Rating: PG-13 (violence, some language, some sex)
Wordcount: Roughly 145,000 total
Notes: This one's all about the romance.
It was easy to tell when Angel was asleep. For as long as he lay awake beside her, he would keep moving in some small way: stroking her hand, rubbing his cheek against her hair, pressing his body to hers. Sometimes he even breathed, making his chest rise and fall a little too evenly, but it was otherwise indistinguishable from genuine human respiration. She knew it was for her benefit; he wasn't the fidgety type. She usually fell asleep before he did, but when she didn't, she would find herself in the most static embrace a woman had ever known. He must have known that his stillness was unsettling, so he sent her to sleep every night with those little repeated motions that seemed to whisper, Still here. Still here. Still here.
He had been undead for so long that she would have been surprised that he remained so conscious of the differences of his body, but there were other signs that he thought about it more than he let on.
Sometimes as Buffy was drifting off she would feel his fingertips touching her lightly in a series of different spots: first her lips, then her neck, then her heart, then her stomach or side, and finally he would feel her wrist and then leave his hand clasped around hers. It confused her at first, but the second time he did it, all in the same sequence, she realized that he was seeking her signs of life, her breath and pulse. He couldn't have actually feared for her health; his senses would have told him immediately if something was wrong, even if she had been in any danger. He just wanted to experience her vitality. She never mentioned it. She didn't even know if he knew he was doing it. If Angel was going to have an obsession, this one was okay with her.
He was asleep now, though, or faking it well. He had gone to bed much later than her, probably making some kind of preparation he couldn't in the daylight, though she also had a hunch that the guys had convinced him to let them take him out. In any case she had fully intended to wake up before him and sneak away; he wasn't supposed to see her yet today.
Cordelia met her downstairs, ready to take her to the Summers house and get things rolling. In the car she was full of questions, unsolicited advice, and stories about Angel from the last year. Buffy answered the questions and took the advice with the requisite grain of salt, but hearing about the escapades of Angel Investigations mostly just made her feel lonely. She knew that Angel was happier now that he had a life and a job and friends of his own, and she wasn't selfish enough to want to wish them back to a time when he belonged solely to her, but it was weird that other people- other humans- really knew him. And soon he'd be going back, and Cordelia would be spending more time with Buffy's husband than Buffy was. It made her picture the old Cordelia, the one who had lived for attracting the attention of whatever hot stylish guy she could find. Evidence said that that girl was gone, but in Buffy's mind she could see her sitting on Angel's lap on the front desk of some big faceless hotel, smugly announcing, "Looks like I won after all." It wasn't fair to any of them, and all Buffy wanted was to stop thinking it.
"Who are you dating now, Cordelia?" she asked abruptly.
"Hm?" Cordy broke off from a story about an underground demon fighting ring to consider the question.
"Oh. No one. The lifestyle has a tendency to get in the way of anything beyond the bad pick-up line stage. Although you always seemed to manage it pretty well. Got any cast-offs you could point me toward?"
"Well, unfortunately the best of them decided to leave the- I just realized you're kidding." Buffy looked for a smirk as confirmation, found it, and grinned back at her. "What about Wesley? After the eyes you two were making at each other at the end of senior year, everyone thought for sure something was going to happen there."
Cordelia tilted her head and fused a nod with a shrug. "But it didn't. I don't know. It just didn't. Maybe we just met each other during the wrong parts of our metamorphoses." She caught Buffy's surprised look and added, "What? I can't be philosophical?"
After that there was no more talk about Cordelia's love life. It was, as she pointed out, really not the appropriate day for that.
There were almost as many people at the house as there had been the night before; Wesley and Gunn were staying at the mansion, but everyone else apparently found it easier to prepare themselves and each other in the same place. Willow greeted Buffy at the door with an excited squeal and hug and Buffy returned it, but she herself felt completely relaxed. Getting married was going to be a breeze. Her friends were supporting her, her lines were easy, and there was going to be a delicious reward at the end. There also wasn't much hurry. It was still late morning, and the wedding, for obvious reasons, wasn't taking place until sundown.
"We're surprising you with an exquisite and tremendous brunch," Xander informed her. "But it's not done yet, so sit down and get ready to act surprised."
Buffy complied, and Cordelia went off and conferred with Anya for a moment and then returned with some nail files and small bottles and proceeded to give Buffy a 'poor man's manicure.' She chattered as she worked, but Willow stole the show when she walked over to the couch carrying a beautiful blown glass flower. "This is a gift from Tara. She couldn't make it, but she said this would lift your spirits when you couldn't be with your true love." She ran a finger along the contours of the blue-violet petals. "I think she meant it literally. There's a charm on it, I just can't quite describe how it works. Here, hold it."
The glass felt cool and smooth in her hand, which was reminder enough of Angel's body, but the charm's effect was evident as well. "This is...it's amazing! Feels like..." She beamed at Willow, lost for words.
Willow understood, though. "Feels like Angel, right? It works for me, too, only I can feel Oz."
"I wish she were here," Buffy murmured. Tara had been the only one to actually receive an invitation, as neither Buffy nor Angel had regular communication with her. It was sad that she was also going to be the only one who couldn't come. Buffy resolved right then to become closer friends with her. "I already owe her a lot. Without that spell she helped you with, this might not even be happening."
Anya asked to hold the flower, and then seemed reluctant to let it go, twirling it in her fingers and gazing at it with uncharacteristic softness in her eyes. Cordelia was offered a turn, but declined it with a resigned smile that made Buffy's heart ache for her. Before long, though, they decided to try it on the guys, and seeing Xander and Oz getting all bashful and affectionate with their girls had everyone cheery again.
Father Tom emerged from the kitchen holding a full coffeepot. He and Giles were the only ones left working on brunch, Buffy realized, but she couldn't get up to help. Cordelia was still working on one of her hands and everyone had insisted that she let them wait on her anyway. "Cream and sugar, Buffy?" asked the priest.
"I like my coffee like I like my men: cursed by gypsies and clinically dead."
Father Tom looked down at the coffeepot in his hand, then back up at Buffy. "So, cream and sugar...?"
"Uh, yeah. Both." Buffy followed him with her eyes. Her life was full of mysterious people, but this one was mysterious in such an strangely mundane way, and today he was going to be the key participant in a relationship that otherwise included only her and Angel. As soon as Cordelia released her from the manicure, she got up to interfere with the cooking.
