Body

Disclaimers, etc., in Chapter One --

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PHOENIX BURNING

by Yahtzee

Yahtzee63@aol.com

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Chapter Twenty-Four

"Phoenix Rising"

The Council Chamber remained in chaos for long time. Everyone was arguing over who was implicated, who was not, what was to be done. However, the consensus had definitely shifted against the Watchers who were allied with Ishak and Markwith's plans. Frances seemed to have taken over the attack, and Buffy had never been happier to hear her voice so shrill with anger. Ishak defended his actions, but Markwith was just slumped in his seat, looking over at Sumiko.

For her part, Sumiko stayed near Angel and Buffy.

"There we go," said the doctor, a fairly young Watcher Buffy vaguely remembered from meetings. "All bandaged up. How quickly should the Mohra blood take to heal him completely?"

"If I remember correctly, perhaps ten hours," Sumiko said. "Tobias wrote about its properties once, but that was one of the subjects I never attempted to look up in the library."

"So that's what you were doing down there all the time," Angel said. His voice was still weak, but better than it had been. "I wondered why you kept rereading your Watcher's diaries."

"Mostly I sought information on this century. I only read the diaries when you were close by," Sumiko said. "And you were, very often. You are too conscientious in your duties."

"You're sure he's okay," Buffy said. She couldn't stop looking at the many bloodstained bandages now on Angel's body. "He doesn't need, like, antibiotics or something?"

"Most of the wounds have already closed," the doctor said. "He needs rest more than anything else, I should think."

"Thanks," Angel said. He was shaking slightly, and Buffy realized the Chamber was probably too cold for any half-clothed human, much less one in physical shock. But just then, a hand stretched out, offering a robe. Buffy took it and glanced back to see Agatha.

"We wouldn't have hurt you, truly we wouldn't," Agatha said. "It's just -- I never thought to doubt the Council --"

"I understand, Agatha," Buffy said. "You didn't know. They tried to keep you from knowing."

"They did the same to you," Agatha said. "And yet you knew."

"Yeah, but I'm paranoid and deceitful that way," Buffy said. She craned her head around to get a look at Xiaoting, who was seated in the highest, farthest section of the Chamber, arms still hugged tightly around herself. "What's up with Xiaoting?"

"She is -- what is that word you use? -- freaking," Agatha said, and Buffy tried very hard not to laugh. "Xiaoting feels very deeply betrayed by the Council, and very ashamed of her own willingness to believe them."

"Tell her it's all right," Angel said. "They got me too, and God knows I've been here long enough to know better."

"Sometimes it takes a fresh perspective," Buffy said. As the doctor pushed Angel into a sitting position, Buffy quickly draped the robe around his shoulders. "Maybe Sumiko and I can carry you out -- or is there a stretcher around here?"

"I think I can walk," Angel said. "And I'd like to. Never thought I'd walk out of here again."

"I will help you as far as the lift," Sumiko said. "But I will return to the Chamber in case Frances needs to be more persuasive."

"I'll help be persuasive," Agatha said eagerly.

"You do that," Buffy said with a smile.

Buffy and Sumiko took places on either side of Angel and helped him get to his feet. The crowd stopped its arguing and fell silent at the sight. Buffy suddenly felt a little awkward and said, "I think Angel and I are done for the day. And somebody else is going to have take my patrol tonight."

"I'll take it," Agatha offered.

"We know you're sorry already," Buffy said. "Relax."

Ishak did not reply, and after a moment Buffy realized there was no one person to admit or dismiss her anymore -- nobody with authority. At least, not yet. "So, we'll see you tomorrow, right, Frances?"

Frances straightened herself up and smiled. "Why, yes. I look forward to talking with you then. Both of you," she said, with a nod toward Angel.

He half-raised one arm in a wave of acknowledgement; Buffy saw him grimace, but he covered quickly. "Until tomorrow, Frances."

The three of them began to move toward the doors as the Council began arguing again. "You can walk like this, right?" Buffy said, still fretful as she watched his slow, halting steps. "You're sure?"

"I'm sure --" His words trailed off. Buffy looked up to see that someone now stood in front of them. When Angel spoke again, his voice was as cold as she had ever heard it. "Markwith."

