It began with a light.
A single, tiny, point of light. No more than a pinprick, really.
But it was still a light. A taint on the pure, perfect darkness. Change in what was eternal. Light speared into the void beneath reality, and somewhere, deep in the infinite depths, something that envied and hated the light saw, and roused.
Something unspeakable began to climb toward the world.
Buffy returned to consciousness slowly, and with a fair amount of pain. This wasn’t an entirely uncommon experience for her. In her tenure as the Slayer, she’d been drugged, shocked, beaten, and body-switched. Enforced naps were something of a job hazard.
Her head hurt. A dull, grinding ache throbbed behind her eyes. Worse, her stomach felt like she’d just taken fourteen consecutive rides on the tilt-a-whirl. Drugged. She diagnosed. I was drugged. That’s a hangover. If she had been physically knocked out, the pain would be coming from the point she’d been struck, not inside her head.
She shifted, instinctively testing her limbs. To her surprise, they were free. Usually, when someone went to the effort to knock her out, they made an effort to make sure that she didn’t get back up.
She opened her eyes and blinked a few times to clear her vision. When it cleared, she blinked a few more times and shook her head, expecting what she saw to vanish like the dream it had to be.
The library. She was in the library. It was whole and undamaged. Not even a scorch. She was sitting at the table around which the Scooby Gang had planned strategy for three years, in her favorite chair--the one that she sat in when she wasn’t sitting on the table. No one else, not even Giles, had been able to tell this chair from the others. But Buffy was always able to identify it by a nick in the left arm, and she felt that familiar nick beneath her hand.
Everything was the same. The dusty smell of ancient leather and paper, the undisturbed silence like an empty church. It was like she had fallen asleep, and the last year and a half had been nothing but a dream.
"Oh, good. You’re awake."
She was on her feet with a stake in her hand, facing in the direction of the speaker, before the sentence was complete.
A stake? They’d let her keep a stake?
A middle-aged man wearing a navy business suit entered from Giles’s office, carrying a liter bottle of Evian water.
"All right, who are you, where am I, and what’s going on here?" She demanded. She winced inwardly at how confused she sounded. Way to take charge of the situation, Buffy. She quickly forgave herself. She’d just woken up. She was still a bit unsteady.
"In a moment," he replied pleasantly, crossing the room. He showed no fear of her or the stake, and she was the one who ended up backing away. He set the bottle of water in front of her place at the table. "Here, drink that. You’ll feel better."
Buffy lowered her stake and approached warily, examining her companion carefully. As she took her second look, she realized that he wasn’t middle-aged. Or at least, she wasn’t sure he was. His silver-white hair had given her that impression, but his face was unlined. Ageless. He could have been twenty-five or fifty. The warrior in her, assessing him as an opponent, recognized the grace and controlled power of his movements. Underneath that suit, there were muscles. She was sure of that. This man was very, very strong. But what drew her attention the most were his eyes. Shocking, Ice-sapphire blue eyes. He was smiling and he seemed friendly enough, but there was something about those eyes.
"Please, sit down," he said, waving at her seat. He then took a seat halfway down the table from hers. He grinned apologetically as she sat down and took the water. "I’m sorry about the tranquilizer dart," he said. "But I simply had to speak to you alone first, and I don’t think I could have arranged that any other way."
"And you thought kidnapping me would make you more agreeable?"
"No, but I was certain I could get through to you once I got the chance." He indicated the library with a broad sweep of his arm. "Do you like it? I thought it would make you more comfortable if we talked on your home ground. It was easy to fix, really—"
"Yes, that’s nice." She interrupted. "You’re very nice, and polite, and you had to tranquilize me to get me here. You’ve answered where and why. Now I want to know just who the hell you are."
"Oh, me? I’m called Belial."
Buffy’s breath caught in her throat. One hand gripped the arm of the chair. The other gripped her stake.
"Oh, you recognize the name? You’ve heard of me?"
Flashback 24 hours
"Thank you for responding so quickly, Buffy."
"There’s no need to be snotty, Giles. I was in class. I came just as soon as I got your message."
Giles glanced significantly at her and Riley’s joined hands and raised an eyebrow. "Of course you were."
"No, it’s true." Willow called from the couch where she and Tara both sat, leaning forward to read a tome sitting open on Giles’s coffee table. "The only French class she could get into was at 4:30, and we’re required to take a language."
"What are you taking?" Tara asked her quietly.
"Hebrew. I’m trying to get in touch with my roots."
"So what’s the what, Giles?" Buffy asked as she headed for the kitchen. "Got anything to eat?"
"No, Spike got here first."
The vampire in question emerged from the kitchen, the "Kiss the Librarian" mug he had stolen in his hand. "Don’t blame me that your fridge was so understocked, Rupe."
"Why do you feel the need to raid my refrigerator anyway, Spike? You don’t need to eat."
"Passes the time. I don’t even need to worry about gaining weight," he smirked at Buffy.
Buffy just rolled her eyes at the barb. "Is that the best you can do, Spike? Not even your wit is dangerous anymore."
"I could do better."
"Not if you don’t want to see the inside of a dustbuster."
"If you two are quite finished..."
Spike rolled his eyes and wandered off into the den. He turned the TV on to MTV and ignored Willow and Tara’s dirty looks as he threw himself down on the couch and crossed his boots on the coffee table right beside their book.
Giles turned back to Buffy and Riley. "I anticipated that you would be hungry when you arrived—" He cut a glance at Riley instead of Buffy this time. The former soldier was unable to suppress a blush, and Giles smirked. "Uh-hum." Buffy looked sharply up at her beau, who was blushing and fidgeting, then turned back and glared at Giles. "—so I sent Xander and Anya to fetch some pizza--Seasoned with garlic!" He called over his shoulder. Spike grunted and settled deeper into the couch, sulking. "I will explain what the "what" is once they arrive."
As if on cue, Xander and Anya entered. "Soup’s on!" Xander called, holding up two pizza boxes.
"What soup?" Anya asked. "It’s pizza. We didn’t get soup."
"They’d better not be half-gone, Xander." Buffy warned.
"Are you ever going to let me forget that, Buff? It was just the once."
Buffy quirked an eyebrow at him.
Willow looked at him.
"Alright, alright, a few. But I’ve gotten better. Delivering pizzas gave me practice."
"I told him he wouldn’t get any sex tonight if he snuck any pieces," Anya said, taking a piece.
"Traitor." Xander muttered. "Open the other one for the vegetarian option, Tara. It’s just got mushrooms."
"Is everyone fed, then?" Giles asked as the Gang gathered around the table. "Very well. I received a call from Angel today. It seems that Cordelia had a vision."
"Um, excuse me, sir," Riley interrupted, holding up his hand in a reflex from both military service and studenthood. "I’m sorry, but who is Cordelia, what does she have to do with Angel, and...vision?"
"She’s a friend of ours—" Buffy started.
"I wouldn’t go that far," Willow grumbled.
"She’s someone who went to high school with us." Buffy corrected. "She worked with us while she was here, but she moved to L.A. when we graduated."
"She’s the reason I’m here." Anya elaborated. "She was Xander’s girlfriend, but he cheated on her with Willow, so I came here to avenge her. But he broke my power center," she pointed at Giles. "And here I am now, stuck in this form. I can’t even boil anyone’s blood anymore."
Riley gaped at her for a minute, then shook his head. "I’ll sleep better not knowing," he muttered. He looked back at Giles. "Yes?"
"She works as Angel’s secretary now. Originally, they had a friend whose visions guided Angel’s endeavors. That friend died, and passed the visions on to Cordelia."
"So he’s got his own prophet working for him?" Riley asked incredulously.
Riley looked at Buffy. "Is that supposed to be standard issue? Why don’t you have one of those?"
Buffy tapped on her temple. "I get dreams instead."
"If I may?"
"It seems she saw you, Buffy, wearing armor and killing people. She also heard voices chanting the name ‘Belial’."
All the color drained from Anya’s face. "Belial?"
The sound of shattering ceramic startled them.
"Damn it, Spike!" Giles shouted, turning toward the den and his unwelcome guest. "I don’t have the money to keep cleaning that carpet!"
"Did you say Belial, mate?"
"Yes, I did. Belial. Now, this information seemed to disturb Angel greatly. In fact, he was nearly frantic. He said he would be on his way here as soon as the sun set."
Riley scowled. "Is that really necessary?"
"He seemed to think so."
"Of course he did." Xander groused. "It doesn’t have anything to do with coming back here to see Buffy and shake her all up again."
Buffy was scowling, too. "Doesn’t he think I can handle myself at all? A warning isn’t enough. No, of course not. He has to come running here to the rescue—"
Spike rushed across the room and grabbed Anya by the shoulders.
"Hey!" Xander protested.
Spike ignored him. "You got a car, don’t you, An?"
"Yes." She turned toward the door and grabbed Xander’s arm. "We’re going."
"Going? Where? Wait—" He pulled his arm out of her grasp. "No, we’re not going. What’s got into you two?"
Anya grabbed the front of his shirt. "Xander, Belial is coming." She pointed at the door. "I am going out that door, I am getting in that car, and I am going to see how many states away I can be by the time he gets here. If I could still do dimensions, I would. And you are coming with me if I have to knock you unconscious and make Spike carry you."
"Carry him? Me?"
"You will if you want to come with me. I have the keys, and you can’t take them from me."
"Whoa, wait a second." Buffy spread her hands placatingly. "What’s with the sudden wiggage?"
"What do you know about Belial?" Anya demanded from Giles.
"Um, quite a bit, actually. The name is fairly well known. He’s a Christian demon, supposedly the angel who kept his beautiful voice even after he fell. He’s reputed to be the most gifted of tempters. He’s ranked as one of the most potent arch-demons, sometimes identified with Lucifer himself."
"Got the profile right, mate. Just got a couple words wrong."
"What do you mean?"
"You called him a ‘demon’." Anya answered "He’s a True Devil."
"Demon, devil, what’s the difference?" Buffy asked.
"Everything. Demons were the Earth’s original inhabitants. When the animals came, some left and some stayed and became tainted. Regardless, Earth is the demons’ original home. True Devils are from...somewhere else. They always lived in the Outer Dark, and they always hated the Earth, and wanted to destroy it. Even when it was demons living here. Differences that matter to you? They’re much, much more powerful."
"I’ve heard the name before, yes," Buffy answered cautiously.
Belial frowned. "I see that my reputation has preceded me. Why don’t you drink your water?" he indicated the bottle. "It’ll help your headache and your mood. Don’t worry—if I wanted to kill you, I could have done so long before now. I wouldn’t bother with poison."
Still keeping an eye on him, Buffy took the water and began to drink.
"It’s not really a fair reputation, you know." Belial continued. "I’m just a representative for the opposition. I make sure we get our say, our day in court. That our voices are heard. Is that so wrong? Is it my fault that I’m convincing?" When Buffy failed to respond, he fixed her with a look that seemed to see straight past all of her defenses and into the truth of her. "Don’t you know what it’s like to be stuck with a reputation that you don’t deserve?"
"Oh, yeah." Buffy answered, surprising herself. "I go out every night, risking my life to defend people. I save the world repeatedly, and God only knows how many lives, just to get grounded and treated like a juvenile delinquent. Sometimes—" She stopped herself. Why had she said that? Sure, it was a speech she’d wanted to give for years, but she’d never let even her closest friends in on those feelings. That resentment for the people it was her destiny to protect. Why was she telling a True Devil?
He nodded sympathetically. "I, more than anyone, understand how you feel."
"But Angel never showed up," Buffy said hastily, changing the subject. "Did you have anything to do with that?"
"Why would you think that? Are you sure that Angel is quite trustworthy? He’s broken promises to you before."
"Yeah, promises to stay away," she said bitterly. "If he had the slightest excuse he’d have been there."
"That’s true," Belial agreed. "In fact, I did have to arrange a little delay for him."
Angel bustled around the lobby of the Hyperion, gathering supplies. He tossed the Nikraan ritual dagger on top of a pile that already included a broadsword, a battle-axe, Vocah’s scythe, three crossbows, and a flail. Then he went for the fridge to fetch his blood bags. "We should leave the second the sun sets," he was saying. "If I could leave now, I would. Actually, maybe we should. I could lie under a blanket in the back seat. Gunn has his truck, he could catch up."
Wesley didn’t even acknowledge that his employer had spoken. Instead, he flipped through yet another book, shook his head in frustration, and carelessly tossed it onto a pile of books he had already rejected. Cordelia had never seen him treat books that way. He had to be really worried. Which worried her. Which made her angry, because neither of them would take the time to explain to her why she was worried.
"Look, what is the deal here, anyway?" She demanded. "We’ve given Buffy her warning. Why can’t we just let her handle it?"
"You had a vision," Angel said shortly, dropping his blood bags into a cooler. "That means that I’m supposed to be involved."
"Remember how it worked out the last time you went running to her rescue?" Cordelia said.
"I learned my lesson, and I’m not going to repeat it. I called ahead, I told her I was coming, and I’m going to work with her this time."
God but he could be dense sometimes. Couldn’t he tell what she was really asking? If one of them didn’t give her some real information but fast, she was going to scream.
"She doesn’t want your help, Angel. I think she’s made that pretty clear."
"She may not want it, Cordelia." Wesley said, looking up. "But she needs it. Belial is the Corrupter. He’ll turn her into a monster worse than any demon."
"Have a little less faith, why don’t you?"
"It’s not about faith. Belial is the greatest of tempters. People who successfully resist him become renowned as saints." He stood, triumphantly tapping on a line of text. "I’ve found something."
The door opened. "Congratulations."
Angel entered from his office. "I’m sorry, sir, but we’re—" Angel froze, a wide-eyed look of shock and terror on his face.
Cordelia whirled. She’d never seen Angel look so frightened. It had to be—a guy. In a navy business suit. She instinctively knew that it was the highest-quality, most likely the most expensive suit she’d ever seen. Impressive, yes. Scary? Not hardly.
"Angel, what’s wrong?"
"It’s—this is—it’s him."
"Him? Him who? Oh, him." She turned her head to stare at the new arrival in disbelief. "This is Belial?"
Their guest nodded pleasantly. "Of course you knew. All demons instinctively recognize their masters. If you weren’t so distracted, I’m sure you would have noticed me sooner."
"I’m a little disappointed. I expected something scarier. I mean what does this guy have on a sixty-foot snake?"
Belial cocked his head at her. "Scarier?" He asked mildly. Suddenly, the frosted windows on either side of the door shattered. Cordelia jumped back, shielding her eyes with her forearm. As soon as the glass stopped flying, she lowered it again, then wished she hadn’t. A bulky man with an assault rifle stood in each window. Or maybe a bulky woman. Or a skinny man. Or a small child. All that Cordelia was really paying attention to were the assault rifles. "These aren’t scary enough?"
"No, no, those actually do the job pretty well," Cordelia answered, backing away. Now would be a good time to show up, Gunn.
