Title: Living Hell
Rating: PG
Pairing: BA
Summary: Buffy needs a little stability after Seeing Red (Btvs S6) takes place after that scene. Feedback: I'd love some.
Disclaimer: In case there's any confusion, if I were Joss that scene would never have happened. sings "Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind"

I turn the lights in the cold, bright bathroom off. I wish I had candles. I want candles to soften all this hard, painful light. I don't have candles because Willow is going all cold turkey on the majick. I twist the knobs on the fountain and scalding water rushes into the tub. I pour a capful of vanilla bath gel under the spray coming from the spout. For some reason I don't want to take off the torn robe. I clutch it to my chest like it's a life preserver which is really, really dumb.

I swallow hard and slide the robe off my shoulders. There's a long scrape from shoulder to sternum. There's a bruise forming on my jaw and my forearm. I can feel a lump the size of an egg on the back of my head. I dip my toes into the tub and then sink it letting the hot water scald me clean. I close my eyes and the tears seep out from beneath my lashes. I stuff my fingers under my eyes and stem the flow. I bite my lip hard enough to make it bleed to stifle the sobs that make my body hitch with their force.

I couldn't do anything. I couldn't stop him. I couldn't scream or throw him across the room, or stake him. For one moment I couldn't do anything. That awful eighteenth birthday came flooding over me and I remember feeling so helpless and fragile and so alone. It paralyzed me. It made me into something weak and scared, something I hate. My sobs leak out the corners of my mouth and bounce off the walls of the tiny bathroom. I am grateful no one is home. I couldn't handle that right now.

I slip under the water, reveling in the quiet that exists there. I blow bubbles out my nose and wonder if I don't surface will I drown? What's the point really? Willow will just raise me from the dead, again. Lack of breath constricts my chest and I lunge out of the water with a gasp. It reminds me of the first gasp of stale air I took inside my coffin. I still have nightmares about that. I'm claustrophobic now. I never was before, waking up inside a sealed coffin and having to claw your way out of six feet of dirt will do that to you.

I get out of the tub and wrap myself up in Dawn's robe. I pad into the bedroom and perch on the edge there. I bite my lips and stare at the phone. It's a phone call. It's just a phone call so why is it so hard to make. I pick up the receiver and dial the number that is etched on my heart.

"Angel Investigations, we help the hopeless," he says.

"Angel," I breathe out.

"Buffy," he breathes in.

Oh God, I struggle against total meltdown.

"Buffy, what's the matter?" He asks.

"I-do you still have nightmares about digging your way out of your grave?" I ask. It's something I wonder every night when I wake up from a nightmare. It's not the question I really want to ask.

He sighs and it carries so many emotions, pity, pain, and most of all love. "Sometimes. I don't like enclosed places. It's one of the reasons I like so much space. I don't sleep in canopy beds because if I wake up staring at anything but the ceiling it-"he stops.

"You panic," I finish.

"Yeah. Has it been bad?" He asks.

"It's been-"I stop. I don't even know how to tell him what it's been like, being back. "I live in Hell," I finally say. And my Heaven is so far away. I don't say that part. I can't say that part.

"Can I help?" He asks.

It's the question I long to hear. It has an answer I long to say and it means something that we can't ever have. I bite down on my lip, breaking open the spot I made bleed earlier.

"Buffy?" He makes it a question.

I shake my head. I know he can't see me but I can't make myself say no. I can't turn Angel away again. I can't, not when I need him so much it hurts inside.

"Can I-I just want to go away. Can I come there? I won't be a problem and I promise I won't ask for anything more then you can give me. I just need to not be here," I finally manage.

"Of course, I'll come get you," he says.

"No, I need to think," I say. He can't be here. I'm afraid all the ugly stain of here will bleed all over Angel.

"Alright, I'll be waiting for you. And Buffy," he stops.

"Yeah?"

"Be careful," he says.

I hang up the phone and pull on a pair of low waisted yoga pants and a sweatshirt. I toss a few things in a duffel bag and on impulse grab the ancient leather jacket he gave me lifetimes ago. I shrug it on and scribble a note to Willow and Dawn.

I have to take care of some things. I'll be back in a day or two. Don't worry about me,

Buffy

I stand in the courtyard, my entire body trembling. He's inside. I forgot his very presence makes me come undone like this. My eyes roam over the old hotel. I smile slightly. Angel and his living spaces, always grander, bigger, more beautiful, he did say he likes lots of space. I wonder if maybe I won't feel like I'm suffocating here.

He comes out of the hotel and I know he feels me too. I let my eyes feast over him. He looks tired and worried. Things haven't been a bed of roses here either. Its funny Angel left me so both of us could have a better life and it seems like neither of us got that. He folds me into his embrace. I close my eyes and take the first deep breath I've taken since Willow raised me.

I step back after a moment and I notice Angel is giving me a steely gaze. It doesn't jive with the tender embrace I just stepped out of.

"Come on inside," he says.

Its funny how big old buildings like this are never really quiet. They breathe around you with a life all their own or maybe so much life has gone on inside that it animates the walls and floors and very essence of the place. In any case, Angel's hotel is breathing but it's comforting, not creepy.