Markwith shrugged, as though Buffy and Angel were mere annoyances. "You'll have your leisure to mock me, I'm sure," he said. His voice was hoarse. "I -- I wanted to talk to Sumiko --"

Sumiko's face was untroubled. "You were little enough interested in speaking to me before," she said. "But say what you will."

"You and I --" Markwith looked acutely uncomfortable, and for all her loathing of the man, Buffy couldn't help pitying him just a little. Whatever it was that had driven him down here -- that much at least was genuine. "I cared for you. I thought that you cared for me. Were you entirely deceiving me, all that time?"

Sumiko's eyes narrowed. "It was you who set out to deceive me. To deceive all of us about your goals and motivations. I did what was necessary for the truth, no more."

Markwith took it hard, Buffy saw; his jaw clenched, and his hands trembled. But he kept his voice steady as he said, "And that was all there ever was to it. For you."

"You knew that I was married to my Watcher. If you had bothered to learn anything about him, you would have learned that he was, above all, a man of honor," Sumiko said. For her late husband, her voice betrayed the emotion Markwith had sought. "If you thought to erase his memory with your lies, your crimes committed for your own gain --" She shrugged. "More fool you."

Markwith stepped away from them, his head bent. As the three of them went past him into the hall, Buffy muttered, "Ouch. What a burn."

Angel apparently did not share in the scraps of sympathy Buffy felt. "Had it coming."

Sumiko guided them to the lift, then waved farewell quickly before returning to the Chamber. Buffy took Angel's weight on her good shoulder as she pressed the panel for her floor. Angel looked at her. "Your place this time?"

"Your windows are all bricked over," Buffy said. "I want you to see the sun."

Angel's whole face lit up, and the bruises and blood were almost invisible for a minute; Buffy was blinded to anything but that smile. "I'd like that a lot." Then the smile dimmed a little, and all the pain showed again. "Buffy, I spent last night so angry at myself -- I thought, we had the chance, I had the chance, and I let it go because I didn't want to let myself hope --"

"It's okay," Buffy said, brushing against his cheek with her fingertips. "We got one more chance after all."

"Because of you," Angel said. He shook his head a little. "You know, this is how I remembered you."

"As a bloodstained crazy woman with a stake in her hand?" Buffy laughed. "Sadly, this would not surprise me."

"No," he said. "That's not what I meant at all." Buffy felt a sudden flush of understanding and pride, and she beamed up at him.

They got to her floor, made their way down the hall, got inside her room. Buffy breathed out a little sigh of disappointment when the sky outside the window was already dark. "The sun set," Angel said.

"I'm sorry," Buffy said. "But, hey, there's a sunrise scheduled tomorrow."

Angel shook his head, and she realized he was smiling again. "It set, and I didn't feel it. Nothing. It -- it doesn't matter anymore."

Buffy hugged him gingerly, then moved him over to her bed. His tunic was still stretched across it, as was the pocketwatch. She hurriedly put them away as Angel sank gratefully onto the mattress. Once again, she saw the bloodstained bandages, the spatters of dried blood on his skin and clothing. "Be right back," she promised, then turned and ran into the bathroom.

She spared one second to glance at herself in the mirror, wondered if it was worth getting Angel up again to see his reflection, decided it could wait. Quickly she scrubbed Angel's blood off her face and hands, then rinsed out a cloth she took to his side. "Here," she said. "Let's get this stuff off you."

As she patted the cloth gently on his brow, Angel glimpsed the reddish streaks she'd soaked up. "Human blood," he said. "I can smell it, but it doesn't tell me anything. Doesn't make me hungry. It's just -- blood."

Buffy continued cleaning him up, wiping down his chest, marveling even as she did so at the warmth of his skin beneath her fingers. She reached his waist, hesitated, then began tugging off his pants. "Gotta tell you," she said, "I figured the next time I got your clothes off, it would go a whole lot different than this."

"This wasn't quite how I saw it either," Angel admitted. Buffy carefully tended to the blood from the blow she'd dealt to his thigh.

Not until she was done, and she stepped away from him for a moment to make sure everything was done, did it really hit her. Angel was lying in her bed, naked, looking up at her, fully human now, no curse to stop them --

"Buffy --" Angel said, gazing at her hungrily. She took in a deep breath, feeling a familiar rush of passion, an unfamiliar rush of possibility --

Quickly she stripped off her clothes, standing naked before him for a moment. The heat in his eyes matched the blaze of emotion and wanting that was building within her. Just seeing him, being seen by him, created a kind of hunger that would only be satisfied when they were finally, truly together, body and soul.

