|Back Among the Living
Author: Philip S PM
Excedo Inferi 2. Buffy and Angel thought that, once they returned to Earth, all their problems would be over. They are not, though.Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy/Drama - Buffy S. & Angel - Chapters: 2 - Words: 26,373 - Reviews: 17 - Favs: 44 - Follows: 1 - Published: 05-06-02 - Status: Complete - id: 762031
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Buffy has to send Angel to Hell to save the world from Akathler. Deciding to accompany him rather than live without him, Angel and Buffy have to make their way through all nine circles of the Inferno. The journey changes Buffy, the only way for her to survive the lethal environment of Hell is to drink Angel's blood, which changes her into something not quite human. A vampire's blood is also highly addictive.
They need an estimated thirty years until they finally find a way to return to Earth, only to learn that but three months have passed at home. Giles, Willow, and Oz are the first to learn how much Buffy and Angel both have changed. After a good night's rest Buffy decides to go visit her mother.
The first thing Angel realized when he woke was the fact that there was no warm body next to him. The familiar hum of fellow blood was gone, the steady rhythm of her heartbeat not felt against his skin.
He came wide-awake in a second, looking around the unfamiliar room. Right, Giles' guest bedroom. They had retreated here after Buffy had broken down in front of her friends, the need for his blood becoming too strong and causing withdrawal symptoms. They had showered and fallen asleep again. Not a strange occurrence, seeing as it was still the middle of the day. He could smell the sun high overhead.
Where was Buffy?
There was but one other person in the house, he realized. The once again familiar scent of Willow filled his nostrils. She was still here, but no one else. No Giles. No Buffy.
Quickly pulling on the clothes Giles had laid out for him, a pair of jeans and a white shirt, Angel made his way down the stairs. The living room was filled with sunlight, forcing him to thread carefully.
The redhead peeked out of the kitchen, a cup of tea in hand.
"Oh, Angel, hi! I made some tea. You want some tea? I'm afraid Giles doesn't really have much else in the way of drinks. Just tea. No coffee. And ..."
"Where is Buffy?" Angel interrupted her ramble, having no patience while his blood screamed out for his missing half. They had been together without break for decades; he could count the number of times they had been separated even for a short while on the fingers of one hand.
"Buffy? She, well, we did an experiment, you know? Buffy said that you didn't know whether she could walk in sunlight or not, there being no sun in Hell. So we tried and I had a bucket of water just in case, but it wasn't needed. She's fine. No sizzle, no smoke."
"And?" Angel pressed on, forcibly restraining himself from grabbing Willow and shaking the truth out of her.
"I ... she wanted me to stay here to tell you, once you woke up. She went out to ... she went to see her mother, Angel."
He closed his eyes, cursing under his breath. Why hadn't she waited for him? He would have been there for her. Over the course of their journey they had talked about every topic imaginable, getting to know each other in ways he had never known another being before, and he knew how deeply her mother's rejection had hurt Buffy on that night.
Her entire world had fallen apart. Giles kidnapped, Kendra dead with the police thinking that Buffy was the culprit, Willow in the hospital, Angelus about to destroy the world, Spike her only ally. On top of all that she'd had to tell her mother the truth about herself and what she did. If she had ever needed her mother's support it was on that night. And Joyce had not given it to her. Instead she had freaked and told Buffy never to come back.
Angel could not help but wonder if things might have gone different that night if Joyce hadn't done that. To Buffy it had looked as if the entire world was rejecting her, casting her out. Her decision to go with him to Hell had been one of love, he did not doubt that, but maybe she wouldn't have listened to her foolish heart if she hadn't thought that there was no other place for her anyway.
Just like with Xander's lies, though, there was no way to tell. They would never know.
"Thank you, Willow." Angel said, looking out the window at the sunlit street. He was a prisoner here until night fell. As much as it pained him, Buffy would have to go through this by herself, as she had chosen to do.
"This will be a long day." Angel sighed.
"I have to tell you, Mr. Jones, I do not see the inherent necessity of undertaking this venture during the daytime."
"The necessity, Mr. Smith, lies in the patience of our employer, which, as you well know, is not in good supply this year."
The two vampires took off the large blankets that had protected them against the sunlight outside the mansion and looked around, smoothing the wrinkles from their business suits at the same time. The twilight inside suited them much better than the glare through which they had been forced to travel from the safe confines of their darkened van.
"I do not see anything that might possibly be connected with the matter that so worries our employer, Mr. Jones."
"You might remedy that situation by turning your eyes downwards."
In the center of the mansion's living room the stone floor was stained with a huge scorch mark, looking as if someone had had a bonfire burning on this spot for days on end. There were two sets of footprints visible there, too, preserved perfectly by the black soot, which led first to the garden door, then back in and towards the front door.
"It appears that someone was here before us."
"A keen observation as always, Mr. Smith. I would go further and say that there were two people, or maybe not people, who appeared out of whatever caused this ugly scorch mark."
"One might even speculate that this 'whatever', as you so aptly phrased it, might well be what has given our employer so much to worry about."
"One might, yes."
Leaning down, the vampire called Mr. Jones inhaled deeply, hoping to pick up a scent. Now that he concentrated he became aware of a stench that hung in this place, something that very much appealed to the demon inside him. It was a stench of death and decay, of fire and human suffering.
Underlined with the scent of a vampire and ... something else. Not a vampire, yet neither was it a human being or any kind of demon Mr. Jones was familiar with. Two entities, who had apparently brought back the stench from wherever they had come from.
Flipping open his cell phone, he dialed the number of his employer.
"Mr. Jones here. Yes, we are at the location you indicated. It appears you were correct to be concerned. Our preliminary assessment of the situation would be that some kind of mystical event occurred in this mansion. Something from which two as yet unidentified entities have come forth. No, they are no longer here. I am quite certain that one is a vampire, but I fear I can not give you a clue as to what the other might be."
He nodded a few times as he listened.
"Yes, of course. Mr. Smith and myself shall undertake every effort to track these entities and ascertain their nature and origin. We will keep you apprised of our discoveries."
Putting the cell back into his pocket, Mr. Jones looked around the mansion. From what he knew this had been the lair of the vampire Angelus, grandchild of the infamous Master Nest himself. Their employer had informed them, though, that Angelus had met his end a few months ago at the hands of a Slayer, said Slayer apparently having died in the process.
He wondered whether it was in any way connected with their current problem.
"I fear the scent is too faint to follow it successfully." Mr. Smith said. "It is unfortunate that both the vampire and this unknown creature leave less strong a trail than a human would."
"Yes, but now that we are familiar with their scent, it should not pose too difficult a dilemma to find them by way of a thorough exploration of the town."
"Come nightfall, of course." Mr. Smith added, looking where the sunlight fell into the mansion from outside.
"Buffy?" Joyce asked, staring at her daughter with wide eyes. Buffy stood just outside her door, sunlight gleaming in her hair.
