Angel In A Bottle Continued...




"Which of you was last to see her?" Giles turned to engage the two teenagers behind him. "How long has she been like this?"

"I saw her in the morning," began Buffy.

"This morning?" enquired Giles.

"Yesterday." Buffy gazed intently at the floor.

"You haven't seen her since yesterday! She was on her own? Oh man, we let this happen... Poor Willow." Xander looked even more devastated than Buffy, his eyes not wandering far from the prone figure in front of him.

Willow.

"So when exactly did you leave, Xander?" persisted Giles. "This could be very important."

"I dunno, probably 1am, something like that, she said she was going to sleep, she didn't say anything about weird spells or collapsing, I swear!"

"You think she's been messing with magic again?" asked Buffy.

"I'm not sure, something doesn't quite add up." Giles followed Xander's gaze to the silent figure of Willow, sprawled strangely uncomfortably and only partially on her bed. "I think we should move her into bed properly though."

"I've got it," said Xander, moving past Buffy before she could even protest and shifting his friend's body into a more natural sleeping position. The sort of position that, given her sleepwear, would have made it even more difficult to recognise that something was amiss. Once Willow looked more comfortable, Xander sat gently on the bed beside her, so gently it seemed almost impossible that it could be the same youth who the day before had been in danger of breaking Buffy's bed. He took hold of Willow's hand and began to talk to her quietly, virtually ignoring the presence of Buffy and Giles as they continued to consider the possibilities.

"Her pulse is strong, and she's breathing easily," whispered Giles, "I see no reason for her to be in this state."

"So it is magic?" asked Buffy.

"I see no sign of an open spell book or anything like that, I know Willow likes to practice magic, but I don't see her undertaking anything capable of doing this without the aid of a spell book at the very least." He frowned. "No, there is something here that is definitely not quite right."

"Come on, G-Man, flex those achy Watcher muscles, tell us what to do," pleaded Xander.

"Errr...."

"Hey, guys, look at this." The two men turned to see Buffy knelt on the floor beside Willow's bed.

"What?" asked Xander.

"The flowers I gave her, they're all over the floor. But the vase is right there, so she can't have dropped it," Buffy frowned. "Why would she want to throw away the flowers?"

"I can't..."

"You gave Willow flowers? Is there something going on that I should... Is Riley just a cover? Are you the secret admirer?" Then Xander's thoughts returned to Willow, lying on the bed. "Is this going to help, Giles?"

"Fascinating. Well, Buffy, I can't imagine why Willow would throw the flowers away like that, certainly without actually clearing them up. Willow is normally quite careful with her things..." Giles trailed off, taking in Willow's dresser. "Is this the vase?"

For several minutes, the two teens waited as Giles studied the vase intently, apparently seeming to take in every chip, crack and brush stroke. Meanwhile, the room was silent, taken up only with the breathing of its four occupants, and the occasional rustling of Xander shifting on the bed. It was almost eerie, certainly only situations as dire as a potential threat to Willow's life could make the two teenagers remain quiet for such an extended period of time. Still, in the quiet, it seemed that both of them had slowly drifted into their own thoughts, as when Giles voice broke the silence, they both jumped.

"Oh good lord, where did you get this vase?"

"I didn't, it wasn't me, I..." stuttered Buffy.

"But you said you gave her the flowers," pointed out Xander, sounding slightly accusatory.

"W-well I did, but they were really for me," admitted Buffy.

"The vase was intended for you," remarked Giles, "yes, that would make a lot more sense."

"It would?" Xander looked up expectantly at the older man, waiting for an explanation.

"The vase is, well, cursed. It's an ancient and not very commonly practiced ritual in which an experienced magic user can trap an unsuspecting person. It not only renders them ultimately completely vulnerable to external attack, the only means of escape is for the person to take on the person who trapped them - from within the vase. If you had taken the flowers yourself, Buffy, I fear you would be lost to us," sighed Giles.

"Hey, what about Willow, there's got to be something we can do!" exclaimed Xander, slightly angrily.

"I can't believe I did this to her." Buffy slumped down on her own bed in complete dejection. "It should have been me."

"Nonsense, Buffy, it is hardly your fault that you chose to offer Willow a little kindness. Besides, if the trap was intended for Buffy, it may be that the keeper of the trap has severely under-estimated his or her opponent by taking Willow instead."

"Huh?" Buffy and Xander chorused together.

"No offence to Willow, but if I can't beat them, why would she?"

"Because, Buffy, it is a battle of wills. Of the mind if you like. And what Willow may lack in physical prowess, she more than makes up with her mind," responded Giles, providing the first glimmer of hope that Willow would recover. "In the meantime, if we can track down whoever did this, perhaps we can give Willow a slightly easier time of it."

"Finally, something I can hit," said Buffy, standing again, and wielding a particularly fearsome looking axe.

"Guys?" said Xander. "I think I might stay here, keep her company."

"Excellent," Giles nodded to the boy. "Whatever you do, don't break the vase."

