfectly contented with that answer. "I miss my ring," she said, glancing down at the unadorned finger on her left hand. "I lost it after you came back to life."

"I'll get you a new one," he promised immediately. "I lost mine too." Actually, he had destroyed it when he was evil, but he saw no reason to make that distinction now.

"It wouldn't be the same," she started to object.

"Why should it be?" he countered. "We're not the same people we were back then. Doesn't mean I ever stopped loving you, but I think we both know this is much more a renewal than it is a continuation."

She went quiet, considering this, then spoke up again in her playful voice. "At least I've finally got you talking like there is a 'this' to renew or continue as we deem appropriate."

"Well, you did insist I stop trying to leave you for your own good."

"That's right," she replied with an impish grin. "Angel...I've been thinking about what you said that night you told me about your curse being fixed. About my heart being my home. I think I kind of get it now. I think I know where I am."

"And?" He felt a tug and looked down to see that she was unbuttoning his shirt.

She reached the top button and slid her warm hand up his chest and around the back of his neck, pulling his face up close to hers to whisper in his ear. "I invite you in."


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