Swan Song

Author: Diane

E-mail: aria5@vt.edu

Summary: Post-The Gift. Post-There's no Place Like Plrtz Glrb. In the wake of Buffy's death, Angel struggles to find the equilibrium he needs to fight the End of Days, but under the uncaring watch of the Powers, all is not as it seems.

Pairings: B/A, S/A (occasionally)

Rating: NC-17



THE GIFT

Death. Death was her gift.

The magnificent irony of it all hit her like a club across her face. The slaying, the death, the destruction, it all lead down to this. That death was her gift.

Her gift.

She stared at Dawn, realizing that this was the last chance she would get to see her little sister. Her last chance.

She had sacrificed Angel for the sake of the world three years ago, and Buffy couldn't muster the strength to do it again. Having to sentence her soulmate to eternal torment was something that had torn her to shreds inside, into little pieces that even all the superglue in the world couldn't repair, and when Angel had come back and left again, she had broken even more. All the king's horses and all the king's men hadn't been able to put her together again, least of all the shell of her relationship with Riley.

Riley. He had been safe, and comfortable, and there. But there wasn't substance -- there wasn't the fire she had felt before. God knew Riley was sweet -- an all around perfect guy that anyone in their right mind should have wanted to settle down with. But she didn't want to. Not really. Never had.

All because she had saved the world and destroyed her Angel.

<Because I could see your heart. You held it before you for everyone to see and I worried that it would be bruised or torn...>

Smashed, more like.

She just couldn't kill again. Not for the world -- not for anyone. Damn them all... She doubted she could do it to Angel, let alone her own sister.

Never again.

Death was her gift. And she would give it. Willingly. Generously. For Dawn.

No regret.

She stared at Dawn, her eyes watering slightly, preparing to speak. With Angel, she hadn't needed words. Angel, trusting her, loving her, had been content to kiss her one last time. Because even if he hadn't consciously known, he had been aware on some level of what was going to happen.

But she needed words now. A hug and a goodbye wouldn't do it. Not this time.

Dawn took a baby step forwards, a look of scared recognition fleeting across her face. "Buffy... no..." Fathomless blue eyes widened in denial and fear. Her lip quivered slightly, threatening to tumble into an oblivion of tears.

"Dawnie... I have to -- " Buffy replied, her voice sure, decided. Serene. She had to. She wouldn't condemn Dawn. She couldn't.

Dawn shook her head. "Buffy... no..." she repeated, as if she expected her words to be more effective if repeated again.

They weren't.

The portal was rumbling -- a cacophony of screaming Hell being blasted out into the world with each flash of lightning. "Listen to me! There's no time, Dawn," she snapped, and then grew softer, feeling her tense muscles relax, her eyes bleeding with feeling. "Please listen."

More lightning flashed.

She had to go.

Because death, was her gift.

"Dawn, listen to me. Listen," she continued. "I love you. I'll always love you."

It occurred to her that she simply hadn't said it enough. Never enough. But, how often was enough? If you babbled a million 'I love you's' that didn't mean anything, was that better than saying it once when you really meant it? Did it have to become a habit phrase?

<I love you. I try not to, but I can't stop.>

Angel... He had meant it. And he had said it.

Once, then. Once again before she'd sent him to his death. A few other times.

But each and every one had meant more than anything else in the world to her, then, and now.

Question answered.

"But this is the work I have to do. Tell Giles I... I figured it out, and, I'm ok." She was surprised to find that she was ok. After so many years, she realized that she was finally giving up. She didn't want to fight any more. She was tired of it.

She had grown cold.

But Dawn looked like she would break into cascades of sobs at any moment.

She gripped Dawn's shoulders. "Give my love to my friends." And Angel. God, Angel... "You have to take care of them now -- you have to take care of each other. You have to be strong, Dawn." I'm done being the strong one. "The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live. For me." Because I just can't anymore. Not as the thing that I have become.

Wiping a tear away from her face, Buffy leaned in close to her sister and kissed her cheek, memorizing the planes of her soft peach face. Even if you're not really my sister, I love you all the same. Live, for me. Please.

Goodbye, Dawn.

She turned, hoping her eyes had said all the words that she hadn't been able to make herself utter.

The portal was growing, flashing. A living, breathing, sphere of sizzling energy. She leapt forward, muscles springing with newfound vigor. Heading straight for the light, she never let her eyes leave it. A bird hypnotized in the thrall of a cobra.

Her sanctuary.

Her home.

Death.

She took a flying leap and dove into the swirling mass.

<Every day you wake up it's the same bloody question that haunts you: Is today the day I die?>

Yes. Yes. Her body collapsed with relief as the electricity struck her across the face and the rest of her body. Please, take me away.

Today was the day she died.

<It's a warrior's pain, a warrior's question and you ask it every time the sun rises.>

The sun was rising now. She wasn't asking, she was answering.

<And every day you manage to survive, you're only partly relieved because you know -- it's just a matter of time. Death is on your heels baby -- and, sooner or later, it's going to catch you. And some part of you wants it. Not only to stop the fear and the uncertainty -- but because you're just a little bit in love with it.>

In love... with death. In love with Angel. In love with peace. She wanted peace. She wanted Angel. Angel, she couldn't have. Peace, she could.

Her vision dimmed, despite the brightness surrounding her. Despite the pain. Pleasantly numb.

<Death is your art.>

No. Death was her gift. <You make it with your hands, day after day. That final gasp, that look of peace...>

Angel hadn't looked peaceful... Mom hadn't looked peaceful. Everyone important to her had looked as though death was terrible. But it wasn't. Not if you were ready for it -- that had to be the difference.

<Part of you is desperate to know... What's it like? Where does it lead you?>

Where did you go, Mom? Am I following? Or will I be where Angel was?

<That's also a warrior's question. A warrior's curiosity. So you see, that's the secret. Not the punch she didn't throw or the kick she didn't land. She simply wanted it. Every Slayer has a death wish. Even you.>

And now, she was finally going to die. No longer a wish, or some desire filed on some list in the back of her mind. It was a tangible thing. A wonderful thing.

Peace.

The power surges caught her, twining tendrils of electricity around her limbs, made her writhe and close her eyes.

Soon, now.

<The only reason you've lasted as long as you have is, you've got ties to the world. Your Mum. Brat kid sister. Scoobies.>

Angel -- gone. Riley -- gone. Mom -- gone. All gone. Just the gang and Dawn. Not enough anymore.

<They tie you here but you're just putting off the inevitable. Sooner or later, you're gonna want it and the second, the second that happens, I pray to God I'm there. I'll slip in -- have myself a real good day.>

I hope you have your day, Spike. I hope you have your day...

The darkness was getting stronger now. Stronger.

She felt cold, and numb, and dead.

Getting dimmer.

She sighed.

She was going home...

*****

THE VOID

The rumbling had stopped. The quaking vibrating bass of the whirling vortex was the last to go, sucked back in along with the collapsing sphere of energy like a subwoofer in reverse, until all the aftershocks were gone and the only light present was from the rising sun.

The light of dawn. Ironic.

And all was blessed silence.

Giles was the first to notice.

His shoulders slumped, a certain sadness weighting on him as he stumbled rather undeftly to his feet. Dawn, poor Dawn. Buffy had actually gone through with it.

He had to find Buffy -- she would be in an awful state right now. There was time to grieve for Dawn later. Now, he had get to Buffy. He wasn't going to let her run away again and spend a summer or perhaps a lifetime trying to ignore her pain.

He simply wouldn't let her.

Not again.

He glanced around a bit through dirtied spectacles and saw the others struggling to their feet. Xander was cradling an injured Anya lovingly in his arms -- she appeared dazed and weak, but nothing too serious. Willow and Tara were helping each other to their feet, and Spike was by himself, ratcheting to his own wobbly feet.

No Buffy.

With dread, he realized that she was probably still up on that tower, just staring at where her sister had been before she returned to her energy state. He almost couldn't bear the thought of her sitting there, all alone. She really didn't have anyone anymore. The rest of the gang, excluding Spike, always had someone else to lean on.

Poor Buffy was expected to hold herself and everyone else up on her already wilting shoulders.

Buffy...

He heard Willow inhale deeply, as though someone had punched her in the gut, and then a small whine rattled through her torso. "Buffy..." she whispered. "Oh God, Buffy..." She stumbled, but Tara kept her up. A pitching wail. Her eyes flashed in denial as her face crept back in a horrified grimace of pain.

Why was she calling to Buffy?

And that was when he saw Dawn stumbling down the steps of the platform, her face cherry red and streaked with acid tears. She was staring shakily at something off to her right. "Buffy..." Giles saw the word form on her lips, but he didn't actually hear it.

A cold feeling developed in his stomach. He blinked, took a deep breath, and opened his eyes again. Dawn was still there. And Buffy was not.

His palms started to clam, fingers began to shake. Teeth clenched. He turned in the direction of Dawn's horrified stare, and felt his innards fall into his feet.

Buffy.

She was lying there, her neck turned cruelly, body sprawled like a broken old rag doll thrown out after many years of good use.

Not moving.

Her beautiful sun-soaked hair flowed out around her like a crown of ivy.

Not moving.

He stared.

Spike stumbled once, twice, and then fell to his knees. He started bawling. Bawling. His agonized cries bounced off the walls and surfaces until they were standing amidst a grieving maelstrom. The vampire's hands flew to his face and wrenching bitter sobs fell with abandon, his pale lips falling apart in a crooked grimace of despair.

And then Willow was gasping, sucking wrenching sobs into her spasming solar plexus, held up only by Tara. She was trembling, looking like she was about to shake right out of her skin.

Xander just stood there, Anya limp in his arms -- as if he didn't quite realize what had happened. Couldn't quite connect what he was seeing with the part of his brain that was saying, "Hello. Xander is home. Feel free to talk anytime and I'll respond with a witty rebuttal..."

Giles felt his throat constrict. He struggled not to choke. "Buffy..." he whispered. He took a small step forward. Another small step. Baby steps. And then something snapped. He launched towards her after only a seconds hesitation. Oh lord, please, please no...

<I sacrificed Angel to save the world. I loved him so much... but I knew. What was right. I don't have that any more. I don't understand. I don't know how to live in this world, if these are the choices, if everything's just stripped away then I don't see the point. I just wish... I wish my mom was here.>

He knelt down beside her and placed his index and middle finger at the junction between the underside of her cheek and her delicate swan neck.

<The spirit guide told me that Death was my gift...>

Nothing.

He waited for what seemed like hours. Please... PLEASE...

Nothing.

No rise and fall of her chest. No telltale pulsing sensation in the arteries.

Nothing.

<It doesn't matter. If Dawn dies, then I'm done with it. I'm quitting.>

"Giles, we... we have to call the paramedics..."

Xander. The sensible one? Who would have ever thought... He was setting Anya down on wobbly feet. She stumbled a bit, but managed to get herself balanced despite the woozy look in her eyes. Anya appeared dismayed, saddened -- like Tara, but she certainly wasn't flying off the handle like Willow.

For a moment, he felt a touch of irrational anger at her before he was able to suck it back inside himself and hide it. Anya and Buffy were acquaintances. Just like with Tara. There was nothing more. Giles felt his eyes burning. But he would not cry. "Yes, yes, right..." he whispered. Was that him? He sounded like a choked bird who had spent too many of his days flying into windows. With a rattling breath, he stood. Everyone except Xander was still in pretty much the same spot.

It was getting very bright. "Spike..." Giles whispered, finding himself surprised that he had even thought of the weeping vampire.

But Spike was being lead away by Dawn, even as small tendrils of smoke curled upwards from his unnatural pale skin. He would grieve with Dawn. And Dawn would be safe -- as Buffy wanted her to be.

Someone would have to call. Someone would have to call...

"I'll call, Giles," Xander assured him, and turned off in search of the nearest phone.

Giles wanted to scream in frustration. This was the first time he wished he had had one of those bloody cellular phones... He stared back at the body, Buffy's body, and felt a strange shivering sensation rack through him.

But he would not cry. Not now.

Not when even the sky refused to.

Willow's grieving sobs had subsided enough for her to stand without Tara's aid. "Who..." she began with a hitched breath. "Who's going to tell Angel?" Her tone was lost, unsure.

Angel.

He wondered if anyone in the entire group had even thought of Angel before now.

Of course, why would they? They all tried to ignore that he had ever existed, even Willow to some extent, because Angel, while he represented something that Buffy was forever passionate about, he also represented a lot of her pain -- a sad fact, but very true. Giles had begrudgingly called the vampire to come down for the funeral at Willow's prodding. Giles hadn't seen him at all, but Buffy had stayed out all night after the funeral, and when she'd finally arrived back, she looked... better.

Not wonderful, but she seemed to have had a little bit more of a grip on herself and her situation -- at least a small handhold that would balance her until she could lift herself up under her own power. A tiny spark had been present in her eyes that had dimmed gradually over the next few days and disappeared, but Giles had certainly seen it.

"I'll... I'll call him," Giles bit out, unable to tear his eyes from Buffy's body.

Buffy's still body.

Buffy's dead body.

Willow shook her head as a few more crystal tears spilled from her wide eyes. "No. It has to be in person. I'll go," she offered, seeing Giles's reluctance. "I want to see him again, anyway. He... he was close to her."

Giles nodded.

Close to her. Angel, of all things, had been that. Giles had been acutely aware of how many times Buffy had gone to her vampire rather than him over the years. And when Angel had gone, she hadn't really gone to anyone. Not even Riley, despite the fact that she obviously cared for him.

Flashing lights.

Xander was back. Had it been that long?

Paramedics flooded the scene. Examined Buffy. Tried to revive Buffy. Pronounced Buffy dead.

The shock was real now.

Buffy. Dead.

Dead.

He could almost hear the judge's gavel come cracking down. SMACK!

Dead.

He sucked in a breath.

Dead.

Willow's arms wrapped around him -- Xander's too. He could hear them both sobbing in his ears, feel Willow's tiny hands clenching his biceps. Even Xander was shaking now.

Dead.

And Rupert Giles, recently reinstated watcher for the most powerful Slayer since the middle ages, finally began to cry.

*****

THE DARKENING

"There's no place like..."

Angel stopped short, the word home stuck on the tip of his tongue but unable to slip out of his mouth. Frozen. Willow. Willow was sitting on his couch, her head in her hands.

And Willow meant Buffy.

"Willow?"

Something was wrong with Buffy.

How long had Willow been waiting there?

"Hi, what's..." Cordelia began, but stopped when she saw Willow's slumped figure.

Willow looked up, her sad eyes drooped, shoulders brought down under the weight of the world, and Angel felt something clenching deep in his chest. Strange that such a dead heart could feel so unsettled. So affected.

He stared at Willow.

She stared back.

No words. None at all, and yet, he knew.

His tongue caught in his mouth and froze there like a thick dead thing. He swallowed. "It's Buffy," he said.

Buffy was hurt. He knew it. Buffy was hurt and he hadn't been there. He hadn't been there. "What's wrong with Buffy?" he asked as Willow walked up to him, her footsteps slow, echoing through the harsh acoustics of the room like breaking dishes.

Angel could hear Cordelia breathing behind him, her heartbeat fluttering about in her chest, distressed. The others hadn't quite caught on yet, though Wesley was getting there fast.

Willow placed her hands on his shoulders and stared into his eyes. Depthless pain. The look of sorrow that pervaded her green eyes scared him. No. No. Buffy was just hurt. Buffy was hurt. But then, why did Willow come to speak with him personally? No one from Sunnydale ever came to see him...

Her lower lip quivered, and then he felt her warm hands sliding down from his shoulders. She wrapped her arms around him. A staggering grip. "What's wrong with Buffy?" he asked again, his voice small this time, tired, afraid.

She began to sob in his arms.

He swallowed. "What's wrong... with..."

His knees felt weak, shaky. The others were gathering around him now. "Please, tell me..." There were tears filling his eyes, but he didn't let them fall.

Willow, if it were possible, seemed to be gripping him even tighter. "Oh, Angel. She saved the world. Again," Willow said, turning her cheek to rest on his chest.

Angel stared off in front of him, and what once was well- defined furniture became a blurry void. "She..." The word fell from his lips, unbidden, a weak whine as though someone had punched it from his gut. No. No. Buffy was fine. She would come walking through that door any moment now and cry 'April Fools!'

Except it wasn't April.

And Buffy wouldn't have even come through that door for something serious, let alone a joke.

"It was quick, Angel. She did it for Dawn."

Angel felt his legs give out as locked joints cracked and collapsed, and he was on the floor cradled in Willow's arms. And then Cordelia was wrapped around him too -- saran wrap over his back. She was whispering condolences in his ears, and he could feel the warmth of her tears as they fell onto the back of his neck, the warmth of her body as she pressed up against his quivering back. They were all in a heap on the stairs.

"I'm sorry, Angel. I'm so sorry," Cordelia was repeating over and over again, as if it were actually supposed to make him feel better.

He couldn't see.

Blurry.

A giant hitching breath wrenched through his torso. "No," he grunted fiercely. "No. Buffy's fine. She's fine," he said. The room was rocking. Back and forth. Back and forth.

Rocking.

No, he was rocking. Not the room. "Fine. Buffy's fine." Back and forth. Back and forth.

<I want my life to be with you.>

She wasn't dead. She wasn't. The Oracles had promised him that Buffy would live. He had traded his life for hers, and they'd told him... They had TOLD him...

<I don't.>

"Angel." Wesley now. His voice quiet. Gunn and Fred were still hanging back. They didn't know. They didn't know that they were alive because of Buffy. Many, many times over. They didn't know. "Angel, I'm sorry," he said. Soft. Definite. I'm sorry. For all the help it did him, Wesley would have been better off just not saying it.

Willow and Cordelia hugged him tighter, even as he felt his insides shatter apart. All at once, he was cold, all over, as if the reality of his two-hundred-forty-seven year deadness had just now hit him. Between two warm, sobbing, heaving bodies, he was terrified, and cold, and dead.

His muscles started to shiver about underneath his skin, sending strange, tingling spasms all through his system. But all it did was make him feel colder.

<You still my girl?>

Buffy was fine. Buffy was fine. Buffy was fine.

<Always...>

Fine. Fine. Fine, fine, fine fine finefinefinefine.

<I look into the future, and all I see is you...>

"What happened?" Wesley was asking, somewhere above the echoing roar. Silence. Roar of silence. Lips were moving, voices carrying, and yet, it all seemed in slow motion. He couldn't make out the words.

Tumbling off the cliff. Snap back.

Willow's hands loosened. He heard her sniffle and wipe her eyes on her sleeve.

"Glory... vortex. portal. electricity. long fall. save Dawn."

Buffy was fine.

Fine.

Something inside him clicked into place, momentarily.

Angel sucked in a breath. "Is Dawn okay?" he asked, suddenly and strangely calm about the entire situation. "Was anyone... hurt?"

He saw both Wesley and Willow double take. The red-head took note of his expression, and sniffled again. "Dawn is fine. Every one is fine. Anya got a concussion, but nothing serious."

Nothing serious.

Angel nodded and stood. "Good. That's. Good."

"Angel?" Cordelia was asking. Her death grip on his neck loosened, as he turned to face her, shaking off the last vestiges of her embrace.

"I..." he replied, and everything that had briefly come together fell right back apart again. Another deep breath. "Excuse me."

He turned and fled up the stairs with all his preternatural speed, away from the world, away from them, away from their worried, pitying stares. As Gunn's strained, "What the Hell?" fled up the stairs along with him, he couldn't help but grimace. None of them cared about Buffy. Not a single one. Not even Cordelia.

The door slammed shut behind him, and he fell back against the cold wood, sliding down along with the white-painted grain. For a long time, he just sat there, collapsed awkwardly, his ankles turned outward, arms splayed out with palms upwards like an offering. The blurry world before him blurred more as his eyes lost all sense of focus.

His dark, cold apartment sprawled out before him, his bed beckoning his tired body forward, and yet he couldn't move. Frozen.

Cold.

<Don't you feel the cold?>

Perspective.

His refrigerator started humming off to his right. A low, whining buzz, like a fly that wouldn't go away. The faucet dripped. Small, hollow, tinny plinks as water droplets hit the porcelain sink. Drip. Drip. Drip. Rodents and whatnot scurried about behind the walls. Murmurs crept up the stairs from where everyone was still talking. The small battery clock beside his bed ticked with each movement of the second hand.

<We're not friends. We never were...>

He didn't move.

Drip.

Drip.

Drip.

<What's happening, Buffy?>

Slowly, he reached down and pulled his legs up towards him until his chin was resting on his shaking knees, his arms gripped around his thighs and calves so tightly he was probably leaving bruises.

<Shhh... It doesn't matter.>

Yes, it does. YES IT DOES!

<I love you.>

He shook his head.

<I love you.>

Shook his head again.

<Close your eyes.>

Like a geyser, everything just burbled up out of him. Wrenching, desperate sobs. Silent, heaving, unnecessary breaths as the world began to swim in front of him.

He clutched tighter. He felt as though his flesh was going to fly apart at the seams. Gulping, choking sobs. He was spasming so hard the door was rattling behind him, roughly, with each jerk of his body.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

He brought his head back against the door. Hard.

Stars sparkled about in front of him as he furiously blinked them away, burning tears cascading down his cool cheeks.

Again, he brought his head back.

Again.

There was pain, but he didn't really notice it.

Again.

Manic, he wobbled drunkenly to his feet and stumbled over to the wall -- threw his fist into it, over and over until he felt the knuckles chip and heard unforgiving bones snap apart under the skin. Blood. Cool, oozing blood flowed between the creases in his knuckles and slathered his palms.

He wondered if any of it was still Buffy's blood.

A light tap at his door.

He brought his fist into the wall again, dust and plaster sprinkling about in a shower of dry tears. "Angel?" Her voice was muffled through the door, but he could hear it all the same, even through his muddled perceptions.

"Go away," he choked, both his trembly, broken hands cradled at his mid-section, his bloody, matted hair resting on the jagged, cracked plaster.

The door opened anyway.

A lock of brown hair snuck into the room before a cautious eye peered in.

"Oh, my God, Angel!" Cordelia cried as she flew at him faster than he had thought humanly possible. "What did you do!?" Tears were streaming down her face as Angel collapsed into her and they both slid to the floor underneath his dead weight.

He cried out in agony. Not physical. His teeth bit into his lip, drew blood, clenched. He shook.

She didn't listen to him. Her hand was on his face, stroking him. Stroking his hair. Caressing his cheek. "Shhh," she soothed.

He clutched his hands around his stomach. Nausea. But there was nothing to throw up. He hadn't eaten in days. Not that he cared.

He sobbed, his grief coming forward in full force, each and every cell bursting forth with it. An eruption of tears. He didn't feel the pain in his hands or the back of his head at all -- he didn't feel anything remotely related to him.

Her arms were tight around him. She didn't tell him not to worry about it. That it wasn't his fault. In her presence, there was only a soothing, rushing, "Shhh..." Rushing air across his skin. Breath. Rushing. Rushing. Cool.

Rocking. Like a baby being put to sleep. "Shhh...."

He curled into a fetal position. Exhausted. He was exhausted. The crushing weight of his tired bones almost made him crumble in upon himself. Into dust.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Buffy, Buffy, Buffy, BuffyBuffyBuffy -- Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

"Buffy..."

Dust to dust.

<I love you. I try not to, but I can't stop.>

Drip. Drip. Drip.

"Shhh...."

If he squinted hard enough, he saw her standing there with a smile, her blond hair framing her in a beautiful halo of gold.

"Shhh..." He could almost pretend it was Buffy, her warm hands fleeting across his back in place of Cordelia's soft and subtle platonic massage.

Buffy.

And gradually, gradually, he fell asleep with her name on his lips.

*****

Drip. Drip. Drip.

He lay there with his eyes closed for a moment, curled away from the world with only the sounds of the leaky faucet and Cordelia's even breathing to connect him to what he was trying to shut out. That, and the perpetual ache.

He would have thought it a nightmare, but he could feel the bones in his hands furiously mending, and he could smell the dried, caking blood on the back of his head and crusting his palms. And, his nightmares had never been so real. Terrifying in that distant, detached way, as dreams always were, but never so close to him. He could smell the grief, feel his own unyielding pain. Real pain. Not imagined. Not the stuff of dreams.

The carpet was rough and cold, grating his skin, but he didn't move. Perhaps if he stayed where he was long enough, he would shrivel away. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Perhaps the Powers would be kind enough to grant him that little comfort.

He heaved a sigh, sucking it into his dead lungs as though it would make him more alive. Give him that one brief hold to gain his footing and claw his way back into contentment.

But it didn't.

The air felt like wind rushing through an old, dirty vent. All it did was spread dust around and choke him.

<Strong is hard, and it's painful, and it's everyday...>

Strong was crap. It didn't get you anywhere but dead. Buffy had been strong. She had be so strong... His Buffy. Not his Buffy. Because he had left.

<You still my girl?>

Riley's Buffy. Dawn's Buffy. Willow's Buffy. Giles's Buffy.

Sunnydale's Buffy.

Not his anymore. Not his for a long, long time.

<Always...>

But she still felt like his.

Cordelia groaned behind him and his back muscles stiffened. He had forgotten he wasn't alone. And, despite the friendship and family that Cordelia represented to him, and the love he felt for her, he felt wrong. Wrong for sharing his grief with her. To her, he was just brooding about Buffy. His Buffy face, as she called it.

As if Buffy was just some old ex to be tossed out and forgotten. Just deal, she would say. And she would think she knew.

She just didn't understand.

<How's forever? Is forever good for you?>

"Angel?" The hand draped over his side started rubbing his back again. "Are you feeling any better?" she whispered, her voice barely penetrating the grieving silence, as though she thought him a breakable china doll. An antique dish that would shatter into pieces under the slightest stress.

Dust to dust.

No. No, I'm not feeling any better. Not at all.

"Go away, Cordelia," he groaned and curled himself up tighter, not caring that he was still on the floor in a heap beneath the bloody, cracked wall, bloody hands sprinkled with plaster. Bloody. Bloody. Bloody.

"I care about her, too," Cordelia tried to protest.

Hardly the magnitude that Angel regarded Buffy.

In this, he was alone.

He bit back bitter tears. He was through crying. "Leave me alone," he replied coldly.

Cordelia heaved a mighty sigh, and after a few moments of contemplation, she was standing up over him. "I may not have loved her like you do, which... would have been very gross, but I did care about her. And I'll miss her. Not like you, but I will." She took a few steps towards the door and then turned her back. "When you're ready, I'm here."

And then she was gone.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

He stayed there for an eternity of drips.

Opening his eyes, he stared at the carpet creeping up towards him like sponge moss, traced the grain of the floor boards and the white trim. Smudged paint on the walls -- he would have to get that fixed. That, and the leaky faucet.

There was murmuring downstairs again, but he did not expend the effort to count heartbeats, not caring how many of them were down there. He wondered if any of them would ever leave him be in peace. Just leave him alone.

That blessing was too much to ask. They would stay because they thought he needed comfort, but nothing they could offer would help.

A terrible pang in his stomach forced him to remember that he was hungry. He raised himself up on all fours, a lumbering beast, and dragged himself over to the refrigerator. Collapsed against the cool metal of the door, he drank the blood straight from the bag, cold and unsatisfying though it was. Substanceless.

As the empty packet slipped from his lifeless hands to the floor, he still couldn't bring himself to move.

And so he stayed.

Another eternity of drips.

Someone knocked on the door.

Angel let his eyes roll towards it, a victim in shock, but he said nothing. Perhaps they would go away and leave him to meld with the shadows.

Meld with the shadows and melt away.

Dust to dust.

But, just as with Cordelia, his lack of response didn't stop anyone. Wesley slipped into the room quietly, and Angel could see his eyes tracing through the tenebrous grief, trying to find him. His searching eyes slipped over him once, but then they came back, squinted, and Wesley took a step forward. The sound of Wesley's foot hitting the tiled floor echoed interspersed with the hollow drips of the faucet. "Angel?"

Angel said nothing.

Wesley, although not appearing any more confident then he had been when he'd stepped through the door, approached and sat down stiffly, right in front of him. Unblinking eyes. Staring. His face was warm. Empathetic.

Another sigh -- Angel still said nothing.

"Her funeral is tomorrow night. Cordelia and I are driving up in the morning with Willow. What shall I pack for you?" he asked quietly, and although his crystal blue eyes were dripping with ache, he said nothing else.

Angel squeezed his eyes shut. Took a deep breath. Another. But nothing would center him. Nothing. All of his muscles gave out until all that was holding him up was the refrigerator. "I don't want to go."

Wesley sighed and nodded. "I lost a very dear friend to a vampire once."

Angel stared at him. Not the response he had expected...

Wesley continued, "I didn't want to admit that he was gone."

Another heaving breath. A shake of his head, as though Wesley were having an argument himself, which, from the look on his face, he probably was. "I thought, that maybe if I didn't think it, it wouldn't be real."

Angel felt his chest clench up. He sucked in his breath.

<No tears.>

"Maybe it would all be a dream."

Not a dream. A nightmare. A terrible, terrible nightmare. And all he could think of was tiny, vulnerable Buffy, cradled in his arms as she blamed herself for her mother's death.

She had been alive, then. And she had still loved him. And she didn't have Riley anymore.

If he had Shanshued then and there, there would have been no hesitation. He would have gladly lived out those last few months with her, if only to be with her for those last few months. Instead, he had left, just as he always did. Left her behind. Assuming that she would be there, like always, when he got around to coming back.

If he had been there, would she have died?

"But it wasn't. It wasn't a dream, and my ignoring it made it worse, because I couldn't let go. I couldn't let go..."

<I'll never forget. I'll never forget. I'll never forget...>

Wesley's voice continued on, roaring above the endless stream of painful memories. "And it took me weeks before I realized how much I'd wasted his death. I'd made it an engine of my own self-pity. And that's not what he would have wanted."

"Wesley," he said, his voice turning soft and full as he impersonated his friend, "he would have said, go out and have FUN. Don't stop living on my account..."

"Buffy wouldn't want that either, Angel. I know, that it's hard. I know, that you want to grieve, and I won't begrudge you of that. But at least accept that she's gone. Don't prolong it."

And then Wesley was silent. He just sat there, staring at Angel with a look that offered only comfort. Companionship. No, "I'm sorry." No, "I know how you feel..." No, "You'll feel better soon..."

A single tear escaped the gravity of his drooping eyes. "Pack anything. I don't care..." he whispered, unable to trust his straining vocal chords with anything more voluminous.

Wesley nodded, and moved to stand.

"What was his name?" Angel asked, as Wesley's back retreated into the yaw of darkness.

Wesley paused and sighed, heaved his shoulders back so they stood straighter. Tall, proud. "He was this souled vampire I knew, once. He got a little side-tracked." Wesley's head didn't turn.

Angel's eyes widened, and his mouth fell open a little bit.

He choked a bit before he managed to acquire the air needed to speak. "He came back, though, right?"

"Yes, he came back. But that wasn't the point of this story."

Angel let his head fall back limply against the frig. "No," he whispered. "It probably wasn't."

*****

THE KEY

She heard Giles moving around downstairs before she was aware enough to care. He had been staying since... Since Buffy.

The smell of his morning tea drifted up the stairs and tempted her nose out from underneath the smothering pillow.

Buffy's pillow.

She eased her eyes open and swatted her brown hair out of her face.

It was comforting sleeping in Buffy's bed, smelling Buffy's lingering scent. Her favorite strawberry scented shampoo, combined with that disgusting moisturizing lotion she always used in order to keep her skin kissably soft.

With a reluctant groan, she dragged herself to her feet and stretched.

Another day in the life of the Key.

Another day in the death of Buffy.

A tear slipped down her cheek before she could stop it.

<Be brave. Live. For me.>

She sank to the floor and cried. Buffy, why did you have to go and die for me? I was ready... I was ready to go. I'm not even human...

A Slayer died for me.

A Sister died for me.

Her whole body was racked with sobs. Ribs slid along underneath her skin. Nauseous. She flew to the bathroom, but she didn't make it. Spasms. Wrenching spasms.

Vomit was all over Buffy's beige carpet, its acrid scent bringing her to shame as she sat there trembling. She wiped her mouth on her shirt sleeve, unable, for a moment, to bring herself away from the rug. The smelly, discolored stain spread out as the carpet absorbed her previous stomach contents.

Another hitching sob. Fumbling, she made her way to the hall closet and grabbed some bath towels. Paper towels were downstairs.

Underneath the watchful eye of Giles.

She didn't need to talk to Giles right now. He had his own grief to deal with. And it was all her fault. She doubted she was his favorite person right now.

Her fault.

Her vision blurred for a moment but she regained enough equilibrium to throw the towel down onto the floor and collapse on top of it. Another bout of sobs.

Three days.