"Is the lake going to be holy water forever?" she asked, leaning against the counter and sipping her sweet creamy coffee. Just right.
He raised an eyebrow as he inserted some bread into the toaster. "No. Water is in a constant state of flux, so the blessed content will become more and more diluted until it's gone. I don't know how long it will take, though. You'd have to consult a science book for that."
"Or consult a Giles. He's better than science books because he does the reading for you and then tells you the answers." She glanced at Giles, assuming a long-suffering sigh was coming in response to the remark, but he was busy at the stove and hadn't heard her, so she turned her attention back to Father Tom. "Could you turn the whole ocean into holy water?"
"I wouldn't attempt it. It's a blessing that's misused too much as it is."
She nodded. "I can imagine. Probably kind of a touchy thing to be using as a weapon." She stirred her coffee and dropped the spoon into the sink. "Did Noah take two vampires on the Ark?"
"I sincerely doubt it," he chuckled. "You're in rare form today."
"It's a rare day. What did you give Angel as penance?"
His hand halted on the door of the cupboard where he was searching for dishes. "Ah, now the interrogation reaches its purpose."
"Hey, I might not be Catholic but I do watch movies. At the end of the confession the priest always tells the sinner to say three Hail Marys or something. And I have this odd feeling that Angel didn't get the three Hail Marys treatment." She frowned, thinking about all that Father Tom had learned about Angel that she didn't know. Things that Willow knew too, from that ancient book that was back in the glass case at the mansion even now. Maybe she should just bite the bullet and crack the book, but no, that wasn't how it worked with them.
Father Tom gave her a steady look. "Did the movies tell you that I'm not at liberty to discuss this?"
"But I'm not asking you to divulge his confessions. I just want to be sure-" She took a deep breath. "He's a survivor. But if he thinks he has to, he'll take on too much, and if I'm going to help him with that I need to know what's happening. I mean, it's part of being his wife, right?"
"So is trusting him. Do you remember when I first met you and Angel?" He waited for her nod, then went on, "My order is dedicated to destroying vampires. I knew from your thoughts that he had a soul, but with what I knew about Daemonis, that meant little to me. All I understood was that you loved him, and you trusted him, and you knew what you were doing. So I trusted you, and I didn't shoot. And today I'm going to unite you and your vampire for the same reason. From you I have evidence that your love is pure. From him, I'm taking a lot on faith, confessions or not."
"Well," she ventured, "most priests don't even get the psychic evidence from half of the couple, right?"
"True. And many marriages end badly, even without your special circumstances to hinder them."
She thought about that for a moment. It was possible that the appearance of this particular priest in their lives at this time was lucky in more ways than she had realized. Without his telepathic ability, he might not have had the conviction to preside for them. "So you're saying I need to take a lot on faith, too?"
"Until you find a way to read his mind, and at that point, I hope you write me about it, because I'd love to hear." Father Tom washed his hands under the faucet and dried them on a dishtowel, then paused, meeting her eyes. "Angel's penance was chosen long before I met him. I didn't want to add to it, and I didn't need to."
Buffy didn't verbalize her thanks, but he was a psychic, and he answered anyway. "You're welcome. And look at this, your breakfast is finished."
Her gaggle of bridesmaids entered the kitchen to tell her the same thing, with the additional announcement that after eating, it was time for getting dressed and ready. "And then it's No Boys Allowed, capeesh?" said Cordelia.
Father Tom smiled and dipped his head as he went for his hat. "I'll see you at the church, Buffy," he said, and she gave him a little wave and grin.
She was ready.
It was the same church in which he had confessed, but the change in intentions made it feel different for Angel, and he noticed for the first time that it was named St. Patrick's. It couldn't hurt to have the patron saint of Ireland watching over them. He was even able to appreciate the artwork a little bit, especially the stained glass windows. They couldn't cast their colorful patterns without sunlight coming through them, of course, but at least they didn't feature crosses too often.
"Angel, you're pacing," said Wesley. "She's not late, you know. We're early."
Angel hadn't noticed he was pacing, but he stopped doing it when Wesley spoke up. Then he shrugged and kept walking. It had probably been a bad idea to come early.
Gunn returned from the bathroom downstairs, grinning broadly. "Just had to check myself out in the mirror again. Damn, we look good. Sorry you gotta wait on the pictures to see for yourself, Angel man."
The comment made Angel wonder, not for the first time, if he was certain that he trusted his friends to tell him if he had something on his face. He could just imagine Buffy taking one look at him as she walked down the aisle and busting out in laughter.
"Why the pacing?" Gunn wanted to know.
"He's brooding," Wesley replied in Angel's stead.
Angel glowered. "I'm not brooding."
"Say what?" Gunn demanded. "Now? You're not getting cold feet, are you? Colder than usual, I mean?"
"Knock it off. I'm not getting cold feet and I'm not brooding."
They persisted, though. Wesley's voice actually held some real concern. "Is the church affecting you? We have time to slip outside for a bit."
"No, the church feels fine."
"Something else, then?"
Angel sighed. "It's just, I had this dream once..."
The sound of the heavy wooden doors of the church's main entrance interrupted his thought, but that was fine because the thought stopped mattering instantly. It wasn't Buffy yet, but anyone's arrival now meant that she would soon be on her way. Conversation in any capacity suddenly seemed a nuisance.
No pictures were taken during the ceremony. There wasn't anyone to take them anyway, since everyone present was in the wedding party and the ritual took place with all of them arranged in a crescent between the altar and the pews. Oz concentrated on using the time to create mental pictures instead, feeling it was important to keep the day alive in his memory. He had never seen all of them together like this, so solemn and single-minded, and he wagered that he never would again.
He memorized the scent, too. Over the wood and stone and incense of the church there was the unified aroma of many humans and one vampire, and their mixed emotions hidden in the reverent hush. Love, mostly. Oz didn't know why he could smell love, but he had come to recognize it, in its various incarnations, along with the more chemically evident emotions. Those were represented here too, both joy and sadness, and the most subtle of all, fear. That one came from more than one person and its source was unidentifiable, but, Oz noted, both Buffy and Angel were free of it. They said their vows clearly, honed on each other like birds of prey, and kissed with unmitigated passion when Father Tom pronounced them married.
