Disclaimer: *sigh* Still not mine. I keep hoping...

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Part Sixteen: Comebacks

The room seemed to grow multiple degrees colder as everyone absorbed the truth of what was happening. Angel kept his eyes downward, his body language eloquently speaking of his own guilt over betraying them this way. Spike was the first to break the paralysis.

"You bloody ponce!" he screamed, launching himself at Angel only to find himself held back. He struggled to no avail. "Let go of me, Harris! Watcher! Let me stake the bastard and put us all out of our misery." Giles and Xander looked at each other and shrugged.

"We're not holding you back," Xander claimed. Spike looked down at himself and saw that it was so. He could feel arms like steel, surrounding him and impeding his movement, but there was nothing there. He looked over at Merlin with a snarl, smelling the magic that was certainly the wizard's handiwork.

"You can't hold me here forever. And I've got nothing but time. Time to think of ways to torture the selfish wanker. Staking's too good for what he's done." In the meantime, Buffy had moved from Merlin's side and was now standing in front of the vampire, who was still looking down at the cup in his hands and not at anyone else. Buffy took a long shuddering breath and reached out and touched his cheek, feeling the wetness of the tears coursing down Angel's cheeks.

"Angel, why?" she asked brokenly. Unexpectedly he met her gaze, anxious for her understanding.

"I have to use this, Buffy. Do you know what it does?"

"It doesn't matter what it does," Spike spit out. "You give it up for the girl, Angel. It's what you promised to do."

"I know," Angel said miserably. "God help me, I know."

"What does it do, Angel?" Buffy asked quietly. Angel looked up into her eyes and she was struck by the hopelessness there. So like another time when he waited for a sunrise and they got a miracle. Buffy had a feeling they were going to need another one as Angel haltingly explained that the Chalice could undo all the damage done by Angelus.

"I want to bring you back, Buffy. You have no idea how much I want that. Maybe too much," he reflected ruefully before continuing, "because nothing would make me happier...but all the pain I've caused, all the death and suffering...to be able to give that back...I don't even know what's right anymore. What do I do?" he asked, anguished. Buffy bit her lip, as torn as he was by this dilemma. Then she took a deep breath, coming to a new decision. After all, she was a Slayer, first, foremost and last. What was one more sacrifice?

"You let me go," Buffy whispered. She reached up and put her hands on the sides of his head, pulling his face closer to hers.

"No," Spike moaned, and Giles sank to his knees, mentally and emotionally exhausted beyond the ability to stand. Xander stood stiffly, his face working in pain and confusion. No one saw Merlin's eyes glint with pride as he nodded. As everyone watched, Buffy and Angel drew closer together. They kissed once, almost chastely; then Angel rested his forehead against Buffy's, allowing himself to truly express his feelings to the woman he loved above all others, saying goodbye as he hadn't gotten to before. A torrent of tears fell, his and hers, and neither of them noticed anything strange was happening at first, so caught were they in this flood of emotion.

"What the hell?" Xander said, and Spike and Giles watched with their mouths agape. Buffy and Angel's tears fell like two steady streams, merging together into one rivulet in the air. They fell into the Chalice, not a drop going elsewhere. The goblet began to glow electric blue as it filled. Giles looked at Merlin sharply.

"What's going on here?" he demanded.

"What I had hoped would happen," Merlin responded, smiling in approval. "Come quickly, the three of you. Bring me your gifts."

Spike was released from the spell that had held him fast, and instinctively started towards Angel. He stopped when he felt Xander's hand on his shoulder, however. The younger man's eyes were shining. Giles had regained his footing and his strength, and he walked towards the wizard with an air of reverence that Xander attempted to emulate. Spike trailed slightly behind, looking uncomfortable but determined. As one they held their gifts out to Merlin. The Wand began to glow bright red; the Blade a deep sage green; and the light already emanating from the Heart of Kefa became so bright that it was blinding. Spike looked back at Buffy and Angel and saw that they now saw the sapphire brightness emanating from the Chalice. They seemed frozen, staring at it, fear and uncertainty in their eyes. Then without warning all four of the gifts vanished. The room felt somehow smaller and darker without them.