"Don't break it?" Xander looked puzzled, as if Giles had just given him the answer to a riddle then told him he was asking the wrong question. "Won't that release her?"

"No, Xander, it won't. More than likely it will instead force you into the vase with her," Giles told him sternly.

"But then I could help!" protested Xander.

"With the brain battle, Xand?" pointed out Buffy. "Hey, Giles, maybe you should break it."

"No! Stop, at once. Breaking the vase is extremely dangerous to anyone inside it. There is every chance that you could essentially override the minds of whoever is already trapped. Do you understand, Xander. You must not break the vase, under any circumstances."

"Got it. Vase best in one piece," nodded Xander, looking slightly shaken at the intensity of Giles' announcement.

"Right, Buffy. Do you have any ideas as to the means by which the vase reached you?"

"Do I what?" Buffy looked up at the Watcher as if she thought he was completely crazy.

"Where did you get the vase? Who was it from?"

"Oh, that's totally easy...."

********************************************************************************************************************

Xander couldn't help it. He was keeping Willow's body company, he knew, but he was continuously drawn to the vase in its precarious perch on the dresser. Willow's mind was in there instead of in her head? He kept getting visions of the vase starting to talk to him like Willow would, or maybe call him. Any of a number of Willow-like activities.

And he couldn't help but worry.

Sure, Willow was pretty powerful in the brains department, but if this was some demon with loads of experience and magic seeping out of every pore, somehow Xander had a feeling it wasn't really going to be a fair fight.

Willow could lose.

He looked down at her body, steadily keeping itself alive, and wondered how long it could stay that way without help. What would happen if Giles and Buffy didn't find whoever had done this and take them out - if that would even free her.

There had to be something he could do.

And then it dawned on him. He could talk to her. Really talk to her, not whisper to her body, but tell her what she had to do.

He leaned over to the vase, carefully avoiding touching it, and began to yell instructions down to Willow.

*******************************************************************************************************************

"I'm sorry Willow, I think I'm going to have to hit him," grumbled Angel, holding his hands over his ears.

"Grumpy vampire, he's just trying to help," protested Willow.

"Helping would be quietly telling us what to do, he's been yelling everything from your first meeting to his latest sexual conquests for the last 20 minutes!"

"Picky," retorted Willow, blushing.

Angel smiled. "I'm supposed to let it slide because of good intentions?"

"Yep," she grinned back. "But, Angel? Was he right about the trap?"

"Us fighting our way out?"

"Y-yes, and how I could've killed you." Willow's wide eyes looked up at the vampire and he found himself putting his arm round her.

"Sssh, Willow, don't worry about it. I was the one who insisted you didn't tell Giles, remember. It's not your fault."

"B-but..." Her eyes moistened and tears were obviously threatening as the events of the past few hours began to catch up with her. Then, just as abruptly, she stopped, holding it all in. "I'm sorry."

"You have nothing to be sorry about, Willow." Angel looked down at her. "We're going to find a way out of this." He grabbed her hand and gently pulled her down to the ground with him. "But maybe first we need to come up with a plan."

"You heard the man," said Willow, waving in the direction of Xander's still booming voice. "I've got a demon to take on."

********************************************************************************************************************

Angel was beginning to wish he'd never even asked for Willow's help in the first place. He was a self-respecting champion, for heaven's (or hell's, he added mentally) sake, not a weak-willed or helpless subordinate who followed a little girl around just because she told him to.

And yet.

She did make a very good case.

Still, he was pretty sure he'd missed something, and that it was going to come back and cause him vast amounts of pain, possibly literal, later on. He wasn't much looking forward to that.

"Willow?"

The girl turned round, surprise evident in her face. "What's wrong?"

"Where are we going?"

"Is this an existential thing, Angel?" she grinned up at him, unnerving him slightly.

What?

"I-I'm sorry?" he asked.

Willow chuckled. "Sorry, Angel. I'm looking for the bad guy. Xander seemed to think he'd be around here someplace."

"We're doing this because Xander said so?" Lowest of the low, Angel wasn't sure he could even bear contemplating it.

"Absolutely," Willow smiled at him, her look completely innocent yet absolutely confirming that she knew precisely what she was saying to him and thought he should just suck it up.

Angel growled to himself, very, very quietly. This had better be a good battle, he was going to need to relieve some stress.

There hadn't been anything by the way of conclusive evidence of the warlock in their examination of their surroundings, although it was clear that the environment wasn't strictly what you'd expect from the inside of a vase, even if you were only an inch or so high - which was not something Angel planned to even contemplate anytime soon, he preferred to have his height measured in feet, ideally at least six. Instead, the vase seemed to have more of a run down warehouse feel, much like the area in which Angel had originally encountered the warlock - as far as he could remember. He had to admit sightseeing hadn't exactly been high on his agenda at the time.

"Wait."

Willow stopped, her whispered warning coming just late enough to cause him to crash into her and very nearly bowl her over completely, but for his reflexes.

