TIMELINE: Present
SPOILERS: Up to (and especially) BtVS: Triangle, AtS: Redefinition - I’m taking off from there
SYNOPSIS: Two warriors lost in darkness show one another the light.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Based on the song, "The Stone" by the Dave Matthews Band, from the album Before These Crowded Streets. I heard it, and I immediately thought of Angel’s current problems. I think about them a lot, these days... Lyrics follow the story.
RATING: PG-13
CONTENT: suggestion of m/f sex

 "The Stone"
by Ducks

He can feel them. Less than 50 yards ahead. The majority of their minions have scattered, or are already a residue of dust on his black sweater and pants. He doesnt bother with a coat, anymore. What does he need outer covering for? He has no body heat, and the cool, damp winter air doesnt touch him.

Its taken eighteen days, but he has systematically dispatched anyone--demon or otherwise-- who has gotten in his way. Anything even remotely tied to them.  Hes shed the shell of humanity... dismissed all the distractions of friends, family... the illusion of life and the distant promise of reward. All he has now is the hunt. And it is all he wants.

He knows where he is. He recognizes the graveyard like the skin on the backs of his hands. It was, not so long ago, part of the center of his existence. The patterned layout of the headstones were once carved into the deepest recesses of his heart.

It might as well have been a million years in the past. Another universe. Another man.

Now, he doesnt care that he is in Sunnydale. He doesnt care that he and Buffy hunted together in this cemetery, once upon a time, between bouts of kissing and groping, as though they had any right at all to pretend normalcy. He doesnt care that being here once made him feel safe, warm, loved...human. It matters not at all that the woman he once adored with everything he was is somewhere nearby, probably sleeping with someone else. He ignores the humming that begins in his toes and flows through him like lava, telling him that she is close.

All that is left of him is vengeance. Destruction in motion. The rest is nothing but baggage, and he dismisses it utterly from his conscious mind.

Twenty yards. He can smell them, now. A crypt, just at the far end of the West wall. Five, possibly more, plus the two he seeks.

He draws his sword. This time, he will get close. He will be certain that the dust falling on his clothes is theirs. He will leave absolutely no question that they have met their Final Death at his hand.

Last time, he was weak. Still affected by the memory of humanity. No more.

His predators senses hone to pinpoint clarity. Three older, strong vampires. Two... no, four... fledglings... canon fodder. Plus, the two of them. Nine in all. He can take them.

Fifteen yards.

His dismisses the growing sensation of danger outside what he is tracking, from nearby. Focuses.

Thirteen yards.

They will know he is coming. He will have only moments to destroy them all. No doubt they will flee the crypt in waves... pawns first. Then knights. The Queens will wait until an opportune moment, and bolt. He will cut through the chaff, and find the wheat at the center before they have the chance. Destroy the core, and the army will fall to pieces. He wont need to hunt the rest.

He knows he will, anyway.

Ten yards. A figure sprinting from the Eastern wall. Fast. Preternatural. Another hunter. He moves deeper into shadow, stands utterly still, until he is part of it. The motion stops. He moves on. Lesser demons will have no more than a passing interest in him.

He ignores the growing clutching sensation in his chest. Fight or flight, nothing more.

Eight yards.

Five.

Now.

*******

The cramping in her gut and the tingling in her neck have gotten worse since she vaulted the wall around Happy Acres. She no longer bothers to make the old joke about the graveyards ironic name. She is beyond such things. No time for bittersweet memories of strong arms and cool kisses.

The hunt is her purpose. Her calling. And there is a small nest of powerful vampires nearby. Rumor has it... or rather, Spike has it... that Drusilla is among them. Powerful, dangerous, insane Drusilla.

She doesnt have any particular feelings about the raven-haired basketcase. But Spike did. Hence the fact that she chained him to his chair.

At least she left the television on.