"It's me, mom." She said, an uncertain smile on her face. "Can I come in?"
A heartbeat passed as Joyce was unable to do anything but look at her. Buffy was here. Alive. Seemingly unhurt. She wore dark shades. Maybe hiding a black eye or something? There was no end to the horrific scenarios Joyce had thought up during these eternal three months. So many things that could happen to an innocent young girl. But Buffy was here. She was back.
Overcoming her shock, Joyce quickly drew Buffy into her arms and into the house, feeling the need to hold her tight and slam the door behind them, locking them both in forever so no one could ever hurt her little girl again.
"Thank God!" She murmured as she embraced her. "Thank God!"
Buffy said nothing as her mother hugged her close, holding on as if the world depended on it. Her first fear had evaporated the moment Joyce had pulled her across the threshold. The fear that her mother might actually have meant the words she had said that terrible night so long ago. Or not so long ago for Joyce.
It did nothing for the rest of her fears, though.
An eternity seemed to pass before Joyce finally let her go, looking at her from arm's length.
"You're back!" She repeated like a mantra. "Buffy, I'm so sorry. I never should have ... I don't know what was wrong with me that night, it's like one big nightmare. But you're back. That's the only important thing."
Buffy looked past her mother at Giles, who stood near the door with a helpless look in his face.
Only now did Joyce seem to remember he was there and turned to look at him. "You can leave now, Mr. Giles!" She said coldly. "As you can see my daughter is back safe and sound."
Buffy sighed, taking a step back from her mother.
"Buffy, what ...?"
"Isn't that exactly what he told you, mom?" She interrupted her. "That I'm back?"
Joyce looked extremely confused, looking back and forth between Giles and Buffy with wide eyes.
"Yes, but ... Buffy, you can't imagine what nonsense tried to tell me. Some kind of horror stories about..."
"People that explode into dust right before your eyes?"
Joyce was dumbfounded, staring at her daughter as if she'd told her that the world was a flat disk. She blinked, blinked again, then shook her head.
"I ... I think I had a drink or two that night. I ... this is nonsense, there are no ..."
"Yes there are." Buffy interrupted her again. "There are monsters out there, mom. Demons, vampires, things that will eat little children unless someone stops them. Someone like the Slayer. I told you all that three months ago." Your time, she added silently. "You saw me stake a vampire right in front of our house."
Joyce closed her eyes, shaking her head. Giles, forgotten again, could only sigh as he saw her trying to wrap the tattered remains of happy ignorance back around her. She had seen it, had seen it with her own eyes, but she denied having seen it. It didn't make sense in her world and so she tried to push it away. Which was becoming more and more impossible.
"Buffy, maybe you should..." he began.
"Look at me, mom!" Buffy said.
Slowly Joyce raised her head, looking at her daughter as Buffy took off the shades. The shades that hid the changes she had undergone.
"Do you believe me now?"
Looking into Buffy's amber demon eyes, Joyce screamed.
All the way here Buffy had tried to remember as much as possible about the person she was facing right now. Her mother. The woman who had given birth to her, who had raised her almost by herself, seeing as her father had always been too busy with his job. She barely remembered Hank Summers at all after all this time, he was just a blurry face with a name attached to it. Her mother, though, that was different. She remembered her mother.
Was this woman really her?
With the shades gone Joyce could not help but see at least one of the changes her daughter had undergone. Her eyes, once a grassy green, were now a deep amber, her pupils slit like a cat's. Not human, not at all human. Alien eyes sat into a face that she now saw had changed as well. Sharp cheekbones, no more baby fat, almost gaunt. She barely registered the other changes, though. Joyce could not look away from those eyes.
What had happened to her baby girl?
Giles looked on, not certain if he should leave mother and daughter to sort things out by themselves or not. From what he had seen so far he felt confident to say that Buffy had inherited at least one trait from her mother. Stubbornness. In his years as Watcher Giles had been confronted with humanity's remarkable talent to ignore and forget the strange and supernatural more than once. To see it in the Slayer's mother, though, was not leaving him untouched.
On more than one occasion these last three months he had been tempted to dispel Joyce Summers' cloak of ignorance in whatever way necessary, even if it meant taking her to the cemetery and stake a fresh riser right in front of her. Come to think of it, though, she had managed to convince herself that she had not seen a vampire explode into dust once before.
Giles stayed, moving a little into the background, hoping that his intervention would not be needed. Mostly because, after three months of futile attempts to explain Buffy's role in life to her mother, he was not sure what else to say. He was also quite unsure what Buffy would do. Her eyes were but one of the things that had changed about her and pretty much the one he worried least about.
Though it shamed him, he was not sure whether it was very safe for Joyce Summers to be alone with her daughter right now.
Buffy looked at her mother and waited. Hearing her scream upon seeing her eyes had hurt, almost more than she could bare, but it was an understandable reaction. Buffy had seen herself in the mirror for the first time just last night. She had known that her eyes had changed, Angel had told her, yet she hadn't seen it for herself.
If it was a small shock for her, she could hardly blame her mother for screaming, could she?
The scream was short, though, Joyce taking a step back and clamping her hand in front of her mouth. She was muttering something, but not even Buffy's sharp hearing could pick it up. It was probably something along the line of 'My God!'.
"Any other comments?" Buffy finally lost patience and took a step forward.
"What ... my God, what happened to your eyes?" Joyce was backed against the wall, staring at her daughter as if she was a monster.
'Maybe that's what I am,' Buffy thought, 'maybe that's exactly what I have become in her eyes.'
"I changed, mom." She just said. "A trip to Hell will do that for you."
She saw Giles give her a look that seemed to advice caution, taking it slow, but Buffy had no more patience. Their return from Hell to Earth was supposed to be the happily ever after part of the story. They had made their way through nine Circles of fire and damnation, had managed to stay alive against all odds and found their way back out. After everything they had gone through Buffy was all out of patience.
"It's not just the eyes, mom!" Buffy opened her mouth wide and Joyce gasped, seeing the fangs. "Much more than that. Do you want to know how long I was gone? Three months passed here on Earth, but I was gone for thirty years. Thirty years! I'm older than you now, mom, surprised?"
"Buffy ..." Giles began.
"I told you everything that night, mom." Buffy could just keep herself from yelling in her mother's face. "About me being the Slayer. About the things I had to do so the world would live to see another day. And you threw me out of my own home."
"I ... I couldn't believe ..."
"You didn't want to believe!" Buffy interrupted her again. "You know, for all the years I was stuck down there I told myself that it was just too much at once. That you would have understood in the end, it was all just too much that night. But guess what? My mom not only managed to write off everything I've told her, hell, everything she's seen with her own eyes, as some kind nonsense, no! I hear she also called the police to find the biker gang that 'abducted' me. Was that all you could come up with, mom? There are no vampires or monsters, so it's gotta be bikers on crack?"
