Xander stood in the middle of Giles' living room and stared at the creature in front of him. The thing that looked like Buffy Summers, one of his two best friends in the whole wide world. It was her face, her voice, but it wasn't her. Not anymore.
Her eyes weren't the green he remembered, they had turned the disgustingly familiar amber color of a demon. Her pupils were slit like a cat's. When she had spoken to him he had seen her elongated canines, fangs made for sinking into a human neck and draining blood. Her face had also changed, become leaner, harsher.
She wasn't Buffy anymore. She couldn't be.
"What's the matter, Xander?" She asked him. "Vamp got your tongue?"
He didn't know how long he just stood there looking at her. Was this it? Had he finally gone mad? Or had he guessed right the first time and was actually dead already, now banished to the same hell that had swallowed his friend?
Or maybe this was all real. Maybe this was really happening to him right now. Maybe Buffy was really looking at him with demon eyes and disdain on her face.
From the corner of his eyes he saw Angel move forward and at that moment he snapped.
"YOU BASTARD!" Xander screamed, lunging at the vampire without warning. Angel had done this! This was all Angel's fault! He had taken Buffy away and turned her into a thing, a thing like him. This was all his doing and he had to die for it! Now!
Angel easily caught his thrown fist, stopping Xander dead in his tracks.
"This won't solve anything." He just said sadly.
Xander was beyond hearing. This monster had taken his friend away and gotten out of the hell he deserved a thousand times over. If not for him none of this would have happened. If Angel had never existed their world would be a good place, a place where Buffy would still be a happy, smiling girl. A place where she would maybe have...
He tried to swing at the vampire with his other arm but two strong hands grabbed him from behind and unceremoniously threw him halfway across the room. Xander flew over the couch and found himself prone on the carpet, all the air knocked out of him.
Moments later a girl with blazing eyes stood over him, looking very pissed off.
"How dare you attack him?" Buffy snarled. "The only bastard here is you!"
The rage in her eyes was like a cold shower to Xander, who slowly got back to his feet, making no move that might be interpreted as a threat. God, what had happened to her? This wasn't Buffy. What had that monster done to her?
Angel remained standing in the background.
"You made her a monster!" Xander accused him, everything inside him itching to attack again. He had turned her into something like him, something that should have been killed long ago.
"He did not." Buffy said, standing between them. "He saved my life. He stayed with me in Hell even when he could have left. Without him I would be long dead."
She took a step closer, Xander caught by her eyes now.
"All of which might not have been necessary," she glared at him, "if someone whom I considered a friend would have told me the truth. If some jealous idiot could just have acted like a grownup for once in his miserable life."
Only when his back hit the wall did Xander realize that he had backed away from her. She walked up until she was right in his face.
"Afraid of the truth, Xander?" She asked. "Tell me, how did you think that day would go? Did you think I would just kill him and then, oh, maybe fall into your arms, crying my eyes out? Sorry, I forgot, thinking isn't really your strong point. I can see the thought processes here, you know? If me tell Buffy about Angel, might lead to Buffy saving the world AND getting back the man she loves. No, can't have that. Hate Angel too much, hate Buffy loves Angel and not me. Have to lie to Buffy and make her KILL HIM!"
Buffy screamed those last words, all the emotions bubbling to the surface without restraint. It had been thirty years for her, thirty years that didn't mean a thing right now, swept away like dust by a tidal wave of fury that had built during the course of those same years. Because of Xander she had been forced to kill Angel, send him to Hell. She would have found another way, had she known. She would have kept Angelus from arousing Akathler. She didn't know how she would have done that, but she would have found a way.
Xander swallowed hard and found his heart beating right up in his throat. This wasn't Buffy! It couldn't be! Buffy would never make him so afraid that his hands shook. Her snarling face was just inches away from his and he expected her to sink those gleaming fangs into his throat every second now.
Buffy was pulled back by two strong arms.
"You should leave now, Xander!" Angel said to him, his voice completely neutral. "While you still can."
Xander took but another second to look at them both. Buffy was struggling in Angel's arms, animal rage making her face look even more inhuman than before. Her fingers curled like claws and she looked at him with nothing but hatred and disdain.
Angel's eyes, though, they didn't seem filled with hate. The only impression Xander got from them was that he had overstayed his welcome and should leave. Or else.
Without another thought he was out the door.
Giles had made some detours walking back to his flat, hoping that it would help him clear his head. Just a day, he mused. Just a single day. Who knew so much could happen in the span of less than twenty-four hours.
It should have been a day of joy. Buffy was back, had returned after he had all but given up hope. And even the fact that Angel was back, the real Angel, should have made him happy. Before the entire affair with Angelus the vampire had been a great ally. More, someone whom Giles actually felt comfortable with, mostly because they could talk about serious things without his opposite making a joke or immature comment every second sentence. Hard as it was to admit, Giles had actually liked Angel.
Yes, he should be jumping for joy that Buffy and Angel were back, the latter back to his true self, too. But there was little reason for joy. The two of them were changed almost beyond recognition, and not just on the outside. Giles was more than a bit worried about what further changes Angel's blood might have worked in Buffy, but far more pressing than that were other concerns.
Thirty years. For thirty years they had been a world all to themselves. No one but each other to rely on, surrounded by nothing but imminent death and hostility. Would they be able to adapt back to life here on Earth? Would they be able to fit in? Would the people who had been close to them before accept them back?
Willow would. That much Giles had already seen. He admired and envied the redhead for that ability. She would probably tie her brains into knots thinking about everything, but in the end she would come out and still be Buffy's best friend. She would help the two of them, be supportive. It was her nature.
Joyce wouldn't, at least judging by everything he had seen so far. The Slayer's mother was sinking ever deeper into denial and there seemed nothing he or anyone else could do about it. Maybe she would come around on her own, but he doubted it.
What about himself? Giles wasn't sure. The relationship between Buffy and Angel had always gone against everything Giles had believed, everything he had considered right. Still he had accepted it. Not a conscious choice, really. It was hard to see the two of them and not realize how deep their love ran. Now more than ever. If thirty years in Hell couldn't break them apart, then nothing would.
Could he accept that? Could he accept them back like this? He hoped. Giles hoped that he was a good enough man to accept them the way they had become, accept all that had changed. He wasn't sure, though, which made him very sad.
There was another party to consider, he realized. Said party was storming out of his open door and crashing into Giles even as he thought the name.
"Giles!" The boy said, breathless, as they both got back to their feet. "Man, am I glad you're here. You won't believe what ..."
"You saw Buffy and Angel." Giles concluded, picking up his glasses from the ground. They had survived the crash intact.
Xander stared at him as if he'd grown a second head. "You know?"
"They came back last night." He thought about adding some more words, explaining why they hadn't called him yet. Why bother, though? Judging from the look on the boy's face, judging by the way he had stormed out of that apartment, he doubted that words would make much of an impression on Xander right now.
And Giles really wasn't in the mood to speak to him anyway.
"We need to do something!" Xander said, pointing back at the door. "Angel, he ... he did something to Buffy! Turned her into a monster!"
"He didn't." Giles shook his head. Or so he hoped. "You should listen to the whole story before jumping to conclusions, Xander. Call Willow! She can fill you in."
With that he walked past the open-mouthed boy and back into his apartment. Yes, this should have been a joyous day. Only it wasn't. Yes, Buffy was back, something he thanked every deity in all the heavens for. Apart from that, though, it had been a really rotten day.
He probably needed a drink.
"I would dare say we have finally found a trace of our rather elusive quarry, Mr. Jones."