"What happened?" Angel asked, for all of them. He took a few angry steps toward Merlin. "Where's the Chalice?"

"Gone," Merlin said simply. Angel felt Buffy's hand on his arm and he pulled away from her in anguish.

"Was this all some kind of trick?" he implored, his voice breaking with sorrow. "A cruel joke? So none of my victims...those innocent people will get their lives back and neither will Buffy?"

"A trick, and you fell for it," Spike raged.

"We all fell for it," Xander's bitter voice added. Giles said nothing, but his glare at Merlin was as accusing as the others.

"It wasn't a trick," Buffy said, tears still streaming down her face as she walked past them to stand before Merlin. She looked hurt and confused. "It wasn't a trick," she repeated, but she sounded uncertain. Merlin sighed.

"You don't understand. The gifts are gone because they've served their purpose. All of them...including the Chalice of Restoration. What you wanted, what you were willing to sacrifice...what Buffy was willing to sacrifice as well...that was what the Chalice needed to work, Angel. All the people whose lives you stole have been given their lives back."

"Ummm...excuse me, mate, but I don't feel any different," Spike said belligerently. Merlin smiled.

"No, I don't expect you do," he said. "Not to get into a lengthy and boring discourse on metaphysics with you-"

"-And thank God for that," Xander muttered, earning a quieting elbow from a riveted Giles.

"-but suffice to say when I say people have been given their lives back, I mean their souls. Those souls that were taken from their bodies too soon by Angelus have been given new lives to live. Lives that in some ways contain more possibilities than the ones they lost. They will have no memory of their previous lives, no memory of their suffering...but they are restored, Angel."

Buffy turned back to Angel, her eyes shining. Angel looked stunned. Gradually a small smile graced his lips, then a larger one, then a laugh burst forth. A moment later the laugh became a sob. He held out his arms and Buffy ran into them. They both held on tight, knowing these might be their final moments together. Angel wanted to say all the things he hadn't had a chance to before she had died, but his mind could form no words. He decided he would simply hold her as long as he was allowed. Forever, if they would let him. The two of them remained in their own little world, paying no attention other than to each other. Giles, Xander and Spike watched them solemnly for a long moment, then turned back to Merlin. It was Giles who asked the question they were all thinking.

"What happens to Buffy now?"

"Ah, yes. Buffy. I'm afraid you were right about something. There was a trick, of sorts," Merlin admitted.

"I knew it," Spike muttered.

"You were told to make your offering unused and unharmed. But in Angel's case that was a bit misleading. You see, each of your gifts gave you something mainly of benefit to yourselves...yes, Rupert, even yours," Merlin said as he saw the Watcher readying to protest. "If your concern is for Jenny, know that her soul has found a new life just as all those Angel had a hand in destroying. I'm sorry, but know that she will live. Just not with you." Giles looked away, and Merlin continued, "Each of you has a remarkable and unique love for Buffy...for Rupert, it is the love of a father; for Alexander, it is the love of a friend; for you, William, Spike, it is the love of a partner, though you do not yet recognize it as such...but for Angel, Buffy is his soul's true love, its mate. There is nothing he desires more than Buffy herself. Therefore, in order to succeed in his test, what he had to give up was Buffy herself. And in turn, Buffy had to agree to give up her chance for him."

"You call that a bit misleading?" Xander asked incredulously, and Merlin gave him an embarrassed smile.

"Well...the thing is, the souls were already given that chance before Angel ever secured the Chalice. So, in that sense, it was unused and unharmed."

"So what you're saying is..." Spike began, but trailed off as Buffy's clothes suddenly morphed from her gown to black pants, matching boots and a silver halter-top. At the same time all of their knightly garb changed into the clothes they had been wearing when they first entered the library. Buffy and Angel, still locked in their embrace, had not yet noticed what had happened.

"Congratulations, good knights," Merlin said, and they found he had also changed into a very familiar face.

"You were Gus?" Xander asked. "Well, I feel better, cause we never did get to say goodbye and thank you. So...goodbye. Thank you."