Joyce shook her head, not wanting to look at this ... this thing that looked like her daughter. It couldn't be. That couldn't be her daughter. Buffy got into trouble, yes, but she was a perfectly normal child, a child with green eyes, that would grow up to be a beautiful woman. She would find a husband who loved her, who wouldn't leave her when things got rough. Buffy would be a happy woman, have a happy life.
This couldn't be Buffy. It just couldn't be.
Buffy stared at her mother and knew exactly what she was thinking. Ever since they had moved to Sunnydale her mother had ignored all the strange things going on around her. It was a common disease here in this town, which had more graveyards and churches than any town ten times its size. People ignored the monsters and weirdos because they wanted a happy, normal life in small town America.
When Buffy had first become the Slayer, when she had learned of the things that went bump in the night, she had felt as if someone had taken her away from her beautiful world of shopping malls and cheerleading and dumped her on an alien planet.
Now she was the alien, it seemed.
"Look at me, mom!" Buffy growled, refusing to allow her mother this easy way out. Seeing this, seeing how her very own mother refused to even see her, refused to believe a word she was saying despite visible proof, it hurt so much she thought she might die here on the spot. Why should her mother have it any easier?
When Joyce refused to look up Buffy grasped her chin and forced her to.
"Look at me!" She repeated. "This isn't nonsense! It's not some nightmare! You're not drunk and I'm not a pink elephant! This is real! This is me! Buffy Summers, your daughter! And so help me, you will by God at least acknowledge I'm here!"
Buffy stared into the eyes of her mother and saw no recognition there. Only denial. When she felt her eyes brim with tears (demon tears, she thought bitterly) she turned away. Wrapping her arms around herself, she just wished that Angel was here right now.
"You'd rather I was dead?" She asked, but her voice was so low her mother didn't hear her.
Giles wanted to do something. This wasn't right. It wasn't right that Buffy should have to suffer like this after everything she had gone through already. It was not right that Joyce Summers, the mother of such a special girl, should be burdened with such complete refusal to see reality for what it was. He didn't doubt that Joyce loved her daughter, he had seen it in the stark worry that had held her prisoner these last three months.
The only problem was that Joyce seemed to love the image of her perfectly normal daughter more than the real one.
"I guess I'll go then." Buffy said, louder this time, never turning around. "Good bye, mom!" She walked out the still-open door into the sunlight and disappeared.
Sighing deeply, Giles turned toward Joyce.
By the time they reached the Third Circle of Hell Buffy had stopped counting their sleeping times. She was quite sure that she had miscounted at least twice already and slowly started seeing no more point in it anyway. They slept very irregular and there was no telling whether the 300 odd days she had counted to were in fact a year or twice that much.
They would get through this or they wouldn't. However long it took.
Angel had told her that the Third Circle was where the Gluttonous had to spend eternity. Guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed Hellhound, they existed in a world where the rain fell from the grey sky in never-ending torrents. Buffy was soaked to the bone within minutes of entering and mused that a Hell of fire and brimstone wouldn't look so bad right now. That was still ahead of them, she guessed.
Right now, though, she had much bigger problems than whatever might be ahead in circles four to nine.
Cerberus was a monster the likes of which she had never seen before in all her days as the Slayer. Big as a building, each of the three heads larger than she and Angel combined, with teeth that were longer than her arms. The beast had stood at the edge of a rock canyon that led into the Third Circle and they'd had to get past it somehow.
They had. Angel had distracted it until she managed to slip past, then she had thrown rocks at it from behind to allow Angel the same. Cerberus had given chase, each of its steps making the earth tremble, crimson eyes blazing in the twilight that surrounded them, spittle raining down from his three monstrous maws. Buffy was certain she had never run so fast before in her entire life.
They had eventually managed to lose it amid the pouring rain, hiding amidst the rocks. Unfortunately they had also managed to lose track of each other in their flight.
Angel was gone. Her world was reduced to the few meters she could see past the waterfalls coming down all around her and he was not there. She didn't dare call out for him, as she could still hear the growling of the Hellhound much too close at hand for comfort.
Angel was gone. She kept repeating it over and over like a mantra. They had been here for at least a year now, probably more, and he had never been farther away than arm's reach. He was the only thing solid in this world of madness, the only one she could rely on.
She had to find him. There was no way she could go through this without him. Even if she were to somehow find a way to ignore the building need for his blood.
She had to find Angel.
Angel found himself with little more to do than pace. The alternative would have been to sit down and simply stare at the door, stare at the daylight streaming in from outside that barred him from seeking out his life's mate. He was too irritated to sit down, though, so he paced. It wasn't comforting him much, but at least it felt like he was doing something.
Willow had left some time earlier. He had seen that she really wasn't all that keen on being alone with him. Could he blame her for that? The last she remembered of him was a living nightmare. Angelus, a vampire driven mad by a hundred years of imprisonment below a soul, stalking the Slayer's friends, looking to bring about the end of the world in order to cleanse himself of the love that, even without a soul, wouldn't let go of him.
No, he couldn't blame Willow for bailing. She had offered to stay until Buffy returned, though it had been very much evident that she hoped he'd say no, thank you. He couldn't help but admire the courage and devotion in that girl. She, at least, would be there for Buffy. Willow had always been the most accepting of her friends, especially when it came to her relationship with him. She'd probably been taken in by the tragic romance of it all, he mused.
Pacing along the length of Giles' living room, back and forth, back and forth, left him with little more to do than think. It was afternoon now, still a few hours until sundown. Less than a day since they had returned from Hell and so much had happened already.
So much was happening right now, he was sure. Things Buffy had decided to handle on her own.
He shook his head. It was her decision and she had made it. Angel remembered his two previous meetings with Joyce. The first, when he had pretended to be Buffy's history tutor over for a visit when they had in fact been on the run from the Three. The second, when he had been Angelus, looking to play yet more of his little games with the Slayer by going after her mother.
There would probably be a third meeting sometime in the future, no matter how things went down between mother and daughter today. If nothing else Angel needed closure for himself. He had never hurt Joyce, but not for lack of trying. He would probably have killed her that night if not for Buffy's presence and the spell Willow had performed to revoke his invitation to her house.
Where was Buffy? He looked over at the clock on Giles' living room wall. Willow had told him that she'd left a little after two. It was now almost three. Okay, maybe it was a little too soon to worry. He had woken but ten minutes or so after she had left. Barely enough time to get to her house and back, not even considering that this talk with her mother would (hopefully) last longer than a few minutes.
Still, he couldn't help but worry. He remembered the first time they had been separated in Hell. It had not been pretty.
Angel remained completely still, his back against the rocks, as he heard the heavy breathing of three different heads just around the corner. Cerberus was growling under his putrid breath, stinking of half-digested human flesh and wet fur. The last wasn't much of a surprise, Angel mused, as the rain beating down on the Third Circle of Hell never ceased. Not as long as Hell existed.
