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

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Let Me In (9/15)

Title: Let Me In
Author: Kairos
Rating: PG-13 (violence, some language, some sex)
Wordcount: Roughly 145,000 total
Notes: This is the good part! There's action and stuff. And blood.


"This is the place."

Oz gestured around himself, at the lake, the dark woods around it, the complete tranquility that the naked eye could see. Angel could sense more than tranquility, though, and it was clear that Oz could too. The scent of vampires on the air was just as heavy as he had said it would be. They had already made a full circuit around the lake and found no shelter, so Angel guessed that the lair was underground and the entrance was concealed somehow. It was fortunate that they had brought the full crew, even though Angel was the only one who was going to actually break and enter.

Willow stepped forward with a little sprig of something in her hand, and when Angel gave her the nod, she rubbed it to powder in her hands like a chef with fresh spices and spoke a few Sumerian words. In a moment they could all see a few veins of light in the air, all of them flowing in one direction.

The group followed the glowing lines to a spot hidden underneath the dock, up in the crevice where the wooden planks met the steep angle of the bank. The directional lights disappeared as soon as they got there, but the beam of a flashlight showed that there was indeed a large trapdoor down there, though it was shielded by some brush as well as the dock, and probably couldn't be found by anyone who wasn't looking for it. Angel thanked Willow and let her bask in everyone's praise for a moment, and then said, "Well, here goes."

"You're really sure about this?" asked Buffy, as he'd known she would. He couldn't blame her: he was essentially walking into the lion's den, and he couldn't guarantee that he wouldn't be seen, or that he could fight his way out if needed. But with all of Daemonis's troops so freshly affected by the ensoulment spell, they'd be confused and vulnerable if they were even down there, and Angel had convinced everyone that this was the safest time for him to visit. And he did need to visit. Aside from the necessity of knowing exactly where Daemonis was, Giles had discovered that the Moisipi spirit couldn't be adjusted to spy on a new location unless someone spoke the redirection spell from the place itself.

"I can do it, Buffy. Don't worry."

"And you're not going to scuffle?" she persisted. Her first suggestion, of course, had been that she accompany him, but that would have made it all the more difficult to stay hidden. He also didn't want to Daemonis's cure to get that close to him. Giles had thought of that too, and subsequently convinced Buffy to stay out of the lair for everyone's sake, for which Angel was grateful.

He shook his head, smiling. "In and out, I promise. No bravado." He kissed her forehead and raised his voice to address everyone. "I need Buffy and Willow guarding the entrance here," he said. If there was going to be any commotion, it would probably happen there, and between the two of them they could handle most types of surprises. "Everyone else is on lookout duty. Spread out a little, but keep within shouting distance of each other." This time he didn't bother to check his commanding tone. Tonight at least, he was the one in charge. He knelt down on the dock and studied the door, then heard Buffy smother a laugh and looked back up at her. "What?"

"You're trying to figure out how to get in there without getting your feet wet, aren't you?"
Her amusement spread to the other girls, though they tried to hide it too. Angel scowled. "It's going to ruin my shoes."

There really wasn't another way, though. The water came right up to the bottom of the door, and he couldn't get down to it without sliding down the muddy bank. He sighed and took his shoes off and hung them over his shoulder. The girls laughed again, but he reasoned that wet shoes were squeaky and loud, so this was really a safety precaution. No help for the mud on his clothes, but at least he got to the hatch easily enough and opened it up to find a long staircase.

"Good luck," called Father Tom as Angel put his shoes back on over his wet feet and started down the steps.

"You too," he replied, hoping none of them would need any luck.

The stairs went on downwards for far too long. What had this place been originally? Maybe it was one of the few hidden constructions that was actually built by vampires, under the woods for ages and still unknown to the humans of Sunnydale. Halfway down the stairs, the darkness became a pitch-black that even his eyes couldn't fully adjust to, but as he neared the bottom he saw a faint light coming from the adjacent halls and rooms. Electric light. How they'd managed that one, he might never know.

He maintained complete silence now that he was actually inside the lair, and held still to listen carefully for any kind of motion. There was none, which didn't necessarily mean that there weren't residents hiding out at some distance from him, but it did mean that there wasn't a crowd. He relaxed a little, feeling more confident about his odds of getting out without fighting once the time came. For now, though, he had some serious snooping to do.

There were many doors and passageways that he bypassed without checking, just because he could tell that nobody was in there and that wasn't the kind of information he needed. He gave a few of the larger rooms a cursory glance, though, and found some of them lavishly decorated while some had little more than a cot. It brought up memories that made him feel both amused and grim- the pecking order always mattered so much in a nest this size.

He chose one of the rooms randomly to cast the spell. It was simple, composed almost entirely of reading out loud from a few pages, but time consuming. Though he kept his ears open the entire time, it was still unnerving to be standing there for so long, speaking to no one. At least there was no minimum required volume, so he kept it at a near-whisper. At the end there was a little puff in the air which quickly vanished. He didn't know if that meant it had worked, but he knew there wasn't more he could expect. He moved on. He could already tell where he was headed, in a way, because the tunnels were set up so that the corridors all ran parallel and appeared to join at their ends, where he expected to find a 'throne room,' or at least something big and haughty enough for a master vampire to call it home.

Not a single vampire showed up before he reached the oversized wooden door at the rear center of the lair. Maybe they had killed themselves after all. Maybe they had just run away, like Spike. In any case, there was only one who interested Angel at the moment, and despite his promise not to scuffle, he didn't think Buffy would mind if he just staked the bastard in his bed. He checked the sheaths on his wrists and swung the door open, revealing one old, powerful vampire sitting in a chair right in front of him.

"Dear boy," said Darla with a coquettish smile that turned into her vampiric face even as it formed. "How did I know I'd find you in this town again?"

Angel stood rooted to the spot, trying to make his mouth work, trying even harder to make his brain work. It was her. It looked like her and it smelled like her and it sounded like her. But her was impossible. There was no her. "You're dead," he said hoarsely.