"You're quite welcome," Merlin said, morphing back into his normal appearance. "Now I must take my leave...would one of you be good enough to, ummm..." Merlin trailed off, making a separating gesture with his hands and pointing to Buffy and Angel. Before the others could move, Spike had walked over and grabbed hold of Buffy, pulling her unceremoniously out of Angel's arms and into his own.

"Spike, what the-" Buffy started, struggling against the vampire's embrace angrily. Spike seemed to be enjoying her efforts a great deal.

"Oh my God," Angel said, realizing what was happening. Buffy finally squirmed out of Spike's arms in annoyance and raised her arm to strike him, then pulled the punch when she noticed his clothes. Wide-eyed, she looked around at the others and then at herself, then questioningly at Merlin.

"If you'd been listening to me, child, you'd know what was going on," Merlin said in amusement. "Get one of your friends to fill you in on the details. I must be off. But first I wish to thank you all for a most superb adventure. I haven't had this much fun in centuries."

"I'm alive?" Buffy asked breathlessly.

"Of course you're alive, Buffy," Merlin said. "So it was written, so it was done." Buffy cried out in pure joy and the four men buried her in an enthusiastic group hug.

"I don't believe it," Buffy half-sobbed happily. "I mean, I knew that was why...but I still don't believe it. Thank you all so much."

"We love you, Buffy," Xander said sincerely, as they released her from the hug but continued to touch her in some capacity. Standing to her left, Giles protectively wrapped his arm around her waist. Standing behind her, Spike had his hand on the back of her head, stroking her hair gently, while Xander lightly grasped her shoulder. Angel held her hand right hand tightly; he stood as close to her as possible.

"Indeed we do," Giles added, his voice thick with unshed tears. He moved from her side to face her, touching her face wonderingly. "To have you back with us, it's nothing short of a-"

"Miracle," Spike finished quietly. "It's a miracle, Slayer." Buffy turned around to look at him and Xander, and smiled tearfully. She turned back towards Merlin and Angel wrapped his arms around her waist from behind.

"Yes, it is," Angel said, his voice quavering with wonder and delight. A thought occurred to the Slayer and she looked at Merlin hopefully.

"You want to know if the happiness clause is still in effect?" he asked. "Ask Angel if he's ever been happier."

"Never," Angel said passionately, then gasped as understanding dawned. "Never...you mean..."

"You'll no longer have to worry about losing your soul through happiness, Angel," Merlin confirmed. "Which is just as well, as you'll have other things to worry about."

"What other things?" Giles asked, but Merlin shook his head.

"No, no. That I cannot say. All I can tell you is there are dark days ahead, for all of you. Evil can come in many forms, but as you already know, it is at its worst when the face is familiar. Stay strong and love each other; you'll need that love to help you through what is to come. Rupert, Angel, Xander, Spike...don't forget that what you did today, you did together." The four men nodded and Merlin faded out of existence, his voice echoing for a moment after he had vanished. "Together is the key..."

"Cryptic warning, fade out of sight...he go to your school?" Xander asked Angel, who just grinned back.

"Well, that was quite...extraordinary..." Giles said, instinctively polishing the glasses that he hadn't even had for the entirety of this adventure.

"Nice understatement, Rupert," Spike said, trying for sarcasm but coming off a bit too cheerful for it. His happy demeanor faded a bit as he looked at Buffy and Angel, staring into each other's eyes. "Apparently we brought the girl back so she and the poof could make me want to heave."

"Normally I'd be right there with you," Xander said softly. "But right now, I'm kinda finding it...beautiful."

"What?" Spike snorted. Xander smiled mysteriously.

"Watching Buffy love."

Hearing his quiet statement, Buffy looked over at him and winked. She grinned wildly at them all.

"I can't believe it. Guys, I'm back!" she hooted, the sound echoing off of the burned out walls. Suddenly she looked almost panicked. "Dawn! Will! We've got to see if they're alright."

"I'm sure she's fine, Buffy. They're all probably waiting for us at the Magic Box," Giles reassured her, moving towards the exit. He was trying to hide it, but he too was anxious to see how everyone was. Buffy nodded emphatically.

"I can't wait to see them...and Tara..."

"And Anya," Xander said lovingly.