"I would dare say you are correct, Mr. Smith."
The two vampires had left their van behind the moment the sun went down, much preferring to track their pray on foot. Inhaling deeply, Mr. Jones found a very faint trace of the same scent he had picked up in that abandoned mansion in Crawford street. The vampire and that other creature, whatever it was, were close or had passed by here not too long ago.
He tried to zero in on the scent, but the wind picked up and he lost it.
"We should concentrate our search on the nearby neighborhoods, Mr. Smith." He told his companion. "A circular search pattern starting from this spot we are in right now should provide an excellent chance of picking up a stronger trace."
Mr. Smith was about to say something in return when someone ran past them, almost crashing into the two suited figures. A dark-haired boy, fear and confusion on his face. He didn't give them so much as a glance, just kept on running.
"I can not believe the rudeness of this young man." Mr. Smith said. "We should catch up with him and emphasize how very much such behavior is not acceptable."
Mr. Jones was inclined to agree, seeing as he hadn't eaten to night either. At the same moment, though, the elusive scent filled his nostrils once more. It seemed to hail from the direction the boy had come from. Maybe he had been sent running by a vampire and something else?
Mr. Smith picked it up, too. "Or maybe we should head off in that direction?"
"I believe we should."
Once Xander was gone Buffy visible calmed, no longer struggling against Angel's holding her back. Instead she relaxed in his arms, closing her eyes, gathering her frayed self-control back around her. She was frightened by her own reaction.
She hadn't known how much hate she carried inside of her.
"Better now?" Angel asked softly. He didn't ask whether she was all right, he never did. Things hadn't been all right for either of them for a long, long time. The only thing that was all right was their love and neither of them had to question that anymore. It was just everything else that always seemed to go wrong.
"I wanted to tear his throat out." Buffy said, her voice barely audible. "The things he did... I was so angry I..."
Angel nodded. This wasn't the first time he had seen this side of the changes his blood had wrought in her. Buffy had always had quite a temper, he knew that, but now it carried a demonic edge. A monster's rage had crept into her veins and would sometime come to the surface like this.
This was just the first time that it had been pointed at a human being.
Angel looked up to see Giles come in the door, looking tired and edgy. When the Watcher saw Buffy and Angel standing in his living room he paused. It was almost imperceptible, but Angel saw the hesitation. He was reluctant around them, Angel knew. He tried not to be, but he was. Angel could hardly blame him. And it had been but a day so far, hard as that was to believe.
"I take it the meeting with Xander did not go smoothly." Giles said, rubbing his eyes.
"Not really." Angel said. Buffy didn't open her eyes.
"I told him to call Willow." Giles continued. "Maybe she can..." His voice trailed off.
Uncomfortable silence reigned in the living room, neither Angel nor Giles sure what to say now. Within the span of the last few hours Buffy had met two of the people she had been closest to in her old life and they had both rejected her.
"I need to get out of here." She said without warning, going towards the door. "I need to do something."
Angel heard the words she didn't speak. Kill something. Being the Slayer had always been a great outlet for her anger and pain. Destroying the monsters that could actually be destroyed with kicks and stakes. Those that were actually physical and tangible. Unlike other demons he could name.
"A good idea." Angel said, taking the coats they had worn last night and handing one to Buffy. "After being cooped up all day I could use some exercise."
She smiled at him gratefully and took the coat, wrapping it around her shoulders.
"You should go to bed, Giles." Buffy told her Watcher. "You look beat."
"Yes, I should." He didn't look quite certain, though. After everything that had happened today he had to be worried about Buffy. Angel quickly suppressed the irritated feeling creeping up inside him. He had taken care of her for thirty years now, they had taken care of each other without needing anyone else. Shaking his head, Angel could understand
Giles' feeling. He had been told that they had been gone that long, knew intellectually that Buffy was now about the same age he was and not a little girl any longer, but he couldn't help worry about her.
Yes. Angel understood that very much.
"We'll be back before sunrise." Angel assured him. "You really should get some rest."
Giles nodded, handing them his spare key for his apartment. "Just let yourself in."
By Angel's estimation it took them another year or so to make it through the Third Circle of Hell. He didn't like it. So far they'd averaged a year per Circle, or so he estimated, which meant they had a lot of time ahead of them before they could even dream of finding a way out. If there was one at all.
The encounter with Cerberus wasn't the only close call, either. While the first two Circles seemed to have been mostly demon-free, the people there given over to their own despair without too much supervision or external torturers, the Third Circle was rather crowded. They managed to stay out of sight for the most, but they saw some of the creatures that moved through the endless rain storms.
Cerberus had been the least of them.
Creatures as tall as skyscrapers moved through the rain, sometimes reaching down to tear out some of the dead buried in the ground. The wraiths took on substance the moment they were touched by their torturers and screamed as they were rent apart, chewed, and swallowed. When a demon was through he simply threw his toy back to the ground, which would open up to swallow it until only the face was left above-ground, once again staring up into the rain without blinking.
At least they couldn't scream while they were in the ground.
Several times demons spotted them as they moved through the rocky landscape and the rain. Tall as they were, though, they couldn't follow them into the narrow caves and canyons that made up most of this place. Only the smaller demons could do that, and most of them were no match for the two of them. Quite the opposite, in fact. Despite the ongoing changes in Buffy she still needed food.
The times they spent resting in dry caves or other places free of rain, though, were as close to heaven as anything in this place possibly could be. It hadn't been that way immediately after their close brush with doom, but once both of them got over the shock of what had happened, once they both managed to realize that the curse was gone for good, things grew a lot less tense between them.
Angel knew that, now more than ever, Buffy hated herself. The way she saw it she had not only caused him to lose his soul in the first place, had not only sent him to Hell by running him through with a sword, no, by making him love her she had also prevented his soul from going to a better place. He needed some time to convince her that he didn't see it that way. That his love for her would never be broken, no matter what happened.
And convince her he did. In many different ways.
They couldn't spend all their times running and hiding. In this dark place they also needed to keep their spirits alive. Fire and brimstone had been conspicuous by absence so far, but hopelessness and despair more than made up for that. So they began to extend their rest periods, putting in what Buffy began to call quality time. Angel would teach her things. Not only the really pleasurable things, though he did that, too. No, he would teach her about literature and art, tell her many stories he had committed to memory, describe beautiful paintings and sculptures until she could almost see them before her eyes. He began to share things about his long life that he had never told her before, spoke to her about all the many things he had seen and experienced.
Buffy, in turn, began to teach him about the world they had left behind. About the things she had liked to do as a child and a teenager. Angel received his very first pop culture education at her hands, even as he taught her about the more classic things of life. He also found out that Buffy had a beautiful singing voice, while she found out that he couldn't sing for the life of him.
When they were in each other's arms, their intimacy growing with every passing day, they would forget that the world she told him about was far, far away from them. They would forget that they still had so much ahead of them, so many dangers and threats. Even when the ground shook from the footsteps of the demons it didn't matter to them. Not as long as they had each other.
Then, one day, they reached the end of the Third Circle and stepped out of the pouring rain onto the almost familiar setting of an endless gray plain.
"God!" Buffy sighed deeply, tilting her head upwards. "I never thought a gray sky over a gray plain would look so very good."
"After all that time stuck in perpetual rain I'm not really surprised."
They started walking, not particularly caring about the direction. Experience from the first two crossings between Circles had taught them that it didn't matter. Whatever way they walked, it would only lead them to the Fourth Circle from here. There was no other direction, really.