She climbed into bed with Angel, pulled him close, and at that moment he looked over at her and said -- "Ow! Oh, oh, no."

"Ahhgh," Buffy groaned as she tried to balance on her own wounded arm, then flopped down beside him. "Oh, bad idea."

"Good idea," Angel corrected her. "Bad time. Dammit."

"It's always something," Buffy said. "Why couldn't the Mohra demon blood work on the first strike?"

"Because the other charges were true," Angel said. "The Powers let me take the punishment for the crimes I had committed. They saved me before I died for the one crime I hadn't." He sighed, then looked over at her with a wistful smile. "I waited 350 years; I can make it one more night. Especially knowing you'll be here in the morning."

"I only waited two and a half years," Buffy said. "But I don't think I can wait anymore." She used her good arm to push herself up this time; although she was still tired and sore, those feelings were quickly fading to the background. All that remained was something that was partly desire but more a deep, overwhelming tenderness.

Buffy shifted herself so that she could put her legs on either side of his, then bent over and kissed him gently on the lips, careful not to put her weight on his body as she did so. He returned the kiss for a moment, then pulled away. "Buffy -- are you sure --"

"I'm sure." She put her hand on the center of his chest, just above his heart. Angel's skin was warm. His heart thumped against her palm. His chest rose and fell with his breathing. She remembered the cool stillness of his vampire body. Strange, that she should feel a pang of loss for that. One more part of her past -- their past -- erased by time. "We'll figure this out. You'll see."

Angel put one of his hands over hers, and she realized he was trembling slightly. "I know we don't have to be scared anymore," he said. "I know that, and still --"

"Shhhh," Buffy whispered, leaning over him for another kiss. "I'm gonna take good care of you."

**

Buffy looked through the glass dome of the gardens, taking in the pink dawn light. Angel would see all this, in just a few moments, when she woke him up with his first real breakfast in centuries --

She quickly started going through the orchard, looking for the good pears she'd had a few weeks ago. The grass was soft beneath her bare feet, and the air was cool and fresh. Buffy felt as though she could float in it, soar to what she needed, then fly back down to Angel again. But as she ran up to the right tree, Buffy paused for a minute; she remembered Sky sitting there, a big grin on her young face.

That's going to be with me a while, she thought. Probably forever. Like stabbing Faith, or sending Angel to hell. I keep wishing those things would go away, but I don't think they ever will. I wanted to put all those burdens down, but it doesn't work that way. You just keep carrying them around until they become a part of you, and you don't feel the weight anymore.

Once this line of thought would have depressed her. Now, though, it seemed simple and true, something not to be regretted, just to be known.

Buffy stepped up to the tree to pluck some pears for Angel's breakfast, but one whiff of the fruit reminded her that she'd had precious little to eat in far too long. The first one she grabbed from the branch went straight to her mouth. The sweetness of it was pure, physical delight, and she wolfed it down greedily, occasionally even licking the juice from her fingers.

Just as she finished, Buffy caught sight of another figure in the gardens. This one was seated in what appeared to be meditation, but when Buffy took a few steps closer, she looked up. "Hey, there, English-speakin' lady," Buffy said.

"Good morning, Buffy," Sumiko said. "How is Angel?"

"He's great," Buffy said. "Way better. He woke up for a while a couple hours ago, and we checked him out -- he can, you know, move around now, and he has all his feeling back in his extremities, and he's all flexible again, and he can support his weight on his arms or -- uh --" Buffy cleared her throat. Sumiko was smiling at her knowingly. "He's good. He's very, very good. And we need another topic. So what ended up going down in the Council Chamber? I mean, what happened?"

"Most of your slang is fairly comprehensible from context," Sumiko said. "The Council has sent to the Tower most of those Watchers who were complicit in undermining the fight against vampires. Ishak was excused due to his age, but he is confined to his rooms for now, and likely for some time to come. Frances is standing in as temporary leader until they can elect another, but I suspect she will be chosen then, as well."

"Way to go, Frances," Buffy said with a grin. "She's pretty stiff, but she's good people, really."

