"Give me a month and the slayer won't look like anything resembling a threat. You'll be able to walk right in and take control of the Hellmouth."
"I've had other beings promise me such a thing in a shorter amount of time." The man folded his smooth, feminine hands in his lap.
"And where are they?"
The man paused and then nodded, conceding the point to the demon in front of him. "And can you promise you will not end up a notch on the slayer's belt, just as all the others have?"
"I don't take jobs I can't finish. It's a personal work ethic thing with me."
"Very well then, you have one month."
"Okay, so commando guys accounted for, Vahrall demons dead, quiet time for the slayer. Right?" Buffy glanced at Giles.
"I suppose so. I'd like to know more about this military faction, but for now you deserve some down time." He smiled warmly at her.
A grin burst over Buffy's face. "Downtime commencing," she said as she dashed out the door.
Downtime with the aforementioned commando guys, well one of them because more then one…that'd just be slutty.
Buffy had a date with Riley at the Bronze. It was their first official, non-apocalypse style, post-knowing-each-others-secrets date.
Riley was easy to find among the crowd at the Bronze. He literally stood a head above everyone else. Buffy slipped up behind him, her arms going around his waist. He jumped.
"At ease, solider."
He turned in her arms and smiled at her, encircling her with his own arms. Buffy tiptoed and Riley still had to bend to place a kiss on her lips.
"I didn't expect you so early. I thought Giles would keep you longer."
"Are you kidding? I told him I had a hot date and I needed Buffy downtime, stat." She grinned up at him.
"Buffy downtime, I think I can help with that." He slid a hand down her arm and threaded his fingers with hers, leading her out onto the dance floor.
Buffy let herself be pulled into Riley's arms. She laid her head on his chest, the sound of a heart beat and the heat of his skin still new to her. Which would be weird if you were anyone, but me.
"So, how was it? Spill," Willow ordered the moment she walked into the dorm rooms.
"It was…nice. Different," she said as she hung up her jacket and slipped her boots off.
"As in no crying, no angst, no pain?"
Hurt darted across Buffy's face before she crammed it behind a bright smile. "For instance. Seriously, he was a perfect gentleman. We danced, talked and danced some more."
"And smoochies?" Willow prodded.
Buffy blushed, a grin lighting up her face. "There were a few smoochies."
Buffy woke up the next morning unreasonably tired. She wrinkled her nose and pulled the pillow over her head, expecting Willow to rouse her any moment for class. When the redhead made no move to get Buffy out of bed, she got curious. She poked her head out from under the pillow to find Willow still sound asleep.
Buffy glanced at the clock. It read 10:00 am. They'd slept through their first class. That wasn't anything particularly new for Buffy, but Willow never missed class. It was one of her rules. Buffy crawled out of bed and shook the redhead gently.
"Will, wake up. We missed class. We're gonna be late for the next one."
Willow groaned and rolled over. "Don't wanna wake up, Mom."
Buffy giggled. "Yeah, I know. Come on, Willow. Wakey, wakey."
Buffy scooted closer, her foot kicking a pair of shoes under the bed. Her forehead furrowed. Willow was almost obsessively neat. She never left her shoes out. Buffy knelt down to fish the shoes out from under the bed. They were a pair of soft slippers that resembled ballet slippers with the ribbons and flat soles. It was a pair of shoes Buffy was certain she'd never seen before and the soles had holes in them.
"Where'd you get those?"
Buffy glanced up at the sound of Willow's voice. She'd woken up and was now peering at the pair of shoes Buffy held.
"I accidentally kicked them under your bed." She lifted the dust ruffle and glanced under the bed. "Nothing there now but dust bunnies."
"That's…I don't have a pair of ballet slippers, but look. You do." Willow pointed to Buffy's bed. A pair of the delicate slippers peeked out from underneath the bed.
Buffy snatched them up. Holes were worn in the soles of her slippers too. "No, I really don't."
"Buffy, I hardly think a couple pair of worn out shoes necessitates a full slayer investigation." Giles cleaned his glasses as he spoke, unable to understand exactly why Buffy and Willow were so worried over a couple pairs of shoes.
"Giles, would you contemplate this look for a moment?" Buffy asked holding up the pairs of shoes. "They're like Swan Lake gone bad."
"Perhaps that roommate of yours…the one who turned out to be a demon…"
"Kathy," Buffy provided.
"Kathy, perhaps she left them when she was relocated to her proper dimension."
"Kathy was weird, but she wasn't a ballerina reject," Buffy protested.
"Make sure you lock your door at night, lock the windows and you'll be fine." Giles went back to his books.
Buffy and Willow sighed. They glanced at each other. It was obvious Giles had dismissed them.
That night, Buffy and Willow both double checked the doors and windows to make sure they were locked. They hung the door with garlic and crosses. Both girls put stakes underneath their pillows, even though vampires don't usually stalk with shoes.
"So, if the shoe fairy comes to visit, she better bring Pradas or it's stakey stakey," Buffy said.
Willow grinned. "Yeah we don't want old holey shoes!"