"Good." Belial turned back to Angel. "Those weapons can turn a human body into spaghetti sauce, Liam. The lumpy kind. And they will unless you come peacefully." He looked down sharply. "You can stop shifting your weight. Forget about pouncing. You could only reach one of them while the other is painting the walls with your employees." Angel froze in place. "Good boy."
"What assurance do I have that you won’t kill them anyway?" Angel demanded.
"They’ll be useful for corrupting Buffy. Not as useful as you—either one and even both are certainly expendable. But useful. I won’t kill them if you give me the choice."
Angel locked eyes with the True Devil for a long moment, his fists clenched at his sides, his whole body trembling with tension and the desire to move. His huge, strong body, all his supernatural power, and he could do nothing. And the depthless cold in the True Devil’s eyes told him all he needed to know. He closed his eyes and willed himself to relax.
"Wise decision," Belial said. "Now, I understand that you really hate it when people shoot you?"
Angel’s head jerked up in alarm.
"I must apologize for this, then."
It seemed like forever that Angel jerked and danced as the bullets strafed him, that Cordelia screamed his name, that Wesley tried desperately to think of anything to do, but it couldn’t have taken more than a few seconds. Then there was silence, broken only by a click and a clatter as the gunmen ejected their clips and slapped new ones in place.
"Very good," Belial pronounced, nodding in satisfaction. He looked at where Cordelia and Wesley stood, desperately wanting to run to each other but not daring to move, staring at their fallen friend. Cordelia had her fists pressed tightly to her mouth, trying to keep the screams in, silent tears running down her face. Wesley just stood, trembling violently, his hands at his sides. "He’ll get better." Belial informed them. "Come quietly, or you won’t"
"So you ambushed them." Buffy surmised.
"You could call it that," Belial agreed. "But don’t worry. I assure you that they’ll be quite all right."
"We waited," Buffy continued, losing herself in thought. "And waited. But he never came. Then my mother called."
"Yes. She was in danger, but your so-called friends didn’t care."
Buffy stared straight ahead. If there were anyone there to see, they might have thought she was in a trance. "They were afraid it might be a trap. They wanted to take their time, and take precautions. But every second was another second my mother was in danger—"
"And they didn’t understand what it is to be the only child of an only parent. They don’t understand the bond."
"No. They don’t. They tried to stop me. Riley offered to go instead."
"Yes. Your beau. But you knew that he couldn’t do as much good as you could."
"No. I had to go. I ran, and they followed, and..." she blinked. "And...we were ambushed, we—" Her eyes flared and her head snapped up, and she glared at him. "You played me!"
"Like a recorder. It’s really quite simple. In some ways, you’re quite predictable, Buffy. The Master, Darla, and Angelus all figured it out."
She stared at him in disbelief for a moment, then shot to her feet. "And you have the balls to think I’ll deal with you?" She whipped out her stake and put its point at his throat. "Where are my friends?"
His smile froze on his face. Calmly and deliberately, he took her wrist and moved the stake away from his throat. She trembled with the effort to keep her hand in place, but it was like arm-wrestling a machine. He didn’t even show any effort.
"I’ve done nothing to harm them, if that’s what you mean. They’re going to take part in our conversation later." She glared at him distrustfully. "They’re perfectly well, I assure you. They were tranquilized and taken when you were, and now they’re resting safely and comfortably."
"Is he all right?"
"No, Willow, he’s not all right."
"You don’t have to yell at me Cordelia. I just mean...is he going to be all right?"
"How do I know? Xander!" His head snapped up. "You’re the closest. How is he doing?"
Xander turned to his left. The chains that connected his arms to the wall and his feet to the floor allowed him that much slack—to turn and look at the unconscious immortal beside him, but not to reach out and touch him.
Angel was pinned tightly to the dank stone wall beside him, held in place by steel bands at his ankles, wrists, throat, and across his chest. He hung loose in his manacles, his head drooping. A human would have long since strangled.
Xander shook his head. "I don’t know," he said, frustrated. "He’s not breathing, but—"
"But he never does. We knew that, genius."
Xander held out his hands in the universal sign for "what do you want from me?" "He hasn’t dusted yet. Is there any other way to tell?" He rattled his chains in Angel’s direction. "Hey! Deadboy! Wakey-wakey, eggs and bakey! Rise and shine!" He rattled his chains more desperately. "Come on, you can get through this..." hearing the words that were coming out of his mouth, Xander stopped rattling his chains and looked at the ceiling in disgust. "I can’t believe I’m worried about Deadboy."
"I never saw it coming." Oz said dryly.
"It doesn’t surprise me," a familiar voice said. There was a rattle of chains as everyone pulled tighter to the wall as the dark figure slowly walked the length of the dungeon, lighting a cigarette as he went. "He does tend to inspire pity. After all—" He stopped in front of Angel and turned to address him. "You are pretty damn pathetic." Angelus reached forward and took Angel’s chin, raising his head so he could look into his face. "Aren’t you, soulboy?"
Willow was the last to wake up. That was only natural. She was, after all, a tiny person. Of their whole extended family, only Buffy was smaller, and Willow lacked Buffy’s constitution. Everyone else chained to the walls in the bleak dungeon that had once been the basement of Sunnydale High had spent a fair amount of time contemplating just how tiny and delicate she looked, and how helpless they were to even check her condition.
After an eternity half an hour longer than it took for the next to last person to wake up, she finally stirred and moaned.
Where was she? What was she sleeping on? It was cold, and wet, and every time she tried to move, her head and stomach both rebelled. She groaned again as she tried to move limbs that were far too heavy. What was wrong with her?
"She’s waking up!"
Chains rattle on one side of her. "Are you okay, baby?"
On the other side. "How do you feel?"
"Tara? I-I’m okay..." She opened her eyes and tried to sit up. The room spun and she nearly threw up. She flopped back to the floor. "Just not in the sense of wanting move, and only in an extremely vomity way."
"It’ll be okay, baby," The quiet male voice on her other side comforted. "You were tranquilized."
"We all were."
"Giles?" Willow struggled into a sitting position. She wavered and nearly fell again, but she fought the dizziness down. There was a clanking of chains to her left. She blearily turned her head, to see Tara, chained to the wall beside her, reaching out as far as she could, making comforting cooing sounds. If she could, Willow knew that Tara would be holding her up and stroking her. Willow tried to reach out to her, to take her hand, but her own chains—So that’s why my limbs were so heavy—stopped her. They were so close, so very close, but their fingertips couldn’t quite reach.
"Sucks, doesn’t it?" Cordelia. "Sadistic bastards make sure none of us can touch each other."
"Of course not," Wesley, with an unprecedented tone of bitterness. "That might offer us some comfort."
"Where are we?" Willow asked, lowering her arm in frustration.
"Don’t know," Xander said. "Somewhere straight out of Better Homes and Dungeons."
Willow scanned the room. It was dim, but not dark, and her chains allowed her enough movement to see everything. The door was to her left. Tara and Oz were chained on either side of her, with Riley chained in the corner and—to her surprise—Joyce between him and Tara. Xander, Anya, Cordelia, Giles, and Wesley were chained on the opposite wall.
She gasped when she saw the wall opposite the door: Angel, Spike, and Faith were...stapled was the only word her clouded mind could manage...to the wall. A metal band at each wrist and ankle, across the waist and chest, held them tightly in place. Angel and Spike also had a band across their throats. Angel’s clothing hung in tatters from his body, and half-healed wounds showed through the holes.
"Angel? What happened to him?"
"He got machine-gunned," Cordelia answered sharply. "As you can imagine, he’s not feeling his best right now."
"Turn off the bitch, Cordy," Xander snapped. "You don’t need it."
"Don’t talk to me about bitchy, Xander. You watch your best friend get shot down, then talk to me about bitchy. I bet you wish you’d been there to watch."
"As a matter of fact—"
"Enough," Giles snapped. "We have to—"
"Hey, wait a minute," Willow interrupted. "What’s Psycho Girl doing here? Isn’t she supposed to be in prison?"
"Sure am, Red." Faith answered. "Wish I was there, actually. It’s more comfortable than this."
"Well, then, I like you just where you are." Willow said. "You don’t deserve comfortable. You deserve to live in a tiny, tiny room, and sleep on rocks every night." Willow braced herself for Faith’s venomous comeback, or snarled threat. She was surprised when all she got was a sigh.
"I’m not arguing with you on that one, Red. I know you won’t believe me if I say sorry, and you probably wouldn’t accept it even if you did. But I am. I wanna make up for what I can, and take what I’ve got coming for what I can’t. That’s all I can do. It’s up to you whether that’s enough."
Willow settled back into place, stunned.
Faith turned her head toward Tara and smiled. "Hey, blondie. What’s your name again?"
"Yeah. I’m real sorry I picked on you."
"No, it’s not," Faith and Willow said simultaneously.
Tara shook her head and smiled softly. "I’ve dealt with much worse."
"Well, I shouldn’t have added to the pile, then."
"No, you shouldn’t have," Willow snapped.
"Willow, it’s okay. Faith, I said it’s alright, and I meant it. I forgive you. Take me off your pile of guilt. I can tell it’s already crushing you."
Everyone who knew Tara stared. It was perhaps the most she’d ever said at one time.
Faith smiled gratefully. "Thanks, kid. Oh, by the way—"
Faith grinned mischievously. "Nice rack."
Tara blushed, but smiled shyly.
"Isn’t this cute," Spike piped up. "Isn’t this just bloody lovely? Hate to interrupt your love-fest, kiddies, but can I remind you that we’re in the dungeon of a soddin’ True Devil?!"
"Quite right," Giles agreed. "We must set aside our..." he looked around at the group. "...many, many differences and formulate a plan."
"One question," Riley spoke up from his corner. He’d been sitting up against the wall, his knees drawn up, resting his head on them. Now, he looked up. "Why are we here? Why are we still alive? Are we hostages? Sacrificial victims?"
"That’s right," Xander nodded. "That’s right. We should try to think like our opponent."
"You can’t possibly think like a True Devil," Anya said, subdued. "We’re going to die horribly. Just accept it."
"What do we know?" Riley asked. "He wants to corrupt Buffy. But what does that mean, specifically?"
"Specifically, it means turning Buffy into his own personal assassin. That’s what it bloody means." Wesley supplied. "Which leaves the world without a protector: one Slayer in prison and the other working for the darkness."
"Can he really do that?" Joyce asked. "I mean, she’d never—"
" ‘Course she would, if the sitch was right." Faith said. "Ted was an accident, and he turned out to be a robot, but that was luck. And she set out to do it with me. It gets easier every time."
"You’d know, wouldn’t you?" Willow said acidly.
"Yes," Faith answered simply.
"Well, I believe in Buffy," Willow said stubbornly. "She’s not you. She’s—"
"Putty in his hands," Anya said glumly. "This is Belial we’re talking about, here. No one resists him without help from the Powers. If she has any weaknesses at all, she’s his."
They all looked back and forth at each other, aghast.
"We have to save her!" Joyce cried.
"Which means, of course, that we must escape," Giles said. Spike rolled his eyes. "For which we need a plan. Now, what resources do we have?"
"Well, we have three superpeople who are all strapped to the wall," Xander volunteered. "One of them shot full of holes. We’re all chained to the wall—"
"But not gagged." Oz said, looking at Willow.
"That’s right!" Willow agreed eagerly. "You’re such a genius!" She said to Oz, who beamed. Then she turned to Tara. "I know we can’t touch or do gestures or light candles or mix components or anything, but we can still talk. There must be something we can do."
"Funny that a True Devil would make a mistake that stupid," Xander mused. Then he turned to Anya, grinning smugly. "Maybe he’s not so tough after all."
"Actually," a calm voice came from the doorway. "It wasn’t really a mistake."
Every head snapped toward the door. It had opened amazingly silently while they had been distracted by their discussion, and a silver-haired man in a navy suit stood there. Spike, Anya, Cordelia, and Wesley flattened against the wall.
"It’s just that there’s nothing you can do here. We’re on the Hellmouth, so I can extend more of my power into this realm." He walked over to Willow and Tara, and crouched in front of them, so that he could look them in the eye. "And even a fraction of my power is mightier than that of your little gods. So feel free to try anything you like. It won’t work."
He stood, turned, and slowly strode the length of the room, surveying them each in turn. Each of them backed against the wall as he passed, except for Riley, who did his best to stand defiant. Belial merely smiled indulgently at him, patted his shoulder, and moved on.
Finally, Belial arrived in front of Angel. He gently reached forward and shook the unconscious vampire, who moaned. "Liam," The True Devil whispered. "Liam, wake up."
"Huh...huh?" Angel blinked and shook his head as he raised it to look at his captor. Even Xander had to wince when he saw where bullets had passed clean through Angel’s neck in some places. "B...Buh..." It seemed that the vampire had to struggle for the strength—or the breath—to speak.
"Y-yeh-yes?" Belial smirked.
"Buffy," Angel finished emphatically. "Wh-where i-is she?"
"Sleeping," Belial answered shortly. "I had to add some...exotic ingredients to her dose. Enough tranquilizer to keep her asleep long enough to prepare all of you for your roles would endanger her life. The side-effects those extras have—suggestibility, relaxed will, a tendency to chatter on about whatever I steer the conversation toward—those are just bonuses."
"She’s stronger than you think," Riley said boldly. "Stronger than you."
"That’s true," Belial agreed amiably, turning to the young man. "But it’s you, not me, who will turn her toward the darkness."
"Never," Joyce declared. "You can do what you want to me, but—"
"Oh, stop being so melodramatic and relax," Belial scoffed. "You’ve already done your part. You just have to tell her about it."
"Yes?" He cheerfully turned back to Angel. "What is it, Liam?"
"What about her?"
"Sh-she’s c-cruh-crucified. If you le-leave her ha-hanging there l-like that, she’ll die." Angel was rapidly regaining his strength.
Belial looked at Angel thoughtfully for a moment, then turned that look on Faith. "That’s true, isn’t it? Tsk, tsk, tsk. Silly me. I keep forgetting how fragile you silly little dirt-crawlers are."
He stepped over in front of the dark-haired Slayer and pondered her for a moment before speaking. "How does this sound, Faith? I’ll make a deal with you. If you come work for me, you’ll have anything and everything you’ve ever wanted. Money and all the material things that come with it, of course. But so much more: you will finally have the respect and recognition you deserve. You’ll be the Chosen One, not the second string. You wanted Sunnydale to be your town? You’ll have the whole world recognizing you as their protector, and loving you for it. I can even give you Richard Wilkins back. The father of your heart. And all you have to do is what you like. What you were always meant to do anyway: fight." He paused and studied her expression for a moment. "If you don’t come work for me," He continued, the personable smile not fading from his face. "I leave you here to suffocate when your abdominal cavity fills up with you body’s own fluids. Your choice, of course. I won’t force you."
A solid ball of dread and anger filled Willow’s stomach. She’s gonna do it. Of course she will. She’s evil, and—
"No," Faith answered, barely above a whisper.