Until that point everyone had put on a good facade of being an actual congregation, but as the couple left the altar and walked down the aisle together, their collective formality fell apart and the rest of the procession was all laughter and horseplay. Willow had gone through a spasm of panic the night before when she realized that she had neglected to buy birdseed to throw when they got outside, so Oz had calmed her by searching the cupboards for some kind of substitute, and Buffy and Angel ended up being pelted with Rice Krispies. Angel's look of utter confusion as he peered at a handful of the cereal made Oz remember that photography was now permissible, and he grabbed the camera before they made their way down to the reception hall. (It was actually just a large multi-purpose room beneath the church, but some severe decorating power and Willow's magic touch made it a very impressive large multi-purpose room.)
For an amateur with a camera that probably wasn't heavy enough to be of real quality, he thought he did a pretty good job as the primary photographer. He started off by getting the posed ones before everyone got too unruly for them: Buffy and Angel by themselves, with Father Tom, with Xander and Willow, on down through all combinations until Father Tom took a turn with the camera so that they could get one with the whole wedding party together.
Then Oz took it back for the fun ones. He got Xander and Anya trying out a swing dance move that had Anya up in the air ("That shot will never come out," she said). He got Wesley and Gunn in what looked like an eating competition ("There is no possibility of you getting a decent picture out of this," said Wesley). He got Buffy's hand resting on top of Angel's, both displaying the narrow bands they now wore beneath the claddagh rings ("Too close," said Buffy, "it'll be all blurry").
He made sure to keep taking pictures of the newlyweds all night long, whether they were aware of him doing it, or whether they were too absorbed in each other to notice anything else. When they fed each other cake he was behind the lens right in front of them, close enough to hear Buffy telling Angel, "It's good, trust me." He was operating in stealth mode for a few truly epic kisses, though, so he could surprise them with that once they got developed. He caught an excellent shot of Buffy jumping into Angel's arms and wrapping her legs around his waist, big puffy skirt and all, which Oz thought was the cutest thing he had ever seen from a girl who wasn't Willow.
Of course he got a few good ones of Willow by herself, breathless and radiant in her shiny blue dress. He also passed off the camera for a while so he could dance with her, and then took it back from Cordelia so she could dance with Wesley, then Gunn, then Xander, then Angel. Oz got snapshots of her with each of her partners, along with every other pair on the floor. Giles dancing with Buffy, sharing fond words with each other as they spun in a simple but elegant waltz. Willow dancing with Xander in a silly improvised tango. Gunn breakdancing by himself to enormous cheering, after he swore he would never do it no matter how much they begged. And Buffy dancing with Angel, resting her head on his chest, her eyes closed in quiet ecstasy.
After all of the obvious memories were collected, Oz started getting creative. "Why are you taking a picture of the door?" Father Tom asked curiously from behind him.
"Oh, well I'm going to caption it. 'This is the entry which was not busted at any point by marauding demons.' Thought that might be something uplifting to add to the album."
"I see. Marauding demons were a concern, were they?"
Oz shook his head firmly. "No, no. Definitely not. Maybe. Depends on who you ask." He glanced over at Buffy. "Hey, she's throwing the bouquet. I gotta get this."
One picture of Buffy executing a perfect toss behind her back. One picture of the bunch of flowers landing neatly in Cordelia's hands. And then, one picture of Cordy handing it graciously to Anya, who required a few seconds to process her shock and then ran right over to Xander with an animated explanation on her lips.
Oz watched the way the tradition went down, said, "Hm," and then went to put an arm around Willow just in case she was disappointed. It was kind of hard to tell. The first thing she said was, "I never catch anything," but from her tone she might as well have been bothered about her lack of catching ability, and not the bouquet's symbol. He decided to take the safest route and kissed her hard right there on the dance floor. She responded in kind, and he found himself holding out the camera at arm's length until someone- he couldn't see who- relieved him of it.
Partying until the sun came up wasn't an option, since Buffy and Angel had to be at their destination by dawn and they had a two hour drive ahead of them. Besides, they were obviously getting anxious to be on their way. Xander noticed it too: "We better chase them out of here," he said, out of their earshot. "Don't want to delay the Slayer and her catch when they're ready for their marital coffin."
Angel took charge of their exit by scooping up Buffy into his arms and carrying her out the door.
"This wasn't the plan!" she squealed, squirming and kicking her dainty little feet in an obviously fabricated attempt to escape, but he just laughed and kept his grip until he reached the convertible and set her down in the passenger's seat. As the car pulled out it was accompanied by a shower of brightly sparkling lights, which was unexpected for everyone but Willow, and even she admitted later on that it had been a spontaneous spell that she hadn't really known she could do.
Oz stood with her outside for a few minutes after Buffy and Angel were gone. Her hairstyle had come undone, and he was pointlessly trying to put a few stray locks back in place when he heard her sniffling. He turned her around to face him, and she leaned her head into his shoulder. "I did all I could," she said in a muffled voice. "But I can't give them what they really want. I can't make him human. I can't get them out of the fighting life."
"Willow." He stroked her hair and set a kiss on her forehead. "They're happy. Didn't you see how happy they are? Buffy couldn't ask for a better friend than you."
There was a brief silence before she spoke again. "I think I need some more cake."
"I think so too. Fortunately, last I saw there was a whole bottom tier left. Let's go in."
Before leaving the reception, Willow realized to her annoyance that she had forgotten the formula for the spell that would turn off the magical decorations. She couldn't very well leave them there in a place that would be public again the next day; she and Oz would have to make a stop at the Magic Box before they went home, to look it up. It wasn't that big of a deal, though, and her emotional overload had settled into contented exhaustion, so the two of them changed clothes quickly and went to get their errand over with.
"Hi, Sippy," said Willow as she flicked on one of the lights so she could find the right book. "What's new?"
The feline spirit stared down at her with eyes like baseballs. "Much," it said.
Willow froze. Oz did a doubletake, surprised to hear the infantile, echoing sound of Sippy's voice. "That's weird," he said. "I've never heard it speak before. Kinda cute."
"That's not the point!" Willow exclaimed. "It doesn't talk unless it has to tell us something we haven't heard before. This could be bad." She took a deep breath. "Sippy, report."
The cute voice that Sippy used by default was gone. Instead it answered in a woman's voice, soft but irritated and subtly menacing, clearly a direct quote from the voice's real owner. "She has visions, she was Angelus's seer. We need her."