He cursed under his breath. Where was Buffy? He had only lost sight of her for a moment amidst the pouring rain, but that had been enough. With Cerberus breathing down his neck he couldn't go look for her. He couldn't even call out.
When would that creature finally admit defeat?
The ground under his feet was made from shadows, the shadows of dead souls, looking up into the falling rain without being able to blink, their mouths open and forced to swallow the water as fast as it poured down from the grey skies. Angel could not help but step on their faces as he walked; there was no piece of ground not covered with them. He was just grateful that they could not scream with their mouths full of water. He tried to avoid looking down.
They should have waited, he cursed himself. He estimated they had been down here for a year now, the larger part of it spent trying to find a way through the labyrinthine expanse of the Second Circle. During those last few months they had managed to work out a timetable concerning their individual needs. Her needing his blood, him needing hers. Buffy would sleep a full day (or so they estimated), then eat as much as they could find, all to build up her strength. Then they would feed from each other.
It was time again. He could feel the demon inside him growl with hunger. They had hoped to get past Cerberus fast and take a rest somewhere inside the Third Circle, hoping for a dry place somewhere amidst the canyons. They had found a nest of the smaller demons that Buffy had named 'Mighty Maws' just before leaving the Second Circle and had improvised rucksacks from their skins, carrying provisions that would probably last Buffy a good long while. Everything had been set for a long, relaxing stopover.
Only now they were separated. Buffy would soon begin to show the withdrawal symptoms if she didn't get his blood. The thought of his beloved being alone when that happened, helpless as her body shook in need for the drug he had addicted her to, ... he had to find her. Fast.
Cerberus moved, he could feel it. Every step of the giant beast made the ground shake. The beating of a heart as big as Angel himself was impossible to miss for a vampire. Slowly, agonisingly slowly, the creature began to move away, back toward the entrance of the Circle. Had it given up? Angel could but hope so.
He waited, though everything inside him screamed out for his mate, screamed for him to start searching for her. He wouldn't be able to help her if Cerberus tore him into small pieces, though. So he remained motionless, listening to the monstrous heartbeat as it grew more distant. Soon he lost it amidst the pounding of the rain. Still he remained motionless, waiting for another few minutes, until he carefully began to shift, peeking around the corner.
The almost road-like canyon they had run down in flight from the monster was empty, at least as far as he could see in the torrent. He didn't know how far inside the Circle they had come, how far from the spot Cerberus usually guarded. The beast might be just around the corner, waiting for someone to emerge.
Thinking of Buffy, Angel knew he had to take the risk.
Instead of going out into the open, though, Angel carefully climbed up the nearly vertical rocks to either side of him. Even his sturdy leather boots had given out long ago, so he hung on by fingers and toes, supernatural strength and sense of balance the only thing keeping him on the wet stone. Soon he found himself on a small ledge about ten meters above the face-covered ground.
Blinking against the rain, Angel saw Cerberus perched just around the next winding of the canyon, three heads resting close to the ground.
"Smart demon!" Angel whispered to himself.
Looking around he searched for a trace of Buffy. She couldn't have run that far. Reaching out with every sense, including the still-unexplained affinity he had always had with her, he tried to spot her amidst the rain and shadows.
Clamping down on the worry churning inside, Angel tried to estimate where she might have run to. They had split apart when Cerberus had leaped for them, driven into opposite directions. From what he remembered of their flight, it should have been somewhere near the place where the hellbeast was lying in wait even now. Squinting his eyes, he thought he saw another path leading off from there, quite narrow. Cerberus would probably not fit through there.
Slowly, inch by inch, Angel made his way along the narrow ledge towards the three-headed demon. If he'd had a pulse, he was sure it would be pounding right now. His path was wet and treacherous, leading right towards a monster that would tear him into shreds in a second if he got within reach.
His world narrowed down to the ledge, the rain, and the beast that was almost directly below him, two pairs of glowing red eyes focused on the path he had run along earlier, the third looking at the narrower route where Buffy had gone (or so Angel hoped). Cerberus seemed clueless to his presence.
Not for much longer, though. This should better go fast.
Angel pushed off the ledge, trying to leap over the creature and vanish into the narrow opening before it knew what was happening. Unfortunately the slippery rock gave out beneath him just as he leaped, causing his foot to connect with one of Cerberus' heads and sending him tumbling onto the ground.
Angel found himself prone, staring down at a dozen shadowy faces, eyes and mouth filled with rainwater, when Cerberus roared right next to him. Reflex caused him to roll away half a second before a huge paw connected with the ground where he had just been.
Coming to his feet, Angel sprinted for the path in front of him, praying that it was really too narrow for Cerberus to follow. If not, well, ...
He made it halfway into the opening when a sharp pain shot through him and his right leg gave out. Throwing himself forward with all his strength, Angel smashed into the ground and was immediately pulled backwards toward the roaring hellbeast.
Turning around, Angel saw that one of the creature's claws was deeply imbedded in his calf. Cerberus was pulling him out like a fish on the hook.
"Oh no, you don't!" Angel reached for the sword strapped to his back, the very same sword Buffy had been forced to use against him. She refused to carry it, refused to even touch it. Right now Angel was very glad for that fact. Drawing it free from his scabbard made from demon hide, Angel drove the blade deep into Cerberus' paw.
Roaring in pain, the hellbeast lashed out and slammed Angel's body hard against the rock walls. With Cerberus' claw stuck in his leg, he was helpless as the giant beast threw him around again and again. Angel screamed as one impact broke several of his ribs and the sword slid from his hand.
Three giant maws opened in anticipation as Cerberus proceeded to pull the vampire out of the opening. A familiar voice calling his name was the last thing Angel heard before he the world around him went black.
He stopped his pacing as the door opened and Buffy stepped inside. Seeing her like this, the sun still in her hair, her skin almost glowing in the daylight, took his breath away.
The look on her face brought him back to solid ground.
His first impulse was to ask her what had happened, though he could probably guess. Seeing the misery on her face, he decided that talking was not the best thing to do right now. Instead he walked towards her as she closed the door, shutting out the light, and closed her in his arms.
Buffy buried her face in his chest, melting into his familiar flesh as her small body began to shake with sobs. Angel closed his eyes, softly stroking her hair as his demon growled with rage at the person who would cause such pain in his mate.
Finding out what had happened would come later, though. Whatever Joyce might have said to her, whatever had gone on between mother and daughter, he would learn that soon enough. Right now nothing mattered except the woman in his arms.
The rest of the world might as well go to Hell.
Angel woke to the sound of a familiar voice and pain shooting through his body, warm flesh pressed against his. What had happened? Last he remembered...
Angel surged up, an action he regretted immediately as the pain intensified, feeling as if someone was pouring acid onto the flesh of his leg. It was dark all around, but there was no rain pounding down on him. He was in a small cave, he realized, the stone floor below was him was dry and not covered with shadow faces.