"And Anya," Buffy confirmed, laughing. She reached up and ruffled Xander's hair affectionately and he beamed at her. Buffy slung one arm around Angel's waist and the other around Xander's, and they followed Giles merrily.

"Let's be off, then. Get the happy reunion underway," Spike drawled, barely moving as he trailed behind the others. "S'gonna make me want to kill something. Well, more than usual."

"Spike, let's go!" Xander hollered, and the vampire picked up his pace, still grumbling.

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Willow's moan roused Tara from the light sleep she had fallen into. Careful not to wake Dawn, who was sleeping on her left, Tara raised herself on her elbows and looked down at her girlfriend. She almost collapsed with relief when she saw Willow's confused green eyes flutter open.

"Tara?" she croaked softly.

"Shhh. It's alright, Will. Everything's okay," Tara whispered soothingly. Willow frowned.

"Where are we? What's happened? I don't...wait...Dawn!" she cried, trying to sit up. Dawn awoke fully at the sound of her name and scooted off the side of the mat, running over to give Willow a hug.

"You're awake! That's so great! Are you okay?" she asked excitedly. Willow was clearly relieved to see Dawn safe and sound, but overwhelmed by the sudden sound and movement.

"I...think I am. I feel kinda blecch," she said weakly. Tara touched Dawn lightly on the shoulder, pulling her gently away.

"I think that's enough hugging for now, Dawnie. Give Willow some air."

"Sorry," Dawn said, anxious contrition in her eyes. "Did I hurt you? Are you gonna hurl?"

"No, it's okay," Willow said, then straightened anxiously. "The guys...Buffy...anything?"

"Not as yet," Tara reluctantly admitted, watching Dawn's face fall, "but I'm sure any minute now Oh, and we've got another problem."

"What now?" Willow moaned, and just then they heard Anya squeal excitedly. The three women exchanged quick glances and then bolted out of the training room, Tara supporting a still-wobbly Willow. As they entered the sales floor of the Magic Box, they saw Anya and Xander kissing passionately, Giles surveying his damaged shop with a nonplussed expression Willow knew all too well, and Angel and Spike flanking a radiantly smiling Buffy Summers. Willow leaned even more heavily against Tara in relief as Dawn ran into her sister's arms.

"You're alive. You're real," Dawn repeated over and over, sobbing happily.

"I'm here, Dawnie. Everything's okay," the Slayer responded soothingly, kissing her sister's hair and crying a bit herself. Giles came over to Tara and Willow immediately.

"Willow, are you alright?" he asked in concerned. The witch gave him a weak smile.

"That last spell, saving Dawn...took a bit out of me. But I'm feeling better now..." Willow met Buffy's eyes, beaming as her friend mouthed a fervent `thank you.' A moment later the smile was replaced by a shocked stare. Angel and Spike were gaping as well.

"Good Lord," Giles murmured.

"Oh my God!" Anya exclaimed loudly, having finally come up for air. Xander simply shook his head. Buffy looked down at them like they'd all lost their minds.

"What's wrong with you...oh my God!" she screamed, finally realizing that she and Dawn were floating three feet off the ground. Dawn looked down and realized it as well.

"Oops," her sister said, turning red.

"Oops?" Buffy repeated incredulously.

"Okay, Dawnie, the important thing is not to panic," Tara said soothingly. "You need to concentrate on setting the two of you down gently."

"Wowza," Xander muttered, as the two girls made a somewhat jerky but relatively soft landing.

"Dawnie did that?" Willow said, looking impressed until she saw Giles glaring at her. She quickly fixed her expression to be concerned. "Dawnie can do magic. Oh boy."

"I didn't mean too," Dawn wailed.

"Giles?" Buffy demanded. The Watcher sighed, motioning for the teenager to come over to him. She did, looking repentant.

"Dawn kept the powers she acquired in that other dimension?" he asked Tara, who nodded. "I suppose...research is in order," he said wearily. Anya possessively draped an arm around Xander's waist and began hauling him towards the front door.

"Nuh-uh. I'm taking Xander home. I have to make sure he's...that all his...we're going," Anya said, and Xander beamed proudly, giving her a quick kiss on the forehead.