She shrugged one diffident shoulder and melted back out of her game face. "So were you. Things change. I didn't expect it to surprise you that much, honestly. Didn't your pals back in LA tell you I dropped by? You'd think at least one of them knew how to take a message."

And they had, he remembered, only he hadn't believed them because Darla was supposed to be dead, and because... "They said you were human."

"Actually," she smirked, "funny story. I was human. Tried to get you to fix it for me. Hell, I would have settled for a nice pat on the shoulder and some encouraging words about second chances. But you were just too busy to track down. Oh, well. It all worked out in the end."

Guilt ripped through his heart. The wrong place at the wrong time once again, when maybe, just maybe he could have saved Darla. He almost whispered an apology, but he knew how that would end. He couldn't let her perceive any weakness in him now, or she would take it as a cue to finish him off, and this wasn't supposed to end down here. "When?" he murmured instead.

Her eyebrows knit together for a second in vexation. "'When'? Both of us have died and been reborn since the last time we saw each other, and you're more interested in knowing about the timing of when I was sired again?" Then she understood. "Ah. You want to know if it was before or after the white hats put all the souls back in everyone. Makes a lot of difference, doesn't it?" She paused, drawing it out, trying to bait him into asking again. When he didn't, she conceded. "Four days ago."

Four days. The spell had been five days ago, so it hadn't affected her. Somehow she had found a vampire who had only had his soul for a day, and was willing to turn someone already. It was a disgusting thought. Darla's new sire had to be one driven insane by the shock. Either that, or...

"Daemonis," growled Angel. "That's why you're here, isn't it? It was him."

"Don't be ridiculous. Drink the blood of a poisoned vampire? Doesn't that sound a little counterproductive to you?" She sighed. "I'm here to say hello, of course. And because Daemonis is actually the most sensible person I've found since everyone gained their souls and lost their minds. He knows how to deal. We make good partners."

"Maybe," said Angel. "But he's dying. And you're the only one of your kind, now. You're the only soulless vampire there is."

She narrowed her eyes and toyed with a strand of hair falling across her face, making her look both angry and flirtatious. That was Darla to the core. She never made him regret whatever he had done to upset her, but she did make him pay for it. "Not for long," she replied. "Daemonis told me the secret. I know where to go and what to do to get the soul removed from any one of our kind. Not everyone deserves it, of course, but I've picked out a few choice candidates. And I can put you on the top of the list."

He shook his head. When would she learn? "You've tried to take me back before, Darla. It didn't work then, it's not going to work now. Get out of this place and I might be able to spare you."

"My my, Angelus, you could really be putting me in danger with that suggestion if I happened to be stupid enough to trust you. But at least I'm not going to return the insult by telling you to trust me. We'll save that step for after things have changed a bit."

"Changed?" He tried to sound menacing, though with Darla that was a joke. "If you're talking about the big hoodoo Daemonis is working on, forget about it. He's playing you." And that was very likely the truth, though there didn't seem to be a way for Darla to make the necessary sacrifice any more than Daemonis could.

"A real woman doesn't give anyone a chance to play her," she replied smoothly. "She takes matters into her own hands. For example, all those poor young vampires with their brand new consciences all tormented, they needed a strong leader. Someone to tell them what to do. Someone who knows what it's like to have a soul, and preferably not some old master moaning in his bed with a poisoned wound. Again," she shrugged, "it could have been you. But instead it's me. And I promise I'm going to make those little soldiers shine."

"What good are they to you?" he demanded. As if things weren't bad enough for the hapless army that Daemonis had assembled. They deserved a quick and painless death, not Darla's manipulation. Suddenly he flinched, realizing what he'd been missing. "Where are they?"

She leaned back in her chair with a coy smile. "The Slayer's right outside, isn't she?"

He said nothing, but he swore to himself that if both of them lived for long enough to make it relevant, he was going to learn how to lie to Darla. Her expression showed that he had already given her all the answer she needed.

"I'd love to hear more about what the hell possessed you. What you thought you could get out of that little hussy that you couldn't get from me. But we'll have time for that later."

Angel thought he heard a faint sound coming from outside of the hatch. He couldn't identify it, and he might have even been imagining it, but it didn't matter at this point. "I have to go," he said lamely.

She didn't rise or move to stop him. "You know I can kill you any time I want, right?"

There was a sound again; it wasn't his imagination. It was a scream. "Yes," he said sincerely, "I know."

"You're my pride and joy, Angelus. Better go help them out. I have an invalid to take care of now." Darla finally got out of her chair, but only to turn her back on him. He didn't wait to see where she was going.

***

Willow found a stump to sit on, but it was moist all over and soaked right through the seat of her skirt, and she stood up again and paced a few steps. It hadn't been raining, but the very air around them was damp from the lake's condensation, not to mention the ground and the vegetation. Buffy saw the mishap and gave her a sympathetic look: You win some, you lose some. She was pacing too, but she made it look purposeful, like she was...well, on guard. Willow reminded herself that she was on guard too, and had to keep an eye out for intruders.

Of course, she would be able to take the job a lot more seriously once everyone spread out like they were supposed to. This many eyes in one spot probably meant that Willow's weren't going to be the ones that spotted the danger. So far they were still all gathered near the dock in pairs and groups, talking in hushed tones and gesturing at different places around the lake. Overthinking the lookout placement, for sure.

"What are we supposed to do if a vampire attacks us?" she blurted out.

Six pairs of eyes swiveled towards her, all of them looking at least a little bit like they thought she was crazy. "Kill it?" suggested Buffy. And Xander, at the same time and almost in the same tone of voice. And Father Tom.

Hearing it from the priest, especially, almost made Willow feel betrayed instead of just embarrassed. "Just like that?" she pressed. "When we know it's got a soul? When it could be redeemed and turn into a good person?"

It wasn't as if they hadn't had this conversation, and many other variations on it, since the mass ensoulment spell had gone through. But Willow was never really satisfied with anyone's answers, especially since they all seemed to think it was a foregone conclusion that vampires were going to die by their own hands, ensouled or not. They weren't exactly being callous about it, they just had had this grim kind of acceptance about them. Well, except for Anya. Her acceptance of it wasn't all that grim.