She sniffs the air, closes her eyes. The tingling grows. She pushes it away -- imagination, nothing more. She listens to the twitching in her womb, instead. Vampire alarm. Reaches out with her senses... feels the stirring of the night air. Nine vampires in the crypt. One to the West. A look out? Shell take him first, quick. Sneak attack from behind. No noise. Just dust.

She sprints for several yards, leaping the lowest stones. The lone vampire ducks into the shadows, and vanishes. She knows he is still there. She can smell him. He knows she is stalking him. Surprise is lost. She dives behind a smaller mausoleum, and freezes.

A split second, and the lone vamp moves closer to the nest. Hes going to warn them. Time to move.

She ducks low... sprints smoothly, catlike, silent. Keeps herself downwind as much as possible. She wonders for a moment if maybe shes sick... or hungry. The vampires scent is... familiar. The tingling that began in her neck has spread to her fingers. As she gets closer, it fills her belly, moves down her legs. Her toes feel like theyre falling asleep.

She stops for a second. Two. Only one vampire she has ever encountered has been able to bring her to such an immediate and stunning halt.

It cant be, can it?

No. Of course not. She resumes her journey.

Imagination. Nothing more. Wishful echoes of childhood memory. Ache of loneliness. Cutting edges of stress.

Shes off her game, thats all.

She presses forward. Closes her mind to all but the location of her target. Assesses its size, strength, the precision of its movements that suggest great age and skill.

She wonders briefly why an elder would be wasted as lookout, but dismisses this thought, too.

All that remains is the coming fight.

Just a moment more.

*******

They attack all at once, spilling from the crypt in a wave, with an assortment of growls, snarls, and battle howls.

He is ready. In less than a breath, he is a blur of muscle and steel, his sword glinting silver, then red, screaming through the air... blood. Limbs. Heads, then dust. He is rage. Violence. Death. Hollow of all but this.

Some small part of him realizes that he is no longer fighting alone. He doesnt care. He plows through the masses. Others must have been underground. There are far more than he estimated.

It hardly matters. He dispatches them two at a time as he mows through, and toward the crypt.

They have to die.

He goes down under a large demon with a hammer. He roars his fury, and swings the sword upward, cleaving the creature in two. He is on his feet before its halves reach the ground.

Forward.

A scream of pain from behind him. Human. Wounded. Stench of blood. The crypt door is immediately before him. He ignores the cries of victory, the screaming of the victim. Not his concern.

He reaches out and grabs the handle on the door. Here. Theyre here. They are going to die, at last.

"ANGEL! HELP ME!"

*****

She was way off in her estimation of how many there were. There are four vampires on her, now. And two demons she cant identify. She stakes three. The fourth kicks her in the face, sending her flying. She crashes into the wall. Loses her breath. One of the demons leaps on her, a stunning punch to her solar plexus. Ribs and sternum crack. She coughs blood. Shuts out pain and the threat of unconsciousness. If she passes out, she is dead.

He doesnt seem to know shes there. He is cutting down vamps like the Grim Reaper and his scythe, sword in constant motion. The other demon who rushed her fells him. He cuts it in half, gets to his feet.

She kicks out at the legs of her attacker. It stumbles back, she rises, ducks low, kicks upward, to the meridian of its body. It doesnt flinch. It swings its axe at her. She jumps back. The blade misses fully impaling her, but makes solid contact with her flesh. Blood rushes from the wound. Dizziness returns. She stumbles. The last vamp punches her square in the nose. More blood. She reels backward. Random stab with the stake dispatches the vampire. But the demon is still coming. She leaps the swinging axe like a jump rope. As she comes down, the handle hits her arm. She hears the elbow joint separate as her weapon goes flying. She makes hard contact with the ground... a sickening thud. Her head hits the wall. The demon swings the axe. She kicks the arm wielding it, and the weapon flies out of the way. A light sword instantly replaces it. She barely gets out from under its cleaving arc in time. It cuts into her arm, slices across her chest. She screams.