"I really do suggest you give it more thought. You’re not going to get a better offer. After all," The True Devil grinned maliciously. "There’s only two things you do well, Faith. Fighting is one. Neither of them gets you very far in the world."
Faith looked down, as if lost in thought. Everyone in the room held their breath. Her previous refusal had been so weak, and Belial already had one Slayer.
Faith’s head suddenly jerked up and she spit in Belial’s face.
Belial didn’t look the slightest bit perturbed. The saliva evaporated from his face with a hiss. "A spitter, Faith? I’m surprised. I would have thought you were a swallower." He shook his head in mock regret. "It seems Frank was right. You really are nothing but a stupid, worthless, slut. But then, that must run in the family. Oh, that’s right. You probably don’t know."
Faith’s fists were clenched, and she trembled in fury, humiliation, and remembered agony. But she shut her mouth tight, determined not to ask him what she didn’t know. She also struggled, with less success, to hide the tears standing in her eyes.
After a moment, Belial frowned and continued. "I imagine that your mother told you that your father was a worthless bastard who abandoned her when she was pregnant for you. Yes?"
Faith just looked away from him.
"Well, that’s only partly true. The man your mother was living with at the time was a worthless bastard who did abandon her when she was pregnant. But there’s a secret even she doesn’t know: that man was not your father. Do you want to know the real secret?" He leaned in close to her ear, and stage-whispered so that everyone in the room could hear. "She caught you like syphilis at a bachelor-party gang bang that she whored herself out to so she could buy more heroin."
Belial’s head snapped up and toward Angel. His eyes narrowed. For the first time, he showed something other than cheerful superiority and equanimity. "Did you say something to me, Liam?" he asked, his voice dreadfully quiet and cold.
"Stop calling me Liam," Angel said, half genuinely annoyed and half trying to distract him from Faith. "I gave up all right to that name when—"
"Silence!" Belial bellowed, suddenly furious. The roared word echoed and re-echoed, seeming to grow in power rather than diminish, until the walls of the prison shook. As the word overlapped itself until it became a meaningless cacophony, the earthly beings reeled, their senses assaulted and disrupted. Then it was all cut off, as if with a guillotine blade, when Belial barked "Enough!"
There was a moment of deadly silence as the devil glared at the demon before him. Then he grabbed Angel’s chin and forced it up so the vampire had no choice but to look into his eyes. "No more. You are not Angelus. You never were. Just because you share a body, and remember what he did with it, doesn’t give you the right to take credit for his great deeds."
Angel didn’t dare to speak, but others couldn’t contain their amazement.
Belial’s grip tightened. "Angelus was the greatest vampire who ever existed. From the very night he rose, his every moment was a masterwork of pain. No vampire ever caused so much death and suffering in so short a time--stupid, instinctive animals that they are. Certainly not his worthless, hedonistic sire. In the end, he didn’t care what happened to him, as long as he was the one to murder the world and watch it burn down. He had a vision, and a passion for destruction almost worthy of a True Devil. And you—you dare to blame yourself for his glory? Enough. No more." He stepped back from Angel and clenched the hand that he had been using to grip Angel’s face, then raised it in a summoning gesture, and he spoke two simple words: "Come out."
For a moment, nothing happened. Then, just as they began to believe that the True Devil had been bluffing, or that whatever he had attempted had failed, something hit Angel. Hard.
His eyes bulged in his sockets, and his teeth clenched. His hands crabbed themselves into claws, and he began to shake violently. The cords stood out in his neck and the rusty sound of a half-blocked scream forced its way out of his throat.
His shaking grew more violent, then he started flinging and forcing himself against his bonds. If he’d been free, he would have curled into a ball, but he was bound too tightly.
Then, for a single, eternal instant he was frozen in place, his every muscle pulled as tight as a guitar string, ready to snap.
Then he threw his head back and screamed.
Everyone in that room had witnessed things that would have broken a weak soul. All of them were well acquainted with pain—injuries they had suffered in their war against the darkness, and the violence they had been forced to deal out to others. All of them lived with the nightmares. Few of them liked Angel. Some hated him. But none had ever imagined anything as horrible as the scream that erupted from his throat at that moment. It was the sound of a strong soul being ripped to the bone, driven beyond all defenses to the point where the whole universe was nothing but pain, and all it could do was scream. The sound of agony so terrible that the first second of it would have stopped any of their mortal hearts.
Then his lungs were empty of air, and his screams were silent. But he kept screaming. And that was even worse.
Suddenly, he gagged, choked—and something that looked like black smoke started to billow from his mouth. It gathered into a roiling cloud above his head, and began to collect and expand.
That was when they heard the buzzing. It wasn’t loud. It was more of a whining hum, really, and it grew as the cloud grew. That was when, one after another, all of them realized that the cloud wasn’t smoke. It wasn’t even a cloud. Not really.
It was a swarm.
A swarm of thousands upon thousands of mosquitoes.
Then the swarm started to stream from other openings—his nose, his ears, even his wounds.
By now, the rest of the prisoners were nearly mad. Joyce Summers, unprepared for the sudden immersion in her daughter’s life that she had so hoped for, was curled into a catatonic ball. Some fought against their chains and wept and yelled stop it, stop it, for god’s sake leave him alone. Leave him alone, you bastard. Others screamed and wept and tried to hide their eyes and cover their ears at the same time, and begged for someone to make it stop, make it stop, please, someone make it stop. Yet others could only stand and stare in horror, at what they had been so certain they had wanted, what they’d wished for so hard, and now they wanted so much to take it back, this wasn’t what they’d wanted at all, oh, god if they’d only known.
Then it was over. Angel sagged in his bonds. The swarm hung in the air for a moment, then settled to the ground. As it did so, the whining hum of the mosquitoes grew louder as they flew in tighter and tighter circles. Slowly, like a polaroid developing or a statue emerging from a block of marble, the cloud coalesced into a humanoid figure, a writhing, man-shaped mass of bugs. Then the mosquitoes began to connect and flow together like tiny drops of oil until finally all were one. Then, like a special effect in a movie, the humanoid blob of oil morphed into a naked man, exactly identical to Angel, with his demonic face in place.
Unmindful of his nakedness, Angelus stared at his hands in wonder. "Free...I’m free...a body of my own..." He began running his hands over his broad face, assuring himself that both the hands and the face were real. "And pure...I’m pure...no weak humanity holding me down..." He slowly raised his head to Belial, then dropped to one knee, and bowed it again. "How can I possibly repay you, master?"
Belial patted his shoulder as he walked past on his way to Angel. "Just by doing what you like best."
He stopped in front of Angel, grinning with triumphant malice. "I don’t want you to think for a moment that I’ve done you a favor, Liam. You’re not human. You’re still just a demon with a soul. A freak in both worlds. Cope with the fact that you’ll be there to see the stars burn out, when everyone you care about is dust. Cope with the fact that, even though you can’t lose your soul anymore, you’re still an addict. And the blood of the woman you love is the fix you need." He smiled benevolently and patted Angel on the cheek, then turned to go. "Buffy will wake up, soon. All of you be ready to play your parts. Come, Angelus."
"Aw, can’t I torture just one of them?" Angelus asked as they exited.
"Not yet. I need them unmarked. Later, if there are any left."
Angelus had departed with a grin and the cryptic pronouncement "Places, everyone, places. We’re on in five." Xander had then resumed his attempts to awaken Angel.
"Enough. Let him be." Giles commanded Xander. "Let him rest. He needs it."
"N-no, it...it’s all right," Angel’s raw voice rasped.
"Angel!" Willow squealed.
"You’re okay!" Cordelia crowed. Then she frowned. "Well, not okay, but you’re alive. As alive as you ever are, at any rate."
Faith turned her head toward Angel. "You okay, big guy?" She asked softly.
Angel did his best to nod. "I think so."
"Well, this is a bloody disappointment." Spike remarked. "Here I was actually startin’ to have hope you’d kicked off."
To everyone’s shock, Angel actually chuckled, albeit weakly and immediately falling into coughing. "Your concern is touching." He said when it had passed.
Spike did his best to look actively unconcerned. "Yeah, well, it’s never good to start a fight with one of your big guns out cold."
"What, no Childely concern that your Sire might be dead?"
"You’re not me Sire anymore, mate," Spike corrected sharply. "He’s no part of you anymore. That silver-haired tosser pulled him out of you about an hour ago."
"And can I just interrupt to mention how much that terrifies me?" Xander added, raising his hand.
"Indeed," Wesley agreed. "All the more reason for everyone to listen to me before one of them returns." Everyone turned to look to him. "Just before Belial raided our offices, I found something that might be of use to us: A True Devil is bound in the Outer Dark, and can never fully enter the physical world."
"Seems pretty real to me," Cordelia protested.
"He is real, but he is only the tiniest fragment of the True Devil’s totality."
"The Belial that we see is only a tiny piece of the real Belial." Giles explained to Xander. "The part of him that has come through the Hellmouth is the equivalent of a finger poked through a hole."
"And this is good news how?"
"To maintain a presence in the physical world, a True Devil needs a...relay station of sorts," Wesley explained. "An object at the devil’s point of entry must be saturated with his energy—"
"A bridgestone," Anya said. "It’s called a bridgestone. It has to be a natural crystal of...fairly large size."
Everyone had turned to look at her, and was now staring dumbfoundedly.
Giles and Wesley both got identical thoughtful expressions on their faces. "Yes," Giles mused aloud. "That would explain why a manifestation is so rare. Even if there was a dimensional portal available—"
"—There would still have to be one of these rock formations present as well." Wesley completed the thought.
Meanwhile, Xander had an expression of despair and exasperation on his face. "Anya? Honey? Don’t you think this information might have been a tad bit more useful if you’d volunteered it before we were all chained up?"
"It wouldn’t have mattered. Listen to me: you can’t defeat a True Devil. We should just accept our fate, and it might hurt a little less. Besides," she added, "I was a demon for over a thousand years. Is it my fault that none of you ever think to ask me?"
Xander’s mouth hung open for a dumbstruck moment, then he shook his head. "If we get through this alive, we’re going to have to have a talk about volunteering—"
"We won’t, Xander." Anya snapped. "So don’t make any plans." She turned away from him.
"No," Riley said, raising his head. "I don’t accept that. Belial’s a devil. He’s a liar. He wants us to believe that he can’t be beaten, and some of us have bought it." He glanced sternly at Anya. "But I don’t. Joseph and Erin Finn didn’t raise a quitter. I didn’t give up when I had that chip in my chest and Adam telling me where to jump, and I’m not giving up now." He looked at all of them. "I don’t think that any of the rest of you are quitters, either, not according to the stories that Buffy’s been telling me. Xander—" The dark-haired young man’s head turned away from Anya, toward him. "You marched right into the Master’s lair to help her, and you didn’t even give up when she was dead. Willow, you restored Angel’s soul from your hospital bed. Giles, you’re like me—you gave up everything you’d worked a lifetime to build for her. Mrs. Summers, you hit a master vampire with an axe to protect her." He paused as his eyes fell on Angel. Any kind word to the vampire went against his grain. But the truth was the truth. "Angel, you survived how long in Hell?" He looked around at all of them, and all eyes were fixed on him. "Now this thing wants her soul. If you love her as much as I do, then it’s worth your life to prevent that."
A long moment of silence followed. Then Angel suddenly grinned.
"Your name’s Irish, Riley. Are you?"
"Then you’ll know what I mean when I say you’ve got the Gift of Blarney, and that your name should have been Michael." His face turned grim. "I’m with you."
Riley nodded back. Rivalry was for safe moments. Right now, someone was trying to hurt the woman they both loved. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
"I’m there, too, Beefstick." Faith agreed, drawing looks of shock. "What? Even if you guys don’t believe that I care, the world isn’t gonna be worth livin’ in if a devil wins. Might as well make the stand here."
Xander shook his head in admiration. "Should’ve been a general, man." Then he spoke up. "I’m in."
"And I," Giles added.
"Michael?" Cordelia whispered to Wesley.
"The leader of Heaven’s army, Cordelia. An Archangel. Angel just paid Riley an incredible compliment." Then he raised his voice. "Me, too."
Everyone else voiced their agreement, except Spike, who merely rolled his eyes.
"So we’ve got us a potential weakness," Xander said after everyone had spoken, speaking in what Willow had come to think of as his "soldier voice." "What’s the plan of attack?"
Wesley looked nonplussed as the attention turned back to him. "Well, we must smash it, of course. But that may be difficult, seeing as how the bridgestone is saturated with Belial’s energies. But if some specific method is required to break a True Devil’s anchor, we were captured before I was able to discover it."
That brought a general round of drooping shoulders.
"In any event," Giles said after a moment, "We must wait for the precise moment to attack. Invincible he may not be, but Belial is powerful enough to kill us all easily. So when he summons us, watch, wait, and try to figure out any weaknesses. We shan’t get a second chance."
Spike heaved a great sigh and looked up at the ceiling in exasperation. "Cor, why didn’t the ponce offer me a deal? All he would’ve had to do is take out me chip, and I would’ve been glad to work for him."
"Because you’re too much of a loose cannon, Spikey boy," a familiar cruel voice answered as the door opened. Angelus, dressed in his familiar black leather pants, black trenchcoat, and wine-colored shirt, strode into the middle of the room. "You like the world too much, and you betrayed your own sire to help the Slayer save it." He smirked at his Childe. "More importantly, you are an unbelievable loser. I mean, you had the Gem of Amara, and Buff still beat you. Pathetic." Then he looked around the room. "Alright, kids," he clapped his hands. "Showtime. Everybody onstage."
"So here we are," Buffy said after a long moment.
"Yes," Belial agreed.
"You’ve taken me and my friends prisoner because you wanted to talk to me, and for some reason, we couldn’t just meet at the Espresso Pump."
"That’s about right."
This was making Buffy nervous. A devil with a reputation as a tempter and deceiver shouldn’t be so straightforward. Maybe he was more subtle than she realized. Maybe he realized that, despite all the things that she had been forced to conceal over the years, Buffy Summers was a basically honest person, and he was tailoring his approach appropriately. Most likely, he simply realized that certain things were so obvious that attempting to lie about them would only alienate her.
"So what was it you wanted to talk about so very much?" She demanded at last.
Belial leaned forward in his seat, resting his elbows on his knees and clasping his hands. "Buffy," He said earnestly, "I have an offer I’d like to make you."
Buffy rolled her eyes and snorted. "Why am I not surprised?"
"Now, please, just listen to what I have to say before you refuse."
"No." Buffy answered sharply. "I’ve seen what happens when a Slayer goes over to your side. I’m not going to become Faith."
"Faith? Pfft." He dismissed her protest with a wave of his hand. "Do you think that psychotic little temper tantrum of hers had anything to do with us?"
"No, I think she was on a mission from God. Isn’t every rampaging psycho? Why not her?"
Belial shook his head. "No, the Tyrant didn’t have anything to do with it either, at least not directly. She was just out of control, plain and simple. And that serves no one. Not even us. The Opposition can afford disorder in the ranks even less than the Establishment. Too many revolutions have failed because of it."