"Willow," started Father Tom. The kindness in his voice didn't stop him from sounding condescending in her ears. "Vampires are people who have already died. A soul in an undead body can only be trapped there, and killing them means releasing the souls to go back where they belong. It's sad, but it's no sin."

"I didn't ask about sin," she snapped. "I just want to know why the rest of us get to keep falling and getting forgiven over and over again, but the vampires just get slain offhand."

More than one of them seemed about to answer that one, but Father Tom was at the wheel and intent on Willow. "It's too much of a risk," he said. "How could we allow them all the time to learn compassion, when they might keep taking innocent lives in the process? Now I know you're thinking about Angel-"

"Of course I'm thinking about Angel!" Willow exploded. "Stop reading my mind! Not everyone appreciates that, you know? Why aren't you thinking about Angel?" She made sure not to look at Buffy as she said that last part, but she knew it was going to hurt her friend anyway. She couldn't help it. She didn't understand. "You could have used that same argument and killed him the day before he decided to start helping our side, and then where would we be?"

"Probably the same place as we would be if someone had killed him the day before he was cursed with a soul," said Father Tom. "But could you have blamed them? There was no way to predict what was going to happen. It's not worth jeopardizing everyone's safety for the sake of one who could be put at peace forever with a stake to the heart."

"Hey," said Buffy, far more gently than Willow would have expected from her at this point in the conversation. "You know there's not a lot that could make me willingly give up Angel. But if I had to choose between having him here with me now, and turning back time so that he was never made a vampire-" she spread out her hands and sighed. "Too many people died. I can't balance my own happiness against that. And happiness for him has been a mess from day one anyway."

Willow frowned. "You really think killing a vampire with a soul would put it at peace? End its torment or whatever?"

Father Tom and Buffy glanced at each other. Willow couldn't tell if they were both looking for help in explaining the same thing, or whether they were worried about each other's reactions. "Yes," said the priest, and Buffy nodded, though she looked uncomfortable.

"Then why don't you kill Angel?" said Willow to Father Tom. There it was. If she got one good answer to that question, she could let it be.

He considered it fully, his hand tugging at his beard. Willow noticed for the first time that Giles was standing behind her, quite close in the darkness. She wondered what he thought about the discussion, but guessed she might never find out. She turned her eyes to Buffy, who still didn't look mad, just expectant, as she waited for the priest to answer.

"Because I don't have to," he said at last. "Because we can trust him. If he chooses redemption on earth over peace in death, it saves all of us from taking on the duty of killing. I for one don't want any more of that than strictly necessary."

It must be hard, Willow realized, for the priest to face this kind of change in his mission. As hard as it was for Buffy, maybe, though without the whole 'Chosen' thing to weigh it down. She felt moved to say something that she could be sure would put things right between herself and their God-fearing ally, but then there was something else demanding her attention and it took her a moment to figure out what it was. When she did, her insides clenched. This was definitely important enough to change the subject.

"Okay," she said, "guys? I don't mean to scare anyone, but I cast a spell to work as an alarm on the other side of the lake. It's supposed to kind of ping me if any vampires get too close, and I've never done this one so I'm not entirely sure how it should feel if it does, but, well...ping." She shivered and stared across the still water. There was nothing to see, but it was so dark...

"You're right," said Oz soberly. "I can smell them now. Shit." He looked at Buffy and Giles for help. "There are a lot of them."

Buffy was in battle mode instantly. "Everyone stay close to the dock. If they're headed for the hatch we can pick them off with the crossbows until they're in staking distance. Willow, as soon as I start fighting, I need you to get everyone else into any kind of protective shell that you can conjure. Angel should be out by then to help me. Oz, cut loose. Father- what are you doing?"

The priest was removing the stiff white plastic strip from the clerical collar he always wore, making it look like he was wearing a normal black shirt. "Falsifying," he said as he stashed the plastic in his coat pocket. "And it's best if you don't call me Father during this."

"Um, alright," she said uncertainly. "Xander, Anya, stay away from the vamps if you can but see if you can keep us armed. If we run out of stakes, some of these branches should work." Those were desperate measures, Willow realized. Buffy must be preparing herself for the worst. And just how many vampires were there?

Giles apparently had the same thoughts in mind. "Buffy, this could get out of hand. If we leave now we might not have to engage-"

"Without Angel?" She made it sound a challenge. "We can't go down and get him or they might trap us at the door. Look, these are a new kind of vamp, and maybe all they want is a handshake and a passport stamp, and if that's the case I am the willingest of willing to cut a deal, but if they want my blood, I want to see how hard they're going to fight for it. Anyone who wants to can leave, but I don't think we'd be any safer running through these woods in the dark."

"I'm in!" Willow told her, even though she was sure Buffy already knew that.

"I'm in!" echoed Xander, never to be upstaged in the loyalty department.

Buffy gave them a grateful smile, and then everyone saw movement on the opposite bank, and as one they peered intently at the first few vampires making themselves visible. "So," said Xander in the interlude, "you think they come in peace?"

Anya went to the very edge of the dock and leaned out to see as far as she could. "I think so!" she exclaimed. "It looks like they're going to have an orgy."

"What?" Willow crowded to the end of the platform with everyone else, trying to avoid jostling anyone and sending them over. She could see that some of the vampires were removing their shoes and shirts, but Anya's radical interpretation was proven wrong as soon as the first one waded into the water, dived forward, and disappeared under it. The rest were following suit. Willow felt herself at the edge of panic. Vampires didn't even need to come up for air; there would be no way at all to shoot them before they emerged on this side, all of them ready to attack Buffy at once. They definitely did not come in peace.

Oz made a sound deep in his throat, a low rumble that got louder and more aggressive even as his face remained human. Buffy shot him a glare. "Don't change yet!" she commanded. "Wait until they're in reach!" He obeyed, though Willow noted his slow, hard breathing and tense posture and knew what he was feeling. Fight or flight, and he was more than ready for a fight.

"Everyone just stay calm," Buffy started, but broke off as she saw Father Tom on one side of the dock, untying a sailor's knot that held one of the little rowboats there. "Fa- Tom, what are you doing?"