"Tell me again what Dante had to say about Hell number four!"
"The Fourth Circle is the final destination for the Avaricious and the Prodigal." He smiled when Buffy didn't ask him what the words meant. It seemed she had listened to his lessons after all. "According to Dante the Fourth Circle is divided into two sides, one holding the greedy that never gave anything, the other holding those that spent everything without a thought to consequence or tomorrow."
"How are they punished?" Buffy asked as they jogged across the gray.
"I'm not sure. Dante wrote something about the greedy losing all their hair, but I think that had more to do with his age's stark fear of baldness than anything else."
Buffy giggled, a sound so beautiful to Angel's ear that he stopped for a moment just to look at her.
"What?" She asked.
"I haven't heard you laugh in so long." He stepped closer to her, his hand brushing her cheek. "I missed it very much."
They didn't pause for too long, seeing as it wasn't the smartest idea to remain on wide-open, coverless terrain for any length of time. Too many things around that would love to take advantage of that. So they started jogging again, making their way toward the Fourth Circle of Hell.
There was no clear boundary to show where it began. The land in front of them grew darker, the plain blending into a valley that went between two slowly rising hills. The skies above them grew dark with clouds that looked more like smoke than anything else. The air, as always filled with the stench of blood, carried the smell of ashes and fire.
"Think we'll finally get around to the fire and brimstone part?" Buffy asked as they made their way between the hills. Neither of them liked it much. There was no way to remain unseen here. Just wide-open country. Luckily they hadn't spotted any demons yet.
"Possibly. Look!" There were smoke plumes rising in the distance, feeding the black overhang above them. Buffy's senses had sharpened quite a bit in the last two years, ever since she had first tasted Angel's blood, and she could now make out the first faint screams.
They continued on their way, both of them thankful for the growing darkness around them. At least that way they did not feel completely exposed. Soon they could spot the first people on the hills to either side of them. Wraiths of the dead, all of them slightly out of phase with the world around them, or so it seemed.
The ones on the hills to the right were dressed in dirty rags, sitting on ground that was mostly mud and ashes. Buffy was instantly reminded of those TV spots from third world countries. They all looked as if they hadn't gotten anything to eat in ... well, forever.
Seeing as they were all dead, that was probably not far off the bat.
On the hill to the left of them didn't look much different, except for a slight detail. The people sitting there, every single one of them extremely dirty and undernourished, all had filled rice bowls right in front of them. Yet though they could see the hunger burning in their eyes, none of them made any move to touch the rice.
"Why aren't they eating?" Buffy whispered.
"Oh, that's the funny part." A strange voice said right next to them.
Buffy started back, Angel immediately growling at the intruder who had sprung up from thin air. It was a tall, haggard man in a white robe, short-cropped black hair, looking at them with eyes that were black on black. A smile tugged at his lips.
"I heard you might be coming this way. The living soul and the undead one. You got here sooner than I thought."
"And you are?" Buffy asked, hostility in her very stance.
"Pluto!" The man gave a bow. "Ruler of the Fourth Circle of Hell. At your service. Well, okay, that last one is a lie. But not the rest."
Ignoring the stares of the two lovers, Pluto turned toward the people with the rice bowls. None of them were looking at the three figures down in the valley, they all stared at their bowls. Buffy could see their hands shaking, their every gesture screaming that they wanted to reach for the food that was so close by, yet not daring to.
She also became aware that the people on the other hill were staring at their opposites, their faces full of envy and greed.
"These were the kind of people who had everything in life, you know?" Pluto said in conversational tone. "The only thing they ever cared about was amassing riches and goods, no matter that others might suffer for their greed. Some of them kept it all to themselves, others spent it with both hands. Doesn't really make much of a difference anymore now, does it?"
The hills were rising on both sides, stretching on as far as the eye could see, filled with people. They were barely at the edges of the Fourth Circle and the source of the smoke they had seen earlier was still far away.
"What about the bowls?" Buffy asked when it became clear that Pluto was not interested in harming them. Yet.
"As I said, that's the funny part. You see, my girl, these are the ones guilty of lesser crimes. Those that got off easy, you might say. You'll see worse once you go deeper inside. These fellows here, all they have to suffer from is, well..."
At that moment one of the wraiths lunged for the bowl of rice in front of him (or her, Buffy wasn't sure what that mangled creature had been in life), his eyes filled with a need that had nothing human to it, pure animal longing. Only the bowl wasn't there anymore. Neither were any of the other bowls.
They all reappeared on the other hill.
"I believe further explanations are unnecessary." Pluto smiled at them.
Buffy barely heard those last words. She only saw the tortured faces of the people who had just lost the bowls, even though it was clear that they would never have been able to eat from them. She also saw the faces of the people who had gained the bowls, a terrible mixture of triumph and suffering. They, too, would never be able to eat, but still felt a little better because now THEY had them, the OTHERS didn't.
Seeing the hopeless wraiths in the First Circle, forever searching for a way back to the lives they didn't realize were gone forever, had made Buffy sad. In the Second Circle she had watched as people were flung against sharp cliffs by cruel winds over and over again. She felt sorry for them, but what could they do against the wind? In the Third Circle the rain had filled the eyes and mouths of the Gluttonous as they were imprisoned in the ground and again, how could they have done anything against that?
But here, seeing the almost childish delight Pluto took in seeing the wraiths suffer at this cruel game, the rage that seeing all the suffering in this place had caused finally found a tangible target. One that wasn't the size of a skyscraper, one that didn't look like it could crush her without even noticing.
Buffy heard someone growl and realized it was herself. Angel gasped as he saw her eyes change even as he looked at them, the familiar green fading to be replaced by a demon amber. Her pupils reduced to slits, her lips drew back in a snarl.
"You bastard!" She lunged at Pluto, heedless of Angel's attempt to hold her back.
"I thought I had my temper under control, Angel." Buffy said as they made their way through the dark cemetery. "It was like the first time all over again. Like I was a passenger in my own body."
He wrapped his arm tighter around her shoulder. "The demon inside you is attracted to humans more than to other demons. It's natural that the reaction would be stronger."
Buffy marveled once again at how casually he was able to speak of the changes she had undergone. She very much remembered the guilt-ridden Angel from all these years ago, how long and often he had blamed himself for what she had become. She had seen some flashes of that yesterday, when she'd had her attack right in front of Willow, Oz, and Giles. She just hoped that was but a flashback to the bad old days, nothing more.
They went on in silence for a while, Angel waiting until she was ready to talk about her mom and Xander, Buffy not willing to start just yet.
"You do know, of course," Buffy said after a while, "that someone is following us, right?"
"Two of them," Angel replied equally casual, "vampires. Stayed with us since shortly after we left Giles' flat."
Neither of them turned around, but Buffy had seen two figures in suits just a few meters behind them from the corner of her eye.
"God, I hope they'll try something soon." She said.
Buffy really needed to kill something after the day she'd had.
Willow walked the familiar path over to Xander's house without paying attention to where she was going. She knew the way inside out anyway. Her thoughts were preoccupied trying to process everything that had happened these last twelve hours. If someone had told her yesterday evening that Buffy would come back from Hell, accompanied by Angel, sporting demon eyes and fangs...
Well, she'd have had some very unkind words for the person who told her, that much was for sure.
She'd been ready to simply slip into bed, though sleep would probably have stayed far away from her busy head. So much to think about, so much to figure out. Would Buffy return to school, seeing as she was now around fifty years old? Would they still hang out together? Were they still best friends even? How could she be best friends with someone who was now thirty years older than her?