"Whatever. I’m not buying your lines, so you can just give up now."
She crossed her arms and looked away from him. She expected a protest of innocence, a demand that she listen, or something like that. None of them came for a long moment, and finally her neck started cramping, and she couldn’t keep her head turned any longer. When she looked back, Belial was studying her.
Finally, he spoke again. "Your loyalty is...truly amazing. Especially considering how little the Powers deserve it." He paused to allow that to sink in, and to allow her to reply. When she didn’t, he continued. "You see, I’ve watched you ever since you were Called—"
"You’ve been watching me for five years straight?" Buffy said scornfully, trying to keep her poker face from slipping. If that was true, it was bad. Very bad.
"Five years? I measure time in the lifetimes of stars. Five years isn’t even an eyeblink. Besides, anyone with any kind of interest in the fate of the world keeps an eye on the Slayer. And I must say, I have been appalled by the way the Powers treat their Chosen. How many times have you saved their little toy reality from getting broken? Five? Six? And how have the Fates treated you? You’ve had to give up all hope of a normal life. No children. No sunlight. No one who can ever really understand. Just night and dark, loneliness and violence until the night some demon gets lucky. And every time you think you might be able to find some oasis of peace or happiness in the midst of all this, you’ve had to give it up: Angel, your prom..."
Buffy swallowed hard. She was surprised how much the memories still hurt. Her "one perfect high school moment" had turned into a "last bittersweet goodbye moment that didn’t turn out nearly as bad as it could have." She was in college now, and things were going well...at least, as well as things ever got for a Slayer on the Hellmouth (But that’s his point, isn’t it?)...but new good memories didn’t make old, bad ones go away.
"And the people!" Belial continued relentlessly. "You gave up your life for them. You gave it up to spend all your time saving them. You even died for them once. You save their world repeatedly, you save their individual little lives by the hundreds, and how do they thank you? At the absolute best, you get a little toy umbrella and a ‘Jolly Good Show’ from your Watcher. But usually, you don’t even get a ‘thank you,’ not even from the people who do know what’s going on. Usually, you’re treated like freak and a delinquent: persecuted at school, persecuted by the law, ostracized by your peers—and, oh, how the people in the know love to lay blame. You’re a bad daughter and a bad friend, while people who’ve done far, far less good for the world get parades and—"
"You can knock it off with the temptation pitch, nice as it is to listen to." She smirked. "Keep showering me with compliments, and I might mistake you for a salesgirl in a clothing store." He frowned. Good. She’d landed one. That was good...because he was rattling her pretty badly. He was voicing feelings that had been slowly growing and festering inside her since she became the Slayer: resentment for her fate, for God or the gods or whoever, and for the people she was supposed to protect. She gave so much, and got so very little in return. Sometimes she just wanted to leave them to fend for themselves, see how far they got without Buffy to kick around and save their collective asses. Sometimes, when the world had been particularly ungrateful, she’d wanted to kick some asses instead. Maybe take a little of what she was owed. But she’d never dared express these feelings to anyone. Not even Willow. Even she would never understand. Only Faith could possibly understand...and Buffy had seen what had become of Faith. And what had happened when she’d gone on her own "want, take, have" spree. It was better to just crush those feelings down and move on. Pretend they weren’t there. And this...evil guy was shoving them in her face. Better end this now. "Look, you make a very good sales pitch, okay? Bravo. But I’m not going to betray the world, and I’m not going to betray my friends. So you can just quit trying."
Belial frowned more deeply. "Why are you so sure that working for me will be a betrayal of the world? Why do you assume that we’re ‘evil’? Do you think that the Powers or the Tyrant are ‘good’?" He pointed at the ceiling. "He’s not good, He just has good P.R. Something good happens, it’s His will. Something bad happens, He moves in mysterious ways. Have you ever read your Bible? Have you seen the kind of atrocities He’s ordered, and committed Himself? Hell, forget about that. Look at the world!" He indicated "the world" with a broad sweep of his arms. "How could we possibly do worse? I mean, never mind the fact that, for all your efforts, there are never any fewer vampires or demons. Never mind the fact that you’re going to sacrifice your life in a war that has reached stalemate and will never, ever get better. Forget about all that. Let’s talk about a whole world of evil that you can’t even begin to touch." He leaned back in his chair. "Human evil, Buffy. It never goes away. Never. And I’m not talking about grandiose ‘I-Want-To-Be-A-Demon’ or ‘I-Want-To-Create-An-Army-Of-Half-Demonic-Super-Soldiers’ evil. I mean...do you even want to know how many girls were date-raped this year at UC Sunnydale while you were out protecting everyone from vampires?" Buffy stiffened. That was something she...didn’t like to think about. One advantage to being a Slayer, she conceded. Roofies couldn’t hope to penetrate her healing powers, and her strength ensured that "no" meant "no."
"How many serial killers are out there who have a smaller body count than Angelus only because they’re mortal? How many abusive husbands and boyfriends don’t turn into killer robots, or Jekyll-and-Hyde monsters? Forget that, how about the big stuff? There are camps where women are raped until their attackers are sure they’re pregnant. Genocide is so common that it only makes the news if it happens in the right place. Female circumcision..." Buffy winced and fidgeted, crossing her legs like a man hearing a castration joke. Belial picked up on it. "...I see that I need say no more about that. Dictators torture their people daily, wars just never stop, and don’t even get me started on poverty, starvation, and disease. This world is a pit, Buffy." He leaned forward intently and fixed her with his eyes. "And there’s not a single damn thing you can do. You just sit there and fight your life out every night, protecting a world full of murderers, rapists, torturers, abusers, racists, homophobes, liars, and thieves. But I can change that, Buffy. I can change it all. We—my colleagues and I—can remake the world. And you can get in on the ground floor. If you work for me, I can give you the power to make everything right. Think of it: all the vampires and demons gone, all of those evils you can’t fight—gone. A world at peace."
Buffy stiffened at the last sentence. It had all sounded so reasonable. Reasonable? It was true. She fought supernatural demons day and night, while the world was just full of human ones. But she’d been on the lookout for tricks, and she’d found one. "Right—world at peace. You mean world dead, right?"
"I never said that," Belial said, sitting back in his chair.
"Of course you didn’t." Buffy smiled. "Look, it was a nice try, all right? But I have something that you’re probably not used to dealing with from other Slayers: my friends and my family. They’re my reason for fighting, and they’re my reward. And I’m not going to betray them. Now, why don’t you just drop it."
To her surprise, Belial just smiled. "Your family and friends, eh? Let’s talk about them, then."
The family and friends in question were all standing about watching a monitor in another room, which Angelus had mockingly dubbed "the Green Room." Angelus himself was their sole guard, but he stood across the room from them, and Belial had armed him with a handgun. He had assured them that if anyone even twitched wrong, that they'd "get to watch Willow’s head explode." He would then start working his way through the ranks of the mortals, so that by the time the Warriors got to him, there would be several more deaths on their consciences.
Everyone had been very careful not to make any threatening moves. Even Spike.
When Belial announced his desire to talk about Buffy’s family and friends, Angelus walked over, opened the door, then stepped back so his gun was still trained on his prisoners. "Alright, then. That’s your cue," he grinned. "Willow in the back."
Still grinning, Belial stood, walked across the library, and pulled the door open. "Come in," he called.
Buffy sat bolt upright in surprise as almost everyone she’d ever cared about trooped in through the library doors: Angel led the way, followed by Faith. Buffy stiffened in her seat. I should have known she wouldn’t stay in jail. So much for reform. Next came Spike, Riley, her mother, Giles, Wesley, Cordelia, Anya, Xander, Oz(?) and Tara came in at the same time, each glancing worriedly over their shoulder at Willow, who brought up the rear. The doors closed behind them before she could get a good luck at the figure that was herding them, but it looked strangely familiar.
She did her best not to react beyond a smile of greeting at each of them. Except Faith and Spike, of course. She had the feeling that more than that would open up vulnerabilities to Belial. He didn’t need more help.
For some reason, they formed up in a line across the room from her. "Hmm," Belial said thoughtfully, stroking his chin as he surveyed the line. "That’s odd...someone’s missing...ah, yes." He nodded. "That’s right. Your father." He smirked at her. "But then, you’re used to him not being there, aren’t you?" He shook his head in mock sympathy. "It’s just shameful, the way he treats you. He’ll probably show up halfway through your wedding, with a bouquet of flowers, asking to give you away."
Buffy’s hands tightened on the arms of the chair, but fought down her reaction. Don’t give him an opening, Buffy.
Several members of the line tried to shout some variation on "How dare you," but found themselves unable to speak.
Belial paced the length of the line once more, stroking his chin and examining the mortals assembled before him. Finally, he stopped and pointed at several of them. "You, you, and...you. Spike, Anyanka, Tara. Why don’t you go over there by the stacks and sit down. You’re no part of this. You, too, Mr. Wyndham-Price. You were never more than an annoyance."
Spike, glad to hear this, went eagerly. Wesley followed, stiff with anger, defiantly refusing to look at the devil. Still, he’d seen Belial’s ruthlessness firsthand. Defying him now would be worse than useless. Anya, torn between her terror and former demonic selfishness, and her newfound love for Xander, wavered. She stood a few steps out from the line, her arm half-raised, as if beckoning Xander to follow. Tara, meanwhile clung tightly to Willow’s hand. She’d just spent an eternity with a gun pointed at her Willow’s head. She wasn’t going to abandon her now.
Belial smiled indulgently and waved them both toward the chairs where Spike and Wesley were already sitting.
Convinced, Anya left Xander with a last yearning look, and crossed to the chairs.
Tara looked past Willow, to Oz, who took Willow’s other hand. "He kills me first," Oz said.
Tara nodded. She leaned forward, and pressed her forehead to Willow’s. "I love you, Silly Willy."
"Love you, too."
"Oh, please. Could the three of you get more melodramatic? You’re walking across a room."
"It’s called love," Buffy said softly from behind him. He turned to face her. "You don’t seem to know too much about it. That’s probably why you’re a devil."
For the first time, Buffy saw real anger appear on the True Devil’s face. But it was gone as quickly as it had appeared, replaced by a venomous smirk. "Let’s finish talking about your precious friends and family. Then you can tell me how much of an asset love is."
He took a step toward the line, then stopped short, looked at it for a moment, then gave a snort. "Tell me, Buffy," he tossed over his shoulder. "How many times did you see them like this, lined up against you?"
Buffy looked away.
The smirk dropped from his face. "How many?"
"Couple," she mumbled, still looking away.
He turned back to her, grinning smugly. "And when was that?"
Buffy looked up at him, her jaw stubbornly set.
He scowled. "When?"
Buffy tried to keep her mouth shut, but there was some sort of compulsion in Belial’s demands. She didn’t fight too hard, anyway. God only knew what he’d do if she frustrated him. "At the party, when I first got back, after I ran away," she ground out. "And later, when they found out that I’d been hiding Angel."
"I see." He raised his eyes and tapped on his chin, pretending to consider this. "Now tell me if I have this straight: you’d been thrown out of your house, expelled from school, and charged with murder, all of which they knew. And they also knew that, since the world still existed, that you must have killed the body of the man you loved. Rather than fall on your sword, as I’m sure you must have been tempted to do—yes?"
Buffy didn’t answer, but she was staring at the floor and trembling. The old emotions were washing through her with a force that she didn’t think they still possessed. Those had been the most horrible moments—months—moments of her life. Some wounds had never quite healed. She’d tried to forget—after all, what was the point of holding on? But they were all coming back.
Satisfied, Belial continued. "Yes. Instead, you ran away. Then, after spending three months fending for yourself, you regained your sense of purpose after a visit to a hell. So you go home. And what greeting is awaiting you? This."
He waved an arm at the line. Everyone except Angel, Faith, and Riley were fidgeting guiltily. "They don’t ask you what happened. They ostracize you, scold you, and then, in the middle of a party, when you can’t possibly defend yourself properly, they attack you. They never did apologize for that, did they?"
Buffy’s head was slowly rising. Another old emotion was returning. Anger. Resentment. "No, they didn’t."
"But you apologized to all of them repeatedly, didn’t you?"
"Yes. It was like everything was my fault. I was Bad Buffy, and they were all...right. Never mind that I’d saved the world."
"Exactly," Belial agreed, nodding sympathetically. "And then, when they found out about Angel, they went and did it all over again, didn’t they?"
"I was afraid of how they’d react." She cut a glare at Xander. "And, gasp of surprise, I was right. First thing they found out, they tried to kill him."
This is bad, Giles thought. Very, very bad. She’s warming to the subject. He’s starting to get through.
"Wait a minute," Xander protested.
He’s letting us speak? Giles thought. Even worse. He must not fear anything we have to say at this point.
"You have to look at it from our side," Joyce said.
"No, I don’t." Buffy snapped. Her mother blinked in astonishment. That caught her off guard, didn’t it? Good. She’s not used to me standing up for myself. Maybe it’s time I started. "You told me your side again and again. You never listened to mine. I think it’s about time."
"One moment, Buffy." Belial held up his hand. "We’ve only just begun. I’d like to go through and discuss each of them individually." Buffy subsided and sat back in her chair. "Let’s start with the minor offenders, shall we?"
Belial walked to the end of the line where an impassive Oz had his arm around Willow, who was wringing her hands in an agony of terror and guilt, wavering between staring at Buffy and her own shoes. He circled behind them and laid a hand on each of their shoulders. Willow stiffened with fear. Oz tightened his grip. "Here we have Oz. Dependable, faithful...oh, wait." He smirked. "Nearly got Willow—" He patted Willow’s shoulder. "Killed two different ways when he sniffed another werewolf in heat, didn’t he? Then he runs away, and when he comes back, he’s welcomed with open arms! How fair is that?" He shook his head. Oz’s jaw tightened, and he stared straight ahead.
"And here," He patted Willow’s shoulder. "We have Willow. Your best friend of all. The one who didn’t talk to you until it was time to yell at you when you came back from your summer away. The one who helped Cordelia with her homecoming campaign despite the fact that you didn’t have so much as a picture in the yearbook. The one who had you engaged to Spike."
Spike opened his mouth to shout "Hey," but thought better of it.
"And the one who believed him over you. Down there," he pointed to Riley, who was near the other end of the line. His other hand remained on Willow’s shoulder. She was starting to tremble violently, and tears stood in her eyes. She tried to mouth ‘I’m sorry’ to Buffy, but Buffy just ignored her and looked where Belial was pointing. "We have your current boyfriend. Not much on his record. Freaked out a little from steroid withdrawal. Didn’t trust you when you went to LA. Screwed Faith. You know, small stuff." He grinned. "Oh, I know. She was in your body at the time. But don’t you ever think that maybe he should have been able to tell? That the radical shift in personality, dress, and speech patterns, should have tipped him off that something was wrong? But then," he chuckled. "The only person who did notice was Willow’s girlfriend. Who’d never met you before."