In answer, he tossed his crossbow into the boat, jumped in it himself, and pushed off with an oar. "Getting a bit closer. Don't be afraid, my child."

"You can't go out there!" Buffy was clearly infuriated, but the boat had already drifted far away enough that she couldn't bring him back by force. "You're our sniper! You have to stay on the dock!"

"I can't shoot from the dock. These weapons don't have the range." His voice grew proportionately louder as the boat gained more distance from them. "You can't take them all yourself. You know that." Anything further he had to say was taken by the water. He turned away from them and took up the oars, rowing himself closer to the center of the lake.

Willow trembled, no less appalled than Buffy was. "How can he do this?" she whispered to Oz. "They'll drown him. He's a sitting duck out there." She wished that she was the one who was psychic instead of Father Tom, so she would have some idea of whether this was suicide or just stupidity. Maybe he thought he could give up his life to save them; she wouldn't have put it past him, but even his death would do little to help them now. His crossbow was no defense at all against underwater attackers.

Oz just shook his head, having no answers for her, maybe mourning Father Tom already. There were at least ten vampires in the water now, and more of them poured out of the woods, some stopping to strip some of their clothes off, some just barreling straight into the lake, seeming more like zombies than vampires. In minutes they would be close enough to seize the rowboat and topple it. Giles stared out into the water and said something incoherent, his voice hopeless. Buffy shed her outer layer of clothing and loaded a crossbow with tears in her eyes. They couldn't even see the swimming vampires or know how close they were to Father Tom. Where was Angel? What were they going to do when the fight reached them? Willow wrapped her hand around a stake and thought, I know you can hear me and I do not forgive you for this. But thank you for everything.

A feral snarl erupted beside her. Oz completed the change in seconds, shook his torn-up clothes off, and launched himself off the dock and into the water. His pointed ears above the surface showed his location as he paddled toward the vampires, but Willow's heart was gripped in terror. Was she going to lose him too?

The werewolf's sudden appearance seemed to stir everyone else into action too, though most of it was useless. Xander and Anya hugged tightly, Giles opened a bag and spilled out all kinds of vicious weapons, and Buffy shouted, "Come back! Don't do it!" All of the vampires were swimming now. Father Tom was leaning over the side of his boat with his fingers touching the water, and he was saying or chanting some words that nobody could hear. By now he was far enough out that the image of him was small and blurry, but Willow could see a face come up beside him, a pale hand grip the little boat's stern. Willow lost it. "They're going to kill him," she screamed.

She refused to shut her eyes, telling herself the least she could do was watch the boat capsize, but it never did. Instead, the vampire holding onto it suddenly reared up out of the water, screaming, and the white skin turned red. The still surface surrounding the boat was broken by a dozen other faces coming up, skin boiling off of them even as they did so, gasping as if for air. Willow looked back at the one by the boat: it was already gone, just ashes sprinkling the air and settling down to sink. The others clawed frantically at each other, lunging for the shore or the boat or just trying to propel themselves into the air to get away, but none were near enough and escape was impossible. For the few seconds they had left, their insane flailing churned up the water and almost concealed them from sight, and then it was another slow shower of ashes as they died one by one.

The brevity of the entire scene was the only break that the voyeurs got from the agonizing sound of the screams. Willow dropped to her knees, holding her ears, and saw Anya do the same. Oz-wolf had turned tail and was swimming rapidly back to the dock. And Father Tom was still sitting in his little boat, silent and unseeing and probably deep in prayer.

Xander kept staring out at the water after even the ashes were gone. "Holy..."

"Water," finished Buffy faintly, her gaze running parallel to his. "Angel!"

***

Angel knew something was wrong before he even reached the top of the stairs. The air had been heavy with moisture when he went down, but now it stung him, and it was getting worse as he got closer to the door. Part of him wanted to turn around and run back down where it was safe, deal with Darla if he had to, anything to stay away from the poisoned air. But there had been screams.

As he stuck his head out of the hatch he instinctively inhaled- he was so used to relying on his sense of smell to tell him what was wrong that sometimes he might as well have been breathing. Instead of finding comprehension, though, he felt his dead lungs fill with searing pain, threatening to eat him from the inside out. He coughed violently, trying to expel it, but the thick treacherous fog was in his nose and mouth already, and burning his eyes so badly that he could barely keep them open. Holy water. It was the only thing that could feel this way, but how? No time to think about it. He had to get out before he was well and truly disabled.

The water under the door, which had been an inconvenience on the way in, was now a genuine hazard. He tried to cling to the bank and climb up the slope instead of wading out, but even the mud hurt and his feet slipped almost immediately. For a few seconds he was submerged up to his ankles, and he roared in pain, his hands scrabbling desperately for purchase in the scanty plants and roots on the bank. His vision was getting worse and he had no way to protect his face, but he could hear footsteps pounding on the wooden dock above him. Buffy cried out his name, and he tried and failed to call back to her.

For one mad instant he was afraid she was being consumed by the holy water too, but then her lithe little body slid down beside him and he heard her splash deliberately into the water. Knee-deep and bracing herself against the floor of the lake, she shoved her shoulder under his foot and heaved him up before he had a chance to understand what she was doing. Finally he reached a dry rock to hang onto, then a sturdy tree root, and then he felt hands taking hold of him and pulling him onto the dock in a limp burning heap. Was it Giles? Father Tom? Both of them? None of his senses were working right. Buffy hoisted herself up right behind him and snatched something from the supplies to cover his face. It was dry, and soft, and smelled like her: the cardigan she had been wearing earlier over her tank top. At least he knew that much. She knotted the sleeves behind his head, blocking off his vision entirely but keeping any more of the stuff from entering his eyes or nasal passage.

Everyone was talking at once, adding to the confusion that Angel was already wrestling. He remembered that he had heard screams, and tried to listen for any voice that was missing, since nobody seemed like they were saying anything that could explain what had happened. The air still stung, and he knew he wasn't at his full mental capacity. Buffy's voice cut through all that, serious and urgent, her Slayer voice. "Angel, we have to get you out of here. Nod if you understand me." He did. "Good. Do you think you can run?" He hesitated, but nodded again. "We just have to get beyond the fog. Go where I guide you. Don't slow down and don't try to talk."