Those and many other thoughts, all going through her head at the same time and causing a terrible traffic jam, had been interrupted by the ringing of the phone. A barely coherent Xander had been on the other side, mumbling something about Buffy being a monster, Angel being a bastard, and how some vampires really needed staking. Lots of it.
Sighing, Willow had dressed again and sneaked out to talk to her oldest living friend.
She found him in his father's garage, which was much too cramped with assembled junk and stuff to ever actually park a car inside. A punching bag was hanging from the ceiling right in the centre and Xander, dressed in sweatpants and a sleeveless workout shirt, was pounding away on it.
Willow suppressed a gasp, seeing his bare arms and shoulders covered in bruises and some barely-healed cuts. She knew that, ever since that night, he had gone out almost every night to hunt vampires on his own. She had tried, more than once, to talk some sense into him, but it had never worked. He said it was to make sure the vamps didn't get ideas while the Slayer was gone. He wasn't fooling anyone, though. Xander went out night after night because he wanted to punish himself.
In all honesty she had to admit that a part of her thought he deserved some punishment for what he had done. Not dying at the fangs of a vampire, though.
"Xander?" She called out, walking closer to him.
Angel didn't stop his pounding of the bag, throwing punches without slowing down. Most of him was covered in sweat, his unruly hair sticking to his face in wet strands. Willow quickly suppressed the tingle of excitement that went through her upon seeing him like this. Her crush on Xander was long past. She had Oz now.
"So you already saw the happy couple?" Xander asked without looking at her.
There was a very grim look on his face, Willow could see. A look that was all too familiar. The same look he had always gotten on the rather rare occasions they had seen Buffy and Angel together. The look that said 'why is she with him when she should be with me?'
"I saw them." Willow nodded.
"Great, isn't it?" Xander continued, throwing more punches. "Back together, back from Hell, happily ever after for our perfectly matched pair."
The spite and bitterness in his voice made Willow shiver.
"Maybe we should have a toast!" He continued, pounding his fist into the bag with every word. "A toast to the winner. All hail the great Angel, who managed to make his ladylove just like him! A fucking monster!"
Willow couldn't believe what she was hearing.
"I guess I could have spared myself the last three months of beating myself up! Looks like sweet Buff is perfectly happy the way she is. Why did they even come back from Hell? Must be a swell place if you're a..."
"Shut up!" Willow yelled, as surprised by her own outburst as Xander. He immediately stopped hitting the punching bag, taken aback, and didn't see the bag swinging back until it hit him right in the face. Xander tumbled to the ground with a yell.
He was barely back on his feet when Willow got into his face.
"Who do you think you are?" She yelled at him, poking a finger at his chest. "God, if you weren't one of my best friends... you don't know a thing about what happened to Buffy and Angel. Happened to them, if you remember, because you didn't tell them about me doing the curse again."
"I know enough!" Xander defended himself, still shaken by seeing his always-timid friend like this. "He made her a monster, Willow! He turned her into a thing like him."
"Angel is not a thing!" Willow retorted. "Angelus was, yes! He was a monster! But he wasn't Angel. Everyone got that, Xander! Even you said you got it when you saw him change back at the mansion that night."
She looked at him, her body trembling with uncharacteristic rage.
"But Angelus was never the issue, was he? You didn't care about Angelus. You only cared about the fact that Buffy loved Angel. Nothing else ever mattered to you, did it? She loved him, not you!"
"That's not..." Xander started.
"When he lost his soul that was the perfect excuse for you, wasn't it? Now you actually had a valid reason for hating him. Did you ever shed a single thought on how all this made Buffy feel?"
This time she didn't even wait for him to open his mouth.
"You didn't even listen to them today, right? You just saw something and jumped to your own conclusions, just like always."
"Well, excuse me!" He finally managed to get a word in when Willow had to take a breath. "There wasn't much of a jump there. He has turned her into a demon, Willow! I saw her eyes. I saw her fangs! Hell, she almost tore my throat out with them. She would have, too, if..."
He fell silent.
"If what?" Willow asked, very well able to imagine the scene he had just described.
He mumbled something under his breath.
"Speak up, I didn't hear you!"
"If... if Angel hadn't held her back." Xander finally said in a very small voice.
"Did he?" Willow asked with mock surprise. "And how come even that didn't get you thinking? For a change!"
"He... he just..."
"Saved your skin?"
"From Buffy!" Xander yelled. "When was the last time you saw anyone needing to hold Buffy back from killing someone? One of her friends no less."
"The same friend who betrayed her?" Willow asked. She was rapidly getting tired of this talk. "Who left her no other way out but to go with Angel to Hell?"
"How exactly did I force her to go with him? I made a mistake not telling her, yes, but how come she had to go with him? She could have just..."
"Let the man she loves go into Hell alone?"
Xander's mouth fell shut.
"You don't want to understand, do you?" Willow asked him sadly. "Buffy loves him, Xander. It's not just some crush, not a cheap thrill thing. She loves him. Couldn't you see that in her eyes every single time she looked at him?"
"He is a monster!" Xander mumbled, though it sounded more like a learned mantra than anything else at the moment.
"No! He's a man who is forced to share his body with a monster. It has been hard for all of us, Xander. Trying to keep Angel and Angelus separate. Especially after everything Angelus did to us. Buffy managed. Somehow. But you never even tried. You didn't want to."
Xander looked down, drops of sweat falling to the floor.
"Willow, I..." he began.
"No!" She interrupted him, putting on her resolve face. "Shut up! Before you say even one more word you're gonna do something really radical, Xander. You're gonna listen!"
He opened his mouth again, but Willow's raised finger shut him up. Sighing deeply he sat down on the floor, wiping the sweat from his brow. Willow sat down beside him, unconsciously reminded of the many times they had sat in this garage before, talking about anything and everything. Xander was her best male friend in all the world, one of her two best friends period.
Maybe it was moot trying to talk sense into him. But she could at least try.
"I'm gonna tell you everything Buffy and Angel told me about what happened down in Hell. You're gonna listen! You're gonna think about it! And then, only when I'm finished, are you allowed to talk. Understood?"
Sighing again, Xander nodded. There really was no way to tell Willow no when she was like this.
"Very well." Willow began. "First off, it wasn't just three months they spent down there, Xander. Apparently time goes different in Hell and..."
As Willow told the tale, Xander could do nothing but stare in disbelief.
Pluto was not amused at having his throat slashed, at the hands of a living soul no less. It was probably only due to his being completely surprised by Buffy's attack that saved both their lives.
Angel grabbed Buffy and started running towards the nearer of the two hills, even as Pluto fell to the ground, dark blood spilling from his torn neck. The one glance back Angel allowed himself showed him back on his feet in seconds, the rent flesh knitting back together in the space of a heartbeat.
"That was not funny!" He thundered after them once his throat was whole again.
Angel ran without turning around, dragging a snarling and furious Buffy with him by the hand. They were on the hill where countless dirty wraiths sat on the ground, staring with envy towards the other side where the rice bowls had gone. None of them paid any attention to either of them, they only saw the others who now had the precious bowls.
With a little luck they would be able to disappear between them.
Buffy finally stopped resisting his pull and ran beside him, though a side glance showed him that her eyes were still golden, not back to their old familiar green. Was this yet one more change, like her grown fangs? Was it permanent? Or would she soon be able to change back and forth like he did, from demon face to human mask with barely an effort?
'Her humanity isn't a mask!' He snarled at the evil voice inside him. 'Nothing will change that!'