Sippy's power was based in all of the senses; it could report not only what it had heard but what it had seen and felt as well, and sure enough, visuals began to appear in the air before them. The one who had spoken was a small blond woman in a tight dress, and she was standing beside a bed where a huge, disfigured vampire lay staring at her with glassy orange eyes.
"Darla," Willow whispered, heart thumping.
"And Daemonis," Oz added. It was, as far as Willow knew, the first time either of them had seen the master vampire, but he was unmistakable. She wanted to ask a million questions about what this could mean, but Sippy hadn't paused the show for them and she knew this was their only chance to pay attention and learn what they could.
"And the other?" Daemonis wheezed in reply to Darla.
"We need him too. He helps to control her. Just let me handle this. The Slayer is at full strength again and she's always with Angelus, I can't just step in and take her. The spell is the key." She smiled. "And it's fun. Have you ever seen a human without a soul? Lambs to the slaughter. We'll need to set up farms for them, but let's not think too far ahead just yet."
"This spell could kill me. Forgive me if I'm not enthused."
The image showed Darla glaring down at the sick vampire and gesturing in annoyance. "It won't kill you. It only looks that way because it assumes a human caster. 'The body must die while the mind still comprehends.' Well, your body is already dead and your mind still comprehends. Enough for our purposes, anyway."
Daemonis's voice was a dry crumble. "And the other part?"
"'In the end there is nothing left of the one who makes the sacrifice, for he belongs to the one who accepts it,'" Darla recited. "Your soul is the one who makes the sacrifice, and what's that but a good riddance. Your body lives on. I'm certain of it."
"You're certain of it because the sacrifice isn't yours."
Darla bent down, hands on her knees, her face inches from Daemonis's. "If you start the spell tonight, I'll have the Slayer for you as soon as it's completed. If you don't, you'll be dead before long anyway. I'm not going through that vile water any more than I have to. I'm only coming back down here once more, and I'll have either your cure or someone else to succeed where you failed. Die if you want. All I need to usher in my brave new world is a vampire with a soul to be the sacrifice, and those aren't in any short supply right now."
The snarl in Daemonis's throat turned into hacking as it came out. "How are you going to get the Slayer? You don't even know where she is."
"That's the best part," said Darla with sadistic pleasure. "Once the soul is out of Angelus, he'll bring her to me. No more of this moral nonsense infecting everyone, and I get my boy back. I'll set up my part of the ritual in one of his old haunts, so after you finish yours, all I have to do is sit down and wait for him to come looking for me."
"Then bring me what I need," Daemonis rasped. "And get to work."
Darla left Daemonis's bedside, and the images playing out for Willow and Oz faded away. They looked at each other in horror, completely numb, then Willow dove for the phone and stared as it as the dial tone snored. "I don't even know who I should be calling," she whimpered.
They hit the seaside road about twenty minutes into the drive. There was hardly another car out here, at this time of night, and the view was amazing. For long stretches at a time, they could see the ocean spread out below them, the almost-full moon hanging over and reflecting in ripples. Angel smiled as Buffy's hair flapped around her and she breathed in the salty air. He had been waiting so long to bring her somewhere peaceful.
They had left the wedding gifts unopened at the mansion, but Buffy decided that she couldn't wait to open the cards, and she started going through them as Angel drove. Most just made her look touched, but after opening one of them she snorted a laugh and held it up for Angel to see. He took his eyes off the road long enough to read what Cordelia had written there: "May your love be as joyous and eternal as it is forbidden."
"She's a piece of work," he said, grinning.
"They all are," agreed Buffy. "I'm surprised they didn't find 'forbidden love' gift wrap. It could've been a theme."
He put an arm around her shoulders, and she managed to scootch close enough to lean into his embrace. He loved how warm she always felt, and how he could feel the life coursing through her body. She was happy. The wedding was finished, and she was still happy to be with him. 'Forbidden' was such a silly word.
Her cellphone rang and she grudgingly shifted herself off of his shoulder. "I should have turned it off," she complained. "I thought they would know better than to call for anything but an emergency."
The phone's shrill tune resounded in Angel's ears. "They do," he said quietly.
Buffy cast him a worried glance and dug the phone out of her purse. She looked at the number showing up on the screen before answering. "Giles?"
The other side of the conversation was faint but clear to Angel. "No, it's Xander. Giles told me to call, we're all here at the store. And, sorry. We would have left you alone but it's an-"
"Emergency," she filled in. "What happened?"
"Daemonis is going to cast the reversal spell. The one that takes the souls out of everyone."
Buffy reeled, but wasted no time in turning to Angel and saying, "Turn around." He didn't argue. He had already slowed enough to pull a U-turn on the deserted road, and when they were facing in the other direction he pressed the gas again and started speeding back towards home.
"That spell was supposed to cost a life," Buffy said to Xander. "He doesn't have a life to sacrifice, this doesn't make any sense."
"Agreed," said Xander, the volume of his voice increasing with anger, "it doesn't. But it's happening. Darla's pulling his strings, and she says it's not going to kill him because he's already dead, and now the rat bastard is going to sell his soul to make it work and he's not supposed to have a soul to sell!"
Buffy swore under her breath, seeming at a loss. "We're, we're coming," she said into the phone.
"Wait," said Xander, "there's more. She said something about how they need Angel's seer for her visions, and one other to help control her."
Angel twisted in his seat so fast that the car swerved. "Where's Cordelia?" he shouted at the phone. "Get her inside someone's house! And Wesley, he has to be the other one!"
"They're safe," was Xander's hurried response, melting a little of Angel's fear. "But Darla and Daemonis might be starting the spell already and we don't know where, except that it's in one of Angel's, uh, 'old haunts.' And Daemonis is still underground but Darla says she can use someone other than him. And they want your blood, but I guess we already knew that. Giles is trying to figure out some way to stop them before it starts, but...just hurry. Buffy, believe me when I say I'm sorry."
"Be sorry when you're the one trying to rip our souls out," she replied. "You guys should go somewhere safer than the store. And stay together. I'll call when we're back in town."
Angel took her hand after she had hung up and tried to think of something encouraging to say. There was nothing encouraging about the thought of losing his soul while he was in the car with Buffy, though, unless she would appreciate knowing that this time she would lose her own soul at the same time. He wasn't sure what a soulless human would be like, having no demon to operate it. He wasn't sure what he would do to Buffy if he were evil and she no longer had the capacity to care. He was sure he was afraid, and that he hated Daemonis with all of his being.