He wouldn't have disobeyed for the world. She pulled him to his feet, placed his arm around her shoulders, and somehow forced him to lean some of his weight on her tiny frame. Then she started running, and he ignored his body's protests, especially the ones from his dunked feet, and ran with her. Blindfolded as he was, he had to trust her at every step, keeping full speed while having no idea of where he was or what obstacles lay ahead. That wasn't a problem. Buffy was the wise one. Following her had always been easy, it was kicking the habit that caused difficulty.

When she finally let them stop, he didn't know where he was but he could feel the change in the air. No more holy water. His skin still felt raw from all the exposure, though, worse in some places than others. It didn't matter. He was intact, and that meant he was going to heal. When Buffy eased him out of their mad dash and removed the covering from his face, he did more than stop, he collapsed. She gave a little mew of concern as she caught him- she was always there to catch him, even if she didn't know it- and he tried to say something or kiss her hand to tell her he'd be alright. He didn't know if he succeeded. Oblivion closed in before he could even open his eyes to take a look at her.

***

Before opening his eyes, Angel went through a short checklist of questions. Was it possible to open his eyes? Yes, he thought so. Was he in a safe place? He felt clean and comfortable, and if that didn't count as safe, he had some very considerate enemies. And who was there beside him, touching his hand so gently?

"Buffy," he said, his voice raw but recognizable in his own ears. His throat and lungs hadn't been eaten away after all. He pried his eyelids apart. It didn't hurt, but it felt like they had been glued together.

"Angel." She leaned over the bed- their bed- so he could see her face. She was smiling, not showing any fear at all, though he sensed some anxiety. With her one free hand she removed the headphones she had been wearing, and he heard some lyrics of the music she had been listening to before she turned it off:

I only wish that I could hear you whisper down-
Mr. Fisher moved to a less peculiar town.
He gathered up his loved ones and he brought them all around
To say goodbye- nice try.


The song was familiar in a way he didn't like, but he attempted a smile of his own. Images of the night before flashed through his mind in dizzying patterns, but that just made seeing her here with him even better. "Am I in trouble?" he asked.

"Lucky for you, I am way too relieved to start chewing you out for almost dying." She brushed his cheek lightly. "How do you feel?"

He'd been better. Patches of skin on different places all over his body were still getting a burning sensation, especially his hands and feet. He had evidently healed a lot as he slept, though, and waking up in these conditions eased his mind considerably. "Tolerable," he said. "How do I look?"

"Atrocious," she answered easily, still smiling. "Like hell on a stick. It's a good thing you can't look in the mirror, or you'd scream like a schoolgirl."

He held up one of his hands to look at it. The skin was red and peeling, but it was the same effect that holy water had always given him before, just more widespread. It would fade off soon. "Well, if you're insulting me to my face, I guess that means you don't think I need to see a preacher. I'll take that as good news."

Her expression darkened. "You're going to be alright. I think there's a preacher I need to have a talk with, though."

"Don't be too hard on him. He was just-" Angel stopped and thought about what he was saying. "Did he really turn the whole lake into holy water?"

She nodded. "It's funny, you never really think about where that stuff comes from, do you?"

He asked for more details, and she filled him in on everything that had happened while he was down in the lair. It dawned on him that Daemonis and Darla now had barely any army to speak of, and that was a refreshing thought even though he couldn't seem to erase the chills he got from imagining death by submersion in holy water. When Buffy finished speaking and wanted to hear his side, he hesitated, collecting his memories and wondering how many times he would have to explain the new complication before everyone had the story. Well, Buffy should hear it first, anyway.

"Darla's alive," he began, and built the rest of the account around that. He wanted to give her some kind of reasoning behind it, some way that it would make sense for Darla to reappear on this world as a human and then get turned back into a vampire, but the best he could do was to speculate that Wolfram & Hart had something to do with it.

"You know, I rode past their building in LA about a million times," she mused after she had shaken off some of her shock about Darla's return. "I almost feel like I should be suddenly remembering that it always gave me a tingle in my spine or a sense of dread or something, but I never gave it a second glance. Evil shouldn't be able to hide itself so easily."

He agreed, stroking her hand with his thumb. He suddenly noticed how tightly he'd been gripping it, and eased up. She responded by leaning over again and kissing his lips, chastely but sweetly. "Ah," he said when his mouth was free, "so I don't look too atrocious to kiss?"

"I'd say you're tolerable." She moved from the wooden chair she had been sitting on to the bed itself, settling on the edge next to Angel's hip. "As long as you promise to be a good patient while you're recovering."

He grunted. "I'm already recovered. I'm just going to be itchy for a couple days, that doesn't make me a patient." He started to rise, to show her.

Wrong answer. Buffy planted a hand in the middle of his chest and pushed him back down, firmly enough that resistance was probably futile. She took it personally when she was discouraged from taking care of him the way she wanted to. "Bed rest or medicine," she said with a stony glare. "If I had my way it would be both, but you're so damned stubborn I'm going to let you pick one."

"You have medicine for this?"

"I'm full of it, actually."

It was his turn to glare. "No. I don't need it."

She crossed her arms. "Way to make me feel wanted. At least I'm being respectful about it. I could have just fed it to you while you were sleeping."

"I would know."

"Don't tempt me to find out. You'll have to fall asleep again sometime."

He took the threat with mixed anger and longing. "Buffy, I think I've been through enough lately," he snapped.

She sighed and stood up. "Fine," she said, heading for the door.

He was instantly repentant. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have- I'll be good. Bed rest. Don't go."

The smile she turned on him as she paused with her hand on the doorknob was amused, but as loving as he'd ever seen. He could swear that she had deliberately drawn the exact reaction she wanted from him, but he would let that go. "Relax," she said. "I'm just going to heat up some pig's blood for you. But if you're not cleared up by Saturday we're having this talk again. I have wedding pictures to think about."