"And beside him," Belial continued, shifting his pointing finger. "We have Cordelia. With her, it’s mostly an accumulation of little things: a few semesters of persecution, that comment about ‘this conversation is for people who actually have a future’—" He turned to Cordelia. "That was truly cold, by the way. It’s not often that a mortal’s cruelty impresses a devil." He gave her the thumbs up. She took a sudden interest in her shoes. "Congratulations." He turned back to Buffy. "I think the worst thing she’s done is make it so that the only sign you were ever in High School is a name at the end of the seniors chapter of the yearbook. Getting an icepack to shrink her pores was more important than telling you about photos."
"Now," he clapped his hands together, and started rubbing them eagerly. "Let’s move on to the big ones, shall we?"
He stepped over behind Giles and placed his hands on the ex-Watcher’s shoulders. "Here we have Rupert Giles, your Watcher. More of a father to you than the man who sired you. The one who only gave you a bit of a scolding for sheltering the man he blamed for his lover’s murder. And yet—" Belial held up a finger. "And yet, he found it in his heart to poison you. Make you helpless and send you against a vampire in a test that he knew killed nine out of every ten Slayers who took it, just because a group of dusty old men hundreds of miles from the battle lines told him to." He leaned forward. "You were only following orders, though, weren’t you, Rupert?" He whispered in Giles’s ear. Giles tried to lock his jaw, and keep it from quivering. Two years later, would that night never stop haunting him? "Let’s not even go into how he abandoned you in your time of need at the beginning of last year. It just...pales so, in comparison."
He released Giles and walked past Xander, Joyce, Cordelia, and Riley, until he reached Faith. She tried to shrug off his hands when he took her by the shoulders, but he tightened his grip, and she found herself faced with the choice of holding still or having her shoulder bones crushed. She doubted that B would care either way. "And here we are. The person you hate most in the entire world."
"That’s right," Buffy said, rising from her chair. "What happened, ‘F’?" She asked as she took a few steps toward the line. "Decide that you were tired of the whole ‘being good’ thing? It got a little tough, so you decided to break out and make a few more messes for us to clean up? Cause me a little more grief?"
"Naw, B. It wasn’t like that. Your new buddy here kidnapped me from my cell."
"Sure he did."
"And why shouldn’t you hate her?" Belial continued, as if the exchange hadn’t taken place. "It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call what she did to you rape." Faith froze, her eyes wide. I never thought of it that way. Oh, God, B... "Think about it: she invaded your body. She would have stolen it entirely and left you to spend your life dodging the Council and the police if it weren’t for Tara. She had your mother and your other friends at her mercy, and they didn’t even know the danger they were in. And you were powerless to help them. She took away so much of your power, your sense of control. She took Angel away from you. And she took something else." He paused, savoring the juicy bit of information he was about to impart. "Did you know that the first time Riley said he loved you, she was the one to hear it?"
Buffy’s fists were clenched so tightly that her knuckles were turning white. "She was, huh?"
Faith’s hands and mouth were working helplessly. "B...I...if I could..."
"Of course you would," Belial said patronizingly. With a pat on her back, he moved on to Angel.
"Wait a moment, now, Buffy. You’ll notice that I still have three more to go. Maybe..." He laid a hand on one of Angel’s shoulders. "There are some people you should hate even more than her."
Buffy, who hadn’t even realized she’d started to pace up and down in front of the line, stopped. A faint suspicion returned to her face. "How do you figure that?"
"Well, he has caused you more suffering than just about anyone else, hasn’t he? But never mind that. That was always done with the best of intentions. He always broke your heart for your own good." He tapped his chin thoughtfully with his free hand. "Except when he sided with Faith instead of you. After all, you were only the love of his unlife, and she’d only tried to kill him a few times. Why not?"
"Faith wins again." Buffy agreed.
"Just so. But that’s neither here nor there. From some of these that have gone before, nothing upsets you more than when someone takes control of your life away from you. True?"
"True," Buffy nodded.
"Well, our boy Angel here has made some fairly important decisions for you, without even asking for your input, hasn’t he? He dumped you right before the Prom—"
"Yeah. He couldn’t have waited another day. He had to get me out of his life as quickly as possible."
"Buffy, it wasn’t like that—"
"Oh? Then what was it like? I told you that I wanted my life to be with you, and you said you didn’t."
"Who cares what you meant? You kept going on and on about the life I deserved, but you never asked about the life I wanted. I was eighteen, Angel. That’s an adult. And I’m the Slayer. I’ve had to deal with more responsibility than most people ever do. I think I know what I want out of life." Angel’s head dropped in shame. Buffy didn’t notice her mother stiffen. A cruel grin crossed Buffy’s face. "That used to be you, Angel. Now it’s Riley." Then her face clouded. "Or, it was."
Again, Belial continued as if the interruption hadn’t happened. "He asked the Oracles to unmake the day that he was human."
Angel’s head snapped up.
Everyone else’s head snapped toward him. "What?"
Buffy had gone very still. "He did what?"
"Oh, he still hasn’t told you about that, has he? When you visited him in LA last November, and the Mohra demon attacked, he didn’t kill it so easily the first time."
"Yes. The first time, you chased it into the sewer, and some of its blood mixed with Angel’s. It made him human, and you had one ecstatically happy day. In the end, though, he decided that he preferred being a superhero, so he had the Powers cause a temporal loop for him. Only he remembered the lost day, so he remembered how to kill the Mohra."
Buffy was trembling again, but for a different reason this time. She slowly raised her fists to her face, and tears flowed down her cheeks. "Do you hate me that much?"
Cordelia and Faith both tried to protest, but found themselves voiceless, leaving Angel to try to defend himself. Something he’d never done well before. "Buffy, you don’t understand."
"I think I do."
"You can’t listen to him, he’s—"
"Lying? I haven’t lied to you once yet. Him? He didn’t even tell you that you’re married."
"Married?" Buffy asked, breathlessly.
"Married?" Joyce demanded, outraged.
Riley said nothing. But if anyone had been watching him at that moment, they would have seen his heart break in his face.
"Absolutely. He never explained the whole truth about the Claddaghs to you. They’re Irish wedding rings. You exchanged the rings, and promises of eternal love, on the docks the night of your seventeenth birthday. Then, later that night you made love. Also known as exchanging vows and consummating the wedding. It was a warrior’s wedding, but a wedding nonetheless. You’re married. At least as far as I—and He—" He pointed at the ceiling. "Are concerned."
Angel’s face was a mask of shock. "I never even thought—I never realized—you have to believe—"
Buffy’s shook her head, the hurt written on her face. "No, you never did think, did you." She began to turn away.
"Wait!" Belial called, holding out his hand.
Buffy looked back over her shoulder.
"There’s still two left." He shoved Joyce and Xander forward. "They might be enough. After all, you have the bond of the only child of an only parent with your mother. And Xander has proven his willingness to go to the wall for you again and again. Surely, a family of one and one true friend are enough to fight for."
"Oh, please." Buffy turned back. " ‘Bond’? Is that what you call it? Is that what you call never trusting me? Ever? Treating me like a delinquent and then throwing me out of the house when I have to save the world—again?" She strode across the room until she stood only a few feet from her mother, then put her hands on her hips. "You never apologized to me for that, mom. I apologized to everyone for months, and you kept rubbing it in my face how untrustworthy I was because I ran away, but you never owned your part in it. The closest you came was ‘I reacted badly.’ Yeah, you reacted badly—you threw me out, and then had the gall to act like it was all my fault that I ran away! And let’s not forget that you tried to burn me at the stake for my own good, mother. Is that a bond?"
Joyce was wringing her hands. "Buffy, I’m sorry, it wasn’t...it was—"
"The demon? Please. I know what someone fighting a spell looks like, and you weren’t it. Besides, you never listened to my reasons, why should I care about yours? And sorry? Now? We never talked about it at all. I just let it go, because you were so wigged and I didn’t want to make you feel worse. Not that that ever stopped you. Two years later is a hell of a time for sorry." Then she spun on Xander. "And a true friend? In what alternate reality?" Xander looked shocked, but also...worried? Buffy didn’t care. She barreled ahead: "When Angel lost his soul, Xander, you...you gloated. You hated Angel so much that you didn’t care about me. You just kept pushing and pushing me to kill him, and rubbed my face in everything he did. As if I didn’t have enough guilt of my own. Then, when I finally do kill him—and I sure as hell didn’t want to talk to you then. You would have been happy—I run away. And when I come back, were you worried about me at all? Did you care about all the shit I went through? No, you just cared that I had ‘ruined your life’ for a summer that I would have been away anyway! Then when he comes back, you get everyone together to gang up on me and send Faith to kill him! Gee, why didn’t I want to tell you?" She was advancing on him now, and he was trying to back up, but somehow his legs weren’t working. "You are such a hypocrite, you know that Xander?" she said, her voice falling dangerously quiet. "I forgave you instantly for the Hyena thing, for getting me turned into a rat with that stupid love spell—everything you ever did I dropped. But every time someone suggested something other than killing Angel, you shoved Ms. Calendar in everyone’s face. Why? Willow and Giles loved her way more than you did. Why did you keep harping on it? Or were you just using her to manipulate them?" Xander was studying his shoes and squirming. "I mean, God forbid that anyone else should ever be forgiven, right?"
"That’s true," Belial supplied. "A Harris doesn’t forgive. A Harris demands just punishment. Xander learned that at his father’s knee." He grinned unpleasantly. "Didn’t you, Xander?"
Unconsciously, Xander’s hand strayed to his backside. When he realized what he was doing, he covered the action by inserting his hand in his back pocket.
"Why did you hate him so much, anyway, Xander? Is there a single part of your mind that isn’t made of jealousy?"
Belial cleared his throat. "I’m glad that your feelings on them are clear. Otherwise, I would truly hate to tell you what I now must. First, about Mommy dearest, here." He hooked an arm around Joyce’s shoulders. "Did you ever wonder what happened the day that Angel dumped you? Why he went from perfectly alright in the morning, to dropping you in the evening?"
"Yes, now that you mention it."
"While you were at school, your dear mother here went to him, and told him this:"
Joyce suddenly felt her mouth start to move. Sick terror flooded through her, and she tried to fight it. It had been the right thing to do, she knew, but she also knew that her daughter would hate her for it. But despite her efforts, she heard her voice saying "I don’t think I have to tell you that you and Buffy come from different worlds. When it comes to you, Angel, Buffy’s not a Slayer. She’s just like any other young woman in love. You’re all she can see of tomorrow. But I think we both know there’s gonna be some hard choices ahead. If she can’t make them, you’re going to have to. I know you care about her. I just hope you care enough." Then she was silent. But it was already too late.
Buffy was shaking her head desperately. "No."
"Tell me it isn’t true. Tell me he’s lying. Tell me he’s making you lie."
"Don’t honey me!" Buffy shrieked. "It is true, isn’t it? It is! Oh, God. Oh, God." She bent double, looking like she was going to be sick.
"Honey, he was bad for you." Joyce said weakly.
Buffy’s head snapped up. Her eyes held an arctic chill that Joyce had never expected to see in her daughter, certainly not directed at her. "How could you," Buffy grated out. She straightened, and took a menacing step. "How dare you."
Joyce’s first instinct was to try and assert her motherly authority. Subdue her first, explain second. Surely Buffy would understand if she explained, realize that her mother had been right to do what she did, settle down and be a good daughter again. But suddenly she remembered that night three years before, when Buffy had pushed her out of the way with a flick of the wrist. She was suddenly aware of just how powerful her daughter was, and she backed away.
"Ah, ah, ah," Belial scolded. "No fair doing the finale before the show is actually over." He hooked his other arm around Xander’s shoulders. "Here we have a lad that I must admit, I admire. His blind hatred, his disregard for the people he supposedly cares about. It’s beautiful. And he succeeded in doing something that all of the demons and devils in the worlds have been trying to do since the Dawn Times: he sent a perfectly innocent man to Hell."
"What are you talking about?" Buffy demanded. "I sent Angel to Hell."
"True. But did you ever wonder why Willow sent the message she did if she was making a second attempt to restore his soul?"
Willow had already put it together. "Oh, Xander, no," she whispered.
Buffy wasn’t far behind Willow. "You don’t mean..."
"I do. Welcome to the single greatest lie in the history of creation. Perhaps the single most evil act of all time. What did Willow say, Xander?"
"Kick his ass," Xander answered, no more able to stop his mouth than Joyce had been.
Belial stepped quietly back and out of the way.
His voice free, Xander tried to defend himself: "But if I’d told you, you might have let your guard down. He might have killed you."
Buffy took a step toward him. "You knew."
Xander took a step back. "He might have sent the whole world to Hell."
Buffy took another step toward him. "You knew, and you lied."
Xander took another step back. "He was a killer. A cold-blooded killer. He murdered Ms. Calendar! No one else seemed to want to remember that."
"You knew, you lied, and then you had the sheer balls to give me a hard time when I got back." Her voice was deadly quiet, enough so that it didn’t really interrupt him.
"I know you didn’t, you just wanted your boyfriend back." Xander slapped both of his hands to his mouth. He suddenly wished to God that the Harris family method of defending by attacking had shorted out, just that once.
Buffy’s eyes flew wide, and blazed with a white-hot hatred that Xander had never seen in them, not even directed toward Faith.
With a shriek of rage, she lunged for him.
Suddenly, Xander found himself on his ass, halfway across the room. Riley and Angel each had Buffy by an arm, and they were desperately trying to hold her back, while she struggled to get to him, shrieking. "Let me go! I’ll kill him! I’ll fucking kill him! Do you hear me Xander? I’m going to break your fucking neck, just to feel your spine pop! I’m going to rip your throat out with my teeth, just to find out what your blood tastes like!"
Belial was laughing.
Despite the fact that their combined weight was nearly five times her own, Buffy was driving Riley and Angel back, step by step, by main force. She was a hundred-pound bulldozer. "Get out of my way! Why are you defending him?"
"You don’t want to do this, Buffy," Riley said through teeth gritted in effort. "He’s your friend, remember? Belial is playing you."
"Don’t tell me what I want to do!" She swung the arm that he hung on, and he found himself spinning across the floor, past Xander, until he crashed into the check-out desk. He lay there for a moment, taking a quick inventory of his limbs. At the same time, he was thinking about the fact that his girlfriend, who had taken apart whole Initiative squads for a simple workout, was more furious than he had ever seen anyone in his entire life. He’d seen people kill for less anger.
We are in very, very serious trouble.
"Are you on his side, now?" Buffy demanded from Angel. "Like you were on hers?"
Angel didn’t have to ask whose. "I can’t let you do this," he answered.
In reply, she slammed her fist into the small of his back. He cried out in pain and staggered away. It was her chance to run for Xander, but her attention had turned to him. "I’ll take that as a yes."
"Even better," Belial murmured.
"You just ruptured Xander’s kidney," Angel said.
"If it had been Xander you’d hit, instead of me, you would’ve ruptured his kidney. He’d be bleeding internally."