And Darla...he hated her too, but Daemonis was a much easier enemy. Since Darla's reappearance, Angel had dealt with the maelstrom of issues she brought with her mainly by ignoring them, keeping his focus on the facts of the situation instead. The wedding had helped immensely. But now, coping mechanisms were no longer an option, and he was going to have to look at her face again. He just wished he could silence the little part of him that wanted to make her proud of him. He also wished he was driving in the other direction.
"I have a confession to make," said Buffy. "I'm really, really pissed about this, but it's for all the wrong reasons."
He looked at her. She was staring straight ahead, but with such ferocity that she might have been trying to make the road combust by sheer force of will. "I second your confession," he told her.
"Then let's see how fast we can kill us some apocalypse-happy vampires, and get back to the original plan."
"So, if they need Wes to help control me, that probably means they're not just going to scoop my eyes out and ditch the rest of my body, right?"
Xander looked up at Cordelia in disbelief. Everyone else did too. She was still in her wedding outfit, having left her suitcase at Angel's mansion, and she was standing in front of everyone as if in a beauty pageant. "May I suggest you postpone your optimistic hypotheses?" Wesley answered. He and Gunn had the same clothing situation that she did, but they had at least been able to shed their ties and jackets, and looked a little less incongruent in the agitated group gathered in the Summers house.
"Well," huffed Cordy, "it's important! Being a seer isn't all it's cracked up to be, you know? These eyes are in high demand, and I happen to like them where they are!"
Nobody seemed to want to pursue the argument with her. Xander got up and moved closer to where Oz and Willow were huddled on the couch. Willow had been taking the news especially hard, and the way everyone had interrogated her and her boyfriend for all the details wasn't helping. "I'm never writing another spell ever again," she said. "Or I'm never using the internet again. Or both."
"Oh, that's no good," said Anya. "Then the only things you'll do with your time are study and compliment people."
Xander sighed and decided that the best way to comfort Willow was to keep her separated from his girlfriend. He took Anya firmly by the arm and led her from the living room, ignoring her genuinely confused protests, and got her into the kitchen and out of earshot to try to explain what everyone was feeling right now. Before he could, though, the phone on the countertop rang and Giles rushed in to pick it up. Xander and Anya turned to listen.
"Buffy," said Giles. "Yes. Yes. Good, where- what do you mean? Buffy, don't be tiresome, just tell me- Buffy!"
"What's going on?" asked Xander while Giles was still yelling irritably into the phone. "Is she in trouble?"
Giles didn't answer him until after hanging up. "She and Angel are initiating battle with Darla," he said. "And they refuse to tell me where it will happen."
Xander wasn't the only one upset to hear that. When it was explained to everyone else, there was an almost unanimous consensus that Buffy and Angel shouldn't be allowed to take this on by themselves, but nobody had any ideas on how to prevent it. Angel's old haunts in Sunnydale could have been any number of places: his old apartment, the wreckage of the high school, the Bronze, the local cemeteries, or somewhere that he used to frequent that none of them even knew about. They couldn't just check every possibility, nor did they want to split up and spread themselves thin. Again they were swallowed into a silence of frustrated waiting.
Then Gunn spoke up. "What about this Daemonis guy?"
Giles looked up from one of the books he had brought with him from the store. "What about him?"
"We know where he is, right? Konked out and helpless in his special place? Why not just off him while the deadly duo of romance is busy with the other one?"
Xander perked right up. "That is a swell idea. Can I come?"
Anya frowned at him. "Can I not? And you won't die?"
He promised he wouldn't, and they quickly selected the rest of the team for the mission. Giles wanted to stay so he could keep researching and wait for Buffy to call again, and Gunn told Cordelia and Wesley in no uncertain terms that they weren't leaving the house. "Angel's gonna skewer me if he hears you were outside when you're both on the vampire's most wanted list," he said, with reluctant agreement from both of them.
Willow had to come so she could check for magical protection spells, and they thought Oz's tracking abilities might come in handy, so it was a group of four that left the Summers house armed with stakes and the only crossbow that they found in the house. Xander found himself feeling a little guilty when he pictured himself trying to justify the decision to Buffy and Angel, and even Father Tom. They were the ones who really deserved to take vengeance on this particular baddie, but saving his death for one of them came second to ensuring that the spell didn't go through.
Of course, if Buffy and Angel were successful, the spell wouldn't go through anyway, and if they weren't... Xander decided to copy Gunn's attitude and just be a man of action tonight. Thinking too hard was not helping at all.
After five minutes of thick silence, Angel startled Buffy with a few sudden words: "I've got it."
"She's going to be waiting for me at the factory. Where I lived after- that's where she'll be, I'm sure of it." He hoped Buffy wouldn't need more evidence than that. He could have told her that Darla would be aware of all the town's old vampire nests, possibly even catching some residual scent from himself and the other former residents, and that she knew how he thought and he knew how she did, lending them an enduring synergy that cemented his hunch into certainty. Those weren't conversations he thought he could handle at the moment, though, so he added only, "It's a good place for casting a spell. Nobody ever goes there."
Buffy just nodded. "Should we tell the gang to meet us there?"
His first impulse was to say no. His second was to intensify it to absolutely not. It was bad enough that he was going to have to expose Buffy to Darla's presence, but he knew there was no way to stop her from accompanying him now. He didn't want anyone else witnessing it too, and anyway he and Buffy between them could handle Darla. But on the other hand, refusing help could mean unnecessary risks, and dammit, it was their wedding day... "Do you want to?" he asked.
"No," she answered immediately. "Not unless it gets dire. But you're the one who knows her. You have to decide if we're enough on our own."
He winced, and inwardly resolved to keep the brunt of Darla's fury on himself no matter how much his protective behavior bothered Buffy, but this was indeed a decision that belonged to him. "We can do it. Tell them to stay in."
When she called Giles at the Summers house to tell him that she wasn't going to tell him where the battle was, she was ruthlessly impassive. Angel could hear Giles yelling at her from the other side, and even some other voices in the room asking him what was going on, but Buffy just delivered the information she wanted him to hear and hung up. In another situation, it might have been amusing.
He asked her if she wanted to make a stop for weapons, and she smiled wanly and pulled a pair of stakes out of the glove compartment. It was unnerving to him that she had gotten those in there without him noticing, but he supposed that he should have known she wouldn't be able to let down her guard enough to spend even a weekend without a few of them on hand. "Will this be enough?" she asked.