"I realize that now," Sumiko said as Buffy came to her side and sat down on the grass with her. "I thought as much, and even considered taking her into my confidence at one point. With her help, I would have gotten the proof I needed far sooner. In time, perhaps, to spare Sky. And to spare you the pain of having to stop her." Sumiko's eyes were sad. "But I was reluctant to trust her, and my doubt has led us here."

"Your doubt totally saved the day," Buffy said. "Don't knock it." She looked over at Sumiko and started to smile as she shook her head. "How did you keep yourself from talking?"

"It wasn't very hard at first," Sumiko said. "I was like the rest of you -- in shock. This place was extraordinarily strange to me. And I knew I would never see Tobias again; there were nights I thought I would die from the pain of that alone. I did not want to talk. The only time I was tempted was when you were having such difficulty, early on." Sumiko's expression was kind. "Before you found Angel again, I was afraid for you. Another few days, and I would have spoken, to find out how desperate your circumstances truly were."

Buffy ducked her head. "You did a pretty good job taking care of me anyway," she said. "By the way, thanks for that."

"It helped me, too," Sumiko said. "The others focused so much better on being Slayers. But I could only think of what I had lost."

She was quiet for a minute, and Buffy smiled at her. "Tell me about Tobias sometime."

"I'd like that," Sumiko said.

"And I'm still in awe that you got all that info, and got into Markwith's, um, head, and did all that stuff without saying a word."

"Honestly, that part was fairly simple. When nobody suspects you know anything, you can do everything. And if I needed to learn more, I could always do the wrong thing -- people would quickly explain, even though I supposedly could not understand. For instance, at first I pretended to attack Angel in the Chamber, and you told me the whole story. The one difficulty --"

"What?"

"-- was not laughing." Sumiko began to chuckle as she put an exaggerated expression on her face and patted her chest with her hand. "We -- are -- Slayers. Slay. Ers."

Buffy made a face as Sumiko fell back, laughing, into the grass. "Yuk it up over there," she said. "We were trying to help."

"I know," Sumiko choked out. "But the great big eyes you'd all make --"

While Sumiko attempted to collect herself, Buffy began laughing too. "How did you know they wouldn't find someone who spoke Japanese?"

"I didn't," Sumiko said, wiping her cheeks. "At first I was actually pretending to have amnesia. Would've worked just as well."

Buffy then grinned and waved as she saw somebody else. "We're all up at dawn today, huh?"

Frances came over looking more frazzled and frizzy than Buffy'd ever seen her before. "Oh. Having trouble sleeping. There's so very much to think about --"

"The burdens of power," Buffy said. "Bummer."

"But you will have Buffy to help you," Sumiko said. "She is the one with all the plans for fighting the war."

"Hey!" Buffy protested. "I started the revolution yesterday. I'll wage the war tomorrow. But I want to spend today responsibility free, hangin' with my guy, okay?"

"Take as long as you need," Frances said. "But I do need someone -- perhaps one of you -- to undertake a project for us very soon."

"What project?" Sumiko said.

"We missed a Slayer," Frances said. "The girl called after Sky's death is not one of our students here in the Keep."

"Do you know where she is?" Buffy asked.

"Fortunately, yes. We received word late last night from one of our contacts in northern Ireland. A 15-year-old named Ruth seems to be the next chosen one. We'd looked at her when she was small, but thought the potential wasn't actually there. Obviously, we need to work on the system some more."

Buffy thought about that for a minute. "I don't know whether to be glad for her or pity her."

"She will have help," Sumiko said. "And this time, she will have a Council that is on her side."

"Precisely," Frances said brightly. "We're lucky that this one has been called so close to London, but it will still be dangerous, getting her here for training. And she must have training."

Sumiko raised an eyebrow. "And you want one of us to undertake the journey."

"Cool," Buffy said. "Road trip."

**

When Buffy came back to her apartment, Angel was already awake, sitting on her sofa and wolfing down a bowl of muesli as though it were the greatest stuff on earth. She could still see the marks of yesterday's trial on his skin, but the welts were already pale. He looked away from the sunlit streets reluctantly, but when he met her eyes again, he beamed. "Good morning."

"Brought you some apples and pears," she said, dropping them onto the sofa. "I so didn't want that birdseed to be your first human breakfast in umpteen years."

"Are you kidding?" Angel said. "This is wonderful."

"You think so, huh?" Buffy held one of the pears up to his mouth. "Take a taste."