As they ran past a pair of wraiths Angel grabbed the dirty rags they wore, hoping that they would prove as corporeal as they looked. When they did he breathed a sigh of relief and quickly wrapped the rags around his and Buffy's shoulders, helping them to blend in among the thickening crowds.
Behind them the hill shook with the sound of pounding feet.
Buffy risked a glance over her shoulder, finally coming back to her senses after nearly drowning in an ocean of crimson rage. What had she done? Attacking someone who was in all probability more than capable of killing both of them with a wave of his hand?
From out of nowhere a small army of creatures had sprung up and was pursuing them now. Even as she looked she saw more of them rising from the ground, skeletons clicking together like jigsaw puzzles, rotting flesh wrapping around them even as they started running after their prey. There were dozens of them already.
"We're in trouble." She whispered.
"You don't say!" Angel mumbled as he kept running.
They finally managed to shake the demons Pluto had sent after them. When a particularly thick mass of wraiths had taken them out of their pursuers' sight for a moment they had both squatted down on the ground, the rags allowing them to blend with the crowds. The demons went right past them without a second glance.
Angel breathed an unnecessary sigh of relief. He had been afraid that deception would be useless, that these demons would be able to tell a living human from one of the wraiths. Apparently they couldn't. Either that or Buffy had changed so much that...
'Shut up!' He yelled at his inner voice once more.
He looked over at her, looked at her changed eyes. A vampire's eyes, amber and with slit pupils like a cat. For a moment he wondered if she had even noticed. Did she know? Should he tell her?
No, not right now! There was time enough for that later, once they had managed to put some distance between them and an enraged Pluto. Right now there were more important issues to take care of. Things like survival. And ensuring that they didn't get into a situation like this again.
"What did you think you were doing?" Angel whispered to her. Probably unnecessary, as the wraiths were still completely uninterested in them. Still, he did not want to take the risk of blowing their cover, what little they had.
"I... he enjoyed playing with them."
"What we've seen down here, Angel... no deserves to be in a place like this. No matter what they did."
He nodded. This was the side of Buffy he had feared would spring up sooner or later. She was the Slayer, the one girl in all the world chosen to protect the innocent from the monsters. She had embraced that destiny, though sometimes reluctantly, and it had become her nature. She had to protect others.
And now she was in a place where she couldn't do that.
"We can't help these people, Buffy." He told he gently. "They are already dead. I don't know who or what decides whether or not they deserve to be in this place, but it's not us."
"I know, but..."
"No but!" He interrupted her. "Buffy, I know you mean well, but stunts like the one you just pulled will only accomplish one thing. Getting us both dead."
For a moment he thought her temper would get the better of her once more, her entire body tensed, but then she collapsed in on herself. Looking down, she looked younger and more helpless than he had ever seen her.
"I know." She said, her voice barely audible. "I... I couldn't help it. It was like... nothing mattered except the anger anymore. I saw this guy, I saw him hurt these people with a smile on his face and... I snapped. I wanted to kill him so badly."
Angel moved closer to her, drawing her into the circle of his arms.
"I was afraid of this. Buffy, you're starting to feel a demon's temper because of my blood."
She looked up at him, the sight of her eyes almost making him gasp. She didn't know yet. And he wasn't sure how to tell her.
"I guessed something like that." She finally said. "You're not gonna start blaming yourself for this all over again, are you?"
Angel looked at her for a long moment, then broke into a smile. How typical this had become for both of them. Always thinking of the other first.
"No!" He told her, though a part of him couldn't help but cringe every time he looked at her, saw how much he had changed her. "I won't."
"That's good." She smiled back at him. "I guess you'll just have to teach me how to control this then."
He nodded. "I will."
For a moment they just rested against each other, oblivious to the misery surrounding them on all sides. Only when the pounding of demon feet grew audible once more did they move apart, again mirroring the lethargic state of the wraiths all around them. Buffy couldn't help but look at them, though. Look at their sunk-in faces, their haggard bodies, the complete hopelessness she saw in their eyes.
"I wish we could help them." She whispered.
"We both do." Angel whispered back. "But we are not omnipotent, Buffy. Sometimes we have to accept that things are what they are. Whether we like it or not."
Buffy closed her eyes in a vain attempt to shut out the faces surrounding her.
Joyce Summers sat on the floor of her kitchen, hadn't moved from that spot ever since Rupert Giles had left her house some hours earlier. Darkness had fallen outside, but she didn't even notice. She just stared at the stain the shattered bottle had left on the wall, the shards of glass and puddle of alcohol on the floor below it.
There was another bottle in the cupboard to her left. She just had to open it and take it out. No need to get up, just reach over, unscrew it, take a big sip.
She hadn't done that so far.
*Open your eyes, mom! What do you think has been going on for the past two years?*
Buffy's voice, ringing in her head over and over again like a broken record. That terrible night when her world had shattered every bit as much as that bottle she couldn't take her eyes away from. For a moment she imagined seeing herself among those shards, a little figure wading through the spilled liquid, vainly trying to put the broken pieces back together.
Only they wouldn't hold. They just wouldn't hold together anymore.
Reaching into the pocket of her vest, Joyce took out the picture she had carried with her every single moment these last three months. A picture of her daughter, taken on a trip to the two of them had gone on a little over a year ago.
Buffy wore a pink summer dress, her blond tresses loose in the wind as she stood on the beach and smiled at the camera. A pair of shades were tucked into the hair on top of her head (shades like the one she had worn today to disguise those... those...) and her sunlit smile was so beautiful and carefree that Joyce wanted to weep.
This was her little girl. A happy girl without a care in the world. Couldn't they see that? This was Buffy. Buffy how she was meant to be, how she should be, how Joyce wanted her to be. Happy. She only ever wanted her daughter to be happy.
*Open your eyes, mom! *
Eyes the color of gold, looking at her with pupils like those of a cat. Shimmering with unshed tears as they looked at her across a distance less than a single step, yet so far, far away.
"Buffy!" Tears trailed down Joyce Summer's cheeks as she cried for the daughter she had lost.
It was long after dark when she finally stopped crying. The bottle was still in the cupboard to her left, just within reach. She didn't reach for it. Instead she got on her feet and slowly made her way upstairs and walked into her daughter's room.
Everything was as it had been the day Buffy went away. Untouched, waiting for its inhabitant to return. The stuffed pig Buffy loved so much rested in the center of the made bed, holding a vigil until its mistress would return. Joyce sat down beside it, looking around.
This was her daughter's room. Her daughter's private world. She doubted she had ever really taken a look at it before.
*Buffy is not the girl you want her to be! Deal with that!*
The words of Mr. Giles now echoed inside her head. Was he right? Had she really only seen the girl she wanted her daughter to be? Not the real her? Her eyes travelled to the big chest standing inside Buffy's open walk-in closet. She remembered cleaning up in there a few weeks ago, remembered opening the chest in the desperate need to touch something of her daughter's, no matter what it was.
Remembered accidentally discovering the double floor of the chest. Remembered finding the collection of stakes, crosses, and holy water hidden in there.
It hadn't made any sense. Why should her beautiful, happy daughter keep such things in her chest, hidden in a double floor? Buffy had no need of such things. Why would anyone have need of such things? The people who needed such things populated the TV screen during B-movie night, not the real world. Such things, such people, they didn't have a place in the real world.
*People that explode into dust right before your eyes?*
She had closed the chest again, had left the things she had found in there, safely hidden away in the darkness of the closet. If she didn't see them she didn't have to think about them. Didn't have to think about why her daughter would keep stakes and crossed hidden in there.