Buffy had only been gone for three days. Gone. For some reason, she couldn't bring herself to say dead. Buffy had only been dead for three days.

That sounded wrong.

Sniffle.

She could see Buffy's eyes staring at her, turning towards the sunrise with that strange look of hope, and then back to her. Buffy had wanted to die. She'd wanted it.

All because of her.

If she hadn't have been made, Buffy never would have met Glory, and she would have been happy with Riley and... Mom. Mom would still be dead. That didn't have anything to do with Dawn...

Did it?

At least Buffy would have still been there.

Another sob.

She sat up and drew the towel to her, mindless of how soiled it was now. She just cried. Cried into it to muffle the sound. It stank, and it burned the back of her throat, and she deserved it. She inhaled its scent, sucking it inward with each devastating sob.

The doorbell rang downstairs, but she didn't care, until Giles actually answered it. "Angel, Cordelia, Wesley, good of you to come," he said cordially, but Dawn could tell his heart wasn't in it. Why would it be? He and Angel had never really gotten along too well, after... After.

She stood up abruptly.

Angel.

Dawn hadn't known that Angel was coming. It hadn't even occurred to her.

She immediately felt stupid for not knowing. Angel, of all people, would come. And he would be devastated, just like everyone else.

Her fault.

Snippets of strained conversation disappeared into the kitchen as she sat in front of the vanity, brushing her hair into its normal, straight, knotless hang-style.

She brushed, and brushed, and brushed.

She didn't know why. It wasn't like she was planning on going downstairs.

She wasn't planning on going downstairs.

Angel.

Not going downstairs...

And yet, there she was, standing at the top of the stairs, gazing down below. Something, something was drawing her downstairs.

Angel.

She could talk to Angel.

She had always been able to talk to Angel.

But could she, now, knowing that his pain was her fault?

Her socked foot started moving of its own volition, and there she was, standing in the living room with only two socks and a t-shirt on. Two socks, a t-shirt, and two puffy, bloodshot eyes.

She could hear Giles, Cordelia, and Wesley having muffled conversation in the kitchen. Angel wasn't with them. He was sitting there on the couch by himself, staring off into space. There were gauze bandages wrapped around his hands, which were both laying relaxed at his sides. No tension. Just... space. He was off somewhere in the o-zone.

"Angel," she whispered as she crept over to him and curled up at his side.

She saw him swallow. Once. Twice. Again. "Hi, Dawn. How. How are you holding up?" he asked as his slack arm wrapped around her and hugged her to him, grunting as he struggled to retain composure. She could almost feel the weight of sadness that was pushing his broad shoulders into a strained and breaking slump.

She inhaled his scent. He was always impeccably clean. Always reminiscent of soap. Always Angel.

Whimpering, she snuggled further into his chest. Like a big brother. She had missed him when he had gone. He was like Riley had been to her, except he didn't treat her like a kid. That was the major difference.

And it was all the difference in the world.

"I'm sorry," he choked. "I'm sorry I wasn't there..." Eyes, staring into space. Eyes always staring. "I should have been there to help. I could have..."

His voice faded off into nothing.

Something soft and wet hit her on the cheek, and she looked up. He quickly brushed the tear track away. She didn't think she had ever seen Angel cry. Scratch that. She didn't think, she knew she had never seen Angel cry.

His grief. Her fault.

It was odd to see that.

"It was my fault," Dawn whispered, hugging him tighter. Waiting for his words of condemnation to come. You killed my Buffy! You killed her! YOU KILLED HER!

She almost wanted someone to blame her. She wanted it. "STOP BEING NICE TO ME!" she wanted to scream. But only she seemed to be aware of how much she deserved it, and the words never came.

Angel's other arm snaked around her, ensnaring her in an unforgiving embrace. "Oh, Dawn," he groaned. She couldn't help but notice that he never called her Dawnie. No kiddy nick-names for her. Always Dawn. And, he sounded funny. Like he was sobbing, but he wasn't. Like someone was raking his words over a keening bagpipe. Weird. "Did you push her off that ledge?"

"No," she sniffed. "But--"

He cut her off. "Did you make the cut that opened the portal?"

She stared ahead at her, built in protests bleeding from her lips. "No... but--"

Angel paid her objections no mind. "Did you want to get cut? Did you try to get cut?" he asked vehemently.

Her hand flew to her eyes to wipe away a tear. "No..."

"Then it wasn't your fault." A statement. Neutral. Neither condemning, nor forgiving. Analytical, but friendly.

And yet, she still felt the need to fight it down to the wire. "IT'S MY FUCKING FAULT!" she wanted to scream. To finally let it out. "But I screamed for Spike. That guy wouldn't have seen him coming if--"

"Were you scared?" Angel asked abruptly.

Dawn was confused by the sudden change in conversation. "Yes," she moaned as new, fresh tears began spewing forth. Like her eyes were rapids and her cheeks were the waterfall. Yes, she had been scared. She remembered that fear, burbling inside her until all she wanted to do was cry, and scream, and sob, and pray that Buffy came to save her... She had been a coward. A coward sister to the Slayer. She should have been brave and not said a word when--

"Then I don't blame you," Angel whispered.

"But I shouldn't have been scared."

She was caught in that unblinking stare of his. That stare to end all stares -- the kind he gave you and you just wanted to die in front of him, to give him your soul... "It's not your fault."

"But..."

He grabbed her firmly and brought her around so she was sitting on his lap, facing him. "It's. Not. Your. Fault," he enunciated firmly, shaking her a bit with each belted syllable.

The feeling was odd, that weight lifting from her chest. "You don't think so?" she whispered, almost refusing to believe it. Her own, hopeful voice sounded strange to her ears. Like a whining child. Like Dawnie. Not Dawn.

A hitching breath made him shift. "No."

Tears again. Angel was crying. It frightened her. A lot.

She hugged him back this time. Hugged him desperately, almost clawing at his black cotton shirt. Black. He always had to wear black. Except he really was in mourning this time. "Please don't cry," she begged him.

A dry laugh. "It's not something I can really help."

"You never cried before..."

He shrugged. Shoulders drooped even lower. Weary look. "Wasn't sad enough."

"Oh." She looked down into her lap for a moment.

Silence.

"What happened to your hands?" she asked, pointing to the gauze bandages for the first time.

He looked down at them casually. "I was scared," he paused, regarding her, "Just like you were."

More weight lifting. A sad smile crossed her face and she fell against him, breathing a sigh of weariness. Angel heaved another mighty, staggering breath, as if he were struggling to stay upright, and his arms wrapped back around her as she settled into his cool embrace.

"How long are you staying?" she asked.

He shook his head. "I really don't know." He sounded as confused as she felt.

And surprised as she was by it, she found it rather comforting. She let out another soft, gentle sob into the cotton over his chest, and just lay there. A black, friendly sanctuary in a field of confusion.

*****

THE ROAD TO MADNESS

"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want."

Angel stared at the closed, mahogany coffin. The grain of the wood swept off into the darkness, muddled by the fuzziness of night, amidst a flurry of pastel-colored blooms cascading over the casket like waterfalls. Roses, daffodils, daisies, chrysanthemums, carnations...

And he felt cold. Still and silent, bathed in the chilly light of the moon.

He wondered what would happen if the wood encasement creaked open with an echoing moan and Buffy stepped out. "Hi guys. Fooled you there, didn't I..." And she would smile and reveal her new, dripping fangs...

For a moment, he found sanctuary behind closed eyes. Closed against the bitter chill, but not preventing it.

"Who's for lunch? Xander, you look meaty... Oooh, Angel. If I feed on you, would it suck out your soul?" Buffy was saying. Buffy was salivating. Buffy was.

The dank smell of cut grass pervaded his nostrils.

He hadn't just been contemplating that. He couldn't have been. That wouldn't have been Buffy.

No.

Very cold.

The wind was singing. A sad requiem if there ever was one. He knew they hadn't wanted to have the funeral at night, and he wasn't sure whether to be grateful or not.

"Where's a nice, tasty mortal when you need one? Angel, come bring me some breakfast..."

The single rose he held in his hand bit thorns into his palms, but he clutched it tighter, embraced the pain. Cordelia glanced down, worried, as red droplets of blood fell from his recently mended hands into the wet, green grass beneath him, but the humble priest continued, and she didn't want to make a scene.

He felt Wesley's presence nearby, behind him to the left. And he was grateful for it.

"He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters."

He was wearing a tux. The first time in a long time.

<You don't have a tux, do you?>

Buffy, I'm so sorry...

He inhaled the wet scent of death. Breathed it in and let it flood and drown his lifeless lungs. Filled himself with it and let it into his veins.

A storm front was coming in.

"He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake."

Funerals... In his life, he had only been to one. His own. There had been no reason to go to any others.

A painful realization.

<When I kiss you, I want to die...>

God, no, Buffy. I would have told you not to kiss me then... I didn't realize...

Willow was crying softly next to Dawn, muffled, into her hands, and Dawn was sobbing as well, but all of the other Scoobies held all their weeping in their faces with sad, crushed looks. Giles was staring off into space, as though he felt he could commune with Buffy that way.

Someone was fiddling with a ring on his or her hand, Angel could hear it as it scraped at the flesh. Bruised. Ripped at skin.

"Yea, though I walk though the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."

No comfort.

Cold.

A breeze ruffled around him, a cool whisper against his skin, and a ripple of thunder peeled across the clouds above, rumbling in his chest.

He felt his world crumbling around him. Tumbling down, and the view was spinning. Spinning. Someone grabbed him and held him upright. Wesley. Cordelia. Both of them had him in a death grip.

Standing, standing. Stand in the face of adversity. Stand in the face of death.

Stand at the death of Buffy.

"Aaaaaaaangel, where's my O-Pos?"

He started to shake. No, no, nonono.

"Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over."

Blood. Blood runneth over. "That's the spirit, Angel-poo. Think of food while I'm starving."

He took a step back. The others were starting to notice him now. "Go away," he whispered, squeezing his eyes shut with all the ferociousness of a kitten.

There was no denial.

He was actually wishing for...

"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."

Buffy pouted.

"All right, Angel. If you don't want me here, I'll go. Maybe I'll snack on the angels... Do you think they're as tasty as you?"

I wouldn't know. God, Buffy, I wouldn't know. And I never, ever will...

Please stay...

"Ashes to ashes."

"No, don't go," he whispered. "We can curse you..." he murmured, unaware that he was speaking aloud, and that Cordelia was working again with the back rub while Wesley held him upright. He reached out and could almost feel her there, fading away into the darkness. Fading away...

They would have lead him away, but it was over.

"Dust to dust."

And then he was back, staring at her casket, slammed back into the chilly darkness like a diver hitting the water from fifteen meters up. The crowd was slowly dispersing. People were giving him their condolences. Willow, even Xander... Giles.

"Thank you for coming, Angel," he said stiffly, and then the watcher was gone.

"Angel, would you like to--"

"I just. I want to be alone. Please," he pleaded, interrupting Cordelia's soft-spoken question. Cordelia nodded and lead Wesley off into the darkness towards his battered Belvedere.

He heard the engine start as they drove away to the motel.

The night was still new.

He stood and stared at the casket.

And stared.

It can't really be true...

And stared.

A soft voice interrupted his commune. "Sir, we, um, we have to bury the--"

"Go ahead," he choked.

The coffin was lowered. Dirt spewed forth with giant, metal shovels and heaving grunts. Still he stared, unblinking.

Dead.

He could tell it made the men nervous.

But soon, they were gone and he was alone again. Alone with the freshly turned dirt and musty smell of Earth.

And the moon covered over and the sky began to weep. Fat, wet, bursting tears that hit the ground with healthy splats and then jumped up onto his ankles from the developing puddles. He let them soak him to the bone, chill him through the marrow. Cold.

Sinking in the mud.

His long coat and sopping pants weighed him down with the sky's grief.

Cold hand on his shoulder. "I knew your gel-encrusted hair couldn't stick up all the time..."

Angel snapped into focus at the strangely melancholy voice of his grand childe. "Spike," he growled. "Get away from here. I'll kill you, I swear..."

Water droplets flew off of his face and spewed into the humid air as he let his incisors lengthen into tiny, needle points.

What Angel wasn't expecting, however, was for Spike to hit him clean across the face and send him tumbling to his knees with a jarring smack. A hollow thud resounded as Angel's supporting arms gave out and he was in the dirt. "In the state you're in, you couldn't kill yourself, and you're not a moving target."

Spike's voice was woeful as he collapsed into the wet Earth beside Angel, who was lying crushed and broken on the carpet of sopping grass. Little bits and pieces of green blades, cut from a recent pass of the mower, drifted off the surface of the green ground and stuck to his face and coat and hair. And he was wet and cold and alone, and he didn't even care enough to get up.

He didn't even have enough fight left in him to complain further about Spike's presence, as much as it would have angered him. Before. Collapsing, he just let himself relax into the wet, muddy, matted Zoysia. "I loved her too, you know. Don't think you have the bloody monopoly, Sire," Spike added, his voice shaky, but the nomenclature of Sire was uttered with such sarcasm, Angel didn't doubt it was meant to bite.

Angel heaved and curled up, in a racking frenzy of silent, dry sobs.

"She was a damn good Slayer," Spike said, his tone crying, even if he himself wasn't. "I would have come to the... Well, you know I don't do funerals."

Angel started to shiver and shake and tremble and quake, staring off at some greenish black point in space. Spike. Spike was in mourning for what should have been an enemy... Buffy. BuffyBuffyBuffy... Too much.

His teeth started to chatter.

Spike pulled out his lighter and lit up a smoke, inhaling loudly. "For you, Slayer," Spike proclaimed as he took a drag.

Angel found it hard to contemplate how the damn thing could stay lit as the rain continued to dump down from the clouds in pouring sheets, streaming off the planes of his freezing skin, beading on his hair, dripping off the point at the end of his nose.

Drowned rat.

The smoke stung his eyes.

For a long silence of silences, they sat. Cold and still. Neither one speaking.

And then Spike was surrounding him. "Come on, Sire," he said, this time not hostile or sarcastic, or anything. It was a tone Spike hadn't reserved for him for years. He was cradled against Spike's smaller, thinner body. "Get up, yah big poof."

Spike shoved against his ribs and shoulder blades, trying to get him to move. Tugged at his coat.

Angel had neither the will nor desire. "Just leave me for the sun."

Spike laughed sadly. "That's shit, Sire, and you know it. Get up."

Smack.

"Get up!"

Angel curled up against Spike's lithe body, closer with each prod and kick. "Will..." Lost and tiny and gone. He clutched at his blond progeny's sopping duster, latching on to the only familiar thing left.

Because it was all foreign now.

All strange and new and different.

And cold.

The shivering began anew and the world tipped upside down as Spike threw him over his shoulder in a fireman's carry. Not one verbal jab, nothing.

All was silence as two frozen bodies disappeared into the night.

*****

THE SEER

Cordelia pushed the door open to their motel room cautiously, eyes darting to the left and right next to the door frame, as many days of her life spent in Sunnydale had taught her to do. Too many creepy crawlies had bested her before the habit had become ingrained. But there was nothing. Nothing but the sound of the cantankerous air conditioner having another go at substituting for a jet engine.

Wesley, head down and in a slouch, plowed right into her.

"Watch it, watcher-boy," she snapped.

Wesley turned pale, and immediately began to fidget, flustered to no end. "Terribly sorry. I didn't notice that you had stopped."

She shrugged, letting a small irritated pfft! escape her lips. "Well, that much was obvious." Her growl of annoyance soon turned into a rant. "I can't believe we all have to share the same hotel room... This is sick. We could have stayed at the mansion..."

Cordelia closed her mouth when she saw Wesley's staring eyes narrow. "Cordelia," he growled, "Neither you, nor I, nor Angel is exactly rolling in cash at the moment."

She felt her skin chill at the tone of his voice. He was really angry... "Wesley, I'm sorry I said--"

"Look at Angel!" Wesley cut her off. "Did you even see him at the funeral? How can you possibly expect him to stay the night in... in that house, knowing what all it has meant to him..."

She backed off a step. "I said I was sorry ok? I didn't mean..."

Wesley was furious now, turning just under a shade of pure scarlet. Seething, more like it. His teeth were gritted, and she could almost see the proverbial smoke coming out of his ears. She'd never seen him so aroused -- a frightening sight when compared with his usual mild demeanor. "You're utter tactlessness, I can take, just fine. Hit me with it all you want. But when Angel comes walking through that door," he cried, flinging his arm back in the general direction of the entrance they had just come through, "if you don't shut your bloody mouth, I'll close it for you. Because he doesn't need this right now! And I will NOT have him repeating previous mistakes, simply because you couldn't keep your scathing comments to yourself!"

She had backed up as far as she could before the bed reached out and swallowed her into its grasp. Her eyes were suddenly burning. Damn it. Damn it. Damn it. She would not... BAM. There was the first tear. Her shoulders started to tremble. Hitching, she rested her elbows onto her knees and stared down at the blurring floor. "I'm trying so hard not to be sad, and it isn't working."

Wesley said nothing. She didn't dare look up.

"Every time I close my eyes, I just want to break down, Wesley. I... I knew Buffy. I knew Buffy. You don't have any idea how hard it is to say knew and not know... I just... I've already lost Doyle. Who's next. You? Gunn? Angel?"

And she started to cry. And cry, and cry... and cry. An endless, blurring fountain of tears. She felt Wesley's hand on her back, warm and soothing, rubbing up and down like her mother had done, when she had actually cared. Before the IRS.

"And I feel so guilty. Because I'm not really all that crushed that Buffy is dead, just that she's dead. She wasn't really a good friend of mine, we never really talked much... I just... Angel's falling apart and I feel like there's something wrong with me. Like I should be thinking the world has ended, too... I can't just watch him... I can't just..."

Without even realizing it, she was curled up in Wesley's calming embrace. "I'm sorry, Cordelia. I've been out of sorts as well. I shouldn't have snapped."

She shook her head. "Don't be..."

Mascara was running down her face, eyes puffy with red, blotchy skin, hair flat and limp against her scalp. She looked like death itself. And somehow, she couldn't bring herself to care. "I don't want any of you to die..."

Was that her? She sounded funny. Lost...

"I'll have to delete that appointment from my day planner..." Wesley joked softly in her ear.

She didn't know whether to laugh, or cry harder. "Angel's not going to make it, is he?" she asked, the weight on her shoulders suddenly too much to bear. Too much burden. She wasn't even twenty-one yet. This was too much for her.

Angel was, quite simply, a wreck. Like a big Buick hitting a Miata wreck, not the standard fender bender. And Angel was only so strong. The universe could only throw so many catastrophes at him before he finally broke. He couldn't keep bouncing back.

Wesley squeezed her shoulders, and she felt wonderfully assured, just by knowing that he was there. It seemed that he was the only one left standing after this mess. "Not if I have anything to do with it," he said.

"Sunrise is in seven hours. Do you honestly think that you can stop him if he wants to go be with Buffy? He was going crazy. At the funeral..." She sniffed, and burst into tears all over again. "I don't want Angel to die... He's the only best friend I have left..." Angel... AngelAngelAngel... Her whole body was shaking with fear for him. Fear, and hurt, and worry.

Wesley shook his head. "We'll go out in the car in a few hours if he's not back yet. He won't die, Cordelia."

She nodded, sniffling.

"Cordelia, look at me. If the worst should come to pass, the tranquilizer gun is in the trunk. He won't die."

She looked up, saw the determination in his eyes. And she wanted to believe him. She really did, but the sinking feeling in her gut was nagging her. Angel, if he were determined, would find a way. He would find a way, and then he would be gone.

But at least he would be happy...

"In Pylea," she whispered, "I told him I didn't love him. Well, I believe my exact words were, 'Not you, dumbass...'" A bitter, cold, frightening laugh escaped her lips. Tactless. Just like Wesley had said.

Wesley's eyes softened. "He knows you love him."

"I don't think he does." She shook her head. "I should have told him."

Enfolding her in his arms, Wesley sighed. "Cordelia, we all deal with grief in a different way. You're just making yourself worry too much."

"No. I've always thought that maybe if I had been more supportive in the first place, maybe if he knew he had people to hang on to, he wouldn't have fallen. I don't think he realizes we want to pull him back if he starts sinking. He's so used to being alone... He used to tell me, sometimes, what it was like, spending decades at a time without talking to another soul. Just existing. It sounded horrible... I don't want him to just exist. I want him to live."

"You should tell him that, then," Wesley replied.

She started rubbing at a familiar ache in her temples, squeezing her eyes shut, and for once, she was granted clarity. "Wesley, I'm going to have a vision," she stated, disturbingly calm. Serene. Unblinking.

He looked at her strangely.

And then her head pitched forward, the only thing stopping her from careening to the floor was Wesley's grip. She cried out, gritted her teeth, trying anything and everything aside from clawing poor Wesley to death to get rid of that terrible, blinding rain of spears upon her head.

<FLASH>

A red portal. Monsters. Help needed. NOW.

<FLASH>

She snapped her eyes open, the vision ending as quickly as it had onset. Panting, she struggled for equilibrium, swallowing repeatedly in an attempt to gain mastery over her nausea. The visions had been getting increasingly more painful as time went on, and this doozy was no exception.

But as soon as she was able, she was on her feet, shaking her fists furiously at the ceiling. "GOD DAMN YOU BASTARDS! CAN'T YOU LEAVE HIM ALONE FOR TWO FUCKING DAYS?!" She was so furious, she was trembling. Sweaty and nauseous, and furious.

FURIOUS.

Wesley laid a calming hand on her shoulder. "Cordelia..." he began, his tone uncertain. As though he expected her to lash out at him in a most painful way.

"Shut up, Wesley. Shut up!" she snapped, but her eyes closed in shame. Becalmed. BecalmedBecalmedBecalmed...

"I'm sorry, I kinda flew off the handle there..."

"I hadn't noticed," he replied, a grim stare that almost had her fooled, were it not for the dim twinkle in his eyes.

She returned to the bed and looked up at him hopefully. "An Aspirin would be nice..." she whispered, rubbing her temples as her ebbing fury gave way to a headache the size of Canada, with maybe even Alaska tacked on... Oh Hell, add the land bridge and Russia could join the party...

Before she could even blink, a glass of water was hovering in front of her face, encircled by Wesley's thin fingers. Two bi-colored capsules adorned his other hand. She grabbed the pills, popped them in her mouth, swept up the glass in a grand gesture, and upturned it. A well-practiced maneuver.

She noticed that, for once, Wesley wasn't nagging her to tell him what she had seen. "Ok, Wesley, you can say it," she groaned, squeezing her eyes shut as she waited for the inevitable--

"What did you see?"

She sighed. Right on schedule. "There was this red portal thingy with a bunch of green demons streaming through it. They looked familiar."

"Physical description?"

"Um..." She struggled to remember the blinding imagery. "They were green. Big. Funny hats. They had big red pimply things in the middles of their foreheads."

"Did they sparkle?"

She raised her eyebrow. What an odd question... "The demons? No..."

Wesley sighed that familiar sigh of 'why, oh why, did I get stuck with this job...' "I meant the 'pimply things'," he clarified.

"Oh," she said, suddenly feeling embarrassed that she hadn't understood. Of all the times to actually start feeling embarrassed about stuff... "Yeah. Real sparkly."

He nodded. "Mohra demons. Nasty. How many?"

"Um," she shook her head as if it would help her recall. "Uh... Six? No. Eight. Or..." She sighed, giving up. "A lot," was all she could narrow it down to.

"Where?"

"Would you believe it if I told you it was the department store I bought these shoes at? Funny coincidence, eh..." she mumbled.

"L.A., then..." Wesley appeared dismayed. And she felt right along with him. There was no way that Angel was ready to leave... Cordelia had expected to stay at least a week.

"Give this man a prize..."

Wesley walked over to the phone and dialed. She could hear the dull tone of a ring on the other end, and she lay down on the bed. Ahhhh. Soft. He peered up at the ceiling and appeared to actually be interested in the chipping paint before he was brought back to the phone. "Hello, Dawn, this is Wesley Wyndham-Pryce. May I speak with Mr. Giles?"

Pause.

"Oh. He stepped out?"

Pause.

"Well, you haven't, by any chance, seen Angel, have you?"

Pause.

"No. I'm certain that he's fine. We need to return to L.A. Cordelia has had a vision..."

Pause.

"Oh, no, Dawn. You don't need to go looking--"

Pause.

"Well, if you feel like taking a stroll, by all means--"

Pause.

"Yes, we'll wait here. Please have Mr. Giles call us as soon as he returns."

Pause.

"Thanks. And, Dawn? I'm sorry..."

Wesley looked down as he hung up the phone. "She's going to go out looking for him -- I can't say I approve, but, if she needs to keep herself busy..."

He sighed and collapsed onto his own bed, Cordelia watching helplessly. "Angel's not going to make it, is he?" she asked again, watching the grim look on his face with a pained one of her own.

Wesley shook his head. "I really don't know."

All that replied was the humming of the air conditioner.

*****

THE CHILDE

Spike staggered into his crypt, barely able to keep upright. While vampire strength gave him ample ability to lift his Sire, keeping him balanced over his shoulder despite his hefty size was another matter entirely.

The door slammed shut as he threw Angel down on top of the sarcophagus to the right, and he was greeted by the musty smell of dust and mildew. Death.

He cleared his throat, steeping back into the embrace of darkness. More comfortable there... "Are you hungry?" he asked as he removed his own coat, boots, and shirt.

Angel lay there limply, unmoving. He was crumpled in an accordion sort of way, knees bent and legs curled up in a not quite fetal position. His left arm hung loosely over the side, fingers spread limp and outstretched, as if he were reaching for something that he just couldn't quite muster the strength to touch.

The slouched figure of the once proud Angelus, heaved a staggering breath of air, sounding for all the world like a slumbering beast. Air, being released from long dead lungs. Ancient.

And still, no answer.

"Si--Angel?" He managed to correct himself at the last moment, only recently aware that he had fallen into that age-old habit. Damn it... He didn't need this shit right now.

Angel's eyes shifted from their vague stare to some point in space that could vaguely be construed as belonging to Spike. "Leave me alone, Will."

Will. Angel was calling him Will. Something lifted in his chest for a moment before he squelched it. No. He was not going to get into this Sire vs. Childe crap right now. He didn't need it.

He stared at Angel's crumpled form, noticing for the first time since he'd set his Sire down just how disgusting Angel was. There were grass clippings all over him, mud slathering his damnable sacred coat, a sopping puddle of excess water developing underneath his curled body.

And to his surprise, Angel was shivering.

<Anybody ever tell you you're a hell of a buzz-kill, mate?>

Without a word, Spike reached down and rolled Angel onto his back. The elder vampire didn't protest one bit until Spike's fingers were starting to work at the buttons of his drenched coat. Angel tried to curl away from him. "Don't touch me," he whispered, his arms flying protectively over his torso as added protection.

<You think you can come into my town and pull this crap?>

Spike felt his spine chill at those words. He shook it off. "Come on, you pansy, you need to get out of this wet coat..."

Angel grunted, but Spike caught his arms to prevent him from rolling away again. "I won't catch cold." His voice was detached, even, uncaring. Spike found it slightly unsettling after having grown used to his Sire always speaking with such ridiculous passion.

Spike stared doubtfully at Angel's shivering form. "Yeah," he countered, "but you're getting mud all over my bleedin' bed!"

Angel fell lax, as if someone had just punched the fight right out of him. Spike took the opportunity to rip the duster roughly off him, cursing only slightly when it got caught. He threw it to the ground with more force than necessary, and it hit the cold floor with a wet, hollow sucking sound, sending little droplets of moisture out into the air like an automated sprinkler system. Then came the coat of Angel's suit, followed shortly by the white dress- shirt. Off came the muddy shoes.

And then Angel was curled up again.

Spike frowned as he stared at Angel's powerful, quivering body. Normally, he would have equated Angel's gorgeous physique with a loaded spring board, just waiting to pounce like the predator he was supposed to be. Lithe. Deadly. But now, he was slack, and limp, and unresponsive. Almost like he was in shock.

This wasn't right.

"I'm stepping on your coat, you big prancing poof!" He started jumping up and down on top of it, little slurping sounds squishing out of the black mass with each landing. Spike grimaced at the array of muddy footprints he had left behind when he finished.

No movement from Angel.

A sigh, but nothing more. He looked paler than usual. Alabaster. A ghost.

Come on. Come ON! Fight back!

Nothing.

This wasn't Angelus. This wasn't even a poofy version. This was some strange empty shell that was just going through the motions.

<If you wanna just hand them over the threshold...>

Irrationally, he began to start feeling angry. "I miss her, too, Angel. You can't just pretend like you're the only one that cared..." he snapped.

<Come in, Spike.>

The admission made him choke. He had been purposely avoiding all mention of the Slayer, and here was his Sire, not there for even fifteen minutes and Buffy was already getting referred to. Damn Angel and his stupid soul. Damn his stupid chip. And damn Buffy for making him actually care!

<I'm counting on you, Spike. To help protect her.>

His eyes were suddenly burning, but he blinked it back. "Damn it, say something!" he screamed, punching Angel square in the small of his back.

Angel shifted a bit as the force of the hit moved him forwards a few inches, but he bounced back as soon as the blow was complete. Spike felt like he was punching one of those stand-up punching backs that bounced back into your face whenever you hit it. And Angel was trembling more, not less.

The great Angelus, reduced to this.

<Your were my Sire, man! My Yoda!>

All the power of Aurelius, here, in this shaking, broken vampire. "Sire," he whispered, leaning in as he brushed his fingers across Angel's silk skin. The word broke across his lips like china being dropped.

Before he realized what he was doing, he was lying horizontally, spooning Angel into a comforting embrace. "Sire, please. Please, say something..." he breathed into the back of Angel's alabaster neck.

Silence. Nothing but the dripping rain spattering the roof of the crypt, leaking down through the walls. Nothing but rain and soft breathing and stillness. No warmth.

Angel gripped Spike's arms tightly, encircling them around his chest like a security blanket. "She's not coming back, is she?"

Spike sighed, closed his eyes against the sudden, spearing pain in his gut that threatened to bring a sob up through his lungs. "She's dead, mate." He ran a cool hand up and over Angel's soft cotton undershirt, trembling as he felt washboard muscles spasm under the skin.

"Will." The voice was barely a breath above a whisper, and the tone sent chilly slivers through his unbeating heart. Angel's body bucked in his grasp, a soundless sob of grief. The great Angelus... Scourge of Europe. Crying over a Slayer.

Just as William the Bloody had been, keening over her body. The grief upon seeing Buffy's broken figure had just burbled out, screaming, crying... It slew him like the most cowardly of men, and yet, he continued to feel its threat, even three days after.

But Angelus, he wasn't supposed to do it, too... He was supposed to be the rock. The strong one that everyone turned to lean to, or be beaten by. His pansy of a Sire was crumbling. "She's dead, mate," he repeated, anger biting into his words.

Angel shuddered against him, muscles chording up and tensing. "I'm lost," he whispered, "I'm so lost..."

Scourge of Europe...

Spike grabbed him roughly and shook him as he bit back the tears. "Damn it, don't say that. Don't bloody say that!"

Angel immediately silenced himself and staggered to his feet, walked over to his muddy duster and actually put the thing on, stepping into his destroyed shoes as he went. "Hey," Spike protested, realizing belatedly that Angel was no longer in his arms. "Hey, you poof, what are you doing?"

Angel shook his head. "I don't know why I let you bring me here." He turned, stepped towards the door, leaving a sopping footprint where his shoe had once been. Another step.

Without thinking, Spike whirled around and stepped in the way. A barrier between the door, and Angel. "Bollocks. I don't know why I brought you here, must've been the grief makin' me jump in the loony bin, but you don't see me complaining. Do you?" He crossed his arms over his chest and tried to achieve a haughty smirk, forced though it was.

For a moment, his Sire was frozen there, his wide, chocolate eyes growing even wider, mouth hanging slightly ajar. Endless pools that you could reach out and drown in. And then the vulnerability was gone, and his eyes narrowed. "Shut up, and leave me alone..." Angel's voice was grated now, gasping for equilibrium.

"No."

Spike saw Angel's muscles coiling a split second before he launched, like an exploding canon. Angel was bigger, and older, and unless the stories in the demon underground from L.A. were false, a much better fighter than he used to be after the Soul. Much better. Powerful. Angel had almost as feared a name as Angelus, now.

Lethal beauty.

A growl rumbled in the base of Angel's throat--quiet thunder, but much more threatening. His Sire's face had morphed and was flying towards him at preternatural speed.

He winced, waiting for the blow to come, knowing that because he had put himself in such a vulnerable position, there was no time to avoid a strike against him. The air shifted above his skin, a lover's breath, but Angel had stopped. Hovering a hair's width above Spike's jugular, fangs extended and poised for a killing bite, had he been a mortal.