He mulled over that until she returned with a warm mug in her hands. He had long since lost his reluctance to drink blood in front of her; in fact, he often saved it for when she was eating so that she wasn't always taking her meals alone. She had never shown any squeamishness about it, though she was perhaps a little too nervous about spilling it and causing stains.

"You need anything else?" she asked as she set the mug down on the bedside table. For a moment he was too busy studying her to answer. She was dressed in 'home' clothes: sweatpants and one of his white undershirts, which her dark bra showed through easily. Her hair was falling over her eyes and her face was as unblemished as a child's and serene as a grandmother's. She quirked an eyebrow at him. "No? Yes?"

"Paper. Charcoal." He pointed to the wooden chair. "You."

For a moment she looked like she was going to object on the grounds that she wasn't prepared for a portrait, but then she smiled again and brought him the tools he wanted. He had three pages full of her before he even remembered to take a sip of the blood.

***

Giles expressed his approval as Buffy carefully removed the plastic covering from her prize and held it up. "It's a beautiful dress," he told her. "You'll be a perfectly lovely bride." It wasn't a lie.
She had chosen one with a traditional cut and a flowing train, mostly satin and completely shining white. Nothing made the reality of an approaching wedding more clear than looking at a wedding dress.

She held it up to her chest for a moment, looking down at it with admiration, and then got it wrapped up again and stashed it in one of the mansion's lesser-used downstairs closets. "Could you take it over to Revello Drive when you leave? Angel isn't supposed to see it yet."

"Of course." He sat down with her in the living room, glad to have a few minutes alone with her for a change. Lately when he looked at her he felt an inexplicable feeling of sadness well up in him, and he couldn't tell if that was part of the routine for letting go of one's little girl, or whether there was some extra element of fear in it because of the groom. She was upset about something too, underneath her excitement, and he wanted to hear about it. "How is Angel?" he inquired.

"His feet hurt. He won't say it, but..." She shrugged, not needing to finish the sentence. "He's better than he was, though, so I'm letting him out of bed." She pulled her legs up under her and took a pillow into her lap, toying with its frills. "Giles, I know for you this is..."

He wanted to prompt her. He wanted her to be able to say it while looking him in the eye, but mostly he just wanted her to say it. He had to wait for it, though. It had to be her words, not his.

She took a deep breath and finally looked up at him. "Are you disappointed in me?"

Not quite the words he had expected. He was genuinely taken aback. It wasn't as if he had never been disappointed in Buffy, but those occasions were always short-lived, as time and again, she showed him that she made her choices with clarity and was prepared to take full responsibility for their consequences. Telling her that he was proud of her always seemed like stating the obvious. "No," he said, relying on the simplicity of the answer to convey its sincerity. "I'm happy for you." He bit back the qualifier he wanted to add: But be careful.

Her relief was tangible. "Thank you. I really needed- thank you. I've never felt better about doing something, I mean, I'm psyched in places I didn't know I had, it's just...what would my mother be saying to me right now?"

She asked the question as if she really expected him to know, and the sadness hit him again in a wave. He had grieved for Joyce alongside Buffy, not only for her sake but for his own. Joyce was a strong woman, compassionate...and beautiful, though the only time he had really allowed himself to recognize that was during a relapse to his teenage years. It was too late for regrets now. But a young woman getting married without her mother at her side was wrong all over. "Probably quite a bit," he replied. "Mothers always seem to have a great deal of information to impart before such occasions."

Buffy hugged the pillow to her chest. "She would accept Angel, right? Eventually, at least. She could learn to love him?"

"I can't answer that. But I remember the way she smiled when she saw you were happy."

It was a remarkably similar smile to the one that Buffy gave him then. He returned it, knowing quite well what Joyce had been feeling when she looked at her daughter like that.

Slow footsteps on the stairs ended their private talk. Buffy got up to give Angel a shoulder, and the two of them returned to the living room and settled on the couch, Buffy looking him over as if it had been days since she had checked his condition instead of under an hour. The sight of Angel's red and flaking face and hands was a little shocking to Giles, just because it was so odd to see a vampire with any kind of affliction except for a combat wound. Otherwise, though, Angel was acting normally, just being especially careful about putting pressure on his bare feet, which looked worse than his hands.

"You're feeling better?" Giles asked him.

Angel nodded. "A little bit hydrophobic, but otherwise none the worse for wear."

Before Giles could attempt to advance the conversation, Buffy smacked her forehead and said, "Good God, I've had Giles here for like twenty minutes and haven't offered him any tea. You'd think I would have learned something about The Care and Feeding of Your British Guy by now. Giles, curb your withdrawal symptoms, I'll be right back."

Giles watched her leave the room. "She's certainly gained a domestic side, hasn't she?"

Angel looked alarmed. "I didn't do that," he said. "She just..." He left the thought unfinished as he saw that Giles wasn't serious, and chuckled reluctantly.

"So," said Giles, ready for business, "tell me about Darla."

"Darla." Angel's eyes lost focus; doubtless he was sifting through two hundred years of memories to find the information that mattered. "She's the one in control now, whatever her relationship with Daemonis was in the first place. And she said he didn't sire her, so there might be someone else in the equation. But whoever it was, she's just as likely to have left him behind or killed him already."

Giles heard the discomfort in Angel's voice when he talked about Darla, but that was all the more reason for him to be blunt about it, to get to the point. "What does she want?"

"What any vampire wants. Power. Blood. Mayhem." Angel paused, then amended, "Any vampire without a soul, that is, so I guess that just leaves her. It's hard getting used to that."

Even for you? Giles wondered. Instead he said, "But her presence here suggests she was looking for something, possibly you. Does that seem likely?"

"Yes," said Angel. "Probably for revenge. Or she thinks she can bring me back into the fold. One way or another, she made it pretty clear that she wants me."

Buffy reentered the room with three mugs, teabag strings dangling from each one. Giles made a mental note to supply her with some proper china. "Are we talking about me or Darla?" she asked as she set everything down and returned to Angel's side. "Darla, right? Darla wants you. Well, you know what I have to say about that?"