"So what?" She said coldly, advancing on him.
"Don’t say that, Buffy," He pleaded.
She answered with a roundhouse kick to the face that nearly took him off his feet. "Don’t tell me what I can say."
"You just broke his jaw and whiplashed his neck," Angel replied. "If you do this, Belial wins. He owns you."
"Shut up." She punched him in the stomach.
"You just ruptured some of Xander’s guts—" another punch. "—and broke some of his ribs," he gasped. "Maybe some of them punctured a lung. I know we’ve all done you terrible wrongs. But try and remember the good. That’s what he’s trying to make you forget. Xander—"
"Shut up!" She kicked him in the balls, and as he bent double, she grabbed his hair and slammed his nose into her knee. "Don’t even speak his name, you traitor."
"You just broke his nose."
Across the room, the Scooby Gang and Angel Investigations watched in horror as Buffy flew into a frenzy, shrieking "Shut up!" over and over again, battering Angel so fast that he couldn’t keep up with "Xander’s" injuries.
Riley and Xander tried to step forward, but Giles grabbed them both. "No."
"Mr. Giles, we have to stop her. She’s killing him! And if—"
"Mr. Finn, take a good look at her. She’s berserk. Anything human that steps out there will be killed. Even a Slayer," he called to Faith. "And then Belial will have her." He snapped his head toward the members of the old Scooby Gang. "It seems Belial’s re-creation was correct in every detail. I see the weapons cage. Arm yourselves. Now."
Belial ignored the mortal insects as they scurried for their weapons. The show he was watching was far more entertaining. Buffy was burying Angel under an avalanche of blows—here an elbow to the face, there a kick to the knee. The vampire, for his part, refused to defend himself. He stumbled blindly wherever the blows drove him, until he crashed against the library’s central table.
"Buffy, please listen to me. I’m not on Xander’s side. But if you’d started hitting him, you wouldn’t have been able to stop—"
Buffy didn’t answer. She dropped almost to one knee in front of him, then came up in an uppercut that came from her toes.
Angel’s head snapped back violently.
"Angel!" Cordelia and Faith both cried.
Someone as small as Buffy shouldn’t have been able to move Angel’s formidable mass. But she was the Slayer, and the punch lifted him off his feet and launched him.
Angel arced across the large, circular table, until he crashed down on the other edge, rolled, and fell to the floor.
There was a long moment of silence and stillness, then Angel slowly rose to his feet. "There you are, then, Buffy. You did it. You just killed Xander. You beat him to a bloody pulp, then broke his neck and caved in his skull. All over something that happened nearly three years ago. A bad judgment call in a supremely bad situation, and you’ve murdered one of your best friends. Did it make you feel better?"
With an incoherent howl of fury, Buffy launched herself across the table and grabbed Angel by the throat, letting her momentum carry them both crashing to the floor. Wildly, she rained blows on his head, chest, and feebly raised arms. She wanted to make him scream, and bleed, and cry, and hurt as much she did, with all of her old half-healed wounds ripped open and bleeding and dripping their infected pus.
At the moment, he was only doing one of the four. Bleeding. He wasn’t even bothering to inhale anymore, so he wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of grunts or cries.
Enraged at that final denial, she lunged to her feet, seized a chair from the table, and raised it high over her head.
(Across the room Cordelia cried no and started to run to save the big brother that her father had never sired and her mother never borne but the only Giles the only father who ever cared for her caught her by the wrist and would not let her go)
She brought chair down with a brutal cry and smashed it across his already-broken chest. Angel screamed as ribs pulped. With a gleam of unholy satisfaction in her eyes, Buffy twirled the broken piece of wood that remained in her hand, then dropped to one knee as she plunged the stake toward Angel’s heart.
Belial grinned in manic anticipation.
Cordelia strained against Giles.
Buffy stopped, the point of the stake just piercing the skin over Angel’s heart. They were frozen in that tableau for a moment, her kneeling over him, panting, her mad, blazing blue eyes burning their way into brown ones, which were in two kinds of agony. "Why?" She demanded. "I want to know that before I dust you like I should have years ago. Why?"
A chance. An opening in the blind fury that shouldn’t have been there. Anya had said that only someone with assistance from the Powers could resist Belial. Was this their assistance? Angel didn’t care. He had a chance, however small, and he was going to make the most of it.
Usually, when a vampire is hurt badly, that vampire gorges on blood. The blood is the life, and it worked to restore as well as maintain. There was even a trick that Darla and the Master had taught him: rapid healing. All one had to do was force all of the life that one had stolen into the task of healing. Angel had never done it; it left the vampire in question starved and exhausted. But sometimes, there was no choice. He couldn’t speak with his chest crushed, and he doubted that Buffy would ask again. But he’d already had to heal so much, and it had been so long since he’d fed...
Buffy gasped in astonishment as Angel visibly withered before her. His skin pulled tight to his bones, his eyes and cheeks grew hollow, and his hair was suddenly shot through with silver. But his chest suddenly filled out to its natural shape.
"Why? Why...Faith?" He whispered, unable to muster the air for more. " ‘Cause she needed me. She was on the edge...trying to die. Everything else? ‘Cause I loved you. Always, always ‘cause I loved you. Sorry if I messed up...so sorry."
The fire started to fade from Buffy’s eyes, and her stake arm relaxed.
"Remember the good, Buffy. Remember..." Angel’s eyes drifted shut.
Buffy stared for a moment, then shook herself, as if waking up from a doze. "Angel?" No answer. Her stake fell to the floor with a clatter. She grabbed his shoulders and began to shake him. "Angel? Angel, wake up!"
No response. He was limp.
She knew what she had to do. Only chance.
She forced her forearm into his mouth, grimacing as she jammed it against his fangs. "Come on, Angel, drink. You know it’s good for you, come on, baby, drink, drink..."
Angel dimly felt something forced into his mouth, a remote twinge of pain as his teeth were jarred.
Then he tasted it. The sweetest, most delicious nectar he had ever tasted, dripping onto his parched, shredded tongue and burning its way down his ravaged throat, leaving a trail of whole, healed flesh behind it. He suddenly realized what was happening. How could he not? Every drop carried her essence. He tried to spit her arm out, but she held it in.
Buffy smiled and wept with wild relief as Angel began to revive and struggle. He wasn’t taking much at all, a bare trickle compared to the time he’d been infected with Killer of the Dead, but her potent blood was healing him like a draught from the Holy Grail. His limbs straightened, and his flesh filled in like he was an inflating balloon.
"What are you doing? Finish it!"
Belial. She’d forgotten.
"I said finish it!" There was a compulsion in his voice. She felt a sudden, wild, surge of rage, and the stake was back in her hand somehow. But if the big...liar thought that he could force her when convincing had failed, he was wrong. It was just a question of channeling the rage...
"I said no!" She yelled as she leaped to her feet and flung the stake at him.
He caught it between the tips of two fingers, and his expression iced over. He stretched out his free arm.
Buffy suddenly found herself hurtling across the room, kicking and flailing for purchase in the empty air until her throat slammed into a hand like a piece of iron, that closed around her neck like a vice. She beat on the arm that held her and kicked at her assailant’s chest desperately, with force that would have shattered human bones.
Not even a flinch.
As she began a frantic attempt to pry the fingers from her throat, Belial twisted his hand slightly, to force her to look into his eyes.
Buffy gasped in horror. Belial’s eyes were beautiful, a clear, ice-crystal blue. But they were full of nothing but pure, untinctured hatred. A hatred that was older than time and deeper than the world, a hatred that she couldn’t even begin to imagine. If every moment of hatred ever felt by the entire human race were brought together and condensed into one instant, it would be just a drop in the ocean of the hate Belial felt for her, personally. Just because she was human. Just because she still had love, and hope, and purpose.
His hand tightened, his fingers digging into her neck like steel prongs. Her struggles started to weaken. Her chest burned, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t force air into it. But she knew she wouldn’t have time to strangle.
"One dies," Belial whispered. "And the next is called. Perhaps the next will be more reasonable."
Then Faith slammed an axe into the crook of his elbow.
Buffy dropped to the ground. Gasping and whooping in precious air, she scrambled away across the floor, clutching her throat.
Belial’s head snapped toward Faith, who was staring in awe at the still-attached arm. His eyes flared, and twin lightning bolts slammed her into the wall, thirty feet away, beyond the stacks.
Riley flew in from the other direction and broke a baseball bat across the back of the True Devil’s neck. Not pausing to marvel at the broken weapon or the foe that didn’t even seem to notice being struck, he immediately shifted to trying to stab with the broken ends.
Then the Scooby Gang, minus its three injured Warriors, piled on.
For a moment, Belial was at the center of a flurry of medieval hand weapons: Giles thrust with a rapier, while Wesley laid on with a war-pick, Xander swung a mace, and Oz drove in with a spear. There were a number of knives in evidence, including a ninja punch-knife. Joyce even found a fire-axe somewhere...
It didn’t work, of course. After the first round of attacks bounced off skin and cloth that showed no sign of injury, Belial flung his arms wide, and they were all hurled away across the room by a tornadic blast of air.
"You...you insects!" He spluttered in outrage. "You disgusting, upright blobs of slime! You dare to raise your filthy monkey paws to someone you should be groveling on your bellies and worshipping? I have faced the wrath of the Tyrant, and you think you can hurt me? You aren’t even insects to me. You aren’t even microbes. You are...dust motes bouncing off my skin. You are—"
"Yeah, yeah. Foolish mortals. You dare to challenge my awesome power, blah, blah. We’ve heard it before and we’ve heard it done better."
All heads turned to Buffy, who stood beside the table, a stake in her hand. Angel stood beside her. Thin, and wounded, his hair still salted with silver, but standing nonetheless.
"That’s my girl," Riley grinned, climbing to his feet.
Belial looked around at the Scooby Gang and Angel Investigations as they all followed suit.
"I think it’s time," Belial said in a dreadfully quiet voice. "That you see just what it is that you challenge."
He raised his arms again. And he started to grow.
The cloth of his navy-blue suit merged with his skin, and the color spread to his face and hands.
Seven feet tall. Growing.
His silver hair rushed forth from his head and down his back like a waterfall, stopping just below his shoulder blades.
Eight feet tall. Growing.
His eyes, already the size of the palms of Buffy’s hands, became twin pools of swirling color, and began to blaze with light.
Ten feet tall. Growing.
Twin panes of light like stained glass wings coalesced at his back.
Twelve feet tall. Growing.
"I take back what I offered to you."
Suddenly, the library was as they all knew it to be: a burnt-out husk of charred boards, shattered windows, and splintered furniture. Belial stood on air above a gaping hole in the floor that hadn’t been there a moment before.
Fifteen feet. Growing.
Awe filled them, not just at the True Devil’s size, or heartbreaking beauty, but at his overwhelming grandeur. He had once been an angel—they could believe that, now—and he was glorious even in ruin.
A star appeared on all each side of his head, then expanded until the points touched.
A halo, that’s his halo, I never imagined, it’s nothing like the pictures Giles babblethought.
Averting her eyes, shielding her face, Joyce slowly dropped to her knees.
One by one, the Scooby Gang succumbed. Some resisted, some just fell, but all were driven to their knees by the crushing majesty of the fallen angel.
Finally, he spoke. "Bow down to me." His voice had changed. It was the most beautiful thing any of them had ever heard. The instant the sound was gone, they wanted it back. But then the import of the words penetrated their minds, and they raised their heads to look around.
Buffy, Angel, and Riley.
The Warriors were still standing.
Faith moaned and began to stir. She tried to sit up, but a sledgehammer hit the inside of her forehead, and she dropped back to the floor with another moan.
"Here now, lass, take it easy."
Faith blinked and opened her eyes. A handsome man with black hair and blue eyes was kneeling beside her. "Who...who are you?"
"I’m a friend ‘o Angel’s." He slid one hand under her back, took one of her hands with the other, and helped her sit up.
She looked around. She was sitting on the floor of a bar. Not a filthy, dangerous dive like she was used to. But a warmly, if not brightly, lit place with welcome polished into the wood. "Where the hell am I? How did I get here?"
The black-haired man made a grand gesture. "You’re on t’ Other Side."
"The Other Side? Is that the name of this bar?" He looked at her steadily. "It isn’t, is it?" It was just then that she recognized the young black man sitting at the bar. Riley’s friend. The one who didn’t like Buffy. "I’m dead, aren’t I?"
He shook his head. "Not quite, darlin’. You’re just here for a visit. Got a little message for ya."
"Yeah? What’s this?"
"Fightin’ Belial force to force ain’t gonna work. Hittin’ ‘is Bridgestone with force ain’t gonna work, neither. Y’could nuke it, still wouldn’t make a scratch."
"So we’re fucked. Is that your message?"
"Ye’re not fucked. What kind of talk is that? Now listen careful, ‘cause here’s the key:" He shook his finger in the air like a school teacher. He paused until, sure that he had her attention, he continued. "There’s nothin’ these big bad types hate more’n noble self-sacrifice. ‘Specially from someone who ain’t got a history o’ bein’ noble, for someone who ain’t liable to appreciate it. I can’t say no more—them’s the rules. Think you know what you have to do?"
Faith took a deep, shuddering breath. "Pretty sure I do."
The dark-haired man nodded. "Ye’ll have a few lines to say, if you get that far. Don’t worry, though. You’ll know what to say. Oh, and if you get the chance, could you give Angel and the Princess a message for me?"
Faith’s eyes fluttered open.
And she’d thought she’d been in pain on the Other Side.
This was bad. Straight-up, fucked-up bad. Only once in her life had she been hurt this bad. Her ribs were smashed where Belial’s lightning had hit her. Not broken, smashed. And if her lung wasn’t ruptured, her name was Chastity. The oozing fourth-degree burn in that spot wasn’t too reassuring, either. Her back and neck hurt something terrible from the impact. No fucking wonder. They’d probably been damn near crushed.
Worst of all, there was no pain in her lower body. There was no feeling in her lower body. At all.
Well. She thought, with a clinical detachment that surprised herself. Severed spine. That sucks. Makes gettin’ where I have to be that much harder.
Slowly, fighting the sudden bloom of pain in her head, Faith opened her eyes. Why the fuck is everything pink? Oh, hell—probably something ruptured in my eyes, too.
Still, pink or not, she could see everything quite clearly. The library was a wreck again. Smashed furniture, shredded books, and splintered shelves lay strewn about. The occasional bit of bone or meat from some huge beast whose identity she refused to think about was scattered throughout the wreckage. Looks like Belial got sick of playing nice.
That was confirmed an instant later as she raised her head enough—despite her neck’s protests—to see what was happening. Oh shit this is bad.
A huge-and-growing, glorious…angel hung over a huge hole in the floor, which, if memory from the battle with the Sisterhood of Jhe served, was right over the damn Hellmouth. God, what must he have been like before he Fell? B, Beefstick, and Angel—God, he looks so weak!—were all standing, facing down the True Devil. Inspired, the rest of the Gang was slowly rising to their feet.