Angel leads me through the kitchen. I flinch in the bright fluorescent light. It washes Angel out and makes the dark circles under his eyes more apparent. He doesn't get older, I know that but somehow, something has made him look older. I wince, imaging how I must look. I didn't take the time to fix my hair or put on make up. All I could think about was getting out of that house where I felt so alone, so helpless.

He puts on a kettle of water and turns to me, that flinty look still in his eyes. It dissolves the moment he sees me in the full light. His fingers glide softly over my jaw, where the bruise is. He reverently touches the long scratch that is just peeking out of the cut out neck of my sweatshirt.

"Who hurt you?" He asks.

It doesn't escape my notice that he says who and not what. I bite my lips. That spot breaks open again and I taste blood. I look away and down at the floor. I cross my arms and shake my head.

"Buffy, you smell like Spike. He's all over you. Did he hurt you?" Angel asks.

It sounds stupid to say that Spike hurt me. I can kick Spike's ass seven ways to Sunday. I shrug and fight against the tears that rush up from the very pit of my stomach. They taste sour and bitter and they make me gag.

Angel is crushing me into his chest again and that's all it takes for my resolve to collapse. I let go of the tears and they pour out of me, like water I poured into the tub earlier tonight. They pour out of me and into Angel and I feel guilty because whatever he's going through, it's enough pain. He doesn't need to shoulder mine. I shove myself away and sop up the tears on my cheeks with the worn cuffs of my sweatshirt. I sniffle and rip a paper towel off a roll. I blow my nose and shake my head.

"I'm sorry," I sob, "I shouldn't have come. I shouldn't have called you. I shouldn't have come."

"Buffy, you can always come to me when you're hurt," he says.

Except when you hurt me, I think. I shake my head. "No, we agreed all those months ago not to do this. We couldn't do this, no matter how much we want it, we can't have it. We don't belong to each other, we don't belong to ourselves and I'm so sorry," I say and take off running.

I'm in an alley somewhere when he catches up to me. I'm bent over double gasping for air. It's not fair if he had to breathe he never would have caught me.

"Buffy, don't run from me," he says.

"Why? I thought I might like to see how walking away feels for once, instead of always being the walking awayee," I say.

I'm instantly sorry for it. This look of incredible pain crosses his raven eyes and I wish I could take it back. I don't like hurting him but I'm so good at it.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that," I say.

"Just because we can't have a life together doesn't mean I don't want to make the pain go away. It doesn't mean I don't love you," Angel says.

"Are you sure? Because sometimes it feels a lot like you don't," I say.

He's beside me in the space of a heartbeat. His fingers caress the bruise on my jaw. "Buffy, you aren't just my love. You're my heart and my soul. I can't stop loving you," he says.

Tears rush into to fill my eyes and I swipe at them. God, one of these days I'm going to stop crying in front of this man.

"Do you know I don't cry in front of anyone else? I save it all up for you," I say.

He kisses my tear soaked cheeks. "I wouldn't have it any other way," he whispers.

We walk back to the hotel, fingers interlaced. Sunrise is coming. It's funny it's something I know now almost as well as the creatures I hunt. Angel leads me up the curved staircase to his room. I know it's his. It smells like him. There are sketches all over the walls. This room feels more like home then home does. I don't feel like I'm crawling out of my skin here. I walk along the walls, studying the sketches.

There are sketches of a lot of people I don't know, a black man, and a pretty brunette, even one of Darla. There are a lot of sketches of Cordelia. My heart sinks into my stomach as I begin to realize just how many sketches there are of Cordelia. I bite my lips again. That place on my bottom lip, the one I keep breaking open, is never gonna heal. I swallow hard and turn away. I can't stand to see any more pictures of her. I cover my face with my hands.

Angel takes my upper arm and guides me across the room.

"Sit down," he says.

I don't open my eyes. I don't look where I'm sitting. I'm trusting blindly that he won't let me fall. I sit down on the edge of his bed and rest my elbows on my knees. I am so broken and I wonder if it's because Willow tore me out of Heaven or because I live in Hell or maybe I was broken a long time before that.

"Was I always broken, Angel?" I ask. It's not the question I want to ask him. I want to ask him about the pictures but I'm afraid of the answers.

"No," he answers solemnly.

I almost expected him to argue with me, to tell me I'm not broken but it's obvious to everyone except my friends. I'm broken into little bitty Buffy pieces and some of those pieces are lost, lost and can't be found.

I lie down on the bed and bury my face in a pillow. After a little while, Angel crawls up on the bed beside me. He lies down behind me. His hands slide over my back, my waist, my hips and shoulders. His hands are so big and strong and yet so incredibly gentle. His touch breathes life and love into me.

I fall asleep with Angel wrapped all around me and for the first time in a very long time, I don't dream about being locked in my coffin.

I wake up and he's gone. I expected it. Angel is always gone when I wake up. I expect it but it still feels like I'm deflating when he's gone. I consider pulling the pillow over my head and lying there in bed all day. It's not as if I have to get up for any reason. The only demons I have to slay here can't be staked or beheaded, well they could but that wouldn't solve my problems and with our history, he'd just come back half naked and wild in a few months. It's kind of funny, the Powers won't let us be together but they won't let us die either.