"Well done, honey. And you didn't say anything inappropriate," he praised.

"Your penis is alright, isn't it? You'd tell me if it wasn't?" Anya added anxiously. Xander sighed as Angel and Spike grinned at him and the others simply looked away.

"I should have said yet," he moaned as she dragged him out of the shop. He managed one last apologetic but happy grin back before her hands pulled him completely out of sight, much to the others' amusement.

"I should go too," Angel said suddenly. "If I leave now I should be able to make it back to L.A. before sunrise."

"Oh," Buffy said softly. "You're going back to Los Angeles? Now? But Angel, we need to-"

"Talk," he finished. "We do. We will. We have time now," he said with a smile. "But L.A. is home for me now, I have to go back there. Unfinished business."

"Oh," Buffy said again. He marched over and took her in his arms, kissing her more deeply and passionately than he had ever allowed himself before, pouring all of his heart into the kiss. When he finally pulled away, Buffy was smiling.

"I love you," he whispered.

"Oh," she repeated herself a third time, this time dazed. The vampire caressed her cheek for one more moment before turning and heading out the door. In the doorway he paused, looking at Spike.

"Spike," Angel growled, the word coming out as an admonition.

"Angel," the bleached vampire answered innocently. They stared each other down for a few minutes, warnings and threats and promises all passing between them without a word being said. Finally satisfied, Angel left and Spike looked back at the others with a grin.

"Say, Dawn, you wouldn't by any chance be able to make the sunrise come a few hours early, would you?"

"Spike," Giles, Willow and Buffy warned simultaneously, and the vampire raised his eyebrows, somehow innocent and smug at once.

"It was just a question, mates. Something to start you on your ponderous rummaging through big boring books. You figure out what's happening with your new junior Sabrina, and I'll be off on my ownsome, killing Sunnydale's nasties." He looked at Buffy coyly. "Unless you'd like to join me, Slayer. Get in a patrol, a spot of violence?" Buffy looked back at Giles, her eyes pleading as if she was a five year-old that had just been offered a pony. Giles shook his head ruefully.

"Well, yes, if you're certain you're ready, Buffy, I think that would be alright," he said.

"I am so ready," the Slayer gushed. "You have no idea how hard it was standing by and being all damsel-y while you guys got to have all the fun. Just let me grab some weapons, Spike." Dawn looked momentarily panicked.

"No! You just got here, Buffy. I don't want you to go," she begged.

"Don't worry, Dawn. I'll be back," she said, looking around wistfully. "I get the feeling that life around here is just about to get really interesting, in a very Hellmouthy kind of way."

"Second thoughts, Buffy?" Willow asked sadly, and Buffy came over and wrapped her arms around her best friend. Willow closed her eyes, enjoying the warmth of the friendly embrace.

"Nah. It's good to be back. And whatever's going on with Dawn or the Hellmouth or Angel or college or life, I'm totally ready. As long as you guys are with me," she amended quickly. She looked around the room and everyone nodded and smiled. Buffy went to the back and returned with a few stakes and a crossbow. She headed out the door, Spike trailing right behind. They walked in silence for a few minutes through the quiet Sunnydale streets.

"Penny for your thoughts, Slayer," Spike said softly. Buffy looked at him and smirked.

"This is so cool. It's like the first day of school. I can't wait until the vampires get a load out of me. They know I'm dead, right? Please tell me they think I'm dead. They are so gonna wig," Buffy babbled, practically skipping her way to the cemetery. Spike rolled his eyes.

"Great. Not that I'm ungrateful, but did she have to come back so chatty?" he said, eyes heavenward.

"I heard that!" Buffy called back from up ahead.

For a moment they separately thought they heard something, a sound like a low chuckle of amusement. Then they shrugged, figuring it was just the wind blowing through the trees. Merlin watched from his hidden vantage point, still laughing.

"Until the next quest, dear lady, good knight," he saluted them, sketching a quick bow as he vanished from Sunnydale.

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That's all, folks! Hope you liked it. Feedback is much appreciated. And as far as sequels go...well, you never can tell, can you?