A sob wrenched free from Joyce's throat.
*Try to see the person she truly is, the wonderful girl you have raised! The girl who needs you!*
Joyce clutched Mr. Gordo to her chest as she wept for the girl she had believed to be her daughter. Her tears flowed until late into the night, her chest aching from the sobs that tore from it.
The big clock down in the living had struck midnight some minutes ago when Joyce stopped crying. Putting Mr. Gordo aside, she reached for the small book lying on her daughter's vanity. For three months she had avoided that book, though she knew it might hold all the answers to what had happened that awful night. It hadn't been respect for Buffy's privacy that had held her back from reading it. She had just feared that it wouldn't hold the answers she wanted to hear.
As the vampires and other monsters that called Sunnydale home went about their nightly business, Joyce Summers sat on the bed and read about the true life of her daughter.
Angel slowly opened the door, listening to the familiar creek of the hinges. Buffy was a warm presence by his side, never moving far away from him as they passed the threshold and stepped solidly into their joint past.
The apartment was unchanged. A lot of dust had gathered in the corners over the months of disuse, but all his things were still here. The few paintings he had taken along over the course of the last hundred years, the sculpture he kept in a case near the wall. Some other small things he had gathered over the decades. Angelus had not seen a use for any of it and left it behind when he moved to the mansion, removing himself from the memories of his life with a soul.
The memories that came rushing back at him now.
Buffy was caught in her own memories. Everything here reminded her of the few short months that she and Angel had been genuinely happy here on Earth. Before the curse. Before Angelus. She had been a happy schoolgirl, completely in love with her mysterious boyfriend, and the occasional demon and hellspawn never distracted them from each other for long. Things had been good then. Things had been easy.
Until that rainy night here in the apartment. Her seventeenth birthday. At the same time the best and worst night of her life. One of the two worst nights anyway.
Angel's memories mirrored her own. He remembered how often they had kissed here in this room, innocently exploring their growing relationship. With a smile he recalled how she had nursed him back to health here after his nearly fatal encounter with Spike. How she had helped him clean up the remnants of her fight against Kendra.
Then that terrible morning. It had been Angelus, not him, but he remembered every second of it, remembered every cruel world the demon had flung into her face, crushing everything they had had that night under the heel of his malevolence.
"It's like we left it." Buffy whispered by his side.
She was looking at the bed. The sheets were rumpled under the cover of dust. Right, he remembered. Angelus had never come back here after having his fun with Buffy the morning after. And apparently neither had she. No one to make the bed.
Did the sheets still smell of their lovemaking?
"I never expected to come back here." Angel confessed. "I'm surprised this place hasn't been looted or something by now."
"One would think your landlord would repossess your stuff sooner or later when you stopped paying rent."
"I never paid rent. I bought the building."
Buffy knew that Angel was quite loaded with cash. During their long journey he had told her pretty much everything about his long life, including Angelus' accumulated riches. For the last hundred years he had pretty much let them lie, refusing to touch that blood-soaked money. The only time he had ever used it was when he first came to Sunnydale. Buying a building, a new wardrobe (the one before that had pretty much consisted of dirt and rags), and some things to make his new home a bit more lived-in looking. That was it.
"You think we could move in here?" Buffy asked out of the blue.
She closed her eyes, hugging herself. "I... I didn't give it much thought before, but... we can't exactly occupy Giles' guest room forever. And..."
And she couldn't go back home, Angel finished the thought inside his head.
He gently wrapped his arms around her, resting his chin on top of her head. This should have been so much easier. So much better. They had made it through nine circles of Hell, had found a way back home to Earth. Everything after that should have been happy and bright.
Only it wasn't. Not with Joyce. Not with Xander. Not even with Giles and Willow. Things had changed forever. For better or worse, there was no going back. They had changed too much. Whether Buffy's friends liked it or not, it would never be like it had been before.
"We should get this place cleaned up first." He finally told her. "Might need some new furniture, too."
"We can go shopping." Buffy said. Shopping had always been a happy pastime, or so she remembered. Right now she couldn't really put much enthusiasm into her voice.
Angel nodded. After a minute he added, "Want to take care of those two vampires still trailing us first?"
"Yeah! I kinda hoped they'd be trying something, but I'm getting tired of waiting for them."
They shared a smile.
"No, I am quite sure of that." Mr. Jones whispered into his cell phone. "The vampire we have been pursuing is the one that emerged from the mystical event in the mansion." He paused, listening to the voice on the other side. "Yes, I am also quite certain that said vampire is in fact the infamous Scourge of Europe."
Angelus' name was well known among vampires. Not only because he was the grandchild of Master Heinrich Nest, arguably the most powerful vampire ever to exist. No, Angelus had made a name all his own through 150 years of death and destruction, earning the envy of many a vampire several times his age.
Information about him was quite spotty as far as the last century was concerned, but when he had made his return about half a year ago it had been quite noticeable, though brief.
"Seeing as I have beheld him with my own two eyes," Mr. Jones continued, "in which, no offence intended, I put more trust than the information you have seen fit to provide us with, it seems your informants were incorrect in their assessment of events. Angelus is very much alive. Not in the literal sense, of course."
The vampire resisted the urge to roll up his eyes.
"No, I fear I can not tell you much about his companion. A blonde girl, not quite human in appearance. From our observation so far I would estimate that she is what vampires like to call a blood-junkie. By her scent and the extent of her physical changes, though, she has to have been ingesting her master's blood for quite a few years. She must have been by his side for a long time already."
Neither his own information nor those provided by their employer said anything Angelus travelling with a non-vampire companion. He was sure something like that should have attracted some attention, especially seeing as a blood-junkie was unable to stay separated from her master for any length of time.
The voice on the other side of the phone was silent for a while, then gave an order.
"Kill them?" Mr. Jones asked. "No, that is not a problem, of course." Though he was not feeling all that confident taking on a vampire of Angelus' calibre when there was just the two of them. From the looks on Mr. Smith's face he was mirroring that assessment.
"Yes, sir." He nodded, resigning. "I understand that this is a delicate time and you wish for no disturbances. We will take care of the matter with all due haste."
He put the phone away, looking at his associate.
"Our employer wants us to terminate Angelus and the girl he has with him, did I hear that correct?" Mr. Smith asked.
"Yes, I fear you did. Not the kind of order I was hoping for at this moment in time, but there you have it. It certainly does not pay to disappoint someone like our employer."
"No, it does not." Mr. Smith agreed sadly.
They both sighed deeply, then reached into their jackets for their guns. They carried them mostly to deal with the more human targets they might possibly find themselves pursuing, but they could certainly not hurt in this situation either. A bullet would not kill Angelus, but it would incapacitate him for a moment. Long enough to drive a stake into his heart, or so they hoped.
As for his companion, a bullet in the head should be enough for her.
"Shall we then?" Mr. Jones jacked a round into the chamber.
"We shall." Mr. Smith agreed.
"Finally!" A female voice said.
Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones looked up, only to see Angelus and his companion perched right on top of the wall they had been hiding behind. Two pairs of demon eyes gleamed in the darkness.
"We thought you'd never get around to the fun part." The female added.
The two vampires started raising their guns, but they were too slow. Angelus tackled Mr. Smith to the ground before he got the weapon halfway up. Mr. Jones found himself prone only a moment later, the girl baring gleaming fangs as she pinned him down.