"Exactly. Night, Will." Buffy reached over and turned off the lamp.
"I thought we ordered a side of shoes with no holes in them," Willow grumped as she held up the apricot silk shoes with holes in the soles. She'd found them next to her bed. Buffy had a pair of pale blue ones.
"Apparently the shoe fairy wasn't listening."
Buffy dangled her blue dancing slippers by the ribbons and pouted.
"Think we should tell Giles?" Willow asked.
"So he can poo poo our holey shoes again? No thanks, I'd like to have a little more to go on before we go back to him."
"Right, so I go do some net surfing and see if I can find out about a shoe demon?" Willow asked.
Buffy shrugged. "Its better then nothing and nothing is what we've got right now."
"Good Heavens, Buffy. You look wretched."
Buffy smirked. "Thanks, Giles. Really, a girl just loves to hear she looks wretched. Especially when she's got a date with her new boyfriend later."
Giles took his glasses off and cleaned them. "I didn't mean…you look exhausted."
Buffy shrugged. "I've been sleeping, in fact I've turned in early the last few nights, but no matter how much sleep I get, I'm still tired."
The watcher's brow furrowed in a frown. "Have you been having dreams?"
"Nope, dream free. In fact I've been sleeping like a rock…I think. I don't remember any tossing or turning or anything." Buffy paused, trying to decide on whether to tell Giles about the shoes they'd continued finding. "There's this…remember those shoes?"
"We've found four different pairs now, a new pair every morning. The same kind of shoes and they all have holes worn in the soles."
"And you didn't tell me earlier?"
"We did! And you poo poo'd it. I hardly think a couple pairs of worn out shoes necessitates a full slayer investigation," Buffy said in a mock English accent.
Giles cleared his throat. "Yes, well. I think perhaps this warrants an investigation now."
"Yeah, can we start it tomorrow? I'm exhausted and I'd like to see Riley before I go to bed."
"Of course," Giles agreed as Buffy walked out of the room. He began searching through his books for anything that dealt with shoes.
It was hours later when he rang Buffy's room. The phone went unanswered. He called Xander next and asked him to go check Buffy's room and then get back to him.
Xander knocked on his door twenty minutes later. "Place is locked up tight, G-man. What's up?"
Giles explained the situation to Xander briefly.
"So we're worried because the girls are getting new shoes?" Xander tried to confirm.
"No, we're worried because they're getting old shoes…or rather because of the presence of the shoes with the holes in the sole and the fact that Buffy and Willow are both exhausted, regardless of the fact that they've gotten plenty of sleep." Giles chewed on the stem of his glasses.
"The vampires are giving them sleeping pills and then running amuck all over Sunnydale?" Xander suggested.
"That doesn't explain the extreme exhaustion or the shoes."
"Yeah…so I'd think they'd be happy about free shoes…" Xander trailed off.
"I think the shoes aren't quite Buffy's style and that's not really the point here."
Riley placed a very light kiss on Buffy's lips. "So, after patrol, do you want to have some coffee?"
Buffy shook her head. "To tell you the truth, I'm bagging patrol tonight. I'm exhausted, going to try to get some sleep."
Riley's eyebrows knit together in concern. "You've been sleeping a lot. Are you okay?"
Buffy hedged. She hadn't told Riley about the shoes or about how deeply she, normally a light sleeper, had been sleeping. "Yeah…Giles is looking into it. It's nothing, I'm sure. At least not slayer related. Willow is tired too."
Riley nodded. "Call dorm maintenance it could be something as simple as a gas leak."
Buffy smiled at the naivety of her new "normal" boyfriend. Just the idea that he thought it could be a gas leak proved what a short time he'd been in her life. "Okay, so walk me back to my dorm; tuck me in, that sort of thing?"
Riley smiled openly, warmly at her. "I thought you'd never ask."
When they got back to the dorm room, Willow and Xander were lying on Willow's bed watching a movie.
"Oooo, I didn't know it was movie night," Buffy commented.
"Technically, it's not. Its Xander watching us sleep night, 'cause Giles thinks it might give us a clue to the shoes and the tiredness," Willow explained.
"Shoes?" Riley looked to Buffy for an explanation.
"It's a long story, and a boring one. Want to stay and watch the end of the movie?"
"Sure," Riley answered, happy to be included in Buffy's group of friends.
Buffy and Riley settled on the bed, less comfy cozy than Willow and Xander because of the newness factor in their relationship. Buffy was drifting off long before the movie was over. Riley woke her up to say goodnight.
She smiled sleepily at him. "Thanks for the walk up and the movie. Promise the falling asleep is no reflection on you."
"That's good to know," Riley smiled at her. He kissed her forehead. "Sleep, I'll talk to you after class tomorrow."
Buffy nodded and watched as he walked out of their room. Xander followed, giving the girls a chance to change into pajamas. "Riley's nice," she said with a smile.
"He is and seems less likely to hurt you then…you know who," Willow said.
Buffy grinned. "Its okay, Will. You can say Angel's name. I'm dealing with it and I'm moving on."