"ANGEL, HELP ME!"

Last battle? Is this her end? Will he let her die? She can no longer move. Blood rushes from her...too much... too quickly. She kicks wildly with her last ounce of strength, hoping the keep the advancing demon at swords length. But her consciousness waivers.

Shes going to die.

A roar fills her ears as the world goes black. Enraged vampire, she thinks, and falls into the darkness.

*****

The stench of her blood enrages him. He can feel Dru and Darla in the crypt. This is the end. His goal. The ultimate conclusion of his journey. Destroy the one who made him, and the one he made. Only a single pull of the door away. All he has to do is step through.

A dull thud of flesh crashing on hard ground. A grunt of agony. Weak screaming. His name...

Blood.

Buffy.

Demon laughter, victorious. "I heard you were tougher!" He turns.

Instinct takes him. Her pain rips through his bones.

Mate in danger.

He roars, in motion before his mind has registered any of it. Cleaves the demons sword in two. It growls. He snarls in return. The demon has another sword. The thrust and parry is a memory of his muscles, and requires none of his brain.

His brain is consumed with her agony. Bloodlust. A sudden terror. A forgotten imperative.

Protect the Chosen One.

He lands a solid kick to the chest of the enormous demon. It flies into the wall with a grunt. Before it can recover, he runs it through. It freezes in the shock of sudden death. Stares at him with orange eyes.

He thrusts the sword in deeper. Twists it. Pulls it upward through thick hide, heavy flesh, hard bone, until it pulls free through the top of the creatures skull. Green pus spits into the air.

He stands over it for a moment, panting. Turns his head toward the thick scent of her blood. The memory of small hands and warm lips.

The Slayer is silent. Eyes closed. He flashes back to a night he drank her blood...

On his knees, sword abandoned, hunt forgotten. He gathers her small, bloody form in his arms. The wounds are serious, but not fatal. She will live. She will heal. He tenderly caresses the face he once saw every night in his dreams.

"Buffy... can you hear me?"

Hospital. He should... He has to help her.

Help the hopeless.

Another being. Someone else besides himself and his targets. He had forgotten. Made himself forget. She opens her eyes and tries to smile. He can do nothing but blink at her as his human face returns.

He doesnt notice the two female vampires that slip out of the crypt with the remaining underlings and vanish into the night, as the Slayer loses consciousness in his arms.

*****

She hates hospitals.

She turns her head, despite the agony. He sits in the chair beside her, his eyes closed. His posture is tense. Hes not asleep.

Its not really him. He didnt save her. He didnt bring her here. Hes in LA.

Isnt he?

"Angel?"

Melting chocolate pools reveal themselves, and focus on her.

They are vacant.

He leans forward, but makes no move to touch her. He doesnt offer anything, no words of comfort, not even his small half-smile. She notices that he smells like dirt. Like misery. His familiar clean, spicy scent is gone.

Angel... but not Angel.

"How do you feel?" he asks. Like he cares... but doesnt care.

"Like somebody ran me through a couple of spin cycles in a meat grinder," she jokes.

He doesnt respond. No low, subtle chuckle. Nothing.

"Youre all right then." Part question, part statement, and part command.

"Yeah. I think Ill make it."

He nods once, curtly, and gets up.

She notices he isnt wearing a coat.

"Wait... youre going?" she asks. She doesnt want to... knows she shouldnt. But she doesnt want him to leave, either. She has so many questions: why is he here? What was he hunting?

Whats wrong with him?

She knows it is something. Everything about him screams that it is out of alignment.

"I have things to do," he informs her, "Your mother and Giles are on their way."

Cold. Dead. A statement of fact, and nothing more. He turns away.

"Angel..."

He stops. The hand on the door wanders back to hang limply at his side. He doesnt look at her.

"I have a hunt to finish," he says... a softer edge to his otherwise flinty voice.

He walks out without saying goodbye.

Again.