He bit down, and she laughed out loud as she saw the surprised delight in his eyes. As Angel chewed, slowly, obviously treasuring every moment, Buffy carefully took the bowl of muesli away from him and set it on the table nearby. "Oh, my God," he mumbled. "That's beautiful."

"Glad you like." She leaned forward and kissed him quickly; their lips were sticky-sweet. Then she let him get back to devouring the pear. As she took up an apple for herself, she said, "Frances is the big boss woman now."

"Where's Ishak?" Angel said, and though he attempted to be cool about it, Buffy could hear the hurt in his voice.

"He's still here," she said. "They've kinda got him under house arrest. You could go talk to him, if you wanted."

Angel thought about that for a minute. "I think I do," he said. "Not now. Not soon. But sometime."

"So," Buffy said. "We have to ask ourselves whether it would be easier to move your stuff up here, or to move my stuff down there and get rid of the bricks over your window."

"I think I like your apartment," Angel said. "It's closer to the other Slayers, the view is great, and I seem to remember a table in the kitchen."

She grinned. "Many, many attractions here at Chez Buffy."

"I'm just glad we're finally here." Angel looked at her and took a deep -- and wonderfully, terrifically needed -- breath. He leaned forward and kissed her again, slower and more gently this time. "I never thought I'd be this happy, ever again."

"I didn't either," she said, running one hand through his not-as-short hair. "But we need to settle a couple things, okay?"

"Anything," Angel said.

"Stop with the keeping secrets. Somebody else hands you destiny in a bottle, or any similarly important, might-wanna-mention-it thing like that? You tell me this time."

"Promise," Angel said. When she looked at him dubiously, he sighed. "I mean it."

"We'll see," Buffy said, scrunching up her face in a playful scowl. But then she got more serious. "And, not to put a downer on the day, but I just want it taken care of from the start." She took a deep breath. "When I die --"

"Buffy --" His face was pained.

"Don't stop me. You may be human now, but I'm still the Slayer, and we both know the way it works, okay? When I die, don't let them take a lock of my hair. Put that old sweater on the pyre with me. Make sure they don't bring me back again." She looked at him tenderly. "This is my last life. The one I'm going to have here with you. That's all I ever want or need, and when it ends, I'm just going to be grateful for what I've had. Promise me."

He kissed her hard for a long time. When Angel finally released her, he said, "I promise." And this time she had no doubts.

"What about you?" she said. "Any terms you want in the prenup?"

Angel shook his head. "I have everything I ever wanted, right now." She kissed him this time, put her hands against his chest, felt his heart beating against her palm again. When she pulled away, he said, "But please cut down on the number of times you have to stake, stab or impale me."

"I'll do what I can." She snuggled up with him on the sofa, and they sat in silence, watching the city and eating their breakfast, for quite a while. Buffy felt almost dazed with happiness, and a kind of gratitude -- not to Angel, or at any rate not only to him, but to everyone and everything that had gotten her to this place, at this moment. That had shaped her into the person who could walk in this world, no matter what it cost.

Death is my gift, she realized, because it should make me appreciate my life. Even the hard stuff, the terrible things I tried so hard to push away. Those moments make me who I am, just the same as all the fun and happiness and love. The First Slayer wasn't telling me that death is the gift of a Slayer. It's the gift of being human.

Thinking of the First Slayer reminded her. "Oh, Frances has a mission for us, should we choose to accept it." When Angel looked at her questioningly, she explained, "We'd go to northern Ireland to pick up the new Slayer, who somehow just slipped right through the screening process."

"That's quite a trip," Angel said. "Dangerous."

"Yeah, and London is so safe this time of NEVER."

Angel looked at her curiously. "You really want to go, don't you?"

"Yeah," Buffy said, surprising herself. "I really do. I felt good the first time I got to take a look at the city on my own terms. As bad as it was -- at least I knew for myself. I could see. And there were still signs of life all over. I think I'd like to know if that's true when I start seeing a little more of the world. Besides, hey, we can go check for the Statue of Liberty, all buried in the sand, and do our best Charlton Heston impersonations."

"Would I have gotten this joke 350 years ago?"

"Probably not. You up for the trip, cowboy?"

"I'll go wherever you go," Angel said. "I just worry, that's all." His face was more serious as he reached out to brush a strand of hair from her face.

"Don't worry," Buffy said with a smile. "You're safe if you're with me."

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THE END

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