"So it doesn't hurt anymore?" Willow's voice held a tinge of hope, hope that one day Oz leaving her wouldn't hurt.
"It hurts everyday. I'm just dealing," Buffy confessed in a low voice.
Willow impulsively hugged her. "We'd better change. Xander will be back in a second."
Buffy nodded. They chattered a little, changed and then Willow poked her head out the door, letting Xander know he could come back in.
"Oh! Xander, I made this for you," Willow got a blue glass bottle out of the mini fridge. "Its grape juice with a stay awake potion in it."
Xander cocked an eyebrow at her. "It's not going to make me stay awake for days on end is it? Although, that could be fun."
Willow grinned. "Nope, it's like magical No-Doz, maybe a little better. When Giles called and told me what he was planning, I cooked it up."
Xander shrugged, popped the top off and drank the grape juice down. "Nummy, like extra sweet Welch's goodness."
The girls climbed into bed and shut off the nightstand lamp. Xander sat across the room with his own lamp, a walkman and a stack of comic books.
"Night, Xan…Buffy," Willow said with a yawn.
"G'night, Will, Xander," Buffy echoed.
"Night John Boy!" Xander chimed in.
The girls giggled and closed their eyes, hoping for an uneventful night.
Xander woke up with a jerk. He wiped at his mouth and glanced around wildly. He had been awake. He'd been reading the latest Spiderman and then…he'd woken up. The girls were still sound asleep. A pair of dancing shoes with holes in the soles was tossed at the foot of both beds, mocking him.
The second night went much the same way. On the morning of the third night, Buffy and Willow woke up to an absent Xander and two pairs of shoes. There was no note, no sign of struggle, nothing…just no Xander. They'd waited for two hours thinking maybe he'd gone on a donut run. Willow had gone into freak mode. Giles dove into the research and Buffy was currently in extreme patrol gear, even though she was dead on her feet. She'd brought Riley along for company, hoping he could keep her focused.
They stopped by Giles' place before returning to the dorm to pick up Willow and see if they'd turned up anything.
"This all seems hauntingly familiar, but I can't quite place it," Giles said.
"Hauntingly familiar is not gonna help Xander," Buffy chided.
"No, I do have hopes it will come to me eventually."
"This isn't helping Xander at all, guys!" Willow's voice bordered on panic.
"Its okay, Will. We'll find him. Remember praying mantis lady, mummy girl, hyena pack…Xander save-age is what we do," Buffy assured her.
Willow wrung her hands and nodded. Giles cleared his throat. "Riley, I'd like to ask that you go sit with the girls tonight. Perhaps you can ascertain what's happening and where Xander has been taken by watching them."
"Giles will do quite fine. I imagine you're accustomed to night surveillance missions."
Riley nodded. "We do them all the time."
"Good, then you'll report back to me with any findings?" Giles asked.
Willow made Riley a pot of coffee before they went to bed, neglecting to tell him about the wakefulness potion she'd put in it. She had a feeling Mr. Straight Arrow Military wouldn't appreciate it, but it was for his own good, and theirs. Surveillance would do no good if the guard was asleep.
Riley jerked into wakefulness. Buffy stood above him dangling a pair of soft yellow slippers from her fingertips. Riley scrubbed his hands over his face. He groaned. "I don't know what happened. I was awake. I remember watching you sleep…and then…"
"Then I woke you up."
Riley shrugged. "I'm sorry, Buffy."
She shook her head. "It's okay." She smiled at him. "You can go home, take a nap and rest up for tonight. I don't think the shoe fairy is gonna suddenly decide to stop visiting."
A frown creased Riley's features. Buffy was being surprisingly flippant about this, but then he supposed she had a point. This thing didn't seem to be going anywhere.
"I think I'll take your advice after I stop by Giles'. I'll grab breakfast, check into class and take a nap."
Buffy smiled. She kissed him lightly. "See you tonight then, Prince Charming."
Riley smiled and scuffed his foot sheepishly at the name. "See you tonight."
The next night went the same as the first. On the third night, Riley went missing.
"This is really great. He's my boyfriend less than a week and we lose him!" Buffy ranted.
"Buffy, we will find him and Xander. It just requires some time."
"What if they don't have time, Giles?"
His response to that was to delve deeper into his books.
Angel flowed through the crowded sidewalk with ease. He was lost in his thoughts. It was late, but Los Angeles streets never seemed to be completely deserted. A woman shuffled against him.
"Pretty princess in the tower needs saving."
Angel stopped; he turned around and came face to face with an old hag of a woman. One of her eyes was completely white from cataracts. Her fingers dug into his bicep.
"Pretty princess needs saving."
Angel shook his head. He maneuvered the old woman over to the mouth of an alley where the streets were quieter. "I'm sorry, if this is a riddle; I'm going to need more to go on."
The old woman laid her hand on Angel's chest, over his un-beating heart. She cocked her head and looked at him. "You love her still."
That un-beating heart clenched. He felt like someone was squeezing his insides in a vice. "Buffy," he managed to gasp.