Taking the advantage of the pause in action and not questioning it, Spike moved to duck under Angel's arm and slide to freedom. Angel caught him -- a firm, unwavering grasp. He swept out with his right foot, moving to trip his seemingly distracted Sire, but the movement was stopped, just as before.

Angel inhaled deeply, nuzzling against him. "You smell like her," he whispered as he rubbed his face over Spike's exposed skin.

Despite the thrilled shiver it sent down Spike's spine, his Sire's manic behavior was starting to worry him. This wasn't Angel. But then, was he Spike? A year ago, he would have taken terrible offense at Angel's observation.

But now, he found comfort in it. Buffy... Three days and he didn't miss her any less. The first woman since Dru to utterly take his heart in her hand.

"Si--Angel, please..."

Angel pulled him closer, tighter -- a crushing embrace. A boa constrictor. "You smell like her," he said again, more torn.

Lethal.

Damn it, get away from him, you idiot. You can see what he's doing, just...

He sighed and relaxed into that long forgotten touch. Not since Angelus, the non-crazy version, had he ever felt such need from his Sire. Such utter need for possession. For love.

A lethal growl in his ear. Teasing. "Do you taste like her, too?"

Angel's cool, wet tongue flicked out and slid up along the jugular, the needle tips of his deadly fangs scraping little red tracks into the skin. Dots of blood sprinkled along the pink lines where skin had actually broken, Angel's firm hands kneading them to the surface, and on the down sweep, Angel licked them away.

"Jesus," Spike groaned as he fell back against the door, his vision carpeted with red dots of lust. He groped across the metal door, trying to gain some purchase. Any purchase... "Jesus," he repeated, trying to blink away the fog that was quickly developing.

Utter need for possession. Love.

<I'm counting on you, Spike. To help protect her.>

He needed it too.

Eyes closed, Angel fluttered across the jugular again and just underneath the jaw line. Barely touching, like a kiss from the breeze.

A growl.

Spike blinked as he felt a cool hand sliding underneath the rim of his black jeans, the touch leaving tingling trails of electricity behind it. He felt the muscles in his legs grow weak, trembling with desire. Angel's powerful body pressed up against him, pinning him between flesh, and the metal door.

Flesh and metal. Cold, and colder still. A breath of ice.

Angel shrugged his coat away, left cheek pressed and firmly rubbing against Spike's neck like a great cat, marking its territory. Buttons flew everywhere in a shower. They hit the floor around them with tiny hollow plinks as Spike tore away the shirt that covered Angel's alabaster chest. Cool, panting breath fell against his skin, evaporating the thin sheen of saliva that had collected there.

Eyes closed. Always closed...

"Sire..." He pressed his hand against Angel's heaving chest. A light touch, he traced a path to the navel, and then lower, skirting just above the button for the Angel's zipper, and then lower. The waistband of his black silk boxers gave way as Spike pushed further.

Cool skin.

His Sire was already semi-erect. Trapped by the confines of his boxers and pants. With a growl, Spike laid his lips over Angel's strong shoulder, jugular, chin, working his way up until Angel caught him fiercely. Rippling muscles. His tongue plunged into the cool depths of Spike's mouth, and then was gone, leaving Spike gasping in confusion and near pain of want.

The rough jerk of Angel's body and the resounding clap that followed yielded a left shoe, and then a right one, tumbling down the far wall to the floor. His wind was nearly knocked out of him as Angel yanked him back onto the sarcophagus, and he collapsed atop the larger vampire, reaching down. Down...

With a lithe, undulating motion, Angel helped Spike slide the elder vampire's pants off his hips, even as Angel worked gracefully at the buttons of Spike's jeans.

A tangled mass of powerful vampire, they writhed against each other. Angel's erection grew with the sudden freedom, precum leaking slowly from the tip. Despite his struggles of protest, Spike turned around straddled him, gripping Angel's length in his hand. Stroking. Teasing.

He ran his fingers lightly along the underside, base to tip while his other hand cupped and squeezed. Silk, sliding along the uncircumcised length. He gripped the base firmly, running his hands along the length with varying speed, jarring quickly between slow, fast, medium, building up the pressure. Building, building, until Angel was bucking frantically up against him, hands clawing mindlessly at Spike's back. The elder vampire was moaning, whimpering, begging.

And finally, he was over the edge. Angel growled with release, his face plastered with a mess of pleasure, sadness, and pain as he jerked with abandon, flooding Spike's hands with cool, milky semen...

Spike arched back, relishing the triumph, but strong arms grabbed hold of him and finally forced him back out of the straddle. He turned around as Angel's lips met his own.

Release.

"Buffy..." Angel moaned, eyes closed, off in some fantasy world that was his and his alone.

Spike froze, and abruptly flung himself off his Sire.

Angel whined at the lost of contact, and his eyes opened for the first time. That soulful gaze of his. Angel peered at him steadily, silent, tears suddenly developing in his eyes. Realization. "Will, I'm sorry..."

He didn't let the choice of names soften the blow. He couldn't. "Bloody well should be," he grumbled, wiping his hands on Angel's coat.

"You didn't... You never..." Angel never finished his sentence. He collapsed back onto the hard stone, wracked with a horrible sob.

Spike growled and threw the soiled duster over top of him, covering up that gorgeous, muscled skin. He couldn't look... "I didn't tell you to stop? My SIRE is screwing around with me for the first time in a hundred fucking years, and I'm supposed to say stop? Isn't that against the rules, anyway?"

"I'm sorry..."

"Shut your gob, wanker," he hissed as he frantically grabbed his clothes, almost shrugging his shirt on and pulling his pants up in the same, quick motion. His eyes were burning, and his own arousal had deflated quickly, but his senses were still heightened to an almost painful degree, as arousal always did to him.

Angel cringed, tears flowing freely as he rolled over into a shivering, fetal ball underneath his coat. "I'm sorry," he whispered again. "I got lost... I didn't..."

A tinny knock at the door interrupted the flaming diatribe developing in his head. Like a bird of prey, his head snapped around. No one knocked. Only Buffy ever stopped by, and she just barged right on in. And she wasn't exactly... she wasn't exactly in the position to be ripping doors down. Who...

Angel didn't seem to notice or care as Spike crept up to the crypt's entrance and pulled the door open an inch, ready to pounce. A puffy-eyed, brunette... "Little bit," he said, consciously blocking the door even more than he had originally.

She wiped her eyes. "Wesley and Cordelia are looking for Angel. She had a vision. I thought, maybe..." Her voice wavered a bit. Unhinged.

For a moment, he debated whether to open the door and reveal the other occupant, but Dawn was young. As much as he wanted Angel's image to rot, he couldn't do that to her.

Luckily, he was saved from making a decision. There was a rustling behind him -- snake in the grass. And then, Angel was at the door, peering over Spike's shoulder. "I'm here," he whispered, as if his voice couldn't get any louder. His eyes were bloodshot, tear tracks barely wiped away... He was a portrait of total disarray, but at least he'd managed to put his pants, shirt, and shoes on without much trouble, even if they were practically on backwards. The coat was gone, unsurprising though it was.

Spike grunted. "Good. Go home."

Despite Dawn's presence, he couldn't help but practically shove Angel outside and slam the door shut behind him, collapsing back against it and sliding to the floor as soon as their retreating footsteps disappeared into silence. With a heaving sigh, he crawled forward to his discarded duster, and retrieved the small flask from the front left pocket.

A strange, broken sort of groan fell from his lips, as he tipped up the container and felt the scotch burn its way down his throat. He emitted a breathy gag. "Damn it, Buffy." Another swig. Another. An endless stream of burning, screaming alcohol flooded into his system.

And the rest was oblivion.

*****

THE ROAD TO SANITY

Angel winced as he heard the door slam behind him, sending him tumbling back into the world with a hefty sigh. For a moment, he simply stood there, not knowing what had happened. One second, he had been trying to leave the crypt, and the next, Spike had been there in his usual obnoxious way, and he had caught that familiar tang. Buffy's own personal scent.

Most mortals didn't realize that, to vampires, they all had their own particular odor. A flavor. Some were tantalizing, some refreshing, others nauseating -- it was partially what made them all such captivating prey. No two were exactly the same.

Perfectly unique.

Buffy. He sighed. Fresh roses and dew drops. He could remember drinking that endless olfactory heaven the first time he had met her, and just about every other time he saw her. That soft, sweetened scent of long distant flowers muted with rainfall was one of the things that had pulled him back. After Hell. He had recognized that well before he had even recognized that he was home. Home.

Home was fresh roses and dew drops.

Spike had it all over him. He had been close to her when she had died. Close to her, where Angel had failed to be, and Angel had gotten lost in that. Lost in the glorious scent that was Buffy and only Buffy, raining across his skin, tempting him, taunting him, begging him... Touch me. Touch me. Love me...

Her skin had always cried for it.

He wondered if Buffy had ever known what that had done to him.

Closing his eyes, he winced, remembering, at first, all the too short days he had spent with her in his arms, by his side, and then he came screaming back to reality. Her face morphed into Spike's stricken features, and the guilt crushed him once again. He really hadn't meant to get so carried away, and he couldn't remember a time when Spike had looked so... Affected.

Angel was willing to admit that Will might be fighting on the side of good. He had seen stranger things. But Will's face. That slapped, biting, pained look. <I didn't tell you to stop?> That had cemented it.

And he had loved Buffy as well. An easy thing to do. He was surprised the whole world didn't come running at her, begging for just one short hour of her company. But then, he was rather partial.

Feeling his shoulders fall under some invisible weight, he bit back, a bitter grimace.

Buffy. Dead.

Dead roses.

"Ummm, Angel?"

He drifted down out of space with a reluctant blink and shake of his head. Dawn was tugging on his arm.

"Sorry," he whispered as the pain returned. Clarity was back, replacing the wistful contemplation he had enjoyed for those few seconds. He had felt almost peaceful, then. Now, the ripping, tearing feeling was back in his chest. Phantom pains? So real...

Was it possible for a soul to fall apart?

Dawn had lapsed into silence, and he couldn't help but notice how beaten she looked. Tired, and slumped, and puffy-faced with a metric ton of grief on her back. Too much grief for such a young soul to carry with it.

That was when he remembered that Dawn wasn't technically young at all.

Still too much.

Too much for anyone.

He understood, because he felt it, too.

She stared at her feet as they walked through the cold, dark cemetery. The air was heaving with mist and threatening rain with its angry fists, but no rain fell. For now. Distant thunder rumbled through the crackling air. He could feel it vibrating in the deep pit of his chest more than he could actually hear it.

After several minutes, she stopped. "What happened?" She was looking at him, blue eyes wide and curious, and for a moment, she looked like she had forgotten that the only reason he was here was because her sister was gone and she was never coming back.

Buffy. Dead.

He stared back at her for a moment, raising an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

She gestured at him. "Well, your coat is gone, and you're so covered with muck that if you were anywhere near to being your normal immaculate self, you'd be preparing to commit homicide, just to get into a nice, steaming shower."

For the first time, he glanced down at himself. His suit was ruined, the mud was smeared into the weave, little flecks of grass clippings and dirt spatters were all over him, like a second coat of paint. He had left his duster behind because of Dawn. He didn't need her to be guessing what was smeared all over it, thanks to Spike. But the rest...

He wrinkled his nose. "You just had to point that out to me, eh?" Letting out a dry chuckle, he was surprised to find that it hurt just to laugh. The feeling was worse than any curse could ever be.

She returned his chuckle with a small smile. "You're avoiding the question." She started walking again. "You know, you're usually the only one I don't have to remind that I'm not a little kid anymore. I can take it..."

He sighed. "Not this, Dawn. You can never be old enough for this."

"I saw you at the funeral, Angel. Who were you talking to? Are you going crazy?" Her voice was choked, and drawn, and cracking with such underlying sadness that he wanted to take her in his arms and hug it away. Just like he always had with Buffy when she was sad.

When Buffy was alive.

And then a terrible shudder of guilt. He had wasted her funeral with idle, desperate wishes, rather than communing with the simple fact that Buffy was dead. And no wish, be it self-serving or selfless, would ever bring her back. After so many years of it, he knew with intimate reality that death was a fixture in permanence. It was done, or not done yet. But never undone, at least not by any goodly means. Was this what it had been like for her, that summer three years ago? He hoped that it wasn't.

"No one. I wasn't talking to anyone. I just... came a little unhinged."

She stopped again, so abruptly that he almost plowed right into her. "You're not going to kill yourself, are you?"

He blinked. "No," he answered automatically. Pain, in his chest. Bitter, cold, crushing pain. Would he? Would he really? Perhaps he wouldn't even need to.

Cordelia had had a vision.

It was always so easy to slip up in battle.

He shook his head, realizing that for some reason, he was able to think objectively about this. Strange, detached, and cold. Like he had been before that night with Darla.

So easy to slip up...

Dawn sniffled beside him, bringing him back to life and the bitter night. "You are going to, aren't you?"

"I said no," he answered quietly as she pointedly removed his hand from her shoulder.

Her eyes hardened. "But you're lying."

"I don't know if I am or not." Honest. Cold. Brutal. He had never realized how harsh the truth was, until he saw its consequences reflected in Dawn's eyes.

The crushing. It felt worse, now.

She hit him in the chest and shoved away. "How can you say that? Buffy died so you could live. Buffy died for you, and me, and everyone else who doesn't deserve it, and you don't even want to let her gift mean anything to you."

A heaving, strangling sigh. "Dawn, I realize she gave a gift, but--" he choked, but she cut him off.

"But what? You want to return it?! Well, you can't. She's DEAD. Get over it, or I'll have to lose a brother too."

Shock. He stared at her for a moment, unsure of what to say. He hadn't known she cared so much... "I didn't mean--" he tried to backpedal. Interrupted again.

"How can you be so blasé about this? How can you just be like, 'Well, I don't know if I'm going to kill myself, or not, Dawn. I'll have to check my schedule and see if I can work it in and then I'll get back to you,'" she screamed furiously at him, her puffy eyes streaking with tears. Cascading down her face like tiny drops of pain -- each and every one.

Something set him off. He didn't know what, but something reached out and set him flaming. He started to tremble. "Yes!" he growled.

"Is that what you want to hear?" he continued. "That, even now, I'm contemplating how I can go into a battle and never come out? Do you want to hear that I was talking to some figment of Buffy at that funeral? That she was a vampire? Do you want to hear how I managed to get myself so wrapped up in what little that lingers of her on Spike's skin, that I mistook him for her? Do you? Is that what you wanted to hear? That I'm falling apart?! Well, I am. Are you happy now?!" He was shouting. Shouting, and he couldn't stop himself. The anger came forth, falling off of his heart in tidal waves.

"No," she answered, lower lip trembling as she slouched under his menacing glare.

He didn't even notice. "She meant everything to me, Dawn. Even after I left, for a while, she was the only reason I kept myself alive from day to day. The only reason I forced myself to bear the pain. And then, I started feeling the pain less, and less, partially because of Cordelia and the others. But she was still the reason. She was always the reason. And then when I found out I was going to Shanshu, that was one of the first things I thought about... That maybe after so much that I would finally be able to have what I want for more than three, heart wrenching years. But now, it's all gone. Gone. No reason. And if I Shanshu, what good will it do me? Give me a suntan?"

Tears were streaming down her face now. He stood there as the scarlet tingeing his vision faded away into the blurry darkness. Nothing but the crickets' orchestra made a sound to accompany their aria.

And then he realized how much he had told her. Things he had kept buried inside of him under the tightest wraps possible. His chest hitched, body spasmed. "I shouldn't have said that," he whispered. "Come on, I'll take you home..." His voice was cracked and broken.

Buffy. Dead.

He grabbed at her hand, but she flinched away. "What's a Shanshu?" She frantically wiped tears away from her splotched face.

His eyes widened. "I... My reward. I'll become human after I've atoned enough."

"Oh." She twiddled with her bracelet for a moment before looking back up at him. "You never told Buffy." A statement. Not a question.

He nodded. "I didn't want to make her wait for something that might not even come until lifetimes after her..."

"You should have told her."

"I..."

"She died because she wanted to. Not because she had to..."

He looked down at the ground as he realized what Dawn was really saying. That maybe Buffy could have been saved before the whole mess with Glory had even started. And he hadn't done it. For her own supposed good, he hadn't done it.

Crushing. Crushing. Cold.

"Dawn, I'm sorry, I really..."

"Go ahead and kill yourself. I don't care," she huffed at him and stalked off into the darkness.

He looked down at the ground for a moment, unable to watch her retreating. And then, he noticed that something was strange. Silent...

The crickets had stopped.

Head snapping up, he froze. "Dawn!" he called into the darkness, his preternatural vision assuring him that she wasn't far off yet. Fifty feet or so. "Dawn, stay where you are and don't move!"

At first she appeared not to listen. "DAWN!" Her steps faltered, and she stopped, apparently hearing the deadly seriousness in his voice. He sprinted.

Seconds after he appeared before her, a pack of eight vampires or so melted out of the darkness, practically slithering in the misty air. Growling at him, and her, deep and guttural and frightening.

"Dawn?" he asked, peering at the many sets of glowing eyes as he let his own demonic visage to the fore. "Don't. Move."

"Wasn't planning on it," she whispered. He could hear her heart fluttering in her chest, her rapid breathing. She was afraid.

He snarled at the apparent leader, who just leered back at him. "Oh, look. It's Angelus, the Slayer's lapdog. And the Slayer's sister. Hmmm," the leader menaced.

Angel felt the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. "If you leave now, I won't harm any of you. I'm not looking for a fight..." he tried to reason, knowing innately that it wouldn't work. It almost never did, especially with Sunnydale vampires. They were generally of a more stupid variety. The mere fact that they chose to live in Sunnydale with a resident Slayer said that much.

"Why? The Slayer's dead. She's not here to save your ass... Look boys, he doesn't even have a stake with him. Darn." Leader vamp cackled at his joke, sounding incredibly pleased with himself.

Angel growled at them, angry all at once that they were threatening Dawn like this, and that he really didn't have a stake. Why didn't he have a stake? This was Sunnydale. In a cemetery, for crying out loud!

He felt Dawn's small fingers poking him in the back. "Angel..." she whispered so softly that he himself almost couldn't hear her.

He didn't answer her, he couldn't afford to be distracted right now. There was no way he was going to be able to keep eight vampires off of her for long. If it was just himself, no problem, but... And, of course, there was the stake issue. "ANGEL..." the whisper was more desperate now. A small point was poking into his back, almost painfully.

A small point...

He reached a hand back and was greeted with a cylindrical shaped object. Sharp point. He prayed. When he brought his hand back around, it was adorned with a nasty looking, twisted stake.

Mr. Pointy.

Thank you, Dawn.

He growled at the vampires, switching tactics. "Why don't you just try me..." he menaced as he waved the stake in the air like a sparkler, hoping they wouldn't see through his facade.

Run away. Run away. Runawayrunaway, he tried to beam into their heads. And yet, he refused to falter. Not now, when Dawn was at stake. He grimaced at his own pun.

The leader appeared to contemplate the offer. "Get them, boys!" he shouted after a few moments.

Angel winced. Damn. "Dawn, if you get the chance, run. Just run," he told her, guttural through his razor fangs.

With a wild snarl, he went into battle.

The first three went easily before they realized what was going on, and then the remaining five, including the leader, jumped him at once, apparently preferring him as a target much more than Dawn. All the better.

He felt the beast rearing up inside him, for the first time since Pylea, and was amazed at the feeling of it inside him. He felt that he truly had control of it. It was his machine. HIS. His own personal instrument of death. And it was viciously more powerful that way.

One was holding him in a chokehold, wrapped around him in an anything but intimate embrace of violence, and biting at him painfully. As he felt the skin on his shoulders tear apart like a baked potato ripped open by a knife, he howled in agony and reached back with his arms, clawing at the enemy.

His hands came back with a head in tow. The surprised look on its face was struck away as the head quickly dissolved into dust along with the weight on his back, that familiar rip-scream accompanying its disintegration.

The two remaining vampires stared at him, open-mouthed for a second, and then they fled back into the night, no words of fright. Just blind panic as they retreated. Normally, he would have pursued. But not now. He turned. Dawn was still there.

"You run really fast, don't you?" he commented, irritated that she hadn't followed his instructions. He brushed the dust off of his shirt and pants, not that it was anything more than a futile effort. His clothing simply couldn't be saved. Mud, grass, and vampire dust. Probably blood, and certainly semen. The dry cleaner would have a heart attack...

He held the stake out before him in an attempt to give it back. "Thanks," he said softly as he felt his shoulders slump, the fury of battle draining out of him as through through a sieve. Tired.

She stared at him, mouth hanging open in a cavernous, maw- like gape.

"What?" he asked, looking down at himself. "WHAT?"

She blinked. Shook her head. Her eyes were still wide as saucers. "Are you on steroids?" she finally asked, crossing her arms over her chest in the perfect disproving posture.

He cocked his head at her, letting the hand holding the stake fall to his side in confusion. "No..."

"Oh." She shook her head and turned in the general direction of her house. "That was... That was... L.A. is that brutal?" she asked.

Angel sighed. "No. I've just been training."

"Buffy trained. She was never like that..."

Buffy. Dead.

Reality came roaring back. "She doesn't have a demon at her disposal," he whispered in shame. "She didn't, I mean."

Dawn shrugged. "Whatever works, I guess... So. Are you going to take me home, or do I get to still be mad at you and stalk off definitively?"

"Dawn, I..."

She gestured upwards. "You're going to roast if you take the latter option. It's getting lighter and the sky looks like it's clearing up..."

He looked up at the sky for the first time since he had gone off at Dawn. "Oh," he replied, a sheepish look plastering itself across his face as he ended with another heaving sigh. Heaving sigh. It seemed he had a lot of those, these days...

She was staring at him, and he could tell she was trying very hard not to laugh. "One condition," he said.

She raised her eyebrow at him, as if to say, 'you're actually going to ask a favor of me? Don't push your luck...' "Could I possibly use your shower?" he asked, hesitant underneath her glare.

But the glare melted away into a weak smile.

"As long as you save some hot water for me--you always used it up whenever Buffy let--" she stopped, visibly struggling to finish the sentence.

Buffy. Dead.

Angel chose to rescue her. "It's a deal."

After a few moments of silence, nothing but the crickets to fill in the gaps in the conversation, she nodded, turned, and started to walk away.

He sighed and followed.

He could be with Buffy later.

*****

THE HOMECOMING

"So, Angel, are you ready to go?"

He stared at the house. Buffy's house. They had waited out the day, spoken with Giles, who had offered to help with their Mohra problem, but they had refused. They had said their good-byes. No need to prolong it. Dawn had been sad that he was leaving so soon--there was no way it could have been avoided, even if she'd stayed mad.

But he wasn't ready to leave...

He wasn't ready to go.

Not yet.

He stared at the house, memorized each plane, every surface. The shade of green that carpeted the lawn, the broken floor board on the porch. Every detail, intricately carved into his burning memories.

<I'll never forget. I'll never forget...>

He blinked. Felt the cool moonlight on his face, stood underneath the sky from which the clouds had fled and left the night clear and crisp. The bitter chill of Sunnydale fell on his face, along with all the memories, bitter, sweet, horrible, wonderful. All of them.

Clean, warm, fresh clothes sagged over his skin. Inhaling the air, he closed his eyes. Fresh roses and dew drops. Dripping on the lawn, crawling over his clothes, floating out of the house, creeping into his pores.

Fresh roses and dew drops.

"Angel?"

"I don't want to leave," he whispered. "If I leave, she's really dead. And I'll never come back."

Wesley came up behind him and stood beside him, staring at the house. "Perhaps, it's best, that you do leave, then," he suggested, hesitant.

Angel opened his eyes. "I know. I'm sorry."

Wesley shrugged. "There's nothing to be sorry for. She was a very remarkable young lady, and I regret that I was a very unremarkable young man when I knew her."

They stared at the house for a few more moments of silence.

"Have you ever wondered," Angel asked, shifting on his feet, "what life would be like if there really were happy endings?"

"Ah, Angel, but there are. You just have to make them for yourself," Wesley replied, his voice suddenly sounding old, and wise.

"Sometimes, I just don't see the point in even trying, anymore." Angel couldn't help it, even though he knew he was probably bringing his friends down into his depression right along with him. He was probably killing them, too... He couldn't help it. So much had been left unsaid, so much undone.

Because he had left.

And now, he was leaving again.

He peered back at his car, his beloved Belvedere. The poor thing had traveled through other dimensions with him, and now Cordelia was sitting in the driver's seat, adjusting the mirror, applying lipstick while peering into it to test it out. "I'm not that grief-stricken. I can drive," he offered, even as his voice cracked and gave, and finally collapsed into nothingness.

Wesley nodded. "I understand. Really, I do, but she's offering her support in her own, special way. Let her drive."

And then, Wesley put a firm hand on his back, and guided him towards the waiting car.

*****

"Can I help you?" A cheery sales person greeted them with a bright, fake smile. The store was closing in fifteen minutes, it was more likely that she just wanted them out of there so she could get off-shift faster.

Angel looked between himself, Gunn, and Wesley, and then back to the lingerie section that they were standing in, trying to be inconspicuous. Three guys, two in long, black coats, one in warm-ups, all concealing weapons, although the woman didn't know that. Three guys, surrounded by floral prints and lace and underwear that could classify as just elastic with the barest minimum of fabric...

Three guys, who looked utterly clueless about what to say.

Cordelia made the save, dragging Fred out from behind them. "Yeah, Fred has been out of the country for a while. With the, um. In one of those third world countries. She doesn't have any underwear. Bleh, I know. She needs some. Angel, honey, close your mouth and stop drooling, dear, we made you come because you have the checkbook..."

Angel tried his best to play along and look like the unwilling participant. He managed a depressed scowl without much effort -- because it was actually how he felt. Close enough.

The bleached blond girl took it in stride, a knowing smile plastering itself across her face. "Oh, yes, I can help you. This is Fred?" she gestured to Fred, who nodded and smiled innocently. "Let's go measure you..."

She dragged Cordelia and Fred off to a far away register.

Gunn immediately turned to him. "When were you guys planning on telling me the portal was opening here? Hmmm? This would not go down with my boys..."

Wesley sighed. "Where evil lurks, we must follow." His tone was practically heaving with sarcasm as he took his glasses off and cleaned them with his shirt. "Really, I don't understand why women even bother with this..." He picked a thong off the rack and rotated it about in the light, looking at it with scrutiny. "Stuff..." he finished lamely.

Gunn whistled. "Cuz they look damn fine in them, and they know it! Why else?"

"I've always liked petticoats..." Angel said vacantly. His lousy attempt at humor was lost somewhere amongst the full- figured bras. He sighed, and slumped. He was losing his grip again.

<Yeah? Well, what if I don't want a friend?>

He had gained it back, shortly, long enough for him to leave Sunnydale without breaking down entirely, but this... it just wasn't working. Fred had been sympathetic, and there, and offering to help the second they had walked through the doors of the Hyperion to collect Gunn and some weapons.

<I didn't say I was yours...>

But it had only made him feel colder.

"Oh, darling, you'd look wonderful in the silk leopard print! Let me show you some of the newest styles!" The saleswoman had marched Cordelia and Fred over to the most expensive section.

Angel rolled his eyes, but Gunn actually looked contemplative. Gunn rubbed his chin, eyes narrowing. "She must work on commission. I can smell it a mile away..."

And then everything went to Hell.

The air crackled with energy in front of them, splitting apart into a gaping, scarlet yaw. Screaming lighting crawled out of the portal and snaked out, knocking over racks with its force, setting everything alight with the burning heat of fire. Angel tried not to flinch at its heat, his natural fear of incineration hard to subdue.

Wesley whipped out his mace, Gunn following suit with his favorite homemade battle axe, and Angel with his most trusted claymore. They were a walking triad of pain, quite ready to dish whatever they received and then some.

The saleslady was screaming as Cordelia and Fred guided her out. Screaming, piercing, shrill. Angel winced as the poor woman simply refused to take a breath -- it hurt his ears to an excruciating degree.

That was when the sprinkler systems came on and drenched them. Angel was slightly thankful for the wetness. The fires fought to stay alive, but they wouldn't last long. He hoped. Weren't undergarments required by law to be flame resistant, now-a-days? He couldn't remember if it was that, or sleepwear, or both... Or maybe neither.

The maw was growing, gaping, and suddenly an army of Mohras streamed out of the hole, like Armageddon itself. A writhing, crawling, snarling Armageddon. Angel felt the demon inside, clawing underneath his skin with razor tips of anticipation.

Tingly.

He blinked, realizing that Wesley and Gunn had already leapt into the fray, smashing jewels as they went. Two Mohras down. Eight more left, it looked like, but these eight were more prepared now that the enemy, the A.I. team, had acted and given away its fighting style.

A growl, in his ear. "Herald, the End of Days. The Slayer has fallen and the nights of a thousand deaths begin. Blood will coat the waters, and darkness will prevail!"

Angel's eyes widened at the sound, saw a flash in the corner of his eyes. Dodging just in time to see a great sword come screaming through where his neck had just been, Angel whipped out with his foot and tried to trip it. Unsuccessful. The hulking green beast grabbed his boot and flipped him on his back like a bird going for the soft underbelly of a turtle.

He rolled out of the way with a pained cry, letting his beast to the fore. He felt his features mold and shift into the twisted, gnarled face of the vampire. Strength. Power. He bounded to his feet, just as the blade came down into the floor.

Flames licked up around them, sparking and dying under the rain, but they were too severe. The sprinklers weren't working. Not well, anyway.

Angel growled at his assailant. This one was larger than the others, more skilled. Wesley and Gunn were dispatching the others with relative ease because, unlike the first time Angel had run across a Mohra, they both knew how to kill them. But this one was different. Somehow.

More skilled was only the half of it, if even that much.

It snarled at him and claymore met great sword in a screeching parry. Sparks flew off the old metal weapons as his claymore slid down the blade of the great sword. The large swords were simply not meant to parry, but Angel had the better end of the deal, with the flat part of his blade sliding down the razor edge of the Mohra's. His opponent's sword vibrated cruelly, whining in protest.

Sensing his advantage, Angel shoved harder into the parry. The Mohra grunted as its lethal, five foot blade was driven lower with the force of Angel's strength and sword bearing down on it.

"Together you were powerful. Alone, you are dead!" it taunted, catching Angel's shock with a vicious up-swing, Angel's blade almost being forced from his fierce grip.

<For any one of us that falls, ten shall rise!>

Angel flipped around and went for the Mohra's belly. Quick head count. Three in combat. How many had already been killed?

Seven. Somewhere, somewhere inside, he knew, even without being able to remember the precise headcount he had made before the fight had started. His gut went cold, and he almost froze up.

The great sword flying towards his neck woke him up, and he made a desperate parry. "Why are you saying this?" he cried. "How do you know?!" he asked it as he drove it back with a frantic thrust.

A vicious smile fell across its face. "Reversing time, does not reverse all, warrior. We still remember the blood of our warrior on your Slayer's hands."

He felt his head start to spin.

<I'll never forget. I'll never forget. I'll never forget...>

It lunged at him. Angel failed to dodge in time. He screamed as he felt the great sword slide through his stomach and twist. The claymore fell from his hands as he instinctively clutched at the blade that pinned him like a bug under a microscope.

He coughed, blood coming up.

The Mohra twisted the blade again, sliced it up a bit through his abdomen, and he screamed. As he was held there, dangling above the floor, the Mohra leaned into Angel, its hot breath cascading over Angel's pain-creased face. "For every one of us that falls..." It growled, gesturing grandly to the savage fighters that were still hanging on by mere threads.

Angel let his head fall back.

"TEN MORE SHALL RISE!" it screamed.

"HERALD, THE END OF DAYS! THE SLAYER HAS FALLEN AND THE NIGHTS OF A THOUSAND DEATHS BEGIN!" A strange war cry fell from its salivating lips, followed by the echoing cries of the two others still fighting, dark eyes glowing with the light of the flames.

It looked down at him. "You were to be our greatest warrior, our greatest champion. But the scriptures were wrong."

Angel felt his vision blurring as the water of the sprinklers beat down on his face. He could hear sirens in the way in the distance now, only audible through his heightened senses. The firefighters. They would all die if they came into this now.

With one last, mighty heave, he kicked out with both his feet, not caring that it put all his weight on the blade and made it cut into him further. "NO!" he shouted as the Mohra fell backwards onto the floor, obviously not prepared for Angel's retaliation.

With mammoth effort, Angel snarled and yanked the sixty inch blade from his stomach, shredding his hands in the process, before he managed to swing the hilt down onto the Mohra's head in one swift and deadly, fluid motion. Three explosions of dust at once, as Wesley and Gunn finally finished their last opponents off.