"I'd wager we can guess," Giles assured her. "Be kind enough to refrain from supplying me with any mental imagery. But, Angel. You've said that the, the "Powers That Be" have made a practice of sending you warnings through Cordelia's visions. I would have thought that this occurrence would be one to, ah, merit some divine guidance. She hasn't seen anything lately that pertains to you, or to Sunnydale?"

"Cordy hasn't been getting visions at all," Angel revealed. "I'd like to think that means that there hasn't been any demonic activity that needs attention, but the agency is still busy. Every day, it sounds like. My time here is running out."

Buffy pouted, but quietly. Giles was glad to see that she wasn't going to try to negotiate against Angel's departure. He didn't quite trust Angel to be able to stand up to that.

"And in the meantime," concluded Giles, "you don't expect to be receiving any knowledge on Daemonis's next move."

"I don't think we need any. There's no way he can get out through that hatch, not with the holy water blocking it. Darla could probably get out, but I doubt she could get back and forth enough to bring him food. That lair's a deathtrap now."

"How do we find Darla, then?" asked Buffy. "The personals don't have an abbreviation for 'single white female psycho vampire.'"

Angel turned to her, ran his fingers through her hair, looked into her eyes. There was something vaguely terrible about his eroded skin, but he didn't try to hide it and Buffy didn't flinch. "I say we let her find us," he said. "Or try to. Leave it be for a few days, and when we come back we can deal with her."

Giles noted that Angel was saying 'deal with her' instead of 'kill her', only slightly before he noted the words 'come back.' "Then you're still intending to take your trip?"

"What else are we supposed to do, Giles?" Buffy sounded much more defensive than she had to be; she had probably been holding herself ready for an objection. "Just sit around town waiting for her to call? Angel's on borrowed time here. Darla isn't."

"And my team is going to stay here while we're gone," Angel put in smoothly. "Just in case Sunnydale needs any protection."

Giles leaned back in his seat and looked the mismatched couple over. "Obliged," he said, "though we're not generally the ones who attract trouble."

***

The three people currently employed by Angel Investigations arrived with plenty of time to spare. The current residents of the Summers house had invited everyone to spend the evening before the wedding there, and the crowd grew steadily as everyone took them up on it. Buffy had already been there most of the day, fine-tuning plans with Willow, when there was a knock on the door and she leaped up to answer it. She was excited to see Angel's friends- actually, she was excited about just about anything that happened today- and she wanted to be the first one to greet them.

Cordelia and Wesley she welcomed with hugs, spontaneously deciding to forget the worst parts of her history with both of them. At least until Cordy did something annoying, anyway. Charles Gunn made her entire hand disappear in one of his, showed her a huge grin of white teeth, and pretended to be shocked that Angel had convinced a girl this pretty to marry him. It wasn't hard to like him on sight.

"Thanks for coming early," said Buffy to Cordelia as the two of them looked over the props for tomorrow. "If everyone wasn't helping so much this whole thing would just fall apart in my hands and I would end up getting married in the graveyard wearing sneakers and a ponytail."

"My pleasure, honor, and God-given duty. I know Willow's a genius and all, but you are not going to trust her with your hair and makeup."

Xander wandered over from the kitchen. "You're doing her hair and makeup, huh? Don't they have professional bimbos for that?" He cringed under the glares from both of them and held up his hands in surrender, one of them holding a bow-tie. "Just kidding! I'm all friendliness and helpfulness for Buffy's day of blissfulness. Look, bow-tie! I just didn't know you were, uh, talented at hair and makeup?"

Willow and Anya noticed Xander's outburst and drifted over, as Cordy rolled her eyes at him. "Have we met? I'm Cordelia." She turned back to Buffy and resumed her business tone. "Now, let's talk honeymoon outfit. Do you have some lingerie he hasn't seen before, or do we need to squeeze in a bachelorette party after all?"

"No bacheloretting tonight, please," said Buffy, but not quickly enough to prevent Xander from snickering, "I'm hoping for both! For Angel's sake, of course."

Anya gave her boyfriend a disapproving look. "This is girl talk, I learned all about it from Buffy and Willow, and you're not allowed to be here." She turned to Buffy. "Lace is sexy, but it leaves these imprints on your skin if you take too long getting it off."

Willow jumped into the conversation, doubtless attempting to come to Buffy's rescue. "She can pick out her lingerie herself! Besides, I'm sure Angel thinks she's beautiful no matter what she wears. He's a gentleman, he's not just all about...boobies and tush."

"No," Xander agreed, "he's more of a neck man, isn't he?"

Buffy had a retort on her tongue, but then stopped to think about it. Angel did like to kiss and touch her neck a lot. Not that that meant anything.

She escaped the lingerie talk by finding Gunn again. He and Wesley were trying to put together a game of Texas Hold 'Em, and had already recruited Oz and Giles and were working on Father Tom. "I'm not sure you understand the concept of a vow of poverty," the priest was telling them politely. "It doesn't mesh so well with gambling."

"Hey," said Buffy, tapping on Gunn's shoulder (which she could barely reach), "are you still up for being the DJ? I kind of forgot to talk to anyone else about it."

"All taken care of," he promised, shuffling a deck of cards in his hands. "Nobody could agree on a style, so we're gonna take turns. I even picked up some matrimony tunes."

Well, that was a relief. Everyone's musical tastes were too varied for her to figure out what would be appropriate for all of them. She wasn't even sure who had put on the music that was playing right now, just that it was boisterous and soulful and not in English.

Wesley looked over his shoulder at them from his place at the table. "And I found some Manilow for Angel."

"Manilow?" Buffy pulled a chair out and got closer to Wesley. "Are you serious? Angel likes classical and opera and stuff."

"Oh, you haven't heard this one? At the karaoke bar it's legendary. You see, the host there can-" he paused, noting her avid stare. "Am I running the risk of planting doubts in the mind of the bride-to-be?"