The woman nodded. "Wait. You need to hear. Don't drink anything they give you. She doesn't know, doesn't understand yet. You will need this." She slipped an amulet into his hand. "It will allow you to remain unseen when you need to be, but it has a limited life. Use it only when you must." She seemed to melt into the shadows. Angel tried to track her, but gave up after a few minutes. Buffy was in trouble.
She staked the vampire, but it was sloppy and more of an accident than anything on purpose. Buffy lay on the dew damp grass, staring up at the sky. Her eyes slid shut and her body relaxed. She sat straight up, gasping for breath a moment later as her insides clenched and her spine tingled. Her eyes shot open and fell on the headstone in front of her where Angel sat.
The anger that had raged in him only moments before at seeing Buffy so careless melted when she said his name and he responded in the only way he knew. "Buffy."
"Wh-what are you doing here?" She glanced around the cemetery, uncertain whether she'd fallen into a dream or not. It seemed real. Her tee shirt was damp against her back and prophecy dreams generally had her dressed in something flowing and white. Nope, still jeans and tee-shirt girl.
"A better question is what are you doing? I've been watching you for a half an hour. You're sloppy, you're exhausted and you nearly fell asleep in the middle of a cemetery. If I'd been anyone else, I could have killed you before you opened your eyes."
"Oh, so you came here to lecture me. I got that from Giles earlier, so your trip, worthless," Buffy snapped. She vaulted up to her feet, stumbling as she did. Angel's arm snaked out and caught her around the waist.
"No, I didn't come here to lecture you. I came here because I was told you were in trouble by some weird old lady on the street. Now tell me what's going on."
Buffy's resolve lasted all of a minute. Her bottom lip quivered. He came because he thought I was in trouble. Her eyes filled and the dam broke. She was in his arms, sobbing out the whole story. When she'd stopped crying, she stepped back out of his arms. She didn't want to and that's why she did.
"Alright, so Xander and Riley…your boyfriend, are missing. There is a different pair of shoes with holes worn in them in your room every morning and you and Willow are both suffering from total exhaustion?" Angel summarized.
"That's it in a nutshell," Buffy whispered as they walked through the graveyard. Her fingers were threaded with his and she never once considered pulling her hand away, even though she had called Riley her boyfriend.
An idea sparked in the back of Angel's mind, a story he remembered from the books he'd read over the years. He didn't want to say anything to Buffy yet. He'd rather discuss it with Giles first. He glanced at his watch. It was getting late, Buffy walked beside him half asleep.
"Oh, she's at Giles, doing research," Buffy answered.
Angel nodded. "Alright, let's go get her. I want to get you tucked in, let you get some sleep."
"Are you gonna stay with us?"
A half grin shot across Angel's face. "Yeah."
Buffy directed her whisper to the ground, but she knew Angel would hear her. "I always slept better with you watching over me."
That ache that lived inside of him bloomed into bone shattering pain. "Me too."
When they got to Giles' apartment, Willow was asleep on the couch, a book settled on her chest.
"I didn't have the heart to wake her," Giles explained to them. They left Buffy to wake Willow up while Angel briefly explained why he was there.
"I've got a theory I'll explain to you tomorrow." Angel glanced at Buffy and Willow. "I'd prefer to watch them tonight first of all."
Giles cleared his throat. "You are aware that both Xander and Riley sat guard. They fell asleep three nights and went missing on the morning of the third night."
Angel nodded. "I won't fall asleep and that just means I've got two nights to figure out what's going on before we have to worry."
Buffy insisted on stopping by the butchers before they went back to the dorm. She wanted Angel to have blood in case he needed it. She didn't care if he'd eaten before he'd gotten here. She insisted it would help him stay awake if he had some blood on hand. He relented, knowing Buffy could be incredibly stubborn when she wanted to be.
Angel kept his back turned as Willow and Buffy changed into pajamas. It briefly crossed her mind that there were few people, Xander included, that she'd trust not to peek. Angel was one of them. He'd always been a perfect gentleman in that regard.
Before the girls slipped into bed, Willow handed Angel a warm mug of blood. He didn't protest, just thanked her and pretended to take a sip. The blood smelled drugged. It only confirmed his theory. He let the girls get settled and then pretended to drift off to sleep. He closed his eyes and stopped breathing. He sat perfectly still slumped in the chair.
The girls had been in bed almost a half an hour when Angel heard them get up. He heard the rustle of silk and surmised that the girls were dressing in something.
"You're sure he's asleep?" Willow whispered.
"Yeah, Angel always breathes when he's awake. It makes him feel more comfortable around people," Buffy whispered back.
Angel watched through slitted eyes as Buffy tapped three times on the headboard of her bed. A passage way going down appeared on the floor between the two beds. They were both dressed in brilliant silk gowns with nipped in waists and plunging necklines. Angel had the urge to take off his jacket and drape it over Buffy's shoulders just to keep others from seeing her.
The girls descended the stairway down, Buffy first and then Willow. Angel slipped on the amulet the hag had given him and followed after them, close on their heels…a bit too close. He managed to step on the long train of Willow's dress.