I shove myself off the bed, already tired before I've begun the day or afternoon more correctly. I take a shower and wallow in the smell of Angel's shampoo and soap. I think I wash my hair three times. The water starts to run cold and I get out. Towels are placed precisely within reach. It's funny. I'd forgotten how anal Angel is about things like his shower.

I throw on a pair of jeans and a tee shirt. I twist my wet hair into a tight knot at the nape of my neck and decide to go looking for Angel. I start down the stairs and pause. Cordelia, the pretty girl from the sketches, the black man and another man are down there. I turn on the ball of my foot and start to go back up the stairs, retreating into Angel's room.

"Buffy?" Cordelia says.

I stop and take a deep breath. I paste on my happy slayer smile and turn around.

"Hi Cordelia. It's nice to see you again," I say.

"I didn't know you were here. When did you get here?" She asked.

"Last night," I say.

"Come down and have some coffee with us. So is the world ending again? If it is, I'm going to need an extra cup of coffee," she says.

I can't avoid coffee without seeming really rude so I go on down the stairs.

"Oh, you haven't met anyone here. That's Gunn, Fred and Groo," Cordy says.

"Hi, I'm Buffy," I say.

The girl's eyes go really wide and her mouth opens in a gasp. "You're the girl who came back from the dead! You're the lo-"she starts. Gunn slaps a hand over her mouth.

"Fred means it's nice to meet you," Gunn says.

I arch my brow at both of them. "Yeah, I'm the dead girl, pretty spry for a corpse. I'm also the what?" I ask.

"The lovely slayer," Cordy says.

I shake my head. Whatever, I don't have the time or patience for the mystery that is Cordelia Chase anymore. "Is Angel around?" I ask.

"His office," Cordy points to a door behind the curved desk.

I nod and walk around behind the desk. I tap lightly on the door and crack it open. I can't help but smile at the sight there. He's sitting reading a book. This is how I always remember Angel sitting and reading. He looks up and smiles at me. I remember that too. He has this special smile that he gives me. It's half crooked and all mine. He beckons me in. I close the door behind me.

I sit down in a chair across the desk from him. "What are you reading?" I ask.

Angel's brow furrows at the mention of his research. "Something about other dimensions, their effects on people," he says.

"Thank you," I say.

He quirks an eyebrow at me. "For what?" he asks.

I smile slightly and shrug. "Last night, letting me come here, giving me a place to breathe," I say.

"Buffy, you can come here anytime you need to."

I notice he says need and not want, because isn't that the whole point? We can't have what we want, especially when what we want is each other.

"Thank you anyway," I say.

"You never told me who hurt you," he says.

"And you never told me why you look so worried," I say.

He smiles slightly and nods.

I start to get up and stop. "Can I ask a question?"

I normally just blurt them out but this feels like delving into Angel's personal life, the one that I'm not a part of anymore. I swallow hard and glance down at my hands.

"Your sketches, there are a lot of Cordelia. Do you love her?" I ask.

"Not like I love you," he answers without hesitation.

"Oh," I say.

He sighs and pushes himself back from his desk. He walks over to me and pulls me back against his chest. He wraps his arms around my waist from behind and captures my hands in his. He rests his chin on my head. "Cordelia will never be perfect happiness," he says.

Tears fill my eyes. In that moment I wish I wasn't. I don't have to be perfect happiness, at least if I wasn't perfect happiness I could stay here. I nod so slightly. Angel kisses the top of my head and we stand there for a moment, one frozen moment. Tears track their way down my cheeks and I let them flow uninhibited. I close my eyes and draw the strength I need from him. It feels like he's drawing strength from me too and I wonder how that works. How is it that the strength always increases when we're drawing from each other? Shouldn't there be less of it? Shouldn't being like this make us weak?

I step away from him first. I turn and smile through my tears. I sniffle and nod, still smiling. "I should go home. I need-Dawn is there," I say.

Angel nods and presses his lips into a thin line. I know he wants to ask questions. He just doesn't want the answers.

"You know that thing where you said I could come here anytime I needed to. The same goes for you, down in Sunnydale. I know for a fact the mansion is still empty. Your furniture is still there," I say. The reason I know these things is because I go by once a month. I sweep. I dust. I make sure nothing is nesting in there. Sometimes I go by more often and light a fire in the hearth. I sit on the couch and read some of the books Angel left there.

He gives me that crooked smile and sticks his hands in his pockets. I know from years of Angel experience that means he wants to touch me. "Thank you," he says.

I nod and start out the door. I place my hand on the knob and pause. I glance back at him and cross the space between us in two quick steps. I press my lips to his and I want to weep. I'm home, after all this time, I'm finally home.

I tear myself away from him before I get too comfortable, before leaving him kills me.

"Buffy," he stops me in my tracks.

I look up at him, waiting.

"All my life, I love you, all my life," he swears.

I nod. "I know. Me too, Angel,"

I turn and run back into my own living Hell but it's not so bad anymore. He's given me a little hope to see me through and maybe, just maybe one of these days I'll see Heaven again.