He was not alone.
"Angel!" Buffy knelt beside him, her hands holding him as he winced with the pain, her eyes blurry with tears.
"Buffy? What... I don't..."
The scent of blood hit him, demon blood. Right next to him was the sword that had slipped from his grasp earlier, stained crimson from tip to hilt. Beside the sword there was something else. It took him a moment to recognise it as one of the hellbeast's claws, minus the paw and the rest of the body.
"I found you just when Cerberus..." Buffy's voice broke and he saw that her right hand was covered with blood as well, her entire arm almost to the shoulder. Not her blood, though. Not hers. "Angel, you were... you didn't move and... God, I thought I'd lost you."
She collapsed against him, shaking. He felt his own hunger rise, the blood loss and pain affecting him every bit as much as the withdrawal began to affect her. Buffy's canines had grown over the last year, now visibly longer than was normal for a human, and a moment later they had both sunk their teeth into each other's necks.
Life flooded into Angel, the sweet nectar of his beloved, driven into his veins with every beat of her hero's heart. Her mouth was fastened to his throat, drinking him even as he drank her, sating each other with their very lives.
Worry and fear, relief at finding the other alive and whole, emotions that flooded through them with every drop of blood pushed all rational thought aside. They had grown considerably more intimate with each other over the span of the last year, the sensation of drinking from each other almost as fulfilling an experience as the one night of love they'd had together.
Buffy's warm hands trailed across his skin, seemingly bringing him back to life with every touch and caress. He held her closer, pushing the demon skin they wore as clothing away without conscious effort. Before either of them knew what was happening they melded together, no more barriers between them. It had been so hard to hold back every single time they sated each other's hunger, so hard to deny themselves that final act of togetherness. Now, with the Reaper's roar of frustration at yet another failed attempt at their lives still in their ears, neither of them had the strength to hold back anymore.
Outside the rain was beating down on the faces of dead men who could not close their eyes. Their lives had been dictated by their hungers and desires, never giving a thought to consequences as long as their own whims were sated. They stared up into the dark skies as the water filled their mouths to the brim, forced itself down their throats without sating the thirst they all died of over and over again.
Inside the small cave Angel and Buffy fell asleep in each other's arms, neither of them thinking of what had to happen next.
"Are you satisfied now?" Giles asked.
Joyce looked up at him, for the first time remembering that she was not alone in her house. He was here. That English bastard who kept torturing her with his lies and stories, trying to turn her wonderful daughter into some kind of ... some kind of ...
Yellow eyes! Fangs!
No, it wasn't real! It couldn't be real! That hadn't been Buffy! Whatever it was, whatever this ... this thing that had entered her house might have been, it couldn't have been her daughter. Her daughter was a beautiful, sweet girl with green eyes and golden hair, a smile on her lips, laughing in the sunlight. She was a happy girl, no matter the trouble she sometimes got into, and she would lead a beautiful life. She would find a loving husband, someone who treated her like gold and worshipped the ground she walked on. They would have children, beautiful children, and lead a life of perfect happiness.
The life Joyce had thought she'd have, but didn't get. Buffy would have it. She would!
"Get out of my house!" She snarled at Giles. He wanted to destroy her daughter's life, wanted to tarnish it for whatever sick reasons he might have for it. She didn't care! She didn't want to know!
"I asked you a question!" Giles didn't listen to her words. His own normally stoic features were warped by anger. "Your daughter just came back after we all feared she was gone forever. She came back to you even after you threw her out of her home and told her never to return and now you've thrown her out a second time. I repeat my question: Are you satisfied now?"
Joyce shook her head. Why was he doing this to her? What joy did it bring him to torture her so?
"That ... that wasn't ..."
"Wasn't it?" He came toward her and grabbed her by the shoulders, shaking her until she looked at him. There was genuine rage in his eyes now. "Tell me what it was, Mrs. Summers! Enlighten me! Tell me what that 'thing' was that entered your house today if it wasn't your daughter!"
She should scream, call for help! This man was dangerous, insane! He wanted to hurt her, just like he had hurt her daughter. Her daughter. Buffy! No, it couldn't have been Buffy. It just ...
"Tell me what it was!" Giles went on. "Do you think I hired some kind of look-alike of your daughter and then, oh, I don't know, maybe gave her yellow contact lenses and sent her to a dental clinic, all in my devious effort to fool you?"
Struggling out of his grip, Joyce stumbled past Giles into the kitchen. This was all too much, too much had happened today. She didn't want to see these things, didn't want to think about them. Buffy was gone, her beautiful daughter was gone. Someone had taken her away and Joyce didn't know what she could do to get her back. This was all too much for her.
She needed a drink.
*Just have another drink!* Buffy's scalding voice came from nowhere. She remembered a moment of that terrible night, her daughter looking worn and out of patience, heading for the door.
*Don't you talk to me that way! You don't get to just dump something like this on me and pretend it's nothing!* Something? Something like what? Like ... no, Buffy had never said things like that, she couldn't have.
A drink! She needed a drink!
She was about to reach for the bottle standing on the kitchen counter, the one that had become quite a good friend of hers over the past three months, when a hand suddenly snatched it away from her. She looked up again to see that Giles had followed her into the kitchen.
"Give me that!" She snarled at him.
Instead of answering he threw the bottle against the nearest wall, where it exploded into a thousand pieces, leaving a stain of alcohol on the floor. Joyce flinched back, shaking with fright.
"I have watched this for too long." Giles said, visibly trying to regain his composure. "Maybe it is my fault. Maybe I should have encouraged Buffy to take you into her confidence sooner. But whatever mistakes I might have made in the past, it stops here. Buffy needs you now, Mrs. Summers. More than ever she needs you to accept her back, to accept her for what she is, not for what you want her to be."
*I told you. I'm a Vampire Slayer.* She remembered Buffy saying.
*Well, I just don't accept that!* Those had been her words.
Had she really had a conversation like that? About such nonsense? Vampires? There was no such thing as vampires. Just ... just some stuff Buffy had made up to excuse her tardiness and ... and that guy in front of their house ... no, he couldn't have exploded into dust. Just some kind of trick. Yes, a trick. Done with ... she didn't know how such tricks were done and she didn't want to know.
*Open your eyes, mom!* Buffy's voice came to her again. *What do you think has been going on for the past two years?*
She didn't want to know! Didn't anyone understand that? They had a good life, a normal life. Didn't they understand that she wanted her daughter to be happy?
"I understand only too well." Giles said. Had she said that last part out loud? "Don't you think that I'd rather see Buffy that way, too? A happy girl whose biggest worries in life should be her grades and what dress to wear to the prom. God, how much I want that for her. But she will never have it. She has been chosen, no matter how unfair or cruel that might be. And she has shouldered that responsibility well. You should be proud of her."
"No!" Joyce yelled at him. "No! No! No!"