Mindlessly, Angel stumbled, the force of his will no longer strong enough to keep him standing. He gasped and fell heavily to his knees as an avalanche of pain swept over him, and he reached down. His gut was pretty much a gaping hole, bleeding profusely, but still nowhere near the gushing wound it should have been.

Wesley and Gunn were on him at an instant. "Get me out of here," Angel cried, wincing in agony.

Gunn pointed to the glaring exit sign was sputtering and choking, but futilely refusing to die altogether. "The firemen will be here any minute, let's go," he grunted, shaking off the streaming wetness.

The entire battle had been only a few minutes.

Angel was barely coherent as they pulled him down the stairs and out into the parking lot -- away to safety, away from the questions that the police and the crews were bound to ask. He gasped as they laid him on the ground on the far rim of the parking lot, only a single street lamp there to illuminate them. Knowing he was safe there, in the haunting glow, was somehow not very comforting.

"I'll go find the others," Gunn stated coolly, as he bounded off back towards the department store.

Wesley placed a hand over the wound, his face pale and worried as Angel tried to bite back his moans. "The..." he struggled, shivering with shock, "End of Days. End... of Days... Buffy... Ahhhhh."

More blood spilled from his lips as it came up from his wounded stomach and lungs. The dry whistle and the building pressure in his chest told him at least one of his lungs had been punctured.

"Angel, calm down," Wesley was saying.

Angel's eyes rolled back. "She was... supposed to be alive... for the End... of... Days..."

Cordelia and Fred were there all of the sudden, hovering over him, Cordelia practically in hysterics upon the seeing the fallen vampire. Wesley tried to make him comfortable while Gunn brought the car around, but nothing would help.

"Oracles... promised..." he grunted as Cordelia cradled him in her lap, tears streaming down her face.

"Calm down, Angel. It's all right. We'll have you patched up in no time. Honest. Please, please, don't try to speak. It's hurting you," she was babbling frantically, her hands stroking his face.

He struggled in her grasp, pores dripping with sweat, mind dripping with delirium. "They promised... p... promised..."

The blurring world before him darkened even further, and the he saw was everything moving in slow motion above him, Cordelia moving her lips, but no sound coming out. The last thing that occurred to him was that it was all very odd, because usually hearing was the last thing to go.

*****

THE CHOICE OF ROADS

Someone was staring at him, eyes burning into his face. He could feel it the second he woke up. And then he felt the developing ache in his stomach, ripping into him until it became a lot more than just a twinge. It hurt.

He felt cold.

"What?" he whispered to his watcher.

Something shuffled around behind him, the carpet scraping with bare footsteps, and then he felt the bed sink with weight as someone sat down. A hand brushed his face. "Hey! You're awake," Fred's bell-like voice stole away what little sleep was left in him.

Opening his eyes, he stared into the dim, hazy light at her. "Apparently," he answered.

"You really do heal fast..." she announced, her voice dripping with a certain amount of awe. "That looks like someone got you with a viper-blade, not the sword Wesley dragged back with him. I got stabbed once, see? It hurt so bad I just wanted to scream, AH!" she belted out a shriek and then got instantly calm. "But not anymore." She pointed to a long, jagged slash mark that went from her elbow to her wrist. Her lips dripped into a smile, eyes wide.

Angel blinked. "Viper-blade?" was all he could think of to ask.

"Uh..." She appeared to be in deep thought for a while, her eyes dark and intense. "I don't know what you call it here."

Angel rolled to his feet, letting out a groan as the muscles in his abdomen pulled along the still-large hole in his gut and stretched it open a bit. "Oooh," she said, "You really shouldn't get up, yet..."

He ignored her, even as the pain made him more than a little bit dizzy. The room was doing a topsy-turvy game of ring- around-the-rosie, with his head as the focal point, it seemed. "I'm fine." And he was on his feet. Beads of sweat littered his forehead as he wobbled over to the dresser. Maybe a shower would be better. A mental evaluation of his injury list told him that he was not going to be able to stand that long, but he shrugged the developing nausea away. He would take his shower and he would go back to see the-- "That's what you said before you broke all the bones in your hands, too," she replied, strangely objective. "I almost did that once..."

That made him pause. "What?"

"Approximately one minute after the thousandth time I tried to start the quaking and quivering."

"Oh." He didn't really know what to say to that.

"What'cha doin'?"

"I'm trying to get to my shower," Angel mumbled grimly as he scaled his way, inch by inch, along the wall. He could almost feel the warm water streaming down his skin. He had always liked scalding showers for some reason, maybe because they made him actually feel warm, rather than his standard operating room temperature.

Buffy had always thought his obsession with being clean was rather amusing. He wondered if it was more of an obsession with being warm.

He shook his head at the thought, still unable to reconcile 'Buffy. Dead.' with his memories. He was still unable to reconcile it with himself, no matter how many times he said or thought it. Buffy. Dead. It just didn't seem real. Nothing seemed real, even as the last vestiges of sleep were peeling off of him in agonizing layers.

"You might not want to take a shower while that wound is still open..." Fred cautioned.

Buffy. Dead.

He didn't really care about what he felt, at this point. He just wanted the shower.

Angel curled into himself as a biting wave of pain almost floored him. He gasped as spots before his eyes, but he blinked them away. Fred was helping him, at once, her hand on his shoulder, offering support.

<Yeah? Well, maybe I don't want a friend...>

He didn't take it.

"I really want to take a shower..." he said.

She smiled at him. "I like showers. Almost as much as tacos."

He winced. And then he peered around the room. It was dark, undisturbed since his brief time back from Pylea. The wall near the door was cracked, blood stains smearing the sheet wall that he had broken through to with a powerful rain of slamming punches. The little powdered pile of dust, caked paint, and smashed wall bits, was still heaped up at the base.

Hysteria, undisturbed.

The refrigerator humming... The usual drip, drip, drip of the leaky faucet. But despite that granted ambience, he heard nothing. Nothing at all. The overall silence sank in. Cordelia wasn't downstairs arguing with Wesley. No shrieking of metal as Gunn sharpened their arsenal of medieval weapons. "Where are the others?" he grunted.

"Oh," she smacked her head with the palm of her hand, as though she had forgotten a very important detail. "They're waiting downstairs in Wesley's office for you. I was sent to wake you up."

Angel frowned as he fell further against the wall, free arm clasped around his midsection while the other draped above him for some vestige of shaky support. He closed his eyes. "Why didn't you tell me before?"

"You wanted to take a shower..." She shrugged, that innocent look of hers flooding her big, doe eyes. Blinking, she gave him a second shrug.

"Never mind." He shook his head. "How long have I been out?"

"Two days. Cordelia was very worried," she said, her own particular inflection creeping over her words.

He scaled the wall another foot before he had to stop, and he hunched there, gasping. He heard her swallow and she looked at him seriously. "Who is Buffy?"

Buffy is dead. Dead. Dead. Dead.

He grimaced and continued, not answering.

Fred didn't seem to mind. "I know what you mean. I've never loved like that. I wish I did. The closest I ever came was Sam, in my sophomore year at UCLA," she prodded, tagging along with him. "I checked. While you guys were in Sunnydale. He got married to some nice girl named Cheryl."

Fred looked downcast for a moment, but then a smile spread across her face. "But don't worry, I don't mind."

Finally, he made it to the door.

"I know you want her back," Fred continued to babble. "I remember wanting home. I cried for it a lot. Sometimes I just curled up and shook, all night long, like a big, shaky, leaf trying to hold onto a branch, but then they would come and chase me down and I had to run away..."

That made him pause. He gritted his teeth and turned to face her. "Fred, I'm sorry."

She shook her head and smiled lightly, that same, careless smile -- like she didn't have a thing in the world to worry about anymore. "It's all right, I'm home now, I--"

"No," he cut her off, "I mean, I'm sorry. I'm not being good company right now, I'm just--"

"Hollow, I know. It's all right. I was hollow too. I used to wonder if my insides were all gone, but then I poked myself and I didn't explode, so I'm pretty sure I'm all there..." She made a show of poking her belly. "See?"

Hollow. That was a good description, and he was finding himself once again surprised at how perceptive she seemed. Sure, she was a little... strange. But everyone had their quirks.

He smiled weakly at her. "Yup. All there."

Hollow.

<We still remember the blood of our warrior on your Slayer's hands...>

Had he given it all up for nothing?

When he reached for the doorknob, the stitch that pulled through his abdomen was too much. "You know, Fred, I think I could use that help now..."

She grinned and let him rest his arm on her for balance, and they slowly made their way downstairs, into the office. Cordelia was sitting on one side of the desk, staring off into space, and Wesley was on the other side, nursing a steaming cup of tea. Gunn was leaning up against the wall, arms crossed over his chest.

"Angel," Wesley greeted him, the grim look on his face betraying the fact that whatever news he had, it wasn't good. "How are you?"

Angel glanced between Gunn, Cordelia, and Wesley, a wary look pasting itself across his face as Fred brought herself around to provide him more ample support. He hobbled over to the chair. "Terrible, why?"

"Will you be ready to fight again, soon?"

Angel grimaced at the thought of walking... But, fighting? "Why, what happened?" he asked, avoiding answering the question until he had a better grip on what was going on.

Cordelia was still staring off into nowhere. He looked at her more closely. In front of her, was a glass. Empty, but little droplets of water still clung to the insides. Her vacant look was tinged with ache. Ache, and pain, and horror.

"She had another vision, didn't she?" Angel asked, but he knew the answer. They didn't even have to hint, he could see it in their faces.

"How many Mohras is it this time? How many do They want me to kill. Hmmm?" He stood up despite the awful pull in his stomach. He groaned, winced, and continued. "Let me guess. A hundred?"

The anger was bubbling up inside of him. Why couldn't They leave him alone? He just wanted to be left alone...

"I couldn't count them," Cordelia whispered, her eyes lifting up to him, sad, and weighted with the bloody vision.

Gunn smashed a fist into the wall. "I say we get my boys and kill them all. They weren't so tough..." His lip curled upwards in menace.

"Yeah, because Angel played pincushion with the one who could actually fight," Cordelia growled at him, slamming her fist down onto the table.

Angel's world was spinning around him, even as he felt Fred's warm hands trying to hold him upright. He stumbled backwards. A step closer to the door. A step farther from them.

"Angel, I suggest you rest up. I'll try to ascertain what is causing the portals to open, perhaps we can circumvent the entire--"

Angel didn't listen to him. Something was beginning to bleed back in to him. Something desperate, and longing, and something he thought had abandoned him as the 'You are now leaving Sunnydale' sign flew by the side window of the Belvedere.

Blinding, painful want.

<I'll never forget. I'll never forget. I'll never forget...>

Buffy's long ago mantra flooded his head -- a riptide. He squeezed his eyes shut. He could feel her, clutching at him, curled in his arms as she sobbed, and sobbed, telling him that she would never let herself forget that day...

<Together you are powerful. Alone, you are dead!>

"This isn't how it was supposed to happen. Buffy was supposed to be here to fight this. She was..."

Eyes darting back and forth between his friends, he backed away even further. Only Fred was making any effort to keep him from bolting. His mind was racing. Racing away with a billion thoughts that could have been his, but were now fleeting away on the wind.

"Angel, I'm sorry about Buffy, I truly am, but there is a time that one must put his grief aside--" Wesley sighed, his eyes crinkling with sadness. He had been affected by Buffy's death, as well, that much was clear, but Angel didn't have time to worry about that.

No time. No time. No time.

<It's not enough time!>

"NO. We have to bring her back. She can help."

Cordelia frowned. "Bring who back?" From the look on her face, she was merely playing dumb and praying the answer wasn't what she thought it was.

"Buffy!" Angel replied. "She's supposed to be here."

Cordelia stood, at that. "Angel, don't," she snapped, prowling towards him with a terrified look on her face. "Just don't. She's gone."

He was frantically coming up with ideas. Frantically clawing for anything that might work. Something had to. The Powers had all but told him that Buffy was supposed to be alive right now, he was sure of it...

Positive. Almost burning with the realization that he should have thought of trying to get her back before. Desperation began to eat him away from the inside like acid. He was snapping apart. Dissolving. He could feel it.

"But we can bring her back. We have the ritual used for Darla..." he paced wildly, like a prowling beast.

"Angel, be reasonable. That is for bringing demons back from the Hell dimension. Buffy is at rest in the ether. Let her stay that way--"

"You're bleeding!" Cordelia was suddenly in front of him, blocking his path.

His hands went to the gaping wound in his stomach, and came back sticky and red. Funny. He didn't even notice the pain any more... He backpedaled away from her worried look. Gunn swept up behind him like a panther, but he dodged, and was dashing through the lobby. "I'm going to bring her back!" he shouted after them, mindless of the fact that he was bloody, sweaty, and barefoot, running around in a pair of old, ratty sweats. He didn't care. Not at all.

"Where are you goin', man?" Gunn called after him.

Angel didn't answer, running blindly through the Hyperion towards his car, skidding on the floor as his feet failed to purchase the slippery marble. He was running. Running. Flying.

Leaving.

But not before he grabbed an exquisite dagger from its place adorning the wall.

*****

THE SANCTUARY

His hands trembled as he struggled to light the match and throw it into the basin. He couldn't quite get the damn thing to strike right. The head scratched the grated surface, hissing as it slipped along the length of it. Heat of friction, but no fire. He growled. The match book fell from his suddenly failing grip, and he pounced after it like a big cat, bringing it back up to the altar. Just couldn't quite get...

<No! Oh, God. It's not enough time...> He let out a sob as the match finally flared, almost, almost able to feel Buffy's burning tears damp and trickling on his chest. The halo of light flickering up from the match head glowed softly in the darkness, and he could smell the sweet scent of burning wood.

Warmth.

He held the flame a bare centimeter from his pale skin, giving him the true countenance of an angel, but he couldn't see himself reflected in anything, even in the glowing ring on his finger. Not a creature of God...

Pupils contracting under the glare of the dancing flame, he blinked.

<When I kiss you, I wanna die...>

As the flame crept down the match stick like a twisting, fiery snake, he let it fall from his shaking fingers. A rip-roar explosion mushroomed upwards and flames licked towards his face. He backed away just in time.

"I beseech access to the knowing ones," he said, thoughts of Buffy never leaving him. Get her back, get her back, getherback...

Damp tears, on his chest. They were getting more and more real as each second flashed by. Wet. Salty.

Ache, in his chest. Familiar ache. A vice clamping up around his still heart.

He would bring her back.

But now, was time for answers.

The stones that covered the doorway melted into a harsh, flaring vortex. Screaming, gaping light. His sensitive eyes took a long moment to adjust, but he stepped forward, into the doorway.

The brightness flashed before him, and then he was there, standing in the marbled temple, a hallway leading off into the light. "I want to talk to you!" he belted out, ignoring the pain that it brought him.

His voice echoed off the walls and rumbled back through him, deep, and clear. Menacing.

The torches beside the entrance flickered softly, and the room glowed, but all that was there were two crumpled skeletons, left on the floor since their deaths, a year ago. Bleached, and alone. As though they had been left out for the vultures.

A gust of cool, haunted air blew over his skin, and he shivered, truly feeling the cold. It swept up around him in the silence, ruffling the sinew cob-webs, which were hanging from the walls and corners like flags heralding a celebration. They swayed in the breeze.

Silence.

He felt strange, like he was disturbing a graveyard. He didn't let that stop him.

"HEY! ONE OF YOUR WARRIORS HAS AN ISSUE! WHERE THE HELL IS CUSTOMER SERVICE?!" he shouted, cupping his hands around his mouth to give himself more projection. His diaphragm was starting to refuse him its use, and he felt it painfully begging for relief. He hunched over as a stir of echoes rumbled up around him. SERVICE... Service... service...

Another cool breeze ruffled against his skin. Cool touch, so opposite the burning wetness on his chest. He looked down and was surprised that his black shirt actually had a dark, wet spot over his chest.

"Damn you, come out and talk!" he screamed, committing his fist to the air in an angry gesture, but his voice cracked and failed. Only a whisper was granted to him, and he almost fell over as his abdomen swept him into a sea of agony.

He glanced around through the darkness, his eyes pausing on the bright light at the end of the hallway. No guards there this time...

Creeping forward with stumbling steps, he made his way down the hallway and into the light. It blinded him, and he tried to blink it away, but he couldn't see, no matter how hard his pupils tried to compensate. Searing pain lanced through his head whenever he tried to open his eyes.

His legs buckled and he fell to the ground -- cold and smooth. More marble. He felt forward with his hands, and kept crawling, even as he felt his cold blood spilling out onto the floor.

"Hey!" he whispered hoarsely, although it was an attempted shout. "I'm talking to you, whoever you are! Come out and face me, you bastards!"

Muscles collapsing all at once, he went from a crawl to a crashing halt. His jaw nicked the hard floor and sent itself ramming back into his head, the jolt flowing back through his skull like a shockwave. With a racking groan, he rolled over onto his back.

So. This was how they were finally going to get rid of him. He was important for the End of Days, only in the capacity that he was fighting for him. But now he was fucking with them and they were going to kill him off. His teeth grit together in anger.

"Go ahead and kill me. I won't fight for you anymore, anyway," he growled, but his voice came out in more of a whistling sigh rather than speech.

He heaved himself back onto his stomach and continued forward. "I demand to speak with whoever is in charge, here!" he called blindly. He couldn't even tell if he was moving forward because his sense of direction was completely flummoxed.

"You screwed up one of your prophecies. I'd like to return it," he cried, the sarcasm dripping from his voice in oozing buckets.

He clawed out with a hand, intending to move forward again, intent on letting his innards spill out into Their sanctuary. But his fingers met a bump, a raised surface on what had been for miles, it seemed, flat. A foot. Toes. Five of them.

"Why do you disrupt this temple?" a soft, bell of a voice swept against his ears. The feeling of her presence was like morphine. Drunkenly, he rolled onto his back as the pain left him, his eyelids fell open. Nothing but endless white, like blindness in reverse. He still couldn't see, but it didn't hurt to stare into the white void anymore.

He heard some shuffling, and could sense that someone was crouching over him. His shirt was lifted up, but he was too dazed to protect himself. Gasping, he felt five small fingertips as they brushed against his broken skin. The touch of a feather. Smooth and soothing against his pain.

"Warrior, you are injured..." she sighed.

The fingertips spread apart and collapsed into a soft, fleshy palm. Warm. Tingling. He felt it spreading from his center out into the tips of his fingers, and when he mustered the coordination to reach down, he felt the wound closing under his touch.

A flash flood of relief swept through his veins, and he almost let out an anguished sob. Thank you. He finally had audience with Them. He hoped.

The hand moved across his skin, upwards, caressing his chest just over his heart. "I am sorry I cannot fix this," she whispered.

Something wet dropped onto his face. Tears. He blinked, wishing he could see her.

"Please, bring the Slayer back, I beg you. Take me for her, anything, I'll do it. I swear," he whispered, feeling the tears form in his eyes.

Her hands were on his face now, caressing his skin like a lover, like she was fascinated with him. "The Slayer cannot be brought back. It is not within Our power to reverse the forces already at work."

"No. No. I can't accept that..." he said, shaking his head, but the world was spinning. This couldn't be it. He had come all this way for it... This couldn't be it. It couldn't. It couldn't...

Tears spiraled out of his eyes.

He felt warmth on his face, and knew innately that it was because she was smiling. "Yes, you can. Be calmed. In time, you will understand."

The glowing, tingling, warmth spread through him again, and he relaxed onto the floor in a drugged stupor. Bliss that wasn't his melted into his skin, and he shuddered under its burning, comforting touch. "You promised me she would be safe if I turned back..." he struggled with denial.

"We never promised you anything. You came to your own conclusions." She was cupping his chin now, running her fingers through his hair, fleeting across his skin. "I have not seen a Warrior come this far in so very long. I am lonely..."

"Who are you?" he murmurred, unable to bring himself to struggle out of her grasp and go back the way he had come, not that he knew which direction that was, anyway.

He gasped as he was pulled into a sitting position and hugged against her small frame. Silk robes fell against his skin and caressed his cheek with empty softness. "It doesn't matter."

He blinked, the murky whiteness before his eyes becoming even thicker, if it were possible. "Are you one of Them?"

The warmth of her smile spread across him again. Warmth. He almost felt himself give into her embrace even further, just trying to get more of the heat that radiated from her very presence. "The Slayer is safe." The whisper slid over the nape of his neck, crawled into his pores, and he felt himself relaxing further.

"You must fight."

Clarity snapped back into him. They were bribing him back to Them. And damn it, he couldn't muster the strength to care. He just wanted her back. More hot tears wet his face, but this time, they were his own.

"I can't. I can't," he chanted. A mantra. Running from his lips--a babbling brook of agony. "Bring her back..."

"She is not gone. She is here." He felt the palm, back on his chest. "You must fight."

"Bring her back, bring her back," he sobbed, losing all grips on himself as he blindly reached for whatever Power was holding him.

"Her gift was death. Her gift to you. It takes time."

Another smile. Her arms clasped around him and the warmth bled into him. He could feel it seeping through him, caressing his newly healed flesh. And then he felt himself being swept up in a jarring hiss of energy that spat him out back in the office, healed, and trembling at the feet of his friends.

The warmth was gone.

*****

THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL

Wesley stared at the book in front of him, but the ancient, musty-smelling text blurred and the words disassembled before him into a mess of letters that he couldn't hope to interpret. He ran his hand along the spine of the book, its brittle age making the binding crack a bit under the pressure of his fingers. Dread returned to the pit of his stomach with nauseating quickness. "He's coming unhinged," he whispered.

Cordelia was back at her seat, staring blankly. "I wonder where he went?" she asked, looking contemplative.

Wesley shrugged, his lips spreading backwards into a grimace. "Does it matter? He's lost... Whatever that Mohra said to him has sent him flailing over the edge he has been straddling ever so precariously." Wesley felt a headache coming on as he bent down and tried to look at the book again. To figure out some reason for these portals opening. Some way to stop it. But the motion was useless.

"It matters because he isn't dead yet," Cordelia snapped. "And we can still save him."

"He misses Buffy," Fred whispered from her perch on a nearby chair. She was fiddling with her long, misbehaving locks, twisting chords of it around her long index finger, letting it fall off into a free hang, and then working it around into a twist again.

Wesley sighed and leaned in to rub his temples with his aching fingers. Every joint, it seemed, was crying. Stress. "Yes, to state the obvious."

Fred shook her head and thumped her chest. "He misses her here. She's not here anymore..." She outlined her heart and frowned. "I missed my heart once, I thought it was gone, but then a scary monster woke it up again. Grrrr." She moved her fingers up into curled, gnarled claws.

Wesley stared at her for a moment, eyes narrowing. Not there anymore...

Cordelia growled. "Yes, again with the obvious... Buffy is dead. We gathered." Her burning words started as a vicious snap, but ended in a hitching, shaky breath.

Fred sighed and walked over to her, pulling her up into a warm embrace. To Wesley's surprise, Cordelia accepted it readily, and soon she was shaking in Fred's calm grip. "It's all right," Fred soothed.

Cordelia was shaking. "I can't do this. I can't watch him fall apart. I don't even know how to help..."

"You can't help," Fred said with a shrug.

Letting out a pitiful sighing laugh, Cordelia released herself and sat back down in her chair. "You're such a good pep team..." she murmurred, and went back to clutching herself in a hug, as though she felt like her insides were seeping out through her pores.

"The only way to help is to put Buffy back. Back here."

Wesley stared at Fred as she traced her heart again. Of course... He stood up and slammed his hand down on the desk. "Of course. Buffy isn't here!" he said, thumping his chest in an imitation of what Fred had done.

Cordelia collapsed in on herself, re-perching so that every molecule of her body was squeezed up in as tight of a ball as she could manage without strangling herself. "Great, Tarzan. Everyone is going psycho..." she muttered, placing her head on her knees.

"No, Cordelia, don't you understand? When we were back in Sunnydale, how would you describe Angel's relationship with Buffy?"

Cordelia shrugged and rolled her eyes. "Gropey."

"No," Wesley sighed and attempted to explain. "Remember the Christmas before the Ascension? They were sharing dreams..."

Cordelia shrugged. "So? That just means they were gropey on a metaphysical level."

"No. Nonono. What that indicates, is that Angel and Buffy shared a metaphysical connection. Their souls were literally entwined. It is logical to assume that that bond still exists, even if they may not have been acting on it for the past two years... I imagine it would still be terribly traumatic if one soul was ripped apart from the other..."

Comprehension was dawning in Cordelia's sad eyes. "Soulmates."

Wesley sighed, realizing for the first time, that perhaps Angel wasn't able to be saved. "Yes..." Angel was reaching for a bond that wasn't there, and he was in mental anguish because of it. It explained his manic behavior to a degree, although Wesley decided that a lot of that was regular earthly grief, as well. But, this whole situation seemed rather poetic, looked at it objectively and not from the perspective that Angel was slowly going insane.

Angel's soul was crying.

"So Angel is going to go all 'Where the Red Fern Grows'?" New, glistening tears formed in Cordelia's eyes.

Wesley ignored her reference and sighed. "Perhaps there's a spell in one of my books that will ease the pain for him, allow him to evaluate his situation rationally. We should enlist Willow's aid, she would probably be happy to help."

He remembered Angel dashing out in that terrible panic, and at once he doubted the capacity of a spell to work as a spiritual Band-Aid. Feeling a crushing sensation in his chest, he repossessed his seat, and proceeded to rub his temples again. Angel was dying. And they couldn't do anything about it.

He rubbed his chin. Struggling. Anything that might help... Was there anything? "Perhaps the ritual used on Darla would work with Buffy. We don't know for certain until we attempt--"

Cordelia cut him off. "Don't. Don't even think about doing that. We can't help Buffy. She's gone. Maybe we should just... Maybe we should just let Angel--"

"Go insane and suffer such agony that his time in Hell would probably be laughable?" Wesley finished for her, his face creased with pain.

"I didn't mean that..." Cordelia snapped, relinquishing her chair. "I meant that maybe we should just let him die!"

Her voice echoed and bounced off the walls, and the second the words fell from her mouth her fingers flew up to her face and she let out a renewed sob. "I can't believe I just said that. I can't believe I'm even suggesting..."

Fred was back. Rubbing her shoulders, making soothing sounds.

Wesley was going to respond, but Gunn came bounding back into the room. "Every one is gearing up. I'll have a full army of us ready to fight in a half hour. Are you sure the vision said they were going to pop up here?"

Cordelia nodded sadly. "Yes, I'm sure."

Gunn nodded and had turned to leave when the air started to crackle and lighten. The stapler and the hole punch on the desk started to jump up and down, clanking about and nicking the desk's newly finished surface with long, jagged scratch lines. Papers started lifting off the desk and fluttered around like butterflies in the air as books started cascading off the shelves.

"Earthquake?" Gunn asked, looking strangely undisturbed. "Portal?"

"I don't know, take cover!" Wesley ordered. Cordelia and Fred had already dived behind the other desk. Gunn dashed behind Wesley's desk and crouched beside him.

"They're early!" Gunn snapped at Wesley.

Wesley peered over the top of the desk. "It's white. It's not the Hell portal. I hope."

The light suddenly flashed with brilliance and sent them cringing backwards. Wesley squeezed his eyes shut, attempting to get rid of the lancing pain that his struggling pupils were suffering. And then, he noticed it. The shaking had stopped.

Angel was laying on the floor, groaning with agony. "It's so cold..." he whispered as he curled inwards on himself, shaking so hard that it looked like all of his nerves were simply firing at random, playing tag with each other, perhaps.

Every one in the room converged on the crumpled vampire at once.

"Angel!" Wesley cried, his hands on his friend's shoulders. "What happened?"

"They won't bring Buffy back..." Angel groaned.

With an iron grip, Wesley forced the quaking vampire onto his back. Angel was blinking frantically. "I can't see very well," he mumbled, squinting in Wesley's direction.

"Angel, what did you do?" Wesley asked, afraid that Angel had gone and done something they would regret later. Like, say, make a pact with the devil... That was well within Angel's current sanity levels.

Angel spasmed. "I went to see the Powers."

Wesley couldn't stop his mouth from tumbling open into a wide gape. His eyes widened. "You saw the Powers?"

Cordelia gasped before Angel had a chance to respond. "Angel, you're healed! Completely healed!" She had reached under his bloodstained shirt to check the damages and her hand had come back dry. Wesley hadn't even been paying attention as she had ripped the shirt away, so intent was he on gleaning information from Angel.

Wesley looked down at Angel's stomach. There wasn't even a scar. Not a single blotch or bit of puckered skin.

Angel grit his teeth together and attempted to stand. "She healed me."

Wesley grasped Angel's trembling shoulders and shook him, hard, trying to get some sense out of him. "Who? Angel, who healed you?"

"I don't know. I couldn't see her. She won't fix Buffy. She won't fix her... It's so cold here..." Tears started cascading down his face. He choked and sputtered, and began to collapse again, but Cordelia and Gunn caught him.

Cordelia wrapped her arms around him. "Is that better, Angel?" she sobbed, rubbing his back with her own, shaky hands.

He just started shaking more, traumatized.

There was a crash outside the door, and everyone looked up. "I'll check it..." Fred said, practically dancing out through the door.

A few moments passed before they were interrupted again.

"YO, GUNN!" A tall, lanky boy holding a bo poked his head into the room, not even bothering to take a second glance at the odd scene before him. "Remember how you told me to warn you if weird shit started happening?"

Gunn's eyes widened and he slowly turned to the boy, unblinking, muscles tense. Silence stretched on for an eon. The boy blinked. Gunn blinked.

Everyone blinked.

"Yeah..." Gunn began cautiously, his voice grating over the lower registers of human vocal capability.

That was when the screaming battle cries of about thirty young boys shook the walls, followed by a distant rumble that sent the precariously balanced stapler and hole punch careening to the floor.

*****

THE FRACTURE

Cordelia squeezed her eyes shut, crouching down over her Angel as what few books remained on the shelves went cascading to the ground. She could hear a vast array of running footsteps outside the office, shouting, and the cracks in the Venetian blinds covering the windows started to glow an eerie red. There was flashing. Lightning.

Wesley didn't pause. "All right, let's move. Angel, your claymore is in the weapons chest if you're up to it," Wesley commanded, the grim look on his face giving away the fact that he did not expect Angel to be joining them. As he grabbed his own weapon and ran out the door, followed by a worried-looking Gunn, he met Cordelia's eyes briefly, his blue eyes weighed with worry, and then he was gone.

Angel stared blankly at the floor, not even attempting to break free of her hold and join the fray.

She heard snapping wood. Furniture breaking like twigs in a hurricane gale. Glass, disintegrating into millions of pieces, every crystalline piece bouncing on the floor with a bell-like clink -- broken pearls falling to the floor. Growling, snarling, battle cries. Screeching, protesting metal agony of swords meeting swords. Dull thuds of maces smacking into flesh. Cries of pain.

And with every one she winced. She knew the odds they were up against, and doubted very much that all of that bitter agony was coming from the army of Mohras.

Noise. Noise. Noise. The cacophony of their very own war, right in the lobby and courtyard of the Hyperion, was deafening.

"Angel, come on," she tugged at his shoulder, trying to get him to move into the corner with her where they would be the most protected, should someone or something choose to wander in, looking for an easy battle.

"I don't want to fight anymore," he sighed, shivers racing along his skin in waves.

The soft, defeated tone made her tremble with worry. She didn't think he had ever sounded like this before. So... broken... And if what Wesley said about Buffy's soul was true... She hurt for him even more.

Cordelia sighed. "Not to fight, to hide in the corner. You are going to protect me if one of those guys comes in here, right?" she asked.

Angel stared at her blankly, but at least allowed her to tug him along into the corner away from the windows. She clung to him. "Angel, they could probably use your help," she suggested, trying to sound bright and encouraging as a body slammed up against the door and shook the walls.

He started to tremble again. "I'm cold," he whispered.

Cordelia stared at him for a moment, looked into his pained eyes, met with his soul in an eternity that lasted about three seconds. Woeful pools of chocolate brown stared at her, unblinking, and she felt a shiver run down her spine. How was it that he always did that...

Sighing, she brought him to her in an embrace, trying to let him feel her body heat. She often wondered what it would be like, not to have any body heat of one's own. Cold didn't even begin to describe what she imagined.

Cold was a wasteland, a barren, empty, vacuum of freezing, frosted steppes. What she pictured, was the absence of everything. A perfect void, where all you could do is freeze to death in your own pool of solitude. No sense of a heart beating frantically in one's chest, struggling to keep some vestige of warmth. Just... nothing. Dead. "Angel, what did they say to you? What did they do to you?" she whispered as she rested her chin on his head, his soft, brown hair cushioning her skin.