He wasn't, but the doorbell rang before she got to hear the full story of how many songs Angel had butchered in public. There had to be a way to get him to sing for her. Her mind was deep in analysis of the problem when she opened the door for the man himself, looking all the more handsome now that there was no trace of the holy water's effects on his face. He smiled, but his expression quickly turned suspicious. "Why are you laughing?"

The only way she could think of to dodge the question was to kiss him on the lips and change the subject. "You want wine? We have lots. Only, Willow and I were the ones who picked them out and we were mostly just going for the labels we thought were the prettiest. Tasted fine to me, but what do I know." She led him into the kitchen and took a pair of wineglasses from the cupboard, almost fumbling one. "Whoops. Already had a few glasses myself."

He had been listening to her babble with an amused half-smile. "I can tell."

"Pff. I could still take you out with my eyes closed and you know it. Red or white? Wine is like Jell-O. It has colors instead of flavors."

His expression didn't exactly change, but it gained a surprising intensity over the amusement. "Red is my favorite flavor."

That sent a shiver down her spine, and she wasn't sure why. She was about to see what she could do to keep that predatory look on his face when his team noticed him and all came over at once to slap his back and catch up with him. Buffy let him be led from the room and poured a glass of red for both of them. Following an impulse she pricked her fingertip on a kitchen knife and squeezed a drop of blood into his glass. She bandaged her finger while still holding her wine, so she wouldn't forget which one was hers. Then she put Angel's into his hand as he was telling Wesley about the holy lake, gave him another quick kiss, and slipped out of the room again and back into the kitchen.

"Who do you think is taller?" said Willow as she went for the bottle of white. "Gunn or Riley?"

Buffy twitched. "No clue. Hey, I'm going to add one more item to the list of things nobody is allowed to talk about tomorrow, okay?"

Willow nodded. "So it's Daemonis, Darla, being chained up in a dungeon, vampires having souls, and Riley?"

"So far." Buffy tried not to show that she was trying to watch Angel through the doorway. Angel was very distracting. He hadn't even tasted the wine yet; he was totally involved in his conversation with Wesley.

"That is so okay with me," said Willow. "Oh! I keep forgetting to make sure Oz shined his shoes." She scurried away, leaving Buffy alone in the kitchen.

Angel finally took a sip from his glass. Buffy watched him turn swiftly toward the wall, reflexively blocking his face with his arm for one brief moment. He said something to Wesley and Gunn, excusing himself, and then stalked into the kitchen, openly displaying that predatory look that Buffy had been so eager to prolong. He loomed over her and silently pointed to his wineglass. Buffy gave him a guilty smile and held up her bandaged finger.

"Don't do that," he warned.

"Sorry." She blushed under his gaze. "I just thought, it was such a tiny little drop..."

"It's enough. From you, it's enough. Look, Buffy, if you're so intent on trying this, we can talk about it. But don't play tricks on me."

"Can I blame the wine?" She shook her head ruefully before he could answer. "Nah. Behold the melodrama that is Buffy's failed attempt at flirtation. I'll work on that."

He looked down at his glass. "If you get any better at it than this, I fear for us all."

She suddenly thought she could understand why he had reacted so strongly. Doing this to him was more than flirtation. It was intimate enough that she should have been blushing even before he confronted her. "Do you want to pour it out?" she asked humbly.

He shook his head, never breaking eye contact, and took another sip as she watched.

She bit her lip and lowered her voice to a near-whisper. "What does it feel like?"

His eyes burned through her. "It feels like I'm undressing you right here in front of everyone."

Buffy could imagine that she was turning as red as the wine. She tried to occupy her face with her own drink, but she couldn't look away from Angel and he certainly wasn't looking away from her. It was lucky, she reflected, that they had both learned such self-restraint during their period of imposed chastity. It was also lucky that they were about to spend a weekend alone together.

***

Xander joined the table where he'd heard that there was going to be poker, but the guy who he'd heard was setting it up was talking to Cordelia while shuffling the cards and peeking into the kitchen at the engaged couple. "They doing something in there?"

"Oh," Cordelia said breezily, "Buffy and Angel have this thing where they just stare at each other. I'm sure they're fine."

Xander nodded his way into the conversation. "As fine as they ever are. Probably means trouble is brewing for tomorrow." He stuck out his hand. "Charles Gunn, right? I'm Xander. I've known Buffy since she moved to Sunnydale, I don't have any special powers, and I can't stand the sight of your boss. Oh, and I'm the best man."

Gunn gave him a peculiar look, but took his hand and shook it all the same. "Good to meet you." He gestured between Xander and Cordelia. "So, you two went to school together?"

"Yeah," said Xander. "I'm sure we talked a couple times, I just don't really remember it."

"He was kind of beneath my notice," said Cordelia. "No offense, Xander. I was just really popular."

"None taken. Boy, Sunnydale High, those were the days."

"Wouldn't have missed it for the world. Except I would."

"Hey, weren't we supposed to play cards?"

"My kingdom for a distraction. I'm starting to have memories." Cordy rubbed her forehead. "Sure beats having visions, though. Hey," she continued in a sudden change of tone, looking at Xander, "what did you mean by trouble brewing for tomorrow? What kind of an attitude is that?"

He shrugged. "Well, let's stack up the evidence. There's the annual Buffy Birthday Disaster, a few other holidays gone notably wrong, a general history of bad luck for all of us, and supposedly Angel's vampire mom is on the hunt now. Honestly I can't quite believe that we still have the childlike naivete to keep planning celebrations and assuming they're going to happen with any kind of normality."

Cordelia backed down from her offense. "Okay," she said. "I thought you were talking about trouble, like one of them was going to leave the other one at the altar. Demons crashing the party, that's different."

Gunn cleared his throat. "Uh, how much of this is serious and how much of it is just trash talk between two old friends who hardly noticed each other in high school? Because I need to know if I should bring my axe to the ceremony."

"Don't be silly," said Cordelia. "That axe doesn't match your jacket at all."

Giles appeared before anyone could try to answer that. "There will be no crashing the party," he said firmly. "By demons or anything else. Buffy and Angel need just one evening in a small church to perform a simple ritual, and all of us will be there to ensure that it happens. Nothing at all will go wrong tomorrow."


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