He took one of them from her and held it flat in his hand, testing its balance. As if he'd never used a stake before. "It'll do. We don't want to get weighed down, anyway."
"She's not a weapons kind of fighter?" Buffy waited patiently for a response, but the question sent Angel spiraling into too many memories to settle on an answer, and she had to speak again to snap him out of it. "Angel. This is business. I don't want to talk about Darla any more than you do, but your history is the only source of information we have, and if we're going to do this I want to do it with all possible advantages. I know there are bad places inside you and I know it hurts to relive it and for most of our life together I'm going to leave that be. But right now you need to let me in."
As always she was too strong for him. He told her everything he could think to tell. Darla's disdain for sullying herself in combat, leading her to send him and her other followers to do her dirty work instead. Her insatiable need for retribution over even the smallest wrongs or perceived slights. Her talent for manipulation. That, more than anything, was the danger that he and Buffy were about to face. Angel's familiarity with Darla might have been an advantage, but it went hand in hand with his weakness toward her. He hated to admit it, but he did need Buffy with him for this, if only to remind him where he really belonged. He had been able to kill his sire once before, for the same reason. This time would be no different.
They kept talking after they had parked on a street near the factory, trying to set up some kind of battle plan but ultimately admitting that the only thing for it was to walk in, find her, and both attack at once. The best scenario would be to interrupt her while she was already working on the spell, when she would be most vulnerable, but they would have to go with whatever situation they found when they entered.
The factory had been thoroughly burned out, legacy of Giles and his flaming baseball bat; they had to step carefully around busted glass and rusty nails. They came up on a stairwell and saw that one of the steps was missing, as if someone had crashed right through, and Angel requested that they turn around and find a different route. He didn't want to trust any stairs with his weight.
Before they entered the factory's core, Angel smelled hot wax and pointed with his stake to show Buffy that they were close. She readied herself and they entered the dark, cavernous space together, stepping into flickering candlelight and cold drafty air. Darla was still lighting candles, clearly in the preparation stages, though the parcels and items stacked up on the floor near her showed that she had been busy. She straightened up when she saw them and flicked the match in her hand to the floor. So they hadn't exactly caught her off guard, but she didn't look too happy to see them, either.
"You're early," she said.
Buffy advanced with a few fluid steps. "We thought maybe we'd catch a worm."
Darla wouldn't even acknowledge her. "Angelus," she started, but Buffy cut her off.
"His name is Angel."
"Hush, little girl, the grown-ups are talking now. I have some unfinished business with Angelus-"
"His name is Angel." Buffy was fury incarnate, controlled and focused directly on her enemy, the Slayer that Sunnydale vampires had come to recognize and flee for the last five years. Angel realized, though, that Darla didn't fear her even now. He also realized that that was just plain stupidity on her part, and it was the most liberating thought about Darla he had ever had.
"We do have unfinished business," he said. "But we can finish it now. And this spell isn't part of it."
She raised an eyebrow. "What, my seeking spell? Yes, I guess it's unnecessary now that you're here, but thank you for taking an interest."
"Seeking spell?" Angel didn't want Darla to see him confused, but he couldn't help sharing an apprehensive glance with Buffy. "You're not trying to take everyone's souls away?"
"You know too much," Darla accused him. "You have a spy. I knew it. Well, a lot of good it's done you. I'm not casting that spell because it's not my job. My partner is taking care of it."
Buffy's voice was outraged and fearful. "But you said there were two parts, and you're doing yours up here while Daemonis is making the sacrifice!"
"Had to tell him something, didn't I? If he thought he could do it without me, he'd want me to be down there supervising. And knowing that he isn't going to live through this doesn't make me too anxious to be keeping him company."
The allusion to Daemonis's death didn't make Angel feel as hopeful as he would have expected. "How do you know he isn't going to live through this?"
Darla's smile when she had a secret made her look like a mischievous child, aside from being utterly and remorselessly vicious at the same time. "My sire told me," she said. She turned toward one of the doors behind her and called over her shoulder. "Dru, sweetie, come on out now. Daddy's come home."
The stake in Angel's hand slipped out and clattered to the floor. Nothing could have stunned him more than seeing Drusilla glide delicately from the entrance indicated, cradling a porcelain doll in her arm- nothing, that is, except that in her other arm she was clutching Spike's. The two of them moved up beside Darla without a word, Spike examining Angel and Buffy with merciless eyes, Drusilla staring straight at Angel but appearing to see nothing at all. My seer, he thought dully. She has visions.
How long had it been since they were all together? It wasn't supposed to be possible. Darla was supposed to be dead already. He was supposed to be dead already. Time was passing without him knowing how many seconds or minutes had gone by without any one of them speaking a word. Darla would be the one to break the silence, he knew. She was the one who would take charge. And Angel would sneak the power away from her, and Spike would challenge him for it, and Dru would watch the whole game play itself out with intrigued glee. So had it always been. I can't handle all three of them at once. I can't. Just have to give up.
No. That wasn't right, something was missing. Buffy. He wrenched his eyes away from Drusilla to look at his lifeline. Relief poured through him even as she gazed back with evident fear. This was the answer. This was where he belonged, with Buffy. They were a team. They were soulmates. They were married.
...They were outnumbered. Angel's heart dropped as the reality of the situation came clear. Spike couldn't hurt Buffy, but he could keep Angel occupied while both of the women went for her, if Drusilla chose to fight. And she might well fight. She had always been unpredictable, but never as much as she was now. Going into battle here and now could mean both Buffy's death and his own, and the soulless world would come to pass anyway. They had to get out of the factory without a fight, and that, he knew, was going to make things much worse.
"Surprise," said Darla. "I put together a little party to celebrate your homecoming."
"You've got no home for me."
Darla smiled. "Don't talk to me like I'm your enemy, dear boy. Wait until you hear how much I'm going to accommodate you and your silly whims. You don't want the spell to be cast? Fine. We have time to kill Daemonis before it's completed. You want your whore to live? Fine. We'll set her loose."
"I don't think," said Buffy, her hand tight around her stake, "that I like being referred to as my husband's whore."
Spike's mask of cold indifference slipped as he finally spoke, addressing Angel with outright incredulity. "Husband? You married her? Bloody hell, the poof's gone and forgotten he's a vampire. Vampires don't get married, do you recall telling me that once or twice?"