"What?" Angel asked shortly. He was getting fed up of following her around and taking her orders, just because Giles thought she could handle it. Giles didn't know that Angel was here in the first place. Besides, surely he, Angel, was the one with enhanced senses? Angel shook his head, Xander must be really getting to him if he was jealous of this kid.

"There's something here."

Cryptic; Angel was beginning to sympathise with Buffy's objection to his old one line warnings. "What is it? I can't hear anything."

"Magic," said Willow, more than a little fearfully. "It's a witch or something."

Had he not told her that? Angel mentally rewound the day's conversations. He was sure he'd covered that already. Maybe he'd just let it slide for now. He grabbed Willow's arm and pushed her behind him. "I'll take him," he growled, trying to pretend he wasn't imagining Xander's face.

She didn't stay. Of course, these days it was pretty much 50-50 whether that sort of thing would work in the first place, and Angel still remembered just how riled-up-Willow behaved after that going-for-coffee incident when they killed the demon under the frat house. Ahhh.... Good times. Anything would be better than midget or disembodied in a vase full of flowers, this really wasn't going to be good for his image.

Plus, if Willow's friends had her body, what was going on with his?

Suddenly, Angel was grateful for dilapidated warehouses, and their ability to keep the sun off brain dead vampires.

******************************************************************************************************************

"Giles, look!" As Buffy raced across the abandoned warehouse, her mentor's gaze followed her, wondering whether she'd discovered something of value or simply the latest fashion in shoes, sometimes it was so hard to guess. They had reached the warehouse by way of a series of leads on the origins of the vase, starting with some Buffy-style abuse on the unsuspecting flower delivery boy, who Giles felt was likely to take up some safer occupation such as sky diving as soon as the opportunity presented itself having survived his encounter with Buffy.

He had been entirely human, disappointing Buffy greatly, the rest of their sources hadn't been. They hadn't survived either.

Giles could only hope that they didn't run out of demons before they found the source of Willow's problem. Of course, it would be nice to rid the world of demons completely, but Giles had a feeling that it would lead to something of a dead end.

Then again, Buffy had found another demon - and this time one she wouldn't kill.

It was Angel.

Even as a boy, Giles had been fascinated by the idea that vampires didn't need to breathe, but now, looking at Angel's inert body, he found himself wishing that they did. He looked, well, dead.

And if Angel was here, in apparently the same condition as Willow, did that mean that Angel was in the vase with her - given that they had after all been chasing the vase, not Angel. Worse, did it mean that when Willow entered the vase, Angel was expelled from it, permanently. Was that really worse? Giles shook his head, ridding himself of his old prejudices. Angel had more than proven himself.

Still, if Angel was already within the vase, and it had been intended for Buffy... Giles wasn't sure where those thoughts would lead him. Neither did he get time to seriously contemplate it as a noise distracted both him and Buffy from behind.

They weren't alone.

*******************************************************************************************************************

"Come on, grouchy," Willow teased him, making Angel want to growl at her at the very least. The girl was wise enough in the ways of the hellmouth to know better than to just go rushing towards something nasty and magical. She wasn't that powerful, was she?

"Willow," Angel grabbed her arm. "If you won't stay behind me, you can at least wait for me." He tried to look as disarming as possible, and liked to assume he'd succeeded given the years of practice he'd had. "I worry about you."

Willow beamed up at him, but didn't pause for even a second. "That's sweet, Angel, but y-you don't do magic. That's a Willowy thing."

"I..." Maybe disarming wasn't working. Would annoyed be any better? Of course, there was always slinging her over his shoulder and running for it, but given that he couldn't feel what he was running away from that wasn't really guaranteed. Plus there was the slim, but not entirely negligible, possibility that Willow could and would magically kick his ass, and he wasn't at all sure his ego could take that just now. Bad enough when Buffy did it.

"My turn to save you?" offered Willow, her confidence clearly waning a little as Angel continued to stare at her. "What? I can totally save you. Witchy Willow, saver of the, err, not-entirely-innocent.... Is this a macho thing?"

Resisting the temptation to roll his eyes, because he was pretty sure that wasn't at all macho, Angel tried to think of an appropriate response. All his brain seemed to come up with was, well, wow. Plus a bit more of the anger, but he was trying to ignore that. A macho thing indeed.

"Errr... Willow." He began hesitantly, before she could set off again.

"I can do this," she insisted, her voice betraying her slump from supreme witch to terrified kid as she tried to convince herself.

Angel sighed. "I'm sure you can, but you can't just go rushing in without knowing what you're facing. You could get hurt."

"Better than being stuck here forever," pointed out Willow, not entirely unreasonably.

"I'm that bad as company?" Angel prodded her.

Willow smiled again, melting Angel's heart, and held out her hand. "Together?" she suggested.

I'm going first, thought Angel, but taking the proffered hand, he nodded his consent. The show was on the road.


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