"What was that? Someone pulled my dress." Willow glanced around the dim passageway wildly.
Buffy smirked. "Don't be silly, Will. It just caught on a root or something."
Willow's brow furrowed. She gathered her train up and draped it over her arm. "Are you sure?"
"Positive. Do you see anyone?"
"No, but Angel…"
"I'd feel Angel if he were nearby," Buffy said. Angel could swear she looked in his direction.
Willow wrinkled her nose and glanced around. Finally she conceded and followed Buffy further into the passageway. They reached the bottom of the stairway; it opened onto an avenue of trees, only they were unlike any trees Angel had ever seen. Their leaves were of silver. He reached up and snapped one of the leaves off. A sharp crack resounded.
"What was that?" Willow asked.
Buffy shrugged. "Ceremonial firing squad celebrating our arrival?"
Willow hesitated, but continued after Buffy. Last time it had been a band of trumpets heralding their arrival. She supposed it could easily be a firing squad this time.
They turned onto another avenue. This time the leaves of the trees were gold. The third avenue consisted of trees with leaves of diamond. Angel snapped a twig from each to take back to Giles. Each time Willow jumped at the sound, but trusted Buffy's assumption that they were salutes.
At the end of the diamond avenue laid a great lake. There were two ornate, flat boats waiting. A handsome prince sat in each boat waiting for Buffy and Willow. Angel barely made it into the boat to sit beside Willow. He worried when the Prince complained about the boat being heavier, but dismissed it.
"It's colder here tonight," Willow commented.
"I don't feel the difference, Princess."
"Really? It's like this chill, not cold, just…cool."
The boats rowed across the lake and came to rest at a dock. A short distance from the dock was an impressive castle. It was lit for a party. The sweet notes of an orchestra came from inside the castle. Once inside Buffy and Willow each danced with a prince of their own. Angel hovered in the shadows; watching, afraid to get too close to Buffy for fear she'd feel him near.
They danced until near dawn. The princes then rowed the girls back across the lake, dropping them off at the diamond avenue. The walk back over the avenues and up the stairway was done in silence. Angel rushed ahead of them, making it to the room in time to remove the amulet and resume his position 'sleeping' in the chair.
Exhaustion seemed to overtake Buffy and Willow the moment the passageway in the floor closed up. They undressed hurriedly, worn out slippers first and then silk dancing dresses which seemed to disappear inside the closet. They changed into their pajamas and were fast asleep before dawn broke.
Angel gave up the appearance of sleep once he heard Buffy's heartbeat slow and her breathing even out. He sat up in the chair and watched her sleep. He closed his eyes, breathing with the rhythm of her breaths. He missed this. He missed watching the way Buffy looked in her sleep, peaceful, young. He missed the soft smiles that often graced her features and he missed wondering if she was dreaming of him.
The girls slept until noon, when Willow woke both of them with a shout of "The dog ate it!"
Buffy woke with a groan; her eyes went wide when she spied the time on the clock. She glanced up at Angel. He shrugged.
"You two needed the sleep. I figured you could go around and get class assignments this afternoon."
"Shoes?" She asked.
Angel dangled two pairs of dancing shoes, soles worn through, from one hand. Buffy's face fell. "I guess I kind of thought with you here…I thought maybe it wouldn't happen."
"What wouldn't happen?" Angel prodded.
"I don't know…you didn't see?"
"I'm not sure," Angel answered vaguely. He still wanted to discuss this with Giles before saying anything to Buffy or Willow. "You two go to class, I'm going to get some more sleep and then call Giles to check in. I've got blood in the fridge. I'll be fine until you get back."
As soon as the girls were out of the room, Angel warmed up some blood, drank it and then found the sewer entrance in the basement. He was a little smoky when Giles let him into his apartment, but none the worse for the wear.
Angel told him everything that had happened. He showed him the leaves he'd broken off and related that it was almost exactly like an old fairytale of The Twelve Dancing Princesses.
"Buffy and Willow remember nothing of this?" Giles questioned.
"Not that I can tell. I don't know if it's some sort of spell or just the nature of the castle itself. The exhaustion seems to leave them the moment they open the passage way and returns the moment the passageway closes."
"That gives me a little more to go on. Any idea of what may have happened to Xander and Riley?" Giles asked.
"I didn't see them anywhere in the castle, but that doesn't mean anything. The only room I saw was the entry and the ballroom. I wanted to stick close to Willow and Buffy, in case something besides dancing was being done to them."
"I'll follow them tonight and tomorrow. Xander and Riley were taken on the third night, so we can assume the same people will come for me then, "Angel said.
Giles nodded. "Yes, but are you going to follow Buffy and Willow on the third night, or stay in the dorm room. Xander and Riley were both asleep, so it's assumed they were taken from Buffy's dorm room."
Angel pursed his lips in thought. "I don't know. In the fairytale, the men were being beheaded by the King for their failure. We know that's not the case here. The Princesses were having a good time dancing, unbothered by the fact that men were losing their lives so they could go dancing. The princesses weren't being harmed."