And they were all dead. As sure as they were standing there defying Belial of the Beautiful Voice, they were already dead. He knew it. Faith knew it. And she suspected that they knew it, too. He wasn’t the type of foe to be defeated by Slayers, or vampires, or werewolves, or witches. Defeat? Unless a god made a personal appearance, it couldn’t even properly be called a fight. No more than a human swatting flies was a fight.
And he wasn’t going to play the usual round of patty cakes with them, either. No brawling. No weapons. No spells. No, Belial was a wee tad bit more elemental than that. And Faith suspected that the blast that had crushed her was his way of absent-mindedly brushing her away.
But she knew how to beat him. She knew what the price would be. But that didn’t matter. She didn’t matter. As long as she got to do something worthwhile with her thusfar shit-worthless life.
Time to get to it. She rolled over and started to crawl.
Belial hung silently in the air over the Hellmouth, watching the mortals slowly rise to their feet. Oz sheltered Willow under his arm, and she in turn looped an arm around Tara’s waist and pulled her close. Xander and Anya did much the same. Giles hurried to stand at Buffy’s side.
No weapons were raised. There was no battle here. They knew that. Now there was only love and defiance.
"So that is your decision, then?" Belial asked in a soft, rumbling voice.
Buffy looked around, from one face to another. Each, in their turn, nodded the affirmative. Even Anya. Even Spike. The Slayer turned her face back to the raging force of nature before her.
"Very well then. An angel will sing thee to thy rest."
Then Belial opened his mouth, and the universe went mad.
Outside, the ruins of Sunnydale High blew off its foundations like a house of cards in the teeth of a tornado. In the houses and buildings closest to the school, every light bulb and television set exploded in a shower of glass, and every active appliance burst into flames. The pulse-wave of angelic force raced along circuits, searing linkages, spreading through Sunnydale’s electrical veins like a plague of darkness. Deep, booming thunders sounded beneath the Earth, and the citizens of Sunnydale stumbled through the darkness to stand in their doorways.
Inside, thirteen souls (unlucky thirteen) and one demon writhed in the madness at the doorway between the world and the void beneath reality.
They staggered through a photo-negative world, where green-skinned friends screamed through black teeth. The stars and the gibbous moon were black holes in the blazing white of the night sky.
A white-hot wind seared their flesh to the bone, yet that flesh was still whole when the liquid-nitrogen cold of the hellfire spewing from the foundations licked at them. Live wires lashed in their heads and razors slid along the length of every nerve in their bodies. Acid ran through their veins.
As they could feel the world coming apart beneath them and their bodies coming apart around them, each was in their own private hell.
Needles. There were so many needles. Giles’ world was full of needles, stabbing him everywhere, again and again, knitting him apart. Here was each syringe he had used to inject Buffy with the muscle relaxants for her cruciamentum. There was the tattoo needle he had used to damn Randall, Philip, Ethan, himself, and all of their other friends.
Needles. Knitting him to death. And that was all right. That was as it should be. After all, he deserved it.
A punch flew in from the darkness and caught Buffy in the stomach.
"I told you I would kill you if you let Willow die."
Another punch. "And now you’ve gotten us all killed."
Then another, and this one crashed into her so hard that it sent her spinning to the ground. "Sorry to go all schoolyard on you, Buff, but you did hit me first."
She didn’t try to fight it. She just curled up into a ball and let it come. After all, she deserved it.
"Close your eyes."
Angel felt the sword go through him again. And his eyes opened again to see Buffy’s face, gleeful instead of stricken this time, receding as he was sucked back into hell.
And he deserved it.
Oz was being torn apart by werewolves. Some had Veruca’s face, others had Willow’s.
And he deserved it.
Cordelia was being eaten alive by cockroaches. The retribution of every poor high school kid she’d ever picked on, swarming out of the apartment that had been her punishment.
And she deserved it.
Faith was torturing Wesley again. The living embodiment of his failure as a Watcher, and she was punishing him for letting her Fall.
And he deserved it.
The Initiative was falling again for Riley, and this time he was going to be one of the 40% who had been torn apart by monsters. One of the ones he’d failed, left leaderless because he was too focused on his girlfriend to pull the brakes on the Initiative’s bullet train to Hell until it was too late.
And he deserved it.
Tara’s brother was beating her down. But he wasn’t going to stop this time until he was sure she’d never get up again.
And she deserved it.
Willow was tied to the stake again, but it was Joyce summers beside her this time.
And they both deserved it.
Xander was nine years old again, but it was Buffy delivering the beating this time. And this time, his arm wasn’t the only thing that broke. And she wouldn’t stop until he was shattered.
And he deserved it.
Spike was William, the Bloody Awful Poet again, but this time, he was the one being tortured with red-hot railroad spikes.
And he deserved it.
Anya was once again the woman she hadn’t been for over a millennium, but this time it was Xander’s hand crashing into her face for daring to question his right to do whatever he damn well pleased. But this time he wasn’t going to stop. He was going to keep beating her, as he had so often threatened to do.
And she deserved it. For taking her holy gift of justice and turning it into the obscene mockery that created a hell-realm to punish a high school boy for kissing his best friend instead of his girlfriend, she deserved it.
And through it all, behind it all, above it all there was the sound. The voice. It was the most hideous sound they’d ever seen. The most vile sound they’d ever tasted or smelled. Its feeling on their skin was mucous and battery acid, and its cold sank into their bones. It was the voice of distilled hate and despair and the remnant of broken glory that had once strode Heaven. The sound of stars dying and worlds falling apart and souls fading into nothing. The voice was killing them, but they craved it like poisoned heroin.
Faith felt it, too. The invading, violating pain speared into her ass, and erupted like a forest fire in her cunt. A phantom hand slapped her face, and something was forced into her gasping mouth until she gagged.
But she had an advantage. The Other Side had given her this blessing: she knew what was happening. Belial was ripping open their souls, lancing their wounds and letting the infected, stinking pus flow all over them. She was feeling Frank again. The months that had changed her from a child to a woman at the age of eleven.
She realized what was happening, and she knew that she didn’t deserve it. She hadn’t deserved it then, and she didn’t deserve it now.
She ignored the pain and kept crawling. Finally, she reached the lip of the pit. Hooking her fingers around the edge, ignoring the splinters, she pulled herself to the very edge.
There. Twenty feet down. Growing out of the crevasse of the closed Hellmouth. A mound of clear crystals, some as long as a man. Even Faith knew that something like that should have taken thousands of years to grow.
Gotta love that Hellmouth.
For a moment, she wondered why she could see clearly, while everyone else was acting like they were in their own little worlds.
Maybe that’s part’a the deal. The Powers’re saying: This is what you’re getting into. It’s going to hurt like a motherfucker, and that’s the choice you have to make, and you have to choose it freely.
She paused for a moment, looking down at the crystals, with their razor edges and needle-sharp points.
All right then.
The strength of the Slayer surged in her arms and shoulders, and the broken edges of the pit bit into her hands as she pulled herself over the lip and let herself fall.
There was an instant of clarity in the maelstrom of pain.
The exact instant that Belial realized what was happening.
The universe fell back into order just in time for the Scooby Gang and Angel Investigations to see Faith’s half-limp body tumble into pit.
"No!" Both Buffy and Belial cried at the same time.
Suddenly, Belial cried out in pain and…cracked like a frozen glass placed in boiling water. Somehow, though, that didn’t seem very important, and the mortals ignored it as they ran to the edge of the pit. Most of them couldn’t hold back a cry of horror when they arrived.
The crystals of Belial’s bridgestone were as long as spears, and Faith was completely impaled on several of them. No doubt she’d been punctured by several more that hadn’t punched all the way through, and she was sliced by the edges of several more. Two bracketed her head, and both cheekbones had been sliced open.
"Oh, God, Faith…" Who had said that? Did it matter?
Then something worse happened. Faith shifted slightly, and moaned.
She was still alive.
"Faith, don’t move!" Willow shouted as Buffy crouched in preparation to leap into the pit.
"You stupid, whorish little blob of slime!" Belial screamed. "Do you realize what you’ve done?"
Forgotten. They’d all forgotten. How could they have forgotten that a fallen angel was hanging overhead?
Because Faith was family. So what if she was their prodigal daughter, the Cain to their collective Abel, she was still family. And she was dying.
"She can’t hear you!" Buffy shouted back. "She’s out of your reach now."
"Yes, she can!" Belial shrieked wildly. "And no, she’s not!" Then he screamed in pain, and his body cracked again. Those of the Scooby Gang who were still looking at Faith rather than him were able to see the cause: wherever Faith’s blood flowed, the crystals cracked and dissolved.
"Pond scum!" Belial raved. "Walking pond scum, that’s all you are! Bald monkeys wandering around on this little dust speck of a world doing your monkey work! We came first! We were fire, not dirt, but He—She—They always loved you best! Where was that infinite forgiveness when He cast us down? Where?" Then he stopped, suddenly lucid. "I’m beaten this time. By microbes. There’s no getting around that, is there? But I think I can make her sacrifice worthless. Oh, yes, I think I can do that. Let’s see how much of the West Coast I can take with me, shall we?" He opened his mouth wide.
Horrified, the Scooby Gang grabbed for whatever weapons came to hand. Something to throw, there had to be something to throw, something to keep him from singing, something to hold him off until—
"He never cast you down, you know."
All eyes, even Belial’s, turned back to Faith. Her eyes were open, if only barely. Her voice was wet, almost phlegmy. If they didn’t know what fluid was really filling her lungs, they might have thought she merely had a bad cold.
"What do you know about it, parasite?"
"I know what it means to hate so much that you rewrite history," she answered. "When I first woke up, I had myself convinced that B had been the one picking on me, that they’d driven me out. I was wrong. And so are you."
"Liar!" Belial shrieked. His face suddenly cracked down the middle, but he ignored it.
"He never stopped talking to you," Faith continued, ignoring him. "You just stopped listening. If you were to ask it today, He’d forgive you and take you back. He never stopped loving you. All He ever wanted is for you to come home."
"No," he said in a hushed whisper. Everyone looked up at him, stunned. Flaming tears ran down his cracked face. "It’s not true. It can’t be true, I remember—" His blazing, rainbow eyes widened. "I…remember…"
With a gurgling sigh, Faith closed her eyes and went limp.
"Wait!" Belial shouted. "No! Don’t go! I—"
Suddenly, all of the crystals cracked simultaneously, and Belial screamed as a great crack split his torso from shoulder to hip.
Faith settled a little further onto the crystals.
Belial and the crystals suddenly exploded into a hail of razored shards. The Slayerettes and Angel Investigations hurled themselves to the ground. Some of the Warriors tried to protect some of their more vulnerable comrades. Angel, big as he was, was only able to cover Oz and Willow. Later, everyone would be quietly surprised that Spike was the one to throw himself atop Tara. Xander shielded Anya, while Giles protected Joyce, but it was Riley who covered Cordelia, while Buffy did her best to curl herself around Wesley’s more vital areas—seeing as how she couldn’t possibly protect all of him.
None of them need have worried. The shards never came near them. They were all swirled up into a whirlwind of glittering razors above the Hellmouth. They hung there for a moment, then flashed away, funneled down into the Hellmouth, revealing…something. Was it Belial’s true form? They would never know. It blazed too brightly for them to look at.
As they shielded their eyes and looked away, there was a heartbreaking wail of beautiful despair. For a brief moment, that despair and loss sank into their bones. Heaven was lost. Again.
Then there was a flash, and the light was gone. It was a night like any other, now, and the only sound was the wind.
Slowly, one by one, the group picked themselves up.
"Everyone okay?" Riley called.
"No," Oz answered as he and Willow helped Angel to his feet. With the crisis over, things were starting to shut down. Angel seemed semiconscious, but after a moment, he shrugged them away.
"Thanks, but I can walk." He looked sadly toward the pit. "I guess that makes me one of the lucky ones."
Willow nodded sadly. "Poor Faith."
"What about me?"
With a huge collective gasp, they all raced to the edge of the pit. Standing there, on the blank and whole ground twenty feet down, was Faith. Whole and healthy, and looking up to them.
There were a number of exclamations of shock and relief, and Faith assured them all that yes, it was, indeed, her; she was, indeed, alive; and she was all right.
Riley was the first to regain his wits enough to say something useful: "Can you make it up here? Or should we get a rope?"
"Nah, I’m okay, Beefstick. Everybody just stand back."
With an exasperated sigh, Riley obeyed, waving everyone away from the edge of the pit. There was a sound of running from below, then Faith came somersaulting up over the lip, landing on her feet like she’d just hopped down from a high curb.
It was then that Faith received the shock of her life. Whatever she may have expected to find awaiting her when she arrived at ground level, she hadn’t expected to find herself at the center of a massive group hug. In utter shock, all she could do was stare blankly and pat random backs. As the shock wore off, however, she started to realize: So this is what it feels like. Wow. Oh, wow. I could get used to this.
The Englishmen, of course, were the first to break away. Spike wandered away, muttering something about "needing a fag" and pretending nothing had happened. Giles and Wesley, on the other hand, were overcome with curiosity.
"How is this possible?" The elder man asked, awed.
"Yes," Wesley agreed. "Do you have any idea what happened?"
Faith shook her head as the group hug dispersed. "No clue. Maybe big shiny felt bad and decided to cut me a break."
"Or maybe the Powers did," Angel offered.
Cordelia snorted. "Maybe on the day after never," she said. "I’m going with option one."
"Oh, yeah!" Faith exclaimed. "That’s right! I got a message for you two."
Angel sighed, and Cordelia rolled her eyes and groaned.
"From the Powers?" He asked.
Perplexed at their reaction, Faith shook her head. "No, it’s from Doyle."
Both of them stared at her for a moment in blank shock. Cordelia’s surprise started to turn into anger, but Angel spoke first.
"But…you never met Doyle."
"Sure I did. Little while ago, when I was out. And before you ask—he introduced himself. Anyway, he told me to tell you that the beer is free, the Scotch is all single-malt, but he’s always as witty and charming as he thinks he is, and he always dances as well as he thinks he does." She frowned in puzzlement. "That mean anything to you guys?"
Cordelia and Angel looked at each other. "So there is a Heaven," he said in hushed awe.
"Yeah, and isn’t that bloody wonderful," Spike interrupted. "You’ll all get to go there real soon. Or am I the only one who remembers that me Sire is out there in the night somewhere, in all his psychopathic, world-wreckin’ glory?"
"What the hell are you talking about, Spike?" Buffy demanded. "Angel is standing five feet away from you."
The rest of the people present were better informed.
"Oh, God, Angelus," Willow gasped. "We forgot!"
"Did get a little distracting there for a while," Oz commented.
"Well, where is he?" Anya demanded. "He could be anywhere, ready to jump out of the shadows and kill us!"
"Everybody just calm down," Angel said. "He’s long gone and far away. He took off when Belial started shapeshifting."