The Slayer lies in the cold bed and cries.

*******

His is furious with himself as he leaves the hospital, taking a back stairwell to avoid the possibility of encountering her family.

This is exactly what he didnt want. Why he fired his "staff". Distractions. Moments left unguarded while he tended their well being, allowing evil to breed like rats.

He can feel the hairline cracks in the hard-built walls around his heart. Visions of her... of tonight, and a hundred nights past, leak through like rays of light; unbidden, unwanted.

He fights them as he has for months. Shoving them in rotting boxes at the back of his mind. Her blood stains his hands. He can feel its magick tingle on his skin. He remembers its taste. Her name floods his mind.

Buffy.

No. Shes safe. He didnt let her die. Thats all he has to give.

He steps out into the cold night. Closes steel blinds against his tumultuous thoughts.

He has no time for this. He has a hunt to finish.

*******

Three days in bed, and her body is mostly healed. Her elbow has knitted enough to bend again. She barely has a scar from the deep axe wound, and even that will fade in a few weeks.

But her heart is still bleeding. A grievous injury that had barely mended since the last time they met. His demeanor in the hospital ripped the scab off again. Lying there, she relives a thousand moments they shared, both glorious and horrible, each recollection ending with his disinterested attitude the night he appeared from nowhere and saved her life before he broke her heart.  Again.

On the fourth day, she makes a phone call. The first number, the one printed in crisp black letters on a white card pressed flat by the pages of her journal, has been disconnected. Information gives her another. That one rings and rings, but no one answers. Theres no machine.

She dials 411 again. Chase, Cordelia. Silver Lake.

The former May Queen answers, "Angel Investigations, we help the hopeless." They talk. Cordy sounds drained. Exhausted. Older. Wiser. Angry. Hurt.

She tells a tale that spins Buffys mind: psychic visions and Prophecies. Sires raised human from the dead. Lawyers, madness. Abandonment of Duty and Destiny. Family.

The promise of humanity.

On the fifth day, she borrows her Watchers red BMW and drives two and a half hours Northwest. She uses the key Cordy left for her. She waits for three days, alone in the vacant hotel before she gives up.

He doesnt return.

*******

How long has he been standing here, under this tree? The ladder to the window that he once thought was the Gateway to Heaven?

He doesnt know why hes here.

The end was so much simpler than he expected. A fight, two small clouds of dust, and his line is ended. His legacy of darkness gone, just like that.

With their death cries, he was not washed clean. Not made empty of pain and guilt. Only now, even his focus, his drive, is gone. He is glutted with anguish. Longing. Sorrow. Walls already weakened by the near death of his hearts desire shattered, collapsing under the weight of a million regrets.

Dams do not trickle, when broken. They burst.

And now... here. He doesnt know why hes come.

He stares up at the window through which he has climbed a hundred times, and thinks maybe that he will stand there until sunrise. Then he too will be finished. And he will always be with her, feeding the roots of her life.

Morose thoughts. The only hopeless one now, is him. And yet...

Yet he still stands there, waiting.

*******

She wakes slowly from dreams of chocolate and heartbeats.

Hes here.

She rises and goes to the window, peers out. Sees him shrouded in shadow below, and slides open the window as if in another dream.

His distress and confusion rush over her like a storm gale. Their eyes meet.

He is no longer empty and cold. His expression is filled with pain... questions of why and how and what next.

She gives her unspoken invitation, and steps away. He scales the tree like it hasn't been years since he's done it. Broad frame squeezes in the window, and fills the room. He looks around for a moment, bewildered, as if hes not certain this is real, either.

He looks at her. Reaches out. Pulls her to him... cold, desperate hands. Mouth seeking. Begging. For what? Purpose? Answers? She doesnt even know her own anymore. How can she know his?

She draws his hurt to her anyway.

I love you still.

Yes, you are needed. I need you. You are wanted. I want you. I think youre worthwhile.