This couldn't be true. It just wasn't possible. Not her baby girl.
*Do you think I chose to be like this?* Buffy's words sounded in her ears. *Do you have any idea how lonely it is? How dangerous? I would love to be upstairs watching TV or gossiping about boys or ... God, even studying. But I have to save the world ... again!*
"Will you stop closing your eyes!" Giles shouted into her face. "Buffy is not the girl you want her to be! Deal with that! Try to see the person she truly is, the wonderful girl you have raised! The girl who needs you!"
Her girl had disappeared three months ago. Disappeared after some kind of ... no, there hadn't been a monster on her lawn. Not something that exploded into dust. There was this blonde man with the leather coat, some kind of criminal surely. She remembered him from the parent teacher night at school, he had tried to hurt her daughter. What had he done to her?
And what about that strange man, Angel, Buffy had said was her boyfriend for a while? He had obviously been unstable. Had he done something to her as well? Joyce had only met him twice and that second time she'd been genuinely afraid of him.
*The vampires! I need to kill the vampires!* She remembered Buffy in the hospital, out of it from the painkillers they had given her, but still struggling against the orderlies holding her down with a strength that belied her small form.
At parent teacher night there had been these guys with strange faces. The school principle had said something about them being on PCP. Buffy had gone out to face them all by herself in order to help her friends and get them all out alive.
It wasn't making any sense, all of this. It didn't make sense that her nice, normal daughter was involved in all of this.
No! It wasn't possible! Things like that didn't exist. They couldn't!
Giles didn't know what else to say or do. If Joyce Summers didn't even trust her own eyes, refused to believe what she had seen happening right here in this living room not ten minutes ago, how could he possibly convince her?
He was also beginning to doubt that it was worth the effort. He remembered talking to Buffy once, discussing the topic of whether or not to reveal the truth to her mother.
*I love my mom,* he remembered her saying, *but she wouldn't understand. She's too much in love with this perfect, happy world she is trying to build for us.*
It wasn't just the world that Joyce was unable to accept, Giles now knew. It was the people in it as well. Especially her daughter. Joyce didn't know her daughter, she only knew the image of her daughter that she carried in her mind. The thought that this woman in front of him didn't even know who her own daughter was didn't sadden him as much as the realization that she didn't want to know.
Maybe it would be better if Buffy had no further contact with her. Painful, yes, but looking at things long-term ... he shook his head. There was a reason why most Slayers were brought up by the Council, far away from their family. Exactly for reasons like this. What mother could be asked to accept that her daughter would have to spend an altogether too short life fighting monsters and demons?
He looked at Joyce, hugging herself, her eyes closed, sobbing silently. Her beautiful, normal world had shattered every bit as much as the whiskey bottle he had thrown against the wall and she was desperately trying to pick up the pieces.
She would probably go out and buy a new bottle as soon as he was gone. He sighed.
"Just in case you might actually find the courage to look at your real daughter," he told her, "let me know. You have my number."
With that he left the Summer's home. Not even a day had passed since Buffy had come home. This certainly wasn't the homecoming he had envisioned for her.
Could things get any worse?
Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith drove around town, the blackened windows of their van keeping out the dangerous sunlight. Neither of them was particularly happy to begin their search while the sun still hung in the skies above them, but their employer was not a man who liked to be kept waiting.
They were looking for a vampire and something else, something that was neither human nor demon. Neither of them had a clue what that might be, but they had its scent. That was all they needed to find it.
The only question was, of course, what they would do once they did find it.
Xander woke when the sun was already moving sharply toward the horizon, having slept the whole day away. Which wasn't that unusual an occurrence as of late. He normally didn't get into bed until sunrise these days, sometimes later, and his nightly activities left him so worn out that he slept like the dead.
Bad choice of words, Xander! Bad choice of words!
Every inch of his body hurt. He hadn't bothered to undress before falling into bed, but he didn't have to look to know that he was covered with bruises and cuts. He knew how that felt like by now. Hell, he had almost forgotten how it felt not to wake up in pain.
He deserved no less.
He had dreamed again. Always the same dream, though he had gone through a lot of different variations these last three months. Always the mansion, always him looking at Buffy and Angel as they stood in front of that portal. Their words to him varied, but the theme was always the same.
Why hadn't he told her? Why had he lied to her? This was his fault. He had consigned one of his best friends to Hell.
Xander shook his head to dispel the nightmare, limping over to the bathroom to sprinkle his face with cold water. School would start again in two days and ... and what? He wasn't sure whether he should even go there again. What was the point? His parents wouldn't notice, that much was for sure. With his grade average there was little chance he would graduate at all and now, after everything that had happened, he didn't really care either way.
It was his fault. His fault that Buffy was in Hell.
He went through the events of that day for the millionth time as he dressed, stubbornly refusing to wince as the pants and shirt scraped across the bruises on his legs. He wasn't really sure what he had thought (if he had thought at all, that was,) why he had said the words that had come spilling out of his mouth.
*Kick his ass!* Those had been his words. He had told Buffy that Willow wanted Angel dead, every bit as much as he wanted him dead. He had said nothing about the curse, nothing about the fact that Angel might come back if Willow should succeed.
There were a hundred good reasons why he had kept that information from her. He hadn't wanted Buffy to hold back, not with the fate of the world at stake. There was no telling if the curse would even work or how long it might take. Against someone like Angel Buffy couldn't afford to play for time. He would kill her unless she killed him first.
All very good reasons. Logical reasons. Not that he had thought of any of them at that particular time.
Looking at his own bruised face in the mirror, Xander wondered who that guy was he saw in there. Someone who would knowingly lie to his best friend. Someone who would willingly consign someone to Hell, even though he knew what it would do to said best friend. Someone who was to blame for his best friend seeing no other way but to follow that monster she somehow still loved into Hell.
Damn Angel! Damn him for making her love her so!
No, he shook his head! As much as he would like it, this wasn't Angel's fault. He blamed the vampire for many things. All their lives would have been a lot better if that bastard had never been born, or died 250 years ago like he was supposed to, but this was not his fault. No, Xander Harris, king of jealous idiots, had managed to screw this up all by his lonesome. He would never forget the look on Buffy's face when their eyes had met for the last time that day. How she had looked at him to let him know that she knew exactly what he had done, why he had done it.
There had been hatred in her eyes. Disdain. But most of all a deep disappointment. A shattering of trust. Someone she would have trusted with her life had betrayed her. Xander had seen all that in her eyes and then she had vanished before he could do a thing to... what? Defend himself? Explain his actions to her? What could he possibly have said?
Buffy had gone to Hell hating him and he deserved every bit of it.
His left eye was almost swollen shut, he saw. Funny that he hadn't realized that until now. Did it matter anymore? The last three months he had gone out every night and pretty much looked for a cheap way to get himself killed. Hunting vampires and demons every night, no matter that he was just a normal human being without any spiffy super powers. He still had some memories from his time as a soldier, basic fighting techniques and tactical skills, but those were fading more and more every day.
