Title: The Prodigal's Return
Characters: Angel, Buffy.
Word Count: 1500
Spoilers: Faith, Hope, & Trick, Beauty and the Beasts
Summary: After possibly centuries of torment, Angel returns from the Hell dimension a broken man.
Written For: Challenge #165: Amnesty, using Challenge #130: Identity at fan_flashworks, and my genprompt_bingo square Sun And Stars.
Disclaimer: I don't own BTVS, or the characters. They belong to Joss Whedon.
James Birdsong: Thank you, I'm so glad you enjoyed 'Be careful What You Wish For'.
The light is blinding, white and pure; for a brief instant it chases away the shadows in the great hall of the old Sunnydale mansion. If anyone had been there to witness it, they would have been momentarily blinded, but as it is, the sight goes unseen because except for a few furnishings and that blazing light, the place is empty…
…and then it isn't.
The light is an inter-dimensional portal, and with shocking suddenness a body plunges through, falling heavily to the cold stone floor. The light vanishes as the portal snaps closed once more and darkness returns, but the body remains. It's a man, naked, cold, and too weak from his ordeal to do more than lift his head from the ground and stare blankly at his surroundings.
He doesn't know where he is, doesn't even know who he is, though he's dimly aware that this isn't where he was before. He tries to remember, but thoughts and memories elude him, skittering away when he tries to grasp them. His head is filled with sharp-edged splinters, jumbled fragments that he can't put together in any kind of order, yet he tries, lying there shivering on the ice-cold flagstones, until exhaustion claims him.
He sleeps and dreams, nightmare images flaring to life in his mind only to dissolve again, melting together into a confused blur. Pain wakes him, and his eyes open to a light that's almost too bright for him to bear. His foot feels as though it's on fire, which isn't too far from the truth; the flesh is smoking and smouldering where the light touches it, and he jerks it back into the shadows, retreating from the brightness.
Sunlight, he thinks. The sun is bad; it burns, hot and harsh. It isn't his friend and he needs to stay out of it until night falls, so he drags himself to the darkest corner he can find, curls up as small as he can manage, and sleeps again, waiting for night to fall.
This time it's hunger that wakes him, burning inside his gut as searingly hot as the sunlight had felt against his skin earlier. Sleep has restored some of his strength but he's still too weak; he needs to feed.
Outside, night has fallen, the darkness soothing to his raw nerves. Rising to his feet, he walks out of the mansion, tipping his head back to look up at the sky. The moon hasn't risen yet, but the stars are like diamonds overhead. Stars are good, their light is gentle, it doesn't burn him the way the sun does. Night is his time, the time to hunt, and he sniffs the breeze, not sure what he's searching for until he catches a scent that smells like prey. He follows it, not exerting himself yet. He doesn't have the strength to spare, will need all he has for the chase.
The prey smell leads him to woodland, and for the first time in… The thought escapes him again, but the woods feel good and right, leaves and grass beneath his feet, tall trees around him. They won't shelter him when the sun comes back, he knows that instinctively, but they must surely shelter his prey.
There are rabbits and he chases one down, stumbling several times, but despite the small creature's speed and his own clumsiness, he has the advantage of longer legs, a greater reach, and hands that grip. He drains his prey of blood, tossing the body aside when he's done, and goes back to hunting, feeling stronger now. It's a good hunt, and two more rabbits soon fall victim to the new predator in their woods. He's tracking a fourth when it happens.
The girl seems to appear out of nowhere, hair as bright as the sun. One moment she's not there and then she's right in front of him and he knocks her down as he runs past. But even though he's hunting, can't afford to lose his prey, something makes him pause and look back. She's looking right at him, and there's an odd sense of familiarity, like he should know her, but is that good or bad? He doesn't know, and that's unsettling, but she shines like the sun, and the sun is bad…
He snarls, lips drawn back from his teeth, and charges, but she throws him almost casually. Small though she is, she's both fast and strong, perhaps stronger than he is. That won't deter him from fighting her though. He scrabbles back towards her, lunging before she can regain her feet, but she flips him right over her and onto his back, using his momentum and weight against him and knocking the breath from his body. That's when he realises he doesn't actually need to breathe. Is he alive or not? It's impossible to figure out so he doesn't try.
The fight continues, neither of them truly getting the upper hand, until finally she gets in a kick to his head, leaving him reeling and seeing more stars than there should be in the night sky. She follows the kick with a powerful punch to his face and he slumps to the soft earth as the world fades away.
When he wakes, he's back in the mansion, slumped on the unforgiving stone floor again. It's eerily like the last time, and for a moment he wonders if he ever left or if the hunt was just another dream, but it couldn't have been because this time he's in chains. The girl with the sun-bright hair is there, watching him warily. Getting to his knees, he lunges at her, but she jumps back, quick and agile. He strains towards her, but try as he might he can't reach her, held back by the chains, and so he cowers against the wall, trying in vain to think.
Free. Must get free.
It makes no difference how much he struggles; the chains are too strong and too firmly fixed. He's not even certain that he'll be safe from the sun on its return. Perhaps the girl means for the sun to burn him to ashes. He yearns for the night, the stars and the moon, the woods and the hunt, the taste of his prey's lifeblood, but he's trapped here. Eventually he gives up the fight to free himself and sags to the floor, beaten.
Time passes slowly. The girl blocked out the sunlight when she left, an unexpected kindness, except that it means he can't even judge how long he's been here, shackled and helpless, by watching the progress of shadows across the floor. Not that it matters. He wonders if he'll be chained here for eternity, or has he already done that? He thinks he remembers chains and pain and torment, and he crouches close to the wall, whimpering. He doesn't know how he escaped, but he doesn't want to go back to that other place, the place before this.
He's so sunk in misery that he isn't aware of her return, doesn't hear her voice break the silence. When a warm hand touches his back, instinct kicks in and he whirls, snarling and lashing out. She backs off, eyes filled with anguish that matches his own, and soon she leaves, but her brief presence has broken him from his stupor and he resumes his efforts to escape. Dust drifts down as the bracket he's chained to starts to loosen. He's stronger now; it's only a matter of time.
Why does he seek her out once he's free? Is it instinct again or recognition? Does it matter? When he finds her, she's in trouble, battling a monster. He has no choice but to help her, it's a compulsion he's powerless to resist. What kind of hold does she have over him? The chains that have hindered him since he left the mansion prove to be effective weapons, and he makes full use of them. Fighting is good, he feels strong and alive, and there's satisfaction in snapping the monster's neck like a twig. As the body of his opponent falls to the ground at his feet, something else snaps too, deep inside his head, and the splintered fragments of his mind start to click into place. He breathes deeply, gradually relaxing, as he looks at the girl, waiting to understand…
Then it's there. He knows who he is, and more importantly, he knows who this girl is, the one who brings sunlight into his life, the one whose eyes shine brighter than the stars when she looks at him, the one he loves with all his poor, battered, unworthy heart.
She's his salvation, the light in his darkness, and he falls to his knees before her, clinging to her and weeping. The touch of her hand in his hair is both benediction and absolution; he's forgiven, and at long last he knows that his penance in Hell is behind him.
He's come home to her.