Im here. Hold on to me. Ill stand by you, I promise. Where ever you've been. Whatever's happened to you.

Hell and back, Hell and back again.

*******

She once was everything. He thought hed forgotten her sweetness. But her touch fills him, and he knows it is all still there, somewhere beneath the scars.

He pleads with his kisses and his hands on her bed-warm skin. Was she always so warm? Did she always wind her hands in his hair that way?

Yes. He remembers.

There is nothing but this need standing between him and the abyss yawning just beyond the edge of his consciousness. Need for touch. Frantic, consuming need for her. Her light. Her life force awakening skin gone numb.

He lays her bare. She shines like hope in the moonlight. Smooth muscles, satin smooth heat. Concern and love. And yes, Im still here for you.

He makes love to her slowly. Softly. Neither of them utters a sound as they merge... share their respective pain and solitude as the night rushes by around them. He is cushioned, if only slightly, form the ragged edges of a dying faith in something bigger than what they were.

He does not find God in her flesh. He does not recover hope in her soft sheets. He doesnt find relief in her sighs, or release in the gentle, exquisite explosion of physical pleasure.

He does not forget. But for a time, he is reminded that he is real. Dead, but flesh and blood. For now, its enough that he remembers he's not alone.

Hes not alone.

*******

She wakes to birdsong. An odd occurrence, in the dead of winter, even here on the Hellmouth.

The sun is kept from the room by the curtains she rose to draw during the night. He slept, fitful and restless in the grip of nightmares she knows she cant begin to fathom.

He wept through their lovemaking. He broke down in her arms, after, and sobbed until her heart was broken for him. Again.

He is still now, sleeping deeply, burrowed into her pillows, the blanket tucked tight around his waist.

She looks down on him, on skin covered head to foot in faded scars, and wonders what laid him so low. What did they do to him?

He whimpers like a small, frightened child. She takes him in her arms and shushes him gently. He stills. It seems fitting, in a way that she doesnt understand yet, that he should reappear in her life now.

She too has been lost. But only seeing his face again, the ravage of stolen dreams and shattered hope in those beloved eyes, made her realize.

She was set adrift, when he left her. Her heart crushed by burdens they once bore together. Without the dreams they built in her youth, she found herself without any anchor.

She never knew. Not even when Riley left. Still, she had denied it.

Angel was her gravity. The core of her. What keeps her tied to life... to this earth on which they both fight. For which they both sacrifice.

Whether it's right or not.

She holds him close, breathes deep, and the what next becomes hers.

*******

He wakes feeling refreshed. Washed clean. He feels her warmth wrapped tight in his arms, and for a moment, he almost convinces himself that the past three years were a nightmare.

She opens her hazy green eyes.

"Are you okay?"

The first human words spoken to him since the last time they were together. It is almost a foreign language, so much inside of him has changed.

He left her lying, hurt and bewildered, alone and weak in a steel hospital bed. Another sin. Cordelia used to tease him that he kept a little notebook with everything he had ever done written in it, and that he read a page every day, just to be sure he didn't forget to brood.

He never forgot. Not a single transgression. And so many against the woman in his arms.

Now the bed is brass, and the comforter thick down, heated by her body. Another universe.

"I dont know," he admits.

She closes her eyes. Sighs. Opens them again reaches up to brush his cheek.

"Hows your soul?"

Its a half-joke. He knows what she is asking. Knows the answer she hopes to hear. But all he has to give her is the truth.

"I dont know that, either."

When she was younger, she might have frowned. A shadow of fear might have passed over her fine features with the memory of the demon that once tormented her. Or she might have argued... tried to dissuade him from his depression with a perky joke... promise of night mini-golf or ice cream that he would never eat.

Now she gives a wry, cynical smirk. This comforts him more than any of the other choices would have. She nods.

"I'm here for you, if you want to talk about it," she says. But she doesn't press.

He doesn't offer.