Not that it mattered. Xander had lost count of the times he had almost been killed these last few months. He was lucky - or maybe unlucky at that - that most of the vampires seemed to have cleared out of Sunnydale after Angelus' defeat and Spike's hightailing it out of town. Which left just a few stupid fledglings that even someone without super powers could stake without too many problems.
If that someone didn't really care about his own survival, that was.
Xander didn't. He had come to that realization a few weeks ago when a vampire had had him against the wall, his stake lost somewhere in the dirty alley, the demon's teeth almost in his jugular. At that moment a terrible calm had overcome him, a complete indifference as to his own fate. If he had died right then and there, maybe that would have put an end to it all. Maybe he could finally have stopped seeing Buffy's eyes as they looked at him full of disappointment and betrayal.
Maybe the vampire had seen that emptiness in his eyes and that had made him hesitate for the crucial moment it took Xander to find his stake and ram it into the monster's heart. The demon had crumbled into dust and Xander found himself disappointed.
He didn't care anymore. Buffy was gone and it was his fault. That was all there was to it.
With a sad laugh he wondered if this was how Angel had always felt, the soul-filled variant. Maybe deadboy had been better off not having to see himself in the mirror. Xander didn't particularly like what he saw in there. Had Angel also felt like getting up in the morning didn't have much point? Had he looked at something that reminded him of one of the people he had killed and the pain was so bad that he felt like bursting into tears right on the spot?
There was that picture of Buffy, Willow, and himself beside his bed, taking in happy times. Relatively speaking, of course. There had been monsters then, demons and vampires that would destroy the world unless Buffy stopped them. But somehow it had never been quite real. It was like a really life-like role-playing game in which no one ever got badly hurt except for the bad guy.
Then Angel turned against them. Ms. Calendar died. Buffy broke into pieces. Willow almost died. Giles was tortured nearly to death. Kendra died. Buffy was accused of murder. And he ... he lied to his best friend and thereby sent her to Hell.
He shook his head. Enough self-hate for one morning. He was really starting to turn into ... the guy whose name he wouldn't even think from now on. Enough! That guy deserved Hell twenty times over, there was no doubt about that in Xander's mind, even now. Maybe Xander himself deserved it, too. It was just Buffy who didn't deserve to be down there. After everything she had done, why did someone like her have to...? No, stop it!
He had to do something. Something to keep him sane until nightfall. Then he could go out again and find some vampires. Maybe he would find some large group that he'd have no chance against and then...
He had to do something. Anything.
It was almost dusk by the time Xander arrived in front of Giles' door. He wasn't exactly sure why he had come here. Since his confession about the things he had done on that day (they only ever called it THAT DAY) he was not one of Giles' favorite people anymore. He knew, though, that the Watcher was still looking for some way to maybe get Buffy back. He hadn't lost hope.
As long as Giles kept looking, Xander retained some tiny bit of hope himself.
"Giles?" He knocked and opened the door almost in the same motion. "Are you there?"
There was no answer, but something about the atmosphere inside the apartment made the hairs on his neck stand up. Something was wrong here. Without wanting to he remembered another day he had entered this apartment. About two hours after the police had carted away the body of Ms. Calendar.
"Giles?" He called again.
"He's not here."
The voice made Xander's blood run cold. It came from behind him, somewhere between him and the door. Something had moved between him and the safety of the remaining daylight without making a sound and it spoke with a voice that Xander had hoped never to hear again in this life.
Slowly, his fists clenched to keep his hands from shaking, Xander turned around to look at Angel.
"You!" He whispered. His mouth had gone completely dry.
"Hello, Xander." There was no emotion visible on the vampire's face as he took in Xander's sorry state, the swellings, the many bruises. The only things alive in his face were his dark eyes. They seemed to almost glow as he looked at him. Anger? Hatred? Xander couldn't tell. He was quite sure he didn't want to know either.
"What are you doing here?" Xander asked, still not quite believing what he saw. Angel was back from Hell. That bastard had actually found a way out of the place he should spend eternity in.
Did that mean that ...?
"He's with me." Another voice came from the direction of the stairs. Another voice he knew.
Xander closed his eyes. This had to be a dream. Or a nightmare. He was still sleeping. Or maybe he hadn't made it last night after all. Maybe that vampire he thought he had gotten away from had killed him and now he was in the same place Angel had been sent to.
He didn't want to turn his back on Angel, really not a good idea, but if the vampire wanted to kill him than there was little Xander could do about it either way. So turn around he did to look at the person standing at the foot of the stairs. She, too, hadn't made a sound.
And she looked at him with eyes of demon amber.
"Hi, Xander!" Buffy said, disdain in her voice, fangs flashing as she spoke. "Miss me?"
Outside the rain was still beating down on the unblinking shadow faces of the Gluttonous, but inside the cave it was dry and warm. There was a warm body pressed against his, silken skin touching his own cold flesh, the sweet rhythm of a living heartbeat gently pounding inside that delicious warmth. Her breath flowed over his chest as she slept by his side, a warm summer wind that chased the cold from his bones.
The battle against Cerberus was forgotten, the pain of the wounds he had sustained long faded. They were prisoners in Hell; about two years now and they had only managed to make it into the Third Circle so far, six more ahead of them. There was no telling if they would make it out at all and even if they did, the world they had come from would no doubt have changed beyond recognition.
None of that mattered much right now. His life's mate was resting in his arms, the blood they shared humming in her veins, calling to his own like a magnet. She hadn't been lost to him, as he had feared but a few hours ago. They were together, they had survived all Hell had thrown at them so far.
For a short moment Angel forgot all about Hell and everything that was still before them. Nothing existed except Buffy as she slept in his arms, their world reduced to dark cave that was warm in the aftermath of their lovemaking. For a short moment all worries and guilt were gone from Angel's mind and he felt fully content.
Half a second later he realized it.
"No!" He rose quickly, unceremoniously dropping Buffy to the stone floor as he felt something shift inside of him. Something moved under his skin, something changed even as he stumbled toward the exit of the cave, the pounding of the rain drowned out by the pain that lanced through his chest like a lightning bolt.
"Angel?" Buffy woke when her comfortable pillow of cool flesh vanished, only to be replaced by cold, ungiving rock. She opened her eyes and saw him stumble away from her, his groan of pain clearing the cobwebs of sleep in an instant.
No! What had they done?
She was on her feet and running after him a heartbeat later, though she had no idea what to do now. If the curse had been broken, if Angel had achieved a moment of true happiness once again, then they were both lost. Angel would be gone and Angelus ... he would either kill her and die of thirst or she would kill him and die from the withdrawal.
Why had she done this to him? She should have been stronger than that, strong enough to resist the temptation.