Drusilla pulled her arm away from him so she could smooth her doll's hair. "Vampires don't. Vampires mustn't. So many things we mustn't do."
Spike wasn't done yet. He turned to Buffy with a puerile smirk and put on a nostalgic tone. "Remember when we were going to get married?"
Buffy turned red and wheeled on Angel before he even had a chance to blink. "We were under a spell! Nothing happened!"
"Quiet, Buffy," said Angel. It killed him to talk to her like that, but now he had a part to play. Buffy was strong, she was smart, she had all kinds of experience, but she couldn't talk her way out of this. That was his task, and to make it work he was going to have to fool three dangerous people into thinking they were getting the best of him. All of them knew him too well for him to play it halfway, and there was no way to inform Buffy about his plan; he would have to fool her along with them and pick up the damage afterwards. He turned to Darla. "Why should I believe you would change your plans just to get me back?"
She shrugged. "The spell isn't going anywhere. The possibility is always open if you change your mind. Human life without souls is a big step to take all at once, so why not get used to being with us again first? All grievances forgotten. It'll be just like old times."
"Right," he growled, trying to gauge how much resistance he should show her before she believed he was coming around. "It will once you use Daemonis's trick to take my soul out. That's the plan, isn't it?" He gestured at Spike and Drusilla. "And these two have been promised the same thing. An easy fix."
None of them denied it, but Darla threw her hands up in exasperation. "God, Angelus, you're obsessed with that soul of yours. You know what? If you're so attached to it, keep it. Keep it for as long as you want it. I've spent the last few days learning to deal with your kind, and I'm willing to give it a chance. You don't have to kill. You don't have to hurt your poor precious humans. Just come back to your family where you belong."
Angel's surprise at hearing this kind of offer from Darla made it that much more difficult to keep up the facade. He had never thought she would accept him with a soul, let alone delay her apocalypse for his sake. Recent events must have shaken her perspective in some improbable ways. She must be lonely. The thought almost made him laugh. "You've certainly turned a corner," he said casually. "Spike? Dru? Tell me what she's really about."
"We got the same tale you did, pops," said Spike. "And the same choice ahead of us, even. I might keep the soul, just for a laugh. I'm beginning to think it might not mean quite as much as you've been advertising."
"She's all bright and new," said Drusilla wistfully, fondling the doll. "I made a new child."
While they were speaking, Angel tried to sneak a look at Buffy to see how she was taking it. She wasn't looking at him- wouldn't look at him, he guessed- and held herself ready, stake in hand, a pose that suggested she was still waiting for a fight. He closed his eyes for a second, trying to control the way he was aching for her before it took him over. He had done this before. He had acted out Angelus as she watched him and suffered. He could do it again.
But last time it had been only Buffy's pain that he had to shoulder. He hadn't faced the additional agony of suddenly realizing that he recognized Drusilla's doll.
"You're right," he said abruptly. Buffy snapped her head around to face him, showing him a horrible expression of grief. He plunged onward, needing to have this finished in one way or another. "The soul doesn't mean much of anything. It doesn't have to get in the way. I learned that when I got mine secured." He kept his face blank as he spoke his next words right at Buffy. "You weren't there when they performed the spell. Maybe I should have told you. I had a kind of revelation when my soul was gone between the two parts of the spell. After we finished, I tried to deny it, but it's still true. A vampire with a soul isn't really that much different from one without it."
"Angel," whispered Buffy, "you wouldn't really do it, would you? You won't...go with them?"
The final trial. He thought he had everyone convinced, if only because none of them thought he would be so cruel to Buffy otherwise. It made him sick to know that he was using her this way, but even if she ran out on him now, it might be worth it. It might save her life. "This isn't something you can understand," he told her harshly. "This is about where I come from, what I am. They said I can keep my soul. Nobody has to get hurt, and they're going to let me in." He sighed heavily and stared down at the floor, letting the conflict he was feeling about tormenting Buffy show up on his face and stand in for the conflict he was pretending to feel. "I can't play human forever. You have to start seeing me as I really am."
Buffy's eyes were wet with unshed tears. Darla had a miniature smile of triumph. Spike looked cautiously interested. But Drusilla zeroed in on Angel's face, finally showing some clarity, and said in a hushed voice, "You're him."
He knew what she meant. The terror in her eyes was a living echo from long ago. He took an involuntary step forward, holding out a hand as if she were a skittish horse. "Drusilla," he begged. "Don't-"
But seeing him approach her was apparently too much. She turned and ran, back out the door where she had entered, her footsteps echoing through the wide empty space. Spike looked wildly from her to the others, then started off after her.
"Spike!" Darla commanded. "Get back here. Let her go."
"Piss off," he replied as he disappeared out the back.
Darla registered immediately, Angel was certain, that she was no longer on the side with superior numbers, unless she had truly won him over. She looked at him through narrowed eyes, awaiting his reaction to the change in the stand-off, but Buffy struck first. She launched herself at the female vampire with a savagery that excited Angel's own battle fury even as it made him fear for her life. He rushed forward to help, but Darla didn't even wait to see which of them he was helping before dodging backwards and reaching into the pile of supplies she had stacked up nearby, the ones that Angel had thought were for the soul removal spell.
A handful of thrown powder later, Darla chanted some activation words and a wall of flame shot up from the floor between her and Buffy. They were close enough together for it to singe both of them, and Angel was close enough to Buffy to feel its searing heat, but it didn't look like anyone was harmed. He could see Darla's outline through the fire and hear her receding footsteps as he reached Buffy, who was already retreating in the opposite direction, coughing and looking around herself frantically. He grabbed her shoulder and pointed out the exit, and she went for it without hesitation.
The building had already been shelled out by fire once; it was a treacherous place to be running even without the relatively small fire now blazing at the heart of it. They cleared the smoke quickly, though, and Angel's night vision was enough to find a safe way out. When they reached the outside, Buffy sucked in a few deep breaths of fresh air and shook her head as if trying to rid herself of the clinging smoke.
He wanted to hold her, touch her all over to be sure there was no damage to her beautiful skin, but he kept himself a few feet away. "Buffy," he gasped, still full of smoke himself, "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean any of it, I was just acting. Please don't cry. It wasn't me, I had to do it..."
She looked up at him, startled. "I know that. You were trying to get us out of there without fighting."