"How do you know all that?" Cordelia asked.
Angel tapped on his temple. "He was in here for a long, long time. I guess there’s still a link."
Buffy sighed. "Okay. Someone is going to explain this to me as soon as we get somewhere safe. As beat-up as we are, Angelus could probably take all of us right now, so let’s go."
They set out for Giles’s house in a limping mob. Against his protests, Angel was pushed to the center of said mob. When it was pointed out to him that he could barely walk, let alone defend himself, and forget about defending anyone else, he grudgingly acquiesced. Still, few had escaped injury entirely. Buffy had a necklace of nearly-black bruises, and everyone else had been tossed around quite a bit. In fact, ironically enough, Faith seemed to be the only one completely healthy.
Faith, as the healthiest Warrior, was walking point.
Meanwhile, Willow hung somewhere back near the middle, with Tara and Oz walking like bodyguards on either side, except that each of them was holding her hand. She would have been content to stay that way, walking home, watching the road, and holding onto current and ex-lover for dear life. But she spotted Faith walking alone at the front of the group as everyone else clung to their dear ones, and realized there was something she needed to do.
She let Oz and Tara’s hands fall—"Guys, just wait here a second, all right? I’ll be right back. There’s…something I need to do."—and jogged over to Faith.
"Hey, Will," the younger slayer greeted her. "What can I do you for?"
Willow had, of course, heard the question before. And she hadn’t been able to think of a good response those times, either. "Nothing." She saw Faith’s faint smirk and started to flounder. "Wait, I didn’t mean—I mean—" She sighed and gave it up. "Faith. Do you remember what you said in the cell?"
Faith’s smirk faded. "Yeah?"
"Well, I’m ready to believe you now," Willow said, her Resolve Face in place. Even after all that had happened that night, all that had gone before was not undone, and it was hard to say. The next was even harder. "And I’m ready to accept it."
Faith knew what she meant, but she hardly dared to believe it. "So we’re five by five?" She asked.
"Ten-four, good buddy," Willow affirmed. She waved her hand in the direction of the main group. "Well, I have to get back to Tara. And Oz."
Faith grinned again as Willow started to walk away. "Have fun. Don’t do anything I don’t know how to do."
Willow blushed, then grinned. Time to get a little of her own back. "I won’t. And Faith? As for doing me? If I weren’t with Tara, I might consider it. You have a nice ass."
Faith could only stare in admiring shock as Willow walked away with a triumphant grin on her face.
Buffy approached shortly after Willow left.
"Hey, Faith. Looks like you made your peace with Willow."
"Looks like. Certainly hope so. She seems like a good friend to have."
They walked in silence for a long moment. In the end, it was Faith who had to break the silence. "How ‘bout you, B?"
Death had made Faith bold. "Will you still beat me to death if I apologize?"
Buffy sighed and closed her eyes. "No. But wait, okay?" she opened her eyes again, and they were very, very tired. "I don’t think I’m strong enough to forgive anyone tonight." She looked over her shoulder, and Faith followed her eyes to where Xander walked, holding Anya’s hand, but clearly lost in his own misery. Not far away, Joyce walked along in much the same way.
"Gotcha," Faith agreed.
"Say it in a day or two, and I’ll probably accept," Buffy said. "It’s just hard, Faith. Belial exaggerated, but not by that much. Almost nothing has ever made me feel that powerless. And I think you know how that feels."
Buffy’s tired, but piercing gaze fixed on Faith until she nodded.
Buffy then patted Faith’s shoulder. "It’s gonna be okay, Faith. Just…give me time, okay?"
When the group reach Giles’s house, Buffy stepped aside and allowed the others to pass her by.
"Okay," she announced as they mounted the steps. "Now that everyone’s here safe, I’m going to go out and hit something. I’ll be back soon."
"Er…Buffy?" Giles called after her as she started to turn away. She turned back to him, impatience written clearly on her face. "Are you sure that’s wise? You are injured, you know."
Buffy gingerly touched her throat, and winced, then dismissed it with a shake of her head. "It’s so late it’s early, Giles. I’ll be okay. Even if anything was out and around on a night like tonight, it’s probably gone by now.’
Giles thought that over for a moment, then nodded. "All right, then."
"Besides, wise or not, this is the only way certain people are going to live out the night," she continued, shooting an evil glare at Xander and Joyce.
Anyone else present would have taken that as their cue to hang their heads in shame and go inside. Neither of the two, however, were accustomed to admitting error.
"Now wait just a second," Xander began hotly. "I did what I had—"
"Buffy, I’m you’re mother," Joyce began at the same time. "And I did what I thought was—"
"Next person to say a word goes to the hospital," Buffy said. "Think I’m bluffing?"
Both mouths snapped shut.
"Now listen to me carefully," Buffy said as she walked toward them. She stopped a few feet away from them and put her hands on her hips. " ‘Cause I’m only going to say this once. I know I’m not perfect. I’ve screwed up majorly, and it has always come out, and I’ve apologized, and we’ve dealt. I have some major apologies to make for tonight. The way I see it, that’s how it always works with this group. We must be the biggest bunch of screwups on the planet, ‘cause we just do it over and over again: we hurt each other, it comes out, we apologize, and we deal. But you two? It never came out for you, did it? You just kept acting righteous and grinding my face into my mistakes until it bled!" She snapped her head forward for the last word and bit it off as it passed out of her mouth. Xander and Joyce both jumped. "Get me turned into a rat? I never say angry word one to you." She told Xander. "Try to burn me at the stake? I let it go ‘cause I don’t want you to feel bad," she said to Joyce. "But you both kept acting like the Justified, telling me how much of an untrustworthy screwup I was at every turn. Well, guess what? As far as I’m concerned, neither of you is ever going to be the Justified again. No matter what I do, you have no right to act like you have any kind of moral authority at all. Ever."
With that, she turned on her heel and started to walk away. Joyce was left standing there weeping, and even Xander’s eyes were red and his lips were quivering. Buffy must have heard them, because after a few steps, she stopped, and her shoulders drooped tiredly, the anger going out of her stiff back. "You know, there’s not much I can’t forgive," she said without turning. "Stuff came out for Angel tonight, and he apologized. And I forgive him. Faith apologized in her own way tonight, and I forgive her. I’m plenty pissed at what you both did, but it’s come out now. Time for the next step." With that, she walked away.
It was quickly decided that Riley and Wesley should follow Buffy at a distance to make sure that nothing went wrong. Of course, Angel—and, surprisingly, Spike—tried to insist on coming, but Riley tapped his watch. "Almost sunup, big man," he said to Angel. "You won’t be much help against your evil twin, there, if you’re ashes." Later, the senior members of the Scooby Gang and Angel Investigations would be impressed that, even in the short time he’d known Angel, he’d figured out that an appeal to Angel’s self-interest wouldn’t work. Wesley was simply chosen as the only remaining combat-effective that Buffy didn’t have any particular issues with at the moment. This was because Faith was finding that death had been more exhausting and traumatic than she’d first thought, and had retreated to Giles’s bedroom to "take another eight-month nap."
Angel was the most severely injured. He sat—Cordelia tried to get him to lie down, but he refused—on Giles’s couch, sipping blood while she tended his wounds. Anya and (surprisingly) Tara had offered useful medical advice. Who knew that something that would be a catastrophically bad idea in treating a human patient—soaking a compress in the blood from a steak—would be helpful for a vampire? And who knew there were healing herbs to treat them?
After offering her advice in a halting whisper, only given the courage for that by Willow standing there holding her hand, Tara retreated across the room. The two lovers curled up together, trying to reassure each other that they were still alive by having the maximum contact possible. After a little while, Oz approached. Both girls looked up at him. He said nothing, made no move. Just looked down at them with a dreadful loneliness and a dreadful fear. They’d all nearly died that day. They’d nearly lost each other. Willow and Tara looked at each other. Now was not the time for anyone to be alone. They both reached out an arm to him. He clasped Tara’s hand warmly, giving her a sad, but grateful, smile. Then he settled down on the other side of Willow from her, wrapping his arm around Willow in a way that he had never forgotten.
The three of them held each other close. Tomorrow, they would worry about old and new loves. Tonight, they were alive.
Under any other circumstances, Tara would have been stealing glances across the room at the dark figure on the couch. This was the legendary Angel. Surely something interesting was going to happen. She wouldn’t have been disappointed.
Cordelia was busy patting the blood-compress to one of Angel’s back wounds, wincing every time he couldn’t hold in a hiss of pain. At the same time, she marveled at how she had become so used to seeing someone’s wounds closing at a visible speed.
It was then that Giles and Xander walked up. Giles strode purposefully, Xander walked slowly, staring at the floor.
"Excuse us, Cordelia. Could we speak to Angel?" Giles asked briskly.
"Are you going to be mean to him?" She demanded.
"It’s alright, Cordelia." Angel said. He looked straight past Giles, at Xander. Xander looked up for a moment, met Angel’s eyes, then lowered his head again. "There are some things we need to talk about."
Cordelia looked back and forth between the men, then nodded. "You’re right. I think you do." She walked out to the kitchen to join Anya in scrounging for food.
The three men stood in silence for a long moment. Angel ignored Giles, his eyes burning into Xander. "I should kill you," he said finally, a deadly quiet in his voice.
Xander looked up at that. There was no fear in his face, no shock. Only a bone-deep misery that Angel himself knew all too well. Right now, Xander didn’t care what happened to him.
"Not for me," Angel continued. "If you’d told Buffy, maybe she could have kept me away from Acathla long enough so that I wouldn’t have had to go to Hell. Maybe I wouldn’t have been tortured for more than six thousand years. We’ll never know, will we? But that’s a maybe. And maybe she would have let her guard down just far enough for Angelus to kill her. He was ready to, you know."
Xander and Giles both shivered. They’d known it would happen eventually, but to have it confirmed like this made their blood run cold.
"So who knows? Maybe you even did the right thing, wrong reasons and all. And I don’t care if you hate me, either. You’re a petty, spiteful little boy who can’t deal with someone intruding on what you perceive to be your territory. I think Oz will agree with me on that."
Xander winced and dropped his head even further.
"No, the reason I want pry your ribcage open and eat your heart right now is how you treated Buffy. Angelus returns, and what do you do? Gloat and browbeat her to kill me—him. You’d always wanted me dead, and you finally had an excuse. No sympathy for what she’s feeling. Your hatred for me crowded that out. When she finally does kill me, she runs away. Weaker souls have been driven to suicide by what she went through, but do you care? No. All you cared about was how she ‘ruined your life’ by leaving for a summer that she would have spent with her father anyway—" Angel’s voice was rising to a roar. Anya, Cordelia, and Joyce stood in the kitchen doorway. Willow, Oz, and Tara watched from across the room, clutching each other close. Faith, roused by the noise, stumbled down the stairs, but stopped on the landing. Slowly, trembling with pain and weakness, Angel started to rise to his feet. Cordelia took a step forward to try to stop him, but she shot her a look that froze her in place. "Who would she have talked with about her grief if she’d stayed, huh? Giles or Willow, who I—Angelus—hurt? Or you, who would have been gloating? Maybe you—" he pointed across the room, at Joyce. "After you let her back in the house?" Joyce raised a hand to her mouth and started trembling. Fresh tears started in her already red eyes. Angel turned back to Xander. "Or maybe the nice police who interrogated her for murder? She gets back, and you know she had to kill the man she loves, you don’t care, because that man was me. You never stopped berating her and rubbing her face in all the harm that I—he—did, until you found out what it was like to not be forgiven. Congratulations, Xander. Angelus would have admired your cruelty." Angel drew himself to his full height—swathed in bandages and trembling with the effort, but still mountainous. He towered over the cowering boy. His demonic face had forced itself through in his rage. His yellow eyes blazed, and he snarled a mouthful of daggers. "Tell me—give me one good reason I shouldn’t break your fucking neck right now."
"Because the effort will aggravate your injuries."
Incredulously, Angel swung his head toward Giles. The ex-Watcher laid a hand on an uninjured area of Angel’s shoulder. "I’m none too pleased with him myself right now, Angel. But his actions cannot be undone. We must do our best to remember the many good things he has done, and give him a chance to atone. Perhaps he will redeem himself. Surely you can relate."
Angel paused. He closed his eyes, allowed his human face to return, and allowed Giles to guide him back down to the couch. "What was it you wanted, Giles? I’m very tired."
"Rage will do that to you. Believe me, I know."
Angel sighed and covered his eyes. "Giles, please."
"It was merely an observation. I promised Cordelia that I would not be mean to you, and I meant it. In fact, my intention was to..." he paused, swallowed hard, took off his glasses and began to clean them. "...to apologize."
Angel’s head jerked up, eyes and mouth gaping with surprise. "Apologize?"
Giles replaced his glasses and sat down beside him. "Angel, when you first lost your soul, it was easy for me to separate between you and the demon. Throughout Angelus’s rampage, I mourned the loss of you, our ally, and feared the demon, who I didn’t think of as you at all. Then you returned, and it became complicated. You made little distinction between yourself and the demon. How was I to do any better? All I saw when I looked at you was the face of Jenny’s murderer. My mind knew better, but my heart hated you. The only reason I tolerated you was for Buffy’s sake."
Angel nodded. "I never blamed you for that."
"It was still an injustice. You are not he; this latest development proves that beyond the shadow of a doubt. Since then, I have been thinking. What to do with this new information, this new...perspective on those events? And as I thought, something occurred to me: Angelus has hurt you more than anyone else." He turned and looked Angel straight in the eye. "He murdered your entire family. Then he uses your body as a weapon to murder untold hundreds, leaving you holding the bag with the gypsies. He leaves you wallowing with the guilt and misery for his deeds for nearly a century, then returns just as you find some peace. He torments the woman you love and those you’ve come to think of as friends, once again using your body as a weapon, and this time, he used your face as a shield. You were the hostage he used to control Buffy. Then he left you holding the bag yet again, suffering the pains of Hell first, then our hostility." Giles paused for a moment to let that sink in. When he spoke again, there was a new hardness in his voice. "And now he’s free. The bastard who murdered your family and my Jenny, is free and rampaging in the world. More importantly, he’s separate from you now. I would like very much to hunt the son of a bitch down and kill him. What do you say to that?" He held out his hand to the vampire who had once been his nemesis.
Angel looked at the hand, then at Giles. His answering grin was feral. "I say yes." Instead of taking Giles’s hand, he clasped his forearm.
After releasing Giles, Angel turned back to Xander. "You should come. Maybe watching something with my face die will help your hate."
Xander opened his mouth, closed it again, then nodded.
"Sounds like a good idea." Buffy stood in the doorway, flanked by Riley and Wesley. "In fact, I think we all should go. Angelus is too wily for any less. We can worry about apologies and hurt feelings and guilt after we get rid of the sadistic, world-destroying demon." She turned to Angel. "Any idea where he might have gone?"
He nodded. "We still have a psychic connection, but I guess it’s only short range. I knew where he was headed when he bolted, though. The only place he could go, really."