Angel shuddered -- took a deep, heaving breath. She could feel his ribs, scraping along under his alabaster skin with the mightiness of his gesture -- like he was struggling to stay afloat. "That I wasted my humanity on a dream. And then they told me to fight. It was so warm there..."

His crushed whisper quickly melted into longing. "Buffy used to make me warm..."

He was giving up. He was giving up and he was going to leave her just like Doyle -- she could feel it in the very marrow of her bones. The sensation started as a crawling ache, slow and oozing, and then it crawled up into her head and gripped her around the back of the throat, spreading out all over.

A stab of pain lanced through her. "Angel, I'm so sorry..." she said, tears returning. "I'm sorry that I've been so callous. What I said before... Or, more, what I didn't say... was wrong."

He said nothing, he didn't even flinch as another body was flung up against the outer wall.

She hugged him tighter. "I love you, Angel. I just wanted to let you know that." Before it was too late and he was gone, and she would spend her entire life wondering if he ever knew how much she valued his friendship. A tear formed in her eye and surrendered to gravity.

Angel said nothing, and she wondered if he even cared anymore. If it even mattered to him that she cared. Was it too late, even for that? Shaking her head, she ran her hands along his arms, trying to ease the tremors, but nothing seemed to help. He was like a paper airplane in a hurricane.

"Focus on that one!" she heard Wesley belting out orders. "You take this one! Team up if you have to!"

"I hurt," Angel whispered, finally committing words to the relative silence that had spread between them, but they were cracked and dying. Angel. Dying.

"Where? I thought you were fine..."

He placed a hand on his chest. "Here. I hurt here..." he said, and she realized all at once what he was doing. After all her begging, all of her pleading over the last year, he was opening the floodgates. Letting her in. Letting her be there for him in the way that he was always there for her.

Angel had heard her after all.

And then, as soon as the realization tumbled into her, she felt her own heart breaking. Heart. His heart. What magic touch from the PTB could ever fix that?

He shuddered.

All she could offer was her presence. There was nothing else.

Glass shattered around them as the bloody, mangled body of one of Gunn's men was tossed through the window like a discarded rag doll. She flinched away from the sparkling cascade of glass shards, but only froze entirely when she heard a cold growl of a Mohra following the dead body through the hole. Closing her eyes, she embraced her fate, a strange feeling marring her gut -- that Angel wasn't getting up to help her. As much as she had improved at staking vampires and bopping your general demonic pest over the head with blunt objects, she was in no way equipped to combat a Mohra, no matter how dumb in combat it was.

"Ah, I knew I could smell a cowardly odor..." the Mohra taunted, taking steps towards them with painful slowness.

"Angel..." she hissed, but he didn't move save for the tremors still raking across his skin.

It stepped forward.

"Damn it, Angel. Fight. Just one more time!" she snapped under her breath, giving him a shove. His body took the force into itself, and her movement's only effect was to have him slip a bit down her arm.

Another step.

"ANGEL!" she growled. Gave him another shove.

The large, hulking Mohra was standing right over them, his blade raising...

A vicious growl rent her soul, and she prepared herself for the strange agony of a slit neck, or perhaps absence of a head altogether, but no blow came. Angel's weight slid slowly off her until she was relieved of it entirely, and she dared to peer upwards. The growl. It had come from Angel. He was in full game face, already collapsing into a half-hearted fighting stance.

She was immediately struck with his failure to look lithe and graceful as he usually did. His form appeared the same, but there were subtle differences. It looked like something was pulling him down into an imaginary undertow that was holding the floorboards hostage. A weight, crumpling his shoulders.

Collapsing.

The Mohra just laughed. "So, the vampire wishes to fight now, eh?" It jabbed outward in a perfect, sweeping arch with its long blade -- nothing near as ferocious as the big, hulking sword the one that had skewered Angel the night before had been carrying, but still just as deadly. It curved like one of those big knives the guards carried in Aladdin. A scimitar?

Somehow, it didn't seem all that important.

Angel dodged the predictable sweep easily, if not stiffly, responding with a kick. "Cordelia, my claymore," he grunted as his foot connected with green, armored flesh.

Her eyes flicked to the weapons chest. It was on the opposite end of the room, but Angel apparently sensed her apprehension at moving across the floor so unprotected. "Go, now," he ordered and he snapped his bare foot up into the Mohra's wrist, preventing it from making another sweeping blow. For the moment.

She launched across the floor on spring-loaded feet, knowing that if she didn't get Angel his weapon soon, the fight would swing into the Mohra demon's favor, if it hadn't already. Her fingers crawled over the latch of the chest as another bone-crunching blow was landed. She didn't look up to see whether it was Angel or the Mohra who had committed it.

The chest was open in seconds, and her eyes widened as they wandered over the fifty-two inch blade. Well over half as tall as she was, and that didn't include the hilt. She hadn't realized how big the damn thing was. She was never going to be able to pick this thing up...

Forcing her adrenaline to work for her, she grabbed the long handle, and lifted, expecting it to be a chore, but it came up easily. It couldn't have been more than eight pounds, if that. She got the thing into a standing position, tip down into the floor, wincing as she pictured the half-dent, half- scrape it would leave in the recently waxed wood. Briefly, she debated throwing him the blade like they always did in the movies, but then thought better of it as images of decapitated vampires rushed through her head.

She turned. "Angel!" she cried.

The Mohra started to laugh, but Angel wordlessly rolled over and grabbed the sword from her outstretched fingers, knocking the desk and a few other obstructions out of the way as he went.

She flattened herself against the wall as he straightened up mere inches from her, hefting out the sword menacingly, and with a surprising dearth of effort -- even more awing now that she knew up close and personal just how big the damn thing was... His claymore was at least a foot and a half longer than the Mohra's blade.

She didn't know whether that was good, or bad.

Angel jabbed outward and the Mohra leapt back, dodging, but just barely, as it swept up to parry belatedly.

Angel. He wasn't saying anything. Nothing at all. He wasn't taunting or punning or anything. The silence of the battle amidst the relative chaos that swirled around them was disturbing.

She relinquished her death grip on the wall, and scaled her way back into the corner like a spider seeking refuge in the darkness, collapsing only when her back met the junction between the side wall and the back wall.

A large clatter. The Mohra's sword was spinning on the ground at her feet, and the large, green beast howled in fury.

Angel, taking advantage of the demon's distraction, did some wacky thing with his blade and swung the butt of the hilt up into the Mohra's jaw, crushing it backwards into his head with the force of the blow. And before she could even blink, it was over. Angel's blade was back around the right way, crashing down onto the Mohra's jeweled forehead like a judge's gavel.

CRACK!

Angel stopped, as if he were a toy that had suddenly run out of batteries, and he just stood there for a moment amidst the eye of the fray, where all was temporarily calm. Her eyes widened as she saw two more Mohras take notice of his still form with dripping leers. "Angel, look out!" she warned, just before they beset him from the left and the right, knocking down what was left of the wall to get to him.

Slow motion.

He had defended her, and now he was done.

Angel's eyes lazily swept up towards the oncoming Mohras as his claymore slipped from his lax grip, chocolate pools of relief. Cordelia screamed as both of their blades started their down strokes, and Angel just stood there. He just stood there. Stiller than still.

Surrendering.

His own, powerful blade clattered, useless, to the floor as his palms turned upwards and spread wide, leaving his entire torso completely unprotected. She saw his head tilting backwards, exposing his neck.

He looked like he was being crucified without the cross.

Her eyes widened, breath pounding in her ears as the cry that had fallen from her lips ceased and there was only silence.

And then the world sped up again.

SMASH!

Metal shrieked against metal, sending a shower of sparks fluttering down around Angel in a spray of hot steel. He collapsed into a kneeling position on the floor. Welcoming death. Gunn and Wesley, backs to each other, were standing over the suicidal vampire, barely keeping the blades of the Mohras off him.

Muscles bulged. A battle of wills.

And then in a skilled, twin maneuver, both Gunn and Wesley made a rapid upsweep which sent both enemy blades flying, and an immediate, ruthless down sweep, crushing each of the Mohra's jewels into their heads and sending them exploding into a shower of dust before they could even twitch in response to the loss of their weapons.

Silence. Every single Mohra was dead.

All of the remaining boys stood frozen, staring at Angel, who remained still, calling up to the ceiling with his outstretched hands.

Silence.

Angel's eyes slid open, defeat marring their normal, gorgeous clarity. "Why?" he whispered, looking first to Wesley, to Gunn, and then his eyes swept shut again as he stumbled to his feet, groping his way towards the steps.

"Angel," Cordelia called, dashing after him, pushing through the crowd of open-mouthed, young demon fighters.

Angel's faltering steps self-destructed into a forward tumble as he reached the banister. Her outstretched fingers brushed against his shaking muscles only to have him cascade out of her reach.

"I hurt," he whispered, turning to face her with the most crushed gaze. A look of panic fleeted across his face as he took an unnecessary gasp for breath, clutching at his chest. "Buffy."

And then he collapsed entirely, eyes rolling back into his head as his tense body went slack, Wesley, Gunn, and Fred melting into the silent space around him. "Why didn't you let me?" his groan tumbled from his lips, and he retreated into unconsciousness. Cordelia's hands spread onto his chest as she tried to assure herself that he was there and that he hadn't just tried to hara-kiri right in front of her.

But she knew that he had.

Her hands came back wet, but clear, and her eyes widened as she raised her fingertip to her tongue. Salty. The fabric over Angel's chest was soaked with tears. But Angel hadn't been crying...

*****

THE END

Wakefulness always had certain levels. There was the hyper- alert level, in which blood screamed only for battle, and scent was only for the kill. And there was the simple period between waking up and going to bed, where one went about his or her daily activities as they usually did, without a particular care or excitement towards anything except maybe the mere fact that he or she was alive. And many, many more betweens.

Angel hovered just above the too tired to sleep, uncaring, dull stare level, dancing along the razor-tip line between that, and whatever painful depths lay below. His eyes drooped into a dispirited gaze, the blaring red numbers on the digital alarm clock beside his bed blurring into a mess of color, like an artist had spilled his bucket of red paint across the air that hung thick and still before his face.

He didn't eat, nor did he breathe, or ever once shift his draped position, but every once in a while, if one watched close enough, his eyes would blink when the burning pain of dryness became too severe and biting, or a finger would twitch as his mind went into the throes of some waking nightmare. Hallucination, more like.

Buffy the vampire came to him, once every once in a once in a while, just to greet him and thank him for turning her... To taunt him for getting so worked up at the funeral. To goad him with warm, gushing bags of donated human blood. He merely shrugged her away, back into the misty nothingness from which she had come.

Buffy the slayer visited him once, and only once. The latter, he was sure had been a dream, because she had smiled, and said that everything was going to be all right, and that his gift was coming.

<Death was her gift. Her gift to you. It takes time...>

Cordelia, Wesley, Fred, and even Gunn all stopped by from time to time, worried looks on their faces, sometimes hushed conversation as though they didn't realize he could hear them quite clearly nor even assemble what they were saying into perfect, coherent sentences.

He just didn't care.

And, with the cold, stark oblivion that was developing in his chest, seeping out through his arteries and into his dead cells, he began to wonder.

When.

Such, was the way of things for what seemed like an eternity barely shorter than the one he had spent in the torturous grips of Hell. But things were never as they seemed.

The red smear of time hovering before him was suddenly a green one. And it was moving, back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. A windshield wiper on turbo-speed.

He blinked as the disturbed air fled into his eyes.

"I think you left part of your aura back on the stairs, because there's a big hole in it the size of Momma Cass..."

The green blur changed back into a red one, and then the red started bouncing all over his view field like a drunken fly. He blinked again, and the hands that were shaking him stopped.

"Angel cakes, the point of this discussion is exactly that. To discuss. I don't want to hear suicidal depression as an excuse..."

For the first time since he had let his eyes slip lazily open, Angel took a deep, monstrous breath, bones and muscles crying in protest at that small, token movement. "Go away," he whispered, sounding just shy of an old windbag's great grandfather windbag.

Weary, and cold.

"Nope. The Powers have flagged you like a neon sign in Vegas, sweetie. You're stuck until we've had a nice one-on- one."

"Go away," he repeated, curling onto his side, a leaf drying in the sun. Drying out and dying, brittle and shriveling into the light that was supposed to feed it. He wrapped his arms around his calves and pulled his head in towards his knees in a tight fetal position.

"Fine. Then I'll talk, and you'll listen. You're supposed to stay, you're in all of the important prophecies. The apocalypse of apocalypses rests entirely on the fact that if you're not fighting for the good guys, Hell will suck the world into one giant nightmare."

Angel stared at the lamp, this time, watching with an absence of curiosity as it melted into a white, rippled blur of nothing. White. Like the sanctuary had been. It had been warm there...

Would he go there?

"And I know that, right now, that may not seem all that important, but you have to trust me. Powers don't flag people for nothing. They want you alive."

Grunting, Angel clutched at his calves and thighs. At his self. "Then they can bring Buffy back."

"No. They can't -- that would be counterproductive. I don't think you're getting this whole concept of 'death was her gift.'"

Feeling bled back into him for that one moment, that one, precious moment. Numbed muscles and bones creaked, and shifted, and groaned, but he unfurled like a mummy peeling off dressings and turned towards Lorne, eyes narrowing with pain. "What kind of fucking gift is that? Is that the Power's idea of some sick joke? DEATH IS NOT A GIFT."

Except to me. Right now... He closed his eyes and wished the Host would go away and leave him to rot.

"No," The Host replied, shaking his head, "Death was her gift TO YOU. Emphasis on you. And if you can just not think about walking into the sun for a while, it might actually sink in..."

"How is Buffy dying a gift for me?" he asked, rocking up onto his knees as he gazed at The Host emphatically.

"They know how much I love her. They can't just kill her off like a damned cockroach or some other freak of nature, label it as a favor to me, and expect me to act like it's all right. I'm not fighting for them anymore. As far as I'm concerned, They can go shove their stupid apocalyptic plans up Their godly asses," he snapped.

His eyes rolled up a bit and he let loose a sigh, letting what little life had returned to him rush out of his system with his fleeting, unneeded breath.

"I'm not fighting for anyone." With the last of his breath, left the last of his cares, and the last of his hope.

The last of everything.

He collapsed onto the bed and resumed his commune with the lamp. He was out of tears. He was out of pain and guilt, and hunger and want and everything else he used to have. He was already dead.

And he began to wonder again.

When.

"Angel cakes, as much as I love you, heads just don't come any denser than yours... Trust me. One of these days you'll wake up from this nightmare that is Woodstock '99 and realize what she's done for you... Just... hang in there, buddy. We're rooting for you..."

And then, he was gone.

Gone.

Just like Buffy, and not at all like Buffy. Because Lorne could come back, if he wanted to. The Powers seemed to have put Buffy on their permanently deceased list.

Permanent.

A silence of silences, he lay there, draped over the bed like a jacket tossed aside. He didn't care. He didn't even care enough to pull the covers over him and hide in the soft, almost-warmth that they provided him.

And still, he wondered.

When.

Beyond that, he didn't care. Just... when.

The weight on his shoulders grew, and grew, and grew, until he could feel every inch of every pound of every vestige of grief he had ever felt, all compacting on him, crushing him, killing him.

When.

"Angel, I need you to hang on for me just a little bit longer. I'm almost done... Please, please hang on..."

Slayer Buffy stood there, misty, shimmering in the light of some otherworldly haze.

He felt something cool and soft trace from the knob where his neck met his spine, all the way down into the small of his back. Like the touch of some lost spirit, trying to gain direction. "It's coming, Angel. It's coming," she whispered, and even as he felt the brittle pain of want and need for her to be real settling in on top of all that grief, her lips curled upwards in a reluctant smile.

He heard the door ease open.

Soft, tiptoe footsteps as Buffy gazed at him and faded away into the void.

Fade away...

Peaches and wisteria. The comforting scent of Cordelia, wafted over his inert body.

"Angel?" Cordelia whispered, her voice tiny, and afraid, as if she expected to find him somehow dead, despite the fact that he wasn't dust.

Her hand was on his shoulder now, warm and fleeting, but he didn't turn to face her. She was there, and he knew innately that he should care, that he should respond to her plea, that he should leap up to his feet, smile, and tell her to never mind, that it was all okay, and that he would force himself to live, if only for her. But he didn't.

He didn't care. He didn't care. He didn't care...

Warm little drops of wetness spattered across his back as he felt her lean across him. She spread out, lay against the length of him, and he felt her arms snake around and grasp his midsection, clutching him tightly. "Angel, Angel, angel, angelangelangel," she breathed into the nape of his neck, and he could feel her salty tears, streaming down his skin.

"Please..." she whispered, as she sobbed into his back. Her body shuddered against his, like the beating of a butterfly's wings. "Please, please..."

But he couldn't bring himself to respond.

Dead.

Dead, he was dead...

And cold.

For an hour or two, she stayed like that, until her sobs were dry and nothing leaked from her eyes, until her grip couldn't possibly tighten any more, her halting breaths, unable to draw any more ragged gulps of air into her body. Until the soapy smell of his skin had abandoned her and all she had was the knowledge that it should be there.

Her long fingers unclasped, and she let her desperate embrace melt away. For another long while, she stayed like that, just laying there like something as dead as he was.

And then she stood -- a warm statue in a cold, cold room. Time stretched into an eternity of silence, equal that of her previous positions.

And then, even that semblance of peace collapsed, and her feet shuffled on the floor. He thought she was going to leave, then, but her hands were suddenly at his wrists, fumbling about. Her fingers were trembling so roughly that she couldn't accomplish her task, and she was forced to keep trying, over and over, until finally, she managed.

The small click as the locks disengaged echoed through the stillness, resonating against every pore in his body. His arms flopped back down to the bed as she let them go. "Goodbye," she whispered, bent down and kissed him on the cheek. "Visit me sometime, ok? Say hi to Buffy."

The wetness in her tears returned as she shook her head and turned to leave. She had already reached the door when she paused to take one last look back at him.

He blinked, and turned, meeting her with his sad, mourning stare for the first time since the nothingness had begun expanding around him. "Thank you."

Her bloodshot eyes widened a bit. She took a few, quick breaths in short succession, nodded, and then he was alone again.

He wondered, then, if he should have said anything at all.

But it was too late, now.

A heaving sigh brought him standing. Another, and he was walking towards the door. Stealthily, he stalked out into the hallway, hugging the shadows like he would a lover. Despite his emaciated and weakened body, he still had the strength to be a predator, one last time.

"Is he any better?" Wesley was asking as he set a cup of coffee down in front or her.

Cordelia was just staring. Cold, and dead, and staring. "No, he's not."

He could hear the tears in her words, even if she wasn't crying.

But he didn't care.

He couldn't.

He turned towards the end of the hallway, towards the stairway, not even pausing when he heard Cordelia scream in agony, in the throes of yet another vision.

It would be a thousand this time. A thousand Mohras versus Wesley, and Gunn, and what was left of Gunn's gang.

He didn't care.

He reached the roof, stared out at the sky, felt the wind ruffling past his gaunt body, whispering against his skin.

Peace.

The sky lightened, and he raised his arms upwards, outstretched as if he were trying to bring the wispy cirrus clouds back down in his grasp.

Peace.

Navy turned to royal blue turned to lighter blue turned to pink.

"Angel! WAIT!" Buffy the Slayer. His figment.

And only that.

A figment.

He stretched his arms up higher and fought to grasp the burning sliver of sun the moment it graced the horizon with its kiss, wavering with refracted, Los Angeles heat.

Wisps of smoke spiraled up from his skin, but the pain didn't matter.

He was going home...

*****

THE SWAN

Dark.

Everything was dark.

And peaceful, and cold, and nothing, and everything all at the same time. Her muscles were lax, nerve endings in a drugged state of euphoria, halted there in suspended animation as her life's energy poured out into a greater task.

The void, it drained her.

Nothing. Nothing. She felt nothing -- senseless.

But a strange sense of urgency filled her, growing, and growing, burbling out of her from every orifice, every pore, every duct. Tears of strangled begging fell silently from her. Please... Please... HURRY. From a millisecond, stretched an eternity, and from an eternity, spread several more eternities, into one long wail of endless, timeless time.

Nothing. Nothing. She felt nothing.

Except everything.

The last vestiges of her gift were drawn from her, the strength of the Slayer borrowed from her clutched grasp to make something truly amazing. A real gift. But there was that urgency again. Something had gone wrong. Something, something, something.

Angel. WAIT!!!

Her mouth poured open, screaming endless frantic pleading cries.

Wait! WAITWAITWAITWAIT! I'm NOT QUITE FINISHED!

Had it been too late?

Electricity jolted her out of her mindless confusion, and her body whipped backwards and then righted itself as a shiver of sensation flew through her tired, aching muscles.

"Your gift has been passed."

The echo of some greater power boomed around her ears, rumbling and echoing against her, but was almost lost in the din of the swirling, spinning, white vortex that hugged her inside its tight embrace.

The energy crackled around her, and she spasmed in the darkness, coming into the light like a child bursting from the womb. Writhing, there was the sudden sensation of freefall. She felt like vomiting as she plunged downward, the ground rushing towards her as she committed to the furious clutches of gravity.

Falling, falling, falling.

Ground.

The wind was the first thing to get knocked out of her in a jarring, crunching, smack -- a wet fish flopping on the pavement. Her ribs cracked with the impact-- a terrible sound in her ears, like dry twigs being broken in half. Her tailbone succumbed, followed by a few major internal organs.

She cried out in pain, but all that came was a gurgling, bloody squeak. After several false starts, her diaphragm corrected itself. The black stars fluttering around before her got replaced by lightning streaks of pain as she inhaled.

Gasping.

She couldn't move.

"BUFFY!" Giles screamed. "Xander, call the paramedics. Willow, Tara..."

A shriek. Dawn.

Footsteps, running towards her, pounding on the pavement like the beating of a dove's wings.

Echo. Echo. Echo...

"Bloody Hell, why didn't I buy a bloody cell phone, damn it, damn it..." her watcher was cursing himself, his voice shaky, terrified, as his body melted into her field of view, but flamboyant shooting stars and visual screams of pain blocked her sight, for the most part.

She arched backwards and began to choke.

"Giles..." she squeaked.

"Shhh, Buffy don't try to speak." Giles sounded frantic, afraid. His hands were running lovingly through her hair, as if he expected her to not really be there. "Don't move. You've got broken bones..." His voice cracked.

She choked again, trying to get the words out.

Something she needed to say... Something, something, something...

"SHHH, Buffy, stay quiet. Please, please, you'll be all right... Bloody cell phone! Damn it, damn it, damn it..."

She didn't heed his begging, didn't listen. Had to... "Get Angel, oh my God, Angel, call him... now..." she managed to belt out, sounding like some sort of dying accordion on its last breaths of musical greatness as the air wheezed out through her perforated innards.

"Slayer! Oh my bloody fucking Hell, Slayer, Slayer, Slayer, what can I do to help?" Spike was hovering above her. "Giles, what can I do? WHAT CAN I DO?"

Why was every one so frantic?

"Angel, Angel, Angel, Angel," she chanted, shaking her head back and forth, trying to get them to understand her. She spasmed, arching backwards again, like a seizure victim. Please, please, please, understand.

"The paramedics... are on... their way..." Pant. Pant. Pant. The sound of Xander, frantic.

Every one. Frantic.

"Willow, do you know a healing spell? Anything that might dull the pain?" Giles was asking.

Mumbled chanting, and Buffy saw a glow, feeling her pain fade away into a convulsion of bliss. Her panic was slowly leaving her, but she struggled to keep it close to her breast. "Please, get Angel. Angel, Angel, Angel..."

"What's she saying?" Dawn's tiny hand had taken hers. "Buffy, don't die now... don't die..." she was whispering, tiny breaths of air puffing over her young, pale lips.

Somewhere, Buffy garnered the strength to squeeze the hand wrapped around hers. "Angel," she tried one more time.

Finally, someone comprehended.

"Angel. She wants Peaches," Spike said, no hint of jealousy or malice in his tone. He sounded oddly detached.

"Call him, call him, call him," she chanted.

"Shhh, Buffy, don't try to talk any more. We'll get a hold of him," Willow assured her with a weak smile. "I cross my heart and hope to die, I'll call him as soon as the paramedics come."

"NOW!" she grunted, her breath coming in short, painful, gurgling gasps.

Willow's smile slipped into a frown, and she turned to look at Xander and the others.

"Where'd you find that bloody payphone, wanker?" Spike asked.

Xander cleared his throat, not responding to the insult. "Just down that way, two minutes if you run..."

He pointed somewhere. She couldn't see.

She couldn't see.

"All right, Slayer. I'll go ring him up."

Spike disappeared.

That was all she needed.

Relaxing into the comforting circle of her closest friends, she let the blackness slip towards her and take her in its womb.

*****

He sat there, staring. Listening...

Soft breaths came from her pale, broken body, and her face was smooth and relaxed with sleep. Her chest rose, and fell. Rose, and fell, with each, shallow inhalation of life. Life that was monitored with the repetitive, hollow beeps that echoed through the room, bouncing off the walls and into the depths of the surrounding silence. But he didn't pay much attention to them. All that they monitored was the powerhouse that was her heart, and he didn't doubt any longer that it would fail to keep her there with them, to live, breath... To slay.

Practically his daughter.

That's what she was.

Practically his daughter.

He took her warm hand in his own, and just sat there, gazing at her with aged, weary eyes. He was firmly convinced this was a miracle from above, because he had seen her face going into that battle. He had touched the hopelessness that had dripped off her skin in suffocating sheets. He had seen its chokehold on her heart.

<It doesn't matter. If Dawn dies, then I'm done with it. I'm quitting.>

For all intents and purposes, she should have been dead.

Should have...

The portal was closed, all the remnants of Hell that had spewed forth with it retreating back into the void, and from what Dawn had told him through heaving, choking, hysterical sobs, that Summer's blood was the cure, and that Buffy had intended to take Dawn's place in order to close it, the wrecked, but surviving young girl who lay deathly still before him should have been dead.

Buffy had been slated to die for Dawn, he was sure of it.

<The Spirit Guide told me that death was my gift.>

More sure than anything ever in his life, and yet, here was Buffy, in stable condition, injuries healing inexplicably fast, and too exhausted to stay awake despite her previous distress over Angel. But in stable condition. No portal, no world being sucked into Hell. Just a very tired, very weak, Buffy, cocooned in an immaculate swell of white sheets. A mummy. Dead to the world, but not dead.

It made absolutely no sense whatsoever. None.

And then there was Angel. Buffy had been frantic, not allowing herself to fall asleep again until she was sure, absolutely positive, that someone was going to get him. He had never seen such unchecked panic--it had been bleeding off of her and strangling the air around her in a thick, dismal cloud of confusion. Panic.

What did Angel have to do with all of this?

Save for the passing mention, she never talked about him. No one did. For two years, she had talked about Angel so infrequently that he could probably count the number of times on his own two hands, if it even required that much. She had simply shut down when he left.

<I sacrificed Angel to save the world...>

It was the first time she had really talked to him about it, since then... Since graduation...

"Giles?"

Her voice was cracked, and barely there, but he heard it, and he snapped out of his confused daze.

For a moment, he was silent. He could feel the need to speak bubbling inside him, ready to spew forth, until everything dumped out of his memory registers at once. "Buffy! I'm here, every one made it, we're all fine, the portal is closed, Glory is dead. Dawn is still very shaken, but she's coping, nothing to worry about," he summarized before the questions could even begin tumbling from her pale lips.

His response drew a weak smile from her, and he felt her lightly squeeze his hand, but, that look of strange panic began to cloud her eyes again. They widened as she got a good grasp of her sterile surroundings.

"Angel," she gasped. And the questions began. "Is he coming?" They started slowly at first, but then they were releasing themselves with abandon, cascading from her mouth as though she had lost all control of her verbal functions. "Is he all right? Where is he? You did call him, right? Why isn't he here yet?"

Giles looked down into his lap, unsure about what to tell her. He took a deep, calming breath, trying to summon the strength to tell her what she probably least wanted to hear. "Spike said that no one at Angel Investigations was picking up the phone."

Buffy crumpled. She looked as though he had actually taken a hand and struck her with it, abusive, cold, and uncaring. He felt terrible. "He and Willow started driving to Los Angeles the second the doctors said you were going to be fine."

His words, which were meant to be comforting, weren't interpreted nearly as such. She crumpled more, her pale, ashen face drawing into a pained, grim look of hopelessness, her weak grip on his hand going completely slack. "I was too late."

"Buffy," Giles began, knowing this wasn't the time to bring questions before her on a heaping platter, but too curious to let them wait, "What happened?"

She shook her head, wet, fat tears forming in her pained, doe eyes. "I don't know. I don't know! I died, and you all had my funeral, and I just knew that if Angel could wait long enough, I could give him my gift. I visited him -- Giles, he was so sad. So lonely. And he just broke. After I was gone, he just broke, into a billion, tiny, shattered little pieces of himself. I tried to get him to wait, but he wouldn't listen. He just..."

She didn't finish, and he stared at her, mouth tipping open into a gape. For so many words of explanation, he was more confused now than before. "What are you talking about?" he asked, daring to ask her what she clearly did not want to answer.

She blinked, turned her head toward him a subtle millimeter or two, limp blond hair falling over her in flaxen waterfalls. The heavy breath she sucked in made it look like she was slowly being suffocated. "Angel."

Giles shook his head, trying with all his might not to descend into a panic as well. Panic that Buffy was ill in some way, that she had lost her mind... "I gathered that much for myself, thank you." With pleading eyes, he prodded her onward.

Exhaustion crept across her face, and she let loose a little sigh. Her eyes closed for a moment. "While I was in the vortex, Angel died."

She sounded so certain... "Buffy, has it occurred to you that all that power running through your system made you hallucinate? Perhaps it was just a dream," he tried to calm her, tried to think of more reassuring things to say. Angel was most likely fine, but there weren't very many ways to convince her of that unless Angel showed up in person to tell her.

"No, something happened. It was real. It was real, and I was dead the first time." She peered at him, haunted, tired, cold. Sad. Her tiny hands curled into fists, and she looked like she wanted only to flee. To hide under the immaculate sheets and disappear into nothing like the Hell portal had.

He felt his innards freeze in fear. She sounded so certain... So very certain... "The first time?" he asked, warily.

She looked away. "The first time I fell."

"Buffy, you simply must have been dreaming. I don't remember this at all, and time simply doesn't rewind when things go badly..." He tried to excuse it away, to dismiss it. It was ludicrous. Time couldn't simply--

Could it?

"I don't know what it was, but it was real. Angel died. When I was falling, They said my gift had been passed."

Giles wanted to believe her, her really did. "They? Death?"

"I don't know! I don't know... I just know that while I was making it--"

"It?"

"The gift. While I was making it, it felt like it was going to be different. But the Guide was right. It was just... death. And I gave it to Angel... If I had only known, I wouldn't have done it. They made it seem so special..." The final admission silenced her. She started to shiver slightly. "I killed him..."

He stared at her, at her trembling hands, cold fingers. She was so small... So small, and alone, and he couldn't bring himself to doubt her anymore. Even if she was wrong, she believed it. And, until Angel turned up, he would have to believe it, too. Because she was his Slayer, his daughter, and just about everything else in his life that mattered.

There was no one else.

He leaned back in his chair, saying nothing as the tears started streaking down her face in thin tracks, glittering under the soft fluorescent light. If what she said had truly occurred, and Angel had died... How would that have closed the portal? Summers's blood. Summers's blood. That was the key, he knew it.

He looked down at her face and wiped away her tears with a soft brush of his hand. "Buffy, don't think the worst until we're sure..." he said.

She shook her head. "I know. I watched him turn to dust..."

"But that was in the alternate timeline," Giles protested. "Perhaps he's fine now, and he just wasn't at his desk when Spike called him. From what correspondence I've had with them, I received the distinct impression that things were very strained down there for a while."

Again, she shook her head. "I just know. You know that tiny place you tuck away for someone special? That place right here?"

She raised her palm to her chest, despite the pain the movement caused her. Sucking in a breath, she peered at him. "I can't feel it anymore... He's not there..."

And even though Giles had never really grown to like the souled vampire after the mess with Angelus and... Jenny, even despite that, he felt his heart break for her, and for him. The look on Buffy's face was that devastating.

"I can't feel anything at all..."

He slumped in his seat. "I'm sorry, Buffy." There was really nothing else to say.

How were you supposed to offer comfort for something like that?

He stared at her. The hand that lay over her heart didn't move, she just left it there, as if she were trying to feel her own heart beat. Like she didn't expect to find a telltale thumping, just underneath the warm, California- tanned skin.

A wrenching sob hitched through her chest, and her entire body bucked with the force of it.

And again, he floundered.

How were you supposed to offer comfort for something like that?

What were you supposed to say to someone whose soulmate had just died...

And then he froze.