He was vaguely aware that Angelus was questioning Smith about who had been on the other end of the phone. Mr. Jones was not so lucky. The girl seemed not interested in conversation. His gun had gone missing sometime in the last few seconds and by the time he managed to shrug his attacker off and get back on his feet he felt the pain of at least two busted ribs, plus a shattered jaw.
"I'm getting impatient here!" Angelus' voice rang out, but Jones had no time to check on his colleague. He was much too busy fighting for his life. The girl fought with the strength of two vampires and moved so fast he could barely see her.
This was not good.
He was seriously contemplating the option of a hasty strategic retreat when something flashed right in front of him. It took him a moment to realize that it had been the light of the street lamps reflected off the sword the girl had produced out of nowhere.
That was pretty much the last thing he thought as his head fell off his neck and crumbled into dust before it hit the floor.
He had known this was a bad idea.
The second vampire didn't put up too much resistance either, though unfortunately he refused to reveal the identity of whoever had been on the other side of that cell phone. When he started fighting back and going for his gun, Angel had no choice but to kill him.
He was just glad they had taken their swords along.
Buffy was standing in the ashes of the vampire she had killed, looking disappointed that it had been over so quickly.
"Spiffy dressers." She said, brushing off some leftover ashes. "But lousy fighters."
"Looks like they wanted to take us out from a distance." Angel motioned toward the guns. "You don't need to be a good fighter to shoot someone in the back."
Buffy nodded, picking up the guns. It was automatic, not needing so much as a thought. Weapons hadn't exactly been widely available in Hell, no matter the fact that they would have been very handy a lot of times. Buffy and Angel had both turned into packrats, taking along everything that might be of any use. Buffy saw no reason to change that now, even though she had never handled a gun before.
A rocket launcher, yes, but no gun.
"He didn't say anything, did he?" Buffy gestured toward the remains of the vampire Angel had killed.
"No. It almost looked like he was more terrified of telling on whoever it was than dying."
"Well, there is an easy way to find out." Buffy picked up the phone from where it had been dropped.
"What are you doing?"
"I haven't handled a phone in a while but... ah, here! Redial!" She frowned. "Damn. No, that wasn't the button. God, my memory is like a sieve. Maybe..."
"Why don't we take this thing along and let Willow or Giles look at it later? Someone with a bit more recent experience in handling phones."
Buffy sighed, stuffing the cell into the pocket of her jeans.
"And here I used to tease you about not knowing thing one about the modern world."
Angel heard the underlying sorrow in those words. Buffy felt out of place, here where she should feel at home. This was the world she remembered from long ago, unchanged, and she didn't know if she fit in anymore. He wanted to whisper words of comfort to her, wanted to rid her of the fear and uncertainty. He just didn't know how.
Instead of an answer he draped his arms around her shoulders.
"You really want to move into the apartment?" He asked.
"Yeah." She didn't say any more and didn't need to. They needed some place to retreat to for a while, just the two of them. Needed time and space to figure out what to do now. What to do with the rest of their lives.
"Let's go back to Giles." Angel brushed a kiss on her cheek. "Then we can make plans on moving."
She nodded and they walked back towards her Watcher's home, arm in arm.
"You think Giles knows all-night furniture stores?"
It was almost morning when Buffy and Angel got back to Giles' apartment, having spent most of the night walking around and getting reacquainted with the city. There had also been some more vampires, so Buffy was a little less tense than she had been before. Just a little.
"Giles, are you...?" Buffy opened the door, the call for her Watcher dying on her lips as she saw who was inside the living room.
Joyce Summers sat on the couch, her hands in her lap, looking up at her daughter as she came in, Angel half a step behind her. He stopped just in time to keep himself from crashing into Buffy.
"Mom?" She whispered, too low for anyone but Angel to hear her.
Joyce opened her mouth, starting to rise from the couch, but dropped back down after a second without a word, terrible confusion evident on her face. Her gaze travelled from Buffy to Angel, looking at the vampire with a strange mixture of fear, anger, and ... something else Angel couldn't quite make sense of.
The tension in the room was thick enough to cut it with a knife. It lessened but slightly when Giles came from the kitchen, a tray with tea and crackers in hand.
"Ah, Buffy. Angel. I was hoping you would come by."
"What are you doing here?" Buffy asked her mother, ignoring Giles. Angel could see her shiver with anxiety. Though they had exchanged but a few words about what had happened with her mother, Angel could guess the rest. Buffy was trembling on a fine line between furious anger and desperate hope.
"Your mother came by a few hours ago." Giles explained, setting down the tea. "She ... she asked me for some explanations."
"Explanations?" Buffy asked, confused.
Joyce rose, wringing her hands, every gesture screaming discomfort. Her eyes were puffy from hours of crying and deep lines marred her face.
"About you, Buffy." She said. "About ... about all the things that I refused to see."
Angel could all but see the tiny thread of hope flaring up inside his beloved. No matter what she might show on the outside, he knew how much she longed for her mother's love, her mother's approval. Angel could certainly sympathise. And if any mother had good reason to be proud of her daughter, it was Joyce.
Buffy had found herself rejected twice, though. He was not sure she would survive a third time.
"And?" She finally asked, clenching her fists as she eyed her mother. Angel resisted the urge to lay a soothing hand on her shoulder. She didn't need any distraction right now, even of the good kind.
Joyce swallowed hard, obviously looking for words to express her jumbled feelings.
"I... God, I still... it's so hard to believe that all this is real. I mean... vampires, demons, monsters. Those are stories. They're not supposed to be real."
She looked past Buffy at Angel, making a very small step toward him.
"Mr. Giles, he... he said that you... you are..."
"I am." Angel nodded.
"May... may I see?"
The request surprised him, but he saw in her face how much it had cost her to ask that small question. He threw a side glance at Giles, who gave a small nod. Sighing, Angel relaxed his features and allowed the human mask to slip away.
Joyce gasped, taking an involuntary step back. Then, though, she visibly stopped herself from retreating any further, instead walking towards him again, very slowly.
It was definitely one of the most courageous things Angel had ever seen.
Reaching out with a shaking hand, Joyce touched the protruding ridges on Angel's forehead. Holding himself perfectly still, he could feel her tension even in that small contact, mirrored in Buffy who stood by his side, watching everything with barely concealed anxiety.
"This... this is real." Joyce whispered, drawing back her hand and clutching it to her chest.
"It always has been." Buffy said, looking at her. "Only you never saw it."
"Why didn't you tell me?" Joyce turned to look at her daughter. "Why did you never...?"
"Would you have believed a word I said?"
Joyce opened her mouth to answer that yes, of course she would have believed her daughter. But no word came out. Her own actions yesterday had already answered that question, hadn't they?
"Probably not." She whispered, looking down.
Angel looked back and forth between mother and daughter. Both of them refused to look at each other. Joyce didn't want to see the changes in her daughter's eyes. Buffy didn't want to see the rejection in her mother's. Joyce seemed to have let go of the happy little illusion she had lived in, at least partly, but it was still a big step from there to actually accepting the truth.
Someone needed to make the first step.
Gently touching Buffy's shoulder, he made her look up and into his eyes. No matter that they didn't look it anymore, the emotions visible in them were very much human. Fear. Anger. Confusion. And a desperate longing for her mother to accept her the way she was, to close her in her arms and hold her tight. It was all in her eyes.
They communicated without words, Angel simply nodding towards Joyce. Buffy's mother stood with her arms wrapped around herself, looking at the floor. She had already done a lot tonight. Had come out of her safe little shell and touched the strange and terrible reality around her.
Now she just needed to be touched back.