"And does that seem to be the case here?"
Angel nodded. "As far as I can tell, I'll go again tonight and make sure. It's a brilliant plan, I watched Buffy patrol last night, and they've effectively disabled the slayer without killing her. She's become sloppy. The vampire she took down last night could have just as easily killed her. She got lucky."
"Then you think this is something being done specifically to the slayer? Why include Willow?"
"Because she shares Buffy's room. There are likely to be fewer questions if Willow is participating."
"The question remains, on the third night do you follow them or do you stay in the dorm room," Giles asked.
"I'll tell you tomorrow."
The second night went much the same as the first. Angel could see no plan to harm Buffy or Willow so he decided to stay in the dorm room the third night, as Riley and Xander had done.
Sometime after the girls had gone down the passageway a pair of Rhinstarsis demons, large, horned creatures with thick, gray skin emerged from the passageway. Angel lay still, not breathing as the demons picked him up and carried him down the stairs. They spoke in a broken, guttural tone.
"This one not human, vampire."
"Master say bring guard. This guard."
It didn't surprise Angel that there was someone else behind this charade. Rhinstarsis demons weren't known for their brains. They fell into the hired muscle sect of the demon world. He was taken across the lake to the castle and down into a dungeon. They tossed him into a cage. The door was slammed and locked.
Xander scampered over to Angel the moment the door was slammed. "Deadboy?"
Angel sat up with a growl. "Good to know you're still alive, Xander."
"Yeah, the pleasure's all yours I'm sure, but what are you doing here?"
"I came to save your butt and get Buffy and Willow out of here. Where's Riley?" Angel asked looking around the room. His dark accustomed eyes could see someone in the shadowed corner of the cage. A tall, broad man stepped towards him.
"I'm Riley…and you are?"
"Angel. Any idea what they're planning on doing with us?"
"Ritual sacrifices, probably a painful death," Xander said. "That's just a guess…okay not so much a guess. I heard a couple of guards talking about it and that was pretty much the jest of it."
"For what purpose?"
"I'm not sure. Something about keeping the slayer down here." Xander glanced at Angel. "You promise not to beat on me if I tell you the other part?"
Angel cocked an eyebrow at the boy. "I promise to beat on you if you don't."
"Okay, but you're not going to like it. Riley didn't. " Xander took a deep breath. His next words came in a rush. "It's supposed to concide with Buffy's wedding to the one of the Princes."
Angel growled. He felt his demon face come to the surface unbidden. Riley stumbled back at the sight of that face, searching the straw strewn floor for something wooden.
"You're a vampire…"
"Yeah, it's a long story. He's got a soul, most of the time. Buffy used to date him," Xander summed things up.
Angel silently counted backwards from ten. His human features took the place of his demon ones.
"Buffy used to date him?" Riley gaped.
"Yeah, that's an even longer story that's better told somewhere besides a cage," Xander answered.
Angel watched the guards going back and forth. The guard formation was sparse, one guard per aisle of cells. Each guard had a ring of keys hanging from a belt. They seemed to pay very little attention to anyone, merely doing their job by rote. "Xander, can you get their attention? Get them over here close to the bars?"
"Sure. Do I sense the beginnings of a plan?"
"The beginnings…" Angel fished the amulet out of his jacket pocket. He slipped it over his head and disappeared.
"Deadboy?" Xander asked, looking around wildly.
"Shhh, I'm right here. Just get one of them as close to the bars as you can."
Xander started flailing about screaming. The guard growled and yelled at him from afar. When Xander's fit seemed to get worse, the guard cursed loudly and walked over to the cage. He bent over; his head close to the bars of the cage.
"What wrong with human?"
Xander didn't have to provide an answer because Angel reached through the bars and twisted the demon's neck. The crack of bone seemed unnaturally loud. Angel removed the amulet, unsure how much power was left in it. Xander reached through the bars and plucked the key ring off the guard's belt.
"Unlock the gates, let's pull the body in here and hide it in the corner. We've got to sneak out of here, find the girls and get them across the lake without being seen, if that's possible. I didn't bring any weapons with me," Angel said.
"Okay, I know it's going to surprise you both, but I'm not exactly stealth guy," Xander confessed.
Angel looked up at Riley. He could smell Buffy on him and he wanted to rip the All-American Joe's head off for it. He forced himself to stay calm. "Giles told me you were part of some military organization that hunts demons. I assume you won't have a problem following orders."
"I'm not taking orders from a bloodsucker," Riley spit.
"Fine, stay here, but I'm not letting you jeopardize my chances of getting Buffy out here safely. Either you take orders from me, or I knock you out and you stay behind with the guard."
"You think you can?" Riley bowed up.
Angel chuckled. "I don't have time for you. Do what you want. I'm saving Buffy." Xander unlocked the gate and Angel pulled the body of the guard through. He piled it in the darkest corner and kicked some straw around it. He glared at Riley one more time. "Let's go."