Despite Buffy's cries of distress, he just sat there, frozen. Still. Unmoving. Absence of all muscle function.

Soulmate.

Summers's blood.

If the sister of the Key would suffice, what more powerful bond could be exploited but soulmate's blood, as potent as Buffy's herself... Death was her gift... The energy required to close the portal had been taken elsewhere.

Angel.

Buffy's gift.

Angel's death had saved both Buffy and Dawn.

And Buffy had been left behind with the heart wrenching blame of herself for whatever the powers existing above had deemed necessary. That the greatest Slayer in history be saved to fight another day, and that the souled vampire wasn't valuable enough to keep.

His head collapsed into his hands and his own body heaved.

Another sob wrenched itself from Buffy's spasming torso, and he peered at her through blurring, watering eyes.

He didn't know whether to thank Them, or damn Them.

*****

THE SONG

He blinked.

"So, we should be able to find the car by nightfall and return through the portal..." Wesley mumbled, crouched over the set of three books. Wolf. Ram. Hart. His eyes were darting back and forth between the left, right, and middle books, switching places whenever the text demanded for him to do so. "This is fascinating," he mumbled.

Cordelia groaned, collapsing over top the table that she and Wesley lounged at. "Thank GOD. I'm going to take a shower the second I get home. And then I'm going to sleep in my big, fluffy bed with my big fluffy pillow, in my nice cozy, haunted apartment, and never ever complain again that I have to live with a ghost and a ridiculously low salary..." she sighed.

Gunn rolled his eyes. "I'll bet that mindset lasts for all of five minutes..."

He merely smiled when she sent a scathing glare in his direction. It was a simple wonder he didn't burst into a halo of flames, right there. "Thank you for your confidence, oh great demon fighter from the hood..." she snapped.

Fred was smiling.

He blinked again.

He stood there, book in hand, mouth hanging slightly open as his reflection stared back at him.

"Angel, stop looking in the damn mirror, already. You're a god. You're hot. Women fall before you. We're all drowning in our own drool. Just get over it," Cordelia whined somewhere behind him. The mirror let him see over his shoulder, and peer at her as her large, brown eyes rolled in an exaggerated show of irritation. The tiara that sat atop her head glittered with the slight movement of her neck.

And suddenly Lorne was standing there, right over his shoulder.

"You might want to sit down," he said, his red eyes filling with concern.

Angel turned to look at him. "What?"

He blinked again.

And then, it hit him like a boxer on steroids. His chest felt like it was compacting inwards, and his ribs, like they were snapping, giving into the force that beset him and crumpling underneath it -- an insect's legs curling inwards on its corpse.

The Host grabbed him and eased him to the ground as the muscles in his legs utterly failed. Everything went into overload. All his nerve endings began rapid firing at once, bringing burning, shooting twinges rocketing through his system. Stars splashed about in front of him, and his vision began to blur into one big multicolored acid trip hallucination. The very air itself seemed to be bending in front of him. Bending with color, sparkling bits of glitter, and those neat little bits of sequins that littered Cordelia's skimpy attire.

"Angel!"

He heard the screech from far away, behind and echoing, frenzied deafening roar.

The blood began to rush.

He arched backward on the floor, flopping about like a landed fish as he struggled to take something. Something was missing that he needed. He needed to--

BREATHE!!!

Something smacked him hard on the back and the air went whooshing into his lungs, filling them to an almost painful point before it was let back out again. In and out. In an out, in several, great, monstrous breaths. He could almost feel the air gripping him, chilling him and warming him from the inside out. Struggling, he gasped for more. More, and more, and more...

"Angel," Lorne was saying, "Try not to suck the entire atmosphere in with you... Some of us need it to speak..."

He blinked furiously and tried to calm down, but the roar was still there. The roar and the warmth and the tingling rush... He gasped, and gasped, and gasped, until there were black waterfalls tumbling over his vision, replacing the sparkly, pretty colors that had been there just previous. Was this what hyperventilation felt like?

Thump-thump.

Something smacked about, jarring underneath his breastbone as it struggled to move within him. It hurt. It hurt. It HURT.

Another spasm. His hands flew up to clutch at his heaving chest. He clawed at himself -- a fox trying to free itself from a trap, mindless. Panicked. It hurt. It hurt. It HURT.

"What's happening? Oh my god, what's happening?"

The shriek. Far off again.

Thump-thump.

This time his entire torso bucked upwards as the pain clenched his heart and squeezed it into an unforgiving vice. He was pretty sure that he was screaming. Or gasping, maybe. He couldn't tell. But there was this strange, hoarse, choking, dying sound. Maybe that was him.

Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

The pain gradually left him, then, and he felt Lorne's finger pressing into his neck over the jugular. "Yup," he nodded, but said nothing else.

"Yup??? YUP WHAT?" Cordelia. Again with the shrieking.

It made his ears hurt.

Angel couldn't get his vocal chords to work. Or anything else for that matter. All of his muscles were still jerking and twitching with spasms of energy. His eyes widened as he lay there, gasping, sucking in breath because he needed it. He NEEDED it.

The moment he tried to stop, his vision started getting all black again. Black and waterfally, and then he felt light headed. He stopped trying to experiment with that.

Another set of fingers at his neck. Wesley. "He's human!" Wesley exclaimed.

Everything started to wobble about, and he was very confused until he figured out that someone was shaking him. "Angel?" He grunted as he was flung roughly about. Well, it seemed like he was being flung roughly about.

"Dude, give the man some space, he don't look so good," Gunn mumbled.

Somewhere far away, Angel could see Gunn staring at him, eyes wide. Curious. Again, he tried to work his vocal chords, but things just didn't seem to be coming back online fast enough. His heart and his lungs were going full steam ahead, but the rest was lagging behind like a tired runner in a marathon.

And then...

Something weird was happening in his stomach. Something weird and strange, and it felt... awful... He groaned and somehow managed to roll onto his stomach before he began to heave, dry and empty. There was nothing to come up, he hadn't eaten in days.

The biting hunger he had felt before melted away and was replaced by weakness. A shaky feeling that he instinctively knew was hunger. Not lust. Hunger. Real hunger.

"Breathe, Angel. Breathe," Cordelia soothed. Her hands were rubbing up and down his back.

Breathe, Angel. Breathe. He didn't think he'd ever heard that before.

He groaned as his stomach finally calmed down, and began to wonder what else would bug him as it started to work again. Relaxing, he stretched out on the floor, still too weak to get up.

Cordelia was smiling. "Well, that was unexpected..." she whispered, and then she turned to Wesley, a look of concern crossing over her features. "This was his Shanshu, right? Not some other thing we're going to have to find Oracles to reverse time for. Right?"

Wesley shrugged. "I..." He struggled for words, astonished. "I don't know... I... This..."

"Angel, can you talk, yet?" Cordelia prodded. He felt her feather-light, warm touch on his twitching, collapsed muscles. He was surprised to notice how different it felt, now. How strange, and new, that he didn't crave her touch simply because of the temperature of it.

"Why am I not dead?" he whispered, the sound that emanated from his vocal chords sounding something just short of a knife clanking over a cheese grater.

She frowned at him. "That wasn't exactly what I was expecting to hear."

Wesley crouched down. "He's probably a bit disoriented... How many fingers am I holding up?"

Two fingers floated lazily above him, but he didn't bother to answer the question.

Angel closed his eyes and took a deep, refreshing breath. Had it all been a dream? The pain, he had felt the sun disintegrating him as his arms stretched up towards the heavens. Towards Buffy. He had felt it, he was sure.

But now he was here. Back in Pylea.

He shook his head, and then it occurred to him.

"We have to leave, now," he said, struggling to his feet despite Cordelia's protests that he stay still a little longer. The disorientation and dizziness that came with the movement faded quickly, and as he let the black dots disappear from his vision, he repeated himself.

The others stood, gaping.

"Angel, we have to wait until nightfall to..."

"I don't care," he snapped. "We're leaving now. We have to get back before..."

Before Buffy dies.

"Before what?" Gunn began cautiously.

Before Buffy dies.

He stared at Wesley. "Please, we have to go now," he said, the tone in his voice pleading, begging. Needing. He needed to be certain that this was all a dream. Some strange side-effect of this dimension. Then, and only then, would he allow himself to get excited about this. This need for breath, and circulation, and all the other things he had been without for two and a half centuries.

Only after he was sure...

Something suddenly occurred to him.

<You might want to sit down...>

He spun around on wobbly feet and took hold of the lapels of the Host's shirt. "How did you know?!" he cried, but his strength was utterly failing him in the menace department.

Lorne just smiled. "You know."

<One of these days you'll wake up from this nightmare that is Woodstock '99 and realize what she's done for you...>

This nightmare.

Nightmare...

"You were there? You remember, too?"

The Host nodded.

"This..." He gestured to himself. "This is from her?"

<Death was her gift TO YOU.>

He shook Lorne hard. "Where is she? Is she dead?" he growled, but the sound came out strangled and very ineffective. He no longer had the capacity to make such bellows of menace. He was a living, breathing, human being. Humans couldn't growl, at least not in a cat-like sense...

Hands were on his shoulders, pulling him away from Lorne -- Gunn and Wesley, just as Cordelia started her shrieking again. "Would someone care to clue me in here? Because I'm lost... As in the sense of what country am I in lost... Not the gee, I think Bloomingdale's is that way, but I'm not quite sure way..."

Angel glared at Lorne, gaze intense and terrifying. "Is she? Is she dead?"

Lorne shrugged. "I was never debriefed on that part. Sorry."

With another strangled, supposed-to-be-a-growl, Angel lunged forward, but Gunn grabbed the back of his coat and yanked him backwards. He whipped backwards like a yo-yo reaching the end of its string. "Chill, man," he said.

Wesley stood between the green demon and Angel. "Now, would either of you care to explain what's going on?" he asked calmly, "Or will I have to beat it out of you? And Angel, I can beat it out of you now..."

Angel let loose an exasperated sigh. "I don't know! That's what I'm trying to figure out myself..." He narrowed his eyes at the Host, who visibly withered under his cutting gaze.

Lorne didn't smile anymore. "His little Buffy's gift was death. She gave it to him, ala Shanshu." He made a funny, sweeping gesture with his hands before he continued, "They had a little trouble jump-starting the whole deal, so They had to let it fester a bit -- you know, a whole, charging the batteries thing. Sorry about that... You know, you almost screwed it up with your suicidal tendencies... There was no way They could have fixed that mess."

Wesley looked at Lorne calmly, but his eyes flashed with a fiery countenance. "They."

The Host pointed upwards. "They," he said, enunciating clearly with exaggerated movement of his lips and tongue.

"What about the portal? The one that killed her..." Angel asked.

Angel could see from the moment that he asked the question, that Lorne, while he was more clued in than the rest of the group, was by no means a fountain of knowledge on the subject. He had done his job, and that was it.

Angel felt worry growing in the pit of his stomach. Worry, and dread, and fear, and every other feeling he didn't want, with sickening clarity. He almost started to heave again, but Cordelia caught him in time and calmed him down. Calmed him down.

Calm...

The rest was a blur.

They made it to the Belvedere with blinding speed, the worried look on his face driving the group forward with no questions asked. Even Fred seemed to be putting in that extra speed.

"Krv Drpglr pwlz chkwrt strplmt dwghzn prqlrzn lffrmtplzt."

And then they were home.

More blur. The car had reappeared in Caritas.

And so Angel had leapt from the vehicle and started running. Running towards the Hyperion, where Wesley had left his motorcycle. Running, running, running. Somehow, the others managed to keep up with him, lagging several seconds behind, but not far enough for them to lose sight of him.

And then he was there, in the lobby.

Deja vu.

Willow was there, looking at him. Her eyes looked different, but still... sad.

"Hi, what's..." Cordelia began.

"It's Buffy," Angel cut her off. He felt cold, all of the sudden. Cold, and freezing, and dead, and dying, and screaming, and... He slipped to his knees, waiting for the news. The news he didn't want to hear.

White knuckles as he closed his eyes.

The world was all a blur when Spike popped out of his office with a strange look on his face. "Damn straight, it's Buffy. Why else would I visit you, you big bleedin' poof..." he said.

A pause.

"Hey," Spike added when no one bothered to respond. "What the fuck did you do to your heart? It bloody works!"

Angel's eyes finally slid open, and he stared at his childe in shock as his deja vu fluttered away on the wings of oblivion.

*****

THE BRIGHTENING

She stared blankly ahead, trying to summon the strength to at least blink.

I killed him. I killed him. IkilledhimIkilledhimIkilledhim... The thoughts were streaming through her head, faster than her mind could even keep track of. All of them. Blaming her. Her fault.

She had killed Angel.

Again.

"Buffy, please, say something. Anything..." Dawn was sobbing. Sobbing. Why was she sobbing? What did she have to be sad about? She hadn't killed anyone.

Buffy should have been crying, but she was out of tears. She felt like Angel had looked, before he'd... Before he'd... She couldn't even bring herself to finish the thought. All she could remember, was his hopeless stare, blank and cold and absent as she tried to assure him that whatever gift she had been trying to give was coming soon, and it would make it all better. Why had she thought that? She should have known that all it was was a ruse. A trick to make her give the gift. Bastards...

"I'm sure he's on his way here right now, Buffy," Xander tried to assure her, but failed dismally. His brown eyes were creased with worry, his hands folded against him like tied wings. Afraid to fly.

Brown tufts of hair fell over his forehead, unruly, his face unshaven. As soon as they had declared Anya fit to be discharged, he had been staying with Buffy in her room. Staying, with Dawn.

Giles had gone home briefly to shower. Something had been off with him. Very off.

Xander's eyes pleaded with her to understand. To let a little hope still shimmer...

"Then why haven't they called?" she asked blankly.

Xander opened his mouth to respond, but a feminine voice ejected into the air instead of a masculine one. "We wanted to come straight here," Willow's voice floated in from the doorway. She was smiling. "Angel got stopped by a police officer. He was in front us until we passed him at the last stoplight..."

Xander's face broke into a wide, happy smile as he leapt up and did a strange little dance. Kind of like the snoopy dance, except... not. "See? See, Buffy? I TOLD you he was fine. You gotta have faith, that's what I always say." He paused, cocked his head to the side, and with lop-sided grin, he asked, "Can I start insulting him again now?"

Buffy didn't have a chance to respond. She was there, frozen, staring at Willow's smiling face with disbelief. This was a dream. This had to be a dream. Any moment now she would wake up and Angel would be dead again.

Dawn's head shot up and her thin lips turned upwards as tears overflowed and spilled down her cheeks. "He's here? He's not dead? He's not dead?!" She bounced a little in her chair. Her excitement and happiness at the news was bubbling off her skin.

"Wait," Xander interrupted, as if he were just now catching up with all that had been said. "Did you say he got pulled over? Dead-boy got pulled over? Oh man, I would have paid a billion dollars to have seen that." He started to chortle, and laugh, and soon, he was in hysterics as he pictured some little scenario in his head that just made him chuckle harder.

"He broke pretty much every traffic law that's ever been written trying to get here. The poor motorcycle could barely keep up with his weaving lane changes..."

"DEADBOY ON A MOTORCYCLE? Man, this just keeps getting better and--"

"Shut up, Xander," Buffy snapped. He immediately stilled as she closed her eyes and raised her head towards the ceiling. Searching...

There it was. That glowing, bright center in her being, that every time she touched, it made her feel warm and whole and happy. Soft tendrils of it reached outwards to her, curling up around her like vines clinging to a trestle. Angel. Angel was alive. "But I felt him die... He was gone... He was gone," she whispered, almost unable to believe what she herself could feel.

Willow just nodded. "Yeah, he was kinda in another dimension for a while. That's why he wasn't picking up his phone -- I don't think cell-phones have good wandering fees for that... I wonder if they even have alternate dimension satellites for relaying--"

"Willow," Buffy calmly brought her friend back out of her babble mode.

Willow smiled sheepishly. "Sorry. I'm just kind of excited. I just love surprises. Angel was. Oops."

Buffy narrowed her eyes. "Angel was oops?"

Willow started to back away, a bright red blush spreading across her features like a brushfire. But Buffy didn't have a chance to drill her.

A pale hand gripped the door frame, and for a moment, that's all there was. Then, a hulking figure dragged itself into the doorway, framed in the fluorescent hospital light like a true angel. He stood there, bent over, looking like he was going to faint as he panted.

"Buffy..." Pant. "You're..." Pant. "Alive..." Pant.

And then he started to collapse on to his knees.

"This..." Pant. "Isn't..." Pant. "My best..." Pant. "Entrance..." Pant. "Is it?" Pant. "Oooooh..."

Willow helped him up, but he still looked rather unsteady as he half-walked, half-crawled over to the side of her bed. Buffy, Xander, and Dawn, all just sat there, gaping, unable to form a coherent response. Xander's mouth was opening, and closing, like a fish out of water, and Dawn was just staring, eyes wide.

Staring.

"Angel..." Buffy whispered.

Willow ushered the others out of the room with a knowing grin.

As soon as the door shut and silence was upon him, he practically fell on top of her. Her arms snaked around his heaving torso, hugging him to her tightly, desperately, as she stared over the length of his back. He was warm. Radiating heat like he had a furnace hidden under his battered, frayed, black shirt. She fingered the tears in the fabric, traced the lines of his griffin tattoo over his well muscled shoulder.

He was there.

In her arms.

And...

Her fingers ruffled through his brown hair, and he lifted his head to peer at her. She touched his face, traced every smooth plane. It was Angel. And yet, it was so new. So warm... "You're human," she whispered, awed.

He nodded, and all at once she felt like a six year old again. Waaaay back.

<How do planes work, daddy?>

<It's magic...>

<Cooool...>

"How?" the single word tumbled from her tongue as she tried to reconcile that Angel was alive, and breathing, and there with the fact that not even twenty minutes ago, he was dead, and she was alone. Alone, and cold, and wondering if the pain would ever stop...

He cocked his head to the side, his eyes widening a bit as if to say, 'What, you didn't know?' His chocolate eyes pierced her. "Your gift, Buffy. You did it." He sat upright now, taking her hand in his and rubbing it absently with his lithe fingers.

Her entire body shuddered. "I didn't give you this, Angel. I'm the one that killed you... I--"

He captured her lips in a kiss, not letting her finish. "No," he began, "You gave me death. You didn't kill me."

Her brow furrowed in confusion. In her books, those were often considered the same exact thing, but... Well, Angel was always cryptic. "But... I don't understand." She lifted her eyes and stared at him, not able to stop herself from putting her hands on the smooth planes of his cheeks. To assure herself that he really was there.

He was.

"My Shanshu Buffy. It's been prophesized that I would Shanshu. Die to live. Live to die. Become human..."

"When did you--"

"I found out last year," he interrupted, blushing. Blushing. It was so amazing to see. Angel with a pinkish hue in his alabaster cheeks. And, he seemed so much paler now, now that she knew that he could actually get a tan and live to tell the tale.

She sighed as he continued. "I'm sorry... I... Well, it never seemed like a conversation starter..."

Blinking, she looked at him. He actually thought that she cared about that? How could she possibly care when he had come back from the dead for the second time in a row. How could she possibly care when he was sitting in front of her, breathing, sighing, blinking, heart beating, just like she had always dreamed about.

No curse...

NO CURSE.

The thought smacked into her like a bird flying right into a window. Thunk. She blinked again, staring at him. He was there, and he was there, and he was there... Her tiny breaths started coming in little pants before she managed to circumvent complete hyperventilation.

She looked down at the hand that he was still caressing with his thumb. His touch. And he was there. There. Warm touch. Blood flowing through veins. Warm.

She raised her hand to his jugular, laid it over his warm, smooth skin, and just let it rest over the jumping artery. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. She closed her eyes. Dying with that feeling at her fingertips would be a satisfying way to go.

He made no attempt to move her hand -- he just smiled. "I remember, Buffy. I remember everything..."

She felt the deeper meaning in his words. The sadness that hung there, despite how very happy he appeared on the surface. "That was all real? Really real?" she asked, her voice flying upwards in pitch and disbelief.

If it was real, then Angel had really...

He nodded. "Really real. I was... Pretty bad off."

"Pretty bad off? Pretty bad off? YOU KILLED YOURSELF," she exclaimed, suddenly distressed.

"Yes." He didn't deny her heated words, didn't try to comfort her, just nodded and bowed his head before her with a weary gaze, prepared for any blow she might deem necessary to throw at him.

But she said nothing. For that moment, Angel was each and every single one of his years. Old, and tired. Every muscle, every bone, every cell was curled with weariness. Her vision blurred as she took him in her arms and crushed him to her. "Don't ever do that again..." she whispered, pained, into his ear. "Even if it's a dream..."

He was trembling. "Buffy, it's not that simple," he replied, but made no attempt to move from her comforting embrace.

She felt a small pang of anger developing deep within her chest, angry that he would ever want to give up life. And then she remembered how it felt as she had taken a swan dive into what she had thought would be her death.

Peaceful.

Relief.

Had it been like that for him? Or had it been worse?

"Why isn't it simple, Angel?" she challenged.

The trembling stopped, and with one blink, she was staring back into those deep, endless pools of chocolate soul. Angel... "Because I love you, Buffy. It's not something I can just turn on and off at will..."

Silence.

She blinked at him, felt a weight lifting from her chest, and leaned in to embrace him tighter. Tighter. Clinging to a life raft. "God, Angel, don't ever go away again. Please don't ever go away..." she murmurred into his heaving shoulders. She realized that he was crying, too. Crying into her hair, absorbing her scent...

There were so many words to say, so many things... And none of them came.

Only a waterfall of tears, cascading from them both.

Silence.

"Buffy? Angel?" Willow's soft voice floated through the door, and they reluctantly disentwined.

"Yeah?" Angel called, his voice strangled, but he looked... Better. Better than in the dream. Better than she had ever since him, even better than he had been with her before the curse had been discovered.

Buffy sighed.

Willow's red head poked through the door, but her eyes were squeezed shut. "Cordelia collapsed in the waiting room. Something about red portals and demons..." Willow said, her voice worried, but her eyes still held very tightly shut, so much that her face was wrinkled and red.

Buffy froze.

"The Mohras..." Angel whispered, dread creeping into his tone as he stood. "They're still coming..."

"Willow," Buffy commanded as she met Angel's scared, falling into Slayer mode without a second thought, "You need to call Giles. Now."

It seemed that their respite was over.

*****

THE SECOND HOMECOMING

"No. NO!" Wesley cried.

Gunn took his hand off the steering wheel and raising it in front of Wesley's face to silence him. "Cordelia said left at the light!"

Growling, Wesley swatted the hand away and snatched the barely legible directions from his friend's hands. "Not at the light," he pointed to the paper. "The sign! I did actually live here, once..."

Gunn just shook his head. "I know what I'm doing..." The truck shot forward as he jammed his foot into the accelerator, its motor screeching in protest. Wesley leaned back and closed his eyes, praying that police officers and various other things, like houses, wouldn't get in the way.

Fred tapped him on the shoulder. "Thanks for the tacos..." She gave him a wide grin, holding up her large bag of booty from Taco Bell. Gunn had obliged her and stopped on the way. She didn't seem to be too particularly disturbed that Gunn was driving like Angel usually did.

"You're quite welcome," he mumbled, turning back towards the road with a pale face.

And then, he saw it approaching. The sign. Revello Drive.

He glanced down at the paper. End destination: 1630 Revello Drive.

"LEFT. LEFT HERE!" Wesley cried, as Gunn showed obvious signs of intending to cruise on down to the next light, ignoring Wesley's insistence that it was a stop sign, and not a light that they were supposed to be turning at. "GUNN!!!"

Finally, he gave in, darting his truck across two lanes of traffic, fishtailing around the corner as the tires gripped frantically at the pavement. Wesley could hear the weapons trunk crashing against the side of the truck bed in back, and he winced.

And then they were there.

The truck screeched to a halt, Gunn with a big grin slathered across his face. "Oops. Sorry, English. I guess you were right," he said, and then hopped out of the vehicle, leaving Wesley sitting there with his index finger pointed in accusation, and a wide-open mouth.

After a few seconds, Wesley recollected himself and stepped out of the car, helping Fred out from the crammed, sardine can of a backseat.

After Fred was safely to the ground, he hopped across the grass median and his foot hit the sidewalk. The first time in two years.

Buffy's house was quiet. Peaceful. The lights were glowing from the inside like one of those decorative lighted houses people got to sit out on their mantle.

Taking a deep breath, he inhaled the soft scent of Sunnydale. Fresh. Clean. Very unlike the smog choked air that hung lazily over the streets of Los Angeles.

And yet so much more hostile...

He squared his shoulders, realizing that he would be entering a place where his antagonists were far more numerous than friends. Everyone in Sunnydale remembered the man he had been before Angel Investigations had become a part of his life. And, even now, Wesley found himself admitting that that image was something he didn't like.

Gunn clapped him on his shoulder. The gesture was so unexpected, it nearly sent Wesley sprawling into the dew- covered grass. "So, do we bring in the artillery yet, or leave the chest out here?"

"Let's bring it in and get it over with," he replied.

Gunn nodded, and they began to hoist the coffin-sized wooden crate out of the truck. "Fred, why don't you go knock on the door for us," Wesley suggested as they strained with the over-sized box.

Fred stole quietly away, up the steps.

Wesley and Gunn followed, muscles heaving. "Jeez, English, how much stuff did you pack? Angel's entire collection?"

"I wasn't sure what kind of weaponry Buffy has, but if her high school days were any indication, it will be beneficial to have all of this," he answered.

"Her, meaning the Slayer chick, right?" Gunn hoisted the box onto his shoulders and began making his way up the steps, breaking out in a slight sheen of sweat as the weight started to get to him. "Yes," Wesley huffed. "Buffy. The one that Angel stole my motorcycle to get to before visiting hours were over..."

Gunn turned his head slightly, and Wesley could see the grin developing.

Fred knocked on the door, which opened very shortly after.

Cordelia. "Hi, guys," she said, her voice quiet and strained, pain bleeding off of her face and into the air around her. She backed up and held the door open for them before retreating back to her seat.

Gunn and Wesley struggled into the house and collapsed as they dropped the crate onto the ground. Wesley stood, cracking all of the cricks out of his strained muscles, and looked around. The Sunnydale crew was all staring openmouthed at them.

Despite the spotlight he was in, his eyes trailed to Angel.

Angel.

He was staring silently off into space, arm clasped possessively around a rather pale-looking Buffy. But definitely not all there. Wesley creased his brow with worry, wondering if Angel's perception of events had finally caught up and registered Shanshu.

Cordelia sighed, lifting her arm weakly from the armrest of her chair. "Wesley. Gunn. Fred," she introduced them, pointing jerkily with her index finger at each one of them before letting her arm collapse back onto the chair. She leaned into the soft leather of the chair and closed her eyes.

Giles took their coats and cleared his throat. "Tea?" he offered.

"Mr. Giles. I regret we're meeting again under these circumstances," Wesley replied, sincere, adding a, "But yes, please," after some consideration.

Giles nodded curtly, and disappeared back into the kitchen.

"Cordelia, do you require your pain medication?" Wesley asked, quietly.

She shook her head. "No. I don't need to add overdose to my list of things to do today..." she replied.

Silence.

Angel blinked once or twice, until finally, Buffy smiled, her pale lips turning upwards ever so slightly. "Hi. Welcome back to the Hellmouth," she whispered.

Wesley smiled back. "Always ready to stop another apocalypse..."

For a moment, more silence.

"So... What did you bring the coffin for?" Xander asked, his curiosity finally overwhelming his reluctance to break the awkward silence.

"Yeah, it's not... It's not for a person, or anything?" Willow asked, soft and quiet.

Wesley shook his head. "Goodness, no... It's--"

"Weapons. Angel's weapons. We didn't know which ones he would want, so Wesley just picked out a bunch. That, and some of our stuff... What did you bring, English?" Gunn asked.

Wesley bent down and opened the case as Giles walked in with the tea. ""Well, this is your axe. Angel's claymore. My crossbow. My mace. Your other axe. My quarterstaff. Your bo. Angel's axe... Cordelia's axe... And I could have sworn I put your falchion in here, I'm not--"

Willow was peering cautiously over the edge of the box. "Big fan of axes?" she asked, although she sounded slightly disturbed.

Wesley shrugged. "Angel and Gunn are the ones who use them. Cordelia doesn't fight very often in combat that would require an axe -- hers is mainly for emergencies."

"You mean Cordelia actually fights at all?" Xander's eyebrows were practically raised into his hairline.

Cordelia glared at him. "Yes. I fight. I could kick your ass, if you want," she growled.

Xander was about to rebut, his mouth open, a little bit of sound already falling, when Angel stood abruptly and walked over to the chest. He stared at its contents.

"You only brought one of my swords..." he whispered.

"Only one? Gosh, and I so would have liked to see your other instruments of mayhem..." Xander joked, but went silent when he saw Buffy glaring at him. "I'm not very popular with the women, tonight, am I?" he whispered as he backed down.

Anya smiled. "You are very popular with me..."

"Thanks," Xander replied.

Wesley narrowed his eyes, noticing now that Angel looked slightly flushed. Little dots of sweat were scattered across his brow, and he looked rather trembly. "Are you all right?" Wesley whispered.

"I'm fine," he replied, reaching down for his claymore. Wesley saw the wince as he bent over.

Angel picked it up, swung the blade in the empty space before him, tried some moves. The weapon sparkled in the dim light, behaving like an extension of Angel's straining arms. Graceful, like ballet, Angel made a swift jab at some invisible opponent before stopping to inspect the blade, the hilt...

His fingers ran across the base of the blade, on to the center of percussion, and stopping at the middle of its length, Angel's arms not long enough to reach the tip.

Gently, he set it down.

"That will do," he whispered, and then he went back to his seat.

Wesley stared at him, trying to figure out just what was running through his friend's mind. But, after several moments of trying, he simply couldn't think of anything. Angel, when he wanted to be, was quite the closed book.

Giles began to inch forwards towards the blade, the look of admiration in his eyes overpowering the neutral glance he had been wearing for some time. "This is a beautiful weapon," he whispered.

Tara smiled hesitantly, making her presence known for the first time. "It looks like it's straight out of B-B-Braveheart..."

"And it's big," Xander grumbled.

"Fifty-two inch blade. Sixty-four inches in length, I believe," Wesley replied, seeing that Angel wasn't going to offer any information. He was communing with oblivion again, it appeared. "I prefer smaller, one-handed weapons, myself. But Angel seems to like the great swords."

Giles nodded in appreciation. "Yes, well, great swords are a quick means to an end."

Buffy raised her hand. "You feel like keeping us in the discussion, or are you going off into watcher talk?" she asked, her other hand beginning to rub Angel's back, although whether she was aware of it or not, Wesley couldn't tell.

"Sorry," Wesley corrected himself, surprised to find that the slayer was reminding him of Cordelia, "Great swords like this are meant to be used quickly. They're not meant for the long parry fights. Just a quick kill. Come to think of it, I probably should have brought Angel's broadsword, just in case..."

Angel shrugged.

So, he was, at least, listening.

Buffy looked at him strangely. "What's wrong?"

Angel just shook his head. "I think we should worry about the demons first," he replied.

Despite his growing concern, Wesley felt himself snap into action. "Yes, I was thinking about this on the way down from Los Angeles, at least, I was as best as I could, what with Gunn's complete disregard for traffic laws."

Angel blinked.

"Um, yes, well, anyway," Wesley shuffled his feet, suddenly apprehensive under everyone's expectant stares.

"We can't kill them," Angel said, seemingly at random.

Wesley took a deep breath. "Pardon?"

"We can't kill them. For every one that falls..."

"Ten shall rise," Buffy finished for him, a strange look crossing her face.

Xander jumped up. "Well, what I want to know, is how the Powers managed to botch this up so badly! I mean, jeez. Buffy is told that death is her gift, so she goes swan- diving into a portal to close it, which it does, but it also shoe shines Angel, all due to the freakiness and multiple sources of confusion that is our language. And then, what's all this with repeating timelines? Couldn't they just go *poof*? Everything's fixed? I don't get why these supposedly all-powerful mojo masters let the universe get all screwed up, and THEN they fix it. But not really, cuz we still have monster-beast thingies from Hell coming to kill us all."

He sat back down, seeing that every one was staring at him. "Sorry. This rant has ended. You may exit the vehicle -- please be sure to take all of your personal belongings with you. Thank you for flying with Xander tantrum. Buh-bye now..."

"No, actually, Xander, I don't believe what we had was a timeline that reset," Giles replied. "I don't believe it really started over, ah... per se. There was a... ah... a little offshoot so, so that they could keep Buffy suspended for the few seconds necessary to generate ah... to generate enough power. But they needed more than a few seconds, so they just extended time in Buffy's own little... ah... little... little bubble thing..."