Buffy hesitated. Twice she had reached out toward her mother and twice she had been burned. All she wanted was for her mother to see the real her. To see and accept what she was, what she had become. No one needed to tell her that it wasn't easy. Better than anyone else she understood what it meant to have one's entire world shattered and rebuilt within a single day, rebuilt into something strange and frightening.
Some things didn't change, though. Things like the fact that she loved her mother. And that her mother loved her back. Or at least Buffy hoped that those things hadn't changed.
Slowly, very slowly, Buffy walked toward her mother until they stood within arm's reach of one another. Joyce looked up, their eyes meeting.
"This is me, mom." Buffy said, her voice steady. "I didn't intend it, but I'm not sorry for it, either. This is the only me there is."
Joyce just looked at her, looked at those strange eyes sitting in her daughter's face. Listened to the voice that sounded so different, so hard and grown-up, yet was still her daughter's voice.
"Can you accept that?" Buffy asked.
Joyce looked into her daughter's eyes and considered the question. Could she accept that? Could she accept that her daughter would never have the life she had dreamed of for her? The things she had read in her diary, the things Mr. Giles had told her... could she accept that this was the kind of life her daughter would lead? Could she accept that her daughter had spent thirty years in a place right out of her worst nightmares and been forever changed by it, changed into something almost unrecognisable?
She wasn't sure. The alternative, of course, was to lose her daughter forever. For the last three months she had lived like that, lived thinking that she would never see Buffy again.
No, that wasn't an alternative. Not even close.
"I... I can't do this overnight." Joyce finally said, causing Buffy's eyes to shimmer with unshed tears. "This world you... this world we live in it's... I don't know if I can accept it just like that."
Buffy bit back the remark that she'd had more than a night to accept it. She had enough trouble not breaking into tears right then and there.
"Then I guess..." Buffy began.
"I love you, Buffy." Joyce interrupted her, tears on her cheeks. "That never changed and it never will. I know I... God, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry that you couldn't come to me with your problems. I'm so sorry that I wasn't a good mom."
Her voice broke as the tears blurred her vision.
"I'm so sorry." She whispered, wiping the tears from her face.
Angel watched as Buffy, her own tears now falling freely, awkwardly hugged her mother. It was a start. Not more than that, but a start. There was a lot still between them, too much too simply forget. But looking at them now, seeing how Joyce clutched her daughter to her chest and wept, he was certain they would make it. Not today, maybe not tomorrow. But they would.
Which left only one other.
Xander wasn't feeling the lack of sleep or the pain from the bruises right now. He was much too busy thinking about the things he had heard this night. Things he would have preferred not knowing.
Buffy was addicted to deadboy's blood. If he hadn't done that to her she would be dead right now. They'd been in Hell for thirty years. Thirty years to get cosy with one another and even that pesky happiness clause was no history.
All of which meant, as Willow had repeatedly stated, that he had absolutely no reason to be weary or angered by their being back and together. Except, of course, one. The only one that had ever really mattered, truth to tell.
The simple fact that Buffy was with Angel and not him. And now, after all they had been through, there was exactly zero chance that this would ever change.
Xander shook his head. He should be glad. Glad that Buffy was back. Glad that Angelus would never return. Hell, he should even be glad that Angel, the real Angel, was back. God knew he owed his own skin to that bastard several times over. The world was as perfect as it could be after the events of that terrible day three months ago.
Only it wasn't. Not for him. Never would be now.
By the time he had reached Giles' door it was almost morning. Willow had gone home by now, tired and probably more than a bit frustrated with him. First, though, she had told him exactly what he had to do. The only way to repair this was to apologise. To Buffy, certainly. But first and foremost to Angel.
Apologise to Angel.
Piece of cake, right? He had things to apologise for, right? All the ugly words he had thrown at him over the last two years. He had used pretty much every opportunity to make Angel look bad, had done his damn best (however little it had been worth) to come between him and Buffy. And, of course, that day. The day he had, however indirectly, caused Angel (and Buffy) to be sent to Hell.
How the hell could he apologise for that? Sorry I caused you to be stuck in Hell for thirty years, Angel. Let's be buddies again, okay? Right, we never were. Fancy that.
Xander had no clue how to do it. He wasn't sure there was a way to apologise for something like that. And he wasn't sure if he even wanted to. They were talking about Angel, after all. Deadboy. A fucking monster that hid behind the face of a man. They had all seen what he was really like. Yeah sure, he had his soul back, but how much was that worth? Who said there wasn't some other way he could lose it again? Who said that Angelus was really gone forever?
Reaching for the doorknob, he paused when he heard voices inside. After a moment's hesitation he decided to check things out first and took a peek through the window that was conveniently placed right beside the door.
Angel and Buffy were there. As was Giles. And Joyce. Xander knew most of the things that had happened concerning Buffy's mom during these last three months. Knew about her deep denial, knew that she had even blamed Giles for everything that had happened. Some dark part of Xander had been sure that, if there was one person that disliked Angel as much as he did, it was Joyce.
Joyce was hugging Buffy. Tears were on both their faces. Angel was standing right next to them, in game face no less, and he was smiling.
For a long moment Xander was totally stumped. What he saw in there that was ... God, it was so completely wrong! Angel had no place being in there! What was next? Joyce naming him her future son-in-law and giving him a peck on the cheek? Maybe donate some blood so Angel had some variety in his Buffy-only diet?
Angel looked away from mother and daughter to look right at Xander. His vampire face melted back into his human features as their eyes met. Xander was unable to look away, staring into those dark brown eyes of the man he hated so much.
Those eyes that held rage, certainly, but also understanding. Sympathy.
Xander balled his fists. No! This wasn't right! It wasn't right that this monster should be in there while he was out here. It wasn't right that Angel, Angel of all people, felt like there was something he could forgive Xander for. He hadn't planned to hurt Buffy. He'd only ever wanted to save Buffy from this ... this thing!
He wouldn't apologise to Angel! Never!
Xander turned away from Giles' door, away from Angel's dark eyes, away from the picture of mother and daughter embracing. He turned away and walked off into the early light of morning.
Mayor Richard Wilkins III sighed as he studied the report in front of him. It had been a mistake to hire outside talent (using the term talent very loosely) for this. Of course he had had no way to know that this would turn out to be as difficult as it did, but still...
Angelus was back. That was not good. With a blond girl by his side. Also not good. Mr. Jones had said that she was a blood-junkie, must have been for a good many years, which suggested that it could not be the Slayer. Yet who else could it be? His information on the vampire, while far from complete, held no trace of any other mortal girl Angelus had developed a fancy for. None that he left alive anyway.
He had heard of the unfortunate incident with Akathler only after it happened. The thought that his beautiful town, along with the rest of the world, had almost been sucked into Hell was disconcerting, to say the least, but the Slayer had stopped it from happening. That she had got both herself and Angelus killed in the process had been a very welcome bonus.
Only now it looked like it hadn't gone down that way after all.
Well, there was no sense in crying over spilled milk. Jones and Smith were dead, for real, and whether or not that girl was the Slayer or just some other do-gooder (or maybe not a do-gooder, depending on what Angelus himself might be at the moment) that Angelus had hooked up with was beside the point for the moment. This was a very important year.
Many things needed taking care of before the big day. If they were smart Angelus and his squeeze would leave town soon.
If not, well, there was better talent to be hired and employed than those two vampires. Much better talent.
Making sure that his desk was clean and spotless, Mayor Wilkins took up his coat and went home. He was really too old to pull all-nighters like this.