Sneaking out of the dungeon wasn't much of a problem. It wasn't tightly guarded. Angel broke the neck of the guard at the head of the stairs, hid the body and stole the key.
"The ballroom is that way; the entrance is the other way. I'll go get Buffy and Willow. You two meet us out by the lake. Try to get a boat, I'm fairly sure there's something swimming in the water," Angel said.
"I'm going with you," Riley challenged.
Angel shook his head. "Xander won't make it out of here without you and I've got the amulet. I can sneak in the ballroom and hopefully sneak them out before anyone is any wiser."
"So let me have the amulet."
"No. I don't even know if it will work for you. If you care about her and you want to get her out of here, you'll do what I ask."
"I don't trust you. You're a vampire. How do I know you're not working with them?"
Angel glanced at Xander. "Is he always this brainless?" He turned back to Riley. "She's the slayer, if she doesn't want to leave are you going to have the strength to make her?"
"I'm pretty strong," Riley boasted.
"And she's the slayer. She'll break you in half without a second thought. At least I've got a chance of being able to take her."
Riley glared at Angel, silent for a moment, contemplating his options. The vampire was holding most of the cards for the moment, whether he liked it or not. "Fine," he spat.
Angel waited, watching as Riley and Xander slipped off toward the main entrance. The army brat seemed to know what he was doing at least, Angel thought as he watched the pair sneak around the corner. Angel put the amulet on and walked into the ballroom completely undetected, just as he had the other two nights.
Buffy and Willow were dancing with their regular dance partners. Angel knew from experience that they wouldn't break until nearly dawn, and if Xander was right, the girls wouldn't be allowed to leave this time. Angel glanced around the ballroom, searching for something to create a distraction.
When the stage came crashing down with the orchestra on it, it created quite a distraction. The distraction also seemed to break the spell over the girls. Buffy went on full alert. She produced a stake from somewhere within her skirts and when Angel snuck up behind her, she whirled on her heel, stake pointed with deadly accuracy even though he was invisible.
"Angel?" Her voice was pitched low for his ears only.
He side stepped her stake, leaning in close to her ear. "I need you to come with me. They're going to trap you here, Buffy. Xander and Riley are outside waiting for us."
"What if I want to stay here?"
"You can't mean that, Buffy. They were going to kill Xander, Riley and me, probably Willow too. Come on, we can talk about this in Sunnydale. We haven't got time for this." The orchestra was beginning to pull things back together. Angel could see the Prince talking to someone. He gestured toward Buffy and Angel knew he'd be back over here within moments.
"Go back to LA, Angel. You wanted me to live my life. That's what I'm doing."
Angel shook his head, knowing Buffy couldn't see him. He slipped away from her and searched for Willow in the jumbled crowd. Her red hair made her easy to find. He stepped in behind her.
"Willow, its Angel. Don't say anything. Riley and Xander are outside by the lake. They're supposed to be getting a boat. I want you to sneak outside before the chaos in here dies down. Get everyone in the boat and be ready to push off as soon as Buffy and I come out. Nod if you understand."
Willow nodded slightly. Angel waited as she slipped closer to the ballroom door. He heard her ask someone about a ladies room and he only hoped that she was heading toward the lake.
The prince was headed toward Buffy. Angel got there first. He grabbed her from behind and picked her up off her feet. Buffy started struggling, screaming like a wildcat. Somehow she hooked her fingers around the amulet and jerked. It clattered to the floor and shattered. Angel knew from the looks and screams that he was visible. He also knew he was wearing his game face. They didn't have time for this. The guards were readying wooden spears already.
Angel pinned Buffy's arms to her side and wrapped another arm around her calves. He tucked her in as close to his body as he could. She was still struggling and he knew the only reason he was able to keep a hold on her was because her body was fighting sheer exhaustion.
Angel let out a feral roar, rushing through the castle, pushing over and past people. He felt wooden spears skitter across his skin, ripping jagged tears in his arms, shoulders and legs. One spear pierced his upper shoulder, inches above his heart.
"You Idiot! You could have hit her! We don't want the slayer dead!" The prince screamed at the unfortunate guard who had thrown the spear.
Angel was a blur as he rushed toward the lake, demons and humans alike trailing after him. Riley, Xander and Willow sat in a boat that floated a few feet from the shore. Angel rushed toward it.
"Start rowing!" He yelled as he dove for the boat, Buffy still screaming and clawing at him. His face was a mask of blood from damage her nails had done. His neck looked much the same and she'd sunk her teeth into his shoulder, hard enough to break the skin.
Riley rowed and watched Angel and Buffy with wide eyes. "What the Hell is wrong with her?"
"My guess? She's under some sort of spell. She –wants- to stay here. Would you like to try and subdue her now, Solider?" Angel snapped.
Riley looked away and rowed harder. The demons were beginning to pile into boats and pursue them.
Angel was grateful that the boat was flat bottomed, instead of a canoe. Buffy was still fighting him like a wildcat. She would have easily tipped over a more narrow boat. She gave up just as the boat hit land. Angel was glad because between fighting Buffy and running, he was tiring quickly.