Wesley nodded in agreement. "Yes, precisely. The Powers have not shown any evidence that they are omnipotent, nor omniscient. What little contact Angel has had with the Oracles in the past has merely led to a lot of confusion. This could be, quite possibly, the only way They saw fit to address the situation..."

Willow shrugged. "But you guys are still saying that there were TWO timelines going at once. One that was moving way faster than the other one -- the one where Buffy died?"

Wesley shook his head. "I'm not entirely certain that what Buffy and Angel experienced was an altered timeline of any sort. And not a shared dream either. Something between the two," he hypothesized.

Giles nodded enthusiastically. "Yes. Yes. I was considering that as well. Perhaps a partially prophetic scenario was played in their heads. Like a movie, if you will."

"A movie, whose entire moral was, basically, Buffy shouldn't be dead?" Anya asked, her eyes an array of disbelief.

Wesley stared at Angel. At Buffy. Back at Angel. Both of them looked rather shell shocked. "No. I think there may have been something more important than that. Something meant for Angel and Buffy to decipher themselves."

"Together you are strong. Alone, you are dead," Buffy mumbled.

Angel blinked.

"Perhaps," Wesley conceded.

"But the fact remains," Giles added, "That we have ten Mohras, highly trained assassin demons, coming to wage war with us. And if what Angel and Buffy have told me is true, the more that we kill, the more will come."

"Perhaps we should be trying to approach this from a different angle," Wesley suggested. "Have we considered why these portals may be appearing?"

"End of Days," Angel said.

Wesley turned to him briefly, but thought better of asking him, once again, if he was all right. "But there have been no portents," he continued. "No warnings. Scheduled apocalypses are generally precluded by a certain pre-specified number of signs..."

Xander collapsed backwards into his chair. "So, you're saying this is an unscheduled apocalypse? We simply must speak with the registrar..."

"Or," Wesley growled, trying to keep from launching himself at Xander. "Perhaps, it's scheduled, but it's early? Something triggered it?"

"What could have possibly been monumental enough to trigger an apocalypse? We would have seen--Oh my..." Giles stopped short.

Everyone in the room turned to Buffy and Angel. Giles was wiping his face with his hanky, looking suddenly very worried as Willow's mouth fell partially open and Xander just said, "You gotta be kidding me... Together for not more than a day and already an apocalypse..." under his breath.

Wesley swallowed harshly. "Perhaps the Hell portal that Angel's Shanshu closed, wasn't as closed as we thought..."

"The indirect death was imperfect for the closing ritual!" Giles said as he leapt up from his perch on the arm of the sofa. "It must have created--"

"Tears!" Wesley finished for him, seeing almost immediately where the watcher was going. "Tears in the dimensional hotspots... The Mohras are coming through the fractured areas..."

"So, what's the sitch? How do we close 'em?" Buffy asked.

Everyone exchanged glances.

"Research!"

And everyone but Angel's group and Buffy launched off in all directions.

*****

THE PROMISE

Angel made his way slowly into Buffy's kitchen. Away from all of them.

He had tried to research, he really had, but the words kept blurring in front of him, into nothing but a jumbled mess of alphanumerics. The problem became compounded when Giles and Wesley kept handing him texts that weren't in English, knowing he was one of the few in the group who was multilingual.

The Gaelic texts were the real kicker. He had gotten so cross-eyed, he had just given up and left. Buffy had been too absorbed in her own book to notice.

He set himself down on a stool and collapsed his head into his hands, letting the soft humming of the refrigerator lull him into nothingness. There was this weird, shaky feeling all over, racing through him, and it took him a moment to realize that in all this time, he hadn't eaten. Not a bite.

He turned to glare at the refrigerator. The box of crackers left out on the counter. The loaf of bread.

But he didn't move.

He just kept staring them down until he gave up, and with a sigh, collapsed back into his hands. His hands. The powers had finally decided that his hands were clean. No blood there anymore.

But why? WHY? So soon after his brush with his darker side, his plummet into Darla's waiting arms, he didn't really think he deserved it.

He didn't feel clean.

He could still see the blood there, coagulating over the skin of his hands in a sticky, wet, viscous mess. Dripping of his fingertips, onto the counter below...

Drip.

Drip.

Drip.

<Buffy was fine. Buffy was fine. Buffy was fine. Fine. Fine. Fine, fine, fine fine finefinefinefine.>

He snapped his head back, inhaling sharply with flaring nostrils.

Blinking, he tried to relax again.

Tried not to think about anything in particular.

<How can we be together if the cost is your life?>

He snapped back again, almost falling off the stool this time. Breathing hard, he got up and shook his head before sitting back down again. He would not think about this. He would not think about this. Would not think. No. NO. NONONO.

<A minute? No. No, it's not enough time!>

Squeezing his eyes shut, he swallowed several times, but he started spiraling into memories with abandon. Moaning, he remembered the first time. The first time that this had happened.

<Shhh, you're all right. That's all that matters. Shhh, you're all right. And it's over. And we're together...>

<It never happened...>

<No. I'll never forget. I'll never forget. I'll never forget...>

"Angel?"

Buffy poked her head in the kitchen, looking at him worriedly.

He swallowed, shakily released from the prison of flashbacks. "Buffy," he whispered, placing his hands on the countertop to keep himself from falling over. He was so hungry... Starving.

She was behind him, hugging his waist at once. "What's the matter?" she asked, resting her head in the dip between his shoulder blades. She fit perfectly against him, and he could feel the heat of her body.

Warm.

Sighing, he tried to recover. "Nothing. Nothing's wrong. Why does everyone keep asking me that?" he responded as she started kissing the back of his neck. Soothing...

"Because you're lying."

He froze. "No I'm not." Caught with his hand in the cookie jar, it seemed. He didn't dare look at her. Didn't dare meet those soft hazel eyes. Because he knew he wouldn't be able to deny anything she asked of him if he did.

Buffy laughed bitterly. "And I didn't just jump into a portal, intent on dying. Angel, come on. Do something new and adventurous. Talk to me."

When he didn't respond, she moved on, hesitant. Her touch became unsure as she backed off of him a little. "You're not..." she began, "You're not going to leave again, are you?"

Pain bit through him, and he felt his heart stabbing him underneath his breastbone. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. "No, I'm not going to leave. Not unless you ask me to. Why?" He squeezed his eyes shut.

<A minute? No! No, it's not enough time!>

"Because you're doing the distance thing again. Like before. The 'I'll make all of Buffy's life altering decisions for her and not ask her, because it's for her own good' distancing thing."

The cynical waves pouring from her were not lost on him.

Finally he turned, placed his hands on her cheeks, and stared into her eyes. Feeling himself crumble in that gaze, he sighed. "I'm not leaving. And I'm not lying." He cupped her chin, brought her lips to his, but she pulled away.

"But you're lying about something. I can see it in your face, Angel..." she protested.

Sighing, he felt the shaky feeling return full force, and his weakening knees forced him to collapse backwards onto the stool. "Sorry--" he mumbled, but Buffy already wasn't listening.

"Are you sick?" she asked frantically, her hand on his forehead.

"No, I--"

She didn't let him finish. "How long have you felt like this?"

"Since I Shanshued, Buffy, I--"

"Were you going to tell me sometime before you fainted?" she accused, her eyes flaring with anger. "Angel, when you promise you're not going to leave, I'm counting things that are in the non-physical sense, as well..."

"Buffy, I'm fine, I'm just..." He looked down at the floor, at his feet, anywhere but her.

"Just what?"

"Hungry," he grit his teeth. "I'm hungry."

Her eyes widened for a second as she did some mental calculations. "It's been, like... over twenty four hours since you became human. You haven't eaten yet? Angel, why didn't you say anything?"

"Now you sound like Cordelia..." he grumbled, laying his head on the table.

Buffy glared as she started moving around the kitchen, grabbing pots and whatnot. Within minutes, there was a steaming bowl of vegetable soup resting in front of him, and a staring Buffy sitting across from him.

He inhaled the warmth rising upwards from the bowl, noticing for the first time, how tangy and sweet it smelled. Good. But he didn't eat.

It was weakness, staring him in the face.

Buffy sighed in frustration. "Look, I know that it's probably not the best welcome back to humanity meal, but it's fast, and it's healthy. So eat."

He blinked. His eyes wandered to Buffy, and then back to the bowl. "I can't..."

Her eyebrow raised in disbelief. "What, did you have bad digestion as a human, or something? There's no milk in that, you can't claim lactose intolerance..."

Shoving away from the table, he sighed. "Buffy, it doesn't have anything to do with that..."

Her hands were on her hips now. She was between him and either exit, and now that he was human, there was no way he was going to outrun her. He was trapped.

"What if I can't fight?" he whispered, finally giving in.

The look of confusion that spread across her face was priceless. "Huh?"

"I'm human. What if I can't fight?"

Her eyes softened, then, her hands falling from her hips limply as she walked over to him. "Angel, I'm sure you'll still do fine. You still know how. You just can't get all kamikaze like you used to..." she tried to assure him, taking him in her arms.

"I couldn't protect you, last time. I couldn't protect you and then you had to come save my ass when I was too cocky to admit that I couldn't possibly win a fight by myself. What if it's the same this time, Buffy?"

She shook her head in confusion, her head shaking back and forth. "Last time. This time." Her hands waved frantically in the air. "What are you talking about, Angel?"

He stared at her pleading eyes, and prayed she wouldn't hate him. "This isn't the first time this has happened, Buffy. This is just the first time it wasn't an accident."

He closed his eyes, waiting for the outburst to come. The anger. How could you do that to me, Angel?! How could you make another decision for me? HOW COULD YOU?!!!

It never came.

She started to shake and tremble. Her grip on him loosened and she stumbled. Without thinking, he turned and pulled her to him. "I'm sorry, Buffy. I'm sorry. Please don't be mad... I'm sorry..."

He was sobbing into her golden hair, salty tears slashing downwards across his face like razors, waiting for the terrible moment when she would remember what happened. When she would remember what he had done...

She finally spoke. "You mean that it wasn't a dream? Ever since that first time in L.A.... I kept having this dream where..."

She didn't finish her sentence. She just stood there, staring blankly into space, in the throes of some distant memory.

"Buffy..." Angel whispered, trying to prod some reaction out of her, even if all the action ended up doing was getting him slapped in the face.

He was surprised to see her turn, no anger, nothing. Just a steady, unblinking gaze. "Angel, you have to promise me you won't try to get this Shanshu thingy reversed. Not even if it's to protect me."

"Even if I wanted to, Buffy, I wouldn't even know how to get this reversed..."

"Promise. Me," she enunciated. Clear, concise. It was obvious she wasn't letting him go until she heard, straight out, that he was not intending to get his Shanshu revoked.

"I promise, Buffy," he muttered weakly.

She leaned in, stared at him, looking him straight in the eye. "Good. Because returning gifts if you don't like them is rude."

And then she kissed him.

*****

THE PORTALS

Cordelia was hovering. Hovering off somewhere in that blissful place between sleep and wakefulness. And she liked it. The pounding headache that was threatening to make her brains dribble out of her ears disappeared enough when she was like this, that everything was ok.

"EUREKA!" Wesley cried.

Her eyes snapped open, and she almost tumbled out of her chair in surprise. "This new habit of yours is getting really annoying, Wesley," she grumbled as she blinked and the roaring pain came back.

"What did you find?" Giles asked as he stacked his own books up before him in a leaning tower of literature.

She bent over and groaned, inhaling the musty scent of the carpet.

"D-d-do you need some m-more... more Aspirin?" Tara asked quietly as the group started to gather.

Cordelia shook her head. "No, I need someone to siphon my guts out so I don't puke them all over the rug..."

Xander frowned as he looked up from his book and leaned back into Anya's embrace. "Thank you, Cordelia, for that wonderful update on your state of health..."

"Shut up, Xander," she growled.

"What's the what?" Buffy asked as she glided into the room, Angel in tow.

Cordelia looked up, noticing that Angel, somehow, looked a lot better. He didn't look nearly so weak or shaky on his feet. And he didn't look nearly so miserable. Just worried and broody. His brow was creased and furrowed with angst, his shoulders slumped under the weight of guilt only he understood.

But when was Angel not worried and broody? Lately, he hadn't been, but she'd considered it a phase. Perhaps he was truly back to normal.

She shrugged it off as best as she could.

Wesley was practically bouncing out of his seat, he was so excited, gripping the rumpled Scroll of Aberjian tightly to him. He looked distinctly like a kid, grinning there. 'I've got a secret...' his gaze seemed to be saying. "This took me a few hours to translate, but I think I've got it."

Cordelia frowned. "Didn't you already translate that thing?"

"Most of it yes, but I didn't think the Shanshu was coming for a while. There are a lot of things on this scroll that haven't happened yet, like the beast of Amalfie... I'm guessing that this prophecy is out of order. Suffice it to say, I didn't get that far on it because I thought I had more time. Especially after Angel... Well, after..."

Wesley turned red and started to flounder, and Angel began sinking further into his seat, obviously wishing he could just disappear into the cushions.

Everyone was looking curiously, and Cordelia could tell the questions would start coming if she didn't do something. "Just cut to the chase, Wesley..." she interrupted.

Wesley seemed to snap back onto track at her words. He looked down at what he had written. "The vampire with a soul will Shanshu. Blood will spill at the foot of the Gothaim and the Gates shall be closed. It goes into a bit more of the specifics, but blood. The short answer is blood," he said.

She caught Xander roll his eyes as Anya raised her hand. "Isn't this getting a little repetitive?" the ex-vengeance demon asked.

Dawn, who had been sacked out on the floor for the longest time with books lying across her stomach, out in front of her on the floor, and pretty much every where else in her vicinity, was suddenly looking worried.

"No, it's not like last time," Wesley said. "Before, you were trying to close the portal by stopping the blood. I think that this time, we need to start the blood."

Giles smiled. "Of course! It's so simple! The rituals to open and close the portals have been made opposite! Polarized, if you will. We closed the first one by stopping blood, and technically, that should have worked, but it was imperfect. Now, the state has switched. They're still open, but these new tears were created by Angel's Shanshu. Blood stopping through death."

Dawn sat up. "Do I have to get cut again?" she whispered, looking terrified.

"No, Dawn. I don't think so," Wesley assured her. "I think this is a matter of Angel's blood, since it was Angel that indirectly created the tears."

"What's a Goth heim?" Buffy asked.

Wesley frowned. "What?"

She shrugged. "You said blood will spill at the foot of the Goth heim. So. What is it?"

"Oh, you mean Gothaim. I'm not entirely sure, I haven't translated it yet," he confessed.

"Gothaim... I've heard that..." Giles muttered as he started unstacking his books, looking for a particular volume. Finding what he wanted, he started leafing through it, index finger scanning down the pages. The excited look on his face peaked, and then fell. "Ah. Gothaim. Oh, dear."

Cordelia felt her spirits fall at Giles's tone. "What. Why, oh dear?" she prompted when the watcher didn't divulge anything further.

Silence. Only the clock was ticking.

Someone knocked at the door, sending everyone's heads darting upward at the resonating sound.

"I'll get it," Buffy whispered, her face downcast as new fear started dripping off of her in waves.

"So what's a Gothaim?" Cordelia asked as Buffy opened the door.

Giles and Wesley were looking towards the door, not paying attention to her as Buffy stepped aside and let their visitor in.

Spike.

Even if he was neutered evil, he still made her skin crawl. She didn't want him there. She didn't want to be near him. And Cordelia certainly didn't want the guy who had tortured Angel to help them.

Gritting her teeth and biting down hard on her lip, she managed to prevent herself from uttering some rather nasty comments, respecting Buffy's obvious trust for him. Suffice it to say, tact sucked.

"You all started a party without me, I see..." Spike muttered suspiciously as he wandered in, his eyes darting between the room's twelve other occupants.

Cordelia tried very hard not to glare, despite her memories and her headache egging her on. She made it a full ten seconds before she lapsed into 'Cordelia's glare of death, mach one.'

"No big deal," Xander said. "We're just trying to figure out how to save the world. Again."

Spike raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"

"Yeah, we've got an army of darkness coming our way, and the only way to stop it is to drop Angel's blood in front of the Goth thingy..." Willow summarized. "Nothing unusual..."

Spike nodded, although he looked rather confused. "Well, count me in. Don't got anything better to do..." he shrugged.

'Cordelia's glare of death, mach two,' initiated in earnest. "So," Cordelia repeated, tearing her eyes away from him after the blond vampire had gotten settled, "What's a Gothaim?"

Giles blinked and then frowned back at his text. It made Cordelia feel very nervous. Very nervous.

"It's... it's a statue. In the demon dimension."

Giles went silent again.

"So, what's that mean?" Anya asked.

Wesley looked at her grimly. "That means we have to close the portals from the inside out..."

Silence.

Cordelia turned to Angel. "You remember a big statue, by any chance? It'd probably be a lot easier if you could tell us where it was..."

Everyone turned to her, amazed, but she shrugged it off as Angel fumbled around for an answer. "Cordelia, I wasn't exactly paying attention to the layout while I was there, and I don't remember a lot of my time there, anyway..."

Angel looked rather uncomfortable with twelve sets of eyes all staring at him.

"Oh," Cordelia replied. "Well, it was worth a shot..."

Her denial of the seriousness of the situation gave way to fear. Deep fear, in the pit of her chest. That same, deep fear she got whenever Angel got all dark and crazy. Like earlier in the year, before he'd gone completely round the bend.

"I'll do it," Spike said. No hesitation.

Cordelia narrowed her eyes at him. Must not comment. Must not...

"Do what?" Buffy asked.

"I'll take the blood to the statue."

"Spike, you can't just... walk in and..." Buffy fumbled, turning to Giles. "Can you?" Her voice was light, hesitant. Like she was overloaded. Angel wrapped his arms around her, with a small glance to Spike.

Cordelia could feel the subtext going on there, darting between them like death rays, each bent on smiting the other. But she couldn't, for the life of her, figure out why.

"I believe that would actually work," Giles answered. "But Angel would have to go with him... The blood needs to be from him, and it has to be bled from the source right there, at least that's what I've gathered from Wesley's translation notes..."

Wesley nodded.

Buffy's eyes started to water, but she blinked it away, taking a deep breath. "How will Angel and Spike get back?"

Cordelia felt the fear come roaring into her head as well. Fear. Shaky, terrible fear. Angel looked neutral, but Wesley and Giles were both shifting into their own versions of weary apprehension. The head ache gave way to a Richter ten migraine as the look on both Giles's and Wesley's faces revealed the answer to Buffy's question.

This would be a one way trip.

*****

THE UNION OF SOULS

"No. No way," Buffy cried, leaping up from her seat nestled against Angel's warm body. "Find another way..."

She stared at Wesley, hard and long, daring him to defy her. Daring him to tell her that for the second time in as many days, someone she loved had to die.

Wesley frowned. "There is no other way. It's prophesized right here..." he replied, gesturing to the scroll.

That got her. That really got her. Anger bubbled up out of her system and she exploded like a keg of C-4 on a trip release. BAM! "Damn you and your scrolls," she screamed, stalking up to her ex-watcher and grabbing him by the lapels of his coat. The scroll fluttered to the floor. "I'm not doing this again! Find another way now, or you'll regret you ever came back!"

Wesley's eyes were wide with shock, face stricken, but he said nothing.

There was a warm hand on her back, another gripping her shoulder. "Buffy..." Angel's whisper was soft, commanding, and soothing as it drifted across the warm flesh of her ears and the back of her neck.

At the touch, she started to tremble. "I'm sorry," she whispered towards Wesley as Angel guided her away.

The second Angel had ushered her upstairs and into her bedroom, she started to sob. Tears came pouring down her face like April rain, drenching her cheeks as he held her, saying nothing. She burrowed into the warmth of his chest, listened to the soothing beat of his heart.

"I can't do this again... I can't do this again... I just started thinking I could and I can't. I can't, I can't, I can't..." she moaned, clutching at his black cotton shirt as if she expected him to blow away into dust at any moment.

His arms wrapped tighter around her, and he rocked her. Back and forth. Back and forth. Silent and yet so expressive, in his own, Angel way.

"Angel, you can't go... You can't go. We'll have to fight the Mohras... They can't be infinite in numbers..."

"Buffy," Angel sighed, "You know that we can't do that. You know it. Even if their numbers aren't infinite, what are you going to do the third time that portal opens and there are a thousand of them. What are you going to do?"

She blinked, the feeling of dread welling up inside her. Utter despair. <Tell me I need to kill my sister.> "Then I'm going with you. Not Spike."

"Buffy, they'll need your help with the Mohra's. You're a better fighter than Spike -- the only ones in the entire group who can engage in combat to any deadly extent are Gunn, Wesley, and Giles. Even Wesley's not a sure bet, though. He's a crack shot, but in hand-to-hand he's weaker."

"I don't care," she whispered, surprised that she was even saying it. She did care. She more than cared. Leaving Willow, Cordelia, Xander, Anya, and Fred to do all the heavy fighting in her place simply wouldn't work. It wouldn't.

She started crying again.

"Hey," he whispered, kissing the top of her head with a soft brush of his lips. "Hell spit me out once. Who's to say I taste any better this time..."

She sobbed into his chest.

She couldn't do this again. She couldn't. She couldn't, she couldn't, she couldn't. "There's gotta be another way," she protested weakly to his comforting embrace.

"Even if there was, Buffy, what are the odds we'd find it in the next thirty minutes before we have to leave and stake out the battle site?"

Always the voice of reason.

Damn him.

Damn him.

Damn him.

She shoved her fist part-way into her mouth and bit down hard, a sob flowing from her lips like blood. She hadn't meant it. She really hadn't...

He pulled her hand away from her mouth, gently, the touch of silk, and she stared up at him. "Don't do that," he said.

She whimpered. "Angel..."

She felt cold inside. Cold, and dead, and alone...

<Tell me I have to kill my sister...>

"I want to go. Instead of you..." she whispered.

"No."

"Please?"

"No, Buffy. You're barely twenty. I'm 247. 273 if you count before I was turned."

"What's that got to do with anything? In human years, you're twenty-six," she protested, but she knew it was a terrible argument. "You're only twenty-six..."

Angel would win. For the first time, Angel would win. She knew already that he would win, and she felt her heart breaking. Shattering apart. Tumbling down through the gaps in her insides.

She started to shiver.

"Buffy, I don't want to die, I really don't. But I'm ready. I've been ready for a long time," Angel whispered.

She bit her lip as she turned and stroked his cheek, feeling the pain in her chest even more. Growing, biting, clutching at her heart.

"It may not have been real, but I still remember everything. I'm ready, Buffy. Don't make this harder." His voice cracked at the end. Cracked, and broke. She knew, then, that he was lying. He wasn't ready at all.

"Noble bastard," she cried, a sob hitching in her throat as she collapsed into him again.

Then she felt it.

He started to tremble.

A small drop of wetness fell onto the back of her neck, searing as it slid down with the slope of her spine. She reached up and brushed his cheek, her hand coming back damp, sparkling in the dim light.

"Angel," she whimpered, running her hands up under his shirt. Silk. Warm, and heaving. Weak against her. Warm. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Beating against her ear like the drumming of a tympani. That sound was her heaven. "Please..."

"We can't," Angel moaned, sighing into her hair. "Not now..."

Collapse. Collapsing into her. Tumbling down. Thump- thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Blinking, she peered at him, almost melting under his ragged, crushing gaze. "Angel?"

"What."

She clutched at his shoulders, denting her nails into his skin roughly. "Shut up."

And then she fell into him, capturing his lips in a desperate, frantic display of lust. She sucked at his lower lip, his upper... Plunged her tongue into his inviting mouth...

He moaned against her, a soft whimper that was standing on the razor line between pleasure and pain. Threatening to tumble into either one with the slightest jostle. Teetering. Tottering... He couldn't have refused her even if he'd wanted to.

She grabbed him and plunged into pleasure, toppling onto the bed with him in tow. "Buffy..." he whispered as she grappled with his shirt, lifting it up over his head.

His chest was an array of heaving, sculpted muscles. More so, even, than she remembered it. She ran her nails up along the curves of his rippling abdominals, up to his chest... Back down, circling around his navel, and then trailing lower.

Sweat.

Heat.

Soap. Inhaling. He smelled like Ivory soap...

His crushing grip pulled her to him as if he were trying to pull her into himself, into his skin, make her a part of him. "Buffy..." Lips. His lips were all across the back of her neck, her ears, face...

His voice was strangled, riddled with desire as his large hands slid under her shirt. Unclasped her bra. Free. And then her shirt was off, her lacy bra slipping uselessly from her shoulders and breasts. Without so much as a glance, he grabbed it and flung it to the side.

Teeth, lips, trailing down her front. She shivered as he made a circle around her left areola, gasping. "Touch me..." she pleaded as she arched into him, her teeth threatening to start chattering as he moved lower, and lower.

Devastating warmth blanketed her body.

God, he was so warm. So warm and so gorgeous. So hers...

Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

Same, steady beat, except faster now. Racing some race that couldn't be won...

His confined erection ground up against her and she clutched frantically at his shoulders. His hair. Anything that would keep her afloat as the world began tumbling down around her in mindless abandon.

She fumbled with his belt, the buckle echoing with the sounds of their frenzied breathing. He writhed on top of her, and his pants slid down. Followed by his black silk boxers. Thud. He kicked them away from his feet and they fell limply to the floor.

His length brushed against her stomach and she reached down for it, running her fingers along the underside, cupped him. Kissing her, Angel let a muffled whine tumble into her mouth as he bucked in her grasp.

The world seemed to blur. Primal desperation.

Her panties were gone...

Fire, across her skin. His lips screamed down her flesh.

Hands.

Nipping. Sucking. Teasing.

Dizzy.

She cried out as he entered her, a tiny whimper that broke the desperate, heaving silence. Warm, inviting. He slid in and out of her, caressing her from the inside out with the silk touch of his uncircumcised length. Her hands felt his muscles ripple as he undulated on top of her.

Falling, falling, falling, she was falling... "Catch me..."

He savaged her with his roaming hands, licked her soul clean with his kisses. "Buffy, Buffy, Buffy..." he grunted, his tone getting more and more and more and more...

He clung to her, clung desperately.

He was falling, too.

Falling into her.

Her arms snaked around his thin waist and yanked him down roughly. Into her. "Please, Angel..."

He became a slave to his own desire, switching from smooth, altering speeds, to a desperate, steady pistoning. Sweat sheen, across his glistening skin. Whimpering into him, she begged again, felt the clench of her abdominal muscles, tightening in anticipation.

The silence exploded around them in coupled release. He spilled into her, jerking and lost in passionate oblivion. She clawed frantically at him as everything unclenched at once, sending her into the throes of dizzying abandon. Clawed desperately.

The last time. The last time.

This was the last time.

He was sucking in air like he was drowning in it as he collapsed on top of her, and they lay there, panting, silent. He rolled off of her body when he had regained enough of his senses, but his arms stayed wrapped around her. Possessive. Tight.

"God, I love you, Angel..." she whispered into his heaving chest, his heat still flowing across his skin. She stared at him in the gleaming light. Naked. A god. His eyes drank her in and she crumbled there.

"I love you," he responded, his voice heavy and laden with angst.

The last time.

"Please, let me go instead," she whispered, one last try at the impossible.

"No."

That snapped him out of the peaceful, resigned mood.

He stood, releasing her. She felt crushed in the sudden lack of his warm touch, and in the silence. His soft, even breaths rent the air, but nothing else. Nothing but the distant mumbles of the crowd downstairs.

"Angel..."

The muscles of his naked body rippled in the moonlight as he bent down to collect his clothes. On went the boxers, the pants. The rumpled shirt. "We need to go back downstairs. They'll need to start preparing soon." "But..."

He was already walking down the stairs. Anger flashed through her again. Bitter, cold, anger. She realized then, though, that perhaps he had been pushed too far, too soon.

Too soon.

He had just barely become used to the idea of being human, and now he had to become used to the idea that he was going back to Hell voluntarily. And then she had just made an even bigger mess of things. So many complications... She bounded off after him, wiping the tears away from her face as she threw her clothes back on.

Wesley was distributing weapons.

"Remember," Giles said, "You kill the Mohras by smashing the jewels on their forehead. We will engage them while Angel and Spike enter the Hell portal. All of them must be destroyed, but not before the portal closes."

"So," Spike asked, "What are we supposed to do, just keep walking until we find a big bleedin' statue? Seems like a bad plan... And what's the deal with Abaddon, anyway?"

"Abaddon?" Buffy whispered.

Giles turned to her. "Abaddon, the Destroyer. Lord of the Abyss. The prophecy says that the soul must commit to the arms of Abaddon for refuge."

Buffy swallowed and turned to Angel.

He was back with the mask, not revealing any particular emotion. Dawn sat next to him and lay her head on his shoulder. He glanced down at her and gave her a weak smile. But that was all. His eyes were cold, no angst clawing out from his eyes like crows feet. Nothing.

He was preparing himself.

He didn't even meet her worried gaze, even as she felt the, now, phantom heat, racing across her skin again. Heaving... Sighing. Powerful.

Desperation.

<Touch me...>

"All right," Wesley commanded softly. "We should probably head for the site where Glory was defeated now..."

Buffy broke herself from her daze, shaking her head a little.

Angel stood, along with the rest of the crew except Fred and Dawn. He donned his long, black leather coat, and collected his claymore.

He was the first out the door.

*****

THE FRAY

"Here, I want you to use this," Angel whispered.

Buffy looked up at him as he brought the claymore before him in a gesture of offering -- a priest kneeling before an idol. Angel watched as her eyes trailed downwards to the blade, sweeping across it with a long gaze. "But, it's yours..." she protested weakly.

He glanced at his claymore, and then back to her, his eyes filled with something he couldn't quite identify as any particular emotion. "I won't need it."

The skin around her lips and eyes ticked, and twitched, more evidence of her discomposure than words ever could be. Her clutched fists grew even more white-knuckled, and he could see her chest heaving with tiny, hitching breaths.

She was trying very hard. She really was.

His eyes wandered. The others were already staking out the grounds, Giles and Wesley discussing strategy in an almost heated debate. Everyone else examined the terrain, deciding where it would be easiest to trip up the opponent, and where it would be easiest for the opponent to trip them up...

"But..." His gaze was brought back to Buffy's trembling, shivering voice. She sat there, strong, and cool, like stone, but her voice, her face, her eyes... They all let him know what she was really feeling.

He shoved it into her hands, and she reflexively grabbed it. Her hands clutched around the blade, a little line of blood developing on her palm where she gripped it too hard. Seeing her look of almost physical illness, he took her and held her in his arms. The sword clanked uselessly from her lax grip.

"I'll be fine, Buffy. I promise," he whispered in her ear, running his hand along her back, which was starting to tremble as well.

He didn't tell her that he was lying, this time, and she was too distracted to notice. He was lying through his teeth. Far from fine, he felt weird, and cold inside.

Dead, again.

Even deader than before he had met the sunrise.

Like he was willfully surrendering his soul into the arms of Wolfram and Hart with a nice gift card to accompany it.

Because this time he was leaving her, and she was still alive. Just like he had promised he wouldn't. Just like he had sworn to himself that he would never do again. Never again.

She sighed into his chest, warm soft breath flowing across the cotton of his shirt, a soft caress. "I don't want you to go. There's another way... I know there is. They wouldn't bring you back just so you could..."

He felt a tremor race through him at the lost sound that dripped from her tone, drowned it with the undercurrent of sadness. "I sometimes think Their sense of humor leaves something to be desired..." he joked weakly, gripping her tightly.

It didn't help.

A sob racked her tiny body, silent. "Shhh, Buffy. I promise, I'll come back." He rocked her back and forth like a baby. Just like Cordelia had done for him.

Her shoulders drooped as she looked up at him. "How?"

"Take cover!" Xander yelled, running back to where Buffy and Angel were perched, just as the Earth started to rumble and shake. Any normal resident would have assumed it an earthquake. Angel felt the bones in his chest rattle with vibration as the others came bounding backwards, and knew that it wasn't.

Not an earthquake.

He closed his eyes as the air in the center of the open space began to crackle and growl, screaming with a glittery red sheen. The night began to burble and morph into a melting ooze, until finally, the portal opened into flaming, crimson brilliance, swirling outwards like an expanding bubble until it was ten feet in diameter.

He felt Buffy's tiny hands clutching him.

"No," she whispered. "No, no, no, no..."

"All right," Giles was saying. "Buffy, you're going to need to take the obvious leader. Myself, Anya, and Xander will be protecting Willow and Tara while they cast. The rest of you can fight freely."

A pale hand was thrust in his face. Spike. "Come on, poof. We've got Hell to pay..."

Angel smiled weakly and stood, but Buffy refused to let go. "Buffy..." he whispered.