It took a moment for him to stop staring. "You knew? But you said...and your face..."
"What, you couldn't tell I was acting?" She actually sounded a little insulted. "I know you wouldn't go hang out with those losers again. See, I've grown. This is me not being threatened by your vampire ex-girlfriends."
He closed the distance between them and engulfed her in his arms, finding her scent underneath the burning smell that surrounded them. "I'm an idiot. I should have trusted you. It was just, the three of them there together. Drusilla. I had no idea."
"I really really don't blame you for the having no idea. I'm pretty sure I didn't have one either." She tightened her arms around him, then let go and pulled halfway out of the embrace to meet his eyes. "But, Angel. We still have to stop Daemonis."
Getting into the lair had seemed so glamorous in concept, so Mission Impossible. The glamor fell away from it quickly, though, when Willow found out that the Mission was Possible, but also Difficult and Muddy. They had brought ropes to climb down the slope instead of sliding down it, but as Angel had discovered earlier, there wasn't really a way to avoid stepping through the water before getting to the door. As she tried to sluice some mud off of herself with her hands, she imagined what it would feel like for it to sting wherever it made contact with her skin, and shivered in sympathy. She got down second, after Gunn, and stepped into the entrance as soon as he wrenched it open. Xander came next, and Oz pulled up the rear.
They gathered at the top of the stairs together before moving any farther, which made Willow feel claustrophobic but still safer than she would be in such a dark nasty place by herself. She did her part and checked for enchantments, and Oz did his and checked for any unusual smells, and when they agreed that all was clear they continued downwards, all of them relying heavily on their flashlights. The stairs weren't only steep and narrow, they were damp, and it wouldn't have helped matters for one of them to break an ankle.
Searching the abandoned lair wasn't fun at all. Casting the same spell repeatedly, testing each area they entered for traps, wasn't fun either. The very least fun part about the ordeal, though, was that there was no master vampire on his deathbed to be seen anywhere. Willow felt fairly certain that they would recognize him when they saw him, Daemonis being recognizable to say the least, but even that kind of assurance was rendered irrelevant by the complete absence of any vampires anywhere.
They kept looking long after it was obvious that Daemonis should have turned up by then, but finally Gunn stopped them and said, "We checked this room twice already," and then they stopped pretending that looking was doing any good. They formed a circle where they stood and discussed their options.
"Smells like vampires down here," said Oz. "Couldn't really tell you which ones, though. I only met Daemonis once, and I was...busy. And not human."
Xander turned to Willow with such a look of hopeful confidence that she started to feel even more tired than she already was. "So what's your internal Magic 8 Ball saying about this, Will?"
She sighed. "It's doing the 'Try Again Later' thing. I'm not sure what I can do here, I don't have any books with me or anything."
"This is still the place Sippy is spying on, right?" asked Oz. "And it showed us Daemonis and Darla here, just a couple hours ago. I don't get how he could leave between then and now, if he's really as sick as he looked."
Willow thought about that. "Sippy doesn't just show what's going on in the present. It reports on anything important that it saw since last time we asked, like a recording. But we check on it every day, so it couldn't have been that long ago. You're right, he shouldn't have been able to get out. You know what, I have an idea for a spell I can try."
Everyone allowed her the space and silence she requested, and she concentrated hard on the image of Daemonis's ugly face and remembering some rhyming couplets that she had learned months ago and hadn't used since then. Fortunately, the incantation came out right, and when she opened her eyes she saw a swirl of blue lights in the air which lingered for just seconds before fading away. "It worked," she announced.
Gunn looked dubious. "That was it? You cast a spell to make a blue light?"
"I cast a spell to make a light, yeah, but I didn't know it was going to be blue. It's like a pregnancy test! Blue means yes."
"Thanks for the freaky analogy," said Xander. "Yes what?"
"Yes, Daemonis is still here. He's just hiding. And before you ask, there's no way I know of to reveal him before he decides to come back. On the not-so-unlucky side of things, I'm sure he can't do any big spells in the meantime, so at least we have him cornered."
The question then, of course, was cornered until when? They were still pondering it as they went back up the stairs, seeing nothing else to be done in the lair. Gunn suggested leaving a guard down in the lair for as long as it took to find a more permanent solution, but Willow didn't think that it was a safe place for any of them to be hanging around for long, at least not until they knew that Darla was dead. She also didn't think it was necessary. "Sippy's keeping an eye on the lair for us," she explained. "If we find out that Daemonis is back, we can get here fast enough to kill him before he casts the spell. It's going to take him some serious time to get it- hey, someone's up there."
She had just come out of the door, leading the way, and the dock right above her had the distinctive patter of feet on it. Before she could scare herself with the possibility of being discovered by perfectly normal people who just came out here to row a boat, Buffy's voice called out, "Willow?"
"Yeah! It's me! You're alive, that's great!" Willow snatched up the rope and pulled herself up the muddy slope again, getting a hand from Buffy as she reached the top.
She also got an earful. Buffy was, as expected, aghast that they had come out here without her or Angel, and Willow was too occupied with getting herself out of the lake to offer counterpoints. Instead she plopped down on the deck to catch her breath as Buffy pulled up the other three, admonishing all the way and asking questions about Daemonis that nobody was in a position to properly answer.
Willow jumped a little when a quiet voice from just feet away from her asked, "Are you okay?"
She didn't get up, but stared until her vision adjusted and his shape became clearer. "Yikes, Angel! Still demonstrating how creatures of the night work, huh?" He was standing in the shadows where the dock met the land, so still and dark that he had been virtually invisible until he spoke. Willow continued, "Yeah, we're fine. I didn't think you would come this close to the lake."
"The air is okay now. I can be here as long as I don't get wet. What happened?"
She started explaining as everyone made their way onto the dock and joined the conversation. For Angel's sake they started walking away from the lake as soon as the newcomers were satisfied that they were in no immediate danger of Daemonis casting the spell. "So he's still alive," summarized Buffy bitterly. "That makes a stunning zero-out-of-four on our kills tonight. My plan for maximum efficiency is not going as well as I had hoped."
"Four?" asked Willow. She had a really bad feeling about that number.
The feeling only got worse as Buffy described what she and Angel had been up since calling the house. Willow glanced up at the sky, hoping selfishly that they had no leads they could use to keep pursuing the vampires tonight. She couldn't be the only one who needed sleep.
Start at the beginning.