The demons kept after them, close on their heels. Angel could feel the stairs shudder underneath the weight of so many pounding feet. They burst up into Buffy's dorm room as a whole. Giles was standing at the mouth of the passage way, a loaded crossbow pointed at it.
"Oh, thank God," Giles breathed as they entered the room. The demons were still after them and the first was coming into sight. Giles tossed the cross bow to the side, he dug in his jacket pocket and produced a handful of shiny dust which he threw toward the opening in the floor. It closed the moment the dust hit it. "I found a spell, ground up the leaves you brought me, turns out it shuts the portal."
Buffy twisted in Angel's arms. "Let me go," she hissed.
Angel set her down and backed away silently.
"I told you I didn't want to come back! Poor little Buffy, she can't make her own decisions though. She has to have big strong men make them for her! Any other decisions you'd like to make for me while your visiting, Angel?"
"Buffy…" he trailed off.
She wilted before him like a flower in the hot summer sun. She shook her head and her eyes filled with tears. "Just go. All of you just go."
Xander, Riley, Giles and Angel filed out of the room one by one. Buffy shed her dress without a look toward Willow. She got in the shower and washed away blood that wasn't hers. Angel's. She swallowed the lump in her throat, put there by the knowledge that she'd drawn enough of Angel's blood that she needed to wash it off. She pushed that to the back of her mind. It wasn't important. He'd made yet another decision for her.
Willow was already asleep by the time Buffy slipped underneath her blankets. The sun was up and Buffy wondered briefly where Angel was spending the day. Sleep overtook her before she could think about it for long.
Buffy sat curled up on Giles' couch. She and Willow had slept through the day and most of the early evening. Now they were all gathered at Giles' finishing up research, trying to determine who had done this and make sure they didn't try it again. Angel and Buffy weren't speaking to each other, or rather Buffy wasn't speaking to Angel and as he was taciturn to begin with, that made for a lot of silence.
Buffy paid more attention to Giles' books than usual. Giles chalked it up to fatigue. Angel watched her, suspecting there was more behind it than that. It was just after midnight when Buffy stood up from the couch. She stretched and wandered around the room a little bit, stopping at various points in the apartment. Angel swallowed his grin when he saw her pick up a pouch and slip it lightly into her pocket. She was good. He'd be surprised if she hadn't shoplifted a few things when she was younger.
"I'm gonna go hit the sack…guess I'm still catching up on my sleep."
"I'll walk you," Angel said, pushing away from the wall he was leaning on.
"That's okay. I'm a big girl, Angel. I don't actually need a babysitter," she snarked.
She almost ran back to the dorms. Angel left shortly after her, making his way to her dorm room. She'd locked the door. He broke the lock and slipped inside the dark room, hoping to see Buffy asleep in bed. Her bed was empty and there was a gaping hole in the floor. Granules of the powder Giles had made from the leaves was scattered on the floor. Angel sighed. He grabbed a hand ax out of Buffy's weapon chest and went in after her.
She'd made it to the avenue of gold trees by the time he caught up with her. He grabbed her by the shoulder, spinning her around.
"Exactly what the hell do you think you're doing, Buffy?"
"What does it look like I'm doing?"
"Running away," he snapped.
"Got it in one." She crossed her arms over her chest and challenged him with the look in her eyes.
"What happened to you? The girl I knew didn't run from anything," Angel stared at her.
Buffy looked away, something in her wilted taking away the challenging posture. "You don't want to know, Angel. Remember? That's what moving to LA was about."
Angel shook his head. "Moving was never about not wanting to know, or not wanting to know about your life."
"Really? 'Cause I seem to remember me saying I wanted my life to be with you and your response was I don't."
Angel sighed. He pinched the bridge of his nose.
"Walk away, Angel. It's what you're good at."
Angel's head snapped up. He grabbed her by the shoulders and pushed against a tree. He pushed his body against hers, trapping her. He lowered his head and kissed her, lips claiming, bruising, branding her as his. He shoved himself away from her, stumbling. His hands raked through his hair.
"No, I said I didn't want –your- life to be with me. I would give up everything to spend my eternity with you, but you deserve something better, something more than demons and darkness and the broken soul of someone who's not even a man."
Buffy stared at him, gasping for breath. She shook her head, her eyes filling with tears. "Silly vampire, did you ever think about asking me what I wanted? Very few people in this world get what they deserve, good or bad. I'd settle for having the things I need."
Angel quirked an eyebrow at her. "Such as?"
She smiled and stepped closer to him. "Such as…my soul mate, the love of my life, a vampire with a soul…such as you."
She sighed softly. "Riley was supposed to help me forget you."
Buffy laughed, tears trickling down her cheeks. "Five apocalypses, two deaths, a hundred years in Hell and a gypsy curse haven't made me forget you. You really think one guy is gonna even budge your memory?"
There was a moment of silence. Finally Angel said, "So that'd be a no?"
Buffy's laughter was a balm to his soul. "That'd be a no," she said as she leaned in for another kiss.