"Awww, don't worry, Slayer. You think I want an eternity in Hell with this poof? I'll bring him back for you..." Spike muttered, seeing the crushed gaze slathered across Buffy's tearstained face.

Angel knew he was lying, as well. Spike knew he probably wasn't coming back...

The blond vampire turned to him. "Let's go."

Angel turned to Buffy, stared at her long, and hard, until she nodded. So subtle, he almost thought he was imagining things until he heard her voice, soft and bright. Strong. "Bring me back a souvenir, ok?" She gave him a weak smile.

"I'll bring back the whole Gothaim, if you want," he replied, surprised at how steady he sounded. How unaffected. Sad, but nothing near what he should be.

Nothing close to what he should be.

Perhaps it hadn't sunk in yet...

As the Mohras started flowing out of the portal, a long writhing mass of gleaming weapons and jewels and pounding, snarling mouths, pounding feet, he felt her frantic, panicked breath against him. She gripped him, pulling him into a kiss so devastating, he thought he would collapse right there. Her soft lips swept across his own, silk to flesh. Salty, sweet...

He felt himself falling into her.

Spike's hand was on his back. "Mate, we gotta go..." the voice was hesitant. It sounded choked.

Giles and the others had already rushed out, the sound of steel meeting steel in a vicious confrontation returned him to himself.

"I'll be back," he whispered, pulling away from Buffy.

Her fingers fell away from his, collapsing into the dark space around them. "I know."

They were both lying.

And they both knew it.

*****

Cordelia and Wesley were the first pair to leap into the fray. And what a fray it was.

One of the Mohras was upon them at once, hacking, slashing. Wesley hefted his mace before him, knowing that this would be difficult. He had never preferred hand-to-hand over long-distance fighting. Never. And, he knew that he was good support in a rumble, but he was fighting with Cordelia. And he would have to take the lead.

He marveled, for a moment, at how far Cordelia had come as she held her small axe high, looking rather pissed off and menacing despite her lack of size, or weight, or anything else, really. "You stupid green guys piss me off," she yelled as she took a swing at one. "Every time, with you, it's apocalypse this. Apocalypse that..."

She barely dodged the foot that was aimed at her stomach.

Wesley swung his mace down, trying to distract it enough for her to get in a killing blow. The Mohra bellowed and turned, swinging its broadsword in a wide, arcing down sweep that Wesley barely managed to block.

His muscles strained and shook and shuddered as he tried to keep the deadly blade away from him. The sword was caught in the spikes of the mace, but it wouldn't be for long. He kept the mace up at an odd angle, making it as hard as possible for the Mohra to disentangle from it.

Cordelia figured out what he was doing, and she swung around with her baby axe, whacking the Mohra over the head, just above the jewel. A terrible sucking sound enveloped the space around them as her axe head embedded itself in mushy green flesh. Glowing chartreuse ooze began to seep down around the wound, and it stumbled, screaming in pain, but continued to work at freeing its blade.

"I missed! Crap!" Cordelia screeched. She started leaping up, attempting to grab the axe handle and try again, but the Mohra was moving around too much, and she couldn't grab it.

Wesley grit his teeth, and yanked downward, hoping surprise would work to his advantage. "Yes, Cordelia, I can see that," he grunted as he whipped his mace back and down onto the Mohra's head.

The little axe was knocked free on the downswing. The upswing caught the Mohra under the jaw and the broadsword went skittering out of its hands as it tried to recover from the blow.

Cordelia made a flying leap towards her axe, but when she got there, she crouched down on her haunches gingerly and picked it up. Nothing like the classic duck-and-roll weapon retrieval that Angel and Buffy always did.

The Mohra tried to kick him, but Wesley leapt back.

He saw something moving in the corner of his eye. A split second glance revealed Angel and Spike, creeping towards the portal. For a moment, he felt a pang, deep in his gut, but he refused to let it fester.

Now was not the time.

Sighing as Cordelia came charging back, he refocused on the Mohra.

*****

"Yeah! That's the way I like it!" Gunn cried as his second Mohra crumbled away into a glitter of light. With a burst of muscles, he arched his axe high to save it from smacking into the pavement at the loss of resistance.

His grin of triumph ended as soon as it had begun. There was a pack of Mohra's heading over towards Spike and Angel, the obvious intent of cutting them off at the pass.

He ran over, ignoring the threat to himself as one Mohra not yet engaged took a vicious swing at him. The sparkle of light as it exploded under some unseen blow told him he didn't need to turn around and face it. He didn't even take the time to wonder what the Hell had killed it.

"Yo Angel! This way!" he shouted, motioning past himself with his free hand.

Angel switched directions, followed closely by Spike, and Gunn ushered them past. The two drooling Mohras that had been tracking them lost their interest in them and focused on him.

Two menacing morning stars stared whistling in the air, swinging ominously a few feet over his head.

Smiling, he lifted his axe.

This was exactly how he wanted it.

Executioner style in reverse, his axe flew backwards and caught one of the morning stars in mid air. The large spiked ball clanked around and stuck itself in the grooves of Gunn's peculiarly made axe as the swing continued, collapsing into the face of the Mohra that wielded it.

Explosion.

Bright light.

One left. Glancing around, he saw that Spike and Angel were gone -- They must have made it through the portal.

"You want this quick, or slow?" Gunn asked, the grin returning to his face.

The Mohra leapt at him, flinging its morning star to the ground when it realized it was useless against Gunn's swift axe and opting for brutal hand-to-hand.

With a vicious war cry, Gunn plunged into battle again.

*****

THE ARMS OF ABADDON

Spike stepped into the red portal, felt it whip-snap against his flesh as he was flung forward like a rock released from a catapult. The air rushed by him in a crimson blur. Blood. Streaming down the walls of the tunnel he was being sucked along. Sticky. All over. Blinding him.

And then he was spit out of the tunnel like a hairball from a cat.

Falling.

Falling.

Falling.

Ground.

Crying out, he ducked and rolled to the side to dissipate the force as his feet hit the rocky, blackened crags. Little bits of soot and blackened, sharp earth embedded themselves in his skin until he felt the prickles of the demon dimension stabbing him through practically every piece of exposed flesh.

Angel wasn't as lucky.

He hit the ground, HARD. And he failed to land in a place that was conducive to rolling. A rag doll hitting the sharp, craggy earth, Angel's knees buckled under the brute force of his landing. A brutal snapping sound bit through the air, and Spike heard Angel cry out in desperate pain.

Angel cascaded to the ground, his large body falling victim to physics.

He didn't get up.

Groaning, Spike wobbled to his feet and stepped over to Angel.

"Angel?"

Simply unable to pick them out in the din of the surrounding wasteland, he couldn't listen for heartbeats. He lowered a cold hand to Angel's neck and felt a pulse there, beating strongly just underneath the surface of the warm skin.

Angel groaned and his eyes leaked open.

"Ow," he said as he attempted to heave himself into a crouch.

Spike reached down and pulled him into a standing position, but as soon as he let go, Angel screamed. "I think my ankle is sprained. Bad." His teeth grit together and he winced as he looked around. "So where's the Gothaim?"

Squinting, Spike peered out over the dark, blackened earth. Off in the distance, to the west, about a mile off, was a tall black obelisk, pointing towards the sooty black sky. Black. It was all black. "That big tall thing right there, maybe?" Spike asked, sarcastic.

Angel shook his head. Scanning the distance, he stared off, eyes wide, and unseeing. "I don't know. I can't see more than ten feet..." he whispered, pain lacing his words.

Spike paused, suddenly being forced to remember that Angel's night vision had been obliterated along with his demon. And he couldn't help but feel an utter lack of sympathy. "Can you walk?"

Angel tested his ankle with a grimace, placing his left foot out in front of him and putting his heavy weight on it. Flailing, Angel stepped back and grabbed at Spike. "Not far," he replied, his voice choked and strained.

Spike rolled his eyes as he saw tears forming in Angel's eyes. "You never change, do you?"

Angel looked at him, innocent. "What do you mean?"

"You never admit when you're hurt. Even when it's so bad you can't even bother to hide it. You always were that way, Angelus." He gripped Angel around the waste and let his Sire lean on him. "And you're a big, giant idiot, too, you stupid poof."

Angel groaned as they took the first few steps. Spike felt his Sire's fingers clutch tighter at his skin through his coat. "Oh, and why do you say that?"

"Because you can't admit that the Slayer loves you. And you didn't even care about her until she died."

Angel's muscles tensed against him as he struggled to keep them moving forward. "I did care. And she didn't die."

"The first time, she did. And you came, and you fucked with me, and you left, and I wish that you, for once, got the short end of the damned stick. You get Buffy, you get the whole fucking timeline reset so you can be with her, and I get nothing. I was very touched by her concern that I was accompanying you on this one way excursion into Hell. No one gives a flying fuck that I'm not going back..."

He felt Angel stiffen next to him, and he inhaled sharply. "You remember, too." A whisper. Soft, pale, barely audible in the groaning roar of wind and death that streaked the air.

Spike snorted, unable to contain his burning hatred for Angel any longer. It tumbled from his lips in a furious waterfall of tantrum. "No fucking shit, Sire... And I think you're a real bastard, you know? You wasted two god damned years jerking off in a shower in L.A., when I would give my life for a second. A SECOND with her. You get the rubber stamp, and I get shit."

Angel looked at him with those soft brown eyes of his. Spike wanted to sock him in the face, but he forced himself to hold back. "I'm sorry," Angel said, sounding actually sincere.

Spike glared. Stupid bastard. "No you're not."

"I am."

"I hate you."

Angel blinked. "I don't hate you."

"Sod off," Spike snapped.

"I can't walk..."

"I'll throw you..."

"Won't your chip go off, then?"

Spike growled in frustration. "Go to Hell."

"Already there," Angel replied, nonchalance dripping off of his tone.

Spike's eyes narrowed as he felt his chest freeze up with anger. "Fuck you."

Angel suddenly shifted tactics, even as the agony in his eyes doubled at Spike's suddenly jarring support. "Why did you offer to come along if you didn't want to do this?"

Spike walked faster, not caring how badly it was hurting Angel. Faster, and faster, his steps crunching into the rocky mess, some of it even threatening to cut through the thick soles of his boots. He wondered if it was hurting Angel. He hoped it was. "Because I don't want to stay behind and watch the Slayer go to pieces over you, you prancin' poof, and then refuse me even then."

Angel moaned as Spike took a really jostling step forward. "If you... hate me so much, then why... did you let me..." he panted. So he was starting to lose his breath now. Human. Spike growled as Angel stumbled a bit and fell towards him. "Why did you let me, after the funeral..."

"I thought that maybe I could get a nice workout," he snapped, exploding when he saw the confusion in Angel's soulful eyes. "Jesus, Angel. You're my Sire. Something I haven't had in a century. A CENTURY. Why the bloody fuck do you think?"

Angel blinked, but didn't flinch. "I think that you're lying."

"What the fuck are you talking about now?" Spike rolled his eyes. The obelisk was getting a lot closer now. Another five minutes of this bleedin' walk, and he would be slitting Angel's skin open with a big bleedin' knife. The thought of that drove him at an even faster pace.

"I don't think you hate me," Angel replied. "And I don't think you're mad about the other stuff. I think you're mad about the Shanshu."

Spike paused, raising a hand in the air and clenched it into a fist and started shaking his head back and forth. He didn't fucking need this right now... What he needed, was a bigger knife. "Bloody..."

"You are, aren't you... Why?" Angel cut him off.

Spike refused to dignify that with an answer. Poof. Couldn't he see it?

"Why, Spike?"

Apparently he couldn't.

His voice started in a low, threatening growl, deep within the pit of his chest, burbling forth like a regular sigh. "Because maybe I bloody wanted it, too! Maybe then she'd actually see what a big froofy idiot you are and like me."

He saw Angel swallow harshly. "Oh."

Spike stopped. "We're here. Take off your coat and I'll cut you..."

Angel's eyes narrowed as he winced and removed the coat.

Spike pulled his switchblade from his pocket, pressing the button that released it with an ominous snap-click. He actually felt excited... Blinking the rush away, he approached his Sire. "You might want to sit down for this..." he warned. Why had he done that? Angel didn't need a warning, he needed to be beaten into a bloody pulp and fed to all the starving vampires in China...

Beaten. "Oh, bollocks," Spike growled, annoyance dripping from him in waves.

Angel looked at him apprehensively. "What?"

"I can't make the cut," he said, gesturing to his head.

He expected Angel to fly off the handle then, break out with the fangs and start growling at him. Why didn't you think of that before we left, you idiot! And then he remembered the only fangs Angel could snarl at him with were the plastic Halloween variety. Growling, he grew frustrated at his lack of ability to reconcile human Angel vs. soul- whipped Angelus.

It was annoying.

Angel just shook his head. "Give me the knife then..."

Spike's jaw fell open. "You're going to cut yourself? That masochistic streak coming out again? This'll hurt like sunlight, you know. 'Specially now," Spike found himself warning. Argh! Why was he warning? Angel didn't need a warning...

"Well, gee, Spike," Angel began, actually showing the first signs of annoyance. "Maybe we should just go find an overseer to help us. I'm sure that would blow over really well..."

Spike raised an eyebrow as he handed the blade over. "An overseer?" he asked, remembering that Angel had been here before. Not here here, maybe, but somewhere in this dimension...

Angel made a funny growling sound, and Spike had to force himself not to laugh. Apparently Angel was having just as much trouble reconciling humanity with soul-whippedness. "Let's just say that we're pretty damn lucky no one has showed up yet to collect us."

He brought the blade down across his forearm and wrist, unable to withhold a cry as the blood started dripping down from the fresh made cut. Not dripping. Running just short of spurting. Angel had cut deep. Really deep.

Spike found himself licking his lips before he could stop himself. Shaking his head, he grabbed Angel harshly and walked him around the two foot square base of the obelisk, squeezing his Sire's arm roughly to make the blood drip faster.

And then it was done.

Angel slipped, heaving, to the ground, his face pale and drawn as he cradled his arm to his chest. The funny way he held it practically screamed that some tendons were cleaved. "Angel..." Spike whispered.

Angel grunted, but didn't otherwise respond.

His head started slipping to the side.

"Fucking Hell, Sire, you didn't need to cut your damn arm off," Spike cried, his voice breaking as he scrambled to Angel's side.

His breathing was light, shallow.

And he didn't open his eyes.

Spike shook him. "Stay awake!" It sounded like a good thing to say. Isn't that what everyone did in the movies?

Spike ripped Angel's shirt from his body and crumpled it over the long, jagged, poorly cut wound, pressing down hard. Pressure. The bleeding wasn't really stopping, even then.

"WHO DARE DISTURB MY PIT?"

Spike froze, letting Angel slip to the ground as he turned towards the loud, booming voice.

A large, black creature stood there, with black, molting wings that heaved in the wind, beating air all around them. It was HUGE. It had at least three feet on Angel, maybe even more, Spike couldn't tell. Glowing red eyes stared at him, narrowed, and Spike could see the saliva dripping off his very long, very sharp-looking fangs. "Shit..." he muttered.

"WHO DARE DISTURB MY PIT?"

Spike shrugged. "Silly us, we didn't know this was your pit. Why don't you just show us the exit and--" He backed away until he hit flat against the obelisk.

This was bad. Very bad.

He glanced down.

Angel looked dead.

The hulking creature advanced, its clawed feet tearing through the stone and sharp earth as if it were butter. Spike could feel the ground underneath him shaking with each, massive step.

Hot, stinking breath, wafting over his face, and then it turned.

Spike saw its claws reach down and grab Angel, the obvious weaker of the two. He shook his Sire like a rag doll, and not once, did Angel even blink, or groan, or anything.

The big creature growled, and then broke into the leeriest grin Spike had ever seen. "This one has been here before..."

Spike felt cold at the menace housed in that rumbling voice. Been here before. He glanced at Angel. And then back at the black monster standing before them.

Somehow, he just knew.

That this, was Abaddon.

*****

THE PANIC

"Buffy!"

She ducked and rolled as one of the two Mohras pounding on her roared and exploded into nothing, its jewel cracking in its head without even so much as a tap from her blade.

"Thank you, Willow and Tara," she muttered, sparing a quick glance towards her red-headed friend. Giles and Xander were fending off some Mohras from them while they cast. She could see the soft, eerie glows emanating from them, both deep in thought as they focused on their next target.

She glanced around the battle, making sure no one needed help. Gunn was cutting a swath with his huge axe, two Mohras already dead at his quick hand, and a third well on its way. She couldn't help but marvel at him. He was a good combatant. Way better than most humans.

Cordelia and Wesley were tag-teaming one particularly brutal Mohra, and Buffy nearly did a double take. She knew from Angel that Cordelia did get her hands dirty in battle sometimes, but actually seeing it was another matter. All in all, they were doing well. Five Mohras down, five left in the mix.

A blade swung by her neck.

She barely managed to dodge in time.

Hefting Angel's blade out in front of her, she prepared for the worst. The one Mohra that was still left was a nasty one. Bigger than the rest, and a lot more pissed off.

"Hey, your shoe is untied!" she cried.

The Mohra glared, growling at her.

She shrugged as she swept the blade out in an arc meant to decapitate. It wouldn't kill the damn thing, but it would make it much easier to smash the jewel... "Well, it was worth a shot. I think I'm out of puns for the day..." she grunted as the large demon ducked under her swing and kicked outwards.

She leapt backwards, just missing the one-way ticket into the gravel, and she warded him back with the lengthy claymore.

"Herald, the End of Days. The Slayer has fallen, and the nights of a thousand deaths begin!" he growled.

He seemed to be a big fan of growling...

Buffy arched an eyebrow. "Newsflash pal, I'm still kicking!" She lashed out with a roundhouse.

"Your Warrior is dead."

That nearly froze her in her tracks.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the portal irising shut, sucking inwards on itself until it blinked and went out entirely. Darkness, nothing but the glow from Willow and Tara illuminating the battle field.

No.

She blinked.

No.

Angel was going to find a way to come back. And Spike was coming, too.

Soon.

She had to believe that.

The Mohra smirked, the jewel on its head gleaming in the dim light, mocking her. "There is no way out except the portal which he just closed."

Swing.

Buffy raised the claymore high above her head and brought it down like an axe descending on a chopping block. The blade stopped its descent with a rough, jarring vibration, and she heard the screech of unforgiving metal as the parry with the Mohra's great sword bit into the edge of her blade. She winced as the force of the hit jumbled its way back into her grip and shook her.

Throwing all of her weight into it, she swept her sword out of the parry and into a circular motion, throwing the enemy blade off of it.

With a scream of anger, she leapt in for the kill. The claymore behaved beautifully as she kicked her heel into the Mohras gut and sent him sprawling, just in time for her to the smash the jewel with the razor tip. She jammed it hard into his head, like Excalibur into the stone.

Resistance gave way almost immediately as it howled and shriveled away into nothing, sending the claymore point first into the pavement. A terrible shrieking noise as her weight sent the blade sliding out in front of her, down across the concrete, sparks leaving a swath behind the tip as she collapsed next to it.

Blinking, she glanced around.

The other Mohras were dead. The portal was gone.

And everyone was staring at her.

*****

THE DESTROYER'S JUDGMENT

The warm stench of death wafted across his face as his eyes lifted slowly open. Huge sweat covered hands gripped around his abdomen, almost cutting off his air. Boa constrictor. The space before him was blurry, but he saw the eyes. Red, peering at him, unblinking.

He coughed, feeling dizzy.

"Angel!" Spike called.

He was backed up against the Gothaim, plastered against it, just out of the wing radius of the thing that had Angel in the air.

"You have been here before," it growled, its eyes narrowing as its lips peeled backwards into a disgusting leer.

"Spike..." he whispered, but it sounded more like a wheeze.

Couldn't get enough air into his lungs. Couldn't...

The beast's index finger pressed against his forehead, and Angel shut his eyes. Waiting for his fate. He remembered this... He remembered this with such haunting clarity, he started to shiver.

<YOU ARE NOTHING.>

A claw raked down his cheek, biting into the skin like acid as it left a streak of new blood behind it, but he was running out. He wouldn't bleed much longer... The dizzy, mushy peace that was descending over him like a warm, fleecy blanket told him at least that much.

<YOU ARE NO ONE.>

But suddenly, he was sent tumbling to the ground. A broken toy. Tossed out. No good. He gasped as waterfalls of blackness cascaded before him, and not the blackness of the landscape either. The scent of brimstone wafted into his nostrils. The evil, rotting stench of death. Fire.

<YOU ARE NOTHING.>

The large creature let out a wail, a terrible, screeching wail that grated over his ears like nails on a chalkboard. Harpy. Piercing.

<YOU ARE NO ONE.>

Collapsing into the sooty, craggy earth, he clasped his hands weakly over his ears, but his one arm was too messed up. He couldn't get a good grip. Couldn't even flex his hand. He felt his innards roll, threatening to spill out in a heaving torrent of vomit.

<YOU ARE NOTHING.>

Wind swam across his face as the creature's flapping wings beat harder. He could hear the thump, thump, thump, as they reached their apexes and fell once again. Black. Rotting feathers fell to the ground in a torrent of sooty snow flakes.

"YOU ARE PURE! YOU CANNOT BE HERE..." It boomed.

The air rattled around him with vibration, practically sending him into convulsions. His chest felt like it was turning to goo. A subwoofer, up too high. Too high...

"WHAT POWER HAS SENT YOU HERE?"

Angel coughed, stumbled onto all fours. "We fell..." Coughed again.

"WHAT POWER?"

"None..."

Angel was relieved that Spike answered for him, because he didn't think that he could muster the strength to. Wheezing and choking in the growing oppressiveness of the atmosphere, the blood loss was finally getting to him. He blinked, noticing for the first time that his damaged arm was still weeping copious amounts of blood. Drops of the sticky, coagulating fluid fell to the blackened earth like rain.

Drip.

Drip.

Drip.

The creature growled again in frustration, and Angel rocked under the force of it. Earthquake. "YOU HAVE BEEN PURIFIED."

This was a good thing, Angel took it, because the dark, hulking beast looked rather unhappy. The leer was gone. It stood, arms outstretched as a white glow began to develop at its fingertips, wings spread outwards in the flaring light like Phoenix rising.

Angel blinked and started to shake as the earth began to rumble. A huge golden portal spiraled outwards into the black air, tendrils of light clawing apart into the brimstone atmosphere like spider webbing.

"Spike..." he called, trying to stumble to his feet. The first few attempts nearly sent him sprawling again, but he managed to wobble into an upright position. Spike leapt forwards from the obelisk, the fear in his eyes completely undisguised as it dripped unbidden like tears.

The creature laughed and slapped the blond vampire back into the Gothaim. "THIS ONE IS NOT PURE. HE STAYS."

"No," Angel whispered, grunting as tears of pain came to his eyes.

"I RELEASE YOU FROM THE ABYSS."

He felt the air around him tingle and morph, and bubble. "NO!" he screamed hoarsely, launching forward like a cheetah, desperation driving him where strength could not. Dematerializing. He hurt. All he had to do was let go... Be released. The portal was sucking him in.

He resisted, moving towards his childe with heaving, shaky, faltering steps.

Spike, seeing Angel's intention, leapt atop the back of the creature, gripping at the charred hollow between the massive black wings. The creature spun around, pivoting on a clawed foot. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"

Flames spewed from its gnarled hands and smote Spike to the ground, who rolled, flailing, to put the licks of fire out before they incinerated him. Angel kept running, gaining an inch or so at a time against the terrible force pulling at him, pulling him back towards the glowing portal.

"Will, grab my hand!" he called, wheezed, barely.

But Spike heard it.

The big demon stepped on Spike's legs, claws sinking into his calves like knives, but Spike still reached out, muscles shaking and straining as he tried to give himself more length. "Sire..."

Their fingers brushed.

But that was all.

Spike reached back and clawed at the foot that held him down, snarled, let his demon forth. Bit at it wildly. The creature roared in pain and lifted his foot reflexively as Spike came back with a blood covered mouth, oozing and black from his lips. Bony, molted wings swung around like wrecking balls. Spike ducked, barely in time as he tripped and scrambled forward like a gecko across the torrid rocks.

The beast clawed Spike's back and dragged him backwards, scraping against the flesh with an audible tearing sound. Spike wailed, but, with shaking muscles, he launched out again, ripping himself from the demon's claws, leaving strips of his skin behind.

He stumbled forward.

The beast belatedly grabbed his foot, but it was too late.

Screaming. The beast was screaming.

Angel felt Spike's frantic hand clasp his, and then he succumbed to the whiplash as it pulled him backwards into a bath of white light.

*****

THE THIRD HOMECOMING

Silence.

Buffy blinked as her legs buckled and she surrendered to gravity. Blinked again. A sob. She started to shake. Tremors ran through her like she was the fault line. Bending, shifting. She couldn't stop shaking...

Everyone converged on her at once. "Buffy!"

People, all over her. Hugging her, crying for her, rocking her back and forth. Noise. Everywhere. Too much... She felt smothered.

Started inhaling desperately for air.

Angel.

Angelangelangelangel...

And then they all backed away as the air started to rumble with the thick bass of a subwoofer on overdrive. Again. "Not another one!" Xander groaned. Everyone began to fan out, but Buffy remained collapsed on the ground, lungs heaving with sobs she wasn't quite freeing from her body.

She closed her eyes. No. NONONONO...

But the portal was high in the air. Gold. Not crimson.

Buffy felt her heart leap and she started to tremble all over again. But for a different reason. Please. Please, please, please...

Two screaming bodies got spit out onto the pavement. Angel. Spike. And there was blood all over, spreading outwards from the epicenter in a puddle of coagulating mess. And not all of it was Spike's. "Someone call the ambulance..."

Cordelia already had her cellular phone out. Buffy sighed in relief. At least someone was current with the world...

She was next to Angel and Spike in an instant. "Spike!"

Spike sat up with a grimace, shaking his head as he pointed to Angel.

She turned to Angel, whose eyes were open, staring blankly into space as he started to shiver. That was when she saw his arm. The jagged wound trailed from his elbow to his wrist, and his fingers were clutched tightly. Like he had no feeling in them. "Oh, my GOD. ANGEL!" she shrieked.

Eyes watering, she was about ready to rip off some of her pant leg when Spike thrust his shirt into her hand. "Here," he said.

"Thanks," she whispered, pressing it roughly on the weeping tear in Angel's skin.

Everyone else was staying back. Keeping their distance.

Choking sobs were rolling out of her, tears blurring her vision as she gathered him up in her arms. He looked so pale...

"Buffy..." Angel mumbled. He blinked, but didn't appear to see her. "I'm ok... Honest," he groaned. "At least in the sense of not being dead..."

"His ankle's screwed up. Don't try to move him," Spike warned, getting to his feet with a sigh and a curse. "I'd better go before the paramedics get here," he said.

He started walking away, limping, footsteps echoing softly on the pavement.

"Spike!"

He stopped, turned, and stared at her.

Angel groaned in her arms, his body shuddering, and she gripped him tighter, hugged him desperately as she kept her eyes on the blond vampire.

"Could you bring Dawn? To the hospital?" she asked, hesitant.

A small, sad smile spread across his face. "Sure, Slayer. I'll get Little Bit."

And then he disappeared into the night.

Angel groaned again, bucking slightly in her embrace. "Angel, shhh," she soothed, caressing the smooth, silk skin across his cheek and his forehead. "The paramedics will be here soon... Don't die on me now..."

He grunted and his eyes closed, face pale and drawn as he muttered, "I won't die."

"Sure you won't," Buffy argued playfully.

"If I was going to die, there'd be that bright light that I'm just not seeing... 'Cept you..." A lazy smile spread across his face.

"Well, I'm not sure if I believe you right now, so I'm going to have to remain frantic..."

"M'kay," he said, drifting off even further, but still awake.

She shook him, knowing he was probably going into shock. His skin was cold and clammy, like a wet wash-rag, and she suspected it was only his incredible pain endurance that was keeping him so calm. "You can't go to sleep yet."

He grunted.

"I'm serious, Angel," she snapped as the flashing blue and red lights of the paramedics flooded into the alcove.

There were people crowding around her in an instant. "How long has he been down?" one of the medics asked.

"I don't know," Buffy shrugged, her arms tightening around him. "Ten minutes?" she guessed, not knowing for sure.

"Ma'am, you're going to have to move..."

An oxygen mask went over Angel's face and they lifted him onto a backboard as she stepped away. "Is he going to be all right?" she asked, dreading what they might say. She knew enough to know Angel wasn't out of the woods yet...

"I really don't know, ma'am."

"Well, GUESS, damn it," she growled, trying to get in the ambulance with Angel, but they blocked her and didn't answer.

"Ma'am, you're going to have to ride in a separate vehicle. There's not enough room and it's against policy."

Angel was pale and still on the gurney as they slammed the doors shut in her face and she backed away, shocked as the ambulance sped away.

"Sunnydale paramedics suck," she said as Willow and Xander came and enveloped her in a hug. Tears were streaming down her face as they guided her into Gunn's truck, the only vehicle that they'd brought.

Through the rearview mirror, she could blearily see her and Angel's friends assembling into a big group, getting ready to trek back to the house and find enough cars to get over to the hospital in.

Gunn smiled as he hopped into the driver's seat. "I wouldn't worry," he said with a grin. "Angel's been through worse..." And then he gunned the engine and sped away towards Sunnydale General, Cordelia's shakily scrawled directions guiding him when shocked Buffy couldn't.

****

Beep. Beep. Beep.

Annoying.

He groaned, coming out of the fog and into an immaculate white room with some reluctance. White, like the Oracle sanctuary. Everything felt sluggish, like he wasn't thinking quite as fast as he could have been.

He squinted, rotating his neck a bit, surprised to find that he didn't feel any pain at all, even as he lifted his bandaged arm to examine it. He looked down. There was a blond head, hair sprawled out like a golden halo off to his left.

Not the Oracle sanctuary, then. "Hi," he whispered, finding that his voice cracked and sputtered, and barely came out at all.

She snapped awake like someone had poked her with a stick. "Angel!"

Buffy practically shrieked with joy, attacking him with kisses. He grunted under her assault, giving in quite happily as he wrapped both his bandaged arm and his unbandaged one around her in a tight embrace.

Warm.

"You're awake!" she cried enthusiastically.

"How long?" He didn't finish his sentence, but she seemed to understand.

"Couple hours," she shrugged. "It didn't take them long to fix you. Cordelia was pacing a trough in the waiting room, though. She'll probably come barging in here, soon."

He sighed, leaning back into the pillows, suddenly more tired than anything else. Closing his eyes, he sighed. "What am I on?" he groaned, lifting his uninjured arm to examine the catheter running into it, barely able to open his eyes far enough to see.

"Morphine."

"Mmm," he grunted. "Good stuff."

"The doctors say you'll probably need therapy to get your hand back in working order, but other than that, you're fine. You know, you're in pretty good shape considering went through Hell to save the world... AGAIN. You, mister, 'what if I can't protect you?'" she mocked him, a prominent glower suddenly overcoming her features.

He couldn't help but smile.

Infectious.

Her lips turned upwards the second his did, but then she grew serious. "They want to know why that wound was self- inflicted..." she warned. But the serious look bled into another infections grin. And, for some reason, as he stared at Buffy's smiling, happy face, he didn't seem to care about anything whatsoever. Not one bit. She was even better than the morphine. "I'll think something up."

He closed his eyes and she was silent for a moment. All he could hear was her breathing and that annoying beeping.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

If he hadn't been so damn tired, he would have punched the thing into a billion silent pieces. He could just picture it now, shattering apart under his fist's savage attack... BAM!

And then that fuzzy feeling came. The feeling between wakefulness and sleep that always was his favorite, because he didn't have any nightmares until after it was gone.

"Angel?"

Hesitant.

Forcing sleep away, he opened his eyes again. The lids were droopy, and heavy, but he managed.

"Are you going back to L.A.?"

He sighed. Tired. Very tired. "I think so. I've still got a job there. We'll see what we can work out, though, ok?"

She smiled at that, but was still wary. "You're sure."

"Yes, Buffy. I promise I'm not leaving you again. Honest..." he assured her with a wheezy chuckle.

The smile widened. "Ok," she whispered as she stood up, stretched, stretched again. Yawned.

"Where are you going?" he asked, surprised and a little dismayed that she was moving. It felt so comfortable with her there. So right...

She shrugged. "Home."

"Oh." He felt his lofty, foggy feeling start to darken, his smile start to sink, the Buffy drug flooding out of his system and leaving him with the gaping yaw that was the morphine.

But then, she stretched her body out along next to his like a lithe cat, draping her arm across his stomach. Her entire body heaved with a yawn as his own wakefulness started to drift away, the beeping noise fading into the oblivion that existed around their warm bodies.

Drifting away into the arms of his soulmate.

Home.

FIN

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