She caught up with him at the cave mouth, the thundering rain just a few meters away, as he fell to his knees and screamed in pain. A horrible sense of déjà vu overcame her. It had been raining that night, too. Only she hadn't been there for him. She had been too busy sleeping off her first night of love to realize that her lover was dying because of her.
Not this time! She wouldn't allow it!
"Angel!" She captured his shaking form in her arms. "Angel, please! You have to fight it!"
"BUFFY!" He screamed her name, but seemed unaware of her presence or her touch. He had fallen to his knees, pain ripped through his body. The world drowned in the crimson laughter of the demon, anticipating the freedom he would taste once more in just a few seconds.
Ever since his soul had been restored the first time, all these many years ago, it had been an almost tangible presence in Angel's body. He could feel it every bit as much as his fingers, his arms, his legs. He remembered the terrible emptiness when it had been gone, though the memories of those times were tinted by the demon's perceptions.
It was all slipping away. He could feel it fading, everything that made him human was disappearing. His soul had been tied to this dead body by magic, it had no other hold on his flesh. Now the magic was gone. There was nothing keeping it here. Nothing at all.
Or was there?
Buffy gasped as the spectacle unfolded before her. A misty light seemed to pour out of Angel's body, flowing from under his skin like water. His soul? In a place where the wraiths of the dead where every bit as real as creatures made from flesh and blood, was she actually able to see his soul as it left his body? Her hands moved of their own accord, vainly trying to somehow keep the light inside him, looking to stuff it back into his body like the filling of a ruptured teddy bear.
It spilled over her hands, a tingling sensation on her skin, but she couldn't hold it. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't hold it inside him. It ran away from him, ran through her fingers, and vanished into the darkness surrounding them, swept away by the rain.
Angel collapsed to the ground with a final scream, the light flaring brightly around him. Then he went still and darkness fell around them like a curtain.
"Angel?" Buffy knelt beside him, her hands on his back, even though she knew what had happened, what had to happen now. She should be running, going as far away from him as possible. But she couldn't. Not just because of the blood she needed from him.
This was her fault. She had to make this right somehow. Even if it meant facing Angelus again.
Without warning Angel rose and grabbed her by the shoulders. Buffy couldn't hold back a gasp as she found herself transfixed by two amber demon eyes, the vampire's lips drawn back from razor-sharp fangs by a snarl.
They were resting on the couch together, seeking comfort in each other's presence. Buffy had yet to say a word about what had happened with her mother earlier today and Angel hadn't asked. She would tell him when she was ready. Until then he had to be there for her.
The sounds of footsteps coming towards Giles' apartment door made Angel look up.
Buffy looked up as well from where she was snuggled into his embrace, senses reaching out without conscious effort. Instincts honed by thirty years in the most hostile environment imaginable told her that a human being was coming toward them. Not a serious threat.
The scent was familiar, but she couldn't place it immediately. Angel moved forward in a blur of speed, peeking through closed drapes, and his face darkened.
Buffy froze, hearing that name spill from her lover's lips. Xander.
Angel saw her reaction. There was no need to ask her if she was okay. It was obvious she was not. He knew how very much Xander had hurt her. Buffy was someone who, once she had given her trust, gave it wholeheartedly and completely. Xander had been one of her two best friends and the fact that he had kept things from her, things so important...
Angel had few reasons to love Xander himself, but he couldn't honestly blame the boy. Not for what he had done at least, though his motivations had probably been anything but pure. Angel wouldn't have wanted Buffy to go into the fight against his evil half without total commitment to bring him down by whatever means necessary. Had she known about the curse being restored she would have held back and Angelus would have used the slightest hesitation on her part to his advantage.
No, he couldn't honestly blame Xander for not telling her about the curse. That didn't change the fact, though, that he had hurt her. No matter why, no matter how, that was something Angel was not prepared to just forgive.
"Do you want me to handle this?" He asked her, seeing how she eyed the door.
"No!" She shook her head immediately. "I have to confront him sooner or later. Might as well be now."
Turning her head towards him, she added "Just stay with me, okay?"
"I will always stay with you, beloved. You know that."
The door opened.
Looking into the demon's eyes, Buffy expected to see the familiar emptiness she knew from Angelus. A shell of a man, filled with nothing but insanity and malevolence. Not her Angel, never her Angel. Nothing but a monster.
Only the eyes weren't empty.
"What's happening?" She whispered, even as the eyes shifted and changed back to their soothing darkness.
Angel was breathing hard, sweat covered his brow, the hands that were holding her by the shoulders shaking badly. He swallowed several times, looking as if he had just gone through a dozen circles of hell all by himself.
"Buffy!" He whispered. Only that one word, spoken as no one but him could. It told her all she needed to know.
Their arms went around each other without conscious thought, Buffy pressing her face into his neck, tears flowing from her eyes like a river. She repeated his name over and over again. He was still here. He hadn't left her.
It seemed to take forever until she was able to let go of him again, fearing that she would wake from this wonderful dream and see the empty orbs of Angelus gazing down at her the moment she let go. He was still here. How was this possible?
"I thought I'd lost you again." She whispered, finally finding the courage to look into his eyes. The dark orbs were not empty, her fears dispelled. He was here. He was really here.
"I couldn't leave you. I could never do that."
"But... but how? The curse, we..."
Angel closed his eyes, trying to put into words what had just happened. He had felt the curse break. Had felt his soul beginning to leave his body, about to leave the demon free reign of his flesh once more. He clearly remembered the demon's shouts of joy, almost bursting with glee as it anticipated all the things it could do to this wonderful girl in front of him. If anything Angelus was more insane and sadistic than the last time he had gotten free.
That was not the only thing he remembered, though. No, he amended, he didn't actually remember. It was just feelings. There had been a sensation of total freedom, of chains falling away. The dark, whispering presence of a deranged demon he had learned to live with was fading as he left his flesh behind. There was nothing but soothing emptiness and a whispered promise of a better place he would soon be in.
Both Charon and Minos had said that his soul did not belong in Hell. In that moment, his soul free on the wind, he had known it to be true. He could go. Leave the wastelands of Hell behind and go to... where? Heaven? Paradise? Maybe. Only he would probably never know. Because this time he had known what was happening. This time he hadn't been a helpless passenger as a magic he didn't understand tore his humanity from his body. This time he had known what was happening to him and what would happen if he let it.
He knew that, if he let go, Buffy would be left down here with Angelus.
"I couldn't go!" He repeated, words failing him. "I couldn't leave you here with him."
Looking into his eyes, Buffy understood. He could have gone. He could have left Hell behind and gone on. And he hadn't. He had held on, had held tight to this flesh, this place, his refusal to leave her alone with the monster had bound his soul more tightly than the curse ever could. Because of her.
Buffy. The very same person who had damned him to Hell in the first place had now prevented him from getting out.
Burrowing back into his embrace, fresh tears in her eyes, Buffy couldn't help but wonder how it was that he didn't hate her.