They stay in bed until sunset. He kisses her goodbye.

"Will I see you again?"

There's fear and disappointment in the question. He doesn't know how to answer.

"I hope so," he replies.

It's all he can give her. It's all that he has.

*******

She loses track of the days after he leaves. When she answers the phone on a summer Wednesday, she's no longer expecting it to be him.

He asks how she is. She tells him she's okay. She banished a god-like key-seeking monster, so she's pretty pleased with herself.

"Good for you."

He sounds like he means it.

"Thanks."

Silence for a few moments that she thinks should be awkward. Somehow, they're not.

"Buffy..."

"Yeah?"

She hears his breath and wonders if he's holding the phone as tightly as she is.

"Are you... doing anything Friday night?"

The smile is automatic. It hurts the muscles of her face, reminding her she hasn't made one quite like it in... years.

"Um, let's see... letting you take me out to dinner? And maybe dancing?"

He chuckles softly. She feels the shattered bits of her hear melting together. "Dancing?" he asks with mock incredulity.

"YES! TAKE HER DANCING!" she hears Cordelia calling from the background.

"Dancing it is," he agrees.

Buffy closes her eyes and fights back tears. Good tears. The really, really rare kind.

"Penance?" she jokes.

She can hear a smile matching her own at the other end of the line.

"I'd almost prefer self-flagellation, but... Cordelia is very creative. Lots of pouting and cold shoulders. Shopping. Paid vacations. It's really very harrowing. A lot like Hell, actually. I let her paint my nails the other day."

Buffy laughs. "So I guess dancing's a step up."

He sighs, but the sound is light. "It most certainly is."

"I'm glad you're... better," she says.

"Yeah. Me too. Thank you."

"Don't thank me. Take me dancing."

"8 o'clock then? Barring any unforeseen disasters?"

"I'll be ready."

"I'd like to take you up on that...talking offer. If you don't mind. Maybe over dinner."

"STEP FIVE!" Cordelia yells.

"What?" Buffy laughs.

Another beleaguered sigh. "She has me on a twelve step program."

"WACKO COMMANDO DEMONS ANONYMOUS! ALSO KNOWN AS DARLA RECOVERY!"

Buffy laughs again. "You're kidding. And you put up with this?"

"I owe her a lot more than that." The smile is gone from his voice.

"So...what's step five?"

"Admit to another human being the exact nature of your wrongs."

Buffy's heart clenches. "Why me?" She wonders aloud. Why not Cordelia? Wesley. Anybody else. All those out there who care so much about him.

"Who else would I tell? Who else would really understand?"

She lets that sink in. Decides it's a compliment. "Okay. Step five. 8 p.m. Friday."

Buffy stares at the phone for a long time after they hang up, and wonders if this ten tone stone that's been sitting on her heart since the morning after her 17th birthday can be purged with a night of dinner and dancing. If she can admit her wrongs to him.

She smiles at her reflection in the hallway mirror. Why not? They have to start somewhere.

**
"The Stone" - by the Dave Matthews Band

I've got this creeping
Suspicion that things are not as they seem
Reassure me
Why do I feel as if I'm in too deep
I've been praying
For some way to show them
I'm not what they see
Yes I have done wrong
But what I did I thought needed be done.
I swear.

Unholy day
If I leave now, I might get away
This weighs on me
As heavy as stone and as blue as I go
I was just wondering if you'd come along
To hold up my head when my head won't hold on
I'll do the same if the same's what you want
If not, I'll go
I will go alone

I'm a long way
From that fool's mistake and now forever pay
No, run
I will run and I'll be okay
I was just wondering if you'd come along
To hold up my head when my head won't hold on
I'll do the same if the same's what you want
If not, I'll go.
I will go alone.

I need so
To stay in your arms, see you smile, hold you close
And it weighs on me
As heavy as stone and a bone-chilling cold
I was just wondering if you'll come along
Tell me you will.



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